27 March 2012

when all else fails: aux tonneaux des halles, 75001

The classic Parisian defense of chaotic or miserable or under-exploited establishments insists that such places should be cherished for their flaws, since they represent the Paris of bygone age. And there are indeed more than a few restaurants - Le Petit Vendôme ! Le Rubis ! etc. - that truly merit such sentimentalism. But in my experience the Time Capsule Defense is in most cases a strange psychological sleight-of-hand by which restaurant patrons excuse, in addition to the unmistakeable avarice or viciousness or laziness in a restaurant's service, also themselves, for failing to voice any protest.

Eyes wander up from hideous plates to rest more comfortably on ancient vermouth ads and rustic farm equipment adorning the wall. A guest in this sort of restaurant abandons the idea of deriving culinary-aesthetic satisfaction or even sustenance from a meal, and instead considers the whole experience a sort of living museum, of chiefly historical or sociological interest.

"I've been to this museum before!" is what I usually shout in such situations, and skedaddle. If after a concert recently it was actually me who led a few friends to wine bar throwback Aux Tonneaux des Halles, it was only because it was a thronged Saturday night and we had no other choice, and because Aux Tonneaux remains distinguished, among weird Time Capsule Restaurants, for its superb natural wine list.

We were four, no res: me, my friend D, his friend L, her unpredictable metalhead acquaintance S. There was no terrace space but we sat by the meat slicer in the helplessly over-illuminated interior and shared a perfectly lovely, black-fruited bottle of 2009 Descombes Vieilles Vignes Brouilly for the very reasonably price of 33€.

If I hadn't been so quick on the trigger and eager to begin drinking, we could have had a 2008 Foillard Fleurie for 36€ (!). Given that the surrounding area is one big half-hearted Mardi-Gras of beer-soaked tourists, t-shirt vendors, and gypsies on the hunt for iPhones, it's hard not to feel a pang of sentiment for the divine cru Beaujolais being pissed away here on a nightly basis.

The concert we'd come from was L's, an hour-long tone piece involving numerous tape players. We hadn't been certain she'd be able to hang afterwards, which is how we found ourselves with no reservations anywhere. Also, I'd run five miles directly before the concert. All this is to say, I could've eaten a horse by the time we got out of La Gaite Lyrique. And in fact, eating a horse, even one that was live and kicking, would have been preferable to the steak I eventually received at Aux Tonneaux des Halles.

It was mealy and tasted faintly of car-exhaust and was totally my own damn fault. I'd fallen into a routine sort of association fallacy, presuming that an emphasis on natural wines would necessarily accompany, on the part of the restaurateur, an appreciation for good product, responsibly-sourced meats, etc. Nope. Aux Tonneaux des Halles presently serves crud appropriate to its district, not its wine list.

D nibbled on a terrine de campagne from which all traces of flavor had evidently been bleached, leaving a vaguely mortuary cake-like thing, like something you'd find impacted behind a refrigerator's crisper drawer.

The fries were fine. The highlight of the meal, discounting the wine. Fine fries.

For all my criticism, Paris would be all the better if it contained more restaurants with lots of terrace space that served inexpensive fantastic Beaujolais and competent fries and nothing more than that.

Moreover it doesn't hurt that Aux Tonneaux des Halles is a completely unpretentious place, a holdover from that, yes, bygone era where serving honest wines was not widely felt - at least among restaurant staff - to endow restaurant staff with some imaginary Homburg hat of sophistication.* Which leads us to one reason I too find myself occasionally grateful for Time Capsule Restaurants: they provide respite from the terrors of the present, which include Saturday nights with no reservations in a city full of twits.**

* The behavior of staff at places like 11ème wine bar Aux Deux Amis or 2ème dick palace Saturne is precisely what sets many people against the concept of natural wine as a whole. Such places offer natural wine as part of a package deal that includes a demonstration of martyrdom at even having to provide the basics of hospitality, like silverware. This sort of service implies that guests are a distraction from the chief goal of working with natural wine, which is to overthink the whole enterprise into absurdity.

** Not just Paris. Most cities are like this. 

Aux Tonneaux des Halles
28, rue Montorgeuil
75001 PARIS
Metro: Les Halles
Tel: 01 42 33 36 19

Related Links:

A 2011 piece on Aux Tonneaux des Halles @ TheParisKitchen
An enthusiastic 2007 piece on Aux Tonneaux des Halles that makes me suspect quality has declined since it was written @ WineTerroirs
An undated blurb on Aux Tonneaux des Halles @ MoreThanOrganic

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