Paris, A Tale of Two Bistros

There are many wonderful bistros in Paris, but not all stand the test of time.  Chefs come and go, the food falters over the seasons, and diners can be fickle wanting to jump on the latest food fad du jour.  Two Paris bistros that I’ve had on my list to try since I first stepped foot in the City of Light are both institutions that have maintained their reputation over at least a decade, and on most days, you can even find the original chef in the kitchen.  So I finally set out to taste the legendary Le Bistrot Paul Bert and Chez L’Ami Jean.

L'Ami Jean's chef Stephane Jego

L'Ami Jean's chef Stephane Jego

Chez L’Ami Jean is in the 7th arrondissement, and is a pint size room with tables on top of each other, but a vibrant energy from the servers running around and yelling back and forth to the chef.  Colorful yellow walls put a smile on your face, along with the whimsical paintings because everyone likes to dine under a dancing pig.

Colorful interior of L'Ami Jean

Colorful interior of L'Ami Jean

With both bistros, I had heard some stories about how service is fairly brusque with les Américains and other tourists, but I’m somewhat versed now in French brusque, so I was prepared for little attention with a side of snide.


When I arrived at L’Ami Jean, the woman standing at the front of the bustling bistro had a hanger in hand for me as soon as I walked in and said in perfect English, you must be Kelly, your table is right in the middle there.  Hmmm.  Walking to the table, being prepared to dismiss the friendly greeting as a fluke, our waiter came over to my friends who were struggling with some of the more exotic French listings on the menu and he recited the entire menu in English with energetic fanfare. 


Already on the table was a chunky homemade terrine with crusty bread and a bowl of cornichon.  Each table receives the terrine to enjoy as long as they like before their orders arrive.  I was settling into L’Ami Jean quite nicely.


I expected large slabs of steaks and generous helpings of potatoes, but what I found was much more creativity with some mainstay French ingredients.  My starter was a cold seared tuna with cooked pheasant and grilled octopus.  Yes, tuna, pheasant and octopus all on one plate, and you know what, it worked.  It worked really well, especially with the warm jus that brought all the flavors together.


The pork cheeks I had for my main were braised for 7 hours and I appreciated every one of them while enjoying effortless bites of the flavorful meat with the accompanying white beans that had to have sat in its own braise to impart all that flavor.


There’s only one dessert to get at L’Ami Jean and it’s their famed riz au lait.  It arrives in a large bowl with two smaller bowls containing candied nuts and salted caramel sauce for you to make your own creation.  Most of us could barely breathe at this point, but it didn’t stop us from pouring the salted caramel on everything we could get our hands on.  It was a great way to end the meal and a fabulous quintessential Paris bistro experience.

rice pud.jpg

I wondered if Le Bistrot Paul Bert could compare.  Due to a late flight, I arrived almost a half hour late, but felt content knowing that my friends would have wine and hopefully a lovely terrine in front of them. 


When I got to the table, they didn’t even have menus.  Granted, the menu is written on a chalkboard that is brought to your table, but they weren’t allowed to order anything in advance of my arrival.  Aye.


There was no complimentary communal terrine to start, but I did order the house terrine as my appetizer, and it did compare well to L’Ami Jean’s, but I paid directly for this one, though the prices overall at Paul Bert are much more reasonable than L’Ami Jean’s.  Bistrot Paul Bert offers a 3 course menu at 38 euros, though if you want to get their famed green pepper steak (Sarawak filet), and you do, that’s 34 euros on its own. L'Ami Jean does offer an extensive tasting menu for 80 euros or you can order a la carte as we did.  Most of L’Ami Jean’s mains were 35-45 euros, so it’s probably a good thing that they’re giving away the terrine to start.


The Sarawak filet is a beautifully cooked slab of steak sitting in a pool of butter, cream, fairy dust and pepper.  Oh man, that was spectacular on all fronts.  Then there are the well-cooked, crisp frites that practically dive on their own into the rich, creamy sauce.  After our steaks, we sat back and tried to digest.  Luckily the waiter gave us all the time in the world, even despite our best efforts for him to remove the evidence.  Approximately 45 minutes transpired before the waiter would talk to us again.  For better or worse, he did, and then we got in our dessert orders.


There was chocolate and flan, but you’re here for the Paris Brest. 


You get two doughy sides of puff pastry with hazelnut cream in between that you want to curl up into, or maybe that’s just me.

Both bistros had outstanding food, but I feel like L’Ami Jean is offering a little more creativity.  The service was much better at L’Ami Jean, but the prices were also higher.  There’s more space at Paul Bert due to their three rooms, but that also means three's more people to serve, you’re less seen by the staff, and less taken care of.  So as you can tell, I’d return to L’Ami Jean first, but dang, that was a good steak at Paul Bert.  Maybe I’ll get it to go next time, with a side of Paris Brest!