It’s one of the lovely markers of time here that certain foods are highly visible at certain times of year. In fact, you can’t escape them.
Of course, this happens elsewhere too: you can see baskets of blueberries and mounds of tomatoes in late summer in New York. And now, pumpkins are piled high everywhere. But in Paris, perhaps because the streets are narrower, and the fruit-and-vegetable stands slightly more limited in what they choose to sell, you notice more of what’s in season when it’s in season.
So now it’s mushroom time in Paris. Porcini and chanterelles (or, as they’re known here, les cèpes et les girolles) are everywhere – at markets, at restaurants. White button mushrooms (known here as champignons de Paris) and brownish cremini mushrooms are available year-round. But it’s the chanterelles and the porcini that say autumn.
As do the menus. Everywhere around town you’ll find mushrooms listed as a special. The other night at dinner at Bistro Paul Bert, a well-known restaurant in the 11th arrondissement (on Rue Paul Bert), I started with cèpes à l’ail, porcini with garlic. The porcini were cut into large cubes, seared over high heat so that they browned nicely and then finished with some garlic and butter. Delicious. And simplicity itself. This is the kind of dish you can easily make at home (although many home cooks might find the dish too simple to attempt on their own).
This particular bistro is listed in guidebooks, and last Saturday English-speakers (mainly Americans) made up a good 40% of its clientele. It’s a charming restaurant – but not the kind you need to seek out if you’re visiting. Unless, of course, it’s important during that visit that you experience something “typical,” in terms of its look and its menu, something that says Paris. This one certainly does.
But you can find good, solid restaurants like Bistro Paul Bert all around town, although only a few have become musts for visitors. For many people who come to Paris for a trip, finding a good restaurant is important, since time is limited and you don’t want to strike out on one of your few Parisian nights. So you rely on what you’re told is good, and you believe it.
I don’t know why certain restaurants catch on with the tourist crowd (without being tourist traps) while others remain local finds. Bistro Paul Bert is not a bad restaurant by any means – it can actually be quite good. And its intentions are sound: It grows its own vegetables. It has a special relation with its providers of meat and fish. It only offers what’s known as natural wine, that is, wine made without technological intervention during the winemaking process. (I didn’t drink any, but the verdict of my table mates was that one of the wines could certainly have used a bit of intervention.) And I have to say that the sole was delicious and the Paris-Brest (a dessert of pâte à choux filled with a crème mousseline) was terrific, and big enough for three. Still, while everything was very good, it wasn’t transporting. But it didn’t really need to be. It was packed.
Around the corner from the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine, where I stay when I’m in Paris, is a small restaurant known as À l’Improviste, which is the kind of spot that says authentic without actually making any big deal about saying it.
When a visiting friend and I dined there about a year ago, he said, “This is the kind of spot I dream of when I think of Paris.”
And it’s true: À l’Improviste offers the kind of good, solid, somewhat old-fashioned French food that you associate with your idea of what a Paris restaurant should be. But it’s not in the guides, and it remains the kind of place that only locals know.
It isn’t anything special – unless you like homey, cozy restaurants that offer homey, cozy food – but that lack of specialness makes it so. You wouldn’t need to seek it out if you were visiting – but it’s a place that I make a point of dining at when I’m in town.
Like Bistro Paul Bert, it had cèpes à l’ail on its menu this week (as many other restaurants surely did). I haven’t been there to try its version of the dish, but I’m sure the cèpes are just as good as those at the more celebrated spot on the other side of town. But I’m glad that À l’Improviste remains relatively unknown to a wider public: it’s a spot for me, my friends and their friends. It’s part of our Paris.
Anyway, everyone has his own version Paris. Sometimes someone else’s version of Paris becomes certified, in a way, by being written up, leading visitors to embrace it as part of their version of Paris, or what Paris should be to them.