I could be sitting in a smart brasserie just off the Boulevard St Germain, but I'm not - I'm in Chelsea, on Draycott Avenue, in Papillon, the latest opening from restaurateur Soren Jessen. The likes of pig's trotter and tournedos Rossini sit alongside Scottish lobster and faiselle - a Lyonnais favourite of fresh curd cheese served sweet (with a raspberry coulis) or savoury (with olive oil and spring onions).
It's no surprise, then, to discover that the wine list is dominated by France - but the list is still a surprise, nonetheless. For starters it has 580 bins. There are wines from Chamonix to Corsica, with more than a few that are thrilling, and lots that excite. But it begins to make sense only when you find out who's behind it.
Philippe Messy is one of London's top sommelier wine buyers. Before Papillon he could be found at L'Etranger on Gloucester Road, where he also pushed boundaries - and pushed off-trade sales in the wine shop which opened alongside the restaurant.
The real thing
Where to start? And why no New World wines? "I find there's a lack of character in New World wines," declares a typically blunt Messy. "Obviously I'm generalising and there's still good New World wine out there, but you have to do your homework - things were better five years ago. And I'm talking mostly entry to mid-level wines here. At the top end? When you have to pay £35 for a Pinot Noir at cost price you might as well buy the real thing - a premier or grand cru from Burgundy."
He did do some soul-searching, you'll be pleased to hear. "I was a bit worried about it. I thought I might be classified as an arrogant Frenchman but we've been trading nine weeks now and still no one has said anything - except one table who asked for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. If the demand was there for New World wines, I'd go for it. But it's not. I think people are looking for wines that are more evolved."
Messy reckons that the demand for French and other European wines (Italy is also big on the list) has a lot to do with how much we travel there - either as second-homers, or as tourists. "The wines from the South-west are the most popular at Papillon - much more so than Burgundy and Bordeaux," he reveals. The best-selling wine is from Bergerac (a Semillon Sauvignon blend), from Luc de Conti, 2004 Moulin des Dames, on the list at £36 a bottle and £9 a glass.
Average spend here is higher than most - at a whopping £45 to £50 a bottle. And it's not just because they're in the heart of Chelsea, says Messy. "I think customers recognise that the list is good value," he argues. He may apply the London standard 70% GP to wines under £30, but it's cash margins for wines above that - and the higher up the list you go, the less the mark-up. "Our customers seem to know how much things cost - they might flash their cash, but they're flashing a fair amount of wine knowledge, too," he says.
When Messy is choosing wine he plunders the lists of a staggering 42 merchants, citing favourites Howard Ripley, Les Caves de Pyrene and OW Loeb. He's not suggesting everybody should follow suit, but he does reckon that a sommelier who limits himself to just three suppliers is lazy.
"Obviously it depends on the size of your list, but for 75 to 100 bins you've got to use a minimum of seven suppliers. It's all about finding something exciting for your customers to drink," he says.
Sweet wine buoyant
Customers discover new wines at Papillon by listening to Messy and his sommelier Sebastian Morice, or by choosing one of the 24 wines offered by the glass which change with the menu every three months. Highlights include a quirky white from Chamonix, Belluard's 2004 Ayze made with Gringet at £9.50 a glass; and a gutsy Corsican from Comte Peraldi at £8.50 a glass.
And sweet wines sales are unaccountably buoyant, says Messy. He has 30 on offer, from Pacherenc to Corsican Muscat - plus a 1912 Tokaji Essencia from Royal Tokaji on at £2,100 for a 450cl bottle. "No, I haven't sold it yet - if I haven't sold it by the end of the summer, I'm drinking it myself," he grins.
Papillon, 96 Draycott Avenue, London SW3 3AD. Tel: 020 7225 2555 [map]