If you can't afford Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée, there's only one place to go: another Alain Ducasse restaurant. Fortunately for Ducasse fans, in the last few years the superchef has quietly amassed a mini empire of restaurants all over the world, not just by franchising his existing restaurants, but by gently taking over the classics and reinvigorating them.

One rainy Friday night in Paris, High Maintenance, Knucklehead, and I headed over to Benoît, a classic French bistro near the Centre Pompidou. Founded in 1912 by butcher Benoît Matray then handed down to his grandson, it was bought in 2005 by the Ducasse group, which installed chef David Rathgeber in the kitchen. Benoît still serves the kind of traditional French dishes that might even give Julia Child the heebie jeebies. Craving a head of veal? Look no further than Benoît.

After a brief foray into the tourist room, where we refused to sit down, the maître'd led us into the more acceptable side room with a sigh. Still, there was to be no sitting in the front room, which seemed to be reserved for regulars and was absolument complet, he said, using a phrase I'd already grown weary of.

Nevertheless, the ambiance here was perfect. Knucklehead and High Maintenance, who are regulars at Raoul's in Soho, requested a classic bistro, and here was a bistro that reminded me of Raoul's: a lively neighborhood place with a cool but casual atmosphere and good food.

Make that great food. If you want to go anywhere in Paris to get schooled in the classics, Benoît is the place to go. When all the riffs on French cuisine are whisked away, the standards that remain are excellent in their own right. Why do we have sear foie gras or put it on burgers when it can be an other-worldly experience on its own? With a texture like whipped butter, perfumed with a touch of shallot and a hint of champagne, Benoît's foie gras was supremely rich yet airy.

Tongue of veal turned out to be a lot like salami in texture, though not as strong in taste. Thinly sliced and sandwiched between layers of foie gras, it was interesting, but you might as well just get the foie gras on its own, or the escargots, which are reputed to be excellent.

Look at this brown mass of cassoulet and imagine it's one of the best things you've ever eaten. Not easy, right? The blah appearance of so much of traditional French cuisine - compared to the bright colors and flavors of Asian-influenced fusion cuisine - is what has set it by the wayside in the past decade or so. Judging this cassoulet by its brown cover would be a shame, though, because the taste is incredibly heady and complex. The secret seems to be in the sausage, which lends the beans an herbal spiciness. Or is it in the meat, which gives it gravitas? Or is it the incredibly low heat and long time it must have taken to cook beans this flavorful without making them fall apart? As anyone who's ever made a cassoulet knows, it ain't as easy as it looks. Benoît's was hands-down the best cassoulet I've ever come across.

High Maintenance and Knucklehead both got the steak, as at Raoul's, but unlike at Raoul's, this steak was topped with what seemed to be sweetbreads - if I didn't get lost in translation. The best thing about the dish was the divine demi-glace that came with, and the side of macaroni and cheese. Give a chef like David Rathgeber something as simple as mac 'n' cheese to make and even this turns out to be a goumet dish.

Knucklehead actually knows a thing or two about wines, so he chose this very nice Chateau Fonbadet 2000 Paulliac in anticipation of a trip to Bordeaux.

Heading into yet more traditional territory, we had a very satisfying order of profiteroles and cake for dessert. Somehow these taste all the better when served on bone china with sterling silver utensils, as at many of the better restaurants in Paris.

I found Benoît through the international boards on Chowhound.com, where many readers recommended it as the best classic bistro in Paris. It's also in the Michelin guide with one star, meaning "a very good restaurant in its category."

Doing one thing but doing it very well? Benoît's stardom is well deserved.

20, rue St. Martin
Paris, France