Paris wine shops offer good food at bargain prices

As the rest of the world embraces French-inspired gastronomic luxury, young Parisians are becoming more casual, seeking out good food and wines at bargain prices.
By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bertrand Bluy doesn't fit the image of a pastry chef. A towering man with a shiny shaved head and a frame as solid as a brick oven, he speaks with a guttural southwestern French accent that conjures a rugby forward rather than someone who has studied the art of mille-feuille.

Yet for more than a decade, Bluy worked as a chef patissier in some of France's elite kitchens, including Troisgros in Roanne and Paris's legendary Michelin three-star restaurant Taillevent.

His world changed in 2003, after a friend found a wine store, or cave, for sale in Paris's 5th arrondissement, and Bluy decided to open his own place. He quit the precious, pressured world of Michelin stars and transformed the space into the kind of bistro that he'd want to hang out in with his rugby pals.

Les Papilles (30 Rue Gay-Lussac, 33 (0)1 43 25 20 79. Reservations. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner) is a long storefront with a zinc bar along one wall and, lining the opposite wall, shelves filled with gourmet products and more than 350 French wines ranging from a modest Gaillac red for about $12 to such high-priced Bordeaux as a 1997 Lafite Rothschild (about $485).

During a recent lunch, all 15 wood-and-iron bistro tables were occupied mostly by Parisians stimulating their papilles (taste buds) with the delicately seasoned specials of the day -- gazpacho of fresh mushrooms followed by slow-simmered duck flank in a sweet and pungent sauce with new potatoes and vegetables -- as well as farm-made cheeses and Bluy's inventive desserts. It was a sensory experience worthy of a great gastronomic restaurant but at prices that probably will keep most of us coming back, and served family-style by Bluy and a small bluejeans-clad staff. (About $24 for the plat du jour; about $46 for a full four-course meal.)

To sweeten the deal, those bottles on the wall can be purchased for carryout at retail prices or can be opened during lunch or dinner for a corkage fee of about $10, instead of the usual restaurant markup of up to 400 percent. That seemed to delight a trio of diners so much that they felt like sharing. They offered their neighbor -- moi -- pours from a bottle of smooth Grenache-based red from Collioure, on the French-Spanish Mediterranean border, that sells for about $30.

As a singular experience, Les Papilles would be worth writing home about. But it's more than that: a symbol of a long and steady trend that has accelerated in recent years. Even before the current global recession, as the rest of the world was getting fancier and embracing French-inspired gastronomy and luxury, new generations in Paris have gone more casual, insisting on good comfort food and wines at a fraction of the cost of traditional restaurant fare. Among the new-style eateries are caves à manger, wine shops that double as wine bars or bistros and serve a variety of dishes, from plates of charcuterie and cheese to a meal that creates lasting impressions.

"People are looking for a place that is convivial, where everything is fresh, where the wine is good and it's not expensive," says Bluy, who adds that he uses many of the same fresh-food suppliers as Taillevent.

For wine lovers accustomed to paying high restaurant prices, Paris's caves offer a chance to taste a variety of wines from across France -- from the Loire to the Rhone and from Alsace to Languedoc and Provence -- at prices not much higher than those in a wine store. Selections of wines by the glass rarely top $9.

Jacques Dupont, the influential wine critic for France's Le Point magazine, calls the trend of caves à mangers a "reaction to high wine prices." But he says there are other factors at work as well: The popularity of caves is a reaction to a politically correct climate in the current French workplace that frowns on afternoon wine drinking. These relaxed settings are particularly popular with a younger clientele and usually specialize in small wine producers and "natural wines," made from non-chemically farmed grapes and produced with little or no sulfur, added yeasts or filtering.

The caves also offer something even more valuable to visitors: a glimpse of Paris that is more authentic -- at times more rustic -- than at the bistros and restaurants on the city's main boulevards.

On a series of recent cave crawls, I ate and drank with friends, relatives and fellow bons vivants from both sides of the Atlantic. Here is a list of other places I'll go back to.

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