23 December 2013

yonne bike trip: nicolas vauthier / vini viti vinci, avallon

I'll never forget how Le Verre Volé's Cyril Breward once described Nicholas Vauthier's range of low-sulfur north-Burgundian négociant wines to me. The delicate word he used was "perfectible," which is to say, capable of perfection, and by inference, not at all there yet. (This word is a godsend for anyone who must strive to be diplomatic when asked for opinions on friends' wines.)

Vauthier's Vini Viti Vinci wines had appeared seemingly overnight in just about every restaurant and wine shop I frequented. There was nothing not to love about the marginal appellations - Irancy, Bourgogne Epineuil - or the joyously ribald cartoon labels,* which typically depict mustacchioed transexuals and naked women of all races and shapes in suggestive poses. But the wines themselves initially left me a little cold. At best they were stolid examples of their grapes and not great values; at worst they were just plain flawed.

This was a few years back, though. When last June I saw a chance to pass by Vauthier's home-base of Avallon, I lost no time in requesting an appointment. For I'd belatedly learned that Vauthier had co-founded my favorite restaurant, Aux Crieurs du Vin in Troyes. And I'd already noticed his wines had been improving. The Vini Viti Vinci range now contains some very pleasant surprises, both red and white.

18 December 2013

changing the landscape: bistro bellet, 75010

It took me a few years in Paris to appreciate how a single restaurant can cause a seismic shift in the city's dining landscape. Places like Le Verre Volé, Spring, and Au Passage opened as neighborhood spots. But they introduced new dining paradigms to Paris, and quickly became reference points for anyone daring to drag the boulder of French restauration up the hill of contemporary urban life.

To the ranks of those innovators I'd now nominate Nicolas Lacaze's Bistro Bellet, which opened just weeks ago on an excitingly leery stretch of rue du Fauboug Saint-Denis, basically the Cirque du Soleil of sketch. It's an area people keep promising me will gentrify, but until now those promises have seemed about as concrete as reincarnation for the nearly-dead. Bistro Bellet, with its clean décor, laser-sighted service, and conceptual savvy, is like a giant defibrillator for the neighborhood, and the bistrot genre at large.

It's a near-faultless restaurant that serves masterful Provençal-inflected cuisine and well-priced natural wines in a fussless environment from very early (6pm) until very late (midnight). Who's to say whether other restaurants will follow suit, and the innovative idea of turning tables will take root in Paris? For now I'll just say that Bistro Bellet presented one of the most fundamentally satisfying meals I've had all year.

16 December 2013

yonne bike trip: le bougainville, vézelay

Deciding where to dine in Vézelay was an easy decision. We cased restaurant's lining the town's one road and lumped for Le Bougainville, the only restaurant where Michel Tolmer's "Epaule Jété" poster in the window indicated the presence of natural wines.

The poster these days is a reliable, if by no means infallible, indicator of a restaurant that prizes good wine. This in turn is a reliable indicator of a good restaurant. Dining on hunches : it's what you do in the countryside. Like oil prospecting, only less nefarious or profitable.

Anyway, my friends and I hit the motherlode in Vézelay that day. Le Bougainville is the realised idyll of a country bistrot: quaint, welcoming, with a wine list to die for and a superlative cheese plate. And chef-owner Philippe Guillemard and his wife Sylvie are like the angels who admit you to heaven after a lifetime of suffering Parisian hospitality. They're quiet enthusiasts who, from their restaurant perched in the shadow of Vézelay's famous basilica, offer the town's visitors a dining experience to rival the transcendental view up top.

11 December 2013

nice work if you can get it

For once, I've been writing enough bits and bobs for other publications to warrant a brief round-up post.

- For PUNCH magazine in New York I wrote an enthusiastic profile of La Pointe du Grouin, Thierry Breton's elaborately eccentric wine bar by Gare du Nord, which I've previously covered here.

- The website Paris By Mouth kindly indulged my Beaujolais obsession and published two pieces around the release of this year's Nouveau. One was an essay arguing for the relevance of natural Beaujolais Nouveau, tied to a preview of Paris' best release parties. The other was a review of this year's natural Nouveau wines tied to an account of our attempt to cross Paris tasting them all in one night.

- For GREY magazine in New York I conducted an interview with perfumer / photographer / make-up artist Serge Lutens, on the occasion of the pre-release of his new eau de parfum.

The problem is that, with the exception of the Lutens piece, the research and organisation involved in producing the article cost me over half as much as the eventual remuneration. I despair at ever making it all add up. This is why every wine writer you know also tries to sell you holiday gift packs, guided tours, commemorative mugs, etc. 

09 December 2013

kid stuff: 58 qualité street, 75005

My friend Christophe Philippe, the demure and talented chef of Restaurant Christophe in the 5ème arrondissement, has misgivings about his quartier. He rightly feels misunderstood: in the shadow of a tourist attraction like the Panthéon, his eponymous bistrot is a cultish anomoly: a spare, principled space, downright churlish in its refusal to cater to popular tastes. Whereas what the students and visiting families in the area want, judging by the success (or at least, unfathomable persistence) of neighboring businesses, are downmarket shot bars, cheap beer, and anonymous crêperies.

Apparently undaunted, chef Sylvain Sendra and the team from Les Itinéraires opened the abominably-named cave-à-manger 58 Qualité Street late last year just a few paces from Restaurant Christophe. 58 Qualité Street - no relation to the Nestle-owned brand of bad chocolates, ubiquitous at British Christmases - serves simple épicerie cuisine and natural wine non-stop until 11pm every day except Sunday. It could have been intended as a way to make tasteful product available to young audiences in the most informal, unintimidating way possible.

The would be the most charitable way to read 58 Qualité Street. It might also just be an underconceived rush-job of an establishment, without any discernible identity or ambition.

06 December 2013

where the treasure is : la cave des papilles, 75014

On the regrettably rare occasions I find myself strolling around Paris' 14ème arrondissement, I take a great deal of pleasure in the smell of money in the air. I breathe it in, moony-eyed, imagining that by some kind of magical osmosis, I might later discover, upon exiting the métro back at Barbès, an extra 50 centimes in my pocket.

Unlike other wealthy neighborhoods, like the 8ème or the 16ème, the 14ème contains a concentration of actual tasteful goods and services. The entrenched, mostly white families of this quartier purchase meat and bread and wine as I do, only their meat is by Hugo Desnoyer and for bread they have Ridha Khadher.

Their wine, if they have any good sense, comes from La Cave des Papilles, a veritable Ali Baba's cave of the treasures of natural winemaking France.

04 December 2013

yonne bike trip: le vezelien, vezelay

I pretty much fell in love with Vezelay and its lowland twin Saint-Pere in the course of the bike trip through the Yonne back in June. So much so that I revisited both towns again in late July, on a bike trip from a different direction. I was able to confirm that, together, these two discreet little towns have it all. An impressive basilica, a small river, a good local vigneron, an organic brewery, at least one superb chambre d'hôte, and a stunning restaurant, about which more in a subsequent post...

Vezelay also contains, just yards from the basilica, a marvelous local bar, le Vezelien, where my friends and I took refuge during a swift and furious storm that rolled in like divine judgement while we awaited our dinner reservation.

Having optimistically seated ourselves on the otherwise desserted terrace that evening, we hightailed it inside with our beers. There, where in lesser towns we might have encountered a typical soulless PMU-interior, we instead found ourselves in a cozy country pub. Vernissage flyers from the previous three decades papered the walls. Locals engaged us in conversation. A young fellow was busy writing in the corner - with pen and paper ! We weathered the storm in style and trotted off to dinner. It wasn't until I returned in July that I got to experience the salads at Le Vezelien, which approach something like perfection.