Europe: if it weren’t for your slow-speed (and often, non-existent) internet and lack of air-conditioning, I’d declare you the superior continent without reservation.
But God bless, every time I step off a plane or train in Europe, be it in Brussels or Strasbourg, Zurich or Amsterdam, I’m greeted with the intense smell of coffee and butter. Lots of coffee and lots of butter. And every time, I close my eyes, inhale deeply, and convince myself that I was never meant to be born in America.
What are a few days of slow connectivity and sweat, anyway? The Europeans make it work, and with style to spare.
So can I, I resolve.
So can I.
My first trip there was when I was three years-old. In the three decades since, I must have visited more than two dozen times. Perhaps, for that reason, Paris hasn’t been the subject of my travels in the past few years, relegated to being a stopover between other destinations when convenient.
But, despite falling in love with Paris rather late in my young life, I now find it irresistible, with its endless alleyways and eateries, grandeur and history. Where else can you hear I.M. Pei and Louis XIV whisper in the same corner where DaVinci smiles and Victory spreads her headless wings, or hear Quasimodo ring those medieval bells, and watch Napoleon slumber under a gold-ribbed dome?
I love Paris.
So, on my recent trip to France, the primary purpose of which was to photograph the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, I couldn’t resist making a pit-stop in the City of Lights.
It’s amazing how much one can accomplish (or eat) in twenty-four hours.
When I landed at Charles de Gaulle, my friends Stéphanie Biteau of Cookcooning and Laurent Vanparys of Gastros on Tour had my short stay mapped out for me. I gave them carte blanche for my day, and they made all the arrangements.
After dropping my things off at Stéphanie’s beautiful two-story hideaway in the 9eme arr., I headed first to Pierre Hermé to see what unexpected flavors he was offering in his pastry case that day. At the moment, he was celebrating baba cakes. There were about a half-dozen different ones. Although I love baba, I focused on the macarons instead. One in particular – a pearly, iridescent one with white truffles with hazelnuts – reminded me of a pasta dish I had last year at The Oval Room in Washington, D.C., which paired truffles with toasted hazelnuts wonderfully. My favorite macaron that day was piped with a filling infused with Pedro Ximenes and studded with boozy raisins to match.
Then, to lunch. By chance, my friend La Tache was in Paris. So, on a last-minute notice, he met me at septime, an upwardly trending restaurant in the 11eme arr. Like the growing number of younger, more progressive chefs of our time, Bertrand Grébaut shifts the focus of the dining experience away from trimmings and trappings and on to ingredient and cooking quality. The menu is simple and surprisingly affordable, given the level of cooking and quantity of food served. At lunch that day, Grébaut offered a fixed, three-course menu for 28€, and a five-course, chef’s choice menu for 55€.
Our lunch included casseron (a cephalopod) on a creamy bed of ricotta with white beans, snowed over with shaved cauliflower. We had buttery merlu (hake), gently cooked and served with root vegetables and citrus, followed by a beautiful strip of chicken breast cut from a roasted bird. The skin was thin and crisp, the meat was juicy and tender. It was served with Brussels sprouts and a spot of jus.
If you’re in Paris, consider septime.
La Tache had pre-ordered a galette des rois (king cake) from Jacques Genin, so I followed him there after lunch.
Genin used to offer a menu of pastries at his chocolaterie near the Place de la République. The last time I was in Paris, I dropped by Genin’s twice for his lemon tart, honey-walnut tart, and fabulous mille feuille. Sadly, he has trimmed his menu down. Now, he only offers mille-feuille (with a variety fillings) – and chocolates, of course – for in-shop eating. For anything else, you have to call ahead for pick-up and take-away.
But, we were told that the cooks will often make extra pastries depending on the day’s call-in orders. That day, they had a few extra lemon tartlets. So, La Tache ordered one, and I ordered mille-feuille, and the two of us whiled away the afternoon over coffee and sweets. The mille-feuille was just as wonderful as I remembered it, a stack of ultra-flakey, almost caramelized pastry piped with a cream filling (I ordered praliné).
Before I left, I asked if they had any extra galettes des rois. It was the last week Genin was making these holiday cakes (the Epiphany had passed a couple of weeks earlier), and they looked magnificent. The shop girl counted the ones on the counter and came up with an extra one. So, I took it.
My friend Laurent Vanparys, like me, left his office career to pursue his dream. He partnered with Laurent Lapaire, owner of l’Agapé Substance, to open a wine bar on the rue Mazarine (right across the street from l’Agapé Substance) in the St. Germaine des Pres. Here, Vanparys focuses on rare, biodynamic wines, mostly ones from Europe (although he hopes to grow his New World inventory in the future). I happened to be in Paris a couple of days before the official opening, and Vanparys invited Biteau and me to drop by for a pre-dinner drink.
A shotgun space with a low ceiling and a spartan look, épure feels like an underground cellar. A narrow bar, shaped like a kayak, runs its length. Vanparys poured us some wine from his snug seat at the prow, and offered us some snacks.
An American couple peeked in. Although the store wasn’t officially opened, Vanparys welcomed them in for a look. The wife seemed familiar. After some conversation, we realized that we had known each other in college, with many mutual friends between us. Thirteen years later, in a different country on a different continent in a wine bar named épure: an unexpected reunion. The world is a small and wonderful place.
Those looking for a nice dinner in the quiet 16eme arr., you now have akrame, a Michelin-starred restaurant by Akrame Benallal near the Étoile. Benallal – French-Algerian by birth – is an alumnus of the kitchens of both Gagnaire and Adria. And you will see the influences of both of those chefs in the cooking here.
Presentations were clean and neat. And his flavor combinations were unexpected and dynamic. But, unlike Adria (and Gagnaire, based on my limited experience with Gagnaire’s food), Benallal focused less on proving a point with his cooking, and more on balancing flavors. His restraint proved that Campari and cockles, for example, could go together wonderfully (bridged by an emphasis on black truffles), and that licorice isn’t an ingredient to be feared. He paired licorice with apple and yogurt in two different desserts, and they were both wonderful.
Akrame is not showy or shiny. It’s quiet and confident. And that’s my favorite kind of restaurant.
Buoyed by calories and cream, between my winkless flight over and a full day on my feet, I had gone forty hours without sleep. So, when I finally crashed, I went so deep under that it took me a couple of minutes to orient myself when I awoke to someone pounding on my door.
The voice on the other side was unmistakable, that French accent: it was David Toutain.
He had dropped by for breakfast.
Stéphanie steeped some tea, and we sliced into Genin’s galette des rois. Tented by a puff pastry dome, this cake had a buttery frangipane filling that, miraculously, didn’t compromise the super-flakey shell around it. Instead of a baby (which I’m accustomed to finding in king cakes), Genin tucked animal figurines – elephants and crocodiles, for example – into his king cakes. I found a purple, Jeff Koons-like caniche (poodle) in my slice, which earned me a paper coronation (yes, even Genin’s king cakes came with cut-out crowns).
Paris in twenty-four hours: a lot can happen. Thank you, Laurent and Stéphanie, for being wonderful hosts.
I packed my things and headed to the train station to catch the noon TGV to Lyon. I’ll continue that portion of my travelogue under separate cover.
Here are the places I ate in Paris:
Photos: A purple poodle, from Jacques Genin’s galette des rois, Paris France; the bar at septime in the 11eme arr., Paris, France; the menu at septime; chocolates and pastries at Jacques Genin near the Place de la République, Paris, France; Laurent Vanparys at épure in the St. Germain des Pres, Paris, France; shaving 42-month Comté at akrame in the 16eme arr., Paris, France; Stéphanie Biteau and Akrame Benallal at akrame.