23 July 2014
I thought it would be bigger news when late last year Inaki Aizpitarte opened a shoebox-sized wine shop between Le Chateaubriand and Le Dauphin. Instead, outside of a few blurbs in the French press, it was basically a non-event. Curiously, and rather appealingly, this seems to have been intentional.
You have the shop's almost Google-proof name, Le Cave, a French pun* that doesn't scan in English. You have the shop's quixotic concept, which is to offer exclusively non-French natural wines. You have the fact that food is sold to-go, but no food is available for consumption on premises - not a cheese rind, not the barest sliver of charcuterie. Yet a rotating cast of the shop's exotic, borderline faddish wines are available by the glass.
What does Le Cave offer that could possibly make it a destination ? Nothing. And I imagine this suits the Chateaubriand group fine, since their two adjacent restaurants already have enough overflow to require the services of a waiting room, which is Le Cave's primary function. Happily, staffing what could easily have been a lean mean man cave is a razor-sharp lady called Beatrice, who, seemingly alone in the restaurant group, has serious hospitality skills. And so Le Cave becomes, despite itself, a low-key weeknight destination, one which I prefer to both restaurants.
That Le Cave's concept is mildly revolutionary in Paris is an indicator of how difficult it is to sell non-French wines in France. This is because typical Parisians are breathtakingly cheap when it comes to wine expenditure, and largesse is culturally discouraged. Paris' two key audiences who do routinely drop serious sums on wine - tourists and select wealthy, conservative natives - are for different reasons inclined towards French wine. So the market for high-quality non-domestic wine remains very boutique.
The only reliable Parisian audience for curiosities from Greece, Serbia, Georgia, and so on are the staff of other geeky restaurants. Le Cave's focus on non-French natural wine therefore manages to delight its core audience, while simultaneously coercing foreigners to consume non-French wine as they wait for a table. It's sort of genius.
Beatrice tells me the cave contains about 200 references, not all of which are displayed on the walls. If I am wary of this claim, it's only because I've been burned by Le Chateaubriand sommelier Sebastien Chatillon's blitheringly unprofessional wine program before, and because the wines actually displayed on Le Cave's walls are precisely the same ones available at, say, Frenchie Wine Bar, Septime Cave, Clamato, Bones, or basically any hip Paris restaurant with a young, curious somm who is nonetheless handcuffed by the limited amount of good non-French natural wines that make it into France.
There are the same five Greek producers, the same four Spanish ones, the same dozen of Italians. Often I like the wines themselves. But without greater context - including, yes, conventional wines from these nations - one can learn almost nothing from them. (For instance, had I always restricted my Italian wine education to Italian natural wine, today I would, by default, still know diddly about Italian wine at large. But this is not the case, and this is why I would have liked to see greater depth and range in Le Cave's selection.)
Le Cave's take-out is dementedly overwrought in a rather lovable way. The week I tried it the dish on offer was chakchouka, a north African vegetable stew. I had assumed it would come pre-heated in a plastic tub of some sort. Boy was I wrong !
Upon taking the order Beatrice produced a rather medical-looking vaccuum-sealed sack of cold red stew, and told me to wait while she fetched the garnish - parsley and pomegranate seeds, packaged separately - and an egg, which she very kindly wrapped in several layers of paper when I told her I'd be transporting the chakchouka via Velib.
It was delicious kid stuff, family meal cuisine so fulfilling that I could overlook the exceedingly low ingredient cost, and the fact that the olives appeared to be pre-pitted. I still can't think of any better take-out in the city for 13€.
And while I'd waited for Le Chateaubriand's kitchen to pack pomegranate seeds, I'd been able to enjoy a spiffing glass of Radikon. The "Slotnik" (80% Chardonnay, 20% Friulano) is made by Stanko Radikon's son Sasa, whose stated aim is to release younger, more readily drinkable orange wines than his father's broody time-capsule output. A bottle I enjoyed with friends recently was indeed wonderfully accessible, with rich, apricotty tones, bright acid, and pastry aromas.
It's admittedly not the sort of wine I'd choose for, say, an event meal at Le Chateaubriand. At at event meal at Le Chateaubriand, it is the sort of wine they'd bring me when I asked for something else. But in the context of Le Cave, and a quick splash before heading home, young Radikon's perfect.
* "Cave," when used as a masculin noun, is French slang for an idiot. This is actually a good joke, given the context.
129 avenue Parmentier
Tel: 01 48 74 65 38
Le Chateaubriand, 75011
Le Dauphin, 75011
A pre-opening interview with Inaki Aizpitarte about Le Cave at the Wall Street Journal.
An interview with Sasa Radikon at Louis/Dressner.