Having metaphorically toured Tokyo, Nick dreams up a perfect 24 hours in Paris.
Paris, the City of Light, poses a challenge for someone like me who used to be a frequent visitor but has now not been there for well over 18 months. And that challenge is to head there as soon as the pandemic permits, but for which particular meal: breakfast, lunch or dinner?
This question gives my age away. I grew up in an era when breakfast really never tested a British chef and long before international travel made the breakfast variations that we have enjoyed from chefs from Australia, the US, Spain and Mexico so popular.
But I will never forget the aromas that emanated from a Parisian cafe on my visits there during the early 1970s. The perfumes of freshly made croissants with a lot of salty butter and jam, crisp baguettes, freshly squeezed orange juice and strong coffee established themselves in my head – and in my stomach – as the only way to start the day. So my trip to Paris would involve an overnight stay just so that I can indulge myself one more time.
Otherwise, a Eurostar train out of London’s St Pancras International station would get me to the Gare du Nord in ideal time for a walk from there to any one of three of my favourite Parisian restaurants – Willi’s Wine Bar, Juveniles and Ellsworth – each of which has its own particular charms.
Willi’s, run by Englishman Mark Williamson, is definitely the most established of the three, with its sister restaurant Macéo next door, and the one with the most Parisian setting close by, the Palais Royal. Here I would definitely call in for an aperitif, a glass of fino, as well as a look at the menu, before heading on. Both Juveniles and Ellsworth are close by.
Juveniles, opened by Mark’s friend Tim Johnston but for the past several years run by his daughter Margaux and her husband, the excellent chef Romain Roudeau, has taken on a new lease of life. How he produces such good food from such a small kitchen is a question that I really never want to know the answer to, but he does. Their website carries a couple of charming photos of this trio – including the one at the top of this article – plus a phrase which I have never seen next to any restaurant’s opening hours: ‘give or take’.
But what lunch at Juveniles conveys, as well as great food and wine, is just how compact this city is. Tables are cheek by jowl, there is hardly room to hang your coat, the lavatory is tiny, and yet it all seems to work somehow. I can still recall two excellent first courses: a green-asparagus soup and a duck consommé with burnt onions. Roudeau relies heavily on vegetables in his main courses: leeks and rocket with a poached chicken breast; peas and broad beans with a duck breast; and carrots and turnips with the tenderly cooked beef cheeks. Lunch will end invariably with a bowl of Roudeau’s creamy riz au lait. The wine list, Johnston’s baby, is one of the most stimulating in Paris.
Ellsworth, close by, is the creation of Americans – Laura Adrian, the front of house and sommelier, and Braden Perkins, her partner and the chef – and again it is compact. From a kitchen located upstairs, Perkins delivered some memorable dishes on my last visit, most notably a plate of clams stewed with greens, basil and garlic, and trout with cucumber, radishes and garlic, which Adrian matched with an excellent bottle of Corsican rosé from Yves Leccia.
From whichever of these three restaurants we had finally eaten lunch in, it would be only a short walk to whichever hotel I chose to stay in on the basis of its breakfast the following morning: Le Bristol, La Plaza Athénée, the George V, the recently opened Cheval Blanc or the Hôtel de Crillon. (Dreams cost nothing.) I would have to choose one of these because I do not believe that there is any longer a cafe in Paris that serves the same quality of breakfast as they used to. And it is only the finest patisserie that will continue to remind me of Paris.
Having showered, changed and wandered down to the hotel’s bar for another aperitif, we would head off for dinner to one of two restaurants. And because this would be our first time in Paris for quite a while, my final choice has to be more than just exciting food and wine, however special the cooking of Guy Savoy and his team is. My final choice for dinner has to offer more.
One possibility is the restaurant at La Scène Thélème theatre, where the service takes place after the performance across the road. This is very French in combining the arts and the art of eating and drinking extremely well and while the chef from our previous meal here has moved on, it would appear that the new chef, Yoshitaka Takayanagi, may be just as talented. His proposed menu once the restaurant reopened on 24 August is exciting: marinated trout with wasabi; barbequed lobster with soy sauce, broad beans and peas; and a rack of lamb with kanzuri, a Japanese paste made from chilli, yuzu and koji. The heady prospect of eating such food in such a very Parisian setting is extremely appealing.
But my choice for our dinner would be even more particularly Parisian, even more idiosyncratically French, as it combines history, possibly the finest wine list in the whole country, strong connections with Asia as well as a wonderful family story.
The story behind Tan Dinh, its Vietnamese food and its remarkable wine list began in 1968 when a very young Robert Vifian read a quote from Curnonsky, the renowned French writer on food and wine. He wrote, ‘if Asian flavours could be married with the best wines of the world, the results would be sensational’. Vifian kept this at the forefront of his mind as he came to Paris after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and began working in his parents’ restaurant. He successfully educated himself in the pleasures of French wine, together with his brother Freddy, in the 1970s when learning about, and tasting, the best French wines was a pastime that was much less expensive than it is today.
The size and breadth of the wine list Vifian has assembled, plus their style of cooking, makes this restaurant far more suitable for larger tables than for just two, and I still have extremely happy memories of my last visit there when I asked Robert to choose food and wines for 14 friends including quite a few observant Jews, so there was to be no ham, shellfish or pork.
On the menu’s right-hand side was a list of four wines: a Mâcon, Clos de la Crochette 2009 from Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon; Ch Les Ormes Sorbet 2010 from the Médoc; an Aloxe-Corton Premier Cru La Toppe au Vert 2009 from Michel Mallard poured from magnum; and finally a Sauternes in its prime, Ch Bastor-Lamontagne 1988.
Our meal began with trout roe served in a shallow bowl on top of a thick coconut cream laced with chopped chives and chillis with Vietnamese prawn crackers to be used for scooping the mixture into one’s mouth.
Three meat courses followed. Plates of cold pancakes stuffed with duck and kumquats were served with a pungent, dark dipping sauce. Then bowls of home-made noodles with the diced, dark pieces of chicken meat running through them alongside diced cucumber (their skins left on to provide extra crunch) and cardamom; and finally plates of particularly tender fillet of beef, sliced into bite-sized pieces and served with a finely judged sauce laced with very good vinegar.
Finally, to a dessert that incorporated dried cherries, dried kumquats laced with sesame seeds and thin slices of pungent crystallised ginger whose overall heat was the perfect compliment to the delicious Sauternes.
The decor of Tan Dinh may not be to everybody’s taste; the lugubriousness of the waiting staff may come as a shock; but so too will the overall breadth and wealth of the wine list that the Vifian brothers have assembled. It is quite simply amazing.
From here we would get an Uber back to our hotel. And the following morning I would try and recall those breakfasts I had first enjoyed in this city 40 years ago – croissants, baguettes, freshly squeezed orange juice and a café crème, or two – before reluctantly heading off to the Gare du Nord and back to London.
Willi’s Wine Bar 13 rue des Petits-Champs, 75001 Paris; tel: + 33 (0)1 42 61 05 09
Juveniles 47 rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris; tel: +33 (0)1 42 97 46 49
Ellsworth 34 rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris; tel: +33 (0)1 42 60 59 66
La Scène Thélème 18 rue Troyon, Paris 75017; tel: +33 (0)1 77 37 60 99, open Tuesday to Saturday
Tan Dinh 60 rue de Verneuil, Paris 75007; tel: +33 (0)1 45 44 04 84, reopens Wednesday 1 September
Note that proof of double vaccination is required for all diners.