30 March 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: gilles paris, chiroubles


I harvested a few days with Chiroubles-based natural winemaker Gilles Paris back in 2015. It was a disorienting experience. It was the hottest weekend of a heat-wave year, which did no favors for the ambience inside Paris' windowless white transport vans. I also could rarely discern whose vines we were in. In each new parcel I'd ask, "Are these your vines?" and Paris, shaking his head, would inform me they were those of a neighbor who sold to the cave cooperative, or that they belonged instead to his brother Jérôme, who was absent. Paris, it seemed, led a team he rented out to other growers before harvesting his own parcels. In the end I had to depart before setting foot in Paris' vines.

Over dinner during harvest, and throughout innumerable apéro-hours after, I pestered Paris for a tasting at his cuvage. He kept demurring, citing his workload as then-President of the Beaujolais Interprofession. The fact that he and I continually ran into each other while out drinking proved this to be a rather thin excuse. We grew friendly, even as I withheld forming an opinion on his wines, for simple lack of information on them.

It was only over two years later, touring Paris' new winery in Fleurie this past February, that I finally confirmed where he'd been vinifying, and where Jérome Paris had been all this time. That the details of Paris' unfiltered, low-sulfur cru Beaujolais wines had become mysterious was, of course, entirely inadvertent. In Paris' mind, he's just being a normal Beaujolais débrouillard, an effective operator, keeping his head down till the work is done.

23 March 2017

small stakes: le desnoyez, 75020


A few years ago during the Loire tasting salons I had a brief but memorable conversation with a friend who was then in the initial stages of preparing to open a natural wine bar in New York. I had confessed I wasn't very excited by many new Paris restaurants: everything seemed pokey, limited, a little predictable. He replied that, on the contrary, he adored the Paris restaurant scene, precisely because it was so modest, small-scale, and restrained. "You never eat like that in New York," he said. Everything there was comparatively over-the-top.

It's true that there isn't the same pressure in Paris, as there is in New York or London, to achieve a high check average, massive turnover, or both. In Paris the combination of affordable commercial rents, low cost-of-living (compared to other capitals), and abundant small restaurant spaces allows for a level of intimacy in dining that has all but disappeared in other major cities.

Restaurant Le Desnoyez, opened on a shoestring budget by former food blogger Jean-Marc Sinceux in Belleville in autumn of last year, offers a level of intimacy in dining that has all but disappeared even in Paris. The place seats about fourteen. In another capital, such a Lilliputian restaurant might need to enforce a twelve-course tasting menu. Here in Paris, Sinceux proposes an inexpensive bistrot offering, albeit one enlivened by a slim selection of offbeat natural wines and by his surprisingly painterly way with plating.

28 February 2017

hot bath: le grand bain, 75020


Chef Edward Delling-Williams is a key figure in the diaspora of mostly-Anglophone chefs emanating from the kitchen of restaurant Au Passage. It may have been James Henry's masterstroke to try that restaurant's intelligent, informal menu format in the haute-Marais, but it was Delling-Williams, his inviting and upbeat successor, who refined and normalized it, making Au Passage, for years, one of the city's most reliably charming tables. (A position it largely maintains.)

Delling-Williams' long-awaited new project is Le Grand Bain, a bar-restaurant opened in partnership with chef de salle and wine director Edouard Lax and interior designer Alexandre Janssens on the Belleville graffiti haven rue Dénoyez. The restaurant opened quietly last December, after significant delays that saw months of Delling-Williams plying his trade itinerantly around other Paris restaurant kitchens.

Anyone who passed through Au Passage during his tenure probably expected Delling-Williams to make a big splash in the kitchen at Le Grand Bain. Yet for now, with few exceptions, his work at the new venture has been remarkably unshowy. Delling-Williams knows by heart the burgeoning audience that exists for a savvy small-plates restaurant in Paris in 2017. In Le Grand Bain's crisp, brut space, he is playing to that audience with the irresistible panache of a seasoned croupier.

20 February 2017

not drinking poison in nice: la merenda


The Native Companion and I were in Nice for New Year's. Before we returned to Paris I was able to convince her to submit to the rigmarole necessary to assure a lunch table at La Merenda, the city's most storied address for traditional Niçoise cuisine, run since 1996 by chef Dominique Le Stanc. 

La Merenda famously has no phone, so one must personally pop by to request a table later in the day. As it happened our agenda that morning consisted of wandering aimlessly around the port, so this fit right into our schedule. The restaurant's popularity far exceeds its tiny space, however, and tables were understandably slow to turn that day. We had to circle back round twice after the appointed time came and went. 

I didn't mind. I was enchanted the moment I laid eyes on La Merenda's sparse menu, scrawled on a blackboard posted to its frosted windows. If menu writing is a kind of literature, Le Stanc's menu at La Merenda possesses the hymn-like simplicity of Kafka's shortest works - "The Wish to be a Red Indian," perhaps. In the space of one sentence, Kafka proposes a subject before shearing it away in stages, until nothing remains but a profound absence. All the daily repetition of kitchen work and the generational repetition that has yielded traditional cuisine - all that absence of novelty - is contained on La Merenda's blackboard. The rarity of such a statement - anywhere in the world, let alone breezy, tourist-stricken Nice - gives La Merenda a curious power. At lunch, one can even overlook the dismal wine selection. 

10 February 2017

n.d.p. in maconnais: château des rontets, fuissé


The forecast called for rain, but my friend E and I had passed a perfectly calm, sunny day visiting winemakers around Saint-Amour last July. Among the crus of Beaujolais, Saint-Amour is a curious culture unto itself, a throwback to the era of négoçiant supremacy, an economy kept afloat by the unthinkably dumb people in France and abroad who regularly purchase the wine for Saint Valentine's Day. (I have never met anyone who has done this, but apparently such people exist. Just thinking about them makes me feel better about the invariably inconsequential gestures I muster for the same holiday.)

Not the most ravishing day of tasting, in short. But we had a pleasant makeshift lunch on the picnic tables in the square in Leynes, where later, in a quest to find coffee, we entered a truly strange, deserted bar, overrun with dogs and exotic birds. The owner descended from upstairs before we could scram, so Nespresso it was. We asked to sit on the terrace. The sky had begun to cloud over.

E and I huffed our cigarettes, bolted our bad coffees, and pulled on our helmets. I seem to remember it was a straight shot up a knobbly one-lane road to our last appointment of the day, where, finally, we'd taste some Saint-Amour worth falling for, along with some stunning Pouilly-Fuissés. It felt somehow appropriate, skidding up to the gates of the Château des Rontets at precisely the moment the storm broke.

31 January 2017

in with the old: chez la vieille, 75001


I have never quite understood Daniel Rose' conservative streak. I'm too young to remember the initial, bare-bones Spring in the 9eme arrondissement. By the time I met Rose in 2010, he had already moved his restaurant to the 1èr arrondissement and a space that resembles an exec-lounge. The restaurant's service and menu pricing have always felt prematurely elderly for such a dynamic personality. Nor did Rose really switch gears when he took over the weirdo slapstick steakhouse La Bourse ou La Vie last year. He changed the grammatical conjunction, raised prices, improved the cuisine, and sapped the restaurant of its spontaneity.

Rose' recent revamp of the tiny historic 1èr arrondissement bistrot-bar Chez La Vieille is, in its way, more newsworthy than the rave reviews of Le Coucou, his chic New York restaurant début. For, discounting the abortive Buvette below Spring, Chez La Vieille is the first serious move Rose has made towards a more lively style of service.

Spanning two floors joined by a gorgeously warped staircase, Chez La Vieille is a near-complete success, where the humor and verve of its new owner find outlet in a concept as precise and versatile as a Swiss Army knife.

16 January 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: nicolas dubost, saint-germain-sur-l'arbesle


"It's crazy, how many young winemakers are setting up in Beaujolais," muses southern Beaujolais winemaker Nicolas Dubost, who attained biodynamic certification for his organic domaine in 2015. "But not so much in the south."

Dubost is based in Saint-Germain-sur-l'Arbresle, a hamlet beside the village of Bully in the Pierre Dorées. The general viticultural approach here - industrial, productivist, machine-oriented - does a disservice to the diversity of the largely unknown terroir. The handful of ambitious, quality-oriented winemakers - Dobost included - sell their wines at prices so low as to practically discourage critical reflection.

Indeed, if the details of Beaujolais wine production overall remain under-appreciated, even by wine professionals, it's probably because the stakes are so small. There are strong incentives to master, say, Barbaresco vintages or vineyard exposition in Côte Rôtie, since the clients for these high-value wines tend to pose questions and seek assurance of expertise. Folks buying in the 9-14€ range need less convincing, so most retailers, not to mention critics, are content to leave it at 'sweet juice,' 'glouglou,' or a similar substitute for actual qualitative description. It's a shame, because as Dubost's wines increasingly prove, there are troves of nuance to be discovered, even in such unheralded terroir, at such small stakes.