29 December 2015
Gentrification in Paris seems to happen with the handbrake on. There ought to be a different word for it, one with less negative connotations. Our sympathy for displaced bodegas and barber shops derives largely from the catastrophic swiftness with which their rents get jacked or their clients disappear. Whereas in Paris' handful of perpetually mid-gentrification neighborhoods - Belleville, Ménilmontant, Montreuil, Charonne, Pigalle, and so on - fate takes its time. If one lives and works and searches for decent coffee in these neighborhoods, change can seem damnably imperceptible.
The pork-bun menagerie of Belleville showed new colours last year, however, with the opening of an ambitious wine shop and wine bar,* La Cave de Belleville. The project of three friends from the neighborhood, François Braouezec, Aline Geller, and Thomas Perlmutter - a pharmacist, a gallerist, and a sound engineer, respectively - Le Cave de Belleville is an enthusiastic, accessible enterprise, offering an épicerie counter, a blitheringly large wine selection, and light apéro snacks every day of the week.
I pass by the storefront often. I almost entered once in summertime but was put off by the heat, a disaster for a caviste.** I finally visited for an apéro this December. Almost everything was bad, but I would still return, and would encourage others to do the same. Good wines is in stock, and amid the overall mediocrity sparkles real promise.
16 December 2015
|Paul-Henri Thillardon in the vines he rents from Château Les Boccards.|
After graduating with a BTS viti-oeno from the Lycée Bel-Air, Paul-Henri says his initial, outmoded goal was to make all ten crus. Much has changed since he founded the domaine in 2008. "We even used select yeast, our first year," he says. "Because I didn't know how to make natural wine, I'd never seen it in my life, and I'd never drunk it."
Then in 2009 he met Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive, a lynchpin of the Fleurie natural winemaking scene who himself had just attained organic certification for his own domaine. "He was the most open," says Paul-Henri, citing Dutraive as introducing him to the aesthetics of natural Beaujolais. "From there I met Julie Balagny, and everyone else." Gradually, as his domaine has grown to its present 12ha, Paul-Henri's winemaking has aligned with those of his mentors. 2015 is the first year he's aimed for long, cool semi-carbonic macerations, refrigerating the harvest for the first time, and vinifying entirely whole-cluster.
01 December 2015
The most famous man in Beaujolais is not who you might think. His wines remain under-acknowledged on the market, but in terms of sheer physical presence in the region - in vineyards, at other domaines, at the cafés of Villié-Morgon and Fleurie - no one compares with
Domaine de Prion's Sylvain Chanudet: his tousled iron hair, NBA frame, and impish grin could be a trademark for the region.
His ubiquity is partly attributable to his side business, a nursery in nearby Drancy that supplies many of the region's natural winemakers (among many others) with massal selection vine grafts. It is literally his business to know other winemakers and remain aware of their vineyard conditions.*
But Chanudet, like his friend Jean-Louis Dutraive, also clearly relishes the Beaujolais community. Very few know it better. From the purebred terroir of his own high, steep parcels, Chanudet creates muscular, unfiltered wines that often belie the cliché of his cru's femininity. Recent years have seen a refinement of his style, one that I expect to accelerate since the domaine, formerly run jointly, was separated between him and his brother Christian in 2014. But among Sylvain Chanudet's eccentricities is a devil-may-care attitude towards his commercial calendar. He releases the wines when he feels they're finished, not before. When I visited after harvest this year, he'd just bottled the 2012's and 2013's.
26 November 2015
As we toured Brouilly vigneron Patrick Cotton's gently tumescent, unsloped vineyards in Saint-Lager, I remarked that one parcel seemed to be missing a great deal of vines. The vines didn't look that old, either.
Cotton, who goes by the inexplicable nickname of "Jo," confirmed they weren't exceptionally old vines. His father had planted them not long before he retired. The fungal disease esca had subsequently killed some of the vines. But Cotton, like his father before him, doesn't own his vines. He works under métayage, a system wherein rent is paid to a vineyard's owner in the form of a percentage of the year's wine. Under métayage, Cotton explained, the vineyard owner is meant to cover costs of replanting... Here he trailed off, for reasons that became clear later.
Cotton is the brother of Guy Gotton, of Côte de Brouilly's Domaine Sanvers et Cotton, and the uncle of Guy's winemaker son Pierre. Patrick came to winemaking somewhat later in life than those two, following a visit, in 1985, to an amusingly opinionated acupuncturist.
02 November 2015
I can think of few better indicators of the stratospheric potential of cru Beaujolais terroir than the nascent career of young Odenas winemaker Pierre Cotton. He returned from his studies to the famile estate, Domaine Sanvers et Cotton, in 2012, and commercialised his first wine under his own name in 2014: an unsulfured unfiltered Côte de Brouilly he dubbed "100% Cotton."
I first tasted it over lunch at Le Relais des Caveaux in Villié-Morgon just before harvest began. I could only shake my head in wonder. The wine is a screaming success, an instant benchmark for the appellation - impeccably balanced, but retaining a certain voluptuousness, with a mineral foundation and iris notes amid its finely-etched dark-cherry fruit. How on earth ?
I met Cotton for the first time a few days later, when he passed by the Métras cuvage around apéro hour. His bearishness and gnarly white and blue motorcycle belie his soft-spoken, modest demeanor - the sort of quite-tall fellow whose height one tends to underestimate. He gives little outward indication of being one of the region's most promising young natural vignerons.
26 October 2015
Living in Beaujolais for the past few months has revealed myriad semi-unknown regional charms. What it has not revealed are many good restaurants. The winemakers I know are kind of sho-ga-nai about the situation, aware that they themselves rarely patronise their rather dire local restaurants.
Most villages have a bar and a restaurant, or one establishment serving as both, pitched at the lowest price range possible for the business to remain viable. (In Beaujolais this is, strangely, still not that cheap. I often dine for the same prices in Paris' better-value restaurants.) In some villages, there persist Michelin-style establishments, but they are perpetually empty-ish, seemingly dependent on the birthdays and anniversaries of the elderly, and on what trickle of Belgian and Dutch tourism still remains. Tourism overall has been in decline since the 1990's, and the corresponding stagnation in the average Beaujolais citizen's income, coupled with the eminent availability of large kitchens in private homes and the laudable persistence of culinary know-how among families, means that the natives simply don't dine out much.
Atop the Col de Truges, however, on the border between high Morgon and Chiroubles, there sits a dowdy auberge whose unadorned Beaujolaise cuisine has remained constant, and consistently excellent, throughout the region's changing fortunes.
15 October 2015
Before I met Julie Balagny in early August, I had presumed she was the reclusive type. I don't know where I got this idea.
It may have been her former association with Fleurie vigneron Yvon Métras, a genuine reclusive type. Or because her stand at the Bien Boire en Beaujolais tasting this past April went mostly unmanned, from what I could tell. It may have been that I unconsciously projected onto Balagny herself the rarity and relative costliness of her daringly pure, soulful Fleurie wines, which in Paris can only be found at Les Caves du Panthéon, La Cave des Papilles, and occasionally Le Verre Volé.
In any event, I couldn't have been more wrong. Balagny has proved to be among the most enthusiastic and welcoming figures I've met during my time in Beaujolais. To a large degree I owe to her the fact I'm even here, for she very kindly put in touch with my present landlady in Lancié. In a heavily factionalized region where many great winemakers are press-averse to the point of paranoia, Balagny is an exceptional case. A Parisian who made wine in the Southwest and Provence before moving to Beaujolais in February 2009, she can sympathise with the difficulties of a newcomer, because she herself went through them.
08 October 2015
Most wine regions have a colourful word for the traditional end-of-harvest party. In Burgundy it's la paulée. In the Aube it's le chien. In Beaujolais it's called la revole. Chez Yvon Métras la revole this year resembled an unending apéro, punctuated by bouts of pétanque and attended by a wide cast of friends and neighbors. Having harvested sixteen days straight with a string of different domaines, I was in less than sterling form for la revole. At one point I just conked out and scootered home to take a nap, only to return and continue drinking two hours later.
I must have felt particularly well-rested, because upon return I found myself cheerfully agreeing to harvest yet again the following day. Laure Foillard and her friends - many of them, like her, winemakers' daughters - invited me to help harvest ten bennes or so of what would become "La Cuvée des Copines."
Laure explained that it was a project they'd begun the previous year, when they harvested an untended parcel of vines and vinified it with help from their families. The results were bottled and divided up for personal consumption among the numerous participating copines - Poline, Ophélie, Camille, Alexia, Inès, Elisa, etc. This year the copines had their sights on a steep, neglected parcel of Chiroubles belonging to Elisa's family. Sounds like fun, I said. But if I harvest with the copines, do I have to dress up like a woman?
29 September 2015
There was a man hanging around in the driveway when my friends and I showed up on bicycles for a rendezvous with Morgon-based winemaker Georges Descombes back in April. We parked the bikes and tried phoning Descombes, who didn't pick up. The man wandered over, regarding his own cell phone, whereupon I recognized him as renowned Loire winemaker Pierre Breton, with whom we had evidently been double-booked.
It was a stroke of luck for us. Descombes zoomed into the driveway in short order, and in addition to a generous tasting of his celebrated array of Beaujolais, my friends and I were able to enjoy the perceptive commentary of two masterful winemakers, whose mutual appreciation was itself a pleasure to observe. It turns out it was Breton's first time visiting Le Noune, too. (I have yet to discern the precise origin of Descombes' nickname, which is among the most colourful in a region of colourful nicknames.)
26 September 2015
I moved to Beaujolais in mid-August to research a book I hope to write on the region's wines. I bought a 50cc scooter to get around on and I rented an apartment in Lancié, between the cru villages of Villié-Morgon and Fleurie. The uncharacteristically long blog silence this past month was on account of harvest time.
I had initially planned to harvest with just one domaine, Yvon Métras in Fleurie. Métras harvests quite late, however - we began on Sept. 3rd this year (early by historical standards, but late for 2015 in Beaujolais). By late August I'd realised that since I didn't need lodging, most other winemakers didn't mind if I put in just a day or two of work here and there with their harvest teams before commencing chez Métras.
This is how I wound up harvesting sixteen days straight with the following winemakers: Gilles Paris (Chiroubles), Jean-Paul Thévenet (Villié-Morgon), Jean-Louis Dutraive (Fleurie), Guy Breton (Villié-Morgon), and finally Yvon and Jules Métras (Fleurie). This isn't counting several subsequent mornings and afternoons spent harvesting various experimental micro-cuvées for these and other winemakers, which stories I'll relegate to future blog posts. What follows for now is sort of a harvest data-dump, a series of images and observations that I hope will transmit some of the flavour of the experience.
17 August 2015
Upon arriving in Paris, one can take pleasure in almost any characterful feature of the city, regardless of fame or exclusivity. For six years the bins of Chinese vegetables in Belleville and the hair-weave tumbleweed around Barbés fascinated me more than the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay. But conversely, as earlier this summer I prepared to leave Paris, I found myself drawn to the old, uncurious Paris, and establishments such as Le Dôme Café, the historic Montparnasse seafood brasserie whose iconic fame and ludicrous price point had heretofore completely repelled me.
What changed? I guess I just didn't want to leave the city with the nagging doubt that, in my peregrinations around rive droite wine bars, I was merely nibbling at the edges of what the city had to offer its wealthier diners.
Moreover, the Native Companion was leaving the city too, headed for a different destination. I thought I would mark the unbearably sad occasion by a kind of financial suicide, blowing memorable amounts of euros at Le Dôme on fresh fish, François Côtat Sancerre, and cinematic décor - all the accoutrements of turgid, laurel-resting Paris that, in our time together there, we'd been doing our best to ignore.
11 August 2015
To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad. - Jack Handey
My distrust of Ewan Lemoigne and chef Sven Chartier's work goes back to the time Lemoigne botched my reservation at Saturne. Had Lemoigne handled the situation with any decency, I would've simply returned some other time. As it was, I didn't return to Saturne for over three years, until a magazine paid for my lunch there in March.
I just wanted no part of supporting such an inhospitable hospitality group. Until recently I was boycotting the Saturne duo's newer project, rue Amelot's Clown Bar, for the same reasons. Friends in the Paris restaurant scene, in efforts to persuade me to try Clown Bar chef Astumi Sota's lauded cuisine, would invariably arrive at the phrase, "But Ewan's not even there!"* I wouldn't budge, preferring instead to support nicer people at neighboring places like Repaire de Cartouche, Au Passage, Pas de Loup, Aux Deux Amis, and Le Tagine.
But hell, time passes. I'm about to leave Paris for a few months and I'd like to leave all grudges behind. Lunch at Saturne was excellent in March: I left utterly convinced of Sven Chartier's talents. And despite my differences with Lemoigne, I can certainly applaud the wine list he assembled at Saturne, which ranks among the city's best. Clown Bar, for its part, is a worthy addition to Paris' dining scene, offering an unmistakably upmarket experience of fine cuisine and natural wines in a pleasantly versatile format: small plates, Sunday service, a big terrace, a bar. True, it's more expensive than all its stylistic peers. But Paris has an under-served constituency who want that.
23 July 2015
The other evening I had the occasion to follow up on a surprising recommendation I'd received in March from Guardian wine columnist Fiona Beckett, who had turned up what sounded like a splendid wine bar in the least likely place of all: mere paces from luxury department store Le Bon Marché. This is deep, gerontocratic Paris, home to those Parisians whose wealth and social stability have largely spared them from meaningful interaction with the contemporary era, let alone any re-examination of their drinking habits.
I adore this neighborhood, naturally. But, save for the splendid Café Trama up the road, it's until now been very hard to find anything to drink there.
So newcomer natural-wine cave-à-manger Sauvage, when it opened in February on rue de Cherche-Midi, needed merely to exist to qualify as groundbreaking. Bare-bones, boxy, and cheerful, Sauvage resembles a small-town Scandinavian coffee shop. But owner Sebastien Leroy outdoes himself with a surprisingly uncompromising natural wine selection, and an improvisational menu that grasps beyond the usual cheese and charcuterie to include - at least on the night I visited - a bright and vivid lobster salad.
20 July 2015
On a rainy morning in April, over some barrel samples of his and his son's old vine Morgon and Régnié (respectively), I mentioned to Jean-Paul Thévenet that I was planning a book project about the wines of Beaujolais. Like many winemakers I spoke to, he was encouraging, but not without certain qualifications.
"When we started making this type of wine, there were people who quite liked our wines, but who soon began telling us, this is good, and that’s not good, and it’s no good for us, to talk like that. There are people who work conventionally who work very well, and we ought to leave them the choice..."
Having worked for over three decades to encourage better viticultural and winemaking practices in his region, Thévenet is aware that progress is slow, where it occurs at all, and that the eager attention of a critic is likelier to inflame situations than improve them. Thévénet counsels patience.
"Little by little, the products are less noxious... There are a lot of people who begin to work a little more naturally. When we started to do this in 1985 - Marcel Lapierre a little before - we were often refused the appellation because [our wine] was marked atypical, not representative of the region. Meanwhile the old winegrowers told us that our wines were like the Morgon that was made fifty years ago."
09 July 2015
Young Fleurie-based winemaker Jules Métras released his first wine under his own name this year, a Beaujolais-Villages sourced from two parcels, one in Lancié, the other in La Chappelle de Guinchay. The latter parcel was formerly owned by Jules Chauvet. Jules Métras vinifies the wine in his father's cellar, an anonymous-looking, un-insulated concrete structure perched amid the Fleurie climat of Grille-Midi.
He makes the wine in much the same way his father does. The fruit, harvested relatively late, is cooled down before gentle, long, cool carbonic fermentation with natural yeasts in lidded cement vat. "It took eight or nine days to start fermentation, which is pretty long. At the end of five days I was going crazy," he says. "But my dad says, 'Noooo, don't worry.' He's never worried."
We taste the wine in April, not long before bottling. The nose is deep, redolent of crushed berry, and faintly roasty, although only older barrels are used in elevage. Its black-current fruit possesses the suavity and dark florals that made his father's wine legendary. Jules Métras titled the cuvée "Bijou," a bit of local youth slang whose popularity Métras credits to his friend and fellow Beaujolais scion Kéké Descombes. "Everytime he plowed a parcel, he'd send some photos and say 'Wow, it's bijou!' Meaning it's clean, magnificent. Now when we drink great wine, it's bijou. When a pretty girl passes, she's bijou."
08 July 2015
|Jordan Mackay. Someone get this man a glass of Métras.|
I write now and then for an NYC-based website called PUNCH, whose stated purpose is to explore the culture surrounding wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages. It's a publication of Ten Speed Press, itself a subsidiary of Random House. I hope the site and its parent companies will forgive me in advance for publicly taking issue with a deeply misinformative piece recently published in PUNCH by San Francisco Magazine wine writer Jordan Mackay.
Entitled "Beyond Carbonic: A New Era in Beaujolais," the piece alerts readers to an ostensibly new trend in Beaujolais winemaking, Burgundian fermentation with de-stemming and pigeage, i.e. not the region's traditional carbonic maceration. This is not, not even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, "a new era." Mackay inadvertently acknowledges as much in the piece itself, citing Chateau du Moulin-à-Vent (established: 1732) as among the practitioners. Jean-Paul Brun, the other key example Mackay cites in the piece, founded his domaine in 1979, and has long been imported to the US. The producers Mackay cites, it bears mentioning, are neither the region's leading lights, nor its youngest vanguard.
So, not news. Where Mackay goes harmfully off the rails is in ascribing all the faults of industrial Beaujolais Nouveau production circa-1980 to carbonic maceration. In one astonishingly wrongheaded paragraph, he manages to conflate the influence of Jules Chauvet with that of Georges Duboeuf.
02 July 2015
A common wine writing trope is to conclude that a wine resembles its maker in some way or another. Nowhere is this less applicable than in the wines of rising-star Beaujolais winemaker Rémi Dufaitre, whose production of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (among other wines) is distinguished by its elegance and finesse.
Rémi Dufaitre himself is more direct, an endearing trait, from certain angles. When I arrived at his domaine in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières, roughly where the Brouilly appellation meets Beaujolais-Villages, he lost no time asking me upfront about my blog traffic. When I introduced my bike trip companion N, a novelist, Rémi, without missing a beat, asked, "How many books did you sell?"
The no-bullshit approach, in this case, reflects the confidence of a young winemaker who enjoys broad support among his forebears in the region. Originally from Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne, Dufaitre has known since birth his friend and Brouilly neighbor Jean-Claude Lapalu. Influential Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive is Dufaitre's cousin. And while Dufaitre and his wife Laurence only began bottling their own wines in 2010, their work soon attracted the attention of Villié-Morgon legend Jean Foillard, who has said he considers Dufaitre among the best of the younger generation of Beaujolais winemakers. Who cares if he possesses the combative, ball-breaking temperament of a mob enforcer, when the wines are this good?
25 June 2015
Jean-Claude Lapalu occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of contemporary Beaujolais. The son and grandson of winegrowers, he began bottling his own wines relatively late, at age 35. It was 1996. "I'm an intermediary," he acknowledges, "between the generation of Max Breton, who started before me, and the young generation today."
Our visit had been arranged Lapalu's good friend Rémi Dufaitre, a talented young winemaker twenty years his junior, who was hosting us that night in the neighboring town. Despite their age difference, Lapalu and Dufaitre share an easy rapport. Dropping us off chez Lapalu, Dufaitre asked his friend to "throw us back" to Dufaitre's place when we were through tasting. We asked if that was normal rural slang. Lapalu just laughed. "It's just Rémi being Rémi."
Lucky for us, Lapalu was in an expansive mood on the day we visited. Our tasting went long. A born raconteur, he's among the rare great vignerons whose verbal expressivity is a match for that of his wines.
15 June 2015
As diners and critics, we're willing to discern greater depths in a chef's plates if he or she has led a swashbuckling lifestyle, or at least can be presented to us as having witnessed the mysteries of foreign cultures. In contemporary Paris, the résumé spice du jour is "travel in Asia," a transcendant, cuisine-altering experience for chefs ranging from David Toutain to Saturne's Sven Chartier to Le Servan's Tatiana Levha. If, of that list, only Levha's cuisine shows any direct engagement with eastern cuisines, don't blame the chefs. Blame their publicists, and culinary media outlets.
Les Déserteurs, the upscale market-menu restaurant opened last year by chef Daniel Baratier and sommelier Alex Céret in the former Rino space on rue Trousseau, is, like its chef, deficient in narrative flair. The name is a witticism referring to the owners' former workplace, the untrendy Ile Saint Louis Michelin one-star Le Sergent Recruteur, a restaurant that I now read is in liquidation. When the joke passes, we're left with the following premise: Two Friendly French Guys Open Slightly Pricey Restaurant.
Diners will be forgiven for not leaping to book six-tops. I myself only went because they had a last minute table on a Saturday night, and I often work in the neighborhood. I was therefore caught entirely by surprise by the restaurant's outright excellence. From its pacing to its apportionment to its marvelous contents, a meal at Les Déserteurs is a tour de force of sensitivity, where the refined, vegetable-driven country cuisine is as nuanced and mature as the wine list.
11 June 2015
Some tasting appointments in Beaujolais are difficult to obtain because a given winemaker's work is so sought-after that he or she has no interest in cultivating new clientele. Securing a tasting with young fringe-natural winemaker Benoit Camus was difficult for something like the opposite reason. He has almost no commercial operation to speak of, instead selling his finished wines wholesale to a few négoçiants willing to sell it for him. He has practically no direct clientele at all, and next to nothing for visitors to taste.
Camus lives in the southern Beaujolais town of Cogny, a short drive from Villefranche-sur-Saône, the riverside town north of Lyon where I commenced a bicycle trip this past spring with two novelist friends. In our initial communications, I sensed it embarrassed him to receive visitors when he had almost no wine to show. He rather gallantly kept proposing we go see a winemaker friend of his further north instead, until at last accepting to have lunch together at his house in Cogny, rather than at his cellar in nearby Ville-sur-Jarnioux.
Ordinarily I would have taken his suggestion to visit elsewhere, but Camus was located right on our itinerary, and I'd been keen to meet him since tasting his wines in Paris. As it was, over the course of a very short tasting that turned into a jam session, we got a small peek into the life of a promising, eccentric winemaker at the semi-anonymous outset of his career.
05 June 2015
When I first wrote about Jane Drotter's splendid contemporary bistrot YARD in April 2014, I couldn't help expressing astonishment that some of the passing Père Lachaise locals found prices too high. "Stinting flintnosed cheapskates," I called them. YARD the restaurant was then and still remains one of the city's best deals, its prices calibrated more to the expectations of its far-flung quartier than to the skills of chef Nye Smith or the superior quality of his product.
Drotter, presumably as part of a grand strategy for domination of nightlife in the eastern 11ème, has now opened, beside her bustling bistrot, YARD Wine Bar, a cosy roomful of high tables and a wide terrace where she continues to indulge her clientele. The small-plate menu prices are lower than those of most soft beverage programs in the Marais.
It's worth noting, though, that Drotter's clientele has changed. Where once it consisted of whoever happened to live or work nearby, it now resembles a cross-section of the Paris fine restaurant crowd, which is to say, chiefly people who unhesitatingly order the whole menu twice and consume oceans of natural wine. This dynamic, one hopes, will sustain YARD Wine Bar's paradisiacal micro-scene for many summers to come.
02 June 2015
Everything about Entrée des Artistes Pigalle proprietors Fabien Lombardi and Edouard Vermynck's previous bar-à-manger on rue de Crussol evinced a stubborn, cloistered dedication to cool, which often superseded practical concerns. Each cocktail took up its own page on the finicky list. The wine selection was fearlessly obscure. Hospitality could feel a bit teenage. The music program consisted exclusively of canonical rap.
When I heard they were uprooting that original successful address in favour of a larger space in Pigalle, I worried it might be a case of two artistes fixing what wasn't broke. As the album work - as opposed to the early mixtapes - of an MC like Action Bronson attests, sometimes it's folly to polish an idea whose virtues lay in messy spontaneity.*
But it took no more than a footstep beyond the unassuming threshold of Entrée des Artistes Pigalle to realise I'd underestimated Lombardi and Vermynck's ambitions. The dazzling space is gilt-edged, multi-tiered, Escher-like, with two floors, each with its own bar, served by a kitchen perched on what is, in essence, a stair landing. Gone is the air of bedroom hero-worship that characterised the old address. Lombardi and Vermynck have done what a succession of better-financed Paris bars (Silencio, Le Perchoir) have so far failed to do: create a mature, transportive ambience of Parisian cool, un-derivative of other cities.
22 May 2015
Tucked among the fulsome green hills of Sagy-le-Haut is the cellar of Julien Guillot, the charming third-generation winemaker of biodynamic Mâconnais domaine Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Before returning to run the domaine in his late twenties, Guillot, who is of telegenic height and fresh-faced in his forties, had a career as an actor in France. He is conspicuously good at marketing his wines. Their prices in Paris and the US testify to this. His Bourgogne rouge "Cuvée Auguste" costs more than your average Marsannay.
What Clos des Vignes du Maynes' appellations lack in grandeur is made up for in the domaine's unimpeachable history and winemaking acumen. Julien's grandfather, Pierre Guillot, practiced a nascent version of organic viticulture ever since purchasing the domaine in 1954. Later, Julien's father Alain was instrumental in helping get the agriculture biologique (organic) logo approved by the French government in 1984. Julien, for his part, initiated the domaine's conversion to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. Upon hearing Guillot recount this in the anteroom of his cellar, my friend C posed a great question: "What did people in the region call 'organic' before 'organic' existed?"
Guillot grinned, and with the confidence that comes from having been right, replied, "Les conneries de Guillot," or 'Guillot's bullshit.'
18 May 2015
I credit former La Cave de l'Insolite proprietor Michel Moulherat for introducing me to natural wine. His wasn't the closest wine shop to my old apartment on a loud, leery intersection on rue Saint Maur. But it was the closest wine shop staffed by someone who was both well-informed and willing to share his knowledge. I'd often stop by on the way home from work - but never if I were in a hurry, because Moulherat's voluble, Irish-accented conversation and the bevy of bottles he invariably opened could quickly take up much of an evening.
Then a few years ago Moulherat sold La Cave de l'Insolite to some earnest young restaurateurs. He did a spell consulting on wine for fine restaurant wholesalers Terroirs d'Avenir. I don't know what else he did. He kinda fell off the map.
So I was delighted to learn recently that Moulherat is back in front-of-house these days, running the wine program at La Poudrière, a homey new natural wine bistrot and cave-à-manger tucked in a railway arch in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Where the hell is Issy-les-Moulineaux? the overwhelming majority of readers might reasonably ask. It's the southern terminus of the Métro line 12. There's a Museum of Playing Cards there, which I guess makes two reasons to visit, counting La Poudrière.
12 May 2015
Paris has streets that hide in plain sight - overlooked byways that, due to poor sun exposition or traffic redundancy, get circumvented by pedestrians. The forever-shaded length of rue de Chateau d'Eau north of République is one. Another is the Aligre-adjacent rue de Prague, the quiet side street where French culinary journalist Bruno Verjus opened his ambitious restaurant Table in 2013. Despite receiving praise from Verjus' fellow journalists, Table still has its namesakes available most nights, partly due to its discreet location.
Similarly, the Paris natural wine scene has certain esteemed personalities that seem to bend the limelight whenever it nears them, and disappear. Natural wine as we know it in Paris - and increasingly, worldwide - was shaped in its adolescence by the palates of low-key dégustateurs with zero flair for self-promotion: people like La Cave de l'Insolite's Michel Moulherat, now at Issy-les-Mouleaux's La Poudrière, or Olivier Camus, whose struggling Belleville restaurant Le Chapeau Melon is an abandoned goldmine of old bottles.
Another such quietly influential personage is Franck Carré, formerly of La Cave des Papilles and Café Trama. Four months ago Carré opened, in partnership with Bruno Verjus, Table à Côté, a cave-à-manger so discreet and uncommercial as to make one suspect wine sales are secondary to some private creative endeavor requiring office space. (Perhaps he is writing a novel?) Table à Côté seats six on rue de Prague's forgotten sidewalk, and a dozen more inside on a leaden communal table. The menu consists of generous portions of highly-pedigreed meats and cheeses. The only real draw is Carré himself, whose long experience is evident in a slender wine selection containing bottles to marvel the most jaded palate. The other night, for instance, he introduced me to the apotheosis of pineau d'aunis.
06 May 2015
So much has been written about Abruzzese winemaker Emidio Pepe's majestic montepulciani and the ethereal delicacy of his equally ageless trebbiani that I despair of the possibility of saying anything new. The wines are landmarks for the region, towering above everything else like the gnarled Apennine peaks through which one passes on the long car ride from Rome Fiumicino to Torano Nuovo.
Still, it remains for me to thank the Pepe family for inviting me to the latter town last November for the estate's 50th anniversary celebrations.
Rather than exhaust a reader with tasting notes of the dozens of vintages we sampled, I thought I'd just relay my own experiences with the estate's wines, in the hopes that by doing so I'll communicate something about their unique place within the pantheons of Italian wine, Abruzzese wine, and, nowadays, natural wine.
04 May 2015
On the surface, not much differentiates Pierre Gagnaire-trained chef Atsushi Tanaka's Restaurant A.T. from most staid Left Bank fine-dining. Its presentation is in thrall to Le Guide Michelin, from the boardroom lighting right down to the weighty, over-designed furniture. The format of Tanaka's 95€ tasting menu is in keeping with the exquisite tastes of a previous generation of diners.
But Tanaka has struck out on his own in two quietly revolutionary ways. Firstly, with his "wine-selector" Lulie Kaori Tanaka, he has embraced natural wine wholeheartedly, breaking ground not just for his otherwise arch-conservative restaurant style but also for his neighborhood. (Restaurant A.T.'s semi-anonymous storefront sits quietly in the shadow of La Tour d'Argent.)
More recently, Tanaka has, in one bold stroke, up-ended his concept by hiring explosively amusing sommelier David Benichou (ex-Ten Bells, ex-Vivant Table) to run an incongruously fun natural wine bar in his restaurant's heretofore underused cellar space. One effect has been to re-orient late-night drinking for the 5ème arrondissement, which hasn't had a decent watering hole since Curio Parlour closed a few years ago. But, more importantly, the opening of Bar à Vins A.T. demonstrates the newfound sense of freedom with which its owner and its habitués - a certain circle of influential young Japanese chefs - are changing their adoptive city.
20 April 2015
A friend who edits a fashion magazine once said to me, apropos of my blog, "I love it. But I never have any idea what you're talking about or whether you like a place. Could you just put a rating at the top or something?"
I've never been tempted to do this, because it would imply a hierarchical order to restaurant experiences that simply isn't there. I have however long been tempted to publish a running list of the Paris restaurants to which I find myself returning most often.*
In pride of place on this list, lately, is YARD, Jane Drotter's ever-evolving jewel of a bistrot by Père Lachaise. The cuisine used to be homey and neighborly under chef Fabrice Mellado. Then Australian chef Shaun Kelley arrived in spring of last year and emblazoned the address in the Paris dining firmament by dint of his ultra-contemporary kitchen smarts. Kelly passed like a comet, however, moving on too soon to make much impact, and since last November, YARD's kitchen has been run by young British chef Nye Smith. Belying his youth, and a résumé includes stints at London hotspots Moro and Koya, Smith's cuisine at YARD is neither precocious nor internationalist. Less austere than that of his predecessor, perceptibly more pleasure-oriented, it strikes a balance between sophistication and accessibility that couldn't be better suited to YARD. I think it's this rare synergy, combined with Drotter's expanding natural wine list and peerless hospitality, that makes each visit a uniquely enjoyable experience.
* List duly included after the jump.
07 April 2015
Chef Christophe Philippe's new Bastille-adjacent restaurant Amarante, like the cacklingly under-designed eponymous restaurant he maintained for a decade in the shadow of the Panthéon, is open Sundays and Mondays, the better to cater to his principal clientele, his fellow restaurant folk. On any other restaurant's off-night, he entertains tastemaker regulars like food writer Bruno Verjus, Le Baratin's Raquel Carena and Philippe Pinoteau, and Autour d'Un Verre's Kevin Blackwell. When my friend and editor Meg Zimbeck and I visited last Sunday, we ran smack into our friend Thomas Legrand, formerly of La Muse Vin, now manning the decks at La Crêmerie. Philippe, lumbersome of gait and shy as a shoe, is the unlikely mascot of a certain very discerning milieu.
Why should this milieu particularly admire his cuisine, among all the others on offer in Paris' present-day cornucopia? Well, who but his fellow chefs and restaurateurs, those who endure the pressure to present an impression of novelty with each new restaurant and each day's menu, are as likely to have realised, like Philippe, that the search for novelty in cuisine is futile?
Philippe is among the few chefs courageous enough to live the implications of that realisation. At Amarante he offers the exact same pointedly-unfussy, rigorously-sourced bistrot menu and the same well-priced natural wine list as at his former establishment. Amarante is duly aglow with the same monkish sense of serenity and confidence, albeit with slighter better lighting, and a less hideous font on the windowpane.
01 April 2015
It's hard not to have strong reactions to the dense, craggy wines of northern Sardinian estate Tenute Dettori. My own feelings are tinged with nostalgia, because Dettori's wines used to fascinate me back when I worked as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. It being California in the mid-2000's, we had a proportion of clients whose palates were accustomed to strong, hot-climate wines, to whom even a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or a Nero d'Avola would scan as middleweight and mild. (The list was all-Italian.) To such fellows - for they were invariably men - I would suggest Dettori's reds.
The estate's "Tenores," "Tuderi," and "Dettori" cuvées routinely climb into the upper-teens of alcohol content, and they all show a brooding, mouth-conquering complexity that defies any accusations of lightness. Even if my guests proved unprepared for the wines' savoury notes or the various flaw-like zig-zags associated with low-sulfur winemaking, they nonetheless never failed to perceive that something somehow important was occurring on their palates. I rarely had bottles returned, even though the guests had asked for pleasure and I'd served them, instead, a puzzle.
Puzzled is what I remain about the wines, even in the wake of the delightful press trip to the estate in Sennori that my friend the wine agent Emma Bentley organised for myself and several more notable wine writers this past October. Winemaker Alessandro Dettori is accomplishing so much: preserving the island's ancient viticultural tradition, maintaining his family's meticulous respect for their local terroir, reviving marginal native grape varieties, not to mention, of course, making serious wines that demonstrably improve with age. But with these accomplishments comes a final challenge that remains, for the moment, unanswered: how to make these strange, strong, majestic Romangia reds fit the context of a meal, or, for that matter, contemporary drinking among non-Supermen.
30 March 2015
If coverage of some of my favorite Paris addresses is long overdue, it's usually because I inadvertently befriended the staff and / or ownership before I had a chance to write anything. It's hard to write about one's friends. One either gushes aimlessly, or, if one is me, one tosses, underhand, a few critical softballs, and soon loses friends. Often it doesn't seem worth the risk. What, one asks oneself, do I get out of this ?
I'm still trying to figure that out. This blog is approaching its 500th post, which, when you think about it, is a lot of booze. A lot of sacrificed lunchbreaks, a lot of aimless travel, and above all, a lot of unsolicited opinions. As with most commitments in life, I'll probably never stop thinking of ending it all.
But I'll take advantage of the valedictory humour I'm in lately to say something about my friends at Le Siffleur de Ballons, Thierry Bruneau's pitch-perfect neighborhood wine bar on rue de Cîteaux, where I can be found at least once a week. For newsiness, I might add that since autumn the bar has offered splendid aged faux-filets to share, triaged over from Bruneau's other restaurant L'Ebauchoir across the street.
24 March 2015
For better or worse, the fate of tiny 11ème arrondissement caviste and wine bar La Cave du Daron seems intimately linked to its famous neighbors across avenue Parmentier. Inaki Aizpitarte's ubiquitously publicized triumvirate of Le Chateaubriand, Le Dauphin, and Le Cave are like the Great Whites Sharks of Goncourt, leaving the impossibly low-key La Cave du Daron to perform a remora-like function, living off the overflow.
I lived three blocks away for four years, and for all that I appreciated owner Jean-Julien Ricard's varied and intelligent wine selection, I could never think of much to say about the place. It's the size of a sardine tin, comprising just eight or so seats. Small snacks of prepared foodstuffs are available. While Ricard organises semi-frequent events with outside chefs, including Maori Murota (ex-La Conserverie, presently making lunches at Le Verre Volé Sur Mer) and Adeline Grattard (of Yam Tcha), La Cave du Daron's miniscule size pretty much restricts their audience to the hardcore fanbase of the visiting chef in question.
Ricard, too, has a loyal fanbase of young professionals who populate the bar during apéro hours. If I'm quite late in joining the party, it's because his wine prices can be a little high. What changed, then, to make me visit the other evening, and finally discover the charm of La Cave du Daron? Well, in the time since I praised the utility and simplicity of apéros at Aizpitarte's Le Cave, that wine shop has stopped serving bottles on premises, leaving La Cave du Daron as the block's only option for fine wine consumption without the attendant obligation of expensive cuisine. Modest and welcoming, Ricard is well-suited to the role he's found, as the Goncourt local's favorite low-key foil to the brouhaha across the street.
19 March 2015
On the surface, there appears to be no reason whatsoever for a wine traveler to visit Rota. It is the runt of the sherry towns, almost entirely overtaken, since 1953, by a vast American Naval base, whose 4000 or so American personal tend to favour beer over the regional wines. Guinness and Corona are as easily obtained as sherry in Rota, and all three drinks vastly outsell the town's helplessly unappealing specialty, a sweet wine in the passito / vincotto vein called Tintilla di Rota.
But Rota is where the Native Companion and I wound up spending a few days last summer. We were visiting our friend B, who works on the Naval Base there, and enjoys the perk of a splendid beachfront apartment. We duly beached it up, frozen margaritas, barbecue, and beer. It was almost as an afterthought that we paid a visit to Bodegas El Gato's unassuming despacho des vinos one afternoon, drawn as much by a sense of anthropological duty as by the psychedelic cat mural on the bar's exterior.
We peered into the retail area, which seemed to be shut, or staffed by small dogs. We noticed that the Bodegas El Gato's Fino hasn't the right to the Jerez appellation; the bodega instead bottles it as a vino de mesa (table wine) and refers to it, on their website, as a "Fino Andaluz." In the adjacent terraced bar, populated unanimously by older Andalusians, we nibbled some surprisingly affecting goat cheese, which we both found more memorable than the bodega's Fino Andaluz. But nothing prepared us for dinner that evening, when our friend B led us to Bodegas El Gato's bar, around the corner from the despacho. In a standing-room-only space, behind a long bar, beneath audible neons, its mugging, churlish chefs grilled up explosive chorizo sandwiches and crackling, curlicued shrimp, plates which, while costing next to nothing, collectively amounted to our favorite restaurant experience in the entire region.
03 March 2015
Given the tumultuous social jockeying that surrounds dinner invitations during the Loire salons, I hadn't expected to get to hang with my friends Kenji and Mai Hodsgon at all this past January. So I was delighted when they proposed dinner at one of their favorite local bistrots, an unassuming place a few blocks from the Grenier Saint-Jean called L'Ardoise.
And I was more than delighted - astonished! - that the restaurant matched the quality of the company that evening.
L'Ardoise turned out to be that rare, semi-mythical destination for the wine traveler, a marvelous small-town natural bistrot that, like Le Chat in Cosne-sur-Loire or Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes, displays more sophistication, humour, and ambition than most of its big-city counterparts.
And I was more than delighted - astonished! - that the restaurant matched the quality of the company that evening.
L'Ardoise turned out to be that rare, semi-mythical destination for the wine traveler, a marvelous small-town natural bistrot that, like Le Chat in Cosne-sur-Loire or Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes, displays more sophistication, humour, and ambition than most of its big-city counterparts.
26 February 2015
A time-capsule wine bar and restaurant like Le Bougainville, ensconced on the dowdy side of the Galerie Vivienne, perfectly embodies the simultaneous joys and frustrations of living in present-day Paris.
On the one hand, much of the city's grace lies in the fact that, mere paces from its financial center, places like Le Bougainville persist. The restaurant is gloriously unselfconscious, evincing an insensitivity to décor that borders on senility. A piano hunches unplayed by the entryway; garish fluorescents zig-zag overhead beside the bar; an almost characterless adjacent dining room still resembles whatever unrelated shop storage area it once was. Local suits and lost-looking tourists dine on goose rillettes, oeufs mayo, herring salad, roast pork: low-cost village fare, untutored but uncorrupted. Complementing all this is an incongruously good wine list containing just about the entire sought-after range of cult Jura vigneron Jean-François Ganevat, at mysteriously great prices.
But as happens so often in Paris, the scent of mystery leads us to the trough of incomprehensibility.
17 February 2015
Tasting new releases with my favorite Beaujolais producers is often kind of embarrassing. After saying hello and getting the usual optimistic, yet gnomic replies about the character of the vintage, I run out of material. With people like Georges Descombes, Jean Foillard, Jean-Claude Chanudet, Matthieu Lapierre, etc., just about every wine is so reliably, resoundingly delicious that it's hard to think of anything interesting to say about them. More bloody wonderful life-quenching Gamay, eh? Shocker.
I adore the wines of Beaujolais more than almost any others. But finding reasons to write about them is damnably rare. At La Dive Bouteille this year there were at least three: an old-vine Morgon from Descombes' son Kevin, an extremely-limited production Chénas by Karim Vionnet, and the promising Morgons of Anthony Thevenet.
12 February 2015
With Au Passage currently topping many critics most-visited lists (including mine), it's easy to forget that, before James Henry got involved almost by accident, the extended Pères Populaires family of establishments had evinced no ambitions towards fine restaurateurism whatsoever. Commercially-minded American bystanders like myself might expect that, having succeeded at winning a high-value clientele, the Au Passage team would continue to cater to them.
But as of last December, we have the Au Passage team's perplexing stepchild Martin, an almost confrontationally détendu bar serving small plates in a largely unrefurbished space on windy boulevard du Temple. Named after its genial co-owner Loic Martin, who formerly bartended at Au Passage, Martin the restaurant reminds us that we have fundamentally misunderstood these people.
I think, in the wake of Pères Populaires' Bones, everyone was expecting the Au Passage team, on their own this time, to launch something similarly savvy, festooned with hip signifiers. Instead, Martin is a discreet, welcoming, and forthrightly egalitarian little all-day bistrot, aimed at inadvertent tastemakers like themselves - those who have certain standards, with regards to food and wine, but who don't need to see them exceeded at every meal. In season when quality-conscious Paris restaurant projects seem ubiquitously to open guns blazing with 65€ five-course tasting menus, Martin is gloriously off-trend, and kind of a godsend.
09 February 2015
loire salons 2015: la renaissance des appellations, les penitantes, la dive bouteille, demeter france
I found myself with a late afternoon to kill in Angers on the Friday before this years' tasting salons. With the aim of avoiding drinking at all costs, I nursed a café crème on the terrace of a no-name bar beside a parking lot, where I soon ran into Beaujolais vignerons Karim Vionnet and Jean-Claude Lapalu.
They were toting several magnums between them, headed elsewhere. I said I'd see them tomorrow at the tasting, whereupon Vionnet reminded me that they were presenting at La Dive Bouteille, which didn't start until Sunday in Saumur. For the winemakers, evidently, as much as for me and most other attendees I know, the weekend was mainly a social occasion.
I'm guilty of complaining about this dynamic from time to time. The truth is, though, that the pageantry and partying of the Loire salons are signs of a vibrant community, and ought to be encouraged as such, or at very least, gracefully tolerated. Take, for a counter-example, the Demeter France tasting at Angers' Palais de Congrès, where my friends and I tasted the following morning. Most of the winemakers looked embarrassed to be there, like they hadn't even been introduced to one another. It seemed illustrative of the limitations of merely-biodynamic collective marketing, at a time when even the natural wine off-salons, Vin Anonymes and Les Pénitantes, are metastasizing each year. I missed out on Anonymes this year, in favor of arriving earlier at La Dive Bouteille - a somewhat unnecessary precaution, it turned out, since this years' edition was notably better organised, and seemingly less overrun by local daysippers. After the jump, some scattered takeaways. Slightly more in-depth posts on a few topics to follow in days to come.
29 January 2015
Don't get me wrong: the Native Companion and I certainly appreciated our visit to Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, which occupies a seemingly Vatican-sized complex in the town's southwest. The canopied courtyards and echoing, dust-blackened bodegas of Gonzalez Byass are as awe-inspiring as any cathedral, and together comprise a truly resplendent monument to the region's historical significance.
Like other monuments, visitors can go on tours of Gonzalez Byass. There are even trains that take 300,000 tourists per year around the complex. This is what we wanted to avoid, of course, and we were very relieved when one of the company's sales directors agreed to meet us for a private visit.
Unfortunately, our visit was unrecoverably derailed by an extended, Kafka-esque scenario that arose with one of the bodega's doormen, who, despite repeatedly assuring us otherwise, proved unable or unwilling to communicate the message that we had arrived for our appointment. It was human error (his), but I mention it because it blighted the bodega's otherwise commendable hospitality in a way vaguely illustrative of the quality limitations inherent in such enormous, depersonalising enterprises.
14 January 2015
Aggrieved chefs and their supporters routinely cite, among the evils of journalism, the neophilic tendency of critics to descend upon a new establishment and review its infancy, without ever returning to see how it matures.
I more or less agree with this gripe. It's the reason why the public face of an overachiever restaurant like Simone Restaurant & Cave in the 13ème remains frozen in September 2013, when it was no more than a welcoming and simplistic natural wine bistrot with a fine terrace. The Paris press duly reported this, but in most cases could think of nothing more to say besides how sympa the place was. (Whether niceness and decency constitute newsworthiness in contemporary Paris is, for now, beside the point.)
But chef Arnaud Soinsot took over from opening chef Mike Stewart in late August of last year, and Restaurant Simone's cuisine now shows significantly more ambition. For a diner such as myself, disinclined towards innovation in cuisine, it's a development that cuts both ways. What is undoubtable though, is the restaurant deserves re-visitation en masse, and higher, more interpretive praise, for how its owners have taken a desolate streetcorner in a neglected arrondissement and built a little beacon of enthusiasm and good taste.
12 January 2015
What little information was available indicated Casa Bigote was among the best restaurants in Sanlucar. In our defense, Sanlucar is a coastal town in a relatively impoverished region. One feels there ought to be a splendid seafood place, and it ought to be right on the Bajo de Guia, as Casa Bigote is.
One's expectations begin to decline when, on a balmy night in early June, one traverses the bat-infested ruins dividing that section of the Bajo de Guia from the town proper to discover that the restaurants on the quay are quite deserted. Casa Bigote is almost indistinguishable from its neighbors: a sprawling, two-storied complex housing a bar and a restaurant on opposite sides of an small alley. We dined at the restaurant, which may have been a mistake. Perhaps the bar is best. Why else would such we have heard such praise for a genteel seaside tavern offering acceptable traditional fare in Sanlucar at what seemed like Seville prices?
The most memorable part of the meal - which we tried, without success, to repeat - was an older bottle of Manzanilla "GF" from Bodegas Gaspar Florido, an historic bodega whose wines, from what I understand, have more or less vanished since its sale to Bodegas Pedro Romero in 2007.
07 January 2015
I tend to distrust large restaurants - places where, if you scream, no one would hear a sound. Even at the grandest, most expensive large restaurants, one feels like yet another mouth on the feedlot.
Sometimes my distrust is misplaced. In Paris, the Bourse location of Terroir Parisien operates at an impressively high level, for such an enormous, multifaceted complex. And in Andalusia, the most enjoyable meals I've enjoyed in the region have been at La Carbona, a cavernous family restaurant housed in a former bodega in Jerez.
Incidentally, in five years of writing about restaurants, I can't recall ever having used the term "family restaurant." It evokes Olive Gardens. But the term is inescapable when discussing La Carbona. Its size is a direct reflection of the Andalusian tradition of dining out en masse, with several generations at the table at once. La Carbona is also owned by a family, with chef Javier Munoz' mother Ana running the dining room and the wine list with winning warmth and attentiveness. The menu is as broad and deep as the room, but I never look at it for long. For La Carbona's opulent and unstinting sherry pairing menu, at 5 courses for 32€ with serious wines included, is an unforgettably great deal, one which transcends, in both quality and generosity, the entire overwrought, hucksterish pairing menu genre.