Who Needs French Chefs?

It’s the hot new trend in Paris, taking the town by storm: French food made by foreigners.

What? What? The country that protects its language against invading words; the country that protects the names of wines and cheeses against foreign imitators; the country that snootily looks down on everyone else’s pitiful attempts to exist–France is going crazy over French food, made by pretenders??

Yup! Case in point: Frenchie, Paris’s hottest table, a restaurant I had no chance in hell of getting into. The head chef is Gregory Marchand, a Frenchman who grew up in an orphanage in Nantes. And then he apprenticed with great chefs in the following French food hotspots: London, Hong Kong, a tapas bar on a beach in Spain, another spot in Spain, London again, New York City.

But that’s not enough. After all, Marchand was still born in Nantes. So on one of my days in Paris, I spent my time tracking down the best local food–that’s not made by locals.

Let’s start with breakfast:

This one's got apple filling.

This one’s got apple filling.

Apricot tart!

Apricot tart!

Procured from the patisserie right across the street from the apartment where my friends Catherine and Mike lived–a bakery named Mori Yoshida, after the Japanese genius who runs it. The shop itself is so spare, so economical, that it makes an IKEA look like a baroque cathedral. All the pastries rest on two shelves, hanging from the ceiling by chains; in the corner there’s a cash register, computer, and a case with macarons. That’s it.

Mori Yoshida’s apple pastry is delicious, highlighted by a crispy, crack-it-with-your-teeth outside texture that’s just oh so exciting to bite into. But the best thing there is the vanilla bean macaron. In a city awash with macarons, not all of them great, this one stands out: it’s a flood of creamy vanilla flavor, the real stuff, brewed with booze. It’s the kind of sweet treat that overwhelms your taste buds.

A few miles away, in the Left Bank neighborhood of St. Germain, is a small empire of eateries run by Cuban-American Juan Sanchez and New Zealander Drew Harré. There’s a bar, a sandwich shop, a modern-style bistro, and a wine store, La Dernière Goutte (The Last Drop). I stopped at the wine store and grabbed a few bottles, receiving expert advice from the clerk, who was, as you’re no doubt expecting, Australian. (My criteria for the wine: good, fairly affordable, and totally unavailable anywhere in the United States.)

Then it was on to the Cuban-American-Kiwi bistro, Semilla. It’s a delicious place with a set menu that offers you a trio of appetizers (you get all of them) and then your choice of main course. Two things distinguish Semilla from the typical French bistro. The first is its humor:

Great wine list, or greatest wine list?

Great wine list, or greatest wine list? You can click all these photos to expand.

The second is a focus on green vegetables. This is a little surprising, right? But Paris is all about potatoes. At Bistrot Paul Bert, one of the essential old bistros (and rather annoyed by us foreign intruders), I had a great starter bowl of green beans (topped with foie gras), but the main came with a side of potatoes. At Jeanne B., an exceptional lunch was accompanied by exceptional potatoes au gratin. In America we have a tradition of steak with mashed potatoes; in France the potatoes are fried. And in the German-influenced Alsace province, east of Paris, the potato is an even more persistent friend.

Semilla is probably the only French restaurant I visited where potatoes were not on the day’s menu. My order of fresh fish was presented like this:

No, I don't know what some of those green things even are. Marjorie???

No, I don’t know what some of those green things even are. Marjorie???

Leave it to a Cuban-American and a New Zealander to free Paris from the shackles of the potato.

If you’re visiting Paris and want to partake in this trend, there are more places to go, places that I missed. If you’re hankering for local food in Belleville, you might stop by La Baratin, run by Argentine chef Raquel Carena. One of the trendiest places in town is Le Timbre, a tiny room near the Jardin du Luxembourg, run by a guy named Chris Wright who hails from Manchester, England.

Hey, you’re in Paris. Who needs a French chef?


1 Comment

Filed under Edibles

One response to “Who Needs French Chefs?

  1. Marjorie

    Wonderful post! The flat green herb on the fish is probably basil, but I have no idea what the “star” shaped green is. What did it taste like? It looks a little like the seed buds on a dill plant, was there a taste of dill?

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