Take me to Tokyo

There are no two ways about it. Tokyo is absolutely incredible.

It’s a racy, vibrant, gurgling and thundering stomach of a city with diversity, choice and range like no where else.

Having little time to explore at heart’s will, here are, of my small time there, some bits I think are unmissable.

Tsukiji Market

If you are going to Tokyo for the next two years, it will be standing where it is today, smack in the centre and close to the very posh Ginza neighbourhood. It is of course prime real estate and that is the main reason they are moving it around Spring 2016 to Toyosu, a man-made island closer to Obaida.

If you are into food in any way, I strongly suggest you find an apartment close to Tsukiji and spend every morning there eating the freshest fish and sushi you’ve ever laid eyes on.

We went two mornings in a row and wished we could have spent all our mornings there. It’s a chef’s wet dream. The market is surrounded by an array of sushi shops that sell fresh fish on perfectly cooked warm rice with just the right amount of freshly grated wasabi for a nose rush that makes your eyes water with happiness.

Where to stay?

First off, where are you going to lay your head at night?

We had a friend put us up which is always a better option because you also get insider info into what’s cool in that person’s neighbourhood.

Otherwise, I’d say find a place near Tsukiji Market that’s walking distance. Weeks couldn’t be enough to explore it completely and it’s really inspiring if you’re into food.

Otherwise, Shibuya and Shinjuku are very cool neighbourhoods quite close to each other. You can happily stay around Yoyogi Park which is connected to both these areas and is a great place to run in the morning or hang out in the afternoon.

Airbnb has some good options or find a traditional hotel, Ryokan (about 50-60$/night) where you sleep on a tatami (bamboo mat where you set up your little mattress each night).

Getting around

First off, make sure to get a map of the surroundings with English/Japanese translations. Lonely Planet maps aren’t great because there are no street names. Go to www.gotokyo.org which is a really helpful site.

Second, if you get the JR pass you can use the Yamanote line which runs all around Tokyo and is great to hop on and off as you discover the different neighbourhoods. You have to just flash your pass at the agents (you can’t use it going through automatically).

Finally, the subway system is really weird because they are privately owned train companies operating different stations so make sure to ask if you aren’t sure how to get to where you want to go or how much it will cost (price varies depending on how far you go). In general, you can count about 200 to 300 yen (1,50 to 2 EUR) per ticket to get around…

Things to eat

Sushi: the freshest we had was at Tsukiji market but a very expensive 30-minute experience could surely also be enjoyed. Not in our budget this time unfortunately!

Tempura: we found a great little place in Shinjuku called Tempura Tsunahachi. The tempura is crispy and smooth but be careful about “specials” and always ask for the price before.

Tachinomi-ya: the place we went is one of the oldest and is called Tachinomi-ya which means standing bar. You go there around 5pm and have snacks (mostly grilled chicken or other grilled meats), guzzle beer and chat with the young chefs behind the counter.

Noodles: be it ramen, soba or udon, the key is to eat it hot and slurp away! The best places we found were in Kyoto but there are all kinds of good ramen and udon joints all around Tokyo we surely haven’t had time to discover.

Bistrot de quartier: the Japanese are quite fond of this french concept. We went to Gris and it was really high-quality on the same foot with the usual Parisian suspects. Delicious food, Clos Rougeard 2006 at 80EUR = hard to beat. Highly recommend!

Kaiseki: it’s basically a restaurant where you are served a multi-course dinner equivalent to omakase (tasting menu at the chef’s choice). It is usually a high-level of cuisine and often quite expensive. In Tokyo, we were invited to a great place called Jin in Azabu Juban that had delicate and precise food with a western inspiration. We would have never found this place without the local knowledge but it was by far our best eating experience in Tokyo.

Where to drink

Coffee

Credit: Omotesando Koffee

The one place you should go to is Omotesando Koffee in Shibuya at Omotesando subway. Head there first thing and order a coffee, then enjoy it on their tiny but very well-designed terrasse. Afterwards, spend hours wandering around this stylish area filled with great designer shop displaying edgy clothes and sprinkled with concept stores.

Beer

Escape the craziness of Harajuku on the weekend and step into The Taproom serving up dozens of Baird Beer on tap. Find it down an alley off the main street of Harajuku.

Cocktails

Bar Liber (11-1-#102 Motoyoyogi Shibuya 151-0062): this bar was great because it’s tucked away on a quiet street a 10 minute bus ride from Shibuya station. The owner, Fuminori Umeda is alone behind the bar. Behind him there are hundreds of bottles of spirits, liqueurs, vermouths, etc. You tell him what you want and he concocts a cocktail on demand. We had the best Negroni and the space, which is dark, mysterious is a perfect after-dinner hangout. On the plus side, with every 15EUR cocktail, you get three free little bites that are both delicious and generous. Closes at 4AM.

The Lost in Translation experience: like 99% of tourists to Tokyo, who can forget the epic shot from the Park Hyatt’s 52nd floor with Bill Murray as a confused and disgruntled traveller?

Firstly, make sure you are going to the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku (you can’t miss those two towers). Secondly, AVOID the ultra touristy, loud and really tacky 52nd floor. Instead, relax with some bites and good drinks on the 41st floor at The Peak Lounge and Bar. The ambience is relaxing, the view even better and the service zen.

Wine

Le Bistrot Le Verre Volé à Tokyo: I have to say, when I got there, it was like being transposed back in space and time to a lazy Sunday afternoon by the canal stumbling out of Le Verre Volé, glasses under a hand and the third bottle of wine in the other. Nostalgic and welcoming at once, we proceeded to start that night with Eric Pfifferling’s Tavel 2012 which tasted beautifully familiar even thousands of kilometres away from home. Cozy up in the eerily similar decor and drink as much natural wine as you can stomach while nibbling on product-driven delicious bites.

Next stop was Yasuhiro Ooyama’s wine stand Waltz: the place is the size of a tiny walk-in closet yet I discovered there a delicious Japanese wine made with the Koshu grape by Caney wines, Yamanashi prefecture, Manriki-Koshu Asayake 2005. I had never tasted anything quite like it. Floral and herbaceous with a bright acidity, the pellicular maceration and singular orange tint made me think of Italian Emilia-Romagna. Before tasting it, I actually thought it was sake because it really had a fermented rice nose. In the end, the grape is indigenous to Japan and is primarily grown in the Yamanashi Prefecture. It travelled from the Silk Road thousands of years ago and belongs to the “prestigious” Vitis Vinifera family. Unlike many hybrids of poor quality in Japan, this one really has class.

We finished the night at Libertin, a wine bar/bistro serving up simple fare but with a really nice natural wine selection. We drank some of Etienne Thiebaud’s Trousseau and it was great. Five people, five bottles later, it was good to be tipsy in Tokyo!

Big thanks to Junko Suzuki for taking us out to the natural wine spots of Tokyo.

Parks & gardens

Back when I briefly lived in New York, I used to hang out in Sheep’s Meadow. I loved to see skyscrapers from the greenery and feel totally disconnected from the intense rapidity of the city.

In Tokyo, you can readily escape the crazy gurgling Tokyo belly and nestle in the arms of the city’s many parks and Japanese gardens.

Here are the ones I loved:

Shinjuku Gyoen: it is one of Tokyo’s largest parks and it’s conveniently located just minutes from the Shinjuku station. Spend the day sitting under the cherry blossoms from late March to April. You won’t be alone as all the city revives after winter and embraces the pink blanket that colours it.

Yoyogi Gyoen: nestled between Shibuya, Harajuki and Yoyogi subway stations, this park is great for running and for watching the crazy teens sport nutty clothes on the weekends while dancing to funky tunes.

Hama-rikyu gardens: this has to be my favourite garden. About 10 minutes walking distance from Tsukiji market, wander towards this garden after the morning spent smelling and eating fish and sip matcha tea at Nakajima-no-ochaya which is the rest house at the centre of the garden. This is where the shogun, ladies and Imperial court nobles would come to enjoy the zen way of life. Then, take the boat up the river to Asakusa and get a look at Tokyo from a different angle. It’s more touristy but there are good temples to visit.

Tokyo is a wild city where old tradition, new technology, curiosity, novelty and beauty are breath-taking and addictive.

It does change you and beckons you back without a doubt!

Japan at a glance

More information will follow about Kyoto and Tokyo seperately but for now, a couple of things about Japan.

Local up!

At any rate, the one piece of advice I can give if you come to Japan is try to find someone you can meet to share local secrets, good food spots, etc. Sometimes the restaurants don’t even have a name. When they do, it’s in Japanese and unless you are really efficient at learning how to read Japanese before your trip, you will have a very hard time.

Good tip: contact Benoît Piquet who is a fixer and also writes the Louis Vuitton guide to Tokyo. Find him on Facebok or look out for his upcoming website soon.

On the bright side, the Japanese are a very welcoming and helpful people. I was told by a lot of people that visited that they don’t speak English, which, for me, has not proven to be true. Most of the time, you can communicate albeit weakly in English and sometimes in French (especially in Kyoto).

Recognize your surroundings

Try to pinpoint places around your hotel or apartment you are staying in so you can remember a way back to your place (department store, McDonald’s, Starbucks, whatever).

Also get the address written down on a piece of paper and make sure you remember the metro/bus stop closest and how to make your way back.

I am stressing this because there isn’t actually any addresses to the places you are going. The numbers they do give you are actually just for the postal service and GPS uses… there is really no rime or reason so it can be very, very, VERY confusing.

Wi-fi and phones

There is little Wi-Fi in Kyoto and Tokyo except in some stations like Kyoto station (sign up with email for 3 free hours of surfing) or in some stores where it is advertised: at Google play, you get free coffee, free wifi and a seat to rest your tired legs from walking.

Pay-per-minute cell phones are pricey and you have to live in Japan to buy one. If you do have a friend who is Japanese, ask them to come with you and bring ID to be sure that they can buy the phone.

A good thing is some people advertising Airbnb have a portable Wi-Fi which I strongly recommend you favour if you are choosing where to stay.

Transportation and the JR Pass

Definitely get the JR Pass which costs about 428USD for 14 days. This is a good deal if you plan to travel around Japan (going to Kyoto and back will set you back about 200USD or so). It’s also worth it because you can take a the NEX train from Narita into Tokyo or Shibuya station from the airport.

Visit: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/nex/. Your JR pass is also valid on the Yamanote line which is a train that loops around Tokyo and it saves you considerable money. You can just hop on it and off as you visit the different neighbourhoods. Kyoto has a similar system – look for the JR line and it will be free to use. Some buses also operate with the JR but always check to make sure (you will see clear JR signs).

When buying the JR pass, make sure you don’t buy it 3 months before your trip as it will have expired. You have to buy the JR pass before you get to Japan so allow enough time before your arrival to get the vouchers for the JR Pass by the mail.

Book your seat ahead of time (you can do it 1 or 2 days before typically) that way you can pick your spot and don’t have to wait in sometimes interminable lines.

Good tip: make sure to book at the very front of the carriage so you can plug in your devices while travelling and you get extra legroom. Point this out to the person reserving your seats (they have a screen so you can show them).

Money

It’s helpful to just take away 2 zeros form any bill and it will give you an approximate to a couple of dollars short of the USD amount.

20 000Y = 200USD, 1000Y=10USD, etc.

Always ask how much food/meals cost as they may sometimes try to up sell you without disclosing price especially around touristy areas in Tokyo.

Cultural considerations

Realize you are in alien country. You will not know the customs, the language, the many many (MANY) ways to behave, social codes and proper manners for each situation.

The key is to be as clear as you can, smile and show respect.

Good words to know

sumimasen = excuse me, pardon me, sorry (to get attention or push through a crowd)

kudasai = please (when asking for something)

dozo = please (when offering something)

gomenasai = sorry (apologetically)

wakarimasen = I don’t understand (you’ll use this a lot)

wa doko deska? = where is……..?

arigato gozaï mass = thank you very much

kombava = good evening

koneecheewa = good day (hello)

Honestly, it doesn’t serve much to buy a whole book on the Japanese language because really you will struggle no matter what. It can be quite frustrating so just be really patient and try to smile a lot and approach people to check you are going in the right direction on a regular basis.

Bending in the wind

The bow.

It’s more than just a show of respect, excellent core strength and a very Japanese custom. It illustrates at once both the incredible rigidity and flexibility of the culture.

It’s my first time in Japan. I always wanted to come and now that I am here, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here, learn Japanese, master the tea ceremony, meditate every morning, and learn how to bow properly, be discreet, shy and gentle.

All of the above is obviously not going to happen. Especially the gentle, discreet and shy part!  But there is something to be said for bending in the wind and dreaming. I will definitely return to Japan.

Here’s why.

I held in my hands a pottery over three hundred years old.

I ate blowfish (fugu) both raw and cooked and survived. It has the consistency of monkfish a little more chewy.

I tasted the best bottarga of my life: it melted in my mouth and had notes of aged cheddar, sea urchin and butter.

I watched as Jimmy (the incredibly apt waiter/tea master at Kiln) prepared Matcha and then was kind enough to walk me through the motion. There are over twenty steps to the tea ceremony and the patience, rigor, perseverance and force required to prepare a perfect bowl of Matcha is very underrated.

 I ordered ramen from a vending machine, sat in a small little crowded shop and ate it in six minutes.

I walked in the kingdom of signs not understanding anything written around me save for the occasional English translation.

I was touched to meet a group of farmers in Kameoka who strive to produce incredibly fresh and organic food.

I ate in a temple hundreds of years old where Masayo Funakoshi (chef at Kiln) prepared a delicious meal in the freezing cold with the great produce these farmers supplied her with.

I wandered the grounds around the temple where every step you take is a dodge to avoid stepping on many patches of beautiful wild purple sorrel growing free.

I visited Tomika Brewery in Nagahama in the Shiga Prefecture and was amazed by incredible sake aged in sherry casks.

I dove into a searing hot onsen north of Kyoto on the sea and ate traditional food strange and wonderful all at once…

The kindness I witnessed throughout my trip so far has brought me to my knees. The Japanese are not a cold people. They have rituals and rules and they love beautiful things to get deserved reverence.

We have much to learn from the Japanese service style.  Everything is important: from the moment you set foot in the restaurant, the crockery, the glassware, the music or absence of music. They want the atmosphere to be relaxed to prepare the guest for the best possible experience.

In Kyoto, where we have so far spent most of our time, we were lucky enough to have incredible locals show us around and let us peek through the keyhole of their day-to-day life.

We are now headed over to Tokyo to witness the fitness of a grand and great city.

More details soon…

The road to Bolinas

The Oakland Popup had just ended and we were driving down from a great visit with Nathan at a winery called Arnot Roberts in Healdsburg.

Having sipped and slurped and chewed away through the wines, my mind was racing at the “non-California” qualities they presented.

Similar to what Philippe Pacalet does in Beaune that I dub his “high-end” négoce (purchasing wine from various farmers and vinifying it all himself), Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts (get it now?) pride themselves on selecting the best possible parcels of vines in Northern California. As Philippe does, they entertain a close and collaborative relationship with the farmers whose grapes they purchase.

They do the good stuff: little irrigation (some places, none), hand-harvested, native yeasts, whole cluster for Syrah, Pinot Noir and most of their reds, no filtering on the reds (sometimes on the whites), etc. etc.

Particularly interesting is their fascination with original and lesser-known grape varietals. At least for California, you don’t really expect to find Trousseau, Poulsard or Touriga Nacional, right? Well, the latter is used to make a delicious refreshing rosé that gave me a flashback of my many Gros Noré rosé binges in Provence.

I also learned a good one: Trousseau is really Bastardo (Portuguese synonym) and the reason it’s there at all was because at some point, the Mondavis’ were looking to make Porto-esque sweet wine. That explains that Touriga Nacional bouncing around North East Sonoma and East Mendocino.

Stand-outs were the Legan Vineyard Sta Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2012 with a floral and orange peel nose doubled with a fruity palate and delicious acidity. A friend on Facebook commented: Welcome to Healdsburgundy !

Another winner was the Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah 2012 that exuded eucalyptus, mint and white pepper. This is the coldest vineyard in California planted with Syrah. The absence of insanely high alcohol and coolness on the palate now make even more sense.

When discussing our Popup and how we poured Evan Lewandowski’s brilliant Fox Hill Vineyard Chilion 2012 with Cortese in pellicular maceration, Nathan popped a Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla from Napa Valley 2012. The juices had spent two months on the skin and the tannins were quincy, refined and super drinkable.

With this incredible aftertaste in mouth, we raced down to catch the sunset towards Bolinas where we were to stay with some friends for a couple of days to unwind post Popup.

As we approached, we passed a little stand packed with beautiful green vegetables, flowers and fresh fruits. I immediately wanted to stop and go check it out. Turns out we had landed at Gospel Flat Farm. Don Murch‘s beautiful little natural heaven just outside of downtown Bolinas.

There was no one at the stand so you are meant to weigh your food at a scale by the counter and just leave money as you see fit.

I saw a contraption behind the stand and further over to the right there was a slab of unsteady wood above a small little dam that led to a wide spread where hundred’s of chicken were roaming free-range.

Don emerged from a small little hut covered in feathers and smiled at us. We were “trespassing” with curiosity and we got to talking to this original character. Minutes later, we were off with plans to meet him at the dock the next morning at 8AM to go fishing for crab.

I never knew that this would involve five hours, freezing winds and forty baskets of crabs pulled out of the ocean by this upwards of sixty year incredibly entertaining man. Usually, he goes with his son Mickey, has a fag and drives the boat as the baskets are weeled out of the sea by his younger version. But not today. Under our incredulous eyes, Don muscled out of the ocean over a hundred pounds’ worth of four-year old crabs (about 60 or 70 crabs). At 10$ a pop, you do the math.

Here’s how fishing crabs work:  large round baskets with two areas small enough for the crabs to crawl into are baited with dead sardines. The small entrances then latch closed via a simple metal pin and the crabs are trapped in. He comes along, hurdles a rope on board and a pulley gets the basket to the surface and onto the boat where the crabs are measured, unloaded and the females and young ones are tossed back into the sea.

Legislation has it that only male crabs aged four years and over are allowed to be caught. This allows the species to survive, reproduce at the right rate and therefore supply enough for all the fishing that goes on in the area. Don estimated that 95% of the crabs that should be caught were in fact captured each year by fishermen.

The basket is now ready to go back in the sea but Don usually leaves a crab in the basket as apparently crabs are fans of fighting amongst themselves so they happily enter the basket and start a brawl.

In between the tugging, catching the rope in the water, opening the baskets, tossing the crabs in a container and baiting each basket tossed back in with horribly stinky sardines, he told us stories of fishing in high sea in Alaska, of nearly freezing to death during a hunting trip and lying in the train tracks while a train roared above him passing across a bridge at more than hundred meters over a roaring river.

The man’s got stories and he’s passionate about food. He raises it, grows it, hunts it and fishes it.

That night, around a small table, twelve of us (and a lot of chefs were present) cracked open and licked off our fingers the best crab we’d ever eaten.

Down the boozer

What should we do this afternoon?

“Go to the pub ain’t it?”

Which one though?

” The local.”

The what…?

“Down the boozer!”

This is the pointless conversation I have with Harry when we go to England and each time I just pretend I understand the concept but really I don’t get it.

What is a pub really? Do they serve food? Good beer?

Not really… in my meager experience, usually you get horrible pork scratchings out of a stale plastic packet and warmish beer.

Described as the “heart of England”, the pub’s history can be traced back to the Roman taverns and is considered the gathering spot for socializing around beer, wine spirits and soft drinks.

Here are some things I’ve learned about pubs while researching them…

Pub: public house (as opposed to a private house where the public is not welcome in). The pub is a place for drinking and usually opens in the day until late at night. It can also serve food but the primary goals is drinking.

Landlord: the owner of the pub – historically owned the whole building or part of it

Local: a pub that you frequent regularly and is your “local hangout”.

Lock-in: when you know the landlord and he closes down the pub but keeps serving booze – it then becomes a private party (no longer “public house”).

Boozer or Battle cruiser: pub and rhyming slang for a pub.

Pub quiz: quiz nights in a pub that occur on evenings one night or so per week. Typically, these pub games can get quite competitive. Questions vary on the quiz master’s selection that are read out loud (via a microphone generally) and all the different teams/tables have to write their answers down.

All this is quite merry but to be honest, a good lesson I got from my pub experiences was to enjoy the spirit of the night above the quality of beverages served and the deliciousness of the food.

You can just shoot the shit and laugh about past ridiculous situations most of which included getting wasted in a pub and then doing something stupid afterwards.

Honestly, it was kind of liberating…

Grape varietes of the week: Pinot Noir, Romorantin, Frappato

Our imminent travelling has forced me to sift through all my junk and start making decisions about what is going to stay and what is going to go. Happily, this was also an excuse to dive back into the wine library I’ve been obsessively hauling around from apartment to apartment, across countries, and back from travels. I pulled out Wine Grapes: A Complete guide to 1368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.

This week’s top three are…

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir: the highly mutating variety (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier) is the source of many legends as to its origin but there is actually no current factual proof of who mom or dad are. Parent to many an offspring and in a long-term relationship with Gouais Blanc, Pinot Noir has hatched Aligoté, Chardonnay, Gamay, Melon, and Romorantin. It is also a distant parent to Teroldago, Syrah, Lagrein, Corvina, Mondeuse Noire/Blanche, and Viognier.

Pinot I’m loving: Hubert Lignier‘s Morey-Saint-Denis 2008 and Philippe Pacalet‘s Pernand Vergelesses 2010 are guzzle-ready.

Cépage Romorantin

Romorantin

Another child of the Pinot Noir x Gouais Blanc romance, Romorantin is a Burgundian varietal originating from North-East France that, when planted ungrafted and allowed many years to evolve, can spawn some incredible complex, mineral and well-balanced wines. It also has its own appellation, Cour-Cheverny where it thrives on the Loire valley’s complex soil kaleidoscope.

Romorantin I’m loving: Domaine de Montcy, Cour-Cheverny 2010 and Domaine des Huards, Cour-Cheverny “Cuvée François” 2006

A bunch of Frappato grapes

Frappato

A red varietal of Sicily, this grape is quite enchantingly known for its fruity nature. Indeed fruttato in Italian could have been at the origin of this Frappato. It is often blended with Nero d’Avola to produce the DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria and brings balance and freshness to its tannic and acidic counterpart. One of its parents is Sangiovese and it has been thought as a sibling of Gaglioppo (Calabrese varietal with aromatic similitude).

Frappato I’m loving: COS Sicilia IGT Frappatto 2012 and Arianna Occhipinti’s IGT Sicilia Frappato 2011.

Ampelography rocks!

Holy service

I think the scarcity of good service in Paris has caused many (including me) to simply forget what it even feels like…

Let’s settle one thing: working in the service industry in Paris pays a hell of a lot less than in tip-based US or Canada.

In Paris, service staff  fall in three categories: those who are doing it part time while they pursue their real career, those who love it and those who don’t but don’t have a choice.

In Canada, I would work thirty-hour weeks spanning three to five days, make between 150$ and 300$ a shift and have a busboy, bar service and runner for my (max) 8-table section. I cost the restaurant virtually nothing and me keeping my job (and making a living) depended entirely on whether I did a good job and clients were happy. It’s called meritocracy.

And then there’s France…

Two words: cotisations sociales. If an employee is getting a net hourly wage of 7,26EUR, he actually costs his employer 14,60EUR. You do the math.

Restaurants in France can’t really afford to pay these “double salaries” to a busboy and a runner to make the waiter’s life easier. So yes, most waiters are overworked, tired, “en coupure” (they do lunch service, take a “break” and then do dinner service) and sometimes get quite grumpy and unpleasant.

But I digress…

Credit: Holybelly

Recently, my negativity and bitterness about service-lacking Paris has transformed into a most happy disposition thanks to Holybelly! It had been a while since I have felt that welcomed and well-cared for. It’s not a Michelin-starred loin de là! We are talking your neighbourhood daytime Café done right. The coffee is delicious (Belleville Brûlerie of course) and the food is rocking (Sarah & Lise are female-chef-machine-wonderduo) ! I urge you to try the savoury (13eur) or sweet (11,5eur) pancake extravaganza served weekdays before noon and weekends nonstop until sold out.

At Holybelly, both owners are respectively in the kitchen and behind the espresso machine honing their expertise so it comes as no surprise that the places you get the best service in Paris are usually server/sommelier/chef-owned. It’s their business, they are there, and they care.

Credit: Holybelly

Nico’s chatter is entertaining and he is genuinely in a good coffee-happy mood every day (I’ve been numerous times… yes!). The girls wave hello and the whole place is very relaxing, laid-back with great music.

Hipster-magnet? Perhaps… but at least you don’t get the clichéed horrible “french service” I think it’s really time we stop tolerating in the name of Parisian authenticity.

Holybelly just raised the bar.

Holybelly
19 rue lucien sampaix – Paris 10th
http://holybel.ly/

Before I go… Paris, je t’aime

Soon, there won’t be anywhere to call home. I will sell most of my belongings, store away my precious wine books. Give away most of my clothes and pack the remainder in a backpack and one rolling suitcase.

Yes, I am going for a while.

I don’t really realize what will happen until I set foot on that Eurostar to London on December 22nd.

It’s probably not yet time to reminisce but somehow I’ve been feeling that pit in my chest and I’m not sure if it’s stress about organizing the departure, anxiety about not have a solid base or sheer excitement about being free as a bird for the next six months.

First, there was Carl. I think on the first three nights upon landing from Montreal, I couldn’t tell the difference between night and day: every time I woke up it was time for apéro. Carl loves Paris and Paris loves Carl. So he took me to Garde-Robe, Avant-Comptoir, we visited the Marais together, partied in many gay clubs and lounged around Buttes Chaumont’s Rosa Bonheur dancing around poles and guzzling natural wine until dawn. He let me crash on his couch for three months: epic man.

When I first set foot in Bistro Paul Bert, it was October 2010 and I had freshly arrived to Paris. Bertrand Auboyneau didn’t dismiss me as an “annoying commerciale” but instead welcomed me, offered me a coffee and tasted the apple ice wine I was attempting to sell. He even bought some! You never forget the first kindness of strangers.

I went to visit my childhood friend Alice in Lyon and knowing my obsession with wine, she suggested we go to the Salon des Vignerons Indépendants. There, I introduced myself to Catherine Breton who makes delectable wines in Bourgueil and Vouvray. We hit it off and she asked me to help her in Paris for the first Salon de l’Association des Vins Naturels (AVN). I was to show up and pour her wines and talk about them as if they were my own. Sure! Why not? I met the whole natural wine gang there and they took me in as if I were family. As I have, they have grown over the years but their hospitality and kindness remain.

Catherine also sent me to rue du Nil where I met Greg. The Frenchie era began and it was a blast. In the first years when Greg was less of a family man than today, we would party late and long, talking for hours, ending up at Experimental and drinking into the night. Soon came more staff and the Frenchie family grew, in size, ambition and recognition. It was one of the most eye-opening learning experiences of my life.

Travelling in the vineyards, meeting winemakers, learning new languages, getting shoes really muddy and dirty in the vines, eating in restaurants, meeting chefs, missing trains, missing flights, negotiating my way back onto another flight, crying in the airport, laughing in the plane, screaming in panic on the Italian highway, surviving fear and anticipation. So many amazing experiences has Paris given me.

Now, it is time to take off… soon soon. But not before a couple of parties, dinners, hugs, kisses and goodbyes.

Paris je t’aime.

How to quickly grasp a customer’s taste for wine?

That’s the question I am trying to answer these days at Le Perchoir during my consulting months there.

How does one, in less than one minute capture and understand the preference of a varying diversity of people?

Be it for a dinner party you are hosting, if you are a sommelier (feedback and comments would be appreciated by the way!) or simply buying a bottle of wine as a gift, trying to know the taste of the person on the receiving end is always an exciting challenge.

In the world of wine, we have our lingo. We know that a rich and buttery white wine means it’s from a ripe vine that has more residual sugar, probably more alcohol and is likely oaked.

When we say fresh and sharp it doesn’t mean that it’s necessary colder than another white but that is has higher acidity, likely from a cooler vineyard and probably quite dry.

Now, clients who know absolutely NADA about wine, find this a little confusing. And understandably so.

They associate fresh to a cooler temperature (will the wine be colder?). They associate buttery to a croissant (why is she talking about butter in wine?). They think of round when asked what a circle looks like (that just doesn’t make any sense!). Sharp evokes the knife they are now wishing they could gut you with for asking so many confusing questions.

So here is what I came up with to simplify the whole process (please note, this is just from my  experience and to help quicken the process of helping customers with a wine choice – not fool-proof by any means!)

It’s like being a detective… rule out and narrow down until you have picked something that suits the budget and the perceived desire of the client.

Here are some questions I ask:

1) What colour (usually white or red)?

2) Full bodied (tannin and alcohol for reds, buttery and rich for whites)? or light bodied (nice acidity for whites, fruity and low tannins for reds)?

3) Is there a region (Burgundy! okay… but Chablis or Meursault?), country (France! Hem.  You see where I’m going here…), varietal (Chardonnay? Pinot Noir? Cabernet Sauvignon?) or winemaker they liked in the past?

4) If they could only answer red or white, here’s the plan B: ask about fruits (lemons or peaches? grapefruit or apricot? green or yellow apples?), beverages they enjoy (coffee? tea?) and then on to questions about chocolate (bitter or sweet?) or a taste for truffles? cigars? spicy foods?

These clues give you an idea into what a person’s palate is accustomed to and enjoys. Let’s face it, most of us started out in wine loving that oaky white Chardonnay that was so sweet and luscious to gulp down, not much nuance perhaps but it was appealing. Later, follows more love of acidity, then a slow appreciation for subtle bitters and finally openness to more original  and “weirder” wines.

It is crucial to remember that the customer does NOT have the same palate as you. Trying to find something for them is the goal here.

Now that you have some information about the person’s taste, you might also want to factor in the food that is pairing with the wine you are about to serve. Some foods can destroy a wine’s taste – spicy foods tend to go very badly with tannic reds.

Explain this to the customer so he is aware but don’t force a Mosel Spatlese Riesling down his throat if they insist on having a red with their curry. Just find something that they will be happy to drink. Politely suggest they have a bite of bread or sip of water before tasting the wine so it is the most unbiased experience.

What about a table-full of people and you have to pick one wine? Truth is, some people just don’t care what it will be as long as they can just drink something. There might be a host you will interact with and he could then survey the table to see what everyone else’s tastes are but usually he will just pick something that suits the general palate. Let this happen and intervene only if you are consulted. Ask similar questions but try to incorporate everyone’s tastes. If one person has very divergent taste, suggest a glass of wine to please them.

Then just pick the wine, have them taste, and listen to the feedback. If they are not happy, just change it. Don’t fuss… there’s no point. People rarely change their minds about this once they’ve had the gull to actually say something about it.

It’s a great experience of exercise in listening. It is crucial to repeat this process as much as possible to try to and get quicker and more efficient at it.

Bottoms up!

Goodbye Frenchie!

Three years ago, in September 2010, I flew into Paris with a knot in my stomach and wine in my eyes.

On my first trial day at Frenchie, I opened a bottle of Drappier Nature at a high-top of four and it exploded in the entire room! I will never forget how mortifying that was but I laughed it off and Greg helped out by calling out from the kitchen: “C’est nature! C’est normal!”.

Regardless of my meager sommelier experience, I was hired that day and never looked back. I was given the chance to build a wine list that represented the winemakers I believed in, that I got to meet because I travelled the vineyards relentlessly those first couple of months.

I piled boxes ceiling-high until we finally got a proper cellar to store the hundreds of references that made up the ever-growing wine list.

Every summer, around La Fête de la Musique time, we invited all our good clients and friends filling up Rue du Nil and celebrating to the sound of Jazz manouche with good food and wine.

I witnessed the opening of Frenchie Wine Bar, then one year after, its extension and recently, Frenchie To Go. I saw the team grow and with it all its growing pains and insightful challenges.

I saw Marie (Greg’s wife) pregnant and not drinking wine (highly unusual I assure you!) so we bought some celery salt to add to the tomato juice she reluctantly replaced her apero with.

I served thousands of clients and made friends out of many of them. I encountered so many passionate, generous and captivating people. I will miss them.

I saw rue du Nil go from an unknown alley in the obscure Sentier to the gastronomic destination it is today. I realize now more than ever the value of investing in your community.

I made dozens of French clients blind-taste non-french wine and initiated more than one to Arianna Occhipinti and her fierce Sicilian wines.

I danced on the tables at Frenchie until 6AM (sometimes to the sound of Sweet Home Alabama).

I ate loafs an loafs of Christophe Vasseur’s bread over the years.

We're taking it worldwide, geekiness and all!

I fell down the stairs to the cellar (ouch!).

More than ever, I have seen the Frenchie staff (past & present) work their asses off to maintain the standard and they are the people I admire and will miss the most.

And the best is … I met Harry.

A bright future awaits and I am looking ahead, rich of this incredible adventure.

Next short-term step: I will be jazzing up the wine list at Le Perchoir for the next couple of months so come say hi at 14 rue Crespin Dugast (6th floor).

Next long-term step: Harry and I will travel around the world popping-up, eating, drinking, partying, and learning until May 2014 when we will stage at Celler de Can Roca in Girona.

XOXO

Laura


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