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March 30, 2010

The Best Wine Bars in Paris

Departures toasts to 8 top spots—humble and haute—for a glass (or three) of wine.

My good friend Phillip, a lifelong atheist, informs me he has just found God. It’s lunchtime at Legrand Filles et Fils in Paris, and we’re seated in the high-ceilinged tasting room, a temple of burnished wood and brass, soft sunlight playing on the stained glass of a thousand wine bottles lying expectantly on floor-to-ceiling racks around the room. The cause of Phillip’s Damascene conversion is a 1981 Château Gruaud Larose Saint Julien. The fresh-faced sommelier, a decade younger than the cru, tenderly pours an amber trickle into my glass and sets down the bottle on the horseshoe bar. I swirl the glass and bring it to my nose. Suddenly I am 22 again. Wine, as Jean-Michel Cazes, proprietor of Château Lynch-Bages, has said, is the only time machine that works.

It was here at Legrand a quarter-century ago that I bought my first bottle of wine in Paris. A gangling, gauche Irish boy newly arrived in the city, I steeled myself, pushed open the door of the Epicerie Fine, and stood sheepishly in front of the hundreds of bottles. A slight man with an elegant mustache thrust a glass toward me. “Gruaud Larose, ’81,” he announced, before promptly inquiring what I thought. I said I knew nothing about wine. “Qu’importe!” he insisted. “You are still allowed to have an opinion! What do you smell?” I brought the glass to my nose and ventured “Blackberry?”

He nodded. “Et…?”

“Leather?”

He smiled broadly. I had been taken in by Monsieur Lucien, and my long, slow waltz with wine and Paris had begun. Over the years the gracious proprietor of Legrand taught me that wine is not about what you know, but what you have yet to learn.

The city has changed at a dizzying pace since I first lived here on the vine. Back then, few people in France had heard of New World wines, epitomized by the big, lush fruit-bomb reds from California and Australia that have come to dominate the market. Fewer still had heard of Robert Parker, whose opinion now, as Gael Chauvet of Lavinia on the Boulevard de la Madeleine puts it, “creates the rain and the sunshine of wine sales in France.” Like all those who have lived in Paris and many who visit, I imagine the city somehow belongs to me, and changes can feel like betrayals. But while vibrant café culture may be giving way to the dishwater mediocrity of half-caff caramel lattes, and globalization has put an end to the indulgent three-hour lunch, there is still no better city in the world for enjoying wine: on a sun-dappled café terrace, in a bustling neighborhood bistro, in an intimate, rough-hewn stone cave.

As Monsieur Lucien never tired of telling me, “Anyone can buy a premier cru—all you need is money. But to discover a perfect little wine, now that is truly something.” Same goes for the setting. While dinner at Senderens is invariably magnificent and the wine list at Taillevent exhaustive, to discover a small but perfect bar à vins, a passionate, approachable sommelier, an unexplored nook in this city, is indeed something. What follows is a personal, quixotic selection of places (most of them fairly modest by Paris standards) that I return to again and again. To quote Horace, “Nunc est bibendum”—Now it’s time to drink!

Bistrot du Sommelier

An oenophile’s paradise, this classic French bistro was created by Philippe Faure-Brac, designated Best Sommelier in the World in 1992. The elegant rooms of exposed stone and pale colors have a warm, convivial atmosphere that complements his wine passion—or, rather, obsession. “Wine is like music,” Faure-Brac says. “It should move you.”

Though it is possible to select a wine from Bistrot’s compendious bible des vins (average price, around $65), to do so is to miss out on the odyssey of the varied tasting menus Faure-Brac designed with his chef, Guillaume Saluel. Whether you choose the Découverte menu, which offers a glimpse of lesser-known wines, or the Prestige, focusing on classic crus, or the Tentation, a combination of the two, each offers unexpected, illuminating, and often ravishing combinations. An earthy, musky terrine of game was brought brilliantly alive by the spicy oakiness of a 1998 California Clos Du Val.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Faure- Brac does not see the rise of New World wines as a threat. “As a wine lover, as a sommelier, the arrival of great wines from the United States, from South Africa, from Chile has been magical,” he says. “For too long we in France thought we were the only winemakers. Competition has made us better.”

For lunch or a relaxed dinner, Bistrot is a perfect spot to explore the world’s wines and chat with knowledgeable waiters who do not cultivate the mystique of the wine expert. As Faure-Brac points out, “Sommeliers can only be a guide. To love and truly taste wine, you must learn to trust your own palate.”

Closed Saturday and Sunday. Lunch, from $150, and dinner, from $160, with wine pairings. At 97 Bd. Haussmann; 33-1/42-65-24-85; bistrotdusommelier.com.

Les Papilles

Somewhere between a bistro, a wine shop, a delicatessen, and an Aladdin’s den is the cave à manger—perhaps the most exciting addition to Paris’s culinary scene in the past decade. Small and intimate, these places offer adventurous prix fixe menus, and though wines are often available by the glass, guests are encouraged to order from the bottles for sale, typically with a modest droit de bouchon, or corkage fee, since bottles are sold at cheaper retail prices. Among the first caves à manger and still one of the best is Bertrand Bluy’s Les Papilles, a warm, slightly eccentric haven near the Jardin de Luxembourg.

Les Papilles owes its charm not simply to the superlative food but also to the relaxed bustle of diners slipping among the tables to browse the floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning with wine (priced from $40 to nearly $1,400). There are impromptu conversations, spontaneous recommendations and tastings, and an overall easy friendliness. Bluy, a former pastry chef at Taillevent, runs things from behind the traditional tin bar.

A simple bistro menu is available at lunch, while dinner is a four-course degustation menu that marries the gastronomy of Bluy’s native Lot-et-Garonne with the ardent imagination of chef Ulric Claude. On a visit one evening, my 1999 Auxey-Duresses Les Duresses was a perfect companion to a melting rack of lamb with Noirmoutier potatoes and an earthy Fourme d’Ambert—a blue cheese dating back at least to Roman times—that had my papilles (taste buds) tingling.

Closed Sunday. Dinner, from $85 for a four-course prix fixe. At 30 Rue Gay-Lussac; 33-1/43-25-20-79; lespapillesparis.fr.

La Cremerie

When he first stepped into the Caves Miard, New York–born Serge Mathieu was an architect. But after a glimpse of the tiny 19th-century creamery in the Latin Quarter, with its marble counter, ceiling of hand-painted silk under glass, and antique shutters, he knew he had to buy it. “The guy who owned it didn’t take me seriously,” Mathieu says. “But a few weeks later he called and asked if I wanted to come and work for him. ‘Anytime you want to leave, you can,’ he told me, ‘but if you prove you’re serious, I’ll sell you the place.’ ”

He finally did, in 2006, and Mathieu reopened it as La Crémerie, a cozy wine cellar for a dozen people that showcases artisanal bottlings from all over France as well as exceptional charcuterie and cheeses. Locals pop in to buy wine, olive oil, and sweetmeats like pears in saffron, while diners feast on platters of jamón ibérico, chorizo, foie gras, oysters, delicately smoked tuna, and a stunning chocolate fondant prepared by Mathieu’s wife, Hélène. Passionate regulars include well-known faces like Yves Camdeborde, chef at the nearby Le Comptoir du Relais and a friend of Mathieu’s.

La Crémerie offers wines by the glass, but for the adventurous some 400 organic and biodynamic bottles (from $8 to $250) are available with a $10 corkage fee. At my waiter’s suggestion I enjoyed an intense purple-black Thierry Allemand Cornas Les Chaillots, whose smoky nose and powerful tannins proved a wonderful foil to a robust goat cheese with spicy mostarda di Cremona. Perched at the bar, I shared my discovery with an Argentine couple, who were happy to stay for a zarpe (“one for the road” in Spanish). Thanks to the easy intimacy of the place, it was nearly closing time when we went our separate ways. $ Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch served Friday and Saturday. Reservations essential. Lunch and dinner, $70. At 9 Rue des Quatre-Vents; 33-1/43-54-99-30; lacremerie.fr.

Le Verre Vole

Ramshackle chic might best describe my favorite lunch spot in Paris. Le Verre Volé (“the Stolen Glass”) is a bewitching cavern located near the leafy banks of the Canal St.-Martin. It features a half-dozen mismatched tables, walls lined with bottles (their prices—from $6 to $275—marked in chalk), a soundtrack that shifts from DJ Shadow to Thelonious Monk, and servers who joke with diners.

“I’ve always loved wine, but I can’t stand the snobbery that goes with it,” owner Cyril Bordarier says. “I got tired of selling wine I didn’t like to people I didn’t like. I wanted somewhere I could feel at home.” Bordarier prefers his ambiance casual, but his taste is nonetheless exacting. Le Verre Volé offers an extensive selection of natural and biodynamic wines and a concise blackboard menu of hearty but sophisticated dishes.

Recently I selected a Vosne-Romanée Les Hautes Maizières, one of Bordarier’s favorite Burgundies. Elegant and supple, it was perfect with my velvety veal carpaccio yet was robust enough for an entrée of spicy blood sausage. As he brought the cheese, I told Bordarier he’d make a fine sommelier. “Pas question!” he replied, joining me for a glass. “But you see, I’ve never really trusted sommeliers.”

$ Dinner, from $40 with wine. At 67 Rue de Lancry; 33-1/48-03-17-34; leverrevole.fr.

Le Baron Bouge

This lively bar à vins near Bastille is at its best on Sundays, when more than a hundred stalls are set up in the nearby Marché d’Aligre, selling cheeses, meats, fruit, and spices. The merchants and their customers spill into the bar for a glass or three and plates of raw-milk cheeses, pâté, rillettes, cured sausages, and crusty bread à la bonne franquette.

With bottles of Sancerre perched on makeshift tables of crates and planks flanking the door (as well as on parked cars), this is not a place to come for vintage Pétrus or an intimate lunch. It is boisterous and crowded but welcoming. In short, it’s the sort of archetypal French wine bar that has all but disappeared.

Lining the walls are several huge oak barrels of inexpensive house wines from which regulars fill their carafes, though there is also a long list of wines available by the glass or bottle (average price, around $25). The wines are invariably French, the music usually jazz, the occasional art exhibitions eclectic.

Go to Le Baron Bouge to quaff, people-watch, and practice your French slang. It’s a spot for lingering over a crisp, slightly mineral Meursault and Arcachon oysters (supplied, when in season, by Bernard Delis, who drives 375 miles every weekend to set up his stall in the market). If you come here once, I guarantee it will haunt your dreams.

$ Cheese and charcuterie plates, $7–$13. At 1 Rue Théophile Roussel; 33-1/43-43-14-32.

Juveniles

Paris is a peculiar place to get a hankering for Scottish haggis (a delicacy whose ingredients are best left unsaid) with neeps and tatties (mashed parsnips and potatoes)—and still more peculiar if you were hoping for a world-class wine to accompany it all. But in this enchanted city anything is possible.

A short stroll from the Louvre and the Opéra, Juveniles is owned by Tim Johnston, a charismatic, garrulous expat Scotsman. His wine list (from $20 to $125) changes according to his shifting passions and includes one of the best selections of Australian wines this side of the Barossa Valley. It was here I discovered Torbreck Les Amis, a bold, intense Grenache with a nose of spice and smoke.

The food includes a prix fixe menu that runs from the aforementioned haggis to traditional French entrecôte de Montbéliard to Indian chicken tikka masala with raita. For light meals and snacks there are small tapas-style plates, including a delectable eggplant tapenade, exceptional charcuterie, and pungent cheeses. The staff is attentive, friendly, and bilingual, making this cave a great place for a casual lunch or—since it stays open till 11 p.m.—a late-night bite.

Closed Sunday. Lunch served Monday. Small plates, from $8; prix fixe dinner, from $50. At 47 Rue de Richelieu; 33-1/42-97-46-49.

Le Dome du Marais

In my adventures with wine, I long ago realized that I needed a guide. The best—such as Philippe Daval, the sommelier at Le Dôme du Marais—have steered me to extraordinary treasures.

When I arrived with two friends in tow and without a reservation (again!), Daval chided me before ushering us into the magnificent grande salle, the vast glass-domed 18th-century hall commissioned by Louis XVI to be the mont-de-piété, or municipal pawnshop. (When reserving, ask to be seated here.) The colors are rich but simple: geometric patterns of layered gold, silver, and copper leaf, burgundy drapes. The effect is an almost swooning romanticism.

The wine list is a carefully curated selection of about 60 vintages (from $25 to $265) that eschews pricey Bordeaux châteaux in favor of natural wines from Burgundy and Côte-Rôtie as well as splendid crus from the underappreciated Languedoc region. The food, by chef-owner Pierre Lecoutre, is subtle and complex, quintessentially French, yet constantly imaginative. There are two affordable prix fixe menus and one degustation menu, all emphasizing primeurs, or early seasonal ingredients—morels in March, wild asparagus in June, squab with sang rôti and cherries in September.

At the start of our meal, Daval recommended a stunning Muscat from the Alsatian producer Audrey et Christian Binner to accompany warm Paimpol oysters and green apple. Then, to go with our conspicuously carnivorous main courses (my menu came with Welsh lamb rôti and confit, and my guests’ a loin of Bigorre pork), he brought us a Robert Arnoux Nuits St. Georges, Les Corvées-Pagets from 1999. As ever, his recommendation did not disappoint: The Burgundy’s nose of spice and old leather gave way to an intense black-cherry burst and made an extraordinary meal incomparable.

Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations recommended. Prix fixe menus, $100–$130; degustation menu, $170. At 53 Bis, Rue des Francs Bourgeois; 33-1/42-74-54-17; ledomedumarais.fr.

Legrand Filles et Fils

Bringing the wheel full circle, this is the vinothèque where I took my first tentative steps into drinking wine in Paris, with that ’81 Château Gruaud Larose Saint Julien. Back then it was an épicerie selling coffees and sweetmeats and famed for wines bought from négociants and bottled for Legrand.

Coffee is no longer sold here, though sweet and savory regional delicacies can be bought in the grocery section. The great storeroom is now an elegant tasting room, its walls lined with vintages from prestigious terroirs and from small producers. At the horseshoe bar, at one of the tables, or in the covered galerie, numerous wines are available by the glass. You can also buy a bottle from the brimming shelves ($7 all the way up to $80,000) and pay a $20 corkage fee. The kitchen offers a selection of excellent hams, rich ripe cheeses, foie gras, and salads.

For the novice, Legrand organizes wine-tasting courses. For the connoisseur, there are tastings hosted by leading winemakers. It’s an opportunity to sample great vintages in the graceful surroundings of an earlier age.

Closed Sunday. Cheese and charcuterie plates, $20–$40. Wine classes, around $80; tastings, $120–$240. At 1 Rue de la Banque; 33-1/42-60-07-12; caves-legrand.com.