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.