6 Great Paris Bistros

6 Great Paris Bistros

It's better than ever. In small establishments tucked away on side streets, six chefs are redefining the Paris standard.

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.

Le Troyon
"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.

Notelet's interest in unusual ingredients reflects his studies in food chemistry. And though he trained under Marc Meneau and Gérard Boyer, both of whom have three Michelin stars, his spiritual father is Olivier Roellinger, France's high priest of cooking with spices.

Dinner at Le Troyon might begin with fat green olives, speckled with shards of black pepper and so marvelously brittle they snap in the mouth. Vitelotte potatoes and Baltic herring in juniper-scented oil are brought in help-yourself bowls, one bristling with branches of thyme and bay. Just as I congratulated myself on ordering the most profoundly satisfying starter on the menu, the mackerel arrived. It was even better than the herring: two enormous pieces of roasted fish crusted with a five-peppercorn mélange. The chef served the mackerel with spice loaf, and the risk was worth taking -- something about the chemistry in combining the sweetness of the bread, the marine legacy of the fish, the otherworldliness of the spices.

Main courses sustain this adventurous pitch. Ribs of suckling pig are coaxed to an advanced stage of caramelization with wildflower honey, coriander seeds, and citrus zest. And while the lamb shoulder confit lives up to Pyrenean lamb's reputation for extreme delicacy, the accompanying white soissons, a variety of dwarf beans, were dry and woody.

Desserts can also be skittish. A peach billed as "lacquered" was anything but: in fact, it had totally collapsed. Still, it was no work loving the pistachio ice cream, made with real Piedmontese nuts, not artificially colored pistachio paste.

Gripes seemed like small change when the meal, including a number of ports from Notelet's spectacular list, was considered as a whole. How wonderful to be served a challenge.

L'Avant Goût
It's never pleasant to watch someone beg -- unless the beggars are grown men who aren't used to taking no for an answer. They race into L'Avant Goût to stand anxiously sifting the change in their pockets, demanding a same-day reservation. As if. Christophe Beaufront has one of the most popular and sociable eating spots in Paris.

It isn't hard to see why. The place and personnel exude a love of good eating -- mirrors, tiles, bar, and bow-tied garçons with ready smiles push all the right buttons. The price is right, almost unbelievable: a $10, two-course lunch menu allows no choice but includes wine and coffee. Most wines are bought directly from maker-owned vineyards with small yields.

An appealing atmosphere and fair prices wouldn't mean much if the cooking weren't good. But the cooking is more than good -- it's wonderful. If not for the three-star tricks and techniques Beaufront learned chez Michel Guérard and as a protégé of Guy Savoy, one would be tempted to call L'Avant Goût a bistro. Pequillos -- the small, sweet red peppers that are a Basque-country staple -- come filled with a sunny mixture of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, an ode to Provence. Exquisitely clean-tasting shrimp are marinated in lemon juice and lemongrass, teamed with small white beans, and showered with an elaborate citrus, sherry vinegar, and anise dressing.

What?Me, eat lamb tongue? Check those doubts at the door. Blanched, simmered in duck fat, then sliced, breaded, and fried, tongue confit can be the best, most fulfilling thing on the menu.

If you don't count dessert. A gratin of strawberries barely binds the fruit in a luscious, eggy custard. Crème brûlée is discreetly scented with licorice that a friend of Beaufront sends up from her garden in the Vaucluse.

For a taste, the impatient will just have to wait.

Le Tire Bouchon
"The service and cuisine here have nothing to do with what you find at bistros -- this is a restaurant," chef Laurent Houry says firmly. Except for Houry's delicious backpedaling in the kitchen, we'd be happy to believe him.

An out-of-the-way place that draws heavily on its 15th Arrondissement neighborhood for business, Le Tire Bouchon is likely to escape the notice of the casual visitor to Paris. Houry knows he must systematically add new dishes to his menu if he is to hold the attention of regulars. "What interests me is invention, and to improve what I invent," he says. At $17, the three-course set menu is one of the best deals in town.

I hate to think of people peering through the window of Le Tire Bouchon, deciding that the cooking is as plain as the interior, and walking away. Quelle erreur!

As in all questions of decoration, Houry's is, of course, a matter of taste. I like the salmony linens, the widely spaced tables, the twee stab at elegance. And how to resist the meltingly sweet welcome of the chef's wife?Or the offstage cries of their baby as Papa spoons him the same fabulously satiny mashed potatoes, weeping with olive oil, that he serves his grown-up customers?

The answer is that not everyone finds homeliness charming. The only way my eating companion could cope with the low comfort level was to imagine that Le Tire Bouchon was located next door, that it had been the victim of a flood, and that it was installed here provisionally. (How cruel!)

As the appetizers demonstrate, for Houry invention comes in all sizes. It could be as throwaway as cumin in a cool lather of cream accompanying a slab of chunky rabbit-and-carrot terrine. Or it could be as out-on-a-limb as shredded chorizo with "gazpacho jus" and tabbouleh, the lemony grains flecked with mint and raisins. Scorpion fish -- rarely seen on menus on its own and the one sea creature without which there is no bouillabaisse -- arrives as a main course, crisp-skinned and placed unceremoniously atop those rich-rich mashed potatoes, amid a pool of tapenade loosened with vinegar. Like Paquin's at Le Repaire de Cartouche, Houry's take on whelks and pousse-pied piles them inside a fluffy wreath of horseradish cream, but alas, Paquin's version is more persuasive, better conceived.

Desserts are a little unfocused. Cut to the house-made sorbets or a scoop of fine-gauge semolina with apricot. Fruit-packed, easy-drinking reds -- Bourgueil, Menetou-Salon -- point to Houry's Loire Valley origins.

A&M Le Bistro
In a career that could happen only in France, Benoît Chagny, 27, has been cooking professionally for 12 years. Chagny showed such promise as a station cook at Apicius, the two-star Paris restaurant, that his boss, Jean-Pierre Vigato, awarded him the big job upon opening A&M last April. Coltish and frisky, Chagny is a little wet behind the ears, though there are signs that he is equal to his promotion.

A&M has an up-to-the-minute, Modernist look that is no small factor in its success. From a strictly aesthetic point of view, then, A&M is a restaurant. But like Kate Winslet in Titanic, it refuses to give in to expectations of class. A meal opens with a friendly gesture, cervelles de canut, a mixture of fromage blanc and herbs. A tangle of whole parsley, dill, and tarragon is an earthy example of the current fashion for treating fresh herbs like salad greens. Chagny plays a deft and visually attractive game by placing a warm red mullet belly-down, folding back its flesh in two leaves, and mounding the pocket with a cool, uncooked combination of tomatoes, olives, mint, and basil. Calf's liver is so substantial and juicy it could be called a steak. But the cucumber gazpacho is a yawn, the haddock mousse flaccid. As for the sardines with sour apples, sometimes a bad idea is just a bad idea. Pots of vanilla custard are silky but can be unevenly cooked.

A&M offers a white Bordeaux, Coteaux du Gennois Villargeau 1997, $21, and a 1997 red Côtes-du-Rhône from Guigal, $16. "It's harder to compose a list of good inexpensive petits vins than of grands vins," says Fabrice Dupin, who runs the dining room. "But that's our policy."

If there's one policy shared by Chagny and his confrères, it's that boundaries are made to be redrawn, then smudged.

Le Repaire de Cartouche
99 Rue Amelot and 8 Blvd. des Filles-du-Calvaire (11th Arr.); 33-1/47-00-25-86; dinner for two $70.

28 Rue du Mont-Thabor (First Arr.); 33-1/42-96-28-18; dinner for two $60.

Le Troyon
4 Rue Troyon (17th Arr.); 33-1/40-68-99-40; dinner for two $70.

L'Avant Goût
26 Rue Bobillot (13th Arr.); 33-1/53-80-24-00; dinner for two $50.

Le Tire Bouchon
62 Rue des Entrepreneurs (15th Arr.); 33-1/40-59-09-27; dinner for two $35.

A&M Le Bistro
136 Blvd. Murat (16th Arr.); 33-1/45-27-39-60; dinner for two $60.

Prices do not include wine, tax, or tip.

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