As any well-fed Frenchman will tell you, restaurant traditionally connotes refined cooking with noble ingredients, a high comfort level, sleek service -- and a bill that reflects all three. Bistro means simple cooking with less-pedigreed foodstuffs, a shirtsleeve atmosphere, bumptious service, and a bill that won't burn a hole in your pocket.
At least that's how it used to be. In today's fin de siècle Paris, chefs are giddily surrendering such semantic differences. Plush restaurants proudly serve blue-collar andouillettes while skeletal bistros dish up buttoned-down foie gras in flaky pastry. Here, six influential establishments that prove just how deceptive names and appearances can be.
Le Repaire de Cartouche
Rodolphe Paquin developed such a vocal following at Le Saint-Amarante that his subsequent success in his own quarters, near the Place de la République, was all but inevitable. One of the most commanding young chefs currently working in Paris, he indulges lovers of deeply visceral, grassroots French cooking -- as rare these days as a plate of ortolans.
Paquin plays creativity against tradition with all the confidence in the world. "I use only fresh products that follow the seasons, and they are handled with the most complete and beautiful logic," says Paquin, detailing his philosophy. Sometimes a dish is elevated by nothing more than a squirt of roasted-meat juice and the woodsy liquid that remains after chanterelles are sautéed, as in the vinaigrette on a salad of haricots verts and poached egg. Spring onion is transformational sliced over the pig parts that make many Americans recoil. ("More for us!" exclaim the devotees of gelatinous muzzle, creamy tongue, and fatty cheek.) Paquin almost never stumbles with the innovations he brings. Can food be comfortable?His is.
Cartouche's appointments are quirky -- to say the least. The restaurant recalls an 18th-century country inn with its dark paneling, slat-back chairs upholstered in striped velvet, and the obligatory rooster portraits and pewter pitchers. It feels like the kind of place that once made wandering the back roads of France such fun. The result is a bit lugubrious, if not entirely serious. Which makes it easier to take.
No one has to be sold on Cartouche's starters or the beautifully composed collection of aperitifs (Muscat, hard cider, Pineau) and digestifs (very reasonably priced Bas-Armagnacs). Eel and young leeks, as made for each other as Verlaine and Rimbaud, are handsomely assembled into a mosaicked terrine. Whelks are simmered to tenderness with aromatic herbs, then paired with crunchy steamed pousse-pied, a green-bean-like succulent that grows near salt marshes. A main course of fresh pasta squares, layered lasagne-style with lobster, delivers concentrated lobster flavor. The intriguing graininess in the dish's butter-thickened bouillon comes from the shellfish's coral.
In case you haven't noticed, Cartouche has a personality disorder. When it's not busy being a bistro, it's a restaurant.
Desserts are as accomplished as anything on the menu. Blended with vanilla sugar and crème fraîche, potted cow's cheese is topped with raspberries imprisoned in a supple, jewel-like raspberry jelly. When word gets around, it could knock out chocolate cake with a molten center as the copycatted dessert of the nineties.
Sparkling simplicity and blowups of vintage black-and-white photographs say bistro, but L'Ardoise, not far from the Tuileries, is one in looks only. Card-carrying bistros don't serve lobster roasted with champagne.
Pierre Jay's sturdy cuisine has a personal, at times adventurous edge. Certainly it would not occur to everyone to garnish an impeccably pan-cooked bass with a fricassee of zucchini, olives, and chorizo sausage (for heat), the whole topped with croutons (for crunch). But like many ambitious chefs of his generation, Jay -- who cut his teeth at the Tour d'Argent -- has a need to create some fireworks, to distinguish himself. He knows that ratings don't reward toeing the line.
Once, the food at L'Ardoise might have been called "rib-sticking." Jay's signature dish is a nut-brown phyllo envelope enclosing a killingly lush filling of foie gras and whipped artichokes. A slick of puréed watercress with crabmeat folded into finely chopped vegetables is an interesting idea that needs more time in the development lab. A small cast-iron casserole has langoustines, smoked lardons, and potatoes bobbing in a lovely, thin, fiery sauce touched with cream and tomato.
The chef has made sure the wine list is especially strong in whites -- Pouilly-Fuissé, St.-Véran, Clessé -- from his native Mâcon, in Burgundy. Desserts are a sweet extension of his talent for conjuring direct flavors. The fruit in a flaky apple galette is cooked in a caramel sauce made with salted butter and spiced with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper. And whereas boilerplate blackberry clafoutis is vulgar and rubbery, Jay's version is classy and tender.
"Not knowing what I'm going to cook today gets me out of bed," says Jean-Marc Notelet. "At eleven-thirty my lunch menu is still not set."
Notelet's is an exhilarating high-wire act made even more so by the chef's insistent use of spices and far-flung flavorings. Rather formal, almost anonymous, Le Troyon, just off the Place de l'Étoile, is hung with copies of food-related Magrittes and furnished with upholstered banquettes, bentwood chairs, and a fitted carpet -- not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to eat andouillettes.
Yet just inside the door is a clue that diners are in for some envelope-pushing. A small table holds a still life of cinnamon, licorice root, and fennel bundles; bowls of teas, peppercorns, sugars, and salt; even a Florida grapefruit. In the kitchen the palette extends to cocoa beans (to flavor chicken); hibiscus (for strawberries); the sweet Spanish wine Malaga (for duckling); and the French dessert wine Maury (for figs). Saline and sweet tastes often rendezvous in the same dish.