Remember that scene in Wayne's World, where Wayne and Garth do impressions of various US states, before being confounded by the unsatirizable dullness of Delaware?
I find the joke applies equally to Paris' 12ème arrondissement, a pancreas-shaped swathe of east Paris containing the marché d'Aligre, the Bois de Vincennes, and not much else. Between these two destinations, beneath the oft-overlooked Coulée Verte, lies a no-man's land of wide-laned roads and faceless residential blocks, as if the families lodging north of the Gare de Bercy tangle, faced with a choice between typical rail-side rat-commerce and nothing at all, chose the latter. Before last week, I'd only had reason to venture there once, in order to visit Au Trou Gascon, a well-priced one-star Michelin restaurant to whose Armagnac library I have, sadly, not since had the occasion (i.e. euros) to return.
Alarmingly, it now seems I may be back in the neighborhood rather often. My friend Mike Donahue - 12ème resident, fellow Philadelphian, and brew maestro behind Montreuil beer upstarts Deck & Donahue - recently introduced me to the re-vamped Les Caves de Reuilly, an august address for quality wine in Paris that seven months ago came under new ownership. The new owner, Pierre Le Nen, hails from Brittany, studied wine in Paris, and at some point in between, worked in the Vancouver and attained what is, in Paris, a rare fluency in both English and good hospitality. Under his direction, Caves de Reuilly maintains a balanced, mostly-natural wine selection and a vast, expandable terrace, where one can enjoy the former with zero corkage fee. For any Parisians feeling gipped about 2014's summerless August, Les Caves de Reuilly's terrace is a marvelous place to recoup.
The terrace really is a thing to behold - the sort of bar feature that could only exist in isolation, for in any more populous district in Paris, adjacent businesses would protest. Here, there's nothing adjacent, or no nightlife at least.
We first shared a bottle of Claire Naudin-Ferrand's lovely 2012 "Clou 34," an glowy, sharp-tongued old-vine Aligoté whose rear label, I noted, is somewhat misleadingly worded.
Naudin-Ferrand cites the years the vines were planted in the various plots that make up the cuvée - but while it's plausible that the Aligoté vines from 1902, 1953, and 1936 are still in production, I'd be very surprised if Le Clou's 1034 vines were yielding much at all, and a closer read reveals that Naudin-Ferrand doesn't explicitly claim they are...
For a snack we introduced Donahue's visiting friends to some perfectly acceptable rillettes de crabe, and thereupon realised that rillettes are a hard thing to explain. They have no equivalent in English culinary idiom.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that rillettes de mer are, despite the shared term, quite differently composed from normal rillettes (of pork or duck or goose). Where the latter are a fatty, salty, but basically unseasoned meat paste, rillettes de mer are like little improvisational cocktail dips in which the mincy, best-left-unconsidered leftovers of seafood production are blended with a surprisingly omnivorous array of grandmotherly ingredients ranging from tarragon to cream to goat cheese to red pepper.
I've yet to encounter any truly mindblowing rillettes de mer, but they make for a refreshing alternative in wine bars like Caves de Reuilly where the other options are run-of-the-mill cheese and charcuterie. To his credit, Le Nen is aware his charcuterie suppliers are not spectacular at present and he's working on improving the bar's products.
The wine selection, happily, is already splendid. It's all the more appealing to me, right now, for being natural-agnostic: laudably balanced between identifiably natural wines, and quality wines from winemakers who for whatever reason have nothing to do with the natural wine scene.
Le Nen agrees that a background in well-made conventional wines is extemely helpful, if not outright crucial, for appreciation of the rather more limited spectrum of contemporary natural wines. But his selection also reflects an awareness of his outer-borough clientele's palates. Les Caves de Reuilly's website, similarly, offers a full-frontal assault of beginner-friendly wine education services. This sort of thing typically puts me off (particularly when coming from a relatively debutant caviste), but when combined with the freewheeling energy of the bar's terrace, it testifies to Le Nen's savvy in pitching to more than one clientele.
As long as warm weather holds, Les Caves de Reuilly is a geek wine bar inviting and spacious enough to accommodate aging parents or a stroller. How many neighorhoods have such a bar?
Les Caves de Reuilly
11, boulevard de Reuilly
Tel: 01 43 47 10 39
Other good 12ème spots:
Le Siffleur de Ballons