29 April 2014

worth the wait: le servan, 75011

Two observations on restaurant service, following a meal at Le Servan, the spiffing new restaurant on rue Saint Maur by the charming and demure Levha sisters, Tatiana and Katia.

One is that I much prefer the ambiance in restaurants run by women. Natural wine bistrots have for too long been the province of grouchy old men and churlish young guns more attentive to their facial hair than to guests. With Haruka Casters' 6036, Jane Drotter's newly revamped Yard Restaurant, and now Le Servan, diners of the 11ème arrondissement are treated to a preview of what I sincerely hope will become the preferred service standard citywide. Service at Le Servan is unfailingly good-natured; staff are happy to share Tatiana's subtly Asian-inflected cuisine and Katia's boutique natural wine list.

The other observation is that a terrific meal at a restaurant, like a certain other very enjoyable act, can turn unpleasant if it goes on too long. At a certain point, it doesn't matter how seductive the appetisers are, nor how climactic the main courses might be. Even at the most promising of restaurants, when an hour passes between courses, friction occurs.

24 April 2014

sancerre bike trip: sebastien riffault, sury-en-vaux

Twenty minutes into our bike trip around Sancerre last July, as we wended south along the left bank of the Loire, the rear innertube of the Native Companion's bike blew itself to shreds. It had been the one thing I'd asked some bike shop scheisters near Sentier to fix, but in their enthusiasm to bilk me for a thousand other tune-ups and grip replacements, they had apparently forgotten my original request. The back tire had a hole, macgivered with a piece of leather, through which the innertube had become exposed.

We had to postpone our rendezvous with Chavignol legend François Cotat, whose wife was extremely helpful in suggesting places nearby that might stock innertubes. We found one at a motorcycle supply shop a few miles up the road. The shop was permanently closed, but its owner was constructing an amateur Museum of Antique Bicycles in the shed space, and he happened to have a stock of innertubes out back. No tires, though, so the hole remained precarious, with just an unfixed piece of leather between us and further rural hassle.

It was also swelteringly hot, and in my inexperience I took us on a laughably circuitous route up and down the insane inclines of Sury-En-Vaux to the domaine that had become our first appointment, that of natural winemaker Sebastien Riffault. I say all this to explain why the winemaker arrived in his car to see us cheering and doing donuts in his driveway. We had survived! I don't mean it as faint praise if I say we appreciated the ice cold water Riffault gave us almost as much as his deep, wizardly Sancerres.

21 April 2014

flock here: the green goose, 75011

It goes without saying that Irish culture doesn't lack for originality or regional nuance. But a history of economic subjugation and misfortune has resulted in narrowly controlled industries of some of Ireland's most famous products, like whiskey and stout.  The virtual monopolies of Guinness-Diageo (Guinness, Bushmills) and Pernod-Ricard (Jameson, Power's, Paddy's, Green Spot, Redbreast...) in these markets enforce a sameness in Irish pubs. For evidence, look no further than the template for potential pub owners called the Irish Pub Concept, codified by Guinness Brewing Co. in 1992 and still in circulation today.

Given the structure of the industry, I consider the opening of an original, characterful Irish pub anywhere a relatively courageous act.

To open one in Paris, a desert of decent pints, as Kieran Loughney has just done with his 11ème arrondissement gastro-pub The Green Goose, is almost heroic. There's not a Guinness or a shamrock in sight in the lovingly recreated Dublin-style wooden space. Instead he offers, every day of the week, a solid pub menu, every insanely underrated O'Hara's beer on tap, and the inimitably frank hospitality of a proper Irish pub.

15 April 2014

return to sender: blue valentine, 75011

At the restaurant I used to manage in Los Angeles, we had an amusing problem. One of the owners was friends with R.E.M., and accordingly that band featured heavily on the mandated nightly playlist. But the members of R.E.M. came into the restaurant relatively often. Whenever we got wind of their arrival, we had to be absolutely sure to switch to a non-R.E.M. playlist, to avoid the cosmic embarrassment that would ensue if the band walked in while their own songs were playing. In such a circumstance (for it did indeed occur once or twice) the entire restaurant comes off looking like the guy wearing the band's t-shirt to the concert.

So, what if you've named your restaurant after a classic Tom Waits song, and then you play Tom Waits all the time in your restaurant? This is lame before Tom Waits even sets foot in the door.

Luckily for the owners of newish Republique restaurant Blue Valentine, that problem is easily fixed. Unfortunately, it's representative of the restaurant's entire concept, which is almost unsalvageable. Blue Valentine is a clumsy attempt to ride contemporary restaurant trends without understanding any of them. Cocktail service, a magnum-only, mostly natural wine list, rock music, and a market menu helmed by a Japanese chef. Woau! But it's like the owners were told about these elements cohering successfully in other restaurants, and then the owners gamely tried to replicate the blend themselves, without first examining any other restaurants.* The result is a pitifully inauthentic experience, one of the most embarrassing meals I've had in years. I felt like the intended target of seduction by a college freshman.

11 April 2014

worlds collide: les trois 8, 75020

One day I'm going to walk into Le Meurice and stand for an hour on one foot. Then I'll bow and the press will take photos and I'll go down in history, because that is how easy it is, in a restaurant in Paris, to do something no one has ever done before.

Take, for example, the recently revamped Menilmontant hideaway Les Trois 8. It's primary innovation - which, all irony aside, deserves huge applause - is to offer, alongside its focus on excellent craft beers on draft, a modest list of solid natural wines.

So what if covering both these bases in de rigeur for every dive bar from Green Point to Red Hook ? In Paris, worlds are colliding. At Les Trois 8, the gnomish subculture of French micro-brewing is emerging into the light of a versatile night out, and encountering such strange, fantastical creatures as celiacs, women, and wine geeks.

07 April 2014

from the ground up: yard, 75011

A few weeks ago I organised a hilarious and, thankfully, thereafter utterly unrepresentative meal for a visiting friend at Père Lachaise bistrot Yard. I hadn't been to the restaurant, but had heard about it for years and thought why not. Unfortunately for my friend, who idolizes the strenuous "modernist" cuisine of the likes of Inaki Aizpitarte, Yard was between chefs. We later learned that owner Jane Drotter had been in the kitchen that night, winging it.

All at the table agreed that it was like not even eating at a restaurant. It was like dining in the countryside at the house of a French friend's mother who had never been to restaurants. We fled to Clamato for a second dinner to remind ourselves what food with flavor tasted like, and my friends learned never again to trust me for a restaurant recommendation.

As usual, I was just ahead of my time. Not a week later, I learned that Shaun Kelly, ex-chef of Au Passage, and Eleni Sapera, ex-cook at Bones, were taking over kitchen duties at Yard, instantly rendering it a destination. So my friends and I returned on Friday for an entirely different register of meal. It was a testament both to how much Drotter got right with Yard in the first place, and to the transformative power of a certain circle of young foreign chefs in Paris