29 December 2014

blast from the present: gare au gorille, 75017

What does it mean for savvy young Parisian restaurateurs to advertise their appreciation for post-war cabaret, as chef Marc Cordonnier and server-sommelier Louis Langevin have done with their new 17ème arrondissement Georges Brassens homage, Gare au Gorille?

My dinner companion was blasé about it. She identified it as part of a wider revivalist fad among Parisians her age, rather like the superficial blues revival incited in the early 2000's by the likes of the White Stripes and the Black Keys.*

Gare au Gorille, the restaurant, not the song refrain, is a bit of a Trojan horse in this respect. Perched in Les Batignolles beside the train tracks spanning northwards from Saint Lazare, Gare au Gorille inhabits a quartier I've long considered to be among Paris' Frenchest and most timewarpy, where foreigners are scarce and their influence barely acknowledged. Yet with Gare au Gorille, its nostalgic name notwithstanding, Cordonnier and Langevin have summoned a blast from the present, replete with all the tasteful grace notes of up-to-date Parisian restaurateurism: versatile menu construction, a kindly-priced wine list speckled with foreign selections, and terrific hospitality.

16 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: el maestro sierra, jerez

A depressing reality sinks in when one attempts study of sherry, or, for that matter, of Spanish and Portuguese wine in general: all too often, it seems one passes time studying not the history of winemaking families, but the history of winemaking companies. In France or Italy there is more widespread persistence of microviticulture: of tiny families bottling their own wines for generations, and in doing so communicating something of the personality of the individual winemakers. There is indeed a cultural history to be gleaned in the study of sherry; but it is mostly a story of foreign investment, large-scale acquisitions, and inheritance.  

Were its wines not so uniformly stunning, Jerez bodega El Maestro Sierra would still standout for this reason. It's among the few bodegas I know with a truly captivating, individual family backstory - one that continues to this day with owner Pilar Pla Pechovierto, the regal widow of a descendant of Jose Antonio Sierra, the barrel maker who founded the bodega against long odds in 1832. Even back then, the sherry industry was dominated by aristocratic families, whose attitudes towards a barrel-maker joining their ranks is depicted in the bodegas logo: Sierra is shown as a hare escaping ahead of mounted horsemen with dogs.

Today the tiny bodega is principally managed by Ana Cabestrero, who by all appearances maintains the feisty, individualist spirit of the bodega's founder. Originally from a winemaking family in the Ribera del Duero, she took over cellarmaster duties from the bodega's longtime capitaz Juan Clavijo in 2011. Spritely, welcoming, and energetic, Cabestrero cuts an inspiring figure. Touring the historic bodega, which still contains some of the Maestro Sierra's original casks, she relayed to us the enormity of her task: to ensure the painstaking sustenance of some of the region's most illustrious and well-conserved soleras.

11 December 2014

le fooding, and other howlers

I take it as a given that I am not part of a target audience for Le Fooding, the French culinary media outlet. If Le Fooding were principally after my clicks, and those of other Anglophones, the name Le Fooding would of course never have been chosen, for in English it sounds unappetizingly like something Jabba the Hutt would demand of his chained servants.*

The publication's name is a mongrel French pun composed of two adopted English words, 'food' and 'feeling,' which I need hardly explain are not as sonically compatible to Anglophone ears. But the French, whose language lacks gerunds, find the "-ing" suffix very exotic, and tend to use it in curious ways. (Cf. 'shampooing,' a noun in French, and my personal favorite monstrosity, 'relooking,' another noun, signifying a makeover.) French is a rather more rigid language than English, and when considered on the level of the individual, I find the free-spirited, fingerpainty way the French employ English grammatical forms to be an inspired form of resistance : a supplementary lexicon not governed by the Academie Française.

In certain cases, however - particularly when mangled English is used in advertisements and other corporate discourse - I can't help feeling it bespeaks a certain myopic pomposity. For such usage necessarily contains one or both of the following assumptions: a) that no one to whom the language will sound strange will ever read it, and b) that it won't matter if they do. Both assumptions betray a rather dim awareness of the nature of the new media environment, not to mention a sloppiness with meaning that is unbecoming of any service that purports to transmit information. All this is on glorious, spell-binding display in Le Fooding's recently launched English version of its website, in the production of which, it seems safe to assume, no native Anglophones were consulted. Word salad? Word soup? Feast away, it's all there.

09 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: bodegas césar florido, chipiona

I think I know what was going through the Native Companion's mind when she booked us a hotel in Chipiona on our first visit to Andalusia. She likes the beach, and she probably assumed it would be nicer to be 'off the beaten path,' as it were, rather than directly in the sherry town of Sanlucar.

The problem with this reasoning, it turns out, is that Sanlucar, and indeed the whole region, is already rather 'off the beaten path.' If you try to get further out, you wind up conversing with cacti in a ghost town, which is how we spent much of our time in Chipiona. Alone on the beaches, alone on café terraces, alone in the halls of our creepy hotel, surrounded by oil paintings of freshly-killed chickens... The town's geographical proximity to Sanlucar belies its wildly divergent fate vis-à-vis wine production. Chipiona's sandy soils are known for the production of Moscatel, a fortified sweet wine, for which global demand hovers just above nil. Production has dwindled to the extent that Chipiona is now home to just two bodegas, only one of which, Bodegas César Florido, sells any wine for export.

The upswing to all this is that that bodega's current winemaker, César Florido, grandson of the founder, is among the most welcoming personalities in the region. He has a mayoral mien and an infectious enthusiasm for the winemaking tradition he helps to sustain. If he carries on like the fate of the town's wine heritage is on his shoulders, it's because in some sense it is.

04 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: la taberna der guerrita, sanlucar

By way of introducing a series of posts about sherry and various visits to Andalusia, I thought I'd relay a conversation I recently had with a respected wine journalist friend from New York.

"Are you into sherry?" I asked. (We were on a long car ride.)

He wasn't not into sherry, he said. But, having done the same initial research most wine guys do, he found he subsequently almost never encountered anything new of interest from the region. "I'm sick of Brooklyn bartenders incorrectly explaining what Oloroso is," he added.

After three visits to the region over the course of the past year and a half, I could empathise. Sherry is, as Churchill said of Russian statecraft, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Reading Peter Liem and Jésus Barquin's splendid book on the subject gets you only so far - just inside the outer enigma of a wine whose potential often seems as ill-understood by its producers as it is by its consumers. Even in the sherry towns themselves, one rarely lays eyes on the obscure bottlings about which Liem and Barquin write so inspiringly. Most local bars and restaurants offer a what amounts to a modest elaboration of the Jerez airport's Duty-Free.

This is why it's such a relief to return to La Taberna der Guerrita, foward-thinking sherry dealer Armando Guerra's rustic and unassuming Sanlucar tapas bar, which houses, inside a surprisingly space-age rear tasting room, a scintillating selection of rare and unusual bottles. A chat with Guerra - particularly after a long day shuffling along the town's semi-deserted cobblestones encountering nothing but mosto signs - is enough to restore hope for the region's future relevance.

01 December 2014

killer instinct: the beast, 75003

Barbecue, arguably, is for Americans what wine is for the French.  What the subjects share is a dialectical emphasis on local cultural tradition, to a degree that handily surpasses that of, say, the New World wine industry. So perhaps it should be no surprise that Thomas Abramowicz, the young French barbecue afficionado behind hype-scorched new Parisian BBQ establishment The Beast, displays a masterful command of the finer regional nuances of barbeque: things like the provenance and flavour difference of the oak and pecan wood used in the Central Texas-style he prefers; or the origins of the sweeter, more pork-based Kansas-style. I knew none of this before the round of Wild Turkey we shared at the close of my meal at the Beast. 

While billing itself as a bourbon destination, The Beast also maintains a tight, inexpensive natural wine list, one that is surprisingly au courant, given the context. For The Beast is a laser-sighted populist commercial endeavor, replete with graphics package and a catchy koan-esque slogan. ('Meat. Fire. Time.') 

Yet the cool wine list and The Beast as whole leave me torn. The restaurant's mass appeal and commercial savvy seem to be in latent contradiction with its small size. Success seems predicated upon rapid table turnover and massive takeout business, neither of which phenomena have much precedent in Paris, a city congested in perpetuity with inveterate table-squatters. So I wonder how the restaurant will thrive without either drastically raising check averages or relocating to a larger premises. In both cases, the experience would change entirely. Hence my ambivalence about The Beast. In its current state, it is among Paris' best new restaurants. But reviewing the place is like being given a cute baby tiger and asked whether you'd like to keep it.