If you are the type who pays attention to restaurant openings or things wine-related in Montreal, you can not but have noticed the deluge of effusive praise being heaped upon Vin Papillon, the new wine bar in the Joe Beef family, which opened up this summer, right next door to the famed (or famously upside-down) Dilallo Burger.
For those of us who spent years carefully, if unintentionally, laying the groundwork for the gentrification of St-Henri by enjoying cheap rent, drinking in the streets, doing art and making unlistenable music, only to pull up stakes and hightail it to ever-so-slightly-less vogueish (read: corrupted) neighbourhoods as soon as it became possible to get a good coffee or a $1,000 shave in the area, the words “wine bar” and “southwest” in such close proximity have an inevitable “there goes the neighbourhood” quality.
Vin Papillon, however, lies just on the other side of the semi-official dividing line between St-Henri and Little Burgundy, a neighbourhood with no less fraught a history and living present of economic development*, but one that was already a patchwork of social housing projects, late-Victorian homes and antique dealers when we first moved to the southwest, so some of the more self-loathing of us feel less entitled to be scandalized by the juxtaposition.
But for all that Quebec ensures that bad wine is as accessible as milk, and food has late come to saturate cultural production, the “wine bar” still conjures less than savoury associations in the cultural imagination, falling somewhere between “intimidating” and “monstrous elitism.” Which is unfortunate, because 1) Wine is, or can be, goddamn delicious, and 2) Bars are sweet places to hang out.
And this is in part the animating spirit of Vin Papillon. Indeed, it comes dangerously close to what I would truly love to see, what in mental shorthand I refer to as a “wine bar for scumbags”: the type of place for those not content to accept their and others’ cultural (see also: class) prejudices about the elitism of wine culture, nor the nigh-impossibility of sitting down at a regular-ass bar in this city and being able to drink a glass of wine with some honesty and character. (Alexandraplatz, who stocked a wonderful Xinomavro from the Greek Domaine Thymiopoulos, was a notable exception, but it was hardly a wine-first endeavour, and was still overrun by assholes most of the time.)
The wine selection at Vin Papillon is smart and idiosyncratic, as replete with pushy upstart wines that smell like barnyards and taste (wonderfully) like pennies as with more classic expressions of elegance, all tending toward the fresher, the lighter, the friendlier (if “fresh” and “barnyard” seem contradictory, I insist you spend more time either drinking wine or in an Autumn field, or both, simultaneously, if at all possible).
Sommeliér(e)** and partner in the establishment Vanya Filipovic has stacked the list with natural and biodynamic wines, providing the opportunity to try all sorts of things that you would never stumble across in the SAQ, many of which may hold the key to transforming a utilitarian relationship with wine into one of love, simply by virtue of tasting like things you didn’t know wine could taste like. Or, for that matter, that you didn’t know you ever wanted to taste. The food is simple but inspired (I am on the fence still about their take on baba ghanouj, but the ever-changing house breads, their affection for brussels sprouts, the goddamn motherfucking charcuterie and anything with mushrooms in it are all perfect), seasonal, and pretty much all under $20.
I do sorely lament that the place does not have an actual bar up to which the solitary patron would feel invited to cozy and hassle the bartender with inanities, but admittedly the room is only about 10 feet wide, and the serving staff are lively, passionate and forthright. They like wine. They want you to like wine. They deserve to be spared my inanities.
So in these respects, I appreciate that Vin Papillon approaches my dream wine bar, being inarguably the most casual, friendly and accessible wine bar in town (I would say that FoodLab/Labo Culinaire boasts some of this accessibility, except that it’s really not a bar). But, by its Joe Beef pedigree alone, it will probably never become the haven for the decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, mere vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, knife grinders, ragpickers, tinkers and beggars for which I pine.
Joe Beef moved into the neighbourhood about the same time I did, and Vin Papillon opened its doors the year I left — perhaps for the best, as I quail*** at the thought of what liver crisis having such a spot too close at hand could precipitate.
* For some of the history of Little Burgundy, see David Austin’s Fear of a Black Nation (reviewed here)
** My natural hesitation over the gendering of occupations (tending toward server over waiter/waitress, flight attendant over stewardess, Batfolk over Batman/Batgirl) here runs up against the French language’s gendering of everything, and the very real possibility that women sommeliér(e)s may appreciate their visibility as such in a traditionally male-dominated industry, or may just as well prefer to have people stop making a big deal of it.
*** The quail is also quite good.
Jonah Campbell is the author of Food & Trembling (Invisible Publishing, 2011) and the blog Still Crapulent After All These Years.
Le Vin Papillon
2519 Notre-Dame W.
Vegetarian-friendly: Yes. Vegan-friendly not so much.
Wheelchair-accessible: Arguably yes, but the tightness of the space makes it all but impossible, practically.