As the NC and I left a cocktail party at Le Bal Café the other night, my friend Z, upon hearing we were meeting friends at thunderously overhyped 2ème restaurant Frenchie for dinner, warned us against ordering the ravioli. "It's like Chinese take-out," she said.
So we got the ravioli. The superfocused menu at Frenchie contains only two appetizers, not including an optional torchon de foie gras, and we were very hungry. Furthermore it didn't seem likely to be the same dish, considering Frenchie presents a market menu that changes nightly.
Later I found out Z was confused and had been talking about a different restaurant. The funny thing is, her description wasn't entirely off the mark. The ravioli we had at Frenchie was vaguely disappointing: oversauced, dissociative, layered with some uncharacteristically wan chair de torteaux. One dumpling doesn't stop the show, of course. I mention it here not as evidence against chef Gregory Marchand's celebrated skills - which were on fine display in almost all the other dishes that evening - but rather as an example of the kind of withering scrunity we're fairly or unfairly inclined to direct against any tiny bistro that, merely by doing things intelligently and with appreciable commercial panache, becomes an unbookable flaming hot destination table.
That is what Frenchie is, after all. I think to write it up responsibly one has to just set aside the sadistic reservation process, the jockeying, etc., most of which is probably not directly intended to stoke hype. Then you have, at bottom, a beautiful little modern bistro, outfitted like a jewelbox, where Marchand offers a punchy, flavorful take on neo-French cuisine, and his sommelier, my friend Laura, oversees a sharp, refreshingly pan-European natural wine list.
Reactions to their success - and to their level of clientele - are by now amusingly perceptible in the construction of both the menu and the wine list. It's possible to get in and out of Frenchie for just 35€ for three courses - but one would be missing that torchon of foie gras (14€ supplementaire), the optional cheese course after dessert; or any of the slightly overpriced status bottles that inhabit the lower portions of Laura's list.*
I don't begrudge the restaurant this one bit, I should clarify. In fact it's really admirable that Frenchie's wine list remains far, far heavier on brilliant undervalued natural selections, moreover many that are, if not rare, then at least not encountered every day. J, C, the NC and I shared a biodynamic declassified Gavi by a producer who'd escaped my attention until just then. More than pleased, I was downright stunned to encounter, in Paris, a good Italian wine I didn't recognize. J and I determined it's because at the time I was buying Italian wine in LA, the wine's US importer, Louis/Dressner, had little or no representation out there.
My loss, it turns out. Stefano Bellotti of Cascina degli Ulivi succeeds where, in my opinion, almost all other Gavi winemakers fail: he manages to coax real personality out of the native grape, Cortese, which grape is typically the Tim Pawlenty of Italian ampelography: conservative, dry, not known to possess any definable attributes despite reasonable name recognition.
(That Gavi was the first Italian white wine to receive DOCG status when the wine laws were drafted up is routinely cited as a clear instance of political favoritism, with little basis in any actual merit.) Whereas the 2009 (I think?) Bellotti Bianco I tasted at Frenchie is more of a Barney Frank kind of wine: openly controversial, acid, and amusingly silver-tongued.
It also happens to embody most of the ideas I strongly support: minimal sulfur use, hand-harvesting, native yeasts, and so on. The wine I mean, not Barney Frank, although I agree with his ideas too. I'll abandon the political metaphors forthwith, however, to avoid inadvertently making any uncomfortable pronouncements on what a congressmen tastes or smells like. The wine was not especially aromatic, but richly mineral, slightly yeasty, and lemon zesty, with a nice white pepper component. It turns out the estate is relatively historied, at least in terms of Italian natural wine, having been biodynamic since 1984, just seven years after Bellotti first took control of the estate in 1977.
|C really liked the napkins. We had all been drinking.|
Nor would a spicier selection from Italy or Spain be necessarily at odds with the cuisine with Frenchie. As I referenced briefly earlier, Marchand's cooking is bold: if the dishes were photographs, the colors would be somewhat oversaturated in a way that, at the risk of sounding glib, does seem loosely attributable to the chef's years spent cooking at Gramercy Tavern in New York. Frenchie is the first place I've been in Paris where certain dishes genuinely recalled, in an amusingly Proustian way, American fine dining cuisine. (I mean this affectionately.)
Desserts were a little tristes, particularly a chocolate pudding thing that felt overdosed on sugar and underdosed on flavor. I took instead a very satisfying if strangely presented cheese plate that arrived with a kind of superfluous poppadom-like cracker obscuring the cheeses beneath.
|Where's the cheese?|
I was enthusing about its knife-edged red fruit, brilliant cinnamon notes, etc. until my friend J put it somewhat better, when he observed that a winemaker would have had to actually work at it, would have had to have put in real malign supervillainous effort, if he or she wanted to make bad red Burgundy in 2009. I'll say no more about it, since it's likely I'll write something longer about Domaine Trapet sooner or later, and since I've already critiqued this particular meal right down to its amino acids.
The thing about a hot restaurant, anyway - the effect of hotness, you could say - is that it makes you pay such fixed attention to everything. This attention sometimes reveals more flaws, as in the ravioli and the sad dessert - but it's an enjoyable experience nonetheless, to be so alert. Frenchie's greatest asset lies in the fact that the service is sharp enough, the wine list adventurous enough, and the cuisine bright enough, as to make all the wakeful hawkeyed hype quite redundant.
* Here I will voice a minor quibble. I disagree with wine lists that are organized in ascending or descending order of price. The implication in this arrangement is that the type of wine you have with dinner should be predicated chiefly on how much you are willing to pay, rather than, say, what goes with your food or your mood at the time.
5, rue du Nil
Tel: 01 40 39 96 19
A profile of Cascina degli Ulivi @ LouisDresser
Alexander Lobrano on Frenchie @ HungryForParis
A 2009 review of Frenchie @ BarbraAustin