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.)

The NC had been been proposing we dine at Mon Oncle Le Vigneron for a full year. What stopped me?

Mainly the "uncle" thing. It's a big strike against your unconventional, out-of-the-way wine restaurant if its very name seems like part of the lexicon used by people defending crap wine. "My uncle made it, you'll love it." My fears of wine nepotism were not allayed until, having sat down and perused the evening's set menu and ordered almost at random from the obscure and worryingly inexpensive wine list, we tasted what owner Pascal Fleischmann served us.

His uncle's wine was actually quite good. Another surprise was that it wasn't French, but rather German, from Bad Dürkheim. This would have been less surprising had the list not been so written as to inadvertently (?) disguise the fact, with even the name of the domaine, Weingut Karl Schaefer, being elided by the phrase "domaine familial." The French orthography of Palatinat had led to me absentmindedly assume we'd be served something from some Alsace border town.

The 2009 Riesling "Spielberg" was lean, mineral, with trim notes of white peach and scallion.

Later in the meal we tried the estate's sparkling Riesling from same year, inexplicably called "Secco," as in the Italian for "dry." It too was terrific, like a pristine lacy clementine segment.

The list contained just a few names I recognised, notably some well-priced '90's vintages of Mas de Daumas Gassac's blanc, and a slightly too-old bottle of one of Domaine de la Grange Aux Belles entry-level red cuvées. The presence of the latter prompted me to ask about Fleischmann's views on natural wine, which turned out to be something of a forseeable mistake.

Everything else about the meal - from the funny table d'hôte format* to the dirt-cheap wines to the heavy "family vigneron" angle - indicated a distantly outmoded style of restaurant service that presumes near-zero diner sophistication. Fleischmann, having updated no other component of his restaurant to account for changing trends, was somewhat unlikely to have gone whole-hog for the natural thing, and indeed he launched into an uncharacteristically bitter and derisive tirade about how his uncle's wines are a thousand times more "natural" than all the wines marketed as such these days. He even went so far as to admit that the Grange Aux Belles bottle I saw was simply on the list as a gesture, and one he wasn't particularly proud of, whereas all the other bottles derived from vignerons with whom he was close friends, ones whose methods he personally had witnessed on numerous occasions.

I let the matter drop. Even now it seems cold-hearted and unnecessary to take Mon Oncle to task for this. Who cares if the list, outside of Fleischmann's domaine familial and the other bottles I mentioned, is composed mostly of unknown, over-aged bottles of inexpensive Corbières and other such marginalia, some of which we tried and confirmed were sort of bad? The best of those we tried was a spry purple-fruited cuvée Pascale and his Japanese wife (the chef) help make with a winemaker friend in Corbières each year, called "Les Pensées du Pascal."

But the meal these wines accompanied simply overflowed with genuine goofy good-guy charm, a quality otherwise completely extinct in Paris. This is one of the few Paris restaurants where you can lean over to your dining companion and exclaiming, "What a cute little place!" with total justification. The owners of Mon Oncle Le Vigneron are not really hamming it up for tourists. They're just being their weird selves.

Fresh goat cheese with paprika and olive oil was a lovely communal starter. Then, lest the two vegetarians among us get too comfortable, a place of cured meats arrived accompanied by a photo of the breed of pigs used in them.

Somewhat more offensive to said vegetarians were the plates of laughably bad pasta they were served in lieu of the superb duck confit the rest of us had.

Several of us suspected the pasta itself might have come from one of those supermarkets specialising in frozen goods. The table d'hôte format is often described as being just like dining at the house of friend; in the case of Mon Oncle Le Vigneron, the friend just hasn't got much sympathy for vegetarians. (I can sympathise with this. A vegetarian who walks into a good French restaurant is like someone who enters the Louvre refusing to view representational art. Meat is the history.)

And, as at the house of a friend, a good rule of thumb for Mon Oncle Le Vigneron is just to go along with whatever the host suggests. This because the host is not prepared for anything else.

After a cheese course, dessert was offered, and against Fleischmann's explicitly clear recommendation several of us chose the crême de chataigne - I had been thinking in particular of a heavenly one I'd had late last year at my unfriendly neighborhood dickhead wine bar, Aux Deux Amis.

Unfortunately the one on offer at Mon Oncle was seemingly of the tinned variety. It was the colour of shoe polish and the texture of spackle and none of us managed more than a few bites.

I see from other write-ups of the restaurant that Flesichmann and his wife have been serving the same dish for several years. I guess it's possible that the dish has declined from a former glory, or edibility. But it seems more likely that it's just something they never saw a need to work on further on, like the wine list. In a more pretentious environment - in an environment with any pretense whatsoever - I'd start lambasting the patrons for complacency. But a four-course meal at Mon Oncle Le Vigneron including six or so dishes runs less than 30€, before the also-inexpensive wine. Going over to this friend's house costs not much more than fixing a similar meal at home, and is no less homey. The owners are genuinely delighted to be able to share a certain personal vision of small-scale food and wine - a vision that charms all the more for the idiosyncrasy it has accrued over the years.

A 1940's (?) photo Pascal showed us, depicting the space that is now Mon Oncle Le Vigneron. 

Pascal as a young man, having just opened Mon Oncle Le Vigneron

* Most online reviews of Mon Oncle Le Vigneron seem to take as their starting premise that the restaurant is a typical cave-à-manger, a complete misunderstanding. Mon Oncle Le Vigneron, a table d'hôte, is about as typical to contemporary Paris dining as a cauldron. In no way should it be confused for representing a trend.

Mon Oncle Le Vigneron
71 Rue Rebeval
75019 Paris
Metro: Pyrenées
Tel: 01 42 00 43 30

Related Links:

Man crawls out from decade under rock in 2011, "discovers" the cave-à-manger phenomenon of Mon Oncle Le Vigneron @ HiPParis
An account of a 2010 meal at Mon Oncle Le Vigneron @ PandaàParis
An account of a 2008 meal at Mon Oncle Le Vigneron @ TableàDécouvert
A 2004 write-up of Mon Oncle Le Vigneron @ LeParisien


  1. Aaron, although I am decidedly not a wine geek (I just like to drink good wine and eat good food) and probably way over your preferred demographic (in my, ahem, early 50s), I do love your blog and your very witty, very dry, very cool (ah, showing my age now) way with words.

    This one goes on "the list" as a place where an aging, omnivorous hippie might feel comfortable and happy.

    Jo (also loved the Veep reference in the Chez Casimir review)

  2. it's okay, jo, we still say cool all the time. thanks for reading!