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.
The kitchen is capably run by a young chef called Maxime, who formerly cooked at Racines 2. His menu looks like he was told to take it easy on the locals, but that's not entirely a bad thing.
I could do without the ubiquitous splat of burrata, and a crême brulée of foie gras couldn't shake the sweetness of its format, which became a bit perturbing in context.
But a volaille jaune du Gers with spring veggies was the sort of humble, restorative, impeccably cooked plate I wish I could eat more often. I'm not handy enough to cook chicken so haunting and tender at home. And more ambitious restaurants typically throw something exotic on top - unnecessarily, as this dish proves.
As ever, it's the wine list that betrays the inexperience of Les Vinaigriers. Prices should be ever so slightly lower, given the concentration of caves-à-manger in the area.
The selection veers weirdly between Burgundian safe bets, token biodynamic Italian curiosities, and a surprising focus on Patrick Desplats' challenging, lunatic-natural range of Loire wines, Les Griottes. (Deplats shares a last time with one of Les Vinaigriers' owners. Anyone know if this is a coincidence?)
Like any intelligent adult, I'm unbothered by sediment. But sediment in the Griottes wines reaches truly astonishing size and density. The wines drink like broken snowglobes. Nowhere else in the world of natural wine does one see this, not even in the wines of Desplats' radical Loire peers, so I can only assume he's going for it intentionally. I swore I saw actual shrubberies floating around in the bottle of chenin-based 2009 Vin de France "Caroline" we drank.
The wine was in a sort of undead oxidised afterlife, where acid had returned, and hazy mirabelle fruit fought to be noticed amid a cidery fog. Not totally unenjoyable, and certainly something I'd prefer to drink over the supermarket Languedoc plonk of most 'neighborhood restaurants.'
One inexcusable thing worth mentioning, in the hope that it never occurs anywhere again: Les Vinaigriers' wine list presently lists the wines of Jean-François Ganevat as available 'upon request.' I asked what they had and was told they had current-vintage "Cuvée de l'Enfant Terrible" available.
I exploded in laughter and told them the same wine was widely available in Paris for 23€ prix caviste. Doucin explained to me that they didn't have much stock, and what they had gotten they'd purchased from David Lanher, the adoptive owner of most of Pierre Jancou's former restaurants.
But the fact is that if you possess wines you do not want to sell, the best thing to do is not cite them on your list at all. By no means whatsoever should you cite them at a truly idiotic mark-up, because then you, the restaurant, look like a total sucker. And on the off chance someone insists on purchasing a bottle at the inflated price, he or she will be a sucker.
"Fan-Fan" Ganevat himself probably ought to have a chat with David Lanher about this, to prevent the creation of an entire micro-economy of suckers around these wines.
Anyway. There's always beer - in this case, my friends Thomas Deck and Mike Donahue's supremely satisfying Mission Pale Ale is available by the bottle.
And if wine-list cock-ups represent the downside to inexperience, service at Les Vinaigriers embodies its advantages.
People are nice. Totally unjaded. Frédérique Doucin's tableside manner verges on actual bubbliness - something I don't think I've ever encountered elsewhere in Paris. Before I'd even walked in I received a warm smile from behind the restaurant's windows. I think I might have walked in even I hadn't been meeting a friend for dinner there - such is the lure of human kindness.
42, rue des Vinaigriers
Métro: Jacques Bonsergent
Tel: 01 46 07 97 12