Globe-trotting gastronomy: Getting a taste for classic French cuisine in Paris
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. During the two years that she has been editor, The Independent on Sunday has won the Newspaper award for Weekend Newspaper of the Year, and the Press Award for Front Page of the Year. She is an enthusiastic foodie who writes restaurant reviews for the New Review supplement, is the mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car.
Sunday 01 April 2012
The brief is clear: one man, one city, two days, four meals. This is to introduce my father, who has – inexplicably – never been to Paris to the deliciousness he has been missing all these years. So it comes to pass that one recent Monday morning John Markwell, 81, picks up his overnight bag, his walking stick and his passport and boards the Eurostar with his two daughters.
My plan is to have prepared pit stops for us along the route between tourist attractions and my accomplices are the foodie community on Twitter, upon whom I rely for recommendations and guidance; their expertise will guide us from meal to meal. In particular, Rosie Millard, writer, broadcaster and owner of a bijoux Parisian apartment; Stevie Parle, the well-travelled chef behind London's Dock Kitchen; and Irish-born, Paris-based cookbook writer Trish Deseine are each full of good ideas.
Two days in one of the world's greatest cities is barely enough time to even get started; but I want to give Pa a taste, in every sense, of what delights me there.
Our arrival at Gard du Nord is timed for 12pm, so it is only natural to head straight to Bofinger, the classic French brasserie that, as Twitter tipster Simmy says, "never lets me down". En route, I pick away at a Eurostar pastry, saving my appetite for the Alsace-inspired fare awaiting us at lunch. But fate has other plans; the train is woefully delayed and I postpone, re-postpone, then dolefully cancel lunch altogether.
Regrouping, I decide Pa can have his first Parisian experience at Angelina, the outrageously over-exposed but still quintessential café facing the Tuileries Gardens. He's agog over the mix of fur-clad ladies and the black-swathed fashionistas who populate the long, thin room. I summon up omelets, pommes frites, a foie-gras salad and some crisp Sancerre and we gossip companionably.
Too late I realise that the richness of these dishes may prevent us from experiencing the real reason to visit Angelina: the hot chocolate and pastries. There's also the diminishing gap between afternoon tea and dinner to consider. Never mind: we manage a cup of Le chocolat chaud à l'ancienne dit "l'Africain" with a cloud of whipped cream on top, and by forgoing the Mont Blanc (a frankly ridiculous confection of meringue, cream and chestnut purée), we're able to sample a rich lemon tart and an exemplary almond pecan praline bun. Angelina is not an everyday café (our meal ends up costing €132 for three), but it is an immersion into how chic Paris eats...
Ambling across the formal gardens, I'm reconsidering dinner. We're booked in to Le Grand Colbert at 8pm, but I don't want Pa to miss the spectacle of Paris from the top of the Pompidou Centre. We could have had dinner at Georges, the swanky sixth-floor restaurant there, but it's ruinously expensive and willfully moderne for such an emotive occasion. For €3 we get on to the terrace at Georges and see the Eiffel Tower glistening, and Sacré Coeur's brooding beauty in the distance.
Dinner, pushed back to 9pm, is a raucous affair. We are seated in the "tourist" section, which is a bit of a pity, but it does afford us the chance to ask dumb questions in English, rather than consider how best to ask for a plateau de fruit de mer "without the scary bits" in seamless French. Also, for my understandably cautious Englishman to get his steak au poivre with a pink, not red, middle... It's fine, but not the gastronomic double-kiss I'd hoped for.
Come Tuesday, and I realise that all through our tour of Paris by boat I can't stop thinking about La Fontaine de Mars, the restaurant that Stevie Parle has said is the best of the "old-school" places. He was told about it by Henry Harris of Racine, so I'm in safe hands.
I've already salivated over the south-west-France-influenced menu on the website so when we dash in out of the rain I've got an idea of what I want. I resist the waiter's attempts to seat us on the first floor – at ground level, the restaurant is bustling with Parisians, the red-and-white checkered tablecloths and napkins are flashing, and the bright red meat-slicer is producing a cloud of pale-pink charcuterie.
I have to come over a bit bossy to get Pa organised – La Fontaine's specialities, of eggs baked in red wine with shallot and bacon sauce, and duck confit with sautéed potatoes are, I believe, non-negotiable. With one taste of his starter, he is convinced. Here is the true Parisian experience.
I reluctantly diverge from my planned choice when it is clear that regulars are ordering the daily specials. They must be just that – special. Cannelloni of crab with a lobster bisque is at once rich and light, a triumph. I could have licked the bowl. My main course of cassoulet is a) enough for three people and b) so good it makes me giggle. When I flag, the charming manager whisks away the cast-iron pot and returns with a carrier bag containing the rest of the dish in a sealed container. Very well played.
My sister Claire is fading after a hearty bowl of pata negra pork pluma with lentils, but having seen a courting couple at another table with an ile flottante dessert, we have to at least attempt it. This softest confection of meringue with a puddle of caramel-spike custard beneath (once again) cries out for plate-licking. The taste is truly sublime.
Later, on the way back to Gard du Nord, we stop for a refreshing Mariage Frères tea at the delightful Café Varenne – from where one can watch the chic Rive Gauche mamas do the school run. The waiter brings over a chocolate tart, thinking he'll tempt us. We groan. Even if none of us ever comes back to Paris, we have some rather splendid food memories to last us.
Angelina is located at 226 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, angelina-paris.fr; Le Grand Colbert is located at 2 rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris (legrandcolbert.fr); La Fontaine de Mars is located at 129 rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris (fontainedemars.com); Café Varenne is located at 36 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris
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