Book Review: An Idiosyncratic Volume [“The Authentic Bistros of Paris”]
– by Terry Robards
My quibble with this book has to do with semantics and something that was lost in translation. For many years I have been a habitué of the bistros of Paris, and I know something about them. The best of them arouse gastronomic passions in me as profound as any Michelin three star does, so I was disappointed to discover that this book tries not to focus on bistros.
I purchased the book based on a brief review in The New York Times, obviously by a reviewer who had not carefully read the introduction, much less the rest of the book. I collect books on Parisian bistros, and this would strengthen the collection, or so I thought. When I began perusing it, I realized that I had been misled. Or had I?
I quickly discovered that the book intends to be about cafés, or bars, not bistros. Indeed, the authors use the words café and bar interchangeably with bistro, which my Webster’s defines as “a small or unpretentious European wineshop or restaurant.”
If I had realized that the original title in French was Au Vrai Zinc Parisien, I would not have been so misled. A zinc, from the word for the metal, is indeed a bar, even if the bar itself is not constructed of zinc. So I thought I must blame Anna Moschovakis, the translator, for the misrepresentation.
Yet in their introduction the authors state, “In these pages you’ll find some bistros that aren’t really bars at all, where people go to eat more than to drink.” They go on to describe such classic bistro fare as casseroles, blanquettes, bourguignons and house wines. Or did they really make these statements? Lacking the original French version, I cannot say for sure what they wrote or intended to write.
I certainly knew how much I had been misled by the time I came to the second “bistro” they described, on page 21, a place called Bistrot Victoires, near the Place des Victoires in the first arrondissement. It sounded very enticing, a spot with traditional décor and “lovingly prepared country-style food.”
But if this was the authentic guide, as its title claims, where was Chez Georges, certainly one of the most authentic bistros of Paris and in the very same neighborhood, just a few steps from the Places des Victoires, on rue du Mail. No book claiming to cover the authentic bistros of Paris could logically omit Chez Georges, yet it is not to be found in this volume. (Another, lesser known Chez Georges on the Left Bank gets full coverage and appears to be more bar than bistro.)
So I decided that, rather than being miffed at being misled, I would try to use this book to educate myself about Parisian bars and perhaps make some bistro discoveries as well where the authors stray away from bars or cafés and into bistro territory. A good example on page 112 is Le Bistrot Paul Bert (the French bistrot ends with a t, while the English unaccountably drops the t.)
This place is clearly far more than a bar, with 400 wines on its list, including an emphasis on Burgundies, and is responsible for a revival of bistro food in this neighborhood in the 12th arrondissement on rue Paul-Bert, best known for Le Chardenoux, one of the more renowned Parisian bistros. Yet why did the authors focus on the Bistrot Paul Bert and mention Le Chardenoux only in passing?
My conclusion is that the book is simply idiosyncratic, perhaps because the authors set out to write about authentic zincs, or bars, and then discovered there was not much to say about them, so they changed course and wrote about bistros, although covering only those that are lesser known to prevent their project from becoming too ambitious. For this they can be forgiven, because many authors change course during the writing, when the reality of their subject sets in.
The book is only 4 ¾ by 6 inches and can be slipped into a coat pocket, as any user-friendly guidebook should. It is beautifully illustrated with Sylvain Ageorges’ brilliant color photographs of each establishment. The enticing photos seem to capture the personality of each spot.
Having settled my quibble, I will use this book to expand my knowledge of the Paris bistro world. I certainly plan to visit Le Bistrot Paul Bert, to investigate that emphasis on Burgundy and, hopefully, to take advantage of “simple but inventive offerings that spoil your taste buds without spoiling your budget.” By the time I get to Paris on my next trip, I hope the prix fixe luncheon menu will still be only 14 euros.