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Living on the edge

Vivant Table“He’s played us. Don’t you think he’s played us beautifully?”

The setting was a Paris apartment. The “us” referred to a small gathering of folks who, mostly, work in or around the alcohol and media worlds. And the “he” of debate was natural wine evangelist and (at the time) object of intense media scrutiny over then-current events, Pierre Jancou.

Here’s the if-you-missed-it summary: a muckety-muck at a fashion mag hit up Jancou for a free meal at his restaurant Vivant Table. The dangled carrot was positive mention in Mr. Muckety-Muck’s publication. This sort of gross pay-for-play quasi-blackmail happens all the time, and most restaurants just bend over and take it, figuring the publicity is worth the cost. Jancou’s restaurant is tiny, perpetually overbooked (well in advance, too), and has zero need of such publicity. Given this freedom, Jancou said no. Hard words were exchanged over email.

Now, the tale could have ended there. Except that Jancou passed the story, complete with email proof, to a bunch of writers who were naturally inclined to be sympathetic to Jancou’s objection, and likely to spread the story. Which they did. And did. And did again. I arrived in Paris the day after the hullabaloo hulla-ballooned, and everyone (“everyone” being a self-selected cohort of folks, many of whom I count as friends, acquaintances, or trusted sources) was talking about it.

Naturally, the backlash – not much of one in comparison to the pro-Jancou outrage, but it was there – arrived soon after. Motives were examined. The question that seemed most prevalent was the most obvious: didn’t Jancou end up turning this into a giant PR victory by his own savvy use of the media?

A few months earlier, I’d seen this debate play out in different context. On two different wine fora, a drinker with a bit of a reputation for contrarianism-without-justification went after winemaker Eric Texier, essentially calling his participation on those and other fora no more than transparent publicity-seeking, and going on to suggest that anyone who fell for it was brainwashed. The issue, apparently, began with the drinker’s dislike of Texier’s wines, but from there, the conclusions – each darker and stranger than the previous – followed.

So what are Texier’s motives for participating on wine fora? He says, among other things, that they’re to provide information, often corrective, in discussions of wines and winemaking. Occasionally regarding his own work, much more often not. Since he very pointedly does not shill, openly or otherwise, for his own product, and in fact posts as his claimed motivation would suggest, I’ve no reason to think he’s lying.

So what about the accusation that Texier gets a publicity boost from this participation? Well, of course he does. If it damaged his brand, he’d be an idiot to keep doing it. I’ve seen winemakers, restaurateurs, retailers, and others damage – even destroy – their reputations through ham-fisted use of technology and social media. And Texier is no idiot. He uses his participation well. And yes, his reputation benefits as a result.

To suggest that this should not be is to suggest that either Texier can’t use the internet because he might gain from such use, or that he must use it less well. These are ludicrous positions to take, though that didn’t stop one finger-wagger from taking them. If Texier’s participation in a discussion works to his benefit because he adds value, and he in turn receives value from that participation, where is the damage? I see none. If Texier’s wines are bad (which, in my opinion, they most certainly are not), then disappointed consumers will sort that out for themselves, irrespective of Texier’s online musings.

The benefits stemming from Jancou’s media firestorm are somewhat more indirect. As noted, it’s not like he has empty seats to fill; perhaps a few more people could stuff themselves into his shoebox-sized wine bar, but only at tourist hours. Yes, there’s theoretical benefit to “Brand Jancou,” but since he’s not shown much inclination towards franchising or Vivant-logo mugs and t-shirts, all it really gets him is more regular quoting in the media…a mixed blessing to an evangelist for a category of which many remain skeptical. One thing that the attention does bring, however, is corollary illumination for the natural wines that Jancou promotes. Since his only direct financial interest in promoting these wines is if you drink them at one of Jancou’s establishments, which as I’ve noted isn’t all that likely unless you’ve planned well ahead, I again think it’s reasonable to take him at his word.

Instead, I submit that to the extent that there was promotional intent behind Jancou’s actions, it was less numerical than it was qualitative. Anyone who follows Parisian restaurant buzz knows that, especially since the installation of a new chef and a corollary upgrading of the kitchen’s ambitions (see below), Vivant Table is a “hot” reservation. In fact, there are few hotter. By getting his side of the story into the press, Jancou doesn’t do much to increase the number of potential diners – in fact, if anything he probably holds off some portion of the available pool by resisting those who want in simply to say they’ve been – but instead increases the likelihood that diners are there because they are sympathetic to his restaurant’s philosophy. Vivant is as much a statement as it is a restaurant, and that’s not the sort of thing everyone enjoys. Those who don’t now have reason to stay away, clearing the field for a few more of those who do.

Here’s another reason to take Jancou at his word. A few nights after the imbroglio, I was standing outside his wine bar with a mutual acquaintance, chatting with the man himself. Naturally, this was one of the subjects. He grew increasingly animated, and what seemed to enrage him most was when his free-meal-seeking correspondent suggested that Jancou was well-known as some sort of skinflint, as stingy, as someone who’d refuse a simple request due neither to principle or practicality, but basic meanness. (Needless to say he did not agree with this interpretation.) His agitation and animation while recounting this were quite obvious and I don’t for a second believe they were feigned.

So did Jancou take an irritating encounter and turn it, via a willing media, to his benefit? Sure, but I submit that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, his case was amplified and abetted by interlocutors. But it’s a good case, or at least it’s the case he wishes to make for his restaurant and his passion. He has other methods of publicizing what he does, but why should he fail to make the best use of the sort of gift publicity provided by this incident? If he’s being duplicitous or is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle…well, as with Eric Texier and his wines, disappointed diners will sort that out for themselves. And I haven’t noticed reservations at Vivant Table getting any easier.

For instance…

blood sausageSecuring a table at Vivant Table is far from the hardest thing I’ve ever done, restaurant-wise, but it’s no destination for last-minute deciders. In my case, five weeks of advance notice are required for a late seating, the hour of which is changed several times by the restaurant as the night approaches (though at the restaurant I can’t tell if the time-shifting has accomplished anything…maybe a very late third seating for someone?) I do note that more than a few people are turned away during the first hour of my meal, even a few who claim to have reservations, though I’m not eavesdroppy enough to assess the details.

In any case, it’s a tiny room in which one can be sure that most everyone who’s there wants to be there, or at least is accompanying someone who does. And it doesn’t offer much in the way of negotiation: the choices are a set menu, or a set menu with matched wines. This sort of restaurant-dominated approach, which I think many places would like to try but don’t, has been given a healthy lungful of oxygen by the ideologically-driven natural wine movement, and such places now litter Paris and are popping up in other cities, in Europe and elsewhere. There’s been follow-on benefit to non-natural places who, given tiny kitchens and limited seating, would like to shift the point-of-view to that of the kitchen rather than of the table, and I’m enthusiastically behind the movement.

Of course, I can say that because I’m an omnivore. Consecutive courses of sweetbreads, blood sausage, and multiple takes on venison do require somewhat of an open palate. This is aggressive, frequently brilliant food that takes the ingredient-focused cooking for which the restaurant was previously known and enlivens it through some very accomplished, almost swaggering cooking. There are some chances taken, and not everything succeeds (the blood sausage, for instance, is easily the most brilliant version thereof I’ve ever tasted, and finds a sweet counterpoint in an autumnal squash purée, but is paired with an utterly pointless bit of octopus…perfectly cooked, yet akin to a tuba player joining an in-progress violin quintet). But more than enough does succeed to make this one of the more interesting menus in Paris. Love it or not, if anyone is bored here, they are jaded beyond repair. It’s also extremely rich food, of course, and one will want to arrive with not only an open palate, but an open belly.

Despite a pretty good familiarity with natural wines as they exist on American shores, and many visits to other French covens of naturalia, Jancou’s explorations litter his shelves and his lists with a fair number wines I’ve either never tasted or have never even heard of. Not wanting to miss out on the latest and quirkiest, I do something I rarely choose to do and give myself over to the restaurant’s suggestions. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control (and no fault of the restaurant’s, either), the evening comes to an end before I can get a written version of the wines – almost all unfamiliar to me – so what follow are the only two names of which I’m certain. But there’s also a dark orange “white Burgundy” that’s not, as far as I can tell, actually an orange wine, several spiky reds (including one from sangiovese), and other highly individualistic offerings that sometimes range far beyond the borders of “mainstream” natural wines.

Do some of them taste like cider, white ale, lambic, distant cousins to vin jaune, or really almost anything but what one conceives of as “normal” wine? Yes. (Some don’t, and in fact taste quite familiar.) Some of them are good matches for the food and others are far too demanding of attention to coexist. I wouldn’t want an unending diet of such experiments, even the good ones. But to have one’s assumptions so aggressively challenged is both an intellectual and an emotional thrill-ride, and this is why I don’t choose between natural and traditional wines, but instead drink both. Yes, sometimes, one wonders why anyone would let certain fates befall otherwise defenseless grapes. But that’s exactly the point of natural wine as a philosophy, isn’t it? Risk is inherent in the genre. Universal pleasure is not.

Georges Laval Champagne Cumières 1er Cru Brut Nature (Champagne) – Foam, intensity, and the stench of brettanomyces. Not so much that it’s invalidating, but it’s there, so be warned. Otherwise, I like the wine a great deal, but this is a bit past my personal twitchiness point. (11/12)

Le Coste “Litrozzo” (Veneto) – Like drinking fizz without the usual trappings of wine that the fizz delivers. It’s pretty interesting, actually; if one considers bubbles or the sensation thereof to be a structural element, then this wine is all structure. What it really is, though, is all texture. (11/12)

Vivant Table’s room is somewhat uncomfortable, despite the quirky retro brilliance of the décor (rescued from the room’s previous incarnation), yet the slightly edgy discomfort matches the culinary and vinous experience on offer, and thus makes a certain amount of sense. Service is brusque in the very familiar French manner, which means you’ll get careful attention when someone’s at your side, but it’s best to not wish for things while they’re not. That said, at the end of our meal there’s an issue that requires a bunch of staff attention – again, nothing that’s the fault of the restaurant – in the face of which they couldn’t be kinder or more briskly attentive.

I read back over this review and see far more ambiguity and hedging than I really feel. There’s a perpetual debate amongst those who assign ratings to things and those who don’t, into which someone inevitably drops the cliché that the only rating that matters being whether or not one would repeat the experience. I don’t rate things, but I’ll answer the cliché: I’d go back to Vivant Table in a second. No matter how many weeks it takes to get in. Moreover, I love the restaurant, and part of that love is accepting that I will not love everything at the restaurant.

No, not accepting. Embracing.

wine & stairs at vivant caveI’ve a friend who complains that almost none of the wine bars that litter Paris are actually wine bars, but instead are restaurants with a lot of wine by the glass. I don’t really grasp the rigor of his definition, which seems to preclude either everything-but-charcuterie or seats (I forget which, possibly because I’m making fun of him), but I’d be tempted to draw the dividing line between places that feel like restaurants – sit, chat, graze in your own space – vs. places that feel like bars, in which one elbows up, through, and away, maintaining near-constant physical contact with one’s neighbors, or if seated feeling like a passel of them are hovering overhead and wishing you’d give up your seat. By that definition, Vivant Cave is very nearly a true wine bar; there are seats at the bar and a few around teetering tables at the back, but it’s…let’s call it physically convivial. The food – a few products-on-plates, a constantly-changing short list of quick assemblages – is inconsistent, though locals tell me the menu has gone through a fair number of changes since the bar’s (recent) opening. On two occasions, an octopus salad is vibrant and perfect, a stenchy andouillette is fine, blood sausage – which I’d find hard to believe is the same as served next door, though if it is they’re capable of mistreating it – is just OK. Two different preparations of burrata are magnificent.

Wines come from a short list of open bottles (though I suspect there’s almost always something else open, whim to whim), or from an elaborately-stocked case right at the wine bar’s narrowest point, the location of which makes for a lot of shoulder-jostling browsing. And unless one is completely steeped in the arcane nether-realms of natural wine, there’s going to be a lot here that’s unfamiliar, even to people who think they know the genre. As in: I’m offered a patently oxidized Loire gewurztraminer. (I pass.)

Fleury Champagne “Fleur de l’Europe” (Champagne) – Vibrant and lavishly present, with a tinge of oxygen-derived fullness and an ever-expanding sphere of sun-infused pastry. This is a wine for which the overused term “mouthfilling” might have been invented, even though that word is rarely applied to Champagne. Incredibly good. (10/12)

Courtois 2008 “Lard du Vin” (Loire) – Brett, check. Volatility, check. Sweaty naturalia, check. Structurally, it speaks of sauvignon blanc, but aromatically it’s on a different planet. I’ll say this for Courtois’ wines: they’re never boring. (10/12)

Piccinin 2009 “Bianco dei Muni” (Veneto) – Chardonnay & durella. This is the most tannic orange wine I’ve ever tasted, with a fierce chomp from sharp, razored incisors. Fruit-wise, I’m thinking blood orange and raspberry, but it’s that tannic saber-whip that truly marks the wine. (10/12)

Blanchard “Le Grand Cléré” (Loire) – Sauvignon blanc. Salted honeydew melon, pit sweat, and the bitterness of underripe almonds. It leaps and hops for attention, but it’s not great at holding same. (10/12)

Ducroux 2011 Régnié (Beaujolais) – Pomegranate. Vividly acidic, with a diagonal hack-slash of thin tannin and a long, crisp tail. I’m not entirely certain it has anything to do with Régnié, though as it airs the more muscular aspects of the cru do begin to peer from dark corners, but it’s pretty delicious anyway. (10/12)

Sénat 2011 Minervois “Mais où est donc Ornicar” (Languedoc) – Tasting this in an ultra-naturalista wine outpost is a bit strange for me. The wine, which I first tasted years ago (obviously from a different vintage) in Sénat’s cellar, seems almost shockingly conventional in this setting, surrounded as it is by the whimsical, the ideological, even the downright insane. In the context of its appellation it’s strikingly approachable, yet it retains the structural baggage and density of its source. Meaty, herbal, somewhat dark-fruited, but largely about muscularity and the weight of long-eroded, sun-drenched history. What sets this apart from other wines of the appellation, and the rest of Sénat’s wines, is a sense of space and air that can be penetrated by a palate unassisted by animal flesh or its analogues. I don’t always love this wine, finding it somewhat imbalanced in certain contexts, but either the vintage or the setting are very much working for me in this one. (11/12)

Henri Milan 2011 Vin de France “Le Papillon” Rouge (Provence) – Brittle, its acids volatile in the physical rather than chemical sense (though it has those too). It’s an old TV on which someone is twiddling the hue knob between red and violet, with no lack of static and that tactile electrical-field hum. Or perhaps it’s like a nouveau with structure. Or one of those push-up fruit-syrup freezer candies. It’s all those things, and it’s wine as well. (11/12)

Disclosure: in conversation with Pierre Jancou, I inquire about the availability of an older Overnoy Vin Jaune, an expensive and very difficult to obtain wine. It’s made clear that the deciding factor is not money so much as an understanding that the purchaser will properly appreciate the result. I am eventually able to buy the wine (not at a discount), so to the extent that this is special access deserving disclosure, I’ve now done so.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place. Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

The stars, like dust

dinner paintingWhile the world’s culinary landscape flows swiftly on to unknown horizons, the lords of French cuisine laze enthroned in their mountaintop fortresses, trapped by tradition and (at times) arrogance, kings of only that which their ancestors surveyed.

At least, that’s the conventional narrative. Like any such narrative, there’s some truth to it. An awful lot of French restaurants are more than content to rest on laurels that have long dried into aromatic irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the center of culinary gravity darts about the globe: Cataluña, Sydney, Hong Kong, Osaka, Chicago, the Basque lands, Copenhagen…even London, for heaven’s sake.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Yes, effortless diners will eat a lot of effortless cooking (I don’t mean that in a good way), and there’s a truly depressing conformity even among places that should know better. But, especially in the cities, there’s life, too. Starting with a return to ingredient-based cuisine – and France, though sometimes it seems to have forgotten, is laden and lardered with incredible ingredients to fill the famished – and moving on from there to the same sort of multiple-input experimentation that has energized dining all over the world.

One category of French restaurant, however, is unusually hobbled by resistance to change: the Michelin-starred. What should, by one standard, be the pinnacle of a nation’s deservedly famous edible narrative is, far too often, merely a vastly more expensive way to eat the same dishes available everywhere else, though with better knife-work and brilliantly-gilded tableware. Only infrequently are dishes less than exceptional works of craft (though it does happen, and it most certainly shouldn’t at those prices), but often that’s all they are. The time when French chefs’ creations were regularly on the tip of diners’ postprandial tongues is now decades in the past. And even when they’re referred to, it’s either a tribute band plodding its way through a hoary classic of yesteryear (like Alinea’s tournedos Rossini, painstakingly authentic and retro by design) or a well-worn yet affectionate quote from a literary master (like Manresa’s “Arpège egg”).

I feel little sympathy for French restaurants who care so little that they coast through mindless repetition of their alleged hits, even if that repetition is reasonably edible. But I do feel some sympathy for the starred, for their temples must sometimes feel an awful lot like prisons. A constant flow of well-heeled tourists and internationalites (as for better or worse, that’s who fills the seats) expecting the pinnacle of French dining, but also expecting it to be French and classic through whatever preconceptions they view those terms. Further, the cost of culinary risk-taking is higher than elsewhere; no one who’s traveled all the way to France and laid down a well-fed AMEX platinum wants the chef’s mid-afternoon dalliances and fleeting notions on the plate. They want the tried and true, but they want it better…well, actually, they want it perfected. That’s a tall order for any restaurant, and unfortunately it’s also the same order, over and over again.

There are several paths out of the trap. One is to give up the yoke of the system, and some chefs have done that…abandoning their stars, toques, and so forth to run focused places with limited menus (and limited seating). That is, in fact, where much of the most exciting French dining is to be found these days, and as a concept it sits comfortably aside the other trendlet: return-to-the-roots caves à manger, which offer the foundational traditions from which so many hidebound restaurants have strayed, but free of trappings and expense, and letting those great French ingredients speak for themselves.

Another is to reject the system on its merits (or lack thereof). Like a winemaker dropping an appellation to which they’re entitled working with strange grapes or techniques, giving up both the help and the restraint of guidebook or critical approval can be the first step on the path to the fullest expression of a chef’s passion. Michelin has learned some lessons outside France (and failed to learn those lessons elsewhere), but in France it remains a rigid defender of Michelin’s France.

The third is to cultivate a reputation for risk-taking from the very start. This is how Adrià, Redzepi, Aduriz, Achatz, and all the rest get away with their high-wire acts of culinary adventurousness, in which only the unwary and unprepared actually expect every dish to be a success. One attends their restaurants knowing one is paying for the performance, not just the script.

But here the French are at a disadvantage, because given their rigorously formalized path of advancement within kitchens, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone could rise to the top of the system without many years of predictable tasks, churning out the classics in very familiar trenches; tasks and classics that would suck the energy from even the most determined. French chefs simply don’t move from the line at Momofuku Ko straight to the top job at Le Grand Véfour, whereas talented risk-takers could easily make the jump from latter to the former. And to attempt to stay the course is to become every more firmly lodged in the vise. It’s a beautiful, gilded trap, but it’s still a trap.

There are escapees, however. The barriers are not impenetrable. There are chefs, even among the most renowned and étoile-laden, who push against boundaries both real and imagined. No, I don’t think there is an El Bulli analogue in the DNA of any French Michelin three-star of whom I’m aware (though its worth remembering that Adrià often credited the most creative of his French peers for inspiration), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t movement.

rabbitIn 2011, I had a double helping of Pierre Gagnaire. The first course was at the fascinating Forum des Images in the in-progress ruins of Paris’ Les Halles, a repository of individually-viewable films and video of all sorts. My French, alas, is not always up to vocal expressions of the native arts, but there was a short documentary about the culinary maestro, and it made for interesting and (more or less) comprehensible viewing.

The takeaway: Pierre Gagnaire is nuts.

Oh, he’s not crazy in the sense that he wanders naked down streets muttering about the aliens living in his brain. At least, I presume not. Rather, he’s the sort of “nuts” common to a lot of ultra-creative types, in which the relentless need – far beyond an urge or even a desire – to create leads not just to obsession, but obsessive dissatisfaction. An obsession that actually keeps him out of his kitchen during service, because his fiddling, nervous presence makes it impossible for his team to execute his dishes.

And this nervous energy, this relentless double-branched drive towards More and Different, is on every plate at his eponymous, lavishly-praised restaurant. At least, every plate I see. If there are restrained Gagnaire classics somewhere on this menu – and there might be – they pass neither my eyes nor my lips. More revelatory is the fact that there’s not only more than one idea on a plate, there’s almost always more than one dish on a plate. Sometimes a half-dozen or more. “Tuna” becomes a mezze platter of notions and whimsy around the core ingredient; whereas a modernist might cause the diner to wonder what they’re getting, Gagnaire leads one to wonder if there’s anything they’re not getting. It’s exciting, it’s overwhelming, and it’s bound to dissatisfy many as much as it thrills others.

The food at Gagnaire is all over the map. I don’t mean qualitatively – everything I try is extraordinary, and that isn’t a universally-shared experience of this restaurant, even among friends whose palates I usually trust – I mean stylistically. If there’s a center of gravity to this food, other than Gagnaire’s feverish flux, I can’t find it. There are obvious global influences, and Asia is referenced with some frequency, but little is geographically specific. Yet it’s not really “fusion,” either. More like a fan-spread glitter-shower of ideas, visually captivating but feeling refined only to the extent that at some point, someone arbitrarily stops the twiddling and adornment and expels some sort of product from the kitchen. I suspect that in the mind and kitchen of Pierre Gagnaire, little is ever “done.”

What about the ancillary matters? Service is what one wants from this type of restaurant, with more than a bit of cleverness when warranted. Décor is a little on the modernist power-broker side, but still within the expected range. The wine list is long enough and itself a bit modern, but I’ve no trouble finding wines worth drinking (which isn’t always the case at highly-starred establishments…see below).

Krug Champagne Brut “Grande Cuvée” (Champagne) – Rich and heady, but really not all that complex or interesting. It’s like gilding and jewel-encrusting a turnip, frankly; yes, it’s all shiny and sparkly, but what’s the real point? It’s still a turnip, and doesn’t want to be gilt. The wine’s elegant, and maybe the point is that one should feel elegant while one drinks it, but that’s really much more about the drinker than it is the wine itself. (4/11)

Boxler 2009 Riesling Brand (Alsace) – A little sweet, a lot heavy, a fair bit alcoholic. There’s still plenty of honeyed minerality and bronzed musculature, with the stone fruit and gold of the site evident, but it’s just too boozy for my taste, and I’m not sure this is a quality one will want to live with for long. I’d say I was surprised by this result, but a legendarily hot vineyard in a big year…unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all. Dismayed because of what it portends for globally-warmed Alsace. Disappointed that this came from an extremely reliable producer. But not surprised. (4/11)

Darroze “Domaine de Rieston” 1990 Bas-Armagnac (Southwest France) – Armagnac turned up to 11, or maybe even 12, in darkly-oaked intensity laden with succulent dried fruit. Showy and rather fantastic. It is not, I think, designed to appeal to lovers of older, more reticent and well-matured spirits, but it’s impossible to ignore and, frankly, very difficult not to like. (4/11)

The verdict? I’ve certainly had more adventurous meals in more freewheeling locales. I’ve had better meals in the sense that perfection seemed within their grasp, even from this exact type of restaurant in this very country. But this is without question the most interesting three-star meal I’ve had within the borders of France, and as I leave I’d describe the experience not as satisfaction, nor even as admiration, but instead as an overwhelmed variant of happiness tinged with fatigue.

rodin sculptureAs noted earlier, there are other ways to rattle the shackles, and one of them is to offer a jovial middle finger to tradition while remaining inside it. This is more or less what Alain Passard and his long love affair with vegetables have done at his minimalist, reductive Arpège. To maintain, even escalate, three-star pricing yet serve a meal consisting primarily of roots, flowers, fruits, and leaves takes a sizable pair of something Passard would probably not serve at this restaurant.

For years, the primary complaint I heard from dissatisfied post-Arpège diners was, “this much money for vegetables?” I take the point on its economic merits, and Arpège is breathtakingly expensive, but never agreed with the assumption behind it: that there is something inherently unworthy about vegetable cookery, that the heating of flesh is self-evidently more valuable. One doesn’t spend three-star money for ingredients, which – with rare exceptions, and (somewhat ironically) Arpège provides a number of them – a little work could procure for any home cook’s use. That three-stars tend to lay on the truffles and fattened liver rather thickly is, again, not something one needs three-stars for. Rather one pays a stratospheric tariff for the skill with which those ingredients are utilized. And it has rarely been said, even by his detractors, that Passard can’t cook.

Just a few steps down the street from Arpège is the Musée Rodin, filled with nakedly passionate revelations of the essential, in which that revelation animates qualities unknown to the medium without the intervention of the artist. That describes what a fair number of chefs do, as well. Were Arpège a museum of sculpture, it’d be filled not with recognizable objects, or even chips and shavings, but with the undefiled rocks and stones whence they came.

Passard remains a gracious host, and any chef this famous willing to sit in an empty corner of his restaurant during service and graze, slurp, and smile at departing patrons has a refreshingly comforting notion of what it is that he does; it’s fairly apparent that he sees himself less as a performance artist than as a cook. And that, whatever flaws he may or may not have, an inability to relax is not one of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the fact that, by the time I finally make it to his restaurant, animals are back on the menu reveals some slight diminution of focus. Every truly great dish I encounter is either entirely or in the majority comprised of plants, while the most disappointing bites are those in which plants play little to no role. Case in point: a plate in which nothing other than an array of seasonal vegetables, each cooked differently but with a perfection beyond perfection, is one of the most extraordinary statements of pure essentialism I’ve ever encountered. On the other hand, turbot – my favorite swimmer, and a fish that can be breathtaking in its singular complexity – is drowned in a gloppy cream and vin jaune sauce that utterly obliterates the fish (and doesn’t do much for the sauce, either). A you-can-read-through-it beet nigiri is an exquisite, naked pair of two perfect flavors (the beet and the rice), a beet “merguez” on the aforementioned place of vegetables is so good I fail to repress a gleeful laugh at the audacity of it, but chunks of poularde with another mélange of plants are nothing special and completely overshadowed by the continuing excellence of the vegetables (and, in this case, fruit).

The nadir is a chocolate mille-feuille that tastes like a pile of stale ashes and, aside from its wet core, is almost completely inedible. I have no idea whether this is a failure of intent or execution, but a failure it is. In fact, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.

The décor is really nothing at all, I’d suspect by intent. Service is on the casual side of what one might expect, which I think reflects the chef, but does no disservice to itself. The wine list is somewhat of a disappointment in that it shows neither the deep bench of classics some diners will expect, nor much interest in new directions in wine. That said, not “much” is not “none,” and there are a few dabblings with natural wine. Still, if one isn’t prepared to shower coin on still-too-young Names, drinking here is not as rewarding as it might otherwise be.

Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut Cuvée Rosé (Champagne) – Pink, and tastes of it. Sharp, fruity, clean, soon dead. Next. (11/12)

Alexandre Bain 2011 Pouilly-Fumé “Pierre Précieuse” (Loire) – Sweet, flabby, and more than a little bit insipid. I get that this is natural, but it’s horribly boring as well. Maybe it works as an apéritif. But it doesn’t even have the nervosity to be a German riesling stand-in. (11/12)

Comte de Saint Victor “Château de Pibarnon” 2000 Bandol (Provence) – Halfway to excellence, but the halfsies are evident in the disjointed structural imbalances, which are slightly stewy and tending towards the fluffy at the moment. That’s not, I think, where this wine will end up. Otherwise, there’s blackened meat liqueur and herbal tincture…a pretty classic Bandol signature, with a rocky underbelly seemingly characteristic of this house. Wait on it. (11/12)

Lhéraud 1973 Cognac Petite Champagne (Cognac) – Forcefully classy. Like drinking fine pastries, with a boozy core. Is it as complex as an Armagnac of similar age? No, but it’s silkier. There’s your tradeoff. (11/12)

I want to love Arpège. I do like it, the disaster of a dessert excepted. But of course, a restaurant at its externally- and internally-imposed level – and here I mean both reputation and price – doesn’t retain the freedom to just be liked. It needs to be loved.

And that is also part of the trap.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place (or, when there are no wine notes, an alternative indication will be provided). Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

Clothes do not make the woman

closeup of girlsWe lip-serve the idea that the moment of preconception is important. Dangerous from one perspective, necessary constancy from another. But from neither do we reject it outright. How could we? Our ability to navigate through life’s encounters is almost entirely dependent on the rapidity and accuracy with which we preconceive. It’s a vital skill.

But it’s also fraught. There are troubling aspects to preconception, to guesses that blind rather than enlighten. We try to avoid those instances, and properly so. But that doesn’t mean we can help but have them.

The art of illusion is a tool with which one can counter our disposition to preconceive. And while it’s practiced everywhere, few have raised it to the art of the Parisian female. I use that word, rather than “woman,” deliberately, because among the many ways that les double-X-chromosomed engage and dance with illusion is how they elide age.

Look at a group of American females, from a non-definitive distance, and guess their age based on their dress and demeanor. You’re likely to be correct far more often than not. Make that same guess in Paris, and you’re probably in for a surprise. The bold, showily-youthful fashionista on the sidewalk in front of you could be 16 or 60, and until you see their face you might have no way of knowing. Perhaps not even then.

This is, of course, of no actual consequence except to the questing lothario. (And again, perhaps not even then; the French revere both maturity and its opposite in ways that are unfamiliar to less broad-minded cultures.) But from a more observational standpoint it re-elevates the nearly-eroded air of mystery surrounding human interaction. It destabilizes the foundations of preconception and issues a direct challenge: each conception must now be earned. Answers now necessitate questions.

So it is with certain wines. Some demand an early demise, some remain ambered in eternal youth, some only learn to express themselves in complete sentences with the onset of maturity. And often, we “know” this preconceptually, without laying hand on bottle. Except, of course, sometimes we don’t. Some wines belie their age, in either direction. Wines can conform, but wines can also defy.

Installed in my Parisian rental, over several dinners with and without friends, one of the most counter-conceptual wines (hand-carried from a visit to the winery) provides an object lesson in the dangers of the temporal guessing-game. Not that anyone’s surprised about an ageworthy Rioja (though we usually don’t mean the pink version, which I sometimes feel López de Heredia gleefully unleashes in its faux-convalescence just to enjoy the shocked reactions of a jaded public), but that the house’s wines are just so bafflingly evasive about their current age and their future prospects. The only sure guide, in the absence of the usual clues, is history. The ultimate preconception.

R. López de Heredia 1997 Rioja “Gran Reserva” Viña Tondonia Rosado (Center-North) – Restrained. Very restrained. The bony, exposed-wrinkle structure of this wine…so unique among rosés…is a little more stretched than usual here. Even for Tondonia Rosado, this is bare and stark. There’s that skeletal minerality and steady-state, bell-tone fruit that tastes more like the desert in which one will either find appeal or not (I do), but the wine’s just…well, “tired” isn’t quite right, because it’s not faded beyond its intended form. Perhaps the best way to describe the wine is that it’s afflicted with a very slight pallor. (11/09)

R. López de Heredia 1981 Rioja Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva (Center-North) – Faded, antiqued red fruit – the lightest possible – with the sepia patina of age and a gritty, starting-to-disconnect texture. A fine-edged tannin scrapes, slowly, across the thin surface. The aromatics are lightly earthen and quite beautiful, but the palate is a bit tired and gasping. It’s a good wine, still, but I’d consider drinking it posthaste. (11/09)

R. López de Heredia 1981 Rioja Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva (Center-North) – Gorgeous old fruit aromatics of windowsill-cooled summer pie, wooden spice box, and soft suggestions of earth glide from the glass, but this is no fading beauty. On the contrary, the palate is fulsome and almost lush, with well-aged but still vibrant red fruit, more than a few hints of spice, and a great purity of texture. The acidity is strong enough that those who fear it will wish to take care, but otherwise it’s an exciting counterpoint to the suppleness of the balance of the wine. Mature, for sure, but probably nowhere close to decline. (11/09)

marie antoinetteEvery place that tourists go has restaurants to which all tourists go, until they (the restaurants, not the tourists) reach such a Yogi Berra-esque state of popularity that nobody goes except tourists. Usually, the establishment is well into decline at this point, having lost any economic motivation to perform beyond minimal expectations, at which point even tourists start to whisper in contravention. The next step is to litter the place with faux-authentic paraphernalia to re-entice those who’ve read the name in a guidebook somewhere, at which point no passersby can miss the lack of any ambition beyond the trapping of tourists. Restaurants can usually hang on in this fashion, like comestible zombies, for decades, as each new generation of suckers walks through the door.

Some respect is thus due to places that don’t really change. Much.

Les Deux Magots – No, highbrow celebrities no longer haunt its no-longer-smoke-wreathed tables, but there’s no mistaking why anyone goes here: the increasingly-distant memory of Sartre, Beauvoir, Hemingway, Camus, Picasso, and so forth. It must be in every guide book, and at any moment those many-languaged tomes rest atop virtually every table. But Les Deux Magots is by no means terrible, though there’s little reason for it to not be; the tourists will still come, I’m sure. It’s not great, either. It’s decent, perhaps just on the upper end of acceptably genial, though suffused with the impatient gruffness of Parisian waiters forced to decode questions in a dozen languages per hour. There’s a timeless feel to it, but that timelessness is curated rather than spontaneous; the reasons for which people will sit in these seats cannot recur. At least not here.

I’ve out-of-country guests who, given a list of venues for a quick beverage and bite, choose this over other area options. And why not? Sure, I’d perhaps rather be somewhere else, but why deny them their experience? Alongside a perfectly serviceable tuna and green asparagus quiche, I choose a glass of what’s a surprisingly notable wine from their short list.

Vincent Dauvissat 2007 Chablis La Forest 1er Cru (Chablis) – From a bottle that’s obviously been open a little too long, and so: faded rocks, mostly. There’s a lot of tactility and intensity, but the details of both are muted. I’d need a fresher bottle to say anything more useful about this wine. (3/11)

This is another installment in a temporally and structurally dissociated Parisian travelogue.

Pasta the mission

golden gate sunsetCowgirl Creamery Sidekick – Grilled cheese is nice.

Perbacco – A restaurant that feels a lot more mass-market and corporate than the food it serves, Perbacco is located where few would think quality Italian food would be on offer. And to be fair, it’s no La Ciccia. But neither is it some North Beach tourist trap. A menu of Italian classics is actually a menu of Italian classics, not the more common Italian-American alternatives, differentiated from the old world mostly via portion size; this isn’t a restaurant at which to arrive in a state of presatiation. The cooking’s good, mostly, though it lacks refinement.

The wine list, too, is long on the classics (and perhaps as a result, a little short on the adventure), but other than a bit of din I can’t find much to complain about.

Domaine Dupasquier 2004 Roussette de Savoie Altesse “Marestel” (Savoie) – Like drinking a wrench. An adjustable wrench. Firm columns of minerals in motion, circling a melting core of ice. See? A wrench! (11/11)

Alessandria 2004 Barolo Monvigliero (Piedmont) – Let me preface this note by saying that at the time I drink this wine, I’m in the early stages of what will eventually be a three-week misery of sickness, the worst I’ve experience since I was swaddled. So there’s every reason to suspect that my palate is not 100%, or at least of which 100% it might be capable. I mention this because I struggle to find aromatic interest in this wine, which is never a welcome absence in a nebbiolo. The structure, while certainly dominant, isn’t as forbidding as it could be. And there’s a lot of density to the wine. But other qualities…I’m just not seeing them. (11/11)

Chave 1994 Hermitage (Rhône) – At one time I owned some of this, back in the days when it was (relatively) reasonably priced. I don’t know what happened to mine, and I certainly drank it too early, because this bottle is where you’d want it…perhaps even a touch past that point…with a grittier, tooth-baring edge to its columnar masculinity. (Sometimes, a masculine column is just a masculine column. Or Chave Hermitage. Same thing.) (11/11)

The Saison of the wretch

tattered paint & laundrySaison – Some relationships go wrong from the start. Others fall apart over time. In either case, the reasons are usually clear to all involved parties. But there’s a third sort of devolvement: a collapse that comes out of the clear blue, seemingly without reason or precursor.

If I’m moved to complain about a restaurant (rather than just report various types of mediocrity; it’s a big world out there, with no lack of alternatives) it’s usually due to a mix of good and bad that clearly doesn’t have to be, a frustration with a place that should be doing better. The truly inexcusable is a very rare event indeed. And whenever I’ve encountered in it the past, it has been a holistic experience: a restaurant failing on every conceivable level. But with all that as preface, I’ve never been as baffled by a dining experience as that at Saison, a restaurant that serves fine, occasionally brilliant food and pairs it with the worst wine experience I have ever encountered. Ever.

Let’s back up. Saison is a restaurant of massive, naked ambition. Tucked into the end of a faux-rustic alleyway in a gives-one-pause Mission-district nowhereness, it makes quite a few demands on the diner: come to this out of the way place, eat what we tell you to eat at the pace we prefer (and at an extravagant price), and then spring for the taxi home.

That’s coupled with the star-quality (critics would add star-fucking) pretensions of the restaurant, in which a lot of useful space is given over to design elements, and in which the chef spends the last hour or so of service posing for photos with adoring fans, almost all of them double-X-chromosomed and many of them more or less blonde-at-the-moment. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as the restaurant delivers.

Which it does, from the kitchen, and thus the chef can be excused his posing and preening. It’s not, looking at a sample menu, entirely clear what the restaurant intends: California/pan-Pacific cuisine relentlessly upscaled, modernist/molecular extrapolation, or something in-between? Well, at least on my night, it’s much more the former than the latter, arranged as multi-course explorations of an idea more than a progression from taste to taste. There is unquestioned technique on the plates, and some of it isn’t exactly detailed in Larousse, but at very few points is one trying to puzzle out a strange transformation of form or substance. Mostly, things are recognizable, even when combined in odd ways.

There are, as with any meal of this type and ambition, missteps and imperfect ideas. But the great majority of dishes are at worst very good, and at best surpassing. Pacing is mostly excellent, delivered by a waitstaff that can speak knowledgably and enticingly about the food, and which has no problem going to the kitchen for a point of clarification when asked.

So if I could rewind the clock and go to Saison to eat, eschewing alcoholic beverages, I would be a wholehearted, perhaps even enthusiastic, advocate for the place. Even though it’s expensive and (one hears) about to get rather dramatically more expensive. Even though it’s a tough reservation. Even though it’s the exact opposite of “have it your way” dining.

Alas, I make the mistake of ordering wine…

There are, on the night of my reservation, at least two dedicated wine waters. I don’t know if they’re sommeliers or not (I restrict my use of that term to those with certification; a quirk of mine), but there’s one that’s clearly in charge and another that’s clearly his support. We get the in-charge one. At least until…well, let’s not jump to the end of the story quite yet.

The wine list is a little odd. It’s quite long, conspicuously expensive (no real surprise given the environment), and it has a fair number of prestige names, but even in that realm there’s a bit of discomfiting wrong producer/wrong vintage oddity, like a musician who knows all the notes to a famous song but has no idea how it actually sounds. When it roams afield, it picks up a substantial number of names I’ve never heard of. Now, I’m sure that’s most non-oenogeeks’ experience of wine lists, but it’s pretty unusual for me to look at page after page of wines and wonder, “who is that?”

Nonetheless, there’s plenty that seems worth ordering and from that subdivision I select two bottles: a riesling with a little age and a Rippon Pinot Noir with more, from an intriguing two-vintage vertical of a Central Otago wine that one doesn’t often see on American wine lists. I ask for the older of the two.

Champagne is offered as an accompaniment to the first courses, which are a series of musings around the idea of eggs:

Feuillatte Champagne Brut “Réserve Particulière” (Champagne) – Broad and uninteresting, its cute little apple and ripe lemon decorations ultimately adorning nothing of actual substance. (11/11)

It’s a decidedly un-ambitious Champagne for such an ambitious restaurant, but indifference to by-the-glass sparkling wine is hardly specific to Saison (at least it’s not Veuve). But then, the problems begin.

Another egg dish. Another pour of Champagne. Yet another egg dish. More refilling. At this point, I’d prefer the riesling I ordered, as I begin to wonder if it will be consumable by the time the meal moves into its red wine phase. There’s a multi-course pause (as the by now incredibly tedious Champagne continues to be resupplied), then the head wine guy arrives to inform me that the riesling is no longer available.

Running out of a wine is no big deal, of course. It happens. It would, admittedly, have been nice to learn this earlier in the meal, so an alternative could have been selected. But he has instead arrived with his own replacement, and it’s a very odd one given that what I’d wanted was a riesling. While I also appreciate initiative on the part of wine directors, and am more than open to suggestions from the best of them, I prefer those suggestions have either a relation to what I’ve tried to order or a firmly-stated justification for their substitution (appropriateness with the food, personal enthusiasm, whatever). Neither seems to be the case here.

Brocard 2008 Chablis 1er Cru Vau de Vey (Chablis) – Chardonnay. By which I mean: yes, it’s ostensibly Chablis, but really it’s just French chardonnay with a restrained hand on the manipulative tiller, in the very tiny pond through which the captain of this wine is motivated to navigate. (11/11)

I push back a bit, but at the pace with which wine transactions are happening, I fear that a request for the wine list will result in a long stretch with no wine at all. Thus, I take the path of least resistance and (reluctantly) accept the alternative. I can already tell that I’m not being listened to, that my preferences are being pushed aside by the wine waiter, but as my dining companion and I are having a generally excellent time, and as I’m in the mood for neither stridency nor argumentation, I let it go.

Bad choice.

Despite not getting the wine I’d wanted, I am offered the opportunity to conduct 100% of my own wine service vis-à-vis the Chablis. This despite several pointed two-empty-glasses stretches in which the wine duo is standing motionless in front of a cabinet, doing nothing, and I’m doing my (fruitless) best to stare them down. In any case, eventually there’s no more of the mediocre Chablis, either, and I finally manage to flag the inattentive wine guy down and ask after my pinot noir.

Another long pause. A very, very long pause. Red meat has started to arrive, I know there’s not a whole lot of it before the sweet stuff takes over, and there’s still no wine on the table.

In the interim, I am offered yet another stopgap wine: a wretchedly oaky white Burgundy. Really? At this point I’ve had enough, and reject the choice, asking more insistently for the Rippon I’ve ordered.

More delays. I’m now eating game meats and really wishing I had some red wine. Finally – one sees it coming – I’m informed that the Rippon is also out of stock. The obvious thing to do would be to offer the other vintage as a substitute, but I strongly suspect it, too, would not be found. One begins to wonder, at this point, how much of the seemingly lengthy wine list is actually represented in the restaurant’s cellar. One wonders, more pointedly, why this information could not have been communicated much earlier in the meal.

But, as I now see, this has never been about my getting what I want. This has been, and is, about drinking the wines Mr. Wine Guy wants me to drink. A state of affairs to which I do not at all object, if 1) approached forthrightly, and 2) my preferences and reactions are actually considered.

Neither is the case here. The restaurant’s menu nudges one in the direction of a series of pre-selected pairings, but I’m only inclined to accept those if I trust the judgment of the selector. Which, at this point, I’m glad I didn’t.

The next make-up wine is announced as a Graillot Crozes-Hermitage. Well…hey! I like Graillot. Everything’s about to be forgiven, right?

But…but…wait. What is this over-concentrated, oaky mess in my glass? This can’t be Graillot, can it? It’s just impossible.

(maybe) Maxime Graillot “Domaine des Lises” 2009 Crozes-Hermitage (Rhône) – Heavy, woody, impenetrably dense, and dead-fruited; if certain financially semi-solvent Australian importers of past repute (and bacon-of-the-month clubs) had ever worked in the Rhône, this is the sort of wine they’d have sought. I’m given to understand that there’s a familial connection to the great Alain Graillot here; if true, this is an embarrassment to his name. (11/11)

Now, I offer the above note as half-speculation, half-sarcasm. It’s pure hypothesis, because I don’t see the label (assuming, as it’s poured, that what I’m getting must be the Graillot with which I’m familiar). But I simply cannot believe that the Graillot I know and love could produce this sort of monstrosity. Given a choice between concluding that the domaine has abruptly gone to hell or that Saison has offered me the relational alternative (or for all I know, something else entirely), I’m going to go with my palate. I cannot prove this, of course, which is why it’s a conditional note.

Additional glasses of Bizarro Graillot are not offered, either, so as the last few animal flesh courses come and go flanked by mostly-empty wine glasses (I admit to repeatedly going back to the wine, trying to figure out how it can possibly be Graillot), I’m torn between wishing someone would notice this and being glad they don’t. But when Wine Guy finally returns to the table and asks after the Graillot, I don’t hold back the full expression of my distaste. Nor does my dining companion.

Well – the proposal comes – how about a barbera, which will be (it is asserted) an excellent match for the interstitial salad? My exasperation is reaching critical levels, but at this point I’m a little desperate, and agree to give it a taste. Unfortunately, a “taste” isn’t offered. It’s just poured, in both glasses, and then walked quickly away. It’s an oaky, flabby monstrosity of a wine, and after a tentative sip the rest goes untouched.

Now, with two full glasses (as the last of the semi-savory courses disappears) providing the coda to what has been a series of increasingly disastrous interactions between customer and Wine Chief, one might think that some efforts towards recompense would be in order, and I start preparing the politest possible conversation I might have to accomplish that. I don’t mean monetary recompense, I mean: let’s have a conversation, Mr. Wine Guy, and figure out if there’s something on this list that I’d actually like to drink. Because at this point, I’m rather thirsty for something that tastes like wine rather than ego. But no. This is the point where things take a turn from the sub-competent to the unbelievably absurd.

There are about five courses left. About an hour’s worth of dining. There are two full glasses of opaque oak juice on the table, just sitting there begging for some sort of attention, removal, replacement, or at least comment. And I will not see either of the wine waiters at my table until every one of those courses has been consumed and the plates taken away. Dessert wine? Digestifs? Not, on this night, an option.

Well, no. The above is not precisely true, regarding the wine waiters. I see them – they’re standing about fifteen or twenty feet away, at their station. But they don’t approach the table. The head guy won’t even look in my direction, despite five-minute laser-like stares in his as he stands, motionless aside from pointless fiddling with some sort of wine-opening implement, looking anywhere and everywhere at nothing in particular. At one point I slide my seat back, looking as if I’m about to stand up, and as if electrocuted he immediately scurries into the kitchen and disappears. The kitchen. (He doesn’t exit said kitchen carrying anything.) He is overtly, pointedly, avoiding me. Or more precisely, hiding from me.

One waitress – I need to re-emphasize that food service here is of an exemplary standard – intuitively picks up on our dissatisfaction. She apologizes profusely, but what can she do? I ask to speak to Wine Guy. Or the manager.

I get neither (the manager is, apparently, not on site). Twenty-five minutes pass, the waitress with whom we’ve shared our unhappiness repeatedly returning to our table to apologize and, in a quieter voice, to commiserate. In the most cowardly act (or rather, failure to act ) yet, Wine Guy completely disappears and his assistant – who has had nothing to do with our table – is dispatched to offer the apologies that Wine Guy is obviously too chicken-shit to offer.

The fact is, I have no heart for the tongue-lashing I’m desperate to deliver. Because nothing is this guy’s fault, really. It requires mind-reading on my part to say so with confidence, but he clearly looks miserable about his assigned task. He apologizes scores of times, as the inevitable anger eventually does rise in my voice, but lacking time travel there’s nothing that can be fixed. The evening has been more or less ruined, he knows it, and he’s been sent to do the dirty work of the person who is actually at fault. Ultimately, I’m somewhat sympathetic to his plight (I’m at least gratified that someone has the cojones to apologize; in the absence of a manager maybe the chef might have, were he not otherwise engaged in modeling and flirting), but the one thing I cannot be is happy.

The offer is made to remove the wine – all the wine – from the bill. Since I haven’t actually ordered any of the wine that’s going to appear on said bill, I can’t say that I mind, and so I accept the offer. I once again consider escalating my complaint, but really, what’s the point? The only other thing I could extract is more money, and while the restaurant as a whole is responsible for my dissatisfaction, there’s nothing they could offer me at this point that would make up for their failures. And it’s not like I’m ever going to come back. Were this the very last dining option in San Francisco, I’d choose takeout from Safeway. So, deciding the evening has already been enough of a disaster, I accept the offer to not pay for wine I didn’t order and ask for a bill for the rest.

Our waitress gets a fine tip, along with a firm instruction that no matter the official or unofficial restaurant policy, not one penny is to be shared with the wine staff.

The glorious codas to the evening are twofold. Near the meal’s end, I head outside to seek the restrooms, having not seen Wine Guy in ages and hoping that he’s slunk home in shame. Of course, he hasn’t: he’s standing in the alley smoking what must be the world’s longest-lasting cigarette. He sees me and whips around to stare at something fascinating on the completely featureless wall. I slow to consider all the various cutting remarks that could vent my anger towards its true target, but again find no solace in the prospect. The evening’s already irretrievable, and I can’t imagine Wine Guy doesn’t know who ruined it, given his pathetic cowering and slinking. The most I can manage is a dismissive, French-style exhalation of disgust as I pass.

When it’s time to leave I ask for a taxi, as one must. Which doesn’t arrive. I walk back inside and ask again. Still no taxi. I walk back inside a third time – the restaurant is empty and breaking down their tables at this point – and ask yet again, beginning to wonder if the wine staff is in charge of transportation. At this point, a taxi passes on the otherwise mostly dark, entirely desolate street – not a taxi that’s been called, by the way, just one that happens to be driving by – and I’m delivered far away from this unbelievable evening.

Saison is a restaurant with Michelin-starred ambitions. Of this they make no secret. And it’s a very, very pricey meal, especially in the context of San Francisco dining. There’s no question that they can cook. But what they offer on my night isn’t amateur hour, isn’t even failure unworthy of critical recognition, it’s a debasement of the very concept of service itself. And did the restaurant not do so many things vastly better than well, I’d dismiss it as unworthy of this level of reportage. But it’s not. It can’t be. If it wishes to play amongst the adults, it must be judged as one of them.

So there it is: the worst wine service I have ever experienced. I pray there will be no future contender, but one thing I know for certain: Saison will never get another chance.

Disclaimer: if you’ve been reading this far you already know this, but 100% of the wine is comped by the restaurant.

Nopa, no gain

rodinnopa – Operating this evening (and, one suspects, most evenings) as a high-pitched zoo, which is a testament to its popularity. A popularity not in the least unwarranted, given the quality of what I eat. The wine list is good, though it could be a little more aggressive in its adventures, but the swagger of the cooking is beyond reproach.

I’m here with a pair of winemakers, and thus the conversation and attention are mostly focused on their works and words, so I’d like to come back and pay more attention to the dining experience. One of these days…

Cowan Cellars 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Silver Pines (Sonoma Mountain) – Thick, with light apricot sweetness and a sorbet texture (which is not to imply residual sugar or the simulacrum thereof beyond that previously indicated). Frankly, this reminds me rather powerfully of Radikon’s early efforts. That’s a compliment. But it’s not an entirely complete wine. (11/11)

Cowan Cellars 2010 “Isa” (Lake County) – Airy pomegranate with a silky texture. Dense, long, and sandy, like drinking a desert wind. This is very accomplished. (11/11)

Chermette “Domaine du Vissoux” 2008 Fleurie Poncié (Beaujolais) – Closed and weird. And I don’t discount the possibility that there’s something wrong with this bottle. (11/11)

Ridge 1995 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – 62% zinfandel. Oak perfume (I refuse to call Paul Draper a barrel, or even a tree), dust, and sweat. Silky blackberries on a bed of seeds and rocks. This is a wine at the perfect midpoint between post-primary fruit and maturity, with neither wresting the majority. (11/11)

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino Macharnudo Alto “18” (Jerez) – Overwhelming almonds. Dry, dry, dry, and dry with a side of dry. Extremely long. Rather a slap upside the context; this is a wine that exceeds most of its potential frames. (11/11)

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino Macharnudo Alto “15” (Jerez) – Like drinking upholstery. This is much more restrained and muddled than an 18 consumed on the same night, and suffers for it; were it allowed its own spotlight, matters might be different. But at this moment, it’s muffled and insufficient. (11/11)

Disclaimer: we negotiate a reduction in the usual corkage, given the presence of winemakers and their wares. The two Cowan Cellars wines are provided by their winemaker, and I believe this to be the case with the Ridge as well, though I may be misconstruing employment dates.


sunsetBurma Superstar – I hear there are better Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area. But this one has an advantage other than name and reputation, in that they’ve paid some attention to the rest of the story: smiling, beyond-helpful service, a tiny yet very decent micro-list of wine and beer (for those inclined to cavil: is there a better wine list at a Burmese restaurant? anywhere?), and…of course…delicious food. Could there be “more” on the plate? Perhaps – I don’t know Burmese cuisine – but what’s offered is eminently delicious.

Trumer Pils (Berkeley) – Clean, basic, internally-frothy and true to style, though it’s my ongoing impression that West Coast breweries do their representatives of each style in a lighter fashion than their East Coast counterparts; since I’ve “come up” drinking the latter, as it were, the former always seem a little wan. (11/11)

Camino royale

golden gate park botanical poolCamino – It did not used to be the case that one left San Francisco for Oakland to dine, except in search of non-Western European cuisines that had been priced out of SF. There were a few good options, nice for meeting folks who lived on the other side of the Bay and were tired of always having to make the westward journey, but SF remained the center of gravity. Now, however, the pace of change appears to be accelerating, which is fun for Bay Area diners but has to be really exciting – and perhaps somewhat of a relief – for Oakland residents. Camino is as talked-about as any of the city’s a-birthing establishments, and so it’s a pleasure to cross the water and give it a try.

Cocktails: excellent. Atmosphere: fun and warm, vibing not entirely unlike a Rockies ski lodge, a feel that suits the extensive use of fire in the kitchen. Wine list: I never see it, so I don’t know. Service: very friendly.

Food…well: much is good, some is tentative, some is just OK. The hype may slightly outpace the quality, or I’m here on an off night. On the other hand, there’s no obvious reason why the kitchen couldn’t turn out consistently excellent food…what flaws there are on my night (mostly of conception and balance rather than execution) don’t appear to be systemic. I’d come back, but I wouldn’t rush.

Belluard 2009 Vin de Savoie Terroir du Mont-Blanc “Grand Jousses” Cépage Altesse (Savoie) – Flat plains of minerality, broadened to the horizon. Yet despite the breadth there’s a nervousness to the wine, a tension. And on the gripping hand, shyly floral flashes. I’d say this needs time, even on the night, but it’s gone like summer lightning…which, by itself, says something. (11/11)

Saumon 2009 Montlouis-sur-Loire Le Clos de Chêne (Loire) – I struggle with this wine, which seems surly and imbalanced…not in conception, necessarily, but as if it’s throwing a kind of tantrum. Waxed minerals, pollen, white petals, tenderness, but not one of these elements is willing to play with, or even look at, the others. I’ll wait for a bottle that’s had its nap, or is at least free of colic, before saying more. (11/11)

Arnot-Roberts 2010 Trousseau Luchsinger (Clear Lake) – Zinging all over the place, with spike-driven fruit of surprising weight giving its piercing tartness, somewhat leaden structure, and a lot of confused thrashing for a finish. This tastes like an experiment. (11/11)

Edmunds St. John 2005 Syrah Bassetti (San Louis Obispo County) – Something I thought I might never taste: a mature Bassetti. Well, mature-ish. OK, not mature at all. There’s certainly no hurry. If there’s any benefit to Old World analogues, this is the Hermitage versus some of Steve’s less hyper-masculine syrahs, but it’s important to stress that it doesn’t actually taste anything like Hermitage; the only real commonality is the firmness of its structure, which is still quite evident. Otherwise, the dark fruit has roasted into soy-drizzled walnuts and dark herbs, porcini dust plays a role, and the lingering impression is one of persistent solidity. Very, very impressive. (11/11)

Disclaimer: the Belluard and Saumon are provided by a dining companion who imports the wines.


roast poultryHog Island Oyster Bar – The lavishness of my usual 4- or 5-dozen oyster orgy is mitigated by the presence of an unfamiliar face, and thus I’m forced to behave in matters bivalvual. But there’s just nothing to not love about this place. Terrific food, quite decent beer, wine, and sake, and the Ferry Building premium doesn’t seem all that punishing here.

Métaireau “Domaine du Grand Mouton” 2010 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine Sur Lie “Petit Mouton” (Loire) – Muscadet-by-the-numbers. Abraded shells and slightly saline acidity, light-bodied, clean and soon absent. Frankly, I expect more from this producer. (11/11)

Tartine wolf

juan marichalBar Tartine – When I lived in Boston, I often complained about the dining scene (or more precisely, the eating scene). “But…don’t,” confused interlocutors would object, “we have great ingredients and talented chefs?” Unquestionably yes to the first, especially piscatorial, and a more tentative “a few” to the second. But what Boston always lacked was a vibrant midrange. Fine dining was more or less as fine as anywhere not an American fine-dining mecca (thus excluding Chicago and New York, for example), but the possibilities for inexpensive yet adventurous and high-quality eating were few-to-nonexistent.

I think of Bar Tartine (San Francisco is a city rife with exactly the sort of establishment I mean) as an exemplar of the form. From what I can tell they go through chefs like other kitchens go through towels (that may be a mistaken impression), but as long as the food’s good, who really cares? There’s a non-Western European tinge to the current menu, which is a delicious diversion from the norm, and while the food retains its primary quality of “good stuff cooked well,” there’s just enough that’s unfamiliar and fun to make this a destination worth returning to again and again, just to see what’s up. The wine list is good, too.

Broc Cellars 2009 Roussanne (El Dorado) – Tastes natural, but not Natural…by which I mean it tastes like an authentic attempt to express roussanne (I’ve not had sufficient El Dorado County roussanne to speak to terroir-expression) without the trappings of biological spoilage or cultish ephemerae, but with one foot in the orange wine camp. But anyway: stone fruit, adhesive and dense, with a mysterious sense of space illuminated in ultraviolet. And then, tannic. Let’s not leave out the macerative component, perhaps not (strictly speaking) roussanne-as-roussanne, but which in this case provides more of a contrapuntal complexity than a true rethinking. (11/11)

La Crotta di Vegneron 2007 Vin d’Ardèche Gamay (Rhône) – Brittle gamay, not fully “ripe” in that the fruit lacks flesh, but with its own appeal as a result. Tinny, perhaps, or put more charitably: high-toned without being overly volatile, and crisp. Lengthily crisp. Crisply long. Whichever. (11/11)

The Cagliari of the wild

sf rainbowLa Ciccia – The relationship between hype and execution is frequently one marked indifference, seething resentment, and serial infidelity. And it’s thoroughly individualized; there exists no devotional object for which there is not proportional loathing.

Still, it is very, very difficult to find anyone of demonstrable reliability…that is, we may exclude Yelp…who has anything bad to say about La Ciccia, aside from carping about extreme popularity and its effect on reservations. That speaks of something. And yet, despite a near-relentless “go, go, just go” drumbeat from friends and trusted acquaintances, somehow I’d managed to avoid the place over multiple visits to the Bay Area.

Were I as flexible as my (imaginatively auto-fictionalized) boyhood self, I’d be kicking my posterior right now. Since I’m not, I’ll have to settle for doing it verbally. Every single thing I eat here – ranging from yanked-from-the-ground simple to a sophisticated balancing of aggressive flavors that would overwhelm a lesser kitchen – is cooked perfectly. Not well. Not pleasantly. Perfectly. Including easy-to-mangle organs, parts, and eccentricities, but also including the basics of noodle, muscle, and salt-water bather. The service is, delightfully, that of a bustling Italian kitchen above which live  and sleep three generations of family. And the wine list is…

…OK, here’s a minor complaint: I hate the way the wine list is organized. But the insanely expansive demonstration of vinous Sardiniana is impossible to criticize beyond issues taxonomic.

There are very few things I insist on doing each and every time I’m in a much-visited place. Lunch at Le Comptoir in Paris might be one. Perhaps a seat at the bar at Drink Boston. La Ciccia is now on that list.

Boxler 1996 Riesling Sommerberg “L31E” (Alsace) – Bracing. Gorgeously semi-mature, its metals golden and its acids rounder but still crystal-clear as they pierce the wine’s heart. What residual sugar there once might have been (I no longer recall the wine in its youth) is now no more than a slightly clouded polish on the shiny core, though it would be difficult to say that the wine presents as “dry”…its aspect is too lavish for that. (11/11)

Dettori “Badde Nigolosu” 2008 Romagnia Rosso “Ottomarzo” (Sardinia) – The walloping stank of immense volatile acidity…and not much else. VA is my “thing,” yes, but I can’t get past it here. This wine is grossly, impenetrably flawed. I appreciate the prose middle finger to convention and marketability on the back label, in which they insist on their right to produce wines like this, but while I like many Dettori wines a great deal and have absolutely adored some as works of near-genius, this is not one of them. This is horrible. (11/11)

Contini 1998 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Like drinking preservation. Not any specific method of, but preservation itself. This sense of unsatisfied temporal tension awaiting content is almost specific to vernaccia di Oristano, for my palate, and sets it apart from so many other flor wines with much more self-generated qualities. Vernaccia di Oristano always seems like it’s expecting something that hasn’t yet happened. (11/11)


santa barbara fogIn-n-Out Burger – I know, I know. It goes against everything I believe about ingredient sourcing. Sometimes, I’m weak. And sometimes, I’m driving from Ballard to San Francisco on a tight schedule and the need for faster food enables my weakness.

As always, avoid the horrible fries.


Terroir – They’ve moved a few seats around. A few folks behind the bar are new. The same old wines have a few new neighbors, no small number of them from a niche importer that just happens to be the former owner and an ex-employee. Other than that, not a single thing of import (sorry) has changed.

One of the unfortunate things about most American wine bars is that they’re not actually wine bars. They’re restaurants that have more than the usual number of wines by the glass. That’s not such a bad thing in theory – eating is a good, and frequently necessary, companion to drinking – but in practice it obliterates the concept, because it makes it impossible to “use” the establishment as a wine bar (except at eccentric hours) because the seats are occupied by long-term commitments rather than three-glass stands.

santa barbara post officeI mention this not because Terroir is, by contrast, so obviously a real wine bar, but because the very complaints that some have about it (in which I’d find both agreement and disagreement) – marginally-comfortable-at-best seats, a little bit of attitude – actually help preserve its function. People come in, they have some wine and a few snacks, and they leave, opening up room for someone else. And those who don’t are the deeply-committed.

Or the should-be-committed. One of the two.

Belluard 2009 Vin de Savoie Terroir du Mont Blanc “Les Alpes Cépage Gringet” (Savoie) – This unfolds very slowly, but by the second or third chapter you realize you’re rapt. At first, it’s just a nice little Alpine white with an edge of something vaguely nutty or floral. But then there’s plot development, a narrative, an ebb and flow and characters move in and out of the story in an orderly fashion. Complexities are those of soil and sky: liquid minerals, yes, but also hues and qualities of light. The end comes with a richer, rounder, and more satisfying story than was evident at the beginning (and being closer to room than cellar temperature doesn’t hurt in this regard, either). I kinda love this. (11/11)

P·U·R 2010 Morgon Cote du Py (Beaujuolais) – Hmmm. Like half a Morgon – the brawling (for Beaujolais), muscular part – without any of the rest that makes it a complete wine. It’s chalky, angular, and void. There’s hesitation from the staff as I’m served this, hesitation as we (“we” including folks who’ve had it elsewhere, with better results) drink it, and a post-consumption questioning by the server that indicates to me none of the involved parties were entirely happy with this bottle’s performance. So I’m going to guess this is unrepresentative until presented with evidence to the contrary…especially as I can’t believe that so many of my like-palated friends have simultaneously lost said palates. (11/11)