The resplendent antique green tilework lining the walls of vin nature entrepreneur Pierre Jancou's new restaurant Vivant seems to have become a kind of Rorschach test for early reviewers. Mentions of the tiling - either disparaging, as when François-Régis Gaudry of L'Express
How do I feel about the tilework? It's splendid, and original to the space, a former bird shop. I see no other reason to take this salient element of Vivant's simple décor as anything other than a good design choice, unless, never having quite understood natural wines or enlightened restaurateurism, one gleans satisfaction from implying that both are no more than superficial poses. Gaudry's
Use of the 'B' word, an identifying feature of hack writing, is basically a sham populist appeal for writers who seek to cosy up to unsophisticated readers. What's worse, in its implication that guests come to a given establishment merely to assuage their own consumerist guilt, the word contains a sad contempt for the very idea that a restaurant might attract a varied, cosmopolitan crowd by dint of its actually being an intelligent, tasteful, ideologically-sound place. Those exist! And Vivant, despite a few earnest missteps, is one of them.
When I arrived to join my new friends R1, R2, and A the other Monday evening, M. Jancou had already scandalised them slightly by claiming to detest the wines of (acclaimed natural Burgundy vigneron) Philippe Pacalet. Happily, R1 et al are the adventurous, inquisitive sort of afficionados; they respectfully disagreed, but invited M. Jancou to bring them something exciting that was more in line with his tastes.
This is how we wound up drinking a lot of screaming shirtless art-punk wines all night. That's not a value judgment, per se: I dig the general style of unsulfured, spritzy, oxidative winemaking as long as the resulting wines remain, above all things, balanced and expressive. The majority of wines on Vivant's list meet this criteria. Then there is what we drank all night, the oddball Auvergnat wines of non-interventionist organic vigneron Pierre Beauger, on which bottles I remain stranded somewhere between intrigued and unconvinced.
Having been only morbidly fascinated by the 2002 of Beauger's sparkling Chardonnay cuvée "Champignon Magique" earlier this spring at 5ème wine terrace La Café de la Nouvelle Mairie, I was encouraged by the first Beauger bottle M. Jancou served us: the 2007 of same wine.
Notably less botrytised and not quite sparkling, it was kind of like reencountering the Swamp Thing in dinner attire.
Or, if you consider the 2002 to be an early track by Nick Cave-fronted thrashers The Birthday Party, all craven and dangerous and, as my friend E says, "uneasy-making," the 2007 "Champignon Magique" felt more like a track by Cave's post-Bad-Seeds project Grinderman: the intense subject matter is much the same - sex, incest, religion, etc. - but everything rings more intentional, less hairy and strange.
At present tasting of this wine there is slight a trade-off of potability for memorability, insofar as you don't have to quest too deep into the Loire or Banyuls to find oxidative bruiser white wines whose peach-scallion-gravel notes recall the 2007 "Champignon Magique." But who knows where it'll be in five years.
In my mind it is Jancou's faith in wines like the "Champignon Magique" that lies at the heart of his (repeated) success. (Before opening Vivant, Jancou founded and later sold La Crémerie and Racines, neither of which I've yet visited.) He's styled himself into a very effective and, despite some of the aforementioned reviews, inclusive ambassador for a certain visionary fringe of natural winemaking. A taste for out-there winemaking is perhaps uncommon or not yet widespread among Paris' dining populace, but anyone can appreciate the sincere charm and verve Pierre Jancou puts into each tableside interaction. The man is a natural.
Which leads me back to one of my introductory points in this post: restaurateurism as a creative enterprise. I have a feeling that whole sociology books could be written about certain talented restaurateurs' efforts to communicate the joy that goes into what is to them a self-evidently creative endeavor, and the proportionate efforts of many diners to treat any restaurant as though it were a custard stand. This either because diners have deep class identity issues whose only sanctioned expression is through interactions with the service industry, or because they genuinely need three extra toppings and whipped cream. Anyway, more than the cuisine or the wine at Vivant, what strikes me is the global attention to creative restaurateurism, visible in the walls and palpable in the service.
Speaking of toppings, though, my friends R2 and A are both vegetarians who avoid cheese made from cow's milk. The good news that evening was that the folks at Vivant were happy to whip up a salad or a plate of vegetables, and my friends received none of the headshaking or petulance one gets with those requests at most natural wine spots.
The bad news was that for both plats and entrées their options were extremely limited: on a given night Vivant serves just three or four of each, three or four of which will contain meat.
This is not really a flaw - it's how I myself would run a similar restaurant - but I mention it as a necessary warning. Also, avoid ordering a pasta with red sauce, which numbskull dish was actually on the menu one night, and did not break any of my preconceptions about what happens when the French attempt Italian food. (Hint: neither spice nor acid.)
More successful, on that occasion, was a simply dressed, impeccably fresh tagliata (hangar steak) and probably the best boudin noir I've ever had, succulent and sensual.
With plats we had screaming shirtless post-punk wine #2, Pierre Beauger's 2007 "Vitriol," a maxxed-out VDT Gamay made with semi-carbonic maceration. It's label said 14% alcohol. I'm convinced it was more. I could barely taste the tagliata, the wine was so hot. I found it impressive, but only in Spinal Tap, turned-up-to-11 way.
The argument for a wine like the 2007 "Vitriol"* would run something like: it is an accurate reflection of the growing season and the land, etc. I don't know. I prefer a wine to more or less reflect a culinary and cultural tradition. If you are working with Gamay in Auvergne, why on earth make a wine that goes toe-to-toe with heavyweight Australian monsters? I get filled with a strange rapt pity, like watching female bodybuilders. Or anyone trying to tear a phonebook. It's just not playing to natural strengths.
(Additionally, the "Vitriol" at Vivant runs a keen 60€, which makes it ready ammunition for any reviewer who seeks to discredit the restaurant, or natural wine in general. M. Jancou keeps an abundantly stocked cave of serious gems beneath the restaurant, for friends and fellow wine lovers, and for purely practical reasons I expect the "Vitriol" might find a better home there, rather than among the plentiful more approachable selections on the ardoise above the kitchen.)
Leaving aside my philosophical vitriol re: the "Vitriol," the wine remains supportive of the laudable premise I sense in Vivant's gutsy wine list and slender market menu and frank service: that for an experience to be wholly pleasurable, it must first be truthful. It's a set of priorities that, despite my caveats, I tend to share.
* I've since tasted the 2009, and same arguments apply.
43, rue des Petites Ecuries
Metro: Bonne Nouvelles or Chateau d'Eau
Tel: 01 42 46 43 55
A 2008 piece on Pierre Jancou's previous restaurant, Racines, @ WineTerroirs
A piece on the opening night of Vivant @ WineTerroirs
A positive but somewhat unreflective review of Vivant @ JohnTalbott
Alec Lobrano's positive review of Vivant @ HungryForParis, in which the author repeatedly disses the wine list without citing why.
A rave review of Vivant @ PtiPois
The whole spat between Jancou and the l'Express Styles restaurant critic @ L'ExpressStyles
A good informative 2010 visit with Pierre Beauger @ WineTerroirs
A 2010 review of the 2005 "Vitriol" @ PtiJournalduVin