IS THERE SUCH AS THING AS “PARISIAN FOOD”?
Did you know that the steak frites is the dish most associated with Parisian cuisine? Besides the iconic beret and baguette, savoring a steak frites (preferably in a cozy bistro) seems to be another well-anchored aspect of Parisian lore. However, grilled meat typically eaten saignante (undercooked or done rare) with a side of fried potatoes is not a Parisian invention – it’s actually English!
French chefs traditionally cooked meat for longer periods of time in a bouillon (broth). As such, regional dishes like boeuf bourguignon, coq-au-vin, or bouillabaisse, all examples of one pot meals, have typically been more common in Paris. Moreover, meats were not typically eaten “on their own”: more often than not, they were prepared as a stew, braised, or served with an Escoffier style sauce.
If I had to pick a dish to represent Parisian gastronomy, I would single out a stew called the gibelotte. To make this dish, rabbit is cooked in white wine with onions, lardons, a roux sauce and a bouquet garni of herbs. In the medieval times, l’Île-de-France (the region surrounding Paris) was home to the greatest vineyards in France, before Burgundy and the other famed French wine regions! As such, Parisian recipes have traditionally called for white wine, creating dishes that have a slight acid tang. Moreover, a deliberate plan was set to harvest rabbit in the 1830s in order to provide more meat to the masses at a cheaper price. Rabbit became so popular, it was present in both Parisian markets and restaurants.
A decade later, when chicken became the cheaper choice, it was again typically cooked in vinegar and wine sauces. Today, Parisians and, more generally, the French, are known for their especially savory vinaigrette dressings for salads (my favorites being those that mix multiple vinegars (balsamic and cider for example), mustard, oil and shallots).
It is also no coincidence that there is a firmly established culture of eating bread in Paris. The city was strategically located in an area populated by grain fields. Pâtisseries and boulangeries remain major Parisian hallmarks: you cannot walk around Paris, or France for that matter, without coming stumbling on a boulangerie. Popular chain stores like the Eric Kayser boulangeries have been able to develop in the city alongside neighborhood boulangeries, testifying to the enduring culture of bread and baked goods like croissant and pain au chocolat in France.
When potatoes started being grown in French fields in the 19th century, this new foodstuff was not immediately embraced by the people, who clearly preferred bread. Pandering to the masses, recipes were even published to help cooks make bread loaves out of potatoes!
The history of Parisian culinary history was especially marked by the advent of restaurants in France, which were first born in Paris in the 18th century. Before restaurants, bouchers, pâtissiers, rôtissiers, charcutiers, wine merchants and other specialized salespeople could not sell cooked meals for seated customers. When restaurants became legalized, they first spread like wildfire through the Palais-Royal neighborhood in Paris (near the Louvre and the rue de Rivoli): Parisians flocked to these new establishments, impressed by their cleanliness, even sometimes awed by the decorations, and the fact that you had access to a menu with prices. Quickly, Paris became known as the place to find delicious foods.
When I am asked what is a safe dish to order at a typical brasserie or café, I invariably answer: the croque-monsieur. It is the Parisian sandwich par excellence, and it rarely disappoints: made with ham, cheese, and sometimes creamy béchamel sauce, it is often served with a side salad. Deceptively simple, and perfect for brunch, you can be sure your meal is made on the spot! Also, you cannot go wrong with an entrecôte or steak with a side of fries. It does not matter that steak frites isn’t actually a hallmark of Parisian cuisine: it has become a Parisian dish thanks to restaurants like Le Relais de L’Entrecôte (Boulevard Montparnasse and Rue Marbeuf) or Le Relais de Venise (Boulevard Pereire). They are so successful today, they don’t even bother serving other dishes!
When discussing Parisian cuisine, Versailles is unavoidable. Louis XIV moved his court in the 17th century from the Louvre Palace in Paris to Versailles, which was initially only a hunting lodge. The feasts, cooking techniques and trends emerging from the court informed the rest of the country on what and how to eat. Today, Versailles would like to remain a synonym of excellent cuisine. For example, you can treat yourself to Lenôtre macarons and delectable meals at the elegant restaurant La Cour des Senteurs just outside of the château. Also, Alain Ducasse, the first chef to have three different Michelin-starred restaurants in three cities, has opened a café within the château called Ore. You might have head of Ducasse’s restaurant on the second floor of the Tour Eiffel, which offers three, five of six course meals of haute cuisine! From personal experience (and confirmed by Tripadvisor enthusiasts), it is one of the most romantic restaurants in Paris.
In the memoir My Life in France, television star, celebrated cookbook writer and master chef Julia Child muses that her first meal in France in 1948 (oysters, sole meunière, a salad with a “lightly acidic vinaigrette”, and a dessert of fromage blanc), although full of surprises like drinking wine at lunch (“the trick is moderation”), was the most exciting meal of her life. Discovering French food was transformative: she became a passionate foodie and changed careers when she was 30 years old! In the same way, eating and looking for the finest restaurants in Paris can be inspiring. It can be as exciting as climbing the Eiffel Tower, gallivanting around Montmartre, discovering the Marais, shopping in the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, or gawking at the artworks in the old train station that has now become the Musée d’Orsay!