Don't let the brawny euro get in the way of a great meal. Gael Greene scours the French capital for restaurants that are high in style, substance—and savings

Gael Greene
April 30, 2009

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.

Atelier Maître Albert
1 RUE MAITRE-ALBERT, FIFTH ARR.; 33-1/56-81-30-01
DINNER FOR TWO $99.

Au Bascou
38 RUE RÉAUMUR, THIRD ARR.; 33-1/42-72-69-25
DINNER FOR TWO $77.

Aux Lyonnais
32 RUE ST.-MARC, SECOND ARR.; 33-1/42-96-65-04
DINNER FOR TWO $149.

Bistrot Paul Bert
18 RUE PAUL-BERT, 11TH ARR.; 33-1/43-72-24-01
DINNER FOR TWO $64.

Chez L'Ami Jean
27 RUE MALAR, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/47-05-86-89
DINNER FOR TWO $89.

Chez Michel
10 RUE DE BELZUNCE, 10TH ARR.; 33-1/44-53-06-20
DINNER FOR TWO $74.

L'Absinthe
24 PLACE DU MARCHÉ ST.-HONORÉ, FIRST ARR.; 33-1/49-26-90-04
DINNER FOR TWO $87.

Pinxo
9 RUE D'ALGER, FIRST ARR.; 33-1/40-20-72-00
DINNER FOR TWO $124.

Repaire de Cartouche
99 RUE AMELOT, 11TH ARR.; 33-1/47-00-25-86
DINNER FOR TWO $89.

No need to sink $400 or $500 into dinner at a Michelin three-star. Why not take advantage of the discount lunch?I slide into a banquette ready to be fussed over at Le Grand Véfour (17 Rue de Beaujolais, First Arr.; 33-1/42-96-56-27; lunch for two from $186), which is packed with businessmen, tourists, even a sextet of young Americans on spring break, as daylight floods the glorious room off the Palais Royal. Chef Guy Martin's global-contemporary mood dominates the four-course lineup, beginning with a chilled soup of yellow peppers and pineapple, then rare and lush tuna belly jeweled with bits of mango and radish confit and an oddity of raw potatoes in saffron cream. But the chef bows to tradition too, in his tasting of rabbit to start and classic calf's head, followed by the cheese trolley and dessert—tangy rhubarb and wild strawberries, perhaps.

Still the hottest ticket in town more than a year after the legendary master leaped out of premature retirement, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (7 Rue de Montalembert; 33-1/42-22-56-56; lunch for two $148) tops our list. We have a choice of reserving at 11:30 for lunch or 6:30 for dinner, or joining the queue. "Let's call it a late lunch," I tell my friend, booking two stools for just after 6. I rage as an indifferent hostess ignores a shivering flock of us early birds huddled outside in the rain. But once she lets us enter, cruelly slow, two by two, I can't believe the luck of our view, which cuts across the kitchen. We try the carpaccio of scallops to start and the squid sautéed in peppery tomato water, then share both the pork chop with marjoram and lamb chops. With a glass of wine each and a dessert sampler offering five or six slivers of fabulous tartes du tradition, you have a Robuchon indulgence for $74 each.

L'Absinthe

Owned by Caroline Rostang, the daughter of French culinary giant Michel Rostang, L’Absinthe is best described as a New York-inspired French bistro. The restaurant nods to New York City with its urban chic design, highlighted by the oversized, antique clock on the ground floor. Two dining roomsone upstairs and one downstairsoffer ample seating, and outdoor tables are available during the warmer months. Both the tasting menus and à la carte menu feature traditional bistro-style fare, with such dishes as crispy pork knuckle with vegetables and calf’s liver with baby onions, capers, and tomatoes.

Chez Michel, Paris

The food of France’s Breton region shines at Chez Michel. Located steps from Gare du Nord in the 10th arrondisement, Chez Michel is haven for foodies as chef Thierry Breton’s bistro menu is known for both fresh Breton seafood and his use of obscure ingredients such as baby eels and seasonal game meats. The exterior, with its simple wood doors and green awnings, is uninspiring, while the dining room is spacious with a high timbered ceiling and white plaster walls. Signature dishes include fish soup, pork rillettes, roasted John Dory, and Paris-Brest (a choux pastry filled with hazelnut cream).

Chez L'Ami Jean

Situated in the Seventh Arrondissement, this small, lively bistro is often lauded as the best in Paris. Run by celebrated chef Stéphane Jego, the restaurant serves authentic Basque fare in a traditional bistro-style setting with closely packed tables and an open kitchen. The walls are decorated with Basque sports memorabilia, while strings of garlic and Espelette peppers hang from the ceiling. Bread is served with a sealed tin of herbed formage blanc (white cheese) and followed by entrées such as braised duck foie gras and homemade desserts like the famous riz au lait (rice pudding) with pralines and dried apricots.

Bistrot Paul Bert

Situated in the trendy 11th Arrondissement, Bistrot Paul Bert is a classic French eatery with unexpected twists. Inspired by local flea market finds, the eclectic interior includes a bright mosaic floor, oversize mirrors, small wooden tables, and unusual chandeliers. The chalkboard menu changes regularly to highlight seasonal produce, but reliable favorites include the steak frites—served very rare and topped with marrow—and the signature Paris-Brest dessert: a large puff pastry filled with chocolate-hazelnut cream. Dishes are paired with hard-to-find small-batch wines from an extensive list.

Repaire de Cartouche

A traditional, yet innovative bistro in the Marais, Le Repaire is renowned for its wine selection and game specialties. The wood-paneled dining rooms, old-fashioned murals, and lead glass window bring to mind a country restaurant in Normandy (the source of the menu’s inspiration), but the building actually draws its name from the notorious 18th-century robber who once made it his hideaway. While wild boar, pheasant, and venison chops with mushrooms and a mustard and crème sauce are some of the favorites on the menu, don’t overlook the seafood dishes: Lobster with strawberry sauce is an inspired choice.

Aux Lyonnais

Housed in a historic 1890 building and immediately recognizable by its red facade, Aux Lyonnais is an inviting Parisian eatery dedicated to preserving the culinary traditions of Lyon. Headed by chef Frédéric Thevenet, who has worked at such renowned restaurants as Guy Savoy in Paris, the kitchen prepares updated versions of traditional Lyonnais dishes, including frog legs en persillade and farm-raised chicken casserole. The restaurant itself evokes the atmosphere of the traditional Lyonnaise eatery, or bouchon, with its tiled floors and walls, chalkboard menus, and zinc and tin counter.

Au Bascou

Hanging bunches of pimentos add a spicy aroma to this small Basque restaurant in the Third Arrondissement. In contrast with its unassuming exterior, the dining room is designed with ocher-hued walls, oil paintings, and objéts d’art from the southwestern region of the country. The bistro is popular with locals, but visitors are also welcome; in fact, chef Bertrand Guéneron, who previously worked with acclaimed chef Alain Senderens, often emerges from the kitchen to chat with the patrons. House specialties include the soupions (baby squid) sautéed with chorizo and the piperade (scrambled eggs with sweet and hot peppers, ham, and tomatoes).

Atelier Maître Albert

Across from Norte Dame on the Left Bank, this bistro serves a combination of classic and modern French cuisine imagined by world-renowned chef Guy Savoy. The interior, designed by  Jean-Michel Wilmotte, juxtaposes medieval wooden ceiling beams and a functional 13th-century fireplace with contemporary slate tables, gray marble floors, and dark indigo walls lined with colorful, graffiti-like paintings. There’s also a wine cellar and a partially open kitchen where chefs tend the restaurant’s signature rotisserie. Menu standouts include the spit-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and, for dessert, the dark chocolate with praline, cacao sorbet, and chicory custard.

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