I recently visited Paris for the first time in 10 years and concluded that it’s not a slamdunk to find French food here. Or at least that it’s as easy to graze from the global smorgasbord as to dine à la français.
My first clue that things had changed came when, asked about nearby restaurants, the hotel clerk offered suggestions for Moroccan, Thai, Chinese and Italian places (he skipped the Cambodian hole in the wall down the street). How about French food? He was French and yet seemed puzzled by that question.
Granted, my husband and I were staying in the chi-chi, tourist-driven St. Germain-des-Près neighborhood on the Left Bank, where seeking out an authentic bistro nobody else knows about is like searching for crawfish in Kansas. Not out of the question, but not easy.
You can find a croque madame or salad niçoise in any brasserie, cafe au lait and a croissant in any bar. But I can eat those in New York, too, with probably equal chances of a standout experience. Our meal at Fish La Boissonerie could have happened in New York as well. The owners are Australian, the chef Japanese and the dish I’ll remember fondly was a quinoa, fennel and carrot salad garnished with tender raw okra. The French touch was a Languedoc wine with an American name: Jazz.
Starving at 5 p.m., we found sustenance at Da Rosa on the rue de Seine. José Da Rosa is, like Proust, engaged in “la recherche des goûts perdus.” In a friendly pairing of specialties from Provence and Spain, we nibbled Lucques olives–with green speckled skins, they are sweet, meaty, irresistible!-with hand-sliced jambon iberico.
On a marathon walk with friends, we rambled through the market in the Place de la Bastille, spotting snails waiting for their garlic butter treatment, apricots from Tunisia, hothouse tomatoes from Brittany. One falafel place after another lined the rue Rossetti in the Jewish quarter, the air filled with spicy aromas. On our way to a fly fishing shop (a novelty of a different order), we marveled at a shop window filled with oatmeal cartons, M&Ms and Campbell soup cans, all seemingly intended for homesick Americans.
In a park on the rue de Bretagne, we lunched on fougasse, an oily flatbread with the same Roman roots as focaccia. Thin and chewy, one variety of fougasse was filled with ham and olives, another with chicken and onion.
I kept noticing restaurants with Franco-Italian names like Italia Cucine. At the Musee d’Orsay’s Café Cabana, the international orgy of a menu featured penne with pesto, chorizo and, for the French touch, crispy Mimolette cheese. Or you could eat gnocchi with your filet mignon de porc.
A brasserie starter I enjoyed was a French take on prosciutto and melon: a fragrant, juicy Cavaillon melon, its top carved zigzag fashion, with slices of Bayonne ham nestled in the hollow. White asparagus were in season and I ordered them more than once, simmered soft and served with mignonette sauce.
Parisians may have opened their arms to global culinary influences but they do hold the line on a few things. The cheese course is always there if you want it, and the offerings are invariably French, from smelly Epoisses to fresh goat cheeses. At a tiny epicerie where we picked up supplies for a picnic, the specimen that most delighted me was a pyramid-shaped cheese completely enveloped in filmy white mold.
The pâtisseries are unsurpassed, too, a feast for eyes and stomach. Macarons are so trendy you can buy them in Dallas or Miami, but the French ones taste better. Not to mention their tarts, eclairs, napoleons…
We found our steak-frites fix at Le Relais de L’Entrecôte, where tourists and Parisians alike line up for a piquantly dressed salad, fork-tender steak slathered in bearnaise and and piles of fries. I should clarify–that’s the only meal you can order here. But the air is charged with the energy of a couple of hundred people lustily eating and talking, and the brusque servers come around with seconds.
We did have a formal French meal–at the wedding that had brought us to Paris. It began with a marbled terrine of foie gras with baby leeks, paired with a white dessert wine from the Loire Valley called Coteaux du Layon, and moved on in stately fashion to Bresse chicken with lobster in a creamy morel sauce. Cheese, salad and dried fruit followed. This meal, too, had an international flavor because the young couple and most of the guests were American.
We’ve known and loved Esther, the bride, since she was a toddler–long before she became an art historian specializing in 18th century French drawings and prints. She and her new husband Jason chose traditional French cuisine for their wedding, but they also get excited about their favorite falafel place or a rising Paris chef with a farm-to-table menu. They’re reveling in a city that’s different from the one I first encountered in my youth. But it’s still Paris.