17 March 2011

font-astic: christophe, 75005

Christophe, situated not far from the Pantheon, across the square from buoyant 5ème bar à vin Les Pipos, is the kind of restaurant that only a positively bulletproof recommendation could ever induce me to enter. Happily we received just such a recommendation from my friend J (whose previous credits include having hipped me to heavenly 9ème Chinese joint Q-Tea) recently. His sage direction during a recent visit enabled our large group of friends to ignore (deep breath):
1. The banner use of the font Curlz, which is to dopey French bistro favorite Comic Sans what snuff films are to bad romantic comedies.
2. The restaurant's décor, which resembles nothing so much as a restroom in a bank in Chinatown.
3. The wincingly mangled English translations on the menu, which include such inedible delights as "leg of lamp."*
- and thereby allowed us to savor one of the greatest meals I've had in Paris, replete with well-chosen natural wines at prix caviste, many from unexpected vintages, and meats - almost nothing but meats - selected with the kind of care one normally associates with high-caste arranged marriages.

The place is phenomenal.

Before anyone accuses me of overdramatizing the perverse interior ugliness of Christophe, I'd like to cite, as support, my friend C, J's wife, who was not present the night I went, because she has, despite loving fine food and wine as much as anyone, sworn off ever returning to Christophe solely on account of the environment. For her it is literally stomach-turning. It's a tolerance-level thing. I myself could eat in a toolshed if there was decent cru Beaujolais in said toolshed.

At Christophe that Monday night we managed to bring together eight people with similarly high thresholds for bad design. Kind of miraculous, especially considering our group was comprised of people from no less than four disparate friend circles. On the surface, the situation was ripe for skepticism and awkwardness. But if awkardness at a restaurant often derives from a dissonance in guests' impressions of their environment - those moments when some are comfortable and others aren't - then something about the sheer democracy of the uncomfortability at Christophe reassured everyone present. 

And if that didn't, the first page of the menu did.

I've only ever encountered such joyous, proud liner notes, listing the provenance of just about every key ingredient on the menu, in one other restaurant: Chez Yvonne, in Strasbourg, a stunningly note-perfect Alsatian winstub that was famously a favorite of Jacques Chirac.

Half our table began with a laughably unhealthy but ostensibly vegetable-based appetizer of braised leeks, bacon, and creme fraiche.

It was the sort of ruthless, exploitative pleasure-center dish that makes one feel, as a diner, something like a fish in a barrel. Not in a bad way. 

From that point forward vegetables essentially disappear from a meal at Christophe. It's just not their thing. I'd justify this by observing that great art frequently has a drastic quality to it - not every meal must be well-rounded. And the strict, spartan presentation of the plats at Christophe reflects nicely on the general poverty of the surrounding restaurant design: both have the air of having been actively shorn of anything that could remotely be called sophistication. A magnificent steak sourced from Limousin "butcher to the stars" Hugo Desnoyer arrives alone on the plate, with a small bowl of extremely sweet turnip purée appearing sometime later, a total afterthought.

magret du canard, meanwhile, was partly roasted, partly confit, but even this minor bit of showiness was dressed down by completely sober, monochrome plating. The duck itself was so tender as to attain actual sensuality: it was almost disturbingly great.

There being so many of us, we were able to take a reasonably extensive meander through the wine list that night, beginning with a 2005 Binner Cremant d'Alsace that was showing remarkably well. I'd anticipated something a bit appley, having had middling experiences with back vintages of simple Binner Cremants before - but in fact this 2005 was like an elegant sketch in mineral, lean and pure.

A 2009 Fanny Sabre Bourgogne Aligoté was disappointingly genial, though perhaps only to me, and even then only because I'd just spent five minutes explaining to my friend A, a journalist for Another Magazine, that Aligoté was an impressively bitter and funless grape, like the end of a Harold Pinter play, and then in bounces this unreasonably fruity '09 Fanny Sabre.  

Then, since most of us had ordered gigantic hunks of meat, we tucked into a 2005 Mas Foulaquier Pic Saint-Loup "Les Calades."

J and I had tasted a current vintage of this cuvée last fall with the winemaker, Blandine Chauchat, so I was aware that the 60% Syrah, 40% Grenache wine would be about as heavy as I can tolerate** with a meal. I was nonetheless curious to see whether 6 years' age would scuff up at all, or complicate in a positive way, the general polish and sheen of the Mas Foulaquier range. (I like the wines, but would like them more if their faces were dirty and their shirts were untucked.)

Yes and no. The wine showed some secondary flavors, but the references to tar, ash, dried cherry, and smoke all felt studied and a little obvious, while of course remaining perfectly enjoyable. Tasting "Les Calades" five years' in was like reencountering a family friend's younger child, who since last meeting has finished college, and nearly become interesting. But.

Dessert was a wickedly delicious salted chocolate mousse, again plated with some kind of rich parody of grace.

By then most of us had some real momentum on - everyone except J, in fact, who was with us, and who had been obliged to polish off three bottles of Champagne at lunch that day doing some sort of drunken interview for a popular culinary magazine. Anyway I ambled over to where chef Christophe and our excellent John Malkovichy server were hanging at the rear bar-perch to order another bottle of wine - something lighter this time. I was undecided between Philippe Pacalet's 2009 Bourgogne rouge and Jean-Paul Thevenet's 2008 Morgon Vielles Vignes, both of which were the same (excellent) price, only the latter of which I knew and loved already. Upon perceiving my indecision they both suggested the Morgon, saying it would be better after the desserts we just had.

I went with it, finding it very amusing that they both had the same immediate opinion on this. For all I know, they were right. My suspicion is it was a six of one, half dozen of the other scenario. A light red wine at the end of a meal will in no way profit from having chocolate come before it; it's chief purpose is to allow people to continue drinking and savoring things without becoming overly weighed down. But it's not the first time I've heard of Morgon having a particular resonance at the end of a meal.*** Like certain font use, like Christophe's unconscionable décor, like the paradox of eating foie gras and staying thin, I'm willing to consider it just another minor French mystery - one by which I'm happy to remain mystified, as long as it remains so perversely right in the end.

* Similarly, I once ate at a restaurant in Annecy where an avocado salad was translated as containing "lawyers." Delish!  

** Again, it's about thresholds. In the wider world of Napa Cabernets and Aussie Shiraz, "Les Calades" is a total middleweight. This is why I find 90% of New World wine completely undrinkable. 

*** Okay, if I really had to fathom this out, I'd proffer the idea that perhaps the savory, forest-floor, leafy qualities of this particular beautiful 2008 Morgon were a zillion times more advanced that the high ringing brightness we would have encountered in the Pacalet, and that this - advanced flavors, something to mull on - is somehow more appropriate for the end of a meal. Seems possible.

8 Rue Descartes
75005 PARIS
Metro: Cardinal Lemoine
Tel: 01 43 26 72 49

Related Links: 
Quedubon, 75019, another terrific natural wine spot open on Mondays...
...Where one can run into Antoine Arena, among various other wine personalities

An impromptu Mas Foulaquier tasting at Spring Boutique with winemaker Blandine Chauchat

A profile of butcher Hugo Desnoyer @ PatriciaWells
Alexander Lobrano citing Christophe as one of his favorite well-priced Parisian bistros @ T Magazine
An extensive piece on Fanny Sabre @ WineTerroirs
A video of Aurelie Fillion tasting Thevenet's 2008 Morgon @ BuSurLeWeb, in which, after much suspenseful build-up, she announces that it tastes a lot like Morgon. 


  1. Is it a trick of the light, or is your chocolate mousse on a plate that still has the price sticker underneath? :)

    And that leg of lamp is giving me all kinds of recipe ideas. Tripe lampshade, anyone?

  2. You have found another one of my favorite places in Paris! Totally agree re: the somber decor. You're lucky that you were part of a group of 8 as I've been there when it was only my table of 2 plus a few other people, and it was seriously depressing.

    The only reason I deal w/the decor is for the food - in particular the pork. It is the best pork chop I have had in Paris - or anywhere else for that matter. Did anyone at your table order it? If not, then you have to go back just to have that. As with all the other dishes, the preparation is simple which lets the outstanding quality of the ingredients shine.

  3. @clotilde: a trick of the light, i think... unless they happened to find a trove of brand new lame early 90's dishware recently.

    @allesandra: i could see it being a bit grim with just two people. particularly since both parties would be utterly consumed with the food, and probably not even speaking to each other. i tend to feel guilty when that happens.

    i didn't get to try the pork chop, in fact. so will have to return at the first possible opportunity!

  4. Just one quick note: at Christophe's I had the best polenta I have ever eaten in my life (and I am from Northern Italy)!