After a week in the Beaujolais countryside drinking only cru Beaujolais, Paris and its free-spirited and eclectic wine bars beckoned. I had been collecting addresses from winemakers I had visited and was eager to check out the new crop of bars à vin and look in on a couple of old favorites.
Wine bars are as integral to the fabric of Paris as cafes and bistros, convivial places to pop in for a glass of wine or a conversation. Many of this latest wave are in the same young, diverse neighborhood the terrorists hit to such devastating effect in November, two weeks after my visit.
Most don't take reservations. And many, anchors on their street or block, are about the size of a studio apartment. It's come early or late if you want to get a seat; add a third or a fourth to your party and you may wait even longer for a table. But if you're just one or two, you can often find a seat at the bar.
Four years before, the 11th and 12th arrondissements were just heating up, and I found my way to Le Verre Volé and incredibly minuscule Vivant. Now even more wine bars and restaurants have opened in the 11th and 12th arrondissements. "It's all happening on the Right Bank these days," my old friend Luis told me. "And the vibrant scene draws a diverse crowd from all over Paris."
Septime La Cave
First stop: Septime La Cave, around the corner from the highly regarded restaurant Septime. This minuscule wine bar opens at 4 p.m., when the hungry can pop in for bites prepared by Septime's kitchen. Nothing hot but plenty of charcuterie, cheese and inventive salads. Al Green bleated from the stereo. Wine boxes were stacked everywhere. And a young woman shelving the bottles asked, "To drink here or take out?" The board lists just more than a dozen wines by the glass — and the staff's bottle picks. Most of the 200 selections in the glass-fronted cabinets are natural wines, many with whimsical, hand-drawn labels from small producers all over France.
My husband, Fred, and I settled onto two of the four stools and ordered a glass of Roussillon and goat cheese with crusty country bread and a bowl of delicious fat white beans with trout roe and crème fraîche. When two guys came in asking for a white Bordeaux, the bartender steered them toward a Greek Assyritiko instead, described with a few well-chosen adjectives.
Info: 3 Rue Basfroi, 011-33-1-43-67-14-87, www.septime-charonne.fr
La Buvette de Camille
Before we left, the woman gave us the address of another neighborhood wine bar: La Buvette de Camille. This place, in the 11th arrondissement, is even tinier.
There's a poetic display of wine bottles, old photos and clocks in the window as well as a handful of tables with mismatched chairs. Proprietress Camille Fourmont wrote the day's dishes in white on a mirror — terrine de volaille, fresh ricotta with quince jam and carefully sourced charcuterie cut by hand. A dish of marinated sardines strewn with dried flowers was wonderful with a Vouvray Le Facteur sur le Vélo from the Loire Valley.
Fourmont also sells 50 or so wines by the bottle to drink in or take out. Her selection seemed very personal and the prices were low, but then this is not a super-gentrified part of the 11th. A friend stopped to say hello, pecking her on the cheeks before heading off into the dusk.
Info: 67 Rue Saint-Maur, 011-33-9-83-56-94-11
Le Siffleur de Ballons
I was charmed by the warmth and friendliness of Septime La Cave and La Buvette and was sure if I showed up a couple of times more, I'd feel like a regular.
Years ago, when I was studying wine in Paris, bars à vins weren't as passionately curated and rarely had the focus the best ones have today. They were great places to grab a bite and a glass of often generic Sancerre or Beaujolais. But they weren't nearly as welcoming.
This new generation of wine bars is staffed by cool kids you would want to hang with if you were interested in wine and lived in Paris. Even one of these new-style bars would go a long way toward alleviating the loneliness of living in a big city.
They're affordable too. At many, if you buy a bottle, you pay the retail price plus a 7 or 8 euro corkage fee (about $9).
Aaron Ayscough, a former Mozza Group sommelier who has lived in Paris the last six years and writes the blog Not Drinking Poison in Paris, turned me on to Le Siffleur de Ballons in the 12th arrondissement, which he characterized as the coolest wine bar right now. And everybody seemed to know it.
By 8 p.m. the place was packed. Servers squeezed between the tables and through the standing crowd to deliver wine and big platters of cheese and charcuterie. That's basically what is offered, but you can also order a sirloin steak for two (in our case, three) with roasted potatoes and a vinegary salad from the restaurant across the street.
We took our glasses of Mâcon outside until the family eating at a small counter facing the window stood up to leave. Then we swooped in to grab that space, ordered our steaks and a beautiful bottle of Bréton Bourgueil, stashing our coats and hats on the stack of wine boxes beneath. After, we repaired to the restaurant across the way to continue the conversation with glasses of Calvados, the French apple brandy.
Info: 34 Rue de Cîteaux; 011-33-1-58-51-14-04, www.lesiffleurdeballons.net
Au Passage takes reservations only for the first seating, and those are snapped up quickly. If you go early, say at 7 p.m. when it opens, the bar is all yours. It was fun to sit there with a glass of Champagne and watch the staff set up, dancing to old rock 'n' roll and slicing charcuterie.
This place has a larger menu than most, a chef who cooked at famed St. John Restaurant in London, and a high-energy crowd. The wine list was something of a mystery: Line after line read "vin de France" rather than a specific appellation such as Chinon or Chablis.
Fortunately, there was a sommelier on hand to help out: We went with something classic — a Crozes-Hermitage. Large oysters on the half shell had a bracing salt tang, and the octopus a la plancha was terrific, charred on the outside and so tender inside it was almost creamy.
We happily tucked into rabbit braised with fennel and polished off the meal with quince, vanilla macarons and coffee ice cream.
Info: 1 bis, Passage Saint-Sébastien; 011-33-1-43-55-07-52, www.restaurant-aupassage.fr
Friends and colleagues recommended Clamato (another offshoot of Septime) over and over again, always with the caveat that it was impossible to get in unless you lined up before it opened at 7 p.m. On weekends, it's open nonstop from noon on.
At 2:30 on a Sunday, we immediately nabbed two seats at the bar.
The menu is all seafood, so we ordered one of the few Italian wines on the list, the Foradori Manzoni Bianco. Its minerality was perfect with a plate of bulots, or whelks, with curry mayonnaise. Thick-crusted bread came in a waxed cotton bag.
Next up: octopus again, this time with huge white beans in a piquant salsa verde. Sweet, finely sliced raw scallops came with sliced daikon in a carrot-stained dressing. And cauliflower arrived as a huge chunk standing tall on the plate, strewn with wild mussels and drenched in brown butter with capers.
Dessert was a maple syrup tart with a billowy scoop of softly whipped cream. Fantastic. I would have come back a few more times if I had longer in Paris.
Info: 80 Rue de Charonne; 011-33-1-43-72-74-53, www.septime-charonne.fr
Willi's Wine Bar
On Saturday, after the Porte de Vanves flea market, we stopped in at an old favorite, Willi's Wine Bar, for a very civilized brunch. The Brit-owned wine bar specializes in wines of the Rhône (and in labels that you do recognize and covet), but that doesn't mean there aren't fine choices from all over France.
Zind-Humbrecht's Riesling "Thann" accompanied a "parfait" of wild rabbit served in a glass jar with its gelée and rafts of toast, and a fluffy, yeast-raised blini topped with smoked salmon and crème fraîche.
Note: Those handsome limited-edition Willi's Wine Bar posters on the wall commissioned every year for the last 35 years are for sale. Ask for the catalog.
Info: 13 Rue des Petits Champs; 011-33-1-42-61-05-09, www.williswinebar.com
Years ago I spent some magical evenings at Le Baratin, and on this trip I went back, half afraid it wouldn't live up to my memories.
The place looked the same when I ventured in for lunch. And when I tasted Raquel Carena's soulful cooking again, I almost cried.
The 18-euro (about $20) lunch included a thick, tangy watercress soup or leeks in vinaigrette showered with hard-boiled egg yolk, followed by a stewed lamb neck with sweet peppers and rice or a crisp, flaky fish on smashed potatoes.
Outside, Carena's husband, Pinouche Pinoteau, who runs the front of the house, propped his glass of rouge on the back of his motorcycle as he chatted with two friends. The decanters were still on the bar, the menu scrawled on a big blackboard brought around to each of the tables, the crowd the same eccentric mix.
Before we left, I asked Carena what she was cooking for dinner that night. "I have to reflect," she told me, sitting down at a table with pencil and paper.
I would have given anything to have had one more day to eat her food and raid Le Baratin's cellar.
Info: 3 Rue Jouye-Rouve; 011-33-1-43-49-39-70
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