Saturday, August 25, 2012 at 10:36
I have to admit that my immediate reaction when I first laid eyes on Le Temps des Cerises in the rue de la Cerisaie in the Marais was wariness. There was just no way any restaurant with a setting as winsomely pretty and well-preserved as this little 18th century house with geraniums in its second-story windboxes and a picture-perfect mosaic facade could possibly be anything but an egregious tourist trap. Except that it isn't. Indeed, my opinion changed from the moment I stepped inside and charming young owner Grégory Detouy welcomed us and promptly brought us an excellent carafe of Rhone valley Viognier, along with some crunchy radishes and a shotglass of salt to dip them in, always a good sign.
My doubts revived, however, when we studied the menu, because the prices were so reasonable. Again, if this place existed in the sad mad mode of a prima-donna tourist hell-hole like Chartier, it struck me as extremely unlikely that the food could be very good. I kept all of this to myself, though--Bruno had been wanting to try this place, and decided there was some very real consolation in the beauty of the snug old-fashioned dining room with a zinc topped bar just inside the front door, tawny walls, bare wood tables with bent-wood chairs, and a beautiful art-nouveau framed chalkboard on the wall. The appealingly diverse crowd was also almost entirely Parisian, too, and the small packed room radiated an atmosphere of bona-fide bonheur.
Detouy returned again to see if we had any questions about the menu. I asked about the specialities of the restaurant and he cited the escargots, boudin noir facon Parmentier (shepherd's pie made with blood pudding) and steak Paname, an entrecote garnished with a vinaigrette of shallots, garlic and fresh herbs. He also told us that he was a chef by training but had fall in love with the idea of running a real old-fashioned bistro while working at Chez Janou, and had decided to take the leap and become an owner when this place became available two years ago. Our curiosity encouraged by several glasses of the good white wine, we continued asking questions and learned that the small charming house was originally built during the Middle Ages, had once been an annex to a Celestine convent and first became a bistro in 1830. To his credit, he also never once let on that he might be impatient or alarmed by these two garulous and slightly bibulous men, Bruno and me.
Since I've spent so much of the summer traveling outside of France, I was aching for my first course, a grandly Gallic warm salad of Morteau sausage and potatoes, and it was superb--the smoky sausage from the Jura was obviously of good quality, it came with a nice little nosegay of fresh herbs and salad leaves and was very generously served. Bruno liked his seared sliced tuna on eggplant caviar, too, and the contrast between these two dishes well-expressed chef Pascal Brebant's smart menu. Brebant, who trained with Marc Veyrat, offers a run of bistro classics side-by-side with modern dishes like lamb marinated in lime juice with spices and the salmon steak with sage and a Porto vinegar spiked cream sauce that Bruno enjoyed as his main course.
I decided to have the Steak Paname (Paname is French slang for Paris) when Detouy told me that it came with freshly cut and fried frites, which are regrettably rare in Paris these days. Thin and often rather leathery, entrecote is not one of my favorite French cuts of beef, especially since it's inevitably overcooked. So it was a terrific surprise when this steak arrived rare and juicy as ordered, with a pile of frites so good I almost had to drive my knife into Bruno's hand to keep him away from them. The shallot-garlic-and-herb vinaigrette that sauced the meat was excellent, too, and was also the detail that made me realize that this an absolutely perfect bistro to send foreigners to. Why?
During the 26 years I've lived in Paris, I've noticed that visitors are often letdown when I take them to a real bistro. This is because many people from big cities all over the world are accustomed to food that's lighter and brighter (in terms of seasonings and garnishes) than what you usually find in an old-time French bistro. The modern palate likes herbs and vivid spices, favors fish and vegetables, and exhibits a preference for briefer cooking times. So Detouy, a shrewd restaurateur, and Brebant, an experienced and talented cook, have pulled off the nifty hat trick of creating their two strut menu and also preserving the warmth and conviviality of a traditional pre-war bistro without creating a pastiche. To be sure, the red-fruit sable we shared for dessert was dull and the bread here could be better, but this is a delightful little bistro, and a place that's instantly won a place on my to-go list, especially since it's open on Sunday nights and is so reasonably priced.
31 rue de la Cerisaie, 4th, Tel. 01-42-72-08-63. Métro: Saint Paul. Open daily 8am-2am. Lunch menu 13 Euros, Sunday brunch 22 Euros, Average dinner a la carte 30 Euros.