14 January 2015
Aggrieved chefs and their supporters routinely cite, among the evils of journalism, the neophilic tendency of critics to descend upon a new establishment and review its infancy, without ever returning to see how it matures.
I more or less agree with this gripe. It's the reason why the public face of an overachiever restaurant like Simone Restaurant & Cave in the 13ème remains frozen in September 2013, when it was no more than a welcoming and simplistic natural wine bistrot with a fine terrace. The Paris press duly reported this, but in most cases could think of nothing more to say besides how sympa the place was. (Whether niceness and decency constitute newsworthiness in contemporary Paris is, for now, beside the point.)
But chef Arnaud Soinsot took over from opening chef Mike Stewart in late August of last year, and Restaurant Simone's cuisine now shows significantly more ambition. For a diner such as myself, disinclined towards innovation in cuisine, it's a development that cuts both ways. What is undoubtable though, is the restaurant deserves re-visitation en masse, and higher, more interpretive praise, for how its owners have taken a desolate streetcorner in a neglected arrondissement and built a little beacon of enthusiasm and good taste.
12 January 2015
What little information was available indicated Casa Bigote was among the best restaurants in Sanlucar. In our defense, Sanlucar is a coastal town in a relatively impoverished region. One feels there ought to be a splendid seafood place, and it ought to be right on the Bajo de Guia, as Casa Bigote is.
One's expectations begin to decline when, on a balmy night in early June, one traverses the bat-infested ruins dividing that section of the Bajo de Guia from the town proper to discover that the restaurants on the quay are quite deserted. Casa Bigote is almost indistinguishable from its neighbors: a sprawling, two-storied complex housing a bar and a restaurant on opposite sides of an small alley. We dined at the restaurant, which may have been a mistake. Perhaps the bar is best. Why else would such we have heard such praise for a genteel seaside tavern offering acceptable traditional fare in Sanlucar at what seemed like Seville prices?
The most memorable part of the meal - which we tried, without success, to repeat - was an older bottle of Manzanilla "GF" from Bodegas Gaspar Florido, an historic bodega whose wines, from what I understand, have more or less vanished since its sale to Bodegas Pedro Romero in 2007.
07 January 2015
I tend to distrust large restaurants - places where, if you scream, no one would hear a sound. Even at the grandest, most expensive large restaurants, one feels like yet another mouth on the feedlot.
Sometimes my distrust is misplaced. In Paris, the Bourse location of Terroir Parisien operates at an impressively high level, for such an enormous, multifaceted complex. And in Andalusia, the most enjoyable meals I've enjoyed in the region have been at La Carbona, a cavernous family restaurant housed in a former bodega in Jerez.
Incidentally, in five years of writing about restaurants, I can't recall ever having used the term "family restaurant." It evokes Olive Gardens. But the term is inescapable when discussing La Carbona. Its size is a direct reflection of the Andalusian tradition of dining out en masse, with several generations at the table at once. La Carbona is also owned by a family, with chef Javier Munoz' mother Ana running the dining room and the wine list with winning warmth and attentiveness. The menu is as broad and deep as the room, but I never look at it for long. For La Carbona's opulent and unstinting sherry pairing menu, at 5 courses for 32€ with serious wines included, is an unforgettably great deal, one which transcends, in both quality and generosity, the entire overwrought, hucksterish pairing menu genre.
29 December 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.