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.