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.
The bar contains 7 seats around a solid slate bar, surrounded by a few too many tables for the approaching summer. Some latecomer friends of mine found themselves with almost no standing room, as Paquin's wife Corinne and his wine director Laurent bustled by to serve tables. My friends considered taking a table adjacent to the bar, and then reconsidered, because the bar at Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin is plainly where the action is.
The menu is presently so small that even solo diners can confidently order one of everything. My friends and I had several of everything, particularly some ingenius little duck wraps, perfectly unsophisticated and terribly well-suited to the task of soaking up excellent wine.
Of course the terrines take pride of place. Paquin's are masterpieces of the form. A good terrine is the sleeper car of appetisers; it contains heavenly complexity but looks like it rolled down a hill.
The most memorable one that night was made (mainly) from pork shin, lightly fried and topped with marinated girolles.
Paquin showed us the same terrine in its mould, covered in roast hay, like something recovered from a witch's kitchen after the roof caved in.
He takes the concept to its logical conclusion, offering, as a dessert, winningly old-fashioned terrine made of stawberries suspended in aspic, replete with fresh-baked biscuit spoons for segmenting it apart.
What moves me most about Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin's menu, which otherwise contains radishes, grey shrimp, and coddled eggs, is that its components are merely traditional, unimprovable snacks. There are no citrus powders or ceviches. It is built to nourish, not to titillate.
That latter job is left to the wine. Where else in Paris can one compare two adjacent vintages of Dard & Ribo's Saint Joseph blanc, both more than a decade old?
The wines of these influential natural Rhône winemakers have come under a little flak of late, partly due to their decision to bottle their relatively expensive cru cuvées with plastic corks. I'm told the winemakers themselves want their wines to be drunk soon after release. But this shortsells the quality of their work, and understates its impenetrability in youth.
Indeed, later that same evening I tasted one of their 2009 cru Crozes-Hermitage reds, and was disappointed to find it still in purple primary stage, blank as an egg. I don't totally disavow that these wines can still attain complexity under plastic corks. But when winemakers choose to use plastic corks or screwcaps they're removing their wines from the traditional cork-based aging timeline, which, whether we like it or not, comprises the yardstick for most wine appreciation.
|Rodolphe Paquin and Rene-Jean Dard at Repaire de Cartouche on the night of Beaujolais Nouveau 2013.|
Anyway, upon ordering the first of our little two-step vertical of Saint-Jo whites I was delighted to note that at that time Dard & Ribo were still using proper corks.
The 2002 was gorgeous, its honeyed youth having matured to a trim, mineral sweep, flecked with tarragon and gentian notes.
The 2003, befitting the hot vintage, was a different wine entirely, burnished and oloroso in character, making up for what it lacked in structure in bold, tamarind fruit.
|We'd begun with a bright bottle of '08 Savigny-les-Beaune by Fanny Sabre.|
Present-day Paris is blessed with a zillion barely-remarkable bars where one can access contemporary natural wine served by people with a basic understanding of the subject. But the city contains precious few places that retain, let alone offer inexpensively, any history of natural wine in France. With Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin, instantly my favorite wine bar in the city, Rodolphe Paquin shows what a gift that is.
* For exhibit B, consider the organisation of Wanderlust's recent "street food festival." The implication seemed to be that if you're eating outside a restaurant, on the street, you're basically eating in a refugee camp.
Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin
8, blvd. des Filles du Calvaire
Métro: Filles du Calvaire
Tel: 01 47 00 25 86
My friend Wendy Lyn broke the news of Paquin's new bar at The Paris Kitchen.
A 2013 interview with Rodolphe Paquin at Everyday French Chef.
David Lebovitz's lively negative 2009 review of Le Repaire de Cartouche
Alec Lobrano's 2009 "Service Alert" regarding Le Repaire de Cartouche at Hungry For Paris
Discussion of Dard & Ribo's corks at Australian Wine Review