Chez Rene: Back to the classics

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Anyone in the mood for classic Parisian bistro fare should reserve a table at the ultra-traditional and purely authentic Chez René set on a sunny corner along Boulevard Saint Germain in the 5th arrondissement. This has been a favorite haunt for decades, with copious portions of excellent preserved duck leg (confit de canard), whole beef kidneys (rongon de veau), and classic Burgundian beef stew (boeuf Bourguignon). The fries are hot and crispy, and taste of real potatoes. The cheese comes from Madame Quatrehomme, so you know that the warm goat cheese salad (chèvre chaud) will be first rate, with the greens a superb blend of lamb’s lettuce (mache) and arugula (roquette). In winter months there is a terrific starter, a gratin of blettes (Swiss chard), a recipe that uses the wilted leaves as well as the chopped stems, tossed with a flavorful Bechamel and topped with plenty of beautifully gratinéed Gruyère cheese. On my last visit, the famed saucisson de Lyon chaud pistaché left me a bit disappointed: the potatoes were lukewarn and rather tasteless, while the slices of pork sausage were dry and ordinary. But I’ll keep coming back, for the service is thoroughly professional and décor right out of central casting: regular male diners feasting all on their own, newspaper in hand and napkins tucked beneath the chin. The walls are filled with classic art show posters dating from the 1940’s. Woody Allen would be right at home here!

CHEZ RENE, 14 boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 5. Tel: +33 1 43 54 30 23 Métro: Maubert-Mutualité. Open: Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday, 10 days at Christmas, & August.Lunch and Dinner: A la carte 40-55€

La Table d'Aki: A one man show

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Akihiro Horikoshi brings new meaning to the phrase "one man show." His new, 16-seat restaurant has a single employee: Aki. He shops, he creates the menu, he cooks, he takes orders, he serves, he cleans up. And this is the way the Tokyo native wants it. He has been on his own at La Table d’Aki since January 10, having worked under the tutelage of Bernard Pacaud at the Michelin three-star L’Ambroisie since 1991. The spotless, tiny restaurant is bathed in light and white from head to toe, with a few flashes of red from the lamp cables that bring the room together in a quiet, festive way. His food, too – pure, simple, and sensational in an understated way  – is white. A giant. alabaster ravioli filled with sweet, fresh langoustines dotted with herbs arrives with a thin but potent meat sauce that makes the dish look like dessert (photo). A delicate, moist fricassée of chicken with carefully turned potatoes and baby onions tastes as though it was dropped from on high by the angels. The delicate lieu-jaune (Atlantic cod) is offset with the punch of a brunoise of celery root, all those precision-cut cubes, and a nice hit of capers. Dessert, all white again, arrives as silken crème brûlée, paired with an apple baked with a touch of cake inside, a pleasant surprise on the palate. At night, Aki cooks only fish. On the menu now, the freshest scallops from Brittany. The food has the Aki signature, as well as the echo of Pacauad’s sublime perfection. La Table d’Aki is a nice little new star in Paris’s ever-glistening sky.

LA TABLE D’AKI, 49 rue Vaneau, Paris 7. Tel: +33 1 45 44 43 48. Métro: Vaneau. Open: Tuesday-Friday. Closed  Sunday & Monday.

www.latabledaki.com. Lunch & Dinner: A la carte 38-50€

Chez Denise: Midnight madness

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Thank goodness for old-time bistros like Chez Denise, those red-checkered tablecloths, efficient waiters, liter bottles of Brouilly, and nearly every bistro classic in the books: well-seared, rare and juicy hanger steak (onglet), decent fries, steak tartare, lamb’s brains (cervelle d’agneau), stuffed cabbage(chou farcie), veal kidneys (rognons) in mustard sauce, and cassoulet (white beans and varied meats). This is a good-time place for feasting, sitting elbow to elbow with your neighbors, living in carnivore utopia. We love the copious frisée aux croutons, wintry curly endive topped with croutons freshly made with the famed pain Poilâne, as well as the haricot de mouton, not mutton at all but a casserole of creamy white beans and the tenderest of lamb. Chez Denise is open until 5am, so if you can’t sleep and have a hunger for grilled pig’s feet, (pied de porc) you know where to go.

CHEZ DENISE/À LA TOUR DE MONTLHÉRY, 5 rue des Prouvaires, Paris 1.Tel: +33 1 42 36 21 82.Métro: Louvre-Rivoli or Les Halles. Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday, Sunday, mid-July to mid-August. Open until 5am.Lunch & Dinner: A la carte 35-50€

Café des Musées

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This fun and funky corner café in the center of the Marais is a perennial favorite. I’d go just for platters of their delicate, silken house-smoked salmon, served up with a tangle of greens and tangy dressing for dipping. Chef-owner Pierre Lecoutre is a master at the stove, and diners can watch him perform in his tiny, open kitchen, shifting copper pots, stirring and searing, offering up gorgeous, giant entrecôte (beef rib steak), frying up deliciously crisp and golden French fries, roasting Basque pork topped with the famed smoked garlic from Arleux in the north of France. On my last visit we adored the Parmentier de pintade fermière,  a winning hachis parmenter of minced farm-raised guinea hen topped with soothing mashed potatoes (photo). Café des Musées also offers briny Brittany oysters from Paimpol in season. The wine list and “medicaments du jour” (daily medicine) measure up to the cuisine, with a crisp and tart Champagne Drappier Zéro Dosage (meaning no sweet wine is added before bottling), and a spicy, mineral-rich Chardonnay, the Viré Clessé Quintaine from Domaine de la Bongran 2004. A good place to know anytime, but especially when visiting the Picasso and Carnavalet museums nearby.

CAFÉ DES MUSÉES, 49 rue de Turenne, Paris 3. Tel: +33 1 42 72 96 17. Métro: Chemin Vert or Saint-Paul. Open daily. Breakfast 8am-noon (weekends 10:30 am-noon); lunch noon-3pm; dinner 7 pm-11 pm.Email cafe.des.musees@orange.com

Lunch: 13€ menu. A la carte, 40€.

Dinner: 22€ menu. A la carte 40€

Willi's: Don't forget old friends

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As diners, all too often we only look forward, to the newest address, the chef with biggest current hype,  and we race to keep up with the flavor of the week. Rather, we should stop every now and then and reflect upon great places we seem to have  forgotten in the rush. The solid and classic, dependable, old friends who will always be there once the hyped up spots have been forgotten or closed their doors. I confess it had been years since I visited Mark Williamson’s now landmark wine bar, established in 1980 and still going as strong as ever. My last meal was a revelation: food with character and history, a chef with a classic education at the stove, a wine list that’s hard to beat anywhere in the world, a staff that is clearly well-trained and seem to enjoy being there. I love their attention to detail, food that seems intent on satisfying the customer, a place that is what it is (fabulous!) and not trying overtly to prove anything. The food on that visit was superb: a beautiful plate of Roseval potatoes, warm, bathed in a light and tangy sauce, showered with the freshest grilled walnuts and bits of salty bacon; a flavorful, wintry bed of mixed wild mushrooms topped with a round of fresh pasta. The chef, Francois Yon, there since 1993, understands searing like no one. That evening our moist and perfectly cooked farm-raised breast of veal had a thick, mahogany-toned exterior and a delicately tender interior, all set upon a bed of mixed vegetables, carrots, leeks, potatoes, turnips. The same can be said of his super-seared farm-raised guinea hen (pintade) set on the same soothing bed of vegetables. His chocolate terrine (photo) should go in the record books as one of the best ever, and of course Willi’s wine list will bring any wine lover to his or her knees. The 2005 red Chateauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Marcoux from sisters Sophie and Catherine Armenier is a dream, a balance blend of opulence and refinement, as well as tons of pleasure.

WILLI’S WINE BAR, 13 rue de Petits-Champs, Paris 1; Tel: +33 1 42 61 05 09. Métro: Bourse or Palais-Royal or Pyramides.

Open: Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. www.williswinebar.com (reservations on line). Lunch: 20.50€, 23.40€ and 26.50€ menus.

Dinner: 33€ & 36€ menus.

Le Coq Rico: Poultry has it's day

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I don’t like restaurants that make me feel guilty. But that’s not the fault of Antoine Westermann, owner of the new and fantastic Le Coq Rico in Montmartre. I’ll first of all say, reserve right away, the place is fantastic and open 7 days a week, so there’s no excuse. How much of a genius do you have to be to come up with a single-ingredient concept restaurant? Poultry, meaning chicken and guinea fowl, duck, and pigeon. And everything it brings to the table. The reason that Le Coq Rico makes me feel guilty is how they use every bit of those tender birds and turn kidneys and hearts and livers and wings into miraculous morsels. And I don’t. I stuff my freezer full of chicken livers for the terrine I never make. I stuff the birds with hearts and gizzards as I roast them, when I should be treating the ingredients with greater honor. But to the reason of Le Coq Rico: the whole bird. Chef  Thierry Lébé and his ultra-professional staff cook with precision and quiet perfection, roasting farm-raised poultry from all parts of France (each comes with a pedigree and the name of the farmer) whole on a rotisserie set in their small but efficient kitchen. Diners can choose to sit at the bar and watch the action, or dine in one of the two small dining rooms. The place is bright, modern, understated. The menu offers something for everyone: from a golden-brown, intense poultry and celery root broth ladled over tender ravioli filled with foie gras (photo), and on to their signature planchette de béatilles: poultry hearts seared, gizzards cooked tenderly in fat, wings lacquered, and little curried balls of herbs deep-fried. I love pigeon but am never 100% satisfied with my efficient use of the bird, yet here it’s roasted perfectly rare and rosy, teamed up with mushrooms and bacon with the tender liver crushed atop a rectangle of toast. A single serving of Challans farm-raised chicken is a wonder of nature, moist, tender, as it should be but not always is. And, well, the fries are about the best ever, deep golden brown, crispy, can’t stop eating them delicious. Even the little green salad here is fresh and attentively dressed. I can’t imagine having room for dessert here, though somehow I did: the l’ile flottante is gorgeous, rich, and flawless, the seasonal salad of pineapple, pineapple sorbet, with a touch of ginger and lime zest add a tonic that takes you bravely into the cold winter air.

LE COQ RICO, 98 rue Lepic, Paris 18. Tel: +33 1 42 59 82 89.Métro: Lamarck-Caulincourt. Open: Daily.www.lecoqrico.com

Lunch & Dinner: A la carte, 35-70€

Taillevent, as good as ever

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An American friend spends part of each year in Paris, and when he is there his rule is to lunch at Taillevent each and every Friday. A worthy goal, I say! This was one of the first Michelin 3-star restaurants I ever visited, back in the 1970’s. Over the years, the elegant, understated dining room has been our family’s choice to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, honors. Today, the club-like restaurant is as alive, alert, and up-to-date as any I know. As it always did, it provides the very definition of modern French haute cuisine. Chef Alain Solivérès and his pastry chef Matthieu Bijou make this one of the finest dining spots in the country. They both know how to update classics to modern-day tastes and expectations, working always with the finest of ingredients. Fish, shellfish, game, poultry, and meat are all treated with utmost respect. I have recreated the chef’s gorgeous crab rémoulade, sweet and delicately seasoned crab topped with a crown of colorful and crunchy radish rounds, though I know that I could never duplicate his lobster boudin, an Asian-inspired lobster sausage bathed in a delicate cream with a touch of caviar. On my last visit, he wowed me with flower-like tartare of fresh sea scallops topped with a nice hit of Asian herbs, followed by ultra-tender venison fillets served with a melting, warm touch of foie gras. The accompanying autumn vegetables – beets, turnips, and parsnips – could have been a meal on their own.  In winter months, black truffles reign here, with a creamy risotto of Provencal epeature (spelt) topped with a crown of truffles (PHOTO); a magical lièvre à la royale, fashioned into a rich, fragrant, perfectly seasoned terrine studded with truffles and served with a well-matched saffron-sauced pasta; and an outgrageous portion of smooth and buttery potato mousseline showered with minced truffles and a golden egg yolk. Save plenty of room for Bijou’s dessert creations: I dream of his super-perfect chocolate tart (the thinnest of crusts, the most ethereal chocolate), while his vanilla millefeuille has to be one of the lightest and flakiest in Paris. One cannot dine here without regretting the absence of perhaps the city’s greatest restaurateur of modern times, Jean-Claude Vrinat. We will always miss him.  Jean-Marie Ancher, long Vrinat’s right-hand man, carries on with absolute attention and care, while the extensive wine list remains one of the glories of the establishment.

TAILLEVENT, 15 rue Lamennais, Paris 8  Tel: +33 1 44 95 15 01 Métro: George V or Charles de Gaulle-Étoile

Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday, Sunday, and holidays www.taillevent.com Email resa@taillevent.com

Lunch: 82€ & 195€ menu. A la carte 120-260€ Dinner: 195€ menu. A la carte 120-260€

In Japanese dumpling heaven

Fans of those spicy, addictive Japanese dumplings known as gyoza, should make a beeline for this modern, streamlined bar set in the historic Passage des Panoramas. Find a stool and settle into a mini-feast. Chefs Guillaume Guedi and Shinichi Sato of the Michelin two-star restaurant, Passage 53 nearby, have an instant hit on their hands, offering simplicity at its best with their yuzu zest and chile pepper-spiced wheat flour dumplings, filled with the succulent ground pork loin from star butcher Hugo Desynoyer. The dumplings are seared right in front of you in a touch of oil in customized cast iron pans, sprinkled with a touch of water, then steamed, so one side is golden and crunchy, the other soft and soothing. Dip the cresent-shaped goodies into a citrus-rich ponzo sauce touched with grapefruit and orange and your palate breaks into a smile: The contrast of textures, a touch of spice, a hit of citrus makes for one happy diner. The only other offerings here include a tiny bowl of bean sprouts laced with nutty sesame oil, and a simple serving of white rice. There’s both Yebisu and Kirin beer to wash it all down. The bar is efficiency personified, with excellent service from a trio of young Japanese women. The décor is pure, understated Japanese all wood, grey stone, and glass, a perfect contrast to the passage, with its charming patina of age.

GYOZA BAR,  56 passage des Panoramas, Paris 2. Tel: +33 1 44 82 00 62.Métro: Bourse and Grands Boulevards.Open: evenings only, 6-11 pm. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. Dinner: 6€ for eight dumplings; carryout available.

Yum tum dim sum

Yoom Boulettes Thai Pimentees aux Crevettes

When two Parisian friends came back from several years in Hong Kong, what they missed was dim sum, those endearing little steamed dumplings stuffed with meat, seafood, vegetables, and all manner of herbs. So the pair set out to learn the intricacies of dim sum with the help of Chinese chefs. Today they have not one, but two dim sum restaurants, their year-old spot on the fabulous market street Rue des Martyrs, and another just a week old on rue Gregoire de Tours in the 6th. Their places are hip and modern looking, and while you don’t have the grand-ballroom steamy setting of old Hong Kong, they’re fine spots for a quick, light lunch when you need an Asian hit. I love that their combinations are a little out-of-the-box, with vibrant-tasting dumplings filled with beef, ginger, soy, and basil; others stuffed with mushrooms, carrots, satay sauce, chicken, peanuts, and coriander. The small menu moves all over Asia, with some delightful Thai shrimp meatballs (photo), boulettes thai pimentées aux crevettes; and soothing Vietnamese rice paper crepes filled with chunks of smoked sausage, fish sauce and chile sauce. Yoom is a bit pricey (5 to 6 € for just two to three dumplings), and too many dishes arrive lukewarm, reducing the pleasure by half. So ask for everything to be served steaming hot, and the message is, don’t come too hungry or too poor.

YOOM, 5 rue Gregoire de Tours, Paris 6, Tel: +33 1 43 54 94 56, Métro: Mabillon or Odéon. Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday.Lunch & Dinner: Dim Sum from 5.50-6.50€

YOOM, 20 rue des Martyrs, Paris 9 Tel: +33 1 56 92 19 10. Métro: Saint-George or Pigalle. Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday. Lunch & Dinner: Dim Sum from 5.50-6.50€

Little Breizh

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This postage-stamp sized crêperie near Odéon is a real find. The buckwheat galettes are prepared with a very dense, black-flecked organic flour (blé noir) milled specially for the owners --- brother and sister team Pierre and Claire Goasdoué --  who put their heart and soul into this little enterprise. Stone walls, giant wooden beams and bistro chairs give it a true neighborhood air, setting it apart from the tourist restaurants that line this narrow little street. I could lunch here each day, sampling the elegant, filling ham and cheese galette, a creation that is like a love poem to Brittany. The galette is paper-thin, crisp and crunchy with a deep, rich freshly milled texture. Wash it down with a cup of chilled cider, and you’ve got a meal for under 10€. Their salmon galette is equally appealing, and service comes with cheer and a smile. This is a good place to know late in the morning (galettes for breakfast, anyone?) since they open at 11 am. It’s also child and vegetarian friendly.

LITTLE BREIZH,  11 rue Grégoire de Tours, Paris 6, Tel: +33 1 43 54 60 74 Métro: Odéon Open: Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

Email littlebreizhcreperie@gmail.comLunch: 13.50€ menu, cider included. A la carte, 10-19€ Dinner: A la carte, 10-19€

The L'Ami Louis secret

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Caricature or the real deal? Are they pulling our leg or offering us authentic bistro fare? I guess that it depends upon one’s history, outlook, mood on any given day. For sure, the décor at this 1930s bistro  -- which has been a worldwide icon since the 1950s --- rates as among the most dilapidated in Paris. Dingy, dark, faded, ramshackle. But, OH that roast chicken. The L'Ami Louis secret, of course, is kitchen’s oak-wood fired oven, offering a sweet, soft, and yet intense heat, making for a succulent bird that is up there with the best – if not THE best – in Paris. Maitre’d Louis (that’s his real name), who has been at L’Ami Louis since 1978, says they are on their fourth wood-burning oven since his arrival. In my earliest visits in the late 1970s I remember famed chef Antoine Magnin (whose photo hangs ceremonially in the dining room) cooking on an ancient black wood oven, wearing chef’s whites and a red kerchief given to him by actress Romy Schneider. “Nothing’s changed,” announces Louis, proudly, and he is quite right. Today’s voluminous slabs of chilled foie gras are better than I remembered, carefully seasoned, with that nice touch of acidity. Most starters, like the foie gras and the generous serving of scallops, seared with plenty of butter, whole cloves of garlic and a showering of parsley, can easily be shared. I have had better leg of lamb, this one tasting not as young as I’d like, though cooked to perfection in that wood oven. Towers of shoestring potatoes warm the heart of any potato lover, but my favorite “new” dish on the menu is the giant potato cake – they call it pommes Bearnaises --  brilliantly exeuted, with tiny potatoes cooked in their skins, then baked in a round mold so the skin turns blisterly and deep golden. The “cake” comes embellished with parsley and chopped  garlic, though I wish  they’d hold the raw garlic, especially in winter months when it’s bitter no matter how “fresh” it may be. The wine list has improved a thousand-fold (both in selections and in value), and on my last visit we feasted on both the flinty white Sauvignon Blanc Henri Bourgeois Sancerre “Jadis,” (80€) and the heady, deep purple, expressive Gigondas from Domaine de la Bouïssiere  (59€) bargain prices by former L’Ami Louis standards. Not that the meal is a bargain: the chicken for two is 80€,  the leg of lamb for two €140. OK, if you are in a frugal mood, two people could get out of this iconic bistro for 136€, without wine, not outrageous in this day and age. A place that every Paris Food Lover should experience, at least once.

L’AMI LOUIS, 32 rue du Vertbois, Paris 3 Tel: +33 1 48 87 77 48 Métro: Temple or Arts et Métiers Open: Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Monday, Tuesday, mid-July-mid-August.Lunch & Dinner: A la carte 68-160 €

À la Bicha au Bois

Wild Duck A La Biche au Bois

A la Biche au Bois is one restaurant where you definitely get what you came for. Game and plenty of it. Hearty food, good wine, a super-generous cheese platter, and classic desserts. Whether you’re in the mood for biche (young female deer) or canard sauvage (wild duck) (photo) this classic state-of-the-art bistro is sure to please. The soothing potato puree (from the Agatha variety of  potatoes, with 10% butter, the waiter assured) is worth the detour all on its own, as is the sumptuous cheese tray, treasures stacked one on top the other, with favorites Brie, raw milk Camembert, and blue de Causses all in perfect ripeness. There’s a parade of terrines --- rabbit, duck, or a mix of meats – each one better than the other, classic and rich. I don’t remember the last time I saw coq au vin on the menu, but you’ll find it here, meaty and bathed in a vibrant red wine sauce. Oh, and yes, the chocolate mousse is the reason you come to Paris to dine. If the always reliable Côtes-du Rhone Clos du Caillou is still on the wine list, go for it. The meaty red is a Châteauneuf du Pape stand-in if there ever was one. This is a bistro where you’ll find a mixed crowd, from the well-fed SNCF conductor to youthful locals to happy tourists, all feasting on treasures of the day. The 28€ menu is a veritable bargain.

A LA BICHE AU BOIS, 45 avenue Ledru-Rollin, Paris 12 Tel: +33 1 43 43 34 38 Métro: Gare de Lyon or Quai-de-la-Rapée

Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday, Sunday & Monday lunch.Lunch & Dinner: 28€ menu. A la carte, 35€

Le Grand Pan

Grand Pan Eggs and Truffles

This elbow-to-elbow meat lover’s paradise tucked away in the southern edge of the 15th arrondissement, is a classic of it genre, a bistro where friends gather with two thoughts in mind: Copious food and lots of laughter for the sounds of good times. Waiters all but skate through the crowded duet of dining rooms, arms held high, delivering gigantic seared steaks cooked rare and juicy, double-thick veal chops ok so rosy, thick pork chops and giant bowls of oversized French fries. There’s a good Morgon on the list from winemaker Georges Descombes, a smooth wine with a pleasing flavor of lightly smoked meat. The service is familiar and friendly in the best sort of way, while in the winter months the menu might announce a lovely baked egg topped with slices of authentic, fresh black truffles (photo). If so, go for it!

LE GRAND PAN,  20 rue Rosewald, Paris 15, Tel: +33 1 42 50 02 50 Métro: Plaisance/Convention Open: Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday.Lunch: 28€ menu. A la carte, 35-55€ Dinner: A la carte 35-55 €

Back in Paris, chez "Aida"

Chef Koji Aida’s evening procession of pure Japanese tastes is a mix of subtle and explosive maneuvers that arise from his steady hand and a magical teppanyaki grill. This austere retaurant set on a quiet 7th arrondissement street near the Bon Marché department store may not be for everyone. Some will find flavors too subtle, or will consider the ceremony more of a side show, even what some call “the Benihana experience.” But to my mind, lovers of pure Japanese food and artistry should do themselves a favor and reserve for an evening’s pleasure. The restaurant is small, with room for just nine at the counter, four in a private room, and two spots for tableside dining. There is a single, set menu that offers a steadied procession of creative, ultra-fresh offerings. In a single dinner, Aida manages to cover extensive ground, with fish, shellfish, meat, eggs and plenty of herbs, spices and vegetables woven into the combination. On my last visit we had a treasured spot at the bar, right in front of the spotless stainless steel griddle.  I will never forget – and will forever try to imitate – his plump, soft-cooked egg yolk set in a clear glass vessel (photo), topped with a seaweed and bonito broth laced with bits of black winter truffles. A beautiful work of art on its own, the dish offered lovely textures, mouth pleasures, color, aromas. Other favorite memories of the 11-course meal include a palate-opening tartare of veal and oysters bathed in tangy, golden bits of gelatin; and a stunning dish of mackerel rolled around a mound of sushi rice then wrapped in rectangles of nori. The chef deftly toasts the seaweed, then takes a blow-torch to the prepared rice and mackerel bundles, an explosive taste that was luxurious in the mouth. The meal has a clear rhythm, a “wow” taste followed by a subtle one. After the mackerel came a tiny taste of glistening, line-caught seabass (bar de ligne) escorted by a dab of freshly grated wasabi horseradish. Alongside, a bit of crunch and freshness came in the form of finely shredded cucumber and radish salad. Who would have thought to deep-fry a naked scallop, but here a duet of fried coquilles Saint-Jacques are sliced in half to display the scallop’s amazing progression of textures and colors, raw to crisply cooked. A simple mound of fleur de sel on the side served as a singular seasoning. Beef tenderloin – from none other than Paris’s star butcher Hugo Desnoyer – is seared on the hot griddle, then cut into bite-sized cubes and sauced ever so lightly. What should have been the star of the meal came out just a bit too dry for my palate: Aida worked like an orchestra leader constructing his showpiece, a studied mix of grilled lobster, lobster roe, sushi rice, eggs and gentle seasoning, all gathered into a perfect mound on the griddle and delivered to diners in the signature hand-crafted pottery. Nothing is left to chance here, and for some that may lack drama. I love the place, and after the finale, clementine sorbet with a touch of clementine puree, I walked out into the night feeling fresh and oh so light.

AIDA, 1 Rue Pierre-Leroux, Paris 7, Tel: +33 1 43 06 14 18 (call after 2 pm for reservations) Métro: Vaneau Open: Dinner only Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday.

www.aidaparis.com (in French and Japanese) Email den55@freesurf.fr

Dinner: 160€ omakassé (tasting) menu (210€ truffle menu, in season)

Quite simply, oyster heaven

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Early yesterday morning I walked past Huiterie Regis on my way back from a sunny run in the Luxembourg Gardens, and there on the doorstep were two huge sacks of crushed ice, waiting for Regis to arrive and begin opening oysters. My brain went into overdrive and shouted, LUNCH! A few hours later, there I was. From the moment you approach this spotless, all white postage-stamp sized oyster bar, you know that you are in for a treat. Clean, briny, top-of-the line oysters are what you will find here, especially the Marennes-Oléron from the Poitou-Charentes in Southwest France, aged in ocean beds for up to two months once they come of age. At Regis there is room for only 14 diners indoors and 8 on tiny sidewalk tables outdoors. Regis is simple and efficient: You must have at least a dozen oysters per person here, and you can watch as the oysters are opened before you eyes. You should have no trouble polishing off their tiny fine de claires, delights that taste of the ocean; or my other favorite, the meatier spéciales de claire No. 3 (the smaller of the two choices), with a true hint of  hazelnuts, oysters that leave your palate with a welcoming, cleansing aftertaste for hours to come. Now I know that we have all been taught different rules of etiquette on oyster eating. Many people return empty shells to the platter. I was taught that this is bad etiquette. Rather, one carefully stacks one's empty oyster shells on the dinner plate, avoiding any possibility of contamination to the original platter. (photo). There is wine by the glass, carafe, or bottle. A favorite here is Alphonse Mellot’s Sancerre Desmoiselles, a truly stunning Sauvignon Blanc with chalky, mineral-rich overtones. The oysters and wine seem to shake hands at the table! Depending upon the season, Regis may also have a few cooked shrimp, some sea urchins (oursins), raw palourdes (clams). There is a carry-out as well as delivery service for opened oysters. From 11 to 37 euros the dozen.

HUITERIE REGIS, 3, rue Montfacon, Paris 6. Tel: +33  1 44 41 10 17. Métro: Mabillon/Saint Germain des Prés. Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 12-3 pm and 6:30-11 pm Closed Monday www.huiterieregis.com. Email: contact@huiterieregis.com 26, 29, and 31-euro tasting menus. Oysters 18.50-59 euro per dozen.

Always dependable Chez George

Chez George Jambon Persille 10 11

It’s always a pleasure to return to a restaurant you’ve loved for decades and find it virtually unchanged. And maybe even better than one remembers. That’s Chez George, the dream bistro just off the Place des Victoires. I am not sure, but it may be the first true Parisian bistro I dined in back in the 1970’s. What I do know is that the menu remains unchanged, the quality is there, and especially the hussle bustle of the dining room. Well-coiffed waitresses all but skate through the aisles of this long, narrow dining room with its mirrored walls and gothic columns, effortlessly delivering giant bowls of herring; searingly hot, garlic-scented snails; bowls overflowing with curly frisée greens, rich chunks of bacon, and perfect poached egg. Everywhere, a feeling of abundance, generosity, and the sound of good times. The crowd is young, French, chic, and  the ochre-toned dining room easily brings one back in time. I loved the moist, parsley-rich jambon persillé (photo); the generous portion of tiny wild girolles mushrooms; the perfectly grilled sole; and moist and meaty steack de canard, paired with a mix of wild mushrooms. Desserts of profiteroles, tarte tatin, and millefeuille were just right. My only regret is that they were out of  their tarte au citron by the time I placed my order. For a bistro, the wine list is extensive. There are plenty of bargin wines at 29 euros a bottle (the fruity red Cotes Roannaise is an ideal bistro wine), and this is one restaurant that still offers wine “by the meter” charging you only what you have consumed from the bottle. Some good value wines here include Graillot’s Crozes Hermitage; Olivier Leflaive’s white Montagny; and Dagueneau’s Pouilly Fumé.

CHEZ GEORGE, 1, rue de Mail, Paris 2. Tel: +33 1 42 60 07 11.Métro: Bourse/Sentier. Closed Saturday and Sunday. 40 to 70 euros, not including beverages.

Ushering in autumn at Vivant

Vivant Polenta, Mushrooms, Smoked Mozzarella, Herbs 10 11

After hitting it big with his wine bar Racines, then taking a year off, Pierre Jancou is back with another winner, the tiny Vivant, in a lively part of the 10th arrondissement. The long, narrow room began its life around 1900 as a shop that sold pet birds, as the lovely ceramic murals attest. As at his former establishment, Jancou is all about ingredients. So we have the incomparable boudin noir from Christian Parra, the moist, meaty duck from Challans in France’s southwest, lovely Italian burrata and equally amazing smoked mozzarella. This is a wintry, meaty sort of place but not necessarily heavy. An autumn meal here linked summer and fall, with an entire burrata (that irresistible mozzarella filled with rich, tangy cream) bathed in a puddle of delicious olive oil, seasoned with coarse salt, pepper, herbs, and a tiny garden of last-of-season cherry tomatoes. We ushered in fall with another hit: crunchy polenta topped with wild pleurote (oyster) mushrooms and a meltingly rich round of smoked mozzarella that humoursly resembled a giant mushroom cap (photo). A main course of Challans duck – moist, tender, meaty – was set upon a golden bed of mashed potatoes with the crunch of coarse salt and thin slices of red onion. An equally succulent cochon de lait was served with an ochre square of polenta, soft and creamy inside, crunchy on the outside. All was escorted by a glass or two of the lively Cotes du Rhone Village red, Pur, and golden crisp baguettes from Le Grenier a Pain nearby.

VIVANT, 43 rue des Petites Ecuries, Paris 10. Tel: +33 1 42 46 43 55. Métro: Bonne Nouvelle. Open: Monday-Friday.  Closed Saturday and Sunday.8-14 euros for starters, 14-24 for mains. Wines from 6 euro a glass. Reservations recommended.

Out of the box chez Ducasse

CEPES DUCASSE 10 11

If you are of the opinion that French haute cuisine is boring and passé, think again. For Christopher Saintagne, chef at the illustrious Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenée, cooks out of the box and certainly proves that today “fine dining” can be anything the chef says it is. There’s not a touch of preciousness in his food, in fact “earthy” is the word I’d apply to many of his dishes. One look at the streamlined, abbreviated menu and you begin to get the message. One dish reads only “langoustines rafraichies, caviar.” Another “turbot, coquillages, blette.” You know this is going to be all about the ingredients.

When did you last have an amuse-bouche like this? The tall, lean, handsome waiter arrives with a hot-off-the-stove sauté pan and places it in the center of the table. Two long-handled seafood forks rest on a mound of spicy, hot, brilliant pink baby shrimp, the bodies sautéed and the cleaned heads deep-fried to a perfect crisp. We ate the entire portion. That could have been lunch.

A first course of giant langoustines cooked every so slightly, then chilled, arrived as a lineup of perfectly dainty bite-sized portions, topped with a dollop of glistening caviar. Dip them into a delicate langoustines sauce, then follow up with a sip of lemongrass and ginger-laced broth. Magnificent.

The golden crayfish bisque arrived topped with a giant shellfish-flavored oeuf à la neige, which is then bathed in a rich, pumpkin-flavored shellfish sauce, making for a stunning dish with myriad textures, flavors, taste sensations. Forceful and brilliant.

Next came the turbot-lover’s dream. (That’s me, the turbot lover.) A giant rectangular portion of alabaster turbot arrives on a mattress of fresh seaweed, gorgeous and fragrant, served with a delicate fish broth and all manner of baby shellfish, strips of Swiss chard and fresh sea weed. A sea festival, completely satisfying.

It’s hard to decide which was the best dish of the day, though the beauty pageant winner is surely the gratin of fresh cèpe mushrooms (photo) served in a clean white bowl and garnished with parsley flowers. I took one look at the dish --- painstakingly layered slices of sautéed mushroom – and asked myself “Why hadn’t I thought of that?” The chef had carefully cubed and sautéeed mushrooms then topped with the thinly sliced portions. It made me realize that whole, cooked cèpes are like meat, but when they're sliced and cooked the mushrooms are pure vegetable. The only ho-hum dish of the meal was the accompanying soup, cubed cèpes floating in a bronze-colored broth, with flavors that were simply nondescript.

And just when I thought I had enough fresh purple figs for the year, the chef insisted I try his autumnal creation, and I am glad I did. He layered a small cocotte with fresh fig leaves and buried them with fresh, whole purple figs. Once cooked, he added sliced, raw figs, then topped it all with a sharp granité of sweet Italian wine. Thank you, October.

Service lead by maître d’ Denis Courtiade is totally down to earth and friendly, while sommelier Laurent Roucayro breaks the mold of the snooty wine waiter. His choice of wines – Pascal Jolivet’s clean and expressive 2009 Pouilly Fumé and Pierre Usseglio’s crisp, full-bodied white Châteaneuf-du-Pape – brought harmony and happiness to a lovely meal.

And prices here as not as bad as they might be. While many palace dining rooms will cost a diner upwards of 350 euros with a sip of wine, one can leave this restaurant totally satisfied for 195 euros per person, not counting beverages. There are so many “extras” served, you don’t need to order more than a starter, a main, a dessert.

ALAIN DUCASSE AU PLAZA ATHENEE, 25, avenue Montaigne, Paris 8. Tel: +33 1 53 67 65 00. Métro: Alma Marceau. Open: Lunch Thursday and Friday only, 12:45 - 2:15pm. Dinner Monday to Friday 7:45 – 10:15pm. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

360 euro menu. A la carte, 195 to 335 euros, not including beverages.

Auberge du 15: A modern talent

Foie Gras Auberge du 15 9 20 11

My eyes light up when the menu reads, quite simply, in bold letters, Boeuf, Cochon, Carré d’Agneau, Pigeon, Caneton, Turbot, Langoustines. There’s a good chance that means there won’t be foam, and that the chef prides himself on the quality of his ingredients over his prowess in putting things together. Simplicity will reign on the plate. That’s the case at the 6-month old Auberge du 15, located not in the 15th but the 13th, so don’t be confused.

I love the fact that chef Nicolas Castelet chose to name the little spot auberge, for that tips us off that we should expect something homey.  But lucky for us it’s not the sauced up, overcooked fare of days gone, but food that’s alert, welcoming, and satisfying. He makes much of his food look picture-perfect pretty, but not the fussed up, “don’t eat me” sort. There are many things I love about this clean, modernly outfitted spot: A giant plate of paper-thin slices of ham from Osptial “3 Fermes” in Basque country was actually enough for a dinner, paired with their can’t-stop-eating it bread and salty butter. A giant bowl of wild cepes was probably the best version of those giant, meaty mushrooms I have tasted in a long time. They were firm, perfectly cooked, gently seasoned, a dream. And I will return, for sure, just to sample their pitch-perfect aligoté, creamy mashed potatoes laced with fresh young Cantal cheese. That dish is one of the miracles of French regional cooking. I guess that it’s odd to complain about portions that are too large, but I hate it when I have to return a plate half eaten, as I did with their giant roasted pigeon. The poultry was  perfectly cooked, but too much for this diner to handle. One of Castelet’s most beautiful dishes --- a firm slice of foie gras terrine (photo) topped with a fruity glaze – was, alas, underseasoned and bland, a problem I noted with many dishes throughout the meal. A rhubarb tart was without interest, though the raspberry charlotte was worthy, and classic. The wine list is intelligently conceived, with a bright, finely acidic Jurancon sec Chant Vignes (nicely priced at 35 euros a bottle) and an equally winning red Irouleguy Harri Gorri from the Basque winemaking star Etienne Brana (priced at 34 euros.) I’ll be back, for sure, to try the langoustines, cote de boeuf, and crab topped with the French caviar d’Aquitaine.

AUBERGE DU 15, 15, rue de la Santé, Paris 13. Tel: +33 1 47 07 07 45. Métro: Port Royal or Saint Jacques. Open : Monday to Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday. 26-euro lunch menu, 59 euro dinner menu.

Chez Michel: A very pricey bistro lunch

Lobster Chez Michel 9 21 11

It has been quite a few years since I set foot inside Chez Michel, a longtime popular bistro just steps from the Gare du Nord, making it an ideal spot for a meal just as you are leaving Paris, or a restaurant for a celebratory return to the city. There is much to love about this small, classic bistro : Chef-owner Thierry Breton clearly knows who he is and what he wants, and offers impeccable ingredients, some of the best baked-on-premises bread in town (perhaps the best country rye bread to be found for kilometers), and a blackboard menu that’s so varied, every diner should find something to satisfy. In winter months you’ll find every sort of game (from wild boar, duck, and rabbit prepared in a variety of ways), always fresh fish and shellfish (from giant abalone to succulent lobster, and meaty mussels). At a recent lunch, I thoroughly adored his lasagne starter, two ultra-thin squares of homemade pasta filled with a mix of artichokes and soothing goat cheese and topped with a thin basil puree. (In fact this was the first dish I tasted there when Breton opened Chez Michel in 1996, and it still makes me want to rush to the kitchen and recreate it for my family and guests.) If you order lobster, you’ll be sure to know that it’s fresh, for the live and wiggling shellfish is ceremoniously ushered into the dining room so  that you can attest to its state. In fact that was the best dish we sampled on a recent visit : perfectly moist, giant claws and meat, glistening in a delicate and full-flavored shellfish broth, a lobster lover’s dream (photo). Now here’s the downside : While Chez Michel used to be known for its well-priced menus, I was shocked to see the 50-euro price tag on the blackboard menu. No a la carte here. Fork over the 50 euros for lunch or dinner or dine elsewhere. Worse, yet, when the check arrived, a 15-euro supplement (NOT noted on the blackboard nor mentioned when ordering) was tacked on to the bill for the lobster. I’m sorry, but when there are dozens of restaurants all over town where one can dine seriously and well for so much less, I find it hard to defend such prices. And with a tiny room full of bare wooden tables which guests share, 50 to 65 euros for lunch seems to move Chez Michel i out of the "bistro" category. That said, I’ll probably go back one evening soon, when I know what I am getting into. And I’ll continue making that lasagne and thank Monsieur Breton.

CHEZ MICHEL, 10, rue de Belzunce, Paris 10. Tel: +33 1 44 53 06 20. Métro: Gare du Nord.

Open : Monday to Friday,  Closed all day Saturday and Sunday, Monday at lunch. 50-euro fixed price menu lunch and dinner.