Paris Bistro approaches fluent French
It's been a long road to Paris from Oberon.
Remember that splashy but short-lived bistro, which opened in Old City 16 years ago? That was the last time chef Al Paris (with partners) dabbled in French classics, somewhat unsuccessfully, muddying the Gallic canon with Italian riffs and an occasional Asian-fusion folly: "It wasn't awful, but it wasn't good," he concedes.
But Paris is older now. He's since worked more than a half-dozen other restaurants and diverse concepts, from Guru to Mantra, Pat Bombino's, Zanzibar Blue, and City Grill. And he's recently had success with his current partners, Robert and Benjamin Bynum, who've helped the ebullient chef reconnect with his love of ingredients and find a steady fine-dining groove at seasonally driven Heirloom in Chestnut Hill.
And so, for the next act just down Germantown Avenue, his return to the land of Larousse Gastronomique at Paris Bistro is steeped in the humility of a mature cook. One who finally understands that honoring tradition, without needing to make too much of a personal statement, is the best path to a satisfying coq au vin. And there is genuine goodness in a well-steeped coq au vin - that slow-cooked chicken stew in winey, bacon-scented gravy with mushrooms and sweet pearl onions - that was exactly the plat du jour that tradition-minded Chestnut Hillers seemed to be happily devouring one recent, bustling eve.
The well-pressed neighborhood crowd filled this long and noisy Dijon-colored corner bistro-bar beside the Chestnut Hill Hotel, clinking their glasses of bracing rosé and Calvados cosmos beneath the shiny pressed-tin ceiling with such easy joy, you'd think we were supping on Boulevard St. Germaintown.
I wouldn't go quite that far. Anyone who knows bistro cooking well can taste the high-volume limitations of this kitchen, which is inconsistent in the details of finesse that distinguish the best of the genre. Paris isn't quite yet "Parc on the Hill" (let alone Le Chéri).
The decor, though evocative of a Belle Epoque theme with elaborate metal globe sconces and reproduced Alphonse Mucha images, has a shiny newness about it that feels ersatz without a little patina. The wedge-shaped jazz club in the basement, however, has exactly the kind of cavelike intimacy that drew me to the subterranean music boîtes of Paris (the city) when I lived there in my 20s.
Yet Paris Bistro has genuine virtues, and I can see returning here for a concert and meal. The service is cheery and accommodating. The 70-plus-label regional French wine list has greater breadth than one might expect (from bargain Chinon and crisp Entre-deux Mers to Zind-Humbrecht, Andre Bonhomme, and Duval-LeRoy Champagne). And the fair double-cost markups make getting a bottle (many under $50) well worth the upgrade over the by-the-glass wines.
And there are more than enough solid renditions of standards reasonably priced at about $20 or less to make Paris Bistro a cheery windfall for Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood in need of more stylish, respectable restaurants.
Begin with some of the bistro bellwethers. The French onion soup has a soulful balance of slowly caramelized onion sweetness and savory veal stock tinted with nutty sherry, the crock sealed with a proper lid of stretchy Gruyère cheese. The lobster bisque has a vivid crustacean richness, with well-steeped lobster flavor, sweet chunks of meat, and just a hint of cream and a flicker of cayenne at the finish. The salmon tartare is simple but beautiful, the fresh raw orange fish freshly minced and brightened with lemon and olive oil, then scattered with capers and a mimosa of grated hard-boiled eggs.
A big bowl of steamed mussels is redolent of garlicky wine broth steeped with fennel, perfect for bread-dunking. And though the snails could have been more tender, the Pernod garlic butter that pooled in the broiling-dish divots was as good an excuse as any to go for escargot.
And for dessert, rich chocolate mousse spiked with Grand Marnier and a moist almond cake made from Paris' grandmother's recipe are a perfect way to finish.
For starters, though, Paris Bistro needs serious work on its raw bar. The big ice cubes that fill its trays (as opposed to crushed ice) make a clunky pedestal for shellfish. But the shellfish itself was also disappointing - the bluepoint oysters not nearly cold enough, the shrimp cocktail overcooked, the lump-crab-and-avocado salad blandly underdressed. Paris' other salads were also unexciting, the beet and goat cheese plate as dry as banquet fare, and the duck confit on the salad strangely sweet.
I found the big leg of duck confit poking skyward from the cassoulet far more satisfying, though that hearty casserole of flavorful white beans topped with duck-fat bread crumbs would have been even better if I'd been able to find the house-made garlic sausage supposedly buried inside. (I found none.)
Only a couple of entrées here were complete misses. The Friday-special bouillabaisse lacked intensity to its fennel and saffron seafood broth. The crepe du jour, folded into a baked package around bland salmon and spinach over watery butter sauce, was closer in texture to a crispy chimichanga than a supple crepe.
But for every disappointment, there were at least two reasonable successes. The steak-frites was a thickly cut flatiron steak, perfectly tender, flavorful, and medium-rare, with herby hotel butter basting the meat. With a cup of fresh-cut frites beside it, it was a nice bargain for $19. Trout amandine brought two generous fillets of fish, crisply seared skin-on in brown butter, with snappy haricots verts, capers, and slivered almonds.
The rotisserie chicken was tasty enough, but would have been juicier had it not been par-roasted then finished to order. The rabbit, though, was exceptional, the hindquarter tenderly braised with an anise-scented spice, then glazed with a tangy mustard cream over wide egg noodles with tiny roasted carrots on the side. The boeuf bourguignon was moist and yielding from its patient stew, a short rib glazed in red-wine gravy that perked with a hint of ginger. That unexpected flavor echoed the silky butternut squash filling of the giant raviolo that crowned the short rib like a dumpling beret.
Mais oui, that is a little Italian flourish finding its way back onto Al Paris' French bistro plates. But time flies. And as a signature wink from the well-traveled, wiser chef, it finally sits just right.
Chef and owner Al Paris discusses Paris Bistro & Jazz Cafe at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
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