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Parisian Dining Suits US Tastes

Bistro-style cooking is already popular in America, in fact - whether or not chefs realize it. FOOD

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THE French bistro, that comfortable, inexpensive, neighborhood kind of restaurant, has come to America. The Americanized version may not have a sign over the door saying ``Bistro.'' It may be plain and cheerful, or colorful and noisy. But it has a French flavor. A bistro is a restaurant where people go for lunch, dinner, or a snack at any time and in any kind of clothes - from formal to business to casual. Today's relaxed, impromptu lifestyles share many of the same attitudes of these French restaurants.

``Bistro is food without pretension,'' says food writer Patricia Wells. ``They are a French institution. But they've come into the modern age with more salads, more fish, less meat, and lighter desserts.''

An authority on French cuisine and a food writer for both French and American publications, Ms. Wells's goal has been to demystify bistro food for people who want to cook it at home.

Americans already serve a lot of bistro food, she has found. ``We do want to go back to simpler times and simpler food that's comfortable and easy,'' she says. ``This is what many of the new American restaurants are all about.''

Restaurants with bistro fare and ambiance have been appearing all across the United States. One of the most recent is Lydia Shire's new Boston restaurant, Biba's. Typical of American bistros, its eclectic menu is interspersed with familiar dishes. Yet there are also special dishes in Chef Lydia's style.

Jeremiah Tower had the French bistro in mind when he opened his San Francisco restaurant, Stars, several years ago. Customers there can spend a long evening lingering over several courses, or they can drop by for a quick, individual pizza with smoked salmon for less than $5.

French bistro food has a reputation for earthiness. Bistro cuisine is based on familiar ingredients such as inexpensive - but flavorful - cuts of meat (cooked until they're so tender the meat falls off the bone), fresh green salads, and many kinds of casseroles called potato gratins.

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