I'll eat my way around Paris if I have to: the Independent Cook 1992: Joanna Blythman did not need much persuading to accompany John Wood, winner of our cookery competition, on his gastronomic tour
Judging by his cooking, this was a man who was all over the place: crisp chickpea fritters with a North African influence, South- east Asian-style stuffed squid with Italianate dried tomato sauce, a Middle Eastern kadaifi pastry pudding with ricotta cheese. But he showed our judges he could blend all this in one clever and delicious meal. Fortuitously, Mr Wood had never visited Paris, so we decided to combine a visit to the headquarters of our competition sponsor - Le Cordon Bleu Cook School - with a whirlwind tour of the city's gastronomic life.
On the restaurant front, we started off with lunch in La Rotisserie d'en face (2 rue Christine, tel: 43 26 40 98) where Jacques Cagna, better known for his restaurant in rue des Grands Augustins, has opened up his idea of a straightforward office canteen. At La Rotisserie he serves an incredibly priced ( pounds 16) three-course lunch, with about six choices for each course. This is simple, unaffected food, cooked impeccably.
Mr Wood, not given to exaggeration, voted the chicken and chips (the former moist, on the bone and deliciously char-grilled, the latter crisp on the outside, floury and soft within) the most brilliant he had ever tasted. After a starter salad of, for example, warm leek batons and artichoke heart, and a faultless creme brulee to end, this is great food at bargain prices.
La Rotisserie d'en face is quite new, unlike Bofinger (5-7 rue de la Bastille, tel: 42 72 67 82), which is the oldest brasserie in Paris. Inlaid wood, celebrated glass decoration, a magnificent facade - no wonder the building, dating from 1864, is designated a monument historique. Bofinger's gastronomic specialities are well recorded - plateaux of oysters and fruits de mer, choucroutes, andouillette.
But on a hot summer's day when there is little to show on the seafood front, Bofinger's appeal seems to rest more on the environment than the food. A workaday cold cucumber and mint soup, acceptable lobster served with that sort of mayonnaise and macedoine vegetable salad which recalls cross-Channel ferries, competent smoked salmon and a stiffly over-meringued oeufs a la neige, left us less than convinced. In winter, apparently, seafood is back on form and the game is splendid. I am not sure I would go back to find out.
If landmark brasseries are your bag and Twenties Deco style - zinc, chrome and jazz-age chandeliers - is more to your taste, then the equally legendary La Coupole (102 boulevard de Montparnasse, tel: 43 20 14 20) might be a better bet. This, too, is a good place to watch Parisian intelligentsia and glitterati, but it does at least merit a mention in the food-oriented Gault et Millau guide, unlike Bofinger. The food at La Coupole has been described as 'simple and serviceable' - perfect for a casse- croute or croque monsieur.
If your focus is squarely on food and cooking, then Arpege (84 rue de Varenne, tel: 45 51 47 33) merits unqualified recommendation. Alain Passard, one of France's most exciting young chefs, has two Michelin stars and is actively seeking a third (his recent refurbishment should help to convince the Michelin hierarchy). A last-minute panic over Mr Wood's lack of anything other than totally casual clothes proved a false alarm - Arpege is not the sort of pompous establishment that gets upset about customers in jeans.
Some of Mr Passard's hallmark dishes, such as his delicious marinated Roscoff langoustines, are highly sophisticated and far removed from their original source. Others, such as the same langoustines pan-fried with senteurs de Provence and served with a soft garlic rouille and tarragon croutons, are almost rustic. We savoured these, the perfect John Dory baked with bay leaves under the skin, and a stunning tourte of brioche-light pastry filled with a forcemeat of guinea fowl. 'This is what haggis really ought to be like,' said Mr Wood gently, in deference to my Scottishness. He was right.
Perhaps Mr Passard's skill is to make his cooking look easy and uncomplicated. There is a refreshing lack of fussiness. For dessert, there was a simple-looking mille- feuille flavoured with whisky (usually a bad sign) that looked no different from one in a patissiere's window, but which tasted out of this world. His braised peach with an ice-cream flavoured with aubepine (an aromatic white Mediterranean flower) again looks straightforward, but tests your palate with its elusive aroma.
Mr Passard is a master when it comes to balancing flavours, spicing and counterpointing textures. The even better news is that, by London standards, his restaurant is good value. If you were careful, two could eat for pounds 120 a la carte with wine. Various set menus from pounds 22 to pounds 69 represent terrific value. It is a place to seek out.
Food-centred activities that do not revolve around eating (well, at least not on the spot) are endless in Paris. During our afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu Cook school (8 rue Leon Delhomme, tel: 48 56 06 06) we watched the chef patissier Michel Besnard's masterly demonstration of the classic Gateau Opera, every chocolate and coffee freak's object of desire. Mr Wood, whose eclectic and laid-back style is the polar opposite of Mr Besnard's highly disciplined, classic approach, was as impressed as I by the labour and skill involved.
Like its London and Tokyo counterparts, Le Cordon Bleu in Paris offers serious diploma courses; but for those en passant there are day-long courses such as the Markets of Paris, where you visit the chef's favourite among the 84 Parisian markets and then return to cook the ingredients you have bought.
An informed guide to markets is probably a good idea. We visited the famous Beauvau-Saint-Antoine market, in rue Aligre in the 12th arrondissement on a Thursday; it was something of a letdown. Architecturally, it gave Mr Wood no more pleasure than Oxford's covered market, and the cut-price fruit and tired mint looked as though they had been hanging around Rungis (the wholesale market) for rather too long. Sunday is apparently a better day for this marche exotique.
The leading snob place to do your shopping is Fauchon (26 rue de la Madeleine, tel: 47 42 60 11). Prices are terrifying - pounds 5.80 a kilo for those esoteric but wonderfully flavoured purple potatoes called Truffe de Chine - but then so is the quality and variety. (Some of the infant vegetables and salad leaves left even Mr Wood at a loss, and he is both a professional gardener and a keen amateur in the kitchen garden.) Ochre-yellow Barbary ducks from Bresse, the tiniest of artichokes, fresh hazelnuts, stuffed soft-shell crabs, luscious blood peaches and breaded pig's trotters the size of a child's seaside bucket . . . you have to see it, even if you do not buy.
But there are two food shops where you should definitely buy something. One is Maitre-Charcutier Coesnon (30 rue Dauphine, tel: 43 54 35 80). His specialities are boudin and sausages. There are black ones with apples, or chestnuts, or spicy a la Creole, or white ones with morel mushrooms, prunes, pistachios and chorizo.
Finally to Poilane (8 rue du Cherche-Midi, tel: 45 48 42 59), where France's most deservedly famous baker produces the famous pain de campagne, made with a sour-dough starter or levain. Catherine Deneuve is an enthusiastic customer and it is said that Queen Noor of Jordan has Poilane bread jetted back to her palace. A few morsels were carried on to the London flight by Mr Wood to nibble on the way home.
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