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Parisian Chefs Go for the Bistro

A number of serious restaurants in this country have spawned more casual, less expensive offspring in recent years--Berkeley’s Chez Panisse with its upstairs Cafe; Dallas’ Routh Street Cafe with Baby Routh; New York’s Arizona 206 with the Arizona Cafe; and L.A.'s own Valentino with Primi, Chianti with the Cucina, La Scala with its mini-chain of Presto Trattorias, and so on.

Now, some top chef-restaurateurs in France are trying the same thing: Roger Verge of the three-star Moulin des Mougins on the Cote d’Azur recently opened an almost coffee-shop sort of place (albeit an elegant one) in neighboring Monte Carlo, called Roger Verge Cafe; earlier he spun off the comparatively informal L’Amandier de Mougins nearby. The highly talented Francis Garcia, new owner of the fabled Le Chapon Fin, simultaneously runs a couple of terrific bistros in the same city, both called Clavel, with prix-fixe menus starting at $20. And two of the best chefs in Paris, Michel Rostang (also one of the participants in Fennel in Santa Monica; see article, Page 4) and Guy Savoy, recently launched informal little bistros of their own with straightforward, high-quality food for a fraction of what you’d pay for more complex fare at their main establishments.

Rostang, in fact, has two places--Le Bistrot d’a Cote (“The Next-Door Bistro”), adjacent to his two-star Rostang, and Villiers, near the Parc de Monceau. Le Bistro d’a Cote is tiny--an old turn-of-the-century grocery shop with tin ceilings, marble shelves and walls of wood-framed mirrors. It’s jammed with narrow trestle-style bistro tables and packed top-to-bottom with old blue seltzer bottles, antique radios and cameras, decorative plates and pitchers, ancient Michelin guidebooks, and other such flea-market flotsam--all of it for sale, including the tables. In these colorful and pleasant, if perhaps a bit self-consciously “Parisian” surroundings, Rostang’s crew serves a combination of authentic bistro food: chicken liver terrine, curly endive salad with Roquefort croutons, roast lambs’ brains with boiled potatoes, chicken in vinegar sauce, and the best gratin dauphinois in creation. The place also serves such non-traditional dishes as tuna carpaccio with grilled country-style bread (a wonderful match of flavors and textures), and an absolutely stunning cornmeal galette with a light, mild curry-cream sauce bathing its exterior and warm smoked salmon hiding inside.

Villiers, also sometimes called Le Bistro d’a Cote Villiers, occupies not an old grocery store but an old bistro. It is larger than Rostang’s other place, more white than wood-toned, and has a slightly larger wine list and a slightly longer version of the other restaurant’s menu. This one includes warm chicken liver mousse with tomato coulis and sauteed flank steak of veal with mustard sauce and homemade noodles.

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Guy Savoy’s new place was originally called Le Bistro d’en Face (“The Bistro Across the Street”), in obvious reference to the name of Rostang’s bistro. Indeed, it is directly facing Savoy’s own two-star restaurant--itself now located where the revered Le Bernardin used to be, before its proprietors moved it to New York. In any case, the place is now called Le Bistro de l’Etoile.

Savoy’s bistro is even smaller than Le Bistro d’a Cote, and plainer. With its clean lines and blond pine walls and tables, it looks more like a Finnish sauna than a Parisian eating place. The food is simpler, too. Unlike Rostang, Savoy keeps his menu free of contemporary accents, honoring the true bistro food style. Thus, he serves juicy pork sausage en brioche , lentil salad with thinly sliced (and grandly crunchy) morsels of pig’s head, fried merlan (whiting) with ratatouille, chicken fricassee with sweet garlic and gratin dauphinois (good, but not quite up to Rostang’s), apple tart, and more--all of it exactly right.

Of course, there are still plenty of bistros in Paris that aren’t run by noted chefs. One newly popular example of the genre is called Astier . It’s far from Rostang and Savoy territory, in the untrendy 11th arrondissement. Frankly, the cooking at Astier isn’t up to that of the aforementioned bistros--but it isn’t bad at all, and prices are quite extraordinary. For 100 francs a head (about $17), you may enjoy an honest, reasonably imaginative four-course bistro meal. First courses include a delicious cold, creamed fish broth, an assortment of well-made country-style terrines, grilled fresh sardines, and even, for a $3.50 supplement, a generous slab of very good duck foie gras. For main dishes there are quite good beignets of monkfish with herb sauce and a mixed green salad, a passable steamed turbot with fresh asparagus, and superb duck confit with oven-roasted potatoes. The third course is cheese, from an ample, well-ripened (sometimes too well-ripened) selection. Last come desserts, which are the weakest part of the meal--bland fresh raspberries, gummy apricot clafoutis , and such. But then there are good minor wines at affordable prices, and, among the alcohols, a delicious Marc de Bugey that puts most high-priced grappas to shame.

Astier, 44 rue Jean-Pierre-Timbaud, 11th arrondissement, tel. 43.38.25.56. Dinner for two, food only, $34-41. Le Bistro d’a Cote, 10 rue Gustave-Flaubert, 17th arrondissement, telephone 42.67.05.81. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$80. Le Bistro de L’Etoile, 13 rue Troyon, 17th arrondissement, telephone 42.67.25.95. Dinner for two, food only, $55-$75. Villiers, 16 avenue de Villiers, 17th arrondissement, telephone 47.63.25.61. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$80.

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