30 July 2014
My friend M is a Vietnamese chef in New York. A year ago I was encouraging him to open a restaurant in Paris. Just think, I beamed. Natural wine and Vietnamese food ! It's never been done ! Moreover, such a restaurant would perform the conceptual two-step necessary in contemporary Paris to appeal both to Parisians, who hunger for novel, non-Parisian things, and visitors, for whom all things Parisian are novel. For an unintended consequence of France's imperialist adventures in Asia is that, a century and a half later, it seems plausible that Paris would contain excellent Vietnamese food.
Aux Deux Cygnes, a well-appointed dollhouse of a wine bar on rue Keller opened three months ago by polyvalent young French-Vietnamese restaurant professional To Xuan Cuny, is not a destination for excellent Vietnamese food. Instead it's a very personal effort, a synthesis of Cuny's influences, to which world-historical forces are mostly incidental. Even the bar's elegant name is simply a play on words, a French translation of the common Danish mispronunciation of Cuny's first name. ('Two swans.') The Vietnamese angle largely stops with the bar's somewhat bread-driven bánh mì. So there's still room for my old friend M in Paris.
If Aux Deux Cygnes, with its tiny snack menu and appreciably offbeat, southern-focused wine list, nonetheless feels rather new, it's because Cuny herself represents an inroad of Michelin-trained hospitality experience to the historically scruffier field of natural wine in Paris.
23 July 2014
I thought it would be bigger news when late last year Inaki Aizpitarte opened a shoebox-sized wine shop between Le Chateaubriand and Le Dauphin. Instead, outside of a few blurbs in the French press, it was basically a non-event. Curiously, and rather appealingly, this seems to have been intentional.
You have the shop's almost Google-proof name, Le Cave, a French pun* that doesn't scan in English. You have the shop's quixotic concept, which is to offer exclusively non-French natural wines. You have the fact that food is sold to-go, but no food is available for consumption on premises - not a cheese rind, not the barest sliver of charcuterie. Yet a rotating cast of the shop's exotic, borderline faddish wines are available by the glass.
What does Le Cave offer that could possibly make it a destination ? Nothing. And I imagine this suits the Chateaubriand group fine, since their two adjacent restaurants already have enough overflow to require the services of a waiting room, which is Le Cave's primary function. Happily, staffing what could easily have been a lean mean man cave is a razor-sharp lady called Beatrice, who, seemingly alone in the restaurant group, has serious hospitality skills. And so Le Cave becomes, despite itself, a low-key weeknight destination, one which I prefer to both restaurants.
21 July 2014
I was sitting at Le Bist'Roch in Nuits the other afternoon with my friend R when he brought my attention to a photo of a nude man posted above the bar. "Hey," I said. "That looks a lot like Devendra Banhart posing nude with a three-litre bottle of red wine."
Le Bist'Roch is not the sort of place where one expects to see nude photos of freak-folk singers. It's a hardscrabble natural wine joint attached to legendary natural Burgundy domaine Prieuré Roch. The other table that afternoon was a group of fearsomely wasted rural bachelor partiers who had been drinking since the previous evening. (We'd seen them earlier that morning in Beaune. The groom-to-be was dressed as a gigantic penis.)
Indeed, the picture turned out not to be Devendra Banhart. It was simply a harvester at Domaine Marcel Lapierre who had participated in the photography project of a fellow harvester, a calendar of various harvesters posing nude with grapes and wine paraphernalia. "It's more fun when it's a month with a girl posing," explained Totor, the Bist'Roch's manager, handing us the calendar.
18 July 2014
Despite my enthusiasm for the Yonne town of Vézelay, I had, until a few weeks ago, still yet to pay a visit to La Soeur Cadette and Jean Montanet, the area's lone excellent winemaker. He just never seemed to be home when I was in town. After two stays in Saint-Père on separate bikes trip last summer, it had become a source of mild embarrassment.
A recent visit from my parents gave me the occasion to rectify the situation. The Native Companion and I organised a family trip and the first order of business, before even booking our regular chambre d'hôte, was to see if Jean Montanet was around. For as much as I adore Vézelay's basilica and nearby natural wine bistrot Le Bougaineville with its heavenly cheese cart, it's still the luminescent Chardonnays, violetty Pinot Noirs, and mineral Melon of La Soeur Cadette that put the town on the map.
10 July 2014
Bad restaurants, like the proverbial Tolstoyan unhappy family, may be awful in an infinity of ways. We dislike them accordingly. But how we truly hate restaurants is largely divisible into two categories. There is personal emnity: because the ownership or a key staff member has done you grievously wrong. Then there is impersonal emnity: because you sense that the establishment targets a clientele whose tastes you question, whose influence, you suspect, is ultimately deleterious to a culture you value.
My friend and colleague Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth hated Restaurant Lazare in the latter way, which is probably the only way to hate an overpriced 110-seat fortress of a bistrot installed in a wall of Gare Saint Lazare. Pioneering bistronomy chef Eric Frechon is surely not there himself, peeling onions. The staff are replaceable hotelier school grads, so predictable you can't even resent their inattentiveness. What I think Meg resented, rather, was the restaurant's perceived culture of wealth-fluffing and preferential treatment, of stout bankers gorging themselves on guinea hens before boarding first-class cars and careening off to houses in Honfleur for the weekend.
As a fellow writer, with no quantifiable skills and no discernable route to fortune in my future, I hate these (possibly imaginary) people too. And I recognise that Lazare exists for them, while the plebs wait in hundred meter lines for Burger King on another floor of the station. That Lazare thrives is in itself a Pikettian sign of increasing income stratification. So it's with a kind of melancholy that I admit I don't hate Lazare; that I find the place quite useful; that it constitutes a perk of city life I wish I could enjoy more often.
08 July 2014
I'm a bit late in discussing the tsunami of twee Japanese concepts that arrived on my doorstep in the 9ème over the course of last year.
I like Japanese cuisine as much as anyone - indeed, I assume I'm genetically inclined towards it - and Ito Izakaya, Peco Peco, and Tsubame all make a point of serving natural and organic wines, which, until recently, have functioned as a useful indicator of conscious restaurateurism in Paris and beyond.
But these restaurant openings mark the discomfiting moment that a natural-by-numbers wine list became a feature of contemporary Parisian décor, like Tsubame's blackboard, or the hideous scratchy DIY cardboard table in Ito's rear room. Within the context of a Japanese restaurant in Paris, a natural-by-numbers wine list is, perversely, a sign of inauthenticity, an indicator that one is sitting in a Parisian Japanese concept, rather than an unselfconscious Japanese restaurant. Whether there is really anything wrong with that will depend on the rigor of one's aesthetic demands, and whether it is lunchtime.