31 August 2012

n.d.p. in london: duck soup, soho

I seem to have had an atypical experience of Dean Street restaurant Duck Soup last winter. At that time it was a relatively new restaurant, and various friends and reviews had all warned of a tortuous reservation policies and interminable waits. But evidently it was close enough to Christmas for the town to have begun to hunker down, for my friend / colleague M sorted us out a last minute six-top with what seemed like no hassle whatsoever.

There followed a very, very dimly lit meal of small plates in what are usually termed Brooklyn-inspired surroundings - a strange but welcome experience in ultracommercial Soho. At Duck Soup the nightly menu is almost illegibly scrawled on scraps of paper. One is invited to bring records and put them on, perhaps as a distraction while waiting for a bar stool.

The brisk pace of menu change at the Duck Soup means that it will serve no one if I recount each dish, were I even able to this long after the meal. Some were tasty, one or two were mushy catastrophes. More interesting for me consider right now, as I belatedly clear this London material off the iPhone, is what it means to call something "Brooklyn-inspired," and whether this style of restaurateurism exports well.

23 August 2012

ditz natural : glou, 75003

I have nice things to say about Glou, unlike seemingly every respectable food writer I can think of. (Am I respectable? I have no idea. Perhaps what I am about to write will disqualify me.) In its fundamentals, it's a completely fine bistrot à vin: simple, product-focused, and conveniently located in the heart of the Marais. The varied, well-priced list of natural wines alone makes it an appealing destination in that neighborhood, where a good glass of wine is astonishingly hard to find.

If, until the other night, I had nevertheless declined to dine there throughout the three years since it opened, I think it's mostly due to the restaurant's polarizing marketing. Glou, founded by food journalist Julien Fouin and film producer-turned-restaurateur Ludovic Dardenay, is sort of an object lesson in the hazards of letting food writers design menus. Reading Glou's, one feels as through one were reading the food section of a beauty mag. For example, a whole section of very slightly luxurious épicerie appetizers is called "Les Perles Rares." Another: "Les Curiosités du Moment à Ne Pas Rater." Wines are divided by theme, with some described as "des aventures, des surprises, loin des jajas standardisés, de vrais coups de coeur."

This sort of precocious verbiage makes experienced diners gag. Even in food journalism, it's mostly confined to the hack subdivision that exists to conflate quality with luxury. So seeing it on the menu, and seeing that Glou's loyal Marais audience overlaps quite a bit with that of the aforementioned beauty mags, I stayed away. The place seemed ditz-natural. So when I finally visited Glou the other night, at the urging of my friend A, a regular, I was surprised to find myself genuinely pleased by the experience, having possibly become a ditz myself.

21 August 2012

n.d.p. in london: the kernel brewery

My longtime English friend A and I often refer to one another as the evil twin, never able to agree on who is the good twin ever since discovering, at age 13, that we were born on the same day. There followed shortly thereafter, that day in primary school, the revelation that we both enjoyed Pearl Jam, which seemed important at the time. In the years that followed our music tastes were to converge joyously (The Pixies, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, etc.) before diverging catastrophicall (he got into metal).

Nowadays A is among the first people I phone up whenever I visit London, for despite our musical differences, he remains my one English friend who hasn't gone vegetarian or otherwise rendered himself immune to gourmandise. A also shares a certain hunger to stay informed about such things; like me, and presumably anyone reading this blog, he's the type to research where to have a drink. In the decade-plus since we lived in the same country, he's become a very well-informed beer afficionado.

So as I was passing through London on the way to Wales last Christmas, I was delighted to follow him to one of his favorite breweries, a ramshackle geek-run operation called the Kernel, which at that time was located in the Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey, a short walk from London Bridge. (I'm told it has since moved to a bigger space a mile down the road, to keep up with demand. I've either got to start reporting more promptly, or travel less.)

16 August 2012

paris discovers beer : la fine mousse, 75011

I'm sure I'm not the only expat who has occasionally marveled at the aesthetic poverty of Paris beer culture. This is a country home to four hundred distinct varieties of cheese, and having an opinion on each is a matter of national pride. There are prizes given every year for the best tête de veau. Yet beer in France at large has somehow remained below the threshold of aesthetic attention for much of the populace, as evidenced by the vacuous brands on offer at most bars and supermarkets : Kronenberg, 1664, Amstel, Heineken, Pelforth, etc.

Whatever their respective merits may be over vile industrial American staples like Bud Light, these other beers remain, like Bud Light, substances that are consumed in lieu of aesthetic experience - they're basically water, only alcoholic and carbonated. At the other end of the spectrum of beers widely available in Paris, you have the sweetish one-note bruiser that is Leffe, which to my tastes shares DNA with those bottom-shelf "strong beers" marketed mainly to the homeless.* Parisians seem to like their bière either to dull the senses, or not be perceived at all.

Given the size of the craft beer market in numerous other major cities, Paris' stagnant beer scene has long presented an untapped opportunity. So I was overjoyed to learn that, with the soft opening last month of a majestic twenty-tap beer bar called La Fine Mousse in a quiet square off rue Oberkampf, some enterprising young Frenchmen have at last seized the moment.

13 August 2012

sophie brissaud & sauternes at spring boutique, 75001

Writing about the wines of Bordeaux, I feel perennially obliged, before airing opinions, to quote Plato's Socrates, who said, 'If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.'

My experience with the greats of the region is more or less reflective of my interest in them. Not that I'd ever turn down a glass of Petrus or what-have-you. But with such a teeming diversity of fascinating wines from less commercialised regions all much more readily available for study, it rarely seems with the effort involved to approach Bordeaux. There's a velvet rope of pure hassle and expense around the good stuff: purchasing it is out of the question, and most tastings that present it - especially the public tastings - are insufferably stuffy and boorish affairs, quite far removed from the "dudes hanging out with bottles" template of the most enjoyable tastings.

It's a happy coincidence that the wines of Bordeaux I find most interesting from an aesthetic standpoint - white Bordeaux and Sauternes - are in general slightly more approachable. Good examples of both wines present unique, opulent flavor profiles found nowhere else in wine, but with the exceptions of Château d'Yquem and Haut-Brion, neither wine category receives anywhere near the attention of the region's reds. One encounters the opposite problem: rarely finding the wines, let alone several at once to facilitate comparison. So when I learned my friend the prolific food writer Sophie Brissaud was to lead a tasting of Sauternes at Spring Boutique last winter, I found myself, for once, genuinely exciting about a Bordeaux tasting.

03 August 2012

a godsend: bacchus et ariane, 75006

Since my impolitic skewering of whopper misnomer wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels last summer, a number of that restaurant group's staff have approached me attempting to explain the bar's name. "Don't you get it?" they've asked me. "Sur-natural wine. Supernatural. It's not saying it is natural wine. It means it's better than natural wine !"

How on earth this is meant to make me appreciate the place any more is beyond me. These people seem to be telling me that instead of making a dupicitous play on words on behalf of the entrenched conservative wine establishment, the owners were making a boorish claim on the behalf of the entrenched conservative wine establishment. Complicating things further, I'm told that La Compagnie Yadda Yadda have in the interim actually added to their wine list a small selection of what are widely recognised as vins naturels. The whole affair is Romneyesque in its backtracking and inventive rationalisation, and frankly I wish I'd never said anything in the first place. (I'd certainly be on better terms with the owners, who are by all accounts good people at heart, and whose first three projects I genuinely appreciate.)

If I'm dredging it up now, it's only by way introducing my very belated discovery, via my friend Meg Zimbeck, editor founder of Paris By Mouth, of Bacchus et Ariane, a cave in the marché Saint Germain, just around the corner from La Compagnie des Vins Conventionels. Unbeknownst to me throughout the whole natural / surnaturel huff and my own extravagant complaints about the surrounding arrondissement, Bacchus et Ariane's proprietor Georges Castellato has for the past 14 years been quietly doing much of what that other bar ostensibly claims to: offering a magnificent, well priced selection of wines, drawn evenly from the ranks of acclaimed greats and itinerant sulfur-free upstarts, in a setting that, on a sunny afternoon in summertime, is among the most pleasant in Paris.