You can visit Paris a hundred times and never repeat a restaurant or a café. You can visit Hédiard, Fauchon, or the food hall of Galleries Lafayette. You could buy a punnet of figs or blackberries, and eat them on a park bench in a quiet corner of the city with not a tourist in sight. Or you could go to rue Montorgueil and shop like a Parisian housewife: with an elegant shopping basket and a list of cheese, pâté and some other necessities of life in the boutique stores in the area. G Detou is just one purveyor of fine foods around this famous Paris street, but there are butchers, cheesemongers and a bar or two with real zinc counters.
When you are tired of shopping, you can sit at a café and nurse un espresso for as long as your patience or ingenuity lasts. But first, you have to be cognisant of the unwritten laws of café life, for though they are unwritten, they are cast in stone. There are three tiers of pricing for a single coffee, say a cappuccino. The cheapest is standing up at the bar. It implies that you won’t be making a long stay: after all, who wants to stand indefinitely?
The next level of pricing is one notch higher, and involves sitting at a table inside the café. And the third and most expensive is sitting at a tiny table on the pavement just outside in the open. You can smoke, yes. But more than that, you can spend a happy hour or three watching people pass by. The most common sight in Paris is to see cafés where there is not a spare table on the pavement, but inside, you won’t find a single customer.
There are cafés on every street in the eternal city, and it is likely that your own favourite will be for an individualistic reason. Either it will be because the people-watching is better than anywhere else, or because the fragrance from the florist next door is an attraction, or because there is a piano-tuning shop in the vicinity where you can hear Chopin in between traffic noises. Whether you choose to sit inside the café near a door, thus getting the benefit of low prices and maximum view will also be your personal preference.
You need never go hungry in Paris. However, you could go mad deciding what it is you would like to eat. If it is ice-cream, try Berthillon, a brand still made in Ile de St. Louis, the tiny island on which Notre Dame is built. In the narrow lanes with their warren of style shops, you will see several shops selling this famous ice-cream with fierce pride. From there, it is a short walk to the Marais.
Once a rather edgy area, it has been known for artists and musicians. Now becoming more mainstream because of its central location, the original inhabitants, on the margins of society, have left and been supplanted with great restaurants like Benedict — modern interiors, friendly, English-speaking staff and traditional French food, such as delectable foie gras and steak tartare.
There are heritage owner-driven food stores around Marais. Each is highly prized because the shops have been in their present location for decades and the owners themselves do the stocking up. I chanced upon a little treasure trove of a cheese, wine and processed meats store from where I bought a wedge of superb Chaource, and a bar of rich, dark, sinful chocolate from Pierre Hermé. No supermarket stuff this.
On my last evening in Paris, a few friends and I had a small celebration dinner in the elegant glass-walled rooftop dining space at The Peninsula. L’Oiseau Blanc on Avenue Kléber has aviation as its theme and directly overlooks the Eiffel Tower. The décor in the room, the seamless service, the wines, the food (modern French) and the view all compete for your attention.
I thought that dinner at The Peninsula would have been the highlight of my trip, but I was unprepared for the personalized service and the modern grandeur of the departure lounge of Air France at Charles de Gaulle Airport. We were given a champagne breakfast in luxe surroundings, while one-time Bombay boy SRK (Shahnawaz Rasool Khan) regaled us with stories of the Hollywood stars who relaxed there between flights. “I have seen them with their guard down”, he told us “because of the exclusivity of this lounge.” On the flight back home, I got a chance of meeting the Corporate Chef of Air France who walked from seat to seat interacting with guests. Air France is a microcosm of the country it represents — elegance and cuisine especially.