11 July 2013

the home front : touller outillage, 75011

As preamble to what I'm about to say about new 11ème wine bar Touller Outillage, I thought I'd introduce readers to its surrounding Parmentier neighborhood, where I've been living for the past four years. 

Two parallel roads descend southwest from Menilmontant, one of which, rue Oberkampf, I've previously described as "a waterslide of vomit" until it hits métro Parmentier. There are student bars, concert venues, dire nightclubs, and leery downmarket bistrots straight out of a Jeunet film. The other road, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud, is first occupied by a mosque and the related Islamo-paraphernalia industry, arrayed around a dusty pigeon-painted public square; but southwest of this pious interlude the road resumes the habits of its neighbor and becomes a debaucherous slag-heap of strong beer and kebabs. Bisecting these two roads is rue Saint Maur, a nice enough road further south-east, but one which along this particular stretch houses both a miniature skee-ball hall and a deserted bar themed around race-car simulators.  

When diners, both Parisian and international, complain, with certain justification, that natural wine has become a trendy luxury, they are most certainly not referring to my neighborhood or my street. Which is why I take it as a salutary development - a sign that natural wine is reaching new audiences - when Said Messous, owner of Jean Pierre Timbaud nightclub L'Alimentation Generale, reveals himself to be a closet natural wine fan, and helps his cousin Farid Meza open a roomy, egalitarian, helplessly unhip wine bar like Touller Outillage right next door.  

Messous also owns natural wine pizza joint le Bar du Marché in Montreuil, so he's been down this road before. But Meza, the actual owner of Touller Outillage, is by his own admission not really a fan of natural wine. ("I'm more a fan of strong alcohol," he joked, when I asked him how it came to be that Touller Outillage had a natural wine list.)

Presumably one can thank Messous for Touller Outillage's wine list's less-than-obvious delights, like my friend François Blanchard's fearsomely exotic unsulfured Sauvignons, and organic Jura vigneron Henri Le Roy's superb, refined Côtes du Jura bottlings. Wines at Touller Outillage are very approachably priced, though at this stage it's difficult to discern whether this reflects a desire to make natural wine approachable to people who've never tried it, or rather just the usual bait-and-switch limited-time low pricing most Paris restaurants engage in when they open.

The extremely nice staff at Touller Outillage have little idea what they're serving. This is to be expected, since asking a knowledgeable wine guy to work on JP Timbaud would be like asking a marine biologist to sell goldfish in a strip mall. But the welcome one receives at Touller Outillage is genuine, and the staff are earnest enough to offer numerous tasting pours for comparison, in lieu of being able to explain the wines.

Food is simplistic and serviceable, with the menu looking more than a little bit like a dumbed-down version of what they offer at Aux Deux Amis, the ragingly successful wine bar located just southwest of métro Parmentier, where rue Oberkampf encounters civilisation.

There's an edible tortilla; a healthy portion of pleasantly piquant marinated anchovies; tinned-looking mussels in tomato sauce; and some very bad octopus the texture and flavor of packing material.

Happily staples like rillettes and saucisson and cheeses are of perfectly enjoyable quality.

You can find the same things everywhere, in Paris, yes ; and by all means the menu and the wines and the crowd are all more beautiful at Aux Deux Amis down the road. But what Touller Outillage presently offers, which I find tremendously useful, is an escape from all that: a place far from flash-worthy food and waitlists and warfare for barspace, where one can just roll in and share a bottle of quality wine. Touller Outillage is perhaps a few months ahead of its time in the neighborhood: at time of writing, it's almost as dead as the racing-car simulator bar. My friends and I were a walk-in eight-top on a Saturday night, a proposition that would be a punchline in most other Paris natural wine spots.

On that occasion we shared several bottles of the aforementioned wine of Henri Le Roy, whose Côte du Jura, I gather, only begun really raising eyebrows in 2010. His style is on the safer, more precise and market-friendly side of natural, and his estate in still in the process of conversion to organic viticulture. The 2008 "En Griffez," from an old Chardonnay vineyard containing some vines of up to 100 years, tastes somehow transitional, savoury and stolid, satisfying but short on grace notes.

The 2010 "Derrière La Roche," however, hailing from a tiny vineyard of 50yr old vines of a Jurassien Chardonnay variant called Melon à Queue Rouge, positively shines with polished minerality, stone fruit, and the regional yeast-memory, a flavour between smoke and laundry and pecorino sardo that even marks many of the region's non-sous voile wines.

Given that the ownership is plainly unconcerned with natural wine or wine in general, it seems uncertain that Touller Outillage will remain a serviceable destination for the stuff.

But I can't help feeling that natural wine - the whole fractured, cliquey, hazily-defined idea of it - needs more bars like Touller Outillage. It's unhealthy for the idea of natural wine if we only encounter it at self-consciously chic restaurants, if all we remember of wine at a meal is how much we overpaid for Prieure Roch Gamay or Ganevat's "J'en Veux," or any other vin de soif presently fetching absurd prices in Paris and abroad. Whereas forthrightly plebian bars like Touller Outillage and Thierry Breton's recently-opened La Pointe du Groin in the 10ème represent the home front in the ideological conflict for the future of wine in France. Foodies, tourists, Anglophone wine writers: these are not the hearts and minds anyone needs to win, as we're by definition a fairly open-minded audience, delighted by new things.

The natives in my neighborhood, on the other hand, might need some cajoling to let go of Kronenberg and Franprix Côte du Rhône. No one's going to hold their hand at Aux Deux Amis, Le Chateaubriand, Le Dauphin, or any other already-famous place with zero customer service. Enter Touller Outillage, which, for all its clumsiness, is as good a place as any to discover natural wine.

Touller Outillage
68 rue Jean Pierre Timbaud
75011 Paris
Métro: Parmentier
Tel: 01 43 57 80 14

Related Links:

Aux Deux Amis, 75011

Chair de Poule, 75011: another pokey natural wine place in my neighborhood, but one which, sadly, has really gone downhill since I wrote about it.

Cave Fervéré, 75011: My friend Olivier's extremely casual but more or less reliable bistrot, right nearby.

La Pointe du Groin, 75010: A groundbreaking new pokey wine bar by Thierry Breton.

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