I finally got around to popping into Frenchie Bar à Vin the other day. I was meeting a friend of a friend (now just friend) called T who was passing through Paris. My somewhat perverse original idea was not to have a meal, but rather to patronise the new establishment in a manner appropriate to an archetypal wine bar, as it is popularly conceived: a meeting place, somewhere to pop in and have an informal splash.
A doomed effort, doomed from the get-go. I did initial research on wait times, something one doesn't do for the Archetypal Wine Bar In The Sky, and was informed that to guarantee no wait the best thing is to arrive smack at opening hour, 7pm. This was, for once, convenient for me, so I did. Upon arrival I joined the ranks of perhaps five other people, holding twelve seats between us. By the time T arrived, a few minutes late, several of us earlybirds were reading paperbacks, which activity, you can imagine, did nothing to create a convivial atmosphere.
There wasn't such an atmosphere the night I went, and I ruefully suspect there's slim chance of drumming one up in a place that ranks this insensibly high on tourists' must-visit lists, a place where your seat real estate is actively coveted by bespectacled native businessmen with pursed lips, holding full glasses like access passes, peeved at having to wait. As a wine bar, it's draggy. It was just lucky that T and I got along swimmingly. And that, despite the misnomer, Frenchie Bar à Vin still manages to be an enjoyable experience on its own terms, which is to say as a terrific small plates restaurant at 7pm sharp.
T and I didn't have a full meal, just some pork belly and tête de cochon. Bits of pork. The menu at Frenchie wine bar is actually a lot like the menu at Frenchie, or any number of good restaurants in New York, if you were excise the main courses, leaving appetizers, cheeses, and dessert. Both dishes we had were of top-notch quality, gleamingly fresh and expertly plated.
(Perhaps slightly overplated in the case of the tête, which was accompanied by - deep breath - white beans, granny smith apple, girolles, and a prickly red berry I failed to identify.)
The wine list is either an exact replica of, or very similar to, the Frenchie Restaurant list, which makes sense given the proximity of the restaurant, and even more sense given that Frenchie Bar à Vin is, as I noted above, emphatically less a bar than a restaurant, and one whose numbers probably depend heavily on long meals and bottle sales, at that.
So on any given night the Bar à Vin offers only one of each genre of wine by the glass. (White, rosé, sparkling, red.)
It was another bit of luck that the night I went the white on offer was precisely that which I was most curious about on the wine list, a Robola di Cephalonia by Gentilini.
My experience of Greek wines amounts to not much more than the sackful that my friend D brought over last fashion week, so I was unaware at the time that Gentilini is a very ambitious contemporary organic winemaking operation based on the island of Cephalonia. Nor was I aware that Robola, the varietal, is purportedly identical to Friuli's slightly-less-obscure Ribolla Gialla. I remain skeptical of that latter fact: where the profile of most Ribolla is round, waxy, more or less dully oxidative, Gentilini's 2009 Robola was quite literally a day at the beach: nice acid, saline, simultaneously oily and crisp. I sensed some light reduction at first sniff, but it disappeared and was replaced, on the palate, with a harmonious mineral-oregano accord. There's a leery mincer in me who would prefer to hate the wines of estates that boast, as Gentilini do repeatedly on their website, of using the "latest technology" - but the proof is in the glass, in this case.
T and I had less luck with a bottle of Serbian Gamay that we, as incorrigible geeks, felt obliged to try. Francuska Vinarija's 2009 "Zelja."
Within three sips both of us were clutching our foreheads with the beginnings of headaches - for me, at least, a sure sign of invasive winemaking, further testament to which was found in the wine's methlabby finish. A really strange chemical end to what, on the attack, scans as slightly overripe cru Beaujolais. It was like getting drunk in Morgon and blacking out and waking up in the hospital, every sip. When we ordered another bottle without finishing our first, the server noted our distaste for the "Zelja" and kindly took the rest of the bottle back.
I spoke about it later with my friend Laura, who selects the Frenchie lists, and she confirmed that the wine had been presented to her as 100% natural, no additives, minimal sulfur, etc. I don't know. Ultimately I just have to trust my forehead on this one.* I have no way of proving this, but I suspect the discrepancy between what we understand as French natural and Serbian natural in this case might derive from the difference that in France, "natural" winemakers are usually more or less part of a broad peer group that serves to provide a small degree of mutual oversight, or at least a common definition of what constitutes "natural."
Ultimately, though, both the Greek winner and the Serbian loser in this scenario comprise part of what I take to be Frenchie's appeal, for myself and for Parisians: both resto and bar à vin share a sharp international perspective and a genuine curiosity for other cultures - both very refreshing virtues in this city. Therein, of course, lies the irony of the restaurants' rep as must-visit destinations for visitors to Paris. Frenchie Bar à Vin isn't much of one, nor is it, in fact, very Frenchy. It is, however, a place where one can find real enjoyment if one gets sick of those things.
* And T's even moreso. He was general manager of an excellent wine shop in NYC for five years.
Frenchie Bar à Vin
6, rue du Nil
Bon Courage: Some thoughts on the opening of Frenchie Bar à Vin
Alec Lobrano on Frenchie Bar à Vin @ HungryForParis
An atypical experience at Frenchie Bar à Vin @ DavidLebovitz
A very recent review of the 2009 Gentilini Robola @ FringeWine
A review of the 2007 Gentilini Robola @ TravelPlusWine