Within the last few years, I’ve been reading a growing number of sour, even indignant, books and magazine articles which charge that French cooking just isn’t very good anymore. I disagree, but the best retort to these naysayers may be a meal at L’Artémise in Uzès, Kobus in Strasbourg or any of the many other outstanding new contemporary bistrots that have opened all over France in 2010. The delicious fact of the matter is that a second generation of gifted young chefs is taking the torch from those who launched the neo-bistrot trend 20 years ago.

In the late eighties and early nineties, a remarkable generation of young Paris-based chefs, including Eric Fréchon, Thierry Breton, Thierry Faucher and Yves Camdeborde, boldly rebooted the French bistrot. Trained in haute cuisine kitchens—most notably with Christian Constant while he was at the Hôtel de Crillon, but also Guy Savoy and others—these young iconoclasts upended the French food chain, not only by choosing to go out on their own with neighborhood bistrots instead of formal white-tablecloth restaurants with long menus and heavy silverware, but most importantly by inventing a whole new culinary idiom. Instead of cream, they favored olive oil and natural jus, privileged the concept of terroir but tweaked it with luxury garnishes—truffles, foie gras—and spiked it with herbs and spices from foreign shores, as they moved vegetables into a leading role.

Today, many of these pioneering addresses—among them L’Epi Dupin, La Régalade, Chez Michel, L’Os à Moelle and L’Avant-Goût—have become such enduringly popular and well-established institutions that it’s easy to forget how ground-breaking they were when the gas was first turned on in their kitchens. When it comes to all things culinary, the French quite wisely like their revolutions to be subtle and well-considered, and the latest crop of brilliant new bistrots across the country happily obliges.

Consider the charmingly named Mon Rêve de Gosse near the Forville covered market in Cannes. Young chef Ludovic Ordas worked at the luxury Hôtel Martinez before opening his own new bistrot, and that exigent technical training allows his short, deceptively simple menu to sing. Ordas changes his carte regularly, but when I stopped by for lunch recently with a friend who is the general manager of one of the grand hotels on La Croisette, there were delicious starters of homemade country terrine, served with shallot and balsamic-vinegar jam, and a very original red-beet velouté with an emulsion of fresh goat cheese, garnished with Corsican coppa charcuterie and baby spinach leaves. Main courses were excellent, too, including a terrific roast lamb with mushrooms and pickled lemon, and a perfectly cooked pavé de boeuf with a delicious “millefeuille” of socca (chickpea-flour crêpes) stuffed with zucchini.

At L’Artémise in Uzès, chef Guillaume Foucault, who formerly worked with the brilliant three-star chef Pascal Barbot in Paris, displays a similar passion for seasonal produce. He also likes to surprise with the judicious but potent punctuation of exotic spices, like the intensely flavored Vietnamese black cardamom that gave an impeccably cooked dish of veal and slow-roasted eggplant intriguing notes of nutmeg and anise, or more locally sourced, the licorice root he uses in a superb tomato soup with black olives. Foucault’s tasting menus change regularly, but his skill is constant, and to add to the pleasure, his bistrot has a gorgeous setting in a magnificent old mas, a traditional Provençal farmhouse.

If the second-generation bistrot renaissance began in Paris, superb examples of its accelerating spread are now found all over the country. Even cities like Toulouse and Strasbourg, where residents generally like their own local culinary style, are embracing the trend. So try to ignore the twee name of chef Pierre Lambinon’s Py-r Restaurant (pronounced Pierre) in Toulouse, and book a meal in his vaulted red-brick dining room to sample the cooking that has everybody talking in la Ville Rose.

Lambinon trained with Alain Ducasse, and this shows in both his reverence for the produce he cooks—he especially loves vegetables and fresh herbs—and the distinctively Mediterranean accent of his menu. Nonetheless, Lambinon wouldn’t get far in the southwest if he didn’t have a way with foie gras, and does he ever! As a starter, he sautés a lobe of duck foie gras until it’s just perfectly cooked, lightly douses it with a rum-spiked syrup, and garnishes it with strawberries and celery—and it’s sublime. Main courses include juicy duck breast in a crust of dried fruits, with a “crumble” of duck confit with spices and Granny Smith apple. The dessert not to miss is a pear macaron with solid and liquid salted butter caramel and a chibouste (pastry cream lightened with beaten egg whites) of vintage rum and crushed macadamia nuts.

In Strasbourg, food-lovers are abuzz over the opening of Kobus, which is being described as the Alsatian capital’s first Paris-style table bistronomique, or new-wave bistrot. Young chef Eric Kuhn’s cuisine du marché menu leads off with such cosmopolitan dishes as scallop carpaccio with a fresh mango brunoise or a luscious veal tartare with an “espuma”, or creamy foam, of mascarpone and artichokes. Then there might be a great fish catch-of-the-day or two, or meaty main courses like superb veal sweetbreads with a walnut crust sautéed in salted butter and served with fresh cèpes. Kuhn’s desserts are wonderful, too, including a heavenly tiramisu made with figs poached in red wine, and a crème brûlée with the Alsatian plums called quetsches.

The opening this year of the stunning new branch of the Centre Pompidou has put the delightful city of Metz on the map for many travelers, and while there are plenty of good restaurants in town, it’s worth the effort to get slightly out of town to the Auberge de Mazagran, a beautifully restored old stone building deep in the countryside. Having worked at many of the best restaurants in Metz and Nancy, chef Cyril Monachon knows the Lorraine region par coeur, and cooks with the local seasonal produce whenever possible. Don’t miss his pot-au-feu of duck foie gras with baby vegetables in a rich chicken bouillon, for example. Monachon has a globe-trotting culinary imagination, however, as seen in a sumptuous scallop carpaccio with Italian white truffles, or turbot roasted with black pepper and served with a compote of orange-spiked fennel.

In Paris, one of the most interesting aspects of the bistrot renaissance is that very often the talent in the kitchen is foreign-born, since the French capital remains a lightning rod for ambitious young chefs from all over the world. At Spring, one of this year’s hottest openings, or re-openings, since it’s just moved to a beautifully renovated 17th-century house from its former postage-stamp site—Chicago-born chef Daniel Rose serves excellent cuisine du marché in a variety of different formats. At noon Rose usually offers what he calls a bouillon garni, or bouillon garnished with roasted meat and seafood, as a main course and then proposes a variety of small side dishes that you can order according to your appetite. Dinner comes as a fixed-price tasting menu, while my new favorite option here is an off-the-cuff meal in the just-opened wine bar in the cellar. If you’re lucky, they’ll be serving the veal-and-foie-gras tourte and lamb, white bean and cèpes stew that I had as a late supper with a friend recently, because they were two of the best dishes I’ve had all year.

As his first name hints, chef Sven Chartier is French with some Swedish roots, and the Nordic nudity of his cooking at the blindingly successful new bistrot à vins Saturne, raises some questions about the direction of new-wave bistrot cooking. To wit, when does simplicity become too simple? Chartier, who formerly worked at the popular Parisian bistrot Les Racines, is undoubtedly a good cook, but after several meals here, I’ve occasionally found his style too plain. A salad of raw shrimp, sardines, nasturtium flowers, wild fennel and other herbs, for example, was pleasant, but more of an exercise in composition than cooking. So should you go? Yes—the space, a handsomely renovated 19th-century atelier, is gorgeous in its glass-roofed, blonde-wood Scandinavian way; sommelier Ewen Lemoigne oversees a great list of organic and biodynamic wines; and when the food’s good, it’s very good, like a perfectly cooked chunk of Challans duckling with a side slaw of red beets.

Playtime, the name of another directional new-wave bistrot, seems at odds with its location in a faded neighborhood between the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, but when chef Jean-Michel Rassinoux is really cooking, he’s both excellent and very original. In fact—perhaps channeling the boldly innovative style of brilliant chef William Ledeuil of Ze Kitchen Galerie and KGB—Rassinoux often borrows ingredients, seasonings and cooking methods from worlds away. His dining room, run by his Swedish partner Viveka Sandklef, has a Copenhagen-meets-LA-in-the-1960s groove, and the crowd offers an intriguing snapshot of the eclectic clientele for adventurous cooking in Paris today, from dating couples and socialites to retirees, family groups and tourists. They’re attracted by dishes like a “milkshake” of soy beans and green tea, fillet of John Dory on a bed of orzo flavored with kaffir lime leaves, or a roasted fig in curry sabayon with walnut-cognac ice cream.

Meanwhile, it looks like another once-great Paris gastronomic institution, the brasserie, may finally be in the crosshairs of the city’s best young chefs for a much-needed makeover. Eric Fréchon, one of the early movers in the bistrot renaissance and now the three-star chef at the Hôtel Bristol, has recently designed a terrific new menu for the Mini Palais, the vast and trendy restaurant at the glass-roofed Grand Palais. Fréchon’s new menu, served nonstop from noon to 1 am, includes a delicious clafoutis of cèpes, a duck “hamburger” topped with grilled foie gras, and an off-hours menu that includes a rock lobster, avocado and hard-boiled egg club sandwich.

Even though the French bistrot renaissance is great news for anyone who loves good Gallic food, it doesn’t mean that anyone—French or foreign— has become disaffected with the country’s traditional bistrots, those much-loved places that serve up the terrines, soups and plats mijotés, or slow-simmered and stewed dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin. Au contraire. They’re more popular than ever, and my favorite these days is the fabulous Restaurant du Marché in a remote corner of the 15th arrondissement. Order the hachis parmentier (shepherd’s pie) made with confit de canard and jus de truffe, and you’ll see why I never balk at the half-hour Métro ride to this cozy spot with a great-value three-course menu.

 

NOTEBOOK

Mon Rêve de Gosse 11 rue Louis Blanc, Cannes, 04.93.39.68.08. A la carte: lunch €20, dinner €40

L’Artémise Chemin de la Fontaine aux Boeufs, Uzès, 04.66.63.94.14. Lunch menu €35, dinner menu €50

Py-r Restaurant 19 rue du Paradoux, Toulouse, 05.61.25.51.52. Fixed-price lunch menus €19, €21; à la carte €60

Kobus 7 rue des Tonneliers, Strasbourg, 03.88.32.59.71. Fixed-price menus €17 (lunch), €22 (plat du jour), €29, €33 and €38

Auberge de Mazagran 1 route de Boulay, Sainte- Barbe, 03.87.76.62.47. Fixed-price menus €28 (weekdays only), €39

Spring Buvette (wine bar) 6 rue Bailleul, Paris 1st, 01.45.96.05.72. No reservations. A la carte €35

Saturne 17 rue Notre Dame des Victoires, Paris 2nd, 01.42.60.31.90. Lunch menu €35, dinner menu €60

Playtime 5 rue des Petits Hôtels, Paris 10th, 01.44.79.03.98. Lunch menus €17, €21; dinner menus €25, €28

Mini Palais 3 ave Winston Churchill, Paris 8th, 01.42.56.42.42. Lunch menu €28, dinner à la carte €45

Restaurant du Marché 59 rue de Dantzig, Paris 15th, 01.48.28.31.55. Fixed-price lunch menu €18, dinner menus €26, €32

Prices are approximate, per person without wine.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of France Today


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