The cracks are starting to form in the rigid, homogenous shell of the Paris food scene. Nowhere is this more evident than at its core, Le Marais. New eateries in the side-streets off Rue de Bretagne are beginning to – and whisper this quietly in your local brasserie – spill much needed new light and provide impetus to a food scene that although rightfully lauded, has grown a little stale and predictable in recent years.
Candelaria is a tiny taco bar with a secret. It is steadfastly accumulating glowing reviews for its fresh, zingy Mexican food. The project was launched with diligent care, style and affection by Adam and Carina Tsou, a husband and wife team from Connecticut, and their partner Josh Fontaine.
Walking into the place, the first impression is of clean, well-managed simplicity. Behind the steel counter, a Mexican chef, complete with bandana, pummels fresh ingredients while sharing jokes in Spanish over his broad shoulders with a petite, smiley senorita. She scoots around attentively, both a bartender and waitress to the smattering of patrons that fill the matchbox of a room. – a poncy, Rizla packet-sized room at that. The relaxed atmosphere of the kitchen radiates and the diners are quick to forget the self-conscious mess that tackling a taco invariably brings. Each morning, the chef diligently mixes the ingredients that provide the base and signature taste of the tostadoes and tacos. A little known fact is that Mexican food actually achieved UNESCO World Heritage status on the same day as the French, so there is certainly a pedigree and heritage present in these dishes. As you tuck into the delights on offer you realise both how deserved this is, and how recognition arrived as late as the bill in nearby, traditional French restaurants.
The secret of Candelaria is through an unmarked door that melts into the whitewashed walls. In complete contrast to the minimalist simplicity of the taco bar, a lavish, clandestine cocktail den lurks. It all feels very Lower East Side Manhattan and 300 glass balls, painstakingly transported from Rome to provide the lighting, provide a warm, decadent glow. Stone walls are lined with fur rugs and showcase art from the City of Lights. Above the steady murmur of American expats – invariably discussing their latest ‘mul-tie-media praajects’ – the clinks of bar staff mixing complex, tequila-inspired cocktails can be heard. A throbbing lair, where most nights it is difficult to find space to merely survey the scene – something that irritates some Parisians, but having witnessed the numbers that sit down in nightclubs, I personally think it is a good learning curve.
52 Rue de Saintonge,
Around the corner, Nanashi ‘Bento Parisian’ is also causing a much-needed stir and specialises in healthy, fresh Japanese food with a Parisian twist. The menu features beef bourguignon bento boxes, with crisp celeriac, fennel seed and radicchio salads. Yet it is the desserts which are the real eye-openers. You can see natso-infused cheesecakes and variations of classic Victorian sponges whipped up in the kitchen, framed through a large window from the cobbled street. Nibbling my way through a salad, – I must admit I felt a little like a dormouse or a waif-like supermodel – but the flavours were fantastically delicate and contained all of that famed Japanese precision.
Nanashi, Le Bento Parisien
57 Rue Charlot,
After making the long, almost pilgrim-like climb to the Sacre Coeur; there is no better place to finish your day than at Au Relais – a strikingly authentic French bistro. If you follow the small cobble-stoned streets north, then make your way down the steep steps that hug the often-overlooked northern slope of the butte, past the quaint vineyard, you will find Au Relais perched on a street corner. I originally stumbled across the bistro by chance, and was drawn to a table in the pretty, tree-filled courtyard by the sultry saxophone of a Lou Donaldson track spinning on their record player. Inside, the restaurant feels very much like the unexpected French bistro you stumble across in a small village in southern France. Locals sit at the bar sipping traditional French drinks, such as Dubonnet or Kirs, mixed with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. It is the food that is the real revelation, though. The cote de boeuf, accompanied by pan-roasted potatoes and assortment of seasonal vegetables, is magnificent. The confit de canard, hearty chicken salads, and lamb chops with ratatouille are also highly recommended. The dessert menu offers a wonderful pear clafoutis and a melting chocolate pudding. A fine range of digestifs are also on offer. It is a restaurant, once found, that is incredibly hard to leave. And one I will always seek out on any subsequent returns to the city.
48 Rue Lamarck,
Grazie is a hybrid, a concept-restaurant in the northern Marais that combines a traditional, no-frills pizza menu with an elegant cocktail bar. The decor plays to the Parisian admiration of New York’s no nonsense, blue-collar aesthetic, with stripped walls and industrial fittings completing the post-industrial feel. The brainchild of Julien Cohen, who has conceived other successful restaurant ventures to the Parisian food scene, Grazie is the epitome of nouveau Parisian chic. The pizza is certainly some of the best in Paris and, although it is worth booking a table if there are a few of you, to get a real feel for the place it is best to be squeezed in, elbow-to-elbow at the long bar. The professional bar tenders mix gin, honey and grapefruit concoctions to a fantastically eclectic soundtrack, while the beautiful people of Paris chat and gossip all around you.
91 Boulevard Beaumarchais
Sidling through curtains that mask an entrance always juggles your senses. But walking into Ave Maria, a new Brazilian restaurant in Oberkampf – a grungy neighbourhood in northeastern Paris – feels like your senses are being juggled while riding in on a unicycle, backwards. I’d left Paris behind me but was not entirely sure where I had arrived.
Shown to my table by staff dressed like they had walked straight off the set of the 1980s cult classic The Warriors, I surveyed the scene. Pinatas, prayer flags, erotic oriental art, checkerboard tablecloths, faded pictures of matadors and even an inflatable parrot. A jump, jive and wail soundtrack with swing classics from Disney’s The Jungle Book filled the room. I ordered a sangria and studied the menu. By the time I’d ordered my Amazonian fish and chips, the room had begun to fill and the James Bond theme tune was being pumped out. My food arrived promptly, filling a terracotta dish to the brim. The plate was no less lively than the room: white fish, a crunchy salad, a little overdressed in an ‘exotic sauce’, slices of melon and orange, tomatoes, all sprinkled with Maroc chips. Back in London, I often found Maroc chips irritating, but they worked well in adding crunch to the plate. I was soon joined by another lone diner who bore an uncanny resemblance to Dustin Hoffman. He looked somewhat uncomfortable in the exuberant setting. Watching him and some of the other diners who were more bourgeois than the bohemian approach taken to their dishes in the kitchen, reminded me of the Korean in-laws trying to tackle potatoes at my cousins wedding in Leicester. There was a brief second when I questioned whether it was all a little too much, before I quickly realised that this was exactly the sort of place Paris needed.
1 Rue Jacquard,