On the premises of an old fish shop in Paris 6eme, an American and a New Zealander run a wine bar with a restaurant attached. It has the rather puzzling name of: Fish, La Boissonnerie (the P of Poissonnerie having been changed to reflect its new function). The format favours lone American and British ex-pats who sit at the bar, and pick up gossip from the bi-lingual English manager behind it, who also directs the rest of the restaurant while dispensing glasses of wine, mostly from the South of France. The main issue here is the wine, supplied from the proprietors’ adjacent wine shop: La Derniere Goutte, although the atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious, the restaurant comfortable, and the dressed-down waiting staff friendly and attentive.
Fish La Boissonnerie operates with the usual French retricted format of a set menu which costs around 32 euros for two courses, 35 euros for three, and is biased towards light fish dishes to reflects the origins of the premises. It is not cheap, but sometimes of a very high standard.
A looser approach has been adopted at Terroirs, another French wine bar/restaurant, newly opened in William IV St in London. In contrast to the elaborately tiled exterior of the Parisian “Fish ..”, the outside of this premises is utterly unprepossessing. However, once over the threshold, the Parisian atmosphere takes hold. The battered bentwood chairs and worn-looking, mismatched tables give the impression of a long established set-up, and there is no attempt to co-ordinate the decor or lighting. Instead, there are Paris street names, nailed at random to the walls, and antique sideboards housing menus, salt and pepper mills. What makes it unusual for London, is that it is typically French without trying too hard (or at all). It is pretty uncomfortable and the tables are packed closely together, so not recommended for a romantic dinner a deux.
So why is it always packed, both with advance reservations, and a constant stream of hopefuls eyeing possible empty stools to sit at the bar? No lonely French expats here; the London food cognoscenti have latched on to this big time. Last Friday night, beside me on the next table, so close we could have been sharing, was another food writer/blogger: http://agirlhastoeat.com, and on the other side of her, a restaurant chain owner from Essex. We had all eaten there on previous occasions and agreed that enjoyment of the food depends on where you sit in this multi-level location. The upper tables near the street, or the seats at the bar seem the best; at the back on the lower level is too crushed and badly lit.
There are no set menus which is maybe what keeps the French away. Instead, interesting small plates of items like Bone Marrow and Truffle (£7), Whole Dorset Crab & Mayonnaise(£12), Beetroot, Fresh Goats Cheese & Peashoot Salad (£5) are mostly pretty good, and emerge from a tiny kitchen at the back of the bar. But the wine….the wine is delectable. Described variously as natural, but on other occasions biodynamic and organic, the selection is totally original, and comes from small vineyards in France. Terroirs reminds me of a small chain of wine bars in Paris called l’Ecluse, which has similar but less adventurous offerings, often on the same lightly toasted Poilane bread. It’s best to go there principally with the idea of drinking the wine, accompanied by a couple of small food accompaniments. Once you start making a meal out of it, the costs quickly rise, and you can end up with an unwelcome food bill, disproportionate to the venue. However, the chef is Ed Wilson, recently of the Galvin brothers’ restaurant (one of whom used to be the executive chef at the Wolesley), so we are looking at a good pedigree here.
Terroirs is part-owned by Les Caves de Pyrene, a Guildford wine merchant which supplies many good British restaurants, hence the ambitious range. It will be interesting to see how it pans out, and whether it eventually attracts homesick Parisians. That will be the true test.