If you’re heading off to Paris — and there should always be some excuse to do that — you’ll find yourself rewarded not only bythe obvious (museums, food, the sheer beauty and magnificence of it all), but also with a bounty of natural wines, wine bars, restaurants and wine shops in every arrondissement. The natural wine scene is exploding all over France. I had the privilege of being there recently, and set out on a mission to check out as many as possible. Even in a week you can’t hit them all. Some are already well known, but here are a few spots you may not be familiar with, and well worth checking out.
Six years ago, I walked past this place and saw a window full of natural wine bottles calling my name. Unfortunately, they were closed for the day, it being Sunday, but the image stuck with me all these years. Coincidentally, we met a vigneron at the Dive Bouteille in Saumur who happened to highly recommend it, so of course I had to make it a priority.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Buttes aux Cailles is a neighborhood on a hill near the Place D’Italie in the 13th. It’s more like a little village than an urban neighborhood, one where you can almost forget that you’re in a huge city. Tandem is on Rue de Buttes aux Cailles and is run by Nicolas (front of the house) and Philippe (the kitchen). They’re a charming team, and they seem to be the entire staff.
The food is extraordinary and classic, the wine list a who’s-who of the natural wine world: Henri Milan, Claude Courtois, Lemasson, Mathieu Coste, Xavier Benier, Fouassier, Gilles Bley and on and on. After your meal, take a walk down the Villa Daviel and discover a tree-lined street lined with single family homes that look like they belong in the countryside. A wonderful find and a memorable experience.
La Cave De L’insolite
Axel and Arnaud are brothers who own this relaxed, cozy wine bar/restaurant in the heart of the trendy 11th. There’s a fire going in the fireplace, communal and private tables, a spiral staircase going up to another dining area and a wall full of all natural and very affordable wines.
You can drop in and buy one to take it home, or add 7euros to the bottle price and have it right at your table. There are wines by the glass as well, of course. The food is simple, clean, fresh, not heavy or expensive, and all of the ingredients are touted as biodynamic. There’s a different killer risotto every day, and every dish comes with fresh organic vegetables. I lingered over my lunch because I wanted to enjoy it all, and I did. You walk out of there feeling very satisfied, not stuffed. Before you leave, however, stop in the bathrooms downstairs for an extra-added surprise.
Aux Tonneaux Des Halles
A 1920’s brasserie in the heart of tourist-land, Les Halles? A menu that’s an homage to classic heart attack food? Have I lost my mind? Not at all, because not only is the food good big retro grub, but someone had the genius idea to pair it with a fantastic natural wine list.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just get a hankering for a meal that’s all wrong health-wise, something along the lines of oeufs mayonnaise to start, followed up by a hefty-sized steak frites (marrow bone on the side), and washed down with a hearty red. That’s exactly what I did, but I justified it because the red was a Mas Foulaquier l’Orphee Pic St-Loup ’11, biodynamic/organic, hence better for me, right? Seriously, the food, for what it is, was perfectly delicious, perfectly executed, and perfectly what the doctor ordered.
The wine list was a revelation. Besides the Foulaquier, there was Descombe VV Brouilly, Foillard Fleurie, and miracle of miracles, L’Anglore Chemin de la Brune, to name a few of the many surprises. It just all worked, including the décor, which looked like it hadn’t been touched in decades. So if you get tired of food that looks like foam, and portions that are the size of a golf ball, wander on over to Les Halles, plop down on a nice old red banquette and chow down. It’s open everyday, all day, and late at night. And don’t forget to order a bottle of Tribouley VdP des Cotes Catalanes Orchis while you’re at it.
Le Baratin & Le Chapeau Melon
If you’re heading east to the Belleville section of Paris for a great wine experience, chances are you’re going to Le Baratin, an iconic wine bar for the “in the know” foodies/winers. That was my motivation, and it did not disappoint. Le Baratin doesn’t need the PR, but it is worth saying that it’s a great spot with wonderful natural wines and an excellent menu. If you ask, you can indulge in a glass or carafe of a mystery wine to taste blind, especially if they think you know what you’re doing.
So enjoy Le Baratin, but after lunch wander over a few blocks to Le Chapeau Melon and check out one great cave a manger. Olivier Camus owns it, and was the former co-owner of Le Baratin. As he tells it, he just wanted to open a wine shop, but quickly found that he couldn’t do enough business just selling wines. According to Olivier, Parisians no longer travel outside of their neighborhoods to get things like food and wine to bring home. So he was forced into serving food in order to attract more customers. As a result, he’s now known more for his food than his wines.
One customer commented on how much he liked the wine bottle “decorations” on the restaurant walls. I confess I did not eat there, because I had just had lunch at Le Baratin, but I did go on a shopping spree, ending with four bottles to be enjoyed during the remainder of the week. Olivier’s kitchen has a great reputation, his wine selection is superb, and he’s one of the few places open Sundays for dinner. Another plus is that Belleville is just a great neighborhood, not yet totally gentrified - but hurry.
Les Fines Gueules
A great corner spot next to the Place de la Victoire, a creative Japanese chef, a young enthusiastic owner (Serge), a well stocked natural wine list and reasonable prices. How could you go wrong? I didn’t, on a sunny, hint-of-spring-in-the-air Sunday afternoon.
It all starts perfectly, because every wine in the place is available by the glass or carafe, as well as by the bottle. You want to try a wine, but not sure what it is, and not positive you’ll like it? No problem, they’ll pop it open and pour you a glass. Right away you’re in a good mood, and it continues with entrees like two poached eggs in a light cèpe cream sauce with shaved black truffles on top. That’ll get your attention. The rest is equally inventive and well prepared, and the ambience is just right. I can imagine it gets crazy at night being so near the Bourse, which would be fun too, but on weekends it hits the spot if you’re looking for a quiet, light bite and natural wines. Bordeaux need not apply, we’re talking the Savoie, Jura, Loire and Rhone Valley. I even had a wine I used to sell in my wine shop. It was great to enjoy an old friend.
Ah, so many places, so little time. But here are a few more that are definitely worth trying. Some of them I’ve been to, others were recommended by vignerons, waiters and owners of other natural wine bars in Paris. Given the sources, I figure they’re a solid bet.
Le Verre Vole (10e) Le Nansouty (18e) Vivant (10e) O Divin (19e) La Nouvelle Mairie (5e) Abri (10e) Aux Deux Amis (10e)