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Review: Toronto’s Paris Paris is a refuge for wine lovers

Paris Paris is the latest entrant to the wine-bar strip on Dundas Street West.

JEFF WASSERMAN/The Globe and Mail

  • Restaurant: Paris Paris
  • Location: 1161 Dundas St. W., 416-535-5656
  • Price: Cheese and charcuterie plates, $23-25; vegetable and seafood plates, $10-17; mains, $17-24.
  • Atmosphere: Casual and relaxed, classic rock and late-’90s hits play at medium volume to a room of thirty-somethings in jeans and sneakers.
  • Drinks: A large, extensive wine list that favours biodynamic and natural producers is updated daily, with 26 offered by the glass ($9-21).

rating

As Toronto catches up to the world’s great restaurant cities, it still lags far on one front: wine. In this city, drinking while dining too often means paying exorbitant prices to choose from a wine list populated by mediocre bottles.

A few wine bars are dragging the city forward, amid the province’s patronizing regulations and joyless liquor monopoly. Count Paris Paris among them. This is a fun place, with a wine list and menu that’s surprising and innovative.

Paris Paris is the latest entrant to the wine-bar strip on Dundas Street West – Midfield, Archive and Black Hoof are within a short walk. Hopefully, this hub will elevate the wine culture of a city and region that is sorely lacking one. Ontario produces more wine than any other province, and yet, on a per capita basis, we drink far less vino than British Columbia and Quebec.

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Why don’t we imbibe? The dreadful LCBO and depressing Wine Rack deserve blame, with their usurious markups, limited selection and penchant for mass-produced fruit bombs.

Restaurants are at fault, too. Many still regard wine simply as profit sources, which is why cheap, uninspiring Argentine and Italian bottles (marked up four times the retail price) dominate wine lists.

The wine scene has recently improved, and some local restaurant groups, including those behind Buca and Terroni, import interesting, exclusive wines. But let’s not kid: We live in a beer town, where interest in craft ale is greater than pinot noir. Price is a factor: A glass of decent wine costs at least 50 per cent more than a pint of premium microbrew.

Enter Paris Paris, a welcome refuge for wine lovers with an inviting vibe and original menu. Despite the name, it’s not a wine bar in the traditional Parisian sense – the food and wines aren’t exclusively French, you can’t get a glass for €4 ($6) and there isn’t a Serge Gainsbourg lookalike at the bar at all hours. Rather, it’s a wine bar of the hipster Brooklyn vein or the bobo 11th arrondissement of Paris.

The room, with exposed-brick walls and a playlist that prefers classic rock and late-nineties pop (Praise You by Fatboy Slim, for example), is filled with thirsty thirty-somethings. When we left on a recent Saturday night, the place was still packed at 1:30 am. Paris Paris targets my demographic and hits the bull’s-eye.

Paris Paris is a wine bar of the hipster Brooklyn vein, targeted at thirsty thirty-somethings.

JEFF WASSERMAN/The Globe and Mail

The wine list favours in-vogue natural and biodynamic producers from regions that are sought-after among today’s new wine fans: France’s Loire Valley, Italy’s Mt. Etna and Austria’s Burgenland, among others. There are 26 wines by the glass ($9 to $21) and many more by the bottle. (Diners can also ask for half-pours.) Interestingly, on the nights I visited, the list (updated daily by sommelier Krysta Oben) didn’t include any grand cru Bordeaux nor a big-name California cabernet and had only one Barolo – the stuff showy wine buffs love to flaunt.

Paris Paris is led by Jonathan Poon and Jess Fader, the chef-duo behind pizza-and-pasta Superpoint and snacky Bar Fancy. Both are hits among the city’s expensive-sneaker set and Paris Paris inherits similar genes – a mix of nostalgia and playfulness that attracts customers to indulge in sustained drinking.

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Left to right: Paris Paris chef de cuisine Nicholas Moora, sommelier Krysta Oben, chef/owner Jesse Fader and chef/owner Jonathan Poon.

JEFF WASSERMAN/The Globe and Mail

The food here is worldly, a mix of French and Chinese, with a Middle Eastern touch.

The eggplant and flat bread dish ($11), for example, is a deconstructed baba ganoush. The soft, blended eggplant sits atop black sesame tahini and a herb-infused oil, served with an inflated balloon of a pita. Most diners around us started with this, and for good reason. It’s very tasty.

Mr. Poon, who first made his mark at French restaurant Chantecler, where he’d at times mix in Chinese influences in the food, proudly shows his roots again. His fried crab claw ($8) – the hook of a claw, covered in minced shrimp and scallop mouse, then battered and fried – is better than the version you’d find at most Cantonese banquets and proves that Chinese food can go well with wine. It was a great match with my glass of rosé cava.

The smoked duck breast ($24) was cooked perfectly to pink with a slightly sweet sauce of reduced beet juice and honey that was an innovative accompaniment. The piri piri roast chicken ($20) is delicious, though needs to come with a warning that it’s aggressively spiced. This isn’t a bad thing if you’re drinking a refreshing white, but it clashed with our medium-bodied red.

The best meaty dish on my visits, surprisingly, is almost vegetarian: A whole roasted oyster mushroom ($17), cooked perfectly with a crispy exterior and succulent interior, is served with a reduced chicken jus that is so satisfyingly umami-laden that you forget that mushrooms don’t come from animals. With our bottle of Domaine Bobinet “Hanami” (a lively and aromatic cabernet franc from the Loire valley), this dish was a winner.

The smoked duck breast is cooked with a slightly sweet sauce of reduced beet juice and honey.

Jeff Wasserman/The Globe and Mail

The roasted oyster mushroom is cooked perfectly with a crispy exterior and succulent interior, and served with a reduced chicken jus.

Jeff Wasserman/The Globe and Mail

Desserts are a letdown. Chocolate sweets would be the easiest to pair with wine, but perhaps Mr. Poon’s giving a middle finger to convention by not making any. The banana bread ($10), with its crème fraîche ice cream is fine, if unexciting. But the matcha panna cotta ($9) is a dud: The panna cotta puck, prepared with so much gelatin that it resembled Jell-O, was swimming in a sour passion fruit sauce that would clash with any wine on the palate.

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Desserts aside, Paris Paris’s kitchen is off to a strong start and adds the right amount of whimsy to a room that gets the vibe right. Wine bars often take the wine part too seriously, bent on educating customers by pouring tiny thimblefuls of wines into separate glasses and overwhelming with tasting notes. These places feel too much like school.

Paris Paris isn’t like that. Servers are courteous but unobtrusive. They’ll happily guide on wine, but never lecture. Here, wine pairs almost effortlessly with food, and for me, at least, the dining experience played out perfectly to the soundtrack of my forgotten youth. I lingered, ate and drank for almost four hours on my first visit – time that felt like it flew by. I guess I was having too much fun.

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