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Not so haute

Parisian cuisine upheaval an excuse to abandon glitz for creative bistros

Paris is in a culinary crisis. The day after we arrived here, Alain Passard, the city's ruler of cuisine moderne, announced that the menu at his $200-a-head Arpege would henceforth be devoted to vegetables and the occasional bit of poultry.
The reason? Increasing "revelations about mad cows, chickens tainted with dioxins, calves fed on sewage and sausages infected with listeria," according to The Guardian. Passard, who had earlier banned beef, is even taking fish and shellfish off the menu, along with pork and lamb, because of their well-publicized drop in quality.
Passard's annoucement is only the latest result of what seems to be unending scandals. The same day police reported they had arrested 10 wine producers in Beaune for fraudulently selling perhaps hundreds of thousands of bottles of very inferior Burgundy wine under a superior label.
These scandals aggravate the already declining fortunes of the city's haute restaurants. Many of them, perhaps under the spell of nearby Disneyland, are breaking tradition by turning to glitzy decor. But, unwilling to spend like they used to, the French — or those unimpressed with glitz, anyway — are making the creative bistro and cafe chef, including ethnic ones, more important than ever.
So, that's the silver lining for visitors to Paris these days: Nobody blames you for avoiding haute cuisine, for refusing to spend $200 to vaccinate yourself against Mad Cow at one meal. Guides like Time Out, featuring journalists' reviews of the city's incredible array of mid-price and inexpensive restaurants, are prospering. In small restaurants, where tables are moved around like squares in a Rubic's Cube, you can eat astoundingly well for very reasonable prices, even if you are taking the small risk of eating bad meat.
We took the advice of our friend Lulu and Time Out and gave Le Souk, near the Place Bastille, a try soon after arriving. The French are enamored of North African cuisine and this restaurant run by Algerians serves the best tagine I have ever tasted. Perhaps I should reserve judgment until I try the tagine made with pounded rose petals at Le Mansouria, but for the present, Le Souk's amazingly sweet and savory, unctuous and caramelized dish of duck, figs, apricots, onions and almonds has no close competitor. And that includes Chez Bebert or Chez Horace, where I have earlier enjoyed North African dishes, though nothing so creative as the cuisine at Le Souk and Le Mansouria.
Nearly as good as the tagines at Le Souk are the couscous dishes — sublimely light grains with complex broths and meat or fish. Lamb arrives on the bone, garnished with a sprig of smoldering sage that fills the restaurant with the happy ambiance of a hashish parlor. Also try anything with sardines.
You can find any nationality represented in the restaurants here. Near our hotel in the Latin Quarter, we stumbled upon Pema Thang, a Tibetan restaurant. You'll eat under the smiling gaze of a large portrait of the Dalai Lama while recorded chants play. I think the monks must be chanting: "Skip the tea ... skip the tea."
Once Tibet's famous butter tea (the essence of oily saltiness) was behind us, the meal picked up. I didn't much care for the roasted barley porridge with bits of minced meat, though it had a nice kick from coriander, apparently one of Tibetans' favorite flavors. It reappeared in a green sauce over dumplings and was echoed distantly again in stewed beef, also flavored with black radishes. Dessert, pema thang, was a delicious cup of fresh fromage blanc topped with a mousse of apricots and bananas.
We spent New Year's Eve (literally) under the Eiffel Tower. Before watching the tower turn blue we went to La Chope d'Alsace, near the Odeon, for a New Year's Eve feast.
Our meal lasted a mere two-and-a-half hours, short by the standards of a country whose people can sit in a restaurant for four hours. Wayne ordered the menu, a giddy five courses of gourmet Alsatian specialties. I contented myself with a starter of fabulous goose pâté foie gras encircled by golden aspic, followed by a huge mound of choucroute — sauerkraut garnished with sausages, including one of the best boudins I've ever tasted, and smoked pork cuts.
The scene at La Chope was pretty typical of Paris these days: gorgeous women in leopard prints and little black dresses, as well as green-haired androgynous statuettes in leather. Dress codes seem to have been almost completely abandoned but absolutely everyone talks endlessly about food.
I could go on ... to tell you about an incredible meal of Auvergnat stuffed veal and sausages at La Galoche d'Aurillac; the blend of French, African and Louisiana cuisines at Waly Fay; a remarkable salade Landaise at the bistro a few steps from our hotel. But I have to go to Club Jean Beauvais — an all-cardio health club where I will sweat away every forkful of foie gras I have consumed.



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