I don’t go to New York to eat American food, nor do I spend my time in London eating British food, but somehow I feel like I’m expected to eat French food in Paris. Probably it’s because Paris is at once the self-conscious centre of French haut cuisine and a cultural cliché of bistros and steak frites. We often think of the city as the bastion of a certain kind of French culinary experience that matches perfectly with a tourist itinerary of museums, churches and architecture. In the same way that we expect to eat (delicious) Roman food in Rome, we imagine Parisian food to be an integral part of travelling to Paris. But if the cliché is familiar, it’s also both limiting and not so pleasurable. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, but whereas I’ve never eaten a bad plate of food in Rome, I’ve had a good deal of mediocre bistro food in Paris. Meat dishes heavy on the butter but light on flavour, insipid salads of overcooked vegetables, decently cooked classics that just fail to excite the imagination: eating French food in Paris can seem like a faintly embarrassing exercise in unsuccessful nostalgia.
I’m sure there is amazing modern French food out there, but just as any self-respecting visitor to Paris sees beyond the tourist circuit, I don’t think you can’t get a proper feel for the city by eating only ‘national’ food. I’ve come to think of Paris eating as less like Rome and more like London, where the city’s postcolonial and cosmopolitan cultures make for a plethora of cheap and delicious cafes and restaurants that get you out of the soulless grind of the tourist trail. I’m far from an expert on Paris: I’ve never lived there and I mostly go for weekends or short trips. But I do have a nose for exciting food in unlikely places. So this isn’t an insider’s guide to Paris eating but some itineraries of a tourist who can’t keep to the proper routes. Where do you go when you can’t face ‘French food’?
Little Tokyo in the 1e If you’re visiting the Louvre or other central sights, you might think you’ll be stuck with overpriced and underwhelming tourist traps, but a fab little Japanese neighbourhood is just up the street around Rue Saint-Anne. The area is mostly made up of Japanese restaurants, but there are also some Korean and other Asian eateries, plus Japan-oriented comic book stores, clothes and design shops. The Japanese deli Juji-ya at no. 46 is good if you’re in the market for things in jars, plus it has a lunch counter selling bento boxes and quick meals. I had a nicely crispy fried pork bento that came with several excellent vegetable sides. At 30 Rue des Petits Champs, Taishoken is a good little place for a quick bowl of noodles at the counter. For a more substantial meal, we went to Higuma at 32 bis, Rue Saint-Anne.
There are often queues out the door of Higuma so it’s best to eat early or late to avoid a wait. The restaurant specialises in lamen (i.e ramen), though it also has donburi and a few other options. The ramen are not, to be honest, on par with the best I’ve ever tasted and some of the toppings (like tinned bamboos shoots) are weirdly Chinese. That said, the broth was pretty good, especially when woken up a bit with chili oil, and the pork was fatty and delicious. I had both regular and kimchi lamen and I think the regular kind had a richer soup – you can order kimchee on the side if you feel the need for some more spice.
Southeast Asian food around Belleville The whole area from Boulevard du Belleville down through Goncourt is really funky and full of excellent Asian and North African food. This part of the 11e is mostly off the tourist map but having stayed there, it felt like a great neighbourhood to live in, with lots going on and a good energy. The market on Tuesday and Friday along Boulevard de Belleville is fantastic, with lots of fruit and other food stalls, as well as clothes and household goods. I bought vibrant piment fort and ras el hanout from a North African vendor who was incredibly patient with my bad French, as well as delicious ripe figs from a complete charmer of a fruit seller, whose banter worked even with my linguistic limitations. For lunch, I took Clothilde of Chocolate and Zucchini‘s advice and made my way to Saigon Sandwich at 8 Rue de la Présentation.
Saigon Sandwich, as the name suggests, sells nothing but báhn mì, and only three varieties at that. You can have pork, pork and pate, or chicken. The place is tiny, but the two women who make the sandwiches are really friendly and curious about non-French people who find the place. It’s obviously popular with locals, and the women seemed tickled when I told them that I was Scottish and read on a blog that they served the best báhn mì in the city. The sandwiches are indeed great: proper French baguettes are a pretty good start toward an excellent Vietnamese sandwich. Against my usual pork-centric proclivities, I took Clotilde’s advice and went for the chicken, and it was fantastic. Marinaded in lemongrass, the chicken was juicy and flavoursome, matched with fresh pickled vegetables and cilantro. The pork was good too, though a shade less richly favoured.
We walked down to the Canal St Martin to eat our sandwiches and do a little post-lunch shopping. For a more substantial SE Asian meal in the area, Le Cambodge, is popular, right off the Canal at 10 Avenue Richerand. It opens at 8pm for dinner and there’s often a queue already so it’s best to book in advance.
Senegalese specialities in la Goutte d’Or If you do the tourist thing and visit Montmartre, it can feel like the worst kind of tourist hell. The Amelie-loving crowds spill out of the Abbesses métro, horde straight up the hill and make the area around the Sacre Coeur feel like Times Square on a bad day. It brings out my worst New York pavement rage and makes me want to kill the people who delight in walking sooooo slowly and Stopping. For. No. Reason. Obviously, eating anywhere near here would be a mistake, right? Well, oddly no. If you take so much as one turn away from the main drag, you can find yourself in tourist-free and very interesting neighbourhoods. We walked down the back of Montmartre hill through a middle-class area with a good flea market, and thence to la Goutte d’Or, which is a working-class, mostly African and Arab neighbourhood. You can tell you’re in a minority neighbourhood because of all the armed police in the Barbès-Rochechouart métro…but visceral reminders of French racism aside, la Goutte d’Or offers fantastic West African food that’s a million miles from the tourist experience up the hill.
We went to Chez Aïda, at 48 Rue Polonceau, which is one of the oldest African restaurants in the city. You can tell from the exterior that it’s going to be good, not to mention the truly delicious scents that you catch as soon as you walk in.
Chez Aïda serves only three dishes: national dish thiéboudienne, which is fish cooked with tomatoes, rice, and vegetables; yassa, chicken in a long-cooked onion and lemon sauce; and maafe, beef in a spicy peanut and tomato stew. We ordered the yassa and maafe to share, along with bissap, or hibiscus tea. The deep purple, ever-so-slightly syrupy juice that arrived presaged really good things to come and we weren’t disappointed. The yassa combined soft braised onion and chicken with a piquant citrus note, and the maafe was the perfect balance of sweetness, savoury meat and chili heat. When this dish goes wrong it can taste too peanut-buttery sweet, or flat, but this version fairly sang. The waiter warned us that the condiment bowl of minced chilies was very hot, and he wasn’t kidding around. As a lover of hot food, I added lots to the yassa, and the citrusy quality of the chilies resonated beautifully with the lemon in the dish.
On the way out of Chez Aïda, check out the gorgeous African fabric store next door, where, according to the sign in the window, Beyonce gets her Afrocentric kit.
Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of the Parisian international food scene – there’s all of North African food to consider, Vietnamese pho in the 13e, many more Lebanese restaurants to try, and so on. But these non-French food discoveries have fired my interest in Paris as a food town. Clearly, I have a project on my hands for the next trip…