At the end of August, Nick and I took ourselves off for a long weekend in Paris. This is one of the small perks of living in London – the ability to nip across the Channel and spend a weekend in one of the great cities of Europe! This was to be my fifth visit, after two previous trips with my parents and two with Nick, but the first trip where I was going with some sort of culinary aim in mind. Nick and I have a habit of visiting European cities and then ending up eating Italian/Mexican/Indian food because a) it’s cheap and b) it’s readily available, as opposed to eating the local cuisine. So this time I decided that, without breaking the bank, I was going to eat French, come hell or high water.
This mission started before I had even left English soil. I was really keen to try and eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant while we were there, but what nobody told me was that the Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris simply shut down during August! Seriously!! I really, REALLY wanted to eat at Relais Louis XIII, but it was closed. So (you ask) why go in August? Well, because the hotel prices are dirt cheap and (generally!) the weather is great. But it appears that there is a trade-off – great hotel, great weather, but no great restaurant!! I was devastated. I asked Clotilde from Chocolate and Zucchini for some advice and she recommended Le Pamphlet. While I was looking for Le Pamphlet on the Michelin site among the places categorised as “Bib Gourmand” (not starred but still noteworthy) I noticed that Aux Lyonnais was also open on the last weekend in August and it was Aux Lyonnais (an Alain Ducasse restaurant) where I finally found a table for Saturday night – I was as excited as a kid in a candy store!!
Saturday morning was our first morning and we woke up and decided to find breakfast somewhere in the vicinity of the hotel. Walked through the old Roman arena towards the Place de la Contrescarpe. Found a little café just off the Place and had excellent hot chocolate and pain aux chocolat for breakfast while sitting in our little wicker chairs and watching the world go by. At lunchtime we found ourselves near the Pere Lachaise cemetery and we just walked around until a menu caught Nick’s eye (he gets very particular ideas about what he wants and once he has an idea, there’s no shifting it!!). Soon we found ourselves settled at a little table in a brasserie facing onto a little square. Nick chose a lovely slab of pork in a mushroom sauce with loads of good vegetables. I opted for a salade folle – but this was not just any salad. Oh no. This was the salad with the mostest.
According to various glossaries, it is meant to be a salad containing (amongst other things) green beans and foie gras – mine skipped the beans and added a host of other treats. On a bed of lettuce and tomatoes (topped with a perfect dressing – not too vinegary, not too oily, just right) there were slices of perfectly ripe avocado, slices of cured meat (which could have been pork or beef – sliced about as thick as bacon), lovely thick leaves of smoked salmon and two slices of pate de foie gras on toast triangles. I have to say that it was probably the nicest salad I have had in years. Or maybe ever. The salmon was full of flavour and came apart at the touch of a fork. The avocado was perfectly ripe without being black (in London they often serve avocado a little under-ripe and hard). The cured meat was chewy and robust with a lovely strong flavour. But it was the pate that transported me. It absolutely melted away on the tongue, like strongly flavoured butter. It had that decadent fatty mouth feel of butter, but with the silky taste of liver. It was sublime and I can see how a person could get used to this!! Nick was just laughing at me because I was in such raptures. Really really lovely. And the salad only came to about £7 – no way you would get those ingredients for that price in London! Bargain.
After an afternoon of sightseeing, we popped back to the hotel to freshen up and change for dinner. Our table at Aux Lyonnais was booked for 20h30, but we managed to miscalculate entirely how long it would take us to get to the restaurant, so by the time we got there we were a good 20 minutes late. Now in London, our table booking would have been a distant memory and would have been given to another patron at 20h32. But… this is Paris, not London, and they had not given away our table. HURRAH!! The maitre d’ took us through to our table – one of the few along the edge of the room where you both sit side by side on a banquette and gaze out at the rest of the room. This makes conversation easier AND lets you both see the room without one of you getting a crick in your neck – and it was great for people watching! As I had read in various reviews, the room looked as if most of the original fittings were still there – the black and white floor tiles, the art deco ceramic wall tiles, the ceiling mouldings – it all had a wonderful genteel age that you only ever really come across in Europe. All the staff were extremely French, but also charming, polite and (mostly) able to help you in English when your broken attempts at French get to be too much to bear! The patrons, on the other hand, were extremely Anglo-Saxon – from the panicky looking English couple next to us translating the menu from their phrasebook to the loud American couple directly in front of us to the table of bright young things in the corner – I don’t think I heard any French being spoken except by the staff. But I guess that’s what comes from being an affordable restaurant of a world-famous chef. Anyway, we were settled in and given the menu and wine list to peruse. To sustain us during this process we were also given a little drawstring bag full of fresh bread as well as a bowl of creamy herbed soft cheese (cervelle de canut) to dip your bread into while perusing the menu. Should space on the table later become an issue, they thoughtfully provide a little hook at the side of the table so that you can hang the bag on the hook and get it off the table. This really appealed to me as I often want bread during the meal to mop up a sauce and by then the bread has long since been whisked away. Very charming! In keeping with the general surroundings, our table was very wobbly and so Nick called that waiter over and showed him. Said waiter nodded, smiled and said something to the effect of “Yes, you are right sir” and left. Nick thought he was off to fetch something to steady the table but he wasn’t, and although he served us all night, he never mentioned the table again! No fixing it – just “yes, well spotted sir, it does wobble!” It was such a quintessentially French reaction you had to laugh – c’est la vie!! But what with Nick not being of the c’est la vie persuasion, he stuck a folded up bit of paper under one leg and we once again had a stable table (hahaha).
Settled down to looked at the a la carte and the prix fixe menus and decided to go with the latter. Three courses for 28 € – can’t argue with that. Also had a look at the wine list, which leans heavily towards the Côtes du Rhone. After much debate, we chose a Domaine Deurre Côtes Du Rhone Les Rabasses 2000 – I thought this was another bargain at €30, and it did not disappoint. It was a big wine with lots of berry fruit and a long, delicious finish. Sorry about the scanty tasting notes but I was too absorbed in the moment to make notes! What I did notice (with approval!) was the fact that all the flatware on the table was Christofle – a mix ‘n match of different patterns, so that no two items matched, but Christofle none the less. Respect. And so, to the food. I started with a new potato and marinated herring salad and Nick had the charcuterie platter. My salad was fantastic – lots of creamy little potatoes and tender herring that was not too vinegary, on a bed of frisee and with a dressing that bore more than a passing resemblance to a Caesar dressing. Absolutely lovely – the creaminess of the little potatoes perfectly offset the tart herring and the dressing, while the frisee added a crisp freshness. Nick’s charcuterie platter looked rustic and very beautiful on its little wooden board – a generous number of slices of salami-like saucisson, cured ham, a delicious little bowl of potato salad with bacon and olive oil and little crispy bits that looked like pork crackling – but weren’t. They tasted vaguely familiar and had all the crispiness that only comes from the extreme fattiness of something like pork rind, but at the same time I could not hazard a guess as to what they might be. Nick eventually called our waiter over and asked him – he opined that they were pork but Nick was not convinced. Later, another waiter cleared our plates and Nick tried his luck and asked again – this time he was told chicken! I just laughed. If anybody else has any ideas… answers on a postcard please!
For our main course we both had one of the dishes for which the restaurant (and Ducasse) is famous – a pike quenelle (dumpling) topped with 2 large langoustine tails and served poached in the most deliciously-rich lobster bisque type broth. Oh my word. Who would have though a dumpling could be so spectacularly good? The consistency of the dumpling was like a very fluffy omelette, but infused with the rich flavour of the broth. I ate slower and slower as I didn’t want to finish and even Nick agreed that it was one of the nicer things he had ever tasted. (This is quite an admission as Nick is usually a steak man!!). After that spectacular course, we just sat and basked in the glow of the wine, food and general enjoyment of the restaurant for a while. Usually Nick does not like to linger in restaurants and hates making conversation when the next table’s occupants are practically sitting in your lap, but here he was totally relaxed and we both did a good spot of people watching while sipping our wine. Eventually the time came for dessert and we once again chose the same thing – the Ille Flottante aux Pralines Roses. These were floating islands of sweetened whipped egg white, baked not long enough to make crispy meringues but just long enough to be solid. They were studded with crushed pralines roses (pink sugared almonds) and then floated in a generous amount of crème anglaise (vanilla custard). Heaven on a plate. They were trembly and yielding, but full of crunchy little surprises when you came across the crushed pralines. Plus the crushed pralines made it look as if each island was full of candied petals – too beautiful! And of course the crème anglaise was suitable decadent and provided a lovely foil for the sweet islands. We just sat there and ate and drank and positively BEAMED at the world! Ended up staying till close to 11pm before taking a lovely walk home along the river and past the beautifully lit Notre Dame cathedral.
Sunday lunchtime found us wandering the streets south of the Eiffel Tower trying to find an open supermarket/sandwich store – quite tricky in France!! Eventually we came upon a sandwich shop, bought a salami baguette and went to sit on the Allee des Cygnes, a long narrow island in the middle of the Seine by the Eiffel Tower. The baguettes were lovely – in many ways, totally different to London sandwiches. In London we are totally spoilt for choice in terms of fillings – lamb and tzatziki; turkey, cheese and cranberry; tuna, olives and sun-dried tomatoes; crayfish and rocket… By contrast, the baguettes we had that day were utterly simple – positively boring, really. But the ingredients were so fresh and individually so good – fresh, crispy baguettes (a rarity!), salami that does not taste mass-produced and really good salted butter – that the whole exceeded the sum of its parts.
After another afternoon of lazy shopping and walking, we found ourselves back at the Place de la Contrescarpe and ended up going to Café Delmas overlooking the little square and its fountain. It looked more like a hip cocktail bar than a café, but bore on the window the magic words: “We sell Berthillon ice cream”. Berthillon is acknowledged to be one of the best ice-cream shops in Paris and I’ve been dying to try their ice cream for an age. Found a little table on the pavement (all the better to watch the passing parade) and Nick had a beer while I had an espresso and a bowl of chocolate and mocha ice cream. Oh my. Ludicrously rich creamy chocolate with a trace of cocoa bitterness. Refreshing, sorbet-like mocha – like a frozen café au lait. Heaven. Finished our little treat and then took a walk up the Rue Mouffetard. A couple of hundred metres along, a small street called the Rue du Pot de Fer branches off Mouffetard and as we gazed up it, all you could see were restaurants. It was a tiny little street with a furrow of water running down the middle from the fairly persistent drizzle and the tables outside each restaurants almost met in the middle so it was like a giant outdoor food fair. Each place had a set menu displayed on a chalkboard – from roughly €14 for 3 courses up to about €25 – and every cuisine you could with for was represented, but as I said, I was determined to eat somewhere French. After looking at all the menus, we realized there was something we liked on every one, which didn’t narrow the choice down much!! But after a brief consultation over drinks, we eventually ended up at Le Vigneron, one of the last restaurants in the street and specialising in the cuisine of South-West France. We got a table right at the back of the long narrow restaurant, by an open window through which we could hear the rain and see the leaves of a huge bamboo plant in the courtyard outside the window. We were miles away from any neighbouring diners and it felt as if we were in a private room – perfect!! In total contrast with Aux Lyonnais, I don’t think a single other table spoke English – the staff certainly didn’t! But that didn’t deter us one bit. One of the reasons we chose the restaurant was that the menu contained one of the things I had promised myself this trip – cassoulet!! After perusing the a la carte and prix fixe menus over a glass of house wine, we once again opted for the set menu which was only €18, with supplements for the cassoulet or the foie gras. I started with a salad with toasted goats’ cheese on slices of toasted baguette and Nick went for escargots.
The salad was simple and delicious – perfect dressing again and really sublime goats’ cheese – rich and creamy. Nick’s snails were in their customary creamy garlicky sauce and the one I bravely tried was quite tasty, if a bit chewy… but I’m still not sold. As my main course, I had cassoulet which was served piping hot in its little casserole dish and Nick had a fillet steak, rare, with Bearnaise sauce. My French may not exactly be conversational, but at least I had enough to convey to the waiter that rare was fine! Now, I am not a big steak eater but the taste I had of Nick’s steak was a little taste of heaven – just seared on the outside but gloriously uncooked and yielding in the center. I could have eaten the whole thing if I did not fear Nick would fight me for it tooth and nail. My cassoulet was everything I expected, although the beans did look suspiciously like baked beans to me. But since flageolet beans and their plainer cousins used in baked beans are both haricots, I did not feel qualified to make any pronouncements in this regard. Suffice to say the beans bore little resemblance in taste and flavour to what is served up on toast in this country! Overall, the flavours worked beautifully together – the slight sweetness of the beans, the spiciness of the Toulouse sausage and the unabashed fatty deliciousness of the confit duck. By the end of my meal, the beans had cooled a little and I was left with a last few thick, gooey and satisfying mouthfuls. It was the perfect antidote to the rainy night outside.
Alarmingly, I could still make room for dessert after this – there was crème brulee on the menu and I’m just a girl who can’t say no. Nick had a chocolate hazelnut fudge cake, the texture of which I can only describe as unctuous – kind of firm yet melting and eager to please – delicious. My crème brulee was lovely and light with a satisfyingly bitter crunch to the caramel, and was a lovely end to my meal. If I had any criticism it would be that I found the wines overpriced. The list was far less extensive and far less interesting than the list at Aux Lyonnais, but the prices were as high or higher. Not their strong point. On the plus side, the setting was lovely and quiet and felt authentically French with heavy wooden ceiling beams and bit of old stone and brickwork. The staff were very friendly and efficient and left us alone to enjoy our meal in romantic bliss. And of course, I really enjoyed the food. No, it wasn’t great cuisine but it was satisfying, competently executed good value for money in my book. And from there it was a short walk back to the hotel and a good night’s sleep before having to head back to the real world and London on Monday.
The epilogue to our Parisian weekend is that we went on a little foodie shopping spree on the way to the airport. That way we could bring home a food parcel to enjoy at home and pretend we were still in France, but I will allow the contents of the food parcel to enjpoy their 15 minutes of fame and do a separate post on them soon.