Having had the good fortune to live in Paris for the last 25 years, I’ve watched the evolution of the city’s bistrots with an alternating mixture of sorrow and elation. As a dyed-in-the-wool Paris bistrot lover, though, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so upbeat and optimistic, because Paris bistrots are not just surviving but thriving, with a fresh generation of excellent new-style neighborhood bistrots adding another delicious and affordable layer of choices to the capital’s gastronomic landscape.
When I got here in 1986, the bistrots we went to were the old-fashioned ones that made me fall in love with both France and French food to begin with, or red-checked tablecloth places with lace curtains in the windows that made you suddenly ravenous as you passed by, with their taunting gusts of sautéing shallots and beef or birds simmering in red wine. I loved these places so much that I couldn’t imagine ever needing or wanting anything else. Then in 1999, a friend living deep in the 14th arrondissement near the Porte d’Orléans called to say that she’d heard about a really good new restaurant.
We went to La Régalade the next night, and discovered chef Yves Camdeborde’s superb cooking. A student of Christian Constant during that chef’s two-star reign at the Hôtel de Crillon, Camdeborde had learned all of the master’s best lessons. Though working with southwestern French regional cooking, Camdeborde used lighter stock-based sauces instead of cream-enriched ones, made liberal use of fresh herbs, reduced cooking times to preserve taste and texture, and used luxury produce like foie gras and truffles to garnish homey farmhouse food. Many young chefs followed in his footsteps, and modern French bistrot cooking was born as a whole generation of haute-cuisine-trained young cooks opened bistrots to serve their own lighter, healthier takes on traditional cooking.
As brilliant modern bistrots started opening all over the city, the old-style places that defined the idiom were becoming ever rarer. With a few fine exceptions, like A la Biche au Bois near the Bastille, most traditional Parisian bistrots have become luxury-priced special-occasion restaurants, and many neighborhoods lack the pleasure of a good around-the-corner canteen that doesn’t require reservations a month ahead and spending a small fortune. But now another new crop of bistrots is popping up all over town, and in their own ways revising and refreshing the bistrot for the 21st century.
Albion, in the 10th arrondissement, is a delicious example of the new neighborhood style, because owners Hayden Clout, the barman/sommelier, and Matt Ong, the chef, have conceived a warm, friendly, affordable place intended to serve the neighborhood rather than draw people from across town. They found a great-looking space in the rapidly gentrifying area near the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, and renovated it with open wine shelves and well-spaced tables. It’s invariably packed at noon with office workers, while trendy types take over in the evening. In addition to smiling service and reasonable prices, what everyone appreciates is the top quality of the changing-daily chalkboard menu. Good examples of Ong’s cooking include cod with baby clams and bacon; roasted duck breast with root vegetables; and homey desserts like rice pudding with raspberry compote.
Up in Montmartre, shrewd Mauritius-born chef Antoine Heerah, whose fine restaurant Chamarré Montmartre showcases the flavors of his native Indian Ocean island, offers another take on the new neighborhood bistrot themes of affability, good value and contemporary French cooking at Au Clocher de Montmartre. The smartly decorated spot might also launch a welcome trend by extending customary Paris dining hours—it’s open daily and serves nonstop from noon to 10:30 pm. The terrific menu is mix-and-match—you can come by for a cèpe omelette and a glass of wine, or settle in for a longer and more leisurely feed of dishes like butternut squash soup and oxtail-stuffed Roscoff onions.
The 7th arrondissement has also gotten lucky with several new bistrots recently. The stylish Pottoka, run by the owners of the popular Fables de la Fontaine, is a delightful reminder that almost every really good Paris bistrot has the ballast of a solid regional allegiance in the kitchen. As its name indicates—the Pottoka, or Pottock, is a horse breed native to the Basque Country—this place is about great Basque comfort food. Starters include perfectly cooked white coco beans mixed with girolles, piquillo peppers, flat parsley and slices of smoked duck breast, and a favorite main course is axoa, a hearty veal stew.
The really hot table in this swanky neck of the woods, however, is the not entirely aptly named L’Affable—the owner’s not very friendly, but the charming waitresses more than make up for it—which fills the space formerly occupied by L’Oeillade, one of the most popular of the first generation of modern Paris bistrots. Chef Jean-François Pantaleon, ex-Apicius, brings the original modern bistrot register up to date by bursting out of France every once in a while. His Argentine beef with lime vinaigrette accompanied by slivered snow peas, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts was a terrific main course, typical of his cosmopolitan reflexes. He also acknowledges that Parisians are increasingly interested in healthy gastronomy too, as seen in a superb starter of coddled eggs with baked salmon in a light citrus foam.
In a similar vein another one of the first and best modern bistrots in Paris, Schmidt L’Os à Moelle in the 15th, also just got a makeover from new owner Stéphane Schmidt, who was most recently chef at Christian Constant’s Le Violon d’Ingres. Excellent updates of traditional Alsatian dishes now take pride of place on the menu, including an impeccably made bouchée à la reine (creamed chicken and mushrooms in a puff pastry case) and braised beef with bone marrow.
Ultimately, however, it’s the 11th arrondissement that remains the mouthwatering nursery of the new generation of Paris bistrots. So many good ones have opened here that you could happily spend several weeks discovering them. One recent standout is Le Petit Cheval de Manège. With its stenciled tile floors, low lighting, attentive service and reasonable prices, it instantly became a local favorite. Belgian chef Xavier Thiery’s daily chalkboard menu just gets better and better, offering beautifully cooked modern French dishes like a “lasagnette” of scallops—large open ravioli filled with sautéed celery root and mushrooms topped with grilled scallops and crushed hazelnuts, a brilliant dish for a very reasonable €16.50.
The cook at Square Gardette, a hip neighborhood joint in the best sense of that term, is Masahide Ikuta, who worked at two of Paris’s best bistrots—L’Ami Jean in the 7th and Le Paul Bert in the 11th—before landing here. Ikuta does textbook-perfect modern French dishes, including an impeccable pumpkin velouté and cod steak with red peppers and a Parmesan sablé, but as good as his cooking may be, perhaps the most interesting thing about him, and about Xavier Thiery at Le Petit Cheval, is that they represent a Parisian gastronomic talent pool that’s going global, which explains why so many of the best new neighborhood bistrots in town have such intriguingly cosmopolitan menus. Traditional, Modern or New Neighborhood, with three distinctly different styles now out there, bistrot lovers are spoiled for choice.
L’Affable 10 rue de Saint Simon, 7th, 01.42.22.01.60. €55
Albion 80 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 10th, 01.42.46.02.44. €40
Au Clocher de Montmartre 10 rue Lamarck, 18th, 01.42.64.90.23. €40
Pottoka 4 rue de l’Exposition, 7th, 01.45.51.88.38. €50
Le Petit Cheval de Manège 5 rue Froment, 11th, 09.82.37.18.52. €35
Schmidt L’Os à Moelle 3 rue Vasco de Gama, 15th, 01.45.57.27.27. €65
Square Gardette 24 rue Saint Ambroise, 11th, 01.43.55.63.07. €40
AND DON’T FORGET
A la Biche au Bois 45 ave Ledru Rollin, 12th, 01.43.43.34.38
Les Affranchis 5 rue Henri Monnier, 9th, 01.45.26.26.30
Les Bistronomes 34 rue de Richelieu, 1st, 01.42.60.59.66
L’Office 3 rue Richer, 9th, 01.47.70.67.31
Le Galopin 34 rue Sainte Marthe, 10th, 01.42.06.05.03
Chatomat 6 rue Victor Letalle, 20th, 01.47.97.25.77
Le Pantruche 3 rue Victor Massé, 9th, 01.48.78.55.60
Verjus 52 rue de Richelieu, 1st, 01.42.97.54.40
Prices are approximate, per person without wine.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of France Today
Alexander Lobrano’s book Hungry for Paris is published by Random House. www.hungryforparis.com.
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