Years ago, if you wanted to drink interesting wine and nibble some inexpensive food, your options were limited to wine bars serving platters of charcuterie and cheese. A handful of Paris places offered more in the way of padding, but the options were always simple – more hearty than arty.
The opening of L’Avant Comptoir in October 2009 kicked off a wave trickle of wine bars serving truly interesting food. Aux Deux Amis, Spring Buvette (RIP) and Le Dauphin followed within a year, and Frenchie has more recently opened a wine bar across the street. These places have a few things in common: small plates, impeccable ingredients, and small production/natural wines. They’re also refugee establishments, providing shelter for clients who couldn’t score a seat at the restaurant, or for former employees who have jumped the mothership. Aux Deux Amis falls into the latter category, as does my new crush Au Passage.
I knew that Audrey, former front-of-house mistress at Spring, was somehow involved with this new wine bar in the 11th (she’s the girlfriend of one of the owners), but it was a pleasant surprise to also see James Henry behind the stove. James used to do the cold apps and desserts at Spring, and the evening menu at Au Passage is very much in this wheelhouse. Aside from a couple of fatty comforts (burrata, rillettes), most of the small plates could have easily been starters at Spring – they featured pristine produce (Joël Thiébault and Terroirs d’Avenir) and were bright with both color and acid. Flavor pairings were unexpected and, for the most part, successful. I loved the anchovy bass line in a dish of “courgette, ricotta” and the coriander flower in an escabèche with clams and chinchard (reminiscent of mackerel). I was less convinced by the sprinkling of pomegranate on a plate of “saucisse, carrotte”, but I can forgive the out-of-season and overplayed garnish when the dish was otherwise totally delicious. Desserts followed the same Spring format of crustless cream + fruit/chocolate + crunchy bits, but they make more sense in a laidback wine bar than a Michelin aspiring restaurant. Another nice touch: bread from Thierry Breton (Chez Michel) in the same style as (but better than?) Poujauran.
As for the wine, we tasted three and were enamored with two. The red Sancerre from Pinoz Dauny was a great way to begin, and we were delighted by the Verre de Poêtes recommended by Jean-Charles Buffet. I didn’t love the Boisson Rouge dessert wine, but 2/3 isn’t bad when one is prowling for new and interesting wines. We washed the sugar from our mouths with a smoky white whiskey and still managed to escape for only €40 per person.
In a nutshell: Au Passage is what happens when a business minded wine nuts open a large and relatively inexpensive space and spend their money on ingredients and talent. Prices are low, there enough tables and turnover to make booking a real possibility, and the menu changes every day. All this will probably add up to a habit. The rentrée will bring loving reviews and longer waits for reservations, so go and get it while you can.
Au Passage (closed August 7-22 for summer vacation & renovation)
1 bis passage Saint Sébastien, 75011 Paris
Tel: 01 43 55 07 52
Open Mon-Sat for lunch (1 dish for 9.50€, 2 for 13€, 3 for 16.50€) and dinner (small plates, most around 8€)