17 August 2011

righteous following: au passage, 75011


"Go soon," is what an informed friend cautioned when I'd asked him about Au Passage, a new natural wine bar-à-manger on passage Saint-Sébastien in the Marais-adjacent 11ème* - because the chef in charge, James Henry, was slated to depart shortly.

I can think of two nearby wine bars that function alright without a head chef, per se. But Henry, whose previous credits include a stint at massively popular 1èr arrondissement restaurant Spring, will leave some shoes to fill, when he goes. Because as my friend IF, the Native Companion, and I confirmed the other day at lunch, Au Passage is, thanks in large part to Henry's efforts, punching way above its weight right now, offering some of the city's most delectable, nigh-on haute cuisine small plates at prices more reflective of what the place really is: a neighborhood spot with a shoe-string budget and some good intentions. 


The contrast is more than charming. It was enough to make my friends and I forget the ripe Indonesian humidity in the place during lunch hour the other Friday. (Renovations are occurring at time of writing, and for the love of Christ I hope they rejigger the windows to allow for some passage d'aire.**) Upon sitting down I immediately sought out the best alternative to air-conditioning, a bottle of rosé.


Vignoble Dauny is a Sancerre estate based in Crezancy-en-Sancerre, organic since 1964. Christian and Nicole Dauny are the second and current generation farming the estate, which comprises 16ha, of which over 12ha are devoted to their Sancerre blanc, which I've yet to taste. I haven't encountered the wines before at other natural spots, which combined with my suspicious nature leads me to believe the wines aren't much more than organic, as these things go. But to hell with it, they're excellent, and very good bargains. The red Sancerre, which I tasted on another occasion, is balanced, bing cherry-toned, and notably silky, for an appellation often known for the piercing acidity of its red. The 2010 Sancerre rosé we had that day shared the same lovely integrated acidity, with a more delicate, berryish fruit; it skipped across the palate like a spring rain. 


The fact is, though, that for a wine bar to be truly remarkable, not just pleasant, it's got to do more than provide merely nice wines. At time of writing, possibly due to budget constraints, the list at Au Passage is on the pokey side of inviting: good product, few selections, and nothing of exceptional interest by the glass.The mark-ups are just, not generous. Paris is riven with places that offer similar lists, if one knows where to find them. What separates Au Passage from the pack, for now, is the cuisine.



A salad of cuttlefish and potato could have used a smidge more acid, and the plating was slightly Martian, but the cuttlefish itself was cooked to perfection, simultaneously chewy and crunchy, and plainly not the work of an amateur.


A plat of Bonito with almond purée and shaved heirloom carrots was a textural delight, between the grain of the purée and that of the giving, melt-in-mouth fish. Carrots, as ever, gave snap. The same ingredients accompanied IF's keen and fresh bavette, everything cleverly recontextualised by the meat's sanguineous tang.


Dessert was slight, a point about which some might complain, but not me.


Peach slices, raspberries, crumbled speculoos, and fromage blanc: simple and unencumbering, and probably costs the kitchen next to nothing. At 16,50€ for three courses, Au Passage still rivals Bistrot Paul Bert for the city's most uproarious lunch deal. 

IF and the NC had both run into friends during our lunch there, and in the two days before and after that visit I must have received no less than three invitations from other friends to go to Au Passage, not to mention the numerous adoring accounts I heard from yet other friends, who'd gone to the restaurant and loved it. Suffice it to say there is a community around the place already, no small achievement, and a justifiably righteous following for the chef, who I now hear is staying on until at least October. I suspect I won't be the only one hoping he's trained a highly effective successor by then.

Au Passage is closed for vacation and renovation until the 22nd August. 


* Points for further research: what is it about the 11ème and natural wine spots? Why are so many excellent new-ish restaurants in the 11ème? Is it because I live in the 11ème, that I write about so many places in the 11ème? Or is there some other factor, low rents perhaps, or relatively permissive zoning or noise strictures? In the meantime when I write about the locations of these places I'll try to identify which part of the 11ème; it's a rather big arrondissement, though still disproportionate to the amount of excellent natural wine available.

** I'd also ditch the gigantic stuffed leather couch and armchair set dominating the room like a herd of buffalo. Apartment-style décor is indefinably losery in the best of circumstances; it becomes unthinkable when, as with Au Passage, the restaurant is booking up most nights. 

1bis passage Saint-Sébastien
75011 PARIS
Metro: Saint-Sébastien 
Tel: 01 43 55 07 52

Related Links: 

Some other nearby 11ème natural wine bars, neither quite as good as Au Passage at time of writing: 
Chair du Poule, 75011 (but has the benefit of a terrace)
Aux Deux Amis, 75011 (but has a deeper wine list) 

A terrific write-up of Au Passage @ MegZimbeck
A less thoughtful write-up of Au Passage @ IHeartParis

A minimally informative invitation to "une journée bio" chez Dauny @ BioBerry
A more informative profile of the Dauny estate @ CollegialeDomaineLoire

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