Fine Bistro Dining at Delicious Prices

PARIS -- The newest crop of small Paris bistros offers some truly fine bargains, as well a cuisine that is totally modern yet wed to classic traditions. One of the handsomest “remakes” is La Grande Rue, located in the 15th arrondissement on the premises of the old Chez Pierre.

Here, chef Emmanuel Billaud – who studied with both Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse -- is turning out some pretty fine fare at totally delicious prices. The dining room is adorable – everything is as it was in the 1930’s, down to the double-faced clock, bentwood chairs and Art Deco patterned tile floors. But a fresh coat of paint, canning jars filled with goodies as appetizing décor and nice crisp linens give it a totally refreshing air.

This is also one restaurant that not only asks whether you want to dine in the smoking or non-smoking section, but they put the non-smokers in the front of the room, the prettiest part of the tiny bistro.

While walking to the restaurant I thought “I hope they have pasta tonight,” and sure enough, my wish was granted. Those tiny and wonderful ravioles de Royans from the south of France are bathed in the richest, most golden of broths. Equally good – though not one that would stun a true Italian – was the creamy risotto, bathed in an herb-rich sauce.

The fish selections – a turbot and a bar – were good but not great. I had the feeling the fish was just not as fresh as it might have been. But the day was saved by the most delicious and most perfect lemon tart I have tasted in years. Strange how dessert fashion seems have pushed the classic, puckery lemon tart off the bistro menu. Thanks, chef, for bringing it back.

The wine list is tiny but the St Chinian – always a great buy – was just right at 21 francs a bottle.

Le Timbre

It’s just the size of a postage stamp, so why not name the restaurant Timbre! Restaurants don’t get much smaller than this one, a single simple room with space for no more than 20 diners. Le Timbre in fact reminds one of the famed La Merenda in Nice, where diners perch on stools, elbow to elbow and watch the chef cook in the miniscule kitchen at the back of the room. Le Timbre is always jam-packed and has the kind of cheap and cheerful, let’s play restaurant air. But there is nothing amateurish about the fine and honest bistro fare, with just the proper modern touch. Owner Christopher Wright keeps himself super-busy in the dining room, and one may have to wait a bit for service, so be forewarned.

Le Timbre has one custom that I applaud heartily and wish other restaurants would adopt: As soon as you are seated at the table Christopher brings you a complimentary glass of wine, on our last visit it was a welcome glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. What an easy way for a restaurant to win friends and increase the diner’s patience level!

I adored the ham and lentil salad, a pretty, molded round of lentils set in the center of the plate, with a thick slice of Spanish ham set atop it. There were also tiny cubes of ham laced through the lentils, making for a hearty, well-seasoned dish. Another starter – a warm curried beet soup with a dollop of crème fraiche atop it – was a pleasant surprise.

I had a ringside seat into the tiny kitchen, so even before ordering I had a chance to check out the day’s menu. The plump seared and roasted pigeon looked delicious, so I opted for this perfectly rosy and moist poultry teamed up with lots of buttery cabbage. Equally honest was the pan-fried Auvergnat sausages served with a fine parsnip purée and a touch of green salad. The baguettes are delicious, the homemade millefeuille is worth a return visit, and on the menu you’ll fine Michel Richaud’s fine wines from Cairanne. Who could ask for more?

La Grande Rue
117 rue des Vaugirard
Paris 15
Telephone: 01 47 34 96 12

Closed Sunday, Monday, and August. Menu at 27.50 €. Credit card: Visa A la carte, 28 to 35 euros, including service but not wine.

Le Timbre
3 Rue Sainte Beuve
Paris 6
Telephone: 01 45 49 10 40

Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday. Credit card: Visa. About 30 euros a person, including service but not wine.