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.