In June I moved back to Paris after an absence of four years. I had some misgivings about the food. Although there have always been extraordinary French chefs doing extraordinary things, my heart was heavy with the memory of too many mediocre mid-range meals. I was not the only one to have noticed; newspapers had reported an epidemic of ready-meals and pre-prepared frozen food in French restaurants. The neighbourhood stalwart bistro—introduced to France it is thought, among other possible explanations, by the Cossacks in the early 19th century and named after the Russian word for “quickly”—has indeed in many cases been reduced to microwaveable fast food.
But perhaps the tide is turning, I thought: from January, a new law will require restaurants to indicate whether food has been made in-house or bought in. With my French boyfriend I planned to find the perfect Paris restaurant, simple, not swanky or crowded, good food, happy waiters.
In Paris there are bistros two to a block. Red and white checked tablecloths, plastic wicker chairs, blackboard chalked menus, entrecôte entrecôte entrecôte. But since I have been away a rash of trendier places have opened. How to choose? French boyfriend and I tried different places. We ate execrably at a classic looking bistro on the Rue Caulaincourt; and very well at Chez George off the Place des Victoires, one of those ancien haunts with yellow nicotine walls and a gloriously rotund maître d’ producing bottles of wine from his sleeves. I had the rognons de veau, Adrien had a steak, and we shared a sauce boat of béarnaise. We had a baba au rhum with a bottle of rum on the side for extra sousing and careened home very happy.
We tried a modern bistro recommended by the New York Times; the carpaccio of fish was off, the service unfriendly. We stood outside the über cool Le Verre Volé for an hour for a reserved table but were very happily rewarded with good simple fare: a plate of goose neck barnacles (yummy funky marine, weird and jurassic) and thick slices of gammon with mashed potato. “OK, that was good,” I said, looking at my watch, which read past midnight. “But.”
I had imagined that my perfect Paris restaurant was a bistro, but I was beginning to suspect that this was a mythical place preserved in Ernest Hemingway aspic. “What is a bistro?” I asked Adrien. He thought for a moment and said, vaguely, “a bistro usually has a bar.” So what’s a brasserie?’ I wondered. Maybe I am looking for a brasserie.
Brasserie comes from the French brasser, to brew. They were brought to Paris by rich brewers who decamped from Alsace-Lorraine when Prussia annexed the territory after another French defeat in 1871. Beer on tap, choucroute on the menu, big eating emporiums. But what’s the difference between a bistro and a brasserie and a restaurant and a cafe and a bar? My French friends were not sure. “A bistro is a small restaurant,” said Nathalie. “A brasserie has continued service all day,’ said Alain. Claudine told me her favourite bistro was Le Sélect (where Hemingway imbibed with the Lost Generation) although it calls itself an American bar.
When we can’t think of anywhere else to go, Adrien and I often end up at the classic and dependable La Mascotte around the corner from our apartment on the Rue des Abbesses. La Mascotte has coffee and croissant in the morning, a zinc bar, a long oyster counter and a comfortable restaurant at the back with banquettes and white table cloths where you can eat plateau de fruit de mer and then a steak frites or the plat du jour.
I asked the manager, Jean-Claude Pla, what kind of restaurant La Mascotte was. “Bistro bar resto café,” he replied. “Not a brasserie?” I asked. “Non,” said Pla, “a brasserie is more strict, very ordered. Here the ambience is looser, more cool. Most of our diners from here in Montmartre are still show people from the cabarets, artists.”
Historical differences have become mingled distinctions over time. La Mascotte has been in business for over 100 years, but as Pla explained, when the current proprietor took over from his parents 20 or more years ago it changed a lot. There used to be billiard tables in the back room and they served the café staple of croque monsieur for lunch.
“So where else is good around here?” I asked. He told me about a place on the Rue Caulaincourt—“bistronomy,” he said, using the new buzz word for the next generation of chefs eschewing Michelin star formality.
At the Jour de Fête we ate small plates (very à la mode). A beef gazpacho, zingy and refreshing; bresaola crumbled with ricotta and endive and peanuts; “fake oysters,” a clear tomato jelly sprinkled with anchovy powder; and a crispy fatty iberico pork dressed for summer with a mirepoix of parsley and celery and peppers and olive oil. Dessert was whipped brie with crunchy croutons and walnuts. It was all fresh and delicious. We ate in under an hour, the bill was not excessive. Bistro to bistronomy. It’s only natural, it’s evolution.