08 October 2013

authenticity unnecessary : buvette, 75009

By the time my friend Camille Fourmont opened her Buvette in the 11ème this past spring, rumours had already spread that American celebrity chef Jody Williams was planning to replicate her successful West Village wine bar of the same name in Paris. Fourmont had heard the news too, but she'd already made her own neon sign. There are tens of Café du Métros, a bevy of variations on Au Passage, even more than one Galopin in Paris - what's the problem with a few unrelated Buvettes?*

I can see why opening in Paris struck Williams as a savvy move. She made a late-career switch from Italian cuisine (as practiced at Tappo, Morandi, and Gottino in NYC) to French, and stands to benefit from the authenticity boost that an actual Paris outpost confers. Her Buvette also arrives at a recent high-water mark for Parisian acceptance of new-world-style small-plates wine bars. (The floodgates will soon give completely.)

What's more, replicating the NYC Buvette in Paris doesn't seem to have required Williams to tweak the original concept at all. The Paris Buvette feels eerily - at times hilariously - like a New York restaurant aiming to sell quasi-French small plates to Americans.

Did someone on Williams' team suppose, for instance, that residents of the Pigalle area need to be schooled on the historical import of the Pigalle area?

Was it one of a seeming multitude of graphic and interior designers who thought it would be cute to draw a big map of France on the wall, illustrating the wine list without specifying producers or vintages ? As though French drinkers were wont to wonder where, precisely, the Rhône might be ?

And was the wine director playing an exceedingly clever joke, by offering almost exclusively wines that could seem exotic to Parisians only because the bulk of said wines are sold in the US market? Domaine A. & P. de Villaine, Arnaud Ente, Château Thivin... Should Buvette prove to be a thronging success in Paris, Kermit Lynch might wonder where his quantities went.

One also wonders whether it was necessary, on an entirely French wine list in Paris, to mention, in French, that the whites and reds by the glass are French.

To be fair, I quite like the three domaines mentioned above. Château Thivin's Côte de Brouilly "Clos Bertrand" is a benchmark for the appellation, and the bottle my friends and I consumed was swift and practiced wingflap of keen blackberry and ash, with an appealing pineapply acidity. (Thivin's white is less good; given the long history of the estate, one suspects the wine might even be the root cause of Beaujolais Blanc's insipid reputation.)

But this is Paris. More interesting, less regimented Beaujolais - by the likes of Descombes, Metras, Guignier, Jambon, Breton, Foillard, Lapalu, Vionnet, etc. - practically spurts from shop shelves at a drinker, for cheaper. It also deserves mentioning that while Buvette behaves admirably like a wine bar, with no plates larger than a roughly six-inch diameter, wine prices are firmly in the restaurant realm. Sometimes they're outright gouges, as in the case of Pierre Gimonnet, whose 1èr cru Champagne - 22€ per bottle retail at Caves Augé last time I checked - is 16€ a glass at Buvette.

To justify such margins, the food would have to be angelic. But Buvette aims for terrestrial charms, serving Williams' idea of French comfort food.

I won't dwell on the predominance (at dinnertime) of bruschette, Italian refugees presumably permitted on the menu because their ingredient cost is rien.

Some better menu items are laudably unembellished, like a perfect straight take on roast bone marrow.

A tarte tatin, too, attained the perfection of its source inspiration: it was velvety, tender, and pristine.

Other classics had lost something in translation, as in coq au vin and hachis parmentier, whose incarnations as Buvette were significantly less flavourful than the those one finds at most business lunch bistrots.

A salad of brussel sprouts lacked all acid. And the alien-looking thing in a salad of octopus was not the octopus, but rather the pointless unsharable lettuce surrounded it, hiding all the other ingredients. It too was under-sauced.

These are not mistakes one regularly encounters from the hands of famous chefs.  But such mistakes do come from the kitchens of famous chefs, particularly when famous chefs aren't spending much time in their kitchens.

This brings us to the key difference between the Paris and New York restaurant scenes. For a combination of reasons - Paris not being a global financial hub, and France having straitjackety labour law - it is far easier to become a famous Paris chef than it is to become a rich one. Expansion is accordingly slower. I don't know a thing about Jody Williams' finances. But it does seem to me she might have spent more time adapting her concept to its new location. Buvette in Paris feels like the work of a franchisee who signed contracts forbidding changes to the original concept.

So many aspects, in both design and cuisine, remind me the times I'd argue for minor graphic design changes to the menu of the restaurant I managed back in LA. "No chance," I was always told.  The sous-chef and I resorted to absurd 7-point font use, trying to wedge an evolving restaurant concept into a fossilized menu layout. The celebrity chef who might have given the go-ahead for changes to design was at all times presumed to be too busy to reconsider issues that had already been decided once.

Similarly, who cares if Buvette's freakishly overdesigned wine list looks like it tore itself from the back of a McSweeney's issue through sheer force of Twee Will ? It works in Manhattan.

And who cares if Parisians don't appreciate French geography lessons on the wall ? Parisians will rationalise patronising Jody Williams' Buvette for three simple reasons.

1. There are free walnuts and apples lying around, testifying to Williams' idea of a buvette as a sort of elfin tea-room, rather than the usual drinking-hole connoted by the French usage. This will poll well among the stroller-pushers of rue des Martyrs.

2. Accessibility. The kitchen is open from 10am to midnight, with different menus served at different times of day. Plus it's open on Sundays.

3. There are sufficient servers staffed to handle the room.**

It's not a lot. But it takes almost nothing to be original in Paris - just basic American commercial instincts. Which is why it was smart for Williams to open a Buvette here.

Instead of "fermé le lundi," Buvette's window announces "dodo le lundi," which translates as "sleepytime on Mondays," and which is pretty much the feyest thing ever, the equivalent, in diction, of sprouting purple butterfly wings.  

* Remember Spring Buvette ? An unfortunate casualty to Daniel Rose's successful courting of the most exacting, conservative, least spontaneous clientele on the Right Bank. A rock and roll wine bar it was not, and it was shortly repurposed as another dining room for the restaurant. 

** Almost. On the night I visited, we waited ages for wines, while one of the bartenders was snacking behind the counter. The bartenders on the whole seemed to do very little. Our extremely charming and elegant waitress redeemed the experience. I was blown away when through some sort of good-witch magic she dismissed a marauding rose-seller with no more than a glance, and he complied. 

28, rue Henri Monnier
75009 PARIS
Métro: Saint Georges or Pigalle
Tel: +33 1 44 63 41 71

Related Links:

La Buvette, 75011 : Camille Fourmont's vastly more charming and authentic wine bar.

A typically uncritical note on Buvette at LeFooding.
A atypically booster-ish note on Buvette at ParisByMouth, a website where my nominal contributing editorship role includes no input whatsoever in restaurant listings.
GoGoParis inexplicably calls the décor "lo-fi chic." Quick, someone find more huge decanters full of fresh fruit !

A review of Jody Williams' Buvette in the West Village in the NYTimes.
An interview with Jody Williams at Kinfolk


  1. Boosterish note, haha

  2. Totally agree with you. My experience there was really something that could be turned into a comedy sketch! Won't be back.