|A curious passerby peeks through the window of Racines.|
Racines has been getting an unusual amount of attention in the press since its relatively recent opening in one of the most picturesque arcades in Paris, where just about everything that isn’t a restaurant is a philately store.
On its business card, it bills itself as a wine merchant and deli. One of the attractions is that owner and chef Pierre Jancou sources his food only from those he considers the best: his vegetables come from three-star chef Alain Passard’s market garden in the Sarthe, and his meat from Hugo Desnoyer, reputed to be the very best butcher in Paris, patronized by the likes of Passard and fellow superstar-chef Pierre Gagnaire. Jancou’s cold cuts and cheeses are also sourced only from the most outstanding producers. More on this later.
But wine is his big thing – and not just any wine, but “natural” wines, which means not just organic, but, in his own words “more than organic” (see his Web site, whose freaky logo was invented before Dede the Indonesian tree man hit the world’s headlines late last year). The “more” actually means “less,” since the wines he sells are free from added sulfur, often unfined and unfiltered, and very much left to their own devices by the dedicated band of winemakers who are probably the bane of the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, the French organization that sets the rules for the appellation d’origine contrôlée labeling of wine.
There is a certain missionary zeal about all this, and Racines’ feisty young waiter is a very good example of it. He will rattle off the grape varieties in the wines made by the saintly winemakers at great speed, and if you can hear him over the din from the other diners, you are lucky, but, unless you’re an insider, you’re probably none the wiser anyway.
The lack of a wine list means that you either have to be in the know (elitist) or accept what he decides you should drink with your food (totalitarian). On my first visit, the first offering was completely unlike anything I had ever drunk before: a vin d’Arbois from the Jura made with a grape called Ploussard. My companion and I both struggled to find a polite way of saying we hated the brew, which I finally decided tasted more like cider (and none of the best) than anything else.
Later, with our cheese, we were ordered to drink a white, Evidence, made from the Menu Pineaugrape by one of the arch-priests of the natural wine movement, Claude Courtois. Again we tried to be polite when confronted with a bottle of white served at room temperature and tasting like nothing so much as a severely oxidized aligoté. Apparently, this taste is much sought-after and shows a great winemaker. Our young waiter, less schooled in the hypocrisy of politeness than in the art of natural winemaking, found it hard to hide his disdain for these two foreign ignoramuses. For my part, I mused on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
On my second visit, to avoid leaving behind two nearly full bottles of wine, my companion and I went for wines by the glass, but the only wine that gave us any pleasure was a springy Mâcon red. Again, we were found wanting by the waiter/sommelier.
The food is uncomplicated and good, of that there is no doubt. The selection is narrow. On my first visit, the choice was further limited by the fact that the kitchen had yet to be hooked up to the gas main. The pancetta di colonnata and culatello ham starter was divine, and the slow-cooked beef cheek and andouillette that followed were equally superb. On the second visit, we went back for more of the pancetta, with its delicately perfumed, melt-in-the-mouth fat, and tried the pâté du moment, a tasty concoction of blood sausage, although it did retain the slightly metallic taste of the can from which it had just been extracted.
The veal main dish had already been wolfed down by the other diners, so we were left with a choice of andouillette (again) and pasta primavera. Happily, the chef had a portion of Desnoyer’s coeur de rumsteck up his sleeve, which was everything it should have been and more, meltingly tender and tasty, and paired with good mashed potatoes. At €24, though, we found it overpriced.
My andouillette was amusingly served with potatoes de topinambour. These were in fact what we Brits would call “wedgies” – cut into wedges and oven-baked – of Jerusalem artichoke. I had a giggle at this, because, if the French know the word “potatoes” (you have to say it with a French accent), it is because this delicious creation has been popularized in France by that alleged arch-enemy of everything natural, MacDonald’s… Unexpected, to say the least, in such a temple of Nature as this.
There are several other places like Racines in Paris, all of them selling wine to go as well: Pierre Jancou is the former owner of La Crêmerie in the 6th arrondissement, which I haven’t tried, but which looks and sounds very attractive. Then there’s Le Verre Volé in the 10th, where the food and wines are much more reasonably priced and also well-sourced. The atmosphere there is blessedly free of missionary zeal, sheer food and wine pleasure being the sole object. I know where my money will go next time.
Racines: 8, passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Métro: Grands Boulevards. Tel.: 01 40 13 06 41. Nearest Vélib’ stations: 42, rue Vivienne and 21, rue d’Uzès. A la carte: around €40. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner (until midnight), Closed Saturday and Sunday.
© 2008 Paris Update
Reader Maura Fox writes: “As with the author, I too was apparently found wanting by the Racines staff – they are unspeakably rude. With my little sister visiting Paris for the first time, upon finding ourselves in the arcade, we entered Racines, saw two seats at the bar and said, “Bonsoir, good evening, may we take these two seats?” Arrogant staff replied, “We are not McDonald’s in here, you may take my phone number and call to request permission to dine with me….” Ridiculous to insult a customer, gives Parisians a bad name.”
Reader David A. Harvey writes: “When one is served wine around the world – be it a Bordeaux grand cru classe, a kiwi sauvignon, a Champagne, a Napa cab, Cava – no one explains that it is made from cloned vines, intense chemical farming with carcinogenic residues in the bottle, laboratory selected yeast and bacteria, temperature control ferment, systematic sulphiting, possibly heavy manipulation, adjusted structural elements, external flavour agents. No one apologises that the flavours and texture of the wine that you currently understand do not predominantly come from the terroir, the vintage, the appellation, but from the recipe book and the chemical companies.
“Of course it is not your fault that the wine industry, cru classes, grands marques et al are so false, hiding behind the ban on listing ingredients on wine labels. Unless, that is, we say that actually the market is partly responsible, each and every one of us. This is why there is natural wine, this is why there is Pierre Jancou and Racines.
“So they did not make it easy for you, hold your hand while they eased you into the shallow end, well within your comfort zone. And why should they? Maybe that is not their philosophy, maybe you liked like a responsible rational mature free agent, maybe they are too busy in the land of the 36 hour week. I cannot speak for them. Certainly, Pierre at leisure is naturally charming, and Le Verre Vole have certainly had the most radical natural wine police on their staff. Maybe we should remember that these are bistros, cavistes, osterias, and not 5 stars hotels where the polished diplomacy is surpassed only by the magnitude of its frequent falseness and poor product.
“Would you rather live in a world where all is knowable but probably artificial? Do you want to see the endless perpetuation of humancentric, egocentric, market force driven actions and systems, with all that entails? Did you not watch The Matrix, Mondovino or McLibel; read Desacartes, Alice Feirings blog or book, Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution? May I suggest the latter, and practising the ‘no mind’ concept he describes, i.e. clearing ones mind of baggage/prejudice, opening the path to experiencing the joys to be had from good, earthy, honest, seasonal producers and chefs, and learn, work at understanding it, until we arrive? Of course, legislation against the artificial and for the natural would help, but until then, it is as individuals, groups, and communicators that we can effect positive change.”
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