From high on rue Ménilmontant, you can see straight out to the glittering tower of Montparnasse, far over on Paris’ wealthy Left Bank. The workaday, multi-ethnic neighborhood of Ménilmontant is a different world. This summer it’s home to Le 88 Ménilmontant, a ramshackle summertime concert terrace hosted by nearby venue La Bellevilloise on the site of a former artists’ squat. In the early evening, it’s half-full with beer-sipping east Parisians. They stand in clusters, or hunch over tiny tables, or play uncompetitive ping-pong with toddlers.
Claire Deville, the co-owner of adjacent natural wine canteen Le Lapin Blanc, props up a wooden awning of her open-air food stand and regards the sky. The past few weeks in Paris have been stormy.
“Even tonight, I wasn’t sure,” she admits. “But I said, why not?”
Deville completes the setup of her sandwich stand—“La Cabane du Lapin Blanc”—with the placement of a figurine of a rabbit and a small children’s book, also concerning rabbits. “For the children,” she adds, grinning.
It is one of the curious ironies of the thriving Paris natural wine scene: for all its fame and international influence, there remain hideaway neighborhood bars like Le Lapin Blanc, which derives only accessory appeal from its natural wine selection. Before opening Le Lapin Blanc over four years ago, Deville worked as a cupcake baker; her business partner, Gaelle Raux, did communications for a concert hall.
“We start to be known in natural wine circles,” Deville muses, “but in the quartier we’re known more for brunch.”
Raux and Deville fell into natural wine almost by accident. Deville admits that when they opened, they had no idea what wines to buy. But one of their staff members at the time offered to seek wine advice from his childhood friend, who turned out to be the French wine journalist Antonin Iommi-Amunategui, who also organises the influential Rue89 natural wine tastings in Paris and Bordeaux. Iommi-Amunategui designed Le Lapin Blanc’s opening wine list.
“Since then we’ve found our own palates, and the winemakers pass by frequently,” says Deville. Iommi-Amumategui often hosts tasting events and book signings at Le Lapin Blanc, and the bar also hosts the after-party for the Rue89 tasting. Le Lapin Blanc’s list today skews towards underdog winemakers from the Loire, the Languedoc, and the Beaujolais; a surprising highlight is Stephane Rocher’s 2015 exotic “K. Blanc,” a cabernet franc vinified as a white and buoyed by a dash of Chenin. Chef Mattia Carfagna’s menu is divided between off-the-shelf gourmet products (sardines, pâtés, terrines), heaping sausage sandwiches, and inspired, semi-random ideas like a Colombian chicken soup.
Except for the occasional special event, Deville doesn’t serve wine at her stand at Le 88 Ménilmontant—just sandwiches, salads, patés, and cookies. (La Bellevilloise retained control of alcohol sales at the site, which is bedecked in Grolsch and Jameson’s logos.) The most recent special wine-related event was held on July 20th, in which a local hairdresser was invited to cut hair over drinks: “Un coup, un coupe,” or, in English, “One cut, one cup.”
If that sounds goofy, well, it is. Le Lapin Blanc is in many ways the opposite of savvy, media-saturated wine bars like Camille Fourmont’s La Buvette or Bertrand Grébaut and Théo Pourriat’s Septime La Cave. Four years in, Le Lapin Blanc has still received zero coverage in the buzzy French food magazine Le Fooding, which ordinarily displays all the editorial discernment of a whale consuming plankton. Tourist euros are essentially foreign to Le Lapin Blanc, where the business reflects the modest surrounding community. The bar is gawkily under-designed. Throw cushions, old couches, and Jimi Hendrix posters line the walls. There is a slight lack of ventilation. Bottles are as cheap as 23€. Claire Deville has 5,000 Facebook friends. There is another Paris, and you can find it here.
Aaron Ayscough (@a_ayscough) is the author of the wine blog Not Drinking Poison In Paris. His writing about wine and restaurants has appeared in The Financial Times, The New York Times: T Magazine, and Fantastic Man. This is Aaron Ayscough’s first article for Sprudge Wine.