Luxury is sometimes measured in terms of authenticity and when it comes to dining out in Paris that means bistros – one of the most traditional of French eateries.
While upscale restaurants with elegant interiors are plentiful in the City of Light, for a taste of the real Paris – and down-home cooking too – nothing beats a popular bistro. If locals are eating there, you can be assured the quality of the menu is good. After all, of all nations, French impatience of poor quality food is legendary.
Owned and managed by gregarious chef Alain Fontaine for almost twenty years, Le Mesturet is an historic bistro that has been established in the stock exchange district, a short walk from the Paris Opera, since 1883.
It’s 9.15 on a damp Monday evening and this cosy, compact corner-street bistro is choc-a-bloc, buzzing with conversation, every table taken, except ours, which thankfully had been booked in advance.
Expect no fuss or fluster here, down-to-earth informality is the watchword, combined with friendly service and classic French dishes, many of the recipes having been handed down from generation to generation.
By classic dishes I mean slabs of home-made foie gras with cornbread and sweet wine jelly, cured herring with sauerkraut mousse, veal kidneys, steak tartare, duck confit and guinea fowl baked in a blanket of potatoes with mushrooms and white wine sauce.
And, of course, the iconic French starter of escargot but not cooked in the usual manner with butter, garlic and parsley and served in their shells. Here they’re baked together and served like a pie with parsley and mushrooms.
For a touch of culinary daring, try the menu headliner – calf’s brain wrapped in tongue with egg, capers and pickles.
Instead of silk curtains and chandeliers, think plain sturdy wood tables and chairs and an array of unrelated ornaments seemingly chosen at random decorating every available shelf and counter space, a motley collection of colourful biscuit tins, vintage coffee grinders, rugby balls, brass pans, teapots, clocks, an ornamental orange tree, a wooden ladder, a globe of the world, flags of different nations and books stacked atop wine barrels.
Colorful posters advertising different festivals, some long since over, line the mirrored walls. Ceiling lights feature makeshift lampshades of empty wine bottles.
In proud recognition of the family dynasty, a series of black and white photographs show venerable members including Chef Alaine as a child. Some furnishings are also familial, an oak wardrobe and an old writing desk now used as a table handed down by great grandparents.
Featuring a cream-colored tiled floor and a comptoir, or counter bar, in front (a hallmark of authentic French bistros), Le Mesturet seats around 90, its ground-floor divided into several different spaces by partial glass partitions. Several strategically-placed blackboards explain drink and food specials.
Reflecting its illustrious history, a subterranean cellar, ten meters below street level with a bare brick ceiling, is home to hundreds of vintage wines, including small producers.
As for the differences between brasseries, bistros and French restaurants, no better person to ask than Alain – he is president of a bistro association and a firm believer in ‘convivial counter conversation’ as an intricate element of French culture and has even launched a petition to the Ministry of Culture to include it in its manifesto.