30 July 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.