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.

I know from his conversation and his press releases* that one of Jancou's favorite phrases is "sans chichi." The latter word means same as in English and the phrase indicates an absence of overt luxury. I'm not sure any of Jancou's restaurants have ever been twice-a-week places to most Parisians, and this is due as much to price point as to demand. And indeed they've all been beautiful spaces. But what Jancou's restaurants evince, and what he has been seemingly unable to impart to their subsequent buyers (or, for that matter, to his dunderheaded former employees at Saturne) is the understanding that a sense of luxury in aesthetic restaurateurism is something to be tolerated, not actively encouraged.

The moment something feels like a luxury - the moment we feel we have been encouraged to view something as a luxury - the earth escapes the wine and the flavor flees the meat. We taste money. It is the antithesis of actual appreciation of the products on offer and how they've been presented. 

I mention this apropos of Racines because the restaurant's present owners opened up a second location on rue de l'Arbre Sec earlier this year, and spent a fortune getting the interior designed by the unabashed King of Wank, Philippe Starck. Forget that Stark's touch on a project has all the actual luxury caché of, say, a plastic throne; the intent was there. And its in light of this intent that one can let one's jaw fall the floor upon viewing the prices of the lunch menu at the (mercifully unrefurbished) original Racines location.

I gather it's the same as the dinner menu. Still a wee bit high then, but a real gouge at lunch, given that at numerous other aesthetically-minded bistrots throughout the city one can have several courses for the price of an appetizer at Racines. (Really: go have lunch at Au Passage or Bistrot Paul Bert.) 

L and I shared a few things. She keeps vaguely kosher and therefore we were happy to see jambon de boeuf on the menu. (Ham of beef ! It's a funny construction in French. I'd always thought the word jambon necessarily implied pig, but no.) But among what we ordered it proved to be the lone disappointment, wan and dry.

An appetizer of beets and bonito dressed in honey and sesame was much more successful, with the latter component adding as much in texture as it did in flavor.

A millefeuille of torteaux was also splendid, if a bit wispy and inconsequential. Have you ever hunted tiny étrilles or torteaux, overturning rocks only to have the things scamper away sideways out of net-reach half the time, so that you arrive home with only enough shellfish for a thin broth and the gesture of eating, without the nourishment? It was a little like that. It also prompted a small discussion of how generous the French are with the term millefeuille. This was like a troisfeuille, or crab with some crisps lodged in.

Equally open-ended was the name of the croustillant de canette we shared as a main course - something we'd only ordered because we'd spied it on another table and thought it looked filling. Otherwise we'd have only known it was something crusty involving duck. What arrived was a depth-charge of flavourful wintry duckness strong enough to make us forget that it was actually summer, and lunchtime, and beneath the glass ceilings of the passage outside the temperature was baking. The duck and its crust were gone in a second.

It being lunchtime, and a workday, and there being no vibe to speak of whatsoever in the restaurant (we were one of three tables at peak hour), I had almost no desire to do any drinking. But for sake of completion I ordered a glass of Hirotake Ooka's 2008 Saint Peray, a lightly petillant Marsanne / Rousanne charmer I've raved about in other vintages.

Oddly, the 2008 was markedly less sparkling than the 2006 I recently tasted; in it was more the suggestion of sparkle, around a plump gauzy white fruit honey floral thing. 

Still very enjoyable, and even moreso when I realised Racines were selling it for 13€ / btl to go. For comparison, the 2006 of same wine was something like 26€ at Caves Augé recently. The price difference is huge enough for me to wonder whether something went wrong in 2008 chez Ooka (I haven't heard of anything) or whether Racines, via relationships probably enduring from the Jancou era, is simply getting sweetheart wholesale pricing on certain wines.

Who knows? What's certain is they could sell much more of the stunning wines on offer if they had someone with any charm working the floor. I haven't yet mentioned the service at Racines because it didn't really warrant mentioning; it was barely there. It was lunchtime, unbusy, there was one unhurried server who nevertheless paid not a whit more attention to any table than he had to. It was an unintentional argument in favor of those futuristic restaurant concepts one hears about from time to time that take orders via computer screen.

We didn't linger, and left more or less happy. I can confirm that Racines still serves excellent food and wine, with some unfortunate tradeoff in pricing and hospitality. It's not enough - for me to return, or recommend the place. But given the circumstances, what more did I expect?

* Not always easy to tell the two apart, it's true. 

8 passsage des Panoramas
75002 PARIS
Métro: Richelieu-Drouot or Grands Boulevards
Tel: 01 40 13 06 41

A very comprehensive 2011 piece on Racines, also quite critical of the pricing @ Chrisoscope
A 2011 note on the hiring of chef Renaud Marcille at Racines @ FoodIntelligence
A 2010 note on the change of ownership and chef at Racines @ FoodIntelligence
A heartfelt 2009 tribute to Jancou's time at Racines @ MegZimbeck

A terrific 2011 visit to Hirotake Ooka @ WineTerroirs

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