I suppose I’ve always assumed Perpignan was kind of a fly-over town, given the proximity of Barcelona and the latter’s cultural delights. (Long experience, after all, has proven that cuisine and hospitality both improve significantly as soon as one crosses the French borders into Spain or Italy.) But a brief visit last week in the company of my Chinese importer friend Andy Liu proved me wonderfully mistaken about the capital of the Roussillon. We were fortunate to have as our guide that evening the virtuosic Roussillon winemaker Cyril Fhal, who brought us to Via del Vi, an astoundingly sophisticated wine bistrot that rivals its Barcelona – let alone its Paris – counterparts on all fronts.
Via del Vi is the work of a talented and well-traveled couple, the sommelier Romain Margueritte, who formerly worked at the Elysée Palace as well as at embassies in Washington and London, and the self-taught chef Aurélia Mari. It seems safe to say that nothing in either of their résumés would have given onlookers to believe they would open something like Via del Vi, which at its heart is a polished-up former kebab shop, spread over two shoebox-sized floors, dominated by a stratospheric, perilous-looking wine storage display, designed and built by our dinner companion Fhal. The setting – not to mention the imposing metal doorway – gives one to expect little more than variations of cured meat.
Instead, Mari turns out a delicate, vegetable-laden menu that since 2015 has born the Slow Food “Km 0” certification, which is to say that none of its unanimously organic products derive from further than 100km from the restaurant’s location, and that the menu adheres to many other amusing and somewhat arcane Slow Food promotional ideals. (For example: “0 km dishes that also contain products protected by Slow Food (Ark or stronghold) enjoy the highest prestige and must be indicated in the letter with the symbol of the wren.”)
I support Slow Food’s ideals, with certain reservations about its organisation: its infinite tentacles, its obscure leadership structure, its tendency to phrase its mission in terms alternately pseudo-academic and quasi-messianic; its occasional collaborations with corporate entities otherwise basically indifferent to its ideals; its “University of Gastronomic Sciences,” which seems conspicuously aimed at wealthy foodies in search of a career change. But I have zero reservations about what Aurélia Mari has achieved within the Slow Food rubric, for it is a nearly faultless tribute to the culinary bounty of the surrounding Catalan countryside.
I’d had a glance at the latter that afternoon, collecting flowering thyme, wild garlic, and asparagus as we visited vineyards in Fitou and the Côtes de Roussillon. All that and more gleamed before us on the plates at Via del Vi, from asparagus with pea-hummous, to carrot fritters, to lamb shoulder with wild onion and almost-raw cabbage.
Everything was seasoned with a mastery of acid and salinity I rarely encounter in an age when chefs – particularly French ones – seem to prioritize the blood-pressure concerns of their oldest clientele over petty issues such as flavour or pleasure.
We sat at the back of the first floor and ordered the entire menu, doubling down on certain appetisers out of sheer gourmandise. A mato de brebis bathed in olive oil was so naturally sweet it might have been a parfait.
Margueritte’s wine selection, like his storage unit, towers. It benefits, he says, from frequent road trips to Auvergne to visit Mari’s mother. Back vintages of wines from Auvergne pioneers Jean Maupertuis and Pierre Beauger share shelf space with the debut wines of Alsace négoçiant upstart Farid Yahimi, alongside the practical entirety of local Roussillon winemaking talent. That Margueritte has assembled such a wealth of excellent natural wine in only six years in business is makes it doubly striking.
We, ahem, tasted something like five bottles throughout the evening, before finishing with a cascade of rancio and a magnum I’d lugged all the way from Point Reyes, CA: a monumental Mendocino carignan “Private Stash” by Avi Deixler of Absentee Winery. Deixler’s style – zero additives including sulfur, no filtration, unabashedly (and properly) ripe-for-CA, inflected with the oak barrels he replanes himself – is significantly brasher than that of our host that evening, Fhal, a fellow zealot of carignan. Yet everyone present appreciated the purity of the wine, which had handled suitcase importation and three weeks in our car around France rather flawlessly.
Now I just have to think of some similarly exotic bottle to bring when I return to Perpignan, as soon as I possibly can.
Via del Vi
43, av. du Général-Leclerc
Tel: +33 4 68 67 84 96
Le Fooding calls Via del Vi’s natural wine selection “high-ranking.”
This 2014 blog post on Via del Vi at Découvertes et Plaisirs Culinaires manages to note twice – in the space of just over three paragraphs – that the restaurant is “tendance,” or trendy. The piece is more notable for a photo of a dish garnished with wild garlic flowers, which bloom for just a short period in the region, and which here testify to the restaurant’s longstanding commitment to seasonality and locavore ideals.
A 2015 article in L’Indépendant concerning Via del Vi’s “Km 0” certification.