Sepia-Toned Paris Bistrots
September 24, 2009
Autumn, and I'm happily hosting successive waves of friends and family who know this is a wonderful time of the year to visit Paris. I've stocked up on maps of the city, phone cards and a printed list of my favorite old-fashioned bistrots. If a few visitors ask about the latest new restaurants, all of them—young and old, first-time or old hands—want that list, and that makes me very happy.
The enduring love of old-fashioned, traditional Paris bistrots is a delicious rebuke to a novelty-oriented and media-driven international food culture that's increasingly dominated by the hearsay of the internet. This culinary craving also acknowledges that bistrot cooking—all those wonderful slow-cooked dishes like blanquette de veau and coq au vin—is the bedrock of French gastronomy. It also means a preference for places with character, for real food cooked from scratch, for conversation and conviviality, and it implicitly respects the hard work and passion that go into running a small independent restaurant in Paris today.
To be sure, I love going to new restaurants, but as an American who's lived in Paris for almost 25 years, nothing warms my heart on a cool autumn evening more than a truly good bistrot meal, as I discovered the other night over a superb dinner at Benoit. Several years after Alain Ducasse took over this Paris institution, one of my favorites but a very occasional pleasure because of its stiff prices, I have to give him credit for a job well done.
I wasn't immediately persuaded by his revision of this century-old luxury bistrot. Its cozy charm was badly dented by expanding the dining room, and since I loved the old menu of classic bistrot dishes like cassoulet and boeuf bourguignon—a menu largely unchanged since this snug place first opened in 1912—I saw no need for revising that either. Now, although I still miss the wry greeting of Monsieur Petit and the mothering waitresses of yore, I have to admit that it's come through the potentially perilous updating as an excellent and authentic bistrot address.
My meal began with a salade Benoit, a Ducasse medley of greens with a brilliant and exciting array of garnishes—meaty lardons, crunchy pieces of grilled chicken skin, tender pieces of chicken, a scattering of chanterelle mushrooms, a perfectly poached quail's egg tucked under a beet leaf, and two canapés loaded with a dark pâté of chicken liver and gizzards brightened by tarragon. That was followed by sole Nantua—two tight turbans of sole on a bed of spinach in a classic terra-cotta-colored crawfish sauce, named after the city of Nantua, overlooking the lake of the same name in the Rhône-Alpes not far from the Swiss border.
Bruno's pâté en croûte was gorgeous, with two dark bands of wild mushrooms running through a dense, well-seasoned terrine of chunky pork and foie gras, topped with amber jewels of aspic and wrapped in a buttery crust. His tender Limousin veal en cocotte, in a lovely sauce of pan juices, came with a delicious gratin of Swiss chard.
It's a shame there's no real cheese tray at Benoit anymore, just an anonymous assiette de fromages, and my chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream was underwhelming. But all told I'd put Benoit near the top of my list of sepia-toned bistrot classics.
What Benoit doesn't have anymore, however, is what the French call de la gueule, which roughly translates as character or style (gueule is a slang word for face, like mug). For that, head for two of my other favorite fly-in-amber addresses, La Grille in the 10th arrondissement and Le Quincy in the 12th. In fact for a living, breathing definition of having de la gueule you'll find no better than the flame-haired Geneviève Cullerre at La Grille or Michel Bosshard, known as Bobosse, at Le Quincy.
Both of them have as much fun with a new customer as a cat does with a ball of yarn—teasing, joking and flirting with total strangers all night long. La Grille, with a curious collection of dusty dolls dominating the decor, also offers a wonderful anthology of bistrot dishes prepared by Geneviève's hard-working husband Yves. His pièce de résistance is grilled turbot with the best beurre blanc in Paris.
Le Quincy is a bona fide country auberge come to town. It's wonderfully fusty, and the menu proposes great Gallic grub, including dishes like caillettes, an Ardechois specialty of small patties of pork, pork liver, Swiss chard and herbs wrapped in caul fat and grilled. There's also brandade de morue—salt cod mashed with potatoes and garlic—and one of the best chocolate mousses around.
Just as rustic, D'Chez Eux is a terrific old auberge behind Les Invalides popular with the well-heeled bourgeoisie of the Faubourg Saint Germain neighborhood and with French politicians—former French president Jacques Chirac invited ex-German chancellor and fellow food-lover Gerhard Schroeder to lunch here several times. It's one of the only places left in Paris where you can still eat what I sometimes think of as Robert Doisneau food, or the hearty fare of pre-World War II Paris.
The chariot d'hors d'oeuvre, a creaking wooden trolley laden with a stunning assortment of tried-and-true starters including céleri rémoulade, champignons à la grecque, lentil salad, beet salad, cervelas salad, marinated artichoke hearts, marinated herring and at least a half-dozen others offers a meal in itself. The ample prelude doesn't stop the regulars from eagerly tucking into their superb cassoulet or confit de canard afterwards, however, and no one passes up the similarly epic chariot de desserts.
Though most bistrot menus include a seafood dish or two, this turf is still very much the preserve of dyed-in-the-wool, cholesterol-be-damned carnivores. If this describes you, there are two other venerable spots you shouldn't miss: Robert et Louise, a hole-in-the-wall in the Marais where the house specialty is a giant côte de boeuf for two that's cooked over an open-fire; and La Tour Montlhéry-Chez Denise, the last of the bawdy old late-night bistrots in Les Halles (open until 5 am Mon-Fri), which also offers a perfect cure for jet lag—what could be more fun than going to dinner at 2:30 am and digging into some grilled marrow bones and a big plate of mutton with white beans, washed down with a generous slosh of the cheap but harmless Beaujolais that sits in barrels just inside the front door?
For something a bit more decorous, try some of the best frog's legs in Paris, or veal kidneys flamed in Armagnac, or a sublime filet steak with béarnaise sauce and homemade frites, at the delightful Moulin à Vent in the Latin Quarter.
I also have a soft spot for the Auberge Pyrénées-Cévennes, a truly Rabelaisian address hidden away in a blessedly ungentrified corner of the 11th arrondissement. The delicious smells of honest slow cooking fill the air as soon as you step inside, and with a warm welcome from Françoise, the world seems a much better place. Sausages dangle from big beams overhead, and for me every meal here is blissful agony in deciding what to have. If you love salade frisée aux lardons (curly endive with chunks of hot bacon) as much as I do, you've come to the right place, and the cassoulet and ris de veau au Porto (veal sweetbreads in port-wine sauce) are wonderful, too.
At Chez Georges the clock seems to have stopped in, say, 1946. The long narrow room with its saggy banquettes and framed mirrors is pleasantly worn, and the waitresses are brisk but good-humored. The mimeographed menu changes constantly with the seasons, a perfect snapshot of the best eating in Paris on any given day. At lunch recently I relished their homemade terrine de campagne, served with country bread and a crock of pickles, and a superb duck with cèpes and a quince version of a tarte Tatin. Shared with a friend from Boston, it was such a perfect autumnal feast that I shuddered when I walked out the door—if anything ever happened to this place, I'd be inconsolable.
Even the most old-fashioned Paris bistrots are not static, though. They evolve all the time, sometimes for the better. Since the beautiful 1898-vintage Josephine Chez Dumonet was taken over by third-generation Jean-Christian Dumonet, the food is lighter and more original than it's been for a long time. Not surprisingly, the pretty dining room with globe lamps and a caramel-colored tobacco patina is starting to pull in a younger crowd—a very good sign, since without a new generation of bistrot lovers, these places won't survive. So surrounded by stylish twenty- and thirty-something couples, my last meal here had a quietly celebratory tone.
Our food was superb, too—marinated herring with warm potato salad, terrine de foie gras de canard, monkfish with white beans, pan-fried foie gras with white grapes and mashed potatoes, Grand Marnier soufflé, chocolate profiteroles. Walking home, I had a spring in my step. I'm nowhere near as worried about the survival of magnificent old-fashioned Paris bistrots today as I was ten years ago. Just in the nick of time, the pendulum seems to have swung back to traditional French cooking. Now I just hope it gets stuck there.
Benoit 20 rue Saint Martin, 4th, 01.42.72.25.76. €80
La Grille 80 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 10th, 01.47.70.89.73. €40
Le Quincy 28 ave Ledru Rollin, 12th, 01.46.28.46.76. €45
D'Chez Eux 2 ave Lowendal, 7th, 01.47.05.52.55. €60
Robert et Louise 64 rue Vieille du Temple, 3rd, 01.42.78.55.89. €35
La Tour Montlhéry-Chez Denise 5 rue des Prouvaires, 1st, 01.42.36.21.82. €40
Au Moulin à Vent 20 rue des Fosses Saint Bernard, 5th, 01.43.54.99.37. €40
Auberge Pyrénées-Cévennes 106 rue de la Folie Méricourt, 11th, 01.43.57.33.78. €30
Chez Georges 1 rue du Mail, 2nd, 01.42.60.07.11. €50
Josephine Chez Dumonet 117 rue du Cherche Midi, 6th, 01.45.48.52.40. €50
Prices are per person without wine.
This article was originally published in the November 2008 issue of France Today.
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