Septime le resto, its relative informality notwithstanding, is a destination restaurant. One needs to plan ahead - not to mention budget, both time and money - to enter its almost-too-well-appointed walls and enjoy chef-owner Bertrand Grébaut's acclaimed market menu, which at dinner is offered only as a 55€ (before wine) "carte blanche" meal of at least five courses. One can't resent any of this: these are the hassles that attend high demand, and they're to be expected at any restaurant whose excellence is a match for its ambition.
But the resplendent success of Septime makes all the more laudable that Grébaut's new project, a wine bar-slash-wine shop catty-corner to the restaurant, is basically a shanty stocked with wine and some meat. It is heroically under-conceived. If Septime is the mothership, exerting a gravitational pull on diners citywide, Septime Cave is the dinghy : a little escape pod for tasteful rue de Charonne locals seeking a random weeknight tipple.
The contrast is arranged in such a way as to reflect well on both establishments. It's a graceful gesture when a restaurant offers a drastically simplified version of its main attraction that can be sampled with neither fuss nor reservation. A similar dynamic prevails at legendary London offal-house St. John Restaurant, where in the hallway adjacent to the pristine white dining room there's a small stand where one can purchase granola, or enjoy a glass of Madeira and an Eccles cake.* Given that the St. John empire might as well be the ur-text for savvy restaurant branding, Grébaut is probably onto something here, whatever the actual financial rewards of the new space prove to be.
He's certainly not gouging the clientele. Wine glasses run from 3€-5€. Prices for the slim menu of simple share plates - cheese and charcuterie, along with minor compositions like ricotta and anchovy - don't exceed the early -teens.
Corkage for the modest selection of bottles is the standard 7€.
Like the restaurant, Septime Cave serves natural wine pretty much exclusively. (As if to make this abundantly clear, the bar display is presently composed of empty wine bottles bearing Jamaican-themed labels by La Sorga, the defiantly funky project of long-haired itinerant natural winemaker Anthony Tortul.)
On the night we visited, my friends and I shared a strikingly lovely bottle of 2010 Chignin "Le Jaja" by Savoie winemaker Gilles Berlioz, who cultivates 3.5ha of mostly biodynamic vines around the village of Chignin.
When purchasing Chignin, or anything made from the Jacquère grape, I tend to prefer the freshest vintage, the better to enjoy the variety's thrill-ride acid. But Berlioz's 2010 "Jaja" will probably change my habits. At just one year removed from current vintage, the acidic jolt remained, but in a supporting role to gossamer-soft, almost holographically-precise notes of nectarine, biscuit, and white flower. The refinement was stunning, especially from a grape variety that has otherwise yet to live down the faint praise of wine writer Andrew Jeffords, who once described it as "the Muscadet of the Alps."
In this regard, Berlioz's 2010 "Jaja" reminded me of Mariel Hemingway's character Tracy in Woody Allen's Manhattan: in the film she's meant to be seventeen, and for much of the film Allen's character (not to mention the viewer) transparently regards her as a superficial fling. Then towards the end she utters the films most urgent truth ("You have to have a little faith in people.") and we're embarrassed to realise she's a real, changeable, three-dimensional woman, despite her age and situation.
* Last I checked, at least. Most of my impressions of London are years out of date. To wit: just after New Year's this year I revisited St. John Bread & Wine, a restaurant I once adored, and found it in a state of sad decline, with an ossified, overpriced wine list, absentminded service, inconsistent cuisine, and, seemingly, a fruit fly situation.
3, rue Basfroi
A heartfelt note on Septime by Alexander Lobrano @ NYTimes
Praise for Septime @ DavidLebovitz
A charming and digressive piece on the wines of Gilles Berlioz @ LeDomduVin
Some notes on Gilles Berlioz's wines @ IdealWine