29 August 2011
The Native Companion and I joined some restaurateur and bartender friends at a competitive coffee event in the 17ème the other evening, and the plan afterwards had been to all pile into a natural wine bar around the corner, six or seven of us, possibly more. The plan foundered, however, when said bar turned out to be closed for vacation, and we found ourselves all shanghaied in the sleepy 17ème, caffeinated, sober, and starving, at close to 10pm on a Monday night in midsummer.
Sitting on the curb outside the shut wine bar, our options seemed limited to beer and kebabs, or just cursing the city and giving up on the evening. The latter is a particularly galling end to a night-out when it comprises one of two nights-off per week, as is restaurant industry standard. It explains our unanimous assent to our friend J2's heavily qualified proposition to check out Le Petit Trianon, the maniacally overpackaged, seven-day-a-week, practically-all-hours bistro attached to Le Trianon, a concert hall near Anvers.
As we hailed cabs, J2 was repeating, "If it's good, I take all the credit. If it blows, we knew it all along..."
19 August 2011
I'm off to Piemonte this morning, with two brief stopovers in Switzerland. In Piemonte we'll be staying in Monforte d'Alba, seeking visits with whichever reputable vignerons aren't on vacation. So expect limited posting for a week, followed by a meandering series of cued blog posts extending well into October discussing the overall quality and cultural significance of seemingly every drop of wine and blade of grass I happened to encounter during the trip.
Not Drinking Poison in Roma: April 2011
Not Drinking Poison in Madrid: November 2010
Not Drinking Poison in London: December 2010
The Beaujolais Bike Trip: July 2011
The Jura Bike Trip: May 2011
18 August 2011
We arrived in Mâcon before sundown on Monday evening, and after stowing our bikes and showering in our murdery hotel we resolved to hit the town, where nothing was open. Notably closed was a very nice-looking natural wine bistro in the shadow of the church called Le Carafé, which restaurant came with the recommendation of Isabelle and Bruno Perraud. In desperation I led everyone on a hopeless trawl through the shut streets of Mâcon looking for a restaurant where more than pizza was served, until, ready to surrender to sham-Italian, we espied the town on the Sâone river's opposite bank, Saint-Laurent-Sur-Saône, bathed in late sunlight with with a number of busy terraced restaurants on the quay.
After eyeballing each one, we determined that the best were shut, and of the two that remained, the one that had a table for us looked trashy as all get-out. This left us with Le Saint Laurent, what turned out to be a Georges Blanc restaurant with a vaguely troisième-age air and a thirty-plus minute wait for a quaint and extremely conservative mass-hospitality meal that nevertheless contained several surprises.
17 August 2011
"Go soon," is what an informed friend cautioned when I'd asked him about Au Passage, a new natural wine bar-à-manger on passage Saint-Sébastien in the Marais-adjacent 11ème* - because the chef in charge, James Henry, was slated to depart shortly.
I can think of two nearby wine bars that function alright without a head chef, per se. But Henry, whose previous credits include a stint at massively popular 1èr arrondissement restaurant Spring, will leave some shoes to fill, when he goes. Because as my friend IF, the Native Companion, and I confirmed the other day at lunch, Au Passage is, thanks in large part to Henry's efforts, punching way above its weight right now, offering some of the city's most delectable, nigh-on haute cuisine small plates at prices more reflective of what the place really is: a neighborhood spot with a shoe-string budget and some good intentions.
16 August 2011
Natural Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet had actually planned to take us to the restaurant next door to Café de la Bascule in Fleurie. It was closed for vacations. Anyway, as Karim explained to us, the places shared ownership; what separated the two terrace bistro concepts was just a slight gap in price and sophistication, la Bascule having cheaper meats and a wine list that was not unanimously natural.
We made do. An unexpected highlight of the experience was our server, who seemed all of 11 years old, but who nevertheless provided the most sparkling efficient professional service I have yet experienced in France. He seemed to be running the whole place, bantering with guests in the polished server patter of someone four times his age. As we ate our hangar steaks we watched in bemusement as the boy placed the kitchen orders for the restaurant from a mobile phone in the parking lot.* And when after a forgettable but refreshing round of Mâcon-Lugny Karim picked out a splendid unsulfured bottle of Jean-Claude Chanudet's 2008 Fleurie "La Madone," it was this little fella who served it, flawlessly.
15 August 2011
I have been seeing a lot of articles lately about a sudden wave of Mexican restaurants opening in Paris, a trend in which I have zero interest. Usually I would add some qualifier, about why my seemingly extreme view on an issue is not, in fact, so extreme. But to hell with it: not in my lifetime will it be possible to get what I consider real Mexican food in Paris, for a zillion reasons, ranging from non-availability of ingredients and kitchen expertise to the native population's total intolerance of even the mildest pique of spice. So I save my pesos for the cuisines of populations that have an actual cultural presence here: Lebanese, Algerian, Chinese, etc.
I can think of only two exceptions. One is my friends' place in the Marais, Candelaria, which serves a very tasty Mexican-like cuisine in a sadistically small room in front of the cocktail bar. (My interaction with the food usually extends no further than elbowing my way past it.) The other is Itacate, in the1èr. It's sort of the opposite of Candelaria in terms of ambition and sophistication, but the folks are very nice, and crucially it's right around the corner from a friend's cave; after tastings he and I often have recourse to a few inexpensive basically acceptable resto-ticket-redeemable tacos.
Additionally, as I remembered the other night with some friends of friends, they serve Mexican wine by the bottle, thereby offering an oenological experience that, while not advisable, it as least a real curiosity in these parts.
11 August 2011
I have to thank my friend the natural Loire vigneron François Blanchard and his brother J3* for their high spirits and admirable fortitude during our dinner at 17ème bistro-à-vin Le Bistral a couple weeks back. François was in town for leisure purposes (a Roger Waters show) but had run into legendary natural Sologne-based Loire vigneron Claude Courtois earlier that day while lunching at @2eme haute-cave-à-manger Saturne, and they had proceeded to drink for most of the afternoon. Sensible mortals would have called it quits there; instead François and J3 went ahead as planned with the big chaotic dinner we'd arranged.
I get to the 17ème about as often as François gets to Paris, which, what with his insanely demanding, rigorously natural vineyard work in Lémére, near Chinon, and my preference for less timewarpy parts of town, is not very often at all. But I'm always grateful for the chance to discover another natural wine spot, and it's even more of a pleasure to check in with François to see what sort semi-visionary strangeness he's been coaxing from his vines lately.
10 August 2011
At one point during our informal tasting tour of natural Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet's new facilities in Morgon, the winemaker excused himself for five minutes, because someone working for Pôle Emploi had arrived to discuss grape-picker contracts for the upcoming harvests. Five minutes quickly turned into fifteen, because, as we found out later, the Pôle Emploi employee had been a comely Polish woman who was appreciably interested in Vionnet's status as a bachelor-vigneron. There aren't many of those, she'd said, before joining us in tasting some of his 2010 Beaujolais-Villages...
Personal charms aside, Karim Vionnet is remarkable for representing a continuation of the natural Beaujolais ethos made famous by over the last two decades by Villié-Morgon's pioneering "Gang of Four" : the late Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet. Vionnet, a Morgon native and former baker,* trained for several years with Breton, before establishing his own operation in 2006. Since then he's produced a range of wines consistently remarkable for their rugged honesty and grace: a Beaujolais Primeur, a Beaujolais-Villages, a Chiroubles he titles "Vin de Kav," and depending on the vintage, as I only found out that day, a schiste-soil cuvée of Beaujolais-Villages from the commune of Beaujeu that rivals any cru Beaujolais I've tasted recently.
09 August 2011
Every so often - usually in the dining sections of popular newspapers - I read about the Copper Penny Trick, wherein an author dispels reduced aromas in a wine by plunking a copper penny in the glass. Hey presto, and gone (or diminished) are the burnt-matchstick / eggy qualities associated with sulfur reduction.
I have always hated these articles, despite having not, until just recently, tried the copper thing myself. I guess I felt the articles subtracted more than they added to wine discourse, in giving the impression to lay readers that wine were some wizardy substance that responded to talismanic rituals. (For that is the image that remains, regardless of whether the article in question delved into the fussier science of copper and mercaptans. Jamie Goode of WineAnorak explains much of that science here.)
My worry has been, I think, that if we go down this road and make it socially acceptable to propose putting things from our pockets into wine, we will inevitably begin encountering doofuses who know nothing of wine except this trick. We'll be serving wine at a social occasion of some sort and Mr. Copper Penny will stand and do his thing and then cheekily propose adding Eye of Newt, or Deadly Nightshade.
08 August 2011
My friends R, R2, and A celebrated the last night of their recent visit to Paris with a meal at their favorite restaurant here, the rightly famous Verre Volé. I think we all agree that there are few other restaurants in Paris where fine cuisine and wines are paired with the lurking possibility of sheer anarchy ensuing when two previously unintroduced afficionados begin an arms' race of manic rock-out generosity, purchasing various magnums and sending glasses back and forth over the entire restaurant until the place closes.
Anyway, that's what happened. My friend R started it with a magnum of Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet's 2004 "Saint Epine," impeccably chosen by our friend / server-sommelier Thomas. When the glasses started flying we were anwsered in kind by a cheery Serbian fellow across the dining room. I'd just joined my friends sometime around the cheese course, thinking to share a bottle of wine and call it an early night.
05 August 2011
Renowned natural Beaujolais vignerons Jean and Agnès Foillard run a small, well-appointed chambre d'hôte just outside the center of Villié-Morgon. Jean wasn't around during our stay, unfortunately, and we hadn't made an appointment to taste, so the experience we had was decidedly non-wine-related. It was like staying in a small, well-appointed chambre d'hôte run by retired schoolteachers.
Having enjoyed Foillard's happily ubiquitous benchmark Morgons and Fleuries throughout roughly 40% of the dinners I've had in Paris, and tasted through same wines several times at tastings, it wasn't a huge disappointment. It would have been nice to see the chais and taste a few back vintages, if any were available. But there's always the next trip, for that.
In the meantime I had a room to myself with an extra bed and a huge shower* and an adjacent sitting room stuffed with French literature, the last item presumably provided for non-wine-drinkers who get dragged to Villié-Morgon by enthusiastic spouses. J and C showered and I sat around fiddling with my iPhone, wanting nothing more than to be in the same environment, only surrounded by, like, twelve good friends with healthy drinking appetites and nowhere to be for a few days.
03 August 2011
Besides the confusing name* - which has inspired several early reviewers to harp on senselessly about an imaginary nostalgic quality to the service and cuisine - there is, in my view, absolutely nothing wrong with La Retro'Bottega, the lower-11ème cave-à-manger opened earlier this year by former Rino sommelier Pietro Russano and his business partner Salvatore Li Causi.
I don't mean this as a back-handed complement. I mean they got almost everything right.
As someone who has developed what amounts to a physical allergy to bad restaurateurism, I'm filled with gratitude that a place like La Retro'Bottega exists: a comfortable, soulful cave-à-manger with a refreshing, vegetable-driven menu and a masterful selection of well-priced French and Italian natural wines.** Had I euros enough, and time, I'd dine there every night.
02 August 2011
Karim Vionnet was in no state to continue drinking with us, the evening we arrived in Villié-Morgon, but he kindly made sure the kitchen would be open at a restaurant across the road from the bar called l'Atelier du Cuisinier. When asked if the place was any good he affirmed it was fine, simple, that there was a good gratin d'andouillette, which dish sure sounded morbidly interesting.
After showers and general decompression at Agnès and Jean Foillard's chambre d'hôte down the road, J, C, and I returned to l'Atelier, where we were to have a meal that, all told, could've used a bit more back-to-the-drawing-board workshopping by le Cuisinier.
But what the hell. It was probably the best restaurant in Villié-Morgon open on a Sunday night, and furthermore the wine list was straight-up magnificent, a real inspiring banner of Beaujolais:
01 August 2011
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.