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.