Our courageous correspondent eats her way through one exquisite, cost-conscious meal after another on behalf of Budget Travel's hungry readers. Quel sacrifice!
Nearly four years have passed since I published my first "Little Wonder Restaurants of Paris" article, so the time seemed ripe to revisit the City of Light (and heavy eating). It turns out I was ripe as well. Just as soon as I got the assignment, I got pregnant (the better, I suppose, to re-create my first eating tour, which occurred when I was six months along with my first child). So once again, here I am, waddling through Paris, fighting back nausea, finicky and forever famished. It's actually quite a good condition for a food critic, because believe you me, if I like the meal in this state, you're going to love it.
A few things have changed since that last article. One of our favorite restaurants closed, three others went drastically downhill, another raised its prices. But in this city of infinite eating options, I've been able to find even better cheap joints to take their place. So don't believe the hype about Paris: Yes, prices have gone up since President Clinton was in office, thanks to the steady devaluation of the dollar (as I write this it's achieved parity with the euro). But the little mama et papa eateries still exist, where good, honest grub is dished up for a reasonable rate, as well as some fairly chic and happening places that cater to the young and perpetually impoverished student crowds.
(Where prices appear in euros, you can more or less assume that E1=$1.)
7 Faubourg-Montmartre, 01-47-70-86-29. Metro: Grand Boulevards. Two courses from e8.65 ($8.65), two courses with wine from E11.15 ($11.15).
My first pick is a "returnee" from the first article, Paris's classic budget restaurant. I had the pleasure of dining at Chartier on my last visit with an American friend who's lived in Paris so long, she can coordinate a silk scarf with an outfit and tie it in that chic Gallic manner in less than two minutes. Being now tres "French," there was a single word she muttered as she tasted each dish, smiling as she said it. "Correct," she would repeat, "this is very correct."
Was this a code word for "dull" or "distasteful"? Not in the least. What she meant was that each dish was done in the way it was supposed to be done, in a traditional manner to the traditional specifications. And that's what you come to Chartier for: the classic French meal. You come for steak with a classic bearnaise sauce (E9.70), for the simple but tasty oeuf mayonnaise (Egg with mayonnaise, E1.60), for grilled salmon (E9.05), for pommes frites (E2.20). All are correct, and all are highly affordable, with appetizers averaging E2.20 and main dishes going for between e7.05 and E9.70.
And you come to be a part of history. Chartier began as a bouillon, or workers' canteen, in the 1890s, and all of the building's belle epoque flourishes are untouched. It's a grand open space, seating several hundred, with soaring ceilings, marble wainscoting, bulbous chandeliers, and brass luggage racks above the tables. As you enter, take a peek at the numbered, dark-wood cabinets: These were where regulars stored their personal napkins until the practice was outlawed in the mid-twentieth century for health reasons.
7 rue Mondovi, 01-42-60-18-91. Metro: Concorde. Two courses from E11.50 ($11.50). Closed Sundays.
I know it's very, well, American of me, but I prefer to eat at places where the waiters don't seem to despise their jobs and customers. And while I don't buy into the idea that the service in Paris is any more brusque than it is in many other large European cities (try getting a meal with a smile in Prague), there are times when the eater just doesn't feel loved. That's the moment when they should leave where they are and head straight for Lescure (and if they're anywhere near the Louvre or the Tuileries, they'll be pretty close). Located on perhaps the least friendly street in Paris (it's at the back of the American Embassy, so a large armored vehicle blocks the street, and police in bullet-proof vests pace the intersection), Lescure is an oasis of old-fashioned bonhomie. As patrons enter, they are greeted with a hearty handshake by the staff, a jovial group, who will lay a friendly hand on your shoulder as you order, offer suggestions, and crack jokes. It's a family-owned place, passed down from father to son since 1919.
The setting is just as convivial, a transplanted country inn in looks, with a low, beamed ceiling, straw hats as wall art, and lamps shaded in a fabric that looks like nothing so much as fancy cheesecloth. Diners sit elbow to elbow in the cramped rooms, a difficult situation for lefties, but a terrific one for striking up unexpected conversations.
You'll want to bring your appetite, as the portions are massive (in fact, I suggest splitting the starters). The dishes are homey and unpretentious, from the marbled slab of chicken-liver terrine (E4), served with tear-inducingly sour cornichons; to the Henry VIII portions of stuffed chicken (E9) or chicken with a piquant tomato sauce (E8); to the classic boeuf bourguignon (E11). I suggest skipping the creme caramel (E3.50) and opting for either a sorbet (E5) or a chocolate fondant (E5.50).
Le Petit Prince de Paris
12 rue de Lanneau, call first for reservations: 01-43-54-77-26. Metro: Maubert-Mutualite. Two courses for E17 ($17). Dinner only.
We get a baby-sitter when we eat at Le Petit Prince. Sure, we could take our three-and-a-half-year-old with us, but why waste this dimly lit, romantic restaurant on a family meal? (The terra-cotta walls combined with the candlelight do wonders for the skin, making everyone look like they have a sexy Saint-Tropez tan.) It's a place for lovers of all stripes, as the restaurant is proudly gay-friendly, displaying rainbow flags in its window and playing a soundtrack that veers from the cliched (Judy crooning "Over the Rainbow") to the toe-tapping (Louis Prima) to the just plain odd (Madonna's version of Evita).
The decor is as eclectic as the music, each of the three rooms with a distinct character. As you enter the place, it looks somewhat like an eccentric collector's parlor, with oddly shaped food tins, and unusual posters gracing the walls. Then you come upon what I call the "Italian garden"-the middle area-with its stone putti fountain, its abundant plants, its canary cage. Upstairs, you're back in France, sitting in a wooden-beamed den, with framed belle epoque posters on the walls.
The food is, for the most part, excellent. Choose from two menus: a two-plate formule at E17, and a more elaborate E22 prix fixe. You won't be cheated by going with the less expensive option (but if you want such pricey treats as escargots and foie gras, you're going to have to ante up). On the cheapskate front are fresh salad with warm goat cheese and apples, poached eggs with blue cheese, and a rustic, tangy plate of potatoes, onions, and Lyonnaise sausages in a chive vinaigrette (scrumptious!). For the main plate, the choices often change with the seasons, but on the occasions I've been there, the highlights have been a frenchified chicken tandoori with a real pepper kick, plated on a spiced-yogurt foam; lamb chops smothered in goat cheese; and sesame-crusted veal in a creamy oregano sauce. If you decide to spring for dessert (an extra E5.80), avoid the overly sweet peach tart and instead go for the rich Charlotte au chocolat (basically a mousse in a crust), the chocolate menthe sorbet with hot chocolate sauce, the rice pudding, or the toasted almond mousse.
44 rue Vielle du Temple, 01-48-87-12-01. Metro: Place du Ville. Appetizer and entree or entree and dessert for E14.50 ($14.50). Closed Tuesdays, dinner only.
With a few key changes, such as getting rid of the unrelenting pop music and dimming the lights, Le Colimaeon would have ambience galore. Named for the treacherous, winding staircase in the center of the restaurant (patrons sit on two levels, and the rail-thin waiters stay that way by dashing up and down, loaded with trays), Le Colimaeon is set in a 1732 house constructed by royal architect Louis Le Tellier. The owners have the sense not to touch the rough stone walls, or the dark wooden beams in the ceiling, keeping the rooms serenely uncluttered.
But it really isn't the look of the place that made this our new favorite in Paris-it's the food, which is a cut above standard budget fare (Le Petit Prince comes close to it in quality). At our first visit, my husband declared his mussels the best he'd ever had, and I couldn't agree more-those little critters had to have been born and raised in white wine and cream, so perfectly infused was each bite. The pork loin would have tickled Marie Antoinette, coated with honey and then dashed with vinegar. Even three-year-old Veronica was enthralled, downing her lamb chops so quickly I barely got a taste. I could go on and on about the lime mousse with raspberry sauce (which puts most key lime pies to shame), the perfect fish soup, the leek and shrimp flan...but you get the point. This place must be tasted!
Le Colimacon is only open for dinner, so if you're looking for a place in the Marais for lunch, Le Reconforte, 37 rue de Poitou (Metro: Filles du Calvaire) is a terrific pick. While it's a bit pricier at dinner, its E12 prix fixe (two courses) puts it squarely in our budget for the midday meal. An elegant restaurant, looking like the library of a nineteenth-century noble (with a fondness for Turkish art, and oddly, twentieth-century painting), Le Reconforte serves inventive Proven?al cuisine. Another top choice.
Restaurant La Peccadille
12 rue Pecquay, 01-44-59-86-72. Metro: Rambuteau. Two courses from E12.50 ($12.50).
London has the reputation of being a gloomy, rainy place in winter, but the truth is that her neighbor across the channel can be just as gray and drizzly come November. Enter La Peccadille, a shockingly bright hole-in-the-wall of a restaurant, decorated entirely in yellows and oranges. "Orange is my element," explained owner/waiter Olivier. "It's so welcoming, especially when it is dark outside." Olivier is pretty welcoming himself, a grinning, goateed hurricane who greets guests, takes orders, and often pitches in in the kitchen of this new venture (it's less than a year old).
The food can best be described as sunny, big on the salads, and occasionally with an African influence, as when lemony chicken Yassa is on the daily changing menu. While the cuisine is not complex, the salads and plates (pork Proven?al E9.50, beef foresti?re E10) have that straight-from-the-market taste. A good choice for lunch or dinner when visiting the Centre Pompidou (which is just a short stroll away).
Le Petit Keller
13 bis rue Keller, 01-47-00-12-97. Metro: Bastille. Three courses for E14 ($14), dinner only.
Many tourists overlook the Bastille, which is a shame because it's become one of Paris's most happening areas, a neighborhood of chic bars, hopping dance clubs, and interesting boutiques. Le Petit Keller has that young, vibrant spirit (not to mention a color scheme taken from Van Gogh's palette). It remains a gathering place, where under-35 patrons "sit in intense, smoky groups laughing and arguing and drinking cup after cup of espresso" (to quote from my first Paris article).
The daily changing menu has also remained as good, and as interesting. Although the duck with honey and fig sauce was not offered on recent visits (much to my dismay), there was a fresh-as-the-color-green cucumber soup, a delish salad of fava beans in coriander and cumin, a fillet of fish in a piquant pepper sauce, a nice curried chicken, and more. None disappointed.
Le Pied de Fouet
45 rue de Babylone, 01-47-05-12-27. Metro: Vaneau or St. Fran?ois-Xavier. Two courses from e8.90 ($8.90). Closed Sundays.
I'm always leery of places that too many guidebooks have picked, and from the sticker-covered door of this one, it looks like none of them have missed this little 7th arrondissement bistro. So we were pleased to find, when we entered, that all of the neighboring tables were inhabited by Parisians (in a place this small, you can hear every conversation).
It's not the most exciting-looking place, simply four small tables with red-checked cloths in a room festooned with postcards (there's also a small balcony with a few more tables), but the food is honest, well spiced, and remarkably cheap for the area (an easy stroll from the Bon March? department store, a doable walk from the Eiffel Tower). You can't really go wrong with anything on the menu, but we particularly liked the sauteed chicken livers, a steal at E6.90, sided by silky mashed potatoes. Also good is the carrot salad, a mound of shredded carrots but with a lovely dressing that somehow "elevates" the dish. Or try the rich fondant au chocolat (E2.75), the fillet of bass (E10), or the sausage plate (E9.50). Wine is just E2.30 more. Reportedly, Andre Gide was a frequent customer.
67 rue de Montparnasse, 01-43-20-93-50. Metro: Montparnasse-Bienvenue. Two courses from E10.85 ($10.85). Closed Mondays.
As frilled as the traditional hats worn by the women of Brittany, La Creperie is a place of lace and knickknacks. The elaborately carved wood walls are festooned with decorative plates and regional photographs, there are little porcelain figurines to stare at, and every lamp in the place comes with its own lace chapeau. This is a long way of saying that children will dig it, as there's much to keep their attention here. They'll also enjoy the oversize crepes, which overhang the plates by a few inches, and the simple, savory fillings they come with: butter (E4); eggplant puree, ham, onions, sausage, egg, or cheese (E5.95); bacon (E6.40); or myriad combinations of the above ingredients, which range in price from e7.95 to e8.95.
For dessert it's-what else?-more crepes, and these are the meal's highlight, often literally, when the waiter douses one in liqueur and carries it flaming to the table.
Josselin is perpetually jammed-no mean feat on a street that is Paris's Brittany equivalent of a Chinatown, with nearly every business on the street a competing creperie. But none approach the quality or ambience of Josselin (including offshoot Le Petit Josselin), so get on line-it won't take too long.
Don't eat away at your dining budget!