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Malcolm Jolley: Five bistros to try on your trip to Paris

Commentary

“Come to me, you who whose stomach labours, and I will restore you,” wrote Monsieur Boulanger in 1765 on the sign outside the shop in Paris where he sold soup. This is, according to Prosper Montagné’s New Larousse Gastronomique (1960) considered to be the origin of the word restaurant and the modern definition of a place where a menu of diverse foods (and wines) are sold to the public in the same place that that they are consumed.

Montagné’s entry for restaurants quickly becomes a catalogue of renowned 19th-century Parisian establishments and a list of over 60 restaurants “of bygone days,” some of which have been closed for more than a hundred years. The history of restaurants, the book argues convincingly, is the modern history of the city, and there can be no doubt that Parisians take dining out seriously.

All of that cultural capital weighed heavily on me last week when my wife and I spent a few days in the French metropolis to visit our son, who is spending a semester there on a university exchange, and to eat and drink our way into some further understanding of the glories of the French culinary civilizing mission. We did well by it, and five of the places we dined in are listed below as recommendations to anyone who is lucky enough to find themselves hungry in the City of Light.

The word bistro, or bistro, is a term of art without a strict definition. By my reckoning, the five restaurants below qualify as bistros in that they are more casual than a formal restaurant, but offer a more structured experience than a café. I’ve included an interesting dish in each, all starters. All of the establishments also have classic bistro fare like steak frites, beef tartar, and some permutation of the greatest hits of French cuisine in the Parisian spirit of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Les Bacchantes

Where: Near the Palais Garnier Opera, 21 rue de Caumartin

What: A cozy and down-home bistro serving the classics


Why: Onion soup

The Bacchae were the mythical female followers of Dionysus, but this restaurant seems to take its name from a 1950s French movie whose poster is hung in the narrow and tightly packed dining room. It advertises that the film features 100 of the most beautiful women (in France, one presumes). What is unquestionably most beautiful about Les Bacchantes is the onion soup, served in a shallow bowl with a slice of broiled Gruyere on sourdough toast. I don’t know how many onions were cooked down, or which Cognac or spirit was splashed onto them to make the super-concentrated broth for this Platonic ideal of French onion soup, but I imagine it was an awful lot. It paired very nicely with a glass of rustic Sauvignon Blanc from Valençay and began the first meal we had in the city, foreshadowing more delicious and restorative things ahead.

Au Bon Coin

Where: Latin Quarter, 21 rue de la Collégiale


What: Small neighbourhood bistro with giant portions


Why: Snails with brioche

Established in 1904, it’s fun to think that this L-shaped bistro on a quiet residential corner has been dishing out snails for well over a century. While I don’t recall seeing frog legs on a menu while we were in Paris, traditional escargots were very much au courant in all their garlic, butter, and parsley glory. The version at Au Bon Coin has them out of their shells (no equipment necessary) and swimming in their sauce on a bed of soft bread. They pair very well with a glass of Champagne.

Chez L’Ami Jean

Where: Between the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides: 27 rue Malar


What: Packed tight Basque bistro with haute cuisine aspirations


Why: Soup de maman Philomène

Established in 1930, L’Ami Jean is so small and so packed with a mix of locals and tourists that the servers have to slide the tables out so diners can sit against the walls. L’Ami Jean has a chef who is doing interesting things to the classics. The restaurant is lively and the service is quick, animated, and a bit brusque. Rushed for an order, we asked for the soup de maman without knowing what it was. We thought perhaps it would be a light starter. We were wrong: it’s a cheese soup made from a Parmesan broth, and we savoured every spoonful with a fruity Vermentino from the Languedoc.

In this photo taken on Monday, June 25, 2018, Parisians relax on a terrace in Paris. Francois Mori/AP Photo.
Willi’s Wine Bar

Where: Behind the Palais-Royal: 13 rue de Petits-Champs

What: Anglo-Gallic collaboration with a storied wino history


Why: Ça dépend (probably foie gras and Champagne)

Willi’s Wine Bar was opened in 1980 by Mark Williamson, a young Englishman with a fondness for French wine and food, and it continues to attract discriminating winos with its interesting and extremely reasonably priced wine list. The food, as one would expect, is simple but elegant, as are the two attractive rooms. A torchon of goose foie gras comes with an icing of deep yellow fat and a glass of grower Champagne to cut it and cleanse the palate, in preparation for a ten-year-old Gigondas pulled from their extensive cellar. 

La Charrette

Where: Left Bank off of Saint Germain: 17 rue des Beaux-Arts

What: Local hangout in the gallery district by the art school

Why: Crôque Monsieur with truffles

We found most of the restaurants we ate at in Paris by a combination of recommendations by friends or mentions by food and wine writers we trust, but La Charrette came to us purely by happy accident when we got lost looking for our son’s school, Science Po. We walked by it while it was still shut in the morning, but the simple and short menu appealed to us. When the three of us returned at lunchtime, we claimed the last table in the small but high-ceilinged room, rubbing elbows with who we imagined were employees of all the nearby galleries or professors at L’École nationale supérieure dex Beaux-Arts from around the corner. The special of the day was the mother of all grilled cheese sandwiches: a crôque monsieur whose filling of Gruyère, béchamel, and ham was seasoned with flecks of black truffle. Accompanied by a small green salad with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette and a glass of simple white wine from the Mâconnais in Burgundy, I tried to gather some self-control and ate mine with a knife and fork, bien sûr.

Paul W. Bennett: You shouldn’t get a participation award for failing high school

Commentary

High school graduation is now being reinvented to align better with runaway grade inflation and everyone-gets-a-pass education times. “No pass? No problem” read the headline in the Ottawa Citizen on proposed changes to the academic graduation tradition that went national this past week. Little wonder it immediately became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate over declining standards in Canada’s schools. 

One Ontario public school district, Ottawa Carleton District School Board, is proposing to change graduation ceremonies into commencement exercises and striking out academic awards from its policy. The proposed changes, if accepted next month, will soon get recognized at a June “commencement” ceremony which would include students who have not passed or secured a graduate diploma. 

The proposed shift replaces “graduation” with “commencement,” but the changes go far beyond a simple doctoring of the language. A graduation marks a stage in a student’s academic career recognizing the successful completion of a program, signified by the achievement of a diploma, and the conferring of a range of academic and non-academic student awards. Changing it to a “commencement” implies that it’s a community celebration, including everyone, which marks “the beginning of a journey” in education rather than a milestone. 

The clock is ticking on the changes. Proposed amendments to OCDSB policy P.038.SCO, dating from May 1998, initiated by associate director Brett Reynolds and senior staff, were tabled for public feedback until March 29 and will be reviewed by a board committee on April 4. They will then be presented to the board of trustees on April 25 for final approval. That’s clearly not enough time to ensure proper public engagement and accountability, but par for the course at the local school board level. 

The OCDSB claims that the intent of the change is to make the end-of-year ceremony more inclusive. “At commencement, students of all levels of achievement will be able to cross the stage with their peers,” reads the official statement that accompanied an invitation to members of the public to comment on the proposed change. 

The OCDSB rationale downplays the salient difference: “For a variety of reasons, students may not have completed all the requirements for a move on from secondary school. With this change, these students will be able to join their peers and celebrate their achievements.” What students who have not passed the grade are celebrating is as clear as mud. It, in fact, implies that simply “showing up” is now worthy of praise. 

They go on to add, “Commencement is equity-based and not marks-based,” and that “Students have diverse educational journeys, and all students’ diverse experiences should have the opportunity to be celebrated, including those who have historically faced challenges within the education system, both in the past and in the present.”

Students leaving secondary school after reaching 18 without meeting the marks will receive a Certificate of Accomplishment. It takes participation medals to a whole new level. 

Graduation rates have skyrocketed as well as final averages over the past two decades or more.  While Ontario high school graduation rates in 2004  sat at 68 percent, they now soar into the high 80s and low 90s. Being an Ontario Scholar used to mean securing a difficult 80 percent average. Today the vast majority of students exceed what was formally a benchmark of academic excellence. 

The awarding of high marks is deeply entrenched. This, in many ways, has undermined the value of a high school diploma. In June 2022, for example, some 86.1 percent of Ottawa-Carleton DSB students graduated in four years (Grades 9 to 12) and 90.5 percent took five years. That’s a little above the provincial average, comparable to Toronto DSB (85.8 percent over five years) but lower than York Region DSB (94.2 percent over five years) and York Region Catholic DSB (97.3 percent over five years). 

Coleton McLemore is silhouetted against the sky during the Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2020 at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School’s Tommy Cash Stadium on July 31, 2020 in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP.

It’s still alarming to examine the impact of the proposed OCDSB changes on the current cohort of graduates. Students who work conscientiously to complete the high school program will have their achievement diminished further by the presence of a smaller group, roughly 14 percent, who get a free pass to participate in the final ceremony. 

The OCDSB policy change did not come out of nowhere. It owes its origins to the OCDSB Strategic Plan for 2023-27 and its undergirding philosophy—a commitment to inclusion, equity, and accessibility for all students. While few quibble with embracing inclusive education, the devil is in the details and the extent to which it now overrides the core mission of schools: teaching and learning in the classroom. 

Recognizing high student achievement is now being conflated with the traditional graduation ceremony and that is seen as antithetical to the overriding goal of celebrating all levels of achievement while serving those who have been “underserved” by the school system. 

Most inspiring school reforms and policy changes seek to lift children up and instill what American education psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” For students, it amounts to a “commitment to thrive on challenge” where you don’t see failure as a way to describe yourself but as “a springboard for growth and developing your abilities.”

Degrading graduation is completely at odds with fostering a student growth ethic and a commitment to exceeding expectations. If the OCDSB policy changes go through and other boards follow suit, it may, in fact, breed complacency and give aid and comfort to what former U. S. President George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It will have arrived when, in the not-too-distant future, everyone gets a high school participation certificate.