When it reopens on Tuesday (August 23), I suspect that Au Passage, a terrific new wine bar tucked away in a funky lane between the Place de la Republique and the Place de la Bastille may be taken by storm, because people have been talking about this place all summer. I went just before the team here, which includes some really nice Spring alumni--Audrey, former hostess at the restaurant, and talented Australian chef James Henry, who was part of the kitchen cast, took a much needed summer break, and not only was the food very good but it was a lot of fun.
A perfect example of one of the most welcome recent trends in Paris--relaxed and affordable wine bars serving interesting small plates and 'natural' or organic wines (others include Le Dauphin, Vivant, Les Fines Gueules, Frenchie Wine Bar, and Le Verre Vole), it occupies an old atelier space and is furnished with an appealing mix of flea-market finds (N.B. The decor may have changed, because they were planning a major renovation during the summer). The chalkboard menu changes daily, but runs to edgy modern French comfort food that offer delicious cameos of James Henry's fertile culinary imagination, and it's quickly become one of the most popular addresses in town with the smart, younger tribe of chefs, wine merchants and food writers who are propelling the wine-bar trend. Everyone seems to know each other, so there's a lot of chatting between tables and stepping outside with glass of wine for some fresh air or a smoke. It doesn't feel clubby, though--everyone's welcome and there's zero attitude here. Instead, this crew really seems to enjoy what they do and in sharing it.
Just sitting at the table with a glass of white wine waiting for my friend Ona, a glamorous Turkish journalist who's new in town, I was having a good time, which led me to reflect on the fact that good hospitality is often the X factor in a restaurant. A chef can be really talented but if he or she and their team don't actually like the front of house side of this business, which is greeting and serving, a restaurant can fall flat, a regretable example of same being Guillaume Delage's just opened Aux Verres de Contact (reviewed below). Chefs who don't like their customers make me think of travel writers who disdain tourists, it just doesn't make sense. Anyway, the crowd here was clearly having a great time, and it became more obvious to me than ever that this new breed of wine bar have filled the gap left behind my the rolling demise of Paris's traditional neighborhood bistros, i.e. casual, affordable places where you get a good feed while having a great night out. As they've become rarer but still much sought-after many bistros have gone decidedly upmarket in terms of their prices and serving style, a case in point being Au Bon Accueil in the 7th arrondissement.
When Ona showed up, tousled but beaming after an assignation with a very famous French business man (married, bien sur), it took me a while to figure out what she meant by "I hoped it would not become like Mr. Rarfeller," which I finally realized was a surprisingly arcane reference to Nelson Rockefeller's amorous demise--you just never know what's going to come out of this one's mouth, and that's why she's so much fun. That solved, I wasn't interested in more details, so we ordered a bottle of Loire Valley coteaux de Giennois and savaged the menu. We started with a salad of Joël Thiébault vegetables, octopus and squid and a terrific vaguely Catalan dish of seared tuna chunks, mussels and tomatoes with just a whisper of saffron and pimenton in the light mayonnais-y sauce, and both were delicious wolfed down with real country bread--thick crusted and tangy, made by chef Thierry Breton of Chez Michel, which is one of my favorite bistros even though it now runs 50 Euros a head--restaurant prices have gone through the roof in Paris this year.
Though it's become pretty ubiquitous, we also ordered some burrata with heirloom tomatoes--I can't ever get enough burrata, that creamy cousin of mozzarella from Apuglia, and glasses of an excellent red Sancerre from Pinoz Dauny to go with a superb steak tartare and the best dish of the evening, which was seared steak with kimchi style cornichons that James Henry had made himself. Though there's doubtless some arcane Parisian law against doing so (drinking in a public space), everyone ended up taking their bottles outside and standing around chatting until 2.30am under umbrellas in a driving but warm summer rain storm. This is a swell spot, and I'm sure I'll be here often this Fall.
Because he's a very good chef, I'm sure I'll also give Guillaume Delage's Aux Verres de Contact another try, too, but my meal here with Bruno and friends Laurent and Carole didn't hit the sweet spot I'd been hoping for. Delage is the chef of Jadis, a bistro in the 15th that I've been crowing about for a while, but I haven't been back there for the last couple of months either. Why? It's dispriting to travel to such a remote location--Jadis is in the deep 15th near the Porte de Versailles, and experience exasperated and long-suffering service. The waiters at Aux Verre de Contact were friendlier than the dining room staff at Jadis--and mind you, I don't like Saint-Bernard-in-heat-style all-over-you service at all, but still distracted and absent minded. Our aperitif glasses were still on the table when we paid our bill, and a request for some much needed salt elicited a rolled eyes response; I wish restaurants would just put the salt and pepper on the table and be done with it. The absence of this duo often communicates a chef-knows-better sort of attitude that's never a good sign.
As four, we were able to eat our way through most of Aux Verre de Contact's menu, and if the food was pretty good, it was also very expensive for it was and everyone hated having to order side dishes at additional expense. Among our starters, Laurent's marinated herring was the star, athough the warm potato salad mentioned on the menu had been replaced by lentils vinaigrette with no warning; Bruno's marinated salmon was decent but dull; and Carole's salade du jour of roasted peppers and little balls of goat cheese brought catered business lunches to mind. My shrimp with curried vegetables and smoked duck breast didn't really coalesce in terms of tastes and textures either.
Main courses were pretty to look at and better-than-average, too, but none of them were memorable. I had to ask for the aioli that came with my cod, and the overcooked fish really needed it, too, but Bruno's steak tartare was excellent--as well it should have been for 23 Euros with a few leaves of salad and a couple of soggy fries. Seventeen Euros seemed like an awful lot of money for a couple of fried eggs with ratatouille and a few slices of smoked tuna, which is what Carole had, and Laurent would have liked his pork breast both crunchier and more tender, too.
Since I like Delage's cooking so much, and it was my idea to come here, I was more tempered in my opinions than the other three. The kitchen obviously cooks with excellent produce, and I'd much rather eat here than at any brasserie I can think of, but in the end, I had to agree with Laurent's assessment of the meal: "Pas mal, mais trop cher et service a revoir" or "Not bad, but too expensive, and the service needs work." Dog days of August oblige, I'll give Aux Verres de Contact another chance, but really hope they move over to a prix-fixe format before I come back.
Au Passage, 1 bis passage Saint Sébastien, 11th, Tel. 01-43-55-07-52. Metro: Sébastien Froissart, Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Average 30 Euros.
Aux Verres de Contact, 52 boulevard Saint-Germain, 5th, Tel. 01-46-34-58-02, Metro: Maubert Mutualite. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday. Average 40 Euros.