Like quite some many Vietnamese immigrants in Australia, my parents ran a busy bakery which sold everything from the likes of crusty Vietnamese baguettes to sourdough breads, meat pies and sausage rolls, and a wide selection of cakes and pastries from the humble Australian lamington to French classics such as the éclair and tarte au citron. If I wasn’t eating toast with Vegemite for breakfast, I was eating a hot croissant, straight from the baker’s oven. Any croissants leftover at the end of the day were often re-fashioned into sandwiches to be sold the next day, filled with ham, cheese and salad. My other favourite was the apple turnover; when they weren’t sold warm from the oven, my mother would split them open and pipe freshly whipped cream inside for a more luxurious treat. I doubt this is how the French would eat their croissants or chaussons aux pommes, but that’s how we did it in Australia and I loved it.
As a child, I always felt spoilt by the endless selection of delightful sweet treats in our family bakery. Now, as an adult, I feel equally spoilt by the cakes and pastries on offer in Europe, especially whenever we find ourselves in Paris. With Paris only a 4 hour train journey from Zurich, we find ourselves in the City of Light quite frequently, often as a stopover on the way to visit our families on the far-flung coastlines of France. Such stopovers are often necessary for me to mentally prepare myself for the family gathering ahead. At other times, our Parisian stopover takes place on the way back to Zurich, something which my husband describes as a reward (for me) for having survived another bout with my in-laws. Perhaps because Paris has always been a treat of some sort that each and every visit has always been savoured and enjoyed to the fullest.
It would come as no surprise that I love Paris for its food. I love coming to Paris for my fix of confit de canard or even just a good steak frites. And I must confess my fond affection for Pierre Hermé; my husband frequently accuses me of conveniently organising our days around a Pierre Hermé location just so I am never far from the most flavourful and swoon-inducing box of macarons. Paris is also home to a buzzing Vietnamese community in the 13th arrondissement, which gives me a good excuse to fit in a bowl of Pho on each of our trips.
Whilst Paris might be a food mecca for anyone who loves to eat, that’s not to say that a good meal can be found everywhere in Paris; a lot of restaurants and bistros are merely tourist traps, serving underwhelming food with questionable service to match. It pays to research the restaurants and cafés in the area where you will be staying or visiting and to make reservations ahead of your arrival. I always find comfort in knowing that lunch and/or dinner has been planned in advance, allowing us to fill the time in between for some sightseeing or other touristy activities.
I started writing this post last year but found that I could never finish it. There was always another restaurant to add, another place to visit, more photos which had to be taken. This post on Paris just never felt complete to me. But then it dawned on me that, well, I suppose I am not done with Paris; that there will always be another charming café to discover, another cluttered kitchenware store to visit, another flavour-bursting macaron to devour. So perhaps you could consider this my first instalment on Paris, if you will.
My next instalment will be a brief post on travelling to Paris with tiny tots …
If you have visited any of the places mentioned below, or you have some recommendations of your own, I would love to hear from you!
Tiny cafés in eclectic locations seems to be the trend at the moment in Paris, including the Boot Café which is housed in a former cobbler’s workshop on a secluded street in the Marais precinct. With just enough room for three small tables, this cosy café is occupied by a steady stream of clientele who either pop by for a quick caffeine hit or who linger by the shopfront on one of the colourful stools. A selection of cakes and biscuits are on offer, as well as (at the time of writing) the interesting inclusion of Asian-style buns for those wanting a savoury snack. Definitely a place to visit for serious coffee lovers.
Of-La-Di café is currently the hippest hangout for Instagramming coffee lovers in Paris. There is nothing particularly French about this café, but the coffee is excellent, as is the small selection of cakes, pastries and light meals on offer. There is a somewhat Scandinavian feel to the concept behind this café, no doubt due to one of the owners being Swedish. The place seats maybe only 10 people or so at a time, but the service is friendly and the ambience is great. If you’re fed up with the stuffy French waiters at the more typical Parisian bistros, you might want to give this place a try.
A visit to Poilâne is worth it just to breathe in the wafting scent of freshly baked buttery pastries. My favourite is their apple tart. Softly cooked apples, gently spiced with cinnamon, sit atop a crisp and flakey puff pastry base which tastes of heaven at the first bite. These tarts are not for sharing, although a family-sized apple tart is also sometimes on offer, but even then I would want to claim it all for myself. Grab a few pastries and a packet of their shortbread biscuits for snacks on the go, or to sustain you on a long train journey out of Paris.
Cuisine de Bar
If you want a place to sit down to enjoy and sample some of the offerings from Poilâne, including the above-mentioned apple tart, simply pop next door to Cuisine de Bar. On the menu is a large selection of tartines, or open-faced sandwiches, prepared using sourdough bread from Poilâne, as well as a few pastry items which are freshly baked next door. This sleek and modern café is conveniently open on Sundays (Poilâne is not), although a different breakfast/brunch menu is offered on Sundays. I mention this specifically because, during the week, it is possible to order large bowls of café au lait (think soup bowls, not cups), a rather Parisian treat which they oddly refuse to make on Sundays. It is rather unusual for any café to have a changing coffee menu but they earn extra points for being child-friendly.
My favourite breakfast of all time is simply a soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers. Make that two. Crisp, toasted baguette flutes make this nursery breakfast a more grown-up affair, and the addition of a buttery and flakey pain au chocolat with a frothy cappucino would make for a pretty good start to the day in my world. You can find this perfect breakfast at Charlotte, a stones throw away from Poilâne, another reason to visit Rue du Cherche-Midi. This charming little café sits on the site of a former favourite haunt of ours (La Confiturier) and serves the usual French breakfast favourites, as well as a changing daily menu offering the likes of vegetable gratin, chilli con carné and their signature burgers. The place might look a bit cool and trendy at first sight, but their relaxed atmosphere is welcoming to both the young and old.
Le Flore en I’Ile
If you love ice-cream, then you will love Berthillon ice-cream. This French brand of ice-cream, made using only natural ingredients, has its premises on the the idyllic Île Saint-Louis, just around the corner from the Notre-Dame. Many cafés and restaurants in Paris sell Berthillon ice-cream, and one of our favourite spots is Le Flore en I’Ile. I think we come here mostly out of habit; even in the middle of winter will we find an excuse visit this café for a small bowl of ice-cream, even if it means having to rug up outside under one of their heaters. Their food menu is standard café fare and the service can be a bit questionable (or maybe it is typically French), but the ambience is always lovely.
If you’re looking for a place for breakfast or brunch, you won’t be disappointed with Carette. They have delicious breads and pastries on offer, as well as great coffee and hot chocolate. Before you leave, treat yourself to a selection of their macarons – they are a must. High chairs are available for small children – a rare find in Paris!
La Maison du Chou
Macarons have had their time in the limelight and it is now the humble choux pastry which is delighting the sweet-toothed Parisian. Éclairs and profiteroles have had a makeover and countless flavour and colour combinations now abound, transforming this once demure dessert into something très chic. But instead of following the latest trend in experimenting with explosive colours and ornate garnishes, La Maison du Chou have gone au naturel and are producing their tasty morsels with a nod to grandma’s era. On offer are simply three flavours – natural (fromage blanc), coffee and chocolate. The little choux pastries (or cream puffs, as the Americans would call them) are filled to order, ensuring that the pastries remain crisp up until you can steal a moment to devour them. But the better option is to grab one of their few tables and to enjoy your choux on site with a cup of coffee.
L’Éclair de Génie
If you are interested in trying some of the aforementioned, new-generation éclairs, L’Éclair de Génie is the place for you. The name of this venue is a smart play on French words which translates to “a stroke of genius” in English, something which you won’t deny the moment you step foot on the premise. On offer are an assortment of vividly colourful éclairs with equally bold flavour combinations, such as pistachio with orange, vanilla with blackcurrant or passionfruit with raspberries. While you are there, you may as well try all of them.
I’m quite a fan of choux pastry, so when I saw that this shop proclaimed to have the best choux puffs in Paris, we popped by for dessert one evening after having dinner at Pho 67. Unlike at La Maison du Choux, the choux puffs here are not made to order but are ready-filled. However, there are so many mouth-popping flavours to choose from – they are definitely a delight to eat. The store occupies a tiny shopfront with most of the seating outside on the pavement. In good weather, it’s a great place to sit outside with a cup of tea or coffee and a small selection of choux puffs to nibble on.
The only thing on the menu at Le Soufflé is … soufflé. Their savoury menu consists of simple cheese soufflés to something more spectacular with chicken and mushroom sauce or even a soufflé with boeuf bourguignon. Their dessert menu is equally enticing with soufflés embellished with options including apple and calvados, rum and raisin, and pistachio and chocolate. What’s also lovely about this restaurant is their menu for children under 10 years old – a special mini soufflé with chicken and vegetables, followed by a mini dessert soufflé. A children’s menu is rare in Paris, so a gourmet but nutritious children’s menu can only mean good things about this restaurant.
This modern Vietnamese restaurant recently had a facelift by way of an enclosed dining terrace installed at both of their entrances, allowing more tables to be squeezed into this popular restaurant, as well as more natural light. The staff are loud but friendly and the food has always impressed. The bowls of Pho are generous but a bit light on fresh herbs, and their spring rolls (egg rolls, nems) are quite tasty. The only time I was disappointed was when they saw us coming with a toddler in a stroller during their busy period and turned us away, but then we simply went across the street to the restaurant mentioned next …
This is a cheap and cheerful Vietnamese restaurant, frequently occupied by local Vietnamese patrons, which is always a good sign. The service is always prompt and they make great Pho and Bun Bo Hue.
I wasn’t sure about including this restaurant on my list, but my husband said his Chicken Pho was the best he had ever tasted, so I felt that this restaurant was worth at least a mention here. I ordered a Beef Pho and it was also delicious. We were in the area of the Notre Dame and we both felt like a nourishing bowl of noodle soup for dinner that night. According to our Google search, Pho 67 was one of the only Vietnamese restaurants within short walking distance, and we were certainly not disappointed by the food. However, despite arriving at the time when the restaurant was supposed to be open, it was closed at the time and we waited about 30 mins until a lone employee came to open the premises. He worked as both a chef and waiter that evening, but the service was friendly and the menu was cheap and cheerful.
Le Pain Quotidien
You may not know this, but Le Pain Quotidien (which means “the daily bread”) actually originated in Belgium. They have over 200 branches worldwide but I felt it was worth mentioning it here because they have great bread and pastries, a solid breakfast/brunch menu, and they are child-friendly. This is one of the few places in Paris where you will find a high-chair for your little one and a baby-changing station (maybe not at all locations but certainly at the branch at Saint Honoré). Maybe, for me, it is the comfort of going somewhere familiar in a foreign city (we are regular visitors of Le Pain Quotidien in Zurich), but when you are a parent and want your child to be suitably strapped to a seat for at least 5 minutes so you can enjoy your café au lait while it is still hot, that’s a good enough excuse for me.
The macaron phase looked to be a fleeting one, but even I have fallen victim to these petite morsels of heaven. I once thought I had tried every possible flavour combination that could be squeezed into these coin-sized bites, and even thought my quest for the perfect macaron was over when I discovered Ladurée, but the macarons of Pierre Hermé will make you understand why he is considered the most creative and gifted pastry chef in Paris. Enticing flavours include milk chocolate with passionfruit, or rose and lychee, but the simple salted caramel is an enduring classic. If you’re not a fan of macarons, his chocolates are also highly regarded. Be prepared to part with some hard-earned money for these delectable but worthy delights.
Le Petit Cler
La Fontaine de Mars is a famous establishment in Paris worth visiting if you are organised enough to book in advance (this is where Rachel Khoo filmed her segment on cassoulet in The Little Paris Kitchen). If you are unable to secure a reservation at La Fontaine de Mars, their offspring, Le Petit Cler, is a wonderful alternative. The small and cosy restaurant has a scaled-down menu of what is usually served at La Fontaine de Mars, featuring what is typical of most Parisian bistros. The food is excellent, the service is friendly, and the ambience is lively. What’s more, they’re happy to accommodate kids too.
If you live in a place where kids are generally well accommodated in cafés and restaurants with high chairs and a baby-changing table, Paris might surprise you. Now that we are parents to a young child, eating out is a totally different experience compared to when we had the luxury of simply choosing a venue with a tasty menu and a good table on offer. These days, finding a restaurant in Paris which will even welcome children is often more important than looking at the menu first. But Café Central is a pleasant find for anyone travelling with tiny tots. Not only do they have a few high chairs on site and a baby-changing table in the toilets (two rare finds in Paris), but their menu is pretty darn good too. Their Duck Confit with fried potatoes is my regular order, but expect to find a decent choice of bistro classics, including burgers with French fries. And on top of all of that, we’ve always had wonderful service.
La Grande Épicerie de Paris
A lot of people travel to foreign destinations with a travel guide bookmarked with museums and art galleries to visit. I did this on my first trip to Europe from Australia and quickly realised that sculptures and old paintings were not exactly my thing. I prefer to get my cultural fix by visiting the local supermarkets where I can spend hours browsing the aisles, admiring the selection of jams, mustards, tea and even baby food like how an art lover might regard a painting. La Grande Épicerie is the Galeries Lafayette of food shopping, a place where the shelves and counters are so beautifully displayed that it would be a hard challenge to not find a foodie souvenir to take home with you. I love to buy jars of dried herbs wherever I travel, a fairly light and inexpensive memento which I know I am bound to use at some point in the kitchen. If you are staying in the city for several days, it’s worth trying some of the fresh produce they have on offer. Otherwise, buy a few tins of pâté and maybe an exotic bar of chocolate or two for the trip home.
This well-known establishment is a must for anyone on the lookout for good quality and specialty kitchenware, especially copper pans and specialty cake tins. Despite the vast choice of products on offer, the store is actually rather small and cramped, and somewhat chaotic with their hectic ordering system. But if you’re lucky to visit the store during a quiet period, you can browse at your own leisure and hopefully find a memorable souvenir to take home. Dehillerin is my first destination for specialty bakeware such as friand tins (called moule à aspic in French) and copper cannelé moulds. But if you’re short on space in your luggage, a Dehillerin-branded spatula would be a perfect memento from this store.
The name of this store is a play on words in French which means “I have everything”. This is the place to go for specialty ingredients such as different grades of cooking chocolate or cocoa nibs, items which are not so readily available outside of France. It’s best to visit this store with something in mind, otherwise you may find yourself later trying to squeeze a 5kg bag of Valrhona chocolate chips into your suitcase.
Le Bon Marché
I love the kitchenware department at Le Bon Marché. Actually, I love the entire department store. It’s clean, classy and not as crowded as the other well-known department stores in Paris. You will find most major brands here, although they do tend towards the more luxury articles. But whether you’re after cookie cutters in the shape of the Eiffel Tower or some high-end Christofle silverware, or you just want to browse at your own leisure, you won’t be disappointed by their offerings. And when you are done shopping, treat yourself to a cup of tea and something sweet at the Rose Bakery Tea Room.
If you like food, you will love the Parisian food markets. They are a great introduction to the local cuisine where you can find all of the freshest ingredients from local fruit and vegetables, to butcher and fishmonger stands, as well as cake and bread stalls. If you are lucky, you might also come across a rôtisserie stand and/or a food stall selling ready-made meals, such as a Vietnamese or Moroccan vendor with house-made specialties.
The markets are a great place to shop for food if you happen to be staying in a furnished apartment or a hotel with a kitchenette where you can prepare your own meals. You might still need to go to a supermarket for some ingredients but that can be a wonderful detour in itself.
Most areas of Paris have a weekly or twice-weekly food market and it is worth making time to visit one in the area where you are staying. My favourites include the Marché Raspail and Marché Saint-Eustache – Les Halles. You can find more information here on food markets by arrondissement.
And a word of advice to the food photographers: if you are simply visiting the markets to take photos, it would be polite to first buy something from the stall before snapping away. Otherwise, make it quick and smile before you annoy the vendors and local shoppers.