Style and substance in France
I see tourists every day on street corners and park benches, flipping disconsolately through guidebooks for what should be as easy to find in Paris as sand in the desert: a good place to eat.
But it isn’t easy, especially if you’d rather devote your time to seeing the sights and you don’t want to spend a fortune. Contrary to the myth that has grown up around this world capital of cuisine, you can have a bad meal here, though that generally stems from the desperation of hunger, not lack of choices.
“The appetite,” wrote 18th century French gourmand Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “declares itself by a vague languor in one’s stomach and a slight feeling of fatigue.” A charming sensation, he thought, as long as dinner was on the horizon — say, at Taillevent, Le Grand Véfour or Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée Hotel, three of the 10 restaurants here that won vaunted triple-star rating in the 2004 Michelin Red Guide to France.
But dinner in such Parisian heavens costs at least $100 per person, not including wine and drinks. The great brasseries — Balzar, Lipp, Bofinger — can be almost as pricey, and even the modest “Bib Gourmand” restaurants in the Michelin Red Guide are defined as offering dinners for $28 to $38 per person. Then there’s the exchange rate, which turns every $1 into about 80 cents.
The ugly truth is that dining out here is more expensive than in L.A. or New York. So I was doubtful when I took on the task of finding budget-priced meals in Paris, which, according to my guidelines, means two courses for $25. I consulted Michelin, Paris restaurant aficionado Patricia Wells, magazines and foodie friends and came up with this idiosyncratic list. There’s nothing highbrow about it, which could make gourmands roll their eyes. But after a meal at any of these restaurants, you won’t feel hungry or had. You may even decide French food is so good that it’s worth spending more money to try a place with a couple of Michelin stars.
Before you set out, here are some things you should know: The evening meal in Paris generally starts around 8 p.m. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, you’ll need reservations. Many restaurants are closed on Sundays.
Mélac Bistrot à VinsI was about to expire by the time I reached Mélac, on foot by way of the Place de la Bastille, then into the scruffy heart of the 11th arrondissement. The 66-year-old bistro and wine bar is on a corner in a former greengrocer’s shop with a red door, far from chic tourist Paree. It is the sort of neighborhood where middle-class Parisians live and armies of green-clad sanitation workers don’t routinely clean the streets.
That, though, is part of Mélac’s charm, as is its good, honest food and family feeling. The patron, Jacques Mélac, is the son of the founder, who came to Paris from the Aveyron region of southwestern France in the ‘30s. Neighborhood types hang out at the small front bar with the requisite wooden beams and tired lace curtains.
I sat on a low stool at a little table by the bar where I could watch the action and read the vintage posters on the ceiling and walls. My favorite recalled Anita Bryant, claiming, “A meal without wine is a day without sunshine.”
Service here is slapdash and slow but genial. The menu is short, appended by daily specials on a chalkboard and the longer wine list. I ordered a half-bottle of a Corbières, Grand Moulin 2001 ($10); a curious appetizer called oeuf cocotte from Mother Mélac’s recipe, the menu said ($7); and the pork chop special ($16).
The oeuf cocotte came in a bowl, like soup, cheesy, white and viscous, with the egg swimming in the middle and sprigs of thyme on top — comfort food with a French twist. I sopped up every last drop with bread. The chop reached the table still sizzling from the pan, flanked by green beans and potatoes that looked as if they’d been roasted in the sun rather than on a stove. The ingredients and preparation weren’t fancy, but it was exactly right, like my mother used to try to make but — forgive me — much better.
Le Petit BofingerI sought out Le Petit Bofinger, close to the Marais and the Place de la Bastille, for literary reasons. It is the modest second cousin of Bofinger, across the street, one of the fabled belle époque brasseries of Paris, founded in 1864.
Le Petite Bofinger was created by the brasserie chain that bought out Bofinger several years ago and is smaller, humble and less historic than the original. The cloned aspect of the place — it is one of four baby Bofingers in the Paris area — didn’t appeal to me, but the $33 prix fixe menu, including appetizer, entree, dessert and wine, sounded like a bargain.
Le Petit Bofinger is to the original what a Spanish-style tract home is to a hacienda: a knockoff. But it’s still good. The tightly packed tables have white cloths covered by paper. There are mirrors and posters for art exhibitions, as in every other Paris bistro. Here, though, the décor is new, fresh, clean.
That’s the way the food tastes too. To start, I had a mushroom cassoulet that wasn’t creamy or hot enough, leading me to regret that I hadn’t ordered the fresh oyster appetizer. But the entree, a small, tender chunk of nicely grilled veal, with vegetable cannelloni, was good and the house Bordeaux that came with the meal went down smoothly. After tasting the chocolate mousse dome for dessert, I went away stuffed and satisfied, with only a short, lingering look over my shoulder at the great and glorious Bofinger.
RaviAmong the varied ethnic cuisines of Paris, Indian seems the least auspicious. The French colonial presence in India was, after all, limited. But one of my favorite Paris restaurants is Ravi, an Indian place on the Left Bank.
You could say I’m biased because it’s in my neighborhood and was where I had my first dinner after moving here two months ago. But everyone I know who has eaten there — OK, that’s just my sister and landlord — comes away, like me, saying they’ve never had better Indian food.
It is on a street just south of the Seine, in a long, narrow room, like a marquetry box, reached by pushing through a heavy floor-to-ceiling drape at the entrance. The walls are lined with intricately carved wooden wainscoting, like something out of a temple. Even when nearly empty, the place has a tightly packed, overheated air, and the waiters serve the food as if, having achieved some higher state of consciousness, they are only half there.
On my first visit, my sister and I split the chicken tandoori appetizer ($14.50), which was huge and elegantly spiced. As an entree, we chose vegetable biryani ($17.50) and lamb curry ($19), both of which had what I can only describe as a depth of taste that took me back to the markets of Old Delhi. There was nan ($4.50) to accompany the meal and a strange but not unpleasant feeling of being in some netherworld, halfway between Paris and the Subcontinent.
Café ConstantCafé Constant has gotten some good press lately, so expect crowds at this small restaurant on the Left Bank, between Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower. It looks like any Paris boîte, with a small, tile-floored wine bar and somewhat calmer upstairs dining room. Waiters and waitresses thunder up and down the stairs, with multiple plates precariously shelved on their arms. By 8:30 p.m., it’s two tiers thick at the bar and there’s a line out the door.
The buzz is because the restaurant, run by former Hôtel Crillon chef Christian Constant, features the almost impossible: stylish French food at modest prices.
I sat at a cramped banquette near the bar, watching fabulous-looking dishes being served to my neighbors, longing for my own. Finally, the appetizer came: three oyster shells filled with mixed fish tartare, a sort of light, succulent French ceviche ($8.50). Then I had crusted salmon on a bed of linguine ($13), followed by a charming little dessert plate of poire Belle Hélène, which is a whole stewed pear, decorated with ice cream and chocolate sauce ($7).
GallopinI went to Gallopin the Friday before Easter, when everyone had gone away for the holiday, leaving the place to me. The Right Bank brasserie was founded in 1876 by Gustave Gallopin, who gave it a smashing Cuban mahogany bar and the air of Edwardian England.
But it isn’t only the décor — all spit and polish, etched glass and white napery — that endeared Gallopin to me. I loved the gentlemanly waiters, in black bow ties and starched white aprons, who checked to make sure I was happy, but not too often. I loved watching them carry stacks of covered silver platters and ice buckets full of champagne to the big party in the back room.
And I loved the menu, which features such brasserie classics as escargots, sole meunière and baba au rhum. Better still, Gallopin understands the attractions of prix fixe menus. It offers one for $24, including an appetizer, main course, house wine, dessert and coffee, though there’s only one main course and dessert choice on the formule exprès. For $28, you can have more appetizer and entree or entree and dessert choices, all three for $34 and all three plus a half-bottle of Bordeaux for $40.
The $28 appetizer and main course prix fixe made me ebullient. It started with a medley of crunchy spring vegetables — peas, green beans, carrots — en aumônière, which means in a thin pastry bundle, coated with a not-too-rich white sauce. Then I had several slices of duck, medium rare, in their crusty skins, on a bed of honey-roasted root vegetables followed by a coffee.
Fish la BoissonnerieHere’s a place to go, in the heart of the 6th arrondissement, on the Left Bank just off the Rue de Buci market, when you’re tired of trying to negotiate Parisian menus loaded with brains and intestines. It is co-owned by Juan Sanchez, of Florida, and Drew Harre, from New Zealand, and has a friendly expat air — which isn’t to say it doesn’t attract plenty of Parisians.
Fish has a charming green facade decorated with tile lobsters and scallops. The dining room is small and simple, with a bar to the left and the kitchen upstairs.
Fish is a fish place, though meat dishes are offered as well. Appetizers are $10, main dishes $22, desserts $10, and there’s a $36 prix fixe that includes all three. I had tuna tartare in oyster shells, followed by a beautiful, thick, fluffy piece of cod on a bed of spinach. Then I sat for the longest time, nursing a glass of red wine, reluctant to face the walk home in the drizzle.
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An appetite for Paris
From LAX, nonstop service to Paris is offered on Air Tahiti Nui and Air France, direct service (stop, no change of planes) is offered on United and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on United, American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, Lufthansa and US Airways. Until May 22, restricted round-trip fares are $590 and $1,097 in high season.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France), 1 (city code for Paris) and the local number.
WHERE TO EAT:
Café Constant, 139 Rue Saint-Dominique , 47-53-73-34. Métro: Champs de Mars or Ecole Militaire. Appetizers $8.50, main courses $13.50.
Fish la Boissonnerie, 69 Rue de Seine, 43-54-34-69. Métro: Mabillon or Odéon. Prix fixe $35.
Gallopin, 40 Rue Notre-Dame des Victoires, 42-36-45-38.Métro: Bourse. Prix fixe $24, $28, $34 and $40.
Mélac Bistrot à Vins, 42 Rue Léon Frot, 43-70-59-27. Métro: Charonne. Appetizers $7-$13, main courses $13-$20.
Le Petit Bofinger, 6 Rue de la Bastille, 42-72-05-23. Métro: Bastille. Prix fixe $29.
Ravi, 50 Rue de Verneuil, 42-61-17-28. Métro: Rue du Bac. Appetizers $14; main courses $16 to $31.
TO LEARN MORE:
The Michelin Red Guide to France 2004, has a large section devoted to restaurants in Paris. The book’s “Bib Gourmand” category is especially useful.
Patricia Wells, longtime Paris restaurant aficionado and food critic for the International Herald Tribune, reviews a range of eateries in “Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” (Fourth edition).
French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, www.franceguide.com/us.
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