I’m a latecomer to the wine bar bandwagon. I admit that for a long time I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. The idea of having to plan ahead and make reservations just to have a few drinks and nibbles with friends put me off. I mean, such a meal would seem to be inherently spontaneous – reserving just feels contrary to the whole aesthetic. And yet, Au Passage may have changed my mind.
You see, I read this fantastic review, and something compelled me to get myself a reservation. So that’s how Nick and I ended up eating here on their last night before closing for the summer vacation. But I don’t think the menu or the food suffered for it.
We started off with some house-made rillettes. The rich, meaty spread came topped with a spray of herbs and lettuces, as well as the obligatory cornichons. The fresh bite of the salad was a welcome counterpoint to the pork. Though they don’t crow about it on the minimalistic and ever-changing (really, I think it got modified twice during our dinner) chalkboard menu, the fruits and vegetables are local and pedigreed, and the bread is baked by Thierry Breton of Chez Michel in his schmancy new oven. Nick and I were amused by the choice to use bamboo steamer baskets – of the type more often seen on dim sum carts – to serve the bread, but I can hardly blame a new restaurant for imaginative frugality.
The wine list did appear to have taken a hit – many wines were unavailable – but we found a Pic St. Loup and went for a bottle. (Wines from the Languedoc generally being a safe bet for both our palates and our wallets.)
Perhaps discordantly with our choice of wine, we followed up the rillettes with two seafood dishes. The first, encornets, sauce encre (squid with ink sauce) looked stunning. Taste-wise, it didn’t quite live up. It was very nicely cooked, but I kept finding gritty bits (is it sand, or something from the flowers, I wondered) and I can’t help but think squid ink sauce is kind of pointless. It’s black. It tastes seafood-y. Meh. The second one, though, bonite cru, aubergine fumée (raw tuna, smoked eggplant) was positively delectable. Big chunks of impossibly tender fish sat atop a bed of smoky slabs of eggplant. The garnish of thinly sliced radishes provided a refreshing, peppery kick. Home run!
The second round started with a plate of anchovies and piment d’espelette. I’m not a huge anchovy fan, but Nick insisted, and I already trusted the kitchen enough to believe the ones served here might be worth eating (or at least give me an excuse to eat more of the excellent bread). They were fine, if somewhat unphotogenic by the time I thought to take a picture. After the anchovies, we dove into a salad (fenouil, oeufs de truite) and a steak (onglet, concombres).
I loved the shaved fennel mixed with greens and radishes, all of which played well with the trout egg garnish. Surprisingly, I was enamored with the texture of the fish eggs, rolling them individually over my tongue before gently crushing them against the roof of my mouth. Coupled with crunchy bites of fennel, it was one of the most interesting and enjoyable salads I’ve had in a long time. The seared rare hangar steak was chewy and flavorful, complimented by spicy marinated cucumbers and fresh basil, in a Thai-inspired twist.
We had plans to meet a friend after dinner, so we skipped dessert, but I do expect to be back to check out their offerings, hopefully sooner rather than later. And yes, I will reserve.
Now that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, I’m wondering what I’ve been missing all this time, not frequenting wine bars. I regret missing Spring‘s incarnation of the genre, and wish I’d visited Tombé du Ciel more often when I lived practically on top of it. While I may still tend to favor the more low-key sort (La Reserve de Quasimodo, Le Baron Rouge, La Cave du Miroir…) I’m much more intrigued than I was before by this more involved type of wine bar. My interest in places like Le Dauphin and Frenchie Wine Bar has been newly piqued, and I look forward to exploring this new-to-me style of dining in more depth. The question that remains, though, is this: is it better to try these places in large groups, so as to have a wider variety of dishes to sample, or is it best à deux, the better to delve into the chef’s creations?
On this day in 2008: I’m Not Stalking David Lebovitz…
Originally published on Croque-Camille.