Food Feature: Epicurean ecstasy
Paris' godly gourmets seduce diners with heavenly haute cuisine
Where better to indulge yourself than Paris? This cherished destination is loaded with chic sophisticates, elegant architecture, lush gardens, classic art and, of course, haute cuisine. The expression "Paris is for lovers" simply can't be limited to describing sexy encounters with mere mortals; the city is incredibly passionate about eating and drinking the best that the gods have to offer.
Even the street fare is seductive. Could "no" ever be the answer to the ultimate in fast food — those succulent crépes made on the spot and dripping with lemon and sugar, cheese or chocolate? There are roasted chestnut vendors who beg you to stop and savor. You find patisseries beckoning like sirens on practically every corner. It's not easy to forget that first creamy, crusty Napoléon (a tiered wonder of pastry and filling), the sweet gush of an éclair or the ecstasy of a dark chocolate-hearted croissant. Not to mention the quintessential sandwich, finely sliced ham and cheese on a crunchy, fresh baguette. Nothing like it, according to my son Mead, who must have devoured three a day on his first visit to Paris.
Savory and sweet temptations embellish any encounter with the French capital. In fact, culinary nuances seem a primal obsession for the most elegant restaurant and the least showy bistro. Though more than a few establishments have seduced me, le Cinq at the Four Seasons George V tops the list in my little black book. Shortly after the reopening in late 1999, I was introduced to the menu designed by Chef Philippe Legendre and his 63 sous chefs. Try to imagine the excruciating dilemma of deciding between appetizers like cream of watercress with caviar, a lobster strüdel and oysters with leeks and jus de truffe (the essence of truffles, a revered delicacy). From there to the Coquilles St. Jacques and on to an exquisite selection of cheeses and desserts, the entire meal was sublime French.
Fouquet's, a fixture on the Champs-Elysées since 1899, offers another sort of delectation. Once a small bistro, the multi-leveled Fouquet's is a favored haunt of movie-goers and star seekers on the grand boulevard. Classic French film followers might stop by the luxury brasserie just to catch a glimpse of the late actor Jean Gabin. The walls are lined with photo portraits of cinema greats. I spent a few hours there, savoring celluloid memories, truffles with champagne and Fouquet's traditional whiting Colbert.
On evenings when I wanted to pretend I was a local, I favored brasseries such as Chez André. The noisy, crowded restaurant just off the Champs Elysées is filled with long tables covered in red-checked cloths. I always appreciate the standards — a good house wine, a salad with goat cheese and walnuts and a delicious sole with crispy potatoes — before I trip over the inevitable chocolate mousse.
A great choice for brunch is Le Kiosque, a restaurant near Place Trocadéro. Proprietor Philippe Lemoine, a former editor at Marie Claire, stocks newspapers from every French region. In fact, the menu itself is a journal. I can't shake the memory of a gorgeous shrimp risotto and a dessert soup concocted of clementine oranges laced with acacia honey and lemon thyme flowers.
The climax of my most decadent trip to Paris came on a Sunday at noon when we lunched chez Alain Ducasse, a legendary French chef (the only vestige of his talent in Paris today is the ultra-hip Spoon on Rue de Marignan). My rendezvous with Ducasse took place in a restaurant inside a luxurious former residence on the street Raymond Poincaré. I recall champagne, then a delicate prawn soup. Thinly sliced truffles and buttery potatoes were followed by a delicate taste of turbot with tiny spears of fresh asparagus. The main course for me was lobster and risotto. No stopping now, I was lured into the cheese course by dark-suited waiters who murmured their suggestions softly in my ear.
Did I mention the setting for the seduction? Red-curtained glass doors opened into the deep green study that held our private dining adventure. The dessert, a fusion of chocolate, was not the anticipated denouement. Instead, servers reappeared to urge espresso as they rolled in a cart dripping with friandises — homemade lollipops, red glazed apples, caramels and marshmallow wedges. Sigh.
You might think that such excessive good eating would subdue a person's cravings. Not so. Though my last morning in France found me crawling into a Pharmacie Anglaise to beg for an antidote, I cannot imagine turning away even one tiny bite, ever.