01 August 2011

ain't broke: le repaire de cartouche, 75011

The other Saturday my visiting friend C and I attended the Lobster Sandwich lunch at Spring,* along with a whole gang of other friends. You can imagine it turned into a long afternoon, after which C and I strolled down rue Faubourg St. Honoré, then, ack, down the Champs-Elysée a short ways, just off which hellish road he showed me the decidedly non-hellish apartment he's been contracted to decorate. There we vegged out for a while, watching 400 channels of television in a number of languages.

It was still Saturday night, though, and C was still in Paris. It seemed a shame to not do dinner someplace. Since all of the places I'd previously had in mind to show C were either too five-coursey or assuredly booked-up or already closed for summer holidays, I alighted instead on the idea of checking out Le Repaire de Cartouche, a divisive natural wine bistro in the Marais-adjacent 11ème that seems to be the perennial fallback reservation of every visiting wine industry person I know.

That's about as great as faint praise gets. And as C and I observed later, after a bracing Velib ride across town, Le Repaire de Cartouche justifies all of it.

The restaurant is named for a 17th century highwayman who previously used the building as a hideout. He's pictured above the steps separating the restaurant's two floors.  

In addition to wine, Le Repaire de Cartouche appears to be famous also for its horrendous service. A significant number of Paris food writers (see links below) - who as a demographic should theoretically be very accustomed to abuse - have castigated the place for rudeness, inefficiency, and deceit. I wasn't especially worried about bringing C there, however, because as a person he's chill to the point of nirvana, and because I figured it's hard to balls-up a two-top out for a quiet meal with no expectations.

The only service peeve I might voice is that our server, whose general take-no-prisoners brusqueness did not strike me as out of the ordinary for Paris dining, was totally unapologetic about his declaration that, contrary to what they were advertising on the wine list that night, there was only one white wine available by the glass, not the one I'd wanted. (I'd been eyeing a Dard et Ribo white Saint Joseph.)

The reasoning was that the restaurant was going to close for summer holidays the next day, which is fair enough, except that it would have been more graceful to either include a note on the handwritten list, or to at least express some kind of regret that the restaurant cannot risk being obliged to sell off two-thirds of a bottle of white wine by the glass. (Small-time, is my pitiless reaction.)

Considering the quantities of white wine we'd consumed at lunch, it was no great tragedy. Instead we shared a bottle of 2007 Savigny-les-Beaune by Domaine Catherine et Claude Maréchal, Bligny-les-Beaune-based natural vignerons whose Burgundies are staples on many good Paris natural lists. I'll admit to continually forgetting the exact name of their domaine - there are several Maréchals in Burgundy - and only remembering when presented with their familiar leaf-strewn labels.

In this case, 50€ for 2007 Savigny-les-Beaune on an all-natural list seemed a convincing enough proposition in itself. I took one sip of the wine and warned C that, well, it was the sort of wine I really dig, but I have slightly masochistic tastes. A protogé of Henri Jayer, Claude Maréchal founded his estate in 1981, and seems to be natural-for-Burgundy, which is to say there is usually no filtration, usually no chemicals in the vineyards, etc. The reds I've tasted of the estate share a personality, something slightly lean and furry about them, slightly ungenerous but nevertheless honest. This particular Savigny-les-Beaune had all these qualities, together with a lancing, wild acidity, not unpleasurable (for me), like the warm cracks in Will Oldham's voice.

C's appetizer was less endearing, a vinegary pile of green beans topped with a truly senseless amount of shaved black truffle, an ingredient that to my knowledge adds nothing to green beans, and is utterly defeated by vinegar.

I suspected in preparing for holidays the kitchen had found a truffle the size of a tennis ball in the back of the fridge and needed to put it on something, quickly, for a lot of money. (18€)

In which case they would have been better served as a topping for C's marvelous but slightly overpriced steak.

I'm not sure where chef Rodolphe Paquin is sourcing his meat, but it tasted like Desnoyer, or something of similar high provenance. My tartare was also tasty, if too heavy on the sun-dried tomato.

The bistro-cred of the place had inspired me to order the least-promising starter on offer, a macedoine des legumes with eggs and mayonaise. I'd just always been fascinated by the dish, the exotic name of which belies its total bland mundanity, consisting as it usually does of just diced vegetables, not even interesting ones, peas and carrots and potato, doused in mayo.

This was not an unusual macedoine. A sophisticated or savvy restaurant would only stoop to include something like this on the menu if some kind of subtle reinvention were at play. (My imagination is failing me. Inclusion of bottarga? More interesting vegetables?) Or if they were truly acing the original recipe, so much to make a diner forget the rows of canned macedoines lining the shelves of the nearest Franprix.

That, I suspect, is sort of the thing about Le Repaire de Cartouche, the reason it manages to offend so many people. A deep, considered, handwritten natural wine list at great prices leads many of us to assume that we are entering an establishment possessed of some degree of savvy or sophistication - about the restaurant enterprise as a whole. When we realize the place possesses very little of either, that it's run with a kind of smug insouciance towards service standards and the price of ingredients, we feel slightly betrayed.

As we settled the bill at the bar someone who seemed to be a staff member stood directly next to me and attempted to share a joke with the bartender involving the miming of iPhone photography, for I had been taking pictures.** I laughed too, at the dude's monumental blind condescension, which seemed not to even permit the possibility that I was following every word he was saying. Whatever. As long as the team behind Le Repaire de Cartouche can tolerate the modern world, and as long as the modern world can tolerate the team behind Le Repaire de Cartouche, it will continue to be possible to have a perfectly satisfying meal there.

* I'm not reporting on that meal because every square inch of Spring and everything served there is already up on Flickr somewhere. My friend J2 found the rolls too sweet, and the orange zest on the duck fat fries charmed some, offended others. I found it all wonderful, if just slightly too steep to make for a successful regular event. They ought to offer crab rolls and snails, and oysters when the time comes, and make it a bi-weekly block party requiring no reservations.

** Some degree of blogger resentment is understandable here, as the restaurant does seem to have been inordinately savaged. But as far as meal photography goes, the meagre impoverished quality of the photos on this blog is testament to how furtive and unobtrusive I am about taking them. It's not like I was in there with a tripod and a flashbulb.

Le Repaire de Cartouche
99 rue Amelot
75011 PARIS
Metro: Filles de Calvaire
Tel: 01 47 00 25 86

Related Links:

A fond 2010 review of Le Repaire de Cartouche @ JohnTalbott
A lively negative 2009 review of Le Repaire de Cartouche @ DavidLebovitz
A 2009 "Service Alert"* regarding Le Repaire de Cartouche @ HungryForParis
A 2009 review of Le Repaire de Cartouche @ BarbraAustin
An enthusiastic account of the wines consumed during the meal reviewed above by Barbra Austin @ SharonBowman
A 2004 blurb on Le Repaire de Cartouche that is mostly of interest for illustrating how much Bertrand Belce's English has improved @ WineTerroirs

A profile of Claude Maréchal @ Louis/DressnerSelections

* Amusing because the premise - Lobrano Receives Dire Warning About Service From Lebovitz, Reposts - is a comically direct illustration of Why Restaurateur's Sort of Hate Bloggers. I can't deny that I too talk a great deal of trash to all and sundry about restaurants I dislike. A bad meal doesn't, however, occasion direct messages to fellow bloggers, as though in hope that we might unite together, hand in hand, an army of the people, to storm the offending restaurant with pitchforks and demand free coffee. (To be fair, it's probably not what Lobrano and Lebovitz intended; Lobrano just makes it sound like that.) 


  1. That's mostly it. I think I've liked the food more than you, but I order meatier. They seem to prefer that.

    The wines by the glass are what they've got open on the downstairs counter, which may or may not have the slightest resemblance to what's written. And they may not sell one or more of them to you. On the other hand, there's often more than what you can see if you can unlock the secret code phrase, which I have done but which I could not possibly reveal to you, not through selfishness or avarice but for lack of having any idea what it was on any given night. It's a little like a game show in which part of the game is figuring out the rules before you can even hazard a guess in the game. I'm sure there must be people with the permanent primer, but I'm sure not one of them.

    I've never had the overtly awful service so many have experienced, but at best it has been...brusque, even by Parisian standards. Then again, I've had comforting and even kind service at Verre Volé, so maybe I just look sufficiently hapless that the legendary outposts of hostility turn kittenish in my presence.

    Or, you know, probably not. Random chance? I'm going with that, yeah.

  2. all good input! it's a shame though, because while the place gets so much right, it's just vastly outclassed by more sensitive competition at this point. there would be no point in returning often enough to learn the figurative password you speak of. even at a similarly unworldly place like Christophe one gets wines of same quality with vastly better food and less dickishness.

  3. FWIW, we went to Le Verre Volé the other night, and they were awfully pleasant. And I don't think I was fully in my right Parisian mind. I ordered all the wrong things, didn't discuss the wines, but left realising it was all my mistake.

  4. hi timothy! in my comment above i was referring to Le Repaire de Cartouche, rather than VV. though i have indeed in the past warned about the bruqueness at latter resto, which, while not totally agreeable, is to me made justifiable by the overall vibe there. you expect a slightly exaggerated rock n roll attitude at VV, so it's less dissonant than the service at Repaire de C. i ought to disclose however that i'm friendly with a lot of the VV staff, so am no longer in a position to judge the service without bias.