Dinner in Paris : a Sashay into 3 Délectable Restaurants
The first time I went to Paris I was 26 years old and frugal as all get out. I was going to be gone for 3+ weeks and with an itinerary of four countries and 7 cities it just made sense to hit up all the grocery stores for curry sauce, cheese, eggs, bread and chicken.
Every day we’d spend all day exploring and come back at night to cook up dinners on tiny, little European stoves while about 3 pair of underwear washed in tiny, little European washers. It was a good life.
This year I went back to Paris with the roomie, and being more flush in cash than last time we ate out most of the week. I had to face my fear of ordering in French restaurants and warned Rach before we went that Being Brave In Many Things did not extend to French, and the sacredness of their food.
She being forewarned did an excellent job of distilling confidence when I needed it, and though full as many French words were butchered that week along with the poultry, we ate exceedingly well.
1. Le Tambour
The afternoon we arrived in Paris we stepped out of the Les Halle station blinking in bright Sunday afternoon sunshine. With the Seine about a 10 minute walk south, and our apartment 10 minutes north, we resisted the urge to go to the river first and walked to the flat to drop our things and freshen up. We were so tired, and yet to go to sleep at that hour of the day after a red-eye across time zones is a bad idea, so we changed into pretty dresses and decided it was time for real food. Twenty hours on granola bars sustains one, but doesn’t satisfy.
Note, I was still nervous about French restaurant etiquette and language, plus tired, so finding a restaurant looked huge. Annie, the hostess at the flat came to our rescue with a recommendation, Le Tambour.
It was one of the most intoxicating afternoons I can remember to date. The temperature was about 80 degrees, with playful breezes ruffling new, green leaves. We found a small, round table on the sidewalk since to eat inside on such a day is travesty, and ordered.
Drink: we knocked back two espressos first.
Entrees: I ordered a pasta dish with fluffy clouds of a dill-lemon cream sauce and Rachel got the salmon with green beans. The same mayo-sauce accompanied her food and I could’ve eaten the stuff plain. How to describe the incredible, yet light-as-air impression of the dish? Somewhere a beautiful French woman is singing a silky aria.
Every bite was as good as the last.
2. Le Bouillon Chartier
We had read about a restaurant in the 9th arrondissement serving a fabulous foie gras for a middle-class price point. Naturally, it was first on the list, and one of my favorites from the week. Tucked into the center of a block through a stone courtyard is a small discreet sign proclaiming the establishment. Just inside is a noisy, but genteel, dining room full of patrons and busy waiters gliding to and fro in their black garb and white aprons.
Père, and foie gras: the French stereotype is a snooty, uppity person, but we experienced none of that in Paris. At Chartier we had a friendly waiter: fatherly and kind. He wrote our order on the table cloth and was outraged that we would leave a bit of the foie gras on the plate. He said we must eat it before taking the plate away so we laughed and obliged. He spoke with such authority that we really had no choice; none of your American lip here, if you please.
The foie gras was fascinating: buttery, with a bit of meal that allowed it some structure. Incredibly rich, we smeared generous allowances on toast and found we could’ve almost made a meal of it.
Entrees: Rach ordered the duck confit with a side of roasted fingerlings, and I ordered roasted lamb with another side of fingerlings, plus buttery green beans. Mine was delicious, but hers was out-of-this-world good.
To drink, we bought a bottle of the house special wine, a lovely semi-dry red - a splurge for the week. We didn’t get through nearly all of it, so we gave the rest to a young man dining next door, a poet (or something) from Chicago. He looked capable of finishing it, plus his own bottle.
A solid win.
3. Le Petit Italien
Tucked in the heart of Le Marais (my favorite Parisian neighborhood) is a dimly-lit, elegant restaurant. It’s full of patrons who seem to be intimately acquainted with the restaurant staff, who surprisingly are more female than male, which is often the case in Parisian restaurants. These girls look elegant in the way only the French seem to attain, in a style and attitude that is both beautiful and wears well in the everyday.
Appetizers: as usual they served bread, crusty and flavorful. Accordingly devoured.
Drinks: Rachel ordered a white wine, crisp and light and the best she’s ever had, and I ordered a moderate red. It’s amazing, as almost every glass of wine had been in France (or Italy last time around).
Entrees: I opted for a gnocchi with tomato sauce, and Rachel ordered burrata, a type of soft mozzarella cheese that, when pierced, overflowed with a creamy stracciatella It was served with roasted peppers.
Charming. Romantic. Cozy. Dimly-lit. Lovely food and lovelier wine. The neighborhood held serendipity for us; I had come across a street while perusing Pinterest before the trip that I wanted to see, but couldn’t find the address to visit. As we beetled about after dinner we came across Place Vosges, where behold! The photo became reality.
As we circled the square we also came across a modest placard reading, “Home to Victor Hugo.” What a find! The author of Les Miserable lived and worked here. It was a special place to us.
We ate pain au chocolat almost every day, and had noteworthy pastries and gelato everywhere in Paris.
One pastry stands out: the e’clair at L'Éclair de Génie, in particular the raspberry-pistachio. Pistachio is one of my favorite flavors for almost anything, and I wouldn’t have thought to add raspberry to it, but trust Parisian pastry chefs to make it wonderful.
Exquisite is the word I like best to describe this pastry made meticulously, yet with artistry and fulsome flavor. In the U.S.A, if something is beautiful it usually doesn’t taste as good. In France it is as if the pastry chefs count each grain of sugar, each milligram of fruit filling, and balance it perfectly against the ration of flour to frosting to fruit. One gets the impression that somewhere each raspberry was picked by an angel with a golden laugh, and hand-delivered to L'Éclair de Génie where the chefs continued the magic.
WORD TO THE WISE
Here is my advice to you: having done it both ways I cannot recommend highly enough to actually experience the food scene in Paris. Cooking for yourself saves money and if that is the only way you can do it that’s fine, however do make provision in your budget for one French restaurant.
Even if you are a chef at home, not eating out would mean missing out on hundreds of years techniques perfected by bakers, chefs, housewives, cooks, and pastry chefs in what is near and dear to the heart of the French: the art of eating. If Paris is romance, then so is their food. I was romanced by it, and expect to always remember it with a sigh to tell my grandchildren…
“Ah, Paris. She could turn even ordinary food into an art of living.”