Bistro Precision and Japanese Flair

PARIS – About once a year something leads me to pick up the phone and book a table at Le Repaire de Cartouche, one of the city’s better bistros, and one that I seem to love more with each visit. It seems that chef Rodolphe Paquin and my palate are on the same wavelength: Keep it simple, keep it honest, and keep the big flavors coming. Paquin tugs our bistro-craving chord but does it with originality, spunk, and a pleasant precision.

My last meal in this cottage-like spot included a perfectly seared wild boar steak, or cote de sanglier, this one seized in the hottest of pans for a rich, caramelized crust, with an interior so beautifully rare, it was the color of fresh raspberries. The accompaniment --- red beets in vinegar – was as fitting as it was colorful.

But the surprise of the evening was an inventive minestrone of oysters and calf’s head, a warm soup fragrant with plump oysters bathed in a creamy liquid studded with vegetables and cubes of soft and succulent tete de veau. Totally different, yet totally appealing.

Just right for the season was the terrine of blood sausage, a perfectly spiced boudin noir set on a bed of apples, accompanied by a welcoming green salad.

The wine of the evening – a red Minervois, Le Bois des Merveilles 1999 from Jean Baptiste Senat -- started out tasting like a so-so, flat Beaujolais, but grew and grew as the evening went on, tasting in the end like a rich, pure syrah with lots of punch and tons of notes. As is, it was well priced at 20 € the bottle.

Desserts were tops, with warm, moist prune clafoutis and a palate-cleansing pineapple sorbet. The crusty bread from a neighborhood bakery was so good I almost had to ask to take the basket away, fearing total overdose.

Now that sushi has well-invaded all of Paris (albeit mostly bad sushi), the newest (old) game in town is teppanyaki, a cooking method so simple as to not need a name at all. Quite simply, it’s meats, vegetables, fish cooked directly on a flat metal grill, with just a touch of oil and a bit of seasoning. ( In Japanese, a teppan is an iron sheet, and yaki is stir-fried food.)

The latest show in town is Azabu, a sushi-bar sized little spot near the Odeon, and one I can see myself returning to on a very regular basis. What is it about food that is cooked in front of you that makes it all the more pleasing? You want it all, even if it’s not for you. You salivate, your nostrils flare, you are just so hungry.

When you go, sit at the bar so you can watch the dexterous chef. He works like an artist preparing his palate, quietly concentrating on each and every detail, lining up all the ingredients and bing, bang, zoom, they are flipped on the huge flat grill – scallops, chicken, squid, foie gras, beef, pork, you name it. Everything is cooked quickly and effortlessly, some topped with a metal hood to soften the heat and slow down the cooking.

The raw is good here, too, with a marvelous beef carpaccio as well as a platter of fresh oysters served with a seriously delicious sauce ponzu, a fabulous blend of soy sauce, rice vinegar, lemon juice and a touch of kombu, or kelp. (But these were rather difficult to eat with chopsticks, since there was nothing to cut the muscle.)

Equally lovely was a starter carpaccio of salmon, served with fresh sheets of nori seawood to wrap your own salmon packages. The main course teppanyaki chicken was moist, copious, and delicious. Wash it all down with a bottle of chilled house sake, or rice wine.

Le Repaire de Cartouche, 8 Boulevard des Filles de Calvaire and 99, rue Amelot, Paris 11. Tel: 01 47 00 25 86. Fax: 01 43 38 85 91. Credit card: Visa. Closed Sunday and Monday. About 45 € per person, including service but not wine.

3 rue Mazet
Paris 75006.
Tel: 01 46 33 72 05.
Credit card: Visa.
Closed Sunday lunch and Monday. About 40 € per person, including service but not beverages.