Habassi, who was born in Tunisia and reared in Paris, grew up working in his family's restaurant and attended the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, where he learned his specialty -- crêpes.
Those versatile, thin, airy pancakes are one of the big attractions at Le Petit Paris. Habassi transforms simple crêpes into entrées and desserts with flourish and flair, offering them in a variety of ways -- from stuffed to flambéed.
Located in the area south of Arsenal Street, this small, cozy restaurant also has a large and varied menu "with a touch of Tunisia" -- an appropriate twist, given the bevy of ethnic restaurants that flank the place, from Nicaraguan to Vietnamese. The room is seriously romantic with its white and red tablecloths, mauve-colored walls, flickering electric fireplace and soft French music.
For more intimate dinners, the restaurant boasts an alcove for two fitted with heavy curtains. Like most Paris bistros, Le Petit Paris is jam-packed with closely arranged tables, making either for hushed conversations between diners at one table or lively discussion among tables.
The walls are loaded with framed prints and tchotchkes, and old musical instruments hang from the pressed-tin ceiling. On a large upper shelf sits Habassi's collection of antique radios -- you can almost hear the scratchy radio sound of Edith Piaf's singing coming through the vintage sets.
Even the honk of a bicycle horn from the kitchen, announcing when meals are ready, adds a quirky bit of charm. Unlike many Paris restaurants, this one stays remarkably dust- and dirt-free despite all the stuff crammed into such a small space.
Throughout its five years of operation, Le Petit Paris has received a mixed response from customers. Although inconsistent service and kitchen errors are often cited as the biggest miscues, our recent dining experiences were problem-free.
That doesn't mean that everyone will love the place. Big eaters will be surprised and perhaps disappointed that the entrée portions don't measure up to their hearty appetites. True to European practices, Habassi serves smallish portions of beautifully presented food. Although the menu features whole trout, salmon fillet, strip steak and large portions of pasta and couscous, a normal portion size might include three medallions of tenderloin, two grilled lamb chops or a few slices of duck breast.
Small portions and the big price tag on the pavé mignon special raise eyebrows. But when the big oval plate is placed before you, all concern fades. Three beef tenderloin medallions sit in a garlic-and-shallot sauce laced with earthy black truffles, accompanied by roasted asparagus and roasted potatoes. Although most Europeans don't share the American practice of serving food piping hot, it was clear that the potatoes had sat too long in the kitchen waiting for the rest of the meal to catch up.
Most entrées feature one of Habassi's many superb sauces. Unlike most French sauces, Habassi's are richly concentrated stock reductions that use cream and butter sparingly to add structure. The result is flavorful and proves that every meal out doesn't have to be supersized to be satisfying. An appetizer and soup easily balance what may look like undersized entrées.
Habassi recently introduced an expanded dinner menu, adding 31 new dishes, including twelve new salads -- among them pheasant, rabbit and several variations of caesar salad, one topped with frog legs. The fourteen appetizers are old standbys such as the croûte marseillaise, which consists of nice-size shrimp, spinach and cheese in puff pastry (which was none too puffy on one visit).
More satisfying was the brik of Tunisia, a puffed crust packed with tuna, egg, veggies, capers and what tasted like a whole rack of spices. The fish bisque was a dark, pungent stock with short spaghetti noodles.
The "Tunisian touch" of Le Petit Paris arrives in the form of several couscous dishes (seafood, lamb, beef tenderloin, chicken or merguez, a homemade Tunisian sausage) and two pasta dishes. Habassi's Tunisian wife, Aouatef, serves as chef, adding her mark to the spicy dishes. The seven vegetarian dishes should accommodate most meat-free diets.
Habassi takes pride in his operation and loves scampering from table to table, conversing with diners and asking their opinions of his food. On a night when one dining partner was indecisive, she asked Habassi to surprise her with a meal of his choosing.
His eyes grew wide, as if someone had presented him with a great challenge. He rushed into the kitchen. A short time later, the server emerged to deliver a spectacular duck à l'orange, a beautiful dish full of rich, concentrated citrus flavor. Cotelettes d'agneau consisted of two small lamb chops in a vibrant rosemary, garlic and lemon-butter sauce.
The wine list is completely French, comprising sixteen whites and thirteen reds, two ports and three dessert wines, with some good values in the $20-$24 range.
Ordering the housemade desserts should be mandatory. Ten of the seventeen desserts are crêpes, among them the Millennium crepe, which features chocolate and bananas, an orange sauce, whipped cream and toasted hazelnuts; and Le Grande crêpe, which is doused with Grand Marnier and brown sugar, then flambéed at the table.
Lunch at Le Petit Paris is a casual yet civilized affair. Fifteen sandwiches are offered, as well as the large assortment of crêpes. Sandwiches, which are served on baguettes or wheat bread baked at the restaurant, come with french fries, also made on the premises. Try the lobster crêpe -- savory rice, mushrooms, spinach and chunks of lobster are placed on a half-moon of pastry, then topped with a slightly thickened wine sauce. The crêpe is folded into a triangle, then covered and gently steamed on the stove, which allows the sauce to permeate the rice. It's not a dish meant to be scarfed down for a quick, gut-filling lunch break.
Consider the name of the restaurant: Le Petit Paris. It's perfect for this little slice of Parisian ambiance. Just don't bring your poodle.