Robert V. Camuto tours the new wave of eateries that offer France's famous cooking in a more relaxed setting.
Bertrand Bluy doesn't fit the image of a pastry chef. A towering man with a shiny shaved head and a frame as solid as a brick oven, he speaks with a guttural south-western French accent that conjures up a rugby forward rather than someone who has studied the art of mille-feuille. Yet for more than a decade, Bluy worked as a patissier in some of France's elite kitchens, including Troisgros in Roanne and Michelin three-star Parisian restaurant Taillevent.
In 2003, after a friend found a wine store, or cave, for sale in Paris's fifth arrondissement, Bluy opened his own place, transforming the space into the kind of bistro he'd want to hang out in with his rugby pals.
Les Papilles is a long storefront with a zinc bar along one wall and, lining the opposite wall, shelves filled with gourmet products and more than 350 French wines, ranging from a modest Gaillac red for about €8 ($11.70) to a 1997 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (about €320).
During a recent lunch, all 15 wood-and-iron bistro tables were occupied, mostly by Parisians stimulating their papilles (taste buds) with the delicately seasoned specials of the day: a gazpacho of fresh mushrooms followed by slow-simmered duck flank in a sweet and pungent sauce with new potatoes and vegetables, as well as farm-made cheeses and Bluy's inventive desserts. It was a sensory experience worthy of a great gastronomic restaurant but at prices that probably will keep most of us coming back (about €16 for the plat du jour; €32 for a full four-course meal) and served by Bluy and a small jeans-clad staff.
As a singular experience, Les Papilles would be worth writing home about. But it's more than that: a symbol of a trend that has accelerated in recent years. Even before the global recession, new generations in Paris had gone more casual, insisting on good comfort food and wines at a fraction of the cost of traditional restaurant fare. Among the new-style eateries are caves a manger - wine shops that double as wine bars or bistros and serve meals that create lasting impressions.
"People are looking for a place that is convivial, where everything is fresh, where the wine is good and it's not expensive," says Bluy, who adds that he uses many of the same fresh-food suppliers as Taillevent.
For wine lovers accustomed to paying high restaurant prices, Paris's caves offer a chance to taste a variety of wines - from the Loire to the Rhone, from Alsace to Languedoc and Provence - at prices not much higher than those in a wine store. Wine selections by the glass rarely top €6.
The influential wine critic for France's Le Point magazine, Jacques Dupont, calls the trend of caves à mangers a "reaction to high wine prices". But he says there are other factors at work as well: the popularity of caves is a reaction to a climate in the French workplace - one that now frowns on afternoon wine-drinking. The caves' relaxed settings are particularly popular with the young and usually specialise in small wine producers and "natural wines", made from non-chemically farmed grapes and produced with little or no sulphur, added yeasts or filtering.
The caves also offer visitors a glimpse of a Paris that is more authentic than at the bistros and restaurants on the city's main boulevards. On a series of recent cave crawls, I ate and drank with friends, relatives and fellow bons vivants from both sides of the Atlantic.
Le Baron Rouge, a precursor to present trends, is in a lively neighbourhood not far from the Place de la Bastille. It opened in 1969 and doesn't seem to have changed a lick. Smokers congregate at a few pavement bar tables. In the entry of the bright Basque-red interior is something rarely seen in France these days: stacked oak wine barrels from which Le Baron sells wine in bulk. Jazz music provides a groove for the two managers behind the zinc bar.
Depending on the crowd or when you arrive, table service can be occasional or nonexistent, meaning that you'll probably have to walk up to the bar and order from the jungle of blackboards. The place serves about 50 wines from across France at about €1.50 to €4 a glass and about €12 to €20 a bottle. The food is classic wine-bar fare: plates of charcuterie (about €12), a cheese selection (€14) and small plates of rillettes (pork or goose-based spread similar to pate), andouille (smoked chitterling sausage) and goat's cheese (all about €4 to €6).
Le Verre Vole opened in 2000, a few steps from the Canal St Martin, and has become a hip address for discovering some of France's best natural wines from organic and biodynamic producers. Le Verre Vole attracts a youngish international crowd. Twenty-three chairs are packed tightly around small tables below shelves loaded with more than 300 wines.
Excellent charcuterie, pates and French comfort food are brought in from other restaurants and caterers and assembled on the premises. Prices are reasonable: a corkage fee of €7 on bottles of wine that sell from about €10 to more than €300 and a rotating list of 10 wines by the glass, priced from €3.50 to €6. Main courses such as a grilled Toulouse sausage and caillette (a pork pate-like preparation from the Ardeche region) are about €12; appetisers such as fresh mozzarella and basil in olive oil or grilled Brittany shrimp are about €7 to €11.
Just off the popular-meets-trashy Boulevard Montmartre, the Passage des Panoramas is Paris's oldest covered street arcade, an oasis of class and calm dating from the early 19th century. Here, between an art framer's studio and a stamp collector's shop, is Racines, a casual outpost for "natural wine and natural food" with Italian touches, that opened in 2007.
The fresh food at Racines is some of the most painstakingly sourced anywhere: vegetables are grown on a biodynamic farm, meats are provided by Paris's elite butcher, Desnoyer, charcuterie is imported from Tuscany and the coffee (the best espresso I've had in France) comes from a roaster in Modena, Italy.
Dining here is not cheap: a starter and entree selected from a short list of blackboard specials will cost about €40 but what arrives on the plate is irreproachable. The chef and staff, who work from an open kitchen, may look like a rock band but they cook like a gaggle of French grandmas. Roast suckling pig from Bigorre was a tasty and tender dish, accompanied by a puree of potatoes so creamy it bordered on a revelation.
Racines' walls are stacked with about 50 small production wines from France and Italy (all of them made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes and much of them made with no added sulphur) that can be opened on the premises with a corkage fee of €8. Glasses of wine start at about €5.
The Scotland-born wine-loving bon vivant Tim Johnston keeps a loyal following of Anglophones and French alike at Juvenile, a cosy wine shop/bistro near the Paris stock exchange. On a recent visit, Johnston merrily went from table to table pouring tastes of a recent wine find (an Australian chardonnay in a screw-cap bottle). For 23 years, he has scoured the vineyards of France and beyond for small-production wines that please him and, together with celebrated Rhone Valley winemaker Marcel Richaud, he blends a red table wine called Elevenzes. Table prices for wines are between €14 to €70 a bottle.
Juveniles' menu includes starters such as homemade duck foie gras and crostini of prosciutto, tomato confit and sliced parmesan. Hearty main dishes include well-grilled-to-order tuna steak, duck flank and rib steak. Desserts include roasted figs in red wine and "Donald's chocolate cake". It's about €30 for a three-course dinner.
The fanciful and beautiful fish-theme mosaics that decorate the front and interior of Fish La Boissonnerie were left over from the antique Poissonnerie, converted to a wine bar by Drew Harre, another Brit in Paris. Fish is not technically a wine shop; Harre's cave, called La Derniere Goutte, is around the corner. Still, it deserves to be on any visitor's list because it focuses on good-quality food and wines at reasonable prices as it swims in a sea of Saint-Germain tourist haunts.
A casual place in which you can reserve a wood or zinc-topped table or walk in and sit at the bar, Fish does not limit its cuisine to seafood.
Chef Matthew Ong uses fresh seasonal ingredients and combines French, Mediterranean and Asian influences for delicious, inventive results. The monthly changing menu on our visit included main dishes of fresh, ultra-rare tuna steaks, linguini with clams and dried tomatoes and a mille-feuille of rabbit. Starters included fresh goat cheese and olives and foie gras with chutney.
Figure about €13 to €25 for lunch; about €30 to €35 for a two- or three-course dinner. A wine list of about 300 selections covers all of France except Bordeaux (viewed as too stodgy). A list of about 10 wines by the glass changes weekly and starts at about €5.
Les Papilles, 30 Rue Gay-Lussac, +33 (0) 1 4325 2079. Reservations. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Le Baron Rouge, 1 Rue Theophile-Roussel, 12th arrondissement, +33 (0) 1 4343 1432. No reservations. Open Tuesday-Sunday, lunch and dinner hours.
Le Verre Vole, 67 Rue de Lancry, 10th arrondissement, +33 (0) 1 4803 1734. Reservations. Lunch and dinner daily.
Racines, 8 Passage des Panoramas, Second arrondissement, +33 (0) 1 4013 0641. Reservations. Open Monday-Friday for lunch and dinner.
Juveniles, 47 Rue de Richelieu, First arrondissement, +33 (0) 1 4297 4649. Reservations. Closed Sunday and for lunch Monday.
Fish La Boissonnerie, 69 Rue de Seine, Sixth arrondissement, +33 (0) 1 4354 3469. Reservations. Lunch and dinner daily.