50 Best, Akrame, Akrame Benallal, Alain Passard, Alexandre Bourdas, Atsushi Tanaka, David Toutain, Du Pain et Des Idées, France, Joël Robuchon, L'Arpege, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Le Comptoir du Relais, Le Servan, Michelin, Paris, Restaurant A.T., SaQuaNa, Tatiana Lehva
There we were, hours after manoeuvring through the gongshow of the Charles de Gaulle airport, making our way through the Tuileries Garden with pastries in our hands. Each bite into the flaky escargots aux raisins felt like pure butter melting in our mouth. It was glorious! So much so that the men harassing tourists to buy 1 € Eiffel Tower replicas weren’t as irritating as they were five minutes before. But Paris as we all know is not just about the next chocolatine. Known as the home of some of the best art, history, architecture, fashion and cuisine, somehow our sojourn into this highly explored and documented city still managed to surprise us in ways we had not imagined.
Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation during our walk through Paris upon arrival, but more so than other European cities we’ve visited, it reeked of sewer, had so much grime, people harassed you often enough and the rain that subsequently came pouring in from our visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral at the Île de la Cité, dampened our exhausted mood even more. As we delved straight into its culinary offerings that evening, we became somewhat more disappointed. Our first major meal brought us to the two-Michelin starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon as it was one of the few establishments open on a Sunday night (the consequence of arriving on the day of rest in the Old World).
Nevertheless, with a power nap in tow we made our way with great enthusiasm to our first dining escapade in Paris, bumping into Julia Stiles on the way there, and then being greeted by a line-up of fellow tourists with a simultaneous reservation. It was pandemonium. We’ve never had to wait in a line-up at a Michelin rated restaurant before, and our fellow patrons seemed to express our sentiments. But looking at other restaurants on the way to the restaurant, a similar line up had ensued, and perhaps this is normalcy in Paris. Inside however, was just the same. With bar-like seating, a frenetic atmosphere, and a Spanish server, we could have easily been on the streets of Madrid ordering tapas on a Friday night. The main difference being, the food was a little more refined, the people, a little less inebriated, and the decorations, quite beautiful and so reflective of the season. But overall we could not help but feel a little underwhelmed by some of the food and several repeats from our meal at Joël Robuchon Las Vegas three years ago.
Good sleep however yields better brain functionality and the next day our trip finally started to pick up pace when our cousin studying at nearby Fontainebleau joined us for lunch. Le Comptoir du Relais filled our stomachs with their classically French bistro cuisine and light wines and our minds with delightful conversation. Hours later we emerged out of its depths to an unending lineup of patrons. With our stomachs pleased and the sun beginning to shine, the ethos of Paris began to bestow itself upon us, and a return to Île de la Cité to visit one of the most impressive stained glass in-situ collections completed our afternoon. Somehow our relationship with our cousin has managed to span over three continents. As we look back on our childhood, it is almost unimaginable to think how far we have come along yet how connected we remain. (Shout out to you Jon-D. Thanks for joining us!)
It was not until later that evening that we were introduced to what we now see as this hub of young, superbly trained chefs, establishing their place in this massive world of Parisian dining. And it all started with dinner at the eponymous restaurant of the former head of Agapé Substance, David Toutain. Here, a very interesting mix of playfully odd flavour combinations kept coming back to us. And when his signature dish of smoked eel, a purée of black sesame and slices of apple was served, my brother and I looked at each other quite bewildered. Somehow though, the entire dish blended together quite well just as the entire menu did. And although his four hands dinner the day after with two-Michelin starred Alexandre Bourdas of SaQuaNa was not as mystifying, it played more on Asian flavours and techniques, and we still thoroughly enjoyed it.
Lunch several days later at Restaurant A. T. (Atsushi Tanaka) was a wonderful surprise. The quiet and unassuming chef served the essence one would expect from a Japanese man trained at the hands of the world’s culinary elite. And dinner at two-starred Akrame just off Champs-Elysées that followed that day was a very unique meal that represented much of the chef’s childhood in Algeria and adulthood in France. But there were some dishes that made us feel like we needed a better idea of what Algerian cuisine was about to have a greater appreciation for what he served us that evening. And we must have had a hard time counting that evening, because our six course menu somehow turned out to be ten by the time it all ended.
Then just before departing for the airport, we found some time to kill near the 11th arrondissement where we decided to make our way to Le Servan. Many describe this place as Filipino-French cuisine, mainly due to Chef Tatiana Lehva’s background, but I would argue that it was more of French with infusions of Asian flavours as opposed to just Filipino. Nevertheless, it was superb soul-gratifying cooking in a lovely setting, and similar to restaurant Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mar, you know that women are running this show. Our only regret of this entire trip to Paris is not having the opportunity to visit this restaurant again.
Laying on the cusp of haute and bistro cuisine, these chefs have created a niche – providing modern and excellent quality food and cooking with prices reflective of this day and age of austerity. It is quite remarkable how these chefs have taken so much from their predecessors, yet established a culture of dining that is so unique. And although many claim that French cuisine is now passé – flocking instead to the likes of Spain, Scandinavia, Tokyo and South America – what we found through the establishments of these young chefs is an adaptation to the world today, more so than many places we have recently visited. And it is partly because of this that Parisian dining is, in so many ways, relevant and accessible to the times.
But what would a trip to Paris be without a visit to one of the establishments that trained so many of the aforementioned chefs? Although we had to dig deep into our pockets to experience the biodynamic haute cuisine of Alain Passard at L’Arpege, this was a very solid three-Michelin star experience. Many may scoff at the thought of a predominantly vegetarian meal, but perhaps they have yet to experienced a meal at the hands of the king of vegetables. Dish after dish was a richness unlike any other, and the superb use of colours was both playful and delightful. The hospitality of the staff too, although systematic, was neither bereft of charm or kindness. Thus making the meal sublime from start to end, and one that we could not find fault in, even if we tried. Perhaps in subsequent visits to Paris we shall be able to visit the house of Barbot (Astrance), Pacaud (Ambroisie), Gagnaire (Pierre Gagnaire) and the like. For now, they shall remain untouchables, goals to work towards and something to look forward to in subsequent visits.
From our dining experiences above, to manoeuvring through the selfie lovers next to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre (those nasty selfie sticks can burn in hell!), to hunting after Starry Night and Whistler’s Mother at the Musée d’Orsay (she was in Tokyo), to eating a hotdog on a toasted French bread at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and so much more, Paris really grew on us. Similar to the men selling Eiffel Tower replicas by the Tuileries Garden as we ate the buttery pastries, what was initially grime faded into the background and all that remained was character and charm. And to epitomize it all, after our meal at Le Servan, we found ourselves, on the advise of my colleague, visiting a graveyard called Père Lachaise, where the likes of Frederic Chopin and Jim Morrison were laid to rest. Never in our wildest dreams would we have pictured ourselves visiting a graveyard on vacation, but the autumn foliage combined with the crisp air and eery towering monuments made it all quite endearing.
They call this place the the city of light. A centre of intellectual illumination. So little did we know when we first arrived, and so little do we still know, but Paris opened our eyes to this culinary and cultural capital full of wonder and elegance. We barely scratched the surface of this mecca and there is so much yet to be explored. But at least for now we have been introduced, and to Paris we say: enchanté.
More pictures and posts of the places and restaurants we visited in Paris are forthcoming, but for now, click here to to view the pictures processed thus far.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny