Sunday, 31 March 2013

Eating Paris: in other languages

When people think of eating in Paris, they think of the epicentre of French cuisine, of fine dining, menus. But Paris is a cosmopolitan world city, which has seen waves of immigration from its former colonies, all of whom have their own cultural relationships with French cuisine. The French influence on Vietnam influenced the Banh Mi - the delicious vietnamese baguette, and cous cous from the former colonies of north Africa is wildy popular in France.

We chose to stay in Belleville, eastern Paris, because - like the east end of London - it is a melting pot of lots of different cultures who've settled in Paris over the years. There are Tunisian Jewish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, Thai and Congolese restaurants, and everyone seems to rub along quite nicely. Like London's east, it's also becoming increasingly popular with artists and creatives, attracted by relatively cheap rents and inspiring street life.

I would definitely recommend staying around there - beautiful views, affordable restaurants, winding streets, down to earth vibe, and a good collection of authentic boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries etc. Our airbnb was tres affordable and well located too.

With only a few days to play with, we didn't get to check out as many places as we'd have liked (there's definitely going to be a next time!) so here are a few highlights:

Lao Siam
Lao Siam is an incredibly popular Laotian/Thai restaurant on the Rue de Belleville, we arrived at about 9.30pm after a full-on day's sightseeing and the place was full. We got a table in a few minutes, and were surrounded by lots of laid back locals eating their favourite dishes from the menu covering the two countries.

We tried to mix it up, so had Laotian sausages and Thai papaya salad for starters (we were warned against the Laotian papaya salad for being too spicy!). The sausages were incredibly fragrant - the intense aromaticness of fishcakes x 2, working deliciously with pork. An odd number of them and we fought over the largest share of the fifth piece! The papaya salad was one of the best I'd had but definitely could have handled a bit more spice!

We shared a beef, bamboo shoot and coconut curry and a crab and vermicelli noodles for mains. The beef in the curry was certainly a cut above the frozen crap you often get in London - properly delicious and a bit rare, giving off so much more flavour. The crab came in its shell, so it was a messy job cracking claws and other bits to get that beautiful meat - it was utterly delicious, with a caramelised coconut and green bean sauce.

We shared an interesting dessert: green tea flavoured glutinous rice blobs floating in sweetened coconut milk. Really quite tasty!

Despite its name, Hawaienne is a Vietnamese restaurant, and one of the best rated in Belleville. We arrived just before 8.30 and by 9 it was full of a mix of Vietnamese and bobo 20-somethings.

To start we had summer rolls (standard but delicious) and a pork ravioli. The ravioli was exceptional, it had a herby nutty inner mix, was served with those Vietnamese processed pork slice things, and lots of crispy onions and shredded mint. The flavours combined beautifully and were surprisingly easy to eat with chopsticks.

I had a Pho for main, but was playing Russian roulette with the menu and decided on one at random (for lack of understanding), so main was offally offally. It had all kinds of offally things that I couldn't identify, including offally meatballs. I'm not the biggest fan of straight up offal, but there were loads of other fillings (tender tender beef strips, copious herbs and beansprouts) that I was able to create lots of mixed chopstick fulls to get through it. It was a great pho tho: great stock, very fresh and warming; I'd recommend trying to understand what the different options were before ordering next time.

Pete's thin chicken coconut curry was exceptional - very light, and with big bits of potato and carrot slow cooked in it. I tried a bit of the potato: extravagantly I might say it was the best potato I'd ever eaten, so soft, buttery and flavoursome all the way through.

We ate for under €20 per person, and ate well. No wonder it's so popular!

Ok, so not multi-cultural in the sense you were imagining, but trendy hamburger joint Blend is Paris' strongest nod to the global trend for really good burgers. This was another of Rachel Khoo's tips, and another one on the money.

Blend opened quite recently, and has proven very popular. On a cold Monday lunchtime there was a queue of trendy types waiting outside for a table. In the evenings it's meant to be bonkers; bit like some of the walk in burger/fancy junk food joints in London. The couple at the table next to us spotted me plotting my next move with the guidebook and asked if Blend had made it in already; a glimmer of surprise when tourists find the 'real' places!

The menu is simple: there are burgers, sides, snacks and a small selection of cakes. There's a distinctively French twist to the burger toppings - good provenance cheeses, lots and lots of cheese, and the quality of the mince in the burger. I ordered a 'cheesy' which had, as promised, lots and lots of cheese, some nice relish and shredded lettuce. The bun was really soft and bouncy - not sweet like the demi brioche that are standard in London.

It came with really good crispy fries and homemade ketchup, which had a rich, deep taste like it had been made with sundried tomatoes. We liked Blend - definitely worth the short wait.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Eating Paris: in French

I love Paris. I haven't always, but every time I go back I love it a bit more, uncovering new layers of fascination as I explore different neighbourhoods and get more of a sense of how the city works.

One of the reasons I love it more every time is that I am no longer a penniless student, so I can enjoy a bit more of its culinary offerings. That said it's still pricey and you have to choose your restaurants carefully. This time I did some research in advance and it paid off, with some cracking recommendations. Unfortunately quite a few places were booked up by the time I put a call in, so make sure you make reservations well in advance.

In this post I'll cover some of the best French restaurants I went to; other restaurants will follow in a later blog.

Le Hangar
A tip from my boss, Le Hangar was one of the best meals of the trip. In a quiet backstreet near Le Centre Pompidou and on the cusp of Le Marais, initial impressions are of a slightly drab, tired joint - plain walls, worn carpets, naff artwork on the wall. All sans irony. But it's buzzing with in-the-know locals who have been frequenting it for years.

The meal started with a complimentary serving of tapenade, which we enjoyed with our Cotes du Rhone (excellently selected and good value winelist FYI).

This was followed by starters marinaded sardines and a fennel and buffalo mozarella gratin. The sardines were essentially raw, very fresh and nicely dressed. The fennel gratin was substantial, with a stocky, creamy sauce and al dente fennel.

For mains, we both ordered the pan fried foie gras (du canard) fillet on potato and olive oil puree. This was possibly the highlight of the trip - the meat being perfectly cooked, rich, tender, slightly crisp on the outside. The potatoes were a world away from any mash I've ever had. I shudder to think how much high quality olive oil went into this, but it was all worth it.

Dessert was chocolate fondant (incidentally, this appeared on almost every brasserie menu I saw), a warm, sizable disc of chocolate, again cooked to perfection with a soft gooey middle. Those M&S melting middle puddings now pale in inadequacy.

We really enjoyed this one - it felt very authentic, low key and informal, but with real care taken over food and service. It wasn't cheap, with two people having three courses, wine and badoit coming in just shy of €100, but it's probably not bad for the quality/location in Paris.

Quedubon is located high in the hills of the exciting and rapidly changing eastern suburbs, and was a tip from Rachel Khoo's amazing googlemap of Paris tips. We stayed in bustling Belleville and Quedubon was 10 minutes walk from our Airbnb apartment. Located on a quiet back street near the rolling Buttes Chaumont park, it's a wine shop through the day, converting to a wine-focused restaurant at meal times.

It had a modern, open and light feel but lots of traditional touches - a big wall-length blackboard with all their wine selections, and portable blackboards with the evening's menu were balanced on a chair next to tables who were at the point of ordering. I liked that the waiters didn't slip into English for us (same at Le Hangar too, although they really talked and talked here).

My starter was incredible: a pork knuckle patty (with lots of herbs and onions) coated in crispy breadcrumbs and served up with sauteed potatoes and a lambs lettuce salad. The meat was so sweet and juicy and made me think I need to be a lot bolder at cooking with interesting "forgotten" cuts more often.

We also ordered a pate de campagne to start - really incredibly flavoured, meaty, herby, sweet pate, with sharp cornichons and tasty bread.

For mains we both ordered slow cooked veal legs with wild mushrooms, other veg and sauce. This was very substantial and left us with no space for dessert. But it was good, tasty, tender meat.

My only complaint was that the service was a little inattentive - we ordered a second glass of wine that never arrived, and sometimes lacked warmth.

Restaurant Perraudin
Perraudin is a classic bistro in the Latin Quarter with chequered tabelcloths and a very good value lunch menu (€18.50 for three courses). It's all about proper French classics served up mostly for local residents, students and academics at the nearby universities.

We had boiled eggs with dijonaise - one of my favourite simple French dishes - nothing quite conjures up the taste of childhood holidays like this dish.

I had my first steak tartare - I was pleased how seasoned it was with finely chopped onions, capers, herbs and mustard. Served with a well dressed salad and crisp fries, I made it through all that raw meat and really enjoyed it!

Desserts were classic too. Ille flottante for me - with generous lashings of creme anglaise and toasted almonds.

The service was very friendly, the atmosphere very relaxed - leisurely lunchers debating philosophical points over tasty, unpretentious, good value food.

Creperie Suzette
After trying to get a walk in at Breizh Cafe and failing (this highly regarded Breton creperie is VERY popular), and desperate for crepes, we ended up at Creperie Suzette in Le Marais. We were not disappointed with this lovely restaurant and their friendly service. It was a cold Sunday evening and the place was full of gaggles of Parisians toasting the end of the weekend over cider and galettes.

I started with a complete - ham, egg and cheese - the classic. It was just what I wanted.

For dessert I had a crepe with cooked apples and very generous lashings of caramel sauce.

All in all very delicious, and I did not feel cheated out of my crepe fix after not getting a table at Cafe Breizh.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Upper Clapton Brunch

It might be a fair comment to say I spend too much time in Clapton, and write too many blogs about the eating options here. Truth be told, I can be pretty lazy when the weekend arrives and all I want to do is potter around the neighbourhood.

If you look at my Hackney brunch map, you can see that much of the brunchification is going on in certain pockets - Chatsworth Road, Stoke Newington Church Street, Dalston, Lower Clapton Road. So it was with interest when I heard that an old tram depot north of Leabridge Roundabout in Upper Clapton was being converted into an art space and cafe.

So on one rare recent sunny Sunday morning we briskly crossed the Leabridge Road to the Tram Depot Cafe.

First impressions were positive. It was quiet, but very bright and light - a stunning space with vaulted ceilings, original parquet flooring, big stable-like doors painted a beautiful green. Squint (hard) and you might just imagine a scene from the 1930s, working men of East London working on the trams. Coolicon lampshades dangle down, metro tiles adorn the wall, some artfully arranged kilner jars on industrial scaffolding - check, check, check.

I had a full english, which was tasty, but the portion felt slightly mean for the price and the quality (fine, but not exceptional) - one sausage, one rasher of bacon, beans extra? The toast was a good sourdough though. Pete had french toast with strawberry and bananas and was happy with it.

Coffees were decent - and I liked that they served my americano with a little jug of hot water to get the right strength for me.

The service left a little to be desired - the card machine wasn't working, none of the staff knew where the nearest cash machine was, the juicer wasn't working when we arrived. They said they would come and take our order when it was working, but didn't. And there was a 50 minute wait for the food, with only a few covers in the cafe - and this was a far from complicated order.

Happily the vibe was relaxed, good selection of newspapers and magazines (hey, Financial Times in Clapton!) and the decor excellent. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel that the place had much more potential than the current operation offered - a slightly prouder menu, more generous portions, tighter service. I worry that too many businesses are increasingly going to major on an aesthetic without quite delivering the substance. I hope they realise its a crowded market and up their offer!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Clapton Pot supper club

Supper clubs have been quite the thing over the last few years. From Michelin starred chefs inviting guests around to their swanky loft, to aspirant amateurs opening up their living room, there is a huge amount of choice. You can see the appeal - so many people have great skills and great ideas when it comes to food, and want to find a way of sharing it with other people who love food.

I hadn't been to a supper club until last week, when I joined the inaugural Clapton Pot supper club. I saw a posting about it on Yeah Hackney and signed up. The Clapton Pot is run by two lovely ladies who live either side of Clapton Pond: Violaine (West side) and Diane (East Side), who've lived in the area for a while, love living in Clapton (who doesn't?!) and wanted to meet some interesting new people. The suppers are the last Sunday of the month, and Violaine and Diane take it in turns to host.

We were at Violaine's this time - surely one of the most stylish apartments in Clapton. It was all open, spacious, light and artfully accessorised. My fellow E5 dwelling friend Laura and I arrived at the same time as most of the other guests, and we supped wine as we started getting to know each other. It was a nicely varied group of people - tech types to slam poets, architects to graphic designers - and conversation flowed really easily.

First up we had pear, fennel and watercress salad. Everything was super crisp and fresh. Violaine revealed that they bought most of the ingredients from Ridley Road Market in Dalston; an excellent way of keeping costs down, as the Clapton Pot is FREE to attend (you just need to bring a bottle of wine per person).


The pace was leisurely and there was time for more chatting while the final bits of the main course were prepared. It was a polenta and sundried tomato cake, served with a moist and rich portobello mushroom, peppery puy lentils and a sweet and deep gravy. The flavours worked well together, with lots of tasty and different flavour combinations to be had with each fork-full.


We finished with pears poached in peppery red wine (great combination!) and served with vanilla infused yoghurt.

Time flew by with good conversation and by no time it was 11.30pm on a School Night and everyone was pooped. It was a great evening, and I think everyone left feeling warm from the generosity of our hosts and how nice it is to get to know your neighbours, swap stories about the neighbourhood and get the lowdown on all the local controversies. If you want to find out more, you'll have to get down to the next Clapton Pot. Follow them on Twitter - I think the next meal will be open for registration soon.