24 October 2011

those who know best: le grand 8, 75018

Ask any restaurateur what he or she looks for when dining out, and you'll probably get a perfectly concise description of 18ème bistro hideaway Le Grand 8: simple food, a killer wine list, and, critically, a place that's open on Sundays.

Accordingly, Le Grand 8's dining room positively brims with restaurateurs and natural wine folk, on Sunday evenings in particular. Last week I brought some colleagues there for a meal after our company's showrooms had finished for the day, and upon walking in immediately recognised friends from Autour d'Un Verre, Le Bistral, Le Dirigeable, and the late great Cave de l'Insolite. It took some minutes to actually join the party I'd walked in with, whereupon we sat down to enjoy those same qualities that had drawn all the rest of the town's tastemakers to a few small tables in Montmartre.

To be completely honest, it's not the food. The rumsteaks that my friend D and I ordered à point were dreadfully overcooked. Like eating sports equipment.

Since I'd rolled in with a cast of petite women, most of them Asian-Americans, we initially thought the kitchen might have given us the fussy foreigner treatment.

But later that week a run-in with one of the aforementioned restaurateurs dispelled this suspicion; he confirmed that his rumsteak was overdone that evening too. With the knowledge of this kitchen weakness, I'll just ask for things to come out slasher-flick bloody next time.

For there will be a next time. The rest of the cuisine is unpretentious bistro fare, the sorts of things that are offered in provincial railway stations, only here composed with better ingredients: tomato salad, green beans, a notably correct magret de canard. (Apparently the kitchen just fumbles the beef.)

Prices are extremely reasonable, on the menu and on the stunning carte du vin, which is - hell yes! - among the best in Paris.

Here it behooves me to define my criteria for using a word like "best." I guess I look for different things in Paris than I would in London, New York, or San Francisco. No matter where I am, I'm not really looking for verticals of Margaux or ancient Montrachet, though I wouldn't reject any invitations to taste through either.

In Paris, essentially the epicenter of the natural wine scene, I look for lists that take full advantage of this resource. I'm looking for lists with things you can't easily get everywhere else on earth, like the yeasty, vibrantly oxidative Andrea Calek "Blonde" we began our meal with.

It's an undosed, unsulfured 70% Chardonnay, 30% Viognier sparkler from Ardèche, where Calek, an acolyte of Guy Breton and former deserter from the Czech army, famously lives on a trailer among his 5ha of vines. I encountered Calek a year or so ago at a tasting at Autour d'Un Verre and remember thinking he looked like someone from production at Rick Owens.

On Paris wine lists, I look for novelty-with-substance. I don't mean, like, Serbian Gamay, or the token Greek wines I seem to see on many natural lists here. (Even, admittedly, Le Grand 8's.) I mean Loire microcuvées I've never heard of, and the wines of vignerons less known than the natural wine titans one sees everywhere. (I mean no disrespect to Catherine Bréton, or the late great Marcel Lapierre, but by now I tend to save ordering their wines for those occasions when I'm presented with lists on which their wines are the only natural lifeline.) At Le Grand 8 that night we went for another known great - Thierry Puzelat - but a Vin de Pays d'Orléanais he makes in tiny quantities called "Le Rouge est Mis" that I'd never tasted before. My experience of monovarietal still Pinot Meunier up till then was limited to a tasty and inexpensive if perceptibly non-natural one carried at Spring Boutique by Orléanais estate Clos Saint Fiacre.

The "Rouge est Mis," as I expected, was a thousand times more vivid and more interesting. The build of a good Loire Gamay but with a slightly weightier red-fruit succulence, and beautifully expressed wet note of ozone on the finish, like after a rain.

Finally, what I was delighted to see in le Grand 8's wine list - even more than the larger-than-average selection of natural Burgundy - was just simple organisation.

The fact that there existed a coherent list. As much as I adore no-list places like Le Verre Volé, it took me years to get to know the staff well enough to gain routine access to their fridge room so I could actually see what was available. Until then, as at other no-list establishments in Paris, it was always a tortuous back and forth of "don't-like-that," "way-too-heavy," and "just-had-that-last-night" before any drinking could get under way. I don't know how I can stress this enough: a coherent, up-to-date, visible list of wines available is a form of good service, because it allows for open, efficient dialogue with a restaurant's invariably hurried staff. I'm dwelling on this a bit only because after years in Paris I'm still routinely amazed that many wine buyers can't even keep a blackboard up-to-date.*

Speaking of service, it's brilliant at Le Grand 8. Moreso than even the superb wine list, I suspect what keeps all these restaurateurs returning on Sunday nights is the buoyant air of camaraderie and ease that owner Kamel Tabti oversees there. I for one owe him thanks for a glass of non-glass-pour 2004 Ganevat Côte du Jura "Les Chamois du Paradis" towards the end of the meal. The wine was only available because the adjacent birthday party of restaurateurs happened to be drinking it. In the midst of serving them, Tabti took our drink order, and when I observed the bottle in his other hand, he'd been only too happy to let us in on the fun.

* Like, honestly, what could possibly easier than a blackboard? It's not like they even have to deal with menu paper, ink cartridges, InDesign, and so on. You just take sleeve, and pfffft, editing done.

Le Grand 8
8, rue Lemarck
75018 PARIS
Metro: Abbesses or Château Rouge
Tel: 01 42 55 04 55

Related Links:

A beautifully pictorial post on Le Grand 8 @ ParisKitchen
A positive post on Le Grand 8 @ TableFables

A blurb on Andrea Calek @ SavioSoaresSelections
A 2010 piece on Andrea Calek @ AliceFeiring

A profile of Thierry Puzelat @ TheWineDoctor
A tasting with Thierry Puzelat @ WineTerroirs


  1. Hello Aaron,

    Firstly, a thank you from one blogger to another for your reference to my post on this place a while back.

    The food preparation at Le Grand 8 is simple and unpretentious (your photos show that well), but I'm sorry you didn't find it good. Perhaps it was just a bad night for the steak. Personally, I never order steak "à point" because by definition it will arrive far too overdone for my taste. However, when I was there a few visits ago - actually, the visit I wrote the post on - a (French) friend ordered her steak "à point" and it came out just as she wanted it.

    I do like this place, for its simplicity, its friendliness, and for the generosity you feel here. If you go back and try the steak again, let us know if it was better! But the best thing I've had here is the veal, the "côtes de veau" (for two) - the menu price supplement was worth it.


  2. hi naomi! in all honesty i was trying to be as kind as possible about the food in the above post. because i do really like the place. but there is no defending the ineptitude of a lot of the menu, more than just the steaks. stracciatella served with cured duck, or sauteed foie gras arriving on cold lentils - odd unfathomable things that wouldn't happen in a good kitchen. nevertheless i've been back a number of times since writing this post, if that says anything about where my priorities lie when dining out.

  3. Hello again.
    Unless I'm mistaken, you did like the Baratin (and even if you didn't, it is widely considered to be a very good bistrot) where I've had a lentil salad (room temperature) with sauteed foie gras, and I did like it. Also, I believe this recipe is not Raquel Carena's invention - I think it's been in the bistrot repetoire for a bit. Of course, whether it's successful depends on the quality of the produce, preparation etc. Raquel does it with exceptionally good olive oil, for example.
    So perhaps it's more a question of taste than ineptitude? As for the stracciatella with cured duck, I can imagine that that is not good, and the taste combination seems surprising for a place which usually sticks to the tried and true.
    Don't get me wrong: I've never had an extraordinary gastronomic experience at the Grand 8, just good ones, with fresh produce that is "correct", comme disent les français, which, with simple preparation gives rise to predictable results. I don't go out of my way to dine there. I just don't think it deserves to be dissed for bad food.
    So let's just agree to differ on that one, and enjoy the wine!

  4. agreed. i will just add that there's a world of difference between room temp and cold, when dealing with something that's in contact with foie gras.