This is my view. We are staying with a young sommelier friend. He moved to Paris from Copenhagen and now works at one of the grand dames of the natural wine bistro scene, Chateaubriand.
On the wall of his apartment in Oberkampf is an old chalkboard he was given by the guys at Verre Volé (67 Rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris) – one of the places where many wine people hung out a few years ago.
Verre Volé also made an impact on me back in the early part of this decade: I remember turning up after they were closed so they gave me a few glasses and a bottle of Métras to sit by the Canal Saint-Martin while we waited for them to open again.
“Natural wine only” lists are not a new phenomena. But what is happening in the new bistro scene in Paris (described as “bistronomie”) is not just about natural wine, but also about “natural food” and maybe, in the longer term, we may look back and see that it was even more than that – a coming together of a greater philosophy about the environment and what Paris is about today.
One clue to this innovation in the new bistro scene is a man called Alain Passard. Enthusiastic staff from each restaurant we visited referred to him as the “Vegetable Whisperer”.
The Vegetable Whisperer
Alain Passard caused a sensation when he stopped cooking meat in his restaurant, L’Arpege, in 2001. Now he is all about farming his own vegetables and how it is grown, how it fits with other vegetables, and to show how beautiful they can be. He grows the vegetables for his restaurant outside of Paris on his dedicated farm using permaculture farming. This is a type of farming which makes biodynamic and organic viticulture look like child’s play. There are no shortcuts: the vegetables arrive fresh before lunch and are never refrigerated.
Move over Heston Blumenthal. And not before time, too. I’m sure I am not the only person who was depressed by foam on a piece of rectangular slate. Sadly endemic in regional France; strangely, as they are even closer to the source of food and wine than Paris. The Alain Passard philosophy is in direct contrast to the science lab glasses and white coat fashion.
If you ever have a chance to visit Septime (80 Rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris), then you will be in for a shock at how far this style of restaurant is from the clinical style that has been lingering on for far too long. The difference could not be more stark. There is nothing bling and, dare I say it with Blumenthal et al, of the media slut.
In contrast, Alain Passard, and his acolytes with their own restaurants, are elevating the humble vegetable to Grand Cru status. Much like a precious grape from one of the great vineyards in Burgundy, passed from vineyard to winery with the light touch of kid gloves, vegetables are given first-class treatment from the moment they arrive from the farm before lunch service, and to the gentle light touch on the plate.
Sometimes, there is a nod to the Nordic – from the foraging idea (marigold leaves, below) to the natural boards, white-washed feel of the decor and plates, such as at Septime and, their oyster bar next door, Clamato. It is also what is growing together in season, which provides some unusual combinations such as fig and red tuna with bone marrow at Clamato.
This dish had me hearing reindeers crunching on the snow…
At Le Servan (32 Rue Saint-Maur, 75011 Paris) two women in their 20s have transformed an old neighbourhood café into something so simply good that it is near genius. Not surprisingly Tatiana’s mentors have been Alain Passard and Pascal Barbot (L’Astrance). The flavours, presentation and natural wine list are superb and such good value that I feel the same way as one reviewer when he said, “I feel like I am ripping them off.”
When we arrived at Vivant (43, rue des Petites Ecuries, 75010 Paris), a little early to slip in without a reservation, we found chef Atsumi Sota (ex-Troisgros, Robuchon, Stella Maris & Toyo) outside on the pavement seats scribbling down the day’s menu. With the emphasis on vegetables, fine cutting, lightness and a gentle touch, it is not surprising to often find a Japanese chef when you peer into the tiny kitchens. This is not fusion French-Japanese but classic French bistro seen in a fresh way.
The Régnié from Guy Bréton, one of natural wine’s “Gang of Four” in Beaujolais, with veal cheeks and clams will be seared into the memory of all time great meals. The delicacy of the wine, along with the oyster shell notes, meant the acidity cut through the fatty veal cheeks and chimed with the sea-salty clams.
It makes sense to have only natural wines at restaurants that are working with the “naturalness” of the ingredients. Whether it is because the wines are closer to the source – much like Alain Passard’s vegetables for his restaurant – natural wines taste better, and are often in better condition, than what we find in London. Travelling and shipping can have an impact on these delicate wines.
All the restaurants were similar in having lighter styles of wine on the menu. Although Loire and Beaujolais have always dominated bistro menus in Paris, the lists heavily feature wines from the regions that lead the natural wine movement. There is a predominance of Loire, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Languedoc but also, Italy and Greece.
Unsurprisingly, this is no place for Bordeaux. Not once, on any list. I think this is for a number of reasons, and as a young person, why would you? In the same way as most young people are locked out of buying real estate to live, for many Bordeaux is now more about money than drinking. This is where natural wine becomes political.
The sommeliers were interested in “working with their small producers,” as one person told me in a fascinating conversation, rather than “ideas of what is the best, the most fashionable”or judging the wines as if they are sacks of potatoes.
What is most exciting about the Paris neo-bistro scene is how it reflects what Paris is all about at this moment. It’s more than just “fusion”, but the direct experience of living in a diverse city where the smells from Vietnamese, Lebanese, Japanese and French bakeries, to name but a few, curl together and express something new but distinctly French. It is for the raw ingredients rather than the abstract molecule. It is about the energy of the people in the restaurant. Where quality natural wine from small producers takes a starring role.
And the next day feels good, too.