PARIS, Nov 1 - Folks often associate the City of Light with romance and haute couture, but I love Paris for the gastronomic adventures to be had here. After all, what’s lovelier than escargots swimming in a traditional garlic parsley butter sauce? What’s more fashionable than a macaron named after Marie Antoinette?
Here’s how to navigate the streets of Paris and dine like the former Queen of France (without losing your head, of course).
‘Bread’ your fast
The French love their bread and have arguably made an art form of baking. Every street in Paris has at least a boulangerie or two. Most are quite good so you can’t go wrong walking into one and leaving with a croissant or pain au chocolat, fresh from the oven.
For an exceptional experience, however, there’s only one boulangerie that will do and that’s Poilâne. This bakery looks like any other around until you try their famous pain au levain (sourdough bread) for yourself.
Every loaf bears the signature letter ‘P’ and is incredibly crusty yet complex in flavour, though whether this is from the wood fire or a secret recipe, nobody really knows for sure.
What is certain is that many cafés and restaurants in the city use only pain Poilâne. Next to the boulangerie is Poilâne-owned Cuisine de Bar, offering made-to-order tartines (open-faced sandwiches) using only their signature bread.
Simple yet tasty toppings such as sardine paste drizzled with good olive oil and a sprinkling of chives, or soft Saint-Marcellin cheese covered with Bayonne ham, are popular with the lunch crowds.
For a lighter way to break your fast, go for one of Poilâne’s rustic-looking apple tartlets. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist tearing into this flaky and buttery pastry immediately. All the flavours of autumn burst forth with every bit of caramelised apple. Every bite is perfection when you have just enough the way a Parisian would, and not more.
A worker’s ‘canteen’
It’s midday. Rather than hitting a fancy Michelin-starred restaurant where tables are booked solid months in advance, why not enjoy a worker’s lunch instead? Take our advice and head to Le Bouillon Chartier in the 9th arrondissement.
A favourite of hungry theatre-goers after plays and musicals, Chartier was originally set up in 1896 as a canteen serving cheap stew to workers. The restaurant is usually packed to the gills during lunch due to its affordable prices but tables turn over quickly so you don’t have to wait long.
Inside, its Belle Époque décor – from the ceiling-high mirrors to gilded dark wood panelling – brings you back to another century but the closely-arranged tables remind you this is no fancy establishment. White paper is used in place of tablecloths where waiters will tally up your bill at the end of the meal.
Speaking of waiters, your servers may be well part of the entertainment with their brusque (oh, that cliché of a rude French waiter!) yet efficient manner. Mind you, most will have a gruff smile for you if you smile first. Be prepared to share your table and conversation with complete strangers.
Chartier does a very decent rendition of traditional French favourites. For appetisers, try their rich foie gras or rustic terrine de campagne (country-style terrine), perfect for spreading on some crusty bread.
There’s always room for half a dozen escargots à la Bourguignonne (snails baked in garlic butter and parsley). Simply divine – just don’t send one flying halfway across the room the way Julia Roberts did in the film Pretty Woman.
Hearty mains such as poulet fermier roti frites (roast chicken with farmer fries) and confit de canard pommes grenailles (duck confit with roasted new potatoes) will fill you up. Don’t fret about missing the dessert here; save space for the sweet stuff during teatime later.
Savouring the sweet life
Afternoons in Paris are meant to be spent lounging in a tea salon, sipping on some exotic tea blend and taking tiny bites of delicate pastries. One good option is La Maison Angelina, famed for their decadent hot chocolate. Velvety smooth and thick enough a spoon could almost stand upright in it, this is not a beverage for the fainthearted.
What better way to celebrate Angelina’s faded grandeur than indulging next in their much-copied Mont Blanc dessert? A meringue sphere wearing a coat of rich cream and chestnut purée, this is a treat that’s not meant to be scoffed down in a hurry. Take your time and luxuriate.
For those seeking a tearoom closer to retail therapy, head to Ladurée at Champs-Elysées. Open their signature pastel green menus and your head will spin with near-endless choices. You can’t go wrong with their exquisite macarons – a few of our favourite flavours include aromatic coconut, dainty rose and a single-origin chocolate from Brazil.
For something truly stunning yet subtle, try their Marie Antoinette. Flavoured with their own Marie Antoinette tea, this teal-coloured macaron will tantalise your taste buds with a delicious play of rose petals, citrus, honey and Chinese black tea.
Truly French flavours
Even in Paris, you may transport yourself back in time and escape its urban confines by visiting an old-fashioned, family-run bistro for dinner. Our choice is the tavern-like Le Trumilou by the River Seine.
Le Trumilou serves classic French fare with a minimum of fuss but plenty of deep flavours. We share a light appetiser of oeuf dur mayonnaise (hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise) as we know our mains will be serious belly-stuffers. The luscious, freshly whipped mayonnaise lifts this ‘so simple we can make it at home’ salad to ‘only the French does it this well’ status.
Next, enjoy house specialties like the fragrant canard aux pruneaux (roast duck leg with prunes). Plenty of thickly cut frites accompany this robust dish. There are also game dishes during the hunting season.
My favourite is the ris de veau grand-mère (veal sweetbreads in mushroom cream sauce). This slightly sweet and rich-tasting organ meat is actually the thymus glands and pancreas of a milk-fed calf. For those who shun offal, you may want to reconsider your stance; this dish is sublime.
Don’t forget to toast your hosts with a glass or two of their excellent wine. Cosy and authentic with a beautiful view of the Seine, there’s no better way to end a day of tasting the French capital. Vive la Paris!
Poilâne and Cuisine de Bar
8 rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006 Paris
Le Bouillon Chartier
7, rue du Faubourg Montmarte, 75009 Paris
La Maison Angelina
226 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris
Ladurée Champs Elysées
75 avenue des Champs-Elysées, 75008 Paris
84, quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, 75004 Paris
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on October 31, 2013.