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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - In a stylishly decorated restaurant in the heart of Paris, tucked between Bastille and Place de la Nation, Sophia Tabet is perusing a typical French menu, including foie gras, beef fillet and duck confit.
But unlike other French eateries, this one offers no wine list, and all food is prepared strictly in accordance with the principles of Islamic sharia law.
"We all eat halal food. It's nice to have a change, to be able to eat French gastronomy that's halal," said Tabet, 29, a customer adviser at a large financial services company.
Tabet is on a girls' night out with work colleagues at Les Enfants Terribles, one of a new breed of up-market halal restaurants that have sprung up in and around Paris, catering to a growing population of young Muslim professionals.
Born and educated in France, they have similar culinary tastes and social lives to their non-Muslim counterparts, but eating out can be a disappointing experience, restricted to cheap fast food outlets, or the vegetarian option on the menu.
"Before, eating halal in Paris, you were pretty much limited to pizzerias or kebab shops," said Kamel Saidi, 32, who opened Les Enfants Terribles two years ago with his brother.
"I was born in France, I grew up in France and I was frustrated because I wasn't able to enjoy good traditional French food," he said.
Literally translated, halal means "permissible," and defines foods that Muslims are allowed to eat under Islamic law.
Pork is strictly forbidden, as is alcohol, both as a drink or as an additive in cooking.
Halal meat must be slaughtered in the name of Allah and the animals' throat slit to allow blood to drain before consumption.
For Muslims, this rules out a wide range of traditional French fare, but also restricts choice in the more cosmopolitan eateries, such as Thai and Chinese, that have become a feature of the French culinary landscape.
In a country famed for its rich cuisine and passion for food, halal can therefore prove something of a social handicap.
"What if you want to invite a colleague out? You can't really ask a French non-Muslim to the kebab shop," said Saidi.
France recently launched a debate on the issue of its national identity, aimed at defining its essential unifying values and reclaiming a renewed sense of patriotism.
The conversation has zeroed in on France's mainly Muslim immigrants, and the question of whether their presence is diluting France's social and cultural character.
But lost in this debate are the growing number of second and third generation Muslims who share the tastes and aspirations of a modern non-Muslim youth, and are seeking to reconcile their religious values with a strong sense of Frenchness.
Dhieb Lagnab, 31, of Tunisian descent, recently opened a chic Thai restaurant, Le Wok Saint Germain, on Paris' Left Bank, tapping into a growing urban trend for international cuisine.
"Personally, as a Frenchman, I don't identify with my parents, but more with the young generation of French people who are opening Asian restaurants," he said.
"The only difference is that in my case, it's halal."
France has Europe's largest Muslim community, estimated at some 5 million people or 8 percent of the population.
Already, the market for shop-bought halal food products is valued at 4 billion euros ($5.90 billion) and growth is expected to reach 10 percent per year up to 2012, according to a study by Paris-based consultancy Xerfi.
For Saidi, the gamble has already paid off -- two years after opening Les Enfants Terribles, he is fully booked every night, and plans to open a second venue elsewhere in the city.
"The demand is big, and professionals are really starting to feel it. Halal is starting to expand everywhere," he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato