18 February 2014

pioneers: le tagine, 75011

I started frequenting my friend Marie-Jo Mimoun's adorable Morroccan restaurant Le Tagine about two years ago. Mimoun has a superb little Rhône-focused wine list, featuring, among others, such legends as Domaine Gramenon, Dard et Ribo, and Jean Foillard. Yet on every visit I'm surprised by how little wine is consumed in the place. The haute-Marais clientele, largely white and French (i.e. non-Muslim), seem to stick to beer.

I can only assume it's because Le Tagine doesn't look like a wine place. It looks like a chill spot for some ethnic food with the family on a weeknight. And I get the impression that Paris diners - native and tourist - are more reluctant to purchase serious wine from people who don't look classically French.

Justin E. H. Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at Université Paris Diderot, recently touched on this bias in a terrific NYTimes Opinion piece, where he astutely cited the link between European nativism and "the celebration of terroir and 'Slow Food'." It's a discomfiting alliance based on resistance to globalism and its effects. At worst, as in the case of Friulian winemaker / hatemonger Fulvio Bressan, the resistance is manifested as outright racism. In France, we see certain slippery creeps organising anti-Muslim protests under the guise of "sausage and wine" parties beside mosques. On a far more innocuous level, you have the fact that quality terroir-driven wines in France - let alone natural wines - are consumed almost exclusively in identifiably French restaurants.

In the case of Le Tagine, an overlooked gem of a restaurant that boasts stupendous service and solid soulful Morroccan cuisine alongside its well-priced wine list, it's a crying shame. On the plus side, there's almost always a six-top free when I need one.

I shouldn't come down too hard on latent cultural biases in French culture. Truly ambitious Moroccan cuisine is rare anywhere, except probably Morocco. (At time of writing, I've never been.) It's a richly historical cuisine that, in Europe and America, has yet receive the widespread exposure to financial incentive necessary to encourage a graduation to fine-dining standards. Italian cuisine in America was arguably in a similar position until as recently as the 1990's.

Le Tagine should probably be judged in light of this. It's true that in the two years I've been dining there, the menu has not changed.

I'm still slightly underwhelmed by appetiser options, some of which can strike one as overpriced. Merguez could be more numerous at 7€. And the salade of tomato, pepper, and cucumber is basically mild Moroccan salsa, at 8€. The pastilla de pigeon, on the other hand, well-merits its price tag: it's a crispy eggy part-molten indulgence.

My favorite mains remain the keenly savoury lamb tagine with olive and lemon peel, and the couscous with mechoui, or long-cooked lamb. (Not pictured, sadly.)

Lamb tagine with lemon and black olive

Chicken with raisins and honey

At around 20€ per main course, Le Tagine is more expensive than most corner couscous joints. I write it off as the price to pay for the privilege of enjoying these dishes with serious wines. I tend also, rightly or wrongly, to have more faith in the ingredients sourced by restaurants with natural wine lists.

On my most recent visit to Le Tagine, with the Native Companion and some fashion industry friends from Bilbao, we shared a bottle of biodynamic estate Domaine Gramenon's 2011 Côte du Rhône "La Sagesse."

Aged twelve months in barriques, the 2011 "La Sagesse" showed entrancingly persistent purple fruit, unfurling magisterially, with dark background notes of ash and black olive. I have a well-known bias for lighter reds, but in this case a wine with the force of "La Sagesse" is basically a prerequisite for enjoyment alongside Le Tagine's intensely flavorful cuisine.

So is finishing with a glass of mint tea, which Le Tagine's staff serves from a pot in a rivetingly precipitous high-pour that would terrify most flair bartenders.

At the end of the day I don't really object to the bias towards consumption of French food with French natural wines, because part of what interests me about old-world winemaking is its relation to traditional regional cuisines. (I tend to feel that simple regional cuisine is almost as necessary to appreciation of a region's wines as clear glassware.) But the recent popularity of Japanese food / natural wine concepts in Paris proves the public is open to new pairings, at least when they don't involve the cuisine of a former French protectorate.

Given certain religious strictures, I don't see natural wine making huge inroads among France's significant Muslim population. But I do see the restaurants where we consume natural wine in Paris growing more diverse, and coming to reflect more accurately the polyculture of contemporary France.

You have Said Messous, owner of natural wine pizza-place Alimentari in Montreuil, opening the extremely egalitarian natural wine bar Touller Outillage in Oberkampf. You have brothers Nafouel and Redha Zaim of Buttes-Chaumont natural wine bistrot O Divin, whose spruced up restaurant now offers couscous on Monday nights. If it's a movement, then Marie-Jo Mimoun is its pioneer. Her restaurant has been open thirty years. And as Victor Hugo said, "All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come."

Le Tagine
13, rue de Crussol
75011 PARIS
Métro: Oberkampf or Filles du Calvaire
Tel: 01 47 00 28 67

Related Links:

Bruno Verjus on Le Tagine

The reviewers at MadAboutParis apparently tried to share one order of couscous at Le Tagine and were predictably rebuffed. I underwent a similar confusion when I once tried this elsewhere, shortly after moving to Paris. You have to look at it from a couscous-restaurateur's perspective: since couscous dishes are by nature refillable (save the meat), if they permitted sharing every table would just demand to share one couscous and the restaurant would soon go bankrupt.

The very paucity of internet coverage of Le Tagine seems to testifies to a preconception among diners in Paris that Moroccan cuisine is for whatever reason not worthy of critical attention.

John Talbott on the spruced-up Ô Divin, where they serve couscous on Monday nights. 

1 comment:

  1. since you're giving the 2ème another chance, have you been to Liza? it's lebanese, but has a decent go at fine dining ex-protectorate cuisine. haven't been in years but the brunch is tempting. wine list is mostly chateau musar tho