After much research, MCM and I settled on Cafe Panique for my birthday dinner. We really, really enjoyed it. (I'll try to get some photos up soon, too!)
Cafe Panique is near the Poisonniere metro, in a slightly gritty-but-hip neighbourhood (but undoubtedly a gentrifying one, if not in the short term, then in the longer term). We know it well because MCM used to work close by, although he never would have noticed Cafe Panique unless we had come across reviews: it's on a residential street - in fact, it shares a front door with some residents! You do feel a bit smug and local walking into this smart restaurant, tucked away from the tourist action - so much so, that you don't mind sharing the place with a number of other tourists-in-the-know. It's a small dining room with a vaulted ceiling, open kitchen and small mezzanine level seating area. When we booked we were warned not to arrive too early, as the staff (of 4) would still be eating!
It was a very warm night and, like most places in Paris, Cafe Panique does not have air-conditioning, but our charming waiter (a student in finance who spent a semester in Chicago!) kept our carafe d'eau filled. MCM and I started with a bubbly aperitif, were served a complimentary shot of cold vegetable soup, and then each had the foie gras starter. MCM followed that with a veal dish, stuffed with sage and parma ham, served with fresh tagliatelle - a real success. I had lamb and spring vegetables, which supposedly had a thyme jus. This was the only disappointing dish we ordered - although the ingredients were all top, the dish was lacking a sauce or flavour to pull it together. We also thought the foie gras could have been deveined better. Oh well. Dessert was a chocolate-orange tart for me - correct - and a tiramisu for MCM - yuuuuuum.
The starched tablecloths, silver settings, and soft jazz music could make this place a bit austere, but the service was warm and the kitchen has a sense of humour: a Carambar wrapper was perched on top of the tiramisu like a little flag. (Carambar is a classic/nostalgic French candy). We enjoyed watching the chefs work in their small open kitchen - and they watched us, too. As I raised my fork to take my first bite of the foie gras starter, I looked up and saw head chef Odile Guyader watching me, expectantly, with a raised eyebrow. I tasted. I liked it. She knew that I would.
12 rue des Messageries
Food: Modern, clever, but not too clever. Based on good ingredients and good technique. Tasty.
Atmosphere/decor: Light and fresh, a nice blend of modern and traditional. White tablecloths, simple placesettings. Abstract art on walls. Funky (purposely) mismatched chairs. No AC!
Value for money: Quite good, given the quality of the products. A three-course menu is 33 euro - starter, main, cheese or dessert. A main and a starter or dessert would be 32, so you might as well get the third course! Wines start in low 20s for a bottle, though most are around 30. We liked that they offered a Vouvray fine bulles at 6 euro a glass as an aperitif. Normally a coupe de champagne costs 8-12 euro a glass in Paris, so we thought this showed an effort to provide good value.
What to wear: Whatever. Most people were casual (jeans, even shorts), but in the smart decor you wouldn't feel out of place more dressed up. In the interest of full disclosure I should note that I looked totally hot. Of course.
Good for: A romantic meal; a meal with a small group of friends; a meal to impress your in-laws.
Not good for: Vegetarians, children, people with loud and annoying laughs, extremely picky eaters (menu is not very long and typical ingredients include lamb, foie gras, goats' cheese...).
Handicapped access: Toilets are to the side of the kitchen - it would be very hard to maneouvre a wheelchair through there. There is a mezzanine with some seating but otherwise no need to use stairs.
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