It took me a few years in Paris to appreciate how a single restaurant can cause a seismic shift in the city's dining landscape. Places like Le Verre Volé, Spring, and Au Passage opened as neighborhood spots. But they introduced new dining paradigms to Paris, and quickly became reference points for anyone daring to drag the boulder of French restauration up the hill of contemporary urban life.
To the ranks of those innovators I'd now nominate Nicolas Lacaze's Bistro Bellet, which opened just weeks ago on an excitingly leery stretch of rue du Fauboug Saint-Denis, basically the Cirque du Soleil of sketch. It's an area people keep promising me will gentrify, but until now those promises have seemed about as concrete as reincarnation for the nearly-dead. Bistro Bellet, with its clean décor, laser-sighted service, and conceptual savvy, is like a giant defibrillator for the neighborhood, and the bistrot genre at large.
It's a near-faultless restaurant that serves masterful Provençal-inflected cuisine and well-priced natural wines in a fussless environment from very early (6pm) until very late (midnight). Who's to say whether other restaurants will follow suit, and the innovative idea of turning tables will take root in Paris? For now I'll just say that Bistro Bellet presented one of the most fundamentally satisfying meals I've had all year.
The restaurant's elongated hours allow for a capable cocktail bar overseen by former Ocho Tequila brand ambassador Stéphanie Pottier. She's stocked a full page of tasteful digestifs on Bistro Bellet's terrific, underpriced wine list.
It might just be a play for kind opening press, but everything on the list is about 7-10€ below what you'll pay elsewhere.
While waiting for her friends to arrive, the Native Companion and I polished off most of a shiningly pure bottle of Claire Naudin's 2011 old-vine Aligoté "Le Clou 34." Good Aligoté is like good design: it's a strong structure embellished with nothing more than restraint.
I seem to be gravitating towards Domaine Henri-Naudin's wines more and more lately. While remaining natural enough to please most purists, they achieve a precision and clarity almost unique to the more conventional greats of Burgundy. (Naudin uses sulfur, but in miniscule amounts for her best cuvées, and she gets a lot of credit in my book for the lengthy explanation she offers on her website of why she agrees with some but not all tenets of natural winemaking.)
Nicolas Lacaze formerly co-owned and operated the restaurant Le Reparate with his father in the 11ème arrondissement. Bistro Bellet is Lacaze fils' first solo effort, and he runs the dining room with a fundamentally un-Parisian verve and energy.
For the kitchen, Lacaze tapped François Chenel, formerly chef at Thierry Breton's nearby Chez Michel. Chenel's experience shows: our meal Bistro Bellet contained none of the kitchen squabbling or late dishes so common to new restaurants. (I'm thinking particularly of the nearby Bistrot Urbain, which also received good reviews upon opening. A meal I had there this past summer was marked by unapologetic amateurishness in all forms.)
I chose the terrine at Bistro Bellet by default, because nothing else on the appetizer list spoke to me at the time. My first bite nearly made me fall out of my chair.
I instantly realised that in almost five years in Paris, I had never had a good terrine served at the correct temperature. It's like cheese: you can't eat it straight from the fridge. When on the high side of room temp, a good terrine is fragrant and somehow autumnal. Just about every other restaurant in Paris screws this up.
My blanquette de veau was also astounding - savoury and enveloping, and surprisingly flavorful for a dish that often coasts on pale milky coziness. And a wedge of bristlingly forceful beaufort d'été I had in lieu of dessert was served with the same careful attention as the terrine I began with.
I'll allow that my enthusiasm for Bistro Bellet's cuisine might be due to having chosen wisely that night. I found a friend's rillettes tasty, but too simplistic for inclusion in a 36€ menu. And the NC's mussels were a little wan to my tastes, as were the scallops her friend had.
It's a little surprising that seafood should prove anything less than a forté for a chef who spent years cooking Thierry Breton's Bretonne cuisine. But there we are.
When pressed, I'll also admit to finding the décor a little eager. In the irregular floor tiling and the bold wooden rays spanning the walls and ceiling I can't help detecting a whiff of the typically Parisian anxiety to be contemporary. There was no need: the concept itself is a revolutionary triumph.
Bistro Bellet's elements - cocktails, natural wine, ambitious cuisine, late service - have met before in Paris, notably at L'Entrée des Artistes, Artisan, and Le Mary Celeste. But they've never cohered like they do at Bistro Bellet, where the service hours recontextualise the restaurant's confident, unflashy cuisine entirely: the same terrines and bouillabaisses become younger, fresher, more malleable. They are incorporated into nightlife of someone who plans more than one engagement per evening.
In deviating only slightly from the template of the traditional bistrot, Nicolas Lacaze has shown it need not be abandoned to be improved. Here's hoping the rest of the city's young restaurateurs put down their burgers and take note.
84, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis
Métro: Château d'Eau or Gare de l'Est