19 December 2011

straight classic: le severo, 75014

If we define popular staples as foodstuffs that could conceivably be employed as a "health boost" icon in video games - things like steaks, burgers, and fries - then we've pretty much isolated a segment of cuisine that everyone and their mother have strong opinions on, no matter how indifferent or clueless these diners may be about anything more sophisticated than sesame buns. Classic, simplistic comfort food is just very inviting to armchair critics. This manifests itself nowadays in the rainforest of blogs devoted such cuisine.

Conceptually pure restaurants like 14ème steak standby Le Severo are partial beneficiaries of this dynamic: the restaurant is rightfully famous city-wide for its marvelous cuts of meat. Nevertheless I can't help feeling that something gets glossed over, lost in the branding, when I read about the place: namely, the impressive sophistication of the panoramic blackboard wine list, which is basically a big billboard for all that is good about Le Severo's supplier, the occasionally controversial* Caves Augé.

14 December 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: cascina delle rose, barbaresco

In principal, one goal of anyone making wine naturally - organic, biodynamic, or anywhere in between - is heightened expression of terroir. I'm of the opinion that the success of the venture is most perceptible when one evaluates it across the boundaries of individual domaines and regions; in general, one might say, natural wines tend to reflect more dramatically the vicissitudes of the vintage and the composition and exposition of the soil. This is because, when compared to the panoply of invasive techniques available to the contemporary winemaker, natural winemaking is a fundamentally subtractive process. It is, at least in part, a resistance to overcorrection of naturally occurring traits.

Nevertheless, when we use terms like "non-interventionist," we risk obscuring the fact that winemaking itself is one big intervention. What we taste in a glass remains a product of the individual habits and customs of a given estate. Evaluating wines is always a more or less informed stab in the dark about which traits come from the whims of nature and which come from the whims of man.

This brings me, finally, to my conflicted feelings about Cascina delle Rose, a 3ha organic Barbaresco estate we visited in Piemonte this past August. The estate had come highly recommended from two different sets of friends - a surprise, since despite having tasted the region's wines pretty exhausively, I'd never heard of them. Estate owner Giovanna Rizzioli was a marvelous hostess, intelligent and expressive, and the best of the wines we tasted reflected the same qualities. There was, nevertheless, across the range of wines, a rigidity of style that felt determined by something other than the terroir of the estate's 3ha of vineyards. (Cue darkness, stabs.)

09 December 2011

assimilate this: guilo guilo, 75018

I would have some real thinking to do, if in the future I am ever given the choice between dining at a Japanese restaurant in Paris and committing seppuku. Which, I shall have ask myself, will be more painful? Or is the latter sort of inevitable, as a method of saving face after the shame of the former?

My experiences with Japanese food in the City of Light have run the gamut from grotesque - the gnarly bentos for sale on rue Saint Anne, with their unidentified fried objects atop shoe-sized rice wads - to dispiriting, as in the rapacious and tasteless stylings of the Issé group, who specialise in marking up much the same Far East paraphernalia as everyone else, only much further.

Until recently I held out quite a bit of hope, thinking that perhaps all the Japanese restaurants I'd tried in Paris had, despite their most ambitious efforts, simply not been expensive enough. But this past women's fashion week brought with it the occasion to visit Guilo Guilo, a somewhat pricey spot in the 18ème renowned for its tough reservations and the seasonal innovations of its chef, Eiichi Edakuni, who somehow simultaneously maintains a successful restaurant in Kyoto. I say "somehow" because I left Guilo Guilo with the impression that Edakuni's chief innovation there is not his food, which is unmysterious and delicious, but rather his aggressive rudeness and bald unprofessionalism, traits which I can't help thinking would only be tolerated by a French audience who, wowed by Japophilia, have been too quick handing out the Genius Card That Excuses Everything. (Polanski has one, too.)

07 December 2011

world's geekiest wine

If there were awards for this sort of thing, one might well be given to my friend F's insane biodynamic micro-cuvée of oxidative Loire Gewürztraminer, which I tasted this past summer.

'Gewürztraminer?' I hear you cry. 'Isn't it totally illegal to even have Gewürztraminer planted in the Loire?'

This is true, and this is why I'm declining to give the winemaker's name, and also why I waited for several months to pass in between this post and the last post in which I mentioned his (legal) wines. Of course, the most discreet thing to do would be just to savor the memory of this strange kangaroo of a wine and never mention it on the blog accompanied by photos and background information and tasting notes.

05 December 2011

heavenly: ô divin, 75019

On this blog I can sometimes give the impression that an unbridgeable gulf exists between restaurant industry people and people who merely like food and wine a lot. It is true that people who've spent time working in restaurants at a certain level tend to drink more, tip more, sleep around more, and generally manifest in their daily lives the influence of the pirate ship ethos that more or less reigns in these restaurants. All this is relative, say, to people who sit in offices. Restaurant industry people also often have a higher regard for manual proficiency and efficient hospitality, because these virtues are crucial to getting through each night.

There is, however, something to be said for the value of outside perspective on the restaurant industry. Particularly in Paris, where some truly backwards and small-minded memes are insensibly entrenched, such as rudeness, sloth, inconsistent sham formality, over-reliance on set formules, and, what can be worst, a blasé attitude towards fine product, which behavior in some bygone era may have reflected the uniform excellence of French cuisine, but which in today's globalized GMO'd additive-heavy world just appears clueless.

Ô Divin, a small cave à manger-slash-bar à vin tucked away beside a recording studio near the Parc de Buttes Chaumont, is perceptibly not run by anyone with serious restaurant industry chops. Co-owner Naoufel Zaïm previously worked in clothing retail, and came to love food and wine somewhat by chance. It demonstrates that experience isn't everything, because, as the Native Companion and I discovered the other night with our friends M and J2, Zaïm has succeeded in creating one of Paris' greatest wine bars.

02 December 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: saint peter's country chapel

Between towns of Barolo and La Morra on the via San Pietro, there's a few picnic tables and a water fountain at a rest station named for the boarded-up and presumably empty chapel that overlooks it, Saint Peter's Country Chapel. Although it looks like there might be a magnificent view of vineyards just over that hill, I can attest there is not: the immediate area seems to have insensibly been landscaped in such a way as to specifically prevent any kind of vista.

Nevertheless it made a fine site for a picnic after a trudge around Alba where everything was shut at midday on a Sunday. We'd packed various cured meats and gorgeous irregular tomatoes and ate them with a shared knife. Mid-meal we were all extremely bemused to learn that, according to the signage, Saint Peter's Country Chapel had been built by "the sole survivor of a tragic orgy" that had taken place in the old castle across the road. 

30 November 2011

illegal sauvignon, and other surprises: ma cave, 75019

In need of dinner ingredients a few Sundays ago, I decided to check out the Marché de la Place des Fêtes, high up above Belleville in the 19ème arrondissement. The market itself was a bit of a disappointment that morning - endless lines, not especially cheap prices, fully one half the big market taken up by shoddy produce and knick-knack stands. Notably absent was the fellow from well-regarded neighborhood cave à manger Ô Divin, who I'd read sometimes has a stand there selling natural wines.*

What redeemed the excursion turned out to be the Velib ride up rue de Belleville past Pyrénées and Jourdain Metro stations, where I was delighted to find a bustling little quartier, with many shops actually open until one or two in the afternoon. Just a few minutes north of the pork buns, lacquered ducks, and leering street creeps of Belleville one encounters decent-looking boulangeries, an Italian épicerie, and butchers that don't look like health hazards.

Since I hadn't found any wine at the market, I skidded to a halt during my descent down rue de Belleville in front of Ma Cave, a pokey wine shop without much to recommend itself, at first glance, beyond the fact that it was open. All I sought was a bottle of potable cooking wine - something I could sip uncritically and employ in a sausage ragù. The bottle I took home in the end, from what turned out to be a very decent wine shop, both met and exceeded my low expectations: a dirt-cheap but totally fascinating bottle of Sauvignon, illegally grown in Marsannay and falsely labeled Aligoté.

28 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: stefano bellotti & cascina degli ulivi, novi liguri

Throughout the recent trip to Piedmont, the Native Companion and my friend J's wife C would ask us before each scheduled visit to a vigneron whether we thought it would be worth their coming along. What they meant is: would visiting vigneron X be better than a dip in the pool? Would it be better than thirty pages of a novel? Would it beat viewing certain rural churches?

Unfortunately, since it was our first time in the region, J and I could offer them only the Gump-like but invariably true answer that you just never know what you are going to get, visiting vignerons. Sometimes you never see the vigneron and a cellar hand just explains what fermentation is. Sometimes it's an all-business experience and you leave after fifteen minutes clutching a price list. As wine geeks we continue to nose around wine estates because oftentimes it's better than that. As much as can be learned from books and the internet and copious tasting, there's just no substitute for the ambient knowledge that gets transmitted when you visit winemakers in their element, and hear how they themselves feel about their wines and their methods of production.

I had an inkling it would be worthwhile visiting pioneering Gavi producer Stefano Bellotti at his Cascina degli Ulivi estate in Novi Liguri. It wasn't a convenient trip from Monforte - almost two hours by car - but J and I were both fans of Bellotti's wines, and furthermore we were curious to meet one Italy's premier biodynamicists. In retrospect I can say that, while Gavi is kind of remote, and the rest of the region's wines have yet to interest me in the slightest, a visit to Cascina degli Ulivi is indeed a rewarding and inspiring experience, an entry into a freewheeling ecological community that, among other achievements, makes some utterly enchanting wines.

23 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: trattoria della posta, monforte d'alba

I'm trying to remember where it was I first saw the enormous, old-school Italo-swag menu of Trattoria della Posta, a restaurant renowned for serving Monforte's most traditional meal. It was either as wall-art in the bathroom at Paris wine bistro Le Bistral, or it was in a collection of menus maintained by a former employer back in LA. Or was it the collection of the former employer in Boston who collected old menus?* Suffice it to say the menu is memorably huge.

Opening it brings the same sensation one gets stepping into the vast, stately restaurant itself, situated just east of town, with a parking lot to itself. It is the feeling of entering a proud, entrenched culinary tradition, hermetically sealed against outside influence. One wishes one had a mustache, or at least a cigar.

Trattoria della Posta was founded by the Massolino family in 1875, and continues to be owned and operated by the same family today. Mindful of how much we'd been spending, my friends and I allowed ourselves one last serious grandstanding meal before leaving Piedmont, and went with TdP out of two restaurant recommendations we'd received from Roberto Conterno, saving the less historied establishment for some future visit.

21 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: g.d. vajra, vergne

I'm not often told I should be more critical. At times however I do sense that in covering winemakers on this blog I tend to be a bit polite and circumspect, at the expense of clarity or humor. I'm not unique in this; it is an industry norm, as far as I know. Because, no matter what one may think of the wines one tastes with winemakers, in writing about the experience afterwards one always owes a small debt of gratitude for their welcome, and for their time. This is to say nothing of how wine writers, due to the structure of the industry, usually need to maintain positive relationships with their subjects in order to guarantee continued access, and thus their livelihoods...*

With that in mind, I can say I had a really enjoyable time this past August visiting the G.D. Vajra winery in Vergne, west of the town of Barolo, where my friend J and I toured the facilities and tasted through current vintages with the family's sunny tasting coordinator Sabrina. We met briefly with Aldo, Giuseppe, and Milena Vaira, and thanked them for making time for us during such a busy period. It was the first day of harvest - Pinot Noir destined for spumante first, as I recall - and there was a genuine electricity in the air.

But, it has** to be said that, with certain notable exceptions, I do not like the wines.

18 November 2011

more than enough: le vin au vert, 75009

An unfortunate consequence of the success of the cave-à-manger concept - the hybridization of wine shop and restaurant / bar, ubiquitous in Paris - is that the term has lost a bit of specificity, and now encompasses everything from the 11ème's tiny Au Nouveau Nez, which serves only cheeses and meats, to the comically pretentious team of radish-fetish nitwits at 2ème restaurant Saturne. Before actually entering a place, it can be tricky to differentiate those with 36€ set market menus from the ones where one can just chill and nibble on things.

I'd cite this as the reason why it took me so long to check out Le Vin Au Vert, a magnetically down-to-earth cave-à-manger on the mangy side of the 9ème. It wasn't clear to me whether the place was a wine bar or a restaurant, and I don't get to the 9ème often enough to chance a night out on a possible misconception. When I finally did drop by with friend J, seeking better drinks than were available at the launch of my friend's literary magazine nearby, our hearts sunk upon noting through the windows that almost all tables were occupied with folks eating. We asked with exaggerated trepidation whether it was cool if we just sat and had drinks.

"No problem," we were told, because it turns out we'd arrived at one of the few* genuinely chill natural wine joints in Paris, one run by extremely nice fellows, another rarity.

16 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: giorgio barovero, monforte d'alba

The great wines of Piedmont are a popular counter-argument to the concept of natural wine. As much as wine geeks like myself might advocate use of wild yeasts, low sulfur, and total disavowal of pesticides, herbicides, anti-mildew agents and so on, we're still uniformly unable to refute the majesty of good Barolo and Barbaresco, appellations in which these virtuous habits are rare to non-existent. So visiting Piedmont recently I maintained a sort of hopeless mini-agenda to sniff out whatever natural or organic wines I could find in the area, out of curiosity for how Piemontese grapes would be affected by more or less natural viticulture.

What I tasted was, on the whole, immensely intriguing. Like, potential-business-opportunity intriguing, for someone with more means and patience and Italian skills than I presently possess.

There are apparently three small organic producers in Monforte alone. One, I'm told, is Francesco Clerico, a cousin of the more famous Domenico, neither of whose wines we were unable to taste on this trip. Another is Enrico Boggione, whose rich and vibrant Nebbiolo d'Alba is available for a song at the little organic boutique run by his wife off the main square in Monforte. The third is Giorgio Barovero, to whose stunning 2005 Nebbiolo d'Alba we were introduced by the excellent bartender at Casa della Saracca. My friend J and I enjoyed the wine so much we set up a tasting appointment for the next day, and drove the short distance to Barovero's spare cellars in the valley just south-east of Monforte, outside of the Barolo appellation, on the frontiers of Piemontese natural wine.

14 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: case della saracca, monforte d'alba

Midway through our stay in Piedmont I was delighted to add Monforte d'Alba to my list of towns home to better wine bars than Paris. On the recommendation of Roberto Conterno we ascended the steep narrow paths into the old town to visit Case della Saracca, a multivalent establishment whose many other functions - restaurant, wine shop, boutique hotel - do not prevent it's ground-floor wine bar from being a social hub of the town's winemakers.

We found ourselves returning night after night, partly because it was just uphill from our rented rooms (providing an easy slide home), and partly because we befriended the delightful bartender, Emanuela, who was full of inspired recommendations.

On more than one occasion we were impressed by something we tried by the glass, only to encounter the winemaker passing through that same evening - the sort of charming coincidences that can only occur in a very small community.

10 November 2011

good neighbors: ludwig bindernagel at aux deux amis, 75011

As I shuffled home from work on a recent Friday afternoon with my face in my iPhone, holding a sack of cheese, a familiar Australian voice hailed me from the terrace of 11ème bar à vin Aux Deux Amis. It was my friend James Henry, who's presently raking in high praise as chef at a different 11ème wine bar, Au Passage.

I was meant to meet the Native Companion nearby for a self-consciously healthy juice-bar lunch, intended to allay our respective hangovers. But who should James turn out to be dining with, but my friend the Jura vigneron Ludwig Bindernagel, whose 2011 harvest was recently my first real experience with grape-clippers. It turns out Ludwig and James know each other from the latter's days in the kitchen at 1èr arrondissement restaurant Spring.

Well, there were two extra seats at the table. I had the NC meet us and we did the hair-of-the-dog cure with Ludwig's razor-fine 2009 Poulsard throughout lunch, which meal now provides a nice opportunity to clarify my stance on Aux Deux Amis, a place I've sort of slagged off in the past.

08 November 2011

labors of love: terroir santo domingo at les pipos, 75005

The wine list at 5ème bistro à vin Les Pipos is not presented when you take a table. Nor is it always presented when you ask for it; often you are just handed the menu, on the back of which are listed a few easy-drinking natural selections.

The other day when I met my friend Cesar E. Castro Pou and his wife M on Les Pipos' terrace, I had to specifically mention foreknowledge of its existence before receiving the Les Pipos bottle list, which in its devotion to serious natural producers is assuredly someone's labor of love. There are more than a few back vintages of rare crus and micro-cuvées, probably the result of lack of turnover. The place is situated in the shadow of the Pantheon, so they're accustomed to tour groups and students, two demographics known to avoid all but the cheapest, least challenging wines.

I had chosen the place because I knew Cesar would dig the list. He's a natural wine aficionado, like me, and furthermore he's no stranger to quixotic endeavors: for the past two years or so he's been the sole importer of natural wine to the Dominican Republic.

02 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: walter porasso at bovio, la morra

J and I pulled up in his in-laws' Audi at Azienda Agricola Bovio at what we were pretty sure was the agreed-upon time. There had been some language-related confusion. "That's not Walter," I said to J, as a short, smiling, heavily-tanned fellow in a wife-beater and plaid shorts ambled over to the car. 

Bovio is owned by a La Morra family more famous for their restaurants than their wine; we were to meet their longtime winemaker Walter Porasso, about whom I knew only that he spoke very little English, and that he'd been responsible for a heavenly half-bottle of 1998 "Gattera" I used to sell quite often at the restaurant where I used to work in LA. While the Bovio wines have a fine reputation, they don't regularly receive superstar acclaim, at least not in the states, and accordingly my expectations for this visit were about ankle-high. 

Well, I was wrong about everything. It was indeed Walter Porasso, more salt-of-the-earth than I'd imagined. And the whole visit turned out to be an object lesson in why it's worth visiting more than just the grand names of Barolo.

31 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: vinoteca centro storico, serralunga

Our afternoon in Serralunga d'Alba amounted, finally, to a spiral out to nowheresville, since 90% of the town was shut in August, including, contrary to what the guidebooks said, the 14th-century feudal castle built by the Faletti family in the French donjon style, which had been the only reason J's wife C had wanted to visit the town in the first place. 

That week's heat wave continued unabated. The whole town was like a kiln. I begged off further examination of the castle's circumference and sat in the shade with a guilty-looking cat, surrounded by feathers, until J and C descended with news that the castle was slated to open in an hour's time. We decided to wait it out over a terrace lunch at the only place open that was not a leery-looking hotel: Vinoteca Centro Storico. Which wine bar, we were cheered to discover, is known to international visitors as a regional wine destination, and to regional wine drinkers as a destination for Champagne. 

26 October 2011

soup-er: spring boutique, 75001

I'm late in mentioning this, due to a towering backlog of posts about a recent trip to Piemonte (more to come!), but my friend Josh Adler's cave Spring Boutique has begun serving soup for lunch again. The soup itself is delicious, heaping with rough-cut vegetables and silken meat of the most quixotically exacting Michelin-worthy provenance, this latter obsessional quality being characteristic of Spring chef Daniel Rose's menus.

But the service of soup itself - this is also endearing, for being yet another manifestation of a certain gung-ho, whatever-works energy the Spring team bring to their establishments. By now the Boutique and the restaurant's lower level have cycled through a panoply of different iterations and incarnations, all in efforts to channel the restaurant's chief area of uproarious success - it's dinner service - into less formal, more populist attractions, ones for which there's no need to book months in advance. In Paris, home of the cult of the table, and meals that endure until the époisse has run to the floor, they're fighting the good fight.

24 October 2011

those who know best: le grand 8, 75018

Ask any restaurateur what he or she looks for when dining out, and you'll probably get a perfectly concise description of 18ème bistro hideaway Le Grand 8: simple food, a killer wine list, and, critically, a place that's open on Sundays.

Accordingly, Le Grand 8's dining room positively brims with restaurateurs and natural wine folk, on Sunday evenings in particular. Last week I brought some colleagues there for a meal after our company's showrooms had finished for the day, and upon walking in immediately recognised friends from Autour d'Un Verre, Le Bistral, Le Dirigeable, and the late great Cave de l'Insolite. It took some minutes to actually join the party I'd walked in with, whereupon we sat down to enjoy those same qualities that had drawn all the rest of the town's tastemakers to a few small tables in Montmartre.

20 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: roberto conterno, monforte d'alba

Should you plan a trip to the Barolo region, everyone you know will tell you to do everything in your power to visit Roberto Conterno, winemaker at Giacomo Conterno, the legendary Monforte estate that is to Barolo sort of what Homer is to western literature. Then they will politely wish you luck getting an appointment.

Should you actually succeed in getting an appointment with Roberto Conterno, as my friends and I did this past August thanks to the kingly kindness of O.G. Canavese winemaker Luigi Ferrando, those same folks who wished you luck will unanimously ask you to tell Roberto they say hi.

What can you do. I think this phenomenon says less about people than it does about how people feel about Conterno and his wines. Even for the most jaded professionals who skip tastings, forget samples, and rarely finish bottles, the Giacomo Conterno operation, under Roberto's stewardship as under the last two generations', inspires nothing short of awe.

17 October 2011

cantal's last stand: le petit vendome, 75002

I've just been informed by a colleague that Auvergnat bistro Le Petit Vendôme, the Opéra area's greatest lunch spot, is set to close in December. Apparently the PV folks were never owners of the space, and now the actual owner has decided to rent to someone else. Given the location, just off the Place Vendôme, I suspect I'm not being unrealistically morbid in anticipating that a Quality & Co. or some similar soulless salad-tossing concern will move-in. There are already no less than three on that block alone.

14 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: la cantinetta, barolo

"I'm going to be a slight rip-off."
"That so?"

Ordinarily you can't go wrong taking dining advice from winemakers.* Where I miscalculated after our visit to Francesco Rinaldi e Figli might have been that I hadn't been speaking with the actual winemaker. Or perhaps there simply aren't any good lunch options within the price range we were seeking** in the town of Barolo itself, which, alone among towns we visited in the region, my friends and I unanimously found to be a self-parodic touristic moneypit.

The main street of the tiny town is lined with tasting rooms, all charging for tastings. There's a "Museum of the Corkscrew" that appears to be just a baroque beard for yet another shop selling wine, t-shirts, mugs, and other wine-ish memorabilia. And the castle that dominates the town houses a Museum of Barolo, which the Native Companion and J's wife C incomprehensibly decided to visit after declining to join us tasting at Francesco Rinaldi e Figli. (At lunch they insisted the puppet shows and hammy videos in the tour at the Museum of Barolo had been very amusing.)

J and I had planned to just get paninos somewhere. But the sandwich café in Barolo that day was unconscionably hot, hotter even on the tarped-over terrace than inside among the candy bars and Lotto tickets. So we had the NC and C meet us on the pleasant terrace at La Cantinetta, a place that was probably most notable for some absurd Batman Eating Pasta With Child On Lap artwork on the wall.

12 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: francesco rinaldi e figli, barolo

In any given wine region, there's bound to be a learning curve for the first-time traveler, as over the course of a few winemaker visits he or she gets a handle on local attitudes. What my friend J and I learned on our first visit in the Barolo region proper, to the estate of Francesco Rinaldi e Figli, was you should never specifically ask to taste a Barolo producer's Grignolino.

10 October 2011

worst hospitality in solar system: saturne, 75002

Anticipating a dinner with friends from New York in town for fashion week, I booked a table two weeks in advance for a Monday night at Saturne, a renowned, self-consciously high-end "cave à manger,"* where on basis of reputation I'd expected a sparkling experience. Chef Sven Chartier and sommelier Ewan Lemoigne both previously worked at Pierre Jancou's Racines in its heyday, and Chartier had put in time at Alain Passard's L'Arpège before that. It seemed reasonable to think my friends and I were in the hands of professionals, when we arrived a few minutes after 9pm for our reservation.

We never sat down, however. To my totally incredulous dismay, Saturne had botched the reservation in a laughably amateur manner, and instead of apologizing for the restaurant's error - it was without a doubt their error, for several reasons to follow - the Lemoigne fellow instead refused to seat us and, with such unquestioning emotionless self-certitude that I began to suspect he was developmentally challenged in some way,** proceeded to insist it was my own fault.

To jump ahead a bit, I'd like to publicly wonder: is this where we are now, with dining? Have we so fetishized fine product and fine wine, on both sides of the service equation, diner and restaurant, that a place like Saturne can succeed despite its operators having no sense whatsoever of basic hospitality principles, even civility? The situation disimproved, as you might have guessed. My friends and I left for a last-minute reservation hastily gleaned elsewhere before the police arrived.

04 October 2011

nightclub wines: silencio, 75002

To my mind the only truly mysterious aspect of David Lynch's new Paris nightclub Silencio is that the bar is the size of a coatcheck.

The space - what I saw of it the other night was a tangle of corridors, a smoking room, and a dance floor - totals 650m2. The result of this size discrepancy is that all the poor punters who succeed in gaining entry (a feat which it turns out can be achieved by simply being young and decent-looking and waiting for ten minutes*) have plenty of time to discuss the conventionally overwrought décor, as they wait eternities for drinks from the psychotically overworked bartenders. Was it really done by David Lynch? Who the hell remembers what the club in Mulholland Drive looks like? Why should being an excellent film director have any bearing whatsoever on the skills required to design a successful nightclub?

Presumably in efforts to minimise waits, Silencio is equipped with a second bar, tucked away in the corner overlooking the dance floor. This bar, however, is completely deserted, because it is the wine bar, replete with eight or ten selections of Douchebag Reds and Predatory Whites entombed in an Enomatic wine dispensing machine. The girl working there looked like her isolation was the punishment for something - perhaps the owners' strange idea that these wines are appropriate in a nightclub setting. This begs the question, then: what would be an appropriate wine in a nightclub setting?

30 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: capella di sol lewitt, la morra

One advantage of traveling through wine regions with people who are totally uninterested in wine is that sometimes in bored desperation they will propose visiting obscure local landmarks that turn out, in the end, to be very cool indeed.

Such was the case with J's architect wife C, who on our way back from a desultory Sunday traipse through the mediocre churches of Alba at baking midday proposed visiting something called the Capella di Sol Lewitt, located on a ridge overlooking the famed Brunate vineyard between Barolo and La Morra. We weren't sure what to expect of a chapel painted by the pioneering conceptualist creator of such presumably non-devotional works as Inverted Six Towers and Isometric Projection #13.

In the end it looked for all the world like amid the strict rows of cascading cru vineyard, someone had installed a really cheery taqueria.

28 September 2011

balancing act: l'entrée des artistes, 75011

I'm continually making idle chatter about the prospect of one day opening up a wine bar in Paris. The idea is very far from realisation for me, chiefly because I'm hell-bent on becoming a (more) published author before returning to the restaurant industry, but also because I'm not even sure I'd want to do it then. It's not an easy life.

It's thus with a sense of wistful admiration that I encounter a cracking great new bar like the 11ème's L'Entrée des Artistes, a bar à manger that, along with La Retro'Bottega on the other side of the same arrondissement, stands as one of the only places in Paris that approach this wine-bar ideal I have rattling around in my head.

L'Entrée des Artistes even goes farther than I ever would, and offers, alongside a boldly curated natural wine list, a list of cocktails that is the equal of any in the city. If "natural wine + food + perfect cocktails" sounds too good to be true, well, my fear that it might shortly prove to be is what has me returning as often as possible before that happens.

26 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: osteria la salita, monforte d'alba

I had been concerned, when agreeing to vacation in Italy in August, that we'd encounter nothing but summer closures wherever we went. My general take on August is that it is the month Europeans use to cleverly evade neighboring cultures, by abandoning their native capital and visiting the capitals of other nations, whose native populations have simultaneously decamped, like a large-scale apartment swap. Paris shuts resolutely in August; by and large the only things left open during this time are mercenary tourist traps.

It didn't bode well that the acclaimed restaurant linked with the hotel / residence where we stayed, Da Felicin, was closed during our stay. Upon arrival we had a slightly grim noncommunicative interaction with the older fellow at the desk at Da Felicin, brightened only at the end by the unrequested receipt of several of his endorsements of good restaurants open in Monforte in August. In the end we wound up visiting all his recommendations that week, less because so much was closed than because Monforte is a very small town.

The first place, Osteria La Salita, was all of twenty paces from our doorstep, and it was in any final reckoning probably the best. The cuisine was fresh, and the wine, like almost everywhere we went, was magnificent and cheap - but it was the buoyant, over-the-top hospitality that pretty much gilded the entire meal. It was evidently infectious: towards the end of our meal, an adjacent table of visiting Ligurians spontaneously presented us with a fresh black truffle, and then another, when they saw how delighted we were with the first one.

23 September 2011

rien à voir avec le vin nature: la compagnie des vins surnaturels, 75006

Because one of my favorite chefs and fellow natural wine afficionados requested it, here is an attempt at a summary in French of my recent post about "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," the misleadingly-named new wine bar from owners of Experimental Cocktail Club :

Voici une tentative de sommaire en français de mon récent article sur "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," le nouveau bar à vin au nom trompeur, ouvert par les propriétaires de l'Experimental Cocktail Club :

Ce jeudi dernier j'était présent à l'ouverture du nouveau bar à vin des propriétaires de ECC. On me dit que c'est le résultat d'une collaboration avec quelqu'un d’un grand domaine Bordelais, et cela se ressent sur la carte du vin, qui comprend environs 200 références, dont 50% sont des Bordeaux. Bon, rien de grave jusque là - ce bar à vin est implanté dans le 6ème arrondissement, le territoire des touristes, des étudiants gâtés, et de la bourgeoisie “chichi” de Paris qui aime la ville principalement pour ses plaisirs chers et luxueux, donc il est logique de trouver une carte de vin pleine de bouteilles recherchées pour le standing qu'elles donnent à ceux qui les consomment en public. Mais pour cet endroit de luxe conventionel, qui n'offre presque que des vins conventionels, les propriétaires ont choisi le nom de "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels."

Sauf ignorance massive de leurs parts, il n'est pas possible de comprendre ce nom autrement que ce qu'il semble être: un essai malhonnête d’abuser des principes et des idéaux du monde du vin nature.

21 September 2011

somm needed: le chatomat, 75020

The second-most curious thing about the inconsistently ambitious new 20ème bistro Le Chatomat is the name, which in American English sounds unavoidably like "laundromat." I have some French familiarity, of course, but even this only led me to imagine an unappetizing cross between a cat and a tomato. It was only towards the end of my meal there that I was reliably informed by a friend of chef-owners Alice di Cagno and Victor Gaillard that the restaurant's name is intended as a punning tweak on the name of a more famous Paris restaurant, Le Chateaubriand: Chateau + (sounds like) Brillante vs. (sounds like) Chateau + (sounds like) Matte.

If that sounds like astonishingly obscure, insidery, borderline nonsensical reasoning, suggestive that the proprietors live at least part-time in a closed internal dream world, we may still forgive them because the food is terrific. What I am less likely to forgive, and what implies a similar weird naïveté regarding contemporary dining convention, is the most curious thing about the place: that accompanying the marvelous and underpriced Michelin-lineage (Le Gavroche, Ledoyen, L'Arpège), globally inspired (Brazilian / Italian / French) cuisine on offer at Le Chatomat, is a pokey loser wine list containing nothing of any interest, clearly put together by a mediocre caviste seeking to unload some vacuous backstock.

C'mon, you want to say. You couldn't find a single well-informed somm in this city?

19 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: solativo vinosteria, ivrea

My first reaction upon walking into Solativo Vinosteria, a wine bar in Ivrea until recently co-owned by the Ferrando family, was one of exasperation: I take two steps in Ivrea, pop.: 24k, I reflected, and already I encounter a wine bar plainly superior to any that presently exist in Paris.

I suppose I can't pronounce that with total certainty, as I never saw Solativo in full swing. We'd driven over in the afternoon with manager Ivan Zanovello after tasting together with Luigi Ferrando in the latter's nearby tasting room, and the bar was not yet open. But all the ingredients for a lively, inspiring wine bar were in place: a terrace, a long bar, a spacious, informal interior, fridges stuffed with excellent native and local wines, even a chalkboard cocktail / aperitivo list that looked refreshing, if not fancy by any means.* There's frequent live music. Meanwhile, the bar shares an entrance with Luigi Ferrando's son Andrea's wine shop, where a bottle of Carema Ettiquette Bianca can be had for 14€. (Compared to $60 on stateside wine lists.) 

If we hadn't all been so knackered from the tasting, with several hours of driving ahead, it might have been nice to share a bottle with the heaping meat and cheese plates Ivan kindly fixed for us. As it was, we stuck with Chinotti, and I sat there trying to envision some reason to return to Ivrea one day. 

16 September 2011

ups & downs: avant comptoir, 75006

After fleeing from the malevolent fraudulence on parade at last week's opening of "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels," my friends and I found ourselves in the 6ème arrondissement on a Thursday night in desperate need of an actual glass of true natural wine. It was this desperation that impelled us to elbow our way into Paris' least comfortable dining experience, Avant Comptoir, a place I wasn't exceptionally keen on revisiting after having a middling lunch there a few months ago.

Perhaps it was in part the sheer relief of once again being in an establishment that knows, understands, and cares for natural wine, but I had a surprisingly lovely experience at Avant Comptoir that evening. No wait, no undue shoving. A screaming fresh octopus carpaccio, a faintly oriental salade d'oreilles de cochon (pigs' ears), and a bottle of Georges Descombes 2008 Brouilly, kindly fetched from nextdoor for us after a brief back and forth with the manager - all of this was sublime, and the memory is only lightly marred, in retrospect, by the fact that I returned two days later and had a totally abysmal experience, one that regretfully confirmed my initial diagnosis of the place as being a good concept executed with neither grace nor consistency. 

14 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: luigi ferrando, ivrea

I'm not yet so established as a wine writer that I don't still feel a residual bit of outsidery shame at contacting estates and asking busy winemakers to make time for someone with no purchasing power. Writing about wine estates can do them a valuable service - I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe this - but the estates that interest me most are rarely those that need much promotion. As such, in preparing for our Piedmont sojourn, I just sent a carpetbomb of emails to the region's most interesting winemakers, explaining that I was a wine writer traveling with my friend J, an actual wine buyer, and asking could we perhaps pop in for a visit?

To my disappointment, I received no response from the Luigi Ferrando estate, by whom we were to pass on our car journey from Sierre to Monforte. Ferrando produce arguably the greatest Nebbiolo outside of Barolo or Barbaresco, under an appellation called Carema in the Canavese, a psychotically steep alpine region abutting the Valle d'Aosta. Both J and I had previously had notable success selling these wines in California, where they're distributed by Neal Rosenthal

It was a good thing J had the good sense to just phone up the estate with almost zero notice from where we stayed in Switzerland, non parlo italiano be damned. We wound up with an appointment the next day, not with current winemaker Roberto Ferrando, who had just left for vacation, but with his father, the man himself, Luigi Ferrando. 

12 September 2011

what's in a name: la compagnie des vins surnaturels, 75006

This past Thursday I attended the opening of a sharp nightclubby wine bar in the 6ème off the Marché Saint Germain, the new project of the enterprising folks responsible for a trio of Paris' best cocktail bars (Experimental Cocktail Club, Curio Parlour, and Prescription). Befitting the location, and what I perceive to be the increasingly profit-minded priorities of the owners, the new wine bar offers a substantial list of conventional expense-account wines: established greats, obvious classics, show-off bottles. The list contains perhaps ten recognizeably "natural" wines,* but is fully 50% Bordeaux, reflecting a partnership (I'm told) with someone involved with an esteemed Bordeaux portfolio.** 

Ordinarily I would decline to post anything on this. It is not a natural wine bar, for one thing, and additionally the Native Companion presently works for the company, creating the potential for a conflict of interest.*** But, in what I can only presume is not an error, but rather an outrageously hubristic thumb-in-the-eye to anyone who cares about or works with or understands natural wine, the owners have christened the bold new not-especially-natural wine venture "La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels." 

It would be remiss to let this pass without comment. They seem to be asking for it. 

09 September 2011

neither: frenchie bar à vin, 75002

I finally got around to popping into Frenchie Bar à Vin the other day. I was meeting a friend of a friend (now just friend) called T who was passing through Paris. My somewhat perverse original idea was not to have a meal, but rather to patronise the new establishment in a manner appropriate to an archetypal wine bar, as it is popularly conceived: a meeting place, somewhere to pop in and have an informal splash.

A doomed effort, doomed from the get-go. I did initial research on wait times, something one doesn't do for the Archetypal Wine Bar In The Sky, and was informed that to guarantee no wait the best thing is to arrive smack at opening hour, 7pm. This was, for once, convenient for me, so I did. Upon arrival I joined the ranks of perhaps five other people, holding twelve seats between us. By the time T arrived, a few minutes late, several of us earlybirds were reading paperbacks, which activity, you can imagine, did nothing to create a convivial atmosphere.

There wasn't such an atmosphere the night I went, and I ruefully suspect there's slim chance of drumming one up in a place that ranks this insensibly high on tourists' must-visit lists, a place where your seat real estate is actively coveted by bespectacled native businessmen with pursed lips, holding full glasses like access passes, peeved at having to wait. As a wine bar, it's draggy. It was just lucky that T and I got along swimmingly. And that, despite the misnomer, Frenchie Bar à Vin still manages to be an enjoyable experience on its own terms, which is to say as a terrific small plates restaurant at 7pm sharp.

08 September 2011

n.d.p. en suisse: raclette dinner

My first introduction to raclette service came shortly after my arrival in Paris, in the apartment of a colleague who had one of those spacecrafty tabletop grills where you sautée meat and vegetable accompaniments on top while the cheese roasts in tiny trays in the middle. I've always found the experience fun and communal, if deadly; the lakefuls of molten cheese tend to render me unable to eat for days at a stretch. 

Swiss mountain folk seem to have a higher tolerance for such things. (At least, higher than half-Japanese Pennsylvanians.) Apparently in the Valais, where my friend C's brother N lives, raclette was at one point such an integral part of the diet that homes were built with a basement room dedicated specifically to raclette consumption, which clever arrangement kept the odors of bubbling cheese from permeating the rest of the house, the laundry, the drapes, etc. N's house contains one of these raclette-dens, and it was there that we all shared a meal of the famous cheese, this time paired with local Valais wines and prepared using an arguably more authentic gizmo. 

06 September 2011

n.d.p. en suisse: chateau de villa, sierre

On the way to Monforte d'Alba, where the Native Companion and I had booked a flat for a week with our friends J and C, we all spent a night in Sierre, in Switzerland, where C's brother N lives in a narrow multistoried wooden house with something like six decks that clings to a steep hillside crammed with vines. 

Sierre, I only realised upon arrival,* is smack in the Valais, Switzerland's biggest and most dizzyingly diverse wine-producing region. "Biggest" here should be taken relative to Switzerland's overall wine output, which in 2009 was a tiny 1.1 million hectolitres**, almost none of it exported. (For comparison, French wine production in the same year was over 48 million hectolitres.***) The Valais is, however, ampelographically diverse by any standard, home to a panoply of regional oddities, ranging from refreshing white Fendants to the rich oak-aged red Cornalins. Many, for all practical purposes, cannot be tasted elsewhere, because both the incorrigible strength of the Swiss economy and the generally feather-light character of the wines make the product uniquely unsuited to the global marketplace.

I was accordingly over-the-moon when N suggested we all take an apero at a local wine destination, a bar / restaurant / cave / museum called Chateau de Villa

01 September 2011

let this not be the future: le floreal, 75010

I wouldn't consider myself assimilated by a long shot. But I've been in Paris long enough by now that there are times I don't feel worlds apart from my adoptive society. From the street markets to the Velib system to the ready availability of natural wines, the place suits me fine - I often pass uninterrupted weeks under the sunny impression that I share some priorities and perspective with Parisians-at-large.

There is accordingly a great rupturing sense of alienation when I get dragged to a wrenchingly misguided but seemingly popular place like Le Floreal, a new-ish nonstop service restaurant opened near Goncourt by the folks behind 10ème bistro hangout Chez Jeanette. Le Floreal, with its huge menu, Mondrian-in-Vegas paneling, and incongruous chandeliers, fairly drips with investment money and ambition - all apparently in service of importing the worst American restaurant trends for ready consumption by credulous Parisians.

29 August 2011

credit sort of due: le petit trianon, 75018

The Native Companion and I joined some restaurateur and bartender friends at a competitive coffee event in the 17ème the other evening, and the plan afterwards had been to all pile into a natural wine bar around the corner, six or seven of us, possibly more. The plan foundered, however, when said bar turned out to be closed for vacation, and we found ourselves all shanghaied in the sleepy 17ème, caffeinated, sober, and starving, at close to 10pm on a Monday night in midsummer.

Sitting on the curb outside the shut wine bar, our options seemed limited to beer and kebabs, or just cursing the city and giving up on the evening. The latter is a particularly galling end to a night-out when it comprises one of two nights-off per week, as is restaurant industry standard. It explains our unanimous assent to our friend J2's heavily qualified proposition to check out Le Petit Trianon, the maniacally overpackaged, seven-day-a-week, practically-all-hours bistro attached to Le Trianon, a concert hall near Anvers.

As we hailed cabs, J2 was repeating, "If it's good, I take all the credit. If it blows, we knew it all along..."

19 August 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: torno subito

I'm off to Piemonte this morning, with two brief stopovers in Switzerland. In Piemonte we'll be staying in Monforte d'Alba, seeking visits with whichever reputable vignerons aren't on vacation. So expect limited posting for a week, followed by a meandering series of cued blog posts extending well into October discussing the overall quality and cultural significance of seemingly every drop of wine and blade of grass I happened to encounter during the trip.

Related Links:

Not Drinking Poison in Roma: April 2011
Not Drinking Poison in Madrid: November 2010
Not Drinking Poison in London: December 2010

The Beaujolais Bike Trip: July 2011
The Jura Bike Trip: May 2011

18 August 2011

beaujolais bike trip: le saint laurent, saint-laurent-sur-saône

We arrived in Mâcon before sundown on Monday evening, and after stowing our bikes and showering in our murdery hotel we resolved to hit the town, where nothing was open. Notably closed was a very nice-looking natural wine bistro in the shadow of the church called Le Carafé, which restaurant came with the recommendation of Isabelle and Bruno Perraud. In desperation I led everyone on a hopeless trawl through the shut streets of Mâcon looking for a restaurant where more than pizza was served, until, ready to surrender to sham-Italian, we espied the town on the Sâone river's opposite bank, Saint-Laurent-Sur-Saône, bathed in late sunlight with with a number of busy terraced restaurants on the quay.

After eyeballing each one, we determined that the best were shut, and of the two that remained, the one that had a table for us looked trashy as all get-out. This left us with Le Saint Laurent, what turned out to be a Georges Blanc restaurant with a vaguely troisième-age air and a thirty-plus minute wait for a quaint and extremely conservative mass-hospitality meal that nevertheless contained several surprises.

17 August 2011

righteous following: au passage, 75011

"Go soon," is what an informed friend cautioned when I'd asked him about Au Passage, a new natural wine bar-à-manger on passage Saint-Sébastien in the Marais-adjacent 11ème* - because the chef in charge, James Henry, was slated to depart shortly.

I can think of two nearby wine bars that function alright without a head chef, per se. But Henry, whose previous credits include a stint at massively popular 1èr arrondissement restaurant Spring, will leave some shoes to fill, when he goes. Because as my friend IF, the Native Companion, and I confirmed the other day at lunch, Au Passage is, thanks in large part to Henry's efforts, punching way above its weight right now, offering some of the city's most delectable, nigh-on haute cuisine small plates at prices more reflective of what the place really is: a neighborhood spot with a shoe-string budget and some good intentions. 

16 August 2011

beaujolais bike trip: café de la bascule, fleurie

Natural Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet had actually planned to take us to the restaurant next door to Café de la Bascule in Fleurie. It was closed for vacations. Anyway, as Karim explained to us, the places shared ownership; what separated the two terrace bistro concepts was just a slight gap in price and sophistication, la Bascule having cheaper meats and a wine list that was not unanimously natural.

We made do. An unexpected highlight of the experience was our server, who seemed all of 11 years old, but who nevertheless provided the most sparkling efficient professional service I have yet experienced in France. He seemed to be running the whole place, bantering with guests in the polished server patter of someone four times his age. As we ate our hangar steaks we watched in bemusement as the boy placed the kitchen orders for the restaurant from a mobile phone in the parking lot.* And when after a forgettable but refreshing round of Mâcon-Lugny Karim picked out a splendid unsulfured bottle of Jean-Claude Chanudet's 2008 Fleurie "La Madone," it was this little fella who served it, flawlessly.

15 August 2011

another glass of mexican wine

I have been seeing a lot of articles lately about a sudden wave of Mexican restaurants opening in Paris, a trend in which I have zero interest. Usually I would add some qualifier, about why my seemingly extreme view on an issue is not, in fact, so extreme. But to hell with it: not in my lifetime will it be possible to get what I consider real Mexican food in Paris, for a zillion reasons, ranging from non-availability of ingredients and kitchen expertise to the native population's total intolerance of even the mildest pique of spice. So I save my pesos for the cuisines of populations that have an actual cultural presence here: Lebanese, Algerian, Chinese, etc.

I can think of only two exceptions. One is my friends' place in the Marais, Candelaria, which serves a very tasty Mexican-like cuisine in a sadistically small room in front of the cocktail bar. (My interaction with the food usually extends no further than elbowing my way past it.) The other is Itacate, in the1èr. It's sort of the opposite of Candelaria in terms of ambition and sophistication, but the folks are very nice, and crucially it's right around the corner from a friend's cave; after tastings he and I often have recourse to a few inexpensive basically acceptable resto-ticket-redeemable tacos.

Additionally, as I remembered the other night with some friends of friends, they serve Mexican wine by the bottle, thereby offering an oenological experience that, while not advisable, it as least a real curiosity in these parts.

11 August 2011

strange but true: françois blanchard at le bistral, 75017

I have to thank my friend the natural Loire vigneron François Blanchard and his brother J3* for their high spirits and admirable fortitude during our dinner at 17ème bistro-à-vin Le Bistral a couple weeks back. François was in town for leisure purposes (a Roger Waters show) but had run into legendary natural Sologne-based Loire vigneron Claude Courtois earlier that day while lunching at @2eme haute-cave-à-manger Saturne, and they had proceeded to drink for most of the afternoon. Sensible mortals would have called it quits there; instead François and J3 went ahead as planned with the big chaotic dinner we'd arranged.

I get to the 17ème about as often as François gets to Paris, which, what with his insanely demanding, rigorously natural vineyard work in Lémére, near Chinon, and my preference for less timewarpy parts of town, is not very often at all. But I'm always grateful for the chance to discover another natural wine spot, and it's even more of a pleasure to check in with François to see what sort semi-visionary strangeness he's been coaxing from his vines lately.

10 August 2011

beaujolais bike trip: karim vionnet, morgon

At one point during our informal tasting tour of natural Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet's new facilities in Morgon, the winemaker excused himself for five minutes, because someone working for Pôle Emploi had arrived to discuss grape-picker contracts for the upcoming harvests. Five minutes quickly turned into fifteen, because, as we found out later, the Pôle Emploi employee had been a comely Polish woman who was appreciably interested in Vionnet's status as a bachelor-vigneron. There aren't many of those, she'd said, before joining us in tasting some of his 2010 Beaujolais-Villages...

Personal charms aside, Karim Vionnet is remarkable for representing a continuation of the natural Beaujolais ethos made famous by over the last two decades by Villié-Morgon's pioneering "Gang of Four" : the late Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet. Vionnet, a Morgon native and former baker,* trained for several years with Breton, before establishing his own operation in 2006. Since then he's produced a range of wines consistently remarkable for their rugged honesty and grace: a Beaujolais Primeur, a Beaujolais-Villages, a Chiroubles he titles "Vin de Kav," and depending on the vintage, as I only found out that day, a schiste-soil cuvée of Beaujolais-Villages from the commune of Beaujeu that rivals any cru Beaujolais I've tasted recently.

09 August 2011

the copper penny thing

Every so often - usually in the dining sections of popular newspapers - I read about the Copper Penny Trick, wherein an author dispels reduced aromas in a wine by plunking a copper penny in the glass. Hey presto, and gone (or diminished) are the burnt-matchstick / eggy qualities associated with sulfur reduction.

I have always hated these articles, despite having not, until just recently, tried the copper thing myself. I guess I felt the articles subtracted more than they added to wine discourse, in giving the impression to lay readers that wine were some wizardy substance that responded to talismanic rituals. (For that is the image that remains, regardless of whether the article in question delved into the fussier science of copper and mercaptans. Jamie Goode of WineAnorak explains much of that science here.) 

My worry has been, I think, that if we go down this road and make it socially acceptable to propose putting things from our pockets into wine, we will inevitably begin encountering doofuses who know nothing of wine except this trick. We'll be serving wine at a social occasion of some sort and Mr. Copper Penny will stand and do his thing and then cheekily propose adding Eye of Newt, or Deadly Nightshade. 

08 August 2011

utter bacchanalian anarchy at: le verre volé, 75010

My friends R, R2, and A celebrated the last night of their recent visit to Paris with a meal at their favorite restaurant here, the rightly famous Verre Volé. I think we all agree that there are few other restaurants in Paris where fine cuisine and wines are paired with the lurking possibility of sheer anarchy ensuing when two previously unintroduced afficionados begin an arms' race of manic rock-out generosity, purchasing various magnums and sending glasses back and forth over the entire restaurant until the place closes.

Anyway, that's what happened. My friend R started it with a magnum of Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet's 2004 "Saint Epine," impeccably chosen by our friend / server-sommelier Thomas. When the glasses started flying we were anwsered in kind by a cheery Serbian fellow across the dining room. I'd just joined my friends sometime around the cheese course, thinking to share a bottle of wine and call it an early night.

05 August 2011

beaujolais bike trip: chez agnès et jean foillard, villié-morgon

Renowned natural Beaujolais vignerons Jean and Agnès Foillard run a small, well-appointed chambre d'hôte just outside the center of Villié-Morgon. Jean wasn't around during our stay, unfortunately, and we hadn't made an appointment to taste, so the experience we had was decidedly non-wine-related. It was like staying in a small, well-appointed chambre d'hôte run by retired schoolteachers.

Having enjoyed Foillard's happily ubiquitous benchmark Morgons and Fleuries throughout roughly 40% of the dinners I've had in Paris, and tasted through same wines several times at tastings, it wasn't a huge disappointment. It would have been nice to see the chais and taste a few back vintages, if any were available. But there's always the next trip, for that.

In the meantime I had a room to myself with an extra bed and a huge shower* and an adjacent sitting room stuffed with French literature, the last item presumably provided for non-wine-drinkers who get dragged to Villié-Morgon by enthusiastic spouses. J and C showered and I sat around fiddling with my iPhone, wanting nothing more than to be in the same environment, only surrounded by, like, twelve good friends with healthy drinking appetites and nowhere to be for a few days.

03 August 2011

bravo: la retro'bottega, 75011

Besides the confusing name* - which has inspired several early reviewers to harp on senselessly about an imaginary nostalgic quality to the service and cuisine - there is, in my view, absolutely nothing wrong with La Retro'Bottega, the lower-11ème cave-à-manger opened earlier this year by former Rino sommelier Pietro Russano and his business partner Salvatore Li Causi.

I don't mean this as a back-handed complement. I mean they got almost everything right.

As someone who has developed what amounts to a physical allergy to bad restaurateurism, I'm filled with gratitude that a place like La Retro'Bottega exists: a comfortable, soulful cave-à-manger with a refreshing, vegetable-driven menu and a masterful selection of well-priced French and Italian natural wines.** Had I euros enough, and time, I'd dine there every night.