30 July 2014
My friend M is a Vietnamese chef in New York. A year ago I was encouraging him to open a restaurant in Paris. Just think, I beamed. Natural wine and Vietnamese food ! It's never been done ! Moreover, such a restaurant would perform the conceptual two-step necessary in contemporary Paris to appeal both to Parisians, who hunger for novel, non-Parisian things, and visitors, for whom all things Parisian are novel. For an unintended consequence of France's imperialist adventures in Asia is that, a century and a half later, it seems plausible that Paris would contain excellent Vietnamese food.
Aux Deux Cygnes, a well-appointed dollhouse of a wine bar on rue Keller opened three months ago by polyvalent young French-Vietnamese restaurant professional To Xuan Cuny, is not a destination for excellent Vietnamese food. Instead it's a very personal effort, a synthesis of Cuny's influences, to which world-historical forces are mostly incidental. Even the bar's elegant name is simply a play on words, a French translation of the common Danish mispronunciation of Cuny's first name. ('Two swans.') The Vietnamese angle largely stops with the bar's somewhat bread-driven bánh mì. So there's still room for my old friend M in Paris.
If Aux Deux Cygnes, with its tiny snack menu and appreciably offbeat, southern-focused wine list, nonetheless feels rather new, it's because Cuny herself represents an inroad of Michelin-trained hospitality experience to the historically scruffier field of natural wine in Paris.
Cuny previously polished her skills in both front and back of house at Copenhagen's fêted restaurant Relæ, and briefly for deranged Paris wine villains Saturne. Watching Cuny serving bottles at the bar or fixing plates in the kitchen, it's impossible not to remark the precision of her movements and her sense of time management, both rarities in a scene that has tended to define itself in opposition to professional hospitality. Service at Aux Deux Cygnes has quite a bit more in common with the nearby Septime / Clamato clan than with the anarchy that often reigns at nearby Bones.
This cuts both ways. Clamato, for instance, is where I send people who wish to have a good meal. Bones is where I send people who wish to have fun. Aux Deux Cygnes, for its part, might stand to benefit from a little more anarchy, a little more scuff on its polish.
As it is, my friend E, upon entering the other night, remarked that it looked like a wine bar in Tel Aviv. (Difficult, in light of current events, to use the Israeli capital as a model of pristine order. What my friend meant, I think, was that Aux Deux Cygnes looks like a modern new world wine bar.) In the same way that my soul rebels when I see a menu that looks like a business plan, I recoil slightly when interiors look too much like design blogs.
Cuny deserves real credit for putting together an interesting wine list despite inexperience, limited budget, and zero allocation clout. The list at Aux Deux Cygnes, by emphasizing outlier categories like Languedoc whites and Swiss reds, manages to retain interest without following trends or touting big names.
Where else can you put down two distinctively different bottles of natural Chasselas at the bar?
I'll admit to being less than enchanted by Languedoc vigneronne Mylène Bru's 2013 "Lady Chasselas," an unsulfured Vin de France from 50 year old vines near Sète. Acid was still present, but the fruit felt a bit monochromatic. It still made for an interesting contrast to the first wine we had, a 2012 Chasselas called "Un Matin Face Au Lac," by biodynamic Savoy-via-Burgundy vigneron Dominique Lucas. In this cuvée, aged in cement and amphora, Lucas seems to have overcome the grapes innate wishy-washiness through lees-aging; the resultant wine was a portrait in fine yeastiness, lime-peel, and flint.
Aux Deux Cygnes' menu, like its wine list, it just distinctive enough to spark interest, consisting of prettified versions of things many of us could produce adequately at home. A caviar d'aubergine (above) boasted flowers and herbs and, somewhat insensibly for a dip served with bread, croutons.
How many times have I wished for a bánh mì to be made with a proper baguette, instead of the vile industrial packing-foam bread that Vietnamese joints in France must go out of their way to source? Aux Deux Cygnes' version remains undefinitive, alas, for while it succeeds on the bread front it fails to fill it with much. Most of my own sandwich was taken up with chunks of carrot.
With her opening cook soon to depart, Cuny is multitasking admirably at the moment, providing wine service between visits to the kitchen to plate dishes. And I applaud her for being open Sundays, for opening up shop on rue Keller, the gentrification frontier where rue de la Roquette turns knifey, and for generally helping to counterbalance the masculine bro-rocracy that still obtains in the Paris natural wine scene.
But Aux Deux Cygnes can't help but feel a little nascent, rather like Jane Drotter's YARD before the arrival of chef Shaun Kelly. It's a pretty shell of an establishment, but for it to thrive with just twenty or so seats, check averages will probably have to rise, something which will require sharper cuisine and more expensive wines.
Or anarchy. In Paris, anarchy is always an option.
Aux Deux Cygnes
36, rue Keller
An uncomfortable article on Aux Deux Cygnes at Paris Bouge. It's reads sort of like a review of To Xuan Cuny's face.
A short but less tacitly sexist blurb on Aux Deux Cygnes at A Food Tale.
A nice visit to Dominique Lucas at Terroirs de Vins.