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.

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