28 May 2014

oh la honte: ma cocotte, saint-ouen

For a certain class of Parisian, familiarity with the marché aux puces is a basic mark of distinction. It doesn't matter if very few of us do any actual shopping in the stratospherically-priced high design markets north of the city. Les puces constitute the city's most accessible museum and, at once, its most cosmopolitan feature, for the knowledge that Paris entices the world's most discerning interior decorators to spend lavish sums in the center of a chaotic slum is something anyone can enjoy.

Who are these titans of the earth, we wonder, dropping tens of thousands on Finn Juhl chairs and Adnet lamps? Do they or their decorators mind dealing with the strange unhurried merchants who drip bad red wine and cut sausages on the merchandise during transactions? There is even poetry in this: to purchase a luxury item at the flea markets, a client must descend, momentarily, to the world of crowded guingettes and couscous.

But since fall 2012, the world's high-design tastemakers - along with us window-lickers - have had an alternative. Towering at the entrance to the Marché Paul Bert - Serpette, it is a Philippe Starck-designed megalo-bistrot called Ma Cocotte, run by Philippe and Fabienne Amzalak, proprietors of 16ème arrondissement restaurant Bon. Ma Cocotte is positively thronged on weekends, and its success with the flea market clientele reveals something about the separation of aesthetic spheres. Overpriced, anarchic, and irredeemably tacky, it would be Paris' worst restaurant, except that it is not, technically, in Paris.

26 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: restaurant la tour, sancerre

The most expensive fallacy of wine travel, to which I habitually succumb, is to assume that, to experience the full breadth of a given region's cuisine, one must dine at least once at a formal restaurant. This is how I convinced myself and my travel companions to dine at Restaurant La Tour, a Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by chef Baptiste Fournier, whose parents owned the restaurant before him.

Fournier previously trained with Guy Savoy and Alain Passard, among others, and in this case the chef's estimable pedigree illustrates why I ought to avoid restaurants like La Tour. High-value chefs tend to produce high-value cuisine, more representative of individual ambitions than of regional tradition. (The phenomenon is even more pronounced at lunch, when chefs don kid gloves.)

In the same way that you can get a Burberry scarf or Gucci luggage in almost any duty-free from Madrid to Dubai, you can enjoy the white-tablecloth cuisine of Restaurant La Tour in almost any upscale rural French restaurant from Puligny to Chablis. Luxury has an anonymising effect. At Restaurant La Tour, this is counterbalanced by an impressive, if not exactly bargain-studded regional wine list that cites the local wines according to village.

20 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: domaine vacheron, sancerre

Half our group missed the visit to historical Sancerre standard-bearers Domaine Vacheron. They decided to spend the morning by the pool. Later they rejoined us for lunch in Sancerre, where I admitted they hadn't missed much. 

A strenuous, rushed ride up the town's nearly vertical hillside, and then a fairly perfunctory tour of the facilities in the company of some visiting Alsatian winemakers. Our guide was Denis Vacheron, President of the Union Viticole du Sancerrois, uncle and father, respectively, of current winemaker Jean-Laurent and vineyard manager Jean-Dominique. 

I hadn't expected more, of course, as I'm neither an accredited journalist nor any sort of buyer. Domaine Vacheron are big business, with 48ha planted, of which 46ha are in production. They export 60% of their 200,000 bottle production to 45 countries. But they're also certified biodynamic since 2004, and the domaine has a history of ecological production practices. (Denis says they've never used fertilisers or chemicals in the vineyards.) I find the universally-acclaimed Sancerres to be reliable fallbacks on otherwise conventional wine lists. Vacheron wines also usefully illustrate some practices that separate biodynamic wine from the more fugitive concept of natural wine. 

15 May 2014

neighborhood natural: les vinaigriers, 75010

What a wonderful world we'd live in, if the elusive Great Neighborhood Restaurant existed in numbers commensurate to how often the term is invoked by restaurant critics.

Most would have you believe that every arrondissement of Paris contains several Great Neighborhood Restaurants. But such a belief is dependent upon the demands of the individual diner. My own criteria - which I don't consider too extravagant - are friendly service, bargain comfort food, and potable wine. Yet within this rubric, great Neighborhood Restaurants prove rarer than narwhals. Far too often I'm directed to ostenstibly solid establishments only to encounter pitifully undersketched beverage programs, as if honest wine in Paris were something we ought to cross town for on weekends.

With these elevated standards in mind, I'm happy to declare promising young canal-area bistrot Les Vinaigriers a splendid neighborhood restaurant. Owners Frédérique Doucin and Thibault Desplats are perceptibly new to the industry, but what they've created in a former auberge on a dreamboat real estate corner is a fine place for a wholesome and mostly unfussy weeknight meal. This summer it's set to be every canalside apero-sipper's back pocket standby when Le Verre Volé is complèt.

12 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: le chat, cosne-sur-loire

The town of Sancerre is a bright, windswept agglomeration of medieval belfries and tasting rooms atop a hill with views for miles around. It is precisely what wine tourists want of a wine town.

Cosne-sur-Loire, where we stayed, is where people live and eat kebabs. It is known mainly for being a low-cost upriver alternative to staying in Sancerre itself. Our b'n'b was separated from a graveyard by an autoroute.

But Cosne-sur-Loire has Le Chat, a relatively modern bistrot run by Paris-trained chef Laurent Chareau in the rather isolated southern outskirts. It was the unanimous - and, I'm afraid, only - regional restaurant recommendation of every wine guy I know. A rare balance between rural charm and contemporary sophistication, it puts the whole town on the map. 

09 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: françois cotat, chavignol

The entrance to Sancerre legend François Cotat's tasting room must be one of the most sweetly vexing tableaux in the wine world. On a sunny Friday afternoon in July, the cascading geraniums around the hunched doorway look like a mariachi band. What are they celebrating?

Bein' closed. For good. Not having to deal with tasters and tourists except by choice. On the interior there's a photo of Cotat's mother and his father Paul on the day they sold their last available allocation. They're clasping hands in front of the CLOSED sign, beaming like chickens who killed a fox.

François seems to have inherited their reticence, their modesty. He doesn't like having his picture taken and possesses none of the bravado or showmanship of many grands vignerons. But one of the nice things about biking to meet vignerons is it tends to put them at ease. My friends and I decidedly do not resemble the packs of shades-wearing grey-marketeers who undoubtedly show up in shiny rental cars each week. When we arrived hours late in sweaty shorts the winemaker was totally cordial, having determined earlier that day over the phone that we were pleasant imbeciles who wanted little more from him than advice on where to purchase a rear tire.

06 May 2014

reign of terrine: repaire de cartouche bar à vin, 75011

Who knew what to expect when chef Rodolphe Paquin, le roi de la terrine, announced he was turning his divisive bistrot Le Repaire de Cartouche's rue Amelot dining room into a wine bar ?

Paquin's friend and peer Thierry Breton opened his own bar à vin last summer, La Pointe du Grouin, to strange, circusey results. As much as I enjoy that bar, it's representative of a tendency among French restaurateurs - even ones as free-thinking as Breton - to view customer service as a binary proposition, either on or off, present or completely, chaotically absent.* Very rarely in Paris does one encounter the nuanced, calibrated dynamics of places like Septime Cave, Clamato, Le Mary Celeste, or Camille Fourmont's Buvette, younger concepts by younger, hungrier restaurateurs who are now inspiring their forebears.

With Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin, Paquin proves he hasn't been snoozing for the last 17 years since he opened his restaurant. His wine bar demonstrates an awareness of all that makes Paris' other contemporary wine bars great: a small, responsive menu of shareable items, a long, cornered bar you can actually use, an open door to the street for standing and smoking. But Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin has three striking advantages over the others: Rodolphe Paquin himself, his bistrot's national-treasure wine list, and his lauded terrines, which latter are among the greatest examples of France's original bar food.