If were to believe Ernest Hemingway, it was once possible to dine in a civilized fashion in Parisian brasseries for a handful of pocket
change. Affordable cassoulet and pot-au-feu in certifiably French settings
seems to have gone the way of the sidewalk urinoir, but there is a
modern-day alternative: couscous, a North African meal of fluffy mounds of fine-grained semolina, typically accompanied by barbecued lamb and spiced merguez sausages.
There are hundreds of couscous joints in Parisparticularly in
North African neighborhoods like Belleville and the Goutte dOrbut one of the most accessibleand convivialin the city has to be Chez Omar (47, rue de Bretagne, 3rd. No credit cards, no reservations). Housed in an old-fashioned bistro, the kind where the counter is made of zinc and the waiters write your order on the paper tablecloths, Chez Omar is packed from 7 pm on with artists, designers, and other Bohemians looking for a copiousand cheapmeal.
A no-nonsense waiter pulls out a table to allow me to slide into my
chair, and Im seated elbow-to-elbow with a long rank of smoking, arguing, cell-phoning diners. Then the food arrives, fast: a silver platter piled with a crumbling mountain of couscous, a bowl full of vegetable stew for 65 F ($10.32 U.S.), and a plate of chicken for 85 F ($13.49 U.S.), along with a red chili paste called harissa. The wine, an Algerian red called Sidi Brahim, is acidic, and Im unable to eat my way to the bottom of my bowl of potatoes, garbanzo beans, carrots and celery. By the end of the meal, Ive gotten to know my neighborstheyre just off the plane from a vacation in Moroccoand weve traded notes on where to find the best hammams in Paris. Dessert is a trayful of pastries for 18 F each ($2.86 U.S.), dripping with honey. If Hemingway were around today, I reflect, hed probably be sipping mint tea Chez Omar.
Dinner for two at Chez Omar, with wine and desserts: 307 F ($48.73 U.S.).
Taras Grescoe, a frequent TRAVELER contributor, wrote 22 Great Hotelsfor $100 or Less in the March issue.
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