When a restaurant gives you the luxury to ‘switch off’, it’s time to sit back and relax .
There is nothing more important to a sommelier than blind tasting a wine and figuring out the grape, region, vintage and maybe even what colour jersey the grape-picker was wearing(!). Trouble is, we sommeliers get too caught up in this ‘search for the truth’ and end up feeling all miserable and confused. That is precisely what happens when you choose for your vocation what others do for a vacation—eat and drink. The trouble with pursuing something that you love is that it doesn’t free you from the shackles of work, as the adage popular claims. Instead it enchains you to never being able to switch off.
A dentist can’t stop noticing teeth and an architect is constantly checking out buildings and structures. Unfortunately for people who work in F&B, that means every time we step out for a meal, we are still in semi-work mode. And it can be hard for us to step back and just be consumers, to just let things happen around us without trying to decipher them or, worse still, control them.
Which is what makes my recent trip to Paris rather special because I managed to do just that, switch off!
This was thanks to the hotel where I decided to park myself: Saint James. The hotel is a luxury property set in an historic compound and they have a lovely al fresco area attached to their gastronomic restaurant, which doubles up as a cool place to sip on something fresh—all that is fairly replicable and nothing entirely unique, but what they did have for a USP was an ace chef and a sommelier to match. I always imagine that in glorious establishments, the sommelier and chef ride away together into the sunset; this restaurant had precisely that kind of seamless camaraderie, or shall I say jugalbandi!
From the time we sat down for a meal, no, wait, from the time we arrived, the team knew how to usher us around. We were led into their little jardin, where the initial marinade was applied to us in the form of lovely Gintos with some light bites. Sure, we were paying for it all, but the way it was conducted, the smoothness and seamlessness of it, was almost as if we were pining for it.
Then, we were taken to our room, which somehow transformed into a mini tour of the property itself, gently interspersed by anecdotal snippets of who had stayed here when and how the rules of the house had changed (so little) over decades.
Presently, we were finally resting, but there was more Champagne left around in the room and, given our weakened wills, we played it right. By the time we arrived for dinner, we were already lubricated and rather pliable about our F&B choices.
And this is when the magic happened. Just like a good chef feeds, a good sommelier ensures that one (a.) gets enough variety; and (b.) still leaves the table mostly sober. Here, they managed to strike that fine balance where one forgets the day’s worries (or the more monetary F&B worries), but remembers the fine selection of wines that accompanied the meal.
This, for me, is the sign of a great restaurant, but don’t take my word for it. The Michelin guide agrees, too, and has backed it up with a star. But even if it weren’t starred or recognised, a place that manages to help another fellow sommelier switch isn’t just into the business of F&B. It is pretty much running a social service to the cause of sommellerie. And you know that you have got it right when a brethren from the same side of the service industry feels like a relaxed guest for a change.
The writer is a sommelier