On this blog I can sometimes give the impression that an unbridgeable gulf exists between restaurant industry people and people who merely like food and wine a lot. It is true that people who've spent time working in restaurants at a certain level tend to drink more, tip more, sleep around more, and generally manifest in their daily lives the influence of the pirate ship ethos that more or less reigns in these restaurants. All this is relative, say, to people who sit in offices. Restaurant industry people also often have a higher regard for manual proficiency and efficient hospitality, because these virtues are crucial to getting through each night.
There is, however, something to be said for the value of outside perspective on the restaurant industry. Particularly in Paris, where some truly backwards and small-minded memes are insensibly entrenched, such as rudeness, sloth, inconsistent sham formality, over-reliance on set formules, and, what can be worst, a blasé attitude towards fine product, which behavior in some bygone era may have reflected the uniform excellence of French cuisine, but which in today's globalized GMO'd additive-heavy world just appears clueless.
Ô Divin, a small cave à manger-slash-bar à vin tucked away beside a recording studio near the Parc de Buttes Chaumont, is perceptibly not run by anyone with serious restaurant industry chops. Co-owner Naoufel Zaïm previously worked in clothing retail, and came to love food and wine somewhat by chance. It demonstrates that experience isn't everything, because, as the Native Companion and I discovered the other night with our friends M and J2, Zaïm has succeeded in creating one of Paris' greatest wine bars.
This becomes even more of an achievement when one considers how few proper wine bars there are in Paris. Most of them have some kind of glaring disqualification, by my standards; either the wine is swill, or they function entirely as a restaurant with zero bar atmosphere whatsoever. Ô Divin, by contrast, is home to a great selection of offbeat, inexpensive, 100% natural wines, and precisely none of the self-seriousness or pretension that can at the worst of times accompany their service.
'Unpretentious,' as I invoke the quality here, is, I should clarify, not meant as code for a lack of sophistication, à la certain other decent Paris bars that serve natural wine without seeming to know what it is. Nafouel - I'll use the first name henceforth to avoid confusion with his brothers, one of whom owns the adjacent studio, another of whom is a co-owner of Ô Divin - knows his subject, as one glance at the wines available will attest. What's most refreshing is, he speaks about these wines with the fondness and enthusiasm of a true amateur, in the French sense of the word. (Maybe 10% of the English sense.)
The night we visited, I was delighted to be introduced to the wines of a natural Beaujolais producer I hadn't previously heard of, Raphaël Champier. While waiting for J2 to arrive, M and the NC and I shared a bottle of Champier's "L'Amuse Bulles," a Vin Mousseux from Gamay, or, in other words, sparkling declassified Beaujolais.
Just the concept puts a grin on my face. Low alcohol (11,5%) but free of residual sugar, it was among the most deliriously drinkable wines I've had in ages. The bottle disappeared almost as soon as it was opened, like a cascade of raspberries flowing directly from glass to mouth.
Via the scant web info available on him, I gather that Raphaël Champier has 8ha of vines in Beaujolais-Villages, and is based in Odènas. I was less impressed by the his 2010 Vin de France still red cuvée "La Marginale du Beaujolais." Let's just say the wine was unfortunately aptly titled, tasting like somewhat watery, loser-soil Beaujolais. Nonetheless I remain curious to taste more of this Champier's wines (it seems to be a pretty common name there), not least because natural Beaujolais is only getting more and more popular, and it's worth having some underdogs in mind for those nights when one is feeling too tight for Foillard or Decombes or Metras (among others).
Speaking of Yvon Metras, Nafouel presently has a broad selection by this esteemed natural Beaujolais producer, at what strike me as curiously great prices. (Metras' wines tend to be a notch rarer and a notch more expensive than his peers in that scene, for reasons not completely clear to me.)
I have not even mentioned cuisine, because in my book fine cuisine is not necessarily crucial to a rocking wine bar. Things just need to be edible. But, tant mieux, as they say here: Ô Divin's modest but engaging menu consists of one aced dish after another, all at 19ème arrondissement prices. (It's like you've left Paris!)
We began with Utah Beach oysters, flavorful, perfectly fresh, served with a whimsical pad of Eric Bordier's beurre au pimente d'espelette.*
Special mention must be made of the brandade de morue, which was among the only dishes I've ever tasted in France that arrived at the table salty enough for my liking. Also the presentation is cute, like a little made bed of brandade.
Duck confit, meanwhile, arrived on a gluttonous lake of aligot, that absurdly satisfying Auvergnat side dish consisting of tomme melted into mashed potatoes. (How is it that mashed potatoes with melted cheese whipped in is not an American staple, too? Seems like a national oversight.)
If we didn't try dessert, it's perhaps my fault, as by that time of the meal I'd become distracted by the bar's adjacent enclosed courtyard terrace, which is no doubt greatly responsible for Ô Divin's enjoyably rangy atmosphere.
I kept wandering out for cigarettes and wandering back in, past folks eating meals and folks just drinking and folks perched at the tiny service bar chatting with Nafouel, who ran the show throughout with maximum kindness and charm.
How is it that someone with little prior restaurant experience could create a place like Ô Divin, the sort of wine bar I've been praying to find ever since I arrived in Paris? The only explanation I can think of is the obvious one: some people are just naturals.
* Pimente d'Espelette, from the Pyrénées, is the only sort of spice one ever seems to encounter in France. It's fine, as long as you don't expect dishes made with it to contain any actual measurable spice component. It's the spice equivalent of a blown kiss, and about that hot.
35, rue des Annelets
Tel: 01 40 40 79 41
Another awesome 19ème bistro-à-vin: Quedubon, 75019
Using the opening of Frenchie Bar à Vin as a chance to discuss Paris' paucity of good wine bars
A typtical but - for once! - true rave about Ô Divin @ LeFooding
A great profile of Ô Divin @ OnBoitQuoiCeSoir