The Paris bistro--a mainstay of the city's culinary tradition for well over a century--has never enjoyed greater popularity than it does today--and to no one's surprise. Tucked away on narrow, back streets in obscure neighborhoods, these small family restaurants represent both the dream and the reality of modern Parisian life. Red-checked tablecloths, carafes of red wine, the aroma of crisp and golden roast chicken--all are part of the bistro experience.
Although far from inexpensive, the Paris bistro is not only an adventure in dining, but a taste of French history, culture and charm. No two are alike. And yes, there are dishes that typify bistro cooking: a wild variety of salads, potatoes, slow-simmered stews, roast poultry and fruity desserts. And yes, there are certain wines that appear on most lists: Beaujolais and Chinon, Macon Vire and Sancerre.
As I set out to name a handful of my favorite places, I realize that none fits the traditional bistro mold. One is run by a trio of brothers, another by a feisty lady chef. In some, the decor is frightfully modern; in others, the menu is wholeheartedly regional. Some offer great value; others can cost as much as a meal in a "grand" Paris restaurant.
But what these modern-day Paris bistros have in common is that each offers the qualities I look for in a small restaurant: Personality, simplicity, consistency, a point of view and a place where you almost always find good food and a good time.
True gastronomic pleasure can be found in the joy of surrounding yourself with like-minded diners. The most luscious foie gras, the richest chocolate cake, the most exquisite sip of a well-aged Bordeaux will give you little pleasure if those nearby don't share the excitement.
So it is always a pleasure to dine at the little elbow-to-elbow Parisian bistro, Astier, where everyone seems to arrive with honest hunger and a yearning for thick slabs of chicken-liver pate, hearty portions of venison stew, rabbit with mustard sauce, and gigantic platters of cheese that are passed from table to table at the appointed moment.
Gluttony is a pardonable sin, and no one will make a face or point his finger if you cut into seconds of the creamy Coulommiers cheese or ask for another bottle of Gerard Chave's remarkable red Hermitage.
Astier, situated near the Place de la Republique, is part of that breed--now more and more rare--of classic Paris bistros. Yes, it's boisterous and too brightly lit and service can be a bit slap-dash, but those characteristics are also part of its charm. If you are seeking a quiet romantic evening for two, this isn't the appropriate address.
But I applaud the single 110-franc menu, which changes regularly and allows first course, main course, cheese and dessert. On our last visit, I particularly loved the well-seasoned chicken liver pate, the generous salad of lamb's lettuce and beets and the classic preparation of rabbit with mustard sauce. On that visit, the magret de canard (breast of a fatted duck) was a bit on the tough side, and the bread didn't seem as crusty and wonderful as I remembered.
But the wine list--as generously priced as the rest of the meal--makes for special joy. Owner Michel Picquart promises that there is something for everyone, from a well-priced Loire Valley Chinon by the carafe to bottles plucked from the most prestigious caves of Bordeaux. It is impossible to leave this restaurant with even a touch of hunger.
One Parisian chef who doesn't dally is the feisty Lucette Rousseau, who manages to offer up real, no frills food on her own terms at her spotless and cozy bistro, L'Assiette. This tiny beret-bedecked chef, known as Lulu to her friends, has her fingers on the kind of food we are looking for today. Working on her own in a spacious kitchen that opens into her bistro-style restaurant, she goes easy on cream and butter, offers plenty of bright green salads and a litany of dishes that are totally familiar yet aren't carbon copies of other bistros. Further, she pays attention to visuals in ways chefs rarely do. Her food is simple, yet the play of colors is designed to please the eye, as well as the palate.
L'Assiette, has been carved out of a lovely 1930s charcuterie, a space adorned with etched-glass windows, butter-yellow walls and a touch of greenery. It is a comfortable-size restaurant with room for 40 or 50 diners. Although the new menu leans heavily toward specialties of the French southwest, the list of Rousseau's dishes does not read like a litany of foie gras and confit. In season, there is always an abundant assortment of sauteed wild mushrooms embellished with plenty of garlic and parsley. In cold-weather months, game is a specialty.
Rousseau does wonderful things with fish (grilled tuna seasoned with Breton sea salt), and if you are in the mood for a simple cote de boeuf grille, she's sure to please you with a beautifully rare, nicely aged cut of beef, served with an abundance of pan-fried potatoes. Yet my favorite dish at L'Assiette is the petit sale de canard-- duck that has been marinated for days in a salt brine infused with herbs and spices, then poached. It's beautiful, rosy and not overly salty. It is served on a bed of soft, buttery, golden cabbage; a truly soothing dish.
Rousseau's least successful effort--it's the presentation, not the taste--is the boudin des Landes in Parmentier. Served in a big round bowl, the boudin is layered on the bottom, then topped with mashed potatoes and baked. The concept's fine, but eating the main course out of a bowl seems a bit peculiar. The wines to try here include the deep red Cahors, Prieure du Cenac.
At another bistro, we see what results when a chef reaches full bloom. Maturity is a lovely state, a time when one can begin to reap the benefits of past labors; when dreams and ambitions fall into place and life takes on a wholesome, natural rhythm. To catch a chef at his peak of maturity is a joyful moment, for everything about his restaurant takes on a relaxed, professional air. There is an aura of accomplishment; one senses that the chef is right with himself. Gerard Allemandou of La Cagouille is at that lovely moment in his professional life. La Cagouille is, hands down, Paris' best fish bistro. There's no written menu, simply a blackboard with the name of the freshest daily fish and shellfish--items Allemandou and his partners search out during early morning visits to a wholesale market.
Chef Allemandou displays a fierce loyalty for his native Cognac country. At a recent dinner, his grilled sardines seemed fresh from the waters of Brittany and his moules brule doigts, made me remember how distinguished a mussel can be when it's at the peak of freshness and not overcooked. Likewise, his saumon a l'unilateral-- salmon cooked quickly on just the skin side--demonstrated that when it comes to fish, freshness and precision in cooking is everything. With such fish and shellfish, sample the well-chosen white Saint-Veran from Leon Saumaize in the village of Vergiosson in Burgundy. If you're willing to go the limit, stick around for a glass of Allemandou's vieux Pineau, a new taste discovery certain to please a palate. The restaurant gets few points for decor. It is in a sterile building in a neighborhood undergoing modernization. But that's never yet stopped a fish lover.
Otherwise, should the mood call for a boisterous, thoroughly carefree evening, one spot in Paris that promises such an event is Le Petit Marguery, the bright and bustling restaurant run by three brothers named Cousin. Michel and Jacques tend the stoves, while jovial and mustachioed young Alain handles the front of the house, where he bustles about, adding a sense of theater and drama.
This is a model, turn-of-the-century bistro, among the last of a small 1920s "chain" of 18 Petit Marguerys once found all over Paris. The decor of old-fashioned chandeliers, beautiful tile floors and mirrored walls has changed little over the years and a barely legible handwritten menu changes from day to day. The brilliant blue and rose walls are a bit offbeat, but they add to the thoroughly festive air.
The Cousin brothers' fare is both traditional and inventive, and though the menu flows with the seasons, one can always be assured of fresh Coquilles Saint-Jacques from October to May, game in the winter months and fresh wild mushrooms when they appear in the market. The Cousins grew up in the Poitou region of west-central France, so many of their dishes are favorites from their childhood, including an inventive green salad that's showered with thin slices of pork sausage conserved in walnut oil, farm-fresh guinea hen smothered with wild cepe mushrooms and a marvelous petit sale de canard.
Recently we sampled an impeccable assortment of dishes, including a bright maquereaux frais marines au poivre vert, a delightfully seasoned fresh mackerel, showered with shallots and a touch of green peppercorns; a sort of jambon persille sauvage, a parsley-flecked terrine of wild boar, and a winning portion of milk-fed leg of lamb, seasoned with parsley and marjoram. The small wine list includes fine, well-priced, little-known Bordeaux, as well as a delicious white Quincy from Burgundy.
Another bistro, Alaina and Nicole Dutournier's Au Trou Gascon, with its fin de siecle decor, remains one of my favorite Paris dining spots. Yes, it's hidden on the edge of town. And yes, the atmosphere is less charged, a touch less lively than it was in the days before Dutournier and his wonderful sommelier, Jean-Guy Loustau, left to devote their labors to Dutournier's other Paris restaurant, Le Carre des Feuillants. Yet all is in good hands with Madame Dutournier, who oversees the direction at Au Trou Gascon with seasoned attention and care.
Au Trou Gascon has always been known as the spot to sample southwestern French cuisine with a lighter, modern touch; a place where heaviness, but not flavor, has been removed. One can still find all the trustworthy specialties: Their incredibly fine and delicate home-cured ham from Dutournier's native Chalosse; hearty cassoulet served from a beautiful white bowl, and giant escalopes of foie gras, pan-fried with apples and a soothing confit of onions.
Especially in warmer weather, I enjoy the fine collection of modern dishes, prepared with a southwestern accent. For fish lovers, there is always a fresh selection, such as salmon roasted with fresh fava beans and ham, or tiny red mullets pan-fried with the freshest of young leeks. Chef Bernard Broux offers a truly remarkable epaule d'agneau de lait rotie boulangere . For this, the youngest of lamb from the Pyrenees is roasted to perfection, so that the outside is crisp, while the delicate interior is soft, juicy, chewy and full of earthy flavors. Served in generous portions, the meat is set on a bed of tender potatoes surrounded by wild mushrooms. It's the kind of comfort food you would hope to find in a rustic, country bistro, but rarely find anywhere, especially in Paris. (You must be two for this dish, so go with a friend who loves lamb.)
On our most recent visit, some of the dishes lacked that old-time Dutournier pizazz. The salad of fava beans, asparagus and mushrooms needed a more vibrant vinaigrette to hold it all together, and the cocktail de fruits rouges could have been fresher.
Cheese lovers should make a detour simply to sample the sheep's milk cheese from Dutournier's native Basque country, along with the Cabecous de Rocamadour: tiny discs of goat's milk cheese, among the best you will find in France. The wine list is appealing and reasonable, with a changing offering of bouteilles du moment: specially-priced wines from Au Trou Gascon's vast cellars.
Looking for the "modern" French bistro? Leave it to one of France's top chefs, Paris' Guy Savoy, to redefine it. Savoy now has two modest bistros, one called Bistrot de l'Etoile, directly across from the upscale restaurant that bears his name, and the Bistrot de l'Etoile-Niel, a few blocks away. All are located near the busy Right Bank neighborhood around the Arc de Triomphe, and are filled by day with office workers and by night with trendy couples from the 8th and 17th arrondissements.
My favorite of the two is on Avenue Niel, where chef Bruno Gendarmes attentively cares for his guests, personally taking orders in the long, narrow bistro where the decor's a bit helter-skelter but the ambience is warm and comforting. On my last visit, I devoured his delicious salad of curly frisee lettuce, warm snails and warm, sliced potatoes. Equally marvelous was his gigot a sept heures, a hearty winter dish in which leg of lamb is slowly simmered with wine and herbs for up to seven hours, making for a moist, fork-tender, meaty main dish. Also delicious was his tendrons de veau aux ravioles, giant portions of veal breast simmered in tomato sauce and served with miniature cheese-filled ravioles from the chef's native Savoy region of France. Deserts include the all-purpose creme, a creamy pear tart set atop a delicious cookie crust.
In part, the reality of these wonderful bistros is cliche: A vision of a down-at-the-heels restaurant filled with well-heeled Parisians. But given the fact that they seem to respond to our needs, who could ask for anything more?
Following are some of my favorite Paris bistros. In all cases, it is best to make reservations. Some may be closed weekends. Prices are for an average meal for two, including wine and service. Prices are based on 5.6 francs to the U.S. dollar.
ASTIER, 44 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 75011 Paris. Telephone: 22.214.171.124. Closed Saturday, Sunday and August. Credit card: Visa. Cosst: About 300 francs.
L'ASSIETTE, 181 Rue du Chateau, 75014 Paris. Telephone: 126.96.36.199. Closed Monday, Tuesday and August. Credit cards: American Express, Diners, Visa. Cost: About 600 francs.
LA CAGOUILLE, 10-12 Place Constantin-Brancusi (across from 23 Rue l'Ouest), 75014 Paris. Telephone: 43.22.09.01. Closed Sunday, Monday and three weeks in August. Credit card: Vissa. Cost: About 600 francs.
LE PETIT MARGUERY, 9 Boulevard du Port Royal, 75013 Paris. Telephone: 188.8.131.52. Closed Saturday, Sunday and August. Credit cards: American Express, Diners, Visa. Cost: About 600 francs.
AU TROU GASCON, 40 Rue Taine, 75012 Paris. Telephone: 184.108.40.206. Closed Saturday, Sunday and August. Credit card: American Express, Diners, Visa. Cost: About 700 francs.
BISTROT DE L'ETOILE-NIEL, 75 Avenue Niel, 75017 Paris. Telephone: 220.127.116.11. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Credit card: Visa. Cost: About 400 francs.