The friends I brought to Roca during Fashion Week probably thought I was taking them to Beauvais Airport. The restaurant, a charming if somewhat faceless contemporary effort by Julien Ross, a cousin of the owner of 10ème arrondissement middleweights L'Office and Le Richer, is not situated in the pleasant, blithely unworldly Batignolles segment of the 17eme arrondissement. It's situated in the armpit thereof, just a stones throw from the peripherique.
In any other quartier, Roca would be raking it in. Chef Alexandre Giesbert, formerly of Le Richer, cooks precisely what Parisians wish to eat these days: sweetly accessible variations on menu staples, finessed to a sheen and enlivened with the odd exotic ingredient (seaweed tapenade, kumquat). Prices are extremely reasonable.
But Giesbert's cuisine is hobbled by the restaurant's far-flung location, and an almost punitively boring wine list. I nonetheless quite enjoyed our meal at Roca. Where ordinarily I'd loudly proclaim that the restaurant needs a sommelier, I find myself torn. Because our server that evening at Roca did something no sommelier in Paris has, to my knowledge, ever done: he promptly agreed that my first bottle of Marsannay was corked, and fetched another bottle without debate.
I'm sure native French speakers routinely succeed in sending back bottles of wine in Paris. Not I, who after five years in Paris still stammer and stutter like a Who song when not talking my native tongue. But there are myriad other factors preventing effective wine hospitality in Paris.
So where our kind and effective server at Roca simply tasted the corked bottle of 2011 Sylvain Pataille Marsannay "Clos du Roi" and immediately replaced it, a "better-trained" sommelier, who perceived his reputation more at stake, would probably have attempted to explain away the flaw, particularly when dealing with a tableful of Americans. It would have been no use insisting that I've tasted the wine through several vintages on countless occasions: nothing can budge a Parisian somm who has made up his or her mind.
To be fair, in France there is no good way for restaurants to recoup on corked bottles, as there is in the US. In the US, a restaurant can pass the cost onto its distributors. In France, where wine buyers often deal directly with winemakers, the latter are just as adamant about not admitting to flaws in their wines. The result is a situation in which consumers get shafted nationwide so that no one in the wine industry may ever endure the mortal shame of being incorrect.
Anyway, the second bottle was lovely - coiled, racy, violetty, with Pataille's signature soft-fruited douceur. (Pataille, who's notable for having assembled his domaine himself, rather than being born into one, is by all accounts an incredibly sweet guy. I have unfortunately only met him once, briefly, in the anarchy of La Dive Bouteille, where I'm afraid he showed little patience for the crowd of daytripping local amateurs insensibly declining to taste his cult rosé, or for me, lost among them.)
The rest of Roca's list is unfortunately composed of faceless also-ran conventional domaines. That's not what keeps clients away - look at restaurants like Le Pantruche, for instance, which draw crowds and cheers despite having the kind of wine list you'd expect to see at a funeral parlour. Roca's challenge is its location.
The place was deserted on the Monday night we visited. My friend C had mistakenly arrived one hour early for our reservation and had spent it alone at our eight-top gazing down into Roca's hilarious design flaw, a glass floor that allows a guest to see right through to the restaurant's service basement, replete with stacked chairs, garbage bags, etc.
There was more to see on the plates, when they arrived. Some first of the season asparagus were sunny and somehow breakfasty, garnished with faisselle and flowers.
My palette de cochon made the best of some last of the season parsnip / chestnut purée, and the result was refined, uncomplicated soul food.
A tartare of veal and herring that the server described as Roca's signature dish was truly puzzling, but not unsatisfying. It came with a foam-in-name-only that scanned, on the palate, a lot like a blanket of finely mashed potatoes.
I wondered if Giesbert wasn't poking fun at the very idea of a foam. If so, bravo - it was hilarious. I just hope, this far out into the wilds of the western 17ème, the chef finds an audience for his witticisms. (And, yes, a somm too.)
31, rue Guillaume Tell
Métro: Porte de Champerret
Tel: 01 47 64 86 04
Even Le Fooding, a publication unrivaled in critical toothlessness, felt obliged to mention Roca's pathetic wine list.
A note on Roca in L'Express Styles, notable for being an almost parodically vaccuous examplaire of French food writing clichés. It's all there: bolded typeface of obvious terms, lists of ingredients in lieu of criticism, a vapid snappy ending. One of the bolded terms in particular - "néo-bistrot" - need not even exist, as far as I can tell. Does a French readership really need a whole neologism just to wrap its mind around the concept of a fairly-priced contemporary restaurant ?