A brief moment of on-stage banter at last Monday's Hamilton Leithauser show at La Boule Noire saw the former Walkmen singer - arguably the most compelling rock vocalist of his generation - complaining about food prices in Montmartre.
"Since when did Montmartre get so expensive?" he asked, before deadpanning, "That's what we talk about in this band."
In the audience my friends and I exchanged shrugs. Where had he gone to eat?* From my perspective, it's never been easier to get an inexpensive quality-conscious meal in Montmartre. The quiet side of the hill boasts excellent pizza at Il Brigante, while the upper slopes of rue des Martyrs are home to Miroir, a totally solid natural wine bistrot. An incongruously good natural wine magnum list is just south of there at the otherwise dire Hotel Amour. And right down the road from La Boule Noire is Le Petit Trianon, which as far as concert-venue cuisine goes, is bested only by Basque chef Christian Etchebest's La Cantine de la Cigale, which is even closer, and even better value for money. It was, oddly, deserted after Leithauser's performance, which either indicates that his fans have no taste, or that I have entirely forgotten what it's like to be a young concertgoer more in love with music than eating well.
It is almost certainly the latter case. But I applaud Paris, and more specifically the Montmartre music scene, for making it so easy to enjoy good music and eat well.
I have, as yet, never visted Etchebest's other two Cantine restaurants, La Cantine du Troquet and La Cantine du Troquet Dupleix. On the basis of La Cantine de la Cigale, I wouldn't avoid a visit to the others, which is about the highest praise I think I have ever mustered for this sort of unabashedly cookie-cutter populist cuisine.
In contrast to almost every other restaurant in Paris, La Cantine de la Cigale's menu seems designed specifically to accommodate those too rushed or thrifty to endure a three-course meal. An ample list of Eric Ospital charcuterie is very kindly priced, and appetizer portions are heapingly-plated. Sometimes this generosity had slightly ludicrous results, as in the fried pig's ear salad I ordered, which was a garish tangle of fatty cartilage, like a wig made of meat.
Much more appealing was my friend D's blazing shrimp à la plancha. I left with a resolution to return for this plate alone, which was almost American in its bounteousness. It was 9€.
More complex dishes came out slightly worse, speaking to a probable deficit of kitchen talent. A leek soup was almost entirely flavorless, despite containing gummy nubs of foie gras. And a bavette ordered rare came out medium.
As ever, a good, well-priced wine list makes mediocre cuisine much more forgivable, and all the moreso given the concert-venue setting. La Cantine de la Cigale's list is positively thronged with natural and biodynamic bargains, with bottles from Mattieu Coste, Christophe Pacalet, and Claude Marechal all in the twenty-euro range.
The 2013 Pacalet Fleurie we shared was, for better and for worse, showing the difficulty of its vintage. I wouldn't have it any other way, of course. But 2013 was, by many winemakers' admissions, a bit of a middling vintage.
A long, cool spring followed by a few hot spells later in the season, and yields as low or lower than 2012. To generalise, I'd say the wines taste a bit pear-shaped and southerly, often lacking, at least for now, the aerial qualities we associate with the best cru Beaujolais. (An exception, so far, has been Remi Dufaitre's 2013 Côte de Brouilly, which was brightly alive and kicking when I tasted it a few weeks back at tasting at Ma Cave Fleury.)
Such nuances as these may of course be lost on the average punter winding down after a brief but inspiring Hamilton Leithauser show. It just makes it all the more miraculous that La Cantine de la Cigale offers them in the first place.
* Maybe Caillebotte?
La Cantine de la Cigale
124, blvd. de Rochechouart
Tel: 01 55 79 10 10
More concert-space dining: Le Petit Trianon, 75018
A great October 2013 post on La Cantine de la Cigale by Alexander Lobrano, who takes a nice healthy potshot at nearby American concept Le Depanneur.
La Cantine de la Cigale also got high marks from my friend John Talbott.
An intermittently amusing essay on the hazards of fronting a rock band by Hamilton Leithauser at The Talkhouse.