15 July 2011

everyone wins: septime, 75011

I came upon Septime the old-fashioned way: by happening to stroll past one day, and noticing, in addition to the ambitious décor of the restaurant, a flyer advertising a public natural wine tasting, replete with some excellent names. (Cornelissen, Pfifferling, etc.)  I wasn't able to make it to the tasting in the end, but I remembered the address when my friend / colleague D visited during men's fashion week, and she and I engaged in our quarterly trawl through Paris' culinary vanguard.*

Early reactions to Septime have run the gamut from impressed to enraptured. Chef Bertrand Grébaut has serious Michelin-star credentials, having worked in the kitchen at l'Arpège before running the kitchen at Agapé, when latter restaurant earned its star. ParisByMouth reports also that he received a 10,000€ grant from Evian-Badoit to open Septime, which budget, to judge by the cosy-industrial, Monocle-ready looks of the place, probably covered the cost of about seven light fixtures.

I don't mean to patronize. The place is indeed very enjoyably outfitted, with a nice wingspan around each table, and evident attention paid to lighting, ease of movement, etc. - the usual humane comforts that Paris restaurants, and natural wine spots in particular, have traditionally withheld as a method of torturing guests. And this mercy on Septime's part is, I think, just the most visible aspect of a wider change represented by Septime and restaurants like it: the maturation of the natural wine meal, mostly for the better.

I can foresee certain objections to that term: natural wine meal. From non-drinkers, for instance, or from chefs and diners who'd prefer not to give credit to the natural wine world for embodying the product-focused ethos that influences the menus of these establishments as much as it does their wine lists. I don't know. I couldn't say "natural meal" without sounding like health food; the "farm-to-table" term, meanwhile, sounds gimmicky and fails to include wine. And the fact is in France more than anywhere else I've been I perceive in restaurants a strong correlation between natural wine lists and sustainable, well-sourced products. You simply don't see salmon on the menus of natural wine spots, for instance; you are offered instead a rotating cast of similar-tasting white fish. (I'm fine with this. Salmon could be rescued from overfishing if we could only teach consumers that its presence on menus is a horrendous cliché.)

Anyway, Septime shares the product-focus and natural wine gusto of a legion of other beloved Paris natural wine spots. Except gone is the bad décor, and gone is the roguish dickhead service. And with a Michelin-star-studded chef, we can forget charming home-cooking and genial comfort food. To D's and my delight that night we went, our friends R, A, and E all happily joined us in plunking for Septime's 55€ "Carte Blanche" menu, which consisted of the following blitz of photogenic dishes, each of which I will describe but try not to dwell on,** except later in summary:

Some radishes and butter. A bright and homey welcome.
Pencil-thin leeks with favas, fresh almonds, raspberries, feta, and what I remember as tarragon. Elegant and enticing. 
Beef broth, lardo, poached egg, spelt. Not exceptionally impressed with this one. It was like a party with all the right ingredients, at which no one has anything new to say to each other. 
Tuna with gooseberry and baby squash. Possibly the first time I've seen tuna in a natural wine place? In this dish I read an amusing conflict between the cuisine-for-cuisine's-sake of the Michelin crowd and the cuisine-as-political-statement of the natural scene. I'm not sure this nub of tuna was worth having the argument about. 
Lamb with eggplant purée and yogurt. Delicious, but somewhow anticlimactic. It came and went as fast as the more appetizery dishes that preceded it. 
Chocolate with passionfruit sorbet and caramel. 

Before the dessert came a kind of bummer cheese plate. Bummer not for the quality of the cheese, but for the teensiness of it, and how it was intended for a table of five, and how our server felt it necessary to ask with a straight face whether indeed we'd like one as part of the "Carte Blanche" menu. Duh, we answered cheerfully. I found it almost endearing that a restaurant acing so many aspects of restauration should fail to comprehend that naming a menu "Carte Blanche" implies a kind of fun reckless indulgence, one which is undercut somewhat by timidly asking whether guests would like a tiny cheese plate for which they have, theoretically, already paid.

This was the only specific service hiccup, however. Otherwise the surprisingly non-Anglophone staff were perfectly pleasant. In particular I appreciated that our server seemed aware that I really enjoyed navigating the excellent wine list, and didn't gun for an up-sell or take me for a fool by explaining what natural wine is. I understand those tactics are an aid to the legion of beginner diners who pass through any given restaurant; it's still refreshing to encounter a bit of discernment in their employment.

We began with a 2006 bottle of sparkling Gringet called "Ayse- Mont Blanc Brut Zero," by biodynamic Ayse-based Savoie estate Domaine Belluard.

It's an undosed, aromatic sparkler I first tasted at a Vin de Savoie tasting at soon-to-be-missed 11ème cave La Cave de l'Insolite. (Michel has sold the place, I hear.) For me it's irresistible for balancing a geeky element of surprise - roughly no one has heard of Gringet, a rare Savoyard varietal some believe to be related to Gewürztraminer - with a universally enjoyable white floral and fresh apple profile. This particular bottle was lightly, if forgivably, oxidised.

Showing better was a bottle of biodynamic Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti's "SP86," a blend of young vine Nero d'Avola and Frappato from Vittoria, at the southwestern tip of Sicily.

Named after a road that passes through the town, the wine spends in 6 months in steel, and a further month in bottle. Given that the grape blend is the same as for the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, and given that this DOCG stipulates only two more months' bottle aging, I presume there must be some other reason Occhipinti decided to bottle the "SP68" as a Sicilia IGT. Perhaps it is as simple as not feeling the need to pay for DOCG regulation: her wines, which she's produced since just 2004, have been a roaring success, as testified by their presence on innumerable great lists from San Francisco to LA to NYC to London and Paris. I would drink them more often, but I find their retail pricing a little ambitious, a result of said success.

We needed a good transition between tuna and lamb, however, and also something that would keep us cool, as D and I were seated uncomfortably close to Septime's open kitchen and its ovens. Cerasuolo blends, well-made and properly chilled, are famous for marrying rich substance with a mad dancing levity. The "SP68" was no disappointment, curranty, keen, and ashy all at once - though now that I've put a few years of Loire and Ardêche and other French funk between me and the Italian wine industry, I can't help but notice that the wines of an Italian biodynamic phenom like Occhipinti are notably cleaner and more contemporary-tasting than most of their French counterparts. (For French natural on this relatively pristine level, think Catherine et Pierre Breton, or Henri Milan.)

At the risk of making too much of a circumstantial wine choice, I think my reaction to the "SP68" has parallels in my impressions of Septime as a whole. It's a response to earnestness and professionalism, like hesitating over a too-good-to-be-true C.V.. I found Septime's cuisine to be chilly and intellectual as often as it was inspired. And if the service lacked the objectionable swagger of a hot restaurant, it lacked also a bit of the individuality, that feeling that one is dining among personalities, rather than concepts. (An empowered and engaging front-of-the-house manager would solve this.)

But these are not really complaints; they're just observations of a change afoot. It's like the difference between, say, the wild alien sounds of early TV On The Radio, and that band's latter work, which offers their burgeoning fanbase world-class pop music that sounds more and more identifiably like Prince. (Everyone wins.)

* Which scene, I might note as an aside, does not appear perceptibly burdened by the influx of fashion industry types during fashion week and around showroom times. Reservations at places that interest us never seem to be a problem; for this D and I can thank the limited tastes of the beautiful birdseed-eaters of the world. Although we did spot Cathy Horyn of the NYTimes having a glass of presumably vivid spritzy red wine at Vivant, during same time period.

** Because as much as I like food and enjoy theorizing about it, I'd prefer to talk about restaurant culture in general, or, better yet, wine. The world doesn't need another adulatory, saliva-stimulating food blog.

80, rue de Charonne
75011 PARIS
Metro: Charonne
Tel: 01 43 67 38 29

Related Links: 
A laudatory review of Septime @ JohnTalbott
An astute piece on Septime @ DavidLebovitz
Another one @ BarbraAustin
Alec Lobrano's well-written but fusty review of Septime @ HungryForParis, in which the author again admits to being mystified by natural wine, and commits the additional geezerish blunder of claiming that the 11ème arrondissement - home of such long-fêted restaurants as le Chateaubriand and Bistro Paul Bert - is a "decidedly outlying" location. It's like, c'mon, dude, you're making a career out of eating and writing. Some people commute to La Defense. That Lobrano considers St. Germain-des-Près the "ground-zero" of Paris is uncomfortable testament to the true subject of many Paris food writers: simple swishy luxury.
A wide-eyed but nicely pictorial review of Septime @ KelsEats*
Another old school review of Septime @ GillesPudlowski

A good interview with Arianna Occhipinti @ FindEatDrink
A review of the 2008 "SP68" @ PersonalWineBuyer
A review of the 2009 "SP68" @ VinoFreakism
A deeply embarrassing, starry-eyed piece on Occhipinti's wines that inadvertently implies what I imagine to be the difficulties of being a young female winemaker @ RichmondWineCulture

* I remain astonished by the multitudes of blogs using the following formula for a title: [a first name]+[eating or scarfing or devouring or in some way consuming]. Do we have no other reason to follow your blog? Do you bring no other perspective? Are we meant just to watch you eat? Who are you, anyway? 

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