Paris On A Plate: Pól Ó Conghaile tucks into the French capital
Just how sexy can a bean be? I’m sitting in a bistro on rue Montmartre, about to chow down a bowl of cassoulet. The saucy mix of duck leg, confit, sausages and big white beans is a French classic - one of those dishes every self-respecting chef has a secret ingredient or special recipe for. Everyone agrees on the beans, however. They’re what give a good cassoulet its aphrodisiac qualities, you see. And several hours after plucking the address for Comptoir de la Gastronomie from a foodie feature in Condé Nast Traveller, we’re sitting amongst its pearly lights and wooden tables with a bunch of regulars. I raise an eyebrow, smile at my wife, and tuck in.
Cole Porter loved Paris in the spring. But really, when you’re eating your way around a global gastronomic capital, any season will do. Paris may have ceded some culinary mojo to Spain’s Nueva Cocina and Scandinavia’s Nordic cuisine in recent years, but chefs are still artists here, terroir still trumps everything, and a good meal leaves you in love with life. A few years ago, we learned these fundamentals at Brasserie Balzar, a buzzing Left Bank bistro where brusquely balletic waiters floated around with plates of snails and sautéed scallops, with chunks of chateaubriand and bowls of onion soup wafting with deep, seductive stock that could have been brewed for days. For dessert, I ordered a passion fruit sorbet.
“I’ll bring the sorbet,” the waiter said. “But the passion comes from mademoiselle.”
Cheesy, I know. But ever since, food and Paris have been inextricably linked for me. On this visit, the smell of fresh bread is the first thing that hits us as we surface from the metro at Chatelet Les Halles. In my back pocket is a list the length of the Champs Elysees. There’s Le Train Bleu , an ornate old fixture of the Gare de Lyon. There’s Les Papilles near the Jardin du Luxembourg, a wine cellar, deli and restaurant offering market-fresh three-course menus with cheese for €31. There are patisseries by the (baker’s) dozen around Saint-Sulpice in the eleventh arrondissement. Paris boasts a veritable constellation of Michelin Stars, but you don’t have to pay stellar prices, or even eat particularly French, to enjoy fine dining. The market lunch menu cooked by Chicagoan Daniel Rose at Spring costs €46, changes weekly, and is served up in a tiny, 28-seater gem just a stone’s throw from the Louvre-Rivoli metro station.
There’s no problem working up an appetite between meals, either. Try the Musée D’Orsay’s fifth floor impressionist gallery, where you can pore over Degas’ ballet dancers and Cezanne’s fruit before viewing the cityscape through the arms of this former railway station’s giant clocks. You can do big hits, like the Louvre, or small wonders, like the kooky collection of flying machines at the Musée des Arts et Metiers. My wife is coeliac, so we make a point of visiting Helmut Newcake on rue Bichat in the tenth. In a patisserie advertising itself as the first “100% gluten-free” bakery in Paris, we sit by a bare-brick wall splashed with raunchy prints (my favourite: Pope Marilyn I). Lemon meringue, a chocolate éclair and a fresh berry tart all get the thumbs up. Of course, this being Paris, there are rip-offs as well as romance. At another café, I pay €5.50 for a cappuccino, only to have the receipt fired down five minutes later. Back at Comptoir, by contrast, it costs €4 for a glass of Côtes du Rhône. The waitress is a breath of fresh air, there’s a basket of crusty bread on the side, and the cassoulet’s mix of meaty sausages, smooth confit and powdery beans goes down a treat. Yes, beans can be sexy. But in Paris, pretty much everything is.