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A Tale of two Cities - Paris’ attractions have wide-ranging appeal

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Words: Lydia Bell    Photography: Benjamin McMahon

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From the boulevard-lined spaces around the Champs-Élysées to the bohemian neighbourhoods of Pigalle and the Gare du Nord, Paris’ attractions have wide-ranging appeal

It’s late spring in Paris and the start of a long weekend on a mission. The plan for this Parisian sojourn is to conduct an exploration of contrasting neighbourhoods. I’m curious about the edgier, bo-bo (bohemian-bourgeois, if you were wondering) quarters of Pigalle and the up-and-coming Gare du Nord, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to soak up the patrician beauty and glamour of Raffles’ Champs-Élysées home turf — the 8th and neighbouring 16th arrondissements. I just want to see just how different an experience these areas offer.


We arrived on the Eurostar from London, having travelled on the new e320 train. I recommend trying to book this one, instead of the old train. Every seat has a power socket for your phone, as well as a USB socket, a mirror and a reading light — unlike the old trains, which have none of the above.


What I love about the Eurostar is the way the flavour of the city hits you so instantaneously when you leave the train. I like the occasional cigarette and exiting the Gare du Nord, dangling a Gauloise in expectation, I had not one, but three offers of a light before I had even crossed the street. This would never happen in London.


We commence our journey of discovery this weekend on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, a stone’s throw from the Gare du Nord. The street is the stomping ground du jour of the Parisian young and beautiful, so the Eurostar couldn’t be more conveniently placed for us. Dragging our tiny wheeled suitcases behind us, we had arrived for post-train Camparis and soda at Chez Jeannette.

Header: The wide boulevards around the Eiffel Tower contrast with the edgier Pigalle;Left to right: The immaculately preserved vintage interior of Chez Jeannette; Chef Vincent Crépel commands the open kitchen (below right) at Porte 12 (below left).

The sine qua non of hipster joints on the street, its story is telling. Chez Jeannette, at number 47, was the name of the spit-and-sawdust café that was here before. When it was time for Jeannette to retire, she was surprised to find her buyers were young and rather fashionable. Even more surprising, they promised Jeannette they would keep the name and totally loved her vintage-café vibe, so they kept the leatherette banquettes and dodgy wallpaper, too, and a new crowd took up residence. (A few years on, the aesthetic has been updated with sexy, smoky mirrors, although the bathrooms are still dreadful.)

Porte 12 calls itself a neo-bistro, but this downplays the prodigious skills of the chef, Vincent Crépel

After Chez Jeannette, a lot of other people got the brief. Soon, pseudo-shady (rather than actually shady) bars frequented by youthful creatives joined the African hair salons and textile workshops of the Pakistani and Sri Lankan community. The gentrification process had begun. Our evening kicks off with supper at tiny Porte 12 in the 10th arrondissement. Here, seasonal French produce is paired with artisanal wine and given a flawless — and fun — treatment. Seven dishes are served to us on the set €75 menu (you can eat something not dissimilar for €35 at lunchtime).


The menu changes regularly and tonight we have delicate foie gras soup with the softest brioche, amaranth risotto with tasty smoky eel, cod with sweet baby turnip, braised carrot and a carrot and orange reduction, lamb with a potato emulsion, noisette with baby spring vegetables, apple sponge with vanilla and yoghurt, and a spicily nice chocolate and beetroot sorbet.


Porte 12 is a haute-cuisine gem occupying a miniature, pared-down space in a former textile and lingerie atelier — it has just 12 tables and an open kitchen. It calls itself a neo-bistro, but this downplays the prodigious skills of the chef, Vincent Crépel, who trained under André Chiang in Singapore.


We linger a little longer in the lingerie department because the waiter is charming — an attribute generally known for its total absence in Parisian waiters. We finish our seven courses, a deliciously exhausting marathon, and get the staff to call us a cab. We head into the night and finally arrive at Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris long past the checking-in witching hour.


Upstairs, our suite awaits. It’s a girly dream — and I am here with a girl friend so that’s fine — with bathrooms lined with white marble and mirrors, beautiful ceramic standard lamps and pale furniture. Parfait!

Above: The Palais de Chaillot is home to the Musée de l’Homme, which has many unusual exhibits, including a wall of prosthetics (top left)

The next day, we devote ourselves to the environs of Raffles and its wealth of cultural institutions. We take off on foot into the forested Bois de Boulogne. The private Fondation Louis Vuitton has blossomed here under the money-no-object patronage of LVMH, its incredible modern building designed by Frank Gehry. The foundation’s daring spirit is encapsulated exactingly by the building itself: 11 galleries encased in an enormous, but warren-like, building composed of futuristic glass iceberg shapes set in a water garden — amid the forested Bois, over which you can gaze from its many rooftops. The aim of the place is to express evolving trends in art and promote artistic freedoms — and that it does in spades. The headline exhibition the day we visit is Bentu, Chinese Artists in the Time of Turbulence and Transformation, which brings together 12 artists of different generations who live in mainland China.


It’s an incredible mix celebrating the diversity and power of Chinese contemporary art and crosses over a variety of techniques and media. It is the first exhibition devoted to contemporary Chinese art in France for the past 10 years. Exciting stuff. My favourite pieces are Hu Xiangqian’s The Woman in Front of the Camera, a video of a slightly mad-looking woman ecstatically dancing with a scarf in public (apparently it’s a commentary on personal liberty), and Qiu Zhijie’s From Huaxia to China. This is a detailed and seemingly chaotic ink-on-paper drawing of fantastical mountain ranges decorated with Chinese sayings, schools of thoughts and contemporary issues. Zhijie is known for his calligraphy-based style.

Above: The Fondation Louis Vuitton promotes art and culture; Liu Xiaodong’s Jincheng Airport, featured in a recent exhibition at the foundation

Even fresher is the grand reopening of the Musée de l’Homme, part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle down on the Seine. This refurbishment has been six years in the making and the museum, which celebrates mankind, has hardcore questions at its heart, such as: What does it mean to be human? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Instead of rolling over and fainting from the effort of imagining how to answer them, this conscientious cultural and scientific project has set out its thoughts in a creative, detailed and frankly quirky way. From a Cro-Magnon’s skull to Pinson’s anatomical wax models and more prehistoric skeletons than you can shake a stick at, everything is showcased in a clever, theatrical telling of the story of human evolution. Hordes of children are running about, unspooked by the skulls and body parts; a wall-mounted carpet is dotted with tongues you can waggle to listen to languages from around the world; you can shake the hand of a chimpanzee and enter a Mongolian yurt. The museum is encased in the magnificent, historic wing of the Palais de Chaillot at place du Trocadéro, which is a pleasure to be in while we discover the story of our hominid ancestors — as it has spectacular views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.


Best of all, it’s a five-minute stroll from Monsieur Bleu and lunch. Across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, in the new wing of the art haven Palais de Tokyo, this is the restaurant with possibly the most gorgeous interiors (by Joseph Dirand) of the 16th arrondissement. Its Instagrammable interiors have a gilded glamour that gets us excited and a bustling and informal ambience. Ultra-high ceilings lend a sense of endless space. We select from Benjamin Masson’s hearty seasonal French fare — slow-cooked pork belly and crispy pork chops with haricots verts and the smoothest of mashes.

Above: Sip on an Old Cuban, prepared by the barman at the Hôtel Mathis

That night we decide to check out another atmospheric interior: The Bar at the Hôtel Mathis, on Rue du Ponthieu near the Champs-Élysées. I fall in love before the host — a guy with an Afro in a 1970s suit — even swishes open the red velvet curtain. As intimate and sexy as a film-set bordello, the deep-red upholstered walls, moulded ceilings, Bernard Buffet paintings, art nouveau chandeliers, velvet benches, tasselled lamps and velveteen curtains of the space create instant atmosphere. As does our waitress, who looks like Jessica Rabbit, moves like Jessica Rabbit and moonlights as a burlesque dancer.


We sip on Old Cubans — three-year-old Havana Club, citron vert, sugar syrup, ginger cordial, feuilles de menthe and champagne. This clever bliss is the work of the Expérimental Group, whose name is on a number of Parisians’ lips at the moment, because of the success of their Grand Pigalle Hotel — the first boutique hotel in Pigalle that turned heads.

Above: Benoît Dargere is chef consultant at Monsieur Bleu, which has a cool, minimal interior in a refined palette of greens and greys

The next day is Saturday and we head to the hipster womb — Pigalle. One of the trendiest areas of northern Paris, here young Parisian creatives mingle with the African community and temples to craft beer are joining the shady bars, reliving the era when Picasso, Van Gogh and Breton hung out here. The choicest bit is South Pigalle, now sporting a New York City-esque moniker — SoPi. Apart from the Moulin Rouge, no tourist attractions attract the hordes, so this is where Parisians live, work, shop, eat and booze. One such establishment where they do all that is Merguez & Pastrami, which announces itself with a jaunty yellow neon sign.


I fall in love before the host — a guy with an Afro in a 1970s suit — even swishes open the red velvet curtain

This lovely restaurant has the feel of a film set; no surprise, as the owner, the charming chef-restaurateur David Azoulay (who owns the Pizza di Loretta joint across the street) has also worked as a film director and set builder. Huge, beautiful, blown-up black-and-white lithographs of Moroccan Sephardic Jews and Lower East Side Jews hang on the vintage white tiles. A Moroccan Italian of Jewish extraction, Azoulay describes the restaurant as being an end point of sorts to an eight-year-long “culinary thought process”. It started when he was working in the Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue in New York City in the 1990s and he realised the power of the Ashkenazi culture in the Jewish world (himself being Sephardic). Picking up a love of pastrami on the way, he absorbed the “fantasy of the Ashkenazi culture as being more intellectualised and able to tell the story of modern Jewishness”.

Left to right: David Azoulay serves homemade dishes at his deli, Merguez & Pastrami; Ary Scheffer, Argenteuil by Arie Johannes Lamme (1812-1900) at La Musée de la Vie Romantique

Slowly he developed the idea of returning to Paris and telling the story of Jewish food through both its Sephardic and Ashkenazi sides (hence the name Merguez & Pastrami — the two ingredients refer to the two distinct subcultures of Judaism). “It’s a way of giving back what the Jewish people learned from the cultures they inhabited and the way they absorbed and reflected back those cultures in their food,” he says. So the menu mixes influences from North Africa, Central Europe and the Middle East. We sit at the bar and eat a salad of roast aubergine, pomegranates, buttermilk dressing and rocket, creamy hummus and labneh and piles of salted, marinated and smoked meats.


Later, we wander to the free-to-enter neighbourhood gem of La Musée de la Vie Romantique. The name alone is reason enough to visit. But rather than offering any kind of rumination on the nature of romantic love, rather it’s an ode to the obscure painter Ary Scheffer, who received Parisian socialites into this his exquisitely romantic home during the Juillet Monarchy. Delacroix, Rossini, Sand, Chopin, Gounod, Tourgueniev, even Dickens had nights here. Behind the shuttered beauty of the façade are kept the paintings of Scheffer and his contemporaries and a lot of the furniture, paintings, objets d’art and jewels of the writer George Sand, who was his friend and neighbour. The house takes barely any time to wander through and after the visit it’s de rigueur to sit in the cobbled garden, drink tea and have an optional Gauloise.


We are doing just that when we receive a text message to alert us that our friend Adrien is already waiting at Hotel Le Pigalle, one of the Pigalle watering holes du jour round the corner. We find him ensconced at a communal marble-topped table at the back of the restaurant surrounded by a crowd of young, fun Parisians. This 40-room-and-one-suite hotel with a café, bar, restaurant, vinyl library and book kiosk is a cornerstone of the “new” Pigalle — one of a constellation of places that celebrate the area’s old-school bawdiness with a knowing, cashed-up, vintage-loving edge. The stylish space celebrates everything that Pigalle was and is. Magic ingredients include an artists’ collective of photographers and cartoonists (many celebrating Pigalle’s seamy underbelly of whores and pimps) and a visiting pole dancer.

Left from right (Top): Celebrate Paris’ most colourful nightlife with great cocktails at the Glass bar mixed by Aron; A classic croque madame sandwich at Buvette; Gin display at Le Carmen, a favourite haunt of Bizet; The concrete workaday interior of 52 on Faubourg Saint-Denis;Left from right (Bottom): Buvette’s exterior; A seasonal French menu is on offer at the 1930s-style Paradis; The welcoming neon sign of Merguez & Pastrami

We warm up with another pre-prandial drink at Glass bar, whose creators already have a successful venue, Candelaria, behind them. The walls are painted pitch black, enlivened only by a huge glitter ball. The friendly bargirl tells me that this place is most popular with people who work in bars and restaurants so tends to stay open and lively all night, all week. Their remit is old-school USA cocktails, American craft beer (such as Flying Dog Raging Bitch created by an astrophysicist in Colorado) and serious whisky. Yet more homage is paid to American popular culture with hot dogs and pickles and shots followed by beers. The deconstructed American bar is all the rage in Paris at the moment, although the love affair with all things American has been playing itself out for a while. “Before this, everything was a Prohibition bar,” the bartender tells. “Now, that is over.”

A constellation of places that celebrate the area’s old-school bawdiness with a knowing, cashed-up, vintage-loving edge

Above: Beetroot, carrot and mozarella salad from the youthful Nicolas Gauduin at Paradis

Round the corner, the Big Apple frenzy continues at a restaurant called Buvette (which is, in fact, French). New York City restaurateur Jody Williams started out with an outpost in the Big Apple’s West Village popular for its croque monsieurs, imaginative tartines and traditional coq au vin. Charmingly, this American’s dream of Paris was then brought to Paris itself. You’d never know an American was behind Buvette — this 9th arrondissement haunt feels as Parisian as can be, down to the snootiness with which the waiter inscribes your name on a pillar and tells you it’s going to be more than an hour.


We can’t wait that long, so instead we head to the debonair split-level Paradis restaurant decorated in the spirit of the 1930s. It’s cosy and full of beautiful things: alabaster wall lamps by Pierre Chareau, marble tables, a staircase reclaimed from a French ocean liner, Man Ray prints, Bauhaus chairs — and lots of good-looking people. The seasonal French menu by the youthful and talented Nicolas Gauduin includes my beautiful main and starter: œuf parfait in a cream of celery, Parma ham and fresh herb sauce, and a smoked mozzarella risotto speckled with spring vegetables, including bouncy broccoli and pink radishes.


Our final port of call that evening is Le Carmen, a gorgeous and grandiose 1875 rococo house with ceilings that go on forever, mouldings, columns and ostentatious mirrors recalling a more enchanting age. It was here that Bizet wrote his famous opera; now the space is a bar-slash-club, done over by designer of the moment Antoine Plateau, who has injected a suggestion of louche boudoir: gilded cages dangling from the ceiling and red-velvet soft furnishings that seem to be appreciated by the swell of bearded men and girls with fringes drinking gin cocktails. A gaggle of people waits outside for entry. It’s 3am by the time we leave Le Carmen but we are home within minutes as the Ubers are fast and flowing in Paris — these days it’s a case of no cab, no problem.

Left to right: Located in a former butcher’s shop, Le Carmen’s decadent déco interior features moulded frescoes and huge mirrors; The understated interior of restaurant 52; Jody Williams has brought her café Buvette to the city that inspired her original New York eatery

Too soon it’s Sunday and the Eurostar beckons. There’s enough time, though, to enjoy a smidgeon of luncheon back on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. At number 52, there’s a restaurant called, simply, “52”. It has a no-reservations policy — of course — but they find us a table. The owners of 52 have already turned heads with two other gourmet spots, Le Richer and L’Office. Looking around for a new zone, they alighted on an old butcher’s shop in this trendiest of streets.


The concrete-heavy new space is workaday and downlit, bustling and welcoming. The small rotating menu includes my scallop, oyster and apple tartare with braised endives accompanied by crispbread and a creamy mushroom foam, and my friend’s take on the Vietnamese “pho au feu” — gently spiced braised beef cannelloni in a broth with root vegetables. Pudding is a vanilla yoghurt mousse flavoured with bananas and a eucalyptus honey sorbet. The food is surprising and heart-warming. It goes well with a tart Vouvray. Friendly co-owner (with Charles Compagnon) Jens Ola Schroder tells me: “A few years ago this was a no-go area and it’s still a bit rough, but it is the place to be in now. We wanted a bistro with everyday food, but with top chefs and ingredients and we wanted prices that didn’t keep everybody out.”


It’s a pleasant end point to our gourmet-cultural weekend and one during which I’ve discovered that a) it’s nice to stick to one neighbourhood and get a feel for it and b) it doesn’t actually matter whether you’re in the 8th or the 10th — if you research your haunts like Inspector Clouseau, you’ll eat like Marie Antoinette. We return to the Gare du Nord, dragging our tiny suitcases reluctantly behind us.

PICK OF PARIS

What to do, where to eat and drink

Name

Address

Website

Bar Mathis

3 Rue de Ponthieu, 75008

www.hotelmathis.com

Chez Jeannette

47 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010

chez-jeanette.zenchef.com

Glass

7 Rue Frochot, 75009

www.glassparis.com

Le Carmen

34 Rue Deperré, 75009

www.le-carmen.fr

Le Pigalle

9 Rue Frochot, 75009

www.lepigalle.paris.com

Name

Address

Website

Buvette

28 Rue Henry Monnier, 75009

www.paris.ilovebuvette.com

Merguez & Pastrami

57 Rue Rodier 75009

www.merguezandpastrami.com

Monsieur Bleu

14 Rue de Paradis, 75010

www.monsieurbleu.com

Paradis Restaurant

34 Rue Deperré, 75009

www.restaurant-paradis.com

Porte 12

12 Rue des Messageries, 75010

www.porte12.com

52

52 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010

www.faubourgstdenis.com

Name

Address

Website

Fondation Louis Vuitton

8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116

www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr

Musée de l’Homme

17 Place du Trocadéro, 75016

www.museedelhomme.fr/en

Musée de la Vie Romantique

16 Rue Chaptal, 75009

www.vie-romantique.paris.fr

GETTING THERE

Eurostar operates up to 21 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare Du Nord with fares starting from £29 one way, £58 for a return journey.
www.eurostar.com; 03432 186186

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