My travels on the Metro North, via the New Haven line, brought me to Martel Bistro & Bar, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Owned and run by Francophile Marty Levine, the restaurant is a French-American Bistro that caters to a local audience. "In Paris, normal everyday eating is informal and lively," says Marty, as he sips coffee at the bar on a cloudy winter day. "Yet, Americans think of French dining as formal and stuffy. I wanted to bring that style to this restaurant. I wanted to be aware of where we are–in America, in the suburbs–to know my customers...they're not going to eat rabbit tripe. [Martel is] an interpretation, not a copy, which would have been disastrous."
It was a canoe trip down the Loire years ago, that sold Marty on France. Not knowing much about food and wine at the time, he traveled along the river from castle to castle, in awe of the open-air weekly markets, the abundance of fresh foods, the artisanal quality. "I'm still fascinated with it," he says. "Here, we've lost it. You couldn't find a butcher if you wanted...[In France] everyone knows their way around the kitchen. The family meal is alive and well."
Upon returning, he found inspiration in Balthazar in NYC and Pastis. Years later, he bought a second home in Martel, which is in the Dordogne region, not far from Cahors.
Newly constructed with an antiquated look, Martel has been operating in this location for three years, where it emphasizes French wines on its list. "If we sell bottles, they're predominately French," says Marty. "I sell a lot of Bordeaux and Rhone, my favorite regions. Terminus Cotes du Rhone does well here." As do wines from Chateauneuf du Pape. "Cinquante Cinq Sauvignon Blanc also sells well. Varietals that have been popularized in America, I have the French versions," adds Marty and laughs.
"Most people order wine before deciding what they like. People look for what's palatable, they look for what's familiar," says Marty, "but I also include Viognier, Sancerre, Chateauneuf du Pape and Beaujolais by the glass and carafe."
As he gets up to greet and guide a regular customer to her table, Marty adds, "I view wine as a beverage, as a compliment to a way of life."