Paris 2009 – with friends – a holiday of the senses, an effervescence of food, an exploration of haute cuisine, gastro-tourism, Michelin stars, Michelin guides and just plain ordinary eating. Read on, if you plan to visit Paris, or if you are interested in food.
The compact, businesslike (soon to be rated Michelin discovery) Le Gaigne in the Marais quarter (third arrondissement) makes a persuasive case to the purse; it is a reason to dress up for some fine dining, and best of all, is just around the corner. Preceded by the ritual of trying on outfits, shared make-up and compliments, the five course Le Menu Dégustation, each paired with a wine and exquisitely served on slabs of black slate, is both delightful and a trifle disappointing. The seafood starter in a shot glass – Verrine de Coquillages en gelée, mousse et coulis de Céléris – is not unpleasant and deserves mention if only for the layered, pureed, spinach; and the braised endives with ham or Millefeuilles d’Endives étuvées et véritable jambon de Paris de M. Leguel, is an out and out winner, a mélange of the sweet, the sour and the piquant.
The closely packed tables are enveloped in a buzz of conversation, rising and falling in a miscellany of accents. The food is local, organic and fresh, and if organic is unavailable, ‘alternatively produced’ replacements are substituted, where possible. Chef Mikael Gaignon is young and known, having worked in two Pierre Gagnaire restaurants and this, Le Gaigne, is his first restaurant as patron. Given the prices are not Michelin star prices, it certainly offers value for money – and the wines are superbly matched.
Ladurée (75 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, Tel : 01.40.75.08.75), opened as a tea room in the 1930’s at a time when women were not allowed to enter cafés (an exclusive domain of men) and soon became hugely successful with the ladies of Paris. Today, a brand unto itself, it is famous worldwide for its pastries and double-decker macaroons (of which 15,000 are sold everyday according to their website). These legendary macaroons featured in a scene between Marie-Antoinette and Ambassador Mercy in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
Originally founded in 1862 as a bakery, it was burnt down in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and rebuilt as a pastry shop. It came into its own in 1930 when Desfontaines, the grandson, came up with the idea of sticking two macaroon shells together with creamy ganache (a whipped filling of chocolate and cream), reinventing the macaroon originally introduced by Catherine de’ Medici to France in the 16th century.
The celadon interiors and the waiting in line is an experience in itself, almost like being caught in a boudoir web within a time warp. Brunch has a very ‘ladies who lunch’ feel to it, made inelegant by recalcitrant swiveling seats which make it hard to look graceful, much less balance a china cup of tea delicately. Depending on your taste, the macaroon is either a fantastic melt-in-your-mouth experience, or not quite all that it is cracked up to be.
Ladurée macaroon boxes are available from their counter at the Charles de Gaulle airport (should you want to take some home) and it is recommended that the macaroons be eaten within three to four days.
Le Trumilou (84 Quai de L’Hotel de Ville, Tel : 01.42.77.63.98,) will be remembered for a perfect meal on a sunny autumn day, a Sunday lunch of escargots lusciously awash in butter and garlic, chilled Sancerre, foaming Leffe (premium ale from Belgium), canard pruneaux (duck with prunes), ris veau (veal sweetbread), oeuf a la neige (floating islands) and tarte aux pommes, apple tarts, warm and melting.
It will be remembered as a quintessential French bistrot experience; traditional farm fare and dishes lovingly cooked for hours … and warm sidewalk café crèmes served in the sun, fueling hours of insouciant banter; and your table’s giddy, infectious good humor snags the attention of the man at the adjacent table (ostensibly reading a French translation of Dan Brown’s latest offering) … all this, followed by a siesta on the banks of the Seine on a sunny afternoon.
Le Baiser Salé aka The Salty Kiss (58 Rue des Lombards, Tel : 01.42. 33. 37. 71) is for the nights, for the atmosphere and the perfect evening of jazz, (no fancy wannabe jazz bar in an upstart slick street); this is cellar and decrepit loft, knee to knee in appreciation with other music lovers. A jazz festival is on, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, salsa, merengue, R & B, fusion … and tonight is mellifluous and the mojitos, margaritas and 1664’s (beer) enhance the sweetly evocative articulations of sax and bass guitar.
For a quick dinner before the show, or between shows, nip across to La P’tit Cantine (22 Rue des Lombardes, Tel : 01.42. 71. 44. 48) for a decent meal of meat and wine.
Le Connétable (55 Rue des Archives, Tel : 01.42. 77. 41. 40) is a chance encounter turned good. The bread is fresh and crusty, the Côtes du Rhône deeply red and invigorating, and the conversation is about men. Pork filet mignons in a Roquefort sauce, veal medallions, rump steaks in (green pepper) saus poivre vert, celery puréed with butter and cream … unpretentious food and robust wine.
Known for its local artists and chanson music (a la Edith Piaf); tonight, in the cellar-cave below, three painfully young men sing French a cappella, gentle croons, warbles and a harmony that has the young audience rapt. Berets are doffed; a battered saucepan is passed around for coins.
Angelina (226 Rue de Rivoli, Tel : 01. 42. 60. 82. 00) is the renowned Parisian gourmet teahouse in the elegant style of the Belle Époque era, designed by the French architect Edouard-Jean Niermans. An institution since its inception, it is known both for its clientele (aristocracy, fashion designers, authors, philosophers et al) as for its Mont Blanc gateau and hot chocolate (closely guarded century old proprietary recipes). The famous Mont Blanc – as well as most of their gateaux – have all been consumed by the end of the day, so if the intent is to eat, get there before teatime. The queues are long and so is the waiting time. The house special, the African Hot Chocolate, is worth every second of the patient wait and the sorbets are richly satisfying, beyond any imagination.
Restaurant Le 404 (69 Rue des Gravilliers, Tel : 01.44.71.57.81) Le 404 restaurant … exhibits all the vibrant flavours and colours of North Africa. Retrofitted into a 16th century building, 404’s interior is all Berber with pouf seating, exposed beams and stones, tooled leather, authentic artifacts. … The menu features all the dishes … from that part of the world: couscous, tagines, grilled meats, skewered things. The wine list features some unusual Mahgrebi bottles … Grab a drink at Andy Wahloo’s, the sibling bar next door – everybody does, and ‘everybody’ includes show-biz and celebrities.
The evening is an sensory extravaganza; the warm glow of Moroccan lanterns, suspended, lamps and candles holders of iron fretwork dispersing flickering light on dishes heaped with Middle Eastern fare, meat, pigeon, chicken, semolina, pickled lemons, nuts, dates, figs, raisins; the fragrance of spices – cumin, coriander, saffron, chiles, ginger, cinnamon, paprika; a décor of earthen hues, the murmur of conversation, the hiss and sizzle from the stove, the pop of a champagne cork … epicurean hedonism.
Our last dinner in Paris, Le 404 remains burnished in the memory as a golden experience, beginning with the first mojito, redolent with fresh mint. Chilled Chablis follows with fava beans & olives, Mechoui Maison (roasted shoulder of lamb), pastilla pigeon plat (wild pigeon in pastry), tagine poulet citron (chicken with preserved lemon and olives) and the couscous 7 legumes. And to end a meal of meals, salade d’oranges et fleur d’ orange and pastilla dattes (pastry with dates) accompanied by fresh, aromatic coffee.
Le Pain Quotidien, 18-20, Rue de Archives, Tel : 1 44 54 03 07, is a quiet delight, part of a global chain that first opened in Brussels in 1990. Bakery and communal table; breakfast, lunch, brunch (organic where possible, with vegan and vegetarian options) and simple boulangerie fare – soups, salads, tartines, homemade pastries, handmade organic bread – artisanal dishes, community eating at a long wooden trestle table.
No gastronomic journey is complete without a nod to junk food and the Googrill beef and chicken burgers at Quality Hamburger Restaurant (63 Boulevard Saint Michel, Tel : 01.42. 71. 44. 48) … ils sont délicieux, elles sont parfaits.
Bon appétit, says the garçon, placing the bottle of Sancerre on the table, gently.
And so we do, meal after meal after glorious meal.
All photographs by Anita Thomas.