The ritualistic pleasure of dipping a madeleine in tea once unlocked a flood of childhood memories for French novelist Marcel Proust. We all have Proustian memories, rich sensory experiences triggered by taste or smell, and there is no city steeped in such memories for me than Paris. A sip of the intensely-rich hot chocolate at Carette, the iconic tea room open since 1927, takes me back to languid afternoons at this charming café. Any jaunt to Paris is a balance between the old and new, paying homage to timeless haunts whilst revelling in the thrill of new discovery. A recent two-day trip proved no different and here is a curated itinerary to help you map your next visit and taste the best of French food.
Once home to French nobility, the Marais district has evolved into the Jewish quarter. Situated on the Right Bank, it is a charming neighbourhood to explore on foot, its cobblestone streets carving a path to picturesque cafés, boutiques, classical mansions and understated galleries and museums. We start at Musée National Picasso, which houses the largest public collection of Picasso’s works, before ambling over to The Carnavelet, a museum chronicling the history of Paris. Voltaire’s armchair, Napoleon’s campaign kit and Proust’s personal affairs, are just a few of the many artefacts thoughtfully preserved here. The Carnavelet also encloses one of Paris’ best-kept secrets, Fabula. Open between May and end-October, this terrace restaurant is nestled within the museum’s verdant courtyard, the perfect setting for morning coffee.
We continue pottering about without purpose; the French have a beautiful verb for this, flâner. Before long we’ve arrived at Carette’s airy café in Paris’ oldest planned square, Place des Vosges, indulging in buttery choux pastries between decadent sips of their legendary hot chocolate, served with an elegant swoop of Chantilly cream.
As for brunch, it is worth the wait at Breizh, a rustic pared-down café championing Breton galletes. Their sweet and savoury buckwheat crêpes are a thing of beauty, delicately latticed and crisp around the edges, giving way to an unexpectedly-delicious compilation of fillings.
Stroll over to La Samaritaine, also on the Right Bank just across from Pont Neuf. Distinguished by its Art Nouveau façade, the heritage department store has been rejuvenated by the LVMH group as part of a colossal complex encompassing LVMH’s flagship hotel Cheval Blanc. It is a joy to rifle through the tightly-curated collection of luxury brands. After you finish shopping, take a brief walk up north to Bourse de Commerce. Originally built as a circular grain exchange on the former site of the Catherine de Medici’s residence, the stately building is now home to the Pinault Collection. The impressive contemporary art collection of François Pinault, the dynamo behind luxury brand empire Kering, shines a light on both emerging and established artists.
There are many boltholes where you can sink a cocktail or few in Paris but the beguiling bar at Hôtel Costes in the elegant rue Saint-Honoré remains the go-to-spot for the Parisian chic set. The people-watching aside, enjoy the hedonistic setting replete with ornate chandeliers and raspberry-red velvet fringes.
We then head across the city to Tekés, the all-vegetarian restaurant helmed by Assaf Granit, the chef credited with bringing bold Middle Eastern-Israeli flavours to Paris. Run by Cécile Levy, a chef of Franco-Moroccan and Israeli heritage, the eclectic menu draws on Jerusalem’s traditional cooking practices over charcoal, flames and ember. Dishes are spiced with sumac and zaatar, and suffused with a startling twist. Sabich, the classic pita-stuffed sandwich, for instance, metamorphoses into an open-faced sandwich layered with Japanese eggplant tempura. “Chicken liver” steals the show, starring caramelized onions and mushrooms mixed tableside.
Breakfast in bed is the wake-up call we need to make the most of our address in Paris’ 8th arrondissement. We are staying at Hôtel Splendide Royal, the smallest luxury hotel in the city with just 12 suites and round-the-clock butler service. We borrow bikes from the hotel to explore our smart neighbourhood, cycling past the French President’s residence, whizzing by the refined store fronts of Rue de FaubourgSaint-Honoré, before turning towardsJardin des Tuileries, the intricately-landscaped garden flanked by the Louvre and Place de la Concorde.
We head to the Bois de Boulogne park in the 16th arrondissement, where the Fondation Louis Vuitton houses 11 art galleries in a magnificent building nicknamed ‘the Iceberg’. The exhibit at the time of our visit is the weird yet wonderful collaboration between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. A structural feat buttressed by wood, steel and glass, the interconnected outdoor platforms are a reflection of the wizardry of architect Frank Gehry, affording a panoramic vista of Paris.
We have lunch at Girafe, a hyper-stylish restaurant that is the place to park yourself during warmer months with an unencumbered view of the Eiffel Tower. The menu majors in seafood and the limited vegetarian options (including a truffled pasta) are not memorable, although the experience certainly makes up for it, soundtracked by soft chatter and the delicate clink of wine glasses.
Post lunch, we walk around Saint Germain des Prés, an old-world district that was once the stomping ground for philosophers, artists, intellectuals and literary greats. Their legacy lives on at Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Flore is the café where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir shaped a new line of philosophical thinking, while Hemingway, Picasso and Julia Child were just a few of the prolific patrons at Les Deux Magots. Today, these cafés are mostly filled with tourists but remain a great place to spend an afternoon with a book in one hand and a coffee in the other.
Saint Germain des Prés is also a reserve of modish boutiques and food shops. Visit Le Bon Marché, possibly the world’s oldest continually operating department store. The holy grail is of course La Grande Épicerie de Paris, Le Bon Marché’s flagship food hall. Walk in only if you have time on your hands, as you’ll need it to peruse the parade of aisles piled with over 30,000 items from artisanal baked goods and specialty condiments to truffled finds, every type of cheese imaginable and a wine selection so extensive, it would make an oenophile blush.
Discreetly tucked away in Rue de Dragon, a side street of St Germain, this intimate cocktail bar reflects the je ne sais quoifactor characteristic of Cyril Lignac who is also behind the achingly-cool Bar des Prés on the same street. The interiors of Dragon are as moody as they are incandescent, with a sleek jade onyx bar set off by fiery shades of red blazing through the small space. A few craft cocktails down, we stay on for Lignac’s Franco-East Asian menu, which takes shape in a parade of sharing plates spanning the spectrum from marinated yellowtail and vibrant salads to delicate parcels of gyoza and yuzu aubergine speckled with sesame.
It’s been 48 hours in Paris well spent indeed.
Ayushi Gupta Mehra is an economist, an F&B consultant, a self-taught cook and founder of The Foodie Diaries. Follow her adventures on Instagram @The_FoodieDiaries and @Mummylogues.