Pitcher-perfect

Popular in Europe, the “pichet” is beginning to catch on here


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The word “pichet” is surfacing in American restaurants, more in Chicago and New York than in greater Detroit at present, although it appears in this month’s review of Tallulah, the new wine-bar restaurant in Birmingham.


The pichet, or pitcher, is actually a really sensible concept from Europe that, until now, had not really caught on here — for a couple of reasons.


For one, it’s simpler and more profitable for restaurants to sell wine by the bottle. Bring the bottle, pull the cork, and pour. The pichet, however, creates more work for servers and a need for more shelf space.


But for customers and wine pricing, it’s terrific. It delivers a smaller amount of wine than a full bottle and more choice of less expensive wine.


Traditionally in France’s smaller restaurants, different-sized glass and earthenware pitchers are used to sell bulk house wines, invariably inexpensive reds. These are not refined, fine-dining wines, but rather mostly the day-to-day beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône sold mainly to the lunch crowd in brasseries and cafés, and poured from large-format bottles, small barrels, or tanks purchased in bulk by the restaurant.


The brasseries usually offer two or three lunch items and a little pitcher of wine, sometimes in the price of the meal, sometimes not. They tend to be neighborhood places with small kitchens where the bank clerk, the bus driver, and the fashion model mingle on a lunch break because the food is good.


The pichet is certainly used and available at dinner also, but is more commonly found at lunch. It comes in three sizes: “un quart” or a quarter liter, which gives about two small glasses, enough for one person; a “demi,” or half liter, which is enough for a couple to share; and the less-used full liter.


The traditional lunch in France is about two hours — although the purists bemoan its slow fade due to the encroaching fast-food industry — and it’s usually three courses: a light first course, a main course of a meat and a starch, followed by either salad and cheese, or dessert — or both.


Weekday lunch is the lesser meal of the day, and therefore the more casual. The big meal is likely to be the dinner at home, and that’s when the better wines, by the bottle, come out.


But it’s the pricing of the pichet that makes so much sense. A quarter-size might be as little as four or five euros, and a liter 15 or 20 euros. Even at the current exchange rate of about $1.35, that’s a good price for wine with a meal. There’s no reason why it could not be used here, and it would be an attractive incentive to customers in these tight times to offer a nice wine for two at dinner for $15, $20, or $25.


Tallulah has a nice, modern glass pitcher, and offers several wines, including a good Côtes du Rhône, in what is roughly a “demi” pichet for about $20, though several are more expensive.


It’s sensible, and it would be great to see more restaurants try it.

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