There is something deliciously lazy about a Sunday morning. The day stretches out in front of you full of promise, yet there is no urgent need to do anything. You wake up without an alarm shrieking in your ear and even though you are awake, there is no need to get up just yet. You read the Sunday newspaper and no one frowns if you only concentrate on the comics and lifestyle section. Brunch was invented for a Sunday, when you can laze over a meal without feeling guilty and feel your whole body de-stress bit by bit. Or at least that’s how it is for me.
This last Sunday, we woke up late and decided to head to Cafe Madras, because it was nearby and after a year in Paris, I had a strong urge to rekindle my love affair with a South Indian breakfast. But it was not to be as we eyed the large crowd waiting outside the cafe and drove around in circles looking for parking. If there is anything that can destroy the leisurely feeling of a Sunday morning, it is the daunting prospect of waiting for your brunch while worrying that your car might be towed away. So we turned around and headed towards town, which we knew would be blissfully uncrowded on a Sunday.
I had wanted to check out Le Pain Quotidien for a while now and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. As soon as as I saw the bougainvillea-framed entrance and walked in to the smell of freshly baked bread, I knew we’d made the right choice. The interior reflected the warmth and decor that LPQ displays worldwide and having eaten at their cafes several times in Toronto and Paris, I felt instantly at home. The warm wood finish, the inviting communal table, daily specials written on the blackboard – everything felt instantly familiar. However, unlike other chain establishments, nothing seemed forced or gimmicky. Even the servers were cheerful and nice in a way that made you feel they meant it, instead of reciting welcome spiels by rote.
I open the window on my blog dashboard to type in my words and sometimes the words fail me. They seem tiny, insignificant in a world of revered proficiency and untold chaos. I’ve opened and closed this window several times in the past few days, and weeks, and months. Sometimes, the exhaustion takes over, sometimes there is no inspiration, but many a time it is a feeling that these words don’t matter. I’m not changing the world, or shaping a life. How does it matter? And I’m sure that there are others out there who have the same feeling. I’m not talking of just bloggers, I’m talking about people – the fear of being insignificant, it grips us all at one time or the other.
This post was not supposed to turn out this way, but sometimes when you’re alone during the holidays, the cheer can seem a bit forced. It’s possible to feel lonely in a crowd. If you’re out there, that one solitary person hanging back from the party, the one with the bruised heart and broken smile, assailed with doubts or fear, looking for someone to be genuinely kind without a reason, I don’t know if my words will find their way to you, they probably won’t, but know that you matter. You matter because you are who you are, and you do what you do, and nobody else out there is quite like you.
If like me, you have a love and passion for food and have always dreamed of a place where the best ingredients are put in the hands of the best artisans to make some of the best things you’ve ever tasted, then Paris is that dream come true. And I’m not talking of just fancy restaurants with Michelin starred chefs. I’m talking of walking into a street market and being inspired by the fresh produce, of being tempted into entering a small boulangerie by the smell of bread straight out of the oven, of opening a carefully wrapped box to slowly savor the exquisite sweet treat inside. At every corner, at every turn, this city entices you with its culinary prowess. Here then is my list of 10 delicious things that you must not miss when you are in Paris.
More than anything else, the macaron has come to symbolize the Paris pastry scene. Simple in concept – two biscuits sandwiched together with ganache, the creativity and imagination of the city’s pastry geniuses takes what is essentially a cookie to a whole new level. And the best place to try them is at Pierre Hermé. Very few places stand up to the intense hype that surround them, but this one lives up to every expectation. The classics like the salted butter caramel will always reign but don’t leave without trying their ever-changing inventive flavors (chocolate and foie gras anyone?). I love their signature Ispahan (rose, raspberry and litchi) and in summer, the macaron ice cream sandwiches are the perfect treat. Other great places for macarons are Carette (I might be biased since I currently work there but don’t take my word for it – their chocolate macarons were voted second best in Paris), Aoki (try the Japanese inspired flavors) and Ladurée (another favorite, but I think this place is resting on its laurels – the macarons are the only thing I like here).
2. Hot Chocolate
When there is a nip in the air, there is nothing better than a cup of hot chocolate to ward off the chill or the blues. The true Parisian hot chocolate is rich and intense and nothing like the weak instant-powder drinks served almost everywhere else. My favourite place (and this has been supported by everyone I’ve taken there) is a charming cafe near the Seine called L’Ebouillante. The hot chocolate comes in a big bowl – and it is literally that – hot chocolate. To this you add milk as per your preference, so you can make it as rich as you want. Other favorites are Jacques Genin (a gorgeous chocolate store) and Angelina (I take people there more for the overall experience than the hot chocolate itself).
There are certain nights that will always live with you, when everything comes together in a magical kaleidoscope of events that are unplanned and therefore much more special in their happening. For me, Paris Nuit Blanche 2012 was one such night. Nuit Blanche literally translate to the white night – an annual celebration of art and culture on the first Saturday of October when galleries, museums, town halls, even building terraces are open to the public all night. I’d penciled in the date in my calendar a month ahead, but it did not have an auspicious beginning. The weather forecast showed that it would be raining all night, and a friend who had promised to accompany me canceled at the last minute. (He claims sickness, I say hangover.) I left the warmth of my house reluctantly only to have to return 10 minutes later because I’d forgotten my metro pass. As I said, not an auspicious start.
The first thing that lifted my spirits was the fountain near my apartment where the street meets the bustling avenue de l’Opéra. Called Fontaine du Théâtre Français, I have hurried by it everyday on my way to school or work barely giving it a glance. But that night, you had to notice it as it shimmered and danced under the lights, playfully announcing that even it knew that this was going to be a special night.
I crossed over to the Comédie-Française and into the courtyard that tourists so often miss in their rush to get to the Louvre. Sure enough, the courtyard was almost empty, the contemporary columns standing silently in wait for the next theater rush.
I walked out to a scene that seemed straight out of Midnight in Paris – the rain drizzling down softening the warm lights spilling out of the cafes, reflected in the soaked sidewalks, as couples walked by lost in the universe under their shared umbrellas. I have had images of a romantic Paris fed to me all my life through movies, books, pictures but here was the cliché coming to life in front of my eyes. This was a lovers’ Paris meant for sweet nothings and first kisses and practiced seductions.
If you are new to Paris, it’s good to remember that the city is neatly divided into 20 arrondisements (administrative districts), which are indicated by the last 2 digits of a postal code and also on the street signs, which makes it a little bit easier to get a general sense of direction and know where you are. When my cousin visited me in Paris this summer, I bought a map of the city by arrondisement (which you should do if you’re visiting) and painstakingly marked all the good places to eat since I would be at work during the day. It was a great idea; only, she took one look at it and said “Umm, I can’t read maps.” It all worked out in the end. (I gave her directions she understood like “Take the left at Zara, and then go straight until you hit H&M…”) But since I get asked for recommendations to eat in Paris, I thought that this would help others out there. So here it is, Paris for foodies broken down by arrondisement. Bon Appetit!
Food Lovers’ Paris – 1st Arrondisment Map
Open in Google Maps
The * indicates the degree of my affinity to a place, some are favorites and others are great options if you are in the neighborhood. Note that these are purely subjective and based on my likes and dislikes.
Most of the places on this list are moderately priced unless otherwise noted.
Admittedly, no one comes to Paris to eat frankfurters. But if you find yourself outside the Louvre (which you probably will if you’re visiting Paris) and depleted of all energy, or strolling the gardens at the Palais Royal and in need of a snack, stop by Le Stube on Rue de Richelieu. You’ll be greeted with a kind smile and a visual feast of hearty cakes and tarts. The previous owners of Le Stübli gave up the business to “travel, learn and find new inspiration” and the result is this charming cafe where they intend to promote what they call ‘snack’issime’.
Their French-German heritage is reflected in the menu headed by “The Sausage”. My favorite is the Frankfurter in a crisp baguette (you can also have it in a regular bun, but in France why would you?) with simmered onions and their mustard specialty. I’m not a great fan of mustard, but I love this one; it’s sharp without being pungent and has a sweet undertone.
When you are a stagiere (read, lowly intern) in the cuisine/pastry business, the days have a way of blending into each other. I woke up one day, and summer was over. Fall greeted me with a gust of icy wind as I opened the gate of my apartment building to walk out into the darkness – it was 5:30 am and I was on my way to work. People who say that everyone is rude in Paris have not encountered the men that sweep the streets at the crack of dawn and always greet me with a friendly ‘Bonjour’. It is something small that makes me smile every morning when all I want to do is crawl back into bed.
During the first few weeks of my stage I discovered muscles I had never known existed. My hands and arms were covered with cuts (they hadn’t even given me a knife yet!) and my legs with bruises from bumping into every surface imaginable. I remember my doctor handing me a list last year when I was diagnosed with a knee defect: “Don’t kneel, don’t squat, don’t climb the stairs as far as possible”. Ha! I’d like to see his face if ever sees me at work. The physical exhaustion was something I had mentally prepared myself for; it did not stop me from waking up with stiff muscles, groaning as I took every step and from sometimes falling asleep at 8pm, exhausted beyond belief. When one of my friends asked me how tough it was, I told her to stand and just stay there for the next 10-12 hours, then double that effort. I still have it easy being in pastry; I have friends in cuisine who are working 13-16 hours a day.
When I was growing up, french toast was a special weekend treat. My sister and I would cajole mom to whip us a batch and then eat our jealously guarded share while watching Sunday morning cartoons – there was always a fight over who would get the last slice. Only, this was probably not the french toast you grew up with, because it was a savory version that I now believe is common in South Asia. There were only three ingredients – eggs, salt and day-old bread that was fried till it was crisp and golden, to be eaten with ketchup. And this was always my definition of french toast. In fact, one of the first arguments my boyfriend and I had (although I’m absolutely sure he doesn’t remember it) was over french toast – he’d always had it sweet, and I could not possibly imagine why anyone would want to eat it that way.