The Paris Ten: Must-Tastes
It took me a while to pare the gustatory pleasures of Paris down to a top 10, no time at all to come up with a list of places to taste them, and then more time to pare down the places – there are so many places for great food in Paris. (To read my original article, go to Diversion Magazine.)
So here, to kick off the vacation season, is my list of must-try Paris foods. Please, please, if you’ve got others to add, don’t keep them a secret; ditto if you think any of my suggestions are off base.
BAGUETTES: While the baguette just about symbolizes La Belle France (to say nothing of la belle vie), it’s a completely Parisian creation, one recognized by its length – it should be about two-feet long (the better to hold under your arm?); its caramel-colored crust that should break into a million little pieces; and its soft innards sporting lots of odd-shaped air pockets. I know it’s heretical, but my favorite baguette doesn’t really conform to these rules – it comes from Eric Kayser (he’s got shops all around town, but the mother house is at 8 rue Monge, Paris 5) and it’s topped with lots of crunchy seeds. For a more classical loaf, there’s Le Boulanger de Monge (123 rue Monge, Paris 5). And, even though the shop doesn’t have a baguette, you can’t leave Paris without going to Poilane (8 rue du Cherche Midi, Paris 6) and trying the big, heavy, dark brown, dense and delicious sourdough round. Poilane is the most famous bread shop in Paris and it deserves every bit of its celebrity.
CROISSANTS: Like a baguette, a croissant is a messy affair, and, like a macaron (see below), it inspires fierce loyalty among its appreciators. A cross between bread and pastry (they belong to a class of preparations called viennoisserie), croissants can be found in both boulangeries (bread shops) and patisseries (pastry shops). I’m partial to pastry-shop croissants (it’s probably the extra butter), specifically the ones from Pierre Herme (62 rue Bonaparte, Paris 6), Laduree (16 rue Royale and other locations) and Gerard Mulot (76 rue de Seine, Paris 6), who also makes a terrific sour-cherry clafoutis, but that’s another story.
MACARONS: Again, here’s something that’s known throughout France, but most treasured in Paris, where pastry chefs’ reputations are made and ruined on the quality of their macarons. Macarons (it’s the French spelling of macaroons) – a pair of light, puffy almond-meringue cookies sandwiching fillings like ganache, caramel and buttercream – have reached cult status in Paris and locals will crisscross the city to get their favorites or the mac of the moment. Moi, I just have to walk down the street to Pierre Herme (62 rue Bonaparte, Paris 6). I’m not alone in thinking that Herme makes the world’s best macarons – for sure he makes the macs that are most copied around the world.
CHEESES: Since there is no way you’re going to be able to taste all the cheeses of France (of which there are more than 365 – now there’s an idea for a year-long blog), the way I see it, you might as well taste the best, which means you’ve got to go to a place where the cheesemonger is wildly fussy. For impeccable cheeses that are fussed over with skill, passion, precision and affection, head to Fromagerie Quatrehomme (62 rue de Sevres, Paris 7), where Mme. Quatrehomme is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best artisan of France) and does most of the final aging in her own caves. In addition to Quatrehomme, I often buy cheese at the shop that’s closest to my apartment, Fromagerie 31 (31 rue de Seine, Paris 6) and I always buy cheese from Philippe Gregoire of Elevage du Corbier every Sunday at the organic market on the Boulevard Raspail.
ICE CREAM: I know ice cream isn’t the first food that jumps to mind when you think of Paris, but it would be a true pity if you went all the way to Paris and missed a scoop from Berthillon (31 rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile, Paris 4). No one knows how Berthillon does it (and they’re not telling), but they make ice cream with the deepest, truest flavors ever churned. Getting ice cream from the shop is a pleasure – when the shop is open: for reasons unfathomable, Berthillon closes in August, the peak of ice-cream season. Luckily, many shops sell Berthillon and they’re so proud to do so that they post signs on their doors saying it’s their scoop of choice.
PLATEAU FRUITS DE MER: Whenever I see a big metal platter with a mound of crushed ice and a pile of oysters, clams, shrimp, langoustines and other precious shellfish, I imagine that I’m in Paris in the 1920s with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso. I think part of the rason that I can indulge this culinary hallucination so easily is because my favorite place to enjoy this luxury – and is it ever a luxury (especially now with the dollar so weak) – is at Le Dome (108 boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris 14), a Montparnasse brasserie that was a favorite hang-out for the lights of the Lost Generation. But if you’re not up for a whole plateau, have oysters and a glass of Sancerre either at Le Dome or at my favorite oyster bar,
CREPES: A classic Paris street food, crepes are traditionally spread with butter and sugar, slathered with Nutella or sprinkled iwth cheese, but the ones that star chef Yves Camdeborde makes at his creperie (9 carrefour de l’Odeon, Paris 6) are as hearty and original as the food he serves at his next-door bistro, Le Comptoir – they’re definitely filling enough to have as a meal (and so chockablock with ingredients that eating them on the run is a challenge). For crepes you can sit down and eat (like the ones pictured at left), I go to Breizh Cafe, the Paris outpost of the famous creperie in Cancale. Here the lacy crepes are made with organic ingredients and the fillings can be plain or fancy, sweet or savory. There’s also a terrific (and terrifcally long) cider list.
STEAK-FRITES: To my mind, the best version of the classic steak-frites dish is found at Bistro Paul-Bert (18 rue Paul-Bert, Paris 11), which is a good thing for me because the place is also one of my hands-down favorite bistros, and you can’t beat the combination of having the iconic dish in a setting that’s Parisian through and through. It also doesn’t hurt that Bistro Paul-Bert has a remarkable wine list.
CROQUE MONSIEUR AND MADAME: A croque monsieur is essentially a grilled ham sandwich on white bread, topped with a creamy, cheesy sauce Mornay and run under the broiler; monsieur’s madame gets an extra topping: a sunny-side-up egg. My favorite croques are not so traditional – they’re open-faced, built on solid country bread and found at Le Mabillon (164 boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 6), a cafe with a rock’n’roll attitude and good salads.
CHAMPAGNE: I know that Champagne isn’t typically Parisian, but Paris is the kind of city where you want to order une coupe de Champagne on a whim. I think it’s as much fun to have Champagne in a busy cafe – I’d opt for the Cafe de Flore (172 boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 6), where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre once clinked glasses – as in a ritzy bar. And no bar is ritzy than The Ritz Bar (Hotel Ritz, 15 place Vendome, Paris 1), which is devoted entirely to Champagne. Other cool bars where Champagne would be the perfect splurge are The Bar at The Plaza Athenee (25 rue Montaigne, Paris 8) or the stylish lounge at l’Hotel (13 rue des Beaux Arts, Paris 6), the hotel where Oscar Wilde famously died above his means.