I used to say that I could never hack it as a vegetarian because I love hamburgers too much. I know this is true because a no-meat eating phase I dabbled with when I was a teen ended rather abruptly when my craving for a cheeseburger got the better of me; after 10 months of going without, I sunk my teeth into that grilled patty blanketed in ooey gooey cheddar perfection and I never looked back.
I’ve become a little bit less carnivorous as I’ve aged, and now I say that if I had to give up meat for some reason, I probably could. But I don’t think I could ever go vegan, for the simple reason that I’m not sure I could live in a world without cheese. From sharp Cheddars to pungent Stiltons and Roqueforts that look like forgotten science experiments to nutty Gruyeres and creamy Bries and Camemberts, I love them all. After 20-some-odd months in largely lactose-free Asia AND given that I tend to subscribe to the “the stinkier the better” school of thought when it comes to cheese, I eagerly looked forward to the party in my mouth that Paris would surely bring.
Of course, hard as it is to believe, there is plenty more to French food than bread and cheese. However—and I don’t think this is a news flash—Paris is rather expensive, especially when it comes to dining out. So, with our budget in mind, we didn’t sample the cuisine as widely as we otherwise might have and tended to self-cater most of our meals to keep costs reasonable. Thankfully, with bakeries on practically every corner (featuring the best bread in the world), and a mind-boggling assortment of cheeses, meats (including my beloved rillettes—essentially chopped meat (anything from rabbit to pork to goose) cooked slowly in its own fat, resulting in something that tastes way better than it sounds!) and—of course—wine on offer at impossibly low prices, defaulting to living room picnics (and outdoor ones when the weather cooperated) was not only an easy way to keep our food budget in check, but a delicious way to experience the simple flavors of France as well.
Also, shopping for food as the French do is a cultural eye-opener. One of the most charming things about food shopping in France is how many specialty shops there are; although most North Americans are now used to simply heading to the one-stop grocery store, this is not the French way. One night when picking up ingredients for a simple dinner with our CouchSurfing hosts, we popped into no fewer than five shops (butcher, cheese shop, wine shop, vegetable/produce shop, bakery). And of course, these catch-all terms that we use in English are further sub-divided as well—different bakeries specialize in different things: visit the boulangerie if you want a baguette, but head to the patisserie if you’re looking for something sweet. The same goes for meat: in France, a boucherie can specialize in game, poultry, or even—the rumors are true—horse. At times it seems the specializations (and sub-specializations) are endless, and our hosts admitted that, given the French proclivity for buying groceries daily, they generally don’t have time to shop in the traditional way during the week and will instead pop by a chain grocery store. But if you ever want to begin to understand how the French think about and approach food differently than so much of the west, take the time to visit some of their specialty food shops. Like visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, I’d say they are an experience not to be missed.
There’s another reason to self-cater in Paris too: although the price tags on menus—and the long-standing belief that Paris is a foodie’s paradise—may convince you that you’re sitting down to a quality meal prepared with the utmost skill, there’s been a disturbing trend in recent years for restaurants to rely increasingly upon frozen and ready made foods. Sounds distinctly un-French, no? And yet, the problem has become so bad, that there have been talks of requiring restaurants to denote on their menus which items are fait maison (house made) versus plucked off the assembly line, so diners can make informed choices. For a budget traveler, it’s no small thing to pay €15 or €20 per person on a meal, and yet without extensive research beforehand, there’s no guarantee your meal wasn’t simply thawed in the microwave. Most blogs and reviews we read about trusted restaurants were, sadly, beyond our means—even when visiting for special fixed price lunch menus. I think part of our frustration with Paris came from the fact that one of the things we wanted to do most—eat!—often felt prohibitively expensive, and there were a few times when we felt maybe we would have enjoyed the city more if we had visited on a one-off vacation when we could have splurged without worry. Then again, after enjoying so many meals that cost less than €4 for the both of us, even modestly priced meals had elevated expectations pinned upon them and, to be perfectly honest, nothing seemed less appetizing than 5 star meals with price tags to match. In the spirit of being 100% honest with you, when I think back on the food we ate in Paris, the ones we had at home are the ones I enjoyed best. One thing I’ve certainly taken away from our travels is that food doesn’t have to be fussy or fancy in order to be tasty.
Take, for instance, the meals that our CouchSurfing host Marianne made for us. Our first night with her & Nico, she whipped up a Hachis Parmentier—essentially the French name for a Shepherd’s Pie. Served with a simple side salad of cucumbers, an artisanal baguette, and—of course—a healthy cheese plate to round things out, it was comfort food at its finest.
The following night, she made us a classic seafood dish from Lyon called Quenelles de Brochet, which features a creamy fish mousse that is poached in a rich tomato sauce that tastes a bit like lobster bisque. Hearing that Tony had been going through rice withdrawal since leaving Asia, she served it over top mounds of white rice (all the better to sop up the incredible sauce). This is a dish that the host family I lived with in France for a few months during a language exchange back when I was 15 would make quite regularly, and although I had completely forgotten it existed, one taste of it brought long lost memories flooding back. For me, that is the power of food—it nurtures so much more than our bellies and its power isn’t restricted to expensive restaurants and haute cuisine. I know that the next time I have this dish, I’ll have two treasured sets of memories to savor alongside it.
Then there was the incredible mushroom quiche and salade verte that Sara made for us for dinner one day. She shrugged it off as nothing special, but when you’ve got eggs, cheese and fresh veggies, what more do you need? Also, I don’t know what it is about France, but it’s home to the best produce. Everything from their leafy greens to their radishes to their mushrooms are just a thousand times more flavorful than the veggies back home, which is just part of why I find it so challenging to recreate these simple meals in my own non-French kitchen.
Obviously, we did eat a few meals out in Paris, as there were certain French staples that we simply had to try and couldn’t easily attempt at home. Our first day wandering around the trendy Boulevard Saint-Germain, we had lunch at an adorable little bistro, Au Pied de Fouet. The owner was welcoming and happy to have me practice my French, and the food was an excellent introduction to Paris. Tony had steak, while I decided that when in France one must try the weird stuff and went for the sautéed chicken livers. Both were cooked with an exhilarating amount of butter, and came with silky smooth mashed potatoes (also seasoned with a generous amount of butter). Tony was a bit disappointed with the cut of his steak—a flank cut—as it was a tiny bit tough, but I loved my chicken livers, which were expertly cooked and not the least bit gritty or dry. To finish things up, we split a portion of bread pudding with crème anglaise, which was just the right amount of sweet.
Deciding to give Paris another chance to wow us on the red meat front, we stopped at a bustling restaurant up in Montmartre the following day. We hadn’t researched it in advance, but the large number of locals dining there made us hopeful (and it had a reasonable lunch special: 2 courses for €11,90). Everyone seemed to be ordering the steak frites, so we followed suit, while I went with the melon with prosciutto starter and Tony got strawberries macerated with lemon, sugar and mint for dessert. My appetizer was amazing—the melon was perfectly sweet and juicy and paired beautifully with the salty ham. Our mains were a bit more hit and miss: the fries were cooked well, but—to my surprise—our steaks were not! Knowing that the French tend to feel that anything above medium-rare is overcooked (and feeling similarly), I was shocked that although I had ordered both of our steaks saignant (rare), only one came that way—the other was decidedly medium, which was such a disappointment and we decided to give up on pursuing the perfect steak frites after this. Given how iconic this dish is, I’m sad to report that we just weren’t very impressed with the steak we had in Paris; we certainly felt that for the same price, we had enjoyed better versions of this dish (and better quality steak period) back in the States.
Our last bistro lunch was after a morning of intensive museum visits, which worked up our appetites. I ordered a slice of quiche Lorraine and Tony ordered a ham & egg baguette sandwich. Nothing fancy, but both tasted great! Like I said: when you’ve got ham & eggs, it’s hard to go wrong.
To round out that meal, we went and got a scoop of raspberry ice cream at what is argued by locals to be one of the best ice cream shops in Paris, Glaciers Berthillon. Smooth and sweet, this was a great precursor to our gelato crawls in Italy that would come in the weeks to follow.
Not satisfied with just one dessert, we then went and tried a selection of macarons from Pierre Hermé, one of France’s top pastry chefs. Exactly who makes the best version of these meringue biscuits in Paris is a topic of great debate, but we were told that it generally comes down to Pierre Hermé or Ladurée. According to our CouchSurfing hosts, Pierre Hermé is known for more avant garde flavor combinations with a fluffier filling, whereas Ladurée has more traditional offerings and silkier ganache. I would have loved to do a fullscale macaron battle (akin to this one), but we only had time, space and budget for Pierre Hermé on this trip. Consequently, I obviously can’t say definitively that these are the best macarons in Paris, but I can say that I’d find it hard to see how they could be topped! (Plus, as an added bonus, we each got a free chocolate truffle with gold shavings with our purchase!)
We tried four different flavors: butter chocolate, chocolate passionfruit, pistachio raspberry, and salted caramel. All were excellent and for the first time, I finally appreciated the textural interplay between crisp, chewy, soft, and smooth that makes eating macarons such a delight. The unusual flavor combinations were our top favorites of the bunch: I loved the bright crisp flavors of the pistachio & raspberry macaron, whereas Tony really liked the tangy zip of the passionfruit against the chocolate. At €2 (~$2.50US) per macaron, these are pricy little mouthfuls, but we were happy to splurge and sate our sweet teeth. Next time we’re in France, I’ll certainly try Ladurée, but I’d say that Pierre Hermé is the macaron master to beat!
If I have any regrets about our time eating in Paris, it’s that we didn’t eat more pastries. I’m not sure why we didn’t make more room for them (probably all that cheese we were eating…), but although I love almond croissants, I only had one during our time there (and I ate it too quickly to take a picture of it, clearly). We had pain au chocolat a little more frequently but not as much as we should have—averaging about €1,50, these were our preferred breakfast options as they were great to munch on the go.
We didn’t have much interest in eating ethnically while in Paris, but the one exception we had to make was for the famous falafel down in the Marais. There are actually a bunch of little falafel joints down in that area, but you’ll know when you find the right one—L’As du Fallafel—as it’s the only one that has a line. I remember eating here nearly 10 years ago during my last trip to Paris, and these babies (about the size of a bowling ball) are still the same. Filled with pickled cabbage, crispy falafel, nutty tahini and creamy eggplant, we could have easily split one of these (if we hadn’t been such pigs). But at €6 a pop, we didn’t feel too guilty about being greedy as they’re one of the cheapest meals you can have in Paris and haven’t gone up much in price in the past decade, which is really remarkable. There is limited space to eat inside the restaurant, but we took ours to go and ate in a nearby park (they’re super messy, so you won’t want to try eating them on the go, unless you want to get them all over yourself).
For one of our final meals in Paris, Sara took us into the lesser visited 11th arrondissement for crêpes. Because we couldn’t leave Paris without having crêpes! The place she took us to, West Country Girl, specializes in a Normandy-style buckwheat crêpes of both the salty & sweet variety. At lunch, they offer a pretty fantastic special where you get one salty crêpe, one sweet crêpe and a glass of cider for just €10,50. The three of us were sharing a hive mind as we all ordered the exact same thing: a ham, cheese and egg crêpe to start and then the salted caramel crêpe to finish. Crêpes on their own don’t look very substantial, but with such decadent fillings, by the end we were completely stuffed (and maybe a tiny bit buzzed from the cider). Definitely a solid way to end a week of generally very good eating.
Overall, we ate some very good things in Paris, but we also had a few unexpected duds. Most of our favorite meals were not found in the pages of any guidebook, but were had in the homes of our friends or on the banks of the Seine or on a grassy lawn surrounded by friends and featuring way too much cheese. Put that way, it’s hard to see how our other meals—Michelin-starred or not—could compete with that.
Now it’s your turn: If you’ve been to Paris, did it live up to your culinary expectations? (If so, be sure to tell us what your favorite meal there was!) If you haven’t been to Paris, what would you be most excited to try?