Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Taste of 132 Year-Old California Vines

At the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers in San Francisco Bay's Carquinez Strait, ancient vines have witnessed California history for the past 132 years. Today, the Evangelho Vineyard, where these centenarian vines are planted, is unfazed by progress. Its vines stand defiantly surrounded by a PG&E plant, a Burger King, and a seedy motel. They don't make vines like these anymore.

The vineyard consists mainly of Mourvedre and Carignan vines, but there is also Zinfandel, Palomino, Alicante, and Mission. These gnarly vines are still planted on their own roots, scoffing at the phlloxera epidemic that plagued not just California but all of Europe. Because the vineyard is dry-farmed (not irrigated), the vines fetch their own water deep underground using their well-established roots. They're happy to grow as bush vines without trellis support, flaunting the zigzag curves of their massive trunks.

Bedrock Wine Co., a Sonoma Valley winery founded and run by the young Morgan Twain-Peterson in 2007, is one of the brightest stars among the new generation of California wine producers. The winery focuses on producing wines from Northern California's heritage vineyards-vineyards that were established in the 19th century and early 20th century whose vines survive to this day.

Bedrock Wine's 2012 Evangelho Vineyard Heritage red is beautifully crafted, deeply flavored, and expressive of the awesome fruit source for this wine.

Contra Costa County Red "Evangelho Vineyard", Bedrock Wine Co. 2012 $31.00

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Not a Trick But A Treat--Devilishly Real Cabernet Franc

"It's better to make small real wines that fake great wines", said the famous oenologist Emile Peynaud. For the past 20 years Christine and Joel Menard of Domaine des Sablonettes have adhered to this principle, lovingly tending their small 13-hectare vineyard. They run their domain to very exacting standards, applying biodynamic methods, and as a result produce stunning, natural wines--vinifying only with wild yeasts and not chaptalizing or filtering. What they make are wines that are devilishly real.

I adore this 2010 Le Bon Petit Diable. 100% Cabernet Franc from 20 year-old vines planted in schist in the Anjou region. It's light, bright gushing with luscious red fruits. This is a most refreshing red to drink anytime of the year, but its bright, vibrant flavors make fall's hearty dishes taste even more delicious.

Vin de France "Le Bon Petit Diable", Domaine des Sablonnettes 2010

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ployez-Jacquemart's Dazzling Champagnes

Yesterday was Global Champagne Day. But here at the store Champagne Day came a day early as Laurence Ployez, proprietor and winemaker at Ployez-Jacquemart in Ludes, Montagne de Reims, stopped by Thursday to lead us, including some very fortunate attendees who signed up, to a dazzling tasting of not 4, not 5, but 7 of her excellent Champagnes, including four different vintage Champagnes. A bravura performance. We pulled out all the stops, and for just a tasting fee of $20! It is the second year in a row that Laurence has graced us with her presence. We are the only wine store in the San Francisco Bay Area where she does this tasting event. I can't wait to host her again in October of next year.

Even among highly touted grower-producers, I don't find one that surpasses Ployez-Jacquemart for quality-price ratio. For example, the basic non-vintage Extra Brut, which now consists of 2008 as the base wine with a dosage of less than 5 grams, is priced at just $43. To find a Champagne of comparable austerity and finesse you would have to spend more. And what about the unique non-vintage Champagne that Laurence makes in very small quantities called the "Passion". The current release consists mainly of 2006 and the rest 2005. The wines are aged in Burgundy barrels for two years before en tirage. This has remarkable richness and complexity for a non-vintage, and at $49 is a stunning value.

Ployez-Jacquemart is based in the Montagne de Reims with vineyards in Ludes and Mailly totaling two hectares. Most of the fruit is purchased directly from growers with long-term relationships. And not just any grower, but only grower-producers that bottle their own Champagne, thus they care about the quality of the fruit they grow. The Montagne de Reims is known for its excellent Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier-based Champagnes. Ployez produces Champagnes of remarkable purity and finesse with very low dosage to highlight the superb base wine.

Champagne Extra Brut, Ployez-Jacquemart NV $43.00 (order)

Champagne Extra Brut Rose, Ployez-Jacquemart NV $49.00 (order)

Champagne Extra Brut "Passion", Ployez-Jacquemart NV $49.00 (order)

Champagne Extra Brut "Liesse D'Harbonville", Ployez-Jacquemart 1998 $135.00 (order)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Congratulations to All Spice San Mateo

News travel fast when it comes to Michelin awards. So today the Twitterati was abuzz with the 2014 Michelin Guide San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country on the eve of its publication. All Spice in San Mateo, CA received a Michelin Star, the first time I believe a San Mateo restaurant has been given the coveted award.

I find this noteworthy because All Spice is not only in our backyard, but in early 2011, when the restaurant had been opened for just a few months, Vineyard Gate held a wine dinner there featuring the 2008 Domaine Jean-Marie Fourrier red Burgundies.

The refined dishes, French in preparation but Indian-inspired, paired deliciously with the young, fresh-tasting Burgundies. It was an eye-opening kind of food pairing. Everyone who attended had a great time. I couldn't have pulled it off without the help of Shoshana, the co-owner, manager, and wine director of All Spice.

All Spice first received a Michelin star last year in the 2013 Guide, almost two years after opening for business.* Good to see Bibendum continues to toast its excellence.

All Spice
1602 S. El Camino Real
San Mateo, California
Open only for dinner Tuesday-Saturday

*Note: Corrected. 2014 Guide is the second time All Spice was awarded a Michelin Star, not the first, as previously stated.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sève d'Automne

During a trip to South West France five years ago, I woke up near Pau at the foot of the Pyrénées mountains and felt I was in heaven. The cool morning air was still and the view of the snow-covered Pyrénées that rose up to the sky before me was majestic. The only sound breaking the silence was the rushing water from a nearby stream.

I was reluctant to stop my reverie but I had an appointment to catch at Domaine Cauhapé in nearby Monein in the heart of the Jurançon wine region. I was excited to meet the proprietor and winemaker Henri Ramonteu and to taste his wines for the first time.

The domaine is widely regarded as one of the greatest producers in South West France. It is praised mainly for its very affordable sweet wines, which can embarrass more expensive rivals from Sauternes, Alsace, and the Loire. Didier Dagueneau was captivated by the sweet wines of Jurançon, and expanded there before his ufortunate demise.

Despite his lofty reputation, Henri Ramonteu is unknown to most wine drinkers, which really says a lot about the overlooked South West wine region. I spent the entire morning tasting through different vintages of all the domaine's wines, both dry and sweet. The dry wines consist mainly of the Gros Manseng grape, while the sweet wines are made from Petit Manseng. Harvest in Jurançon occurs late in the year, starting in October for the dry wines and continuing through November and December--sometimes up to January (!)--for the sweet wines.

The vineyards face south and southeast, with the vines espalier-trained not only to protect them from the frost in the harsh mountain climate, but also to catch the warm south winds late in the season that dessicate the berries and turn them to raisins for the sweet wines.

Despite his success, Henri Ramonteu is not resting on his laurels. For him, the challenge now is to make equally great dry wines.

The potential was very clear when I tasted a few vintages of his vivid dry Jurançon Sec "Sève d'Automne" (autumn sap). A blend of 70% Gros Manseng and 30% Petit Manseng from vines averaging more than 30 years-old. The grapes were picked at the end of October and the wine was aged on the lees in used barrels for about a year before bottling. Its richness makes it versatile with food, including meat dishes.

By the time I finished the appointment it was early afternoon and I was famished. Tastings make me hungry. Henri Ramonteu suggested that I go check out a traditional Béarnise restaurant in town, L'Estaminet. He called the restaurant to book me and he also took the liberty to order the special plate of the house, which consisted of: friton de canard, 1/2 pied de porc tiède en vinaigrette, ris d'agneau, tomate, salade, asperge et médaillon de foie gras, confit de canard. It was like a heart attack on a plate, but it seemed like everyone in the restaurant was having the same thing. The plate was enormous, but I almost finished it, helped along by a bottle of Jurançon Sec and a bottle of off-dry Jurançon. I wanted to take a nap afterwards, but the next appointment was waiting.

Jurançon Sec "Sève d'Automne", Domaine Cauhapé 2009 375ml $17.00 (order)

Jurançon "Symphonie de Novembre", Domaine Cauhapé 2009 375ml $22.00 (order)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fettuccine and Chanterelles With Amontillado

A favorite mushroom in season right now is chanterelle (girolle). Chanterelles, like porcini, command a high price when out of season, about $30 to $40 a pound. But right now they could be had for the irresistible price of $7 to $10 a pound.

I wasted no time picking up a bagful of chanterelles on sale for $9.99 a pound. My only thought afterwards was how to cook it. There are dozens of ways for sure, many of them with wine, as chanterelle has an affinity with wine. A recipe in the Sunday paper gave me an idea: fettuccine with chanterelles. I'm not fond of creamy pasta but the clincher was it calls for a dollop or so of Amontillado. I quickly envisioned enjoying the chanterelle pasta with a glass of Amontillado. Yey.

Amontillado is basically a Fino Sherry that has aged oxidatively--its color is amber and the flavor is nutty and strong, with alcohol upwards of 17 percent. Old Amontillado is even darker, nuttier, and more alcoholic. I find old Amontillado overwhelming to pair with any dish. For me a young Amontillado, or better yet, a Fino-Amontillado, pairs best with food. But that's just me.

A Fino-Amontillado is not an official category, thus you'll find no designation on the label. But trust me it's out there. It is a Fino that is aged longer, right to the point when the biological aging with the flor stops, thus the oxidative aging begins. I love this kind of tweener Sherry.

Equipo Navazos made a Fino-Amontillado in its "La Bota de Fino (Amontillado) No. 24" from a solera in Montilla-Moriles. The best Fino-Amontillado Sherry that I've tasted is Alexander Jules Amontillado 6/26. Alex Russan, the proprietor and shipper of Alexander Jules Sherries, creates this Amontillado from the solera of Bodegas Argüeso in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, thus, technically it was a Manzanilla. The solera from where this Amontillado was extracted consists of 26 barrels. Alex Russan made a selection of just 6 barrels for the Alexander Jules Amontillado producing a mere 1,300 500ml bottles.

With an average age of 10 years, the Alexander Jules Amontillado has a youthful style, a Fino-Amontillado. A beautiful feminine character; soft, but complex, with a hint of floral on the nose and the pungent salinity of a Manzanilla evident in the intense finish. Perfect with the chanterelle pasta.

Jerez Amontillado "6/26", Alexander Jules NV 500ml $37.00 (order)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

'Tis the Season for Nebbiolo and Porcini

I couldn't wait to rush out and grab some the first fresh porcini (cèpes, boletes) in the market. Porcini prices are more reasonable (about $36/pound at our local market) when it is in season. I love best the milder flavor and meaty texture of fresh porcini tossed with pasta, simply sauteed in olive oil with slivers of garlic and shallots and finished with a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano.

The woodsy, earthy flavors of porcini are a natural match for Nebbiolo. The 2009 Brovia Nebbiolo d'Alba is a sweet, ripe vintage that's juicy on the palate. It's fantastic for drinking now. I can't think of a better wine to pair with fresh porcini.

Nebbiolo d'Alba "Valmaggione", Fratelli Brovia 2009 (click to buy)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Aligoté from the Côte Chalonnaise

The story goes, Martine Saunier, the famous Burgundy importer, noticed that there were still a couple of cases of the 2006 Bourgogne Aligoté from Danjean-Berthoux, a producer in the Côte Chalonnaise, left unsold. Aligoté is a white Burgundy that people usually enjoy young, though it doesn't necessarily mean it can't age. The wine was showing its age but was still drinking great. She decided to blow out the remaining cases. I got the memo and immediately pounced and bought everything left.

I love Aligoté, including ones with age. But's hard to find aged Aligoté as it's quickly sold and consumed on release. Like rosé, no one ages Aligoté. Though its fruit is light and delicate, Aligoté has high acidity that is responsible for its bracing allure. This sharp acidity also allows the wine to keep a bit longer even though the fruit lacks concentration.

Last night I opened a bottle of this 2006 Aligoté at our local sushi bar. Initially it seemed a bit tired, but as I gulped down half a dozen oysters and more sushi, the Aligoté got firmer. By the middle of meal, the Aligoté--by now opened for half an hour--was rejuvenated and full of energy. I was thinking, for $12, what a buy! And I could afford another order of sushi.

Bourgogne Aligoté, Domaine du Moulin Neuf-Danjean-Berthoux 2006 $12.00

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Bones of Paris

Bones Restaurant and Bar in Paris' 11th arrondisement is spectacular in every way. The chef is a young Australian, James Henry, who worked at Spring then was hired as opening chef at Au Passage, where he showed his magic, quickly becoming one of the hottest chefs in Paris. Last January--a year or so after leaving Au Passage--he moved in to a former Irish pub to open his own restaurant. The opening of Bones was highly anticipated and as expected an instant hit. Getting a reservation needless to say is tough, especially from the States. I persevered and got in days before I arrived in Paris.

I read that the name "Bones" is a reference to the old stone structure of the Irish pub. I could easily imagine the name as affirming Henry's ingredients-obsessed cooking and for his emphasis on homemade. Bones churns its own butter, makes its own sourdough bread from a starter, and cures and smokes meat for its delicious charcuterie. I find this practice artisanal, as well as frugal, which I believe is the key to good coking. Minutes after my order was taken, the first of three amuse-bouches landed on my table. Glistening ribbons of housemade pancetta that looked too beautiful to eat and tasted like a dream. I was told the source of the pork was a farm in southern France.

The front half of the space is occupied by the bar à manger and the back is where the dining area is set. If you can't get into the restaurant, the bar looks like an excellent consolation. Although I didn't check the menu, I imagine the food at the bar to be pretty good, too, and very likely the dinner menu is available for the counter seating. Whatever the case might be, the winning wine list makes it all worthwhile to be in any seat in the house, especially if you love discovering obscure natural wines. But more on wine later.

The restaurant offers only dinner service twice a night: 7pm and10pm. Menu is prix fixe at 47 euros for a four-course, including three surprisingly good amuse-bouches. The optional cheese plate is an extra 8 euros. I was told, though, to come in at 7:15-7:20. When I showed up fashionably at 7:30pm there were a few folks hanging out at the bar, but I was the first one to arrive for dinner. The staff is friendly and engaging, and helped me with all my questions about the dishes and the wines. I was seated where the bar and the restaurant separates, right next to the charcuterie station.

The wine list is more compact than I expected, but filled with many wines that I'm not familiar with. I eyed the by-the-glass selections and ordered Emile Hérédia's 2009 Domaine de Montrieux Coteaux du Vendômois. I've had his Le Verre des Poètes, a pure Pineau d'Aunis from the Loire as this one, but this is from younger vines. Simple and not as impressive as the verre des poètes but it is refreshing and fruity.

The second amuse-bouche was just as amazing, grilled crevette impériale from Charente.

I love offal and I've been eating chicken hearts since I was a kid. The third amuse-bouche, either sauteed or grilled duck heart was a bit unsettling at first. It was so rosy red. I ate it in a couple of bites--delicious, especially washed down by the Pineau d'Aunis.

Bones has really good housemade butter and sourdough bread.

When my first course arrived, I realized what a value Bones is as I've already been eating for a while and still there were three more courses to go. The plate was a bonito sashimi, red onions, and prune in a puddle of light sauce. The combination was hard to imagine in my head but it was tasty in my mouth.

Domaine Alice et Olivier de Moor in Chablis produces at least three different kinds of Aligoté, one of them is the "À Ligoter". It is made from young Aligoté vines and is bottled in its youth in April the following year. Crisp and intense, not just for an Aligoté but especially for a young Aligoté. I love it, like all of de Moor's wines. With the bonito and the skate wing and pork to follow, it was satisfying.

The second course was a rich seafood dish of skate, which I always love but seldom get to enjoy. I never see it on menus of San Francisco Bay Area restaurants. The classic preparation is with brown butter. Henry's version is the best I've ever had.

The fried skate floated on a light crab bisque with champignon mushrooms and red basil leaves drifting around it. This was mindblowingly good. The autumnal colors also looked beautiful. My dish of the night. It was like two great dishes combined. The skate by itself garnished with the champignon and red basil would already be pure pleasure. But the soup d'etrilles was to die for. I mopped up the bowl clean with the bread.

The meat course almost sounded American, as the ingredients were pork shoulder, corn, and snow peas. The echine de cochon is a rarely seen specialty pork cut in the States; it is the blade shoulder from the upper end of the boston butt. As anyone who loves barbecue knows the pork shoulder is very flavorful but chewy, so it is tenderized by slow-cooking. I'm not sure what Henry did. At first I thought it was sous-vide because it looked pale and pink, but my waiter checked with the kitchen and said that, no, it was roasted. The echine was tender with a bit of resistance and the flavor with the corn-based sauce was mild and tasty. In the States one seldom gets to enjoy pork prepared with this purity, as it is usually glazed, smoked, braised in broth, or rubbed with spices.

I skipped the optional cheese course as I was getting full. Before the dessert came a little palate cleanser of red raspberry in shaved ice. It was as simple as figs on a plate. For some reason Bones reminded me of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA.

The purity of ingredients of the dessert of roasted peach, almond and peach sorbet, and fresh mulberries was so Chez Panisse in brilliance.

During dinner I've been chatting with the waiter who is also the restaurant's main wine guy (they don't have a somm or wine director), Pierre Derrien. At the end of the meal Pierre asked if I want another glass and challenged me with a wine he picked out to see if I was going to like it. It was the (2010) Vino Bianco Dinavolino from Denavolo in Emilia-Romagna. He wrote down the blend for me: 25% each Marsanne (I didn't know it was planted in Italy!), Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, Ortrugo, and an old native grape variety. The wine obviously had skin contact (4 days according to information I dug up later). I've never had any wine from this producer before but it was certainly quite a jolt at the end after dessert. It's bone-dry, earthy, pear-skin, and funky flavors were so incongruous to everything I've put it in my mouth so far. It was a step in another direction.

The Dinavolino was a great ending as it left me hanging, like a "to be continued" postscript. When would my next meal at Bones be? And where would the wines and food take me next time?

Bones Restaurant and Bar
43 rue Godefroy Cavignac, 11ème
75011 Paris
Tel +33 09 80753208
Tues-Sat from 7pm
Call 2pm-7pm for dinner reservations, bar is open for walk-in from 7pm

p.s. here's an excellent video on Bones on youtube

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Triumph for California Chardonnay

Justin Willet of Tyler Winery produces some of the most vibrant wines in California today. Case in point is the 2011 Dierberg Vineyard Chardonnay. His winemaking skill aside, the key to the exceptional quality of Willet's wines is he carefully picks the vineyard sites he works with.

Dierberg Vineyard is situated on a cool growing area 13 miles off the Pacific Ocean. Justin Willet brings the fruit in early to retain acidity and balance and pressed whole cluster. The wine is barrel-fermented and aged on the lees in barrel for a year before being bottled. Justin's winemaking approach is total simplicity. Quality rests solely on the excellence of the fruit brought in, and so everything is done to convey this on the finished wine.

The results are stunning. Beautifully balanced, crisp and sharp, and deliciously textured. The alcohol is a refreshing 13.8%, while the oak remains well in the background providing contrast to the fruit's seductive floral scents and luscious citrus flavors.

A mere 64 cases were made of this brilliant Chardonnay.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

8th Annual Millbrae Japanese Culture Festival

On a warm, sunny October afternoon, there was no better place to be today but at Millbrae's Japanese Culture Festival.  The hypnotic beat of the taiko drums beckoned me, and I was grateful for that, otherwise I would've missed the event.

The JapaCurry truck was there, too, the first Japanese food truck in the San Francisco Bay Area, serving Japanese curry (surprise, surprise) and bento box eats.

I was so happy to find Mike Umehara and his family of Momiji Nursery there with a small grove of their beautiful Japanese maples! I've purchased their maples for the past 15 years and I can't resist buying another one today, a lovely "Fireball" maple.

A great presence in the cultural festival was pottery artist Thomas Akira Arakawa of Arakawa Pottery. He makes bowls, plates, vases, pitchers, cups, and decorative pottery; but what caught my pottery eye was his collection of saké tokkuri and guinomi. I love the rough texture and irregular shape of the vessels. I could easily imagine how much more enjoyable saké would taste from them. Thomas says he uses grogzilla clay from Clay Planet, which is very similar to Shigaraki clay from Shiga in Japan. The guinomi saké cup was fired up to 30 hours to achieve the quality he wants.

I'm looking forward to next year's event. The taiko drums will be calling for sure.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Matsutake Mushrooms

Fall means matsutake mushroom season. Prices have come down this year for domestic foraged matsutake as narrated by this New York Times feature. So it's an opportune time to check out this exotic fungus.

Several years ago my wife and I enjoyed a kaiseki dinner. We were served two courses of matsutake: one simply grilled and the other a clear soup dish. Hands down I preferred the soup. The flavors seemed more intense. I can't remember the details of how the soup was prepared, but here's a recipe that seems to approximate it.

But grilling matsutake is also wonderful and easy to do. I especially like dipping the grilled mushroom in ponzu or lightly drizzling ponzu over it.

At the kaiseki dinner, I brought a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne, which together with the cost of the kaiseki meal in a private tatami room with our own Japanese server, was luxe. But, hey, it was our anniversary.

For everyday, I can tell you that pairing Michel Gahier's 2010 Chardonnay Les Follasses for just $23 with grilled matsutake mushrooms is nothing less than satori.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fall Means Matsutake and Michel Gahier's Les Follasses Chardonnay

Appetizer tonight. I grilled sliced matsutake mushrooms and plated them with a light drizzle of ponzu. Grilling the matsutake released its forest floor aromas. And wouldn't you know it, Michel Gahier's brilliant 2010 Chardonnay Les Follasses was the perfect drink.

Arbois Chardonnay "Les Follasses", Michel Gahier 2010 $23.00 (click to buy!)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Septime in the 11th

Regular visitors to Paris typically have a favorite place to stay. I've always checked in at the same 11th arrondisement hotel for the past ten years. I prefer it because it's not close to any popular tourist destination. I can feel like a local in its densely packed middle-class neighborhood. When I look out the window of my hotel room early in the morning, I hear the clickety-clack of leather heels hitting the pavement from residents starting their commute to work.

The Metro is strategically a block away from my hotel. It's my portal to desirable restaurants in other parts of the city, as the 11th has always been regarded an out-of-the-way place for hot restaurants covered in reviews. But things change. In the last few years, as French dining has turned more casual with dishes emphasizing ingredients over technique, paralleled by a trend towards natural wines, the dining scene at least in this part of the city has seen an upheaval.

The eastern side of Paris--the 11th and 20th arrondisements--is now the hotbed of trendy bistros and bars à vins serving up internationally inspired contemporary cuisine--what I interpret as a blend of traditional bistro, foraged Nordic, California style locavore, Japanese raw fish mentality, and Italian rusticity.

Today, some of the hardest reservations to secure in Paris are within a 10 to 40 minute walk from my hotel off Boulevard Voltaire: Le Chateaubriand and its sister Le Dauphin, Septime and its sister Septime La Cave, Bones, Au Passage, Le Temps au Temps, Les Trois Seaux, Bistrot Paul Bert and its sister Le 6 Paul Bert, Le Baratin, etc.

On a recent stop in Paris on my way to wine country, I walked to lunch at Septime, a bistro that evokes the grey understatement of Commonwealth in San Francisco's Mission District and the weather-beaten, driftwood rustic chic of Outerlands in San Francisco's Sunset District.

In the bustle inside it feels cozy despite the severity of the decor--bare, grey stucco walls, exposed bulb lighting, cement floor, rough-hewn hardwood tables and chairs, and a metal spiral staircase that I presume leads up to the office (I spied Chef Bertrand Grébaut snuck in and climb up the stairs). The young staff looked equally restrained in personality, yet readily offer a welcoming attention to guests that I appreciate. I quickly got seated in the main section of the room with a view of the tiny kitchen.

Septime is listed #49 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants in the World. Lunch and dinner menus are both prix fixe. The 3-course lunch is 28 euros, while the 5-course dinner is 55 euros. Of course, these prices are all-inclusive of tax and service. The dinner menu is also offered at lunch. Tempting, but this time the lunch menu looked good enough for me.

Consistent with the casual vibe, the well-thumbed wine list is courier typface printed on loose pages held by a clipboard. It is voluminous for a small bistro like this and includes wines from outside France. There are enough interesting by-the-glass offerings. To start, I went for a glass of Marie-Courtin Champagne Extra Brut "Resonance" from the Aube. It was clear and refreshing. I love Domique Moreau's Champagnes, and her entry-level Resonance is very transparent. We currently sell her higher-end cuvée, which I didn't see in the list, but for a few bucks more the extra depth and body of the barrel-fermented and barrel-aged Marie-Courtin Champagne Extra Brut "Efflorescence" (click to buy) is very much worth it.

The Champagne was bone-dry and mineral, perfect with the first course of bonito sashimi salad in a light shiso dressing sprinkled with coarse sea salt.

For the main, the farm chicken and eggplant dish was good, and the combination new to me. But it tasted disjointed. Maybe there was no unifying sauce, and the chicken and the eggplant, which looked like chicken nuggets, didn't do much for each other. Still, Nicolas Vauthier's Vini Viti Vinci Bourgogne Rouge from Avallon near Chablis made for a very good pairing with the chicken.

I wanted to try another glass of wine from the list so I opted for the cheese plate, instead of dessert. A wedge pair of aged Camembert and Comté were brilliant with Julien Altaber's Sextant Bourgogne Blanc 2011. Altaber, based in Saint-Romain, is a micro-negoce. He seems adept in coaxing the best out of the grapes he buys from humble appellations. This was clear and mineral, offering good richness for a Bourgogne.

After lunch I strolled about block or so to Septime La Cave and waited for it to open in the late afternoon. There was a huge manifestation parade that snarled traffic all over the 11th.

LP record stores, upholstery shops, Tibetan artifacts dealers, artist studios, and high-rise apartments line the crowded, narrow streets of the 11th.

Septime La Cave looks like a hangout for hobbits, as it couldn't be much more than 20' x 20' in size. Yet, the owners succeeded in making it seem proportionally normal and cozy. I was excited to have a glass of wine here. Bottles are standing everywhere there's wall space. And, of course, a meat slicer, the obligatory equipment of every wine bar, stands on the counter.

A glass cabinet at the end of the room displays the bottle selection. The labels are fascinating and all looked new to me!

The food on offer is impressive, especially given the tight space. But then again, the mother restaurant is just a block away. I recognized the staffer who poured my wine, as he was one of the waiters at the restaurant.

I tried a glass of Maison P-U-R Vin de France "BBQ", a pure Syrah made using partial carbonic maceration. Maybe I was tired but it didn't excite me much. I buy, drink, and sell many natural wines but very often I find the labels more interesting than the wine. I don't view this experience wholly negatively, as I feel it is part of the adventure. Natural wine producers are not afraid to experiment and to bottle their work warts and all. I can tolerate it. I feel the same with farmers every time I buy a less than perfect fruit or vegetable.

Outside, the staff put out a wooden case of empty bottles, announcing Septime La Cave is again open for business. I can't wait to return. For a bite and a drink or two or three, I prefer Septime La Cave over Septime, and I don't have to worry about snagging a reservation.

80 rue de Charonne, Paris 11ème, Metro Charonne
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 67 38 29
Open lunch and dinner. Closed Sat and Sun.
Reservations a must and can be made 3 weeks in advance. If desperate, try walking in near the end of service, I've seen people do this with success.