Paris: From Square to Hip (Part 1)

Before the iPhone, this is how people perved over their dinner....
Before the iPhone, this is how people perved over their dinner….Chardin’s The Skate

I first hit Paris in 1997 on a boondoggle: giving a speech on (the dubious merits of) Latin American credit derivatives. Since then, I’ve visited 4-10 times a year, and have noted the steady slide in standards: food has become more average, more indigestible, and more expensive, all at the same time; the Parisians have basically given up on their fight against the Anglo-Saxons, and smartly drop into English faster than you can “Bonjour”; the old type of visitor, students, amateur philosophers and backpackers, have been replaced by tour groups full of ridiculously dressed DSLR-wielders, snapping away, hoping to bore their relatives and friends once back home.

But there is hope: even as the Left Bank and much of the Right have become uber-Disneyfied, a new, stylish Paris, international yet distinctively French, is sprouting in the northeastern arrondisements. Similarly to London, property prices have driven the graphic designers, restauranteurs, musicians, teachers, etc. to the 10th, 19th, and 20th. One can (at least in February), spend days without hearing any English at all, unless it happens to be a waiter or barman anxious to show off their (excellent) command of it.

In fairness, some of these neighbourhoods started rising years ago, like Bastille or the Oberkampf area. But there has been a perceptible change recently, particularly with superb restaurants serving a lighter cuisine, and the (hoorah!) triumphant march of natural wines. Restaurants and wine bars have been accompanied by London-style coffee shops, bakeries, clothing shops, and bookstores.

Geography

I would consider the polygon inscribed by Metros Bonne-Nouvelle, Stalingrad, Ourcq, and Parmentier. Within, you have the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, with its prepared food shops, markets, Pierre Jancou’s Vivant restaurant (much loved by the natural wine crowd, but I haven’t made it), and L’Office (very good). Up by the Gare de L’Est is some of the most authentic Indian and Sri Lankan food in Paris. The streets around the Canal St Martin have some very trendy clothes shoppes, and the hottest baker in a city of bakeries. The heights of Belleville again have some fabulous food and wine, and a few cutting-edge contemporary galleries. And down by Parmentier is the current temple (or hell if you’re trying to get a table) of BCBG (bon chic bonne genre) Paris: Chateaubriand.

paris_map

As ever, I’ve found food, wine, and art to be great scaffolding on which to hang one’s understanding of a city – so here are my picks.

Chateaubriand (Parmentier): It’s been a year since we et here, it was superb, very light, very inventive, exciting food. The service is said to be a bit too-cool-for-school, but we found them quite pleasant. Our neighbours, on the other hand, were somewhat loud and opinionated Australians. The problem, of course, is getting a booking, or even getting anyone on the telephone. However, they have a second restaurant next door, Le Dauphin, that is much bigger, and there is a unreserved second seating at the original which is worth going for.

Chapeau Melon (Belleville): One of our favourites. Tiny menu, lots of great natural wines on the shelf, for takeaway or otherwise. Standouts this time were a mackerel escabeche, and a beef cheek terrine – both were superbly textured. The sausage and lentil main course was delicious, as was the classical brandade de morue (salt cod creamed with garlic and potatoes). We had a bottle of Bois Moisette red, 100% Brocol grapes, from the Tarn: “strong aroma of perfume, maybe like incense, but described as cassis, long finish. Lovely scented wonder.” (my notes). The crowd is local, pleasantly arty, and a few foreigners who often are there with locals.

Wine at Chapeau Melon
Wine at Chapeau Melon

Chez Valentin (Belleville): Utterly improbable, a Latin American-French-Asian fusion restaurant, with a Thai (maybe) lady cooking, and a genial, pony-tailed patron presiding. One of the most enjoyable, if not particularly sophisticated, meals. Calamari with citronella, coriander, shallot in a weird ketchup and fish sauce dressing. A splendid lentil salad with lardons in vinegar dressing. Wonderful Argentine steak and potatoes fried in goose fat. A very good chicken mole, albeit less intense than in Oaxaca. Lastly, an exotic clafoutis, with bananas and rum flambee. And gentiane as a much needed digestif.

Le Baratin (Belleville): People raves about this place. We liked it well enough, the food was very well prepared, if a little on the heavy side (I did order tripe). The wine was pretty good. But somehow, it didn’t feel all that French: like Chateaubriand it is on the foodie and wealthy-art-collector circuit, so all we could hear at dinner was the conversation of a group of Americans behind us (who, to be fair, were New Yorkers and perfectly civil). But also, the waitstaff were young, and had that smooth English and confidently cosmopolitan style that makes one feel like…London or New York. In short, it wasn’t my idea of a French restaurant. But this is a minority view.

Verre Vole (Canal St Martin): Another fantastic place. Tiny wine store, bar, and restaurant. Wine can be bought by bottle or glass, and the food is simple, and fully works with and for the wine. We had a fantastic haddock tartare seasoned with coffee grounds, citron, tarragon, and baby parsley. A very good tempura-fried squid with a rich mushroom sauce. The mains were more varied: a confit du canard I thought was less good than I’ve had elsewhere, mainly because the skin hadn’t been dried and crisped up as I like. I’m not sure that was a conscious choice, or execution failure. On the other hand, lamb shoulder with anchovies, grilled green and red peppers, the latter stuffed with a feta mousse, was divine. The classic southern French flavours of anchovies, peppers and meat, were perfectly complemented by a wine from Benoit Courault (I think called La Coulee 2008, a cabernet sauvignon and grolleau blend) of Anjou: “acidic, delicious, haunting” (my notes). The whites were great too, an almost-orange wine from Tuscany, Guido Gualandi; and a clean, acidic wine from the Ardeche. Highly recommended, lunch is fun, seems mostly local people. Last time, we dined with 4 violinists and violists lunching boozily before going to play at the Paris orchestra !

Andouillette at Verre Vole
Andouillette at Verre Vole

Chez Prune (Canal St Martin): More a bar than restaurant, but has a good vibe, is very French, slightly haughty, and a great terrace on the canal.

Craft (Canal St Martin): Paris, famously, has terrible coffee. This newbie is one of the very few places that bring London- or New York-style espresso to Paris. The inside is gorgeous, angular, and white, the place is fully wired (they have a great rack of Ethernet routers next to the loo). The coffee isn’t cheap (€3 for an espresso!) but worth a try.

Craft coffeeshop
Craft coffeeshop
Architecture and morality at Craft
Architecture and morality at Craft

Le Cinquante (Canal St Martin): Little bar on the Rue de Lancry, the only place that made an acceptable Negroni (the barman took our instruction). They also refused to lift a finger until we spoke in French – like Parisien of yore !

Du Pain et Des Idees (Canal St Martin): The bakery of the moment: equally known for bread and innovative pastries: traditional pain au raisin is reinterpreted, for instance with pistachios or rum-raisin or nougat. The queue tells all.

Matcha (green-tea) croissants at Des Pains et les Idees.  Don't knock it til you try it !
Matcha (green-tea) croissants at Des Pains et les Idees. Don’t knock it til you try it !

Indian food (Gare de L’Est): If pig, duck, kidneys, cream, mushrooms, and nary a vegetable, are getting a bit tiring on tongue and tail, there is actually very good Indian food near the Gare. We went to Chettinadu Restaurant on the Rue Cail, twice. While most of the restaurants serve the meat curry staples of Brick Lane, you’re better off ordering the South Indian or Sri Lankan food (iddli, rasam, appam, bonda, vada), and sticking to vegetables, as these places mostly cater to an ethnic clientele. All that said, we had a pretty good chicken biryani also.

Great food at Chettinad, dubious wine
Great food at Chettinad, dubious wine

Chez Georges (Rue du Mail): Lastly, completely contradicting everything I said above, is a paean to one of the finest bistros in Paris, and this in the Deuxieme Arrondisement. A long railroad-car of a room, with racks for coats, it’s been described as a place where Paris’ tribes meet: on our lunch visit, an impeccably-dressed octogenarian regular dining alone, a discreetly camp pair probably from the nearby fashion houses, a trio of businesspeople on a boozy Friday lunch, and a stack of regulars in the first room. I suspect one status is indicated by whether the amuse is breakfast radishes or saucisson slices: as I’ve only been going for 10 years, and pretty irregularly at that, we earned radishes (which were excellent). But the food! Marinated herrings to die for, come in a great big porcelain vat with onions, and are accompanied by another vat of chived potatoes. One takes as much as one wants (or can), the potato richness being cut by the oily fish. The mains were a perfect filet steak and superbly naughty fries drenched in a brandy and cream sauce; and veal kidneys, medium-done and well-stinky, in a sauce of cognac and mushrooms. Many years ago, I had my first andouillette , other diners looking on approvingly as a steamy cloud that smelt, literally, of pig shit, burst out of the entrail sausage. The desserts are more conventional and completely impressive – we held back this time, and ordered prunes in armagnac – again, a massive tureen, help yourself. Their profiteroles, and the chestnut puree with whipped cream, are certified as awesome. House wine comes in a heavy pewter tankard, and there are still one or two of the old ladies in pinafores that have always served there, but are steadily retiring.

The well-known mimeographed menu at Chez Georges...
The well-known mimeographed menu at Chez Georges…