In Paris, a new generation of chefs is serving astonishingly refined, inventive yet affordable food in restaurants that look like laid-back bistros.

By Jane Sigal
Updated May 23, 2017
Credit: © Fredrika Stjarne

In Paris, a new generation of chefs is serving astonishingly refined, inventive yet affordable food in restaurants that look like laid-back bistros.

When I was at cooking school in Paris in the 1980s, I knew very well what a bistro was: a hangout with a zinc bar, tiled floors and reassuringly predictable dishes like blanquette de veau. Ambitious cooking happened elsewhere, in hushed, expensive dining rooms. But things change: Chefs began liberating good food from formal settings. In 2011, when the dazzling Bertrand Grébaut opened Septime, the concept of refined, inventive yet affordable food with a bistro aesthetic took off and became a movement with a name: bistronomy.

One of the great things about bistronomy is its inclusiveness. Kitchens are not all-male French clubs; you'll find lots of women and cooks from Japan, England, America; some, like James Henry, come from as far away as Australia. Even wine lists are more open-minded. Instead of rough Beaujolais served in thick carafes, there's serious glassware designed to show off curated lists of wines from established and emerging regions. It's a startling turnaround in a country that still marvels over the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in which California wines beat out Burgundies and Bordeaux.

I became so interested in French cooking's new identity that I decided to write a book, Bistronomy: Recipes from the Best New Paris Bistros (just released).I wanted to find out how these chefs, many with haute cuisine backgrounds, were creating this deceptively simple food. I spent a year squeezed into tiny kitchens, like the one chef Dai Shinozuka runs at Les Enfants Rouges. Once, in a space-starved galley, I nearly stepped in a frigid tub of blanched white asparagus on the floor.

"It's constraint that motivates me," says Le Servan's Tatiana Levha. The 30-year-old chef, who worked at Michelin-three-stars Arpège and Astrance, opened her restaurant last year in a revamped café in a former borderland region of the city. Like many of the neo-bistros, Le Servan lacks square footage, so there's not much expensive equipment. There are also no 28-course tasting menus. At dinner Levha offers a handful of starters and mains. With only three other chefs in the kitchen, she can improvise as inspiration strikes. "Our cooking is more spontaneous than anyone could imagine," she says. The Filipina-French chef refers to her own past and traditions—for instance, stuffing guinea hen with a voluptuous ginger-herb butter

One reason talented chefs are drawn to bistronomy is that if you keep costs low, you can quickly be your own boss. "It can take so much time to climb the traditional restaurant ladder," explains Levha. At Haï Kaï, chef-owner Amélie Darvas, who learned her technique in grand kitchens like Le Meurice and Hélène Darroze, makes a point of using inexpensive ingredients. Her light, bright, citrusy "tartare" features smoked fish instead of sushi-grade tuna.

Another way neo-bistros cut costs is by dispensing with pastry chefs. You won't find intricate confections; instead, the desserts can be prepared by any cook or even a dishwasher. At Le Bal Café and their coffee shop, Ten Belles, co-owners Alice Quillet and Anna Trattles keep it simple: Pureed oranges flavor the incredibly moist almond-coconut cake and whipped cream topping.

I learned so much from those bistronomy kitchens, and I'd watch, from a corner, for as long as I could. But once service reached its frenetic peak, I was usually booted to the bar. That was OK: Counters offer some of the best seats in the house at these spots. I'd get a glass of New World white wine and take notes for my book.

Jane Sigal is F&W's France correspondent.