Western cuisine has changed significantly in the last hundred years, through New International, Nouvelle Cuisine and most recently Modernist cuisine (I can’t wait to see what Postmodernist cuisine is like!) but the bedrock is still French cuisine. Escoffier has had more impact on the way Europe (and by extension, fine dining) works than any other individual in history. His ordering of the kitchen and espousal and codification of classical French dishes is the bedrock upon which we stand. French cuisine itself is a diverse as any other with numerous regional specialities, from bouillabaisse to baguette, but if its centred anywhere, it’s Paris.
With free hotel vouchers to use up, I hopped on the Eurostar for a packed weekend of art, food and alcohol.
Lunch – Cafe Constant
Once the proud holder of a Michelin star, cafe constant is a beautiful snapshot of the archetypical upmarket bistro. Sat on a corner near the Eiffel Tower it’s tiny dining room is host to some fantastic food.
Starter – Terrine of Foie Gras and Pork Shin, with warm lentil salad.
I loved the play of cold, rich terrine with warm smooth lentils. I normally avoid small round pulses, but these were superbly cooked.
Main – ‘Calves Head’ (Veal brain, tongue and cheek) served with dauphin potatoes.
Offal is having a bit of a comeback in British cuisine and righty so. If you can look past the well… brain like look of it, a creamey subtley beefy delight is waiting. The tongue was meltingly tender and the beef cheek added some welcome firmness. The potatoes were beautifully cooked and the herby salad was nicely dressed.
Dessert – Ile flottante
This is a dessert I’ve tried at home recently. This version has really beautiful presentation – I’ve no idea how they poach the meringue without it losing all definition, I suspect it’s a cooked, Italian meringue. The creme anglaise was a beautiful texture. Another innovation is the use of a salted caramel sauce rather than the traditional hard caramel – it works beautifully and I’ll definitely be stealing it!
Dinner – Le Roi du Pot au Feu
As the name suggests this little bistro, a piece of the 1930s lovingly preserved behind the place de la Concorde, specialises in Pot au Feu. A traditional French dish where beef is stewed with vegetables until its fall apart tender then most of the juice is strained off and turned into a consommé which can be served as a starter.
This rendition is gorgeous, big tender chunks of beef that are full of flavour and can be cut with a spoon. A generous chunk of bone marrow is also provided alongside some thoughtful toast and salt. It’s hearty peasant food, but wonderfully executed. A bottle of house wine (a surprisingly full bodied cote du rhone) is provided with each table and you simply pay for what you use – genius. In a restaurant with an eponymous special I really wouldn’t stray, the fish on the next table looked a bit ropey, but the pot au feu really is wonderful.
Breakfast – Marche Bastille
All that’s left of the great prison is few bricks visible from the Metro, but in its place stands a large monument and on Sundays the biggest market in Paris. Unlike a British farmers market, where often the focus is on processed ingredients (chutneys, preserves, charcuterie etc.) here there was far more fresh produce. Stall after stall of immaculate fruit and vegetable, enough shellfish to sate even the greediest gourmet and some truly spectacular butchers.
There was a notable shortage of baked goods and patisseries, though I imagine this has more to do with the very high quality available in every neighbourhood shop.
Brunch – Cafe Hugo and Berthillon
Having sampled rather too many good things at the market I wandered a couple of streets over to the Place de Vosges, a picturesque little square with a number of tiny cafes.
Next stop was Bertillon on the Ile St Louis. Shops all over Paris serve their ice cream and the selection of almost seventy flavours is dazzling.
I plumped for the salted caramel and the kirsch with preserved fruit. The texture was lovely and rich, the caramel very dark almost to the point of burnt. Very yummy despite the freezing weather!
Dinner – Market
Jean Georges Vongerichten is a French culinary force with a chain of restaurants around the world. In Paris he has Market. Just off the Champs Élysées it was a convenient stop on the way home and, more importantly, open on Sundays.
Starter – Iberico Ham
While undeniably delicious, I was hoping for a bit from this starter. I’m all for showcasing great ingredients, but this is just a bit lazy. That aside, the ham was spectacular.
Main – Escalope of Veal with cranberries and salsify.
I wouldn’t have imagined this flavour combination, but it actually works really well. Light, fruity and very tasty. The salad on top was nice but I think they went a bit overkill – it doesn’t smack of careful presentation.
Dessert – Chestnut Soufflé
At this point I was pretty unimpressed so I picked the most technically difficult dessert on the menu to see if they could redeem themselves. I think they pulled it off. The soufflé was beautifully risen, barely cooked in the middle and delicately flavoured. The sorbet was phenomenal – incredibly light and smooth. I’ve never eaten one with quite that texture but after enquiring (in very bad French) the waiter confirmed it was made with a Pacojet – a very expensive ice cream machine that literally shaves microscopic fragments off a block of solid sorbet. It’s definitely in my dream kitchen.
Lunch – Au pied du Cochon
For my final meal in Paris I needed something quick and authentic. A short walk from the Louvre, ‘Au pied du Cochon’ has been serving food twenty four hours a day, seven days a week since the end of World War Two. It was very busy when I turned up, but they managed to squeeze me in and I’m very glad they did.
Starter – French Onion Soup
The great raft of cheese and toast hid a truly delicious soup, rich and savoury it was perfect for a cold November afternoon. The cheese was nicely browned and the complimentary bread and pâté helped mop up any left overs.
Main – Pigs Trotter
The house speciality – beautifully slow roasted pigs trotter. There are 32 bones, in case you were wondering, but they hide some of the tenderest, most flavourful pork I’ve ever eaten. Slow cooking transforms the tough tendons into gentle, soft juiciness. Judicious application of bearnaise sauce made it wonderfully rich. I’m definitely trying it at home, though in a sop to British sensibilities, I might borrow another option on the menu: bone it out and stuff the cavity with mushrooms.
Dessert – Brasserie du Nord
Too full after lunch I left my final snack for the way home. No ordinary station cafe, Brasserie du Nord is a 1920s gem. Waiters are immaculately dressed and the dining room beautifully mirrored around a copper bar. The ‘patisserie du jour’ was a beautifully cooked chocolate fondant with homemade vanilla ice cream. Yum.
Paris has a lot of offer a keen foodie, on any budget. I’d love to return again and sample some of the more upmarket places. I was very impressed at the number of restaurants, though none seemed to deviate too far from the traditional bistro staples. I like the fact that a lot of English restaurants are starting to mix up the classics, presenting them with modern twists – hopefully I’ll find this somewhere in Paris soon!