I had already bought my ticket (LAX-Paris, for an irresistible $550 round-trip) when I realized just how much the dollar had lost against the franc. And, consequently, how expensive eating at top-level restaurants was going to be. At Joel Robuchon, the three-star restaurant that is the current pinnacle of great dining and the most expensive restaurant in Paris, appetizers can cost 590 francs. That's about $116! The final tally is not for the fainthearted.
But it's still possible to find down-to-earth Parisian bistros serving wonderful food for $30 and less. Besides, I like to mix it up when I travel. Not for me those daunting itineraries in which foodies eat at two- and three-star restaurants twice a day for weeks. It's too much; I would rather rub elbows with the French at modest bistros or bons petits restaurants four times in a row and then cap off my time in France with a meal at the fabled Robuchon or some other truly grand restaurant. These are a few of the modest places I encountered (or rediscovered):
I had called my friend Luis and asked him to make a reservation the first night at Baracane-Bistrot de l'Oulette, a little bistro in the Marais district (our old haunt, L'Ami Louis, is at this point more overpriced than ever). "This new place sounds good," he told me when I arrived. "When I called, I could hear people leaving, raving about the food, which is always a good sign. I'm ready!" So was I.
We started with an aperitif on the terrace of Ma Bourgogne, a bar tucked under the arcades of Place des Vosges, a beautiful 17th-Century square at the edge of the Marais. Then we strolled around the square, haunting in the winter night, to Baracane-Bistrot de l'Oulette nearby. Unprepossessing, it looked about 10 feet wide. We squeezed past a coatrack so loaded with overcoats we could hardly open the door and past the little zinc bar to our (very small) table.
When I come to France, I'm on a mission: to indulge in all the things I love but can rarely get in Los Angeles: kidneys and brains, duck gizzards and confit. Wild game birds. Obscure cheeses, lusty pates. Exquisite chocolates, croissants so flaky they shower your lap with buttery crumbs. As soon as I read through Baracane's menu of earthy Southwest dishes, I felt heartened. Beef or pig cheeks? Yes!
I started with a salad of feathery greens loaded with duck gizzards, smoky lardons blackened at the edges and a scattering of fresh walnuts and fat croutons rubbed with garlic. This was real country cooking. Luis was ecstatic. The duck confit, a meaty, extremely flavorful duck preserved in its own fat, browned to a crisp, was exemplary. But the potatoes! Golden coins of potatoes sauteed in what else but duck fat. We also sampled a cassoulet laden with sausage, duck confit and gizzards served from an earthenware crock, and the house specialty, joues de boeuf (beef cheeks), simmered hours in Cahors, a robust red wine from the Southwest. To drink, we chose an inky '89 Madiran, Cru de Paradis, which was fabulous, from the small list that offered nothing more than $20. For dessert, no contest: croustillant , a flaky pastry filled with apples sprinkled with aged plum brandy. We had a raucous good time, ate our fill--and the bill for three was just under $100.
I could have easily eaten at Le Petit Plat, a simple, unpretentious place in the 15th arrondissement , three times in a row. The food is earthy and appealing, cooked with care and served with a generous hand. I fished herring filets from a white porcelain terrine, where they swam in a fragrant marinade of olive oil, bay leaf, sliced carrots and onions perfumed with juniper berries and thyme, and ate them with steamed new potatoes. My plate of boudin noir was irresistible, too, the fat slices of crumbly blood sausage garnishing ribbons of celery root cooked down with pork fat and bits of apple. Luis' filet de porc , cut in thick slices, pink and juicy at the center, was laid out on a bed of tiny green lentils in yet another deep casserole. The quality is astonishing for the price.
Especially when you factor in the divine bread pudding--very plain, layered with apples and served in a puddle of creme fraiche--and the unexpected bonus of the wine list, a mix of modest, eclectic wines and well-priced Bordeaux.
One night I ended up on my own after spending the afternoon wandering through the Picasso museum and exploring the antique shops along tiny Rue Saint-Paul. I managed to secure a table at Le Passage, a sophisticated little restaurant a vins in a narrow passageway just off Faubourg-Saint-Antoine, not far from the new Opera de la Bastille. The phone rang and rang as I walked in. " Desole --sorry, we're full up," the droll waitresses told the callers.
Cozy and informal, Le Passage is all tables, jammed close together. Chalked on the boards overhead is a fabulous selection of hard-to-find wines from top producers like Burgaud, Chave and Clape in the Rhone . The specialty is first the wines (270 of them) and then andouilletes (tripe sausage) proffered from various regions and charcutiers , along with salmon tartare, salads, coquilles St. Jacques, beef filet topped with marrow, and half a dozen specials. Finish up with a quarter of deliciously runny raw-milk Camembert and a lovely pot de creme.
The other Paris wine bar I've gone back to again and again is Jacques Melac, also in the 11th. The animating spirit is the extravagantly mustachioed Monsieur Melac.
Everything here is first class, from the rustic wines sold by the glass to the best charcuterie plates in the city, heaped with sweet, fatty pork rillettes , coarse-textured country pates, meaty hams and sausages from the Auvergne. You can get perfect omelettes, liquid at the center, made with Bleu des Causse or Cantal cheese cut from a huge round. Or tuck into hearty plats du jour like boiled tongue, pot-au-feu or boudin noir. The latter program may require an afternoon nap.
And because I adore French cheeses, I always stop in at Ferme Saint-Hubert, a casual wisp of a restaurant adjoining the cheese shop of the same name just off Place de Madeleine. Browse through the dozens of intriguing cheeses Henri Voy has assembled from all over France, then slip next door to taste. As soon as you squeeze in at one of the few tables, the waiter rushes over with a basket of Poilane's country bread with a crust as thick as your finger, incredibly good spread with fresh goat's-milk butter.
One plate presents seven cheeses, one from each of the major types of French cheeses. Voy prefers his cheeses on the far side of ripe. Brie is so ripe it runs off the plate. It's the collection of seven chevres that wins my heart. I love starting with a chalky fresh goat cheese, going from Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, a pungent Rocamadour to a well-aged Picodon. Ferme Saint-Hubert's menu also offers a superb Roquefort souffle, omelettes and such along with the best croque (grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich) in Paris. For dessert, there's coeur s a la creme served in their heart-shaped mold or snowy curds of fromage blanc topped with a dollop of ivory creme fraiche.
Best of all, over at the cheese shop, they'll pack up a selection of cheeses for the voyage home.
Baracane-Bistrot de l'Oulette, 38 Rue des Tournelles (4th); telephone 42 - 71 - 43 -33 . Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Prix-fixe menu at lunch, $24. A la carte, $30-$40.
La Ferme Saint-Hubert, 21 Rue Vignon (8th); 47-42-79-20. Closed Sunday s and Mondays. Cheese plates, $16; a la carte, $30-$40.
Jacques Melac, 42 rue Leon-Frot (11th); 43-70-59-27. Closed all day Sunday and Monday evening. A la carte, $24.
Le Passage, 18 Passage de la Bonne-Graine (11th); 47 - 00 - 73 - 30. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. A la carte, $30-$44.
Le Petit Plat, 49 Avenue Emile Zola (15th); 45 - 78 - 24 - 20. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prix-fixe menus, $26; a la carte, $32-$38.