A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of trips, it was the worst of trips; it was sometimes a very good wine, it was never a bad one; it was sometimes a fine dinner, it was sometimes a disappointing one. Nobody wound up at the guillotine, though one of us – me! poor me – wound up the trip with some spectacular intestinal distress, of which you do not want the details. It’s enough to know that I have suffered for my art.

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Diane and I decamped from rainy, chilly New York for Barcelona and Paris at the end of September. We landed in bright sunshine and warmth and enjoyed that for our whole stay in Barcelona, before returning to rain and chill in the soi-disant City of Light. I hadn’t been in Barcelona since the Franco years. It’s a very different place now – lively, buoyant, prosperous, experiencing a strong surge of Catalan nationalism, which was reflected in sometimes unpronounceable menu entries. The Catalan language, which is widely spoken and written, is closer to Provençal than it is to Spanish, and it uses “X” – pronounced halfway between “ch” and “sh” – in unexpected places.

In Barcelona, the all-but-compulsory aperitif is cava: Spanish – excuse me, Catalan – champagne-method sparkling wine. I don’t normally get very excited about cava: Too many of those I taste here are stripped down to acidity and bubbles, with the fruit and/or minerality dropped out somewhere mid-Atlantic. But we drank many cavas in Barcelona, and they were all charming – nothing outstanding, but all pleasant. Must be the effect of the local air and the local tapas, which were delightful. With them and with our dinners we also drank a lot of Priorat and Penedes wines. Again many were charming but few striking.

The two best wines of our stay in Barcelona we enjoyed on two separate nights in our favorite restaurant, Casa Leopoldo. The red was the Riserva Especial of La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza 2001. This was only the third bottling of this Riserva Especial (the others are 1964 and 1973), and I thought it a bargain at €34. An elegant, limpid wine of great depth and complexity, it matched equally well with two widely different first courses and then with a spicy, tomato-ey tripe dish and an unctuous pig knuckle swathed with wild mushrooms. Any wine that can do that has guts as well as complexity.

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We enjoyed this dinner so much we arranged to return there for our final meal in Barcelona. Elinor, head of the waitstaff, who had taken charge of us the first evening, promised us a caught-that-day John Dory – Gallo di San Pedro here. The fish was grilled magnificently and tasted fresh and rich, as were the dishes that preceded it: absolutely fresh anchovies, lightly marinated, and tiny, tiny squids sautéed with chanterelles and topped with a poached egg. The wine that matched these very different flavors was equally rich and fresh: a big, luscious white Rueda, 2010 Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo (€44, and well worth it). A 100% Verdejo, fermented and aged on the lees in 300-liter French oak, it tasted wonderfully of fruit and mineral, with the oak showing not as a flavor but as a rounding and fattening of the lean Verdejo character. A lovely meal and a lovely wine.

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For more about what we ate in Barcelona, see this post on Diane’s blog.

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Paris, alas, was another story. In part it might have been the weather, but we missed the brilliance, the magic, that so many past dinners in Paris had led us to expect.

We had decided to skip the starred restaurants: What we wanted was honest brasserie cooking – but we couldn’t find it. Maybe we chose badly, maybe we were just unlucky. Some very simple things remained marvelous – sitting at a café table and gnawing a sandwich au jambon made with that amazing Parisian baguette; one lunch of roasted marrow bones followed by a small steak frites (Diane) and a shepherd’s pie (me) at Le Petit St. Benôit, accompanied by the house’s own simple Côtes de Rhône.

But other places that we knew from earlier visits – Louis Vins, Vagenende – had moved more upscale and lost some of their scruffy charm (plus, in the case of Louis Vins, its wonderful list of Beaujolais crus, now replaced by a battery of middling Bordeaux). New places – for instance, Le Petit Celadon – that we tried turned out to be much more formal than we were hoping for: good food, very correctly served, but a more starched experience than we wanted. One new restaurant, in a total mix-up, turned out to be the very kind of thing we were trying to avoid, a Michelin two-star “restaurant gastronomique,” with all that that entails.

And I could scarcely find any older wines. That didn’t surprise me in Barcelona – but in Paris? The best bottle of the French half of our vacation was a 1996 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Windsbuhl (€134) that we drank at the afore-mentioned restaurant gastronomique: Jean Francois Piège at Thoumieux. The wine was lovely, deep and resourceful – it had to be, to match with nine largely over-the-top appetizers; a main course of Brittany blue lobster, dressed with red bell pepper puree, foie gras, and eau de coco (yes, coconut water); and a selection of five cheeses cunningly presented on tall chunks of some exotic wood – not to mention four desserts.

This restaurant – the current mutation of what had been for decades a fine, family-owned brasserie – seems typical of the hot trend of restaurants in Paris and New York. The menu is essentially fixed: You get a few choices of main course, and everything else is chosen by the chef. This means that you confront a succession of elaborate small dishes which may or may not make any culinary sense. The New York Times has talked about this phenomenon recently, in its rather even-handed way. I’m not going to be even-handed: I don’t like it. I don’t want that many dishes, that many different flavors, that long at table. I want fewer dishes and more choices, so I can select a wine I enjoy to match with foods I want to eat. I can only hope this latest manifestation of star-chef egoism dies an early death, before, like Sydney Carton, I am driven to do a far, far better thing than I have ever done and give up going to restaurants entirely.

Except for places like this one in Barcelona:

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