Au Vieux Chêne
Distraught by the steep prices at the Bistrot de l'Ecailler, discouraged after being turned away by Bistrot Paul Bert for not having reservations (what were we thinking, on a Friday night…), depressed after being rejected by the new Szechuan fondue place (Au Ciel) on rue de Charonne because they were simply too full (hopefully more on this one soon, the most exciting vibe in a Chinese restaurant in a long long time), we ended up at Au Vieux Chêne, where I hadn't been in a while.
It was good.
First, the menu is a good value, at €28 for entrée+plat or plat+dessert or €35 (if memory serves) for entrée+plat+dessert.
For entrées, we both had smoked Banka trout (very good, a first for me), served with fried beet strips (unnecessary) and a quenelle of unidentified composition (this was actually pretty bad, but easy to ignore).
The plat was the main draw. We both had the special : line-caught merlu (fresh from Saint-Jean-de-Luz, as per the owner) -- a thick, generous slab of merlu, perfectly cooked, pearlescent flesh, crispy skin -- and just the pristine (I want to say : serene) flavor of the fish. With it were served a number of vegetables, most notably artichokes prepared two ways: fried and stewed. The stewed ones were incredibly flavorful, almost veering towards a floral intensity.
For dessert, I had the cheese plate consisting of five cheeses from Alléosse. All were good, most notably the munster. My friend had a super dessert (I am not a dessert fan) : pickled quince slices on top of quince compote on top of a meringue. (I say pickled, even though they kept insisting, when we asked how they had been prepared, that they were "confits". I don't know how that would work, because the slices seemed not to have encountered any heat. They really tasted like they had been steeped in some kind of non-salty brine, and yes I know that makes no sense.) Light, precise, flavorful.
Two things stand out at this place: first, the warmth of the welcome (very nice owner, wonderful waitress) -- this was all the more appreciated in light of my last experience at Au Baratin, which will be my *last* experience there (the lovely, intuitive cooking unfortunately no longer outweighs the self-satisfaction of the service). Second, the wine list is that rare bird -- both very carefully chosen (the owner clearly knows his stuff) and fairly priced. Recent and not-so-recent vintages, even balance between the reds and the whites (actually a slight preferences towards the whites), equitable distribution of (French) regions, and, for digestifs, an extensive selection of cognacs and bas-armagnacs.
To conclude, not a place I'd cross Paris for (but other towns maybe!) but a good choice as a serious neighborhood bistro. And of a breed which I find increasingly rare in the Parisian culinary landscape.