Paris isn't just the City of Lights. Its a city of bistros and amazing restaurants. But with all the choice, where do you go to find its hidden gems? This is the second in a series looking at some of the great and not-so-great grub in the world's most popular cities.
Though French cuisine is so renowned that last year it was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, that doesn’t mean every restaurant is a gem.
My wife Sangi and I were on a whirlwind, weeklong tour of London and Paris. We had much to do and not much time to do it in --but eating was high, if not top, on the list. Sangi, a vegetarian, also happens to work in the restaurant business, which helped narrow the choice.
A little picky-choosiness led us to L’Epi d’Or, where the ideal of French cooking is served to you, no shortcuts. To start, I ordered the escargot. The little guys arrived in six butter-filled pods, with a film of garlic-and-herb butter coating the entire dish. Sangi’s eyes grew curious. The grass-eater reached over to try one.
“I could eat a whole thing of that,” she said, and took another. The next dish was a leg of lamb that had been cooked for seven hours, and required no knife. Nothing else needs to be said about this plate. The other Parisian spots we hit, though not as on-point, were memorable. The croissants and other sweets at the patisseries could not be beat, except maybe by Nutella crepes off the street.
At Le Petit Fer a Cheval, Sangi had the world’s most intense salad, complete with two rounds of goat cheese and a slab of bleu. I had the steak tartare – which unlike in many American restaurants was served ground, not minced. I struggled to get past the thought that I had just peeled open a tray of 80/20 beef at Giant and started chewing, while a pudgy kid in Aisle 4 stared at me wondering why his mother never let him do that.
Close to the Eiffel Tower, Les Cocottes is a friendly, theme-ish restaurant, that serves virtually everything in small casserole dishes – called cocottes. Get there at 7 sharp, as the place does not take reservations and fills up fast. And for an invention that will surely come to the States soon, head to the gelato shop Amorino near the Notre Dame. They build a cone with one flavor, and then mash a second flavor around it to form a shell. What?
The final night, we dined at Le KGB, which serves up a fusion of Asian and European cooking that makes up for all the bad fusion out there. The highlight was actually a pasta dish – thick rounds of pasta stuffed with a foie and mushroom mix that mimics sausage. The only catch for us was the staff had no idea how to price vegetarian food. Only in Paris could Sangi’s plate of vegetables, which is what she was served in every restaurant for lack of non-duck options, be more expensive than my foie-infused main course.
We found Paris a bit more unpredictable than London.
In L’Epi d’Or, diners passed around a small dog for some reason. Outside, somebody was wheeling a statue down the street. We saw a woman who was not homeless drinking a bottle of wine on a bench. Then there was the girl with a white cat in her handbag. Because, what if you need a cat?
The constant in Paris is art, all kinds, modern and ancient. At the Louvre is the Venus de Milo. She’s only 2,000 years old. Next door to our hotel was the Rodin museum and its garden, where for one Euro you can see The Thinker and, my favorite, The Gates of Hell – a towering work so haunting it’s obvious it was inspired by Dante without reading the placard.
One of the strangest things for me about the city, having never been, was that Parisians don’t eat facing one another. Think about it. The seats outside the bistros and brasseries face the street. The show couples are watching, naturally, is Paris.
Our last night, Sangi and I settled into one of these tables, and tried out the peculiar habit of sitting side-by-side. By the time the wine and snails had arrived, I was a convert. Why should one person have to face the wall while the other gets to people-watch?
As the hours of our vacation leaked away, the two of us sipped our glasses, watched the city strut by and enjoyed one of life’s truly satisfying moments.