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.
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.
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