Solo in Paris
Travelling in Covid times can be challenging. Travelling as a single woman of a certain age during Covid is another story. I have many women friends in Calcutta, so I dedicate this column to my fellow female friends should they wish to travel now.
I decided recently to throw caution to the wind (but not my mask and habit of frequently hand-washing) and spend 11 days in Paris… alone. I had the most uplifting time and found Paris as charming as ever and welcoming to a single woman. Someone once said that Paris is a city for girls and Rome for a woman. I disagree. We are all girls at heart. We love good food, a little flirt, beauty and beauty treatments, a little culture, shopping, polite people and comfortable surroundings. Paris ticks all my boxes.
France recognises Covishield, so fully vaccinated travellers from India can enter without stress, tests or any form of quarantine. President Macron has also insisted on the ‘Passe Sanitaire’ or health pass, which you now need to eat in restaurants, enter museums and so on. This is easily available online if you are fully vaccinated. In indoor public places and hotels, people follow safety norms of masks and sanitising but not really social distancing I have to say. Apart from this, Paris is back in business — women wearing Chanel outfits to walk the dog and cafes full of folk taking time off in the day to imbibe, share, gossip and watch. A good fallout of Covid is that the famous French snobbery seems to be disappearing. If you look like you have money to spend, you’ll have shop assistants falling over to help you as I did in the Eric Bompard cashmere shop near my hotel. Galleries Lafayette and Printemps, two famous Paris department stores, are welcoming shoppers like there’s no tomorrow. It has been a tough year and a good wake-up call for anyone in the service industry.
Orange blossom and roses
Where did I stay? Well I started at the uber-luxurious Le Bristol hotel where service is beyond exemplary and I ended up at an Airbnb the size of my bathroom at Le Bristol on the very beautiful Ile Saint-Louis, overlooking the Notre Dame. I’ve stayed at Le Bristol before, so the familiarity was comforting as soon as I arrived from the airport. The area is the epitome of safety since the Elysee Palace, the President’s official residence, is a few doors down. As a positive influence of Covid, Le Bristol has now opened their adorable central garden, where the scent of orange blossom and roses wafts through the air. It is open for lunch and afternoon tea… my two favourite meals of the day. Their new baker and patisserie chef, Pascal Hainigue, creates the lightest eclairs and macrons and puts a twist on all your favourite French patisserie and viennoiserie (croissants and so on) but it is his artisanal bread which you will remember.
Eric Frechon, the executive chef, has upped the food and beverage at the hotel since my last visit by introducing a real mill to grind their own flour for their breads. The result is French country-style sourdough baked fresh every day in the centre of Paris. It is also available at their new gourmet shop at the hotel along with their in-house chocolates and specially sourced cheese. So if you fancy a bit of fabulous cheese, bread and wine for dinner (France’s holy trinity so to speak) and finish off with some smooth-as-silk sublime dark chocolate, you can skip a fancy restaurant and recreate a gourmet spread in your room.
I spent most of my two days at the Bristol… at the hotel itself with an occasional walk down the famous and very fashionable Faubourg Saint-Honore on which the hotel stands. Le Bristol is one of the most exclusive addresses in Paris and the preferred address of the international elite. It certainly is one of the most glamorous understated hotels I have ever stayed in and a treat to be relished even for two nights. There are two marvellous restaurants (both now open), both with Michelin stars, an enchanting swimming pool on the terrace which overlooks Paris and the most stunning accommodation, completely refurbished since my last visit.
The Oetker family, owners of Le Bristol Paris, personally designed the interiors to combine the refinement of the Louis XV period with the grace of Louis XVI style through furniture, paintings, fabrics, mirrors, lights and precious objects. The result is a lighter, beautifully balanced style, updating the rooms without stifling their essence. The cosy-chic new look revives the spaces with a soft harmony of colour, a gentle balance of shape and a restrained modernity. White marble bathrooms, generous Hermes toiletries, plush soft carpets, cashmere throws, turn-down service, a concierge who speaks an impressive number of languages… you get the picture? It is pretty perfect.
If you’re a bit bored but don’t want to wander out after dark, a visit to the bar is a must. It is cosy and elegant with wooden floors and a fireplace and serves the most delicious cocktails and champagne by the glass. They also happily send anything to your room at no extra cost. Opening the cocktail list is the Bristol Old Fashioned N°3, a short drink made with calvados that transports you to a Normandy orchard in bloom. The slightly more complex Cocktail 365 is an elegant tipple combining honey syrup (from Le Bristol Paris’s own hives), bitters with nuts and spices, an exceptional cognac and blanc de blancs champagne. In addition to the house signatures, the bartenders have reinvented the great classics, dreaming up personal variations like the Provencal daiquiri made with rum, lemon, sugar, thyme and lavender. Or the B-Mule, inspired by the classic Moscow Mule, made with mint, elderflower, ginger ale, vodka and lemon. Later on, the bar turns into BAD (Le Bristol after Dark) with music and DJs on certain nights.
Vegetarians can fit in
Now to the second part of my article on great French food for women. For us, it’s not all about quantity and platefuls of meat, right? It is more about ambience and a story and interesting food. My discovery of this trip was a gorgeous old street of cafes and restaurants called Rue Montorgueil in the 1st arrondissement quite near the Marais… a great place to sit with a glass of wine and a bowl of the famous shoestring French fries known as allumettes (matchstick-thin) and people-watch. No one will bother you, believe me.
A stone’s throw away, off the Grands Boulevards, is an institution known as Bouillon Chartier, which was literally a soup kitchen. From the late 19th century, it served locals their daily bread for a reasonable price. It now excites the discerning tourist and many locals looking for a value-for-money experience. You’ll find French staples like a traditional roast chicken and escargots (snails) as well as a hearty soup for one Euro and Foie Gras (unaffordable in big establishments) for seven Euros. An entire three-course dinner will set you back maybe Euro 20-25. It’s a mad place to watch the incessant ballet of waiters in black vests and white aprons serve hundreds of people. Expect highly efficient service, red-checkered tablecloths and home-style cooking. There is no reservation at Chartier, so get there early and prepare to queue up. It’s open the whole day post-11.30am.
This brings me to being vegetarian in Paris. Chartier, by the way, has many vegetarian options, like delicious leeks in vinaigrette, a mouthful of desserts and cheese and plenty of vegetable side dishes. Main courses are meat-centric I’m afraid. Those of us who have travelled to France or have had European food in India will know that there are few options available for vegetarians. And while the numbers of vegetarians are growing, exciting, innovative vegetarian dishes are slow to catch up. In France, a meal without meat, fowl or fish is still considered “bizarre”. At most, a sympathetic chef may offer you a cheese souffle or a quiche and he may also offer you fish, considered by many in Europe to be “vegetarian”.
First, you must specify what sort of vegetarian you are to avoid any misunderstandings. To start with, there may be very little on the printed menu, so you’ll have to ask for something to be made specially. This is not a difficult request and should challenge any decent chef worth his sausage, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Starters are not usually a problem. You will always find an interesting salad, with dressings flavoured with raspberry vinegar or a heady mustard. And the French do make some excellent soups (potages), only watch out for consommes (clear soups), which usually contain meat or chicken stock. Soups may contain petits legumes (baby vegetables), or champignons (mushrooms), of which there are a stunning variety, and which can be a meal in themselves. Other delicacies to start with include fresh artichauts (artichokes), fleurs de courgettes (pumpkin flowers) are bright yellow and orange, usually deep fried and make an excellent French or Italian-style “bhaji”.
In spring, there is nothing quite like thick, white batons of fresh asparagus, served with a warm hollandaise sauce. If you don’t eat eggs, ask them to replace the hollandaise with melted butter or olive oil. You may see the words “gateaux, terrines and pates”. These are traditional meaty preparations but chefs are now making excellent vegetable ones. They range from a simple medley of vegetables, baked or steamed in a mould to real fantasies with truffles, walnuts and cheese.
For something more familiar and more substantial, you will always find some sort of ‘gratin’, which could be a simple dish of vegetables baked with cheese, to the more familiar macaroni baked with cheese. They will not normally contain the excess of white sauce that you may be used to in India. Gratins are topped with either a strong cheese, like Parmesan, melted butter or bread crumbs. Roasted vegetables are another wonderful vegetarian option you will find.
Those who don’t eat egg in any form should ask what goes into a dessert before ordering, as a great many are made with egg (souffle, creme brulee, mousse). You can enjoy a feuillete, layers of filo pastry, usually with a filling of fruit and cream, but avoid one with creme patissiere, which contains egg. And if you spot beignets (deep-fried fritters), go for it. Don’t forget to splurge on the cheeseboard and breads. Ask the sommelier (wine expert on hand) for his advice on the appropriate wines to accompany your various courses and you’ll be a happy bunny in Paris, I assure you.
Pictures: Karen Anand
Karen Anand is a culinary consultant, food writer and entrepreneur. In recent times her name has been synonymous with farmers’ markets. Follow her on www.facebook.com/karenanand and on Instagram @karen_anand