This is for chowhounds who come to Paris seeking the ideal neighborhood bistrot: small, relatively unknown, completely unpretentious, bustling, off the beaten tourist track, serving simple, moderately-priced, carefully prepared dishes to a lively and appreciative local crowd. It is possible to visit this city ten times and to never come upon such a place, but here is one:
(pronounced without the t)
13 r Béatrix Dussane
Metro Dupleix (pron. doo PLEX)
Tel. 01 45 75 27 67
Closed for lunch Sat, Mon and all day Sunday
The middle-class neighborhood is about as perfect as a residential area can be in Paris: a mixture of 19th century pierre de taille bourgeois classics and ugly 1960s 4-5 story apartment blocks. Its true that the Eiffel Tower is only a ten minutes walk away, but this is the wrong side of the Champ de Mars, so the tourist nuisance is practically absent. Everywhere there are butcher shops, boulangeries, traiteurs, and scores of small restaurants of all kinds (off limits to c-hounds). The streets are bustling up to the moment when the shops close, and there are people about late into the night. The overhead metro (the oldest in the world) rumbles by every few minutes.
Le Volant is just off the busy rue Lourmel. There are about thirty tightly-packed tables for two, each covered with a snowy tablecloth, heavy flatware and (alas) a simple plastic ashtray. The walls are tightly-packed as well - with trophies and souvenir photos of the owner, who used to be a well-know race car driver (volant = steering wheel).
Its a sensual pleasure just to walk into the dining room off a cold, wet autumn street. The customers are mostly middle-aged and older which is a good sign since the generation that grew up in the 89s and 90s seems to have little interest in food. People are in a good mood: the tables are very close together, but you are less likely to have the common French experience of listening to four simultaneous tales of deep hypochondria (complete with details of physical examinations). Instead, if you are lucky, you will get a dose of incendiary politics or a juicy story of betrayal and divorce.
The menu is a simple compendium of bistrot classics: endives with blue cheese, lentils with lardons, pork or oxtail terrine, salad with preserved gizzards, veal or lamb stew, kidneys, sweetbreads, liver, entrecote béarnaise, roast rabbit grand mere, etc. In Paris, this normally spells doom: the prospect of un unpleasant evening straight out of the refrigerator by way of the microwave, but at the Volant not to worry. There is no attempt here to be original or creative, just respect for food and for the customers. It isnt just a matter of good ingredients and careful cooking, since these are hard to quantify. Its the small details that set this place above the rest. Since I tend to belly-ache ceaselessly on this board about the quality of Paris restaurants, let me list a few of these to illustrate how 90% of bistrots just dont measure up:
- Pieces of meat/fowl/fish are neatly trimmed, with no ugly scraps or sharp bones sticking out.
- Fresh ingredients are used (for example: fresh bay leaves!) when others wont bother.
- Salads are dressed just before they are served. Tomatoes are not served at all unless they are in season (the same for other fruits and vegetables). There isnt even a trace of the repulsive/ubiquitous canned corn or those nasty shredded carrots.
- The bread is sliced into the basket for each customer as needed, and the uneaten pieces are thrown away (there go 50% of bistrots right there).
- When you ask for a carafe of water, you actually get one (another 50% effect). The water has had time to evaporate its heavy post-911 dose of chlorine.
- The silverware/napkins/tablecloths are clean and the plates warm but not hot.
- Almost all of the wines on the list are available in full or half-bottles, at a price not more than twice retail, and the appellations are those characterized by good value for money, for example, menetou-salon, saumur-champigny, moulin-a-vent, gaillac, saint veran, cotes de blaye. Gamays come from the northern appellations, not the unspeakable Beaujolais. Each wine is served at the correct temperature. The by-the-glass wine is the same as that sold by the bottle, not some special Chateau Seine Embankment.
- The owners appear to be glad to see you coming in, and they will ask you whether you mind sitting next to some smokers (!). During your meal, the staff look out over the room and actually make eye contact with the customers, so getting another bottle or the check is easy.
There are only two downsides. The room gets pretty smoky, so best to reserve for 8PM. (Incidentally, legislation banning smoking in public places could pass the National Assembly within the next year.) Plus, as expected, the coffee is terrible. That will never change.