I am always wary when I compile lists of favorite places to eat for a given destination -- especially when the destination is Paris – because I am always sure I will forget some worthy place(s). I had a nagging feeling that the list I included in my Paris book was incomplete, mostly because I did not include places I’d enjoyed many years ago (Le Procope, the original Benoit before Alain Ducasse acquired it, as two examples). I felt if I hadn’t been there recently it wasn’t fair to include them in case they’d changed beyond recognition.
But I was rather horrified to discover, when a copy of French Bistro: Seasonal Recipes crossed my desk, that I’d completely forgotten to include le Paul Bert! [18 rue Paul Bert, 11th arrondissement / (33) 1.4372.2401 / Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny] Le Paul Bert is on many peoples’ short lists of favorite Paris restaurants, and with good reason: it’s a true bistro, in all the best ways. I had such a terrific meal at the Paul Bert and it felt so good to be there that I was quite reluctant to leave (and I felt I could have stayed longer and no one would have minded) that it’s hard to believe I actually forgot about it. (But then, I also recently discovered that I’d forgotten a few other favorites, which I’ll share later.)
Anyway, one of the things that makes le Paul Bert unique is its menu of excellent renditions of traditional bistro dishes and modern interpretations. This new cookbook (Flammarion, English language edition 2012), by Paul Bert owner Bertrand Auboyneau and Le Figaro food critic François Simon, has a great number of appealing recipes that for the most part are not difficult to prepare at home. But the really valuable feature of the book is ‘The Ten Bistro Essentials’ which are: The Owner, The Chef, The Chalkboard Menu, The Wine, The Servers, The Table, The Décor, The Clients, The Ambience, and The Aromas. Though in some regards these are unique to the Paul Bert, they are mostly common to every worthwhile bistro you will ever go to, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in eating at Paris bistros (and isn't that everyone?) to read them! Take note of the following from ‘The Chef:’ “Bistros are a roaring success in Paris today due to their moderation, the culinary wisdom that the unlikely pair of owner and chef delivers. For all this, the chef is not second-best or a downtrodden Cinderella. He may not be in the spotlight, but he has the tranquil force of a navigator. He knows all too well that without him, the car would go off the road…Without him, [clients] would have their pâté en croute with asparagus Chantilly and a square-shaped dollop of garden pea foam. Bistro clients don’t know how lucky they are.” And this from ‘The Wine:’ “The bistro serves wines that suit a clientele with an environmental conscience.” And this from ‘The Servers:’ “A good waitstaff finds ways to sidestep the constraints imposed by the owner and obtain special privileges, like extra French fries. They give a perfect theater performance, never overacting (as you might see in a brasserie), but weaving their way through the dining hall as proudly as tango dancers. They are the stars of this urban choreography, and they know it.” And lastly a note from the ‘A Bistro Will Never be Perfect’ page: “The bistro resembles life with all its blemishes and even illustrates that there is no such thing as unmitigated excellence… the average bistro serves up to 150,000 dishes a day, which translates into 40,000 clients over 100,000 hours. Sooner or later, an accident will happen. What else can you expect? Don’t think of it as a disaster; it’s just life taking its course.”
At the back of the book is a list of thirteen (other) classic Parisian bistros that are favorites of Auboyneau and Simon (and that I suspect would keep any visitors to Paris quite sufficiently happy) as well as list of the Paul Bert’s suppliers (ooh-la-la, must check some of these out!). Also, note that L’Écailler du Bistrot, opened just next door by Gwenaelle Cadoret, Auboyneau’s wife, specializes in seafood. I haven’t yet been (but I am eager to go as I am a huge fan of seafood from Brittany, where Cadoret is originally from) but it apparently has its own distinct feel and ambience.
This book is not, as Auboyneau says, “your typical recipe book” nor is it a “restaurant guide” or “a book of photos” or “a bible.” Rather, it’s a book “about the twelve years of happiness we have shared with wonderful people: restaurant owners, wine producers, suppliers, cooks, dishwashers, and waiters, all of whom have contributed to the successful rebirth of the classic bistro.” Vive le bistro!