Where would you go and eat in Paris? If you’d asked me that 20 years ago, I would have had lots of ideas, but none of them new or exciting. “Voltaire, Lipp, Bofinger or Chez L’ami Louis – or if you want spend a fortune you could try Reblochon” I might have said.
But over the past 10 years, there’s been a new scene emerging, so seeking the advice of young and plugged in restaurateurs in London, I headed off with a list of names to see if Paris had found a new groove.
I remember a time when Parisian restaurants were known as the best in the world. Not just the ones strewn with Michelin stars, but the easy bistros, the little places serving steak with Boulangere potatoes, or a plate of garlicky escargot and a good glass of wine. But for the past 15 years or so, finding a reasonably priced, exceptional dinner in Paris had become something of a challenge.
Then came the new wave of bistronomique and the Neo-Bistro. Some say it started with a 29-year-old chef from Chicago, Daniel Rose, when he opened a tiny, instantly popular restaurant called Spring. A little place in the 9th Arrondissement with an open plan kitchen and a multi course set menu drawn from the best market produce. It was booked out for months in advance and has since moved to a larger premises in the 1st to accommodate the ever expanding demand.
This was 8 years ago, but since then, the tide has continued to turn. A new generation of chefs have turned their back on the strict Michelin dictates and forged a new path, reinvigorating and challenging their diners with fresh ideas, influenced by many other cultures but built from ingredients sourced close to home.
When Le Chateaubriand opened in 2006, it was quickly voted Best Restaurant in France by one influential survey. Quite an accolade, and one that the ever full booking sheet and queues outside will support.
A succession of these new bistros has opened up since then, which proves this style is more than just a fad and one that’s being embraced wholesale by Parisians. After Spring and Le Chateaubriand came, amongst others, Le Dauphin ( Le Chateaubriand’s younger, smaller counterpart) and Christophe Beaufront’s L’Avant Goût.
On a smaller scale, there is Le Verre Volé – a small room displaying shelves full of natural wines and a tiny kitchen providing simple dishes. Booking is imperative which is a sure sign of quality. Septime is another restaurant at the forefront of this new wave and like some of the others, also favours ‘natural’ and non-sulphite wines on their list. Some of which I managed to sample on my last visit.
My dinner at Septime consisted of a seven course set menu at a prix fixe of 55€ – a little more than the price of a main course at the legendary Crillon Restaurant (housed in the famous hotel). A wall of windows on the street side lets you glance in to a simple, informal room filled with wood, metal and old fittings which sit stylishly in their pared down surroundings. It occupies a discreet location, with just a small sign in lower case typeface on the exterior and a large glass window. It might appear undiscovered, yet since opening, this has been one of the hottest tickets in town. One blogger, I read, had been calling every day for a month to get a reservation.
The crowd is young on the Friday night which we visit, possibly due to the location – in the trendy 11th Arrondissement. The staff and the atmosphere is young, passionate and informal. Confident cooking, using excellent ingredients with a few newer techniques keeping it current: duck hearts were cooked sous-vide, there was a minimal but beautifully balanced plate of pureed of vegetables with herbs and some sea-fresh raw sliced scallops which gave a nod to Japanese influences.
It’s not unusual now to see more Japanese inspired dishes creeping onto menus in Paris. Recently the FT Magazine ran a piece about a new group of Japanese chefs, trained in classic French cooking who are introducing the Parisian palate to fusing some of their native ingredients and cooking philosophy into French cooking. There are now 14 restaurants which have opened in Paris by Japanese chefs – including Passage 5, Sola, Kei and Restaurant ES.
The bistronomique movement has embraced an organization, Le Fooding, which puts out an annual paperback listing its favorite restaurants. It also announces, online, a new restaurant discovery each week. Le Fooding has been in the business of rating restaurants for almost eleven years, compared with the Michelin Guide, which has been giving stars to restaurants since 1926. As Alexandre Cammas, the founder of Le Fooding explains: “we want the food to stay French, but we want the liberty of writing a new identity for French food. We don’t want to say it was bullshit before. We feel that everyone in France should be allowed to eat, cook, and write what it means to be French today, and that includes foreigners. We are all fighting to be free, to create future traditions.”
Septime 80, rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris
Spring 6, rue Bailleul, 75001 Paris
Chateaubriand 129, Avenue de Parmentier, 75011 Paris
L’Avant Goût 26, rue Bobillot, 75013 Paris
Le Verre Volé 67, rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris