Even in Paris, a city not necessarily famous for "reasonably priced" food, there is a new group of small restaurants--most not run by famous chefs--that are making a conscious effort to serve good food and wine at moderate prices, which in Paris translates to $50 per person for dinner including wine, and often less.
The French have always been resourceful about reinventing themselves, especially when it comes to food. In the face of economic recession and the new reality--which is to say that most Parisians no longer want to spend more on lunch than on their children's educations--Paris restaurants have come up with several ways to lure back the reluctant customer.
One approach has been that a number of luxury establishments, hard hit by la crise (or crisis, as the French refer to the recession), have added fixed-price menus, usually only for lunch. The two-star Carre des Feuillants, for example, has a set lunch that costs about $48, and the two-star Arpege has one at $54--both about half of what an a la carte meal there would cost. (The three-star Tour d'Argent has long had a fixed lunch, currently priced at $70.)
Going one step further, so many big-name chefs have opened new, lower-priced bistro annexes that it is increasingly hard to remember which is which. Trailblazer Guy Savoy (of the two-star restaurant by the same name) now has three such bistros called "Bistrot de l'Etoile" and another named "Les Buttes Chaillot," all near the Arc de Triomphe. Two-star Michel Rostang has three spinoffs called "Bistrot d'a Cote," scattered about town. Jacques Cagna has the very popular Rotisserie d'en Face across the street from his Left Bank two-star, Jacques Cagna); the three-star Tour d'Argent has the Rotisserie du Beaujolais next door on the Quai de la Tournelle; and Joel Robuchon, of the three-star Jamin, has the Relais du Parc in the Hotel Le Parc Victor Hugo.
All of these restaurants reflect the back-to-basics menu trend and the return of labor-intensive, rotisserie cooking, and most tally up around $46 per person for a three-course meal, which is now the price demanded by most city-center neighborhood places.
While any effort to keep prices down is much appreciated, there is something just a little artificial about these cookie-cutter, wannabe bistros. With a few important exceptions (including the restaurants Campagne & Provence and La Rotisserie d'en Face that are recommended in this story), they just don't have the warmth and charm of the real thing. The food is often disappointing, and the prices are not as low as they seem to be, once items such as wine, mineral water and coffee are tacked on. (This is the year of the $2.50-$4 cup of coffee in some spots around town.)
But the restaurants listed below are among the new breed of value-for-money establishments that are authentic in their warmth, charm and style. I've been to them all, often anonymously and at least once since they reopened after August closings. They are rightly popular and always packed, so reservations are essential (dinners at La Regalade should be made five or six days in advance, but others can usually be booked within 24 hours of a meal).
The hot new discovery of the last six months, Marie & Fils has become a canteen for the Paris fashion crowd, who arrive late, stay late and do a fair amount of table-hopping. Owner Marie Steinberg, once married to French record industry magnate Eddie Barclay, knows what it takes to make a restaurant work: greenhouse terrace, warm yellow walls, open cases of wine stacked on one side, mirrors along the other so everybody can see everybody else, enough noise, but not too much. The service is attentive and good-natured, the price hovers around $40-$45 a person, including some very nice wines (the Bourgueil, a Loire Valley red served slightly chilled, is a good choice).
The food is extremely and consistently good, smartly simple and generously served. Starters include a salad of pale green young arugula with shaved Parmesan, baby squid salad Provencal, tuna carpaccio or marinated peppers with slivers of fresh garlic. There are always two orthree main-course fish dishes, including a really succulent thick tuna steak dressed with olive oil and fresh coriander. Very rare roast beef is served in thin slices with mounds of mashed potatoes, and there might be filet mignon of pork with a garlic sauce or saddle of rabbit with basil and zucchini. Desserts, for those who still can, are usually excellent.
Despite the huge success of year-old La Regalade, it has steadfastly resisted raising its three-course, $27 fixed price. In the homey setting of an old neighborhood locale, with its original tile floors and zinc bar, chef Yves Camdeborde manages to turn out delicious, interesting, unfussy food with a light touch of his native Bearn, in southwestern France.
Among the current choice of starters are melting, barely cooked slivers of fresh tuna with a swirl of pesto spaghettini and a shower of fresh herbs; a beef-and-leek terrine and a semolina salad spiked with peppers. The shepherd's pie of spicy blood sausage is smoothed with a classic Bearnaise sauce; a thick filet of rascasse (hogfish or wrasse) is topped with a salad of chopped herbs; and the veal sweetbreads and mushrooms in a fine, vinegary sauce are firm, tender and tasty. The half-dozen dessert choices include a Grand Marnier souffle and chilled strawberries with a granite of white Jurancon wine. There are a dozen wines under $18, including a velvety Cotes du Ventoux at $12 and an unusual Brittany red for $9. La Regalade is slightly out of the way in the far 14th arrondissement, but well worth the trip.
Le Petit Plat is the kind of place that causes a moral dilemma: to tell or to hope nobody finds out about it. The tiny old-fashioned facade with lacy half-curtains in the windows is irresistible; the narrow interior a mellow non-decor of mirrors and mismatched chairs, with crisp starched napery and votive candles on the tables.
The food is wonderful; a lesson in simple conception and splendid execution: a salad of sliced hearts of fresh artichokes and green beans is dressed with chives, diced bits of tomato, fresh tarragon and an elusive nutty vinaigrette; the lentil salad is juicy, peppered with tomato and herbs; the terrine de lapin has big chunks of rabbit in a savory coriander gelee. Roast chicken is, like everything else, cooked to perfection; the filets of sea bream crisped and served with marinated red peppers; the stuffed cabbage like somebody's maman used to make. Ditto that for the rhubarb tart and the chocolate cake. There's no fixed price, but three courses average about $31. The wine list, drawn up by food critic Henri Gault (whose daughter is a part-owner), has some very nice regional wines at $13-$15 (try the light red Ardeche), and an excellent Cotes de Blaye at $17.
The pocket-size Le Petit Bourbon has just raised its three-course fixed price from $26 to $31. But it's still a bargain for the stylish cooking of chef Jerome Dugrosprez, a young veteran of the hotel Ritz. The menu offers five and six choices for each course and changes regularly. A few dishes show traces of the Orient, as in the glazed shrimp starter or the quail in five spices. Others are modern takes on down-home French: a veal-and-mushroom terrine, or small crepinettes of pork fillet coated with parsleyed gelee. Old stone walls, crystal chandeliers and vaguely Impressionist paintings seem a bit too formal for such a small space, but everything else is low-key and pleasant. A few wines under $18, notably a Cotes de Bourg and a Cotes de Blaye, mean that the tab can be kept to about $40 a head.
Soft lights and straw-colored walls, blue-lacquered chairs straight out of Van Gogh: Campagne & Provence is a calm and cool refuge devoted to the cuisine of Provence and the Mediterranean: salad of wild field greens with garlic dressing, fresh sardine tart, pasta pistou (the French version of pesto), vegetables stuffed with codfish puree, baked John Dory, Provencal lamb stew, chicken with a piperade of peppers, onions, tomatoes, thyme and bay leaf. It's hard to bypass a dessert "soup" of melon with basil and lemon, but the peach-and-pistachio frangipani does call out. Starters and desserts are about $7, main dishes $15, and there is not one wine on the extensive list that costs more than about $18. This is the secondary restaurant of chef Gilles Epie, and it has done so well that he has just announced a change to a $41 single-price menu (not including wine) at his flagship Miravile--cutting his prices nearly in half.
Also good value but not necessarily new:
Opened 3 1/2 years ago, La Maison was one of the first with a large-choice, single-price menu, still there at $32. Owner and host Claude Aurensan was one of the founders of the legendary Paris disco Le Palace in the late '70s, and La Maison is almost a club of regularsfrom the fashion and entertainment world. With four trees and one street lamp out front, almost no traffic and a view of Notre Dame, it has the best outdoor terrace in the city, and although the food has had its ups and downs it is currently very good, including great crab bisque and whole roast baby chicken. I cannot claim anonymity here, since I have known the proprietor for 15 years, but it's a most Parisian of good places to know about. The house wine in carafes is just fine, too.
In the delightful glass-covered shopping area Passage Vivienne, Le Grand Colbert is an old bistro- brasserie spruced up and doing fine. Try the oysters and shellfish and classic dishes such as beef stew and sole meuniere .
La Rotisserie d'en Face is the annex of two-star chef Jacques Cagna, one of the few that works because of its original old decor, great Left Bank location and simplified food such as artichoke and green bean salad and spit-roasted chicken and lamb.
A tucked-away, appealing restaurant near the Bon Marche department store, Le Petit Germain serves delicious food--their leek terrine with truffle oil is excellent--and very good value for quality, even though it is a little more expensive than it should be, largely because of the wines.
About 10 tables squeezed into a minute restaurant near the Place St. Sulpice, Le Saint Pourcain is presided over by a gregarious chef who once worked in Texas, specializing in old-fashioned dishes, such as boeuf bourguignon, that cook slowly on the back of the stove like in the good old days.
Eating Well for the Money
Where to eat: Marie & Fils, 34 Rue Mazarine, sixth arrondissement ; local telephone 43-26-69-49.
La Regalade, 49 Avenue Jean Moulin, 14th arrondissement ; tel. 45-45-68-58.
Le Petit Plat, 3 Rue des Grands Degres, fifth arrondissement ; tel. 40-46-85-34.
Le Petit Bourbon, 15 Rue du Roule, first arrondissement ; tel. 40-26-08-93.
Campagne & Provence, 25 Quai de la Tournelle, fifth arrondissement ; tel. 43-54-05-17.
La Maison, 1 Rue de la Bucherie, fifth arrondissement ; tel. 43-29-73-57.
Le Grand Colbert, 4 Rue Vivienne, second arrondissement ; tel. 42-86-87-88.
La Rotisserie d'en Face, 2 Rue Christine, 6th arrondissement ; tel. 43-26-40-98.
Le Petit Germain, 11 Rue Dupin, Paris, seventh arrondissement ; tel. 42-22-64-56.
Le Saint Pourcain, 10 bis Rue Servandoni, sixth arrondissement ; tel. 43-54-93-63.