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Urgent Dispatch From an Editor on the Road | Paris

From: Jane Sigal
Subject: Paris

In the 25 years I've kept tabs on elite Parisian chefs, I haven't seen them stray too far from traditional French ingredients and formality. Now, inspired by foreign flavors and dining styles, stars like Joël Robuchon and Hélène Darroze are creating a new, casual restaurant. They aren't inexpensive, and they're not exactly ethnic—you can't order tekka maki at the sushi-style bar at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (5 rue de Montalembert; 011-33-1-42-22-56-56) or a tortilla at Darroze's tapas bar, Le Salon d'Hélène (4 rue d'Assas; 011-33-1-42-22-00-11)—but you're not compelled to eat a three-course, three-hour meal either, a huge departure from haute-cuisine protocol.

On a recent trip to Paris, I ate at another new incarnation of this casual trend, Michelin-two-star-chef Alain Dutournier's Pinxo (9 rue d'Alger; 011-33-1-40-20-72-00)—the name means pinch in Basque. Almost everything is cooked a la plancha (on a griddle). The decor is far from rustic: Banquettes are black leather, and servers wear black Mao smocks. Despite the tapas-style menu, locals aren't likely to share dishes, which include chipirons, a kind of tiny squid, and giant, spicy shrimp.

In the past, you couldn't pay the French to eat at a counter facing a giant meat slicer and vineyard photos. But at the new wine bar at the venerable store Fauchon (30 place de la Madeleine; 011-33-1-47-42-95-40), diners sit on stools around a counter surrounded by 2,000-plus wines. It's a funny mix of haute and humble: The napkins are paper, but servers wear ties. There are giant charcuterie plates with a slab of foie gras and a hunk of salted butter.

But not all of Paris's new restaurants are caught up in the trend. Some remain defiantly old-fashioned, like Christian Constant's café-bistro, the aptly named Café Constant (139 rue Saint-Dominique; 011-33-1-47-53-73-34). There are some niceties at this redecorated neighborhood spot—the wooden bistro chairs are upholstered—but the menu is written on a blackboard. Much of the cooking is done down the street at Constant's one-star restaurant, Le Violon d'Ingres; a cook walks the food over. If you come for a late lunch, you might find Constant in his chef whites at an outdoor table, eating, holding court and suggesting dishes like fish quenelles on a bed of spinach and mushrooms, or boar stew with chestnuts and noodles. The accessibility of classic bistros like Café Constant is a big part of their charm, and surely an inspiration for France's new breed of upscale restaurants.

Published February 2004
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