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.