Bon Appétit?

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

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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12 Responses to Bon Appétit?

  1. LindyLouMac says:

    Interesting post, since living in Italy I find that French food seems so rich and heavy in comparison. Although I do like French bread better than Italian bread, should I be saying that?

    Your meal did sound simply delicious though :)
    LindyLouMac´s last post ..Sunday Song – Gianni Morandi

  2. Maryann Loiacono says:

    I’ve been to Paris twice, but years ago. Could never afford the real thing so first time I ate only bread, cheese and fruit, the second, moved up to Asian and N.African. Quel domage!
    I’m staying at Il Cedro end of Sept/Oct. I’d love to meet!

  3. Katja says:

    Lindy: I used to think the same about the bread, but I’ve actually become accustomed to the Italian stuff now, and prefer it, in all its chewy glory. ;) I find French bread too crusty on the outside and not substantial enough in the middle. And as for English bread – ugh …

  4. Katja says:

    Ooh, that sounds like a great idea, Maryann! I’m probably an hour or so south of Il Cedro (Cherrye will probably have a better idea than me of timings), but I’m sure we can organise a day out somehow. How exciting!

  5. I did very well by asking for specific regional food. Ambassade d’Auvergne was a great surprise and can’t remember the Basque place near to Bon Marchè, but haven’t forgotten the chili pepper POW.

  6. Katja says:

    Aha! Excellent tips for future visits – thanks, Judith. Chili pepper is ALWAYS going to be a winner with me. It’s one of the (many) reasons I love living in southern Italy. I’m so excited about getting to Calabria and finally being able to try the fabled n’duja …

  7. Tina says:

    Ha, that’s what living in southern Italy does to a person! ;-) We are spoiled!

    I would hate to generalize all French cooking… in the south of France, particularly the Cote d’Azur, the food is less heavy (in my opinion) than its Parisian counterpart and quite delicious.

    Paris – I do love eating in Paris, it’s where I think to go when I wish to eat duck. Ah, confit de canard…
    Tina´s last post ..Motorcycling Italy

  8. Katja says:

    Tina, that’s fascinating – I always associate confit de canard with south-western France, rather than the north. I suppose it’s because that’s where I first tasted it, but I do agree with you: wherever it’s eaten, it’s delicious. I’m also a big fan of duck rillettes – deelish!

  9. Tina says:

    Actually I think it is from south-western France!

    The southern-french cuisine I refer to, however, when I talk about being less heavy, is that from along the Mediterranean :)

    But…Pugliese food is way yummier!
    Tina´s last post ..Why you should go to Naples

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  11. this comes as a surprise because, like you said, france dominates the world of cuisine. it kinda sucks that the onslaught of tourism has taken away from the quality of parisian eateries. the snails and main course sound good. my gramma loves liver.

  12. Paul Wiseall says:

    I had a girlfriend who lived in Paris for three years and whenever my studies (and bank account) would allow it I would visit her. I ended up spending a lot of time there including a whole summer and I have to say that I can only remember eating two meals where I though WOW. Otherwise it was often under cooked, stodgy or tasteless. Her dad (Dutch, living in France) told me that he once saw a man complain about the food and moments later the chef had him at the throat and threw him out the restaurant. Obviously that’s a pinch of salt kinda story but I do know that the French are so proud of their cuisine (or idea of it anyway) that a couple years ago a man called Jose Bove burnt down a Mc Donalds and claimed the defence that McDs is ruining French cuisine and all he got was 2 months in jail.
    It always strikes me that the French hold on to the idea of their cuisine being the greatest (Sarcozy once pushed for it to be named a new Wonder Of The World) like the English hold on to the idea that they are still the kings of world football.
    Rant over :D
    Paul Wiseall´s last post ..Funny Fanny – A Quick Look At Italian Swear Words

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