26 July 2011

if only: le marsangy, 75011

For several months my friend J had been intermittently proposing we get dinner at Le Marsangy, a dingy unassuming burrow of a bistro midway between our respective apartments, near metro Parmentier in the 11ème. "Really not bad," he'd say, "and a good wine list," before we inevitably decided to go elsewhere for dinner.

We finally got there the other Monday evening, with his wife C and the Native Companion, and discovered he'd been half-right. It made for an interesting meal, because while I consider it settled that I won't bother visiting restaurants that get only the food right, neglecting wine, I had until that evening no definite knowledge of the lower boundary of cuisine I'd stomach for the sake of a good wine list. 

Call it the swill threshold versus the crud threshold.

My swill threshold happens to be very low. This is a result of having worked in the wine industry, designed wine lists, tasted widely, etc. - all of which experience has convinced me, whether mistakenly or no, that to assemble an acceptable wine list is not only enjoyable, but piss-easy. ( I mean one that will clear the swill threshold. Assembling a superb wine list is obviously much more of a challenge.) An acceptable wine list requires merely that a restaurateur have the barest enlightened inkling of what constitutes good product; a wine list like this can often be found in restaurants where unrelated bad ideas literally fall off the walls around you.

Conversely, my crud threshold is considerably higher. This anomalous tolerance is due in part to the outsiders' respect I have for kitchens and the people who work in them, but also because I'm habitually short of cash - places that serve weak or simplistic food beside real wine are often good bargains. (By contrast, you will often pay less for wine at a wine-savvy establishment than you will at establishments that function under the assumption their clientele has zero familarity with wine. That latter are just banditos, charging what they like, irrespective of quality.)

Anyway, I reached my limit at Le Marsangy, where a fine, unbelievably well-priced wine list is offered alongside cuisine that manages to evoke a particularly fearless French bistro in an airport in the early 1990's. Facets of the meal we had can honestly only be explained by an astonishing under-a-rock obliviousness to contemporary restaurant culture, or by a hole in the space-time continuum.  

Adding to the general weirdness was a glass of ice that the server brought to our table without explanation.

We looked around at other tables, most of which had small glasses of ice, too. I'm confident this is the only place in all of France where you will be brought ice without having asked for it. J and I amused ourselves by imagining a scenario wherein, contrary to the customary problems, the ice machine at Le Marsangy was wildly overproductive, and it was all they could do to keep bailing it out, ice on each table, whatever. 

Unable to figure it out, we turned out attention to the wine list, pages and pages long, and helpfully written out on the far wall.

It won't necessarily be clear from the photo, but the list is bedecked with excellent values. Le Marsangy is a bistro in which it's possible to get a bottle of good natural wine for under 20€, and not just one, but a decent selection in that range. Everything from Hervé Villemade to Domaine Richaud. We began with something we didn't recognise, though, a not-necessarily-natural 2009 Saint-Bris by Domaine Bersan.

Saint-Bris is the AOC, decreed in 2003, covering production of Sauvignon up near Chablis. That we ordered this one producer-unknown can be chalked (ahem) up to the geek-factor of the appellation: where Chablis is a classic marvel of terroir for producing, on decidedly un-Burgundian Kimmeridgian soil, razor sharp Chardonnay, the Saint-Bris appellation offers the chance to compare Sauvignon on similar terrain with its counterparts in the Loire. The best examples I've tasted come from Domaine Goisot

I learn now that Bersan are a 20h estate based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, scheduled to complete a transition to organic viticulture by 2012. Jean-Louis Bersan and son Jean-Christophe produce a relatively wide range of wines, including an Irancy, a Premier Cru Chablis, and a single-vineyard Saint-Bris, so it seems perhaps unfair to judge them on the entry-level bottle we chose, which was a bit flabby and unmemorable (probably a feature of the vintage, quite hot I'm told). 

Less forgivable were our appetizers that evening, particularly a salade de groin de cochon, slippery, cartilagenous and flavorless.

It would have been no less revolting had the meat been sourced from what an Anglophone might imagine, given the French terminology. In fact groin de cochon is the nose, a bit of meat J usually loves, when it's prepared with any panache whatsoever. This had apparently been boiled and flavored with no more than kind thoughts. 

I chose more conservatively, and wound up with a faceless (ahem) but edible terrine de canard.

Nothing very kind can be said about the main courses that followed. J's lamb was fine. I had slightly overcooked if inoffensive raie, the NC had montrous knuckly chicken, and C took some acceptable but luridly BBQ-orange dorade.

The only real enjoyment these dishes brought came in the form of incredulous laughter at their accompaniments, which were straight from that bistro in the airport in the era of EMF: wild rice, and black beans. The latter is undoubtedly another first in Paris bistros, along with the mystery ice.  

To console ourselves for what was very clearly going to be a gastronomic wash-out, we said to hell with pairing and ordered a 2007 Dard et Ribo Saint-Joseph, for the appealing price of 36€.

It was a vibrant ash-booted purple-clad regent of a wine that, despite inherent grace, stomped all over several of our dishes, and no one mourned.  

As we left I cast I pitying glance to the restaurant's windows, which celebrate the names of great regional winemakers, even as the restaurant kind of fails them.

Were I ever to return - not an impossibility, considering its proximity to my place, and my occasional desperation - I'd take C's advice for bottom-rung bistros, which she herself regretted not following that night: get a steak and get out. Aided by the tragically great wine list at Le Marsangy, it's conceivable one could actually enjoy such a meal. 

73, avenue Parmentier
75011 PARIS
Metro: Parmentier
Tel: 01 47 00 94 25

Related Links: 

Some better options in the immediate neighborhood: 

A pretty clueless positive review of Le Marsangy @ ParisRestaurantReviewsAndBeyond, in which the author proudly identifies himself as a blogger every other sentence, just won't stop referring to himself as a blogger, good God, as if that weren't implied by the fact that he's writing a blog

A profile of Domaine Bersan @ CharlesNealSelections


  1. I hope you will be using the swill/crud chart in all of your postings from now on. It's more informative on first glance than a Zagat score by miles.

  2. Incredibly useful review - thanks Aaron. We usually stay in this neighbourhood and have often looked at the seductive list of producers painted on the windows of this place and thought we really should try it. But with no information about the food and only ever a few days in Paris at a time we'd never succumbed. Now we know not to. Better to keep up our usual practice and head round the corner to Aux Deux Amis.

  3. @omid: thanks!

    @sue: just depends on whether you'd prefer to leave filled with pity or with contempt... i've had good moments at Aux Deux Amis, but decline to recommend it on the basis that the service is frequently mortally offensive, and the chef lately seems to throw smoked salt on every dish. that said, you're right: it's still a better meal than Le Marsangy.

  4. This review seems to be a from a snotty little something who knows zip about food or wine. I have eaten at this Bistrot and had an excellent meal. Don't get too excited about your " evaluations" while chewing that cocaine flavoured bubblegum babe. Jeeze! Worst food or any other kind of writing I've read in my life. I don't even know these folks, but discovered them as a hard working family business on a visit to Paris, recommended by the owner of an edgy organic wine bar. Your comments are not only idiotic but very revealing about your lack of taste of any kind and total illiteracy.

    A visitor from Canada

  5. o canada.

    please give some examples! or otherwise engage substantially with what you found so offensive about my opinion as stated here. as it is you are just another mud-hurling anonymous twit who has demonstrated precisely zero authority on the subject at hand. thanks for reading.