Whatever else one does in Paris one must eat and although we had a shaky start we certainly had some interesting meals. On our first night we tried to take up one of the suggestions in the hotel’s own visitor guide to restaurants close by. Two seemed possible, the Ambassade d’Auvergne a few doors down from the hotel or Nicolas Flamel just around the corner. Both appeared to be traditional French in style however on locating each of them we found them to be closed and realised that they did not open for at least another half and hour. Standing in the narrow street outside Flamel’s we turned around and saw a very modern and new looking French restaurant which also appeared to be not open yet but in which we could see the kitchen and wait staff having their own dinner before opening. As we were studying the menu at the door the Chinese French maître d’ came out and invited us in saying that although the kitchen was not open for another 15 minutes we were welcome to come in and sit down with a glass of wine and wait. That was an offer hard to resist so in we went to Le Mazenay at 46 rue de Montmorency. The meals that we had at Le Mazenay were both excellent, top quality food. Prices as ever were higher than for a comparable meal in Sydney but for Paris definitely fair for the market. One thing we noticed was that, as far as I could tell, we were the only overseas tourists dining that evening. Some of the others may have come from other parts of France but they all appeared to be French.
For our second night out we got the opening time right for Ambassade d’Auvergne but then found that a further obstacle was the expectation that one had a booking. We didn’t, of course, but they were still able to seat us, it being early in the evening, although we had to sit at the “naughty bench” for those untutored tourists without bookings. I think that this was the only restaurant we ate at where the staff verged on the cultural stereotype of the rude and superior French person. The maître d’ having clearly put us in our place, which was on the large eight seater cross table at the back, seemed to relent somewhat but remained aloof. Our assigned waiter was rather more accommodating. I think he felt a bit sorry for us.
We took seats in the middle of the “naughty bench” and realised the accuracy of our perception when part way through our meal three guys, clearly on a business trip, were seated at one end of the table next to us. The party comprised a German, and a Kiwi for sure and probably the third was also from NZ. This was quite amusing as we got to overhear snippets of their conversation during which the Kiwi anguished over whether “the client” would pay up as they “had a purchase order” while the German, clearly assuming the role of leader, reassured his companions of the client’s certainty to pay. As they ordered it was clear that they all wished to seem confident and sophisticated, especially our German, who ordered something that was definitely going to involve a lot of meat.
Indeed, we found, in general, that meat featured very prominently on most menus and green vegetables were usually missing in action. Both of our meals were essentially “meat and potatoes” with rather more meat than potatoes. The meat was generally well cooked and lathered in creamy sauces. What fun, then, when our German’s meal arrived looking like a whole side of beef that had been barely seared on its surfaces. He had to eat it though, whilst giving the impression of knowing full well that it was going to be practically raw inside. What a chew! Talking of potatoes, a speciality of the house appeared to be “cheesy potatoes” of which we were given a number of graphic demonstrations as it appeared to be the practice to bring this part of the meal to the table in a copper saucepan and then draw it out to illustrate its consistency for the customer’s approval.
Meanwhile further guests had been placed on the “naughty bench” at the other end. Also probably in town for business these two guys appeared to be speaking Spanish but I sensed they were from South America and not Spain. To order one of them spoke English to the maître d’ who replied in kind while the guest then translated for his companion. So many people we encountered spoke passable English and here was a clear demonstration of its modern role as a lingua franca as Latin had been centuries ago.
On night number three we were discouraged by our previous night’s experience from trying Nicolas Flamel’s as we had had enough of “traditional” French style eating and as we were also exhausted from a very long day of walking we took the path of least resistance and returned to Le Mazenay for a reassuringly excellent meal. The following night we were determined to find something further afield and as we had timed our visit to the Pompidou Centre for late in the day we wandered among the many colourful restaurants spilling out onto the pavements of the surrounding streets. We finally chose one that appeared to be properly authentic, whatever that means, called Le Petit Marcel. The classic test of a French restaurant’s quality is of course “Le patron mange ici” but next best is that local French families “mange la” and as I hope you can see from my picture that is exactly what was occupying the table across from us. As the web site Paris-Bistro.com enthuses in charming Google translation:
“And it packs Petit Marcel! Shoulders shoulders against the counter to wait for a table, then bends his elbows on the bench, not the kind Ramolo bistro! For if the pleasure is filled it, the stomach is far from forgotten. So, to each service the place is often full. No wonder, it is one of the best addresses for its quality / price in the area. With a brief but hearty bistro card. Special mention for the quality of Charolais tartare round trip (€ 12.50) with home fries or blocks. Besides the classic bistro pure, daily specials sometimes play in innovation according to the head and the good arrivals offered by suppliers.“
And you can’t say fairer than that. Incidentally, this was the only place we ate where the waiter really didn’t speak any English – it was that authentic! And we did have a very hearty, uncomplicated meal that was tasty, filling and good value for money. Nothing fancy, just good food, simply cooked. Most interesting, though, were the ice cream “parfums” we had for dessert. I should mention that on our second night at Le Mazenay we had sampled the most exquisite ice cream flavours which caused us to search deep in our taste memories to identify them. They were basil, mint and Madagascan vanilla. Petit Marcel served us up with a fantastically intense blackcurrant with a mint and a hazelnut flavour. The flavours were from the real herbs though, not some artificially synthesised “parfum”.
By now Kate was hankering after something a little different, in fact, some local Lebanese food and as we had seen a Lebanese place called Le Falafel Café on our way home from Le Petit Marcel. So on Monday night we entered a little hesitantly as the place looked very much like somewhere one might find along Kings Street in Newtown, Sydney. It was almost empty but it seemed to be doing quite good takeaway business and later a few locals came in to sit and eat. Definitely not a tourist eatery, it was however excellent, no nonsense Lebanese and as it turned out absolutely the best value meal we had the entire time in Paris. The waitress was most friendly and helpful and we went back the hotel very happy.
Encouraged by the previous evening’s success we headed off into Le Marais in search of something comforting and found a small Italian place called Salento on rue du Temple. As usual we were the first customers of the evening which is always it little worrying but by the time we left it was completely packed and though there seemed to be many locals dining there our immediate neighbours were from, you guessed it, Australia. Once again we had a great success with some very stylish meals, a risotto and a bolognaise. Not very French but very good quality and once more with friendly and professional service. In fact one guy ran the service for the entire restaurant all night.
So how were we to top all of that? Well on our last full day we had come across some very nice looking places around the Palais Royal (about which more in another post) and were studying the menu outside one place when one of the “staff” emerged from the doorway and encouraged us to return for dinner, giving us a card and suggesting we book right then. Naturally we were unable to take such a bold step but by the time we had arrived back at the hotel we had determined that we would indeed return for dinner and what is more, we would book in advance to avoid the “naughty bench” or any of those “down the nose” looks from le patron. Of course we didn’t realise that it was Carol herself who had spoken to us until we did a little research.
The evening was not an unambiguous success however as on arrival we were, yet again, the only people in the place apart from the single waiter (these restaurants are often quite small). It wasn’t until we had nearly finished our meal that others began arriving. We are clearly not used to staying out late. Our meals were pretty good and once again we finished with very herby basil and mint ice cream. Neither of us have ever eaten ice cream quite like those that we were being served. The waiter was, I think, not used to having people in the restaurant so early and seemed to be popping our for a smoko all the time. Nevertheless, at the end of the meal, he suddenly announced that he would like us to have a complimentary glass of champagne and hoped that we would say something nice about La Table du Palais Royal on whatever site we used! So there you have it. If you travel nowadays you will know the pressures to review everywhere and everything you see and do. TripAdvisor, Expedia.com, Booking.com, they are all onto you to tell them what you thought. I have reached “Senior Reviewer” status on TripAdvisor with no trouble at all and I have reviewed only a fraction of that which I could have done. Welcome to the “trust” economy.
You are probably wondering, not, “well that was all the dinners, what about the lunches?” I don’t think you could endure it so I will deal with food on the run in other posts.