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.