New Year in Paris gave me a breath of Gallic obstinacy. It’s one year since I was last there, but little seems to have changed. A few new hip cafés and frock shops near the Canal St Martin, the Place de la République about to be reincarnated as an immense, traffic-free plaza – that’s about all I clocked. Otherwise it felt very same-ish – and with leaden skies bouncing non-light off the greige Haussmannian stone, wasn’t exactly inspiring. Even the inventive graffiti had a burdened air about it —
So enjoyment had to be channeled in more traditional directions. You may have read my 2011 post when I flagged up some old Paris classics. Well yes, I’m afraid I did it again. In winter I just can’t resist the allure of warm, polished wood interiors, big mirrors, brass fittings and art deco typography – all dating from Paris in its 1920-30s prime. Sadly many of these places have become tourist ghettos but a few still hold their own and so reinstated my deep respect for this city of refinement.
I’ll start with one place that should definitely be approached with caution: Benoit. This century-old restaurant, just south of Beaubourg (aka the Centre Pompidou, where queues snaked around the square for the dubious delights of Dali) is now in the ever-grasping hands of Alain Ducasse, he of the gastro-empire that stretches from The Dorchester in London via the Eiffel Tower’s Jules Verne to Monaco, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong and even Mauritius. But if Benoit has kept going for a century, we thought, even in the world before Ducasse, there must be something going for it.
So we opted for an affordable 38€ menu for a leisurely lunch, booking a table the day before. No problem there. But as we were ushered through the main, delightfully old-fashioned room into the back, my heart sank. Lacy curtains, crisp white tablecloths, LP-sized plates garlanded with a huge golden B for Benoit – plus a cosy gathering of Japanese and Americans fellow-diners. Now I have nothing against either nationality, but that feeling of being taken for a ride crept up my spine.
As we leafed through the lengthy wine-list, I realised why: the cheapest wine was a Brouilly at 30€. Now Brouilly is a pretty common Beaujolais that I tend to avoid. Next in the price pecking-order was 40€. At this point we decided we’d have tap-water. They served it well mind you, and gave replenished the carafe when ours ran dry, so no complaints there. And the lunch itself? Though impeccably served, it nonetheless left me cold: a giant slab of terrine of tongue as a starter would have been perfect for a picnic… Perhaps the best element was the dessert, a Savarin a l’Armagnac – a light sponge dowsed in that heavenly liquid.
Onwards. Back to a real old-timer, La Palette (above), in the heart of the ageing gallery-world of the Left Bank. It’s totally charming despite its kitsch paintings, and has hardly changed since I hung out there last century with my arty pals. Cezanne, PIcasso and Braque did too, somewhat earlier, and, in between, Jim Morrison. Even if the olde worlde fittings haven’t budged, the waiters have. In fact I’m pretty sure there’s been a change of management in the last few years.
Above our table a memorable painting from the 1980s depicting La Palette included arguably one of Paris’ surliest waiters; everyone knew him. I asked when he’d left- only three years ago it seemed. In his place a couple of cheery chaps in timeless waistcoats and aprons ducked and dived between the sought-after front room and the more chilled, shadowy and spacious backroom. This time we were happy to be there. And the copious salads we demolished for lunch were ace – for a reasonable 11€. The one above was chevre chaud, aka grilled goat’s cheese.
A last word on Paris – baguette! At La Palette, at Benoit, and at the tables of friends we dined with – it was consistently fantastic. Now that IS something that has changed because despite most gushing tourist fiction of late last century, baguette then was bad, oh so bad, increasingly industrialised and drying into crispbread within seconds. Not so today, as all changed with a governmental decree (I just love that French dirigisme). Boulangeries artisanales have since mushroomed, baking doughy, chewy bread with a crisp, textured crust comme il faut that you just can’t stop eating. We even spotted the boulangerie that won top prize for 2012 (above, corner of the rue Yves Toudic in the 10th in case you’re interested). So vive la baguette! And may it never change.