Celebrating my birthday in Paris is treat enough but combining a trip to the City of Light with dining at three of its most historic restaurants is the proverbial cream on the cake (more on the sweet stuff later).
First stop on our epicurean voyage was this vintage bistro inextricably linked to changes in Parisian life for almost a hundred years.
Established 1936, Chez Andre is mere steps away from Place de l’Etoile in the heart of what’s known as the ‘Golden Triangle,’ a focal point for business, luxury, fashion and media. Indicating its authentic vintage, a big zinc-clad bar stands just inside the front door.
Keen to absorb the essence of Parisian nightlife, the exotic ‘Crazy Horse Cabaret’ being just around the corner, we decided on alfresco dining, settling for a sidewalk table and kicking-off our evening with a convivial chat with manager Christophe Pham Minh over a pair of Aperol spritz aperitifs, learning about celebrity guests such as Irish-born actor, Liam Neeson.
Being in Paris and not enjoying a dégustation of burgundy snails served in their shells is akin to mortal sin. Suffice it to say, we sinned with gusto.
In our defence, however, to ease our health-conscious consciences, we followed that with avocado tartare with crab and pink grapefruit.
Hunger for hedonist pleasures, however, overcame our weak wills and we skipped over the cardiac-friendly sole, served meunière, and grilled sea bass and scallops and opted for a superb panfried veal chop with rosemary juice (a nod to health, our accompaniment was fresh green beans) and the exceptional Chez Andre fillet of beef which, served by Sonya, was such a generous portion my companion kindly allowed me to ’help’ her (it was my birthday, after all).
Of course, Paris being synonymous with delectable desserts (is it even possible to pass a French pâtisserie, boulangerie or viennoiserie without slipping inside for a mille-feuille or two?), we faced an immense challenge eyeing the stalwart classics, profiteroles, chous puffs with vanilla ice-cream and chocolate sauce and crème brûlée. Finally, after much hemming and hawing, we opted for what my companion described as “eating clouds in a dream” – namely ‘oeufs à la neige,’ more commonly known as Îles flottantes – pillowy, airy meringues in a thick yellow custard.
A fine armagnac from the 300-year-old estate of Chateau de Ravignan ended a most memorably indulgent evening.
Next up was this iconic Belle Epoque style restaurant inside Gare de Lyon opened over a century ago, in April 1901.
Above a carved iron balustrade overlooking the platforms, Le Train Bleu – with its large ornate rooms and stunning sculptures and brightly-coloured 18th century paintings adorning both walls and ceilings – is a tribute to the ‘Golden Age’ of French design and creativity. Its collection of 41 paintings portrays a different scene from sites along the old railway network or famous events of the 1900’s.
From the opening ‘Bonjour’ with easy-going Luiji Mansour, our attentive server and a veteran here for many years, we settled in effortlessly for an evening of carefree enjoyment surrounded by an array of impressive museum-standard art. It’s no wonder personalities such as Salvador Dali, Coco Chanel and Brigitte Bardot dined here.
The menu, which focuses on sauces, stews and a cuisine rich in broths and stock, is a comprehensive one. Five starters range from smoked salmon and hot cream of scallops to duck pie and crab meat and mimosa egg while ten mains feature seafood dishes including monkfish medallions in coconut curry sauce and Lyon-style pike quenelles and meats such as beef tartare, roasted leg of lamb and hare royale, a speciality dish of Michelin chef Michel Rostang who oversees the menu in a collaboration with the restaurant owners.
If I am permitted one suggestion, perhaps Le Train Bleu could do with more than just one choice – pumpkin and candied quince gnocchi – in the vegetarian category.
A highlight of our evening was our decadent dessert of rum baba, with Monsieur Mansour theatrically pouring a generous stream of added rum for good measure.
Seated in such plush surroundings, no need to rush away after eating. Ask the waiter, as we did, to bring your after-dinner beverages to the Big Ben Bar and admire the views over the lamplit streets of Paris.
Our third dining experience took us to the historic meat market of northern Paris of the 1930s.
Boasting a classic art deco design complete with crisp white tablecloths, opaline-globe floor lamps, geometric tile-working and mirrored walls, Au Boeuf Couronne is renown – naturally, due to its location – for its carnivorous delights.
Located near the the Music and Philharmonic Concert Centre, the Parc de La Villette and the ancient ‘Halle de la Villette’ where butchers and horse dealers used to meet, this brasserie is a vestige of a bygone era. A popular venue for generations of Parisians, it was entirely renovated five years ago.
We settled comfortably into a wall-side booth covered in stretched red velvet (there are also standard table settings here) where Victor Valerio, a 10-year veteran with the company, and relatively new-hire, Alfresco, served us – out of a variety of veal kidney, sirloin and Chateaubriand choices – the cut of the house, a succulent 1.2 kilogram grilled villette prime rib of beef for two.
At first, we gazed upon the massive slab of beef as long before us a relatively unknown, 26-year-old sculptor might have looked upon the slab of marble that was later to become the most celebrated of works, the David. Just like Michelangelo, we managed miraculously to finish our slab, though it took us much less than two years to do so.
Even though washed down with a bottle of Cigalus, a fiesty organic and bio-dynamic produced by Gérard Bertrand and his team, we didn’t have much internal space to spare, but still we couldn’t turn down the offer of an esoteric after-dinner treat. Only the French can transform prunes and Armagnac into such a delectable dessert.