15 February 2011
A few weeks back I posted a note about the intimate pre-opening soirée of Les Trois Seaux, a new bistro à vin on rue de la Fontaine au Roi in the 11ème, in which blog post the restaurant was sort of shown half-built with its pants down, as it were. Since the ouverture proper I've owed it to gregarious owner Olivier Aubert to stop in and have a real meal, which happy obligation I was at last able to meet the other Friday night with my friend IF and his visiting friends from London.
One reliably great thing about newborn restaurants is you can walk-in with a party of five on a Friday night and get seated toute suite. Unlike Aubert's wine bar in the 4ème, La Bodeguita du IVème, Les Trois Seaux is not situated directly beside the Centre Pompidou, so it doesn't have the same built-in audience. Les Trois Seaux is also a more ambitious venture than either of Les Bodeguitas (Aubert co-owns one in the 9ème as well) - there's a real kitchen, a market menu, a chef, Philippe Lerault, who cut his teeth at the Hotel Le Meurice - so it's understandable that the restaurant will take time to gain a following.
Right now, the ingredients for success are there: simple, satisfying cuisine, well-selected natural wines, a spacious dining room, a proprietor with knowledge and charm. Even beyond this, the recent opening of ever-packed wine bar Le Dauphin around the corner has certainly shown there's a thirst for quality in the immediate neighborhood. What remains is for these conditions to be exploited, but not too much.
I suppose that is a coy way of saying I think pricing at Les Trois Seaux is, across the board, slightly ambitious. I hate to even mention this, since Lord knows I have no idea what financial pressures they are functioning under - but, at least with regards to wine mark-ups, Les Trois Seaux is undercut, in the immediate area, by Quedubon, Le Verre Volé, and Le Chapeau Melon, not to mention Autour d'Un Verre, slightly further away in the 9ème. I hit on this subject in a recent post about a wine bistro in Saumur: the fact of the matter is that in Paris in 2011 an informal bistro comes off kind of high-handed unless the wine program is generous, exciting, and priced to move. Aubert's list at Les Trois Seaux contains tons of gems, like Elian da Ros' silvery "Coucou Blanc" from the Cotes du Marmandais, but the mark-up, twice retail, seems destined to inspire one to defer serious drinking for another occasion, at another restaurant.
There are still relative deals to be had. My friends and I started with a brilliant bottle of Loire vigneron Elise Brignot's unclassified Montlouis "Mon Loulou," which straight-up blew me away by revealing no faults whatsoever when served at room temperature.
(They'd offered to bring an ice bucket. I'd declined, thinking the wine was probably already cold. I think my friends forgave me when they saw how much I was enjoying the warm white wine.) It was a firm, dirt & honey, almost Greek-tasting style of Chenin, slightly oxidised in a way that seems to put off many of my wine geek friends. To belabor the subject a bit: for me, the issue is never simply whether a wine is oxidised not, but rather how it has oxidised. Some wines, like the "Mon Loulou," take to it like jeans do worn knees, or a fine patina on leather shoes. The oxidation provides a strong burnished framework for everything else the wine has to say. Of course there remain many wines that withstand oxidation less elegantly, or not at all. I just don't think all funky golden oxidised Chenins should be written off out of hand.
Elise Brignot is based in Dierre, within the Montlouis and Touraine appellations. She produced her first vintage in 2005, and without making it an aggressive marketing strategy, she stays on the stricter side of natural: native yeasts, no chemicals in the vineyards, and most boldly, no sulfur use whatsoever so far. I'm reading into things a bit - there is just not a great deal of information on her available, and I unfortunately missed the tasting she did at Les Trois Seaux the night after my visit - but my impression is that the upstart nature of her operation might have something to do with why her Chenin from Montlouis is not made in conformance with the AOC. I've tasted most of her wines on diverse occasions by now, and while they share the turbidity, spritziness, and variable sugar we associate winemaking that is high on principles and low on experience, her wines generally surpass this category through sheer purefruited likeability. They're also well priced, such that "Mon Loulou" is only 24€ at Les Trois Seaux.
Our friend L took a leap of faith on the appetizer list and ordered the escargot millefeuille, a snail pastry, one of these dishes that ought not to be as tasty as they in fact are.
In particular the wispy philo-like pastry shell, handwrapped around the snails rather than just sitting above and below as they do at some places, provided a terrific textural counterpoint to the chewy buttery snails themselves.
I had an admirably tender magret du canard, which I was pleased to find bedecked with a darkly acidic, fig-like reduction that made for a refreshing change from the prudish sauceless duck presentation I seem to encounter everywhere here.
I really enjoy duck, particularly in France, where even the bad versions are edible, but as much as I appreciate the weight and flavors of the meat itself I still prefer it with some kind of fruit reduction to provide sweetness and acid. I'm not sure whether one method of presentation is more traditional than the other; I'm certain that one is more enjoyable. (I sound like one of those people rationalising putting parmesan on their clams.) (I'm not one of those people, at least.)
Meanwhile, our friend M ordered a dog-foody-looking 7-hour-slow-roasted lamb thing that, belying its dirt-poor presentation, was actually delicious.
Overall, Les Trois Seaux would do well to work towards maximising such pleasant surprises, which would be all the more pleasant if the pricing of dishes were as humble as some of the plate presentation. (The lamb was still 19€, for which price there is lamb available in Paris that does not look like Purina in tupperware.) I believe pretty passionately, almost as a maxim of restauranteurism, that the important thing when starting out is to just make sure your restaurant gets packed and stays that way. Momentum sustains itself, as does a lack thereof.
One way to ensure you get crowded is by attempting to provide unforgettably inventive culinary masterpieces and sought-after cult wines in a gloriously overwrought environment brimming with chandeliers (or, white marble).
Another, simpler, and if you ask me, more desirable way to crowd a restaurant is by serving honest, delicious everynight kind of food with everynight kind of wines at everynight prices. (C.f. Autour d'Un Verre, for a perfect illustration of this method.) It's what every neighborhood needs, and it's what Les Trois Seaux comes so tantalizingly close to providing.
Les Trois Seaux
58, rue de la Fontaine au Roi
Metro: Parmentier or Goncourt
Tel: 09 54 27 86 86
Kind of sort of open! Les Trois Seaux, 75011
Sipping Pithon's "Cuvée Lais" at La Bodeguita du IXème, 75009
Chilling at La Bodeguita du IVème, 75004
Surviving Fashion Week with La Bodeguita du IVème, 75004
A brief tasting of some of Elise Brignot's wines @ WineTerroirs
What seems like a pretty astute review of Les Trois Seaux @ JohnTalbott