I'm continually making idle chatter about the prospect of one day opening up a wine bar in Paris. The idea is very far from realisation for me, chiefly because I'm hell-bent on becoming a (more) published author before returning to the restaurant industry, but also because I'm not even sure I'd want to do it then. It's not an easy life.
It's thus with a sense of wistful admiration that I encounter a cracking great new bar like the 11ème's L'Entrée des Artistes, a bar à manger that, along with La Retro'Bottega on the other side of the same arrondissement, stands as one of the only places in Paris that approach this wine-bar ideal I have rattling around in my head.
L'Entrée des Artistes even goes farther than I ever would, and offers, alongside a boldly curated natural wine list, a list of cocktails that is the equal of any in the city. If "natural wine + food + perfect cocktails" sounds too good to be true, well, my fear that it might shortly prove to be is what has me returning as often as possible before that happens.
The young fellows behind L'Entrée des Artistes are Fabien Lombardi, former bartender at Prescription in the 6ème, and Edouard Vermynck, former sommelier at nearby Hotel Murano.
Both are extremely formidable in their respective fields, such that I kind of suspect they wish they'd had a few months' downtime to cross-train each other before opening. At the moment Lombardi doesn't do much wine-talk, and Vermynck doesn't make cocktails, circumstances that can become tricky given they comprise the entire service staff and the tiny, 6-table place is already quite popular.
My favorite moments at L'Entrée des Artistes have been the early and late hours, when the bar is less than half-full and I can shoot the breeze with Vermynck about the wines he's stocked recently. The other day I walked in and was extremely jazzed to learn that natural Loire legend Claude Courtois had passed by that afternoon, delivering wine for a full-on feature on L'E de A's fledgling list. At time of writing just about all of the wines of the Courtois clan (sons Etienne and Julien also produce wine) are available by the bottle, taking up fully half of the chalkboard real-estate.
It's a gutsy move, considering that the Courtois' wines are polarizing at the best of times, aggressively natural and sulfur-free. But it's precisely the sort of thing more wine directors at small, high-turnover spots ought to do more often: focus on educating the drinking public about the wines they themselves - the wine directors - find most interesting.
The other night the Native Companion organised a loose gang of our friends into one big chaotic table for dinner. One plus side of this arrangement was we got to taste through a fair amount of the Courtois line-up, from Claude's chiseled, old-vine (mostly ungrafted) Sauvignon "Quartz" -
- through to his son Julien's regrettably massively reduced 2009 old-vine Gamay "100%" -
to other son Etienne's 2009 "Cuvée des Etourneaux," a turfy, mineral-driven old-vine Gamay, happily much more drinkable than the "100%".
The "100%" improved immeasurably with the addition of some fresh-scrubbed copper-coated centimes in the decanter, something I'd heretofore sworn never to do in a restaurant. But the wine was just straight up beastly before the penny, with sulfurous aromas fresh from a pigpen. Interestingly, in researching this piece I turned up someone's 2007 tasting notes from a 2002 of this bottling, and that taster had recorded the same reaction. That I learn of the possibility that Julien Courtois has been producing a vile wine for up to seven years' straight and yet do not instinctively write him off as a winemaker is testament either to my own credulity, or to the strange compelling power of the other wines made by him and his brother and father. (Perhaps both.) The "Quartz," for instance: a dense, chewable Sauvignon, far from what one's used to, riven with acidity, with rooty celeriac notes.
I'd compare the Courtois' and their wines to the equally frustrating and inspired output of teenage LA rap collective Odd Future. It's brilliant at times, disgusting at others, but the craft and vision are evident throughout.
Should you not wish to be quite so challenged by your wine on a particular evening, L'Entrée des Artistes' list contains more conventionally enjoyable natural selections, like Jean Foillard's basic 2010 Morgon or several excellent bottles by Loire vigneron Renaud Guettier.
Or there are Lombardi's cocktails, brilliant, fairly cutting-edge creations highlighting everything from house-brewed bitters to aged cocktails.**
|The Chicharito, a tequila-cucumber concoction.|
|The, ahem, Blow Me Down, a gin-chartreuse-celery-thing.|
The small plates and limited dinner menu (two main courses at this time) are prepared by Vermynck's mother, and perhaps what's most surprising for such a beverage-oriented place, they're really quite tasty.
To be specific, I should say that the items that required preparation - a fresh and simple salad with beets,
a heartwarming daube de porc au vin rouge (slightly marred by the senseless inclusion of caperberries),
and a generous and just-sweet-enough crême caramel - were all spiffing.
But strangely, the outsourced things - rillettes, burrata, and some muenster - were all served with inexplicable gracelessness. The rillettes and munster both arrived far too cold, and the burrata was of what I'm beginning to recognize as Paris-export-quality, which is to say that in Italy they wouldn't feed it to death row inmates.***
Considering the impressive hat trick of Lombardi's cocktails, Vermynck's wine list, and Mrs. Vermynck's cooking, the above culinary quibbles are all easily resolved. (Just, like, take things out of the fridge before service.) What will perhaps be less easy to resolve, without sacrificing one of the bar's three virtues, is the delicate balancing act that L'Entrée des Artistes must walk every night between being a place to enjoy food and wine, and being a raucous freewheeling bar. It was partly the fault of our formless, come-and-go party the night we went, but I can imagine the vibe at peak hours getting so rock and roll that one can't get noticed, let alone get served dinner, behind the wall of drinkers at the bar.
* Which hotel, he informs me, serves natural wines. I was stunned. Perhaps it was the artificial flame graphics lining the hotel's front windows that led me to expect something rather more tasteless.
** The only thing I'd pick a bone with is the physical presentation of the list, which arrives in a precious, deeply impractical little book that requires ten minutes' of page-flipping to find anything.
*** Burrata should never be remotely sour or grainy. And yet more often than not, that is what Parisians are slurping up these days. At another well-regarded natural wine bar I recently encountered a dish of burrata served with iceberg lettuce and chorizo. Then I plucked out both my eyes, cut off my tongue, and jumped in the Seine.
L'Entrée des Artistes
8, rue de Crussol
Drinking Claude Courtois' terrific '05 Romorantin before a nearby Galaxie 500 concert at Au Nouveau Nez, 75020
Other 11ème wine bars:
Au Passage, 75011
Aux Deux Amis, 75011
Chair de Poule, 75011
La Retro'Bottega, 75011
Le Dauphin, 75011
Les Quilles, 75011
Les Trois Seaux, 75011
N.D.P. in London: ECC Chinatown, Soho
Cocktail Supply Shop: Izraël, 75004
A 2005 visit to the Courtois family @ WineTerroirs
A 2011 visit to Etienne Courtois @ WineTerroirs
A 2011 visit to Claude Courtois @ TheFeiringLine