Abri: A shelter from the mundane

ABRI daurade carpaccio 11 1 12

Inexpensive, vest-pocket restaurants keep turning up in the most amazing places in Paris, and that’s great for all budget-conscious diners. Worth the detour is Katsuaki Okiyama’s latest venture, a tiny, “hole in the wall” steps from the Poissonière Metro in the 10th arrondissement . Carefully decorated on a budget – simple but pleasant hanging lamps, exposed stone walls, an efficient open kitchen – Abri  indeed shelters us from some of the expensive, mundane fare one might find elsewhere. The Japanese chef, trained with Robuchon and at Taillevent and Agapé Substance – offers simple, carefully prepared food, no surprises but no real disappointments either. Fresh, seasonal fare prepared right in front of you. What more could one ask? The 22-euro lunch menu offers a daily choice of either fish or poultry/meat as the main course,  with a no-choice starter, soup, and dessert. A first-course carpaccio of daurade (sea bream)(photo) was a feathery light, protein-rich starter, showered with paper thin slices of  fennel and radish, alas a bit too salty for even my salt-loving palate. Next, an alabaster soup arrived, almost like an angel, a delicate parsnip soup with a heavenly jasmine mousse, almost more of a dessert, but instantly appealing.  Main courses might include carefully seared and roasted duck breast, meaty and full-flavored, adorned by a light port reduction, garnished with ratte potatoes; or delicate lieu jaune (pollack, in the cod family) in a yellow tomato sauce. The sure star of the meal was the chocolate tart, a delicate layer of pastry topped with a thick and soothing ganache, paired with a light chocolate sorbet. When a simple café or wine-bar meal can easily cost way more than 22 euros, Abri is definitely worth the Métro ride, unless you live in the 9th or 10th, then walk!

ABRI, 92 rue du Faubourg-Poissonière, Paris 10. Tel: +33 1 83 97 00 00. Metro:  Poissonnière, Cadet, or Gare du Nord. Closed Sunday. 22-euro four- course lunch menu. 38.50 euro six-course dinner menu.

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.

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.

Philou: the good new days

Pig's Cheeks and Celery Root Boulangere Philou

Modern Parisian bistros know no bounds these days. It's not possible that diners ate better in the “good old days.” Today food is fresher, unmasked, and more wholesome. The bright and lively Philou, home of Philippe Damas ( last seen at Square Trousseau) is a case in point. Damas offers old-time ingredients – like pig’s cheeks and calf’s liver – and serves them up with a simplicity and freshness that is thoroughly appealing. He pairs slow-cooked, moist and meaty pig’s cheeks (photo) with a tangy celery root boulangère (baked in a gratin dish with nothing but chicken stock until all the stock is absorbed) and cooks calf’s liver like a giant piece of meat, with a deeply seared outer crust and moist, rosy interior. I also loved the beautifully marinated fresh sardines, paired with a julienne of apples and set on a bed of warm, bathed potatoes. The choice of wine is excellent : Try the superb 2006  Côtes du Rhone, Vieille Julienne, so rich and powerful it could easily pass as a Châteauneuf du Pape. The tiny place off the Canal Saint Martin  is super loud,  super fun, and a super bargain.

Philou, 12, Avenue Richerand, Paris 10. Tel: +33 1 42 38 00 13. Métro: Jacques Bonsergent. Closed Sunday and Monday. 25 euro menu.