That certainly describes Willi’s. It’s a homey place with a long oak bar and a scattering of tables at the back. The wine list is a treasure trove of bottles both celebrated and obscure, more than half from the Rhône and neighboring regions, with about two dozen wines by the glass. A recent menu offered such appetizers as cream of asparagus soup and grilled polenta with poached eggs and foie gras; main courses ranged from grilled tuna with hazelnut vinaigrette to roast lamb with sea salt and rosemary; and desserts included roasted pineapple with vanilla and—a Willi’s signature—bitter-chocolate terrine.
In 1997, Williamson bought an esteemed old restaurant called Le Mercure Galant, two doors down from Willi’s, and turned it into a breezy, lively place called Maceo. Maceo doesn’t pretend to be a wine bar. “It’s what I think a restaurant is meant to be,” says Williamson. “A nice space, where people can feel comfortable, where they can eat good food and have nice wines.” But isn’t that what Willi’s is, too? “I started the place,” replies Williamson. “I called it a wine bar, I defined the genre. Who is anybody else to say that it’s not?”
I think of Il Vino d’Enrico Bernardo—an almost sober-looking restaurant-with-bar, all black and white and gray—as the logical, or maybe enological, extension of Willi’s. If Mark Williamson married good wine to bistro food, Enrico Bernardo has mated it with more serious cooking in a way that makes wine the unquestioned star. His “menu,” in fact, lists no food. Instead it offers a dozen or so wines by the glass—the selection, about 80 percent French, changes every other week—marked as appropriate for first courses, main courses, cheese, and dessert; the waiter asks customers if they have any food allergies or aversions, then brings dishes matched to the chosen wines.
The kitchen uses raw materials often emblematic in their perfection and prepares them simply but superbly. For instance, an aromatic, unctuous 2005 Georg Breuer Rauenthal Nonnenberg Riesling from the Rheingau came with the ultimate German springtime delicacy: poached white asparagus, glazed in butter. The rich and elegant 1997 Château Pape Clément white was served with an inspired ragout of lobster and morels. A 2006 Bernard Faurie St.-Joseph complemented an impeccable risotto of cèpes. A knockout 1999 Château Troplong Mondot, poured from a double magnum, came with heroic portions of juicy, rare côte de boeuf. Prices rival those at the best restaurants in Paris—appetizers and main courses, each with a glass of wine, run 32 to 85 euros (about $52 to $136), with prix-fixe menus priced at about $80, $120, and $305—but the food is excellent and the wines are exceptional, some of them extravagances that mere mortals rarely have the chance to taste.
Like Williamson, the wiry, intense Bernardo came to wine by way of food. A native of Milan, he graduated from culinary school before embarking on a series of apprenticeships—even cooking for a time at the legendary Troisgros. He took a job as an apprentice sommelier at a hotel-restaurant because he thought it would help his cooking. “I wanted to learn things about tasting that would bring balance to my food,” he says. “I thought I’d work with wine for two or three years, then go back into the kitchen. That was nine years ago.” Along the way, he was named best sommelier in Italy (in 1997, when he was only 20), best sommelier in Europe (2002), and best sommelier in the world (2004). While working as head sommelier at Le Cinq, the highly rated restaurant at the Georges V hotel in Paris, he got the idea for a restaurant where the finest wines would be served by the glass and the food would follow their lead. “With Il Vino,” he says, “I’ve found my harmony.” He has also added a whole new dimension to the modern concept of the wine bar.
Il Vino d’Enrico Bernardo 13 Blvd. de la Tour Maubourg, 7th (01-44-11-72-00)
Willi’s Wine Bar 13 R. des Petits-Champs, 1st (01-42-61-05-09)
More Wine Bars
Au Sauvignon The real attractions at this popular Left Bank spot are the frescoed interior and the small, sunny terrace. There’s no cooked food, but the cheeses and charcuterie are irresistible, as is the just-baked bread from Poilâne. (80 R. des Saints-Pères, 6th; 01-45-48-49-02)