I spent three days in Paris and only ate one decent meal. That’s not a good batting record for a country that gave the world Cordon-Bleu and Haute Cuisine, along with the fathers of modern cookery, Carême and Escoffier. French cookery techniques and terms abound throughout every recipe book you read – particularly if, like me, you were brought up on Elizabeth David and the Leith’s Bible. Even the words ‘chef’ and ‘restaurant’ are French. I was really looking forward to stuffing myself silly there, but it seems it was not to be.
So what’s wrong with the Parisian restaurant industry? A large part of the problem could be that there are so many non-natives living in the city – I heard far more American voices than I did French (“Look, honey – Noder Daym!”) – but that doesn’t really explain the whole problem. London has just as much of a multicultural population as Paris, and yet we have a thriving restaurant industry built on just that multiculturalism. Maybe it’s to do with restaurants that are aimed at tourists, rather than locals. I’ve lived in London for over ten years, and I therefore know places off the beaten track. I’m sure Parisians are the same, and spend their time laughing hollowly at the idiots such as me who choose to eat at a cafe opposite Galeries Lafayette. Of *course* you’re going to get ripped off if you go to a place like that. The overpricing was all the more apparent to me, having come from southern Italy, where even high-end food is only €65 per head. Compare that to a soggy croque-monsieur, a small bowl of chips and a carafe of tap water in said cafe in Paris, for somewhere around €20. Ridiculous. I’m sure, if you know where to look, there are good places to eat, but it shouldn’t be the case that tourists are automatically short-changed. Why can’t there be good, reasonably-priced food available for whoever wants it?
To be fair, the problem of overcharging for sub-standard food is not limited to Paris – I’ve encountered the same problem in most big cities, including Rome and Florence. Something that I found far more worrying was the way in which food was served. It came as a huge surprise to me, coming from a French cookery background, to find that after 8 months of eating like the Italians do French food is just – well – de trop. French fashion may be elegant and understated, but their food is quite the opposite – over-composed, overdressed and criminally heavy. When followed by bitter, watery coffee it makes for a pretty unpleasant evening of indigestion. Parisian restaurants seem to be sitting in a time-warp, not even moving as far forward as nouvelle cuisine. Maybe my problem was caused by the fact that I specifically sought out restaurants that served French food, rather than Thai, Indian or even Italian, but given that I was in Paris, of all places, I had hoped that French food would be the best choice.
Having discovered a supermarket on the corner of my street, I was almost ready to give up on eating out entirely and just make sandwiches. Luckily, however, before I did so I came across Bistrot Papillon. Hidden halfway down a street just off the Rue Lafayette, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Once you get inside, however, it’s all understated elegance, with wooden panelling, highly polished glass and soft-footed waiters in long, white, starched aprons. A classic French bistrot, in other words, serving classic French food in the way that it really *should* be done.
I start with snails in a tarragon and tomato sauce, with garlic croutons. It’s not the traditional way of cooking them, but it’s delicious. The tarragon and the garlic both come through strongly but without fighting each other, and the tomatoes make the dish less rich than usual. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of garlic butter – but it’s lovely to have something a little bit lighter after a few days of heavy cream sauces and overpowering dressings. I mop up the excess tarragony tomatoes with the fresh bread provided on the side, which is also delicious. The crust is tasty and nutty, while the centre is a little chewy, giving something to really get your teeth into. I hoover it up with greed, almost forgetting that I’m only at the start of the meal.
The waiter interrupts me with a discreet cough, asking if everything is all right, catching me mid-overfilled-mouthful and making me giggle like a naughty child. I think he disapproves of me – I’m too English and too alone to be decent in Paris. I order sparkling water to distract him and return to people-watching, which is one of the joys of sitting in a restaurant on your own. I don’t get the chance to do so for long, however, as my main course arrives. I’ve ordered foie de veau in cranberry sauce – Oh. My. God. It’s so soft that it’s almost liquid in the middle, with a delicate tinge of iron to the taste. The cranberry sauce, on the other hand, is fresh and zingy, cutting through any potential cloy from the liver’s creamy texture. Teamed with mashed potato, this may just be one of the most amazing dishes I’ve ever eaten. I’m still dreaming about it now.
After such a crowd-pleasing main course, the pudding was always going to have difficulties keeping up. Sure enough, when the nougat glacé with red fruit coulis turns up, it’s disappointing, the two elements being nice enough on their own, but clashing badly when put together. I’d have preferred seconds of the main course, if I’m honest, but that, I think, really *would* have sent the waiter over the edge. Instead, I thank him prettily and skip out onto the street, my faith in French cuisine (partially, at least) restored.
Image by Kate Bailward