Due to a long ridiculous histoire involving arrests, my sister J3 and her boyfriend J4* missed their intended flight to Paris from Los Angeles, and wound up arriving the day after the extravagant meal at Rino I'd organized to celebrate their arrival. They arrived in time for what I'd presumed would be a low-key hangover day.
That was my eventual excuse, anyway. I had admittedly been hoping that 1er natural wine bistro Les Fines Gueules would, despite its laid-back reputation, deliver some kind of minor whizz-bang, some gastronomic pyrotechnic, some superlative aspect that might knock at least one sock off my American visitors' travel-weary feet.
Nothing was outright awful, or bad even. Les Fines Gueules, as a restaurant, is fine, perfectly fine, considering it's smack in the 1er arrondissement, and it's open seven days a week, and the owners appear to have at one time or another had some good fundamental ideas. All the familiar natural bistro boxes are dutifully ticked: fresh, responsibly sourced ingredients, a well-priced natural wine list, a pleasant informal atmosphere... Nevertheless my guests might as well have still been on the plane, ten-thousand feet up, for how autopiloted the whole experience felt.
I should clarify that I'm not an exceptionally demanding diner, at least not in terms of food. I actually object to overt innovation; I prefer to eat preparations, not reinventions. The idiot-simple sausages at Le Verre Volé suit me fine, most of the time. What I enjoy most, finally, about the cave-a-manger / bistro-a-vin template you see all over Paris is a kind of homey magic that occurs when wonderful gem-like small-production wines are served with zero fuss alongside honest cuisine by people who care about both.
This last qualifier was the dealbreaker for Les Fines Gueules. Not a single staff member seemed to know or have any influence over the wine list, a fact made all the more insensible by how simplistic and border-line dull it was:
I am kind of a vicious nitpicker about wine lists. Simply because, at the ardoise level, they are so easy to maintain as to permit no excuse for poor construction. Several things jump out at me about the list at Les Fines Gueules. There are only six whites. There's a weird price jump throughout, with seemingly no wines in stock priced between 32€ and 60+€. And, considering the overall pokiness of the place, there's a rather heavy emphasis on conventional Champagnes, to the exclusion of whatever pétillants naturels are in stock in a given moment (the latter aren't listed).
I asked about the natural sparklers, naturally. It's how one usually gets a meal going, if one has anything whatsoever to celebrate. What followed, though, was a tortuously silly interaction with the server behind the bar, who had no idea what natural sparkling wines were in stock, and who just kept rummaging around in the nether reaches of the bar fridges producing half-empty bottles from very familiar vignerons, all around the 14€ retail range. I explained that since there were five of us, we'd need a whole bottle of something.
We eventually turned up a whole bottle of organic Loire vigneron Damien Delecheneau's 2009 "Nouveau-Nez," a sparkling Montlouis I'd seen before but never tried. (I seem to remember it once being in stock at my local caviste of the same name, though I might be wrong.)
The "Nouveau Nez" is an undosed sparkler, bottled while still in the midst of primary fermentation, sourced from Delecheneau's 14ha estate in Amboise. It was pretty and balanced, with an odd evolving mushroom note we all noticed. I liked the mushroom note; it was a curiously refreshing change from all the pretty balanced Chenins one encounters.
I took a perfectly okay mushroom soup as an appetizer, though I insist this had no bearing on the flavors detected in the above Chenin. It just hammered home the difference between mushroom-as-metaphor (which is a stand-in for a kind of ethereal dusty / earthy / decompositional taste) and actual mushroom (which is much fresher).
After appetizers - which included also some bright marinated sardines, and a slightly knuckley plate of lamb kidneys - J4 and I turned our attentions again to the wine list, in search of something exciting. We settled for Domaine Mersiol's Alsace Riesling 2009, a wine I knew from having it once at La Robe et le Palais, which nearby restaurant incidentally succeeds in all those departments where Les Fines Gueules stumbles (passion, variety, knowledge, etc.). It's a flinty arrowhead of a Riesling, superprecise and dry as a fossil.
At the time it seemed sort of like a second aperitif, however. In retrospect what we needed was something a little showier - a little more flag-waving - a wine that screamed "Here you are, in France!" My sister's boyfriend J4 is a wine-lover too, after all. He runs the spirits program at a marvelous restaurant in LA called Palate**. But firecracker wines are mostly absent from the list at Les Fines Gueules. I like humility in a wine list as much as anyone, but it's just poor restaurateurism, to design a list that can't meet the demands of even a low-key, somewhat broke, geeky celebration. I'm not talking about Bollinger, obviously; I mean some Alsace crus, some cult Beaujolais, some older Vouvray, anything a little indulgent and complex, for crissakes.
Whatever. I hadn't seen my sister in two years. We had a lot to catch up on, so in some sense it was helpful to eat and drink mostly unremarkable things. The wines, at least, were natural, and the Hugo Desnoyer-sourced steak tartare I had -
- was hand-cut and fresh, if a bit over-parmesaned, considering the starry provenance of the meat itself. At a certain point we just gave up and saved the serious drinking for later, at the Native Companion's nearby cocktail bar. My only regret in the end was having chosen, as my visitors' introduction to Paris' natural wine scene, a place that kind of phones it in.
* For the sake of clarity on this blog, I need to begin hanging out with people whose names do not begin with J. If this sounds like you, please read the guidelines before applying.
Les Fines Gueules
43, rue Croix des Petits-Champs
Metro: Sentier or Bourse
Tel: 01 42 61 35 41
The Tripoz' astounding sparkling Aligoté at La Robe et Le Palais, 75001
A glowing, beautifully pictorial 2011 review of Les Fines Gueules @ DavidLebovitz, who is usually not this wrong about a place
More raves about Les Fines Gueules @ JohnTalbott
An account of a 2009 visit to Damien and Coralie Delecheneau @ Jim'sLoire
A run-down of Delecheneau's wines @ FarmWineImports