I frequently find myself at French train stations over an hour before my scheduled departure, driven there early by a groundless paranoia and an overwhelming sense of malaise. It’s weird. When it comes to airports, I’m cool as a cucumber. I’ve got the movements down, smooth, I know where to go and when. I know how much time to leave between getting the bill for my beer and joining the boarding line at my gate. I’ve only ever missed one flight, back to Boston from Trinidad when I was 18, and I suspect that happened because I had subconsciously decided to stay an extra few days. But at train stations, I am a disaster. Each time I calculate when I should arrive, I end up way off, arriving either ludicrously early or impossibly late for my train. I never have the time to buy a magazine and whenever I do manage to get a coffee, I end up pouring it all over myself while searching for my seat. I freak out when I don’t see my destination listed on the timetable, even if I know that it’s the train number that matters. I freak out when the machine inevitably fails to scan my QR code, opening my Apple Pay app instead. I freak out when the car is far from the platform entrance. All I can do is anticipate misfortune by arriving early. And when I’m travelling from Montparnasse, I like to grab a glass of something special at Le Petit Sommelier to soothe my soul. In fact, it’s become my favorite way to end any trip to Paris.
Located in the 14ème arrondissement on Avenue du Maine, just across from the eastern entrance of Gare Montparnasse, Le Petit Sommelier is a non-stop-service bistro with a classic French menu and a phonebook-thick wine list. Its splendid Art Nouveau décor, complete with frothy mouldings, antique mirrors and crimson felt banquettes give off the timeless elegance of an institution that has been around forever. But actually it’s relatively recent, established by a young sommelier by the name of Pierre Vila Palleja who took over his family’s business in 2015.
Since then the place has earned considerable renown, especially in the wine industry. That wine list really is a thing of beauty, over 750 references strong and populated by top bottlings from around France and the world. Their by-the-glass list is especially special. A generous full page of whites and another page and a half of reds by the glass. among them behemoths like a 2018 Piedrassassi Syrah, a 2012 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, a 2017 Quintarelli Rosso del Belvi (???), my beloved Domaine Jamet Cote-Rotie, a 2014 Armand Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin, a 2008 Chateau Latour… The kinds of treasures that are never by the glass. The perfect opportunity for wine lovers in transit to enjoy a taste of something exceptional before getting on their train. Vila Palleja also regularly hosts winemaker dinners, inviting the likes of Cécile Tremblay of Burgundy fame, Pierre Lurton of Yquem and Hélène Genin from Latour. If I lived in Paris, I’d be there every week.
This past time I found myself in the mood for Jura, which is a mood I often find myself in these days. So I went with a glass of 2014 Domaine de la Pinte Chateau Chalon, a sous voile Savagnin from the very cradle of Vin Jaune. It was magically nutty, with notes of dried figs and apricots, toffee and curry. Dry, mineral and full of volume on the palate.
And to eat, a fricassée de cuisses de grenouilles or sautéed frog legs served in a cream sauce. I hesitated to eat this dish in the only way I know how to – which is to roll up my sleeves and get right in there with my hands – until I saw the little packet of moist towelettes served on the bone dish. So I proceeded to pull the little half-frogs apart by the legs, sucking lumps of tender flesh off tiny femurs, tibias and fibulas. The meat was nicely caramelized here and there, dripping with the fresh cream I dunked them into. The extra bit of cream was soaked up with slices of fresh, warm bread served in a basket on the side. And with my savory, toasty, mineral Jura it was perfect. Just the bit of comfort needed to calm my nerves before heading, on time, to the station.