I have never been what one would typically consider a foodie. My palate is far too finicky for this, geared more toward the enjoyment of simple food rather than complicated cuisine. And while I’ll admit to picking up the occasional issue of Gourmet or Bon Appetite in the past, it was only to salivate over the photographs that, despite my selective tastebuds, always looked so darned delicious to me.
It took David Lebovitz to change all of this. After being introduced to his blog a while back, I found myself enticed by the foods he was talking about. I couldn’t wait to read about his adventures hunting down seemingly obscure ingredients in Paris, replacing a part on his oven, making ice ceam with <gasp> saffron, tasting Cognac or trying out new appliances (like the new ActiFry). Each story brought tears of laughter to my eyes. The Washington Post stated that he has the “wry wit evocative of David Sedaris” – which may be why David is the most-read food blogger on the Web.
His food-based memoir The Sweet Life in Paris has the same witty tone, with David sharing stories about the challenges he encountered as he attempted to assimilate into Paris life after moving there in 2002. There are recipes, too. For that matter, this former San Francisco-based pastry chef is the author of several cookbooks – Room for Dessert, Ripe for Dessert, Ready for Dessert, The Great Book of Chocolate and The Perfect Scoop.
In the nearly eight years since moving to Paris, David has gotten to know his adopted hometown inside and out, so he has definite opinions on the places he considers his favorites.
I tend to gravitate northward, to the 10th, since it straddles both the trendy, almost too-’bobo’ area around the Canal St. Martin, but mixed with the somewhat funkiness of the area surrounding the two gares; the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, it’s a good balance of hip and funky sides of Paris. After having a glass of wine at Chez Prune, I like to explore with all the ethnic food shops north, following the canal. I also like Belleville quite a bit, and get a good workout walking up the hill and poking into the Asian shops around there, too.
Chez Dumonet is pretty much the classic Parisian bistro; the food is textbook perfect, and the service is professional, yet friendly. Portions are truly huge, but they let you order half-portions. That’s much-appreciated because I always want to save room for the lofty Grand Marnier Soufflé, which needs to be ordered at the start of the meal. (117 rue Cherche-Midi, 6th arr.)
Most tourists coming to Paris aren’t all that interested in ethnic eats, since depending on where you live, most of that food has been globalized and you can find it elsewhere. In spite of all the less-than-authentic Chinese and Japanese take-outs in Paris (and silly fusion dishes, which are happily disappearing from menus…and good riddance), Asian foods are being taken more seriously and you can find quite good Japanese fare if you know where to go. However I’m a big fan of Korean cuisine, which is just taking hold in Paris, and the new K-Mart grocery store on the rue St. Anne is not just an épicerie (food store), but has a cafeteria with kimbap (Korean sushi rolls) and bibimbap, a large rice bowl with meat, vegetables, and lots of spicy kimchi. I don’t know how Parisians are taking to the odiferous kimchi since I haven’t seen many in there, but I love sitting in the window, hunched over a big steaming bowl of the stuff…and don’t care how I smell afterward. (Although I do walk home, rather than take the métro, as a courtesy to others.) (6-8 rue St Anne, 1st arr.)
I’d have to say Chartier. Yes, it’s true– “You get what you pay for.” But I can’t think of anywhere else you can get a square meal and a truly authentic slice of life in old Paris than Chartier. Stick with the classics and the house wine and you’ll be fine, but be sure to order the frisée salad with hot bacon, which costs less than a café crème on the St. Germain de Pres, and is one of the best in town. Service is predictably gruff, and if you’re looking for “Hi, my name is Jean-Pierre, and I’ll be your waiter tonight!” you’re not going to get that here. I did see a roach come out of our breadbasket once and I was with some out-of-towners who said that I should alert the waiter. Obviously it was their first time at Chartier. In spite of it all, I keep going back. But am not sure they would. (7 rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, 9th arr.)
My own dining table. I don’t go out for breakfast in Paris since it takes a hydraulic crane to get me out of my apartment before 10 am. Breakfast is always toasted grainy bread, Bordier salted butter, Tropicana “Ruby Breakfast” juice (a mix of orange, pink grapefruit, and blood orange juice)…with an ice cube in it (which is very un-Parisian, but is a trick I picked up in Portugal), and a big bowl of steaming-hot café au lait.
If G. Detou ever closed in Paris, I would be hopelessly lost and probably have to move. It has everything I need, from French chocolate in bulk, to horseradish, Fallot mustard, cocoa powder, candied sour cherries, and oddities like glucose, hazelnut paste, and Sicilian pistachios that are the most amazing brilliant-green. And cost plenty of green as well. Avoid going in December, when everyone is scrambling to do their holiday baking; the place is a madhouse. (58 rue Tinquetonne, 2nd arr.)
Because I’m a Right Bank-boy, we don’t have many fancy bakeries on this side of the Seine. Which is a good thing, since I tend to like simpler desserts anyways. Blé Sucré is terrific and manages to make slightly swanky sweets, but without them being fussy or expensive. They make a few different kinds of breads and their Kouign Amann is terrific, as are their lemon-glazed Madeleines, which I reproduced in my book, The Sweet Life in Paris. I also like the fact that you can take your desserts and sit at one of their outdoor tables, overlooking the Square Trousseau, and sip a well-made Illy café express along with your treats. Ice cream in the summer give the place year ’round appeal. (7 rue Antoine Vollon, 12th arr.)
I could never say one shop is my favorite, because they’re all different and each offers a certain specialty that I can’t imagine living without. The Chartreuse-filled ovals at Jean-Charles Rochoux, the feuilleutine at Patrick Roger (which they hand me right away when I walk in the shop), Kalouga chocolate bars filled with salted butter caramel at A l’Etoile d’Or, and the mango-passion fruit caramels at Jacques Genin. They don’t have any chocolate in them, but it’s a chocolate shop, so I hope that counts because they’re pretty stellar. (Jean-Charles Rochoux, 16 rue d’Assas in the 6th; Patrick Roger, 108 boulevard St. Germain in the 6th; A l’Etoile d’Or, 30 rue Fontaine in the 9th; and Jacques Genin, 133 rue de Turenne in the 3rd.)
I’m fond of COS, on the rue de Rosiers. Paris has great clothing shops, but they’re frightfully expensive. And because I’m constantly baking or cooking, I tend not to want to wear a Hermes €250 t-shirt when I’m dipping chocolates. COS is a concept store, created by H+M. But the clothes are much better-made and fit nicely. They’re basic, and cut well. If you go during the sales, the 50% off tickets make everything extra attractive. (4 rue de Rosiers, 4th arr.)
Well, I don’t shop for fancy duds, but one of the coolest places in Paris is the Marché Saint Pierre, the giant fabric market right under Sacre Coeur. It’s six stories of fabric, and even though I can’t sew a stitch, I love riding in the elevator, which actually still has an honest-to-goodness elevator operator sitting in there. It’s an amazing place for people watching as it’s filled with homemakers, seamstresses, students, theatre designers, and couturiers looking for inspiration amongst the reams of fabrics. I buy étamine, though, which is lovely French cotton gauze and is wonderful to use like cheesecloth. The Marché St. Pierre also has a special place in my heart because my first visit there marks the place that I truly became Parisian: I had exchanged ‘words’ with one of the disinterested salespeople, who came around when I told him that if he ever came to my country, I hoped people were nicer to him than he was being to me. It worked, and I now have beautiful curtains in my bedroom that block out all the light. (Which is another Parisian touch.) (2 rue Charles Nodier, 18th arr.)
Williams, over near the Champs-Elysées does rather good cocktails. I don’t go out for cocktails much in Paris, because except for Mojitos, it’s not really a ‘cocktail’ culture. Although that’s changing and I clearly need to do more research. (26 avenue Friedland, 8th arr.)
The Châtelet métro station. Ok, just kidding. If I’m looking for peace and quiet, I’ll take a walk along the quai of the Seine, east of the Hôtel de Ville, which is a lot more peaceful than the other end.
Vélib’ is pretty great. The system does have a few problems, noticebly that quite a few of the bikes are broken and it’s often hard to find a place to park them in popular neighborhoods, or when it’s raining hard and it’s 3 in the morning. But it’s pretty neat that you can simply grab a bike, ride it somewhere, and drop it off without worrying about maintenance or it getting stolen. I just wish they’d make the baskets bigger: there’s not nearly enough room in them to fit a whole cake. What were they thinking?
I know it’s terribly cliché, but I still think the height of elegance is a big box of macarons from Ladurée. There’s been so much hubbub surrounding macarons, with folks replicating them around the world. But Ladurée is the birthplace of the Parisian macaron and a box of them, neatly packed in colorful rows, is always a thrill to rifle through. I avoid the newer flavors, which are hit or miss, and stick with the classics: chocolate amer (dark chocolate), coffee, pistachio, and caramel beurre salé; macarons filled with salted butter caramel. (16, rue Royale, 9th arr.)
I like hitting the road and heading to Coulommiers, where there’s a sprawling brie market that takes place in the center of town every Sunday. If you want to surround yourself with giant rounds of brie de Meaux, stacked up and sold in runny, oozing wedges, this is where you want to be. There’s also regional oddities, like brie draped with fern leaves and something called ‘brie noir’, a dark, crumbly brie that’s been aged for around eight months. It’s basically inedible, and needs to be dunked in coffee to temper the flavor. Yes, really.
All photographs from DavidLebovitz.com.