November 18, 2008By Paris UpdateArchive

The Wine Price Is Right

A vast choice of wine to go with your meal.

Lavinia is a large, upmarket wine supermarket with an upstairs restaurant that opens six days a week for lunch and occasionally in the evening when the wine shop has a tasting, which was how I happened to eat there recently. In the basement store, a couple of dozen women winemakers good-humoredly manned (to hell with political correctness) little tables and fed their tipples to the hundreds of people who crowded into the aisles to sip and spit. It was quite a relief to get out of the crush and up into the spacious restaurant.

Lavinia’s restaurant has a pretty good come-on: you can pick a bottle from any of the hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles on show, take it upstairs, and drink it for the same price you would pay if you bought it to go. That’s right: no markup. You can spend your usual restaurant wine budget and get a bottle that would set you back two or three times more in your favorite restaurant. And you can be sure that the wine is properly stored. We had a delicious bottle of Bandol with our meal at a very affordable thirty-something euros.

But, you say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Where’s the catch? Well, while there’s no markup on the wine, there is a hefty one on the food, which is far more expensive than it should be if you were judging by quality alone. These are bistronomy prices for food that falls somewhat short. Having said that, they do have some fabulous products, so judicious picking and choosing from the menu can bring affordable rewards.

We had some tremendous lardo di Colonata (thin strips of sublime pork fat) with a poached egg for a starter, but it was straight out of the refrigerator and served ice-cold. The crab meat and guacamole verrine topped with puréed piquillo peppers had also just been brought out of a cold, cold place and tasted of little more than faded pepper ice-cream. Temperature was also an issue with our main dishes. The (hot) supreme of guinea fowl had been placed atop barely tepid grilled green asparagus. My seared gilthead bream was hot, but the otherwise delicious mashed potatoes beneath were lukewarm, at best.

Forsaking the untempting list of desserts, we opted to split a hunk of fourme d’ambert blue cheese for dessert, after checking with the waitress to be sure it would not have been just taken out of the freezer, and oh, what a blindingly good choice that was! One of the finest pieces of cheese I have had in my life.

The decor is pleasantly contemporary (although I would advise not taking a seat facing the wall of backlit cognac bottles for the sake of your eyes), the space not too noisy, the service friendly and efficient. We dined next to the table reserved for the lady winegrowers, who were a treat to watch – they were having such fun together.

Lavinia should be used sparingly. I will go back to see how the tasting bar works. If I can get my hands on some of that fourme d’ambert (€10) to share with a like-minded friend over a leisurely bottle of something white and sticky, I’ll be in heaven.

Lavinia: 3, boulevard de la Madeleine, 75001 Paris. Tel.: 01 42 97 20 27. Restaurant open for lunch Monday-Saturday, noon-3 p.m. Tasting bar open 3 p.m.-8 p.m. Métro: Madeleine. Nearest Vélib stations: 4, place de la Madeleine; facing 4, boulevard Malesherbes. A la carte: around €45*.

* three courses, not including wine

Richard Hesse

© 2008 Paris Update

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