The Paris bistro--a mainstay of the city's culinary tradition for well over a century--has never enjoyed greater popularity than it does today--and to no one's surprise. Tucked away on narrow, back streets in obscure neighborhoods, these small family restaurants represent both the dream and the reality of modern Parisian life. Red-checked tablecloths, carafes of red wine, the aroma of crisp and golden roast chicken--all are part of the bistro experience.
Although far from inexpensive, the Paris bistro is not only an adventure in dining, but a taste of French history, culture and charm. No two are alike. And yes, there are dishes that typify bistro cooking: a wild variety of salads, potatoes, slow-simmered stews, roast poultry and fruity desserts. And yes, there are certain wines that appear on most lists: Beaujolais and Chinon, Macon Vire and Sancerre.
As I set out to name a handful of my favorite places, I realize that none fits the traditional bistro mold. One is run by a trio of brothers, another by a feisty lady chef. In some, the decor is frightfully modern; in others, the menu is wholeheartedly regional. Some offer great value; others can cost as much as a meal in a "grand" Paris restaurant.
But what these modern-day Paris bistros have in common is that each offers the qualities I look for in a small restaurant: Personality, simplicity, consistency, a point of view and a place where you almost always find good food and a good time.
True gastronomic pleasure can be found in the joy of surrounding yourself with like-minded diners. The most luscious foie gras, the richest chocolate cake, the most exquisite sip of a well-aged Bordeaux will give you little pleasure if those nearby don't share the excitement.
So it is always a pleasure to dine at the little elbow-to-elbow Parisian bistro, Astier, where everyone seems to arrive with honest hunger and a yearning for thick slabs of chicken-liver pate, hearty portions of venison stew, rabbit with mustard sauce, and gigantic platters of cheese that are passed from table to table at the appointed moment.
Gluttony is a pardonable sin, and no one will make a face or point his finger if you cut into seconds of the creamy Coulommiers cheese or ask for another bottle of Gerard Chave's remarkable red Hermitage.
Astier, situated near the Place de la Republique, is part of that breed--now more and more rare--of classic Paris bistros. Yes, it's boisterous and too brightly lit and service can be a bit slap-dash, but those characteristics are also part of its charm. If you are seeking a quiet romantic evening for two, this isn't the appropriate address.
But I applaud the single 110-franc menu, which changes regularly and allows first course, main course, cheese and dessert. On our last visit, I particularly loved the well-seasoned chicken liver pate, the generous salad of lamb's lettuce and beets and the classic preparation of rabbit with mustard sauce. On that visit, the magret de canard (breast of a fatted duck) was a bit on the tough side, and the bread didn't seem as crusty and wonderful as I remembered.
But the wine list--as generously priced as the rest of the meal--makes for special joy. Owner Michel Picquart promises that there is something for everyone, from a well-priced Loire Valley Chinon by the carafe to bottles plucked from the most prestigious caves of Bordeaux. It is impossible to leave this restaurant with even a touch of hunger.
One Parisian chef who doesn't dally is the feisty Lucette Rousseau, who manages to offer up real, no frills food on her own terms at her spotless and cozy bistro, L'Assiette. This tiny beret-bedecked chef, known as Lulu to her friends, has her fingers on the kind of food we are looking for today. Working on her own in a spacious kitchen that opens into her bistro-style restaurant, she goes easy on cream and butter, offers plenty of bright green salads and a litany of dishes that are totally familiar yet aren't carbon copies of other bistros. Further, she pays attention to visuals in ways chefs rarely do. Her food is simple, yet the play of colors is designed to please the eye, as well as the palate.
L'Assiette, has been carved out of a lovely 1930s charcuterie, a space adorned with etched-glass windows, butter-yellow walls and a touch of greenery. It is a comfortable-size restaurant with room for 40 or 50 diners. Although the new menu leans heavily toward specialties of the French southwest, the list of Rousseau's dishes does not read like a litany of foie gras and confit. In season, there is always an abundant assortment of sauteed wild mushrooms embellished with plenty of garlic and parsley. In cold-weather months, game is a specialty.