Greek mythology tells of ambrosia, the food of the gods bestowing immortality, but I’d give up my place at Zeus’s eternal table for a bite of French gastronomy any day. My salivary glands activate just thinking about my next trip to Paris. Here are some foodie tips I’ve picked up that guarantee a nonstop feast while in that gourmet city:
- Plan ahead when necessary, but only if reservations are mandated. I dreamed of dining in the Eiffel Tower and so, in preparation for my first trip to Paris in 1989, I phoned ahead to the Jules Verne restaurant to book a table for two for my mom and me. The chef and his staff delivered a divine haute cuisine meal of quail pâté, tender fish filets in creamy sauce, a cheese board, and meringue with fresh fruit in a raspberry coulis. Another Parisian adventure in 2011 with my own daughter required reservations at Brasserie Julien, an Art Deco gem where the traditional French onion soup had a wine-laced bite and the sweet finish of melted Comté cheese. Neither establishment would have been accessible without reservations.
- Be spontaneous whenever possible. I contend that the best food in Paris is found in the markets or along the sidewalks. During a family road trip in 1994, we grabbed many a warm and crusty baguette from the closest boulangerie to fill our bottomless pit of a teen son; the back seat of our rental Renault was carpeted in crumbs! French fries really do taste better in France, and heirloom tomatoes plucked from the shelf of a greengrocer smell of the sun-soaked garden. But I consumed my favourite Gallic fast food from a vendor on a curb near the opera house: crêpes hot off the griddle, sugary with crispy edges and dripping with butter.
- Forget about calories; you’ll walk them off. The title of Mireille Guiliano’s classic French Women Don’t Get Fat is my mantra when I help myself to cheeses from Normandy, and foie gras from the south, and rich quiche Lorraine,and flaky pain au chocolat (the first treat I buy when I get off the plane). After strolling the Champs-Élysées hand-in-hand on a romantic stop-over in 2003, my husband and I celebrated our final-that-trip meal in Paris with a flute of nose-tickling champagne and a burnt-top, vanilla bean crème brûlée. And the wild cherry sorbet I discovered at Berthillon in 2006 is definitely worth the tromp across the Seine to Ile Saint-Louis!
- Don’t overeat. There’s more culinary delight around every corner, and dining progressively only multiplies the pleasure. I usually begin my morning in Paris with a café au lait and a melt-in-the-mouth croissant grabbed along the way, then picnic on gleanings from whatever specialty store takes my fancy: cured sausage from a charcuterie, yogurt from a laiterie, a wedge of cheddar-like Cantal from a fromagerie. Drinking wine in a park or on the banks of the Seine (if sipped discreetly) will not attract the attention of police. If in fact you feel bloated, grab some greens, as I did with my first salade Niçoise piled high with tuna and anchovies and eggs,from a random eatery near the impressionist Musée d’Orsay.But don’t forget to save room for chocolate—lots of chocolate—which might actually have been the ambrosia the Greeks dreamed about!
- Do judge a restaurant by its appearance. I find that in Paris you can almost never go wrong when sitting to eat, so feel free to select an establishment based on the condition of the floors or the comfort of the chairs. One time my travel companion and I, ravenous after an hour or two of fasting, set out to find our supper. We passed over one location because a diner we spotted through the window eschewed his glass and drank straight from a bottle (how crass!), and we disdained a cabaret when we noted the absence of white linen. Finally we settled on a cozy bistro with a fixed-price menu. I ordered the mini pasta pockets stuffed with cheese and topped with creamy sauce and a pile of lardons (yummy bits of sautéed smoked ham). It so reminded me of my mother’s ethnic cooking (in Low German: Varenikje, Schmaunt Fat, Schinkje) that I exclaimed aloud, “The French even make Mennonite food better than the Mennonites!”
- Expect the unexpected. We devoured pepper steak glazed with burgundy sauce at Ma Bourgogne in the Marais district, and got talking to a guest seated at a nearby table who turned out to be a famous French singer (Emmanuelle Mottaz, top of the charts just then). She invited us up to her apartment for after-dinner decaf and a peek at her signed lithograph by her father’s friend, Salvadore Dali. Talk about dessert!
- Linger. In my opinion and despite the vast epicurean choice in the city, the quintessential Parisian experience will always be “wasting time” at a sidewalk café. The waiters can be rude, dogs are always welcome, and tables are not necessarily clean, but this makes no difference when the platter or mug is set before you. For example, Café Charlot is positioned on a noisy street corner across from the foreboding exterior of the Pompidou Museum. Its renovated 1950’s décor with white metro-style tile walls is very cool, but even so I was unprepared for my first (or most recent in 2015) sip of their chocolat chaud. Bittersweet and thick as molasses, it excited my taste buds to such heavenly ecstasy that I was fairly transported to the Elysian Fields.
So, if you’re on your way to Paris, go hungry, make eating your destination, and expect gastronomic delights of mythical proportion!
(Like me, my main character in The Third Grace grew up under the marvellous cooking of a Mennonite mother and freely samples Parisian fare at every turn!)