'Bistronomy' conquering Paris dining
Something has changed at those simple, inexpensive, often boisterous bistros that made Paris the world's capital of culinary tourism - the food. The reason is that a number of young chefs, fresh from their apprenticeship with haute cuisine masters, today prefer to exercise their talents in the casual atmosphere of a bistro, rather than face the expense, pressure and fierce competition of vying for a Michelin star.
As a result, fewer Paris bistros are today a destination for people who want "relaxed, restorative, everyday chow," as the late RW Apple once described it.
Instead, you can now enjoy such dishes as haddock carpaccio a l'orange and juniper, veal kidney fricassee and salsify with gingerbread, and truffle ice cream, but in a casual bistro atmosphere and usually for only 28 to 45 euros ($37 to 60) for a three-course menu.
The phenomenon has been given an unofficial name, bistronomy, combining the words "bistro" - a traditional synonym for casual, inexpensive dining - and "gastronomy," which the website epicurious.com defines as "the art of fine dining; the science of gourmet food and drink."
The man generally credited with developing this marriage of culinary cultures is 42-year-old Yves Camdeborde, who spent 10 years working with chef Christian Constant at the two-star Les Ambassadeurs restaurant in the swank Hotel Crillon in Paris.
When Camdeborde struck out on his own, at age 28, he quickly realized that he did not have the financial means to match his grand culinary ambitions. So he took over a modest bistro in the 14th arrondissement of Paris and, out of necessity, decided to serve his elegantly prepared dishes in a casual ambience and at affordable prices.
"Two people were able to come with a 500-franc bill (76.2 euros, about $99) and leave with change," he said.
And his philosophy remained that of a master chef: "Cooking is very simple. It is above all the raw material. And that you are able to discover that raw material in the plate, through its taste and its texture."
Camdeborde's bistro, La Regalade, became a model for a generation of young chefs who have redefined French bistro cooking and offered an alternative to diners who wish to enjoy haute cuisine without the usual stiff ritual and wallet-breaking prices of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Today, Camdeborde owns the hottest new bistro in Paris, Le Comptoir, a pocket-sized eatery of 22 tables (plus another handful on the sidewalk in fair weather) situated in the heart of Paris tourist country, just off the Boulevard St Germain.
And La Regalade has been taken over by Bruno Doucet, who retained the original bistronomic recipe of gourmet cooking and relaxed dining while adding his own personal touch to the menu.
Located far away from Le Comptoir and the heart of the French capital, in the unfashionable district of Belleville in the 20th Arrondissement, Argentine exile Raquel Carena is enjoying as great a success with her version of bistronomy as is Camdeborde.
Carena opened Le Baratin in 1987, taking over an abandoned bistro and teaching herself to cook from books to feed the workers who renovated the place. Cooking soon became a passion.
Long a secret known only to those who lived within walking distance, Le Baratin has become a favourite of many Parisians and the city's chefs, including Camdeborde. Little wonder, since Carena's definition of "grand cuisine" is strikingly similar to his: "Get the best out of a raw material, without artifice."
A recent three-course meal at Le Baratin included artichoke in pepper vinaigrette with chorizo, pork stew with capers, and almond pudding.
Tips: Always reserve well ahead of time! However, if no table is available at a particular bistro during your stay in Paris or if the prices are still a bit steep for your budget, try going for lunch. In addition, some bistros offer two-course menus (opener and main course or main course and dessert) that are correspondingly cheaper.