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New book--Paris by Bistro (Long)

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New book--Paris by Bistro (Long)

JmVikmanis | Jul 21, 2004 10:38 AM

Just picked up a copy of this recently released book by Christine and Dennis Graf. Saw it mentioned in some newspaper (possibly NYTimes or possibly local—authors are from Twin Cities but have lived part of each year in Paris for more than 30 years) and decided to check it out and compare with the book about Paris Bistros by Robert and Barbara Hamburger.

Like the Hamburger book, it takes the reader by arrondissement through the city, presenting reviews and information about bistros in each. I was pleased to see that there were many places in Graf not reviewed in Hamburger. So for information alone, it is worth the additional $18 investment for those who, like me, already have the Hamburger book. Overall I found Hamburger superior for basic food information, providing lists of typical dishes at each bistro and even an index of sorts by typical bistro dishes, permitting one to find at a glance e.g. bistros serving cassoulet or beef with carrots, etc. To me Hamburger also appears to be the more “professional” in the reviewing department. Graf, on the other hand, should appeal to those who like their food information accompanied by bits of history, especially in relationship to literary figures. Graf presents each arrondissement (or two, such as the first and second, 19th and 20th, etc.) in a separate chapter titled with some kind of “heading,” e.g. “Writer’s Watering Holes” is used to describe the 5th and 6th. The writers then go on to provide a couple of pages giving an overview of the area and some history regarding the selected heading as it pertains to the selected area. Reviews are much more personalized than in Hamburger, citing specifically what the Graf’s ate rather than providing more generalized information about what is available or what the specialties are.

Though I’ve not done a painstaking comparison (actually I can’t, since I’m in St. Paul just now and my Hamburger guide is in FL), it seems to me at first glance that Graf concentrates more on old-fashioned bistros than Hamburger which pays considerable attention to new bistros, especially those opened by famous chefs. There is some of that in Graf also, just not as much. Another difference is that Hamburger uses a rating scheme for both quality and relative cost of food while Graf provides such information only in narrative, identifying specifically the cost of the selections made by the Grafs and sometimes providing general information about the range of prices for various courses—but not always. Rather than a rating of toques or pots as Hamburger uses (different symbols to differentiate between old and new types of bistros), Graf simply provides an overall assessment at the end of each entry, sometimes referring more to price and décor than to food quality, e.g. “Le Café du Musee Jacquemart-Andre: Budget prices in palatial elegance.”

One of the primary differences between the two guides is that Graf has pictures—in black and white--of the décor, the actual food, and artsy shots of entries, tables with chairs, exteriors and even surroundings. The pictures, mostly taken by Dennis Graf, are very good and capture some of the atmosphere that obviously enchants the Grafs about bistros. Probably to enhance the viewing quality of the pictures, the book is printed on high-quality, glossy paper which has the unfortunate down-side of making it weigh more than most of us are willing to carry with us as we traverse the streets of Paris. So it’s best as a planning tool rather than a take-with guide.

Finally, proving that this is a very literate culinary tour, Graf provides a separate chapter on Maigret’s Bistros for his fans as well as an extra-helping on the 6th arrondissement referencing especially African-American writers in Paris. The book concludes with a chapter on Romantic Bistros and the requisite glossary of French food terms. The index seemed to me relatively useless with about as many names of writers referenced in the text as bistros reviewed or mentioned and no references at all to bistro dishes, something I find so appealing and useful in the Hamburger book.

Overall, the new Graf book seems a useful addition to the library of Foodies interested in finding every possible good bistro in Paris. For those who may want only to purchase one book on the subject, I suggest sticking with Hamburger—unless, you are also a literature buff intent on finding the bistros where various writers have eaten before you.

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