29 April 2013

despite the name: la pointe du groin, 75010

I might as well start off by explaining that La Pointe du Groin is an alternate spelling for La Pointe du Grouin, a rocky outcropping on the bay of Mont Saint Michel in Brittany. It's also where renowned chef-restaurateur Thierry Breton hails from. Breton, like many of his countrymen, enjoys a good meaningless pun. For his multifarious, rather groundbreaking new wine bar project, Breton has chosen the emblem of a grinning pig - for in French, groin means the snout, and not some other part of pig anatomy.

One may nonetheless presume that the English signification is not entirely lost on Breton. The bar's name is just one of several baffling features of the project, which include, but are not limited to, outlandishly bad décor and an incomprehensible payment scheme in which guests will be expected to exchange their euros for fake money - Groin coins ? - accepted only at La Pointe du Groin.

Despite these obstacles, La Pointe du Groin is primed for succcess. It's spacious, rangey, and weird, offering magnums of natural wine and simple small plates at a price-quality ratio approaching the one achieved when Manhattan was bought for beads. It's a Paris wine bar that explodes the traditional Parisian opposition between egalité and haute-qualité: a place where many can drink well for very little.

Entering La Pointe du Groin (titter away, by all means) is a transportative experience. Specifically, when I visited the other night with a gang of friends, I felt transported to any number of towns in northern Italy, where echoing wine-canteens with communal tables and serious bottles are seemingly almost the norm. The inexplicable design elements at La Point de Groin - a red telephone, a ludicrous graf mural of a bread oven - only heighten the similarity.

On the night we visited, staff was limited to Thierry Breton himself, bumbling around genially behind the bar, and a Japanese cook. There were about two or three other parties, other than our own expanding mob, and whenever a kitchen order was placed, Breton would join his helper in the rear of the kitchen, promptly forgetting whatever wine ordered had been placed with said kitchen order. It's still soft-opening stages for La Point de Groin; rather than read too much into the service I simply volunteered to go fetch the wine myself.

Breton had explained that eventually all wine service will be from magnum.* But for now we had free run of the (superb) wine lists of his two adjacent restaurants, Chez Michel and Chez Casimir. So I spent the evening shuttling back and forth between Chez Michel and our communal table at La Pointe du Groin, where we opened bottles ourselves as we went along.

Breton's pricing on Jura maestro Pierre Overnoy's wines - even a few back vintages - is so kind that it seems almost cruelly obvious to plunder them on a visit to the restaurants. But plunder them we did, promising ourselves to branch out further afield on a subsequent visit. The jewel of the evening was, for me, one particularly energetic bottle of Overnoy's 2008 Arbois Poulsard, a wine whose shimmering brick-garnet colour seemed to twist light into knots around it. Keen long flavours of sour cherry, rose, and aniseed shot across the palate with the precision of high-level badminton.

Meanwhile, I was the only professed fan of a dubiously cheap bottle of 1999 Philipe Bornard Ploussard "La Chamade." How would such a feather-light grape age over 14 years, we wondered? Especially when bottled by Bornard, a vigneron whose popularity among vignerons and sommeliers I know might best be described as unblemished by the wild inconsistency of his wines?

I've had bottles of his that taste like heaven and I've had others that taste like spit. I found the '99 "Chamade" to be holding up astonishingly well, all things considered. Tannins and acid were in order; flavours were fruit-leathery, ruminative, Pinot-like. But everything was complicated by that unplaceable paranoiac note of cellar funk one often gets from old wines of uncertain provenance.**

Plates are all tiny and shareable at La Pointe du Groin. The eponymous dish - the snout of the pig - came breaded and sliced on a hank of arugula, with a vaguely fecal-looking green tapenade. It tasted better than it looked, and the groin itself was succulent and mouth-coating.

Less successful were some underseasoned little pots of oxtail and whipped potato, the sort of thing one is only thankful for if one arrives already drunk. Or, as is presently the case at La Pointe du Groin, they cost 4€. Prices are almost laughably good. Tuna loin on a bed of shaved fennel? 4€. Lamb with lentils? 4€.

A glass of acceptable Sauvignon, while you wait for friends to join you ? 2€.

We had six desserts - kumquat tart, apple tart, and kouign-amann - for 18€ total.

The kouign-amann in particular was pillowy and fresh, an appropriate home-run for a Brittany-born chef-baker like Breton. Baking is a central feature of La Pointe du Groin, which Breton also uses as a hub for his bike-delivery bread wholesale operation. Take a wrong turn on the way to the toilet, and you'll find yourself in a brightly lit underground oven-room, hungrily inhaling the perfumes.

Later in the evening none other than Yves Camdeborde of Le Comptoir du Relais / L'Avant Comptoir dropped by to check out Breton's new kitchen.

As Breton began explaining the coin machine feature to Camdeborde, I returned to the bar to listen in, unsure that I'd truly grasped what still seemed a very silly idea.

This is how I wound up explaining the topical concept of "bitcoins" to both chefs, although by the end of the discussion I don't think any of us were closer to understanding what bitcoins are, why they exist, or why on earth Breton should feel it necessary to create his own currency.*** My friend C astutely pointed out that this had been done before at a certain restaurant chain in America, with mixed critical reaction.

My friend M also foresaw a change in atmosphere, once La Pointe du Groin's soft-opening gets hard. "It'll never be this good again," she opined at the end of the meal.

And it's true: magnum wine service will almost certainly mean a more limited, cheaper wine selection. The place is built for crowds; whether the right one will arrive is by no means assured, this close to Gare du Nord. Most chefs of Breton's stature decline to offer their services at La Point du Groin's price point specifically to keep out a kind of leery cheapo element who tend to linger in Paris' inexpensive public spaces.

But save your groin coins. No amount of bad ideas will stop a good idea whose time has come.

* All-mag service is sort of the great windmill-chase of quixotic restaurateurs around the world. Everyone loves magnums. They look lavish enough that just the sight of them causes mouths to water and wallets to unfold. Keeping wine fresh while serving exclusively from bottles of that size requires a restaurant move serious units, however. I have more confidence in Breton achieving this goal than, say, the well-intentioned bunglers behind 11ème rotisserie Jeanne A

** It's almost like the trust has to be there for the palate even to perceive things correctly - an idea I won't dwell on, since it slightly undermines the whole project of wine criticism. 

*** The only plausible reason I can think of is maybe it's a complex tax workaround. Any thoughts?

La Pointe du Groin
8, rue de Belzunce
75010 PARIS
Métro: Gare du Nord
Tel: None

Related Links:

Paris' greatest brunch, at Chez Casimir
Thoughts on a less-successful magnum-only wine program: Jeanne A, 75011

A December 2012 preview of La Pointe du Groin, by the ever-informed Wendy Lyn at ParisKitchen.
Basically just a list of La Pointe du Groin's menu items at LeFooding.

Some astute tasting notes of Bornard's wines at WineMule.
Notes on the 2006 "La Chamade" at GrapesandGrainsNYC


  1. What's the problem with Gare du Nord? I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

  2. I have no problem with the train station itself. I'm referring to the surrounding neighborhood, which, like many neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity of major train stations, can be a bit sketchy.

  3. Yeah, I got that you were talking about the neighborhood, not the station. To my point of view it's cool that people open places like that in "sketchy" neighborhoods (although my definition of sketchy is a wee bit different than yours apparently) and not only in hipsterland. By the way that's the 3rd restaurant he opened there so far so I guess it's not as unsafe as you think it is.

  4. i am wholeheartedly in agreement with you, anonymous ! trust me. and i'm aware that breton has two other places on the same block. i mention this in the post. my point is that neither chez michel nor chez casimir is quite so dirt-cheap and informal as la pointe du groin. la pointe du groin is boldly - and laudably ! - daring to offer things inexpensively, at the risk of attracting a clientele who'd go there solely for that reason.

  5. Oh, I know you're aware of the 3-restaurants-in-the-same-block story, I just wanted to stress the fact that this area is not unsafe. To me, the idea of drinking a glass of Houillon's poulsard next to a "hot corn" seller who came here for the inexpensiveness of a glass of a nice wine or beer is cool, it is not a "risk".


  6. would that there were more folks like us in the world, jb.

    but i'm referring to the risk the restaurant takes, not the risk that the clients take. a client runs an equal risk of getting her or her bag stolen just about anyplace in paris. the restaurant, on the other hand, will likely not rack up the same income if its clientele becomes exclusively hot corn sellers, very few of whom can be expected to choose cult jura over a demi of whatever's on tap. it is indeed unfortunate that breton is breaking new ground by lowering his price point to such a degree - that no one else dares welcoming this theoretical hot corn seller, for fear of putting off the often fussy clientele who spend real money. i'm almost positive you and i are are repetitively saying the same thing, though you seem eager to find a point of difference.

  7. I don't want to find a point of difference. It's just that what natural wine is or became in Paris makes me sometimes angry. It is now a trendy, even a luxury product. The gap between people who make that wine and people who have enough money to drink it in the end is just huge and it pisses me off. I am still dreaming of this perfect bar where wine is good and cheap, where music is nice and where people act normal, not as if they were in the middle of some fashion contest. To my knowledge it does not exist. I often dream that I open it.

  8. man, we sound like the same person. i think readers are going to think i created an elaborate hoax just to belabor this point. but you're totally right: the idea of natural wine is certainly à la mode, and there are definitely many places in paris who treat it precisely like a luxury product.

    it's a bit of a catch-22, since high prices are in some cases just what is necessary to support the modest lifestyles of the principled vignerons we're talking about. those same high prices make natural wines luxury items for many people.

    since we won't make much progress changing the prices of the wines we love to drink, it seems the best thing we can do is affect the way they are sold. the fact of something costing a lot of money isn't inherently offensive; what is offensive is when the idea of expenditure becomes the main draw of a wine or of a visit to a restaurant that serves it. it's part of the reason i'm continually harping on about restaurant design and restaurant ambiance on this blog. a winningly underdesigned - even ugly - placed like La Pointe du Groin is clearly not pitching itself to a luxury market. A tediously overdesigned place like Racines 2 or La Compagne des Vins Surnaturels is.

  9. I don't think the high prices Vs low prices story is such of a paradox. I am friend with some winemakers and of course they need to sell their wine at a higher price (than wine companies do) due to the low number of bottles they produce but here is not the problem. The problem is that most restaurant owners sell the wine 4, 5, 6 or even 10 times the price they bought it. I know rents in paris are very expensive but still. No need for fingerpointing but selling A GLASS of "cuvée des galets" by Les Vignerons d'Estézargues (here it's a "coopérative" and not a winemaker, but it doesn't change my point right?) at 4,5 euros while A BOTTLE costs 3 euros is sort of a shame, don't you think? Have you seen how crazily expensive the wine is at "épure"? And unfortunately, in places where wine is not too expensive, then food is (29 euros for a burrata, seriously?). So, I think the margin (?) is the main problem. Some people just sell natural wine as others sell cars or watches, and I think it's sad (let's be polite). But I do agree with you about the fact that the way wine is sold, the trendy atmosphere created around this product we love also matters a lot.

  10. This ain't your normal anonymous. I don't get to spend as much time as I like in Paris, but I will always frond time for a dinner at Chez Casimir. However tonight I had just a few hours on my own in Paris. I wanted to walk by and see what the vibe was like at this new place and I ended up walking in, being slightly confused and then loving a very cheap, although necessarily small lobster salad with tomatoes and chickpeas. Oh, and a glass of Chasselas, the very name of which made me feel inadequate since I had only the vaguest recollection of somewhere in Burgundy of that name, but being rather more a Burgundy lover than a natural wine geek I was none the wiser.
    Point of all this is that it really is just amiable chaos. What's not to like. More power to you M. Breton!