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Paris lightens up, soars

Times Staff Writer

A fresh spirit is blowing through the Paris dining scene. During a week spent eating my way through updated bistros and beguiling little restaurants from some of the city’s most lauded chefs, I found a new breed of restaurants that are less buttoned up -- and much more fun.

For the first time in years, I found my Paris friends excited about going out to something other than a Moroccan or Vietnamese restaurant. We found places that are disarmingly informal, with relaxed service, flexible menu formats and enticing contemporary French cooking.

The scene feels so different, in fact, that I had to pinch myself. Paris without snooty waiters and inflexible chefs? Mais, oui. And despite the woeful state of the dollar against the euro, most bills didn’t add up to more than I’d spend at a typical L.A. restaurant.

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We found menus offering half portions, restaurants open through the afternoon, open late and a couple open on Sundays, when there’s usually never anywhere to go. We found bare tabletops; paper menus instead of unwieldy bound books; smart, savvy wine lists; serve-it-yourself cheese courses; and even a two-star restaurant that wore those stars very lightly.

We ate what we wanted and didn’t come away stuffed to the gills. Paris, these days, is a delight.

A friend who loves wine told me about Le Villaret, a small bistro with stone and half-timbered walls in the the 11th arrondissement, Paris’ equivalent to Silver Lake. Chef Olivier Gaslain’s clean, updated bistro fare starts with first courses such as warm salad of diced potato and big blond sea snails in aioli, a fricassee of violet artichokes and black chanterelles and a lovely mushroom mousse perfumed with foie gras. But my favorite is l’oeuf au plat -- fried egg, the yolk still soft, with girolles (wild mushrooms), artichokes and parsley.

Happily, it’s all perfectly attuned to wine. Is that a 2003 Raveneau premier cru Chablis “Les Forets” for 48 euros (about $61), or am I hallucinating? It really is, and not a half bottle either. We follow that with a super 2001 Jamin Cote Rotie at an equally well-priced 70 euros (about $91). Le Villaret’s list has an astonishing choice of Burgundies and Rhones at what are, for Paris, or anywhere in France, very reasonable prices.

Roast squab with thyme and soft, tender white coco beans make a brilliant match with the Cote Rotie. And I love the farm chicken in the style of pot-au-feu, served in a wide shallow bowl in chicken stock swirled with an emerald watercress puree.

The crowd is hip, as opposed to trendy, boho Parisians and the occasional foreigner, enough off the radar that I didn’t hear a word of English, except for our table.

To finish off the Cote Rotie, cheese, of course, is required. Here, the server plunks down an entire cheese case -- a wood frame covered in wire netting like the kind people keep in their cellars. You cut your own, a concept I don’t think we’ll be seeing in L.A. anytime soon. Desserts are simple and delicious, especially quetsch plums poached in red wine and served with a snowy yogurt ice cream. With two great wines, dinner for five averages 60 euros (about $77) a person. For Paris, that’s a rare bargain.

La Table de Robuchon, legendary chef Joel Robuchon’s 2 1/2 -year-old spot, may have two Michelin stars, but it doesn’t feel anything like any two-star restaurant I’ve been to before. Instead of linens, each place is set with a round placemat. Water bottles are set down on a square of paper. The decor is vaguely Asian, which makes the bare wood tabletops seem somehow less shocking. But it’s an elegant boite (in the tony 16th arrondissement) with gold-leafed walls and dark wood shutters. Service from a multiethnic wait staff is crisp but relaxed, some of the best I’ve had anywhere. And hurray, it’s open on Sundays.

The menu lists small plates on the left, and larger plates (some identical to the small plates) on the right. Instead of going with the longish tasting menu, we make our own by picking out small dishes to share. We begin with jamon iberico de bellota, the phenomenal Spanish ham made from pigs fed on chestnuts. It arrives on a swatch of glazed white paper, beautiful hand-cut slices of the deep-flavored jamon, with a side of toast covered with finely minced tomatoes, an elegant take on pa amb tomaquet -- Catalan bread with tomato. We share a marvelous dish of crab and langoustines layered with cauliflower cream in a martini glass. And then a lovely line-caught bar (sea bass) served in a clear broth dotted with diced vegetables, a little pasta and cubes of that sweet salty jamon iberico for a refined take on minestrone. There’s also an eccentric rice dish, el arroz bomba, a cross between paella and risotto with a deep and delicious flavor. Instead of dessert, we opt for a cheese plate in which every cheese is a point (perfectly ripe). Afterward, our waiter brings us divine chocolates and salted caramels, so we don’t miss dessert after all. With a bottle of wine, our meal for two comes to 300 euros (about $388). Not inexpensive, but we’re talking two Michelin stars and Robuchon’s exquisitely calibrated cooking.

Relaxed but savvy

PIERRE GAGNAIRE, arguably the most inventive chef of his generation, recently bought the venerable left bank fish restaurant Gaya, a favorite of the publishing industry. A meal at this diminutive two-story place with one Michelin star is pure pleasure. The upstairs dining room is painted a seaworthy blue. Tabletops of some kind of fiberglass or resin, sans linen, are printed with images of kelp. The menu is just one page, as is the savvy wine list.

I’m won over by the silken veloute of crab poured over basmati rice molded into a baby block-sized cube. I love Gagnaire’s chiffonade of spinach cut as fine as grass and dressed with sesame oil and rice vinegar. It’s served with a distinctive, hand-cut tartare of raw beef and duck breast marinated in olive oil. Dainty sauteed clams called palourdes dot a potato puree that just may have more butter than Robuchon’s famous potatoes. Desserts hit a home run with poached mirabelle plums served with an orange-accented rice pudding and a milky fresh cheese garnished with a loose raspberry jam and puffs of beignets. I could easily go back the next night. And the next.

Pinxo, an informal contemporary restaurant a short stroll away from the Louvre and the newly re-opened Musee des Arts Decoratifs, is perfect for lunch. Here, two-star chef Alain Dutournier (Carre des Feuillants) weighs in with a menu of light, smaller plates with a Spanish and Basque accent.

Tables are black lacquer and bare, and you can eat one plate or three or four. A half portion of “crunchy” salad is just fabulous, Little Gem lettuce with sliced mushrooms, fennel, cracked pepper and fleur de sel. The secret to the delicious dressing is a little jus de poulet -- chicken stock. Cold fondue is a molded tomato aspic with ribbons of sweet roasted peppers and a soft egg inside, and it comes with fried country ham splashed with vinegar. I adored the little skewers of grilled chiperones (baby squid) and red peppers. The baby squid is just barely cooked through, which leaves it incredibly tender and sweet. For a quick, one-dish meal, you can’t beat the rose slices of French Charolais beef set on smashed potatoes punctuated with scallions. For dessert, the chef serves neat little bundles of crepe filled with orange pastry cream topped with candied orange peel and a deep, delicious orange caramel sauce.

Benoit, a bistro near Hotel de Ville that dates back to 1912, is now owned by uber-chef Alain Ducasse, who has a slew of restaurants all over the world, including three-star Louis XV in Monaco, Plaza Athenee Restaurant in Paris and Essex House in New York. For me, along with the much funkier L’Ami Louis, Benoit is the quintessential Paris bistro.

With lace curtains at the windows and a collection of porcelain and antique water bottles, it very much looks the part from the street. But then the door opens onto a vision of polished brass, red velvet banquettes and waiters in formal black leaning over tables to serve cassoulet or veal daube from a cart. Someone takes your coat, you slip onto a banquette, open the menu and sigh with pleasure.

The menu is traditional, ever so slightly updated. You have only to taste the escargots, so earthy and delicious, with such a perfect balance of butter to garlic and parsley, to realize the caliber of the kitchen. Fine slices of poached veal tongue spread with a mousse of foie gras are stacked like a cake to make a gorgeous first course.

For a main, I swoon over the tete de veau -- veal head with all its various textures enveloped in sauce ravigote, a veloute with shallots, chives and tarragon. Someone else orders blanquette de veau made with the cheeks and shin (jarret) in an exquisitely silky and nuanced sauce. It comes with a little saucepan filled with root vegetables. Cassoulet is the real deal too, made with sweet, coarsly textured sausage, duck and all sorts of other goodies, each of which has contributed to the flavor of the beans over a long, slow cooking. Dessert is a slice of luscious tarte tatin served with thick ivory creme fraiche. Heaven.

Le Comptoir, the new bistro from Yves Camdeborde, who used to be the chef-owner of La Regalade, another of my all-time favorites, is a tough reservation. I made one for three people a couple of months in advance, and kept calling to see if I could possibly extend the table to four. Each time, after checking the books, the voice on the phone always said “non.” When we arrive, I see why. Our table for three is actually a corner deuce with the third person (me) crammed between a pillar and the step down to the sidewalk terrace.

On this Indian summer night, the entire front of the restaurant is open to the street. One gentleman passing by recognizes two women having dinner at the table on the sidewalk just below us and stops to chat. By the time the conversation meanders to jazz (the gentleman, it turns out, is a musician), we all join in. Inside, the place is adorably funky. Painted a pale ochre and retaining most of the original fixtures, it’s a wonderful anomaly in the midst of the upscale 6th arrondissement. Set at each place is a postcard detailing the night’s single prix fixe menu at 42 euros (about $54). There are no choices, and nothing a la carte.

But that’s just fine with me. We start with a delicate crabmeat mixture that fills three miniature crab carapaces. Then a wonderful confit of pressed pear and foie gras set off by the salty pungency of bleu d’Auvergne cheese. The main is a trio of beautiful rosy little lamb chops roasted with thyme and served with a ragout of pigs’ ears and autumn root vegetables. It looks so pretty on the plate that it turns heads as people rush by on the sidewalk in front.

The cheese course arrives on a tray made by one of Camdeborde’s artist friends; it’s another cut-it-yourself affair. Each of the cheeses is so good, we power through half a dozen. Just as the dessert is served -- a fragile panna cotta with a compote of rhubarb, figs and crushed raspberries -- the jazz musician hops on his bike and rides off into the night.

When we leave a little later, we hear whistles bleating and turn to look. Monitors in yellow jackets rush by on bikes, blowing whistles, followed shortly by hundreds of Parisians on bikes -- young, old, friends, neighbors -- all pedaling through the night.

We don’t have bikes, and can’t imagine riding one; we’re too sated. But we decide to take in a little of the night too, and walk through quiet streets to our hotel.

Paris, I’m happy to say, is definitely back.

virbila@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Let your palate be your guide

Benoit. 20, rue St. Martin (Metro: Chatelet). Phone (from the U.S.): 011-33-1-4272-2576; fax: 011-33-1-4272 -4568; e-mail: restaurant.benoit @wanadoo.fr. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Closed August.

Gaya Rive Gauche. 44, rue du Bac (Metro: Rue du Bac). Phone and fax (from the U.S.): 011-33-1-4544-7373. Closed Saturday lunch, all day Sunday and August.

La Table de Robuchon. 16, Avenue Bugeaud (Metro: Victor Hugo). Phone (from the U.S.): 011-33-1- 5628-1616; fax: 011-33-1-5628-1678. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Le Comptoir. Hotel Relais Saint-Germain, 9, Carrefour de l’Odeon (Metro: Odeon). Phone (from the U.S.): 011-33-1-4329-1205; fax: 011-33-1-4633-4530. Open for lunch and dinner daily; dinner Monday through Friday is a 42-euro prix fixe menu, by reservation only. Menu is a la carte; no reservations are taken for lunch Monday through Friday and for lunch or dinner Saturday and Sunday.

Le Villaret. 13, rue Ternaux (Metro: Parmentier). Phone (from the U.S.): 011-33-1-4357-8976; fax: 011-33-1-4357 -8969. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday and August. Serves until 12 a.m. weekdays, 1 a.m. Saturday.

Pinxo. Hotel Renaissance Paris Vendome, Plaza Paris Vendome, 9, rue d’Alger (Metro: Tuileries). Phone (from the U.S.): 011-33-1-4020-7200; fax: 011-33-1-4020-7202. Closed August.

-- S. Irene Virbila

*

Branzino in vegetable minestrone

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Joel Robuchon’s La Table de Robuchon. Keep diced artichoke in lemon water to prevent discoloration until ready to use.

4 (3-ounce) branzino or local sea bass fillets with the skin on

6 cups (2 ounces) basil leaves, plus 4 leaves for stuffing the fish and a few for garnish

Salt and freshly ground

pepper

1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1/3 cup diced leeks ( 1/4 -inch dice)

1/2 cup diced carrots ( 1/4 -inch dice)

2 tablespoons diced fennel ( 1/4 -inch dice)

1/3 cup diced artichoke heart ( 1/4 -inch dice)

2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion, white part only

1/3 cup diced celery ( 1/8 -inch dice)

4 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup diced zucchini ( 1/4 -inch dice)

1/4 cup haricots vert, cut into 1/4 -inch slices

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup cooked pennette or other small tube pasta

1 small clove garlic

1/4 cup peeled, seeded and diced tomato ( 1/2 -inch dice)

2 tablespoons diced Serrano ham ( 1/2 -inch dice)

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut a slit into the thickest part of each fish fillet just large enough to insert a basil leaf in each. Season with salt and pepper. Put the fish, skin side up, on a baking sheet and set aside.

2. In a large saucepan, heat 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium-low heat. Sweat the leeks, carrots and fennel for 5 minutes, then add the artichoke, onions and celery and continue to cook the vegetables for 15 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring it to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the carrots are tender. Add the zucchini and the haricots vert; cook 1 minute. Stir in the garlic and pasta. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn the heat off and keep covered so that it stays warm until ready to serve.

3. For the pistou, rinse 6 cups basil leaves under cold water. Pat them dry on paper towels and put them through a salad spinner to remove excess moisture. Put the basil leaves in a blender or food processor with the remaining one-half cup olive oil, garlic clove and salt to taste. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

4. Bake the fish fillets in the oven for about 5 minutes or until the fish tests done in the center; they should be firm to the touch. When ready to serve, divide the minestrone among four soup bowls and place one fish fillet in each bowl. Sprinkle around the diced tomato and ham. Spoon four small dollops of the pistou into each bowl. (You will have extra.) Thinly slice the remaining basil into a chiffonade and sprinkle over each fillet.

Each serving: 466 calories; 26 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 40 mg. cholesterol; 227 mg. sodium.

*

Blanquette de veaux in traditional style

Total time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from a recipe by

Benoit chef David Rathgeber. Veal cheeks and shin are used at the restaurant, but because these cuts are difficult to find, veal stew meat has been substituted. Serve with boiled potatoes.

2 1/4 pounds veal stew meat

1 leek, white part cut into

3-inch strips, green part

reserved

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley

1 onion

1 clove

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 tablespoons butter, divided

Kosher salt and pepper

1 tablespoon flour

1 carrot, peeled and sliced into 1/8 -inch thick rounds

1 small celery stalk, sliced crosswise 1/4 -inch thick

4 black peppercorns

2 cups button mushrooms

1 teaspoon lemon juice

12 pearl onions, peeled

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 egg yolks

1/3 cup heavy cream

1. Cut the veal into equal bite-sized pieces if the butcher has not already done so. To make a bouquet garni, use kitchen twine to tie the green part of the leek with the bay leaf and parsley into a bunch. Peel the onion and stick a clove into it.

2. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and 4 teaspoons butter over medium heat. Add the meat and cook it on low-to-medium heat, stirring occasionally, without letting it brown. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with flour, mix well with a wooden spoon and cook for 1 minute.

3. Barely cover with hot water and bring it slowly to a boil. Skim the surface. Add the carrot, celery, leek, bouquet garni, onion and peppercorns. Season with a pinch of salt. Cover the pot and simmer for 1 hour to 1 hour, 15 minutes until the meat is tender.

4. Trim the mushroom stems and rinse, but do not soak, the mushrooms. If they’re large, cut them into halves or quarters. Put them into a saucepan with 1 tablespoon butter and the lemon juice. In a separate saucepan, bring to a boil enough water to cover the mushrooms. Pour the boiling water over the mushrooms, season with salt and cook for 10 minutes on medium heat. Drain them, retaining the cooking liquid. Set aside.

5. Put the pearl onions into a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons water; add 2 teaspoons butter and the sugar. Cover with a disk of parchment paper and cook on medium-low heat until the liquid has evaporated, about 7 minutes. Remove the parchment and stir the onions to coat them in the glaze. Set aside.

6. When the meat is tender, remove it from the pot and strain the cooking liquid through a fine sieve. Pour it into a saucepan and reduce it to 2 cups. Add one-half cup of the mushroom cooking liquid. In a small bowl, mix the egg yolks and the cream with a fork. Pour the liquid into the pot, beating constantly with a whisk, and bring it just to a boil. Adjust the seasoning.

7. Add the meat to the sauce and reheat for a few minutes on low heat. Add the mushrooms and pearl onions. Serve immediately with boiled potatoes.

Each serving: 589 calories; 61 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 33 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 362 mg. cholesterol; 175 mg. sodium.

*

Panna cotta with apple confit, figs and crushed raspberries

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, plus 3 hours or overnight chilling

Servings: 4

Note: From Yves Camdeborde’s Le Comptoir. The restaurant uses four (10-ounce) wide-mouthed footed glasses. Gelatin sheets are available at Surfas in Culver City and Nicole’s in Pasadena.

2 apples, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4 -inch dice (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons grenadine

2gelatin sheets (9 by 3 inches)

2 cups milk

1 cup half-and-half

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided

1 teaspoon lemon zest

6 black Mission figs, divided

1/2 pint raspberries, divided

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Put the diced apples in a saucepan with the grenadine and one-half cup water. Simmer 45 minutes over low heat and spoon into four glasses and let cool to room temperature.

2. In a saucepan, bring the milk, half-and-half, half-cup sugar and lemon zest to a simmer. As the milk is heating (it will take 7 to 8 minutes to simmer), soak the gelatin sheets in cold water until softened, 4 to 5 minutes.

3. Remove the milk from the heat. Squeeze the water from the gelatin sheets, and add them to the hot milk, stirring just until they dissolve, about 1 minute. Pour the mixture into a metal bowl and chill over an ice bath, stirring occasionally until the thickness of heavy cream, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Spoon mixture over the apple confit in the glasses. Chill, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 3 hours or overnight.

4. Peel four of the figs and put them in a bowl with half of the raspberries, the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and the lemon juice. Crush the fruit gently with a fork. Set aside.

5. Just before serving, cover each glass with the crushed raspberry-fig mixture and decorate with the remaining figs, cut into quarters, and the remaining raspberries.

Each serving: 403 calories; 10 grams protein; 70 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 34 mg. cholesterol; 84 mg. sodium.


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