Nick finds perhaps the best-value wine list in France. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The sight of what was on the tables at Le Soufflot on a wet Thursday lunchtime would have excited any restaurateur in London, Paris or New York.
At the 12 tables, everyone was drinking at least one bottle of wine and each table of four had two, one red and one white. By 1.15 every table in the restaurant was talking to at least one other. It had been the same the previous evening when I had first eaten there. There are some simple reasons that help explain why this restaurant, its wine list and its menu are so popular.
The first and perhaps the most important is its location. Le Soufflot is located in what was once a wine property on the main road through the Côte d’Or in the village of Meursault. The building then became a restaurant before being taken over by Jérémy Peze, 30, a highly talented chef, and his business partner, Charles Bufane, 38, who runs the front of house, effectively spending most of his time opening bottles of wine.
The duo met while working at a restaurant in Irancy in the far north of Burgundy, on the rue Soufflot, and decided that this Meursault location was the ideal spot for an experiment in restaurant economics. So far, having opened Le Soufflot a year ago, their approach seems to be working. Last month they felt confident enough to open a second restaurant, Le Maufoux in Beaune, a mere 5 km away, with the same generous wine-pricing policy but a slightly more conservative French bourgeois menu.
The twist that this couple have brought to the pricing of wine in their restaurant turns on its head the premise that the profit from the sale of alcohol has necessarily to subsidise that from the food. They argue that both can contribute equally to any restaurant’s bottom line while very obviously and pertinently increasing their customers’ pleasure.
And so the menu and wine list here comprise a 24-page book. One page lists the set lunch menu, with a choice of fish or meat as the main course for €32, and the set dinner menu, five courses at €45. Both change every month. There then follows 22 closely typed pages of wines, all of which are listed at ridiculously low prices.
There is a bottle of Jamet 2016 Côte Rôtie for €65; Coche Dury 2016 Bourgogne Blanc for €50; Ghislaine Barthod’s Premier Cru Chambolle 2014 for €95; and even a bottle of Marquis d’Angerville 2009 Volnay Champans for €140. The same low mark ups apply to all the wines on the list whether from Champagne, Alsace, the Jura or further afield, but most obviously to the local wines, the usually much more expensive wines of Burgundy, most of which are in the range of €60–90 a bottle.
And it is the word bottle that holds the key, as Peze explained. 'Our goal is to sell bottles of wine to every table. We have a good white burgundy by the glass which we can offer to customers while they are looking at the wine list but that is it. There are no half bottles, for example. If you want to take advantage of the fact that we sell our great wines at such a low mark up then you have to buy a bottle or two. And of course enjoy them.'
While wading through the wine list on that first visit, counselled to choose a Denis Bachelet 2014 Gevrey Chambertin at €75, we were served a glass of one of Bernard Moreau’s premier cru Chassagnes.
We began with arancini, rice balls, deep fried with a mackerel flavouring and followed this with a lovely dish simply called Paris, an intense mushroom cream topped with the thinnest slices of mushroom with a smoked egg yolk. This was followed by a duo of dishes under the heading of trout: a salad of smoked trout in which small slices of wild garlic played a crucial, spicy role and then another small bowl of the same fish topped with the lightest mashed potato. Our main course, duck breast, was less easy to enjoy as it was served in a bowl that made the cutting of the underdone meat (this is France!) awkward. The desserts, from a pastry chef whom Peze has taught, were excellent: his interpretation of chocolate and mango, a green apple ‘turnover’ and an almond financier.
The layout of the kitchen and the restaurant is important, too. In front of an open kitchen there is a service section over which three heat lamps hang to ensure that the plates the chefs are finishing remain hot. On either side there is ample room for the chefs to pass, allowing the chefs to become waiters in the friendliest fashion imaginable. Peze even wanders the whole length of the room and greets his customers in his black chef’s costume by the front door when Bufane is occupied. It is fun to watch as the restaurant fills up and the chefs start racing backwards and forwards.
The opening page of the menu reads ‘The wines we propose are the fruit of the work and special talent. We thank the winemakers who give us the opportunity for you to enjoy them.’ The combination of Peze’s cooking and Bufane’s contagious enthusiasm for wine ensure that at Le Soufflot their wines are probably priced lower than in any other restaurant in France. I hope more will follow their example.
Le Soufflot 8 Route Nationale 74, 21190 Meursault, France; tel +33 (0)3 80 22 83 65