Le Villaret: A Bright Light Bistro

PARIS – The other evening, as we walked into the crisp, clean, lively bistro Le Villaret, a friend’s eyes lit up and she said in amazement ‘’This is the bistro I’ve been searching for for years.”

Located on a dreary side street in the 11th arrondissement, not far from La Republique, Le Villaret is a bright light in a sea of grey. From the cheery white lace curtains that hang in the window to the elegant, high-back 1930’s bistro chairs and on to the attitude here – friendly, charming, unpretentious, no-nonsense – the place is a gem.

And I cannot say enough good things about the food or the wine list. Several recent meals here – where Joel Homel rules the dining room and Olivier Grasalin oversees the kitchen – made me want to become an instant regular.

The food here is the best of what might be called bistro modern. While the ever- changing selections always include such classics as sole meuniere, roast chicken, salmon tartare, and leg of lamb, all are treated with a contemporary reference.

A favorite dish of several recent visits is a powerfully satisfying medley of root vegetables – turnips and salsify, artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes – arriving in a giant white bowl, bathed in a deep, dense, poultry stock, showered with chives and draped with a paper thin slice of foie gras. Delicious! Paired with the restaurant’s spectacular dense, crusty country bread, it’s a dream dish.

Other winning starters include a duo of artichokes and asparagus cooked in that same dense, intense stock, and topped with a perfect poached egg; a trio of salmon preparations (a well-seasoned tartare; a pair of brochettes; a delicately cured filet); and an Asian-inspired dish of oyster raviolis, showered with fresh, fragrant coriander.

I couldn’t get enough of the roasted country chicken, set on a bed of curly green cabbage bathed in a creamy sauce made with the sherry-like Arbois wine from the Jura. The chicken was moist, firm and well-flavored, and coated with a paper-thin potato galette, making for pure crunchy pleasure.

Order lamb shoulder and it arrives in a newly polished copper pot, perfectly roasted and set on a bed of potatoes, turnips and broad beans. Leg of lamb is served on a bed of giant white beans (marred only by an excess of salt), and a hearty veal breast comes with chanterelles and smooth broad beans.

The wine list is worth a detour all on its own. We’ve loved the wholesome and refreshing chardonnay Chablis 1er Cru Domaine Francois and Jean Raveneau les Buttaux 2000 (41 euros); the opulent, silky, state-of-the-art, pinot noir Chambolle-Musigny vieilles vignes Geantet-Pansiot 2000 (51 euros); the stunning, intense pure-syrah 2001 Cornas from Eric and Joel Durand (37 euros); and a memorable silky pinot noir Gevrey-Chambertin, Les Favorites vieilles vignes 1999 from Domaine Alain Burguet (74 euros). Everything at Le Villaret is spotless and served with a natural sense of caring. Each wine is carafed with attention: Behind the bar you’ll see the staff lovingly washing each carafe and drying it with a huge clean white towel. The contents of each bottle are not simply emptied into the carafe, but attentively, lovingly poured with a flourish. And what I love, too, is that the empty bottle and the full carafe are set on your table, and you get to serve yourself. (No waiting for an inattentive waiter to dole out the wine, drop by drop.)

Order a cheese course and soon an entire cheese house – four full shelves of cheese -- arrives at your table. This old-fashioned rectangular box include all the greats, from a full shelf of goat cheese and on to Camembert, Brie and Comté.

Desserts get as much attention as the rest of the fare: Two great bets include a gorgeous individual pear clafoutis served in a simple white porcelain bowl, and a grapefruit quartet, including grapefruit sorbet, a grapefruit financier, candied grapefruit and roasted grapefruit.

Le Villaret
19, rue Ternaux
Paris 11
Telephone: 01 43 57 75 56 and 01 43 57 89 76

Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. 25 euro lunch menu, 28 euro dinner menu. A la carte, about 30 euros, including service but not wine.