Hélène Darroze

Paris -- She is just a little wisp of a girl, a quiet blonde powerhouse from the Basque country of France. A year ago, Hélène Darroze set off a spark of excitement when she moved her southwestern French restaurant to the capital, making us all swoon over the white corn meal polenta from her native land, laced with hefty portions of Basque sheep's milk cheese and layered with raw as well as sautéed cèpes . We loved, as well, her creamy foie gras flan topped with grilled cepes, the cold white bean soup, and the crushed brandade spiced with Basque red peppers.

That was all upstairs, in the rather formal dining room that has since netted her a worthy Michelin star.

But now, I am talking about downstairs, the main floor dining room originally meant to serve as a table d'hôte, a casual spot where cassoulet or hefty southwestern plat du jours could be served at giant tables to be shared by one and all.

For both dining rooms, a frustrated hue and a cry went out over service, over slowness, over an overall question of just what was going on here. Hélène listened, and come this fall opened the new Salon d'Hélène to replace the old table d'hôte.

My advice is to walk, run, skip on over with a handful of hungry diners in tow. Let yourself go! Have a good time! I did and can't remember when I laughed as much or last had such an unusually casual good time at table in Paris .

First of all, the décor is smashing. Modern. Bright. Hip. Gorgeous black wood tables from the Left Bank shop Mondenature, and chairs in brilliant hues of rose, purple, orange. Music is modern and a bit too loud for my ears, but, hey, better this than a stodgy old joint.

And the food? Equally fun, modern, inventive, surprising. Good. Tapas you say? Yes!

Hélène has shown how modern and clever she can be at the ripe age of 33. Lots of lovely little bites: Cold tapas, warm tapas, cheese tapas, sweet tapas. Miam! Can't tell you which ones I loved the best. A great ceviche or marinated raw tuna touched with the spicy Basque red pepper from Espelette. Great creamy, ultra-nutty white beans - haricots mais - teamed up with equally nutty palourdes, or small and delicate clams. A favorite for sure were the warm fried "nehms" or Vietnamese-inspired spring rolls wrapped around a mixture of ginger-infused shellfish served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. Or maybe it was the cannelloni, gratineed with Basque sheep's milk cheese and teamed up with the delicious southwestern ham from Pierre Oteiza. Oh, and don't forget the langoustines tempura, served with a red pepper chutney.

To my mind, each of these miniature creations, inspired by the Spanish custom of taking little bites of savory fare is brilliant and beautifully executed. I would not want to eat this way each and every day, but for a decadent lunch now and then, it's just the ticket.

The cheese tapas are equally delicious with the smooth, almost runny goat's cheese Cabécou de Rocamadour served with a hazelnut and raisin bread, as well as the famed Basque sheep's milk cheese paired with the traditional black cherry jam.

The lunch menu offers a quick and rapid fix, with a choice of a tapas of the day, a plat du jour (which may range from braised veal head cheese to roasted scallops with chestnuts and onions and on to roasted duck breast with an assortment of spices) and a glass of wine for 140 francs.

Tapas prices themselves range from 35 to 90 francs each, and I advise you go with at least three other people so you can sample a good range of Hélène's fare.

Salon d'Hélène
4 rue d'Assas
Paris 75006
Tel: 01 42 22 00 11.
Fax: 01 42 22 25 40.
Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Open noon to 2:30 P.M. and 7:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M. Tapas priced from 35 to 90 francs. Four-Tapas assortment, 85 francs. Plat du jour, 98 francs. Lunch formulas from 145 to 185 francs. Credit cards: Visa, American Express.