Movable Feast - Paris
You already know the bad news. Paris is expensive. How expensive? Dinner can easily set you back $100 a person. The good news is that you can dine extremely well for half that if you hit the locals' favorite bistros.
I love these neighborhood bistros as much for their food as for their totally Parisian attitude. In the late ‘90s, I returned to a now-defunct favorite in the Montparnasse district, Chez Pierre, that specialized in country fare from Burgundy. As a devoted fan of that cuisine, I struggled over the menu. I'd had a hankering for salmon with a beurre blanc sauce, but Cassoulet stood out as the bistro's specialty. I still hadn't decided when the patronne came to take our order.
"Maybe you can help me," I said, confiding my problem. She looked at me as if I was hopeless and shrugged her shoulders. "They're completely different," she announced brusquely as she walked away. "Let me know when you make up your mind."
The reaction of a professional food enthusiast. Of course it would all be great. I was just out-of-touch with my palate. I would not make the same mistake during the remainder of my culinary adventure.
With a seating capacity of 400, Le Grand Colbert is as large as Chez Pierre was small. When my companion and I walked in at 7 p.m., not a single seat was occupied.
"We reserved a table," I joked self-deprecatingly as the host led us through the empty barn of a restaurant.
"That's good. Because we're full tonight," he responded.
I laughed. Then he pulled the stack of name cards from his pocket.
As we watched the efficient wait-staff check and shine every glass and piece of silverware, any notion that he might have been pulling my leg was dispelled. Sure enough, by 8:30 p.m., not a table remained empty. I could only imagine how the kitchen was responding to the surge of hungry patrons. Fortunately, however, this heightened demand did not affect the quality of the traditional food we were served. We started with salmon terrine. The slice of leg of lamb that followed was moist and flavorful. But it paled next to the Gratin Dauphinois, the French take on scalloped potatoes. "These are heaven on earth," my companion said in a dreamy voice.
After such a rich meal, we opted to split a green apple sorbet served with Calvados — a potent apple brandy — for dessert. And promptly experienced a taste treat that neither of our palates will ever forget. "I'd kill for this," announced my partner in crime, her eyes wide with wonder.
The following dinner had to be extra special, since I had invited a special guest to join me. I called an old buddy for advice. "Le Cameleon is one of my favorite bistros," he announced. His wife seconded the suggestion immediately, so I made the reservation.
I felt reassured the moment I stepped into the small, pretty restaurant. The bartender set down the glass he had been drying and came around to greet us with a smile. We were seated in no time. Before long, I was blissfully indulging in the lovely haricot verts I'd been eyeing in the vegetable shops I passed on the street. These were tossed in vinaigrette and topped with slices of fresh foie gras. My brother savored every morsel of his foie gras (sans green beans). So far so good!
The main course was even more impressive. My duck was crispy and succulent, the accompanying wine sauce so luscious that I sopped up every remaining drop with my bread. Even so, I couldn't help coveting the Terrine de Merlan — an airy white fish mousse in a delicate cream sauce — after I'd tasted it. We finished the meal with a flourish: white chocolate mousse, and lemon creme brûlée. I don't ever need to eat better.
Though I had heard horror stories about other Paris visitors' eating escapades, my good fortune continued to hold. The next night a friend and I headed to Le Chardenoux by the Bastille. With its painted panels gilded in gold, the smoky restaurant made us feel like we were eating inside an old-fashioned merry-go-round. The menu read like a compendium of comfort food taken to new culinary heights.
After lengthy reflection, we both ordered the endive, Roquefort and walnut salad. Then my companion opted for the Daubes de Joues de Boeuf a la Provencale (Provencale Braised Beef), while I decided to take advantage of the mushroom season by selecting the Cote de Veau Fermier aux Morrilles (a thick veal chop with Morel mushrooms). Both were remarkable. "This is the best food in the whole world," said my companion, a die-hard Italian aficionado.
For dessert, we split sauteed sour cherries served over a small mountain of homemade vanilla ice-cream. "Take me now," whispered my thoroughly sated friend looking aloft. She was right. It was sublime.
The meal was going to be hard to top. Besides, after all the French feasting we'd been doing, we decided for a change of pace. So we met my brother and his family at Restaurant Nioulaville, touted as the La Coupole of Chinese food — and the best in Paris. Actually, Nioulaville doesn't just list Cantonese and Szechwan fare in its 17-page menu. Its half-a-dozen kitchens also serve up Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hong Kong dishes. While waiting for your order, you can also sample steamed dim sum, fried shrimp fritters and lacquered duck from roving carts.
With just a couple of days left, we decided to bite the bullet and brave the real La Coupole when we couldn't get a reservation at La Regalade, a highly touted bistro that met our price requirements. As usual, La Coupole was jammed. By the time I managed to find the host among the throngs waiting for dinner, I felt like I'd wrestled my way through three subway cars at rush hour. I needed a drink — and not at La Coupole. We headed across the street to the Cafe Select, quaffed a glass of Champagne and promptly resolved not to return to the famous madhouse.
Our bartender was friendly and looked well-fed. So we turned to him for advice. Could he direct us to a nearby bistro with good food and a moderate price-tag? "Chez Marcel," he said with authority.
The bistro looked like everything we were seeking. Unfortunately, it also looked very closed. Upon my return some time later, I would ascertain its merits for myself. A Celeri remoulade with chorizo appetizer set the stage for traditional quenelle de Brochet, essentially a light, egg-shaped fish dumpling in a rich, creamy langoustine sauce. “This is really what dining in Paris is about,” I thought as I sat on the banquette at one of the eight tables for two lining the wall opposite the wood bar and watched the servers greet a number of regulars.
With our trip — and our dining adventure — just about over, we elected La Marlotte on La Rue Cherche-Midi (Paris' Restaurant Row) as the site for our last hurra'. Bien fait! Well done!
The restaurant appeared to be everything I'd ever hoped for in a French bistro. Walls covered with framed, odd-shaped mirrors and colorful plates, gorgeous flower arrangements, a warm welcome (even though we were half an hour late) and fabulous smells emanating from the kitchen and the tables around us.
Throughout the meal, we smacked our lips and toasted our selection of restaurant and food. The Fond d'Artichaut Marlotte, a heavenly egg appetizer covered with sauteed artichoke hearts and a light cream sauce, left me crowing with delight. The wild mushroom terrine served warm with a tomato-based vegetable sauce proved a memorable moment in my long and devoted history of eating. The sole meuniere was cooked to a moist golden brown perfection. And finally, the Mousse au Chocolate — a rich, dense and utterly unforgettable rendition of this classic made with bitter-sweet chocolate — provided a perfect cap to our ten-day movable feast.