PARIS: In 1987 William Bernet traded in his career as Parisian butcher for that of bistrotier, taking over as owner of, chef and server for, a tiny bistro on Rue des Plantes on Paris's right bank. He served well aged beef and had a selection of no more than five little regional wines.
He is in the same space today, but a decorative upgrade just three years ago and some help in the kitchen from Johnny Beguin has turned his Le Severo into a model bistro, with a selection of no less than 200 French wines and some of the finest, well-aged Limousin beef from France that one can find.
Vegetarians, read no farther, there's nothing for you here. Meat eaters, rejoice. Thick slabs of rare beef chosen and aged by Bernet himself are served fragrant and juicy, along with some of the finest French fries I've had, golden, crispy, with the true taste of potato.
A platter of assorted sausages consists of thoroughly top-notch charcuterie, including thin slices of andouilette, rosy rosettes, the finest pork rillettes I have ever tasted (I could not stop myself), and extra-thick slices of crusty country bread.
There is room here for no more than 24 diners, mostly at highly varnished wooden tables set on a colorful tile floor. Bernet uses good-sized glasses so you can really enjoy your wine, and crisp linen napkins so you don't feel you're roughing it.
An entire wall of this brick-red bistro is given over to a series of blackboards offering the day's wine selections and his specials. On one visit, I had an oldtime favorite Cuvee Meme, a Ceps Centenaires from the artisanal winemaker Michele Laurent in the Rhône Valley. The grapes come from 110-year-old grenache vines, are hand-harvested and aged a year in oak barrels. The wine tastes of grapes, not of the burning sun. On another visit, Bernet introduced me to a new Minervois (I never met a Minervois that did not inspire me), Jean-Baptise Senat's cuvee La Nine 2003, which was astonishingly full and rich, considering its young age.
A generous portion of expertly seared foie de veau was classically accompanied by a butter-rich potato purée, and a starter salade de chèvre was a quiet culinary masterpiece: a tangle of baby arugula and baby spinach leaves were dressed in a fine vinaigrette, while beside them rested a rich disc of ultra-fresh goat cheese showered with chopped chives and drizzled with olive oil.
Steak tartare arrived in simple glory, studded with rosy shallots and giant capers. I've rarely seen the dish so well presented: intuitively seasoned, chewy and fragrant, like eating a meat cocktail. And alongside, those gorgeous fries.
Throughout the meal, Bernet scurries about with an immense aura of calm, cooking in a kitchen in which he can barely turn around, opening bottles, clearing tables, taking orders, making it all seem so easy. So did Fred Astaire.
Like William Bernet, Dominique Versini has had a bit of a sea change over the years. When I first moved to Paris in 1980, her lively restaurant Olympe in the 15th arrondissement was all the rage, and she was known as Dominique Nahmias. The place was packed day and night with budding foodies and she was one of the most celebrated female cooks in France, offering up the most modern and audacious fare of the day.
Her moment in the sun ended, and she reappeared a few years ago, cooking the simple kinds of food she really wants to cook. As a native of Corsica, her favorite ingredients are naturally those of the Mediterranean: fresh smoky eggplant, tomatoes that sing of the sun, the creamy rich brousse, Corsica's version of sheep's milk ricotta cheese, joints of earthy roasted goat, plenty of pasta, wintry beef cheeks bathed in a chive vinaigrette..
Her Casa Olympe is also a dream sort of bistro, with sunny, brick-red walls, a pale-green frieze of olives and olive branches, and elbow-to-elbow tables set with pleasantly crisp white linen tablecloths and napkins. The two tiny rooms not far from the Place Saint Georges in the ninth arrondissement hold no more than 30 people.
The service here is efficient but faceless. On my last visit, the food was loaded with personality and verve, but the dining room felt more like a morgue. No sign of Olympe Versini making the rounds of the tables - her hair all shiny black and cut into a classic pageboy - no chatter from the waiters, no music, just an awkward silence.
That did not stop us from digging in to her generous platter of the freshest of golden girolles, chanterelle mushrooms, well-seared and seasoned, served in a well-worn black metal skillet. Sips of the ripe and ready red 2001 Vieille Julienne Vieille Vignes Cotes du Rhône went beautifully with the meal: It was a peppery, ruby-colored wine full of elegance and charm.
I adored Versini's version of thick, roasted slices of eggplant cooked to a soft confit, topped with a fine homemade tomato sauce, that soothing brousse cheese, a dab of pesto and a few leaves of basil.
Equally impressive was the ravioli of langoustine, encased in paper-thin leaves of Chinese pastry and bathed in a rich sauce that blended the smoky piment d'espelette from France's southwest, a touch of tomato, cream and cognac. The dish is rich and regal without being heavy, almost too elegant (but not quite) for a bistro.
Equally expert and satisfying was the duck ravioli, rich with cooking juices, perfumed with cream and chives, and dressed with a shower of freshly cooked spinach leaves.
Dessert brought back the most pleasant childhood memories: Smothered amidst chunks of meringue and whipped cream came an array of strawberries, raspberries and miniature wild strawberries airy, tangy, delicious.
8 Rue des Plantes
Closed Saturday dinner and all day Sunday; à la carte, 35 € to 50 €, including service but not wine.
48 Rue Saint-Georges
Closed Saturday and Sunday; à la carte, 55 to 60 €, including service but not wine; menu,37 €, including service but not wine.