Olivier de Saint Martin sighed, and rolled his eyes. He was on his way to the State Store to buy spirits for his restaurants - Caribou Cafe, 11th and Walnut, and his more recently acquired La Bohéme, 11th and Locust, which, since it obtained a liquor license, will henceforth be known as La Bohéme Bistro á Vins.
It was La Bohéme, in particular, that was on my mind when I ran into him. It had adopted a seafood-centric menu in the six months since he'd taken over the charming, exposed-brick space, a sweet spot amid the elephantine ugliness of the Jefferson medical complex.
But De Saint Martin's mind was occupied otherwise. He was off to buy Jack Daniel's and vodka: "Americans want their cocktails," he grumped.
He was despairing - well, that might be putting it a bit strongly, but he was perplexed - that his customers hadn't gravitated to his stock of vintage French aperitifs, the toast of the town back in, well, Edith Wharton's day, and to an extent in the storefront French bistros of the '70s.
"They open up the appetite," he said. "These are drinks from the prewar and postwar," by which he meant, I gathered, World War I, and by name Lillet Blonde and Pineau des Charentes, hinting of pear, and anise-flavored pastis, and a refreshing peach aperitif that was news to me called Rinquinquin (pronounced rahn-cahn-CAHN), and others, including liqueurs from Provence - Elisir M.P. Roux, a Moxie-like blend of 14 herbs and spices, and Douce Provence, which is cognac with Poire Williams.
I told him I'd drop by another day for a sip or two, and that I did. The blackboard menu hanging on the tree outside noted a special of marlin wrapped in grape leaves, which had a nice enough flavor, but was overcooked. The salad of stacked sweet Boston lettuce leaves, on the other hand, was simple and fresh. I began with the Rinquinquin, and it was a treat - an icy, light, bittersweet peach aperitif that, had I known better, I might have asked for not straight, but as a spritzer, poured over a taller glass of ice and club soda.
De Saint Martin, a son of France's Champagne region, dabbled in aperitifs at an early age. His grandfather was a pharmacist and wine enthusiast. In a black glass bottle stoppered with a small skull, he made a version of Chartreuse, the ancient, green liqueur blended from scores of plants and aged, in the monastic tradition, in oak casks. There were herbal concoctions; bottles with vipers coiled inside; and eau-de-vie, a form of brandy he'd flavor with raspberry and gooseberry and plum. De Saint Martin dunked sugar cubes in them as a child.
There is no parallel tradition, of course, around 11th and Locust. So De Saint Martin has a plan. (Before we get into that, a word to the kitchen, which one evening served me a decent skate with brown butter: Do not refer to a biscuit with crab inside as a "crab blini." Go easier on the Dijon in the sauces. And - Please! - excise the inedible lunch special that involved gooey, molten gorgonzola over a gummy pile of gnocchi.) His plan, he said, was on a boat in the Atlantic.
It is a five-seat, zinc Parisian bar (circa 1919) that he is going to install when it arrives. At this bar and, once the proper clearances are obtained, at a few sidewalk tables, he will offer his wines and his aperitifs - his Kir and Lillet and Dubonnet and Ricard and his Rinquinquin (mostly priced at about $8) - and steak frites and fish and, for after, a list of digestifs, as well.
He is steeping his servers in aperitif lore, ordering artisanal French eau-de-vie, plotting his campaign to wean patrons from their Jack Daniel's habit, and whet their appetite for his aperitifs - the true spirit of Paris.
La Bohéme is now, after all, a bistro á vins.
246 S. 11th St.