05 June 2015

back yard: yard wine bar, 75011

When I first wrote about Jane Drotter's splendid contemporary bistrot YARD in April 2014, I couldn't help expressing astonishment that some of the passing Père Lachaise locals found prices too high. "Stinting flintnosed cheapskates," I called them. YARD the restaurant was then and still remains one of the city's best deals, its prices calibrated more to the expectations of its far-flung quartier than to the skills of chef Nye Smith or the superior quality of his product.

Drotter, presumably as part of a grand strategy for domination of nightlife in the eastern 11ème, has now opened, beside her bustling bistrot, YARD Wine Bar, a cosy roomful of high tables and a wide terrace where she continues to indulge her clientele. The small-plate menu prices are lower than those of most soft beverage programs in the Marais.

It's worth noting, though, that Drotter's clientele has changed. Where once it consisted of whoever happened to live or work nearby, it now resembles a cross-section of the Paris fine restaurant crowd, which is to say, chiefly people who unhesitatingly order the whole menu twice and consume oceans of natural wine. This dynamic, one hopes, will sustain YARD Wine Bar's paradisiacal micro-scene for many summers to come.

Nye Smith is at the head of the wine bar kitchen as well, working from a new kitchen space that conjoins the restaurant and wine bar.

Confusingly, upon entering the bar, one runs smack into a waist height expo counter, covered with the detritus of service (stacks of menus, empty glasses, meal tickets, pens...).

It's the first week of service, and I'm confident the team will find some hospitable way of accommodating this strange décor feature. It would, for instance, make an excellent bar for gnomes.

The rest of the space is furnished with excellent sensitivity. A warm checkered wooden floor underpins high tables and wall-bars at human height. The rear houses a spacious, even palatial toilet. (Well-appointed toilet facilities are an enjoyable hallmark of female-run restaurants. For the diametric opposite, try using the loo at Ménilmontant beer bar La Fine Mousse. Or any beer bar.)

YARD Wine Bar's greatest draw, at least for the next few months, will be its terrace. The rue du Mont-Louis sidewalk is large enough for YARD to be very accommodating with metastasizing tables and guests-who-bring-guests.

The menu, for now, is slenderer than wild asparagus, and perceptibly a work in progress.

For now it's composed of the sorts of thing one improvises for apéro hour on one's own balcony: radishes, tomatoes, mozzarella on toast, cured ham. I prefer this style of cuisine to just about any other, but it may be of little interest to culinary adventure-seekers.

Only two plates have the feel of having been worked on or constructed in any way: fried rabbit, and a curiously-plated salad of favas and Ossau Iraty, resembling a taco lading on the moon.

The rabbit, while fried to perfection, was a tad salty for most of my table. (Americans will not be bothered. I wasn't.) A toasted fennel-flecked plate of cubed pork belly met with unanimous, if slightly predictable, acclaim.

The wine bar for now shares the same wine list as the restaurant, which is to say mainly the mid-range natural portfolio of wine agent Fleur Godart. One hopes it will diversity a bit, since with menu prices so low, check averages will be wine driven. I spent slightly too much on a pleasant, but uncomplex bottle of very old-vine Gamay pétillant naturel, entitled "H," by Patrick Bouju. (The wine's minimalist label declares that the vines were planted between 1982 and 1906. Making a pét' nat' from the fruit seems to have been deliberately iconoclastic.)

I adore Bouju's winemaking, but seeing the prices of his sparklers (see also the "Festejar") climb into the twenties at Paris wine shops makes me suspect there is, as it were, a bubble in the market. I would have been just as happy spending more on something better. (The "H"'s mark-up was not YARD's. It is the winemaker's, or his agent's.)

Vis à vis pét' nat's in general, PUNCH magazine (for whom I write occasionally) recently ran a good, skeptical piece that, worrisomely, implied the wine genre is attaining or has attained cult status stateside. I like a good pét' nat' as much as the next guy. But fetishizing them strikes me as faintly preposterous, like cherishing a certain brand of mineral water.

Once in a while one does encounter a moonshot pét' nat, like Dobrà Vinice's "Créma di Pinot Noir," a positively luminescent sparkler I tasted with the gang from Jenny & François Imports in Prague. And there are indeed outright disasters, like certain brownish cuvées from Caves Beclair that I still reflect upon with a mixture of horror and hilarity. But overall quality in pétillants naturels remains, like Bruce Springsteen in "Better Days," "halfway to Heaven, just a mile outta hell."

There is just not a big quality amplitude. The best, for the most part, taste like very expressive sparkling fruit juice. Sometimes that is all one seeks in a wine, it's true. But if that is all one seeks in a wine most of the time, one is not a wine connoisseur; one is an alcoholic toddler. (I say this with the awareness that it probably applies to certain winemakers I know.)

It seems salutary to insist, when assessing natural wines, that freshness of fruit not be prized at the expense of complexity. At YARD Wine Bar, we followed the Bouju sparkler with a 2014 Thierry Puzelat "Frileuse," a chardonnay - sauvignon - sauvignon gris blend that, like pretty much all that winemaker's oeuvre, sang with the tense tonal range of a talking drum. I could have drunk it as easily in seven years as immediately.

Actually, I didn't finish it immediately. I took half the bottle home. This photo is from my balcony.
Here is where I usually complain about how French taxation on wine stock and surfeit of demand together prevent restaurant in Paris from maintaining deep cellars. But that seems hypocritical in this instance, given how often I'll be among those hoovering up lakes of young natural wines at Yard Wine Bar this summer. When I first wrote about Drotter's work at YARD, I wondered aloud whether the neighborhood would change her restaurant, or vice versa. With the opening of her wine bar, I think the question has been answered.

YARD Wine Bar
6, rue du Mont-Louis
75011 PARIS
Métro: Philippe Auguste
Tel: 01 40 09 70 30

Related Links:

YARD Restaurant under present chef Nye Smith
YARD Restaurant under former chef Shaun Kelly

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