31 May 2011

quiller: les quilles, 75011

A side effect of habitual contact with food and wine criticism - as a writer or as a reader - is susceptibility to the delusional belief that for a meal or bottle to be great, it must represent some sort of innovation or superlative quality.  

I'd argue that such a conception of greatness runs counter to the spirit of eating and drinking in general. After all, these are ageless routines, cyclical and process-oriented. I suspect that overt innovation or score-seeking can no more increase the pleasures of the table than it can those of, say, the bedroom, site of another ageless routine. The net enjoyment stays around the same no matter what tools you bring, as long as the conventional maneuvers are performed with some degree of panache. 

It's why well-executed neighborhood restaurants are so irresistible. Modest and unfussy, they're somehow humanly restorative in how little they seek to impress you, and how simply they succeed. I have to thank my friend G for tipping me off to Les Quilles, a perfect example of the genre that opened last July near Ménilmontant. I can't imagine crossing Paris to experience the bistro comfort food, suberb natural wines, and smart service the bistro-à-vin offers. But, as my friends and I agreed the other night, it's a fine stroke of luck to live nearby.  

30 May 2011

jura bike trip: saline royale d'arc et senans

No way we could have done our Jura Bike Trip without our friend J. A caviste / wine director with heaps of experience leading bike tours in Burgundy, he was indispensable for route-mapping, bike-fixing, and domaine-contacting. So none of us, not me not my friends E or D, voiced a peep of protest when J enthusiastically proposed, as our first destination in the Jura, the Saline Royale d'Arc et Senans.

Royal Salt Mines, eh? Defunct, eh? Chiefly of architectural interest, you say? Count me in!

Actually, to my knowledge, I was the only one who was bored to within moments of asphyxiation. E and D seemed pretty curious about Claude Nicolas Ledoux, the legendary architect behind the neoclassical structures of the Saline Royal. It's not that I can't appreciate good architecture, or not entirely that. It's that, in what I suspect is a problem endemic to isolated points of architectural interest, the curators of the Saline Royal have come up with practically nothing to fill it with.

27 May 2011

pants: le pantruche, 75009

A defining feature of the blog era is that it permits anyone, just anyone, to publish criticism on a given subject, regardless of his or her expertise in, or even familiarity with, said subject. I myself benefit from this phenomenon as much as the next guy: I'll pronounce opinions on wine regions I've never visited, for instance, or I'll rely solely on web research for the history of a particular wine bar. These are habits that are rightly discouraged in conventional journalism.

One arguable advantage of this new blog order is the addition of fresh voices, fresh perspectives into niche fields that were historically the province of established professionals. Published criticism of any sort has gotten a great deal less Mandarin. Reader and writer, once divided by the greater access and broader perspective of the latter, have grown closer than ever.

The downside is that many of these fresh outsider voices are just totally uninformed. And perceptibly outside the industries they cover. I'm not saying it's impossible to know a subject well without ever having worked with it professionally. It is less likely, though.* One is liable to get snowed. For instance, I suspect it was mostly just critical naivete, combined with a certain hunger for newness typical of the hyperactive blog media environment, that yielded a flush of great press earlier this year for 9ème modern bistro Le Pantruche.

It's a restaurant that might succeed in charming you if, by gosh, you just like fancy food, and to hell with details, such as wine, knowledgeable service, inspired restaurateurism, etc.

25 May 2011

arbois apéro: domaine de la loue, domaine rolet

My landlady S and her husband G have become sort of like a second family to me over here. So it's the happy custom, whenever my actual real-life family visit, to introduce them to S and G, their wine-savvy Parisian replacements.

S and G invited my sister J3, her boyfriend J4, and I round for an apéro recently, and we were fortunate to catch them a few weeks after their return from a large wine tasting in the Jura.*

G, in his impeccably curatorial fashion, had prepared a marvelous cheese board and decanted two of their recent discoveries: a 2009 Domaine de la Loue Arbois Savagnin, and a 2000 Domaine Rolet Arbois Savagnin that had been bottled in 2006, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Arbois appellation.

23 May 2011

neighborhood natural: chair de poule, 75011

There are a number of things wrong with my current living situation. I have no oven, for instance, just a cruddy little wall-mounted toaster thing that even a Barbie doll would decline to bake anything in. Another factor is the noise: the traffic, the hooting hordes of drunks at the bars below my bedroom window, the lone schizophrenic homeless hollerer who sleeps, or rather never sleeps, atop the air vent across the street...

I won't leave yet. Too much hassle, too little money, and I have too nice a rapport with my landlady as it stands. And there are some key benefits, one being a charming low-key natural wine bar that is practically on my doorstep, the unfortunately named Chair de Poule.*

It's been open going on two years', but as far as I'm concerned it became a very worthwhile afterwork apéro spot sometime around November, when nearby pokey natural wine bar Gustave et Jules shut its doors, and the two bars joined forces in the Chair de Poule space. One now finds the former bar's cheery, completely unpretentious staff and its low-priced pipsqueak natural wine list inhabiting a livelier space, with an earnest tapas menu, and - crucially - a decent swath of outside seating.

20 May 2011

i got excited about water: le verre volé, 75011

There is actually nothing on earth more dull than a conversation about the relative merits of bottled water brands. It's a subject on which I've thus far generally avoided forming opinions, specifically to avoid the hazard of voicing them in a social setting, and subsequently metamorphasizing into a scrap of wallpaper, or potted geranium.

Probably about three things are important about a restaurant's water service, and all of them can be negatively defined. If you must serve bottled water, the brand shouldn't be widely available in adjacent supermarkets and convenience stores. If you must serve bottled water, it should under no circumstances be Voss, whose bottles look like specialty munitions designed to be fired inside nightclubs. Finally, whether you serve bottled water or whether you helpfully filter and carbonate your own in-house, the water itself should never be mentioned or described or promoted in any way. It's water. Discussing it is like discussing the tablecloth.

At my former workplace in LA we served Lurisia, because it was in keeping with the restaurant's Italian persona and because it was faintly exotic (i.e. not Pellegrino). It also tasted nice, a plus. As far as I'm concerned that's how a restaurant's bottled water decisions should be made: a short aesthetic equation balancing out to something mute and inoffensive. A recent visit to 10ème cave-à-manger Le Verre Volé, however, had the distinction of being memorable mostly for the water they've begun serving: Ventadour, from Ardêche. If one measures in millimeters, one could say it was somewhat moving, this water.

19 May 2011

sightseeing at la bodeguita du IVème, 75004

A perennial problem I have, leading friends about Paris, is we invariably wind up, after three days or so, in a kind of hungover fog through which it is impossible to see the city's landmarks. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, all might as well be a million miles away, for how unattainable they become after three or four nights' cumulative drinking.

So upon leaving dinner at a friend's office space, I'd intended to just let my sis and her boyfriend meander around nighttime Paris for a bit, with the idea that it might make up, in some small way, for how little of daytime Paris they'd been able to see thus far. 

Instead we decided to pop into La Bodeguita du IVème for a wee nightcap. To our delight and misfortune, however, co-owner Olivier Aubert was behind the bar that night, which meant that a wee nightcap was out of the question, that instead we'd be going on a virtual sightseeing tour of winemaking France, bottle by bottle, glass by glass.

18 May 2011

merguez with de gaulle: drappier's "charles de gaulle" champagne

Truth be told, I'd intended to save the birthday bottle of 2006 Drappier Champagne "Charles de Gaulle" my friends A and C gave me in the midst of a drunken literary reading for some future occasion, when A and C would again be present, and all of us somewhat more sober. But recently another friend, R, invited me round for dinner at her offices, which overlook the Centre Pompidou, and since my sister and her boyfriend J4 were in town, and the latter had just fixed a wonderful heap of Lebanese cuisine to bring, it seemed a irresistible occasion to crack open said Champagne, even if in doing so I may have set the stage for a future moment of mild Champagne-less awkwardness in the presence of A and C.*

I look forward to one day having the luxury of not thinking about any of this, of just buying the stuff by the caseload and misplacing it behind my Aston Martin in my eight-car garage. As it is, Champagne of any sort, even a medium-plus bottling like the "Charles de Gaulle," is something I have to kind of play chess with. (I'm routinely happier with a variety of less expensive, equally engaging sparkling wines, but the actual public gesture of Champagne is irreplaceable.)

Finally, as so often happens in spite of my insane planning, the Champagne itself - 80%-20% Pinot Noir / Chardonnay, deep, somewhat unctuous and briny - took a backseat to the happy circumstances: a view across Paris, some fine company, and J4's killer brochettes de merguez with harissa yogurt.

17 May 2011

more fun that way: delobre's unsulfured st. joseph at le dirigeable, 75015

Update: 23/10/2013: I've just heard Le Dirigeable has closed. Bummer. 

Well, I was gently hassling my friend Guy about having served us a different vintage of Burgundy than the one we'd ordered from his list at 15ème restaurant Le Dirigeable. It hadn't been done intentionally; he'd evidently just jumped the gun on updating the vintage on the list and then unknowingly served us the 2008 instead of the 2009.

"It's a big deal!" I teased. (It sort of is, though. 2008 was nothing like 2009; the wines are drinking in wildly different states. That wine from 2009 would have shown a lot livelier, less savoury.)

In revenge, he insisted on choosing the next wine. He produced a Saint Joseph by a small natural Rhône producer called La Ferme de Sept Lunes. I recognized the wine's label and promptly began voicing various protests: how I'd had the wines before, they were a bit polished, how generally I'm not much into Rhône wines, whites or reds,* how I needed something lighter for my steak tartare... I was being an ass, in short.

It turns out what Guy was serving us was the winemaker Jean Delobre's unsulfured cuvée, "Le Chemin,"** which, on the contrary, I was keen to taste. I'm not a hardline no-sulfur flag-waver, but if the one thing I have against a given wine is a slight lack of personality, then bien sûr I'd like to encounter it again in an unsulfured version. It's like catching up with an acquaintance who has in the meantime stopped taking medication and taken up drinking again. There are certain risks - but some people are just more fun that way.

13 May 2011

fine, just fine: les fines gueules, 75001

Due to a long ridiculous histoire involving arrests, my sister J3 and her boyfriend J4* missed their intended flight to Paris from Los Angeles, and wound up arriving the day after the extravagant meal at Rino I'd organized to celebrate their arrival. They arrived in time for what I'd presumed would be a low-key hangover day.

That was my eventual excuse, anyway. I had admittedly been hoping that 1er natural wine bistro Les Fines Gueules would, despite its laid-back reputation, deliver some kind of minor whizz-bang, some gastronomic pyrotechnic, some superlative aspect that might knock at least one sock off my American visitors' travel-weary feet.

Nothing was outright awful, or bad even. Les Fines Gueules, as a restaurant, is fine, perfectly fine, considering it's smack in the 1er arrondissement, and it's open seven days a week, and the owners appear to have at one time or another had some good fundamental ideas. All the familiar natural bistro boxes are dutifully ticked: fresh, responsibly sourced ingredients, a well-priced natural wine list, a pleasant informal atmosphere... Nevertheless my guests might as well have still been on the plane, ten-thousand feet up, for how autopiloted the whole experience felt.

11 May 2011

jura bike trip

The paucity of posts this week has been due to a bike trip through the Jura, a region in eastern France north of Burgundy abutting Switzerland, during which sojourn I had spotty internet access and, furthermore, no will whatsoever to dither in front of a computer.

My friends J, D, E, and I stayed at a splendid chambre d'hôte in Poligny run by natural vigneron Ludwig Bindernagel and his wife Nathalie. We toured an empty but architecturally significant salt mining facility. We had some really excellent Turkish fast food with less excellent Turkish wine. Monday we visited famed Château-Chalon estate Domaine Macle for a tasting and tour of the cellars. Mostly we biked.

I'll elaborate on all this in a short series of posts once I regain full use of my limbs and begin thinking straight.

Related Links:

Enjoying Bindernagel's 2007 "Delire des Lyres" at Bistro Paul Bert, 75012
Drinking Bindernagel's 2008 Poulsard with a homemade soufflé
Pairing Bindernagel's 2007 Côtes du Jura "Sous les Cerisiers" with an episode of Twin Peaks

06 May 2011

consider the cider: breizh cafe, 75003

One of the perks of my other, paying job is that it is not in the Marais, but allows me to float pleasantly through said neighborhood several times a week. I have ambiguous feelings about the Marais, finding it by turns charming and parodically frouffy. I'm speaking now of the nicer more genteel sections, not the shower-bars and accessories bazaars on rue du Temple - which are not nearly as insufferable as a certain bland, pastel-tinted, pre-rumpled fashion-esque ideal one sees draped in shop window after dull shop window between Filles du Calvaire and Saint Paul. Hang me with a wispy linen noose, already, and bury me in artisanal loose leaf tea.

Then you have places like renowned crêpe concept Breizh Café, which, while as artfully packaged as the next frouf-shop on the street, disintinguishes itself by hawking good taste rather - yes - tastefully. It's a well-run operation with fresh ingredients, good service, and an unbeatable list of ciders. Nothing wrong with the natural-by-numbers wine list, either.

If the place feels slightly impersonal, and is neither as conceptually pure as Crêperie Bretonne nor as jovial and welcoming as West Country Girl (both 11ème crêperies), it still very much suffices for a satisfying, culturally resonant midday meal. Which is why I was happy to bring my sister J3 and her boyfriend J4 there for lunch the day they arrived, jetlagged and happy, still blinking in the daylight, trailing my work-related wander through the Marais.

04 May 2011

worth celebrating: rino, 75012

I'd intended our dinner at 12ème Italian-ish restaurant Rino earlier this month to be a celebration of the much-anticipated arrival in Paris of my sister and her boyfriend. They live across the world in Los Angeles, and I hadn't seen them in two years, so someplace soulful and slightly splashy was in order.

Rino, with its fixed market menu and Franco-Italian natural wine list, is actually very reasonably priced, for what it is, but I'm not (yet) such an inveterate gourmand that four or six courses at dinner is the norm for me. Ben Franklin famously said, "Three good meals a day is bad living"; an addendum for contemporary Paris dining might be: "Six fine courses is two meals."

Unfortunately, due to a complicated story involving an arrest, my guests missed their flight and arrived a day late. I found out that morning, by which time I'd already corralled a gang of friends and the Native Companion had invited her sister, who I'd yet to meet. So, what the hell, we celebrated anyway. I was delighted to meet the NC's sis, and furthermore it turned out my friends C and J had just settled on an apartment that day. Then, even setting aside those happy circumstances, simply to encounter such a splendid, well-priced Italian wine list in Paris is a major occasion for me.

03 May 2011

n.d.p. in roma: gran caffé de balduina, etc.

It's not wine-related, but I'm unable to resist posting a small word of appreciation for the under-sung merits of the modest Italian café breakfast. Our first morning in Rome we assembled one at the tent-like café space beside the house where we stayed on the Viale delle Medaglie d'Oro. The following morning was Sunday, and the closure of the tent-space obliged us to wander far up same road until we struck gold at the wonderful, completely unremarkable Gran Caffé de Balduina.* 

The staff were shortly to shut up shop there, too, but offered no protest as the Native Companion and I ordered squishy donut-like croissants, a ham and mozzarella panino, two café lattés, two spremuti d'arancia, and a towering bottle of sparkling water. 

Yes, this combination of foodstuffs can be had equally at Rome Termini station or Fiumicino Airport. Even Ciampino. It remains satisfying at those less-than-ideal locations. I think it's because every element of this repast is in itself a minor hangover corrective; when taken as a whole they constitute a veritable apothecary shop for one's bleary-eyed afternoon satisfaction. 

02 May 2011

raining grolleau: balt, 75002

Nothing brightens a hassle-strewn rainy Monday afternoon like visiting your favorite nearby sandwich bar (Balt) and receiving, as a random gift from the excellent oenophile owner, a bottle of marvelous purple Grolleau (Le Vin de Jardin 2010) by good natural Anjou vignerons (Marc Houtin and Julien Bresteau of La Grange Aux Belles). 

The only problem is, back at the office you are faced with one of those angel-&-devil-on-either-shoulder choices, with regards to what to drink with your sandwich.