Willi's Wine Bar

(Paris, FRANCE) On our final day in Paris, we were joined by our good friend Harry, who had been busy jaunting around Europe the previous week. We needed a good lunch place to meet and Willi's Wine Bar fit the bill because it was midway between our two hotels. It was also the original restaurant that influenced Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, one of our faves in California. We were about to find out if the pupil had become the master, or if the original place still live up to its reputation...

He Fed:
As usual, we arrive early for our noon lunch reservation. The owner, an Englishman named Mark Williamson, encourages us to have a drink at the bar, conversing with the waitstaff in French while simultaneously engaging us in English. We order some champagne (which is very good) and catch up with Harry while they prepare our table. The place is bright and airy, with the tight seating we've come to expect in Paris. On the walls are amazing posters from artists paying tribute to the restaurant. During our wait, Mark hands us the daily menu "hot off the presses". He explains the waitstaff doesn't even know what the chef has put together, the menu is that fresh. We finish our champagne and peruse the menu.

Finally, our table is ready. We reluctantly give up the comfortable stools at the bar and take our seats near the back corner, where an open window lets in fresh air. It only took six days, but I'm finally feeling very comfortable in a Parisian restaurant, listening to the slow pace of the streets outside, and the quiet murmur of conversation in a language I can't fully understand. I can imagine staying in this city forever. Or maybe that's the champagne talking.

To begin, we order some red wine to go with our crusty bread and sparkling mineral water. Our server is friendly and able to help us decipher the menu, as well as relate some specials. Without pause, I order the chilled cucumber soup as my first course. I like gazpacho and other cold soups (I even tried a tangerine one years ago); plus, cucumber can be very refreshing. Indeed, the soup is heavily laden with cream or butter, yet crisp to the taste buds. A nice island of freshly chopped tomato relish topped with micro greens floats serenely in the middle.

Not much else is grabbing me from the menu, so I go with the old standby: beef. It is a medium-rare piece of rib, broiled and drizzled with a red wine reduction sauce. Beneath the slab of meat are green beans and quartered potato. On top are watercress leaves, which add a crunchy texture. The beef is cooked perfectly and the sauce adds tang, but otherwise it's just a well-prepared simple dish. I should have stepped outside the box and experienced something new (a chance I will have later that evening).

For dessert, I cannot resist the rhubarb tart. The puckery sweetness does not last long, as I scoop up every last forkful before anyone else at the table tries to horn in on my selection. As coffee follows the meal, I suddenly realize we've been sitting here for about 2 hours, talking away and enjoying the food. Even so, we are reluctant to pay the bill and head back out. It may have taken nearly a week, but we finally learned how to eat like the French!
She Fed:
We walk in the door as the place is opening and they are clearly not ready to seat us yet. A tall, distinguished gentleman behind the bar invites us to belly up. We order a glass of champagne to toast Harry's arrival. The barkeep is personable, demonstrative and the most outgoing local we've encountered during this trip. He tells us the menu changes daily and jokes that none of them even know yet what's on the menu. The champagne he recommends is extremely drinkable, light, and not too sweet. I am slightly buzzed already, having skipped breakfast.

We take our seats nearly 45 minutes later and peruse the menu, entirely in French with many unrecognizable words. Luckily, our affable waitress comes to the rescue and describes each dish in faulting, charming English. After enjoying a ridiculous amount of beef and foie gras for the last week, I am thrilled to see a vegetarian option. I begin with the salad of artichoke hearts, cioppini onions and greens topped with a poached egg. I can see the marks where the blade trimmed the artichoke hearts, which tells me someone at Willi's prepared these by hand. I pierce the egg to let the insides burst free, still marvelling at how orange the egg yolks are over here. I cut every veggie into bite-sized pieces and mix it all up...there is no better salad dressing than an egg yolk.

For my main, I go with the Parmesan polenta with white beans, mushrooms and haricot vert. The polenta is rich and creamy and makes me never want to eat meat for lunch again. It's cut into a generous slab and sitting in a little puddle of lovely broth, surrounded by a formidable moat of veggies. The mushrooms are unlike anything I've ever seen before: short with fat, floppy caps. I assume the white beans will be run of the mill Navy or cannellini beans and mushy, but these are different: meaty, firm but not tough and larger than beans I get at home.

For dessert, I opt for the platter of four cheeses. There is a mild sheep's milk cheese, dry and full of minerality. Next a chevre coated in ash, tart, creamy and divine smeared on a piece of bread. Then a deeply veined bleu that begs for a sip of my red wine with each bite. But the penultimate is the ripe, unpasteurized Camembert. It's so ripe and blossomy that I smell it before the server places it on the table. The cheese is runny, almost "sweaty" looking; I love it and it disappears quickly.

Willi's Wine Bar in Sonoma is a favorite. One of those places we will visit everytime we're in the area. Good service, innovative food and fabulous atmosphere. I can't speak for Jeremy, but I suspect Willie's Wine Bar in Paris is now on our favorites as well and I am already anticipating our return.

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