31 December 2012

call it a caviste: la buvette, 75011

In a break from my habit of writing about things long after they've lost all relevance, I thought I'd mention my friend Camille Fourmont's brand new caviste-slash-bar à vin, La Buvette, which opened for business on rue Saint Maur in the 11ème a little over a week ago.

I hadn't seen Camille in a while, and hadn't been aware she'd left her former gig, as bar manager of  Inaki Aizpitarte's overdesigned wine bar Le Dauphin. I just happened to be walking by on an errand the other day, when a Julien Courtois wine label in her sparse window display caught my attention.

It's a surprise to see such a cult wine on that stretch of road, which is otherwise dominated by superettes and timewarpy little do-nothing bistrots that seem to survive, like lichen, on air alone. It's also a surprise to peer in the windows and see - good lord ! - a trim, contemporary establishment, where good taste is as perceptible in the décor as it is in the mostly-natural wine selection. There's clean white tiling, and simple tables and chairs, and, mostly importantly for my purposes, a solid and inviting zinc-capped bar.

18 December 2012

hot potato: roseval, 75020

The remarkable hyperactivity of Paris food-blogging is partly due to the outsize international attention paid what is essentially a medium-sized, semi-provincial city. Thirty million tourists per year arrive in Paris; before, during, and after their vacations, they constitute a readership.

The repetitive nature of Paris food-blogging - and that of Paris dining in general - derives from limited subject matter. Restaurateurism in this medium-sized, semi-provincial city has been, for reasons both economic and societal, slow to catch up to the democratisation of gastronomy that has occurred in the past few decades. Most of the remaining first- and second-wave "bistronauts" of the 1990's and 2000's have long since settled into comfortable routines of semi-pro mediocrity; outside of hotels and Michelin-starred places, one rarely encounters service or cuisine that takes itself seriously.

This is why laudatory coverage of a few restaurants - Frenchie, Le Chateaubriand, Spring, Rino, and a few newcomers including the subject of this post, the 20ème's Roseval - will continue unabated: there stilll aren't enough informal tables whose informality does not excuse staff from evincing actual chops and ambition.* These are the tables that impress bloggers that bloggers can afford. The creative team at Roseval - chefs Michael Greenwold and Simone Tondo and sommelier Erika Biswell - formerly worked at some of these places (Le Chateaubriand, Rino, and Le Chateaubriand, respectively), and to judge by the results of their collaboration, they learned all the right moves. Roseval is the best value of its too-small category: a place where those who work outside the financial sector can experience inventive food and thrillingly obscure wines served by people who believe in what they do.

11 December 2012

planet of women : l'auberge flora, 75011

One would like to cite beauty, good taste, and pleasure as one's dining ideals. But, as in most fields, there are extra-aesthetic concerns. One has to rate establishments according to the scope of their ambition, and according to the service they provide in a given community.

By the latter standard, Bastille-quartier chambre d'hôte L'Auberge Flora is a certain kind of paradise, appearing like an oasis on an otherwise creepy and barren strip of road just east of the Marais. It's the new project of a veteran Paris chef called Florence Mikula, whose previous restaurants, judging by early reviews of L'Auberge Flora, permanently endeared her to a certain generation of Paris food writers. Several elements of the new restaurant are expertly in place, or nearly so: the staff (all ladies, when I visited) are warm and considerate, and a meal is fairly priced, given it's a hotel. What the byzantine menu of tapas lacks in precision or focus it makes up for in sheer novelty. (How nice, once in a while in Paris, not to consume a hunk of meat for dinner.)

But dear god, the décor. It's like getting nuzzled by a unicorn, and waking up surrounded by twittering birds beneath a rainbow on a cotton candy cloud floating magically above a Land Without Men, where wine lists are delivered with butterfly hairclips holding the pages together. (I am not kidding.)

07 December 2012

a village called paris : cave fervèré, 75011

One indication I've been doing this blog too long is that certain restaurants and wine bars I've written about have since been sold, or closed down, or been completely revamped. When I last mentioned my restaurateur friend Olivier Aubert, he had, in the space of about a year, opened three restaurants: La Bodeguita du IVeme, la Bodeguita du IXeme, and Les Trois Seaux in the 11ème.

Aubert is presently selling La Bodeguita du IVeme, having shed the weirdly-shaped and generally unsuccessful la Bodeguita du IXeme long ago. Les Trois Seaux is still operational, still a solid wine bistrot where the respectable food and service are undercut by clumsy décor and a silly name. ("The Three Buckets." I have never understood why they use white tablecloths in a space like that.)

Now on rue des Trois Bornes, one street away from Les Trois Seaux, Aubert is at it again: he's opened a pichet-sized wine bistrot called Cave Fervèré, its name a reference to the iron grillwork on the windows. It's another two-man operation, just him and a chef, with a slim menu of provincial staples, and a shelf of solid natural wines at generous prices. What's to get excited about? you might ask. Why follow Aubert's bantering roadshow of openings and closures to yet another address? Because Aubert's restaurants, in their simplicity and utter lack of pretense, represent all that's best about living in Paris, which is to say they feel like the countryside. Also, he is serving a really killer andouillette right now.

28 November 2012

unpolished: miroir, 75018

The fashion company I work for used to have a shop not far from métro Abbesses in Montmartre. I think the original commercial rationale was: it's a picturesque neighborhood, with a lot roving tourists - surely they'll purchase accessories ?

The shop didn't work for several reasons. To put it simply, the neighborhood wasn't 'there,' yet; nor, with the constant influx of panting tourists looking for the Amelie café, was it clear it would ever get 'there.' All the knick-knackery shuts out higher-end retail. Tourists hiking towards Sacre Coeur, if they did stop to shop, did so in places that looked scruffier or more classically Montmartrois than our brand. (Paris tourists generally seek either the mythical cosmopolitan Paris or the mythical village Paris. The city's actual charm is that it contains both myths, often simultaneously, on the same street - but tourists in Montmartre are hunting for the latter one.)

I am getting around to discussing a neighborhood restaurant - Miroir, also located quite near Abbesses. I visited during Fashion Week in October on the recommendation of my favorite lunch purveyor and wine aficionado Balthazar de la Borde. On the one hand, I agree with Balt that Miroir is a godsend, given its location: an unfussy place to get a tasty and well-sourced, mostly-traditional meal, replete with a good, mostly-natural wine list. (The proprietors of Miroir also run the Cave de Miroir across the street.) On the other hand, I suspect that Miroir, like the neighborhood, is not 'there' yet, and on the night we dined there, one major service bungle made me despair of it ever getting 'there.'

12 November 2012

n.d.p. in milan: antica trattoria della pesa

Before we caught our train down to Florence, we took a very early lunch at a restaurant one of my friends had booked, Antica Trattoria della Pesa. We were actually the ones waiting outside before the restaurant opened.

I'm not sure how often this happens at Antica Trattoria della Pesa in the springtime. It's certainly on the tourist radar, and adjacent to the train station. But the lunch on offer is midwinter-hearty Milanese fare, at dinnertime prices. It's the sort of thing that seems appropriate if a cousin has just got married, or Napoleon has just been crowned; at most other times, it's can be a bit pompous, particularly to anyone accustomed to the lively, informal style of stateside Italian restaurateurism.

That's sort of the point with this variety of restaurant, though. The hearty Milanese fare I mentioned could be spruced up and delivered a thousand times better by a more ambitious restauranteur elsewhere. Restaurants like Antica Trattoria della Pesa succeed mainly because, being institutions, they evince no ambition. From the perspective of a certain conservative diner, ambition is the last thing one would want to perceive in a meal, and would be avoided at the sacrifice of almost any other criterion for a good meal, except high cost.

24 October 2012

n.d.p. in milan: bar basso

Seeking to wring every last drink out of my brief stay in Milan, I arranged to meet my friend and host M for last call at Bar Basso, a proudly classic, slightly hokey cocktail bar famous for being the birthplace of possibly my favorite cocktail, the Negroni Sbagliato, or wrong Negroni.

The Negroni Sbagliato is simply a Negroni made with prosecco instead of gin. Just Campari, dry vermouth, and prosecco. I was introduced to the drink just a few years ago at a restaurant called Dell'Anima in the West Village, whose proprietor Joe Campanale has had great success with a variation involving roasted orange.

The cocktail's genesis story - all successful cocktails have at least one - is that Bar Basso's proprietor's father was mixing a Negroni and grabbed the wrong bottle, presumably realising his error when the ostensible gin bubbled and fizzed. The cocktail thus born is buoyant, bitter, immensely refreshing, and notably less inebriating than a classic Negroni, therefore ideally suited to endless aperitivo hours. It's also completely idiot-proof, with the exception of one time in Paris when I received it in a piddling frouffy champagne flute, which seemed gravely wrong at the time. Then again, before visiting Bar Basso and seeing how a Negroni Sbagliato was served by its originators, how was I to know ?

19 October 2012

pierre jancou in cdg homme plus, f/w 2000

As a sort of addendum to my post on Pierre Jancou's splendid new cave-à-manger from earlier this week, I thought I'd share a lesser-known aspect of Jancou's admirable career. 

During our first conversation, a little over a year ago, I happened to mention that I work for a fashion company. Jancou was familiar with the brand - because he'd modeled in one of the same company's runway shows a few years back. 

I remember finding it all a marvelous coincidence. Then, perhaps distracted by the wine that evening, I forgot all about it. But just the other day it finally occurred to me to look around for the images, and, voilà.

15 October 2012

gem-laden: vivant cave, 75010

When serial-restaurateur and natural wine authority Pierre Jancou first informed me a few months back that he'd be changing the concept of his project Vivant to its current incarnation, the pricier and more ambitious Vivant Table, he'd been careful to mention that nextdoor he'd soon be opening a more informal Vivant wine bar. My first question for him was whether he really meant a wine bar, or whether in fact it would be yet another cave-à-manger restauranty sort of thing.

As he readily admitted then, it's a cave-à-manger restauranty sort of thing. In fact, much to the relief of anyone devoted to the old Vivant, Vivant Cave (as he's calling the new cave-à-manger) is basically a whittled down version of the original, just with a beefed up épicerie component where Jancou intends to sell many of the ingredients his kitchens employ. There's half the seating, half the menu (prepped in the Vivant Table kitchen and finished in the Cave), and, interestingly, no reservations.

It's a good thing the bar is comfy.

11 October 2012

n.d.p. in milan: il kiosko

My visit to Milan this past spring was so cursory that it should not reflect poorly upon the city's dining scene if I say that my best meal there occurred on a traffic island.

Il Kiosko is what it says it is: a kiosk selling fish in the Piazza XXIV Maggio. In addition to supplying home chefs, Il Kiosko serves fritto misto and crudo fresh from the riviera to the aperitivo crowd around the canals. There are high tables, and benches if you arrive early enough. If you can ignore the car exhaust, it's a very inviting place to snack.

I'd suggest the car exhaust even adds something - an enlivening contrast to the sterile environments in which one customarily consumes raw fish. I can report that my friend M and I definitely felt like righteous urban pre-Prometheans, standing there on the curbside, tearing into the raw slivers we'd just seen nicked from the belly of the whole damn fish.

09 October 2012

n.d.p. in milan: peck

As I poked around Peck I tried to take a couple pics. Got scolded. Apparently Peck - an historical Milanese fine food emporium - is as famous for its image control as it is for its vast stores of wine, olive oil, and ham.

It's a little baffling. Peck has neither the design elements nor the security risks that might warrant overzealous image control. It's a fine food shop, not a museum, not an embassy. Some fine food shops fulfill a quasi-ambassadorial role, it's true: think Turin's Eataly. But in comparison to the grandiosity and festival atmosphere of that place, Peck seemed a bit quaint, even at 3500m2 over three floors. The short young clerk who instructed me not to take pictures had been the same one who'd shadowed me as I perused the wine racks of Peck's basement level, offering little in the way of advice.

This happened to suit me fine, as I didn't need any. We had 20 minutes to kill in central Milan after lunch, and my friends M and V kindly indulged my desire to spend it all perusing shelves of Italian wine classics. In retrospect this may have been a mistake, since it meant that during our perambulations throughout the city later that day I was burdened with numerous cult-status bottles I'd been unable to resist.

25 September 2012

n.d.p. in milan: la vecchia latteria

When I met my friend M for lunch in Milan en route to our friend's wedding in Florence, I became immediately distracted by a wine I'd never previously encountered: an obscure Emilia-Romagnan white called Ortrugo.

I've never lived in Italy and I don't speak the language. But I've managed a high-end Italian restaurant in the US, I've bought Italian wine for several restaurants, I've read numerous books on the nation's wines, and I've toured a fair portion of it firsthand, from Ivrea to Puglia. So most of what I encounter there feels more or less legible. Especially wine lists: to walk into an Italian restaurant in Italy and fondly recognise the names on the wine list is, ordinarily, a great comfort.

M and I were wedged into a table at La Vecchia Latteria, an historic vegetarian spot that had come recommended by a jazz guitarist / wine geek friend in LA. Wines available were neither extensive nor expensive; the waiters didn't seem to know a thing about them. They barked out the usual counsel reserved for moron tourists ("You like red? You like white?"). But I was still on a disembarkment-high from Malpensa,* delighted to see my old friend M, and besides, one great thing about white wine in Italy is that the obscurities are often so inexpensive as to constitute no risk whatsoever. (In case of disaster, there's always Peroni.)

20 September 2012

mmmeh : mmmozza, 75003

It should be fairly clear to most first-worlders by now that an appreciation for proper D.O.P. mozzarella is not, in itself, a sign of any particular gastronomic cultivation. Liking real mozzarella just means a person is alive, has a pulse, etc. The various forms the cheese takes - from bufala to burrata to bocconcini and beyond - are all basically risk-free crowd-pleaser components, beloved by everyone, as long as the product itself is fresh.

This is not to say that the success of restaurants like Roman mozzarella bar chain Obikà, and its spiritual descendent, my old workplace, Los Angeles' more baroque and refined Osteria Mozza, was in any way preordained or obvious. (Obikà was a pioneer; Osteria Mozza is now a certified Michelin-starred masterpiece.) This is to say that Mmmozza, the tiny sandwich-shop-slash-Italian-épicerie that opened last year on rue de Bretagne, ought to have decent commercial potential, despite its cubbyhole size and mmmoronic unoriginal name. After all, the whole quartier is more or less defined by its repertoire of minor indulgences (c.f. the menu at nearby wine bar Glou; all the trinket-rich, middle-market fashion boutiques; the "Panier des Gourmands by Franprix" mini-market...)

Alas ! After a few random visits this past summer I'm unable to avoid the conclusion that the Mmmozza the establishment is just too damn Parisian, by which I mean that its opening hours, service, and inconsistent product evince precisely zero ambition, bordering at times on actual laziness. Which is a shame, because it's one of the few épiceries of its type to have cottoned onto the natural wine thing.

11 September 2012

n.d.p. in london: 40 maltby street

I'm routinely very critical of the London wine scene on this blog, despite not knowing it half as well as I'd like to. In my ignorance, just about every wine establishment I encounter over there makes me cagey in some way, whether through bald commercialism (Terroirs) or preciousness (Duck Soup) or overwhelming fusty pomposity (Berry Bros. & Rudd) or total irrelevance (Oddbins). It perturbs me that hugely accredited wine writers writing for England's best newspapers speak of wine as though it were purchaseable exclusively in supermarkets. And the nation's draconian import taxes seem to ensure that even the more discriminating British consumers are merely choosing between entry-level and mid-range wines, just horribly distorted in price.

All this is why on my last trip to London I was stunned to discover a truly winning wine bar, easily better than anything in Paris, perhaps on earth: 40 Maltby Street. Located at the eponymous address in the Maltby Street sort-of-market, it's open just three days a week, takes no reservations, and alongside a soulful and inventive market menu it serves the boldly natural French, Italian, and Slovenian wines of the import company with which the restaurant shares ownership, Gergovie Wines. (That the import company is named after a mountain in Auvergne tells you something about its laudable priorities vis à vis non-marquee regions.)

05 September 2012

bento stowaway: maori's bento at la conserverie, 75002

When I finished my long overdue first meal at my good friend Maori Murota's bento spot by Grands Boulevards, I descended to the kitchen to thank her, and after doing so, asked what I imagine must be a pretty routine question for her. So, I segued, after learning that she planned to travel to Japan for a month. You going to keep this up when you get back?

It's not that her project, a stowaway restaurant operating inside the cavernous design-hell cocktail bar La Conserverie, isn't successful. She routinely runs out of food to serve, and juggles numerous private cooking gigs on the side. The home-cooked Japanese soul-food she prepares is gem-like and nutritious, a natural hit with her previous milieu, the fashion crowd. (Murota was previously an assistant to Christophe Lemaire.)

It's just that the whole conceptually-unrelated-restaurant-within-a-bar situation seems precarious, barely perched where it is - like a food truck, without the truck, with notably more refined cuisine, if not service. In every major city there are a thousand bloggers with peeled eyes and pricked-up ears searching for good unprofessional authenticity, the outsider art of the kitchen, and when one confirms its existence, as at Maori's Bento at La Conserverie, one usually doesn't wait long for it to disappear. But Murota has always struck me as being more or less chez elle in funny situations. So she's returned from her trip to Japan and has reopened for business this week.

31 August 2012

n.d.p. in london: duck soup, soho

I seem to have had an atypical experience of Dean Street restaurant Duck Soup last winter. At that time it was a relatively new restaurant, and various friends and reviews had all warned of a tortuous reservation policies and interminable waits. But evidently it was close enough to Christmas for the town to have begun to hunker down, for my friend / colleague M sorted us out a last minute six-top with what seemed like no hassle whatsoever.

There followed a very, very dimly lit meal of small plates in what are usually termed Brooklyn-inspired surroundings - a strange but welcome experience in ultracommercial Soho. At Duck Soup the nightly menu is almost illegibly scrawled on scraps of paper. One is invited to bring records and put them on, perhaps as a distraction while waiting for a bar stool.

The brisk pace of menu change at the Duck Soup means that it will serve no one if I recount each dish, were I even able to this long after the meal. Some were tasty, one or two were mushy catastrophes. More interesting for me consider right now, as I belatedly clear this London material off the iPhone, is what it means to call something "Brooklyn-inspired," and whether this style of restaurateurism exports well.

23 August 2012

ditz natural : glou, 75003

I have nice things to say about Glou, unlike seemingly every respectable food writer I can think of. (Am I respectable? I have no idea. Perhaps what I am about to write will disqualify me.) In its fundamentals, it's a completely fine bistrot à vin: simple, product-focused, and conveniently located in the heart of the Marais. The varied, well-priced list of natural wines alone makes it an appealing destination in that neighborhood, where a good glass of wine is astonishingly hard to find.

If, until the other night, I had nevertheless declined to dine there throughout the three years since it opened, I think it's mostly due to the restaurant's polarizing marketing. Glou, founded by food journalist Julien Fouin and film producer-turned-restaurateur Ludovic Dardenay, is sort of an object lesson in the hazards of letting food writers design menus. Reading Glou's, one feels as through one were reading the food section of a beauty mag. For example, a whole section of very slightly luxurious épicerie appetizers is called "Les Perles Rares." Another: "Les Curiosités du Moment à Ne Pas Rater." Wines are divided by theme, with some described as "des aventures, des surprises, loin des jajas standardisés, de vrais coups de coeur."

This sort of precocious verbiage makes experienced diners gag. Even in food journalism, it's mostly confined to the hack subdivision that exists to conflate quality with luxury. So seeing it on the menu, and seeing that Glou's loyal Marais audience overlaps quite a bit with that of the aforementioned beauty mags, I stayed away. The place seemed ditz-natural. So when I finally visited Glou the other night, at the urging of my friend A, a regular, I was surprised to find myself genuinely pleased by the experience, having possibly become a ditz myself.

21 August 2012

n.d.p. in london: the kernel brewery

My longtime English friend A and I often refer to one another as the evil twin, never able to agree on who is the good twin ever since discovering, at age 13, that we were born on the same day. There followed shortly thereafter, that day in primary school, the revelation that we both enjoyed Pearl Jam, which seemed important at the time. In the years that followed our music tastes were to converge joyously (The Pixies, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, etc.) before diverging catastrophicall (he got into metal).

Nowadays A is among the first people I phone up whenever I visit London, for despite our musical differences, he remains my one English friend who hasn't gone vegetarian or otherwise rendered himself immune to gourmandise. A also shares a certain hunger to stay informed about such things; like me, and presumably anyone reading this blog, he's the type to research where to have a drink. In the decade-plus since we lived in the same country, he's become a very well-informed beer afficionado.

So as I was passing through London on the way to Wales last Christmas, I was delighted to follow him to one of his favorite breweries, a ramshackle geek-run operation called the Kernel, which at that time was located in the Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey, a short walk from London Bridge. (I'm told it has since moved to a bigger space a mile down the road, to keep up with demand. I've either got to start reporting more promptly, or travel less.)

16 August 2012

paris discovers beer : la fine mousse, 75011

I'm sure I'm not the only expat who has occasionally marveled at the aesthetic poverty of Paris beer culture. This is a country home to four hundred distinct varieties of cheese, and having an opinion on each is a matter of national pride. There are prizes given every year for the best tête de veau. Yet beer in France at large has somehow remained below the threshold of aesthetic attention for much of the populace, as evidenced by the vacuous brands on offer at most bars and supermarkets : Kronenberg, 1664, Amstel, Heineken, Pelforth, etc.

Whatever their respective merits may be over vile industrial American staples like Bud Light, these other beers remain, like Bud Light, substances that are consumed in lieu of aesthetic experience - they're basically water, only alcoholic and carbonated. At the other end of the spectrum of beers widely available in Paris, you have the sweetish one-note bruiser that is Leffe, which to my tastes shares DNA with those bottom-shelf "strong beers" marketed mainly to the homeless.* Parisians seem to like their bière either to dull the senses, or not be perceived at all.

Given the size of the craft beer market in numerous other major cities, Paris' stagnant beer scene has long presented an untapped opportunity. So I was overjoyed to learn that, with the soft opening last month of a majestic twenty-tap beer bar called La Fine Mousse in a quiet square off rue Oberkampf, some enterprising young Frenchmen have at last seized the moment.

13 August 2012

sophie brissaud & sauternes at spring boutique, 75001

Writing about the wines of Bordeaux, I feel perennially obliged, before airing opinions, to quote Plato's Socrates, who said, 'If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.'

My experience with the greats of the region is more or less reflective of my interest in them. Not that I'd ever turn down a glass of Petrus or what-have-you. But with such a teeming diversity of fascinating wines from less commercialised regions all much more readily available for study, it rarely seems with the effort involved to approach Bordeaux. There's a velvet rope of pure hassle and expense around the good stuff: purchasing it is out of the question, and most tastings that present it - especially the public tastings - are insufferably stuffy and boorish affairs, quite far removed from the "dudes hanging out with bottles" template of the most enjoyable tastings.

It's a happy coincidence that the wines of Bordeaux I find most interesting from an aesthetic standpoint - white Bordeaux and Sauternes - are in general slightly more approachable. Good examples of both wines present unique, opulent flavor profiles found nowhere else in wine, but with the exceptions of Château d'Yquem and Haut-Brion, neither wine category receives anywhere near the attention of the region's reds. One encounters the opposite problem: rarely finding the wines, let alone several at once to facilitate comparison. So when I learned my friend the prolific food writer Sophie Brissaud was to lead a tasting of Sauternes at Spring Boutique last winter, I found myself, for once, genuinely exciting about a Bordeaux tasting.

03 August 2012

a godsend: bacchus et ariane, 75006

Since my impolitic skewering of whopper misnomer wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels last summer, a number of that restaurant group's staff have approached me attempting to explain the bar's name. "Don't you get it?" they've asked me. "Sur-natural wine. Supernatural. It's not saying it is natural wine. It means it's better than natural wine !"

How on earth this is meant to make me appreciate the place any more is beyond me. These people seem to be telling me that instead of making a dupicitous play on words on behalf of the entrenched conservative wine establishment, the owners were making a boorish claim on the behalf of the entrenched conservative wine establishment. Complicating things further, I'm told that La Compagnie Yadda Yadda have in the interim actually added to their wine list a small selection of what are widely recognised as vins naturels. The whole affair is Romneyesque in its backtracking and inventive rationalisation, and frankly I wish I'd never said anything in the first place. (I'd certainly be on better terms with the owners, who are by all accounts good people at heart, and whose first three projects I genuinely appreciate.)

If I'm dredging it up now, it's only by way introducing my very belated discovery, via my friend Meg Zimbeck, editor founder of Paris By Mouth, of Bacchus et Ariane, a cave in the marché Saint Germain, just around the corner from La Compagnie des Vins Conventionels. Unbeknownst to me throughout the whole natural / surnaturel huff and my own extravagant complaints about the surrounding arrondissement, Bacchus et Ariane's proprietor Georges Castellato has for the past 14 years been quietly doing much of what that other bar ostensibly claims to: offering a magnificent, well priced selection of wines, drawn evenly from the ranks of acclaimed greats and itinerant sulfur-free upstarts, in a setting that, on a sunny afternoon in summertime, is among the most pleasant in Paris.

31 July 2012

n.d.p. in barcelona: coure

There are myriad indicators of good hospitality in restaurants: prompt service, thoughtful suggestions, graceful reservation systems, etc. Perhaps the most outright challenging for a restaurant, however, is the time-limited meal, such as what my friend / colleague R and I were obliged to impose on Barcelona gastro-bistrot Coure at the tail end of our Barcelona trip last fall.

This is where the guest shows up, hastily states the name of his reservation, and then explains in the nicest possible terms that he's delighted be here but must leave in under an hour - and can the host or hostess kindly work that out with the waitstaff and kitchen staff? Given the often terse or restricted channels of communication between front-of-house and back-of-house staff in restaurants, this is more challenging than it may initially sound - sort of the triathalon of restaurant communication. I hated having to perform it back in Boston and Los Angeles restaurants, and I hate asking for it myself.

But R and I'd had twenty-four hours in the city without sitting at a table for a meal. We'd worked through the night, we needed lunch, and I'd heard nice things about Coure from my friend Cesar E. Castro Pou from Terroir Santo Domingo (at that time my one Barcelona connection). It seemed worth chancing a last minute sprint, even if it did involve running literally a mile with our suitcases to the restaurant.

26 July 2012

one stop shop: chez plume, 75009

It's embarrassing to admit, but my vegetarian upbringing has left me squeamish about chicken. I grew up surrounded by them - my mother kept a whole henhouse for the eggs - but I remain more or less innocent about how to prepare or cook one, or even ingest one publicly without getting fat and bone fragments all over the tablecloth. What I had growing up instead of chicken dinner was a steady supply of vegetarian literature, replete with horrifying factory farm images, which have conditioned me to treat chicken - famously an innoccous, almost babyfoody meat - as though it were fugu. In other words, it's not something I'll purchase from Franprix, or from any of the innumerable anonymous streetside rotisseries where the carcasses are skewered so tightly as to no longer resemble birds, but rather a row of violated goosefleshy donuts.

So nowadays I'm susceptible to bouts of bird-envy, whenever a host unveils a well-cooked fowl. There's something irreplaceably heartwarming and communal about everyone gathering around a table dismantling the same creature.

One of these days - perhaps when I reside somewhere with an oven - I'll teach myself how to cook birds. Until then, my frequent shortcut solution is Chez Plume, an absolute godsend of a take-out counter-slash-lunch spot that opened last winter on rue des Martyrs. The restaurant specialises in all kinds of fowl - several chickens from the Landes, guinea hens, ducks - all "élevé en liberté," and available roasted by the whole or the half at very reasonable prices. It's possible to reserve birds in advance, a good idea at peak times. And when you arrive to pick up dinner, available also is a well-curated selection of pretty serious mid-range natural wines. It's almost like owner Alexandre Girault overheard some sedentary rue des Martyrs types complaining about the difficulty of accessing ethical meats and natural wines on a daily basis and he decided to make it absurdly easy for everyone.

23 July 2012

n.d.p. in barcelona: l'anima del vi

Not Paris ! Barcelona ! To mitigate the drop in readership that occurs whenever I begin talking about cities other than Paris, I've gotten into the habit of spacing out such posts with Paris coverage. But this has the unfortunate effect of exacerbating what is already a journalistically unfathomable delay between travel experiences and blogging about them...

Anyway, in Barcelona last November on the recommendation of my friend César from Terroir Santo Domingo Imports I visited L'Anima del Vi, Barcelona's only natural wine shop (as far as I know), founded and run since 2006 by Benoît Valée, a Frenchman who hails - if I remember correctly - from the south-west somewhere.

The shop is a pleasantly scrappy space, painted green and red, furnished with cinderblocks and boxes. The ceiling descends over the register area, an unfortunate architectural feature that has the effect of making anyone positioned there seem to be lurking or brooding. Weirdly, when R and I passed by, there was just one other customer, and by enormous coincidence she happened to be another Unspecified International Wine Industry Media Person. I got self-conscious - it felt redundant to ask a round of semi-standard blogger-questions that the person standing next to me had presumably just asked. So R and I just nosed around, got a couple reccommendations, and before we left for lunch I bought a few treasures to lug back for the Native Companion, most notably a zero-sulfur artisanal vermouth by Casa Pardet in the Costers del Segre DO.

18 July 2012

situation vacant : l'office, 75009

I learned relatively recently that a restaurant I often passed in the 10ème arrondissement - a miserably named,* anonymous-looking establishment called L'Office - had been garnering great reviews under the direction of a newly-installed American chef.

Then the other day - after having met said chef, Kevin O'Donnell, through mutual friends, and after having dined once at his restaurant - I learned that O'Donnell is already slated to return back to the states. In Paris one gets used to people passing through; acquaintances often last for the duration of their summer courses or fellowships or internships. This still seems like quick turnover, particularly for a place that appears to have some momentum.

Maybe I have just been in France too long - I've forgotten how fast American careers can move. In any event, I thought I might as well share my impressions of L'Office, before they lose all relevancy. They can be summed up by saying that O'Donnell could perhaps benefit from more time in Paris restaurants, but I totally understand why he might want to escape France pronto. To phrase this less enigmatically: the cuisine at L'Office was a little under-sketched, which is something that can be improved, and one of the servers completely sucked at his job, which is something that, in France, cannot easily be improved.

16 July 2012

pulled up: racines, 75002

My friend L and I hadn't intended to go to Racines for lunch. We'd planned to go to Gyoza Bar, a very contemporary Japanese concept that has opened across from the pioneering natural wine bistrot. But there was a line at the gyoza place, and we were famished, and finally it amounted to a sort of pilgrimage for this natural wine afficionado to dine at Racines, a restaurant that, under the direction of its founder and former owner, serial restaurateur Pierre Jancou, did so much to promote a certain ethos of natural wine in France and abroad. 

Whether Jancou's famously combative, didactic style of hospitality is a salutary accompaniment to natural wine remains open for debate. I have some friends in the wine scene who seem permanently put off natural wine expressly because they associate it with what they consider to be poor hospitality. For what it's worth, I have the impression Jancou has mellowed since his time at Racines; at his present restaurant, the 10ème's Vivant, I've never had anything but stupendous service. If I hadn't visited Racines before this, it's because I was usually dining at Vivant.

I saw no urgent reason to visit what I presumed must be the husk of a great restaurant; to repurpose a Saul Bellow line, it felt like praying to the gods of an extinct volcano. It's part of Jancou's racket that he sells his restaurant's at the peak of their popularity, such that the best a new owner - in this case David Lanher - can hope for is to maintain Jancou's standards. On the basis of our lunch the other day, I can report that Racines still serves superb food and wine. The restaurant itself remains a beautiful, patinated space. What's missing is Jancou, whose standards - like those of any great restaurateur - are not limited to superb food and wine in beautiful spaces.

06 July 2012

summer vacation

For various reasons, updates will be sporadic for the next week or so.

I'll eventually post a few musings on Greek wine, should find I any wine on this island...

27 June 2012

overachievers: youpi & voilà, 75010

Exclamations are ridiculous words. We emit them in surprise or joy or horror with little forethought, and this spontaneity places them in an unmediated realm on the frontiers of thought and language. Things get onomatopeic and we seem to speak in cartoon speech bubbles.

Well, to the non-native listener, exclamations in a foreign language are even sillier. I don't know why on earth an ambitious restaurant in Paris would choose a name like Youpi & Voilà, which translates roughly to "Yippee and there-you-are." Most ambitious restaurants in Paris rely at least partly on Anglophone buckeroos, and you don't want that demographic to react like I initially did, which was to never mention the restaurant by name. (I have instructed friends to escort me to the guillotine if they ever hear me utter "youpi" or "zut" or "hop-la" without irony.)

I probably would have avoided the place entirely, if I hadn't popped by for a Gaillac wine tasting one day and realised that my friend Jean-Philippe Morice, formerly a server at Le Verre Volé, was running the dining room. Which makes sense, in retrospect, since Y&P's Gaillacois chef Patrice Gelbart also put in time with the same purple kingpins of the Canal Saint Martin. What Gelbart and Morice achieve together with the new venture - just a stone's throw from their former workplace, on the impressively obscure rue Viq d'Azir - shows great promise, and could indeed merit an exclamation or two, should they manage to reign in certain overachiever impulses in the kitchen.

25 June 2012

the spirit of brunch: chez casimir, 75010

Brunch in France is sort of a sham. It is as though at some point in history a Frenchman visited America and observed an American diner brunch, but asked no questions about how it worked or why people enjoyed it. He then returned to France and tried to replicate the brunch he'd seen: a huge midday meal with many beverages per diner, including just about every breakfast food imaginable. That must cost Americans a fortune ! this Frenchman thought. I'll charge Parisians accordingly. 

Hence French brunch. One typically pays 25€+ per person for a set formula meal comprising miniscule portions of many different cheap breakfast foods and beverages - a tartine ! fromage blanc ! a thimble of OJ ! espresso ! tea ! fruit salad ! a cup of scrambled eggs ! a ribbon of smoked salmon ! - all of which lame avalanche arrives in fits and starts, according to the whims of the resentful scatterbrained staff member. (There is typically just one.) The notion of a free refill, like a benevolent God, does not exist.

What's missing, crucially, is the spirit of brunch: of bounty, replenishment, carefree consumption at low stakes. To my knowledge there is only one place in Paris where one finds this: Chez Casimir, and even here one finds only the spirit. Everything else about the place is wonderfully unrecognizable.

19 June 2012

a family affair: mon oncle le vigneron, 75019

Most wine geeks learn to take the recommendations of non-aficionados with a cellar full of salt. This is because wine, or rather the idea thereof, is one of those elementally good things to which almost everyone is predisposed to a greater or lesser degree, like art, or music, or breakfast. A wine geek therefore tends to listen to casual drinkers talk wine in the way a contemporary art dealer will hear out a description of a painting someone bought at a yard sale.

This is my excuse, anyway, for why it took me so absurdly long to accompany the Native Companion to one of her favorite restaurants, the wincingly named Belleville table d'hôte Mon Oncle Le Vigneron.

Now it's one of my favorites, too, probably for similar reasons as hers. (Not the wine.)

13 June 2012

n.d.p. à bordeaux: town of puns

My excuse for the recent blog drought: I've been traveling. The Native Companion and I spent twenty-four hours in the town of Bordeaux, and then a weekend at our friends' wedding on the Cap Ferret. I doffed my wine hat and donned my vacationer hat. We visited no wine estates, and with our heaping plates of shellfish we drank nothing more complex than inexpensive "bio" Bordeaux blanc and rosé. It was, of course, glorious.

It was also the first time I'd visited said region, a fact that seems to surprise some people. You're into wine, they say, yet you've never been to Bordeaux ? I try to explain that this is a little like saying to someone who takes an interest in horses: you take an interest in horses, yet you've never been to the Kentucky Derby ? After all, it's where the most money gets spent ! But the Derby is for people who take a certain kind of interest in horses,* and ditto for Bordeaux and wine people.

That said, I'm already itching to return. To visit some wine estates (exploring Graves and Sauternes appeals to me greatly), but also to further explore the city of Bordeaux, which in June was almost eerily charming. The old town near the river reminded me of a supersized rue des Martyrs**, only without that street's self-consciousness and slightly besieged quality. Bordeaux's ancient money seems very at ease with itself. Roller bladers minnow between strollers, joggers, and cyclists on the wide promenades lining the river, a sharp contrast to Paris' pedestrian-free Seine-side traffic snarls. The public toilets clean themselves. And what really struck the NC and me, perhaps even more than the wines we tasted, was the general boldness of the city's puns. In the absence of sufficient free time to process my few wine-related experiences in the city and on Cap Ferret, I thought in the meantime I'd present of few of the more notable howlers below.

06 June 2012

n.d.p. in barcelona: tapas 24

Earlier that evening, the wine director of renowned Barcelona wine fortress Monvínic, Isabelle Brunet, told me something that surprised me, although in retrospect it should have been obvious: Barcelona is a beer town. Brunet said that the average resident of Barcelona consumed just 20 litres of wine per year, but 70 litres of beer. By contrast, in Paris the average resident consumed 90 litres of wine per year. (Statistics for Paris beer consumption were not mentioned, perhaps due to present lack of any real beer culture whatsoever in that city.)

That this surprised me is perhaps very American, and very east coast at that. When one does not come from wine country, one imagines that historical wine-producing nations must exist in a kind of perpetual bacchanal, celebrating the national bounty at all hours in various states of undress. But in Barcelona you have a warm climate and a beach and an astronomically successful football club, the second richest in the world: these things, as sure as hops plus water, are a recipe for beer.

I had my own reasons for downing a few cold ones over the frantic meal R and I had afterwards at  Tapas 24 , chef-restaurateur Carlos Abellan's subterranean tapas bar. I didn't know many producers on the list, and it seemed pointless and sort of cruel to start interrogating the harried chef / servers careening about behind the bar. Also, the list was written in a format that has always irritated me, segregated by neat price bracket, as though one were choosing phone cards. But the real decider, as ever, was the cuisine. Tapas, Spain's national food group, and its most successful export since the Macarena. Every magazine article ever written on Spain, even those pertaining to unrelated subjects such as the economic crisis, will cheerfully explain the origin of the word tapas, how it means 'lid', etc. To the world at large tapas sensibly means one thing, which is hangover cuisine, whether one is recovering-from or heading-straight-for.

29 May 2012

shooting them in a barrel: fish la boissonerie, 75006

Whenever conversation turns to the subject of hospitality in Paris - which is to say, very, very often - I try to remind myself and others that its general absence is something for which we ought to be thankful. It's what makes Paris, perversely, a land of opportunity: almost any business model presently existent in the city can be very simply improved, to the point of crushing all competition, by the addition of what the natives routinely neglect, namely smiles and goodwill. One doesn't even have to be good at something - one can just be nice.

Here any Paris business-owner will scoff, mentally shaking this writer by his lapels, crying, 'Don't you think we've tried?' It's more than one establishment can hope to achieve, to change an entire nation's outlook towards service.

Well, there's a trick. You just don't hire many French people.* 6ème arrondissement bistrot / expat hub Fish La Boissonerie sort of pioneered this strategy, and if, thirteen years on, the restaurant's cuisine and its wine list both show their age, great hospitality, thankfully, remains timeless.

25 May 2012

world domination: l'épicerie du verre volé, 75011

When I mentioned to a friend that cave-à-manger pioneers Le Verre Volé were to open an épicerie beside their well-established wine shop location on rue Oberkampf, his initial reaction was, 'Geez, they're taking over the world.'

Then we reflected and realised, no, that wasn't the case at all. Given the high visibility and worldwide renown of their perpetually-thronged cave-à-manger by the Canal Saint Martin, it's actually astonishing that owner Cyril Bordarier hasn't done more with the brand in ten plus years. Total expansion, as far as I know, has until now amounted to the aforementioned wine shop, and a renovation of their dining room in 2010. On the one occasion I tried to purchase several cases of wine from the canal-side location for a nearby shop opening, there wasn't enough of anything in stock* and I had to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, any regular clients of the Oberkampf location will know already that its patron, the other Cyril, a good guy once you get to know him, possesses all the salesmanship and commercial ambition of a hedgehog.

Naturally, all this is incomprehensible to the impatient, money-hungry American in me. Were I the one who'd built up such an iconic purple wine concept, there would be a US and UK import business and a theme park ride by now. On the other hand, that's why Le Verre Volé remains cool: they haven't, as yet, shilled much swill, and their sprezzatura - the art of hospitality without seeming to expend effort - is, for a technical reason, faultless. With their new venture, which officially opens its doors tomorrow, Le Verre Volé is, thankfully, quite unlikely to unsettle its sterling reputation: it is an épicerie, selling cheeses, meats, and other artisanal foodstuffs, along with sandwiches.

23 May 2012

n.d.p. in barcelona: monvínic

This past fall my friend / colleague R and I were sent to Barcelona to install a display in a department store. I was delighted to at last get the opportunity to travel for work – until it dawned on us that, due to insufficiently devious planning on our part, we would be staying in the city only 24 hours, and the nature of our task obliged us to work through the night, denying us even a single night out to explore the city, drink heavily, pee in the streets, wear funny hats, solicit hookers, etc.

There was nothing for it but to reflect, ruefully, that this is why it’s called work travel.

Nonetheless, after arrival and check-in at our hotel we had a solid six hours to kill before installation of our company’s stand could begin, and I was hell-bent on packing in as much questing semi-informed wine tourism as possible. Our first stop was to Monvínic, a place my friend Cesar Pou of Terroirs Santo Domingo Imports had described to me as Barcelona’s premier wine bar, the ground zero for wine geeks in the city. Aware of my tastes, he had warned me it was a little futuristic – a disclaimer that, in the case of Monvínic, is like saying the Vatican is religious-affiliated.

21 May 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: françois bertheau, chambolle-musigny

One uses metaphorical language to describe wine because our language is under-equipped with literal terms to describe taste and smell. Whatever scent molecules produce the smell of violets surely have a technical name, but it would be vastly less informative to employ it in describing the nose of a glass of wine. Metaphor, in winespeak, is a form of shorthand. 

Unfortunately, in most other genres, metaphor is a form of indulgence. (C.f. any Tom Friedman column.) It's why reading reams of tasting notes is so tiring. To process metaphor-heavy winespeak in the first place requires a mental adjustment, even for someone who employs such language often. And the impact is diluted the more one reads it. I sometimes fancy that in a perfect world, writers would be penalized for applying such descriptions as, 'An explosion of glimmering blueberry fruit laced with woodsmoke and bacon' to anything found at, say, Tesco's. 

In such a world, where hyperbole were reserved for special occasions, it would be a lot simpler to do descriptive justice to rightly famous mouth-watering appellations like Chambolle-Musigny, and in particular - simply because they're the ones I've tasted most recently - the wines of Domaine François Bertheau, which estate was the last stop of our whirlwind Burgundy road trip last fall.

16 May 2012

fish out of water: albion, 75010

On whom can we blame the undying, slightly questionable fad for Brit nostalgia ? Pete DohertyThe Kinks? More recently, perhaps my friends at Le Bal Café?

The fleet of establishments launched this past decade plus that nominally hark back to some hazy olde England ideal is staggering, and perhaps it is a sign the trend is nearly dead in the water that even the French - historically somewhat resistant to Brit nostalgia - are leaping aboard. Albion (another one!) is a genteel cave-à-manger opened near Métro Poissonière last year by two longtime Paris expats, Haydon Clout and Matt Ong, who'd previously tended bar and cheffed, respectively, at 6ème natural wine standby Fish. Albion, which serves mediteranean food alongside French wines, has been more or less thronged since opening, and not just by expats.

The irony, of course, is that for better or for worse the only remotely British elements of the restaurant are the ownership (just Ong), the warm(er) service, and the relative spaciousness of the place. Sticklers will point to the odd Elizabethan dessert recipe, and the presence of a British cheese on the cheese plate. But I suspect the success of the Albion the restaurant is due much less to effective branding (it's not) than to how Clout and Ong are cleverly offering 6ème restaurateurism - with its conservatism, and its relative professionalism - to a heretofore underserved market of 10ème gentrification.

14 May 2012

for those who failed to reserve: les deux maisons, saumur

It's axiomatic that French wine towns contain great bistros. Less of a given, though, is how many great bistros. It often happens that a wine town receives major tourist traffic only at sporadic moments throughout the calendar, with the result that the local economy sustains just one great bistro, and that is precisely where every traveling importer, sommelier, caviste, etc. wants to be at those sporadic moments.

This is how our friend J2 managed to sort of shanghai us in Saumur* this past January during the period of Too Many Wine Fairs (La Dive Bouteille, La Renaissance des Appellations, Le Salon Les Pénitants, to name just the three I attended this year). He had assured the whole gang that, like the year before, he would call weeks in advance to reserve an enormous table at Bistrot de La Place. Then it must have slipped his mind.

So we wound up at what I imagine must fast be becoming a semi-renowned consolation restaurant for traveling wine geeks: Les Deux Maisons, a cartoonishly ugly place in the corporate-provincial style, inauspiciously situated in the parking lot of an E. Leclerc supermarket - in sum, a restaurant where one would certainly never dare to set foot, were one not aware beforehand that since 2005 its been owned by Daniel Haudebault, proprietor of Bistrot de la Place.

09 May 2012

other factors: le vin de julien, 75009

The Native Companion moved into a new apartment recently in a different part of town. On the one hand this will mean an awkward trafficky Velib ride whenever we wish to see each other. But on the other hand it's a joyous occasion, because she's no longer living across the hall from a clingy overly-familiar drunk woman, and because now we (me and the NC, not the clingy drunk) get to explore a whole other part of town together.

The other afternoon we were walking down one of the streets in her new neighborhood and, as is my wont, I peered quickly inside a more or less pokey-looking cave called Le Vin de Julien to see what was what. We were hurrying to a brocante before the NC had to work that evening, and so were a bit unprepared for what followed, which was an amusingly opinionated rapid-fire tasting session in the company of the eponymous cave's proprietor, Julien Arnaud, and a fellow who turned out to be the writer of a European dining guide, Roger Feuilly.

07 May 2012

save japan: hirotake ooka at caves augé, 75008

I got a kick out of Japanese Rhône winemaker Hirotake Ooka's apron the other day at Caves Augé's Rhône tasting. What on earth can these two things have in common? Actually, I'm told Japan has a pretty thriving and enthusiastic* natural wine scene (as excellently reported here by the far-roaming and indispensable Bertrand Celce). Unfortunately, despite being half-Japanese and working for a Japanese company, I haven't been to said nation since my first and only voyage there at age eleven. I wasn't into natural wine then. 

It doesn't help that I didn't then and do not now speak Japanese. As I tasted through Ooka's wines that day we conversed in French, and the irrelevant coincidence of both being Japanese natural wine afficionados went unmentioned and probably unnoticed on his end, since physionomically I take after my Jewish mother. 

Of Ooka's wines that I've tasted, I'm most impressed by his sparkling Saint Peray. Over dinner at Vivant recently, and again at the Augé tasting, the 2006 was delicate, white-floral, and expressive, a fine example of what makes the Saint Peray appellation such an appealing corner of the sparkling wine world. 

02 May 2012

hark! : aux anges, 75011

I agree to attend blind tastings for various reasons, none involving having any aptitude at blind tasting. I'm actually sort of the Mr. Magoo of blind tastings, doddering along making vague assumptions despite several major educational potholes in my path. Bordeaux, older Burgundy, most serious Rhône stuff... Whether or not I manage to identify the wines under discussion, the discussion itself is always illuminating, because it offers an opportunity to compare one another's tasting habits. 

The very informal tastings my friend A has been organising lately also present fine occasions to sit around talking shop with fellow wine dudes, a pastime that I find has become more enjoyable since I stopped working in wine. The first of these tastings was held at a cave that was new to me then, but which has fast become a favorite: Aux Anges, by Faidherbe-Chaligny on the 11ème / 12ème divide. 

Like any good wine shop, Aux Anges is something more than one. There's a broad, well-chosen selection, invitingly priced, balanced between capital-N natural winemakers and those who practice some degree of lutte raisonée. Plates of charcuterie and cheese are available at apéro hours. And the tables inside are complemented by three small ones outside on rue Faidherbe, making Aux Anges a wonderful terrace hideaway for early spring evenings.  

25 April 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: yann durieux / recru des sens, villers-la-faye

When vignerons ask me about my blog, I tend to become Mitt Romney. "It's a blog about ... wine in Paris," I'll affirm, and the descriptor that goes in the elipsis depends entirely on my audience.

People are touchy about it. Since pretty much every vigneron considers what they are in the habit of doing to be 'natural,' I find that many choose to take the term as referring not to wine itself, but rather to vignerons who seem to attract a lot of attention using the term. This is paradoxically sort of anathema to the intent of the appellation system;* nor is it helpful that "natural wine," like any brand, invariably gets associated with its most visible or colourful proponents, who can themselves be anathema to more conservative personality types.

Anyway, I felt welcome enough hanging around with the Burguet brothers in Gevrey-Chambertin, Eric and Jean-Luc, to express my particular interest in low-sulfur, minimal-intervention wines, and Eric suggested my friend J and I go see a friend and former roommate called Yann Durieux, who had just begun making wine in the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits. Eric being the scrupulous Oscar of the Burguet Odd Couple winemaking team, he would only tell us that Durieux's wines were "très speciale," which I took to mean he thought Durieux was bonkers.

23 April 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: le montrachet, puligny-montrachet

The guiding principle of the Bro-gundy road trip my caviste friend J and I took last fall was thrift. It's like this with most of the trips we take together, because I'm congenitally broke, and he's tactful, and neither of us are very fussy about accommodation. We usually sleep on floors. The point, after all, is the wine: learning about the wine and where it's made and about the people who make it. 

But J and I also share an inclination towards targeted profligacy, particularly at those moments when splashing out will tick-off some cultural landmark or other. Internally I categorize these times, which occur with alarming frequency in certain regions, as a sort of sociological expenditure. 

This is how I rationalised doing a bro-lunch with J at Le Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet's famous formerly-Michelin-starred restaurant-hotel, a staidly ritzy place that would otherwise seem better suited to couples renewing their wedding vows. 

16 April 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: domaine guy roulot, meursault

Years ago, at a fine-dining Italian restaurant where we both worked, I happened to ask a sommelier friend how he'd typify Meursault. At this restaurant on the wine team we spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about all the French wine we didn't interact with. My friend replied that among white Burgundies Meursault was known for being pretty generous, buttery, appley, sometimes lightly mealy...

The description has held up fairly well. But it's funny how loosely it applies some of the most acclaimed stuff. Case in point was a visit my friend J and I made recently to legendary Meursault estate Domaine Guy Roulot, whose wines are perhaps so celebrated for how they tend to transcend the hallmarks of the appellation.

12 April 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: vincent dancer, chassagne-montrachet

It was pretty early in the AM when J and I arrived at the cellars of Côte d'Or rising-star Vincent Dancer. I had been up late drinking Corsican rosé the previous night with our friend / host C. A directionless mist of rain was falling or drifting through the air. I found myself recalling, as we pulled into Dancer's driveway, an early blog post where I'd accompanied a rave about one of his wines with a Youtube clip of Elton John singing "Tiny Dancer," and subsequently been questioned about my sexuality by some anonymous commentator.

We exited the car and waved. J was probably thinking 'How can I get this guy to sell me more wine?' I was thinking, 'I wonder if this guy thinks I'm gay?'*

I decided the odds were fairly slim Dancer had seen that post. It would take too much effort to explain. I just followed him and J down into his cellar and we all tasted a great deal of his glowy, precise wines while his cheery dog, barred from the cellar, watched us from the top of the steps.

10 April 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: françois mikulski, meursault

J and I had one last appointment at the end of day two in Burgundy, at the tasting rooms of Meursault star François Mikulski, where we were also to meet J's old high school friend C, who now works for Kermit Lynch in Beaune. Night had already fallen. I remember not knowing whose silhouette was greeting us, when J and I parked in Mikulski's lot beside the RN74, and it not becoming clear until some minutes later when we bumbled into the brightly lit shipping area and encountered a few smiling couples.

There was a German couple, longtime customers of Mikulski's, and a French couple, who were neighbors in Meursault. Then there was C and his wife L, and a young American student of hers. It was shaping up to be a crowded  visit. My expectations weren't stratospheric.

But soon the French couple unveiled some delicious home-baked cheese loaf they had brought (what the hell was it called?), and it turned out C and L had just returned from Corsica bearing numerous dark reptilian-looking charcuterie crusted with herbs, which they installed on a central barrel-top. I could ascribe it to some magic inherent in Mikulski's wines, which can be magical enough, but the buoyant atmosphere that prevailed throughout the hour-plus tasting seemed rather the result of just a dice-roll of nice guests. (Then again, good hosts always make one feel that way.)

30 March 2012

n.d.p. in burgundy: domaine comte senard, aloxe-corton

My friend / invaluable guide J and I had a question mark on our tasting schedule after leaving Domaine Alain Burguet in Gevrey. We'd been thinking to go taste with Sarnin and / or Berrux of the excellent natural Burgundy négociant operation Sarnin-Berrux. But the way things shook out it seemed simpler and more timely to pass by the tasting rooms of Domaine Comte Senard in Aloxe-Corton, not because the acclaimed, somewhat pricey wines were to be any great discovery (for J, at least), but because the night before we'd gotten pleasantly soused in Beaune with a sharp young sommelier called E, who helps run Domaine Comte Senard's restaurant and tasting rooms.

As ever, it makes a world of difference when you know the person showing you around a domaine. You see more, you taste more, you don't run the risk of being treated like a tourist and charged 10€ for three glasses of current-release stuff poured by a bored local teenager. E showed us around the historied, fairy-tale-ish estate, run since 1971 by Count Philippe Senard, and then let us taste through a nice rambling range of vintages and wines, including the estate's most peculiar bottling, a Aloxe-Corton blanc made from Pinot Beurot, a.k.a. Pinot Gris.