05 July 2011

a question of faith: vivant, 75010

The resplendent antique green tilework lining the walls of vin nature entrepreneur Pierre Jancou's new restaurant Vivant seems to have become a kind of Rorschach test for early reviewers. Mentions of the tiling - either disparaging, as when François-Régis Gaudry of L'Express presumed it was 'stolen' from another space gently mocked its artfully banged-up state, or awestruck, as in many blog reviews - seem uncannily reflective of writers' attitudes towards the controversial subjects of natural wine, restaurateurism as creative enterprise, and, of course, Pierre Jancou himself.

How do I feel about the tilework? It's splendid, and original to the space, a former bird shop. I see no other reason to take this salient element of Vivant's simple décor as anything other than a good design choice, unless, never having quite understood natural wines or enlightened restaurateurism, one gleans satisfaction from implying that both are no more than superficial poses. Gaudry's thievery comment scorn is a particularly obvious example; more insidious, if you ask me, are restaurant reviews that almost reflexively describe the clientele of a feted new restaurant as 'bobo,' as even the positive reviews of Vivant have done.

Use of the 'B' word, an identifying feature of hack writing, is basically a sham populist appeal for writers who seek to cosy up to unsophisticated readers. What's worse, in its implication that guests come to a given establishment merely to assuage their own consumerist guilt, the word contains a sad contempt for the very idea that a restaurant might attract a varied, cosmopolitan crowd by dint of its actually being an intelligent, tasteful, ideologically-sound place. Those exist! And Vivant, despite a few earnest missteps, is one of them.

When I arrived to join my new friends R1, R2, and A the other Monday evening, M. Jancou had already scandalised them slightly by claiming to detest the wines of (acclaimed natural Burgundy vigneron) Philippe Pacalet. Happily, R1 et al are the adventurous, inquisitive sort of afficionados; they respectfully disagreed, but invited M. Jancou to bring them something exciting that was more in line with his tastes.

This is how we wound up drinking a lot of screaming shirtless art-punk wines all night. That's not a value judgment, per se: I dig the general style of unsulfured, spritzy, oxidative winemaking as long as the resulting wines remain, above all things, balanced and expressive. The majority of wines on Vivant's list meet this criteria. Then there is what we drank all night, the oddball Auvergnat wines of non-interventionist organic vigneron Pierre Beauger, on which bottles I remain stranded somewhere between intrigued and unconvinced.

Having been only morbidly fascinated by the 2002 of Beauger's sparkling Chardonnay cuvée "Champignon Magique" earlier this spring at 5ème wine terrace La Café de la Nouvelle Mairie, I was encouraged by the first Beauger bottle M. Jancou served us: the 2007 of same wine.

Notably less botrytised and not quite sparkling, it was kind of like reencountering the Swamp Thing in dinner attire.

Or, if you consider the 2002 to be an early track by Nick Cave-fronted thrashers The Birthday Party, all craven and dangerous and, as my friend E says, "uneasy-making," the 2007 "Champignon Magique" felt more like a track by Cave's post-Bad-Seeds project Grinderman: the intense subject matter is much the same - sex, incest, religion, etc. - but everything rings more intentional, less hairy and strange.

At present tasting of this wine there is slight a trade-off of potability for memorability, insofar as you don't have to quest too deep into the Loire or Banyuls to find oxidative bruiser white wines whose peach-scallion-gravel notes recall the 2007 "Champignon Magique." But who knows where it'll be in five years.

In my mind it is Jancou's faith in wines like the "Champignon Magique" that lies at the heart of his (repeated) success. (Before opening Vivant, Jancou founded and later sold La Crémerie and Racines, neither of which I've yet visited.) He's styled himself into a very effective and, despite some of the aforementioned reviews, inclusive ambassador for a certain visionary fringe of natural winemaking. A taste for out-there winemaking is perhaps uncommon or not yet widespread among Paris' dining populace, but anyone can appreciate the sincere charm and verve Pierre Jancou puts into each tableside interaction. The man is a natural.

Which leads me back to one of my introductory points in this post: restaurateurism as a creative enterprise. I have a feeling that whole sociology books could be written about certain talented restaurateurs' efforts to communicate the joy that goes into what is to them a self-evidently creative endeavor, and the proportionate efforts of many diners to treat any restaurant as though it were a custard stand. This either because diners have deep class identity issues whose only sanctioned expression is through interactions with the service industry, or because they genuinely need three extra toppings and whipped cream. Anyway, more than the cuisine or the wine at Vivant, what strikes me is the global attention to creative restaurateurism, visible in the walls and palpable in the service.

Speaking of toppings, though, my friends R2 and A are both vegetarians who avoid cheese made from cow's milk. The good news that evening was that the folks at Vivant were happy to whip up a salad or a plate of vegetables, and my friends received none of the headshaking or petulance one gets with those requests at most natural wine spots.

The bad news was that for both plats and entrées their options were extremely limited: on a given night Vivant serves just three or four of each, three or four of which will contain meat.

This is not really a flaw - it's how I myself would run a similar restaurant - but I mention it as a necessary warning. Also, avoid ordering a pasta with red sauce, which numbskull dish was actually on the menu one night, and did not break any of my preconceptions about what happens when the French attempt Italian food. (Hint: neither spice nor acid.)

More successful, on that occasion, was a simply dressed, impeccably fresh tagliata (hangar steak) and probably the best boudin noir I've ever had, succulent and sensual.

With plats we had screaming shirtless post-punk wine #2, Pierre Beauger's 2007 "Vitriol," a maxxed-out VDT Gamay made with semi-carbonic maceration. It's label said 14% alcohol. I'm convinced it was more. I could barely taste the tagliata, the wine was so hot. I found it impressive, but only in Spinal Tap, turned-up-to-11 way.

The argument for a wine like the 2007 "Vitriol"* would run something like: it is an accurate reflection of the growing season and the land, etc. I don't know. I prefer a wine to more or less reflect a culinary and cultural tradition. If you are working with Gamay in Auvergne, why on earth make a wine that goes toe-to-toe with heavyweight Australian monsters? I get filled with a strange rapt pity, like watching female bodybuilders. Or anyone trying to tear a phonebook. It's just not playing to natural strengths.

(Additionally, the "Vitriol" at Vivant runs a keen 60€, which makes it ready ammunition for any reviewer who seeks to discredit the restaurant, or natural wine in general. M. Jancou keeps an abundantly stocked cave of serious gems beneath the restaurant, for friends and fellow wine lovers, and for purely practical reasons I expect the "Vitriol" might find a better home there, rather than among the plentiful more approachable selections on the ardoise above the kitchen.)

Leaving aside my philosophical vitriol re: the "Vitriol," the wine remains supportive of the laudable premise I sense in Vivant's gutsy wine list and slender market menu and frank service: that for an experience to be wholly pleasurable, it must first be truthful. It's a set of priorities that, despite my caveats, I tend to share.

* I've since tasted the 2009, and same arguments apply.

43, rue des Petites Ecuries
75010 PARIS
Metro: Bonne Nouvelles or Chateau d'Eau
Tel: 01 42 46 43 55

Related Links:

A 2008 piece on Pierre Jancou's previous restaurant, Racines, @ WineTerroirs
A piece on the opening night of Vivant @ WineTerroirs
A positive but somewhat unreflective review of Vivant @ JohnTalbott
Alec Lobrano's positive review of Vivant @ HungryForParis, in which the author repeatedly disses the wine list without citing why.
A rave review of Vivant @ PtiPois
The whole spat between Jancou and the l'Express Styles restaurant critic @ L'ExpressStyles

A good informative 2010 visit with Pierre Beauger @ WineTerroirs
A 2010 review of the 2005 "Vitriol" @ PtiJournalduVin


  1. Just curious: I couldn't find the place where François-Régis Gaudry implied that the tilework could have been taken/stolen from somewhere else. I only saw him refer to the tiling as "vieilles céramiques amochées" (old bashed up tiling) -- no mention of thievery. Did I miss something?

  2. my misreading! thanks for pointing that out. dates from my orig. impression from the review when i read it before going to vivant - FRG doesn't explicitly mention that the place itself was an old birdshop, just that the tiles come from one.

  3. numbskull ... the writer of this blog !

  4. @anonymous: do try and engage substantively here. are you suggesting that pasta in pomodoro sauce is somehow a worthwhile plat to have on a menu containing just four plats? or, what are you suggesting, besides a general helplessness with language?

  5. While I agree with you on general terms, re: French attempts at Italian classics (Franco-Italian border regions excepted), I'm kinda wondering how a tomato sauce can lack acid...


  6. Use of the 'B' word, an identifying feature of hack writing, is basically a sham populist appeal for writers who seek to cosy up to unsophisticated readers.

    This reminds me of my days in the alternative press, where reviews (mostly music, but it infected everything) were most easily sorted not by genre or rating, but by whether they exhibited approval or contempt for the theorized fans of said music. It was contemptible then, and it's no less contemptible in food and/or wine.

  7. @thor: tomatoes themselves possess acid, no argument there. but i don't think this goes so far as to guarantee an effective acid balance in any sauce containing them. you've never had a limp, sweet, watery tomato sauce? i actually just botched one along those lines last night, cooking for myself.

    re: the quote you pull: are you saying you consider sorting reviews that way contemptible, or that reviews exhibiting contempt for the fans of their respective subjects are contemptible? you lost me.

  8. I've had bad tomato sauces, for sure, but other than oversweetened ones (bad Midwestern memories, don't ask) I don't know that I've had one where a lack of acidity was the problem.

    Second paragraph: the latter.

  9. Just wondering, you calling Lobrano a hack?

  10. I feel like Philippe Pacalet as "natural Burgundy vigneron" is a bit of a stretch. We gave his rep a hard time about this at the Augé tasting this weekend, as they are in fact in "culture raisonnée" ("c'est déjà bien!"), which (and maybe I am missing something but) I take to mean we agree with you in principle, but we're not willing to lose any money on our (already overpriced) bottles in difficult years, so we're going to go ahead and cover our semi-organic vines with chemicals when we need to. I'm not sure what Pierre Jancou's gripe with Pacalet is exactly, but if this is it he might have a point.

  11. clem: it's true that burgundy vignerons seem to get a pass on many natural prerequisites. there's natural, and natural for burgundy. (same in piedmont, i suppose.) on the one hand it would be nice to see many of these producers take more risks; on the other hands the wines of lutte raisonée folk in both burgundy and piedmont are often inarguably awesome. so i tend to set aside the hatchet when discussing them, or with them.

    on the other hand, pacalet's wines have lost a bit of their luster in my opinion, having lately tasted more of them, and more of others' wines from same areas. for the price, the pacalet wines ought sometimes to be a little more expressive, i think.

  12. wow, you must be the most arrogant english bastard i came around for a very long time

  13. Dear blog-writer,
    It would be my pleasure to receive you here in Auvergne,in both my vineyard and cellar, to improve my english and be able to catch the whole meaning of what you wrote on me.
    Best regards.
    Pierre BEAUGER