23 December 2013

yonne bike trip: nicolas vauthier / vini viti vinci, avallon

I'll never forget how Le Verre Volé's Cyril Breward once described Nicholas Vauthier's range of low-sulfur north-Burgundian négociant wines to me. The delicate word he used was "perfectible," which is to say, capable of perfection, and by inference, not at all there yet. (This word is a godsend for anyone who must strive to be diplomatic when asked for opinions on friends' wines.)

Vauthier's Vini Viti Vinci wines had appeared seemingly overnight in just about every restaurant and wine shop I frequented. There was nothing not to love about the marginal appellations - Irancy, Bourgogne Epineuil - or the joyously ribald cartoon labels,* which typically depict mustacchioed transexuals and naked women of all races and shapes in suggestive poses. But the wines themselves initially left me a little cold. At best they were stolid examples of their grapes and not great values; at worst they were just plain flawed.

This was a few years back, though. When last June I saw a chance to pass by Vauthier's home-base of Avallon, I lost no time in requesting an appointment. For I'd belatedly learned that Vauthier had co-founded my favorite restaurant, Aux Crieurs du Vin in Troyes. And I'd already noticed his wines had been improving. The Vini Viti Vinci range now contains some very pleasant surprises, both red and white.

18 December 2013

changing the landscape: bistro bellet, 75010

It took me a few years in Paris to appreciate how a single restaurant can cause a seismic shift in the city's dining landscape. Places like Le Verre Volé, Spring, and Au Passage opened as neighborhood spots. But they introduced new dining paradigms to Paris, and quickly became reference points for anyone daring to drag the boulder of French restauration up the hill of contemporary urban life.

To the ranks of those innovators I'd now nominate Nicolas Lacaze's Bistro Bellet, which opened just weeks ago on an excitingly leery stretch of rue du Fauboug Saint-Denis, basically the Cirque du Soleil of sketch. It's an area people keep promising me will gentrify, but until now those promises have seemed about as concrete as reincarnation for the nearly-dead. Bistro Bellet, with its clean décor, laser-sighted service, and conceptual savvy, is like a giant defibrillator for the neighborhood, and the bistrot genre at large.

It's a near-faultless restaurant that serves masterful Provençal-inflected cuisine and well-priced natural wines in a fussless environment from very early (6pm) until very late (midnight). Who's to say whether other restaurants will follow suit, and the innovative idea of turning tables will take root in Paris? For now I'll just say that Bistro Bellet presented one of the most fundamentally satisfying meals I've had all year.

16 December 2013

yonne bike trip: le bougainville, vézelay

Deciding where to dine in Vézelay was an easy decision. We cased restaurant's lining the town's one road and lumped for Le Bougainville, the only restaurant where Michel Tolmer's "Epaule Jété" poster in the window indicated the presence of natural wines.

The poster these days is a reliable, if by no means infallible, indicator of a restaurant that prizes good wine. This in turn is a reliable indicator of a good restaurant. Dining on hunches : it's what you do in the countryside. Like oil prospecting, only less nefarious or profitable.

Anyway, my friends and I hit the motherlode in Vézelay that day. Le Bougainville is the realised idyll of a country bistrot: quaint, welcoming, with a wine list to die for and a superlative cheese plate. And chef-owner Philippe Guillemard and his wife Sylvie are like the angels who admit you to heaven after a lifetime of suffering Parisian hospitality. They're quiet enthusiasts who, from their restaurant perched in the shadow of Vézelay's famous basilica, offer the town's visitors a dining experience to rival the transcendental view up top.

11 December 2013

nice work if you can get it

For once, I've been writing enough bits and bobs for other publications to warrant a brief round-up post.

- For PUNCH magazine in New York I wrote an enthusiastic profile of La Pointe du Grouin, Thierry Breton's elaborately eccentric wine bar by Gare du Nord, which I've previously covered here.

- The website Paris By Mouth kindly indulged my Beaujolais obsession and published two pieces around the release of this year's Nouveau. One was an essay arguing for the relevance of natural Beaujolais Nouveau, tied to a preview of Paris' best release parties. The other was a review of this year's natural Nouveau wines tied to an account of our attempt to cross Paris tasting them all in one night.

- For GREY magazine in New York I conducted an interview with perfumer / photographer / make-up artist Serge Lutens, on the occasion of the pre-release of his new eau de parfum.

The problem is that, with the exception of the Lutens piece, the research and organisation involved in producing the article cost me over half as much as the eventual remuneration. I despair at ever making it all add up. This is why every wine writer you know also tries to sell you holiday gift packs, guided tours, commemorative mugs, etc. 

09 December 2013

kid stuff: 58 qualité street, 75005

My friend Christophe Philippe, the demure and talented chef of Restaurant Christophe in the 5ème arrondissement, has misgivings about his quartier. He rightly feels misunderstood: in the shadow of a tourist attraction like the Panthéon, his eponymous bistrot is a cultish anomoly: a spare, principled space, downright churlish in its refusal to cater to popular tastes. Whereas what the students and visiting families in the area want, judging by the success (or at least, unfathomable persistence) of neighboring businesses, are downmarket shot bars, cheap beer, and anonymous crêperies.

Apparently undaunted, chef Sylvain Sendra and the team from Les Itinéraires opened the abominably-named cave-à-manger 58 Qualité Street late last year just a few paces from Restaurant Christophe. 58 Qualité Street - no relation to the Nestle-owned brand of bad chocolates, ubiquitous at British Christmases - serves simple épicerie cuisine and natural wine non-stop until 11pm every day except Sunday. It could have been intended as a way to make tasteful product available to young audiences in the most informal, unintimidating way possible.

The would be the most charitable way to read 58 Qualité Street. It might also just be an underconceived rush-job of an establishment, without any discernible identity or ambition.

06 December 2013

where the treasure is : la cave des papilles, 75014

On the regrettably rare occasions I find myself strolling around Paris' 14ème arrondissement, I take a great deal of pleasure in the smell of money in the air. I breathe it in, moony-eyed, imagining that by some kind of magical osmosis, I might later discover, upon exiting the métro back at Barbès, an extra 50 centimes in my pocket.

Unlike other wealthy neighborhoods, like the 8ème or the 16ème, the 14ème contains a concentration of actual tasteful goods and services. The entrenched, mostly white families of this quartier purchase meat and bread and wine as I do, only their meat is by Hugo Desnoyer and for bread they have Ridha Khadher.

Their wine, if they have any good sense, comes from La Cave des Papilles, a veritable Ali Baba's cave of the treasures of natural winemaking France.

04 December 2013

yonne bike trip: le vezelien, vezelay

I pretty much fell in love with Vezelay and its lowland twin Saint-Pere in the course of the bike trip through the Yonne back in June. So much so that I revisited both towns again in late July, on a bike trip from a different direction. I was able to confirm that, together, these two discreet little towns have it all. An impressive basilica, a small river, a good local vigneron, an organic brewery, at least one superb chambre d'hôte, and a stunning restaurant, about which more in a subsequent post...

Vezelay also contains, just yards from the basilica, a marvelous local bar, le Vezelien, where my friends and I took refuge during a swift and furious storm that rolled in like divine judgement while we awaited our dinner reservation.

Having optimistically seated ourselves on the otherwise desserted terrace that evening, we hightailed it inside with our beers. There, where in lesser towns we might have encountered a typical soulless PMU-interior, we instead found ourselves in a cozy country pub. Vernissage flyers from the previous three decades papered the walls. Locals engaged us in conversation. A young fellow was busy writing in the corner - with pen and paper ! We weathered the storm in style and trotted off to dinner. It wasn't until I returned in July that I got to experience the salads at Le Vezelien, which approach something like perfection.

26 November 2013

a landmark : chez michel, 75010

An address that often seems to get overlooked or underrated in the perennial 'Best Bistrot' features these days is chef Thierry Breton's first restaurant, Chez Michel, opened in 1995.

The reasons why are manifold. For one, it's near Gare du Nord, and despite now owning practically the whole block, Breton has proved unable to single-handedly disperse the neighborhood's tenacious loiterers and miscreants. The Paris gastronomes who do brave the trek to the restaurant might still be put off by its glamourless clientele, mainly tired train-travelers and Asian tourists. In my own case, I neglected to dine at Chez Michel for years because the restaurant retained a reputation for being incongrously pricey, a result of an ill-advised and since abandoned highbrow push sometime in the past few years. (This 2011 blog post by Bruno Verjus, for instance, reports that the menu then was 50€. It's 34€ now.)

Whatever the restaurant's ups and downs over the years, it's in a fine groove right now, having attained an effortless sweet-spot consisting of informal service, an idiosyncratic, well-priced wine list, and a menu rendered exotic for its unswerving devotion to Bretonne country-cooking.

13 November 2013

an oyster bar for a better paris: clamato, 75011

I squirmed with embarrassment reading a recent NYTimes opinion piece bemoaning "How Hipsters Ruined Paris." Not because I consider myself a target.* But because I recognised another addition to the annals of expat self-hate, a genre to which I contribute from time to time. The author, Thomas Chatterton Williams, drapes his tirade in art history references worn as thin as the five-euro foulards for sale beneath Sacre Coeur. Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec - swaddle it on as thick as he may, nothing can bandage the authority-hemorrhage that begins with the opening clause of paragraph six: "When my wife and I first moved here in 2011..."

Seemingly dismayed that other New Yorkers preceded him to Paris, Chatterton Williams takes particular aim at the proprietors of Glass / Mary Celeste / Candelaria, incorrectly disparaging them as "a bunch of NYU grads." (Only one went there, to my knowledge.) It's hypocritical flanneur posturing to claim, as Chatteron Williams does, that brothels provide a better service to the South Pigalle area than Glass' sharp cocktails. But that author's  desire for a vaguely Parisian experience is something I share, at least with regards to restaurateurism.

Its why I'm delighted that Bertrand Grébaut and Théo Pourriat, the consummately tasteful duo behind Septime, have opened a third establishment on their stretch of rue de Charonne. Clamato - a no-reservations oyster bar with seven tables and a long L-shaped counter - cements their reputation as the standard-bearers for fine contemporary French restaurateurism, unself-conscious and ungimmicky. Clamato's stellar cuisine is accompanied by the same well-selected natural wines and polished service that mark Septime and Septime Cave. The only sign that Grébaut and Pourriat might be succumbing to globalist trends is the goofy name.

04 November 2013

at my most parisian : la cagouille, 74014

I can pinpoint the precise moment at which, despite language struggles and disgust with service norms and volcanic resentment of patrician social structures, I began to feel at home in Paris.

It was when I was first able to pass along to a colleague a recommendation I had once received for a miracle-worker dry-cleaner. (In this case, a stuffy teinturier who is, at reasonable cost, able to remove tar and bloodstains from garments. Don't ask.) For city life is an agglomeration of knotty problems - from stained shirts to subway strikes to where to entertain on Sunday nights - and to feel at home among it all one must possess ready solutions. For expats, cut off from the oral tradition by which great addresses for obscure services are usually handed down, the challenge is that much greater.

So it's a great comfort to me to have been introduced* to La Cagouille, a poorly-designed, fusty, Charentais seafood restaurant tucked behind Montparnasse in the 14ème arrondissement. Deeply uncool and far removed from any part of town I frequent, La Cagouille nevertheless ranks among the city's best back-pocket addresses, simply by dint of offering very good food and wine - and abundant table availability - on Sundays.

01 November 2013

yonne bike trip: le pot d'étain, isle-sur-serein

Isle-sur-Serein isn't the most picturesque village in the Yonne.

That honor might go to Noyers, a medieval town containing a superb butcher shop and an impossibly cute gallery-café where my friends from the blog TheTrailOfCrumbs do projects on occasion. My fellow bike-trippers and I got caught in a biblical downpour just before passing through Noyers this past June. So we paused in that town for coffees and beer. I ate like seven gauffres from the gallery-café. We sat around damply and considered how nice it would be to just stay in Noyers.

But nearby Isle-sur-Serein - kind of a one-horse town, by comparison, and not all of it historical - is home to L'Auberge Le Pot d'Etain, a hotel whose rather trad, stuffy restaurant is distinguished by one of the most heartbreakingly great wine lists any of us had ever seen. That list puts the village of Isle-sur-Serein on the map : one glance makes a traveler want to stay a week.

22 October 2013

yonne bike trip: alice et olivier de moor, courgis

Alice and Olivier de Moor were the main reason I'd long been keen to do a bike trip around Chablis.

Along with their neighbor in Courgis Thomas Pico, the de Moors represent a small but ascendant generation of Chablis producers whose non-interventionist, low-sulfur wines are steadily approaching the aesthetic heights of the regions' established greats. But even as their Chablis becomes more sought-after every year, the de Moors still operate like underdogs, continually refining their pioneering work with Aligoté and branching out into superb négociant projects.

In short, theirs is among the most exciting domaines I know of, an exemplary model for how to effectively make and market honest wine in a quasi-industrialised, marquee region. Alice also makes a mean gateau aux pommes.

18 October 2013

yonne bike trip: le bistrot des grands crus, chablis

Here's a hoary chestnut of dining wisdom: when choosing amongst countryside bistrots, one doesn't often go wrong sticking to those associated with Michelin-starred restaurants. In the best cases, one gets access to the mothership's wine list, while avoiding fusty lobster-themed dinners that begin and end with variations of costly eclair. The bistrot-offshoot, furthermore, is often where the locals actually dine.

No locals were in sight, though, when after our tasting with Vincent Dauvissat in Chablis, my friends and I eschewed the one-star cuisine of Michel Vignaud at L'Hostellerie des Clos for an early table at Le Bistrot des Grands Crus. Chablis in summertime might as well be Devon: it's positively crawling with elderly well-to-do Brits. If, like me, you have ever given serious thought to who on earth actually orders half-bottles, well, cased closed.

But that's beside the point. Le Bistrot des Grands Crus is straightfowardly true to its name: a place where average country fare provides a wonderful excuse to open bottles of serious Chablis in a comfy courtyard terrace.

14 October 2013

yonne bike trip: vincent dauvissat, chablis

It's poor form to be late to an appointment with any vigneron. But anyone familiar with unimpeachable greatness of Vincent Dauvissat's Chablis will understand why my friends and I were particularly concerned about arriving on time to meet the winemaker.

We had biked from Irancy that afternoon, taking an ill-considered route that led through steep, shadeless Saint-Bris onto a stretch of hellish highway (the D965) that we were unable to escape until exiting at Beine, a town west of Chablis distinguished by an artificial lake, the Etang de Beine. In Beine you see a blitz of proud signage for this artificial lake, but before you encounter it, you pass a really swampy mini-lake, which my friends and I incredulously took for the étang before arriving at the real thang. We had a good laugh about this and entertained the idea of joining some bathers at the étang until we realized we were in danger of arriving late to Chablis.

As it happened, we arrived chez Dauvissat a few minutes early. The family member who answered the door gestured to Vincent, who, evidently having just returned from work in the vines, appeared briefly in the doorway eating an apple, wearing denim short-shorts and a bandana. He made an apologetic gesture and disappeared, reappearing five minutes later dressed less like Axl Rose.

08 October 2013

authenticity unnecessary : buvette, 75009

By the time my friend Camille Fourmont opened her Buvette in the 11ème this past spring, rumours had already spread that American celebrity chef Jody Williams was planning to replicate her successful West Village wine bar of the same name in Paris. Fourmont had heard the news too, but she'd already made her own neon sign. There are tens of Café du Métros, a bevy of variations on Au Passage, even more than one Galopin in Paris - what's the problem with a few unrelated Buvettes?*

I can see why opening in Paris struck Williams as a savvy move. She made a late-career switch from Italian cuisine (as practiced at Tappo, Morandi, and Gottino in NYC) to French, and stands to benefit from the authenticity boost that an actual Paris outpost confers. Her Buvette also arrives at a recent high-water mark for Parisian acceptance of new-world-style small-plates wine bars. (The floodgates will soon give completely.)

What's more, replicating the NYC Buvette in Paris doesn't seem to have required Williams to tweak the original concept at all. The Paris Buvette feels eerily - at times hilariously - like a New York restaurant aiming to sell quasi-French small plates to Americans.

23 September 2013

glory days : artisan, 75009

When a restaurant or bar really blows me away, I think I instinctively look for ways to compare it to Bruce Springsteen. It's just a habit I've developed. But I think the analogy is for once justified in the case of new 9ème bar-of-all-trades Artisan.

It's an appealingly under-designed space with a big broad bar, competent cocktails, decent beer, not enough wine, and an astonishingly successful menu comprising miniaturized version of French classics: roast lamb shoulder, steak tartare, etc.

In much the same way that Springsteen's songwriting, while rarely credited with the originality of peak-era Dylan, pleases both in spite and because of its predictability, so too does Artisan's careful craftsmanship draw cheers without being the least bit innovative. In fact, that's what I like best about the place.

14 September 2013

yonne bike trip: l'atélier à jean, vincelottes

If one disembarks the train from Paris at Vincelles and travels in the direction of Irancy, one crosses the Yonne into another blip-sized town beginning with V, Vincelottes. One is immediately struck by the serene riverside terrace of l'Auberge Les Tilleuls. How nice to dine there in between visits to wine domaines ! one thinks.

But one is subsequently struck by the rather high menu prices at Auberge Les Tilleuls, and upon inquiring about the more reasonable-sounding "bistrot déjeuner," one is directed away from l'Auberge's serene riverside terrace, into a low-ceilinged attic-like space above the restaurant's kitchen called L'Atelier à Jean, where one overlooks a sideroad, and not the river Yonne, or even the riverside terrace, which circumstances prevent one from jealously hurling hunks of bread at the wealthier diners by the river.

The upshot is a pleasant hokey country meal and a few glasses of well-aged Chablis.

04 September 2013

yonne bike trip: domaine colinot, irancy

My friends and I wound up at Domaine Colinot kind of by default, as we passed through Irancy on the bike trip we took this past June. J knew the wines already and he had negligible interest in re-tasting, because the domaine's website loudly offers rock-bottom pricing on the wines for delivery throughout France, making the wines difficult for J to sell at higher export mark-ups.

But the nearby domaine we'd intended to visit turned out to be a complete bust, just glass-shattering sour swill, and it was too early to lunch. (Additionally, the town's only restaurant, Le Soufflot, was closed for vacation.) So we joined a trio of middle-aged Frenchmen, fellow wine tourists, poking around outside Domaine Colinot, hoping for an unscheduled visit.

In the end it proved a pretty educational tasting. At the very least, we were able to put names to the steep vineyards I had accidentally steered us through earlier that morning, having mistaken treacherously rocky trails for normal paved roads. (They presently look the same on GoogleMaps' very, very Beta bike route feature.)

02 September 2013

idiot simple : grillé, 75002

If a successful restaurant concept aims to serve cuisine that inspires respect for its chefs, then, conversely, the hallmark of a successful fast food concept is cuisine that any idiot could throw together.

For the subtext of the business plans of any of Paris' recent crop of fast food concepts - Freddie's Deli, The Sunken Chip, and the subject of this post, Bourse-side haute kebab shop Grillé - is potential expansion. As satisfying as it is to provide tastemakers with baroque tasting menus in twenty-five seat rooms, any restaurateur knows the real money is made with well-branded empires of One Perfect Product : one recipe replicated and varied unto infinity with multiple locations, catering service, O Magazine features, book deals and frozen supermarket versions.

Grillé is a home-run by these standards. You can tell the place is eminently replicable because only way to ensure getting a kebab (or a "grillé," as they preciously have retitled their creation) without a thirty minute wait is to arrive precisely at noon when they open. You can tell because the product itself - a magazine writer's dream kebab, composed solely of luxury name-brand ingredients - is delicious. And you can tell because on the corner of rue Saint Anne and rue Saint Augustin, in its inaugural location, the product is being served and assembled in the most disorganised manner possible by inexperienced jokers.

28 August 2013

london calling : the sunken chip, 75010

Ever since moving to Paris I've found London frightful. I think this is because I've come to define quality of life in terms of short commutes and availability of good bread and wine.

It's also because London, despite technically existing in Europe, gastronomically seems to comprise part of the big blank New World. Early industrialisation and the culinary privation of the last century's wars are two factors among many that have conspired to essentially delete the traditions binding the populace to native British cuisine, leaving Brits, like the average American, ahistorical, open to suggestion, lost in the supermarket. What I see when I visit restaurants in London, for the most part, is Manhattan: everything feels market-tested, branded to death, fat with investment - as though marketing execs and interior designers were more important to a restaurant than chefs and restaurateurs.

So, unlike seemingly every other press outlet, I won't congratulate Michael Greenwold, co-chef of 20ème market menu gem Roseval, and James Whelan, propietor of 10ème bar L'Inconnu, merely for bringing a little bit of London variety to Paris with the opening of Paris' first fish'n'chip shop, The Sunken Chip ! (Their exclamation point, not mine.) I find the concept chirpy to the point of being unsettling, and the décor could use roughing up and rethinking. I will instead congratulate Greenwold for coming up with a positively revelatory plate of fish'n'chips, several components of which are a benchmark for both cities, not just Paris.

26 August 2013

cuttlefish water ? : la régalade conservatoire, 75009

My chef friend G's last night in town the other evening unfortunately coincided with what you might call the Mariana Trench of August in Paris: that deep lightless ravine of restaurant closures across the city, occurring mid-month, where life as we know it cannot sustain itself.

We decided to go to chef Bruno Doucet's La Régelade Conservatoire, which had remained open because it is attached to a hotel. I'll put off any qualitative discussion of the meal for later, because I'd like to visit the other two influential Régalade locations (Saint Honoré and the original on ave. Jean-Moulin) before I go shooting off my mouth at length.

But one facet of the meal we had warrants individual attention. We were, without being asked, given English menus. For G this was fine, as he doesn't speak French. The problem was that, as it turned out, neither of us spoke the pidgin English of the translated menu, which was astoundingly misleading. We received dishes that bore little relation to what we'd ordered in English, and it was only when, mid-meal, I asked to see the French menu, that I saw what had gone wrong.

22 August 2013

n.d.p. in champagne: restaurant l'étoile, troyes

It was perhaps unfair of me, in discussing cave-à-manger pioneer Aux Crieurs de Vin, to refer to Troyes as a one-bistrot town. For the wine-indifferent, there are probably many decent places to eat.

For instance, I have very fond memories of a lunch at Restaurant L'Etoile, a crowingly unpretentious, down-homey bistrot situated just off the square of the Marché des Halles. On its big broad terrace or in its two undesigned dining rooms, a traveler can experience one of those unexpectedly B-plus meals whose afterglow extends well beyond an afternoon.

If, while in Troyes for a weekend, you'd seek anything more for lunch than a perfect andouillette au Chaource and a glass of high-pitched Coteaux Champenois Rouge, well then I don't know what you want.

19 August 2013

n.d.p. in champagne: aux crieurs de vin au marché des halles, troyes

Troyes is not unusual among French towns for being home to only one terrific informal restaurant. I understand that similar culinary eco-systems prevail in Mâcon and Orléans and Nevers. Where one might think that bistrots as superlative and as successful as Aux Crieurs de Vin would inspire competition, in reality they seem instead to suck all the air out of the room, as it were. If you want to drink good wine in a sophisticated environment in Troyes, you go to Aux Crieurs de Vin.

Fortunately, there are two locations. The second is wine shop situated across from a fishmonger called Chez Pascal in the town's central covered market, the Marché des Halles. No food is served at the wine shop itself, but there are tables, and excellent wines by the glass, and one is encouraged to purchase immense boat-shaped styrofoam plateaux of shellfish from Chez Pascal and consume them sur place with wines from Aux Crieurs de Vin.

On a Sunday morning it provides a perfect hair-of-the-dog coda to the previous night's drinking, which, if you drank well, necessarily occurred at the Aux Crieurs de Vin's other location. It's a very well-planned system.

16 August 2013

n.d.p. in champagne: aux crieurs de vin (bistrot), troyes

Just as the town of Troyes in the Aube can be said to contain a history of France - from its origins as a Roman settlement, to its role as a medieval trade capital, to its present state of post-industrial muddling - so does Troyenne cave-à-manger Aux Crieurs de Vin, the town's one great restaurant, contain a history of natural wine in France.

The restaurant and wine shop was founded in 1998 by Jean-Michel Wilmes and Nicholas Vauthier, two wine afficionados who'd previously worked together at an unlikely place : faceless wine retail chain Le Repaire de Bacchus. Vauthier, when I spoke to him recently at his cellar facilities in Avallon, admitted that he and Wilmes were "among the worst" clerks to work in that shop - because it didn't stock anything they liked. Wilmes and Vauthier preferred natural wines, particularly from the Rhône, Beaujolais, and the Loire.

So they astutely wagered that in sleepy Troyes - a 90 min. train ride from Paris' Gare de l'Est - they could create a clientele for the wines they loved. Fifteen years later, the restaurant is still packed. Aux Crieurs de Vin has since expanded with a stand at the town's central Marché des Halles. Vauthier has departed, striking off in 2008 to make wine as a négociant under his ViniVitiVinci label. He sold his share of the company to a friend of Wilmes, fellow wine lover and former textile industry executive Franck Windel. In the kitchen, fixing up the most heavenly simple cuisine imaginable from expertly sourced ingredients, remains Wilmes' mother, Françoise. And in the cellar remains another history of natural wine in France : back vintages of the classic cuvées of France's natural wine vanguard, at extremely honest prices.  

12 August 2013

n.d.p. in champagne: emmanuel lassaigne of champagne jacques lassaigne, montgueux

I just got back from a lovely trip to Troyes this past weekend, which reminded me that I never wrote anything about the lovely trip to Troyes I took almost precisely a year ago. Or the trip I took there last Christmas.

I get to Troyes often because the Native Companion's family live there. I also look forward to these trips because they allow me to visit my favorite restaurant on earth, Aux Crieurs de Vin. But the highlight of the trip last August was a visit to nearby Montgueux producer Emmanuel Lassaigne of Champagne Jacques Lassaigne, whose marvelous wines are pleasantly ubiquitous at good natural wine spots in Paris.

I first met Lassaigne the winter before at the Salon Les Pénitants, a satellite tasting of the Renaissance des Appellations and La Dive Bouteille. He was red-cheeked and soused and had been reluctant to let me in on the bottle of brilliantly acidic base-wine he was sharing with some mutual-friend wine buyers. You can't take these things personally. As a fan of this stuff - let alone as a potential buyer one day - you kind of just have to grin and bear whatever bedevilment a vigneron you like dishes out. Great vignerons are irreplaceable, and Lassaigne even moreso, as he's one of precious few Champagne producers working without chemical agents, with minimal sulfur treatment and zero sulfur at bottling. Among quality Champagne producers, he's also the one in closest proximity to the NC's mother's house. (A ten minute drive.)

08 August 2013

more to come : restaurant encore, 75009

The recent opening of charming 9ème market-menu restaurant Encore signals the inevitable outright codification of two recent Paris restaurant trends. The first is apparent from the restaurant's name, which follows in the cheery, brand-hungry, ultimately insipid footsteps of Merci, Grazie, and Beaucoup. The second is the fetishization of Japanese chefs. Abri, Vivant Table, Sola, Kei, Le Sôt l'y Laisse, L'Office... And now chef Yoshi Morie, formerly of 6ème restaurant Le Petit Verdot, returns at Encore. Not since Commodore Perry showed up with canons aimed at Edo have the Japanese found themselves in such pressing demand as in present-day Paris restaurant kitchens.

Encore un nouveau resto gastronomique avec un chef japonais ? Oui, encore un, même.

Happily, the opening of Encore also signals wine director Florian Perate's return to France, after a few years spent in London working with UK natural wine heavyweights Les Caves de Pyrène. Perate, originally from Troyes, formerly worked there for my favorite restaurant in the world, Aux Crieurs de Vin, and has been living and breathing natural wine since he was a teenager. What this tells me is that if, on opening night, Encore didn't quite yet possess enough personality to transcend trends, it assuredly soon will. At which point I'll return for an - oh, enough already.

06 August 2013

sandwiches du terroir : u spuntinu, 75009

I had a mildly embarrassing moment the other day at U Spuntinu, the colourful Corsican épicerie I've been frequenting for sandwiches lately. I walked in, ordered my warm omelet sandwich and tomato-and-brocciu salad as usual, paid, and left. 

Then I walked back in, having resolved, finally, to purchase one of the many bottles of Corsican wine on offer so I could justifiably say something nice about the place on the blog. U Spuntinu is a mildly exotic and utterly unpretentious lunch takeaway destination operated in a highly-routinised kaizen fashion by a team of formidable Corsican ladies - and what's more, they stock the wines of actual reputable estates like Yves Leccia, Clos Nicrosi, and Domaine Giudicelli, among others. (Domaine Antoine Arena is notably absent.) 

But then I said to hell with it and walked back out again, because really what is the deal with the abysmal price-quality ratio of Corsican wine in general. 

31 July 2013

hey one-percenter : le griffonnier, 75008

Hey, One-Percenter ! Ever wished to enjoy a simple French bistrot experience, only significantly nicer, at marginally greater cost ?

Haven't we all. I'm barely solvent, and still I routinely find myself wishing I could simply pay more for a civil experience in Paris. There's a cultural chasm in contemporary French restaurateurism, between the segment that whorishly lunges after money and modernity, and the rest, to whom the very idea of money is vaguely offensive, like a horse suggesting horse-riding to other horses.

The great thing about 8ème arrondissement power-bistrot Le Griffonnier is it's the sort of establishment one thinks must exist, and turns out, in fact, to exist : a place where politicians and bankers eat the same unimprovable French village staples as you do for lunch every day, only their plates arrive with a glistening side of wealth, by which I mean serious service and serious wine.

29 July 2013

lettie teague nearly encounters natural wine, remains skeptical

Vis à vis this howler of an article published earlier this month by Wall Street Journal wine critic Lettie Teague, I'm like the medieval juror who shows up late to court only to find the guilty defendant has already been executed. My work here seems to be done.

Teague's article was so journalistically bankrupt, however, and betrayed such an objectionable misunderstanding of the subject of wine in general, that I thought I might blow on the embers around the stake a bit before I return to my day job.

My few French readers might quite like my chief criticism : that Lettie Teague passed public judgment on an arguably French phenomenon without quoting any French people whatsoever. It's like asking Europeans to define barbecue, or brunch. The sources she quoted (full list presented in all its absurdity after the jump) seem to have been chosen at random, or perhaps in the course of research for unrelated articles. Teague's conclusion, after sampling no self-identified natural wines and speaking to precisely one person with more than a peripheral relationship to the scene (Alice Feiring), is that some wines considered natural taste good, others don't, but she doesn't want to hear about it either way. She just wants a nice beverage.

25 July 2013

killing it : restaurant bones, 75011

Good or bad, a meal never quite gets replicated, because too many variables are in play. Menus change, weather shifts, vintages turn, staff move on, tables break, bars get worn, hype evaporates - and so on. In Paris, where even basic hospitality remains touchingly uncommodified, restaurants are even more protean than the norm, with the quality of a meal often coming to depend overwhelmingly on whether one's server feels chipper on a given day. A critic's challenge is to arrive at conclusions that apply to more than one experience.

The most challenging subject, therefore, is a restaurant that unceasingly challenges itself. My friend James Henry's new-ish place Bones is one of these. Tucked on a side street off métro Voltaire, the northernmost border of the culinary renaissance currently occurring in the Faidherbe-Charonne area (Septime, Le Six Paul Bert, Rino, etc.), Bones was a barnstorming success from the get-go. I could have raved about the meal I had there back in January, a tour-de-force that crested with an unforgettable dessert of fresh almonds, coffee mousse, goat yogurt sorbet, and lemon. But had I done so I couldn't have reported simultaneously on the subsequent expansion of the bar menu far beyond pulled-pork sandwiches; the restaurant's brief flirtation with à la carte service; and the flourishing of its by-the-glass list, which bests most restaurants in Paris in both breadth and quality.

I also would have missed the steady improvement in Henry's bread-making skills. He has good reason to want his bread to succeed: as Americans are to scrambled eggs, so are the French to bread, a subject on which even the dullest nitwits feel entitled to nitpick. When one sits down to dine at Bones, one is treated to a hat trick of forcefully flavourful house-made products - charcuterie, butter, and the bread - that serve as a kind of clarion, a wake-up call to any guests who, perhaps on the basis of Bones' bare décor, were expecting a simple bistrot meal.

11 July 2013

the home front : touller outillage, 75011

As preamble to what I'm about to say about new 11ème wine bar Touller Outillage, I thought I'd introduce readers to its surrounding Parmentier neighborhood, where I've been living for the past four years. 

Two parallel roads descend southwest from Menilmontant, one of which, rue Oberkampf, I've previously described as "a waterslide of vomit" until it hits métro Parmentier. There are student bars, concert venues, dire nightclubs, and leery downmarket bistrots straight out of a Jeunet film. The other road, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud, is first occupied by a mosque and the related Islamo-paraphernalia industry, arrayed around a dusty pigeon-painted public square; but southwest of this pious interlude the road resumes the habits of its neighbor and becomes a debaucherous slag-heap of strong beer and kebabs. Bisecting these two roads is rue Saint Maur, a nice enough road further south-east, but one which along this particular stretch houses both a miniature skee-ball hall and a deserted bar themed around race-car simulators.  

When diners, both Parisian and international, complain, with certain justification, that natural wine has become a trendy luxury, they are most certainly not referring to my neighborhood or my street. Which is why I take it as a salutary development - a sign that natural wine is reaching new audiences - when Said Messous, owner of Jean Pierre Timbaud nightclub L'Alimentation Generale, reveals himself to be a closet natural wine fan, and helps his cousin Farid Meza open a roomy, egalitarian, helplessly unhip wine bar like Touller Outillage right next door.  

05 July 2013

paris wine company launch

My good friend and frequent travel companion Josh Adler is launching a company that ships wine from France to private clients the USA. He's called it Paris Wine Company, a name I initially hated but which has grown on me slightly since. Unbelievably, the domaine name wasn't already taken, possibly having been passed over as too faceless or ill-targeted. (Pets dot com, anyone?)

Parisians sure won't be buying much wine from him. Parisians by and large don't spend any serious money on wine, and the few that do don't seem to purchase from anyone they haven't known for generations. Josh will mainly be shipping to our fellow Americans, in an importer-distributor-wineseller circumvention that has already teed off several other industry friends. What's good news for private wine clients, these industry friends argue, is bad news for them and the industry they serve.

I can see both sides of the argument. I delve into them after the jump. But the occasion for this post wasn't soul-searching on my part. It was to mention - all philosophical qualms ceding precedence to friendship - that Paris Wine Company is launching tomorrow, July 6th, with a tasting / party at Verjus Wine Bar (75001) at 2pm, featuring superb Angevin vignerons Nicolas Bertin & Genevieve Delatte and Kenji & Mai Hodgson.

01 July 2013

the angevin clan, pt. 3: bertin-delatte / l'echalier, rablay-sur-layon

In writing about the generation of young Anjou vignerons I've come to call the Angevin Clan, my chronology has inadvertently worked against central figures Nicolas Bertin and Geneviève Delatte of Domaine Bertin-Delatte.  They're the last of the clan to be discussed, when in fact it was Delatte who introduced my friends and me to Cédric Garreau, and it was at Bertin and Delatte's unfinished house that we all gathered for lunch after tasting with Garreau and Kenji and Mai Hodgson.

Having founded their 3ha estate in 2008, Bertin and Delatte have a few years more experience than the other vignerons at the lunch table that day. But Bertin only gave up his part-time job tending vines for nearby estate Domaine Pierre Chauvin the week before we visited. (Cedric Garreau, for his part, still does vineyard work for other estates to make ends meet.) Bertin may have encapsulated the challenges facing a young vigneron in the Coteaux de Layon when we asked him whether he'd ever tried his hand at making the region's eponymous sweet wine: No, he said, because he doesn't like drinking it, it's hard to make, and it's hard to sell.

Bertin and Delatte make just one wine in any appreciable quantity: L'Echalier, a mostly young-vine dry Chenin that, I was to realise over lunch that day, I had always been drinking too young. Can I be blamed ? It's what one usually does with young-vine Chenin in that price point. How was I to know, before meeting and tasting with the winemakers, that "L'Echalier" positively blooms in the bottle after two years?

26 June 2013

the angevin clan, pt. 2: cédric garreau / gar'o'vins, chanzeaux

The evening before our visits with newly-installed Anjou vigneron Cédric Garreau and the rest of the Angevin clan back in January, my friends J, M, and I found ourselves at Angers natural wine bar Le Cercle Rouge, sharing a nightcap with some US importers with whom J and M were discussing working. It was during the time of La Dive Bouteille, La Renaissance des Appellations, and the various satellite tastings, and we'd assumed we'd run into a few vignerons and fellow industry folk at La Cercle Rouge that night. But we'd evidently missed a memo, because the place was quiet as the grave. If I concentrated, I imagined I could actually hear echoes from the wild bacchanal in the surrounding hills where all the vignerons and the more clued-in buyers were probably spraying each other with pétillant naturel and doing impressions of Americans.

If we nevertheless stayed at Le Cercle Rouge for the duration of two bottles, it was because the wine we were drinking - Cédric Garreau's 2011 "Le Lulu Berlue" - achieved the almost impossible : it was marvelously palatable to five weary palates that had endured a sequence of professional tastings earlier in the day. (Ordinarily such circumstances are the only moments in life where one craves Kronenberg.)

The "Lulu Berlue" is an odd duck, a sparkling carbonic-maceration Cabernet Sauvignon, mouth-rinsing, pure, and black-fruited, sort of like fine Loire Lambrusco. It hit the spot. The next day when we visited Garreau's tiny shed of a cellar in Chanzeaux we were able to confirm that all his red wines - all three - share the same soulful purity of fruit that made the "Le Lulu Berlue" so entrancing. They're wines that feel fundamentally healthful, and they herald a new voice in Angevin winemaking, one whose maturity of expression is surprising given its only Garreau's second vintage.

24 June 2013

the angevin clan, pt. 1: mai and kenji hodgson / vins hodgson, rablay-sur-layon

From L: Kenji Hodgson, Cedric Garreau, M, Mai Sato, Nicolas Bertin, J. Taken in Bertin's vineyards.

After departing from La Dive Bouteille this past January, my friends J, M, and I went to visit a few newly-installed Angevin vignerons. We'd planned to make separate appointments with three domaines - Mai & Kenji Hodgson, Cedric Garreau / Gar'O'Vin, and Bertin-Delatte - but upon learning that their proprietors are all good friends and collaborators, it was decided we'd all taste together at each cellar and then have lunch. 

For J, M, and I, tasting at the three domaines that morning was revelatory. It might have just been an on-palate day.* But after just about every taste, we were having "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" moments, looking at each other, like Cortez's sailors, "with a wild surmise." 

All of these vignerons are onto something. All are members of a collective of organic Angevin vignerons who organise tastings together, loan each other equipment, and generally support one another in the daunting task of making and selling quality wine from Anjou, a famously schizophrenic region, nigh-on uncategorizeable, home to everything from industrial Cab Franc rosé to ageless Quarts de Chaume. The collective officially call themselves "The En Joue Connection," which has facetious gangster-ish implications that I will relegate to a footnote.* I can't speak for the entire collective, because I haven't tasted all the wines. But with regards to Bertin-Delatte, Vins Hodgson, and Gar'O'Vins, I thought it might be more helpful to think of what they're presently achieving in Anjou in terms of some other poets, namely the Wu-Tang Clan.  

17 June 2013

n.d.p. in florence: 5 e cinque

Florence is the only place I've ever been pickpocketed. As a friend and I snacked on one of the support columns of the Ponte Santa Trinita one evening a decade ago, some genial-seeming locals came up and spoke incomprehensibly about football maneuvers before demonstrating same at close quarters and robbing me in the process. It was all the money I had and I wound up busking the rest of that month.

As a result of this experience, I now walk down busy Florentine streets with my hands firmly placed over my back pockets, looking like some sort of constipated building inspector. Most nerve-racking for me is the famed Ponte Vecchio, a Hieronymus Boschian scene of beckoning trinket-hawkers, trilling gypsy beggars, and glass-eyed cargo-shorted tourists in visors and sweat-colored polos. The jangle of novelty key chains can be heard for miles. While revisiting the city last spring I hurried past it all in characteristic paranoiac style and waited for my friends some blocks ahead.

Imagine my surprise to discover, just a skip away from the Ponte Vecchio, the clean white storefront of 5 e Cinque, a modest, health-conscious, and well-appointed natural wine bar, the city's only one, as far as I know.

04 June 2013

n.d.p. in florence: enoteca fuori porta

It's a travel truism that the more friends one travels with, the less one sees. Monuments, museums, and moments of local colour rush past one's eyes, as though one were seeing them through a bus window... Meanwhile one seems to spend hours waiting for one another to finish up in the sodden restrooms of unremarkable cafés full of vending machines.

And when one does at last arrive a destination, the destination itself becomes the subject of debate. Should we not try some other bar ? one's friends ask. One where one of us can get a cocktail, and another can have beer, and another can have wine? None of us are ever satisfied, one's friends admit, before laughing maniacally and cartwheeling off into the Florentine night to harass strangers.

My personal destination, since arriving in Florence for a friend's wedding last spring, had been Fuori Porta, a wine bar tucked in the hills above the via di San Niccolo that a native acquaintance had recommended. I've discussed previously the extent to which the term 'wine bar' is open to interpretation, but as a rule of thumb I've found the concept is more native to Italy, where people take espresso standing, than in Paris, where beverages in general are mostly used as exuses to occupy terrace seating. And indeed, when after much cajoling I did succeed in luring my friends away to Fuori Porta to continue drinking after the wedding dinner, we weren't disappointed. It's one of those rare places where a serious wine list coexists with a free-wheeling atmosphere, where seven or eight tanked young men in rumpled suits can enjoy an impromptu mini-vertical of Castell' In Villa Chianti.

27 May 2013

n.d.p. in florence: enoteca bonatti

Florence, owing to its peerless artistic heritage of glorious renaissance treasures, is a good place to get suckered on industrial wine. Almost no one cares, however, because almost everyone is a broke study-abroad student content to drink Santa Cristina from plastic cups on apartment stoops. I'm describing myself, actually, age nineteen. I spent a month there, ostensibly studying Italian, in fact just desperately attempting to hook up with fellow students and certain of our tutors. I recommend anyone visiting Florence at age nineteen do the same.

The rest of us - including me and my reunited high school cohorts, now approaching our thirties, in town for a destination wedding - needed something decent to drink last spring.*

While I had predictably maintained no connections from my previous stay in Florence, I had in the intervening years become friendly with the native owner of a fashion boutique in the city. He didn't claim to be a wine expert, but the two recommendations he gave me both proved unimpeachable. The first was a wine shop on the refreshingly non-touristy Via Gioberti, east of the city center, called Enoteca Bonatti, where upon glancing at the shelves I instantly realised I'd need another suitcase for the trip back to Paris. Among the pearls on offer were a masterful Montalcino Rosso by Francesco Mulinari, and Abruzzese biodynamic legend Azienda Agricola Emidio Pepe's rare Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo rosé, which latter wine, I later confirmed with the winemaker's niece, is still not sold outside of Italy.

24 May 2013

the ideal : caffè dei cioppi, 75011

In the same way that many fine-dining waiters wish to be wizards whose assistants, the busser staff, do all actual plate-clearing, many restaurateurs aspire to invent Perpetual Motion Machines. It's the ideal restaurant: a motor that runs itself, free of vindictive neighbors, staff orgies, mass poisonings, or any of the other baroque malfunctions that can trip up a business and consume the sanity of its management. Ironically,  efforts to actually build Perpetual Motion Machine restaurants usually come at the expense of things like soul and hospitality and food quality. Whether we like it or not, these things won't run on inertia alone.

But I suspect there's another way to build a Perpetual Motion Machine. It's by being skilled and loving one's business and not, in fact, wishing to build a PMM as a means of absenting oneself from its daily workings.

Miniscule and modest, 11ème arrondissement Italian restaurant Caffè dei Cioppi would seem to exemplify this business model. Chef-owner Fabrizio Ferrara has for the past four years been garnering great reviews merely for offering actual serious Italian food to Parisians at fair prices, accompanied by well-chosen honest wines. The menu changes at the pace of a glacier; nothing is controversial; everything runs like a dream. The only thing more astonishing than the fact that no one else in Paris has replicated Ferrara's blueprint is that Ferrara himself has not replicated Ferrara's blueprint.

21 May 2013

the highest bidder : table de bruno verjus, 75012

A good way for a writer to earn money is to cultivate a reputation for authority on a subject rich people like. Wine and food are quite good. Things like polo, yachting, and racehorses are probably even better. All you have to do is publish a great deal on these subjects and sooner or later some organization will reward you for your apparent expertise with a sponsorship or a panel discussion or a publishing deal. Because you will have attained credibility as bait for a luxury clientele.

French food writer, blogger, cookbook author, radio personality, and now restaurateur Bruno Verjus both exemplifies and transcends this phenomenon. On the one hand, he seriously knows his stuff. His blog, FoodIntelligence, is a treasure trove of good recommendations in any price range. In his writing and in his wide-ranging interviews with chefs and artisanal food producers, Verjus evinces a passionate appreciation for, and a nuanced understanding of, the business of real food.

But Verjus is no stranger to promo work. He helps organise the Omnivore food festival. He works as an advisor to Paris auction house Artcurial and coordinated its first charity auction of gastronomic products. And with Table, his new restaurant on sleepy rue de Prague in the 12ème, he's made an ambitious play for the affections of deep-pocketed food fetishists city-wide. It's a dream restaurant for anyone who has ever cried from a balcony, "Honey, let's go bid on a wheel of 48-month parm !"

13 May 2013

good works: l'épicerie du 104, 75019

The Native Companion has lately succeeded in dragging me to more museums. Each time in the ticket line I confront my reason for usually staying home : a bedraggled queue of hat-haired tourists with their hands full of waffles and soda, whacking me with their overstuffed backbacks. Public art ! But we were lucky the other day on our visit to the Keith Haring exhibition presently on view at Le 104, the 19ème arrondissement's echoing, perpetually under-filled municipal art space. We arrived just before the afternoon rush and took in Haring's brilliant, trumpeting tarpaulin work in relative peace, before we departed to our respective workplaces.

On my way out, I noticed that a little épicerie bio had opened right by the glass doors of Le 104's rue Curial entrance, in a space resembling one of those tollbooths lodged in support columns. I popped my head in and was delighted to discover a slim, affordable selection of natural wines on offer, including, among others, Saone organic vigneron Guy Bussière's marvelous flinty Melon de Bourgogne cuvée, "Phénix."

L'Epicerie du 104 opened February 2nd, I learned. Our late-coming, tentative springtime this year means that the shop is only just now attaining relevance as a perfect pit-stop before a visit to Le 104's exhibit and a picnic in the Jardin d'Eole, the overlooked strip of public greenery wedged between Le 104 and the twisting river of train tracks leading to Gare de l'Est.

10 May 2013

ma dai ! : procopio angelo, 75010

There would not, initially, seem to be much purpose in my writing anything at all about Procopio Angelo, the eponymous restaurant of a popular Tuscan chef in Paris, once based on rue Faubourg St. Honoré, now transplanted to a back road near Colonel Fabien in the 10ème. Procopio's Italian wine list is representative of the genre as one typically encounters it in Paris: a seeming panoply of regional wines, which upon closer inspection turn out to comprise little more than the diverse ranges of a few titanic producers of supermarket wine. Then you have poor Marco Parusso's decent if overmodern Barolos - always the current vintage - sitting there like duck-decoys for the big spenders who stray in.*

But Procopio keeps cropping up in any discussion of Italian food in Paris. No less than two friends whose culinary opinions I otherwise respect have proposed his restaurant to me as an example of "real Italian."

Sociologist Peter L. Berger famously argued that reality itself is a social construction, an interwoven fabric of institutionalised social perceptions. Procopio Angelo is real Italian cuisine, if, like many Paris diners, one disregards the last twenty years' of Italian restaurateurism and continues to define Italian cuisine in opposition to the technique and complexity of a serious restaurant.

06 May 2013

why ask why: la pulperia, 75011

Natural wine enthusiasts are kind of like vegetarians: we know their preferences, but their reasons why diverge wildly. A few natural wine fans are taking an ecological stand. (It stands to reason that most natural wine restaurants in Paris serve sustainable fish.) Other people just want to avoid headaches. Still others - and in this category I would place most of the vignerons I know - have only aesthetics in mind: they promote natural wine because it simply tastes better.

My own reasons for preferring natural wine are complicated, half-aesthetic, quasi-Marxist, cultural preservationist... I can't choose just one. But it seems to me that one would have to be firmly in the pure-aesthetics camp in order to justify serving natural wine beside steaks shipped from Argentina, as chef Fernando de Tomaso does at his 11ème Argentine bistrot La Pulperia.

The practice also identifies the restaurant as being aimed at squarely at native Parisians. Anyone else - all the expats I know and surely every tourist - would prefer, whilst in Paris, to consume any of the numerous renowned varieties of French beef (Charolais, Aubrac, etc.). Many of us have stood by shaking our heads as international meat places like Bang!, The Beef Club, and La Pulperia open, and French restaurant culture sails further into the maw of the global capitalist whale, the belly of which contains everything, as many choices as a Whole Foods Market... Doomsaying aside, La Pulperia boasts pleasing cuisine and a surprisingly deep natural wine list, making it a probably a fine place to return if I ever become truly Parisian. (God help me.)

02 May 2013

another (excellent) restaurant : le six paul bert, 75011

Some time after we stopped dating, my ex F moved to a really superb apartment just next to one of Paris' most beloved bistrots and steak-frites destinations, Bistrot Paul Bert. I can be sure she did this purely to make me jealous, because she herself is vegetarian.

Despite this hurdle, we've managed to remain good friends. So back in January it was a tip-off from F that hipped me to the opening of Bistrot PB proprietor Bertrand Auboyneau's then-new place, Le Six Paul Bert, a small-plates spin-off just down the road from the motherships. (Auboyneau also has PB's adjacent seafood restaurant, L'Ecailler du Bistrot.) Initial rumours had given me to believe the new place was to be a wine bar - and the mere idea of a wine bar by the maestro behind Bistrot Paul Bert filled me with a kind of dread and awe, imagining how unbeatably great such an undertaking would be.

But the rumours turned out to be rumours. Leaving aside its functions as an épicerie and its speakeasy-style name, Le Six Paul Bert is Another (Excellent) Restaurant, albeit one that adopts some of the trappings of small-plates wine bars. The effect is to inadvertently highlight, for anyone who may have believed otherwise, how alien the idea of a new world-style wine bar is to Paris.

29 April 2013

despite the name: la pointe du groin, 75010

I might as well start off by explaining that La Pointe du Groin is an alternate spelling for La Pointe du Grouin, a rocky outcropping on the bay of Mont Saint Michel in Brittany. It's also where renowned chef-restaurateur Thierry Breton hails from. Breton, like many of his countrymen, enjoys a good meaningless pun. For his multifarious, rather groundbreaking new wine bar project, Breton has chosen the emblem of a grinning pig - for in French, groin means the snout, and not some other part of pig anatomy.

One may nonetheless presume that the English signification is not entirely lost on Breton. The bar's name is just one of several baffling features of the project, which include, but are not limited to, outlandishly bad décor and an incomprehensible payment scheme in which guests will be expected to exchange their euros for fake money - Groin coins ? - accepted only at La Pointe du Groin.

Despite these obstacles, La Pointe du Groin is primed for succcess. It's spacious, rangey, and weird, offering magnums of natural wine and simple small plates at a price-quality ratio approaching the one achieved when Manhattan was bought for beads. It's a Paris wine bar that explodes the traditional Parisian opposition between egalité and haute-qualité: a place where many can drink well for very little.