When it comes to Paris dining, the most popular aphorisms not only have a finite shelf life but are almost never entirely accurate. For many years, the old saw was that “You can’t get a bad meal in Paris.” That delicious certainty subsequently soured into “The food in Paris just isn’t what it used to be.” As a Parisian for twenty-five years, I’ve been vexed by both dictums.

In some of the most heavily visited districts of the capital—the Latin Quarter around Saint Michel immediately comes to mind—it’s sadly just as easy to have a disappointing feed as it is around London’s Piccadilly Circus or New York’s Times Square. On the other hand, the cooking in the French capital’s latest crop of new restaurants is frankly superb. In fact, Paris easily has the most impressive constellation of young culinary talents working in any European city today. Far from resting on the city’s once vaunted but recently questioned laurels, these young chefs are winning them all over again with cooking that’s stunningly creative but also well reasoned and anchored by precise technical skills that can only be acquired through the grueling Gallic steeplechase of apprenticeships that remains the rudder of French gastronomy.

Aiming high

Near the Palais Royal, Les Bistronomes offers a brilliant example of the city’s spectacular new cooking. The attractive bistrot, with a banquette running the length of the long narrow room and white-painted wooden beams overhead, is a very impressive affair. The welcome is charming, each table is identified by a small blackboard with the name of the person who reserved it, and a carafe of water arrives as soon as you’re seated.

Young chef Cyril Aveline was most recently sous-chef to Eric Frechon at the Hôtel Bristol, and that grande cuisine training is apparent in his beautifully presented contemporary French cooking. At lunch recently, a visiting New York friend and I devoured the delicious little ramekin of rillettes presented as an amuse-bouche. We were extremely impressed with our first courses—an impeccably cooked, pastry-wrapped pâté studded with a chunk of rosy duck breast and a knob of foie gras, served with pickled baby vegetables, for me; and a lentil salad with slices of morteau sausage and a creamy red-wine-and-mustard vinaigrette for her. “You’d never get food this good for this money in New York,” my friend marveled, and it’s true that the fixed-price lunch menus here—€26 for two courses, €34 for three—offer exceptionally good value.

With an excellent €22 bottle of Vinsobres, our main courses were outstanding, too—a perfect onglet with a gratin dauphinois and succulent chicken from the Dombes region with basmati rice in a light fresh-tarragon cream sauce. For a fine finish, the Reblochon cheese was perfectly ripened, and the rice pudding with salt-butter caramel sauce was excellent, too.

Dinner is only à la carte, but since Cyril Aveline’s ingredients are first quality and his style has such obvious haute-cuisine roots, the delicious meals here more than warrant the steeper prices.

New quarters

With its growing population of food-loving, well-heeled bobos (bohemian bourgeois), the once quiet 9th arrondissement has recently emerged as a popular venue for young chefs hanging out a shingle for the first time. The new Le Pantruche is a perfect specimen of the relaxed and friendly, good-value modern bistrots favored by residents in this centrally located district near Pigalle. A simple place created from an old neighborhood café, Pantruche has a seasoned talent in the kitchen—chef Franck Baranger formerly cooked at Christian Constant’s Les Cocottes and Le Violon d’Ingres. His brief menu offers pleasing starters like oyster tartare with lettuce cream or a terrific terrine de foie gras, and main courses might include beef cheeks poached in wine, sea bass with tandoori spices, or sustainably raised pork with sautéed baby potatoes. Since the wines are reasonably priced, the service friendly and the chocolate mousse excellent, it’s a great address for dogged bistrot lovers in search of a first-rate meal.

On the Left Bank, restaurateur Stéphane Marcuzzi and chef Aymeric Kräml scored a hit a few years ago with their charming bistro L’Epigramme in Saint Germain des Prés. Now they’ve moved to larger quarters in Montparnasse, because, as Marcuzzi explains, “the chef really needed more room”. Their new L’Epicuriste is much more spacious, if a bit noisy, and Kraml’s cooking is as good as ever. The dinner offerings recently included a delicious terrine of sanglier (wild boar), a superb lièvre à la Royale (hare in a rich gizzard sauce) and swordfish with herb pesto. If the portions seem to be noticeably smaller since the move, and the wine has become much more expensive, the quality and creativity of the kitchen remain outstanding. (In case you were wondering, the new crew at the old L’Epigramme is making a real success of their venture too.)

Though I’m not too keen on its name, L’Hédoniste in the Sentier— the old garment district in the 2nd arrondissement—comes as a welcome surprise despite a nondescript decor of bare wood tables, mirrors and a spotlighted service bar. Chef Sébastien Dubrulle does delectable cosmopolitan comfort food dishes like squid-ink risotto with baby squid, ravioli stuffed with stewed beef, and guinea hen with chanterelles in a jus de volaille, and his associate Arthur Pétillault has assembled an excellent list of organic and biodynamic wines.

Sampler sizes

Casual eating in the Spanish-style format, with a variety of small-plate sampler dishes to accompany a bottle of wine, is also popular this spring. Deep in the Latin Quarter, the new Dans les Landes is the second table of gifted young chef Julien Duboué, whose first restaurant, Afaria, is a deservedly big hit farther out in the 15th arrondissement. Here Duboué offers some 30 different sampler-size plates with a southwestern accent, including Basque-style razor clams and mussels, fried squid with sweet peppers, caramelized pork breast, and smoked duck breast with polenta “fries”. It’s a great place for dining in a group, and it’s been packed since the day it opened.

The other new small-plates sensation is Le Dauphin, the second table of influential and much praised chef Inaki Aizpitarte, whose edgy contemporary bistrot Le Chateaubriand next door is one of the hardest places in town to snare a reservation. The new white marble and mirror-lined space was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and its centerpiece is a big U-shaped bar with beautifully carved wooden stools. It’s more comfortable to sit at one of the few regular tables, however, to sample dishes like grilled octopus with tandoori spices, yellow pollack ceviche, shrimp tempura or flash-grilled Spanish pork. The menu changes almost daily, but if they’re serving squid-ink risotto, don’t miss it—or the buttermilk ice cream with olive oil for dessert, either.

Making a comeback

For many years, the Paris food chain was pyramid shaped, with a solid ballast of bistrots, a narrower layer of serious cuisine bourgeoise restaurants, and a glittery summit of stars. During the past 20 years, though, the ranks of white-tablecloth places like the now-gone Pierre au Palais Royal and Le Récamier have been seriously diminished by straitened budgets, changing eating habits and a preference for more informal dining.

Now it looks like there’s a comeback in the making for that sector of gourmet Paris. One perfect example of the growing number of excellent new restaurants for well-heeled grownups is chef Jean-Louis Nomicos’s new Les Tablettes. Trained by Alain Ducasse, Nomicos most recently cooked at Lasserre, but now he’s taken over the space formerly occupied by La Table de Joël Robuchon and given it a smart makeover, with basket-weave walls and ceiling designed by architect Anne-Cécile Comar. Burnt orange upholstery adds some color to the Zenlike space, and service is formal but friendly.

Instead of offering the Escoffier-inspired anthology of dishes formerly found in such places, Marseille native Nomicos has gone lighter and sunnier, with delicious starters like bergamot-brightened squid and baby artichokes à la barigoule or sea urchins in a fennel emulsion, followed by main courses like scallops with a jus de bouillabaisse or veal sweetbreads with “lemon caviar”—the tangy, beaded pulp of finger lime, an Australian rain-forest citrus fruit now also grown in the south of France. Finish up with a green Chartreuse soufflé with yogurt sorbet, and while you’re waiting for it to arrive, you might take a look at the tablette (iPad) on your table to watch a little film about one of Nomicos’s suppliers.

 

NOTEBOOK

Les Bistronomes 34 rue de Richelieu, 1st, 01.42.60.59.66. Lunch menus €26–€34, à la carte €50

Dans les Landes 119 bis rue Monge, 5th, 01.45.87.06.00. €30

Le Dauphin 131 ave Parmentier, 11th, 01.55.28.78.88. €35

L’Epicuriste 41 blvd Pasteur, 15th, 01.47.34.15.50. Lunch menus €24–€28, dinner €34

L’Hédoniste 14 rue Léopold Bellan, 2nd, 01.40.26.87.33. Lunch menus €18–€23.50, à la carte €40

Le Pantruche 3 rue Victor Massé, 9th, 01.48.78.55.60. Lunch menus €14–€17, dinner €32

Les Tablettes 16 ave Bugeaud, 16th, 01.56.28.16.16. Lunch menu €58; tasting menus €80, €120 and €150; à la carte €90

Prices are approximate, per person without wine.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of France Today


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Alexander Lobrano’s book Hungry for Paris is published by Random House. www.hungryforparis.com

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