I was in Paris last week - I've only ever been for a couple of days in August, usually at the end, but never for a whole week. I went thinking that basically anyone whos anyone heads out of the city, I was a bit worried about what I would find in the way of restaurants, food shops and markets. The answer is: not a great deal.. the markets were there but thinned out. Most restaurants and food shops (indeed all other kinds of shops too, clothing, cleaners, salons) that are not located in the centre or around the major hotels, were shuttered.
On the upside, the weather was fantastic and we had Paris almost completely to ourselves no traffic, few pedestrians once we left the main drags. And where something was open museums, grands magasins including La Grande Epicerie and Gal. Laf Gourmet the crowds were minor, and expressed the same smug, secretly knowing glances that New Yorkers who remain in the City in August do, as if to say whats the fuss about getting out of here? Theres more for us. The biggest crowd we saw was at an outdoor screening of The Matrix at La Villette, where people gathered with picnics for a night under the stars.
As for food, all I can say is a little research and flexibility goes a long way. I should have reminded myself that it was unlikely that Id starve! I had a good guidebook and a list of places that were meant to be open. However, not all of them stuck to the printed vacation schedule, as guidebooks are written far in advance of their publication date, the information even in the most trustworthy ones is a) subject to change and b) sometimes more than a year and half old by the time its printed c) just plain wrong so best to call in advance to find out the vacation schedule. For example, mine indicated that La Cave à LOs à Moelle (LOs à Moelle-lite) would be open, but that LOs à Moelle would be closed for August this didnt really make sense at its owned/operated by the same people, and indeed, both were closed at least for the week I was there.
When we werent picnicking or making a meal out of ice cream (Newsflash: Berthillon may be closed but its not the only game in town!), we went to the following restaurants, Id readily return to all except possibly Bistrot de Champêtre, as they each surprised us in some way.
Bistro Champêtre (rue Saint-Charles, 15th) if this were a gastropub in London (indeed, it looks like an about-to-be-renovated 70s pub) it would be packed every night and held up as a model of what London needs more of (except of course for the prices, theyd be pretty painful for pub grub). However, for Paris it was a bit disappointing I guess after all these years I am eternally optimistic that almost every place I eat will have something to recommend it - in this case, the service was good, the portions, large. But the food was bland and boring. I wrote down what we ate, otherwise I would not remember magret de canard (distinguishable by its size); a lamb dish about which we can recall nothing else; and a Baba au Rhum which was too sweet (the rum should speak for itself).
Swann et Vincent a pretty Italian restaurant near the Viaduct in the 12th, on rue Saint-Nicolas with its tile floors and high ceilings, is cool and welcoming on a hot day, Food is fresh, simple and home-made. We had a plate of fried sardines, and one of just-wilted spinach with shavings of parmesan, followed by gnochetti with pesto and tagliatelle carbonara, and a half carafe of Chianti. A perfect lunch if you can follow with a snooze ! And I think there are one or two other Swann et Vincents around.
We hit pay dirt. The day before, we had been searching for an open bakery, and we passed a restaurant whose name, Stéphane Martin, I recognised from my guide. It was being renovated which surprised me because the book said it had just been renovated. I asked if it was changing hands and in fact one of the people doing renovations was the chef/owner, and he said definitely not and that it would be open the next day (turns out it had been renovated last two years prior, and the info in the 2002 guide was therefore a bit out of date). Although I thought it was highly unlikely that it would be ready (it really looked like a construction site) I called for a dinner reservation.
When we arrived, it didnt even smell like paint. Its a small restaurant, maybe 25 covers divided between two rooms. Only two of the other tables were occupied. There was a set menu of three courses for 29 (plus an extremely fair £3.50 supplement for a couple of things), and each course offered three or four choices. For starters, E. had langoustine ravioli in an oil and basil sauce, and I chose marinated sardines. Both were delicious but the ravioli were exquisite. We were also offered a couple of amuse-gueules, home-made cheese sticks and some stuffed olives. For the main dish, I wanted to try a signature dish, a braised jarret of porc with spiced honey, but it was for two and he wasnt game. So I had the had a moelleux de homard and he had a rable de lapin (saddle). I didnt regret my choice the moelleux was amazing, a reduction of the lobster mixed into creamy mashed potatoes, with large chunks of lobster. The head of the lobster was positioned at the side of the plate like the ornamental carved stern of a dragon boat. Id say this was the best main dish of the week. I am not a rabbit fan, and E. declared it perfect it was wrapped in bacon. But he certainly paid a lot of attention to my moelleux ! All was washed down by a half-bottle of 2000 Pouilly Fumé. For dessert, I had a tarte aux mirabelles those little yellow plums I have only ever seen in France in August and he had a banana sliced roasted and served in its skin, with a sauce caramel and pine nuts. Post-dessert amuses included truffles; sesame brittle; and tiny cannelles.. This was top-notch cooking at bargain-basement prices the entire meal came to around than 85, including water, wine and service, and served in calm, relaxing and friendly surroundings.
I had heard that the les Bouchons chain of bistros there are about six ? of them - stayed open in August, and that the wine list was interesting. We chose the one nearest us, Les Ptits Bouchons on Blvd Montparnasse, and went for dinner the next day. If it hadnt been August, I wouldnt have chosen to sit outside on this busy avenue. But it was really quiet. As a starter, I had tuna marinated with bean sprouts and dry noodles in a gingery-soy sauce, which was great, and E. had a cold cucumber soup with scoops of melon with tomato/basil sorbet. Id say this was the starter of the trip. For my main, I chose confit de canard, which was huge, rich and unctuous though I guess not really a summer dish (though casting an eye over what I ate, nothing was very summery !) and he had veal with gnocchi and mushrooms Im not a veal fan but he said it was good. The other star of the meal (and of the week) was my dessert, a moelleux of chocolat (I guess moelleux was a theme), the perfect just-solid outside with melted chocolate inside, served with pain dépice ice cream (a cross between gingerbread and spice cake). E ordered a vacherin with raspberry coulis which we expected to be some intriguing preparation using vacherin cheese. As it was, there was not a hint of cheese in any of it it was more like a Pavlova, with meringue bits layered with raspberry. But by then, after a bottle of Condrieu Jean-Luc Colombo 2001, (which was just one of a very eclectic and well-priced wine list of options clearly chosen by someone who knows what he/she is doing). We were too sated and happy to bother to ask wheres the Vache. As mentioned, there are about four or five other 'bouchon' restaurants, and I'm going to start checking them out over the next year.
I had been hearing non-stop from E. about how he coveted my moelleux de homard, so we called Stéphane Martin to find out a) if they had any tables left for that evening and b) if moelleux was still on the menu. Yes to both, so we returned. The heat had taken the edge off our hunger, so we ordered à la carte this time, but from the same menu. We skipped the starters, and E had the moelleux de homard, and I had a fabulous pavé de foie gras - a very large portion of pan-fried foie served with match stick potatoes and peppery leaves not arugula but similar. The waiter recommended an excellent Wolfberger Rangen Tokay Pinot Gris 1997, on the menu for 50, and Im told normally costs at least 1/3 more in shops. Same amuses as on the previous visit, and even one other familiar group of diners (this time the restaurant was half full. So much for eating light - for dessert, we shared a plate of cheese and a refreshing apple tart and went away happy once again. Not sure what it will be like when the neighbors come back from holiday but Im looking forward to going back next chance I have.
This was our last night, and I decided to do something completely out of character: i.e. picking a restaurant based on location, location, location. I booked Le Ciel de Paris, on the 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse, which I thought would be like eating at a latterday Tavern on the Green i.e. beautiful setting, unbeatable view, food is beside the point. In my albeit limited experience, of the handful of restaurants-with-a-view in which Ive eaten, only Windows on the World (RIP) succeeded in evolving into a place where youd go for the food, and it took them a long, long time.
But a restaurant critic Id met earlier that week told me Ciel had a new chef who was doing interesting things. And really, how bad could it be? I figured the worst that could happen was that it would be a colossal rip-off, not the worst thing in the world. It turned out to be magical. Another hot but clear night, and Ciel of course is airconditioned. We were led to a table by the window (we were told this could not be reserved, so we were just lucky) where we had a birds view of all the major sights: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Arche de la Defense all sparkling below. It was difficult to tear myself away long enough to look at the menu which had an extensive menu plus a prix-fixe option with many choices. Again, being too hot to go whole hog, we shared a large starter of bonito tartare. Then E. had a saddle of lamb, and I had a succulent braised oxtail stuffed with foie gras. We shared a baba au Grand Marnier for dessert, and a bottle of Nuits St Georges Louis Jadot 1998 which E declared well-priced for this kind of restaurant, although it more than doubled the cost of the meal. Every table in the restaurant was taken but the table was ours for the evening, and we took our time. Great people watching: the crowd was a mixture of tourists (Spanish, American, Japanese) dressed in everything from shorts and t-shirts to evening-wear, and French families celebrating birthdays (Happy Birthday was played on the piano-bar several time yes, its a piano which has been custom-extended to double as a bar how much more kitsch can you get?) Although the meal was wonderful and romantic, it was by far the most expensive of the trip and a perfect ending. I might go back for breakfast though, as its open from very early and Ill bet it has a totally different buzz during the day.
Paris sans Berthillon
Ive only been to Paris in August for a couple of days at a time before, not long enough to lament the closure of Berthillon at what would seem the most inopportune time (from a visitors point of view, anyway!) But I hardly noticed, after finding Gelati Alberti on Rue Mouffetard. A tiny place that resembles a kiosk more than a shop (theres only uncomfortable seating for five or six), its clear Alberti has put all its effort into the flavours and presentation of the ice creams/sorbets. The large range of flavors includes nothing more unusual than lemon meringue and green tea, but the quality is very high and if you order a cone, the scoops are carved into roses. Down the hill, also on Rue Mouffetard is another ice cream place - Octave, which I cannot recommend not because the ice cream isnt good (it is) - but because I got into one of those typical fights with the manager that only seem to happen in Paris. We sat down at one of the out-door tables, after having ordered cones from the counter - because we had ordered food to be taken away. It was 30 degrees C and I said wed be more than happy to leave if a paying customer came along (the street, and shop, were as empty as a Sergio Leone film street, all that was missing was the tumbleweed and twangy music). But he insisted that if an inspector came by, he could get fined for allowing us to sit there. Not only have I never seen a restaurant inspector in Paris, but I doubted the chances of one making an appearance in the middle of August when most places were shut. Whatever. Those who love ice cream will go to Alberti!