In Paris, a Vintage Spot for a Wine Fix

Wine-lovers and Yorkshire terriers are equally welcome at Caves Petrissans, an old-school Parisian bistro.
Wine-lovers and Yorkshire terriers are equally welcome at Caves Petrissans, an old-school Parisian bistro. (By John Whiting)
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Paris has several modern, new and even trendy wine bars. Caves Petrissans is not one of them.

A 110-year-old, family-run wine merchant with bistro in a chic neighborhood north of the Arc de Triomphe, Caves Petrissans is strictly old school: cracked tile floors, worn wood paneling, a faithful clientele as old as the chairs and tables. They keep coming back for such dinner specials as beef tongue on Tuesday, pork loin on Wednesday, wild boar on Thursday and fish on Friday.

Entering the place on a Monday night, my wife, 11-year-old son and I encountered a jolly group of locals smoking and drinking up a storm at the small bar near the front door. A Yorkshire terrier sat on a bar stool -- introduced to us by her mistress as Vanille.

Caves Petrissans is one bar/dining room with two smaller rooms into which small bistro tables are tightly packed. Because we had asked to sit in the nonsmoking section, we were seated in the smallest of the rooms, precariously close to the kitchen's swinging doors. (The French parliament is considering a nationwide ban on smoking in public places, but until that's put in place and actually enforced, visitors should expect to breathe the fumes of France's favorite cigarette, les Marlboros.)

Yet when it comes to atmospherics, few wine bars measure up to Caves Petrissans, Paris's self-proclaimed Banque du Vin.

The 800 or so bottles on the list of this "wine bank" are primarily from France's Big Three wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone. You can order any bottle at store price and pay a 20-euro (about $24) corkage fee. Bottle prices range from about $19 for a pedestrian Burgundy and climb up into the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it stratosphere of Petrus and Romanee-Conti. Caves Petrissans also offers a changing selection of wines sold by the bottle or the glass.

My wife and I opted for the wines by the glass at the top end of the $4 to $14 price range. Why stick with one bottle when we could sample one with each course? The wines by the glass offered the perfect opportunity to pair wines with different foods -- something that proprietor Marie-Christine Allemoz proved happy to help with.

Madame Allemoz, whose Basque great-grandfather founded the place, wasn't very happy that we ordered salads as appetizers (vinegar and wine aren't the best combination, but after three days in Paris we were desperate for some fresh greens.) She nevertheless indulged us and counseled a light red, slightly earthy Loire Valley Bourgueil 2000 from Les Grandmonts vineyard.

For the main course, I chose the daily special of bavette d'aloyau al'echalote , a thin-cut sirloin, which I ordered seignant ("bloody" rare). This beautifully tender steak came smothered in shallots, served with pan-fried potatoes and a jar of mustard for dabbing.

My wife and son ordered chicken in a tarragon cream sauce, which looked sadly monochromatic on the plate but tasted fresh and aromatically delicious.

These were dishes that could stand a big wine, and we went with the Cote Rotie (northern Rhone) selection of the moment: Jean-Michel Gerin's "Champin Le Seigneur" 2001. In France, Cote Rotie is the northern limit of Syrah cultivation, and the wines are at once powerful and elegant. This wine was high on the power scale, with a nice whiff of barnyard that was followed by a basket of fruit and other aromas.

Dessert was a terrine of fresh figs covered in warmed and toasted sabayon, French for zabaglione -- the frothy Italian sauce of eggs, sugar and wine. At the suggestion of Madame Allemoz, we enjoyed it with two glasses of sweet, amber-colored Hungarian Tokay.

The combination led me to blurt spontaneously that if I were ever condemned to death, this would be my last dessert and my last glass of wine. A server passing by responded that he would pass the compliment on to the chef. He then disappeared behind those flapping doors.

Of course, if this were my last meal, I thought, I'd have chosen another table. I might even be tempted to sit with the smokers.

-- Robert Camuto

Caves Petrissans (011-33-1-42-27-52-03) is at 30 bis Avenue Niel in the 17th arrondissement. Closed weekends. About $40 per person for a three-course dinner.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company