Paris for (food) lovers

From curry d'agneau at La Coupole to pink macaroons at La Duree, Simon Hopkinson celebrates his favourite Parisian restaurants

y initiation to Paris, as a gourmet young man, occurred in February 1981. My employer at the time was the late Christopher Selmes, who had taken me on as his private chef nine months earlier. "Now then, Simon, it's time you discovered some of the finer restaurants of Paris. Here's 1,000 francs and a list of restaurants you should probably go to when you are there. And, as it is February, here's a further 2,000 francs to spend at La Maison de la Truffe, a specialist shop in the Madeleine that will allow you to purchase some of their finest black truffles. Go there on your last day and spend it all!"

So I duly blew the whole 2,000 francs on truffles, together with every last centime of my 1,000 franc incentive in his recommended restaurants. And, as it was nearly 20 years ago, when there were very nearly 12.5 francs to the pound, Selmes's generous boost to my meagre savings afforded me rare - nay, unique - tastes of several Parisian chefs, then at their peak of creativity. It is a measure of both time and experience that the only one that now survives from Selmes's list, to mine, is Taillevent.

Inevitably, therefore, over the years, I have managed to create personal favourites of my own, ending up with nine establishments which I make it my business to eat in at every possible opportunity when in Paris. I rarely feel moved to try new places (the same applies to London, as it happens), not wishing to feel disappointed, waste a good lunch or dinner, or deprive myself of a dish that I know well and look forward to eating incessantly. For me, this is one of the main reasons for going to a restaurant in the first place - curious as this may seem to those endlessly searching for the latest nouvelle vague. Taillevent, not surprisingly, fits my mildly obtuse bill exactly.

Taillevent, 15 rue Lamennais, 75008 (0033 1 44 95 15 01) expensive; Le Tour d'Argent, 15 Quai de la Tournelle, 75005 (0033 1 43 54 23 31) expensive; Chez l'Ami Louis, 32 rue du Vertbois, 75003 (0033 1 48 87 77 48) expensive; Cartet, 62 rue de Malte, 75011 (0033 1 48 05 17 65) reasonable; Chez Georges, 1 rue du Mail, 75002 (0033 1 42 60 07 11) moderate; Brasserie Lipp, 151 boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 (0033 1 45 48 53 91) moderate; La Coupole, 102 boulevard Montparnasse, 75014 (0033 1 43 20 14 20) reasonable; Angelina, 226 rue de Rivoli, 7500I (0033 1 42 60 82 00) reasonable; La Duree, 16 rue Royale, 75008 (0033 1 42 60 21 79) reasonable.

La Duree

It was a vivacious Michel Roux who, clutching my arm, weaved me across the angry traffic of a busy rue Royale initiating me in the multiple macaroons of La Duree. "You 'ave nevuurr bin 'ere?" Michel exclaimed. "No - non - never ... jamais," I replied, excitedly. "Ho ho! What a treat ees in store fur yu!" Once he had thrust me through the swinging door all became clear as I clocked row upon row of the pretty coloured macaroons neatly displayed: lemon yellow, dark bitter chocolate, pale coffee, exquisitely green pistachio, strawberry pink ones and more.

Now, although La Duree is possibly more famous for its macaroons than anything else, it also serves some of the best coffee in Paris within its 19th-century tea room with its painted ceilings and sturdy little polished tables. Other cakes and pastries are all of the same high quality as the macaroons (croissants are particularly fine) and, apparently, the hot chocolate served here is said by some to eclipse even that at Angelina around the corner. Take note, too, of the tiny thin sandwiches displayed at the counter, all individually wrapped in neatly folded sheets of crisp greaseproof paper.

Brasserie Lipp

It happened to be a particularly sunny Sunday lunchtime that I first ate the veal, chez Lipp. 1990? I cannot be absolutely sure. I do know that it was the final day of a glorious week's stay slightly around the corner in the rue Jacob, where my bags were now packed and stacked ready, a taxi had been ordered for 4pm, and yet I had still organised my last day to the full: English Sunday papers inflatedly purchased from the newsstand on St Germain, a benchmark Bloody Mary enjoyed at the adjacent Flore (one of the finest Bloody Marys in all Paris, save that at Harry's American bar in the rue Daunou), all followed by a plat du jour at Lipp, directly across the street. Not many days in my life have been as blissful as that particular one.

The veal in question is known as a "fricandeau", which is topside of veal, and here braised to a succulence of such fondancy it may be eaten with a spoon, yet it arrives conveniently sliced. Chez Lipp, this Sunday plat du jour is offered with either lasagnettes or epinards braisees. It is worth a day trip on Eurostar. Its resultant gravy, jus, sauce, lotion - what you will - is of such golden, rich viscosity, that it can surely only have reached this level of consummation by a constant topping up of many fricandeau juices and, possibly, further boosted by the gelatinous givings from the cartilage of the occasional calf's foot. Who knows? What I do recall, however, is once asking for just the one final sauceboat of it, simply to sip it from a spoon. The meat itself had long been eaten, the spinach no more than a dirty grey smear on the side of the plate. The spinach, by the way, is always a better bet than the pasta. Epinards braisees is exactly that, and cooked, I reckon, for about three hours in pure butter, until it is so soft and unctuous it becomes something quite else. Not spinach at all. Grey slime, but delicious grey slime.

I don't have a recipe for the veal and spinach, so I hope you won't mind being palmed off with my interpretation of their fresh and delicious salad of mache lettuce and beetroot (the Lipp version, left, serves it with walnuts and hard-boiled eggs, which you may add). Have it before the veal when you next go there. Try and sit downstairs if you can. Even though it is a brasserie, it is a chic brasserie. I might be wrong here, but I think that if you dress "up", you may well have a better chance of sitting "down".

Salad of mache and beetroot Brasserie Lipp

Serves 2

2 medium-sized, cooked beetroots, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks

2 generous handfuls of washed and picked-over mache leaves (lamb's lettuce)

1 small shallot, finely chopped

For the dressing

1 small clove garlic, bruised

1/2tbsp sherry vinegar

1tbsp water

salt and pepper

1 scant tsp Dijon mustard

3tbsp walnut oil

Arrange the leaves and beetroot in a salad bowl and scatter over the shallot. In a small jar put the garlic, vinegar, water, seasoning and mustard. Clamp on the lid and shake vigorously until smooth. Add the oil and shake again until homogenised. Spoon over the salad (leave the garlic behind) and carefully toss together.

Taillevent

I will never, ever forget quite how superbly I was looked after as a single man having lunch, chez Taillevent, 27 February, 1981. Apart from the fact that I still possess the menu from that memorable day (dated and signed by the restaurant's proprietor, Jean-Claude Vrinat), more than anything else, it was the rare ease I experienced sitting all alone in possibly one of the grandest restaurants in the world, aged 27.

You need a jacket and tie to eat at Taillevent; this is just the way it is. But this is not to say that you whisper, nudge and blush your way through the experience. The staff here are a joy, particularly so one Jean-Marie Ancher (premier maitre d'hotel) who takes great pleasure in making all guests here feel very much at ease.

The one Taillevent dish I will never forget from that very first lunch all those years ago is the dessert known as marquise au chocolat (left). The one at Taillevent remains the very richest, densest and fudgy version I have yet to eat. The following recipe comes from the pages of Patricia Wells' Food Lovers Guide to Paris (Methuen), in its fourth edition this year.

Marquise au chocolat Taillevent, sauce a la pistache

Serves 8-10

Note: the best pistachio nuts for making the paste may be purchased by mail order from Princesse d'lsenbourg, 2-4 Bard Road, London W10 6TP (0181- 960 3600). Ask for split nuts that have been both shelled and skinned.

For the marquise

280g dark chocolate

100g icing sugar, sifted

185g unsalted butter, softened

5 eggs, separated

pinch of salt

For the pistachio paste

120g shelled pistachios (unsalted!)

130g caster sugar

2 small egg whites

For the sauce

100g pistachio paste

1 litre milk

8 egg yolks

250g caster sugar

To make the marquise, first gently melt the chocolate in a double boiler. Now add, in this order, mixing well after each addition: 70g of the icing sugar, all the butter and the egg yolks. Remove from the heat. Beat the egg whites in another bowl until stiff, then add the remaining 30g of icing sugar and beat until glossy. Add one-third of this to the chocolate mixture to loosen it, folding it in carefully but thoroughly. Now add the rest, using the same action. Rinse a large tureen mould with water and fill with the mixture. Cover with clingfilm and chill for 24 hours. To serve, cut thin slices from the marquise (use a thin sharp knife dipped into hot water), arrange on chilled plates and spoon the pistachio sauce around.

To make the paste, simply grind the pistachios in a food processor until as smooth as possible, then add the sugar and egg white until it forms a paste. Store in a screw-top jar and keep in the fridge, where it will last for a week at least.

To make the sauce, put the paste and milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for at least five minutes. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until thick and then combine with the warm milk. Cook gently over moderate heat, stirring constantly until lightly thickened - a custard, in other words. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl and chill.

La Tour d'Argent

There are those who now sneer at La Tour d'Argent, only seeing it as a rather vulgar restaurant, full of rich Japanese and American tourists plundering the wine list, touring the labyrinthine cellars after dinner, taking in a quick vada at an illuminated Notre Dame and then simply waving their "black" American Express card around to sort it all out. Well, that's as maybe, but rather a table of polite Mitsubishi people than a quartet of ignorant sneerers. Let them eat madeleines.

Such incidentals have never bothered my lunch here, for when a restaurant is as fine as this one, as professional, as long-standing (400 years plus, allegedly), I find it inconceivable to be so distracted. The church view interrupts this revelry occasionally, but never impedes the three or four hours of sheer, unadulterated contentment in this gastronomic penthouse. Furthermore, how many restaurants do you know where the octogenarian proprietor still circulates the room impeccably suited, sporting a blue carnation? And then sits down and enjoys his own dinner, all alone in a quiet corner with a good bottle, fully satisfied that all is well. Claude Terrail still does and no doubt his father Andre did before him.

I find it difficult to venture beyond just two particular specialities here: Quenelles de brochet Andre Terrail and the Caneton Tour d'Argent - perhaps this restaurant's most famous dish, where the sauce is prepared on view, fashioned from the pressing of duck bones together with its blood, then spooned over carefully undercooked slices of breast. It is a supremely savoury and rich plate of food, suitably garnished only by some pommes souffles - gorgeous little crisp pillows of really nothing at all. Those quenelles, by the way, are possibly the finest you will ever encounter.

I should also mention that if you wish to choose your wine carefully, arrive a good 20 minutes early, for the list here is famously encyclopaedic, very heavy indeed and is the pride and joy of an Englishman, one David Ridgway, who has been its caretaker now for several years. Oh lucky man!

La Coupole

La Coupole is tout Paris. It is the constant friendly canteen and late- night soaker-up of over-extended drinking (these jolly folk usually choose the infamous curry d'agneau, never knowingly absent from the menu for decades). There is an ever-welcome corner of a banquette, too, for dozens of blue-rinse ladies with their similarly hued poodle pooches tucked alongside them. Hoards come simply for the oysters, others for gargantuan piles of choucroute and lots of beer (the word brasserie, in case you didn't know, means brewery). Expect to wait at the bar at busy times, but it will never be that long before one of the many immaculate and efficient maitre d'hotels directs you to a table.

Angelina

You need to be someone of staunch stomach and with strong constitution to indulge in the ultimate pleasure of a visit to Angelina: the mont blanc accompanied by a jug of chocolat chaud. For this particular duo truly remains one of the greatest marriages ever conceived within the Continental cafe repertoire. However, constitution or otherwise, the person who forever shies away from that which is surely the raison d'etre of Angelina in the first place, and who, instead, continues to order up a pot of limpid verveine with a tidy fixed smile and immaculate skin, is clearly the saddest individual. Their freezer in the 16th is probably stacked to the gills with le Haagen-Dazs.

Chez L'Ami Louis

Some might say of L'Ami Louis: "What is all the fuss about? Here is this very expensive (which it surely is) and gloomy bistro, in a drab part of town, with little decoration, a menu that rarely changes (it does, to those who know their seasons) and staffed by middle-aged men who, initially, seem blithely unconcerned as to why you have turned up at all.

Well, I guess, some places take a little time to know. But then, don't you think, that one of the greatest joys of eating out is forming a lasting relationship with the people who own and run restaurants? Few do, I am sad to say, because they are all too often rushing off to the next new thing. Monsieur Louis may initially seem wary, but his only real concern is that you are hungry. Once this is established, all is well. The following recipe is for their pommes Bearnaises, usually served with a roast leg of baby lamb. I could eat them with a cup of tea if forced to.

Pommes Bearnaises

Serves 4-6

1kg potatoes - maris piper is a good choice - cut into smallish chunks

3tbsp duck or goose fat

salt and pepper

Itbsp softened butter

8 garlic cloves, finely chopped

3tbsp coarsely chopped, flat-leafed parsley

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6 and put a deep, preferably non-stick round baking tin in there to heat through (not loose-bottomed and ideally with sloping sides). Steam the potatoes until half-cooked. Tip out on to a tray and allow to cool slightly. Take a large frying pan and in it heat the fat. Tip in the potatoes, season generously and fry gently until lightly coloured. Tightly pack into the hot baking tin, return to the oven and bake for around about 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown on the surface. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for a few minutes. Invert on to a hot plate, smear with the softened butter and scatter with the chopped parsley and garlic.

Cartet My American friend and highly respected gourmet, Johnny Apple, once told me that when Madame Cartet first opened her tiny place in 1932, she only opened for lunch Monday to Friday because she liked to go to the opera or ballet at night. Can there truly ever have been a more perfect reason to take up the cooking and selling of food than this? I doubt it.

Marie-Therese (who serves) and Raymond Nouaille (who cooks) have owned and run Cartet for almost 20 years, in which time, as far as I understand, nothing has changed apart from a small facelift out front, an updated kitchen (now with extraction; there was none at all before) and, since last summer, a spanking new lav. The menu joyously remains the same as it was when I first went there in 1985. Madame Cartet hailed from the Lyonnais region and her legacy is lovingly respected. Where else in all of Paris can you still find boiled lamb's feet with sauce ravigote, for instance? Is there a finer boeuf a la ficelle than that served here?

Brandade de morue Madame Cartet

Serves 6-8

500-600g salt cod, soaked in several changes of cold water for 24 hours

2 large boiling potatoes, washed, and steamed in their skins until tender

a little salt and freshly ground white pepper

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

200ml double cream

125ml fruity olive oil

triangular croutons of fried bread to serve

Gently poach the cod in a pan of water for about 20 minutes. Drain and remove all traces of skin and bone. Peel the potatoes, coarsely mash with a fork in a roomy bowl and flake the cod into the same bowl. Add the garlic, stir in and season. Put the cream and oil into a large, heavy bottomed pan, warm through and whisk together until amalgamated. Tip in the cod and potatoes and beat together until smooth but not exactly a complete puree. Serve warm, with the croutons tucked into the brandade.

Chez Georges "Gorgeous chez Georges!" is how I always think of this unique little place every time I walk through its caramel coloured door, for here exists that increasingly rare tradition: a continuing family concern. When I ate lunch here earlier this year, it was the first time that the proprietor was not in evidence, but then I became further encouraged by discovering that the genial, slightly built young man directing the midday service was none other than young monsieur Brouillet.

I don't envisage over becoming tired of eating chez Georges. Whether it is a help-yourself bowl of museau de boeuf vinaigrette (sliced beef brawn) or nothing more than the freshest, crispest radishes with butter and salt. Here is where you will also eat one of the finest andouillettes in Paris, a plate of perfectly cooked lamb cutlets served with nothing more than a pile of hot buttered haricots verts or maybe your first taste of the succulent cut of beef known as "onglet" (skirt steak, as it is sometimes called here) with some crisp pommes frites and much mustard.

Expect to be seated cheek by jowl with your fellow diners and lunchers here; although this may upset the less gregarious visitor, to the vibrant and witty such as my good self, it can only be seen as a veritable boon. For once one has exchanged pleasantries with the proprietor, it seems only right that one should at least attempt to flirt with regular clients - even if it is simply to inform one of other good places to eat ... n

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