19 June 2017

n.d.p. in lyon: le troisième fleuve, 69009


A few Saturdays ago my friend N and I found ourselves staggering north in Lyon after a lunch at Café Comptoir Abel,* where the greatest wine available had been half-pints of Leffe. Desperate for a worthwhile drink before our train north, I thought to pay a visit to Vincent Dechelette, a former employee of acclaimed old-city wine retailer Antic Wine who last December opened his own boutique, entitled Le Troisième Fleuve, a respectable trek upriver from his old workplace.

The new shop's name will be familiar to anyone who has ever read any piece of wine writing on the Beaujolais: it derives from the heavily-worn Léon Daudet line, in which the 19th-century French journalist dubbed the wine of the Beaujolais the "third river" of Lyon, after the Rhône and the Saône. Delechette, like myself, is a massive believer in the gamay, granite, and goblet-training.

His young cave - a short corridor comprised of a stone wall facing a tall mass of shelving - boasts a mostly-natural Beaujolais selection to rival any more established wine retailers in the city. The region's wines comprise perhaps 30-40% of Le Troisième Fleuve, with the remainder deriving from up-and-coming domaines from the rest of France. Dechelette also demonstrates an easy fluency with Beaujolais hospitality: he kindly allowed us to crack open a few bottles on-site, when we arrived out of breath in mid-afternoon, slightly damp with rain and dying of thirst.

13 June 2017

n.d.p. in lyon: brasserie georges, 69002


To recommend a restaurant on the basis of anything other than food, service, or wine has always seemed very foolish, like recommending a tailor because he plays excellent piano. I still recall my revulsion when upon arriving in France in 2009, an acquaintance took me to Derrière, a Paris restaurant famous for containing, in a rear space accessed through a Narnia-like wardrobe door, a sort of playroom, replete with ping-pong. What are we, I thought, children at a birthday party?

Yet I will profess that, during visits to Lyon over the past two years, among my most moving dining experiences has been at Brasserie Georges, a vast, ancient institution where the charm is mostly historical. The food - a solid impression of traditional dishes of Lyon and Alsace - and the wine - a safe selection of mostly reputable conventional estates - are both remarkable only for a restaurant of Brasserie Georges' immense size. It measures 667m2; seven hundred guests can be served per service.

Restaurants on this titanic scale tend to make one feel like a cog in a large machine. The nostalgic triumph of Brasserie Georges is to hark back to an early-modern era when large machines, and even sensations of anonymity, were novel and inspiring. The restaurant was founded in 1836 - the time of Baudelaire - but there is a distinctly Futurist zing in the air. Seated in the reverberating bustle of Brasserie Georges, one feels suffused with a strange hope, resembling the exhilaration of a Hollywood villain expositing over the loud, steady construction of his doomsday device.

08 June 2017

deck & donohue la terrasse at bob's bake shop, 75018


As of early May, Montreuil micro-brewery Deck & Donohue has teamed up with 18ème-arrondissement vegetarian canteen Bob's Bake Shop to liven up the latter's enormous terrace all summer.

Spearheading the project is Daniela Lavadenz, Thomas Deck's superhumanly energetic fiancée, who previously honed her skills in the kitchen at Au Passage and the dining room of Le Six Paul Bert. At Deck & Donohue La Terrasse, she offers a small menu of well-plated snack foods faithful to both the project's ambitions - a casual beer-garden sans garden - and its host, a vegetarian restaurant. The fried-food-and-frankfurter tendencies of the standard beer-garden concept are therefore replaced with hummous, marinated peppers, a slurpably brilliant salmorejo, and roast potatoes with chimichurri sauce, a nod to Lavadenz's Bolivian heritage. Supplementing the terrace's four taps of joltingly fresh Deck & Donohue beers are a bevy of natural rosés by the glass, from the likes of Julien Merle, Château Bas, and Frederic Rivaton.

To anyone like myself, reluctant, during summertime, to plunk down beaucoup euros for lengthy meals at fine Paris restaurants that invariably lack air-conditioning or even basic ventilation, Deck & Donohue La Terrasse offers a form of salvation. But the project's appeal will be tested by its location north of métro Lachapelle, a heavily immigrant neighborhood whose female residents have recently drawn significant media attention to routine harassment its streets. Salvation, in this case, comes with a healthy dose of social consciousness.

27 May 2017

pork universe: l'avant comptoir du marché, 75006


I stand in awe of the sheer cheek of Yves Camdeborde's L'Avant Comptoir wine bars. Camdeborde had the insight to reproduce San Sebastian pintxos bars in Paris, a city where dining standing up is considered an abnormal act, like sleeping suspended from a ceiling.

The success of L'Avant Comptoir and later L'Avant Comptoir de la Mer has validated Camdeborde's approach. No one has replicated it; very few have tried. The L'Avant Comptoir concept has become like the ancient megafauna of island nations, which, lacking any serious competition or natural predators, grew to outlandish proportions.

L'Avant Comptoir du Marché, a relative juggernaut compared to the other two, opened in early fall of 2016 in the marché du Saint-Germain. The bar's entrance consists of car-wash-like mud-flaps bearing images of grinning pigs. A lurid red pig sculpture hangs like a martyr above the dining floor. It looks like something purchased from a Russian home décor emporium. One glance at such garish design indulgence normally sends me scampering like a refugee back to the skeletal bistros of the 11ème. If I nevertheless enjoy the occasional visit to L'Avant Comptoir du Marché, it's because there's a heroic irony how Camdeborde employs all the shlock arsenal of industrialised mass restaurateurism in the service of selling artisanal products: excellent pork and natural wine.

02 May 2017

c'est extra: le bel ordinaire, 75010


The latter-day service-industry explosion of Paris' 10ème arrondissement is remarkable for its enthusiastically globalized aesthetics. You have Asian fusion bistrots, craft beer pizza joints, fish-n-chips, Parisian burgers, bentos galore, and Syrian take-out: a full-on Soho occurring between rue du Faubourg Montmartre and the boulevard de Strasbourg.

What the 10ème lacks, since Pierre Jancou flipped Vivant and Kevin Blackwell closed his beloved bistrot Autour d'Un Verre, is that most Parisian of commodities : a convincing wine destination.

On bustling rue Paradis, culinary journalist Sebastien Demorand's gleaming new épicerie-bar-à-vin Le Bel Ordinaire, with its airy dimensions, its tall shelves modeled on scaffolding, its pristine rear kitchen, rather resembles another new-fangled London-scaled endeavor. Indeed, it is one. But its charm, for now, lays in how well it fills the neighborhood wine bar void, providing a calm and tasteful apéro spot for the quartier's hurried young professionals.

27 April 2017

out in the street: vignes, 75019

Vignes' opening party, before the terrace seating was installed.

The great legacy of the cave-à-manger neologism has been to turn most new Paris wine shops into functional bars. You'd have to be either insane or misanthropic to open a wine shop that merely sold wine in Paris these days. The same license permits wine retail and restaurant activities and the line between what constitutes a restaurant and what constitutes a bar (which designation requires a more expensive and regulated Licence IV) is in effect extremely blurry. As often as not, lack of a License IV redounds to a proprietor's benefit, because he or she retains the bulletproof excuse that the kitchen is closed whenever it becomes necessary to decline to serve the visibly drunk or deranged. Inspections are rare, so proprietors are under no obligation to apply the same standards to normal happy drinking humans. Wine shop becomes ostensible restaurant, actual bar, albeit one that tends to close by midnight.

The latest to gainfully skate this line is the former manager of Thierry Bruneau's popular 12ème arrondissement wine bar Le Siffleur de Ballons, Frédéric Malpart, who opened his caviste - bar-à-vin Vignes in Belleville back in March. Like Malpart's former workplace, Vignes boasts a clean, blonde wooden décor, airy white lighting, kind staff bearing simple meat and cheese plates, and an open-minded selection of organic, biodynamic wines.

Unlike Le Siffleur de Ballons, Vignes has a handful of spacious terrace tables, and gives out on the broad boulevard de la Villette. It is instantly the only terraced bar serving a natural wine selection in Belleville*, and a valuable addition to the neighborhood renaissance presently underway.

25 April 2017

don't change: osteria ferrara, 75011


The similarities with between the restaurant Sicilian chef Fabrizio Ferrara opened last fall - Osteria Ferrara - and his former restaurant, the beloved Caffe dei Cioppi, are easy to recognize. At the new restaurant, an understated and tasteful redesign of the former bistrot occupant, Au Vieux Chène, one encounters the same unshowy preparations, the same loose risotto, the same divine sbrisolona, the same just-edgy-enough wine list.

It's a more interesting exercise to note what has changed. Paris, for one thing.

In the years since Caffe dei Cioppi closed, Ferrara's contemporaries Giovanni Passerini and Simone Tondo have raised the bar for Parisian Italian cuisine with their own, more expensive namesake restaurants in the same immediate neighborhood. Burrata has become as unavoidable as saucisson sec. The frighteningly-named Big Mamma Group has conquered middlebrow east Paris with a fleet of packed restaurants serving a simplistic, wincingly commercial take on pan-Italian cuisine.

In 2017, Osteria Ferrara impresses most by its quiet sense of maturity. There is ample space between the tables. From the stereo, nary a boom-bap nor a distorted chord. In the culinary hotbed of east Paris - where small-plates of offal are as common as mezcal and wine labels resemble the undersides of skateboards - sophisticated, product-driven dining can sometimes feel like the province of youth alone. Stepping into the calm predictability of Osteria Ferrara feels, in the best way, like dining at the grown-ups' table.

30 March 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: gilles paris, chiroubles


I harvested a few days with Chiroubles-based natural winemaker Gilles Paris back in 2015. It was a disorienting experience. It was the hottest weekend of a heat-wave year, which did no favors for the ambience inside Paris' windowless white transport vans. I also could rarely discern whose vines we were in. In each new parcel I'd ask, "Are these your vines?" and Paris, shaking his head, would inform me they were those of a neighbor who sold to the cave cooperative, or that they belonged instead to his brother Jérôme, who was absent. Paris, it seemed, led a team he rented out to other growers before harvesting his own parcels. In the end I had to depart before setting foot in Paris' vines.

Over dinner during harvest, and throughout innumerable apéro-hours after, I pestered Paris for a tasting at his cuvage. He kept demurring, citing his workload as then-President of the Beaujolais Interprofession. The fact that he and I continually ran into each other while out drinking proved this to be a rather thin excuse. We grew friendly, even as I withheld forming an opinion on his wines, for simple lack of information on them.

It was only over two years later, touring Paris' new winery in Fleurie this past February, that I finally confirmed where he'd been vinifying, and where Jérome Paris had been all this time. That the details of Paris' unfiltered, low-sulfur cru Beaujolais wines had become mysterious was, of course, entirely inadvertent. In Paris' mind, he's just being a normal Beaujolais débrouillard, an effective operator, keeping his head down till the work is done.

23 March 2017

small stakes: le desnoyez, 75020


A few years ago during the Loire tasting salons I had a brief but memorable conversation with a friend who was then in the initial stages of preparing to open a natural wine bar in New York. I had confessed I wasn't very excited by many new Paris restaurants: everything seemed pokey, limited, a little predictable. He replied that, on the contrary, he adored the Paris restaurant scene, precisely because it was so modest, small-scale, and restrained. "You never eat like that in New York," he said. Everything there was comparatively over-the-top.

It's true that there isn't the same pressure in Paris, as there is in New York or London, to achieve a high check average, massive turnover, or both. In Paris the combination of affordable commercial rents, low cost-of-living (compared to other capitals), and abundant small restaurant spaces allows for a level of intimacy in dining that has all but disappeared in other major cities.

Restaurant Le Desnoyez, opened on a shoestring budget by former food blogger Jean-Marc Sinceux in Belleville in autumn of last year, offers a level of intimacy in dining that has all but disappeared even in Paris. The place seats about fourteen. In another capital, such a Lilliputian restaurant might need to enforce a twelve-course tasting menu. Here in Paris, Sinceux proposes an inexpensive bistrot offering, albeit one enlivened by a slim selection of offbeat natural wines and by his surprisingly painterly way with plating.

28 February 2017

hot bath: le grand bain, 75020


Chef Edward Delling-Williams is a key figure in the diaspora of mostly-Anglophone chefs emanating from the kitchen of restaurant Au Passage. It may have been James Henry's masterstroke to try that restaurant's intelligent, informal menu format in the haute-Marais, but it was Delling-Williams, his inviting and upbeat successor, who refined and normalized it, making Au Passage, for years, one of the city's most reliably charming tables. (A position it largely maintains.)

Delling-Williams' long-awaited new project is Le Grand Bain, a bar-restaurant opened in partnership with chef de salle and wine director Edouard Lax and interior designer Alexandre Janssens on the Belleville graffiti haven rue Dénoyez. The restaurant opened quietly last December, after significant delays that saw months of Delling-Williams plying his trade itinerantly around other Paris restaurant kitchens.

Anyone who passed through Au Passage during his tenure probably expected Delling-Williams to make a big splash in the kitchen at Le Grand Bain. Yet for now, with few exceptions, his work at the new venture has been remarkably unshowy. Delling-Williams knows by heart the burgeoning audience that exists for a savvy small-plates restaurant in Paris in 2017. In Le Grand Bain's crisp, brut space, he is playing to that audience with the irresistible panache of a seasoned croupier.

20 February 2017

not drinking poison in nice: la merenda


The Native Companion and I were in Nice for New Year's. Before we returned to Paris I was able to convince her to submit to the rigmarole necessary to assure a lunch table at La Merenda, the city's most storied address for traditional Niçoise cuisine, run since 1996 by chef Dominique Le Stanc. 

La Merenda famously has no phone, so one must personally pop by to request a table later in the day. As it happened our agenda that morning consisted of wandering aimlessly around the port, so this fit right into our schedule. The restaurant's popularity far exceeds its tiny space, however, and tables were understandably slow to turn that day. We had to circle back round twice after the appointed time came and went. 

I didn't mind. I was enchanted the moment I laid eyes on La Merenda's sparse menu, scrawled on a blackboard posted to its frosted windows. If menu writing is a kind of literature, Le Stanc's menu at La Merenda possesses the hymn-like simplicity of Kafka's shortest works - "The Wish to be a Red Indian," perhaps. In the space of one sentence, Kafka proposes a subject before shearing it away in stages, until nothing remains but a profound absence. All the daily repetition of kitchen work and the generational repetition that has yielded traditional cuisine - all that absence of novelty - is contained on La Merenda's blackboard. The rarity of such a statement - anywhere in the world, let alone breezy, tourist-stricken Nice - gives La Merenda a curious power. At lunch, one can even overlook the dismal wine selection. 

10 February 2017

n.d.p. in maconnais: château des rontets, fuissé


The forecast called for rain, but my friend E and I had passed a perfectly calm, sunny day visiting winemakers around Saint-Amour last July. Among the crus of Beaujolais, Saint-Amour is a curious culture unto itself, a throwback to the era of négoçiant supremacy, an economy kept afloat by the unthinkably dumb people in France and abroad who regularly purchase the wine for Saint Valentine's Day. (I have never met anyone who has done this, but apparently such people exist. Just thinking about them makes me feel better about the invariably inconsequential gestures I muster for the same holiday.)

Not the most ravishing day of tasting, in short. But we had a pleasant makeshift lunch on the picnic tables in the square in Leynes, where later, in a quest to find coffee, we entered a truly strange, deserted bar, overrun with dogs and exotic birds. The owner descended from upstairs before we could scram, so Nespresso it was. We asked to sit on the terrace. The sky had begun to cloud over.

E and I huffed our cigarettes, bolted our bad coffees, and pulled on our helmets. I seem to remember it was a straight shot up a knobbly one-lane road to our last appointment of the day, where, finally, we'd taste some Saint-Amour worth falling for, along with some stunning Pouilly-Fuissés. It felt somehow appropriate, skidding up to the gates of the Château des Rontets at precisely the moment the storm broke.

31 January 2017

in with the old: chez la vieille, 75001


I have never quite understood Daniel Rose' conservative streak. I'm too young to remember the initial, bare-bones Spring in the 9eme arrondissement. By the time I met Rose in 2010, he had already moved his restaurant to the 1èr arrondissement and a space that resembles an exec-lounge. The restaurant's service and menu pricing have always felt prematurely elderly for such a dynamic personality. Nor did Rose really switch gears when he took over the weirdo slapstick steakhouse La Bourse ou La Vie last year. He changed the grammatical conjunction, raised prices, improved the cuisine, and sapped the restaurant of its spontaneity.

Rose' recent revamp of the tiny historic 1èr arrondissement bistrot-bar Chez La Vieille is, in its way, more newsworthy than the rave reviews of Le Coucou, his chic New York restaurant début. For, discounting the abortive Buvette below Spring, Chez La Vieille is the first serious move Rose has made towards a more lively style of service.

Spanning two floors joined by a gorgeously warped staircase, Chez La Vieille is a near-complete success, where the humor and verve of its new owner find outlet in a concept as precise and versatile as a Swiss Army knife.

16 January 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: nicolas dubost, saint-germain-sur-l'arbesle


"It's crazy, how many young winemakers are setting up in Beaujolais," muses southern Beaujolais winemaker Nicolas Dubost, who attained biodynamic certification for his organic domaine in 2015. "But not so much in the south."

Dubost is based in Saint-Germain-sur-l'Arbresle, a hamlet beside the village of Bully in the Pierre Dorées. The general viticultural approach here - industrial, productivist, machine-oriented - does a disservice to the diversity of the largely unknown terroir. The handful of ambitious, quality-oriented winemakers - Dobost included - sell their wines at prices so low as to practically discourage critical reflection.

Indeed, if the details of Beaujolais wine production overall remain under-appreciated, even by wine professionals, it's probably because the stakes are so small. There are strong incentives to master, say, Barbaresco vintages or vineyard exposition in Côte Rôtie, since the clients for these high-value wines tend to pose questions and seek assurance of expertise. Folks buying in the 9-14€ range need less convincing, so most retailers, not to mention critics, are content to leave it at 'sweet juice,' 'glouglou,' or a similar substitute for actual qualitative description. It's a shame, because as Dubost's wines increasingly prove, there are troves of nuance to be discovered, even in such unheralded terroir, at such small stakes.

05 December 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: romain des grottes, saint-etienne-des-ouillières


The man standing there with the huge elderflower bush in his vines is Romain des Grottes. He's a métayer, or sharecropper, working 8ha vines belonging to the Château de Lacarelle in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières. Almost everything about that sentence is misleading, though.

The Château de Lacarelle belongs to des Grottes' grandfather, a peculiar situation that allows des Grottes considerably more creative leeway than most métayers. And his 8ha of vines is effectively 4ha, because since 2003 des Grottes has uprooted half the rows, planting cereals in the remaining spaces. He also works the soil less than many organic winemakers, content with a wilderness of grass cover that would make his elders blanche.

"I think I’m liberated from the tradition, because I never grew up here," admits des Grottes, who was born in Paris. "As much in the vines as in making the wine."

17 November 2016

yann bertrand's 1st beaujolais nouveau: "ptit bouchon"

Yann Bertrand with his demi-muid's of Beaujolais primeur
Fleurie's Yann Bertrand made a Beaujolais Nouveau this year from fruit purchased from Charentay vigneron Romain Jambon. It's stellar - a long, 16-day maceration yielded a sinuous, impossibly bright wine, with vigorous raspberry fruit. The quantity is minuscule, something like 2600 bottles. 

What makes the wine groundbreaking is Bertrand's decision not to filter it. He rightly figured that, given the tiny production, his primeur would be drunk in Fleurie, in Lyon, and at furthest, Paris. Little would be risked by avoiding filtration. For good measure, he took the unusual step putting the primeur in demi-muid for two weeks before bottling, so that the wine could clarify itself more quickly than it would have in tank. 

Almost no one releases unfiltered Beaujolais Nouveau. Off the top of my head, I can think of only Max Breton* and Romain des Grottes**, both of whose unfiltered primeurs are, incidentally, terrific. (Oh! And Marcel Joubert.)