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).
I didn’t know how much I loved bread until I came to Paris – golden baguettes with crisp crusts and airy interiors, loaves studded with cereal and nuts that need no further embellishment, bread that is baked absolutely fresh every single day. I have seen Parisians, who hate to wait for anything – even traffic lights, lining up patiently at boulangeries for their daily bread. The Parisian walking with a baguette under his arm is not a cliché – they are everywhere. I have seen businessmen in designer suits and even joggers with this quintessential Parisian accessory under their arm. My favorites are the pain aux céréales and the walnut bread from Eric Kayser – I could eat these for breakfast every single day and often do. Gontran Cherrier in Montmartre is another exceptional boulangerie – besides the usual suspects, you’ll find breads in a rainbow of colors – paprika red, curry yellow, squid-ink black. Other great loaves are at: 134 RDT, Du Pain et Des Idées and Poilâne.
Having grown up with yellow slices of processed cheese, the cheese in Paris is a revelation. And the fromageries offer a smorgasbord of soft, hard, ripe, fresh, aged cheeses from all over France. The only problem is deciding which one you’ll buy, one that is solved simply by buying a small portion of all the ones you want to taste. Some places even have cheese plates ready with a selection. One of my favorite stores is La Fermette on the market street of Rue Montorgueil but I might be biased because this was my first cheese store in Paris and the people there are always helpful. Other great shops include Fromagerie Quatrehomme, Laurent Dubois and Pascal Beillevaire.
Any ordinary supermarket in Paris will offer you at least 10 different kinds of butter of which 7 will probably be better than the average butter you find anywhere else. But once you taste the hand churned Bordier butter, I doubt if you’ll be able to go back to the old stuff. I have to resist buying this butter because I know I won’t be able to stop eating it. (My favorite is the demi-sel with flakes of salt slathered over Eric Kayser’s walnut bread.) There is also butter with seaweed, yuzu and Piment d’Espelette. You can find this butter at La Grande Epicerie and various fromageries (including Fromagerie Hisada). The creamy butter produced by fromagerie Pascal Beillevaire is pretty incredible too.
The French take their croissants seriously and there is an entire set of guidelines to what makes a good croissant. I always look out for a plump croissant with a golden exterior and with the unmistakable smell of good butter. (Avoid croissants made with margarine – indicated by the extreme crescent shape with the ends pulled inwards – a requirement I learnt at pastry school.) Also, in my book, chewy – bad, flaky – good. It’s not a good croissant if you can eat it neatly. Go early – most stores will run out of fresh croissants by 11 am. My favorite is from Pierre Hermé. (Is there nothing this guy cannot do well?) Other favorites include Carette (I roll these croissants every day since I work there! I also know how much good butter goes into them.), Gérard Mulot and Blé Sucré.
Who can resist a hot crêpe straight off the griddle, bubbling with melting cheese or dripping with Nutella, wrapped in a paper cone to be eaten on the go and the closest thing to street food that the Parisians have. There are a number of street crêperies strewn around the city for a convenient snack, but the good ones will always make your crêpes to order instead of reheating them from a stack. My favorite sit-down place is Little Breizh where you’ll find crisp buckwheat galettes (my favorite combination is ham, cheese and egg) and tender sweet crêpes. A close second is Breizh Cafe in the Marais (reservations highly recommended, but they now have an epicerie next door where you can get crêpes to go). One of my other favorites is a small market stall inside Le Marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest covered market in Paris. This is where I had my first crêpe in Paris and if you’re lucky, the charming old man making the crêpes will offer you a chouquette (choux pastry with pearl sugar) on the house. (No luck if you’re a guy, only for the beautiful ladies, he says.)
Caramel. Cafe. Cinnamon. Orange, Mint. Grapefruit. Pepper. Tea… Did you know chocolate came in so many flavors? The best place to try chocolates in Paris is at Jacques Genin. The first time I went looking for the store, I passed by it twice because it is so exquisitely laid out that both times, I subconsciously registered it as a jewelry store. Only when you look down at the glass cases with the tiny exquisite creations do you realize that this is a chocolate lovers’ dream come true. (In addition to the chocolates, don’t miss the caramels. hot chocolate or the Paris Brest, which are some of the best in Paris.) Another great for chocolate is Patrick Roger – I love his caramels and praline and and his sculptures belong in a gallery. (I sometimes go over to the website just to ogle at the art.)
I never thought I would list falafel as something you should try when you come to Paris, but thanks to the shops in the Jewish neighborhood of Rue des Rosiers, the falafel is here to stay. And when you’re looking for a cheap, hot, spicy lunch you can only be grateful for this fact. The stores on this street remind me of a story I read as a child. 3 brothers opened their stores on the same street – the oldest called it “the best store in the universe”, the second “the best store in the world”, but the youngest (and as these stories go, the wisest) did them one better and named his “the best store on this street”. If you believe all the hype, then L’As du Fallafel is the best place to go. But I believe their standards are slipping and in any case, I refuse to wait for half an hour for a falafel. I prefer Chez H’anna just down the street where everything tastes just a little fresher and the grilled aubergines on top are the icing on the cake (and I don’t even like aubergine). But my favorite has to be Maoz – yes I know it’s a chain, but when you can see all the fresh ingredients in front of you and can then make your sandwich as per your liking, there really is nothing better than that.
Tiny little bites of tender buttery goodness – you shouldn’t leave without trying madeleines in Paris. And the best are at the charming Blé Sucré. This little bakery might be out of the usual tourist zones, but it’s well worth the trip. The store has reasonable prices and some great products, but the madeleines are what I go there for. Buy a bag and if the weather is good, the park across the street makes a great place to feast on these tiny treats. Another place that I’m a little hesitant to add to this list is Carette because I’ve never really bought the madeleines there. But whenever we make them, if the chef is not satisfied (sometimes the hump is just a little bit smaller than it should be), we get to take the entire batch home. And if the rejected ones taste so good, I only wonder how good the batches they actually sell are.