Where to eat in Paris right now
Author: Alexander Lobrano
Photography: Carrie Solomon
The French have a world-weary expression that sums up the complexity of the way tradition is nourished by change: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose". It means "The more things change, the more they stay the same", and this apparently self-contradictory phrase also hints at why Paris is a better place to eat today than it has ever been.
The beautifully detailed old globe that spun heavily on a creaky bronze axis in an oak stand in my grandmother's Boston library has long since become an intriguing historical artefact. Among myriad other discrepancies, those huge swathes tinted pink to indicate the British Empire and green for the French one no longer correspond to reality. Were my grandmother alive today - a woman who once boasted of travelling to Mexico with a crate of canned goods so she could avoid eating anything local aside from eggs and water after both had been boiled - she'd not only be astonished to see how much the world's political boundaries have been redrawn, but also to discover its gastronomic geography has changed just as dramatically.
London and New York have become great food cities, but there's also the culinary emergence of places such as Istanbul, Lima, Sydney, Melbourne and Oslo, all of which are now rightly vaunted as intriguing destinations for those who travel to eat.
And yet even today there's still no other city that prompts a loftier level of gastronomic expectation in English-speaking countries than Paris. So the obvious question recurs: does the city continue to live up to its reputation? In a word, oui.
In fact, the French capital sates these cravings for gastronomic revelation and comestible titillation more brilliantly today than it has at any time since I first moved here 30 years ago. Oh, and of course the determining reason I skipped New England for Paris was the hopelessly insatiable desire for the city's food triggered by a first innocent taste of the winey, primal, bovine richness of a bona-fide boeuf Bourguignon that made my adolescent head spin in a Latin Quarter bistro during a fateful family trip to Europe.
Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter.
If the ballast of Gallic gastronomic excellence remains unchanged, it's due to the superb quality of French produce and the steely perfectionism of a system of culinary education that equips chefs with flawless technical skills and a remarkable depth of historical and practical kitchen knowledge. Even so, Paris is a very different city today from the one I moved to so long ago. In terms of how it eats, it's vastly more cosmopolitan and much less formal. It has also become the place where the world's most ambitious and talented young cooks come to hone their skills and test their talent.
Consider that Daniel Rose, a champion of la cuisine bourgeoise and the chef who opened one of the city's best new bistros last year, is from Chicago. "I wanted to cook in Paris because the city has the most experienced and exigent restaurant public in the world, an open-minded mix of French and foreigners, and also because the produce here is spectacular," says Rose, who moved to France in 2004 and runs the acclaimed restaurant Spring and bistro La Bourse et la Vie.
Related: Heidi Middleton's guide to Paris.
Along with this influx of international talent, new dining formats such as Australian-style cafés are enlivening casual dining. There's a noticeably better offer of foreign kitchens, and there's a revival of indigenous bistrot à vins. Like many of the great monuments of Gallic gastronomic grandeur, the legendary La Tour d'Argent has a brilliant, creative new chef. And so the epicurean radiance of Paris is being renewed for a new century.
La Tour d'Argent
La Tour d'Argent.
After navigating the steeplechase of whispered niceties that propel you through the aristocratic grandeur of the lobby to the lift that rises to a perched dining room with, as you already know, one of the world's most famous views, the storied panorama of Paris still stuns unexpectedly with its sensuality. Barges ply the pewter-coloured waters of the Seine and on the stone-paved quai below a Japanese bride is being photographed against the backdrop of the lush green groin that gave birth to Paris, the elegantly groomed park at the easternmost tip of the Île de la Cité. This is the island where Lutèce was located, the name the Romans gave the settlement of Celtic fishermen they conquered and built into an important town.
Even more surprising than the view is the exquisite contemporary French cooking of chef Philippe Labbé, who in April took over the kitchen of one of the oldest restaurants in France, founded in 1582. He moved here after a brief stint at L'Arnsbourg in Alsace, but forged his reputation at L'Abeille, the dining room of the Shangri-La Hotel Paris, where he won two Michelin stars. If La Tour d'Argent's former menu was heavy, both gastronomically and in terms of dining-room theatre, Labbé's cooking is vivid, light and elegantly flirtatious, a perfect example being his airy quenelle de brochet (the classic pike-perch dumpling) in a brick-red pool of crayfish bouillon with garnishes of tiny baby peas, crayfish, girolles, woodruff and salad burnett. Order the langouste, another entrée, and the live Breton crustacean is displayed tableside waving its antennae before returning as rounds of tender, snow-white iodine-bright meat in a pink puddle of cool bisque made from its shell, tomatoes and lemon verbena.
Duck is de rigueur here, but Labbé has found a way to update this tradition with racy modern charm - one version of the bird comes to the table as rare duckling breast anointed with honey from the restaurant's rooftop hives, spices (mace and clove), a light sauce of its own juices blended with peach vinegar, a sprinkling of dried lavender and muesli spiked with Sichuan pepper. On the palate, these flavours have the playful percussion of great jazz, and the suite of sophisticated, intriguingly irreverent culinary surprises continues with desserts such as macerated strawberries with black olive purée and scrambled eggs with pistachios. The only off-notes at a recent meal were the wearylooking cheese tray and the withering formality of several waiters who haven't yet understood what Labbé has succeeded in doing here, which is to create a thrilling new gastronomic idiom for French haute cuisine in the 21st century. 15 Quai de la Tournelle, 75005, +33 1 4354 2331, tourdargent.com
Granola, halva cake and chocolate chip cookie.
The 11th arrondissement in Paris's east has become the French capital's incubator for talented young chefs striking out on their own, and for entrepreneurs wanting to fly dining formats that go beyond the tight corset of the Gallic three-course sit-down meal. So it's no surprise to find this fun, funky and often excellent Australian-style café tucked away on a side street.
Historically a working-class district with few restaurants, because the bourgeois pleasure of dining out was beyond the reach of most locals, the 11th has evolved into the most popular part of the city for creative young Parisians attracted by its affordable rents and 19th-century streets that haven't been deracinated by international brand names. This is why Moko Hirayama and Omar Koreitem, Japanese and French-Lebanese respectively, opened their tiny, charming café here. "We were pretty sure the neighbourhood would like it," says the amiable Koreitem, "since the world view and food tastes around here are cosmopolitan like ours."
The locals loved it from day one for its excellent coffee - still lamentably rare in Paris - roasted at L'Arbre à Café, and Hirayama's mostly Anglo-Americanstyle baked goods, which run to rhubarb pie, almond clementine cake, and superb cookies, including buckwheat and cumquat, and pickled lemon with fennel seeds. Koreitem oversees the savoury side of the menu, featuring fresh, boldly flavoured Mediterraneaninspired dishes such as grilled red mullet on a bed of chickpeas with anchovy sauce , and lamb meatballs with labne seasoned with za'atar and elderberry flowers. A great address for a casual meal, and for single travellers who like to chat with locals. 5 rue Saint-Bernard, 75011, +33 9 8081 8285
Parisians follow restaurant openings with a passion usually reserved for sports scores in other cities. Restaurant tips are also part of the city's daily chatter, which is how I heard about Les Arlots, a closet-sized bistrot à vins in an off-piste neighbourhood in the 10th arrondissement, near the Gare du Nord.
"J'ai une nouvelle adresse pour vous, et que c'est bon!" ("I've got a new address for you, and it's so good!") exclaimed my dry-cleaner when I stepped into her shop to collect a jacket on a rainy spring morning. The night before she'd gone to Les Arlots with her daughter, who lives in the neighbourhood.
"First, I had a superb salad of green beans, apricots, speck and fresh almonds, and she had cold langoustines - a huge pile of them! - with homemade mayonnaise. Then I had their homemade sausage with one of the best potato purées I've ever eaten, and she had stuffed cabbage that was made a new way - the stuffing had been sautéed with foie gras and then put inside a cabbage-leaf cap. So good but so rich!"
I went for dinner with three friends that night, and all of us loved chef Thomas Brachet's chalkboard menu (which changes daily), the cheerful young staff, and the complicity of well-being shared by a group of food-loving Parisians who knew they'd found something special. If they're on the menu, don't miss langoustine-stuffed ravioli in shellfish bisque, John Dory meunière with accras (beignets) of vegetables, and the luscious rice pudding with cinnamon and orange. This is modern French comfort food at its very best. 136 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 75010, +33 1 4282 9201
Chef David Rathgerber's cassoulet.
A Parisian for three decades, I've become a keen student of other people's appetites, especially those of travellers to my adopted hometown. Parsing out their cravings is an inexact science, of course, but I'd say that roughly a third come to town determined to try the latest addresses, while an even larger number spend their airborne hours quietly dreaming of cassoulet, blanquette de veau, coq au vin and steaks lashed with béarnaise sauce and served with piles of golden frites.
Ultimately, however, most people want both innovation and tradition, which is why chef David Rathgeber's Montparnasse bistro, L'Assiette, is one of the best addresses in Paris. A native of Clermont- Ferrand in the Auvergne region of central France, Rathgeber is an earthy, generous, instinctive cook who cut his teeth while working for Alain Ducasse for 14 years. He débuted at the swank three-star Louis XV in Monaco, and joined the kitchen of the similarly grandiose Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, then worked back-to-back stints at two of Ducasse's Paris bistros, Aux Lyonnais and Benoit.
"Creating a taste that could never exist without the process of cooking is my joy in the kitchen," says Rathgeber. "This often means sauces, which are the eternal genius of French gastronomy."
With sauces as a guiding theme, his bistro menu is an alluring mix of traditional dishes and those of his own invention. He cooks what may be the best cassoulet in Paris: unctuous, earthy, and made with haricots lingots de Castelnaudary, the white beans grown near the town of the same name in south-western France. He also serves dishes of a supreme modern succulence - the likes of grilled pork belly with octopus, piquillo peppers, clams and fava beans in a sauce of cooking juices deglazed with aged vinegar to create a deeply flavoured dish that's also bright and clean tasting.
Aside from his bread and cheese, Rathgeber makes everything he serves, including a ballotine de volaille fermière, a rolled pâté of free-range fowl, "Creating a taste that could never exist without the process of cooking is my joy in the kitchen." and velvety crème caramel with salted caramel sauce. 181 rue du Chateau, 75014, +33 1 4322 6486, restaurant-lassiette.paris
The Conciergerie on
the Île de la Cité.
Museum restaurants were always the outliers of the Paris dining scene because Parisians never saw the point of these captive tables. Beyond a brief footweary pause for a coffee or tea, why would anyone waste a meal in a place that exists only to feed tourists, especially when there are great little bistros around the corner?
Against this backdrop, Loulou, the glamorous new restaurant at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, is a game-changer. Designer Joseph Dirand's postmodern take on the traditional idioms of 19th-century French décor include minimalist mouldings and chandeliers, off-beat and good-looking. The Franco-Italian menu by chefs Benoît Dargère, who previously cooked at the Clos Saint-Basile in Mougins in Provence, and Venetian-born Diego Compagno offers a beautifully executed medley of Mediterranean comfort food.
The best place to linger over starters of vitello tonnato or courgette flower beignets, and main courses such as spaghetti alle vongole con bottarga or osso buco is, weather permitting, on the most magnificent outdoor terrace in Paris. This bower of greenery in the gardens of the Louvre has stunning views of the museum's elegant 18th-century façades and the Eiffel Tower. But the real distraction in this fresh-air setting is the best people-watching in the city right now. 107 rue de Rivoli, 75001, +33 1 4260 4196, loulou-paris.com
Red berry tartelette with pistachio ice-cream.
The allure of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is so enduring most travellers don't want to hear this legendary Left Bank district is no longer the bohemian playground it once was. Instead, it has become one of the world's most expensive neighbourhoods, and a place where the café terraces are filled with London bankers and New York hedge-fund managers instead of fledgling writers and aspiring painters.
To be sure, this architecturally magnificent part of Paris remains popular with the French haute bourgeoisie, but these calorie-conscious working couples usually prefer sushi and salads to terrine de campagne or cassoulet. This is why it can be bewilderingly difficult for visitors to find good French food on this turf.
This quandry explains the immediate popularity of chef Anthony Hamon's cooking at Cézembre, his stylish new bistro with white-painted beams and an Impressionistic seascape mural inspired by the Breton island that gives the restaurant its name.
A native of Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, Hamon brings to Paris the modern Breton obsession with the freshest produce prepared with minimal cooking times and garnishes that express and discreetly enhance its natural flavours. The appeal of this cooking style explains the transformation of Brittany into a serious gastronomic destination during the past 30 years, and on Hamon's Paris menu this produce-centred cooking is expressed in dishes such as grilled langoustines with shellfish risotto and curried langoustine bisque, sea bream with baby pea mousseline and garlic-thyme emulsion, and seared scallops from the Bay of Saint-Brieuc with shiitake mushrooms in a foamy sauce of smoked salted butter. The atmosphere generated by the worldly clientele is relaxed and friendly. 17 rue Grégoire de Tours, 75006, +33 9 6757 2508
La Bourset et la Vie
Foie gras with artichoke and shallot aspic vinaigrette.
After the success of his restaurant Spring, which remains one of the most popular contemporary French tables in Paris, Chicago-born chef Daniel Rose was eager for a new challenge. "My idea was that I wanted to do a restaurant that celebrated la cuisine bourgeoise, or those recipes that are the bedrock of the French kitchen," says Rose, referring to the same dishes by chefs such as La Varenne, Édouard Nignon, Carême, Gouffé and Escoffier that so famously seduced a compatriot, a certain very tall Californian named Julia Child, in the 1950s. "Most of the stately old restaurants that served this cooking, places like Chez Pauline and Le Récamier, have closed as younger chefs came to prize creativity over the idea of perfecting their ability to cook the same recipes day in and day out," says Rose. "But recipes should never be static so, as I drew up the menu for La Bourse et La Vie, I was instinctively tweaking many of the classic dishes I planned to serve."
Rose was certainly onto something - the intimate, mirrored, Directoire-style dining room near the old stock exchange has been packed since it opened last September. The brief menu runs to dishes such as house-made duck foie gras served on artichoke hearts, which Rose makes modern with a shallot vinaigrette on the side; a delicate, but deeply flavoured riff on a classic pot-au-feu made with veal instead of beef and garnished with marrow bones and a croquette of tête de veau dabbed with a spoonful of sauce ravigote; duckling breast à l'orange; and a sumptuous chocolate mousse.
"I think the fussy mannerist era of modern bistro cooking in Paris is coming to end," says Rose. "Innovation is great, but people are tired of smears, squirts, micro-greens and all of the other conceits of television chefs. They're hungry again and they want comfort, and for that there's nothing in the world that's better than traditional French cooking." 12 rue Vivienne, 75002, +33 1 4260 0883, labourselavie.com