Travel: Paris, mon amour
The ultimate good food guide for lovers in the most romantic city on Earth, by cook and food writer Trish Deseine
For me, the true appeal of St Valentine's remains that of its beginnings, planted firmly in Chaucer's High Middle Ages depiction of Courtly Love – tellingly never expressed between husband and wife –when a secret, or at least unsuspected, admirer declared his flame in writing, with flowers or a small gift on February 14, the date of the death of the martyr priest, St Valentine.
So, dear foodies, I'm sorry if I dampen your gastro- passion on this one, but in Chaucer's time, expressing your feelings definitely did not involve cooking an elaborate meal to show off your cheffy skills or a menu deal at your local Italian among a dozen other tables-for-two celebrating their unique love.
And instead of "inspirational" St V-themed food, I'm writing about something that is truly conducive to romance and seduction – Paris. It's "my" city, one I am far from loving unconditionally but to which I have become slowly but surely attached to the point of addiction.
Its buttery light, the creamy-grey hue of its stone, the majesty and glittering allure of its high Haussmannian avenues, the sweep and curve of the long boulevards and banks of the Seine are so soaked in beauty, history and poetry that there is very little you ever need to add to it, love-wise – and even less so on February 14. Indeed, all resistance is futile.
For anyone of even the slightest sensual disposition, it is well-nigh impossible to remain uncontaminated by Parisian romance.
Here is my brief, food-related guide for lovers in Paris, as a replacement to yet another recipe list of spiced-up this and sexy that. There's advice for enjoying Paris at whatever stage your relationship may have reached (and I've pretty much been through them all) for St Valentine's, springtime in Paris and way beyond.
If you're cooking a meal for an amoureux for the very first time, keep it very simple. Just like Christmas, disproportionate expectations projected on to mere food – the enjoyment of it or the success of its execution – will get you nowhere.
Instead, consider the food as a simple accessory to an evening of pleasure, and if you do it properly you shouldn't get as far as dessert – unless, ideally, you eat it much later. So remember not to plan anything that requires last-minute handling, such as a souffle or one of those chocolate puddings with molten middles strictly dependent on exact temperature and timing.
As for serving, nudge-nudge, wink-wink aphrodisiac food, it might be construed as trying to drug the object of your desire into submission.
Where is your self-confidence? (That said, oysters are very suited to non-faffy dining, not to mention virile knife-handling and muscle-flexing. And of course all that salty slurping is never lost on the more sensually minded. Remember also, good, fresh truffles, like the earthy passion they generate, need very little done to them to climb to maximum pleasure levels.)
If cooking anything at all seems a huge bore, and instead you are planning on booking a weekend of room service (applause!) make sure there are enough stars or rosettes on the door.
The Hotel Amour (hotelamourparis.fr), for example, despite (or perhaps true to?) its name, is not so suited for a hotel room siege of love where grub is key, due to sketchy room service. Hotel Costes (hotelcostes.com), the Mandarin Oriental (mandarinoriental.com/Paris), the Bristol (lebristolparis.com) and the Raphael (raphael-hotel.com) have particularly attentive room service covering all tastes and eventualities (I'm told.)
For a smaller budget with zero extras, L'Hotel Paradis (hotelparadisparis.com) is cool and sexy with the added bonus of Big Fernand burgers (big fernand.com) and Small Fernand hot dogs at the end of the street for refueling, and Vivant Wine bar and Vivant Table downstairs for more lingering meals.
NEWLY MARRIED, NO KIDS YET
For supermodels married to millionaire comb-overs, both prone to exhibiting their "good luck" in love, nothing will beat the lavish dining room at Le Meurice (dorchestercollection. com/fr/paris/le-meurice-hotel). Superb views of the other tables are only enhanced by impeccable soundproofing between them. (See also the Shangri La and Georges V.)
For more modestly priced exhibitionism, free tables at Lazare (lazare-paris.fr) and Septime (septime-charonne.fr) are like gold dust every night of the year. Scoring one for St Valentine's is already a miracle, so forget love – three-quarters of the evening's joy is right there, at the 'A- lister table with your name on it.
MARRIED, NERVOUS ABOUT LEAVING THE CHILDREN
Any of the bustling Costes restaurants will have you in and out nice and quickly, though be warned that these are the places where you will be seated according to your, er, pulchritudinousness. L'Esplanade in front of Les Invalides and La Societe on the Place de St Germain des Pres are two of my favourites.
The menus are classic (some say boring) Euro brasserie and allow you to choose just starters or a four-course feast. All the Costes establishments are in prime locations with comfortable, heated terraces for diners and smokers. Similarly brisk and busy, Monsieur Bleu's (monsieurbleu.com) menu allows you to choose a quick main course and a pud, and is roomy and noisy enough for no one to mind you taking a call from the babysitter.
20 YEARS MARRIED WITH 'LE DEMON DE MIDI' (MID LIFE CRISIS SAFELY NAVIGATED AND DISPATCHED
The old-style, typically French bistros, with an eclectic mix of regulars and visitors, where people-watching and eavesdropping are part of the fun, are romantic by definition, enveloped as they are in the dreamy nostalgia of times when they were headquarters to Parisian writers and artists.
Le Bistro Paul Bert, 18 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, La Fontaine de Mars (fontainedemars.com) and le Cafe des Musees (cafedesmusees.fr) spring instantly to mind along with Le Flore, Allard, La Closerie des Lilas and even Lipp, all classic places where the lacklustre food plays second fiddle to the famous clients past and present.
A visit to Les Puces de St Ouen with lunch, cocktails or dinner at Philippe Starck's Ma Cocotte (macocotte-lespuces.com) are perfect for an outing that "just happens" to be on Valentine's Day for those with a little disposable income.
ON THE VERGE OF BREAK-UP/DIVORCE, IN SALVAGE MODE
When the going gets rough in a relationship, when even Paris hasn't worked its magic but you're still stuck there, becoming The Couple Watching A Movie Together will save you – at least for a while – from being The Couple With Nothing Left To Say To Each Other in a restaurant.
The aim here is to see yourselves through to the end with as much dignity left intact as possible. Seats at the theatre can somehow make you feel claustrophobic and exposed all at once, whereas in cinemas it's easier to fade away from real life into the story on the screen and in Dolby surround around you. La Pagode cinema in the 7th is a lavishly beautiful room decorated in Chinese lacquer and red velvet. And don't forget, way before the phrase was coined about social media, "alone together" is what Parisian terrasses do best.
FOR THE PERFECT, ROMANTIC PARISIAN WEEKEND
Go to the Hotel Thoumieux, on the very charming and very foodie rue Saint Dominique in the 7th.
At St Valentine's, your room comes with champagne and Jean-Francois Piege's pastries from his brand new patisserie a few doors from the hotel, the noisy, sexy Brasserie Thoumieux and Jean-Francois' two Michelin star gastronomic restaurant. Finish with a walk over the Invalides lawns, to the Seine, along the quais by the Pont Alexandre III, or down rue St Dominique towards the Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars.
See: gateauxthoumieux.com, thoumieux.fr or call +33 01 47 05 49 75
Read more about Trish Deseine's favourite restaurants and shops in the French capital plus recipes and tips in her new book, 'The Paris Gourmet', published by Flammarion, priced €25
Be My Valentine?
Three of the best addresses for paper and stationery are Papier Plus: papierplus.com; Benneton boutique: bennetongraveur.com and Merci: merci-merci.com/en/
For chocolates try Alain Ducasse's chocolaterie on rue de la Roquette: lechocolat-alainducasse.com
If you decide to be more original than red roses (but why?) Sebastien Mengozzi's (16 Avenue George V, 75008 Paris) orchids and old roses should do the trick.