Restaurants & Bars 3

Paris, the Bistro tour (long)

Julie | Dec 5, 200202:26 PM

My husband and I spent six days in Paris with four friends at the end of October based on his desire to be there with friends to celebrate his 60th birthday. In another post I’ve detailed our trek through all 20 arrondissements to drink a toast to him in each arrondissement to mark that day—October 29. Here’s a recounting of the food we ate on the rest of the trip.

I called this the Bistro Tour because we planned the trip with the “Bistros of Paris” book by Robert and Barbara Hamburger as a primary guide. We’ve done several two and three star restaurants and have lately come more and more to most appreciate the new and old-fashioned bistros with their homey feel and wonderful comfort food.

Here’s what we managed to do in 6 days:
Bastide Odeon, La Regalade, Le Languedoc, Ardoise, Cartet based upon recommendations from the Hamburgers (most recent and previous books)
Mavromatis, Clos des Gourmets, L’Astrance, Chinatown, Bofinger and Chez Vong based upon other research and experience.

We found all of them recommendable with the exception of Chinatown. Here are the highlights:

Bastide Odeon—seated on second floor, pretty and cozy as there was a persistent rain outside. Modern versions of classic Provencal cooking. Good fig, arugula, balsamic and mozzarella salad and excellent assembly of eggplant, tomato ricotta and pesto. Nice oxtails.

La Regalade—voted best of the trip by two of our party, especially me. Place is tiny and packed with an old-fashioned bistro feel even if it’s only opened within the last 10 years or so. Specials listed on chalkboard. Best ever terrine de campagne. (Saveur magazine for December gives the recipe for this wonderful item) I love gelatinous, cartilaginous (is that a word?) meats and “stuff” and am pretty much a devotee of “nose to tail” eating. I was delighted with the carpaccio de tete de veau with an excellent ravigote sauce including potato and crispy croutons. Their coquilles St. Jacques was a highlight for another member of our dining party. Desserts also good. In fact everything about this place and especially its food was terrific. It will become a must do for all future trips to Paris for me. Reservations a couple weeks or more ahead are a must.

Le Languedoc—is on the Bd de Port Royale that separate the 5th from the 13th arrondissements and close to the Val de Grace which we were unable once again to visit—see above. It’s terribly cute with red and white checked curtains and tablecloths, a truly traditional bistro menu and a tiny room filled with regulars. It was also the least expensive meal of our trip—125 euros for 4 with one or two carafes of the house wine, recommended by the regular at the adjoining table, even less than the 139 we spent for 4 at the Chinatown. Had my favorite smoked herring with potatoes in oil that comes in a large dish that is passed from table to table. Others had artichoke hearts with pink vinagrette and fois gras. Plates were confit de canard, ham and choucroute and cassoulet—I said this is a very traditional bistro menu, would I lie to you? Unfortunately also unchanging and very predictable. In fact the four of us eating there recognized after the meal that we had all ordered the identical main courses that we’d had the first time we ate there. So is it the restaurant that’s predictable or is it us? Or both? Whatever. It’s good, it’s cheap and it’s fun.

Ardoise—Can’t tell you much about this one because I didn’t go. Others in our party did and thought it good but very difficult to find, may even have walked by it without seeing it.

Cartet—Although I’d seen the entry for this in the Hamburger book, it wasn’t until I read some amusing posts on Chowhound that I became really interested in going to it. Burke and Wells had posted about their experiences with tripe in a sidesplitting post entitled “Excremental Encounter.” That post led me to their website where they’d posted “Return to Cartet” detailing the wonderful Lyonnais food they’d experienced at this tiny (seats about 24) restaurant in the 11th, not far from the Place de la Republique, another area of Paris we’d never been to and that has wonderful statues in a grassy and busy square (rectangle.) Burke and Wells are two gentlemen of significant size and appetites whose advice on food appears to be worthy of being taken very seriously. They had raved about the wonders of Cartet and I couldn’t wait to experience them myself. This is eating that is not for the faint of heart—or stomach. Tripe figures prominently on the menu. I can’t handle that but it turns out I can handle sheeps’ trotters which they serve very well done in a lemony cream sauce—very cartilaginous and very good. The terrines that are passed from table to table are also fun—tete de veau, jambon persil, chicken and compagne. I’ll admit to a bit of trouble with my saucisson chaude which sported a hint of that distinct tripe odor. The potatoes, however, both those in oil and mustard and those served dauphinois were to die for, as was a heavenly, puckery lemon tart that reminded me of grandma’s lemon pie. Madame was quite saucy for her age (which is close to if not beyond my own) and all that Burke and Wells had described her to be. This is a pretty unique dining experience and one that should be grabbed now. It’s truly a throwback to another age of Paris dining. Get it while you still can.

Mavromatis—is an upscale Greek restaurant of some authenticity not far from the Paris Mosque in the 5th. I’d seen pictures of this place for years but had always had it edged out of my dining plans by other more up-front, in-your-face places demanding to be eaten at. Again, this time I vowed to try it—and finally we did. It was all I’d hoped for. It has a wonderful, uncluttered, old-world atmosphere with crocheted curtains featuring grape bunches, ficus trees to separate some of the tables and pictures of the relatives in Old Greece tastefully adorning the walls. Food is all of the Greek regular stuff only done better and more refined. The appetizer sampler was a meal in itself but we, of course, didn’t stop there. My husband had shrimp with fennel, leeks and dill and I had lamb sausages like little meatballs with potato slices, carrots and zucchini. A pleasant, aesthetically pleasing experience all the way around.

Clos des Gourmets—on Avenue Rapp in the 7th is on a lot of short lists. The Chef is another of those fellows who learned at the foot of Christian Constant of Crillon and now Violon d’Ingres fame. The food is good but the tables are way too close together to do justice to it and make for a totally pleasant dining experience. Two of our party who had the casserole of fois gras described it as “best ever” and that’s saying a lot since one of those two has probably eaten more fois gras than Paul Bocuse. The creamy goat cheese with pistachio garnish, grapes and figs was good as was the pigs head over mashed potatoes, but the two of us who had caramelized fennel with lemon sorbet and basil decided that something that sounded good just didn’t work out when it left print and became reality.

L’Astrance—was our big splurge, not just in terms of cash but also of planning and effort. This place that seats only 30 or fewer, grants reservations only to those who call at precisely 9:30 a.m. Paris time 30 days prior to the date of requested dining. We had to do it. As luck would have it we were in Brittany on a previous trip on the designated day to call and I procured the services of our hotel concierge to make the fateful call. She was mystified at all the hoopla but dutifully did the deed and found a positive response for us when the person at the end of the phone turned out to have worked at the Brittany hotel him/herself. Oh joy! We were in! All we had to do was hold our breath for 30 days until we could actually collect on our good fortune. And it was good fortune, indeed. The place is absolutely beautiful, quite small with a second floor loft, gray/silver walls with recessed areas for flowers including purple calla lilies bathed in halogen light. Tables are set with glass charger discs (not actual plates) with swirls of either red, yellow, blue or orange, very modern and very elegant. Service was pleasant and even jovial, contrary to what I was expecting given the current status of this place as the hottest ticket in town. We had the chef’s surprise menu. For the true foodies in the crowd it consisted of the following: crab ravioli with avocado slices, crab, chives, sesame oil and crunchies, possibly lime; cod with cheesy cream and potatoes; a millefeuille of fresh mushrooms made with cepes and parmesan layers, a sort of sweet/sour concoction set in crisp filo; sander (fish) with fennel, deep fried with a nice nutty taste; eel in green oil and passion fruit juice with carrot shreds; a veloute de cepes with cream and crème de pine nuts; pureed chorizo, lentils and carrots with white onion sorbet and a kind of foam; chicken breast confit with fruit—raisins, craisins and crisp bread crumbs in lots of butter; partride in pistachio oil and quince with pears and rosemary; pepper sorbet with lemongrass and fruit; a chocolate twix type bar with coffee nougat, fig with balsamic vinegar and raspberry sorbet; and finally jasmine eggnog served in egg shells in a 6 egg carton—cute, maybe even too cute, but certainly interesting and amazing overall.

Chinatown—our only miss in a week of hits. This enormous restaurant in the 13th in Paris’ Chinatown area in a shopping/community center type building called Chinatown Olympiades, serving mostly Chinese patrons looked authentic but just didn’t measure up.
Food was greasy and tasteless and service was abominable. Too bad. I wanted it to be good.

Bofinger—the famous Art Nouveau bistro in the 4th with its wonderful glass ceiling was the place we selected for lunch during our marathon café crawl to toast my husband in each of the 20 arrondissements of Paris on the day of his 60th birthday. He loved it, rated it his number one favorite of the trip. The décor can’t be beat and if you stick to the standards for which it’s known--onion soup, choucroute and seafood platters--it is good.
The pot au fer de rascasse (monkfish) was not, however, a winner, just ok, as was the fois gras.

Chez Vong—a perennial favorite of ours in the 1st just off the Blvd St. Denis with its sex shops and prostitutes, is agreed by all we’ve know who have ever eaten there to be the most beautiful Chinese restaurant in the world. And it’s the place my husband picked for his 60th birthday dinner, and our last dinner in Paris on this trip. It was as beautiful as ever but the food was not quite as good as we’ve had there in the past. Dim sum, wonton soup, shrimp in potato shred baskets, sweet and sour shrimp, etc. etc. all competent but this time not inspired. Or perhaps we’d just become jaded after 6 days of bistro and other eating and a full day of carousing from arrondissement to arrondissement in pursuit of a unique and wonderful birthday—which it was.

We packed a lot into 6 days—and can’t wait to return for more.

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