The Paris Review
After the attacks on Paris happened in November, I reread Hemingway’s ode to Paris, A Moveable Feast. The moment I finished it, I went online and booked this holiday.
Refined stews and Hotel du Nord
I had a brilliant meal in the bistro at Hotel du Nord on the first night.
The bistro was a caricature of a French bistro. It reminded me of the magnificent eating rooms in Aix-en-Provence as well as — it should be pointed out — Brasserie Zedel in Soho. Marble lined the floors, bottles of Ricard and cognac the bar.
When I ordered the veal stew I didn’t know what to expect. In my life I have never had a good stew which had been through a fine dining refinement.
Stews are hearty things. Their place is on short winters days in the blistering cold. They are things for the home. Not only do they fill the house with wonderful cooking smells, they provide warmth as well. You serve them in big portions. And when you finish eating them, with a good bottle alcoholic red, all you can do is lie down and sleep. Whether you’re making a beef bourginon, a coq au vin, or a lancashire hotpot, that to me is what a stew is. They are my favourite food.
I’ve eaten stews before which have veered towards refinement and they always disappoint. Portions are small. You might get two or three chunks of venison with some delicate serving of al dente vegetables. The sauce often lacks the depth, complexitiy — and yes, heaviness — of a proper stew sauce.
But like oysters, and other things my palatte didn’t like when I was younger, you have to retry these things every now and again.
The veal stew at Hotel du Nord was an absolute delight. While not refined by the standards of a triple star establishment, for a stew it was refined.
The sauce was warm and hearty — but elevated with truffles. The subtle lift of truffle made it infinitely superior to the last I had — at a lowmarket Italian restaurant in London. The vegetables, while still holding their own colour and structure, latched onto that flavour.
And the veal. My word. Tender as you can imagine. Lots of it, half served just in the plate and half served inside a Vol-au-vent. That Vol-au-Vent did for the stew what Yorkshire puddings do for gravy.
All washed down with an agreeable bottle of unknown Cotes du Rhone.
Stews to me are so much more than something you eat. They are an atmosphere and certain moments in time. They are things to be shared with family and friends on cold winter days.
The Blanquette de veau dans le Vol-au-vent at Hotel du Nord has managed to change a conception. This was elevating a classic in a very special way indeed.
St-Germain & Harry’s Bar
The menu at Le Comptoir du Relais St-Germain felt like further riffs on a theme. Any worries I had before coming to Paris that French traditions would be gone were unfounded. At least in the first two restaurants we ate in, these traditions were alive just extended with modern twists.
The wine list here was the most impressive. Had I have been in the market to drink Burgundy that was three years older than I am, well I’d have had a few choices. Instead we opted for a carafe of white wine; dry with a slight woody note to it that for a house was acceptable.
I had a rack of lamb served with tomatoes and haricot beans; a Provencal favourite if I’ve ever spotted one. While HRH opted for a roast tuna served blue, which was one of the meatiest seafood experiences I’ve seen.
The difference between a good dish and a great dish is about surprise.
When I have cooked rack of lamb before, I leave a lot of that meat pink. It is closer to rare than it is medium-rare, and I think all the more delicious for it. The lamb at Le Comptoir du Relais St Germain, however, was most certainly medium. And yet — and yet — the flavour was some of the best I’ve ever found in lamb. This wasn’t just about provenence and selective sourcing. Everything about this piece of meat had been considered, and it showed.
The accompaniments were fine, if a little bland, and the sauce had a bite to it that actually wasn’t necessary. But the star here was that lamb.
Hemingway had been perpetually on this trip with us. If not for my constant (and probably tiresome) mentions, then by the places we have visited. St Germain saw us visit Les Deux Magots for a coffee, and then after a short walk we found ourselves at Harry’s Bar.
While Harrys was a favourite of Hemingway’s, along with many other greats, it also came as a recommendation from a friend. “They really know their stuff” came the glowing review — and know their stuff they did indeed.
Harry’s is a wonderful bar. With wood panelling and a long bar in the main room, I felt it could have been an English pub more so than a Parisian bar. Great spirits lined shelves in locked cupboards where I spotted a Macallan from 1927. At around 300 euros a shot, I didn’t go for it this time, but before I’ve found a new addition for the bucket list for sure.
“A very, very dry gin martini, with an olive,” I asked while scouring the bar for my favourite gin. “With Plymouth please.”
“It is the Navy one, sir, it is 57%” he warned, but feeling encapsulated by the place I replied, “perfect.”
A great martini should contain next to no vermouth. Hemingway preferred his 15 parts to 1, while Churchill preferred simply to bow in France’s direction. I sit somewhere between the two and believe that a glass should be perfumed with the vermouth but absent in the final drink. Harrys know their martinis and so a request for a ‘very, very dry’ one ended up exactly as I wanted it.
One Plymouth Navy martini at 3 o’clock in the afternoon is quite a good set up for the hours that follow it. And as we met friends and discussed Paris, and France, and recent events, and history, it was a very good afternoon indeed.
Paris does its classics incredibly well. Not just that, it raises classics with elegance and refinement that keep traditions fresh.
But if there is one place which maintains its window into the past, it is Harry’s. Helped only by the bottles of whisky that are as old as many of the stories I have read about in there. It may not be Parisian by the sense of much of our trip, but there are few places greater I have drank in in my life.
Drinking in Paris
The final day in Paris was the best. We started with an excellent carafe of Languedoc red at Les Philosophes in le Marais. Les Philosophes came after three separate recommendations and so knew we had to scour it out.
The menu on the day wasn’t too appealing so instead we concentrated on the pre-lunch carafe, while searching for restaurants.
HRH was in a mood for seafood and so we looked no further than Le Comptoir des Mers. The only problem with this delightful seafood restaurant was settling on something to eat. Between the platters which contained winkles and lobster and oyster and clams, and the specialities, it was a hard choice indeed.
In the end I settled for the lobster, which was delicious — though not quite as good as the one at Bonnie Gull in London. HRH opted for another special: scallops served in a garlic butter. That same butter covered my lobster and what a delight it was.
We had a half bottle of Sancerre which was the absolute stand out wine of the entire weekend. For me, a white being that good was quite a surprise. The service was fantastic and overall, we left with our most opulent meal feeling perfectly content.
We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking around the bars of Le Marais, near to Republique, and then near Canal St-Martin.
One of the most heartwarming things to see was Le Carillon packed on a Sunday evening — just two months after massacre had descended on it.
Small flags and strips of material lined the building tops across the streets like bunting. Candles still burnt silently on the roadside. And the air was pierced with sadness.
Yet walking into Le Carillon, you saw defiance in the face of perspective danger. You saw conviviality in the face of cowardice. Watching the scenes on the television two months ago, it was clear that mourning had taken place.
But now, Le Carillon is exactly what I hoped it would be: a bar for friends and lovers and family members to come together, fearless and unafraid. Of proud moments in my life, choosing to visit this fantastic bar in the 10th was certainly one of them.
On the whole, night life around Canal St-Martin is fantastic and youthful. Le Comptoir General is like a mix of a house party and an underground warehouse club. Cafe Clochette is a perfect spot to while away hours while drinking bieres and smoking endless Gauloises.
Chez Prune became our final destination on Sunday night. Here we had recommended shots: tequila and kahlua, set alight and drank through a straw. For someone who doesn’t like tequila — or shots that much — these were incredible. And finally, before we left I asked if I may try Ricard as it was new to me: they gave me a small shot and a glass of water, as the locals would do so. Aniseed is starting to grow on me as I age, clearly, as I thought it had some great flavours to it indeed.
Paris is a wonderful place. A place where young and old mingle together. Where classic and modern intersect and meet. A place where you can ignore everything else going on in the world, because it doesn’t matter — you’re in Paris. And there are few greater places you could be.