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It used to be a fashionable refrain to say that French cooking had lost its polish, and that Paris’s restaurants were no match for those in London or New York.
A recent trip to the City of Light left me in no doubt that these claims are exaggerated. Since Paris is where restaurants first emerged, it is naturally home to more long-established kitchens than anywhere else in the world – and even they are seeing a changing of the guard.
It is this phenomenon that links Penati al Baretto, a refined Italian restaurant in the smart 8th arrondissement; Juvéniles, the well-known “cave à vins” in the 1st, recently taken over by the next generation; and the renaissance of a restaurant within the Gare St Lazare.
The “Penati” at Baretto is none other than Alberico Penati, formerly of London’s Harry’s Bar and Aspinall’s but, as of a month ago, in charge of the kitchens at this restaurant, which has adjoined the Hotel de Vigny since the 1980s.
The room here immediately conveys the impression of eating in Italy. The wooden interior resonates with the calm of a well-established ristorante, while sunshine, the other essential ingredient of life in Italy, floods in through a skylight and a large window.
Penati’s menu is quintessentially Italian too, and full of colourful ingredients. Paccheri or small pasta tubes, stuffed with diced scorpion and a spider-crab sauce, were a deep orange; a Genoese fish stew with olive oil combined pink prawns, green mussels and gleaming white squid. The diced mango, strawberries, melon and raspberries in a fruit salad topped with vanilla ice cream were deliciously refreshing, while a clementine sorbet, enlivened by a small stick of liquorice, combined the brightness and freshness of this fruit.
My guest, a long-serving war correspondent, was most taken by Penati’s treatment of the humble lentil – which he described as “the best I have ever eaten” – alongside a fillet of cod. (Penati, in a purple chef’s jacket, gave away the recipe: take Castelluccio lentils, blanch twice, then cook gently with olive oil, two whole cloves of garlic, bay leaves, rosemary and, his final magic ingredient, juniper berries.)
The welcome and wines at Juvéniles have been under the care of Tim Johnston, a Scotsman, for the past 27 years but he has now passed on responsibility to Margaux, his 25-year-old daughter.
I have rarely seen someone so happy in this role. She is obviously devoted to the family business and she is also now in love with Juvéniles’ 26-year-old chef, Romain Roudeau, whom she met while part of the team at the renowned bistro La Régalade, in the 14th.
Roudeau has made the tiny kitchen behind the bar his own and although he has kept certain dishes from the previous menu, notably the Macsween haggis and a couple of English cheeses, he has composed an intriguing, great-value menu.
Our first courses of green asparagus soup and a duck consommé with burnt onions gave an inkling of the excitement to follow, but it was the manner in which our main courses were served that was really impressive. Far too many French chefs consider vegetables to be a second-class ingredient, but not Roudeau. Here came leeks and rocket with poached chicken breast; peas and broad beans with duck breast; and carrots and turnips with tenderly cooked beef cheeks. His desserts are just as good and the €28.50 three-course dinner menu is a steal.
So, too, are the prices on offer at Lazare, a bistro on the ground floor of the Gare St Lazare, which is now under the aegis of Eric Fréchon, the renowned executive chef at the Hotel Bristol; chef Thierry Colas has day-to-day control.
By Parisian standards, the interior is funky, with exposed pipes on the ceiling; a couple of raised communal tables; blackboards on the walls that show the destination and expected departure times of the trains, as well as a recipe for anyone keen to make “Paris-Deauville” cake, a rich, eggy concoction with caramel sauce. Pouring the six house wines by the glass from a magnum and serving a piece of baguette to each customer in a paper bag branded “Lazare” are particularly appealing touches, as is the fact that the bistro is open, unusually for this city, every day for both lunch and dinner.
Colas’s food is very good, particularly a whole mackerel en gelée, and Tuesday’s special, a fricassée of chicken with vin jaune. Only frosty receptionists let down another young, enthusiastic and talented team.
Penati al Baretto
9 rue Balzac, Paris 75008; +33 1 42 99 80 80
Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday
47 rue de Richelieu, Paris 75001; +33 1 42 97 46 49
Closed Sunday and Monday lunch
Parvis de la Gare St Lazare, rue Intérieure, Paris 75008
+33 1 44 90 80 80; lazare-paris.fr
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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