We are overlapping elbows in a tight corner at Chez L'Ami Jean, a raffish little joint in the Seventh Arrondissement recently taken over by Stéphane Jego, a chef who worked at our favorite Parisian bistro, La Régalade. The place is so packed, the tables are so abbreviated, that broad-shouldered gents are forced to hug table corners and strangers quickly become confidants. A frenzied waiter drops off a slate with cramped Gallic writing detailing the three-course prix fixe and runs, leaving us to balance it on the table's edge. This is the penny-pincher's reward I'd hoped for when, my guy, Steven, and I set off for France determined to wrestle the buffed-up euro into submission. We landed in Paris hungry for old-fashioned cuisine grand-mère: lots of creamy soups, terrines, innards, and stews—long-simmered daubes and homey pot-au-feu. But I didn't want to overlook creative chefs spinning out their foams and gels at gentle prices either. I asked passionate food-loving pals to tell me what was new and a great value.
I'm pleased by Chez L'Ami Jean's plump, perfectly cooked quail slices layered with eggplant and chopped tomato and sprinkled with fried parsley, as well as the braised veal with root vegetables and chestnuts that follows. The carnivore I live with satisfies his cravings with all sorts of charcuterie, sausages, and terrines heaped on a wooden board—"tout simplement la Cochonnaille du Pays" it's called on the à la carte menu. His baby lamb from the Pyrenees, served in an iron skillet, is gristly but good. We share creamy lemon custard and a rustic red from Cahors, causing only a modest dent in our capital.
Savvy foodies make tables scarce at Aux Lyonnais, the venerable bistro spruced up by the ubiquitous Alain Ducasse with shiny pink and green tile, red-and-white checked linens, and fin-de-siècle objects. Here our arteries meet their match in the rustic, fatty food of Lyons: lush saucissons, rich-as-Croesus pork, and foie gras rillettes served in a canning jar. Fingers of toast to dip into a mayonnaise-like sauce is the chef's gift, followed by yet another amuse, a mustardy salad of sausage, potatoes, and croutons. Chunks of sensational baguette on the table cannot be refused, even by confirmed carbophobes. Entrecôte with marrow is chewy, as unaged meat tends to be in France, yet it's so full of flavor that we're happy. Two bites of my splendid boudin noir is all I have room for.
Before we left New York, Maguy Le Coze of Le Bernardin urged us not to miss the new deal at the old Atelier Maître Albert, a fixture on the Left Bank taken over by acclaimed chef Guy Savoy. Our Parisian guests whisper that the room is full of "wealthy Left Bank bobos." Getting our server's attention takes patience, but when our appetizers arrive we're won over by a salad of rare chicken livers on greens with toast and soft and savory lyonnaise sausage with lukewarm potatoes. The crusty veal shank comes off the big, open rotisserie that warms the black lacquer-and-stone room. Sides (no extra charge) baked in black iron pans—fluffed saffron rice, fabulous mushroom-spinach gratin—crowd the table.
Then three dismal dinners in a row leave us gloomy. Maybe I shouldn't be such a tightwad, I brood. Or maybe we're relying on leads from people who aren't as fussy as we are. A friend introduces us to Dan Young, a New York restaurant critic with a flat in Paris and a contract to write a bistro cookbook. We discover we are gourmand soul mates over thick chunks of cured salmon "in the style of herring" and delicately cooked scallops at Repaire de Cartouche, where Dan persuades chef Rodolph Paquin to part with the recipe for a melting amandine pudding cake we all love. The chef's measured twists on Norman classics are elegant, not outrageous flights of fancy. Ancient rifles and a kitschy mural of a 19th-century inn acknowledge the theme. It's a pleasant enough spot, though service can be friendly or brusque, depending on the waiter's mood.
Our new threesome also falls for the funky old-bistro feel of Bistrot Paul Bert, in the 11th Arrondissement, where the menu (another slate) balances ancient notions with contemporary reinventions. My sweetbreads in puff pastry are a culinary mirage, next to a tingling swordfish ceviche with chips of Thai ginger. Someone in the kitchen is a master at caramelizing a steak. It's dense and delicious but, alas, does not come with the house's fabulous frîtes. These have to be ordered à la carte. "We don't have a fryer," the owner explains, "so each batch takes time." Indeed, the fries Americans take for granted back home are rarely found in bistros here. Dessert is a welcome surprise: an excellent kissel, a tangy Russian pudding of crushed red fruit that I haven't encountered anywhere for a decade or two.
Demanding eaters find the way to Chez Michel, even though it's at the end of one of those streets in the 10th where the odd numbers go up as the even numbers go down. Tonight's sensational scallop, cod, and oyster ceviche piled into two big oyster shells, and gorgeous baked scallops, show that chef Thierry Breton's strength is seafood. White beans and chorizo add global oomph to the wonderful fish soup. Marinated red peppers give color and texture to an osso buco of monkfish on the bone. I am not a fan of fluffy French pastries, but the small, doughnut-shaped Paris-Brest here, filled with praline butter cream, does much to change my mind.
Au Bascou, with its ocher walls and predictable Basque interior, sits not far from our borrowed pad in the Marais and is a neighborhood favorite for deft cooking of such regional specialties as piperade (scrambled eggs with sweet and hot peppers, ham, and tomatoes)and sautéed baby calamari with chorizo and saffron rice. The fat, crisp-skinned country blood sausage is lushly layered with apple slices in puff pastry. I'm the only one in our trio who's a candidate for dessert, but when the Beret Basque arrives—a marvelous pileup of chocolate cake, mousse, and ice cream, looking like a beret with a madeleine topknot—nobody can resist.
Everything about Pinxo is modish and hip (the designer's palette of neutrals is set off by waiters in black pajamas). The stylish clientele pulls up chairs at the black granite counter as chefs whirl and dip, sauté and plate, before their eyes. And there are small, bare tables, too, not overly small for the oval dishes with herring canapés, crab spring rolls, and tuna ceviche roulades, served in threes, so you're encouraged to share. From his kingdom around the corner at Carré des Feuillants, chef Alain Dutournier insists that this canteen is not about tapas, or even pintxos, as they call them in Spain's Basque heartland. That gives him the freedom to offer skewered duck hearts, baby squid a la plancha threaded on a rosemary stem with garlic chips, and gingered rabbit thigh "au retour des Indes."
Freshly redesigned L'Absinthe, furnished with flea-market finds, is an amusing hybrid of classic food in contemporary dress from chef Michel Rostang. Actually Michel's daughter, Caroline, and the executive chef, Yann Lainé, run the show. So classic bistro fare—shirred eggs and sausage, a tart of marinated salmon and fromage blanc, scallops sautéed with bacon and sherry, and fabulous hand-cut boeuf tartare—is served in shot glasses or little custard cups. Sorbets come in three small white ceramic squares lashed together by a rubber band, with candied orange slices and a leaf tucked into the sash. I'm always wary of over-designed presentation, but when the food is this good, I'm instantly disarmed.