Imagine you must throw a party. You invite your most amusing friends into a room with a balcony after sundown and open numerous bottles of sparkling wine. There is a band. Performance art. DJs. Clowns, sword-swallowers, and a man who walks around on his hands. But to your consternation, no one speaks to each other for the duration of the event.
Great party, they say, on their way out the door. Keep me in the loop for the next one.
I feel this way about certain natural wine restaurants. Like the friends in the above scenario, I sincerely appreciate the effort that has gone into getting all the right ingredients in place. Desnoyer meats, natural wines, manifestly fresh fish, etc. At Jeu de Quilles, a suberbly charming market-menu place in the 14ème, these elements are supported by that other, nigh-on unattainable Paris luxury, great hospitality. All that I felt was lacking, after a recent by-no-means-unenjoyable meal there, was a unifying vision: a reason all these good things have been gathered together.
Bon, you might say, they're all good examples of their type, fresh honest cuisine, what more are you looking for? I would agree, on some level. But Jeu de Quilles' menu construction actively pushes a tasting menu (entrée et plat: 39€; 6-course tasting menu: 45€), and tasting menus are to simple dinners what museum exhibitions are to open studios. One is right to demand a little vision.
Jeu de Quilles' kitchen is run by co-owner Benoit Reix, formerly of 1èr arrondissement natural wine standby Les Fines Gueules, and if you are familiar with the latter restaurant's focus on unfussy presentation of star ingredients, Jeu de Quilles' cuisine is very legible as being just that, only teased up a notch or two.
An admirably rough-cut veal carpaccio got things rolling, topped with aged parmesan and unobjectionable black truffles.*
The scallops on fregola that followed divided us.
My friend M, visiting from LA, found the dish fascinatingly dry and sandy. My friend J and I found it masochistically dry and sandy. It was like someone posed the question, 'How do I make excellent fresh scallops taste like couch stuffing?'
Fried merlan atop leek mousse with tartare sauce was merely tasty, and I couldn't help remarking that kitchen costs on such a dish amount to roughly bus fare. It was fine as a mid-course - one that J and I knocked back in two seconds flat, as though it were a flaming B-52 - but would have been disappointing as a main course.
The strips of faux-filet that followed were perfectly seared, but no one present could figure out why they were served with no succulent Desnoyer jus, instead arriving with a cough of guac-like avocado sauce, and a flick of Roquefort. It was a rare moment of over-saucing in a kitchen that otherwise was ingredient-driven quite literally to a fault.
A cheese plate that followed was notable for making a fine-grained, flavorful star out of usually-boring Morbier. The whole thing was gone before I could even think to photograph, a testament both to the quality of the cheese, and, less commendably, to pretty shoddy kitchen timing throughout the meal. We were famished. It was not all Reix's fault; J had arrived grievously late, so our meal began late, which I understand can throw off kitchen timing.
Still, there are some kitchens that make one marvel at how a single man manages to feed a roomful of people in a punctual fashion. This was not one of those kitchens. Plates seemed to drift from it in the unpredictable way that scent molecules rise off a perfume.
Even after a pretty thrilling millefeuille of wild strawberries, my friends and I found ourselves wondering what advantages Jeu de Quilles offered over various other restaurants closer to our 11ème homes, notably Le Châteaubriand, whose menu is priced similarly. I dislike the sloppy wine list at the latter restaurant, that is one thing. Jeu de Quilles' list is broad, and if the white section is a bit Greatest Hits-y** (with perhaps a slightly perceptible focus on off-dry Loire stuff) all was forgiven midway through our meal when I turned to the Beaujolais section.
All four of Kermit Lynch's "Gang of Four" represented ! Plus Descombes ! And four different vintages represented ! All at mark-ups that seem somewhat more gentle than the rest of the list. To find a better list of Beaujolais, you'd have to actually go there.
With our faux-filets we turned to Guy Breton's 2008 "P'tit Max" Morgon , a wine one doesn't see anywhere near as often as one should on Paris wine lists. Presumably this is in accordance with Breton's wishes, whatever they may be. Leap on it where you see it though: this is an absolutely magisterial Morgon, perhaps my favorite among a favored appellation, a cuvée that contains otherworldly red-fruit and tobacco complexity within the catchy, pop-song structure of a solid Morgon.
The 2008, like the best Beaujolais from that vintage, showed a taught horizontal acidity, panoramic fruit, and a keen ozone finish that ensured the bottle disappeared notably faster than those that came before it. It was like the overlooked Dwight Twilley Band classic "Looking For The Magic," seeming to soar beyond its slap-bass monotone frame without ever disturbing it.
There you go, though. Ideally a wine like this comprises part of the general harmony of a great meal. As it was, it stood out for being one of the few experiences at Jeu de Quilles that felt whole. With their wines, their meats, their hospitality, the Jeu de Quilles team have seemingly arranged all the ingredients for greatness, without having yet found the final ambitious spark required to make them interact meaningfully.
* I recently baffled several friends over dinner at a nice restaurant by launching into a wild tirade against overuse of truffles, which in my estimation constitutes almost all use of truffles. Unless it is high truffle season unless the restaurant is smack in truffle country unless you are an unsophisticated bandito seeking to fleece your customers, truffles should appear no more than once on a menu, not as an optional add-on to every dish, and where they do appear it should be as accompaniment to a dish that contains them according to an identifiable culinary tradition, i.e. veal carpaccio. I am a truffle conservative. I don't even like talking about them.
** I know, I know. But that I can look at a long list of natural white wine in Paris and say ho-hum is, above all, a complement to the city. I think it means it's time for lists to get a little more ambitious, and a little more specialized; buyers need to dig beyond the reliable greats. And perhaps it's time for some overexposed wines - Catherine et Pierre Breton's current releases, Foillard's Morgon maybe - to be left to retailers.
Jeu de Quilles
45, rue Boulard
Tel: 01 53 90 76 22
A somewhat misleading 2011 note on Jeu de Quilles @ PatriciaWells (she emphasizes the Desnoyer meats, when in fact there's one or two pieces of meat on the menu per night, not exactly a cornucopia)
A 2010 review of Jeu de Quilles by Barbra Austin @ GirlsGuideToParis
A brief 2008 review of Jeu de Quilles @ JohnTalbott, who seems to be holding his tongue on criticizing the place, mentioning only that it would merit a lower score if one is a 'demanding' diner (he's right)
Notes on a meal involving the 2005 "P'tit Max" @ LeVinDesCopains
Some good photos of Guy Breton and friends @ GuilhaumeGerard