PARIS - Paris is full of those funky old bistros, with weird names like Le Buisson Ardent (the Burning Bush) and the sort of decor your great-grandmother might have created - wagon-wheel chandeliers, dusty murals of unexplained bucolic scenes and walls that are repainted every decade or so in classic eggshell tones.
One by one, these old spots - many of which lost their appeal as well as their clientele years ago - are being renewed in spirit but not in decor.
And I am all for that. One of the more successful is Le Buisson Ardent, one of a series of 1940s neighborhood bistros along what was then the wholesale wine market and is today the horror of modern architecture, the Jussieu university.
New owners - the Duclos brothers, Francois in the dining room and Philippe at the stove - have breathed new life into the Left Bank spot, which has managed to retain a village-like charm, with high ceilings, square-tiled floors and classic Thonet chairs.
With a line-up of dishes that are modern and creative, a bargain 90-franc ($15) menu at lunch and a 160-franc menu at lunch or dinner, they are sure to win.
Starters include warm goat cheese and ham wrapped in pastry, all set on a bed of julienned vegetables, followed by such classics as onglet de veau, deliciously chewy veal flank
steak, served with a sadly undercooked potato cake wrapped in bacon, and an excellent version of braised souris d'agneau, that meaty muscle attached to the tip of the bone of the leg of lamb.
Other tempting creations include roast chicken with buttery lentils; crab ravioli floating in a lemongrass broth, and roast suckling pig with seared foie gras. The wine list could use
some attention (our Beaujolais Moulin a Vent was drinkable, but no more), and the chef gets a bravo for attempting homemade bread, but it's anemic and needs great help.
It's the sort of place you would probably not wander into on your own, one of those nondescript cafes on a quiet side street. But take another look and you'll see that Le Mauzac is bursting at the seams with a faithful clientele that will follow the owners, Christine and Jean-Michel Delhoume, anywhere.
They once ran Les Pipos wine bar nearby. In one corner, a fat golden mongrel snoozes on the floor. In another, a hat rack tumbles over, burdened with the weight of winter. Men sit alone with their ballons de rouge and a platter of sausages, while a child sits at the bar doing his homework.
It's a pure 5th arrondissement neighborhood scene, and everyone who's here knows exactly what they want that day. Most don't even bother with a menu, since they came for the fat and juicy onglet de boeuf, beef flank steak, teamed up with you-can't-stop-eating-them frites, or the Friday specials of sauteed crevettes and a mound of deep-fried salt cod.
Another good bet might be the first-course platter of museau de porc, headcheese, sliced paper thin and topped with marinated onions and a puckery vinaigrette. On my last visit, I adored the filet mignon de porc, excellent pork tenderloin bathed in a creamy mustard sauce. The wine list is ever-changing, so it is best to check out the list at the bar before you settle down. Some good bets include Rhone
offerings from Corrine Couturier at Rabasse-Charavin, or Marcel Richaud in Cairanne. In good weather, the terrace is a fine place for lunch, along the tree-lined Rue de l'Abbe de
Le Buisson Ardent, 25 Rue Jussieu, Paris 5; tel: 01-43-54-93-02; fax: 01-46-33-34-77. Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday, the month of August and one week at Christmas. Credit cards: Visa, American Express. 90-franc lunch menu, 160-franc dinner menu. A la carte, 220 to 230
francs, including service and wine. -
Le Mauzac, 7 Rue de l'Abbe de l'Epee, Paris 5; tel: 01-46-33-75-22. Closed Saturday for dinner, Sunday and three weeks in August. Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club. A la carte, 150 to 180 francs, including service but not wine.