You could spend months (and a lot of francs) traveling around France chasing regional gastronomic specialties—or you could stay comfortably put in Paris, where first-rate examples of virtually every card-carrying French entrée, plat, and dessert are never more than a Métro ride away. Soul-warming coq au vin to make a Burgundian weep. Lusty bouillabaisse prepared with regulation fish, comme à Marseilles. And then there's the catalogue of iconic dishes, like onion soup and profiteroles, native to the capital itself. (Amazingly, an improbable restaurant, Le Vieux Bistro, offers so many sweetly sung standards, it would take you a week to work through them all.) One-stop eating of the French classics?"Messieurs-dames, your table is waiting …"
SOUPE À L'OIGNON Open around the clock every day of the year in the old Les Halles tradition, Au Pied de Cochon was going to get the blue ribbon—until I tried the onion soup at La Poule au Pot. Beneath a blistered dome of melted Emmentaler, slices of country bread bob in an intense broth bolstered with white wine. Au Pied de Cochon's version is lighter on the onions, heavier on the cheese, and a great deal at $5 (La Poule au Pot's is $8.50).
ESCARGOTS Le Vieux Bistro 's escargots de Bourgogne—snails with butter, garlic, and parsley—get it right where hundreds go wrong. They're served in a ceramic tray out of their shells, so you don't have to battle with pincers. The garlic dosage is restrained, not reckless, and rather than tasting like bicycle tires (and being as easy to chew), the snails are tender and flavorful. With its distressed mirrors and zinc bar, Le Vieux Bistro is what the white-hot Manhattan eatery Pastis longs to emulate. It's a miracle that the real thing is located in the heavily touristed shadow of Notre Dame.
FROG'S LEGS Fresh ones are rarer than hen's teeth, but Le Vieux Bistro insists that its jumbos have never seen the inside of a freezer. The juicy cuisses are fried in butter and garlic and showered with parsley. Also recommended at: Le Père Claude.
FRISÉE AUX LARDONS With frisée ringing in at up to $9 a pound in the United States, you could almost justify a trip to Paris just to eat Le Vieux Bistro's rendition of this timeless salad. The lardons, or bacon pieces, exhale a salty, smoky fragrance, and their juices coat every leaf. Also recommended at: Chez George.
HORS D'OEUVRES VARIÉS A hole-in-the-wall, weekdays-only lunch spot, Chez La Vieille is legendary for its all-you-can-eat assortment of terrines, stuffed vegetables, and salads (lentil, apple-and-endive). And that's just the appetizer. Note: Thursday is the one night the restaurant serves dinner.
STEAK FRITES La Mascotte woos carnivores with a more-than-half-pound Normandy rib steak, one of the tastiest pieces of beef I've had in recent memory, paired with bone marrow and the unimpeachably crisp house fries of nearly shoestring thinness. Reassuringly, the bistro always seems full of French regulars.
ROAST CHICKEN AND MASHED POTATOES Owned by Jacques Cagna, better known as the chef of the Michelin one-starred restaurant in Paris that carries his name, La Rôtisserie d'Armaillé serves succulent, free-range chicken in its own jus, and silken hand-riced potatoes.
SOLE MEUNIÈRE At La Fontaine de Mars, sole "in the style of the miller's wife" weighs in at a pound, and is doused with acidulated brown butter. The golden fish is expertly boned and extremely firm, a sign of its freshness. This chichi bistro's choicest tables are outdoors, under an arcade on a vest-pocket square with a fountain where Napoleon watered his horses.
SOUFFLÉ The old-school waiters at Le Soufflé get a kick out of telling first-time customers about hard-core patrons who order a chanterelle soufflé as a first course, a Roquefort-and-walnut soufflé as an entrée, and a pistachio—and—chocolate chip soufflé for dessert. This immutable restaurant with a heartfelt, borderline kitschy atmosphere prepares all soufflés in single-serving, two-cup molds. The kitchen could be more careful about letting beaten egg whites peek through the batter, but you have to admire an institution that for 40 years has dedicated itself to one of France's most monumental dishes.
STEAK AU POIVRE Chez Catherine's supple steak is napped with an unctuous, mocha-colored pepper sauce that has just the right amount of fire. Low on tourists, the backslapping 1930's bistro is hung with Pagnol movie posters below a cigarette smoke—stained ceiling outlined in neon.
COQ AU VIN The first thing to be thankful for at L'Auberge Bressane is that the bird in question is a cockerel, not a chicken, which is what many places try to get away with. The slightly gamy meat has a mahogany hue from having been marinated for days, and then simmered, in a Julienas wine bath. The voluptuous sauce enrobes pearl onions.
DUCK CONFIT and CASSOULET Dozens of easier-to-get-to restaurants in the capital offer these twin pillars of southwestern French cooking, but none do them as authoritatively as L'Oulette, in the Bersey district on Paris's eastern edge. Its confit has melting flesh beneath brittle skin; the cassoulet, the epitome of comfort food, is packed with confit and plump tarbais, the king of southwestern-style beans.
TRUFFLE DISHES You don't have to go to the Périgord or Provence for the world's costliest tuber. Even in summer, when truffles are much less potent than in winter, La Truffière's dishes are packed with big, mouth-filling truffle flavor. The restaurant offers three truffle-laced classics as French as a Deux Chevaux: creamy oeufs brouillés aux truffes (scrambled eggs), hachis Parmentier au confit de canard (shepherd's pie made with duck confit instead of ground beef), and tournedo Rossini (fillet of beef with an escalope of foie gras). La Truffière is old-fashioned in the best sense, with a vaulted stone dining cellar, crocheted doilies—even silver candelabra with pink tapers! Service is elegant and crackerjack.
HANGER STEAK This "poor," ropy cut of beef has become almost as popular in America as it is in France. In the United States, onglet is usually opened into a thin, flat steak, but Le Vieux Bistro's can measure a hefty two inches. Shallots are the only garnish, so order crunchy sautéed potatoes on the side. Also recommended at: Michel Courtalhac.
BOEUF BOURGUIGNONNE Many of the elements, such as the pearl onions, in Le Vieux Bistro's interpretation of this Burgundian mainstay disappear into the inky sauce. The stew also has a rather surprising, absolutely delicious Madeira-like note, as if it were made with an old red wine that had lost its tannin and acid, leaving a heavenly concentration of sugar. Also recommended at: Tante Louise.
POULE AU POT Like L'Auberge Bressane and its coq au vin, La Poule au Pot charges through the starting gate with the right bird—a firm, full-flavored hen, not a dull, stringy chicken. A single serving comes in a two-quart tureen filled with (deep breath) a quarter of a poached four-pound hen, salt pork, leeks, carrots, turnips, potatoes, and the aromatic, nearly greaseless bouillon to which they have all contributed their earthy goodness. "I'm not clearing the table until you finish," our waiter threatened, "and we're open till five a.m." Associated with the populist King Henry IV and his native Béarn region, poule au pot is also served here the day-after way, as it is in French households: cold, with a thick, herby vinaigrette. As my Parisian dining partners remarked, the restaurant is "in its juice," a compliment the French save for their best-preserved medieval villages. Here it means that the management has kept its hands off the deliciously crusty décor.
BOUILLABAISSE Both Le Petit Niçois and Le Dôme beat most of their bouillabaisse-serving competitors in Paris just by using fresh fish, including rascasse, or scorpion fish. As ugly as it is scrumptious, with exceptionally white, fine-grained flesh, it's the one sea creature without which there can be no bouillabaisse. In each restaurant, the heroic Marseillais fisherman's stew comes with croutons, hot-pepper mayonnaise, and rousing rockfish bouillon redolent of anise.
POT-AU-FEU A bumptious bistro whose shoulder-to-shoulder tables are laid with red-and-white-checked cloths, Le Roi de Pot au Feu offers one of the last great eating bargains in Paris—$11 for the boiled dish that sails across French regional borders. Roll up your sleeves for short ribs, bottom round, marrow bones, leeks, turnips, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage.
CHOUCROUTE GARNIE Au Brétzel goes to the trouble of bringing in from Strasbourg the myriad pork cuts and sausages required for this prototypically Alsatian meal. And the cabbage is fermented into buttery, not the least bit acidic sauerkraut.
CRÈME BRÛLÉE "Few serve crème brélée the way it should be, with the cream cold, the brown-sugar top warm," declared our Poule au Pot waiter. The crème brélée he served not only matched this description, but real vanilla beans were used in the satiny cream. And unlike boilerplate takes on the dessert, the top was glassy and fragile; leave the pickax at home.
CRÈME CARAMEL Le Vieux Bistro's take on the most classless dessert in France (after tarte aux pommes) is so homey—even with a web of spun sugar—it's touching. Whereas crème caramel is traditionally prepared in individual ramekins, here it's done as a loaf and served in thick slices awash in an amber sauce that pleasantly scratches the back of the throat. The only thing missing is a grandmother in a checked apron announcing, "This is the way my family has made crème caramel for generations." Also recommended at: Chez René.
PROFITEROLES When this mythic dessert is prepared correctly—as it is at Le Vieux Bistro—fresh, crisp, tender puffs of choux pastry are filled with vanilla ice cream just before serving and then topped at table with hot chocolate sauce. Though the French-cookbook translator and profiteroles expert I dined with was right to complain that the sauce should have been boiling rather than merely steaming, I did notice that he cleaned his plate.
GÂTEAU CHOCOLAT Many French gastronomes spend their lives searching for the perfect flourless chocolate cake—as good as madeleines at provoking Proustian reveries. The search ends at Juveniles, a bistrot àvin whose slightly fudgy version is made with Valrhona Noir Extra chocolate (53 percent cocoa), ground almonds, and a whisper of sugar. Indeed, the underlying point made here is that sweet chocolate cake is for sissies. Owner Tim Johnston recommends his cake with Emilio Lustau sherry: "People say how well Banyuls and chocolate go together, but sherry's grapiness and brown-sugar flavor make them a great match."
FLOATING ISLAND When I ordered île flottante at La Fontaine de Mars I was putting the finishing touch on my second lunch (the life of a critic!), so you know I wasn't hungry. The snowy meringue "islands," with a veil of hardened caramel sauce, float on crème anglaise. Horrifying even myself, I ate every bite.