Paris: City of Lights, City of Love, Gourmet Capital of the World… But better known to me as the first place I lived after leaving home aged 18. I was studying at the Cordon Bleu school. I don’t remember all that much about those three months except for nursing an unrequited crush on an incredibly posh boy with a double-barrelled surname, and getting into trouble with French chefs in enormous white hats for not following their recipes properly. 18 years later (good grief, that was half my lifetime ago?!) and French chefs still aren’t too impressed with my laissez-faire attitude towards cooking (more on that later), but at least I seem to have got past the unrequited-crushes-on-posh-boys phase.
For the Gourmand: Best Restaurants and Bistros in Paris
Before I get onto some of my favourite restaurants, I wanted to mention a street. If you’re anywhere near the Eiffel Tower (and let’s face it: you’re going to be) try wandering down Rue Cler for lunch or dinner. Lined with cafés, bistros and brasseries that are frequented by locals and tourists alike, you’re bound to find something to suit any appetite or budget. During my first trip, I had an enormous French salad (by which I mean there was more meat and cheese than green stuff) and a glass of rosé at Le Petit Cler – a cute little restaurant with a covered outdoor area that’s perfect for spring/autumn weather.
Hands down the best food I ate in Paris, and the one place I will definitely be going back to next time I’m in town. L’Ami Jean is a rustic bistro in the seventh arrondissement – it’s actually extremely close to Rue Cler, although I didn’t know that at the time.
Meanwhile in the 11th arrondissement, cosy local restaurant Tannat is serving up a good-value menu with excellent wine choices. The interior is much more modern than some of the other restaurants and bistros in this list, but no less gezellig for it. I enjoyed their starter of smoked duck with raw cabbage, cauliflower, hazelnuts and egg yolk. My main of slow-cooked lamb shoulder with white beans, coriander and yoghurt was full of flavour although it was crying out for a squeeze of lemon juice to counter-balance the gamey lamb and creamy beans. Ask the wait staff to help you pick out wines that will pair well with your dishes – they gave us some really expert advice.
Another contender in the 100 chefs nominated for their contribution to “Bistronomie” was Bruno Doucet from La Régalade on Rue Saint-Honoré. Serving seasonal French fare with a contemporary twist, I particularly enjoyed Doucet’s black risotto with shrimps, garlic and fried parsley. Squid ink dishes can sometimes be oppressively heavy, but this one was well balanced and full of sea-flavour. My cod main course was silky smooth and came with wilted leeks, clams, and a few rogue mushrooms (oddly). But it’s their rice pudding with salted-butter caramel sauce that La Régalade is most famous for. In fact, Chef Doucet and Chef Jégo (from L’Ami Jean above) are riz-au-lait rivals, and the jury was out among our group as to which was better! Guess you should just go judge for yourself…
And now for something completely different. Sanukiya is a Japanese udon restaurant that has queues out the door every lunch and dinner time. I waited for about 20 minutes to get my spot at the bar, where I ordered the Tempura Udon – thick noodles in a light broth with two battered, butterflied, deep-fried king prawns. With hindsight, I wish I’d ordered something different (I have it on good authority from one of my Facebook followers that Yama Wakame is the udon dish to go for) but I was seduced by the look of the tempura prawns that everyone seemed to be getting. In reality, tempura batter and broth don’t really mix: the batter turns to a soggy mush in a matter of seconds, and you’re left with double-carb soup. But that wouldn’t stop me recommending this place, albeit you should expect to wait in line and pay for that popularity.
For the Smaller Appetite: Best Cafés in Paris
If you’re looking for lunch, a snack, weekend brunch, or just coffee, you probably don’t want a big meal at a restaurant. And in those cases, here are three of my top café picks for a lighter meal.
Inspired by the food of Marseille, Bagnard got started because there was something Paris wasn’t doing food-wise (or at least wasn’t doing very well): the pan bagnat and the salade Niçoise. Unsurprisingly, we tried both and enjoyed them immensely. I make a pretty mean salad myself, so I’m quite picky when it comes to a Niçoise – this one was worth every cent (although it was surprisingly inexpensive to begin with). The pan bagnat came filled with speck, burrata, rocket and tomatoes, and the crusty bread was soaked in a black-olive dressing – which is frankly what elevates a pan bagnat from a regular ol’ sarnie. I’d also recommend Bagnard’s pissaladiere (think onion and anchovy pizza, but better than that sounds like it would be) as well as their Pastis, basil and lemon cocktail (it’s so green that it feels like a perfectly healthy 11 am drink).
For the most generously filled sandwiches in the 11th (Oberkampf area), try PaperBoy Paris. Mine was stuffed with pastrami, cheese and gherkins, and was so big that I kept half of it for an afternoon snack later on. Their coffees and juices are good too.
An Aussie-style brunch spot at the foot of the Montmartre steps, Hardware Société is one of the few places I found in Paris that serves a decent flat white. I didn’t manage to eat there (I was on my way to catch the train home from Gare du Noord at the time), but the two other foodies I was with stayed for brunch and reported good things about their lobster benedict and other luxurious-sounding dishes.
For the Oenophile: Paris Wine Bar
If you’re heading to PaperBoy Paris or Tannat (see above), why not stop in for a glass of wine in the Oberkampf area after lunch or before dinner? Le 11eme Domaine is a wine-shop-cum-wine-bar that serves a wide range of (mostly French) wines by the glass or bottle. I tried this rosé from the Languedoc, which made a perfect aperitif before dinner at Tannat. But beware: there’s some funny French law that means you have to order at least a snack with your wine at Le 11eme Domaine; I’m not sure why but we somehow got into trouble for not knowing.
For the Shopaholic: Speciality Food Shops in Paris St. Germain
The St. Germain area is nirvana for foodies – especially those with a sweet tooth. Here’s just a selection of the tantalising food shops we visited on our food tour with Promenade des Sens in the 18th arrondissement.
- Pierre Marcolini – for top-quality Belgian chocolates.
- Henri Le Roux – for classic salted butter caramels.
- Macarons Gourmands Yannick Lefort – for handmade macarons in every flavour imaginable, including several rather unusual combinations… The foie gras macaron was surprisingly moreish!
- Marchande de Saveurs – for every kind of gourmet delicacy from award-winning jam and flavoured “pearls” (think taste-bombs of truffle or yuzu), to honey vinegar and espelette mustard. (Yup, espelette pepper seems to be the ingredient of the moment!)
For the Aspiring Chef: Cooking Classes in Paris
Remember what I was saying at the beginning about French chefs and my slightly off-piste cooking style? Enter Chef Guillaume, who taught me and several others how to make macarons at cooking school La Cuisine Paris. Putting us through our paces with boiling sugar, piping bags and egg-white folding, this chef was not to be messed with. By the end of the lesson I wasn’t sure if the fear he inspired in us all was genuine or joking; perhaps a combination of the two. Either way, we came out of class each with our own box of (almost) perfectly formed macarons in different colours and flavours – passionfruit and mint macarons filled with either dark or milk chocolate ganache. (Mine were the orange ones – I’m nearly Dutch, after all.)
Run by a lovely British lady who was considerably less scary than Chef Guillaume, La Cuisine Paris would make a great afternoon activity for aspiring chefs and home cooks looking to master the art of patisserie, classic French sauces and more.
For the Extreme Foodie: Tour of Rungis Market
When I say “extreme foodie”, I mean it. I always thought my foodie credentials were pretty solid until I found myself watching a calf’s head being butchered at 5.30 in the morning. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The world-famous Rungis International Market is the place where restaurateurs and retailers come to buy their fresh produce – from lobster to liver and from roquefort to rhubarb. But for regular punters, the only way you can get a glimpse behind the scenes of the world’s largest wholesale market is to get up at stupid o’clock in the morning and take a four-hour tour.
The first stop is the fish market, which opens at 2 am and closes at 6 am, so this is truly the red-eye flight of food tours. Huge styrofoam boxes of glistening-finned fish and blue-shelled crustaceans sit on more ice than you can shake an American fridge at – and it’s not as stinky as you might think. It is, however, extremely cold. Every warehouse is set at about 2°C, so dress warmly or be prepared to shiver. Next, we saw two meat warehouses: one in charge of butchering entire cows, the other responsible for making the most of all the grizzly bits. That’s where the calf’s head made its appearance: in two minutes flat, the butcher had deftly separated the skin and brains from the rest of the head, and prepped the remainder for some chef to turn into tête de veau. I was starting to regret my hangover in more ways than one.
From there, things got a little less gruesome (although you can still expect to see chickens with their heads intact, fluffy rabbits, and so on in the poultry warehouse) and it was onto my favourite: the cheese. Enormous wheels of gruyere nuzzled up against entire cases of the King of Cheeses: Vacherin Mont d’Or. In April, the fresh fruit and veg halls were less interesting than they might have been at other times of year, as not a whole lot of local produce was in season at the time. At the end of the tour, you’re taken for breakfast at one of the onsite restaurants: croissants, bread, cheese, fruit – the usual French fare. The whole experience costs €85, including transport to and from the market as it’s well outside of the Périphérique. Just make sure you’ve scheduled in a nap afterwards. And probably leave your vegetarian friends at home…
For more information on the restaurants and activities featured in this Paris Food Guide…
- Le Petit Cler: lepetitcler.com
- L’Ami Jean*: lamijean.fr
- Tannat: tannat.fr
- La Régalade*: laregalade.paris
- Sanukiya: facebook.com/sanukiyaparis
- Bagnard*: facebook.com/bagnardparis
- PaperBoy Paris: instagram.com/paperboyparis
- Hardware Société: instagram.com/hardwaresocieteparis
- Le 11eme Domaine: 11emedomaine.fr
- Promenade des Sens*: promenadedessens.fr
- Pierre Marcolini*: eu.marcolini.com
- Henri Le Roux*: chocolatleroux.eu
- Macarons Gourmands Yannick Lefort*: macarons-gourmands.fr
- Marchande de Saveurs*: marchandesaveurs.com
- La Cuisine Paris*: lacuisineparis.com
- Rungis International Market*: visiterungis.com
*With thanks to the City of Paris Tourism Office for hosting me at the places marked with an asterisk above.