Food is important to the French and they tend to do it very well – in Paris, in particular. But to truly discover the breadth of what is available, from haute cuisine to life-altering patisserie, means taking a breath and making sure that you’re open to everything that comes your way.
“You will be eating it alive,” the chef Bruno Verjus announced. “It will be alive,” he added again, rather unnecessarily.
January in Paris, and we were ensconced out of the brisk, sunny day at the hosting table of Table (tablerestaurant.fr) in the 12th arrondissement—the restaurant owned by former food journalist and radio host, Bruno Verjus. In a city where the food is on UNESCO’s world heritage list, it’s useful, if you’re arriving hungry, to have a lunch venue decided in advance. The variety in this city is as bewildering as it is impressive, and nowhere is this truer than in the 12th.
Take Table. Opened in April, 2013, Verjus created a restaurant out of the philosophies that he’d long espoused in print and over the airwaves, with the central tenet being: the freshest ingredients sourced from small producers. So great is Verjus’s commitment to freshness that he makes no demands of his suppliers other than whatever they bring to him, in whatever quantity, he’ll accept, so long as it is the freshest and best available. As such, the menus change from noon to night in reaction to what arrives.
“So this comes in one day,” says the wavy-haired chef, holding up an odd-looking black vegetable. “And I think: okay, what the hell am I going to do with that?”
How Verjus acquired his talent for improvisation exemplifies the way in which an awareness of food is embedded in French culture; he began cooking at a young age, and his countryside upbringing, catching fish and rabbits in the wild, shaped his culinary mindset.
The simplicity of the food that arrives before us belies the skill and time invested in the preparation: a bowl of earthy homemade bread combines seven different varieties of wheat; homemade foie gras served on a slab and dusted with salt and cocoa beans is superbly layered with just the right amount of richness; cured sea bass with an infusion of rice vinegar, Indonesian chili, and wild mandarin juice covered with shreds of black truffle (citrus and truffle is a Verjus-favoured combo).
For all of that, the live scallop comes practically as is with only a drizzle of olive oil, salt and some black truffle. I’m convinced its ice white flesh is quivering. The restrained preparation allows the seafood’s delicate flavour to come through beautifully. But the star dish in a crowded field was that odd black veg – eventually identified as a black turnip from south west France. With the smooth flavor of asparagus and the texture of a parsnip, this sweet vegetable was served with streaks of practically raw egg yolk (Verjus cures the egg in sea water first to increase its flavor), black truffle, and parsley oil with specks of charred leek. Therein lies the problem with Verjus’s philosophy: you can’t return to the 12th every day and rely on the availability of delicious black turnip with egg.
But it’s too early in the day to fixate, so we travel over to the more touristy 3rd arrondissement to hunt out patisseries. The weather has become unsettled, with passages of spitting rain that force the pedestrians into huddles beneath the multi-coloured awnings lining Rue St. Antoine. Once the sunshine returns, we burrow into the backstreets until we come upon Profiterole Cherie hidden among the high-end boutiques.
While Paris overflows with patisseries offering a smorgasbord of garish, moreish treats, there’s a burgeoning trend towards single product stores. Profiterole Cherie, as the name hints, is all about the profiterole, that round choux pastry filled with either cream or ice cream. A new profiterole is on offer every month at the shop, and the most popular is the Madagascar vanilla cream.
The store’s interior is Pepto-Bismol pink, but contrasting with the décor’s playfulness is the serious art employed in the construction of my profiterole. The girl bends over the construction, applying gold leaf onto whirls of chestnut cream, her gravitas such that everyone on both sides of the counter seems to be holding their breath. The profiterole is delicious and extremely rich, but the tart homemade lemonade that the smiling owner pours into my cup is the perfect antidote.
Five minutes by foot – pausing only to momentarily leer at the Chez Alain Miam Miam sandwich stall in Paris’s oldest food market, the Marché des Enfants Rouges – and we duck into the exquisitely realised, sky-blue interior of Bontemps Pâtisserie (57 Rue de Bretagne). While Profiterole Cherie offers a fresh take on a classic, Bontemps offers, instead, a fresh classic. The shop is named after the signature sablé cookies that owner Fiona Laluc doubles up into ‘bontemp’ treats: think thin shortbread cookies sandwiching a dollop of vividly flavoured cream. An outstanding banana, rum, and caramel bontemps etches itself onto my taste memory.
Starry, starry night
On the same day that we’re filling up with patisseries, there’s an event at Paris’s baroque Hôtel de Ville where the city’s finest chefs are being honoured by the mayor. As we drive past Place de la Republique plastered with memorials for the terrorist atrocities witnessed at the end of last year, the event, with the many chefs arranged on the stage in their white uniforms like a very large world cup winning team, seems all the more potent as a symbol of the vibrant strength and resilience of French culture.
That night we sample the wizardry of Pavillon Ledoyen, whose chef, Yannick Alléno, acquired his third Michelin star in 2015. Located just off of the Champs-Élysées, the restaurant – built in 1779 – looks like a classical temple (rather suitable considering the reverence the maximum number of Michelin stars commands in this city).
During the several hours that we’re sat down to eat, I’m moved to scribble pretentious and inadequate notes such as ‘soul of spinach’ and ‘ham bow-stroke’. I’ll leave the meaning of those to your imagination, but, suffice it to say, the meal’s textures and flavours interplayed my socks off, exposing the limits of my culinary vocabulary in the process – and was worth every pretty cent.
But it’s straight to bed when I return to my hotel, as I’m up at 4am for a morning visit to Rungis, Europe’s largest wholesale market, where I’ll watch a giant named Omar dismantle and skin a veal’s head in under a minute. That’s Paris in food: a city of marvellous one-offs, just waiting to awe, wrong-foot, and seduce at every turn.