31 March 2011

on greatness

A recent exchange in the commentary section of this blog got me thinking about the concept of Greatness in wine. It seems to me that many disagreements about wine might be reduced to differing ideas about Greatness.

In the exchange I mention, the owner of O Château Wine Bar, Olivier Magny, responded to my critique of his establishment by citing the Greatness of the wine on offer there: 
If people want a non distinct glass of wine for less than 5€, and a big crowd of arrogant bobos then yes, I'm not afraid to say that our bar is the wrong place... 
...Maybe Paris is not ready for [O Château Wine Bar], maybe in a few weeks, we'll realize that the project of a wine bar that serves only great wines is too ambitious and that we should do what Everybody else does: serving glasses of average wines in average environments for 4 to 9€ and make it sound like Good value because it's inexpensive.
Setting aside, for the moment, Magny's hilarious and completely unwarranted martyr syndrome, there are two substantial flaws in this argument, which was intended to counter, or deflect attention from, my assertion that wine at O Château is rapaciously overpriced. Both involve, I think, misunderstandings about Greatness.

30 March 2011

bordeaux blonde: château méric & château sainte marie

Admission: I almost never buy Bordeaux, red or white. Like Hong Kong in 1997, I'm content to leave it to the Chinese.

But this is just a sneaky way of saying, 'I haven't yet become interested enough to educate myself.' White Bordeaux, however, holds a great deal of mystery for me, because I encounter it relatively rarely, and because when I do, I seem to dig the results. Typically derived from Semillon and Sauvignon, with diminishing proportions of Colombard, Ugni Blanc, and Muscadelle, among other minor grapes, the wines constitute a persuasive middle ground in great French white winemaking. More stolid and less exotic than Alsace, less luminescent than Burgundy, lacking the bite of Sancerre or the amorphous delicacy of Chenin, with neither the spicy exuberance of southwestern whites, nor necessarily the honied voluptuousness of those of the Rhone, Bordeaux blancs, like their red counterparts, seem to prize grace and gentility over strong personality. Only, not being red, they are continually overlooked, understocked, and underpriced.

The other day I dropped by 10ème natural cave La Contre-Etiquette, and left with two bottles of scandalously inexpensive white Bordeaux, which I intitially planned to keep in stock until some appropriately low-key occasion arose, such as a bad dinner party, or a risotto. I am no good at saving things, however. Later that evening my newly-bleached friend E came over, and we wound up polishing off both bottles in a state of happy incredulity, barely able to believe that such profound wines could be found so cheaply.

28 March 2011

time and again: les itineraires, 75005

Like, I imagine, quite a few Paris expats, I used to pay a great deal of attention to the New York Times' Paris coverage before I moved here. After one settles in, the articles understandably begin to seem a little exoticist and ooh-la-la. Nevertheless I still thank that paper for pre-briefing me on 2ème cocktail bar Experimental Cocktail Club, where I can still be found far too often, and 5ème market-menu restaurant Les Itinéraires, where I had a fabulous dinner the day I got to Paris, the highlight of which meal was a positively haunting salad of shaved foraged mushrooms, tiny clams, and citrus vinaigrette.

Inexplicably two years passed between that first meal at Les Itinéraires, and the occasion I had to revisit the restaurant the other night with my visiting friend / colleague D, and her friends S and E, editors, respectively, at Vanity Fair and - where else? - The New York Times T Magazine. The meal was memorable partly for sentimental reasons: I spent much of it marveling at how much life has changed since the day I moved to Paris, when my British friend A gave me a lift from London in his parents' car, during which voyage I managed to get struck with a scorching eye infection that I then confused for allergies, causing me to spend much of my first meal at Les Itinéraires, not to mention my first uncertain jobless week in Paris, squinting like a something that had just emerged from hibernation...

Suddenly there I was at Les Itinéraires again, two years in, enjoying some of the most astoundingly impressive wines I've had in years, thanks to Caroline, the rocking sommelier there, with whom I had in the meantime become friends.

24 March 2011

...of the best: le chateaubriand, 75011

Having lived immediately nearby for going on two years now, it's slightly unconscionable that it took me so long to visit Le Chateaubriand, Restaurant Magazine's 11th Best Restaurant In The World, Le Fooding's 2006 Meilleur Table award, the subject of strange reso raffles at Paris By Mouth, etc. I think I just get a sort of jaded heebie-jeebies whenever I hear reservations are difficult someplace, preferring instead to get low-key Chinese, or simply cook and watch Twin Peaks.

It took a fairly remarkable event to inspire my visit during these past women's collections: a colleague of mine, my friend D, decided to actually plan a meal ahead of time during fashion week. It's something that isn't done very often, just due to the exigencies of work during that period. D, who is part of our New York staff, visits Paris 2-4 times a year, and I think it finally got to her that during these visits we always seemed to wind up at Irish pubs. This time, she and I coordinated an ambitious dining schedule in advance, and top of her list was, naturally, Le Chateaubriand.

It turns out the best way to get a res is just to meander by around opening time, before the restaurant fills up, and ask one of the similar-looking fellows at the bar.* As with 2ème bistro-on-fire Frenchie, calling will only leave you feeling burned. (Whatever. Time will judge the wisdom of the whole absence-of-phone-etiquette-as-marketing trend.) I was happy enough to get a Tuesday four-top a week in advance for the early hour - for France - of 19h30,** and it deserves mention that later, on the day-of, when the restaurant called to confirm and I missed their call and called back seven times until I got through to confirm the confirmation, they were totally cool about expanding the res to five people. That was nice.

It allowed my friends B and V from Grey Magazine to join me, the NC, and D for what was, finally - what else? A really slamming, high-five-worthy meal.

22 March 2011

a cheap trick (i'd like you to like me)

Just in case the clumsy blue logo in the bottom right of this page was too subtle a signal: I've made a Not Drinking Poison In Paris Facebook page. It's mostly intended as a way for people who are not my real(ish) personal fbook friends to follow the blog through that medium. But since "Like" subscription is still in no way reflecting overall readership of this blog, I've decided to add some

21 March 2011

duck soup: dans les landes, 75005

When friends visit me in Paris, I seem to always get seized with self-consciousness on the final night of their stay, upon realizing that my grand tour of Paris - this city I adore, despite my complaints - has amounted to just so many excellent meals at fine restaurants. I like restaurants a lot, of course. The time I spent working / basically living in them has instilled in me an unshakeable affection for their infinitely varied dynamics. But mealtimes, at bottom, are largely routinized affairs: one eats and speaks and listens and drinks and oohs and ahs and one departs, often feeling quite sleepy.

For my friends D and P's final night, I felt like making at least some gesture towards having more than a dinner together. Or less than a dinner together, it didn't matter - just something a little unusual. I mentioned my quandary to another friend earlier that day, and she suggested Le Renard, a ridiculous cabaret-karaoke dinner fiasco near the Centre Pompidou, in which "restaurant" I had once been obliged to feign illness in order to avoid a meal of overpriced nightclub fare. To hell with it, I replied to her. We'll just find another terrific restaurant.

I booked us a large table last minute at Dans Les Landes, chef Julien Duboué's recently opened southwestern-French tapas place on the native side of the 5ème, thinking that perhaps an enjoyable light meal on a terrace in an informal environment with friends passing through might encourage the night onwards to other, non-gastronomic adventures.

The restaurant was indeed terrific. But I had miscalculated in a number of key ways.

18 March 2011

ô god no: ô château, 75001

I didn't stage this photo. That issue of Stuff magazine was actually lying around when we arrived.

On this blog, and elsewhere in life, I'm routinely chided for having drastic or polemical views about things. The title of this blog is a ready example. There are presumably many in the wine industry who would take exception to the embedded implication that to drink any wine other than natural wine is to drink poison.*

To hell with 'em.

No, but seriously, I do hold more nuanced views on these subjects than might be perceptible from certain statements I make. (I try to explore these nuances in footnotes, parenthetical asides, and digressive introductions.) But I find that in the din of contemporary blog-journo chatter, unless one says something memorably, what one says makes very little impact. I prefer to convey something of what I genuinely feel about a subject to a reader, even if now and then I get a pang of remorse when phrasing a complicated issue in terms that are harsh, or reductive, or vaguely violent.**

That being said, my friend J and I visited newly opened club-à-vin O Château: The Wine Bar the other Saturday evening, and while J left puzzled by the experience, and refrained from passing judgment, I myself walked out - shortly after we walked in - with refreshingly unshaded ideas.

O Château embodies everything I detest about the wine industry, and if the place were to burn down tomorrow, the unlucky proportion of honest wines captive inside would all meet happier fates than remaining seen there.

17 March 2011

font-astic: christophe, 75005

Christophe, situated not far from the Pantheon, across the square from buoyant 5ème bar à vin Les Pipos, is the kind of restaurant that only a positively bulletproof recommendation could ever induce me to enter. Happily we received just such a recommendation from my friend J (whose previous credits include having hipped me to heavenly 9ème Chinese joint Q-Tea) recently. His sage direction during a recent visit enabled our large group of friends to ignore (deep breath):
1. The banner use of the font Curlz, which is to dopey French bistro favorite Comic Sans what snuff films are to bad romantic comedies.
2. The restaurant's décor, which resembles nothing so much as a restroom in a bank in Chinatown.
3. The wincingly mangled English translations on the menu, which include such inedible delights as "leg of lamp."*
- and thereby allowed us to savor one of the greatest meals I've had in Paris, replete with well-chosen natural wines at prix caviste, many from unexpected vintages, and meats - almost nothing but meats - selected with the kind of care one normally associates with high-caste arranged marriages.

The place is phenomenal.

16 March 2011

accidental drunken science experiment involving bourbon

My friends D and P visited recently from the states, and among the plethora of wonderfully generous gifts they brought was a bottle of my favorite bourbon, Black Maple Hill 14yr. It's by no means the most complex or profound spirit, but there's a focused dry hay-like roastiness to it that I find very pleasing.

Over the occasional protests of people trying to cultivate chest hair, I tend to add a drop or two of water to most whiskies, as even a homeopathically small amount has the effect of dramatically opening a spirit's palate and aroma. But the other night I reached for a water glass that, unbeknownst to me, contained the remnants of D's Alka-Seltzer from that morning.

The effect was pretty mesmerizing. Particularly since we'd been hitting the 'Hill pretty hard by that point. The Alkaseltzer turned the ordinarily flaming-orange bourbon a deep cola-brown. P pointed it out from across the room before I'd taken a sip of the discolored whiskey and it took a few minutes of drunken forensic work to realize what had occurred. Until we worked it out I just assumed my friends had been trying to poison me.

15 March 2011

punchy: frenchie, 75002

As the NC and I left a cocktail party at Le Bal Café the other night, my friend Z, upon hearing we were meeting friends at thunderously overhyped 2ème restaurant Frenchie for dinner, warned us against ordering the ravioli. "It's like Chinese take-out," she said.

So we got the ravioli. The superfocused menu at Frenchie contains only two appetizers, not including an optional torchon de foie gras, and we were very hungry. Furthermore it didn't seem likely to be the same dish, considering Frenchie presents a market menu that changes nightly.

Later I found out Z was confused and had been talking about a different restaurant. The funny thing is, her description wasn't entirely off the mark. The ravioli we had at Frenchie was vaguely disappointing: oversauced, dissociative, layered with some uncharacteristically wan chair de torteaux. One dumpling doesn't stop the show, of course. I mention it here not as evidence against chef Gregory Marchand's celebrated skills - which were on fine display in almost all the other dishes that evening - but rather as an example of the kind of withering scrunity we're fairly or unfairly inclined to direct against any tiny bistro that, merely by doing things intelligently and with appreciable commercial panache, becomes an unbookable flaming hot destination table.

14 March 2011

hold me closer, vincent dancer: spring buvette, 75001

My couturier friend D had just reached the finish line of a manic work jag spanning two continents designing some dresses worn at the Oscars. She was in Paris for the défilée of the brand she works for, and after the glittering chaos of the fashion show itself, and the congratulatory tumult backstage, I thought she might prefer someplace kind of tranquil for a glass and a bite before the afterparty.

So we popped over to Daniel Rose's subterranean 1èr wine bar Spring Buvette, which, while reliably packed these days, still manages to emit a kind of hotel-lobby civility. There are in fact times when I find it too civil. Then there are times like the other night with D, when the crisp service, and pin-point precise pleasures of the luxe wine list* and the inventive menu are exactly what is called for.

For example: the above plate of sweet urchin with mild horseradish cream, and a glass of esteemed Burgundy vigneron Vincent Dancer's perfectly sculpted 2007 Meursault "Les Corbins."

09 March 2011

i have not stopped drinking

Quite the opposite, in fact. The uncharacteristic radio silence is due to fashion week, an unavoidably knackering time of year.

Regularly scheduled updates will recommence next week. In the meantime, here's a photo of my friend E and I draped head to toe in leopard print:

08 March 2011

vendre sa salade: le petit vendome, 75002

One of my favorite features of Place Vendôme über-canteen le Petit Vendôme is the humor embedded in their menu. This is the jawdroppingly huge flock-of-duck salad my friend / colleague A ordered, because she was trying to stay sage that lunch hour, and not eat too much.

Needless to say it dwarfed the steaks and andouillettes the rest of us nibbled on.

Le Petit Vendôme
8, rue des Capucines
75002 PARIS
Metro: Opera or Madeleine
Tel: 01 42 61 05 88

Related Links:

Where We Eat Far Too Often: Le Petit Vendôme, 75002

04 March 2011

fit for a king: la robe et le palais, 75001

It doesn't seem at all fair that a few short blocks of the 1èr arrondissement are home to so many great wine destinations. Just a stones' throw from the excellent cave-à-manger La Robe et le Palais, where I had a joyous no-occasion celebration with some friends the other night, you have Spring, Spring Buvette, Spring Boutique, and Le Garde Robe, which latter wine bar was founded by the Robe et Palais folks. I can't decide whether it strikes me as shrewd or confusing that the name of their newer place is so similar to that of the old place.

Name aside, the differences are unmistakable. La Robe et le Palais is like the Something Else By The Kinks to Le Garde Robe's Face to Face: a significantly more mature, ambitious work, even if the albums share similar production values and general subject matter.

03 March 2011

dear landlord: domaine de la pinte's '05 arbois pupillin

My awesome landlady and her husband had me over for an apero the other evening, at which occasion they had the opportunity to introduce to me the organic Arbois they'd been glowing about for quite some time: Domaine de La Pinte's 2005 Arbois Pupillin "Viandries." Because I know S and G's tastes run slightly more conservative than my own,* I'd expected something tasty, clear-fruited, and polite. (They'd also said they'd been drinking it nightly, so I knew it wasn't extrêmement cher, non plus.)

Upon actually tasting the wine, however, I nearly melted out of my chair, and scared the cats. The nose was a little closed at first - lightly oxidative, that's all - which gave the wine's unreasonably profound palate the element of surprise.

I read fresh butter, rich mineral, and white peach flavors, all complicated by a very pleasing roast-parsnip-like rootiness. Everything was riven with a melodious but perfectly edged acidity. I was held rapt with every sip: it's not every day one just stumbles onto a wine that, at six years' age, happens to be in scintillating peak form.

02 March 2011

i feel you: philou, 75010

I'm increasingly convinced that, for Parisian restaurateurs, the greatest challenge is not to find the best location or to source the best ingredients or to stock the best wines, but simply to inspire a cheery staff. Even a reliably polite staff is an achievement in this city. There's a very simple in-built societal reason for this, having to do with the disproportionately enormous costs of hiring and firing people in France. When French service staff, enduring the punishing stress that typifies restaurant work, behave as though they own the place, it's because, in effect, they do. Getting rid of a bad egg involves painful negotiations that can end with the employer paying two years' worth of the ex-employee's salary, a cost few restaurants can afford.

Philou, a winningly sharp, modern bistro tucked just off the Canal Saint Martin in the 10ème, has been garnering beaming reviews from all corners since it opened this past August, and while all the other criteria for success are certainly in place - well-priced natural wines, a solid market menu, the nearby canal - it was the engaged, reactive service that was the runaway highlight of a recent meal there.

To wit: a party of foppy Anglophones strides in, takes an eternity to order, and Linda, the superinformed and apparently telepathic server, intuits correctly that the delay is not that of bumbling tourists, but rather that of someone who worked in restauration who is simply jazzed to be there and geeking about the wine list to his friends.

01 March 2011

eric asimov's unhelpful thought exercise

Eric Asimov of the NYTimes has published an editorial in that paper proposing, in what seems like partial seriousness, that the lexicon of wine writing be reduced to just two descriptors: sweet and savory.

Talk about career suicide.

Actually, the piece is a critique on the state of contemporary wine discourse, which Asimov quite rightly views as so muddled and obfuscatory as to be largely self-invalidating - it confuses even as it attempts to educate. Being a great fan of just about everything else Asimov has written, I'm inclined to judge his two-word proposal as generously as possible. Nevertheless it still strikes me as a fundamentally misguided, unhelpful idea - like, in trying to clear the air of wine journalism, he has proposed a deathly vacuum.