Imagine yourself in Paris, hungry, sans reservations, but with a serious hankering for veal blanquette. If such a happy fate befalls you -- and you can’t rustle up a Left Bank native for a bistro crawl -- you’d do well to have Daniel Young’s new book “The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris” in your bag.
The former restaurant critic for the New York Daily News and author of “The Paris Cafe Cookbook,” Young has written a book that’s as casual and friendly as the eateries and food he describes. And, for those of us not out strolling in search of dinner along the Rue de la Bastille, the book -- part cultural guide, part cookbook -- provides recipes for about 100 bistro favorites.
But first Young asks the pivotal question: What exactly distinguishes a bistro, a brasserie and a wine bar? After discussing origin myths for all three and providing a handy checklist of questions to pose regarding the establishment in question (Does it serve oysters on the half shell? Do the waiters carry trays? Does it have a terrace?), Young concludes that the distinctions have been pretty much blurred. All three originated to meet the needs of the working class; all originally focused on serving drinks rather than food; and all saw the cachet of their humble institutions rise over the years to epically chic proportions.
There are, however, still some essential tenets. As Young writes in the introduction, “If the place under consideration has no plats du jour, no bar to speak of, no overcrowded tables, and no Parisian soul, chances are it’s only a restaurant.” At which point, presumably, the hungry diner should quickly flee, with his handy duck confit-detector, his soul intact, to find a real place to eat.
But in the process of not finding a definitive answer to his question, Young brings up some good points. Times have changed, in Paris and elsewhere: People these days are drawn to comfort food, homey settings, affordable prices. Over the last 70 years -- Young dates this to the end of World War II -- bistros, brasseries and, more recently, wine bars have rushed in to fill that need. And when, in 1987, star chef Michel Rostang opened a bistro right next door to his haute cuisine flagship, the gulf between formal and casual cooking got a whole lot smaller. It was a successful move -- superstar chefs Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse soon opened bistros, and Rostang branched out with three more -- and one that reflected the growing tastes of the public.
As for recipes, Young includes not only dishes from both Rostang’s and Ducasse’s newer bistros -- as well as many others that have opened in the last 20 years -- but also from the old eateries, the ones that fed the working classes and the Montparnasse artists. And the ground covered applies to place as well as time: The book includes recipes from 15 out of the 20 arrondissements.
But if budget or commitments prevent you from making your way to one of those arrondissements, just turn the pages of Young’s book. With recipes as varied as the bar mix at Willi’s Wine Bar, Chez Georges’ pan-fried steaks with mustard sauce and Rostang’s almond butter cakes, you’ll find enough here to make you want to open your own bistro. Or brasserie. Or wine bar.
And the food itself? Bistro fare is characteristically simple (according to French standards, that is), in terms of preparation and ingredients. No elaborate dishes; no foie gras nor truffles. Historically, this was due to economic restrictions, as well as restrictions of space: Bistro kitchens were generally tiny; much of the bistro’s space was devoted to the cases of wine and barrels of beer that drew the original patrons.
The traditional dishes reflect these original restrictions as well as the informal tastes: croque monsieur, beef bourguignon, onion soup and cassoulet were all standards and so remain.
Young’s recipes hit all the highlights, with clear and very specific instructions. From a salad of pan-fried goat cheese with hazelnut vinaigrette from Bofinger, the brasserie that opened in 1864 near the Bastille, to garlic soup with mussels from Le Bistrot des Capucins, chef Gerard Fouche’s spot near the Pere Lachaise cemetery, the methods are simple and direct, the food decidedly homey, yet elegant in its way -- and absolutely delicious.
From La Muse Vin in the 11th arrondissement, there’s Guillaume Dubois’ dish of pan-seared cod with potato and smoked sausage puree, which is peasant food elevated to glorious heights. The spicy chorizo infuses the mashed potato and plays off the silkiness of the seared cod, creating a heady, soul-satisfying meal. Dubois calls for skin-on cod -- which is difficult to find in this country (even true cod can be elusive) -- and you can see why. The fish can fall apart easily if skinless, so be sure to sear it in a very hot pan, which will hold the fish together as well as give it some good color. From Le Bistrot Paul Bert, also in the 11th arrondissement, come Thierry Laurent’s pan-seared rib steaks, served with a traditional bearnaise sauce and twice-fried pommes frites, which are simple but positively stunning. And the classic whole roast chicken, from Chez Michel, is paired with cauliflower and hazelnuts that, after an hour or two in the oven, create an incredible nutty flavor -- chef Thierry Breton’s paean to the nutty taste of the chickens from his native Brittany.
The desserts are also classic takes on favorite dishes -- cakes and beignets and creme caramel -- but also interesting riffs on less predictable fare. The dessert chapter, however, is the most hit-or-miss of the book. Warm chocolate blinis from Brasserie Wepler, for example, burned repeatedly. And the warm apple tart from Le Dauphin was a disappointment, dry and somewhat flavorless. But the pineapple brochettes with saffron caramel, from L’Avant-Gout in the 13th arrondissement, were incredibly simple -- and just divine. Skewers of fresh pineapple were transformed by just a pan of caramelizing sugar and a few threads of saffron. All you need is a demitasse of espresso for your soul to be exactly where it should be: right there on rue Bobillot.