29 December 2014

blast from the present: gare au gorille, 75017

What does it mean for savvy young Parisian restaurateurs to advertise their appreciation for post-war cabaret, as chef Marc Cordonnier and server-sommelier Louis Langevin have done with their new 17ème arrondissement Georges Brassens homage, Gare au Gorille?

My dinner companion was blasé about it. She identified it as part of a wider revivalist fad among Parisians her age, rather like the superficial blues revival incited in the early 2000's by the likes of the White Stripes and the Black Keys.*

Gare au Gorille, the restaurant, not the song refrain, is a bit of a Trojan horse in this respect. Perched in Les Batignolles beside the train tracks spanning northwards from Saint Lazare, Gare au Gorille inhabits a quartier I've long considered to be among Paris' Frenchest and most timewarpy, where foreigners are scarce and their influence barely acknowledged. Yet with Gare au Gorille, its nostalgic name notwithstanding, Cordonnier and Langevin have summoned a blast from the present, replete with all the tasteful grace notes of up-to-date Parisian restaurateurism: versatile menu construction, a kindly-priced wine list speckled with foreign selections, and terrific hospitality.

16 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: el maestro sierra, jerez

A depressing reality sinks in when one attempts study of sherry, or, for that matter, of Spanish and Portuguese wine in general: all too often, it seems one passes time studying not the history of winemaking families, but the history of winemaking companies. In France or Italy there is more widespread persistence of microviticulture: of tiny families bottling their own wines for generations, and in doing so communicating something of the personality of the individual winemakers. There is indeed a cultural history to be gleaned in the study of sherry; but it is mostly a story of foreign investment, large-scale acquisitions, and inheritance.  

Were its wines not so uniformly stunning, Jerez bodega El Maestro Sierra would still standout for this reason. It's among the few bodegas I know with a truly captivating, individual family backstory - one that continues to this day with owner Pilar Pla Pechovierto, the regal widow of a descendant of Jose Antonio Sierra, the barrel maker who founded the bodega against long odds in 1832. Even back then, the sherry industry was dominated by aristocratic families, whose attitudes towards a barrel-maker joining their ranks is depicted in the bodegas logo: Sierra is shown as a hare escaping ahead of mounted horsemen with dogs.

Today the tiny bodega is principally managed by Ana Cabestrero, who by all appearances maintains the feisty, individualist spirit of the bodega's founder. Originally from a winemaking family in the Ribera del Duero, she took over cellarmaster duties from the bodega's longtime capitaz Juan Clavijo in 2011. Spritely, welcoming, and energetic, Cabestrero cuts an inspiring figure. Touring the historic bodega, which still contains some of the Maestro Sierra's original casks, she relayed to us the enormity of her task: to ensure the painstaking sustenance of some of the region's most illustrious and well-conserved soleras.

11 December 2014

le fooding, and other howlers

I take it as a given that I am not part of a target audience for Le Fooding, the French culinary media outlet. If Le Fooding were principally after my clicks, and those of other Anglophones, the name Le Fooding would of course never have been chosen, for in English it sounds unappetizingly like something Jabba the Hutt would demand of his chained servants.*

The publication's name is a mongrel French pun composed of two adopted English words, 'food' and 'feeling,' which I need hardly explain are not as sonically compatible to Anglophone ears. But the French, whose language lacks gerunds, find the "-ing" suffix very exotic, and tend to use it in curious ways. (Cf. 'shampooing,' a noun in French, and my personal favorite monstrosity, 'relooking,' another noun, signifying a makeover.) French is a rather more rigid language than English, and when considered on the level of the individual, I find the free-spirited, fingerpainty way the French employ English grammatical forms to be an inspired form of resistance : a supplementary lexicon not governed by the Academie Française.

In certain cases, however - particularly when mangled English is used in advertisements and other corporate discourse - I can't help feeling it bespeaks a certain myopic pomposity. For such usage necessarily contains one or both of the following assumptions: a) that no one to whom the language will sound strange will ever read it, and b) that it won't matter if they do. Both assumptions betray a rather dim awareness of the nature of the new media environment, not to mention a sloppiness with meaning that is unbecoming of any service that purports to transmit information. All this is on glorious, spell-binding display in Le Fooding's recently launched English version of its website, in the production of which, it seems safe to assume, no native Anglophones were consulted. Word salad? Word soup? Feast away, it's all there.

09 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: bodegas césar florido, chipiona

I think I know what was going through the Native Companion's mind when she booked us a hotel in Chipiona on our first visit to Andalusia. She likes the beach, and she probably assumed it would be nicer to be 'off the beaten path,' as it were, rather than directly in the sherry town of Sanlucar.

The problem with this reasoning, it turns out, is that Sanlucar, and indeed the whole region, is already rather 'off the beaten path.' If you try to get further out, you wind up conversing with cacti in a ghost town, which is how we spent much of our time in Chipiona. Alone on the beaches, alone on café terraces, alone in the halls of our creepy hotel, surrounded by oil paintings of freshly-killed chickens... The town's geographical proximity to Sanlucar belies its wildly divergent fate vis-à-vis wine production. Chipiona's sandy soils are known for the production of Moscatel, a fortified sweet wine, for which global demand hovers just above nil. Production has dwindled to the extent that Chipiona is now home to just two bodegas, only one of which, Bodegas César Florido, sells any wine for export.

The upswing to all this is that that bodega's current winemaker, César Florido, grandson of the founder, is among the most welcoming personalities in the region. He has a mayoral mien and an infectious enthusiasm for the winemaking tradition he helps to sustain. If he carries on like the fate of the town's wine heritage is on his shoulders, it's because in some sense it is.

04 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: la taberna der guerrita, sanlucar

By way of introducing a series of posts about sherry and various visits to Andalusia, I thought I'd relay a conversation I recently had with a respected wine journalist friend from New York.

"Are you into sherry?" I asked. (We were on a long car ride.)

He wasn't not into sherry, he said. But, having done the same initial research most wine guys do, he found he subsequently almost never encountered anything new of interest from the region. "I'm sick of Brooklyn bartenders incorrectly explaining what Oloroso is," he added.

After three visits to the region over the course of the past year and a half, I could empathise. Sherry is, as Churchill said of Russian statecraft, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Reading Peter Liem and Jésus Barquin's splendid book on the subject gets you only so far - just inside the outer enigma of a wine whose potential often seems as ill-understood by its producers as it is by its consumers. Even in the sherry towns themselves, one rarely lays eyes on the obscure bottlings about which Liem and Barquin write so inspiringly. Most local bars and restaurants offer a what amounts to a modest elaboration of the Jerez airport's Duty-Free.

This is why it's such a relief to return to La Taberna der Guerrita, foward-thinking sherry dealer Armando Guerra's rustic and unassuming Sanlucar tapas bar, which houses, inside a surprisingly space-age rear tasting room, a scintillating selection of rare and unusual bottles. A chat with Guerra - particularly after a long day shuffling along the town's semi-deserted cobblestones encountering nothing but mosto signs - is enough to restore hope for the region's future relevance.

01 December 2014

killer instinct: the beast, 75003

Barbecue, arguably, is for Americans what wine is for the French.  What the subjects share is a dialectical emphasis on local cultural tradition, to a degree that handily surpasses that of, say, the New World wine industry. So perhaps it should be no surprise that Thomas Abramowicz, the young French barbecue afficionado behind hype-scorched new Parisian BBQ establishment The Beast, displays a masterful command of the finer regional nuances of barbeque: things like the provenance and flavour difference of the oak and pecan wood used in the Central Texas-style he prefers; or the origins of the sweeter, more pork-based Kansas-style. I knew none of this before the round of Wild Turkey we shared at the close of my meal at the Beast. 

While billing itself as a bourbon destination, The Beast also maintains a tight, inexpensive natural wine list, one that is surprisingly au courant, given the context. For The Beast is a laser-sighted populist commercial endeavor, replete with graphics package and a catchy koan-esque slogan. ('Meat. Fire. Time.') 

Yet the cool wine list and The Beast as whole leave me torn. The restaurant's mass appeal and commercial savvy seem to be in latent contradiction with its small size. Success seems predicated upon rapid table turnover and massive takeout business, neither of which phenomena have much precedent in Paris, a city congested in perpetuity with inveterate table-squatters. So I wonder how the restaurant will thrive without either drastically raising check averages or relocating to a larger premises. In both cases, the experience would change entirely. Hence my ambivalence about The Beast. In its current state, it is among Paris' best new restaurants. But reviewing the place is like being given a cute baby tiger and asked whether you'd like to keep it. 

03 November 2014

gone fishin' : le verre volé sur mer, 75010

The stakes are high in Paris when an established, beloved restaurant like cave-à-manger pioneer Le Verre Volé opens a seafood sequel, in this case the drily-dubbed Le Verre Volé Sur Mer. Not because Parisians are discerning about seafood. Quite the opposite! Seafood sequels in Paris must be convincing because when they are not, a curtain drops, and we risk recalling, as quivering forkfuls ascend, that Paris is the Chicago of France, a landlocked abattoir with no real claim to oceanic expertise.

Successes ranging from L'Ecailler du Bistrot to Le Mary Celeste to Clamato all show that the trend remains at high tide. With all due respect to most of that list, I suspect this has to do more with socioeconomic factors than with outright quality. Better, cheaper oysters are available in, say, Boston. For raw fish, try Liguria, the Adriatic coast, or Tokyo. But Parisians, like their counterparts in other wealthy capitals, demand something healthy-ish on which to drop their euros. Hence fish.

Le Verre Volé Sur Mer is thus an irresistibly logical next-step for Verre Volé owner Cyril Bordarier, whose original restaurant still does gangbuster business up the block. The seaside version is, alas, a rigid, cack-handed cash-in. From the Little Mermaid wall artwork to the miniscule wine list to the confoundingly amateurish cuisine, it screams of a concept in search of a vision, or, at very least, a competent chef.

27 October 2014

les vendanges: champagne jacques lassaigne, montgueux

When I arranged to harvest with Montgueux Champagne winemaker Manu Lassaigne this September, I had convenience in mind. His is the best domaine in the vicinity of the Native Companion's mother's house outside of Troyes. I figured we could stay with her and sort out transport to and from Montgueux without undue hassle, perhaps on bicycles.

"Attention!" said the NC's mother, when I proposed what struck her as a dangerously bad idea. "Ca mont beaucoup vers Montgueux!" (Tr.: "The way to Montgueux is very steep.") She says this about most hills.* When this failed to sufficiently terrify me, she invoked gypsies. Harvest time brings a lot of low-paid migrant labour to the Aube, and she worried these voyageurs would ambush me with long knives as I bicycled home. "We'll deal with such situations as and when they arise! " I laughed.

And in the end the NC's mom needn't have worried. It took just one day's harvesting at Domaine Jacques Lassaigne for the Native Companion and I to realise we had neither the desire nor the capacity to bike eight kilometers to and from the domaine each day. I was reduced to reliving my early teens, gratefully begging rides to and from my summer job... Harvest is always a blend of festivity and grunt work, in proportions that vary according to the individual traditions of the domaine. Harvest chez Lassaigne is mainly the latter, punctuated with charcuterie and various interesting non-commercialised cuvées.

15 October 2014

brothers in arms: la cave à michel, 75010

In writing about Paris restaurant openings, I'm accustomed to grousing about stillborn fads and failed trendhopping. (Meatballs, anyone? Wine by the litre?) But newly opened Place Sainte Marthe wine bar La Cave à Michel floors me, for it's perhaps the first place I've encountered since Bistro Bellet last fall that seems genuinely forward-thinking.

Located in what used to be the physical premises of online wine retailer La Contre-Etiquette, La Cave à Michel is a joint effort from two longtime neighbors - Fabrice Mansouri, formerly of La Contre-Etiquette, and Maxime and Romain Tischenko, the telegenic brothers behind nextdoor tasting menu restaurant Le Galopin.

Mansouri and the Tischenkos have transformed the awkward old Contre-Etiquette space into a spare, elegant, standing-room-only wine bar that offers, Wednesday through Sunday (!), a solid natural wine selection, a rousing atmosphere, and a winning menu of ambitious small plates produced from a comically small kitchen. The eponymous "Michel," as I understand the idiom, refers to a kind of Everyman figure, and this seems appropriate. Every neighborhood should have one of these.

10 October 2014

takes a village: le rubis, 75002

When asked what makes a wine natural, I often reply that a wine is natural when it is bought by natural wine buyers. I'm only being half-facetious: Paris is blessed to be home to several generations of curmudgeonly gatekeepers to the natural wine scene, restaurateurs and cavistes who have been working to define what natural wine is for upwards of thirty years. This cliqueyness has its drawbacks - such as an incomprehensibility to outsiders, unenforcability, etc. - but it also creates a palpable sense of community in Paris.

If Le Rubis, a terrific, new-ish neighborhood bistrot by Sentier, largely escaped notice upon opening in April, it's because reviewers were unaware of its impeccable bona fides in the natural wine community. Or unaware of the value of such cred. Co-owner Marie Carmarans is the ex-wife of celebrated Aveyron winemaker Nicolas Carmarans, and together they were the second generation of ownership of legendary natural wine bistrot Café de la Nouvelle Mairie. What's more, she's often aided at Le Rubis by her husband, Michel Tolmer, a cult figure in his own right for being the illustrator behind the ubiquitous "Epaule Jété" poster that has become, throughout France, the easiest way to identify a natural wine establishment.

Along with co-owner Geraldine Sarfati and chef Roberta Tringale, Marie Carmarans has created the closest thing the right bank has to the 6ème's Café Trama : a refined, contemporary bistrot with the confidence and smarts to remain simple.

23 September 2014

reborn: vivant cave, 75010

Given that this is a wine blog, I usually avoid posting on chef career moves. The practice risks stoking the already outsize demand in Paris for internationally-trained chefs who can legally work here. Additionally, there are other blogs following kitchen politics far better than I ever could.

But the recent hire of chef Svante Forstorp at ex-Pierre Jancou wine bar Vivant Cave seems unusually significant. Forstorp previously cooked in Paris at Café Smorgas, Aux Deux Amis, Bones, and Nuba, and has made friends everywhere along the way. He's a chef's chef, with a frank plating style and fondness for smoked salt.

Vivant Cave, for its part, was poised to become yet another pretty ex-Jancou restaurant shell, until Forstorp darkened the doorstep. Forstorp's characterful presence almost singlehandedly makes Vivant Cave a destination, paradoxically the best new restaurant of the much-fêted, meaningless rentrée without even being a new restaurant.

10 September 2014

never-ending terrace: les caves de reuilly, 75012

Remember that scene in Wayne's World, where Wayne and Garth do impressions of various US states, before being confounded by the unsatirizable dullness of Delaware?

I find the joke applies equally to Paris' 12ème arrondissement, a pancreas-shaped swathe of east Paris containing the marché d'Aligre, the Bois de Vincennes, and not much else. Between these two destinations, beneath the oft-overlooked Coulée Verte, lies a no-man's land of wide-laned roads and faceless residential blocks, as if the families lodging north of the Gare de Bercy tangle, faced with a choice between typical rail-side rat-commerce and nothing at all, chose the latter. Before last week, I'd only had reason to venture there once, in order to visit Au Trou Gascon, a well-priced one-star Michelin restaurant to whose Armagnac library I have, sadly, not since had the occasion (i.e. euros) to return.

Alarmingly, it now seems I may be back in the neighborhood rather often. My friend Mike Donahue - 12ème resident, fellow Philadelphian, and brew maestro behind Montreuil beer upstarts Deck & Donahue - recently introduced me to the re-vamped Les Caves de Reuilly, an august address for quality wine in Paris that seven months ago came under new ownership. The new owner, Pierre Le Nen, hails from Brittany, studied wine in Paris, and at some point in between, worked in the Vancouver and attained what is, in Paris, a rare fluency in both English and good hospitality. Under his direction, Caves de Reuilly maintains a balanced, mostly-natural wine selection and a vast, expandable terrace, where one can enjoy the former with zero corkage fee. For any Parisians feeling gipped about 2014's summerless August, Les Caves de Reuilly's terrace is a marvelous place to recoup.

01 September 2014

coming round again: à la renaissance, 75011

Like any frequent host in Paris, I've learned to grin vacantly through inarticulate endorsements of "little neighborhood bistrots," those magical gold pots every tourist manages to discover at the end of the RER B rainbow. What our clients, friends, and relatives are discovering is usually not quality, but cuteness, for when one arrives in Paris from a New World nation, almost everything appears quite shrunken, frank, and twee. 

Whereas, in reality, the odds of stumbling upon a unambitious, mostly unknown establishment serving sincere and reasonably well-informed food and wine in Paris - the most visited and most discussed restaurant scene on earth - are vanishingly small.    

Yet, astonishingly, that is how I and my friend and colleague Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth both independently came upon A La Renaissance, an anachronistic 11ème bistrot which, in all aspects save prices and opening hours, resembles its anonymous small-town-square archetype. That we hadn't heard of A La Renaissance before wouldn't be surprising, were it not for bistrot's massive natural wine list, and the fact that, almost alone among Paris natural wine spots, it is open past midnight seven days a week. In the revitalized Voltaire area, newly studded with destinations like Septime, Clamato, Bones, and Le Servan, A La Renaissance is an under-acknowledged pioneer.

27 August 2014

emmanuel lassaigne's "clos sainte sophie"

When the Native Companion and I first visited Champagne winemaker Emmanuel Lassaigne in Aug. 2012, the maestro of Montgueux had tantalised us with the impressive shaggy-dog story of his forthcoming "Clos Sainte Sophie" cuvée. Lassaigne, who by his own admission makes at least one one-off cuvée per year, is no stranger to experimentation. But the "Clos Sainte Sophie" seemed a kind of perfect storm of narrative-sell.

The Clos Sainte Sophie is the only one of the Champagne region's 13 clos situated in the Aube. It's owned by the family behind French undergarment brand Le Petit Bateau. Cuttings from the vineyard were used to plant the first wine grapes in Japan in 1877. Lassaigne reached an agreement with the elderly owner to purchase the grapes starting in 2010. Lassaigne's plan for them? To age the wine in barrels previously used for Cognac, Mâcon-Solutré, and Vin Jaune, the latter sourced from Jura heavyweight Jean-François Ganevat.

I remember finding this strange, since the whole purpose of the venture - to showcase the Clos Sainte Sophie - would arguably be obscured by the exotic barrel-aging. But during a visit to his cellars with my friend Nick Gorevic of Jenny & François Imports last week, Lassaigne offered some clarification: he'd blended the various wines from the respective barrel types, thereby removing some of a taster's more trivial guesswork. Then he clarified again: actually, he'd kept the Vin Jaune barrels apart, since the wine aged therein had, oddly, not seemed to evolve much. Most illuminatingly, however, he went ahead and opened a bottle of the 2010 for us.

20 August 2014

the anti-nicolas: squatt wine shop, 75011

A chef friend whose opinions I value highly once raised a sceptical eyebrow when I praised La Retrobottega proprietor Pietro Russano's cooking. At the time Russano, a former sommelier at the late restaurant Rino, had just opened his low-key 11ème Italian cave-à-manger and, as is often still the case today, he was manically performing all roles: sommelier, server, host, and cook. My chef friend argued his cuisine was too untutored.

I had no rebuttal, because it's true Russano is mostly self-taught. If the dishes I've received since at La Retrobottega rarely reach the heights of the magnificent pickled squash salad Russano served on my first visit, they're nonetheless reliably soulful, curious preparations: roast aubergine atop couscous, or burrata served with mango, white mushroom and chive. Russano is an improvisation artist, if not in the high-jazz register of the greatest chefs, then in the blustery, street-level manner of a freestyle MC.

This is the best lens through which to understand his new project, a junkyardy wine shop and épicerie on rue de la Roquette that he has rather pungently entitled Squatt Wine Shop. (Two t's intentional.) Russano explains the name is a reference to squatter culture in places like Berlin. I'm unable to resist observing that 'squat' is also what dogs do in the street in places like Paris, or that it's what one finds in one's bank account after too many wine expenditures... No, the word has no good connotations in English. Perhaps Russano's wine shop will be the first, for Squatt is overstuffed with unusual French and Italian selections, not to mention sincere personality, making it the antithesis of Paris' ubiquitous Nicolas chain, one location of which is, amusingly, located directly next door.

18 August 2014

the price of convenience: la boulangerie, 75020

In trying to descry the origins of the hazy aura known as restaurant hype, we often overlook its simplest element, which is thrift.

Patronising restaurants is not a thrifty habit in the first place, which is all the more reason for diners to flock to restaurants that are good value for money. Surprisingly few Paris business owners seem to understand this dynamic - that increased turnover, despite the hassle, is sounder business footing than high prices. The result is a surfeit of demand at good-value establishments, or, in a word, hype. But what becomes of the capable restaurants that are just not quite good enough a deal ?

One such haunt is La Boulangerie, a Ménilmontant bistrot I seem to have avoided for the past five years on account of its hypelessness and its faceless, rather confusing name. Imagine my surprise to discover, when I finally ducked in for an impromptu dinner with a visiting friend, that it's in fact a mature, quality-oriented establishment that seems to exist just slightly out of its era. It's pricing is pre-Euro crisis, let's say, and its plating is mid-Chirac. The pleasant hospitality, broad wine list, and the staggering armagnac selection, on the other hand, are all timeless.

08 August 2014

insiders: monsieur henri, 75003

I recently lauded fledgling 11ème wine bar Aux Deux Cygnes for bringing a bit of professionalism and style to its gentrification-frontier quartier. If that establishment's location is central to its charm, the same dynamic applies to another new Paris wine bar, the 9-month-old Monsieur Henri, which manages to be impressively discreet despite being tucked right off the haute-Marais beard-groomer thru-way of rue de Bretagne.

The Marais, of course, is stuffed with twee concepts long on design and short on experience. Monsieur Henri, for better and for worse, has these proportions precisely inversed.

Co-owner Dzine Breyet is a fixture in Paris' natural wine scene, having previously worked alonside Guillaume Dupré at influential passage des Panoramas wine bar Coinstot Vino. But where that bar benefits from the evocative décor of Paris' oldest public passage, Monsieur Henri rather unfortunately resembles a corridor in a small-town sports center. Harsh lighting, a low ceiling, and ill-advised primary-coloured wine storage cages all ensure that no one drinking at Monsieur Henri has come for the glamour. In the Marais, this seems to improve the clientele.

30 July 2014

swans' way: aux deux cygnes, 75011

My friend M is a Vietnamese chef in New York. A year ago I was encouraging him to open a restaurant in Paris. Just think, I beamed. Natural wine and Vietnamese food ! It's never been done ! Moreover, such a restaurant would perform the conceptual two-step necessary in contemporary Paris to appeal both to Parisians, who hunger for novel, non-Parisian things, and visitors, for whom all things Parisian are novel. For an unintended consequence of France's imperialist adventures in Asia is that, a century and a half later, it seems plausible that Paris would contain excellent Vietnamese food.

Aux Deux Cygnes, a well-appointed dollhouse of a wine bar on rue Keller opened three months ago by polyvalent young French-Vietnamese restaurant professional To Xuan Cuny, is not a destination for excellent Vietnamese food. Instead it's a very personal effort, a synthesis of Cuny's influences, to which world-historical forces are mostly incidental. Even the bar's elegant name is simply a play on words, a French translation of the common Danish mispronunciation of Cuny's first name. ('Two swans.') The Vietnamese angle largely stops with the bar's somewhat bread-driven bánh mì. So there's still room for my old friend M in Paris.

If Aux Deux Cygnes, with its tiny snack menu and appreciably offbeat, southern-focused wine list, nonetheless feels rather new, it's because Cuny herself represents an inroad of Michelin-trained hospitality experience to the historically scruffier field of natural wine in Paris.

23 July 2014

not idiots: le cave, 75011

I thought it would be bigger news when late last year Inaki Aizpitarte opened a shoebox-sized wine shop between Le Chateaubriand and Le Dauphin. Instead, outside of a few blurbs in the French press, it was basically a non-event. Curiously, and rather appealingly, this seems to have been intentional.

You have the shop's almost Google-proof name, Le Cave, a French pun* that doesn't scan in English. You have the shop's quixotic concept, which is to offer exclusively non-French natural wines. You have the fact that food is sold to-go, but no food is available for consumption on premises - not a cheese rind, not the barest sliver of charcuterie. Yet a rotating cast of the shop's exotic, borderline faddish wines are available by the glass.

What does Le Cave offer that could possibly make it a destination ? Nothing. And I imagine this suits the Chateaubriand group fine, since their two adjacent restaurants already have enough overflow to require the services of a waiting room, which is Le Cave's primary function. Happily, staffing what could easily have been a lean mean man cave is a razor-sharp lady called Beatrice, who, seemingly alone in the restaurant group, has serious hospitality skills. And so Le Cave becomes, despite itself, a low-key weeknight destination, one which I prefer to both restaurants.

21 July 2014

harvest moon

I was sitting at Le Bist'Roch in Nuits the other afternoon with my friend R when he brought my attention to a photo of a nude man posted above the bar. "Hey," I said. "That looks a lot like Devendra Banhart posing nude with a three-litre bottle of red wine."

Le Bist'Roch is not the sort of place where one expects to see nude photos of freak-folk singers. It's a hardscrabble natural wine joint attached to legendary natural Burgundy domaine Prieuré Roch. The other table that afternoon was a group of fearsomely wasted rural bachelor partiers who had been drinking since the previous evening. (We'd seen them earlier that morning in Beaune. The groom-to-be was dressed as a gigantic penis.)  

Indeed, the picture turned out not to be Devendra Banhart. It was simply a harvester at Domaine Marcel Lapierre who had participated in the photography project of a fellow harvester, a calendar of various harvesters posing nude with grapes and wine paraphernalia. "It's more fun when it's a month with a girl posing," explained Totor, the Bist'Roch's manager, handing us the calendar. 

18 July 2014

n.d.p. in burgundy: la soeur cadette, vézelay

Despite my enthusiasm for the Yonne town of Vézelay, I had, until a few weeks ago, still yet to pay a visit to La Soeur Cadette and Jean Montanet, the area's lone excellent winemaker. He just never seemed to be home when I was in town. After two stays in Saint-Père on separate bikes trip last summer, it had become a source of mild embarrassment.

A recent visit from my parents gave me the occasion to rectify the situation. The Native Companion and I organised a family trip and the first order of business, before even booking our regular chambre d'hôte, was to see if Jean Montanet was around. For as much as I adore Vézelay's basilica and nearby natural wine bistrot Le Bougaineville with its heavenly cheese cart, it's still the luminescent Chardonnays, violetty Pinot Noirs, and mineral Melon of La Soeur Cadette that put the town on the map.

10 July 2014

consider the perks: restaurant lazare, 75008

Bad restaurants, like the proverbial Tolstoyan unhappy family, may be awful in an infinity of ways. We dislike them accordingly. But how we truly hate restaurants is largely divisible into two categories. There is personal emnity: because the ownership or a key staff member has done you grievously wrong. Then there is impersonal emnity: because you sense that the establishment targets a clientele whose tastes you question, whose influence, you suspect, is ultimately deleterious to a culture you value.

My friend and colleague Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth hated Restaurant Lazare in the latter way, which is probably the only way to hate an overpriced 110-seat fortress of a bistrot installed in a wall of Gare Saint Lazare. Pioneering bistronomy chef Eric Frechon is surely not there himself, peeling onions. The staff are replaceable hotelier school grads, so predictable you can't even resent their inattentiveness. What I think Meg resented, rather, was the restaurant's perceived culture of wealth-fluffing and preferential treatment, of stout bankers gorging themselves on guinea hens before boarding first-class cars and careening off to houses in Honfleur for the weekend.

As a fellow writer, with no quantifiable skills and no discernable route to fortune in my future, I hate these (possibly imaginary) people too. And I recognise that Lazare exists for them, while the plebs wait in hundred meter lines for Burger King on another floor of the station. That Lazare thrives is in itself a Pikettian sign of increasing income stratification. So it's with a kind of melancholy that I admit I don't hate Lazare; that I find the place quite useful; that it constitutes a perk of city life I wish I could enjoy more often.

08 July 2014

ponzu scheme: tsubame, ito izakaya, peco peco, 75009

I'm a bit late in discussing the tsunami of twee Japanese concepts that arrived on my doorstep in the 9ème over the course of last year.

I like Japanese cuisine as much as anyone - indeed, I assume I'm genetically inclined towards it - and Ito Izakaya, Peco Peco, and Tsubame all make a point of serving natural and organic wines, which, until recently, have functioned as a useful indicator of conscious restaurateurism in Paris and beyond.

But these restaurant openings mark the discomfiting moment that a natural-by-numbers wine list became a feature of contemporary Parisian décor, like Tsubame's blackboard, or the hideous scratchy DIY cardboard table in Ito's rear room. Within the context of a Japanese restaurant in Paris, a natural-by-numbers wine list is, perversely, a sign of inauthenticity, an indicator that one is sitting in a Parisian Japanese concept, rather than an unselfconscious Japanese restaurant. Whether there is really anything wrong with that will depend on the rigor of one's aesthetic demands, and whether it is lunchtime.

23 June 2014

a family affair: ma cave fleury, 75002

I used to complain often about a dearth of actual wine bars in Paris. I defined them as places where quality wine could be enjoyed standing up, without the obligation to book in advance or consume a multi-course meal. But nowadays my old screeds ring a bit shrill, since such places are no longer so rare in the city. In certain quartiers, they exist in densities sufficient to fill a guided tour

Ironically, with certain exceptions, I still find myself frequenting the ones that have been there all along. This has less to do with the quality of wine on offer than with the character of the company. I learn more from older sommeliers and restaurateurs than I do from their younger, more stylish peers. 

One such example is Ma Cave Fleury, the unfailingly festive caviste and wine bar on rue Saint Denis, founded in 2009 by Morgane Fleury, global ambassador of biodynamic Champagne producers Champagne Fleury. The bar contains nothing more to eat than rudimentary charcuterie and cheese plates. And I can admit to liking the Fleury Champagnes, in most cases, for reasons more political than aesthetic. Ma Cave Fleury nonetheless remains very relevant for its central location and for the central role its proprietor plays in the city's natural wine scene. Morgane Fleury is like its fairy godmother, her unpretentiousness and warmth constituting an antidote to the conservative froideur that typifies the public faces of most Champagne houses.

16 June 2014

n.d.p. in brittany: domaine joanna cecillon, sevignac

The Native Companion had been hinting that she'd like to visit Brittany for several years. But since no wine is produced there, it never struck me as a high priority. Brittany is like Ireland with worse beer, worse whiskey, and crêpes. Even the best ciders and apple brandies, I'd long thought, were produced further east in Normandy.

What finally tempted me out to Brittany with the NC was the prospect of a visit with Louis and Joanna Cecillon, of Domaine Joanna Cecillon in Sevignac. My friend Josh Adler of Paris Wine Company had introduced me to their ciders, which he'd in turn discovered via Louis' vigneron brother, who makes very savvy Saint Joseph on the other side of France.

Upon tasting the ciders, I quickly understood why Josh was keen to make the five hour trek to nowheresville Sevignac. The Domaine Joanna Cecillon ciders are truly majestic, wine-like in their depth and perceptibly Bretonne maritime in their acid profile. They are, in my experience, pretty much without equal, a benchmark of quality both for the region and the entire cider genre.

06 June 2014

sancerre bike trip: le square, cosne-sur-loire

Cosne-sur-Loire is not the most exciting place on earth. It's where life goes on surrounding Sancerre tourism. But it's also where many visiting wine guys stay. So I thought for sake of completion, after my laudatory post on Cosne's lone terrific restaurant, it would worth mentoning also Le Square, which is Cosne's most accessible and convenient restaurant.

No, the wine's no good, and service veers from welcoming to furious according the whims of whoever's working. But there's a lovely terrace on, yes, a square, and as long as you bring enough mosquito repellent it's a lovely place for dinner in Cosne on a Sunday night, when, as far as dining options go, the alternative is noodling for catfish in the nearby river.

03 June 2014

rock out: la cantine de la cigale, 75018

A brief moment of on-stage banter at last Monday's Hamilton Leithauser show at La Boule Noire saw the former Walkmen singer - arguably the most compelling rock vocalist of his generation - complaining about food prices in Montmartre.

"Since when did Montmartre get so expensive?" he asked, before deadpanning, "That's what we talk about in this band."

In the audience my friends and I exchanged shrugs. Where had he gone to eat?* From my perspective, it's never been easier to get an inexpensive quality-conscious meal in Montmartre. The quiet side of the hill boasts excellent pizza at Il Brigante, while the upper slopes of rue des Martyrs are home to Miroir, a totally solid natural wine bistrot. An incongruously good natural wine magnum list is just south of there at the otherwise dire Hotel Amour. And right down the road from La Boule Noire is Le Petit Trianon, which as far as concert-venue cuisine goes, is bested only by Basque chef Christian Etchebest's La Cantine de la Cigale, which is even closer, and even better value for money. It was, oddly, deserted after Leithauser's performance, which either indicates that his fans have no taste, or that I have entirely forgotten what it's like to be a young concertgoer more in love with music than eating well.

28 May 2014

oh la honte: ma cocotte, saint-ouen

For a certain class of Parisian, familiarity with the marché aux puces is a basic mark of distinction. It doesn't matter if very few of us do any actual shopping in the stratospherically-priced high design markets north of the city. Les puces constitute the city's most accessible museum and, at once, its most cosmopolitan feature, for the knowledge that Paris entices the world's most discerning interior decorators to spend lavish sums in the center of a chaotic slum is something anyone can enjoy.

Who are these titans of the earth, we wonder, dropping tens of thousands on Finn Juhl chairs and Adnet lamps? Do they or their decorators mind dealing with the strange unhurried merchants who drip bad red wine and cut sausages on the merchandise during transactions? There is even poetry in this: to purchase a luxury item at the flea markets, a client must descend, momentarily, to the world of crowded guingettes and couscous.

But since fall 2012, the world's high-design tastemakers - along with us window-lickers - have had an alternative. Towering at the entrance to the Marché Paul Bert - Serpette, it is a Philippe Starck-designed megalo-bistrot called Ma Cocotte, run by Philippe and Fabienne Amzalak, proprietors of 16ème arrondissement restaurant Bon. Ma Cocotte is positively thronged on weekends, and its success with the flea market clientele reveals something about the separation of aesthetic spheres. Overpriced, anarchic, and irredeemably tacky, it would be Paris' worst restaurant, except that it is not, technically, in Paris.

26 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: restaurant la tour, sancerre

The most expensive fallacy of wine travel, to which I habitually succumb, is to assume that, to experience the full breadth of a given region's cuisine, one must dine at least once at a formal restaurant. This is how I convinced myself and my travel companions to dine at Restaurant La Tour, a Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by chef Baptiste Fournier, whose parents owned the restaurant before him.

Fournier previously trained with Guy Savoy and Alain Passard, among others, and in this case the chef's estimable pedigree illustrates why I ought to avoid restaurants like La Tour. High-value chefs tend to produce high-value cuisine, more representative of individual ambitions than of regional tradition. (The phenomenon is even more pronounced at lunch, when chefs don kid gloves.)

In the same way that you can get a Burberry scarf or Gucci luggage in almost any duty-free from Madrid to Dubai, you can enjoy the white-tablecloth cuisine of Restaurant La Tour in almost any upscale rural French restaurant from Puligny to Chablis. Luxury has an anonymising effect. At Restaurant La Tour, this is counterbalanced by an impressive, if not exactly bargain-studded regional wine list that cites the local wines according to village.

20 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: domaine vacheron, sancerre

Half our group missed the visit to historical Sancerre standard-bearers Domaine Vacheron. They decided to spend the morning by the pool. Later they rejoined us for lunch in Sancerre, where I admitted they hadn't missed much. 

A strenuous, rushed ride up the town's nearly vertical hillside, and then a fairly perfunctory tour of the facilities in the company of some visiting Alsatian winemakers. Our guide was Denis Vacheron, President of the Union Viticole du Sancerrois, uncle and father, respectively, of current winemaker Jean-Laurent and vineyard manager Jean-Dominique. 

I hadn't expected more, of course, as I'm neither an accredited journalist nor any sort of buyer. Domaine Vacheron are big business, with 48ha planted, of which 46ha are in production. They export 60% of their 200,000 bottle production to 45 countries. But they're also certified biodynamic since 2004, and the domaine has a history of ecological production practices. (Denis says they've never used fertilisers or chemicals in the vineyards.) I find the universally-acclaimed Sancerres to be reliable fallbacks on otherwise conventional wine lists. Vacheron wines also usefully illustrate some practices that separate biodynamic wine from the more fugitive concept of natural wine. 

15 May 2014

neighborhood natural: les vinaigriers, 75010

What a wonderful world we'd live in, if the elusive Great Neighborhood Restaurant existed in numbers commensurate to how often the term is invoked by restaurant critics.

Most would have you believe that every arrondissement of Paris contains several Great Neighborhood Restaurants. But such a belief is dependent upon the demands of the individual diner. My own criteria - which I don't consider too extravagant - are friendly service, bargain comfort food, and potable wine. Yet within this rubric, great Neighborhood Restaurants prove rarer than narwhals. Far too often I'm directed to ostenstibly solid establishments only to encounter pitifully undersketched beverage programs, as if honest wine in Paris were something we ought to cross town for on weekends.

With these elevated standards in mind, I'm happy to declare promising young canal-area bistrot Les Vinaigriers a splendid neighborhood restaurant. Owners Frédérique Doucin and Thibault Desplats are perceptibly new to the industry, but what they've created in a former auberge on a dreamboat real estate corner is a fine place for a wholesome and mostly unfussy weeknight meal. This summer it's set to be every canalside apero-sipper's back pocket standby when Le Verre Volé is complèt.

12 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: le chat, cosne-sur-loire

The town of Sancerre is a bright, windswept agglomeration of medieval belfries and tasting rooms atop a hill with views for miles around. It is precisely what wine tourists want of a wine town.

Cosne-sur-Loire, where we stayed, is where people live and eat kebabs. It is known mainly for being a low-cost upriver alternative to staying in Sancerre itself. Our b'n'b was separated from a graveyard by an autoroute.

But Cosne-sur-Loire has Le Chat, a relatively modern bistrot run by Paris-trained chef Laurent Chareau in the rather isolated southern outskirts. It was the unanimous - and, I'm afraid, only - regional restaurant recommendation of every wine guy I know. A rare balance between rural charm and contemporary sophistication, it puts the whole town on the map. 

09 May 2014

sancerre bike trip: françois cotat, chavignol

The entrance to Sancerre legend François Cotat's tasting room must be one of the most sweetly vexing tableaux in the wine world. On a sunny Friday afternoon in July, the cascading geraniums around the hunched doorway look like a mariachi band. What are they celebrating?

Bein' closed. For good. Not having to deal with tasters and tourists except by choice. On the interior there's a photo of Cotat's mother and his father Paul on the day they sold their last available allocation. They're clasping hands in front of the CLOSED sign, beaming like chickens who killed a fox.

François seems to have inherited their reticence, their modesty. He doesn't like having his picture taken and possesses none of the bravado or showmanship of many grands vignerons. But one of the nice things about biking to meet vignerons is it tends to put them at ease. My friends and I decidedly do not resemble the packs of shades-wearing grey-marketeers who undoubtedly show up in shiny rental cars each week. When we arrived hours late in sweaty shorts the winemaker was totally cordial, having determined earlier that day over the phone that we were pleasant imbeciles who wanted little more from him than advice on where to purchase a rear tire.

06 May 2014

reign of terrine: repaire de cartouche bar à vin, 75011

Who knew what to expect when chef Rodolphe Paquin, le roi de la terrine, announced he was turning his divisive bistrot Le Repaire de Cartouche's rue Amelot dining room into a wine bar ?

Paquin's friend and peer Thierry Breton opened his own bar à vin last summer, La Pointe du Grouin, to strange, circusey results. As much as I enjoy that bar, it's representative of a tendency among French restaurateurs - even ones as free-thinking as Breton - to view customer service as a binary proposition, either on or off, present or completely, chaotically absent.* Very rarely in Paris does one encounter the nuanced, calibrated dynamics of places like Septime Cave, Clamato, Le Mary Celeste, or Camille Fourmont's Buvette, younger concepts by younger, hungrier restaurateurs who are now inspiring their forebears.

With Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin, Paquin proves he hasn't been snoozing for the last 17 years since he opened his restaurant. His wine bar demonstrates an awareness of all that makes Paris' other contemporary wine bars great: a small, responsive menu of shareable items, a long, cornered bar you can actually use, an open door to the street for standing and smoking. But Le Repaire de Cartouche Bar à Vin has three striking advantages over the others: Rodolphe Paquin himself, his bistrot's national-treasure wine list, and his lauded terrines, which latter are among the greatest examples of France's original bar food.

29 April 2014

worth the wait: le servan, 75011

Two observations on restaurant service, following a meal at Le Servan, the spiffing new restaurant on rue Saint Maur by the charming and demure Levha sisters, Tatiana and Katia.

One is that I much prefer the ambiance in restaurants run by women. Natural wine bistrots have for too long been the province of grouchy old men and churlish young guns more attentive to their facial hair than to guests. With Haruka Casters' 6036, Jane Drotter's newly revamped Yard Restaurant, and now Le Servan, diners of the 11ème arrondissement are treated to a preview of what I sincerely hope will become the preferred service standard citywide. Service at Le Servan is unfailingly good-natured; staff are happy to share Tatiana's subtly Asian-inflected cuisine and Katia's boutique natural wine list.

The other observation is that a terrific meal at a restaurant, like a certain other very enjoyable act, can turn unpleasant if it goes on too long. At a certain point, it doesn't matter how seductive the appetisers are, nor how climactic the main courses might be. Even at the most promising of restaurants, when an hour passes between courses, friction occurs.

24 April 2014

sancerre bike trip: sebastien riffault, sury-en-vaux

Twenty minutes into our bike trip around Sancerre last July, as we wended south along the left bank of the Loire, the rear innertube of the Native Companion's bike blew itself to shreds. It had been the one thing I'd asked some bike shop scheisters near Sentier to fix, but in their enthusiasm to bilk me for a thousand other tune-ups and grip replacements, they had apparently forgotten my original request. The back tire had a hole, macgivered with a piece of leather, through which the innertube had become exposed.

We had to postpone our rendezvous with Chavignol legend François Cotat, whose wife was extremely helpful in suggesting places nearby that might stock innertubes. We found one at a motorcycle supply shop a few miles up the road. The shop was permanently closed, but its owner was constructing an amateur Museum of Antique Bicycles in the shed space, and he happened to have a stock of innertubes out back. No tires, though, so the hole remained precarious, with just an unfixed piece of leather between us and further rural hassle.

It was also swelteringly hot, and in my inexperience I took us on a laughably circuitous route up and down the insane inclines of Sury-En-Vaux to the domaine that had become our first appointment, that of natural winemaker Sebastien Riffault. I say all this to explain why the winemaker arrived in his car to see us cheering and doing donuts in his driveway. We had survived! I don't mean it as faint praise if I say we appreciated the ice cold water Riffault gave us almost as much as his deep, wizardly Sancerres.

21 April 2014

flock here: the green goose, 75011

It goes without saying that Irish culture doesn't lack for originality or regional nuance. But a history of economic subjugation and misfortune has resulted in narrowly controlled industries of some of Ireland's most famous products, like whiskey and stout.  The virtual monopolies of Guinness-Diageo (Guinness, Bushmills) and Pernod-Ricard (Jameson, Power's, Paddy's, Green Spot, Redbreast...) in these markets enforce a sameness in Irish pubs. For evidence, look no further than the template for potential pub owners called the Irish Pub Concept, codified by Guinness Brewing Co. in 1992 and still in circulation today.

Given the structure of the industry, I consider the opening of an original, characterful Irish pub anywhere a relatively courageous act.

To open one in Paris, a desert of decent pints, as Kieran Loughney has just done with his 11ème arrondissement gastro-pub The Green Goose, is almost heroic. There's not a Guinness or a shamrock in sight in the lovingly recreated Dublin-style wooden space. Instead he offers, every day of the week, a solid pub menu, every insanely underrated O'Hara's beer on tap, and the inimitably frank hospitality of a proper Irish pub.

15 April 2014

return to sender: blue valentine, 75011

At the restaurant I used to manage in Los Angeles, we had an amusing problem. One of the owners was friends with R.E.M., and accordingly that band featured heavily on the mandated nightly playlist. But the members of R.E.M. came into the restaurant relatively often. Whenever we got wind of their arrival, we had to be absolutely sure to switch to a non-R.E.M. playlist, to avoid the cosmic embarrassment that would ensue if the band walked in while their own songs were playing. In such a circumstance (for it did indeed occur once or twice) the entire restaurant comes off looking like the guy wearing the band's t-shirt to the concert.

So, what if you've named your restaurant after a classic Tom Waits song, and then you play Tom Waits all the time in your restaurant? This is lame before Tom Waits even sets foot in the door.

Luckily for the owners of newish Republique restaurant Blue Valentine, that problem is easily fixed. Unfortunately, it's representative of the restaurant's entire concept, which is almost unsalvageable. Blue Valentine is a clumsy attempt to ride contemporary restaurant trends without understanding any of them. Cocktail service, a magnum-only, mostly natural wine list, rock music, and a market menu helmed by a Japanese chef. Woau! But it's like the owners were told about these elements cohering successfully in other restaurants, and then the owners gamely tried to replicate the blend themselves, without first examining any other restaurants.* The result is a pitifully inauthentic experience, one of the most embarrassing meals I've had in years. I felt like the intended target of seduction by a college freshman.

11 April 2014

worlds collide: les trois 8, 75020

One day I'm going to walk into Le Meurice and stand for an hour on one foot. Then I'll bow and the press will take photos and I'll go down in history, because that is how easy it is, in a restaurant in Paris, to do something no one has ever done before.

Take, for example, the recently revamped Menilmontant hideaway Les Trois 8. It's primary innovation - which, all irony aside, deserves huge applause - is to offer, alongside its focus on excellent craft beers on draft, a modest list of solid natural wines.

So what if covering both these bases in de rigeur for every dive bar from Green Point to Red Hook ? In Paris, worlds are colliding. At Les Trois 8, the gnomish subculture of French micro-brewing is emerging into the light of a versatile night out, and encountering such strange, fantastical creatures as celiacs, women, and wine geeks.

07 April 2014

from the ground up: yard, 75011

A few weeks ago I organised a hilarious and, thankfully, thereafter utterly unrepresentative meal for a visiting friend at Père Lachaise bistrot Yard. I hadn't been to the restaurant, but had heard about it for years and thought why not. Unfortunately for my friend, who idolizes the strenuous "modernist" cuisine of the likes of Inaki Aizpitarte, Yard was between chefs. We later learned that owner Jane Drotter had been in the kitchen that night, winging it.

All at the table agreed that it was like not even eating at a restaurant. It was like dining in the countryside at the house of a French friend's mother who had never been to restaurants. We fled to Clamato for a second dinner to remind ourselves what food with flavor tasted like, and my friends learned never again to trust me for a restaurant recommendation.

As usual, I was just ahead of my time. Not a week later, I learned that Shaun Kelly, ex-chef of Au Passage, and Eleni Sapera, ex-cook at Bones, were taking over kitchen duties at Yard, instantly rendering it a destination. So my friends and I returned on Friday for an entirely different register of meal. It was a testament both to how much Drotter got right with Yard in the first place, and to the transformative power of a certain circle of young foreign chefs in Paris

31 March 2014

managing expectations: les enfants rouges, 75003

Chefs deserve our pity. Critics dissect their every gesture in a search for novelty that is, through no fault of chefs, mostly futile. Dining is just not a novel pursuit: everyone does and has done it since the dawn of time, and any innovation is limited by our physical ability to digest it. What we refer to as innovation is usually clever curation of underacknowledged ingredients or cuisines that were there the whole time.

But not all chefs are clever curators. As a skill, it bears the same relation to cooking as perfumery does to fashion design. Luckily for such chefs, there is another route to celebration and influence. One can simply be incredibly charming.

Some chefs possess both skills, and manage to curate people and culinary styles with ease. But others, like Yves Camdeborde's longtime sous-chef Dai Shinozuka, who last fall took over Marais wine bar space Les Enfants Rouges, seemingly possess neither. These are the ones truly deserving of pity. Les Enfants Rouges under Shinozuka points no new directions in Paris dining, and at first glance manages to underwhelm despite terrific cuisine and serviceable hospitality. But Shinozuka, evidently no fool, has made all criticism moot by opening on Sundays and Mondays, which instantly renders Les Enfants Rouges one of the most useful addresses in Paris, let alone the quality-starved Marais.