REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
One of the most famous lines in movie history was uttered by Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman at the end of “Casablanca,” the 1942 classic that is one of the greatest films ever made. As Ilsa (the Bergman character) is about to leave Casablanca in a small plane, Rick (Bogart), who knows he will never see his lover again, says, “We’ll always have Paris,” referring to the idyllic time when they fell in love in the City of Lights.
Not many of us will be able to spend time in the months to come in the world’s most beautiful city, most recently the target of psychopathic terrorists, but those of us in the Delaware Valley can at least pretend we are in The Marais, St. Germain, Montmartre or some other fabulous Parisian neighborhood when we step inside the doors of Paris Bistro, the almost-two-year-old cabaret at 8229 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, next door to the Chestnut Hill Hotel.
The restaurant is not only named for the city of romance but also for the co-owner-chef, Albert Paris, a mid-50s peripatetic Philly native who previously helmed kitchens at a dozen or more restaurants in the Delaware Valley and California. Paris has been honored with numerous awards from his culinary peers, including Gourmet Magazine’s “America’s Top Tables” and City Paper’s “Best New Restaurant Award.” Paris also has been featured on the cover and profiled in Wine and Country Magazine. He has won Philadelphia’s “Best Gourmet Cheesesteak Award,” and he was featured at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City, but the narcotic of success has never seduced Paris, whose ebullience energizes the dining room when he comes out nightly to schmooze with customers.
Paris Bistro features Belle Epoque architecture, bronze railings, a zinc bar, tile floors, tin ceiling, weathered furniture, maple tabletops and globe lighting. When you walk in here, you could be in a Paris metro station with Parisian jazz piped in the background. It is a countryside restaurant in the middle of a sophisticated urban setting.
“I love French cuisine,” Paris said in a recent interview. “My name works, but it’s a lot more than that. This is where all restaurants come from. This is the French roadhouse in 1930. They fed the masses. Simple, spiritual, clean. Three ingredients on a plate. Excellent cookery. The word classic doesn’t mean old. It means enduring excellence. Stands the test of time over and over again. Not trendy, gimmicky, peripheral. Fine braises, wonderful roasts, roasted chicken with potatoes Dauphinoise, steak frites, creamy thyme garlic potato, onion soup.
“The French are the historians of cuisine. The way you can tell a great French chef is he can make anything. It is so pure. Minimal ingredients. There is nothing French food cannot encompass. Not taking anything away from Cantonese or Italian, but a French chef can walk into any kitchen in the world and rock and roll.” (By the way, Al is an Italian-American. His surname at birth was Parisi.)
The prices at Paris Bistro are at center city levels, but you cannot go wrong with the escargots and Pernot butter ($12), which sends the snail flavor to the palate like a boomerang; creamy warm-baked Camembert with its ivory richness in puff pastry ($11) or salmon tartar massaged with egg, caper, chive and lemon vinaigrette ($13). Worthy of a cafe in Montmarte. We were a little disappointed by the lobster bisque ($12), which was lacking that muscular flavor that comes from a good liqueur, but the classic French onion soup ($9.50) was nonpareil with a thick, filling mound of Gruyere cheese with baguette croute and sublime broth. An entree of trout with green beans, almonds and lemon brown butter is equal parts tang, smoke and snap ($19). If you still have room, there are classic French desserts like chocolate mousse, vanilla crème brulee, a cheese selection, etc. There is a very impressive selection of wines from every region of France at center city prices.
One negative at Paris Bistro for oldies like us is the din, which can be supersonic when the restaurant is full. We have had Chestnut Hill residents tell us that they “love the food but cannot take the noise.”
In the basement is the jazz cafe, where local jazz musicians perform nightly Thursdays through Sundays. The small 52-seat room includes a bar with seating for 10, a full bistro menu and wine list. You might hear Gypsy Jazz, the Great American Songbook, traditional melodic Jazz or free-form Be Bop. The music is great but usually at such a supersonic volume that renders conversation virtually impossible. “I have been there at least once a month since they opened,” said Stacia Friedman, local author who has also been to Paris many times. “If you want to talk, you have to wait until the musicians take a break.”
One thing that we discovered at Paris Bistro, which I have heard echoed by other customers, is the high quality of the waitstaff.
“I can tell when they apply for the job whether they will be right for us,” said Paris. “They must be bright-eyed, passionate, with a sense of focus, confident, people who want to be considered as valuable contributors, no matter what the job.”
For more information or reservations, call 215-242-6200 or visit www.parisbistro.net