These days the restaurants that get Paris gourmands most excited are the ones they would prefer to keep to themselves. They are the city's quiet pioneers, tiny kitchens where experimental chefs keep their cult following clamoring for more. Corner bistros they aren't but rather out-of-the-way rooms with menus that can be equally tricky to navigate (anyone for museau de porc?). That is, unless you're in on the secret.
It might look like a Basque rugby pub, with its baskets of sausages, strings of peppers, and old posters. But from his four-person kitchen, the bright young chef Stéphane Jégo is sending out food that even his mentor, Yves Camdeborde, keeps coming back for (along with the likes of Alain Ducasse). Appetizers are complex compositions, such as the succulent bites of quail dressed up with grapes, raisins, frizzled leeks, and micro shallots, and the cream-of-cod soup with ham, poured tableside. Entrées are hearty feet-and-potatoes propositions, like a Staub casserole of pork cheeks braised with lardoon-spiked len-tils, as well as a roast suckling pig for two. The $37 menu is one of the city's best deals; the $64 tasting menu is a more adventurous tour of Jégo's kitchen. You can also go all out with a night of truffle- or game-tasting. The crowd gets older—and wilder—as the night goes on. This is one of the few places you can wait for a table at 11:30 p.m. $ Dinner, $130. At 27 Rue Malar; 33-1/47-05-86-89.
Young and branché (i.e. trendy), La Famille is a favorite of local boho artists, photographers, and fashionistas—and the foodies who climb up the hill to Montmartre to watch them. The atmosphere is like Manhattan's East Village but with seriously experimental food. While the bartender spins old records and pours countless mojitos, the new chef does wonders from a kitchen the size of a phone booth, offering just four appetizers, four entrées, and four desserts nightly. The playful, gorgeously presented flights of fancy include clear cubes of oyster terrine in seawater with nori, cappuccino, and cilantro mousse; pressed duck confit with a jus ravioli; and chocolate pudding spiked with piment d'Espelette, the spice du jour. As you leave, the host will tie a ribbon on your wrist that reads LA FAMILLE C'EST IMPORTANT. Dinner, $85. At 41 Rue des Trois Frères; 33-1/42-52-11-12.
Maguy Le Coze, owner of New York's fabled Le Bernardin, sent me here with a warning—or was it praise?—that the Corsican chef Olympe Versini is "un vrai caractère!" This is a woman who, after earning a Michelin star at the age of 29, decided to pull back with an unassuming 32-seat space in the less-trammeled Ninth Arrondissement. (Her cookbook is called Olympe, La Gourmande Impatiente.) Hers is food with gutsiness and terroir, and she has no patience for subtle flavors and dispassionate eaters. Witness the earthiness of the duck ravioli bathed in a jus reduction, as well as the heavenly foie gras terrine brazenly studded with split vanilla beans (and plated with sel gris and a salad dressed in anchovy vinaigrette). I counted at least four parts of pig, from head to hoof, being served that day. The wines by the glass—one red, one white, c'est tout—are strange on their own but fantastic with the food. Dessert might be an eye-opening tarragon sorbet or a heartbreaking little pastry pocket filled with sautéed apples and topped with salted caramel sauce. $ Dinner, $95. At 48 Rue St.-Georges; 33-1/42-85-26-01.
An adventure in every sense, this tiny biodynamic wine bar in Belleville (the new Chinatown of Paris) makes up for the lack of atmosphere with smoke and mirrors. The owner, Philippe Pinoteau, is a sadist even if he likes you—which he won't. (If you're late, prepare to be asked to stand as many minutes while your empty table awaits.) But off-duty chefs and critics nonetheless crowd the space for deeply flavorful peasant dishes, which Pinoteau's Argentine wife, Raquel Carena, slow-cooks with something approaching love. Veal cheeks, served in ratatouille, spent an entire afternoon simmering in a rich jus. Tender braised rabbit did well by an orange sauce. The cloudy wines might take a moment to get used to, but at $5 a glass you can work your way through the entire chalkboard. Book ahead or skip the evening crowds and go for the $18 lunch menu. $ Dinner, $75. At 3 Rue Jouye-Rouve; 33-1/43-49-39-70.
Every fashion week, this minuscule restaurant—just 26 wicker seats and a piano—groans with fabulousness as designers and editors induct select friends into their secret little club. At other times you might come across Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Owen Wilson adding a cloud of smoke to the jazz-filled air. The food is organic Italian, which can be a relief if you've been on a bistro bender. The appetizer of almost-liquid burrata cheese and sweet, rosy slices of prosciutto is sublime, but the pastas can be hit or miss—buttery homemade fettuccine cloaked in black truffles being a hit, the tagliatelle with salty wild-boar prosciutto and soggy broccoli being a must-miss. Desserts are deceptively light, like the coffee-rich tiramisu and the feathery ricotta mousse with orange flower. $ Dinner, $120. At 5 Rue Molière; 33-1/42-61-50-19.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.