09 March 2015
Paris ~ Bistros Bistrots Cafes Tabacs and Brasseries
We thought Paris cafes and bistros etc would be snooty and intimidating. We were so joyously wrong. These places are multi-purpose and inclusive, great for a quick coffee, a languid lunch, a pee and a water, a cheeky wine on the way home from (or to) work. A lady can comfortably sit on her own and not even notice the boozy gents holding up the bar, students can giggle, lovers can swoon, and loners can stare into space. There's no hurry, buy a coffee or a water and sit for an hour. Most of all we love the cafe as that spot where you can take five minutes out to rest and recompose, re-energise, get a little brainspace. You need that in Paris.
There's no equivalent to these places in Australia, economics and culture just don't allow it, they're like a cross between a cafe and a pub. A pafe. They are on nearly every street and corner and form one big extended lounge room for the city.
The food is not far removed from the Aussie anglo food we grew up, with extra butter and plain good taste. It was a revelation and a disappointment at the same time. It helps to like offal because guts and arse are on nearly every menu, but so are cheeseburgers, spaghetti, and the meanest cheese toasties you will ever have. There's something for everyone.
The menus do get repetitive after a while. We spent many hours traipsing around looking for particular or unusual dishes, with limited success. You won't find every French classic you've dreamed of in the cafes and bistros, and the more upmarket restaurants seemed to be pricer versions of the same thing.
So if you'll allow us to get a little off topic, the el-cheapo tourist restaurants around Rue Mouffetard and St Marcel are worth exploring. Serious foodies will sneer, but the el-cheapo Paris tourist restaurants have huge menus with dishes difficult to find elsewhere in Paris. Huge menus equal shortcuts in the kitchen, but it was at an el-cheapo tourist joint that Shawn fell in love with seafood soup. We simply could not find it anywhere except in a bottle from a seafood shop, which is where we reckon the restaurant got it. The tourists joints are also extremely cheap, down to ten euros for three courses. Out of three courses we'd always get one memorable one.
Bistros and cafes also have meal deals, around fifteen to twenty-five euros for two to three courses. We found that paying a little more gets you a little more, but not always. After a while we found the best bet for food were places that called themselves bistros or bistrots (we never figured out the difference). And the best time to hit them is lunch.
Tabacs are our favourite spots for a beer, and are so called because they have a little tobacconist/newsagent/lottery ticket section in them. These places are usually downmarket, occasionally a bit rowdy, we love 'em.
The biggest struggle for us was stomach management. We are more used to the light food and small servings of Asia, where you can eat several times a day. Whereas in Paris a bistro meal fills us for a day, or more. In a month we did not come even close to trying all the food we wanted.
Interestingly, or perhaps embarrassingly, before the trip we both worried that a month of French food would somehow taint our deep love of Asian food. No fear, the trip put everything in perspective and even heightened our love of Asian food. Although being white trash westerners, in Paris it was essential for us to sneak off for an Asian fix every two or three days. Whereas in Asia we can happily go for weeks without even thinking about Western food. We must admit that when we returned to Sydney it took our brains a while to adjust back to our usual Asian food ways, we found ourselves craving French food, dreaming of steak and anything with melted cheese, but we were soon back to noodle soup and stir fries.
This led to us some kind of understanding why so many folks out there just don't 'get' Asian food, there's a shift in thought and habit needed to switch between Western and Asian food. It's hard to think tofu when you've got cheeseburgers on your mind. And vice versa.
While we're on the subject, we learnt a couple more things from a month in Paris. The number one change for us is that we've become less cynical and more open to try things we would have previously written off. After all, we're all about encouraging folks to try new foods, we should do the same. So we've been trying more of what we jokingly call 'normal person food' - restaurants that are actually popular and offer still or sparkling water, hamburger joints with queues, faux Americana, and cakes shops crowded with Instagramming Taiwanese tourists. Some of it's great, but heaven is still a hole in the wall restaurant to us.
The second big thing we learnt is to open up our wallets a little more. Good food is worth paying good money for. After cheerfully shelling out way more money for good food in Paris than we are used to, we wondered why the heck we don't do the same in Sydney? Shawn now cheerfully pays five bucks for that small but incredible custard and date tart at Brickfields, or ten bucks for a couple of sausages that actually taste like meat.
Anyhoo, here's a bunch of photos and half formed thoughts about the cafes and bistros of Paris. As always, we did precious little research before hitting the streets. We simply walked every arrondissement in Paris and picked what looked best where we happened to be hungry. We got some amazing meals and some average ones, but even the average ones were pretty freaking good. Except that deconstructed Big Mac...
Our first bistro type joint we visit is at Le Dalou in Nation. We didn't know what the etiquette is so we just dive in. We sit down, wait, and learn it can take a while to get served in these places because there is often one waiter working the whole joint. And man, the waiter works hard, as do all the waiters we come across. There may be just one waiter but they will get to you, no dramas, no hurry. We don't know what to order so we point to a sign for a breakfast special and say 'two' in French, which is as high as we can count.
The special turns out to be a fresh baguette and jam, which is perfect on a cool mid-morning. We also get espressos because they are the easiest coffee to ask for, we are soon espresso converts, which is a good thing because we had zero luck with milky coffee in Paris. This perhaps explains why the Starbucks in Paris are full of latte sucking gen y folks.
Our next venture is Tabac Le Monge, near Rue Mouffetard. Inside it's boozy and blokey with a Sunday arvo sports crowd. We grab a table outside and the waiter brings out a square table top to put on our little round cafe table.
Fifteen euro for two courses, we're in.
Avocat aux crevettes - prawn cocktail with avocado. Sauce tasted better than the Mayo-ketchup mix of 1970s, though similar. This is one of the many things we saw from 1970s Australia trying to be continental. Stuff like paper napkins in wine glasses that look too small, pomme noisettes, and prawn cocktails. 1970s Australia, you were right all along. Now where's a French Chiko Roll?
Oufs and mayonnaise. Alison's googy egg salad also has that Brady Bunch appeal, boiled googies with mayo and salad. She digs.
Tartare de boeuf, frites/salade. A solid tennis ball sized serve of raw beef with a heavy sweet pickle flavour to it. With bread and lettuce on the side it's like a de-constructed raw Big Mac. The chips taste homemade but not reheated enough, like Nanna made them but she's getting a bit forgetful now, reminding us of the chips from Sydney's late, great Oceanic Cafe. Bless those ladies.
The meal was good in an ironic sense so far, but these lamb chops (Cotes d'agueau grillees al la bernaise) were incredible. Just really, really good lamb chops, like they had an extra injection of fat. Man!
Alison walked away grinning food nerd happy while Shawn wished he tried one of the slightly fancier places we passed earlier that billed themselves as traditional French.
On another day we find ourselves hungry cranky on Rue Mouffetard so we stop at Bistrot Le Mouffetard.
Groovy old interior.
Bangers'n'mash. A Toulouse sausage which is so chumpy you could carve it. The sausages we had in France actually tasted like real meat and had a firm texture. And the mash is always good, silky smooth and laden with butter.
French onion soup - a good beefy broth covering at least a kilo of sliced onions underneath the cheese topped croutons.
Croque madame, the famous french cheese toastie. Anything with melted cheese in Paris is extra good because they know precisely which cheese to use.
Cafe Des Officiers would not have been our pick had we not been hungry in an upmarket part of town, but it was a nice place to sit all the same.
The waiters at Cafe Des Officiers were the snooty young preened handsome type who mimicked our appalling Aussie French "Farrr Graa!". In many places we found the waiters not rude but not friendly, just extremely busy, similar to Hong Kong. There was only one waiter on the trip that we wanted to punch, mainly because he looked like Dougie Howser. We found the waiters to be friendlier in the hipster and multicultural parts of the North side of town.
Alison loves a charcuterie. Parma ham, country terrine, saucisson.
We debated the whole foie gras issue and decided that when in Paris... We hoped we would hate the stuff, and we sort of did at first. We soon learn that foie gras comes in many forms. Cafe Des Officiers serves it closer to it's raw form, it has a light chill from the fridge, the taste and texture remind us of beef dripping. It is mellowed out with sweet fig jam and toast. We loved and hated it at the same time, it's the durian or the Shane Warne of the meat world.
So many of the cafes and bistros haven't changed in decades and simply ooze charm and history. We could never quite capture the vibe on camera dang it. Here's a beauty of a cafe, La Favorite, on the edge of The Marais. We stopped in here after seeing a photography exhibit on the Liberation of Paris.
Taking it easy on Saturday morning.
After a week into our month-long stay in Paris our success with bistros was patchy at best, so we workshop it. We figure the best looking food is in the joints that call themselves 'bistrots' or 'bistrots', and lunch is the best time to hit them. We liked the look of Bistro le Centanaire at the very south end of Rue Oberkampf. The waiter gave us a cheery bonjour! as we walked past, sold!
Now this is the way to do Saturday lunch, outside in Paris on a warm sunny autumn day, watching the world go by. The waiter is super energetic and friendly, he kindly takes the time translate the menu for us. For entertainment we watched the organised chaos of a valet parking operation for a theatre down the street.
Mussels in white wine parsley garlic and cream, the classic moule frites. It's a dish we can easily cook at home but these guys do a much better job of balancing the flavours.
Shawn goes for roast chook because it's not something he'd usually order. It's a good honest roast chook, with a redder flesh than we see back in Australia. It comes with some cheesey potato bake which is out of this world, must have plenty of cream and butter we assume.
Random cafe/resto, view from up on the highline style walkway.
One fine weekday we hit one of those hungry shirty 'must eat now' moments, multiplied by ten for Shawn because he has just been dragged through the Louvre. All those yartz give a hard earned thirst like roping a cow.
The boss lady chatted us up outside, which makes it easy to decide to go in. She was highly amused and a little flattered that we were taking food photos, even checked out the pics with us. What kind of idiot tourists photograph their food in a humble low rent tabac? We do.
Menu: short and sweet.
Poulet in a garlic white wine sauce that was yellow with butter. Lovely to mix in with rice. Chicken was dry and tough but who cares when the sauce is good. Even bad meals are good meals in Paris.
Beef Bourgogne was tender with a peppery sauce. Tasted great to us but we are novices. Good honest pub grub. We'd be ecstatic to find a ten buck counter lunch like this back home. We regretted not searching harder to find something better but it was ok, and it's good to try another tabac. Plus somebody brought in a super friendly dog for Alison to get wobbly over.
Lovely random Tabac around Le Gobelins, we stopped for the classic quick espresso at the bar. Gulp and go.
Village Monge bistrot near Rue Mouffetard. We stop in for a quick brekkie.
Lovely old interior complete with old fellas at the bar.
The breakfast everywhere on our visit was a coffee, croissant and orange juice. We can get used to this. Served by a sneering Doogie Howser waiter while impossibly pretty Parisians smoked their calories away.
Love how these places extend onto the footpath and often look a bit wonky.
Pub Gay Lussac was a bit of a favourite for the name and old school interior.
We stayed around Rue Daguerre near Montparnasse for a week. Rue Daguerre has a small pedestrian mall with everything you need, it was like a miniature 'Paris World' theme park, only real. It reminded us of our treasured spot in Osaka, Fukashima (no, not the nuclear wasteland). This area is highly recommended if you're staying for a while and want to get into some serious self-catering, the shops and produce around here are fantastic. We found the food shopping better on the south side, but the north side was more lively and edgy and fun.
La Chope Daguerre on Rue Daguerre was busy day and night, we give it a whirl.
La Chope Daguerre menu, a bit of it anway.
Now this is how to make friends with salad. 'La Coin Coin' (pronounced 'La Qwa Qwa', like a duck noise, geddit?) comes with roast duck breast and foie grais. The foie gras is in more of a pate form this time, it's less hardcore and lardy than our first try of the stuff, it tastes like a mild pink pate but with a sneaky creamy umami oomph to it.
This humble open sandwich was Shawn's favourite meal of the trip. Dry toast mounted with thin cured ham, foie gras, lightly stewed apple, topped with tomato puree, salad on the side. This tasted very French and very Italian in bites. A kooky mix of ingredients that works. A life changer for €11. Bargain.
Shawn's mum's dish of salted cod and potato was like the salmon patties she makes, only on steroids of garlic, butter and probably cream. Light yet coarse in texture. We dig.
We come back another day to see if the foie grais dishes would be as amazing the second time around, alas these dishes weren't on the weekend menu. Dang it! Alison and mother share a charcuterie, it's a festival of meat. There's salami-like sausage, or sausage-like salami, preserved ham, pate, rillettes, pickles and bread. Comes with butter which mum reckons is to put on the ham, which we tried but we didn't get it.
Chicken salad is usually tres boring but this chook was amazing. Cooked 'just so', very cheffy. We guess it was pan-cooked in lemon and butter until golden with a light crisp on the outside, juicy in the middle. Oh my. The endives are bitter, not a fan, though we had them later in the trip and they were great, not so bitter, now a fan. It was a good salad but nothing will beat the meal on our first visit here.
This Tabac in on Rue Daguerre was our favourite spot for a beer in this neck of the woods.
The after work crowd. There were also a couple of groovy bars along this strip. If we came back to Paris for another month we'd seriously consider staying around Rue Daguerre again, such a lovely neighbourhood feel. It's close to Montparnasse for plenty of shopping, yet it's quiet and neighbourly.
Bar menu, it's out of focus as were we.
Random bistrot. We never figured out the difference between a bistro and a bistrot.
We sniffed around the La Défense business area hoping the suits would lead us to a good yuppie lunch spot but nothing appealed. So we walked back towards Arc De Triomphe sniffing out all the bistros along the way. Le Jardin stood out as being just a little different. In we go.
Le Jardin is similar to the classic bistro but more buzzy and modern. It's quite squishy and we're up close and personal with other diners, the waiter pulls the table out so Alison can get to her seat. As soon we're seated Shawn is bowled over by the stench of the bloke at the next table. He smelt like poo. Some people just smell a bit pooey, think nothing of it... But man, this dude really stinks like a steaming fresh turd on a summer's day. Shawn was certain this debonair Parisian fella had crapped in his thousand Euro tailored suit pants. Crikey. Then the lightbulb appears: the flash Parisian fella was eating andouillette sausage. Andoillette sausage smells precisely like poo. His elegant skinny pretty Parisian girlfriend was tucking into a big poo sausage as well.
Le Jardin menu.
Shawn had been hunting something with a nice rich French cream sauce and finally finds it in a good old veal with white wine, cream and mushroom dish. The sauce is hardly elegant but is is fantastic. Shawn makes a decent version of this sauce but this one is way better, flavours were much better balanced.
Alison goes for France's quasi national dish, steak and chips, or steak frites. It has a little pot of blue cheese sauce to the side. It's a pretty good tender steak, bloody in the middle as ordered. Chips were superb, twice cooked we reckon. Best chips we had in Paris, possibly the best chips we've ever had, excluding home made chips which can't be beat no matter how good the chef (the oil's always fresher at home).
Cafe gourmand - an espresso shot with a selection of tiny deserts, this is pretty hard to pass up. There was creme brulee, chocolate mouse, profiterole and some raspberry and panacotta type stuff. Shawn became a big fan of the cafe gourmand.
We're not backpacking anymore Toto.
Random bistro around Convention on the south side.
Random tabac, around the rue Daguerre. It was pretty flash.
A beautiful little tabac around Jardin Luxembourg.
We had to stop and have a beer in this one. Had to.
We stop for lunch at Bistro Dupleix, not far from the Eiffel Tower, across the road from Laurent Dubois, apparently one of the worlds best cheese shops.
Bistro Dupleix looked dead on the outside but was buzzing inside with lunching families and business folk, with a handful of blokes doing a superb job of holding up the bar. Our lady waiter was absolutely lovely and welcoming, even cracking a few trans-lingual jokes.
Bistro Dupleix menu.
Bistro Dupleix menu.
Bistro Dupleix menu.
The salad we thought we ordered was in fact a hamburger, which at first was disappointing, until we tasted it. Man, what a burger! The beef mince pattie was thick but didn't have that gross fatty 'eeecchhh' that fat gourmet burgers have in Australia. Onions were gently caramelised with a mild flavour. The cheese was the star of the show, all melty and whipped up light and fluffy like five star Cheezwiz. The crispy pork belly is a rough translation of lovely crisp bacon, smokey bacon. Man, they know their swine in France. A good burger is where all the flavours are balanced and come together as one, and this certainly did. Neither of us are fans of gourmet burgers but this was a mind blower. We wish we had more time to explore the burgers of Paris.
The Dupleix salad is a couple of hunks of goats cheese on toast sitting on large thin wings of aged ham, tomato and lettuce, with a subtle splash of mustard vinegar. It was good but we wished we went for the vegetarian salad which looked healthier and more interesting with palm hearts, which are a vegetable, not an 80's hair band.
Watching the world go by at Bistrot Dupleix...
Some of the best travel feeds are born of circumstance. We have an hour to kill before we can enter our new apartment overlooking Canal St Martin, back over on the north side of town. We're lugging heavy backpacks so we pick the first available pub for lunch, Les Gamins, and it's a winner.
The pub is a little student/music nerd joint, a touch hipster, and a touch Lionel Ritchie who has somewhere to sit after dancing on the ceiling.
Alison goes for the classic croque monseuir to tick it off her list. Croque monsieur is a kick arse ham and cheese toasted sandwich, with the ham in the middle, and melted cheese on top of a layer of bechemal sauce. Croque monsier is a national treasure and deservedly so.
Seriously cheesy. Part of the greatness is the emmental cheese. They've always got the perfect cheese for the job here.
Mr Shawn spots something we've never seen on a bistro menu: cuisse de pintade roti. With the help of our little food dictionary we figure it is roast leg of guinea fowl. Even the waiter was interested in what the English translation was. We've never eaten a guinea fowl before, gotta give it a crack. The flesh is a little gamey, it's halfway between duck and turkey leg. It is served with pan fried chopped mushrooms and bacon, with and a small pot of cream sauce. The super terrific wow part was the puree de marron, chestnut puree. We wonder if they mixed it with potato as it tasted like an earthy nutty mash potato. Soooo happy.
We filled our third last day walking the final bits of Paris we hadn't covered, Montmarte and the 17th arrondisement (we walked every arrondisement). We head off and discover a little Sri Lankan area of Rue St Denis, or Rue Denis Lilee as we call it. It had a couple of Sri Lankan restaurants and grocery stores (and a Hells Angels clubhouse), it's a small strip but we reckon we could sniff out some goodies if we had more time.
It's not time for curry so we stop at a brasserie for a morning coffee and a chocolate croissant for breakfast. We expected the chocolate croissant to be oozing with chocolate but it was flecked with just a little chocolate and wasn't sickly at all. We dunked it in Alison's hot chocolate. Man, croissant in hot chocolate is like Tim Tam in coffee times a hundred. Waahhhh. As we leave some nutbag lady customer is arguing with the lovely French-Indian waiter about the price of coffee, which is clearly displayed on the wall. Go lady in your purple hat, you lovely mad thing.
On our last full day in Paris we walk our favourite streets and find a couple of new ones. We wander from Canal St Martin to Belleville and out to Porte des Lilas and pick this place at random for lunch. Le Clairon turns out to be a vintage motorbike racing themed bistro. It's packed with memorabilia and photos. The clincher for us was a big range of crepes and omelettes which we were hoping try before we went home.
The boss lady suggests cider to go with our lunch. Why not? Love the water bottle, a 51 Pastis with a boxy design.
Mr Shawn goes for a galette, a flat buckwheat pancake, this one is filled with cheese and ham. We saw Japanese tourists going nuts over a gallette stand in Bastille markets: as seen on TV.
It's waffer thin.
Alison goes for a three cheese, three egg, triple bypass omelette.
Man it's so cheesy, so good. The bits of blue cheese melted through with the sharper emmenthal were bolts of pleasure.
For our final meal in Paris we stomp around looking for a good looking bistro and this one takes Alison's fancy.
Sitting outside on a twenty plus degree sunny day in late October when it should be freezing - heaven.
We have one last stab at foie gras and this one isn't so exciting, it's like a very smooth, mildly flavoured pate, with Tip Top toast on the side. Though we love how it is served with caramelised onions rather than a sweet jam for a change.
Shawn's final lunch was a humdinger: tete de veau sauce gribiche, pommes vapeur - or calf's head cooked and veggies simmered in broth, with a mustardy-mayo sauce on the side. The meat and veg were so simple yet so perfect.
Alison's pick for a last meal is AAAAA Andouillette, intestine sausage in a pepper cream sauce with chips and salad. Andouillette stinks like poo, it really does (see story above at La Jardin). And it tastes like poo in Shawn's opinion. Alison loves the stuff.
Up close and personal with poo sausage.
Inside the bistro has been modernised to look old, it looks good.
We wave bye-bye to another little coffee spot we visited as we make our way over to Gare de Nord to get the train to the airport, then home. Sniff sniff.
We love Paris.