Le Parisien is a pleasant French bistro for purists. If you enjoyed this West End icon in the 1980s when it was called Café de Paris, you may find yourself falling in love all over again.
If, on the other hand, you are one of those diners who has since developed a palate more adventurous and discerning, you will likely find the kitchen's fossilized classics about as enticing as a stale baguette.
The restaurant is worth visiting for historic value alone. When it opened in 1977, Café de Paris beckoned as a beacon of sophistication in what was then a dreary culinary outback. It was here that many now-illustrious French chefs and restaurateurs – Michel Jacob (Le Crocodile), Alain Rayé (La Régalade), Andrey Durbach (Pied-à-Terre), Richard Toussaint and Martine Lefèbvre (Bouchons Bistro in Kelowna) – got started.
A dependable neighbourhood favourite for years, the restaurant began a steep decline about a decade ago under the ownership of Jon-Michael Preece. A former film-industry script supervisor, Mr. Preece vanished in mysterious circumstances in 2009. Renamed Bistro de Paris, it was taken over by friends and went through several ups and downs until bought last spring by John Blakely.
The owner of Kitsilano's Bistro Pastis, Mr. Blakely was one of Café de Paris's early recruits. A Chevalier in the French Ordre du Mérite Agricole, he has attempted to restore his alma mater to its glory days, with mixed results.
Wisely recognizing that French bistros are not quite the fashion mavens they were 35 years ago, he's kept the menu simple and the prices relatively low.
But as is the result of many a middle-age facelift, the restaurant was actually more attractive before being smoothed out and streamlined. The old brass railings, lace curtains and mustard-yellow walls (all gone) were nostalgic wrinkles that had long lent the restaurant its enduring charm. The new black-and-white decor feels a bit too cool for beef bourguignon à la Julia Child. Temperature-wise, the room's also a tad chilly. (Don't coat-check your pashmina.)
The new petits plats, small tapas-size appetizers, are the menu's only nod to modernity. Although built on bistro classics, silky thin beef-tongue "pastrami" and (barely) smoked herring with warm potato salad seem somewhat daring for Vancouver's mild appetites.
Crispy pig trotters, braised to melting tenderness and buried inside a deep-fried breadcrumb wrap, is another classic you don't see very often.
But for the most part, the kitchen sticks to the French bistro hit parade, and executes many of its familiar dishes very ably.
Cassoulet de Castelnaudary is better than the gummy versions often found around town (I'm talking to you, Les Faux Bourgeois). The hearty white-bean casserole is topped with seared duck confit and big tubes of sausage, then splashed with a vivifying dash of sherry vinegar to keep it from sinking like a stone in the stomach. Bouillabaisse is thickly floated with firm ling cod and prawns in a brightly spiced tomato base. Moules frites has depth to its broth.
Yet steak tartare, overworked to the point of mushiness and emulsified with too many creamy egg whites, is a big disappointment. Leek and Roquefort tart is actually a spongy quiche baked in an undercooked pastry shell. Mushrooms on toast are chunky bites of plain-Jane button mushrooms in bland cream sauce on a measly thin slice of brioche. (For a much more luscious version, see Tableau.)
Service is extremely friendly, especially when Mr. Blakely is hosting. Our waitress one evening was kind enough to steer us away from a few dishes she considers lacking. (Should there be any?)
But when she promised to pace our meal, we didn't expect to see our plates being flung onto the table before the steam from the previous courses had evaporated. Even in the most casual bistro, you should never feel like you're being rushed. Especially not when you have an 8 p.m. reservation and there are no late-night seatings.
These are minor complaints. There's nothing egregiously wrong with Le Parisien. But there's nothing about it that wows.
It's pleasant enough for a neighbourhood bistro that harkens back to the 1980s. And tourists can be assured they won't be burned. But if you're the mood for excellent French fare, I'd suggest you try out Mr. Blakely's Bistro Pastis. It's more expensive and worth it.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution