There are certain sights that I’ve come to expect when visiting Paris, especially in springtime. Leafy cathedrals of allées. Hedges dotted with cream and pink blooms. Even under grey skies, a riot of cheerful blooms in the Tuileries, Luxembourg Gardens, and other parks throughout the city.
At the markets, strawberries and asparagus from the French countryside are greeted with the enthusiastic welcome given dear friends who’ve returned after a long absence. At flea markets, or brocantes, tables and sidewalks are strewn with secondhand goods, vintage clothing, and assorted collectibles.
I recently returned from Paris and had a chance to re-familiarize myself with some favorite places. Market-hopping was, of course, a priority.
Throughout the markets, more vendors are accepting electronic payment and tolerating customers picking out produce for themselves. Plenty don’t, however, so my markets suggestions such as bringing cash and not touching the produce unless you’re certain that the vendor permits it are still worth following.
At Marché Bio Raspail one Sunday morning, I shiver from the unseasonable chill and warm up with a galette de pomme de terre (potato pancake with onions and cheese) flipped straight from the hot griddle into a paper sleeve at Les Galatins’ stand.
potato-onion pancakes served hot at Marché Raspail Bio
At Marché Saxe-Breteuil a view of the Eiffel Tower serves as backdrop while Lebanese flatbread sandwiches are slathered with fillings and rolled to order. Customers queue up at their favorite vendors for spring potatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, fish, fruits and vegetables, fresh pasta and breads including gluten-free options. Mixed in among the food stands are vendors who sell clothing, scarves, oriental rugs, and sweet little dresses.
A table near the front is filled with flea items. The vendor tells me about his visit to America, building toward a punchline about confusing the words “dog” and “hot dog.” We share a good laugh. I buy a sturdy paper clip from him in the shape of the Eiffel Tower as an inexpensive memento of a pleasant morning at this friendly market.
The food hall La Grande Épicerie at Le Bon Marché department store still dazzles with a broad selection of specialty items. It’s one-stop shopping for gourmet items and food gifts. Almost anything you hanker for can be found there, but expect to pay a premium. An airy, tranquil tea salon and restaurant awaits anyone who takes the escalator up from the food hall.
The market streets in Paris such as rue Montorgueil and rue Mouffetard beckon with a myriad of cafés, market stands, and shops. Indeed, the markets are humming on both sides of the Seine. They attract both Parisians and tourists but are primarily focused on serving the needs and appetites of the local community.
Even though there are plenty of stores selling similar types of goods, I prefer the lively markets. The quality is generally higher and the goods fresher. They offer a chance to interact with knowledgeable vendors and to take in views that range from ancient cobblestoned streets to the lofty Eiffel Tower, Mansard roofs, Gothic façades such as Saint-Eustache church, and the domed basilica Sacré-Coeur that presides over Montmartre.
Given the damp weather, my husband and I sought refuge in cafés and historic covered passageways (les passages couvertes) that link certain streets. We met our friend Caroline, a writer, at Bistrot Vivienne, an old-fashioned bistro with good food that anchors one end of the graceful Colbert-Vivienne covered passageway near the Palais Royal.
It was exciting to be in Paris during the final round of the presidential election and to share in the collective sigh of relief that Emmanuel Macron won.
Macron’s victory wasn’t the only ray of hope. Throughout Paris, there are signs of a new entrepreneurial spirit taking hold. The trend is well described in a new book by Lindsey Tramuta and illustrated with Charissa Fay’s lovely photos, The New Paris: The People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement.
Lindsey Tramuta is an American-born writer who has been living in Paris the past 10 years. I’ve long been a fan of her blog Lost in Cheeseland and her articles in other publications. Her writing sparkles with intelligence and honesty. Initially a disoriented outsider, Tramuta transformed herself into a discerning insider. She describes factors that led to a resistance to change and decline in quality in Paris. The economic crash of 2008 narrowed opportunities and contributed to widespread malaise. But a spirited counter-movement is beginning to redefine Paris. The city is opening to outside influences. The food scene is getting invigorated by inventive young chefs of diverse nationalities. An emboldened cadre of creatives is stepping away from typical career paths and opting to pursue their passions in craft foods, beverages, and design. Constraints that stunted innovation are starting to crumble, while the options for high-quality dining, beverages, sweets, and shopping are more abundant and affordable than they’ve been in a long time.
At Restaurant Nakatani, the skilled chef Shinsuke Nakatani applies Japanese techniques to French ingredients. His artful presentations pack a lot of flavors. A quiet and spare dining room directs the attention to the food itself. One course was artichoke with shaved radish, beetroot, olive oil, and clams. Another was roast suckling lamb with spring peas, morel mushrooms, and garlic scapes in a light, creamy broth.
Ellsworth is another restaurant that opened a couple years ago and is worth trying. Owned by Laura Adrian and Braden Perkins who vaulted into culinary celebrity with their restaurant Verjus, Ellsworth makes no fuss over the décor which is as simple as the menu itself. But don’t be fooled. You might be wowed by the seasonal flavors and creative combinations. The same goes for Semilla, another exemplar that’s upending old rules (including its open kitchen and industrial décor) and earning many repeat customers including my Francophile friends Susan and Dick.
Our meal at Chez La Vieille was ho-hum by contrast, but that visit might have been a fluke. The bistro got a major lift when taken over by chef Daniel Rose. These are just a few of the recommendations from The New Paris book that I tried. I recommend reading it before you depart so that you can travel lighter unlike me. Lindsey’s online version of Paris Guide is an excellent resource.
Our big splurge of this visit was lunch at L’Arpège. This 3-star Michelin restaurant is the creative playground for the brilliant chef Alain Passard. His influence on other chefs and cooking worldwide is legendary. When the acclaim reaches fevered pitch, it’s a ridiculously high bar to have to clear with every seating. And yet, the meal surpassed our expectations. We enjoyed a 12-course lunch. Yes, 12. Most courses were vegetarian (Passard’s shift to vegetarian cooking was a radical act in 2001), and many of the vegetables sourced from his own gardens. The menu includes fish and meat toward the end of the meal. They were masterfully prepared (and paraded around the restaurant on large trays before being cut into portions), but the real knockouts were the vegetarian dishes. Each course combined flavors, colors, and textures in a way that rollicked the taste buds and delighted the eyes. Passard set a comfortable tone at the beginning of the meal as he made his way around to each table welcoming guests and exuding genuine warmth and excitement.
Summing up, the highlights of this visit to Paris were a mix of old and new. And that’s exactly what I hope for from a city where many traditions (such as its markets) continue to serve its citizens and visitors well, while others are in need of reinvention. Macron faces this politically and will need to navigate a path forward. Despite the formidable challenges, there are many good people who are working hard and emboldened with innovative ideas and fresh energy. It makes me hopeful for Paris and excited for my next return.