A walk through three very different neighbourhoods of the French capital shows that the city’s reputation as the culinary centre of the world is stronger than ever.

Of all that comes to mind at the thought of Paris, from theatre to history to Claude Monet, its decadent cuisine easily remains among the most prominent. A walk through three very different neighbourhoods of the French capital shows that the city’s reputation as the culinary centre of the world is stronger than ever.

Old dog, new tricks
As the sun begins to sink behind the Louvre, people fold their newspapers and get up from their afternoon seats around the sculpture garden of the nearby Palais des Tuileries. This is the old heart of Paris, the 1st arrondissement. The city is divided into numbered arrondissements, or districts, that spiral out from this palace, which became the centre of regal power in the 12th Century. Though the royals did not endure, another Parisian tradition – the preparation and consumption of good food – survives here undiminished.

On a cobbled street a few blocks away, the atmosphere at Spring is heating up. Kitchen assistants rush around with huge stainless-steel trays of ingredients. Paris is a city that takes its traditions seriously. To the shock of many grandees in its notoriously conservative dining scene, the man behind this creative take on French classics is – of all things – an American. ‘Yes, I’m an American, and I’m in love with France,’ says Daniel Rose, the chef, as his sous-chefs baste, peel and chop in the open kitchen behind him. ‘There, I said it. And I’m getting married tomorrow. To a Frenchwoman, of course.’

Spring is part of a quiet revolution that has taken over Parisian cuisine in the last few years. It has become more relaxed, more modern – and more open to foreign influences. Daniel insists he is not doing anything different. ‘I don’t need to reinvent delicious,’ he says. ‘It’s what the French have done forever. The only thing that’s American about this place is the taste for risk.’ The main course is brought out: tender lamb with savoury cep paste, pomegranate seeds and watercress. It may not reinvent delicious, but undoubtedly that’s what it is. Perhaps Spring, like Daniel’s marriage, could be the beginning of a beautiful new Franco-American alliance.

The 1st and 2nd arrondissements of Paris showcase the city’s grandeur: all fabulous sandstone palaces, formal gardens, splashing fountains and boulevards crammed to bursting with terrifyingly expensive designer shops. It is a brave chef who breaks the rules here – but patissier Pierre Hermé does just that. At the end of a short and lovely wander through the Jardin des Tuileries, his tiny shop on the elegant Rue Cambon is like a jewel box – but one filled with immaculately arranged piles of fine chocolates. By the window are racks of macaroons – a rainbow of sugar pink, pale yellow and sea-foam green. It is these creations that led French Vogue to dub him ‘the Picasso of pastry’.

Alongside classic flavours, such as pistachio, raspberry and caramel, Hermé comes up with some surprising macaroon combinations: aniseed and saffron, lemon and caramelised fennel and, the most popular, the Mogador – chocolate and passion fruit. Sometimes, he even makes macaroons that sound actively disgusting: ketchup, or foie gras and chocolate. This does not deter his devotees, who besiege the shop whenever a new flavour appears. The weirdest one on offer today is mandarin and olive oil, but it turns out to be delightful, the crunchy biscuit fresh and citric, the paste unctuous and peppery.

Walking back from Rue Cambon to the Boulevard de Sébastopol, the streets become narrower and the designer boutiques more outlandish. Until a few years ago, Paris had no such thing as a cocktail club outside formal hotel bars. But the cobwebs have been blown away from the old city’s drinks scene by the Experimental Cocktail Club, hidden behind a grey door on one of the pedestrianised streets in the 2nd arrondissement. Inside is a candlelit room with Perspex chandeliers, velvet chaises-longues and exposed brickwork, and a bar stocked with rare spirits from France and all over the world. ‘Since we started, the bestseller is the Experience 1,’ says barman Damien Aries, knocking up the club’s signature blend of vodka, citron pressé, basil, lemongrass and elderflower cordial.

Damien spins the steel shaker, to the delight of the drinkers at the bar. ‘Ah, but it’s not really about flaring,’ he says modestly, referring to the competitive spins and acrobatic moves in which some mixologists like to indulge. ‘It’s about the drinks. This is a very small place, so we don’t really have enough room to flare anyway.’ No matter: the cocktails are the best in town, and the club’s Old Cuban (rum, champagne, ginger, lime and mint) and Mistake 1 (whisky, sherry, homemade vanilla syrup and lime) are entertaining enough.

Food for thought
Paris’s Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, has long enjoyed a reputation as the intellectual quarter of the city. This is the home of the famous book market that meanders along the banks of the Seine, and at Shakespeare and Company, the Left Bank’s much-loved English-language bookshop, tweedy customers lounge around reading Jean- Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, or play a tune on the shop’s elderly piano.

When it comes to dinner time, there is a queue around the block outside Café Constant, an unpretentious and wildly popular café-bistro owned by Parisian restaurateur Christian Constant. The chef here is another foreigner: Eduardo Jacinto, a Brazilian who once served as an army cook. Since then, he has refined his style. ‘At Café Constant, we take products you might find in haute cuisine, then use them in bistro food,’ he says. ‘There is so much finesse in the French kitchen.’

Café Constant’s hearty modern cooking is just the thing after a long day reading philosophy in the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, or even climbing the Eiffel Tower – only a few blocks away. The menu changes with the seasons, but dishes today include marinated salmon and oeufs mimosa (devilled eggs) to start, followed by duck leg, cod fillet with garlic vegetables and, for the brave, head of veal with tongue and brains. As soon as the restaurant’s doors open for the evening meal, diners flood into the upstairs dining room and cosy downstairs bar. They pack in tightly around small, old-fashioned wooden tables, delighted to have secured a seat, and become even more cheerful as the red wine starts to flow.

Stretching back from the Left Bank is the Latin Quarter, so called because Latin was the language of education until modern times, and this is the home of the Sorbonne, Paris’s historic university. On busy weekend days, locals throng the nearby rue Mouffetard, affectionately known as ‘La Mouffe’. These days there is little Latin to be heard. Many Parisians still do their food shopping at traditional markets like La Mouffe. This system cuts the big corporations out and lets the consumer buy directly from the producer. It is one of the reasons French produce remains so diverse and of such consistently high quality.

Heaps of gigantic, ripe tomatoes spill off grocery stalls, competing for space with fresh blue crabs and piles of langoustines at the fishmonger, and, of course, towers of aromatic cheese. Indeed, the Androuet cheese shop here is one of the finest in Paris, and the long but good-tempered line outside Le Fournil de Mouffetard hints that it is the best bakery in an area packed full of such things.

Just around the corner from La Mouffe on a quiet side-street is Arlaux. Christine Arlaux-Maréchal is the sixth generation of a family that has been making champagne under this name since at least 1826, and now holds private tastings in her small and charming rococo boutique. Her particular interest is in pairing champagne with food.

‘We can easily make a champagne dinner,’ she says. ‘The champagnes go from light to medium to full-bodied vintages along with the courses, then for the dessert we go to pink. Bubbles bring out the flavour of the food, but they can be difficult to digest – so we serve very light food in small portions. For dessert, there is a sponge cake with Chantilly and red fruits. Very little sugar. And definitely not chocolate! It’s too heavy.’

Along with the bottles of wine, Christine sells roses de Reims – pink biscuits that are traditionally dipped into a flute full of bubbles. ‘My favourite champagne depends on the time of day,’ she says. ‘I think rosé is very agreeable in the morning, don’t you?’ After a glass of Arlaux’s delicate, slightly nutty pink bubbly, it is hard to disagree – though the scholars of the Left Bank would get little done if every day began with champagne.

Bohemian rhapsody
The Place des Vosges, in Paris’s bohemian quarter, the Marais, was built at the start of the 17th Century. It is the oldest square in Paris, and one of the most beautiful in Europe. In the morning sun, young architecture students sit under the trees and around the fountains, sketching the fenestration. The colonnades around its four sides conceal some shockingly overpriced cafés. However, a few blocks away, another 17th-century location is the lunch-spot favoured by locals: Le Marché des Enfants Rouges.

The market has been feeding the residents of the Marais for the past 400 years. As well as fresh produce for sale, there are some 20 hot food stalls and cafés. At lunchtime, the place fills up with locals trying everything from Lebanese mezze to Japanese sushi, Breton crêpes to Provençal bouillabaisse.

The Marais has seen waves of immigration that have had a permanent impact on the area’s food. A few streets north of the market, the pretty Rue des Rosiers still hosts a wealth of Jewish delicatessens, including Sacha Finkelsztajn’s – known as la boutique jaune (the yellow shop) – with its incomparable salt-beef sandwiches. And France’s old colonies have brought Paris top-notch cuisine from Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and North Africa. One of the best places to branch out is Zerda Café, a cosy Algerian restaurant lined with North African tiles just off Place de la République.

‘I don’t want to have a factory restaurant,’ says Majid Achour, co-owner and chef along with his father Jaffar. He sprinkles raisins and chickpeas over a steaming pile of light, fluffy couscous. ‘We say: small restaurant, good quality. Big restaurant, bad quality.’ He stirs harissa into a ladle of sauce from a tagine before pouring it carefully over the couscous. There is also chicken pastilla, a sweet-savoury pie with flaky pastry and cinnamon; and hot merguez sausages made onsite, with coriander, cumin, garlic – ‘and another spice, which is a secret,’ says Majid, with a grin. In addition to the excellent food, Zerda has 200 North African wines on the menu. ‘I think it is the biggest African wine cellar in Paris!’ he says.

On one of the ancient Marais streets closer to the Seine is another fragment of Paris’s imperial heritage. The tea company Mariage Frères was established in 1854 by merchants Henri and Edouard Mariage. Today the tearoom sticks to its roots, serving delicate pastries among palm trees and wicker furniture in an old-fashioned conservatory. Tea first became popular in Paris in the 1660s, when King Louis XIV took it to aid his digestion. The Sun King drank his from a gold cup, a gift from the King of Siam. Now, thanks to the adventurous blends of Mariage Frères, tea is experiencing a revival.

In the shop at the front of the building, dealers in colonial-style white linen suits pack loose leaves into distinctive black and yellow packets. The names alone are evocative: rose d’Himalayas, montagne de jade, thé jaune de cinq dynasties. The smells are even better. As for the bestseller – Marco Polo, a black tea with fruit and flowers from Tibet – it is deep, soothing and exotic.

The Marais became the centre of Paris’s gay scene in the 1980s. Since then prices have soared, prompting some residents to move slightly further out from the 3rd to the 11th and 12th arrondisements. These districts share the Marais’ offbeat style, but have a more youthful feel. Basque restaurateur Inaki Aizpitarte defined the 11th’s cuisine with Le Chateaubriand, an unassuming bistro on the buzzing, somewhat seamy Avenue Parmentier that shot unexpectedly into the annual list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.

His new venture is Le Dauphin, next door. In contrast to its predecessor, it’s a minimalist white marble box, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas. By 9pm it has come alive, with diners eagerly sampling the inventive Franco-international tapas: wagyu beef with smoked aubergine, tandoori octopus, strawberries with verbena. Paris may not have reinvented delicious, but delicious has certainly evolved.

The article 'A taste of Paris' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.