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.…