The Democratization of Excellence

If there is one thing the experts seem to agree upon, it is that the Paris restaurant scene - indeed, all of French food - is in a state of revolution. Great chefs who once spent their working lives tending a single gastronomic shrine have become itinerant journeymen, absorbing in their travels the cuisines of exotic cultures. Some even take on vows of abstinence, renouncing the solid meaty staples on which their careers were founded. Once-fixed Michelin stars go shooting across the culinary firmament like heavenly portends, burning out in a blaze of glory.

Amidst all this insecurity, a fortuitous by-product has been the narrowing gap between the traditional and the inventive. A modern bistro is no longer a dusty institution whose menu - or even its regional identity - is engraved on tablets of stone. Young chefs who once worked their way up through the ranks like civil servants, hoping one day to inherit a senior post in a prestigious institution, now set up their own modest establishments, sometimes with the generous backing of the masters who have trained them. They know that there is an excitement in the air and a mood of anticipation which has made the educated dining public attentively receptive to unfamiliar names.

And so, in addition to the old Paris bistros - some still worthy of their traditional clientele, others now fit only for tourists - there are perhaps a couple of dozen newer establishments which appear regularly in such discriminating compendiums as Time Out's Critics Choice or Jeffrey Steingarten's list of personal favorites. A favoured few are in both. When Mary and I set out to guzzle our way through a five-day week in Paris, it was the latter which formed the nucleus of our advance planning.

A few cross-channel phone calls lined us up with a promising reservation for each day: La Fontaine Gourmande , La Folletterie, Le Pamphlet, Le Safran, and L'Astrance (in that order). In the event we could not have chosen a more instructive sequence. They could hardly have differed more among themselves in detail, and yet they had certain distinctive features mostly (though not entirely) in common:

· The front-of-house was managed by a young maitre d' and the kitchen by a young chef.

· The menu changed frequently and included a few intriguing dishes whose ingredients and preparation we could only guess at.

· The cost of the fixed menu was modest, well under 200 francs.

· The clientele were a cross-section of age and ethnicity who did not turn the air blue with raucous conversation or cigarette smoke.

· Many diners took an undisguised interest in their food, exchanging comparative samples.

But perhaps the most significant factor of this new movement is what might be called the democratization of excellence. These avant-garde bistros are a far cry from the traditional temples of haute-cuisine gastronomy: from their tiny kitchens truly inventive dishes with first-class ingredients may be informally served up for a pittance. When I exclaimed, in what had immediately become one of my favorite bistros, that it should be awarded a Michelin star, the ebullient waitress threw out her ample bosom and responded, "*I* am a star!" Which indeed she was. (It would have been gauche to point out that the so-called Michelin star is really a macaroon.)

©2001 John Whiting