December 11, 2015

The bistros of Paris 11th Arrondissement

The 11th arrondissement de Paris, that many Americans discovered in a tragic context for the first time on their TV screens on  November 13 , is in fact one of the most interesting  districts of the French Capital, especially for food and wine lovers.

Its very rich and passionate history is full of great, sometimes painful and blood-stained and most of the time very joyous moments.  From La Bastille to Oberkampf and the Place de la République,  and from the Place de la Nation to the Père Lachaise cemetery, its cafés and bistrots are a permanent reminder of the lively, happy, youthful, and convivial way of life of Parisians.

Place  de la  Bastille   (photo .A. Maes)

On the night of November 13, the odious massacre of so many innocents, happy to enjoy the many pleasures of week-end get together  to meet friends or neighbors and eat, drink, love, have discussions, dance,  and listen to music, was perpetrated by people who for various reasons have strong objections to our way of life.
I called my brother, who lives in the “onzième’’ in Paris a few blocks away from the café La Belle Equipe Rue de Charonne where 19 persons were gunned down, and he was deeply shocked not only by the immediate proximity of this atrocious event in his neighborhood but he also wondered about the impact that it would have on the life of its habitants, and on the way of life of Parisians at large.
We talked for a long time and at the end of the conversation we briefly remembered the happy time we had when a year ago we celebrated his 70th birthday at Le Chateaubriand, avenue Parmentier, a very creative and much loved bistro in the same  11th arrondissement. (see below)
On the next day, still feeling quite depressed, I wished I could be in Paris instead of Chicago and share a comforting dinner with my brother in one of my favorite bistros.
We must continue to have fun in these places. It is the best way to resist to the negative impact of such horror on our lives and to say F.Y to these fanatics who want to destroy them.  
In fact, a few days only after that tragedy bars and restaurants that had been the targets of the terrorists, reopened their doors and their customers were back, sitting at the terraces and drinking their coffee or beer at “l’heure de l’apéritif`’’ (happy hour). It was a clear answer from Parisians to these lunatics who wanted to scare them out of their cherished liberty, fraternity, and joie de vivre.

The Onzième Arrondissement is a trove of comfort food and great regional French wines found in many bistros, some of them used to be my favorites in Paris. One can say that the 11th is the epicenter in Paris for both traditional ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’’ and ‘’cuisine du marché’’ as well as since 2005 ‘’bistronomie’’  (bistro-gastronomy). But that latest trend is already fading away, and one can notice a return to the cuisine bourgeoise and ‘’de ménage‘’ (sometimes called familliale).

Personally I always loved this area, especially over the last 45 years which I spent in Chicago,  and every time I am in Paris, I used to return there with friends or even alone to walk around and eat in some of my favorite small restaurants and bistros of the capital.
The 11th  is an exciting mesh of sub-neighborhoods where old artisan wood-working or other crafts shops, furniture and design shops,  art galleries, casual clothes boutiques, specialty food stores, and many other small manufacturing activities share the tight spaces in small streets, alleys, courtyards, and passages.
And all over are monuments, plaques, and statues that reflect the tumultuous episodes during the infancy and later adolescence of the French République after the 1789 Revolution. The 11th has witnessed many workers demonstrations and protests over the last 225 years, and long marches still take place nowadays between the Place de la Nation and the Place de la République.  The 11th used to have a long tradition of voting for the parties on the left of the French political spectrum
But over the last 40 years many of its ‘’working class’’ neighborhoods have been gentrified and the price of real estate in the 11th went way up, so its ethno-social  picture and its political profile is no longer the same.

Some of my bistro memories are also associated to other more recent historic dramas which had a personal impact.  On September 11, 2001 early in the afternoon I was on my way to CDG airport in Paris to catch a plane to Hanover, Germany.  The traffic was so congested that I arrived to the check-in counter only 30 minutes before departure. I was told that my seat has been attributed to a standby passenger and that I should come back the next morning to catch another plane. When the airline employee checked my ticket and found out that I had just arrived from the U.S, her facial expression was suddenly very tense and grave. She told me that she was sorry for what happened and hoped that my family was all right. I asked her what was going on and she told me about the still developing event in New York. I took a taxi back to Paris and turned the TV on to watch in horror the images of the WTC buildings collapsing. One of the journalists said that there was perhaps another American Airlines plane that might have terrorists on board and still be airborne, but he could not say if it was on a domestic or international route. I immediately thought about my elder son who was on his way to Paris at this hour on an AA flight. I called him on his cell phone and after a few tense moments he called me back. He had just arrived at CDG and was on his way to his hotel. But he had just learned that his business meeting over dinner that night had been canceled for obvious reasons. I told him that I was myself grounded in Paris until the next morning and suggested that we should have a comforting dinner at ASTIER, at the time my favorite bistro in the 11th arrondissement.
When we arrived there, the restaurant where the main street level dining area consists of two rooms, was, as it is most of the time, totally packed. I had reserved a table and soon we were ordering. While we sipped our first glass of Bordeaux, we shared our mutual feelings about the shock we experienced watching the news. We were both totally exhausted and emotionally drained. At the tables around us people were all talking about the same tragic subject but surprisingly the conversations were animated and customers continued to eat and drink, and sometimes laugh. Obviously being with friends and share good food wine and animated discussions was comforting for them. And it also proved to be for us a therapeutic way to react to this horror. In the middle of dinner Stephane and I realized that we should have called my wife, his mother, in Chicago to let her know that we were both OK. We did so and she was relieved but in some way very disturbed by the fact that we could eat and drink and have a good time in such tragic circumstances. I told her that it was a typical Parisian reaction and that life should go on. But for her who was totally immersed in the horror of the terrifying scenes she was watching on TV in the U.S. where it was actually happening live, it was totally impossible to understand our own way of dealing with this trauma.

Last month, after the trauma they endured in that neighborhood, many Parisians and public media, encouraged their ''concitoyens'', via posters, articles, and grafitis,  to return to their favorite cafés and restaurants and meet with friends, family, and neighbors   over an apéritif, an expresso, or a meal. It would be the best cathartic and healthy way to share their griefs and express their determination to resist the bullying of these terrorists.
And that is exactly what Parisians did, as soon as the next 3 days. 

So here are a few memories about that restaurant which for me will always remain the symbol of happy times in the 11th. Arrondissement.

44 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris 11.
Tel : 01-43-57-1635  Metro : Parmentier or Oberkampf

During the many years I dined at Astier, this charming and lively place was a very typical Parisian bistro based on traditional ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’’ dishes made from scratch with good quality fresh products. It had been very popular with ‘’regular’’ Parisians customers since 1956 when it was created in a relatively modest neighborhood by Monsieur and Madame Astier.
It is also a favorite of many well-informed tourists, a lot of them from the U.K and the U.S. The competent and pleasant staff was most of the time able to give info on the dishes in English.  The tables were dressed with red and white checkered table cloth, and the walls were covered with old photos and diplomas.  My favorite dishes there were the delicious terrines de campagne, marinated herrings, or leeks in a vinaigrette dressing, as appetizers. As main dish I often ordered the Lapin à la Moutarde  (rabbit in a mustard sauce), the Blanquette de Veau (tender veal stew in a cream sauce) , the roasted guinea hen, or the Navarrin d’Agneau ( very tasty lamb stew with small spring vegetables). And of course you would call the waiter to bring to your table the extraordinary plateau de fromages  (cheese tray) where you could choose as many cheeses as you wanted, and there were usually as many as 20 different varieties. For dessert one of the stars was the famous “Baba au Rhum” a fantastic airy and fluffy sponge cake generously doused with good quality old rum. The wine list counted around more than 300 different wines, including great affordable crus bourgeois of Bordeaux, marvelous Bourgognes from small producers, and aromatic but cheap vins régionaux  from little known wine growers of the South West, Côtes du Rhône, Languedoc, Loire  or  Alsace.
 I always finished my meals with a small glass of Vieille Prune de Souillac, a plum brandy from the Dordogne Valley in Périgord. The owner Michel Picquart who took over the restaurant in the late 70s would pour me a generous shot from a bottle that was the queen of the old bar-counter.
Monsieur Picquart many years ago was one of the first restaurateurs in Paris to sell  bio-dynamic  wines.
In the late 1980s you could have a great dinner of 3 course selected from the very attractive ‘’menu-carte’’ for around 25 euros.   Nowadays it would cost you 45 euros.
But now  you can have access to WIFI if you need to check your e-mails. When I was dining there from the late 70s to the late 90s the only activities we had at Astier were eating, drinking, and conversing among friends. No need to check a smart phone every 5 minutes.
He sold Astier in 1995 to two of his closest associates who were veteran employees  of the restaurant.  Fortunately they  kept the culinary traditions of the restaurant and the high quality of its  products.
But in 2006 they sold the place to a well-known restaurateur, Frederic Hubig-Schall.
And, having stopped going to Paris on business on a regular basis every year, I never returned there. I understand that the quality is still there but the restaurant was redecorated and the menu and the type of dishes served modernized to adjust to the tastes of younger customers and new culinary trends.
The chefs, since Hubig took over are young alumni of famous 2 or 3 stars Paris restaurants and their fine cuisine is much more sophisticated from what I read.  I will return there to check it out during my next trip to Paris.
But in any case Astier was for me the epitome of good comfort food bistro.

In 1995 Michel  Picquart became the owner of another excellent traditional bistro a few blocks away ‘’LE VILLARET’’ ( 13 Rue Ternaux, Tel: 01-43-57-8976  Metro Parmentier). I have not been there for at least 7  years but from what I read it is still a very good restaurant and I warmly recommend it.

In 2015 I would say that my favorite bistros in this arrondissement are Le CHATEAUBRIAND and L’AUBERGE PYRENNEES-CEVENNES.

129 Avenue Parmentier
Tel: 01-43-57-4595
Métro Goncourt

The owner, Inaki  Aizpitarte  is an incredibly creative, I should say uniquely inventive, chef. He is also a very nice and interesting man whom I could listen to for hours talking about his cuisine, his herbs and spice blends , that is completely out of the ordinary and therefore impossible to categorize. This 43 year-old  self-taught cuisinier, born in the French Basque region,  has become a model for many young chefs all over the world. Quite an adventurer, he traveled around many countries before coming back to France to work first as a chef at La Famille, a minuscule bistrot  in Montmatre , and finally landing Avenue Parmentier  in 2006 where he opened Le Chateaubriand, a minimalist restaurant in a space that used to be a  charcuterie (pork butcher shop). You will not find here any sophisticated décor, fancy modern design furniture or expensive china or glassware.  The tables and chairs are typical old wooden bistro not even covered with white table cloth. The walls are almost naked. The wait staff consists of very casually dressed young men, without aprons or black vests, but they are very knowledgeable about the various very original and often unexpected dishes on the no-choice single prix fixe menu, that changes every day. The wine list is also a very unique selection from small independent growers, from various traditional French regions but also sometimes from unknown appellations in other areas in various countries.
You will be served several small dishes and 3 main courses plus very creative aromatic desserts. All the dishes feature totally surprising blends of colors, textures, spices, thinly sliced vegetables and fruits. And it would be impossible for me to describe a typical menu, which by the way is priced very reasonably  at 70 euros for 8 dishes .But the most interesting formula is the 135 euros menu with wine (or other alcohol based very original drink), because the pairings are as original as the dishes themselves. You have to book your reservations a couple of weeks in advance especially since the restaurant has been rated the 21st best restaurant in the world in the 2015 San Pellegrino “The World’s 50 best restaurants” list.
But you must have an open mind to enjoy such a great meal. Do not go there if you like ample portions and traditional French cuisine. You would leave feeling  frustrated.

106 Rue de la Folie  Méricourt
Tel: 01-43-57-3378
Métro République

This place is the complete opposite of Chateaubriand that represents the contemporary bistro trend in the 11th. It is a temple of abundant and well-prepared traditional regional French dishes served the old provincial way with good humor and the welcome is always warm and charming.  The décor is comfortable and sort of rustic like a country inn in the Southwest of France. In fact many of the dishes here, always served in enormous portions as it used to be in provincial ‘’auberges’’, are pleasant representatives of the Lyon area (frisée aux lardons, quenelles, sweetbreads, saucisson chaud, charcuterie) and of the Southwest, the cassoulet being a very popular dish there that is supposed to be one of the best in Paris.  The wine list, rich in very good and affordable regional wines from Burgundy and the Southwest, is quite attractive.
One again my last meal there goes back to a few years, but I keep very good memories of it. It was one of the most comforting and joyous repast I had with 2 other friends in this neighborhood.

A few others of my favorite bistros in the 80s and 90s were:

50 Rue Amelot
Paris 11

Even though the decor, plates, and silver, seemed to have been assembled from bits and pieces found in a flea market, and chances are that your table was too close for comfort to the next one, you would  enjoy a clever and very tasty ‘’cuisine de marché” in this establishment. Every day the chef-owner , Didier Varnier  who was working under Christian Constant at The Crillon, would compose a short menu made of only a few inventive specials according to the season and what was best at the farmer’s market.  The consistent quality of the ingredients and the imaginative precision of the cooking let you forget about the short list of options on the menu written on a blackboard.
It was a very successful formula. Only one menu for a fixed price consisting of one first course, one fish dish, one meat dish, and one dessert which could also be cheese. The chef`s soups were spectacular in winter. The home-made pastries, especially the fresh fruit tarts were very popular.
Lunch was a fantastic bargain and the wine list includes some very interesting  regional options at very attractive prices
The restaurant was sold in 2006. Then again in 2010 to become Qui Plume La Lune, a “restaurant gastronomique”   under a  young but gifted chef, Jacky Ribault , who was awarded a Michelin star in 2014.

114 Rue Amelot
Tel:  01-43-55-87-35
Métro :  Filles du Calvaire

This was a very picturesque but  modest wine bar and small  bistro, where  clowns and artists who worked at the nearby Cirque d’Hiver  (a beautiful indoor circus that still exists) , opened at the turn of the 20th century , would come to eat a bite and drink wine.  But it has been relatively recently acquired by young and successful restaurant entrepreneurs who expanded and redecorated the place and created a real creative menu.  I have not been there for 20 years but used to love the old place.
Here is what I wrote about in 1988:
This incredible wine  bar and bistro  next to the ‘’Cirque d’Hiver’’ has only a few tables but whether you sit down or you stand at the old ‘’zinc’’ counter to eat the ‘’ Plat du Jour’’ (special of the day which could turn out to be a very tasty like daube of beef or lamb with beans) or limit yourself to a plate of sausage, rabbit rillettes, or smoked ham, you will appreciate the special ambience and admire the beautiful art deco ceramic tile frescoes on the theme of the circus which decorate the walls, or the beautiful glass ceiling.  Meanwhile enjoy a glass or two of very decent Beaujolais Villages , Côtes du Rhône,  or Fitou and have a chat with other patrons. Very ‘’sympathique’’…

LES AMOGNES                                                                  *
243 Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine

This restaurant closed in 2006. But here is what I wrote, in 1986 I believe, about this place that I loved and visited many times .
Thierry Coué , the chef-owner, who was at one point the sous-chef to Alain Senderens at ‘’l’Archestrate’’, has been offering for more than 12 years, in a pseudo country inn décor which could have been more exciting, one of the most innovative and reasonably-priced  ‘’menu-cartes’’ ( 27 euros), for such a level of quality, in Paris. Without pretense but with a very precise cooking technique, he works tasty marvels with good quality simple products, especially fish and great vegetables, which creatively offer unusual combinations of aromas.  The wine list is full of small regional little known gems.

17 Rue de la Fontaine au Roi

I have very fond memories of Fernand Asseline,  a former charcutier , who was the jovial and bon vivant owner of this charming bistro, essentially devoted to the cuisine of his dear Normandie where he was born. The man was doing many of its excellent products himself, especially his fragrant smooth  butter, his country bread, his cream, his sausages and tripes, and he aged his camembert in the cellar of the restaurant. Several times he made me taste his old Calvados apple brandies. He probably had the most spectacular collection of them in Paris. And with some of his typical regional dishes, such as a fabulous roasted in skate wing with a white wine and cream sauce, andouillettes (chitterling sausage) rabbit stew, or duck, he would bring you a bowl of a delicious apple cider (the fermented one that had 6 or 7 degrees alcohol content) made by some family member in his village in Normandy. His Pont-L’Evêque  cheese was probably the best I have tasted, and his home-made  apple tarts doused in Calvados  with his own whipped cream were addictive.
Eventually he expanded the bistro into a full restaurant called Les Fernandises, which still exist s in 2015  but is now owned by some Basque people. Needless to say the bistro dishes from Normandy are gone.
Upon learning about his death, I never returned to Chez Fernand.

In 2015 the 3 bistros that are the darlings of the critics and attract a younger client base which includes lots of ‘’Bobos’’, the ‘’Bourgeois-Bohème’’  folks  who now live in the 11th are :

18 Rue Paul Bert

Metro Faidherbe Chaligny

A blend of traditional cuisine bourgeoise and its contemporary ‘’bistronomic’’ version.
The popular owner Bertrand Auboyneau had for many years a solid following of regulars who love this type of mixed style of dishes that  can please the ‘’branché’’ (au courant) Parisians as well as the numerous international tourists and a few older customers who love high quality steak-frites.

80 Rue de Charonne
Tel : 01-43-67-38-29
Metro Charonne or Ledru Rollin

Since it opened in 2011 by the talented chef Bernard Grébault, who belongs to the generation of the new young lions who learned their trade and technique in the kitchens of famous starred chefs, in this case Robuchon and Passard,  you need to reserve weeks in advance to secure a table. His cuisine is based on high quality products but treated with lots of modern creativity.

1 Rue Jules Vallès
Tel: 01-43-71-4952
Métro  Charonne

Launched in 1904 this very old traditional bistro has a splendid décor. Since 2008 when it was reopened after intensive redecoration, the kitchen under the management of a very popular chef Cyril Lignac, recreates  the dishes of the cuisine de ménage of yesteryear. 


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