This is Patricia Wells' third book on French cooking and the fourth of her books I am reviewing. Of her four books I have seen, this seems the most accessible and most useful to the largest number of people. This book presents recipes from small eating establishments from all regions of France, including Paris, Lyon, Provence, and southwest France. Therefore, it's contents are a much broader sampling of recipes than the books I have seen on Joel Robuchon, Paris restaurants, and Provence home cooking.
Like all of her other books, the table of contents and selection of recipes therein follows a conventional pattern with chapters on Appetizers, First Courses, and Palate Teasers; Soups of the Day; Market Basket Salads; Pastas; Seasonal Vegetables; Potatoes; Eggs, Cheese, Terrines, and Tarts; Fish and Shellfish; Poultry, Chicken, Duck, Guinea Hen, and Rabbit; Meats, Roasts, and Daily Specials; Homemade Desserts; and Pastries, Bread Dough, Sauces, and Stocks.
The first thing that stands out is the wide variety of dishes. The next is the relative simplicity of the recipe techniques without sacrificing anything to quality and respect for ingredients. I compared Wells' pot-au-feu recipe in this book with the recipe in Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' and found the attention to detail was as good or greater in Wells' book. At the same time, Wells is not entangling us in a lot of complex preparations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wells and Child agree on a method for making Crème Fraiche that does not require day or more to wait for the result.
Wells succeeds in evoking the feeling of the bistro experience in the selection of her recipes, the chatter in the headnotes explaining the source of the recipes, the consistent presentation of a French title for each recipe, even if the dish is a local favorite at a small establishment (such as 'Maggie's Roasted Red Peppers') and not an established standard dish. The photographs and layout of the book also enhance the subject, making the book a lot of fun to read without going too far, destroying the utility of a book you have to read and follow it's directions.
The emphasis on simplicity and utility extends to the pantry recipes in the last chapter. I especially like the distinction between the three different types of pastry crust. If you are new to pastry, however, I recommend you consult a book such as Alford and Duguid's 'Home Baking' specializing in a discussion of pastry to become aware of the subtleties of pastry dough. I also suggest that for stocks, the reader consult a fuller discussion of the subject such as Cooks Illustrated's volume 'The Best Recipe'.
One thing I did not find in this book which I expected was an explanation of the distinction between a bistro and a brassiere. Wells cites several recipes that originate from brassieres and includes bistros, brassieres, and restaurants in her list of establishments in the back of the book.
Three other small aspects of the book did annoy me. One was the numerous references on unfamiliar terms to an index which, in some cases, did not include the term on which the reference was made. Another was the inaccuracy of some English to metric unit conversions. I found a few which were consistently off by about 10%. A third was the use of the metric unit centiliters in place of milliliters. Almost all American metric measuring devices for the kitchen are graduated in milliliters. I can anticipate a lot of blank stares at the abbreviation 'cl' for metrically challenged cooks.
All of these caveats are small matters when weighted against the great good fun to be found in preparing recipes from this book. This book will go to the top of my list when I am looking for ideas to fill out a menu and I have no clue to what I want to eat. At the list price of less than $14, the cachet of genuine bistro food makes this book a real gem.
Highly recommended to all.