02 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: laurence and rémi dufaitre, saint-étienne-des-ouillières


A common wine writing trope is to conclude that a wine resembles its maker in some way or another. Nowhere is this less applicable than in the wines of rising-star Beaujolais winemaker Rémi Dufaitre, whose production of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (among other wines) is distinguished by its elegance and finesse.

Rémi Dufaitre himself is more direct, an endearing trait, from certain angles. When I arrived at his domaine in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières, roughly where the Brouilly appellation meets Beaujolais-Villages, he lost no time asking me upfront about my blog traffic. When I introduced my bike trip companion N, a novelist, Rémi, without missing a beat, asked, "How many books did you sell?"

The no-bullshit approach, in this case, reflects the confidence of a young winemaker who enjoys broad support among his forebears in the region. Originally from Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne, Dufaitre has known since birth his friend and Brouilly neighbor Jean-Claude Lapalu. Influential Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive is Dufaitre's cousin. And while Dufaitre and his wife Laurence only began bottling their own wines in 2010, their work soon attracted the attention of Villié-Morgon legend Jean Foillard, who has said he considers Dufaitre among the best of the younger generation of Beaujolais winemakers. Who cares if he possesses the combative, ball-breaking temperament of a mob enforcer, when the wines are this good?

25 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-claude lapalu, saint-etienne-la-varenne


Jean-Claude Lapalu occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of contemporary Beaujolais. The son and grandson of winegrowers, he began bottling his own wines relatively late, at age 35. It was 1996. "I'm an intermediary," he acknowledges, "between the generation of Max Breton, who started before me, and the young generation today."

Our visit had been arranged Lapalu's good friend Rémi Dufaitre, a talented young winemaker twenty years his junior, who was hosting us that night in the neighboring town. Despite their age difference, Lapalu and Dufaitre share an easy rapport. Dropping us off chez Lapalu, Dufaitre asked his friend to "throw us back" to Dufaitre's place when we were through tasting. We asked if that was normal rural slang. Lapalu just laughed. "It's just Rémi being Rémi."

Lucky for us, Lapalu was in an expansive mood on the day we visited. Our tasting went long. A born raconteur, he's among the rare great vignerons whose verbal expressivity is a match for that of his wines.

15 June 2015

conscientious objectors: les déserteurs, 75011


As diners and critics, we're willing to discern greater depths in a chef's plates if he or she has led a swashbuckling lifestyle, or at least can be presented to us as having witnessed the mysteries of foreign cultures. In contemporary Paris, the résumé spice du jour is "travel in Asia," a transcendant, cuisine-altering experience for chefs ranging from David Toutain to Saturne's Sven Chartier to Le Servan's Tatiana Levha. If, of that list, only Levha's cuisine shows any direct engagement with eastern cuisines, don't blame the chefs. Blame their publicists, and culinary media outlets.

Les Déserteurs, the upscale market-menu restaurant opened last year by chef Daniel Baratier and sommelier Alex Céret in the former Rino space on rue Trousseau, is, like its chef, deficient in narrative flair. The name is a witticism referring to the owners' former workplace, the untrendy Ile Saint Louis Michelin one-star Le Sergent Recruteur, a restaurant that I now read is in liquidation. When the joke passes, we're left with the following premise: Two Friendly French Guys Open Slightly Pricey Restaurant.

Diners will be forgiven for not leaping to book six-tops. I myself only went because they had a last minute table on a Saturday night, and I often work in the neighborhood. I was therefore caught entirely by surprise by the restaurant's outright excellence. From its pacing to its apportionment to its marvelous contents, a meal at Les Déserteurs is a tour de force of sensitivity, where the refined, vegetable-driven country cuisine is as nuanced and mature as the wine list.

11 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: benoit camus, ville-sur-jarnioux


Some tasting appointments in Beaujolais are difficult to obtain because a given winemaker's work is so sought-after that he or she has no interest in cultivating new clientele. Securing a tasting with young fringe-natural winemaker Benoit Camus was difficult for something like the opposite reason. He has almost no commercial operation to speak of, instead selling his finished wines wholesale to a few négoçiants willing to sell it for him. He has practically no direct clientele at all, and next to nothing for visitors to taste.

Camus lives in the southern Beaujolais town of Cogny, a short drive from Villefranche-sur-Saône, the riverside town north of Lyon where I commenced a bicycle trip this past spring with two novelist friends. In our initial communications, I sensed it embarrassed him to receive visitors when he had almost no wine to show. He rather gallantly kept proposing we go see a winemaker friend of his further north instead, until at last accepting to have lunch together at his house in Cogny, rather than at his cellar in nearby Ville-sur-Jarnioux.

Ordinarily I would have taken his suggestion to visit elsewhere, but Camus was located right on our itinerary, and I'd been keen to meet him since tasting his wines in Paris. As it was, over the course of a very short tasting that turned into a jam session, we got a small peek into the life of a promising, eccentric winemaker at the semi-anonymous outset of his career.

05 June 2015

back yard: yard wine bar, 75011


When I first wrote about Jane Drotter's splendid contemporary bistrot YARD in April 2014, I couldn't help expressing astonishment that some of the passing Père Lachaise locals found prices too high. "Stinting flintnosed cheapskates," I called them. YARD the restaurant was then and still remains one of the city's best deals, its prices calibrated more to the expectations of its far-flung quartier than to the skills of chef Nye Smith or the superior quality of his product.

Drotter, presumably as part of a grand strategy for domination of nightlife in the eastern 11ème, has now opened, beside her bustling bistrot, YARD Wine Bar, a cosy roomful of high tables and a wide terrace where she continues to indulge her clientele. The small-plate menu prices are lower than those of most soft beverage programs in the Marais.

It's worth noting, though, that Drotter's clientele has changed. Where once it consisted of whoever happened to live or work nearby, it now resembles a cross-section of the Paris fine restaurant crowd, which is to say, chiefly people who unhesitatingly order the whole menu twice and consume oceans of natural wine. This dynamic, one hopes, will sustain YARD Wine Bar's paradisiacal micro-scene for many summers to come.

02 June 2015

rebirth of cool: entrée des artistes pigalle, 75009


Everything about Entrée des Artistes Pigalle proprietors Fabien Lombardi and Edouard Vermynck's previous bar-à-manger on rue de Crussol evinced a stubborn, cloistered dedication to cool, which often superseded practical concerns. Each cocktail took up its own page on the finicky list. The wine selection was fearlessly obscure. Hospitality could feel a bit teenage. The music program consisted exclusively of canonical rap.

When I heard they were uprooting that original successful address in favour of a larger space in Pigalle, I worried it might be a case of two artistes fixing what wasn't broke. As the album work - as opposed to the early mixtapes - of an MC like Action Bronson attests, sometimes it's folly to polish an idea whose virtues lay in messy spontaneity.*

But it took no more than a footstep beyond the unassuming threshold of Entrée des Artistes Pigalle to realise I'd underestimated Lombardi and Vermynck's ambitions. The dazzling space is gilt-edged, multi-tiered, Escher-like, with two floors, each with its own bar, served by a kitchen perched on what is, in essence, a stair landing. Gone is the air of bedroom hero-worship that characterised the old address. Lombardi and Vermynck have done what a succession of better-financed Paris bars (Silencio, Le Perchoir) have so far failed to do: create a mature, transportive ambience of Parisian cool, un-derivative of other cities.

22 May 2015

n.d.p. in burgundy: julien guillot, sagy-le-haut


Tucked among the fulsome green hills of Sagy-le-Haut is the cellar of Julien Guillot, the charming third-generation winemaker of biodynamic Mâconnais domaine Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Before returning to run the domaine in his late twenties, Guillot, who is of telegenic height and fresh-faced in his forties, had a career as an actor in France. He is conspicuously good at marketing his wines. Their prices in Paris and the US testify to this. His Bourgogne rouge "Cuvée Auguste" costs more than your average Marsannay.

What Clos des Vignes du Maynes' appellations lack in grandeur is made up for in the domaine's unimpeachable history and winemaking acumen. Julien's grandfather, Pierre Guillot, practiced a nascent version of organic viticulture ever since purchasing the domaine in 1954. Later, Julien's father Alain was instrumental in helping get the agriculture biologique (organic) logo approved by the French government in 1984. Julien, for his part, initiated the domaine's conversion to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. Upon hearing Guillot recount this in the anteroom of his cellar, my friend C posed a great question: "What did people in the region call 'organic' before 'organic' existed?"

Guillot grinned, and with the confidence that comes from having been right, replied, "Les conneries de Guillot," or 'Guillot's bullshit.'

18 May 2015

off the map: la poudrière, issy-les-moulineaux


I credit former La Cave de l'Insolite proprietor Michel Moulherat for introducing me to natural wine. His wasn't the closest wine shop to my old apartment on a loud, leery intersection on rue Saint Maur. But it was the closest wine shop staffed by someone who was both well-informed and willing to share his knowledge. I'd often stop by on the way home from work - but never if I were in a hurry, because Moulherat's voluble, Irish-accented conversation and the bevy of bottles he invariably opened could quickly take up much of an evening.

Then a few years ago Moulherat sold La Cave de l'Insolite to some earnest young restaurateurs. He did a spell consulting on wine for fine restaurant wholesalers Terroirs d'Avenir. I don't know what else he did. He kinda fell off the map.

So I was delighted to learn recently that Moulherat is back in front-of-house these days, running the wine program at La Poudrière, a homey new natural wine bistrot and cave-à-manger tucked in a railway arch in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Where the hell is Issy-les-Moulineaux? the overwhelming majority of readers might reasonably ask. It's the southern terminus of the Métro line 12. There's a Museum of Playing Cards there, which I guess makes two reasons to visit, counting La Poudrière.

12 May 2015

side benefits: table à côté, 75012


Paris has streets that hide in plain sight - overlooked byways that, due to poor sun exposition or traffic redundancy, get circumvented by pedestrians. The forever-shaded length of rue de Chateau d'Eau north of République is one. Another is the Aligre-adjacent rue de Prague, the quiet side street where French culinary journalist Bruno Verjus opened his ambitious restaurant Table in 2013. Despite receiving praise from Verjus' fellow journalists, Table still has its namesakes available most nights, partly due to its discreet location.

Similarly, the Paris natural wine scene has certain esteemed personalities that seem to bend the limelight whenever it nears them, and disappear. Natural wine as we know it in Paris - and increasingly, worldwide - was shaped in its adolescence by the palates of low-key dégustateurs with zero flair for self-promotion: people like La Cave de l'Insolite's Michel Moulherat, now at Issy-les-Mouleaux's La Poudrière, or Olivier Camus, whose struggling Belleville restaurant Le Chapeau Melon is an abandoned goldmine of old bottles.

Another such quietly influential personage is Franck Carré, formerly of La Cave des Papilles and Café Trama. Four months ago Carré opened, in partnership with Bruno Verjus, Table à Côté, a cave-à-manger so discreet and uncommercial as to make one suspect wine sales are secondary to some private creative endeavor requiring office space. (Perhaps he is writing a novel?) Table à Côté seats six on rue de Prague's forgotten sidewalk, and a dozen more inside on a leaden communal table. The menu consists of generous portions of highly-pedigreed meats and cheeses. The only real draw is Carré himself, whose long experience is evident in a slender wine selection containing bottles to marvel the most jaded palate. The other night, for instance, he introduced me to the apotheosis of pineau d'aunis.

06 May 2015

n.d.p. in abruzzo: 50 years of emidio pepe


So much has been written about Abruzzese winemaker Emidio Pepe's majestic montepulciani and the ethereal delicacy of his equally ageless trebbiani that I despair of the possibility of saying anything new. The wines are landmarks for the region, towering above everything else like the gnarled Apennine peaks through which one passes on the long car ride from Rome Fiumicino to Torano Nuovo.

Still, it remains for me to thank the Pepe family for inviting me to the latter town last November for the estate's 50th anniversary celebrations.

Rather than exhaust a reader with tasting notes of the dozens of vintages we sampled, I thought I'd just relay my own experiences with the estate's wines, in the hopes that by doing so I'll communicate something about their unique place within the pantheons of Italian wine, Abruzzese wine, and, nowadays, natural wine.

04 May 2015

revolutionaries: bar à vin a.t & restaurant a.t, 75005


On the surface, not much differentiates Pierre Gagnaire-trained chef Atsushi Tanaka's Restaurant A.T. from most staid Left Bank fine-dining. Its presentation is in thrall to Le Guide Michelin, from the boardroom lighting right down to the weighty, over-designed furniture. The format of Tanaka's 95€ tasting menu is in keeping with the exquisite tastes of a previous generation of diners.

But Tanaka has struck out on his own in two quietly revolutionary ways. Firstly, with his "wine-selector" Lulie Kaori Tanaka, he has embraced natural wine wholeheartedly, breaking ground not just for his otherwise arch-conservative restaurant style but also for his neighborhood. (Restaurant A.T.'s semi-anonymous storefront sits quietly in the shadow of La Tour d'Argent.)

More recently, Tanaka has, in one bold stroke, up-ended his concept by hiring explosively amusing sommelier David Benichou (ex-Ten Bells, ex-Vivant Table) to run an incongruously fun natural wine bar in his restaurant's heretofore underused cellar space. One effect has been to re-orient late-night drinking for the 5ème arrondissement, which hasn't had a decent watering hole since Curio Parlour closed a few years ago. But, more importantly, the opening of Bar à Vins A.T. demonstrates the newfound sense of freedom with which its owner and its habitués - a certain circle of influential young Japanese chefs - are changing their adoptive city.

20 April 2015

time is nye: yard, 75011


A friend who edits a fashion magazine once said to me, apropos of my blog, "I love it. But I never have any idea what you're talking about or whether you like a place. Could you just put a rating at the top or something?"

I've never been tempted to do this, because it would imply a hierarchical order to restaurant experiences that simply isn't there. I have however long been tempted to publish a running list of the Paris restaurants to which I find myself returning most often.*

In pride of place on this list, lately, is YARD, Jane Drotter's ever-evolving jewel of a bistrot by Père Lachaise. The cuisine used to be homey and neighborly under chef Fabrice Mellado. Then Australian chef Shaun Kelley arrived in spring of last year and emblazoned the address in the Paris dining firmament by dint of his ultra-contemporary kitchen smarts. Kelly passed like a comet, however, moving on too soon to make much impact, and since last November, YARD's kitchen has been run by young British chef Nye Smith. Belying his youth, and a résumé includes stints at London hotspots Moro and Koya, Smith's cuisine at YARD is neither precocious nor internationalist. Less austere than that of his predecessor, perceptibly more pleasure-oriented, it strikes a balance between sophistication and accessibility that couldn't be better suited to YARD. I think it's this rare synergy, combined with Drotter's expanding natural wine list and peerless hospitality, that makes each visit a uniquely enjoyable experience.

* List duly included after the jump.

07 April 2015

the return of christophe: amarante, 75012


Chef Christophe Philippe's new Bastille-adjacent restaurant Amarante, like the cacklingly under-designed eponymous restaurant he maintained for a decade in the shadow of the Panthéon, is open Sundays and Mondays, the better to cater to his principal clientele, his fellow restaurant folk. On any other restaurant's off-night, he entertains tastemaker regulars like food writer Bruno Verjus, Le Baratin's Raquel Carena and Philippe Pinoteau, and Autour d'Un Verre's Kevin Blackwell. When my friend and editor Meg Zimbeck and I visited last Sunday, we ran smack into our friend Thomas Legrand, formerly of La Muse Vin, now manning the decks at La Crêmerie. Philippe, lumbersome of gait and shy as a shoe, is the unlikely mascot of a certain very discerning milieu.

Why should this milieu particularly admire his cuisine, among all the others on offer in Paris' present-day cornucopia? Well, who but his fellow chefs and restaurateurs, those who endure the pressure to present an impression of novelty with each new restaurant and each day's menu, are as likely to have realised, like Philippe, that the search for novelty in cuisine is futile?

Philippe is among the few chefs courageous enough to live the implications of that realisation. At Amarante he offers the exact same pointedly-unfussy, rigorously-sourced bistrot menu and the same well-priced natural wine list as at his former establishment. Amarante is duly aglow with the same monkish sense of serenity and confidence, albeit with slighter better lighting, and a less hideous font on the windowpane.

01 April 2015

n.d.p. in sardinia: tenute dettori


It's hard not to have strong reactions to the dense, craggy wines of northern Sardinian estate Tenute Dettori. My own feelings are tinged with nostalgia, because Dettori's wines used to fascinate me back when I worked as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. It being California in the mid-2000's, we had a proportion of clients whose palates were accustomed to strong, hot-climate wines, to whom even a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or a Nero d'Avola would scan as middleweight and mild. (The list was all-Italian.) To such fellows - for they were invariably men - I would suggest Dettori's reds. 

The estate's "Tenores," "Tuderi," and "Dettori" cuvées routinely climb into the upper-teens of alcohol content, and they all show a brooding, mouth-conquering complexity that defies any accusations of lightness. Even if my guests proved unprepared for the wines' savoury notes or the various flaw-like zig-zags associated with low-sulfur winemaking, they nonetheless never failed to perceive that something somehow important was occurring on their palates. I rarely had bottles returned, even though the guests had asked for pleasure and I'd served them, instead, a puzzle. 

Puzzled is what I remain about the wines, even in the wake of the delightful press trip to the estate in Sennori that my friend the wine agent Emma Bentley organised for myself and several more notable wine writers this past October. Winemaker Alessandro Dettori is accomplishing so much: preserving the island's ancient viticultural tradition, maintaining his family's meticulous respect for their local terroir, reviving marginal native grape varieties, not to mention, of course, making serious wines that demonstrably improve with age. But with these accomplishments comes a final challenge that remains, for the moment, unanswered: how to make these strange, strong, majestic Romangia reds fit the context of a meal, or, for that matter, contemporary drinking among non-Supermen. 

30 March 2015

somm-run: le siffleur de ballons, 75012


If coverage of some of my favorite Paris addresses is long overdue, it's usually because I inadvertently befriended the staff and / or ownership before I had a chance to write anything. It's hard to write about one's friends. One either gushes aimlessly, or, if one is me, one tosses, underhand, a few critical softballs, and soon loses friends. Often it doesn't seem worth the risk. What, one asks oneself, do I get out of this ?

I'm still trying to figure that out. This blog is approaching its 500th post, which, when you think about it, is a lot of booze. A lot of sacrificed lunchbreaks, a lot of aimless travel, and above all, a lot of unsolicited opinions. As with most commitments in life, I'll probably never stop thinking of ending it all.

But I'll take advantage of the valedictory humour I'm in lately to say something about my friends at Le Siffleur de Ballons, Thierry Bruneau's pitch-perfect neighborhood wine bar on rue de Cîteaux, where I can be found at least once a week. For newsiness, I might add that since autumn the bar has offered splendid aged faux-filets to share, triaged over from Bruneau's other restaurant L'Ebauchoir across the street.

24 March 2015

symbiosis: la cave du daron, 75011


For better or worse, the fate of tiny 11ème arrondissement caviste and wine bar La Cave du Daron seems intimately linked to its famous neighbors across avenue Parmentier. Inaki Aizpitarte's ubiquitously publicized triumvirate of Le Chateaubriand, Le Dauphin, and Le Cave are like the Great Whites Sharks of Goncourt, leaving the impossibly low-key La Cave du Daron to perform a remora-like function, living off the overflow.

I lived three blocks away for four years, and for all that I appreciated owner Jean-Julien Ricard's varied and intelligent wine selection, I could never think of much to say about the place. It's the size of a sardine tin, comprising just eight or so seats. Small snacks of prepared foodstuffs are available. While Ricard organises semi-frequent events with outside chefs, including Maori Murota (ex-La Conserverie, presently making lunches at Le Verre Volé Sur Mer) and Adeline Grattard (of Yam Tcha), La Cave du Daron's miniscule size pretty much restricts their audience to the hardcore fanbase of the visiting chef in question.

Ricard, too, has a loyal fanbase of young professionals who populate the bar during apéro hours. If I'm quite late in joining the party, it's because his wine prices can be a little high. What changed, then, to make me visit the other evening, and finally discover the charm of La Cave du Daron? Well, in the time since I praised the utility and simplicity of apéros at Aizpitarte's Le Cave, that wine shop has stopped serving bottles on premises, leaving La Cave du Daron as the block's only option for fine wine consumption without the attendant obligation of expensive cuisine. Modest and welcoming, Ricard is well-suited to the role he's found, as the Goncourt local's favorite low-key foil to the brouhaha across the street.