Le Bistro Urbain
In the three cities I’ve lived in longest, know best, and have minutely observed during the course of my adult life—New York, London and Paris, I’ve always been fascinated by the way a single restaurant can serve as the catalyst for major urban change. The archetype that immediately comes to mind for me is Ruskays, a long gone restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York City, while the most vivid recent example is Le Bistro Urbain in Paris’s 10th arrondissement.
At a time in the late seventies when Manhattan north of Lincoln Center seemed increasingly on the skids from Broadway east to Central Park, Ruskays, a candle-lit duplex space with a big picture window façade, offered a vision of a dramatically different Columbus Avenue—in this take, it would be—like the restaurant, fashionable and popular with creative young urbanites. I ate at Ruskays dozens of times but have zero memory of the food—instead, what intrigued me and made me go back was the idea of identifying with and becoming part of the simmering urban glamour in the room. Also in New York, Raoul’s in Soho did the same thing—although here the food was actually good, while the original Square Trousseau in Paris offered a perfect snap shot of the young chic of the Bastille and the Faubourg Saint Antoine when this turf began its long evolution from being a neighborhood of working-class artisans to Bobo central. Sudden constellations of popular new restaurants have also signaled major changes in London’s Soho and Notting Hill Gate, both quarters being so stylish today that it’s almost impossible to imagine that the former had once been the city’s massage-parlor filled red-light district and the other a rough-and-tumble area with a large population of inhabitants from the Caribbean islands.
Within recent years, the long-standing tradition of urban life in western cities which held that these three cities would be home to a diverse array of different socio-economic groups has been pummeled by huge changes in the global economy. The upshot of these disruptions and dislocations is that the world’s wealthy once again covet the beauty, character and convenience of the historic hearts of these cities, with the result that lower-income people are pushed out to the less-expensive periphery of ever-spreading metropolitan areas.
Le Bistro Urbain
What this means is full-gallop gentrification in these places, and in this context, a single restaurant can have a huge impact on the popular perception of a neighborhood—Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, for example, being absolutely vital in the accelerating sociological transformation of Harlem.
In central Paris, the 10th arrondissement has been emerging as a dramatically more up-market neighborhood along the Canal du Saint Martin for at least a decade, but now this is spilling over into the formerly grotty triangle of turf bounded by the Boulevard Magenta, les grands boulevards and the rue du Faubourg Poissoniere that was once the showroom hub of the French table-top industry, and it’s been intriguing to watch the area become hip, a transformation led by a clutch of trendy new restaurants, bar, cafes and wine bars. Many of them, including L’Office, Vivant Table and Abri, have become destination tables in terms of attracting people from outside of the 10th.
This is why even though I love all three of these tables, I have developed a new gastronomic soft spot for Le Bistro Urbain
, which holds up the same hopeful (and perhaps parlous–look what Columbus Avenue eventually became) mirror to the 10th that Ruskays did to the Upper West Side so many years ago. And the similarities between these tables don’t stop there—both share the same sort of effortless and unselfconscious low-key urban chic and take their primary vocation—making sure the locals eat well and have a good time, very seriously.
Coming here with Bruno and our friends Laurent and Carole for a late and impromptu dinner the other night, all of us liked this place the moment we came through the door. Why? There was a nice friendly welcome from the proprietor, the room was well-lit and visually interesting, with an open kitchen that might have inspired Edward Hopper and an interesting wall installation of overlapping white rectangle, and the tables were correctly spaced.
Then the good-value chalkboard menu proposed a lot of dishes that were a perfect bull’s eye in terms of the type of meal we were gunning for–exalted French comfort food. So three of us had the marinated salmon with an excellent remoulade sauce and a trio of freshly baked miniature rolls, and the third tucked into an excellent warm salad of deboned rabbit with rosemary on salad leaves. Though I had not gone to dinner with my professional food writer’s cap on, I couldn’t help but noticing that the food was really well sourced, and eventually asked one of the owners if he worked with Terroirs d’Avenir, the ur trendy and excellent super well-sourced provisioner to many of Paris’s best young chefs.
Like the magician who’s afraid that the audience might be on to how he pulled the rabbit out of his hat, he was initially startled by the question, but then answered with a nod and a grin while he scrutinized our table for a clue as to why we might know of this wonderful little company, a cook’s secret. Our main courses, by chef William Ransonne, ex-Les Parisiennes, were very good, too.
A busy night at Le Bistro Urbain
Bruno and Laurent went wild–with partridge and wild dove respectively, for a reasonable supplement to the prix-fixe menu, Carole was happy with her maigre, and I scarfed down a juicy onglet (hanger steak) served with baby potatoes and a creamy sauce of mustard, cream and deglazed meat juices.
Desserts were excellent, too–petit pot de crème à la chicorée (chicory flavored custard) and ravioles aux coings sauvages (dessert ravioli stuffed with wild quince), and by the end of our meal, we were in really good spirits. “This was a really good meal,” exulted Laurent, adding, “The food was great, but it’s also really wonderful see the renewal of the neighborhood bistro by a new generation of talented chefs and restaurateurs.”
It is indeed.
103 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, 10th, Tel. 01-42-46-32-49, Metro: Gare de l’Est, Poissonnière & Château d’Eau, www.bistro-urbain.fr Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday. Lunch menus 14.50-19 €, dinner menu 25-30 €.
Alexander Lobrano was Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent from 1999 until its recent closing. Lobrano has written for almost every major food and travel magazine since he became an American in Paris in 1986. He is the author of “Hungry for Paris” (Random House), his personal selection of the city’s 102 best restaurants, which Alice Waters has called “a wonderful guide to eating in Paris.” Lobrano’s Letter from Paris runs every month in Everett Potter’s Travel Report. Visit his website, Hungry for Paris.(Photo by Steven Rothfeld)