Paris is, of course, a walker's city. But which direction to take? And to what destinations? With previously unknown (to me, at least) restaurants as my end points, I started at Notre Dame (essentially the center of town; all time allotments below are from there) and headed in different directions for different lengths of time.
After a few attempts, I found myself drawn toward the Marais and the 11th Arrondissement, where I was eating best. When I walked west, I was disappointed. With one exception, I had to walk north (and usually east) in order to find food that thrilled me.
Here, then, are the four winners.
Septime (35 minutes from Notre Dame)
Especially in daylight, Septime may be the most pleasant Parisian restaurant I know. There are big north-facing front windows; a bright, open kitchen; and simple, beautiful filament bulbs and lamps over tables of rough-hewed wood. The result is an overall glow that quickly becomes internal.
This is among the most successful of a current generation of restaurants that is sometimes called neo-bistro. The cooking is subtle, the food is served leisurely and informally. Lunch is relatively (one needs the qualifier, here in Paris more than most places) inexpensive: 28 euros ($35.60 at $1.28 to the euro) for three courses (for 55 euros you get what is essentially the day's dinner menu of two starters, two main courses and a dessert).
The small lunch and dinner menus change daily. I tried an exciting white asparagus with an anchovy dressing; a fine "salad" of leeks, smoked duck breast and ricotta; and cuttlefish with creamy potatoes and pancetta. These were followed by a nicely done piece of sautéed lieu jaune (pollock) with chard and greens, and the most professionally cooked pieces of chicken -- crisp skin, supermoist, well seasoned -- that I ate all week. (There were three others.)
Portions were beyond generous; it was only because it was included that my companion and I ordered dessert. That was lucky: a perfect piece of Cantal cheese was served next to a decent Camembert-style chèvre (I am not a fan of goat cheese in general, so it may have been better than that), and a bowl of wonderfully slow-cooked apple with thin raw apple slices and ice cream made from woodruff, a subtle herb, was polished off quickly.
Unsurprisingly, reservations are hard to obtain, which is why we wound up at lunch, and you may well also. Nothing wrong with that.
Septime, 80, rue de Charonne; (33-1) 43-67-38-29; septime-charonne.fr.
Le Pantruche (45 minutes)
Le Pantruche serves bolder, heartier and more traditional food than Septime, and the menu is bigger. Still, the chef has the "right" pedigree (he worked for the famed Parisian chef Christian Constant), and the place is more destination than neighborhood joint. It's in a great neighborhood, too: the Ninth Arrondissement, just down the hill from Montmartre -- I think you could literally roll if you were so inclined.
At lunch, Le Pantruche is downright cheap: 18 euros for the day's special, and either a starter or dessert; at dinner it's 34 euros for pretty much any combo of three things on the menu. (There are supplements for some.) Blanquette de veau was a special when I was there (again, for lunch), and since it's a dish I have trouble turning down for purely sentimental reasons, I ordered it. It's not easy to prepare, and they nailed it: tender, creamy, well seasoned, with loads of carrots.
Really, I could have ordered half the menu: there was braised veal breast, another favorite, and lamb shoulder (just writing the words makes me hungry). We settled on coucou de Rennes (a type of chicken), served with vegetable ravioli that outshined the meat by a long shot. (If the dish had been sold as ravioli with a side of chicken, I'd have had no complaints.) For starters, I sampled lobster bisque with a fair amount of nearly raw lobster in it, and that special crab-gut flavor, nicely done, and an ultra-creamy soup of Jerusalem artichokes.
Le Pantruche is intimate in the way that, especially during the smoking days, made many Americans hate Paris restaurants. There were (by my count) 22 seats, and no room for gossiping about your neighbors. But the service is professional and friendly, the wines are inexpensive, the food is great. I have friends who swear by the place, and go whenever they get a chance.
Le Pantruche, 3, rue Victor Massé; (33-1) 48-78-55-60; lepantruche.com.
Pulperia (40 minutes)
Back over in the 11th, there is Pulperia, with perhaps a few more seats than Le Pantruche but about the same atmosphere and the same sort of crowd.
The name is not exactly misleading -- there is octopus on the menu -- but it's actually what you might call a Franco-Argentine restaurant, with a strong emphasis on meat. (If meat isn't your game, steer clear.) For years, I said the same about Severo in the 14th, which in spirit this place resembles: friendly, personal, tiny and perfect for drinking red wine.
It is also not a "fancy" or even especially special place: it's just the kind of place you want in your neighborhood. Here we ate a lot: a terrific tartare of pollock (obviously the fleet was in for this fish) with sweet potatoes; the aforementioned octopus, with leeks; really crisp sweetbreads (better than the more famous ones we ate at a place that didn't make the cut here), foie gras, cooked à la plancha, and served with beets, which worked; a splendid entrecôte ("churrasco de la pampa"), perfectly cooked. Oh, and a piece of pluma iberica, a cut of pork you don't see here and therefore figured we'd never see again. Wrong: it was offered -- and eaten -- at Beaucoup (more below).
Everything here was cooked exactly as it should have been (the chimichurri served with the beef was a tad tame, but the meat or its eaters could not really have cared), the wines were inexpensive and robust, the service was fine. Our neighbors on one side shared a massive côte du boeuf (not on the menu) and lingered. Eventually everyone was toasting the chef. That's how it should be.
Pulperia, 11, rue Richard Lenoir; (33-1) 40-09-03-70. An average meal for two is about 80 euros.
Semilla (15 minutes)
More pretentious, more expensive, more trendy (even than Septime, at the moment), more fashionably located on Rue de Seine in the Sixth (our one southerly destination), Semilla is not quite a bistro, not quite fine dining, not quite Parisian-feeling, but very nearly all of those. Among the restaurants discussed and mentioned here, it has no competition when it comes to the breadth of choices or vegetable preparation.
On this last point, it's barely a game, so avidly are they ignored elsewhere. Thus, in the little space I have left here, I'm not going to focus on the excellent beef (and herring!) tartare; the ceviche of trout with passion fruit and ginger; the raw scallop in a superhot stone bowl, into which is poured a curry broth (overcooking both scallop and broth, but it's a fun presentation); or the perfectly cooked fish and meat that comprised our main courses.
Rather, I'm going to focus on the cerfeuil tubereux (chervil root), of whose existence I was unaware (and I'm supposed to know about such things), the navets boule d'or (golden turnips) and the persil tubereux (parsley root). I was told the heliantis were not Jerusalem artichokes, and as if to prove the point, the menu also included topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes) as well. (If there was a difference, it was slight.) None of these were the centerpieces of dishes -- they were served alongside, respectively, sea bass, trout, pollock (bien sûr), pork and lamb. But in each instance they outshined the proteins, and in each instance they were simply amazing.
Semilla, 54, rue de Seine; (33-1) 43-54-34-50. An average meal for two is about 100 euros.
There are three restaurants that warrant mention but didn't make the final cut for various reasons. Caffé dei Cioppi (30 minutes), also in the 11th, is that rare thing in Paris: a fantastic and superinformal Italian restaurant. It only seats 18, so you may not get in, but try. Le Sergent Recruteur (10 minutes) is splendidly located in the heart of Île St.-Louis; it's swank, stylish and expensive and is loved by many. It's also full of surprises, and the service is brilliant, but I did not think that the food delivered. And Beaucoup (20 minutes) is the latest brainchild of Julien Fouin, whom I wrote about in The New York Times Magazine a couple of years ago and with whom I've become friendly -- so it seems appropriate to say no more than that it's the most New York-ish of the restaurants mentioned here, with a big, eclectic menu and a good bar.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.