Don’t you just hate it when one of your favourite restaurants closes its doors? Our wine scribe Jim Walker was confronted by this all too common occurrence during the wretched plague. Now all that remains is the lingering aroma of the world’s best onion soup and a treasure trove of memories. We know there are legions of other patrons joining Jim in his lamentations.
The genesis of my infatuation with Le Sélect Bistro, oddly enough, was a winery in Southern France called Château Romanin. One day many years ago, before entering the wine business, we were contentedly, if somewhat thirstily, travelling along D99 the beautiful plane tree lined road between Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Cavaillon in southern France. We noticed a small sign indicating that a winery named Château Romanin was somewhere between us and the craggy little mountains on the right called Les Alpilles. We had seen bottles of their wine in shops and restaurants around St-Rémy and, given that we were a little thirsty (and it was past noon somewhere), we decided that a visit would be highly appropriate, perhaps even necessary.
We exited through a small gap in the trees, took a little bridge over a ditch and followed a rustic dirt path as it meandered through some pastures and then sharply ascended past an active glider airfield towards the peaks ahead. Against the horizon we could make out the ruins of an old castle that once served as a base for the Knights Templars’ Court of Love and visiting troubadours. The path became positively serpentine as it wound its way over gravelled soil and rocky outcroppings that suddenly were covered in luscious grape-laden vines stretching as far as the eye could see. As we approached the end of the road and the side of the mountain, no winery was to be seen! Had we made a wrong turn? Just ahead was a large graded area – at least we would be able to turn around. And then we saw it, chiselled right into the face of the mountain!
Inside Château Romanin was equally astonishing – virtually a cathedral within a mountain! The main reception area was absolutely, well … cavernous and as you can see from the barrel room on the right. But everything was completely modern and spotlessly clean. Since the time the winery was established in 1988 they followed biodynamic principles; fully organic farming enhanced by the rhythms of nature and the position of the heavenly bodies (in response to cosmo-telluric influences!). And, as we happily determined, their wines were delicious and, yes, positively thirst-quenching.
In May of 2006 a major transition occurred – Anne-Marie and Jean-Louis Charmolüe sold their iconic Château Montrose (2nd Grand Cru Classé Saint-Estèphe) vineyard in the Médoc and in turn purchased Château Romanin. Rumour has it that they sold the former for 200 million Euros and purchased the latter for 24 million Euros.
We visited Château Romanin regularly over the years and occasionally saw their wines on the shelves at LCBO Vintages. Imagine our surprise when our favourite caviste, Christian Esparza, owner of the Caves et la Domaine wine emporium in St-Rémy, contacted us to see if we would be interested in representing Château Romanin in Ontario. We were thrilled to take them on.
One of our first Château Romanin promotional exercises was a prestigious organic wine show held in Toronto’s Distillery District. The winery sent us some samples and we set up a booth in the middle of the large, dark exhibition hall. There was lots of interest in nearby sampling stations like Frog’s Leap but we sat there twiddling our thumbs. Obviously there was little interest in an obscure winery from the Les Baux-de-Provence appellation. In the fullness of time a lone soul loomed up out of the gloom and asked to try our wines. He had a decidedly French accent and was well versed in the wines of Southern France and Château Romanin in particular. He introduced himself to be Jean-Jacques Quinsac of Le Sélect Bistro. He told us that he was raised in Alès about 90 kilometres northwest of Saint-Rémy, hence his in-depth knowledge of the wines of Southern France.
I knew little about Le Sélect Bistro except for a lunch I had had with a friend at the old Queen Street location. I recall it being a small establishment with an impressive wine list and authentic bistro fare. But what I remember most was the basket, cord and pulley system one would use to lower the dinner rolls from near the ceiling to one’s tiny table. I had read that the restaurant had recently relocated to Wellington Street and had had a miserable time getting permits to transfer the contents of its considerable wine cellar.
Jean-Jacques (‘JJ’ to those who know him well) enjoyed the Château Romanin offerings and we had pleasant conversations about the south of France and all things vinous. At the time we represented some 30 wineries, most located in the south of France. I made arrangements with Jean-Jacques to hold a tasting session of our finest wines the following week at Le Sélect Bistro.
I arrived at the appointed hour schlepping many bottles of wine, tasting notes and my trusty corkscrew. Lachlan Dennis, Le Sélect’s beverage manager at the time joined Jean-Jacques and me at the bistro’s magnificent zinc-clad bar and the tasting began. The sipping, slurping and spitting went well and soon Jean-Jacques was ordering some of our wines. Over the years we would have many more tastings, often blind against competing wines. Whenever Jean-Jacques found a wine he particularly liked, he would make sure to save a glass for his partner of many years, Frédéric Geissweiller. Frédéric’s favourite was Domaine Giuliani’s Châteauneuf du Pape (until the alcohol content became too high). For a number of years the good folks at Le Sélect served a gratifying quantity of our wines to their thirsty patrons. For example, more than 8,000 bottles of Rhône By Roger Sabon, a tasty little Côtes du Rhône from Domaine Roger Sabon, a featured house red, found their way up from Jean-Jacques’ cellar to parched patrons. It is interesting to note that the Sabons increased the price of this wine by only 0.15 Euros over the entire 13 years it was being imbibed at Le Sélect.
Getting that wine into the restaurant’s cellar was another story. Jean-Jacques would order 50 cases at a time. I would venture down to the LCBO’s loading docks on Freeland Street (a story for another time) and load all 50 cases into my old Range Rover (a masterful example of stowing if ever there was one). I would then park in the alley on the east side of Le Sélect and pass the cases to employees at one of the service doors. A brewery had kindly built a slide for beer delivery down the steps to the basement which we would use for the wine. Now then, a 12-bottle case of wine weighs a good deal more than a two-four of beer. The cascading cases darn near broke the wrists of the poor chap who caught the wine at the bottom of the slide.
Often when Jean-Jacques returned to France for family visits he would drop by Domaine Roger Sabon for a little tasting with Didier Négron, the winery’s general manager. Mercifully for me, they decided to ship in 25 case lots which saved a great deal of wear and tear on me and the Range Rover. During one visit after an amicable tasting, Jean-Jacques discovered that a tire on his rental car had a serious leak! Didier came to the rescue and soon JJ was happily on his way.
Although Didier never got the chance to visit Le Sélect Bistro, several of our vintners did including Graham Nutter of Château Saint Jacques d’Albas, Charles-Walter Pacaud of Domaine La Croix Chaptal and Franck Léonor from Les Cuvées de Firmament.
Working with Jean-Jacques, Frédéric and the rest of the fine staff at Le Sélect was a pleasure, right down to the speedy way business manager Lerma Geron cut our cheques. But it wasn’t just an excellent business relationship that we had engendered with Jean-Jacques and Le Sélect. It became our go to restaurant for rendezvous with friends and celebrating special family occasions.
One day Jean-Jacques and I were discussing how dogs were a common sight in French restaurants and how well-behaved they were. Yet in Canada one rarely if ever saw a dog in a dining establishment. Was this due to municipal ordinances or other laws? Jean-Jacques assured me that it wasn’t. I noted that we had a couple of pups and wondered if we could bring them to Le Sélect.
“Sure, why not?” invited Jean-Jacques.“We’ll reserve a corner table out on the front patio for you all.” So daughter Kate and I with Faeden and Sailor in tow settled in to our appointed space. We were quite worried about Sailor, our spirited and rambunctious girl but not about our quiet and obedient Faeden. Hah! Sailor was a perfect lady while the ever social Faeden struggled mightily from our grasp so that she could cadge pats from everyone else on the patio.
We celebrated many birthdays at Le Sélect along with Kate’s graduation from Ryerson University. But the biggest event held there was Kate’s marriage to Ty. Everything was skillfully orchestrated by Michelle Cummings, the bisto’s special events co-ordinator. Note that the couple’s photo on their wedding invitation was taken in Le Select’s wine cellar. The officiant conducted the ceremony on the back patio with Sailor serving as the ring bearer. She was a little confused by all the commotion and brought the rings to the groom’s father Steve instead of to the officiant. Otherwise she did a fine job.
Then there was the time that we brought Kate and Ty’s baby daughter Romy to Le Sélect for her first lunch there. I shared one of my favourite appetisers with her, the terrine de poisson fumé – fish mousse. She loved it. In fact she dove right in and ended up wearing much of the delicacy before she was finished. Kate and Ty mentioned that the aroma of the fish-infused baby in their car on their way home was simply overwhelming.
I loved the way the cock crowed whenever I called to make a reservation. I loved the way that Jean-Jacques’ wife Vickie or Frédéric and then later on Louise Charlebois welcomed us like family when we arrived. I loved the attentive staff, most of whom spoke French, who so attentively looked after us (they must have been part mountain goat for the kitchen was down many steps in the basement). I loved the massive wine list that included 1200 labels, dating back to 1947. I loved the kitchen staff buried deep in the bowels of the place brilliantly led by Chef Albert Ponzo and then Laura Maxwell. I loved the oh so authentic daily specials, the delectable French fries with aioli and most of all the glorious soupe à l’oignon gratinée (onion soup) that Hélène declared was the best in all soupdom.
No matter how many we tried, we never found a bistro in France that measured up to the standard set by Le Sélect Bistro. Jean-Jacques, Frédéric, Vickie and their terrific staff simply out-performed. But it seems that all good things must come to an end. It took a massive wave of disruptive construction across the street, totally unreasonable municipal taxes, a nasty plague and then a purchase offer that could not be refused to end Le Sélect Bistro’s magnificent run.
To everyone associated with Le Sélect, paraphrasing Bob Hope … thanks for everything, particularly the memories.
Cheers, Jim and family
PS: If you are interested in some really great wines from the Southern Rhône such as Côtes du Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape, you might consider joining my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club – no fees or other obligations, just marvellous wine.
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This is Jim’s 63rd blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.