Great dining in Paris — at moderate prices 

Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman checks in with her latest report from her culinary adventures around the world.

TODAY: Paris

As a magnetic tourist destination with great food, Paris reminds me of San Francisco. While both cities offer plenty of satisfying moderately-priced restaurants, Paris is the world capital of the dizzyingly expensive temple of haute cuisine.

For example, at three-star hot spot Pierre Gagnaire, the €260 menu adds up to a $1,000 meal for two, with wine. Still, I’m eternally surprised by how well you can eat in Paris without mortgaging the condo.

The check for a medium-priced meal in the City of Light may be higher than here because of the ever-rising euro, currently at $1.35. Keep in mind that service and taxes in Paris are factored into menu prices, while we add 8.5 percent sales tax and 15 to 20 percent service onto the bottom of our checks.

My tried-and-true strategy for finding an up-to-date list of bistros and casual restaurants in Paris ($50 to $75 per person with wine) is to go to International Herald Tribune restaurant critic Patricia Wells’ Web site, www.patriciawells.com. An American in Paris, Wells has covered the French restaurant scene for 27 years and published four editions of "The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris," still an invaluable guide to food shops, restaurants and cafés, though it’s eight years old.

The following are my current picks for dining in Paris:

Mon Vieil Ami

This two-year-old restaurant on the centrally located Ile St. Louis stays open on Sundays, a blessing in a city where many restaurants actually close both Saturday and Sunday. Owner Antoine Westermann turns out excitingly modern food brightened with lots of fresh vegetables that still delivers deep, soulful flavors. His €41, three-course menu produced the two best dishes of a week of eating in Paris. I still dream about his juicy tabouleh salad of cracked wheat and minced raw vegetables in a powerful lemony vinaigrette scented with ras al hanout, a North African spice mix; and velvety North Atlantic cod in a soupy ragout of shell beans enriched with slices of beef marrow. A casserole for two of braised lamb shoulder with spring peas and tiny French beans was enlivened by preserved lemon. Westermann cooks Alsatian by way of Morocco. Five of us sat at one end of a long communal table of handsome polished wood. Alsatian white and red wines at €35 and €46 were crisp and delicious with the food. Be sure to reserve ahead. This restaurant fills up fast.

69, rue Saint Louis en l’Ile, Paris 4, tel. 01.40.46.01.36

Fish la Boissonnerie

This cavelike wine bar that was formerly a fish store blessedly stays open Saturdays and Sundays, but doesn’t take reservations. Americans who don’t mind eating "early," before 9 p.m., can usually score one of the tiny wooden tables crammed close together. A three-course menu costs €34.50 ; there are lots of choices and the food is luscious. A slice of lovely, pink, barely cooked foie gras terrine melts on your tongue, cleansed with a bite of aromatic herb salad. A creamy green risotto of tiny clams, flecked with parsley and liberally splashed with basil-infused olive oil is purely French, not Italian. Firm, white-fleshed Saint Pierre, the flatfish we call John Dory, comes draped in tiny fresh peas and braised baby leeks, encircled by a buttery red wine sauce. Hot, wood oven-baked flatbread is ferried from Cosi, the bakery across the street. The brilliant wine list offers distinguished burgundies by the half-carafe and glass and many cheaper selections. Service by a young English-speaking waitress assigned too many tables was cordial if minimal. No matter. This wine bar conceived by Irishman Drew Hare and his Spanish partner is a wonderful resource.

69, rue du Seine, Paris 6, tel. 01. 43. 54. 34. 69. 21

Le 21

Miniscule and ideological, this fish restaurant may not be for everyone, but I am an ardent convert. The all-fish menu scrawled on a blackboard features seafood that is raw or barely cooked to best reveal its intrinsic nature. Paul Minchelli, a fish fanatic from Marseille, buys only the most pristine specimens and charges accordingly. A tartare of hand-cut sea bass, with wisps of salmon and seaweed mixed with afew sesame seeds and drops of olive oil, tasted like a bite of the sea. A small, firm-fleshed, raw mackerel was cured with sharp white onion and lots of black pepper and olive oil, seasonings that played off its meatiness. The pearly white flesh of langoustines, split and rubbed with a paste of fresh ginger and orange and barely warmed through, was sweet and haunting. Minchelli completes a brandade of house-cured cod, a fluffy puree made with just olive oil and cream, with crisp fried potatoes and deep-fried batons of chickpea flour. Skip dessert. One loquacious, English-speaking sommelier/waiter handles everything. The restaurant has no sign and you can’t see in through the black exterior. The dining room feels like a small private club, with wooden tables, black-and-white checked floors, bistro mirrors and black leather booths. Be prepared to spend about $125 a person for this quirky, brilliant seafood cookery.

21 rue Mazarine, Paris 6, tel. 01. 46. 33. 76. 90

A few others

I always pay a visit to Chez Michel near the Gare du Nord for the inspired cooking of Thierry Breton, a gift at $39 for three courses. (10 rue de Belzunce, Paris 10, tel. 01. 44. 53. 06. 20)

Stop by one of three Laduree pastry shops/tea salons for a buttercream fantasy dessert or famous macaroon sandwich cookies with an excellent cup of coffee. Go to www.ladure.fr for locations.

Join the crowd at Le Comptoir on the weekend or lunch when the bistro doesn’t take reservations. This place has become the darling of budget-minded Parisians and tourists who love the homey, first-rate cooking and can tolerate the service. (9, Carrefour de l’Odeon, Paris 6, tel. 01. 44. 27. 07. 97)

Chez René has been turning out old-fashioned disheslike frog legs in garlic and butter, creamy chard gratin, coq au vin and big plates of wild mushrooms, at reasonable prices for 30 years. (14, boulevard Saint Germain, Paris 5, tel. 01. 43. 54. 30. 23)

Patricia Unterman is author of the "San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide" and a newsletter, "Unterman on Food." Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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