Anyone seeking some semblance of completion in this blog's list of recommended (or faintly-recommended) Paris natural wine spots would have been right to point out the curious absence, until now, of material on Le Chapeau Melon, ex-Baratin proprietor Olivier Camus' celebrated set-menu cave-à-manger in Belleville.
I actually adore Le Chapeau Melon - it has almost everything I habitually seek in a restaurant. Camus' self-trained cooking is tasteful but rugged, accented with game attempts at innovation; his wines are as humbly priced as they are masterfully chosen.
If until recently I hadn't been back in almost two years since my first visit, which occurred some months before I began blogging, I think it was mainly due to the set-menu thing. Set-menus sometimes make me feel trapped in a meal. So it was fortuitous that upon finally returning to the restaurant with some friends and colleagues from New York, we landed on a Sunday, when the Le Chapeau Melon serves à la carte, and the resulting meals, more informal, less fussy, are all the better for it.
In theory I agree with the philosophy behind set menus. In obliging all table-mates to eat the same things, set-menus promote a nice commonality of experience - as though everyone belonged to the same primitive tribe, who had just felled the same boar, just reduced the same balsamic vinegar... In practice, however, my set menu meals are invariably shaded with some degree of sympathetic heartache for one or more of my companions, whoever happens that evening be the one with some kind of food foible or allergy or newfound misplaced appreciation for Jonathan Safran Foer.* The first time I visited Le Chapeau Melon, two of my dining companions had to sit out various courses of a 36€ per person meal. And we were a three-top.**
The à la carte system on Sunday serves the restaurant better, even if the challenges of fixing many different dishes for the same table means that plates sometimes arrive one by one, distantly apart, like comet sightings, each accompanied with the well-intended but socially unworkable instruction to just start eating. It's a question of approachability. The restaurant's location, high up in Belleville on a twisty side street near metro Pyrénées, seems to have at one time called for a destination restaurant - hence the set-menu thing.
Whereas in my view the neighborhood now calls for a refined neighborhood restaurant, something like what Au Passage has recently become in the haute-Marais - a place to have a relaxed, informal, excellent meal that, crucially, will not take hours. (I'd wager that an extra kitchen staff member to help with meal timing would more than pay for him or herself in overall increased turnover, were the restaurant to go completely à la carte.)
In any event, the restaurant will still merit more return trips, even if, as is more than likely, their business plan never changes. Olivier Camus' selection of natural wines is among the best of the whole cave-à-manger genre, encompassing great Beaujolais producers who are somewhat hard to find even in Paris (Chamonard), screaming bargains on cult Jura stuff (Overnoy), and geekier selections from the more widely available producers (Alice et Olivier de Moor's Saint-Bris Sauvignon).
My recent meal there with the NYC friends started out on a high note, with a stunning sparkler by Gregoire Perron of Domaine de la Combe Aux Rêves.
The 2010 Poulsard blend "La Mouss'ti Gris," belying its goofy name, label design, price (13€ prix caviste, 20€ in the restaurant) - hell, belying the whole petillant naturel category - was magnificently profound, offering a blossomy red fruit nose that ceded way to balanced notes of melon, sour cherry, and spice on the palate. A few days after enjoying "La Mouss'ti Gris" that night I attended several huge natural wine tastings in the Loire - and in the wake of them I can still cite Perron's Poulsard petillant as probably my favorite thing I've tasted all year.
Perron's tiny 1.8ha estate is peculiar, in that it's nominally located in the Jura, but is southerly enough to cultivate grape varietals normally associated with Savoy, such as Jacquère, which he bottles as an off-dry sparkler called "La Flute Agitée." (I tasted it recently on another visit to Le CM - it's also excellent, like kumquats and quinine, finishing dry.)
The cuisine at Le Chapeau Melon is what you might call bistro exotica - predominantly French classics, tweaked with ponzu sauce or vanilla oil. More shellfish than usual. It's the sort of thing I find charming when priced like bistro unexotica - as at Le Verre Volé, or on Sundays at Le Chapeau Melon - and slightly less charming when slightly high pricing seems to call attention to the artifice - as at the 2ème's L'Hédoniste, or at Chapeau Melon on other nights of the week. It's always high-quality, anyway.
|Langues d'Avocat : a colourful French term for a baby sole.|
|Impeccable blanquette de veau.|
And on a calm sunday evening with out-of-town friends, everyone more or less knackered from fashion week, it's perfect. If there remain aspects of Le Chapeau Melon that need work and might not get worked on, chalk it up to the purity of Olivier Camus's vision, which is one of communal experience, of inexpensive honest wine, of unhurried meals. Le Chapeau Melon a fundamentally idealist establishment - something that deserves applause any day of the week.
* This recently happened to the wife of a friend of mine. Actually, she's also a friend of mine. But now she and I cannot discuss food without hissing at each other.
** I sympathise with the restaurateur who'd say: so hang out with more vigorous eaters, why don't you? But practically speaking I think it's unhealthy - in more ways than one - to choose one's friends according to dietary preferences. Besides, the restaurants that successfully self-select an audience of Serious Eaters Only often become just these horrible wank-temples, self-serious and vulgar. I guess I'm coming around to admitting that effective hospitality is more important to me than forcible education of the dining public.
Le Chapeau Melon
92, rue Rébeval
Metro: Belleville or Pyrénées
Tel: 01 42 02 68 60
An impressively comprehensive 2011 post on Le Chapeau Melon @ TheParisKitchen
An unusually critical profile of Le Chapeau Melon @ LeFooding
A nicely pictorial but more or less uninformed 2011 piece on Le Chapeau Melon @ HipParis
A funny 2010 piece on Le Chapeau Melon by Barbra Austin @ Girls'GuideToParis
A 2010 account by some not especially sophisticated diners who were evidently kind of alienated by Le Chapeau Melon @ PandaAParis (They compare the place unfavorably to a neighboring restaurant whose cuisine, as pictured, is straight-up culinary kindergarten.)