I always find it stressful committing to a hotel in any given location, the choice fills me with dread, seemingly riddled with pitfalls and booby traps, it’s as though someone’s watching and just waiting for me to click the ‘purchase’ button before announcing HAHA – that I’ve booked into the red light district (Copenhagen), tourist hell (NYC) or the absolute arse end of nowhere (Dusseldorf). I’m not a great planner to be honest, I dream of neat spreadsheets split into areas or regions, but I never manage to get around to it amongst my never ending sea of pressing tasks/projects/fads/jobs, and so happening upon just ‘the right’ neighbourhood tends to be a combination of absorbing the right information, at just the right time, or luck. Probably in equal measure.
My trip to Paris is primarily in order to attend the launch party of La Brulerie de Belleville and launch of Holybelly, and so with a little advice from David Flynn, of the former, I looked to book somewhere in the Belleville area, just up from and close to, Canal Saint Martin. A modicum of googling reveals this is Paris’ equivalent to our East London, a spot favoured by the hip and young, and I immediately warm (not being either, of course, but hoping it suggests I might be far enough from tourist hell to be cheap enough for the new and exciting to thrive).
Having had it with shitty, tiny, clinical hotel broom closets for now, I take an increasing number of recommendations for airbnb; a cute website that lets you, nosy as you like, browse strangers homes, room by room in some cases with photos of said inhabitant to boot, so you can judge them and their abode. Yeah, it’s proper addictive. Being an airbnb newbie, there seems to be a certain understanding between owner and prospective dweller that I don’t quite get at first, brashly clicking BUY before having a friendly chinwag with the owner first, it appears these guys like a spot of pillow talk. I wise up and third attempt sees me with a studio apartment right on Rue De Belleville, staggering and stumbling distance from the party location.
What I hadn’t factored on was how utterly I’d fall in love with the neighbourhood and hence this rather long post.
Arriving on the Eurostar early Thursday evening with over-plump rucksack (no I’ll never learn), laptop bag and clutching exacting instructions from Mo, my new landlord, I approach the Metro with a furrowed brow, ready to face battle…..and exit somewhat bemused; what a simple and effective little system it is, making our underground look like an overcomplicated beast determined to ravish and upset the unsavvy. Mo hands over keys, shows me where the rice cooker is, ‘feel free to eat the lettuce and yoghurt’ etc etc (clearly he doesn’t understand how intensely I’ll be throwing myself into Parisian culture – I plan to exist purely on baguette and cheese non?!) and leaves me to run amock in his tiny studio for the next five nights. A surreptitious peer through window nets reveals a plaque to Edith Piaf on the building opposite; oh the romance.
Keen to explore, as I always am in somewhere so unfamiliar, I take to the streets for an evening amble, making sure to pick up provisions first for a carpet picnic when I get back. Provisions clearly, in this instance, translating as baguette, cheese, butter and wine. Mo has kindly left me a bottle of Cotes du Rhone, so I set about gathering the other elements of my feast, heading upwards along the winding rue.
Now, the road seems to be a tale of two distinct halves, an abundence of faintly dodgy looking mini supermarkets, off-licences, kosher bakers, fascinating looking tiny lebanese restaurants and street roasted corn from where I am and down, and twisting upwards it suddenly turns into the more traditional French ideal. There’s always truth in cliches and the top part of Rue de Belleville is every french one I can think of; I immediately pass a shrivelled old man, face weather beaten, cradling an armful of baguettes, a woman coming in the opposite direction tears hungrily into hers as she walks back from the bakery, I can only assume it’s so good she can’t wait to get it home. My cheese shop of dreams, shelves heaving under the strain of everything from the mildest and obscurest goats cheese to the most offensive, stinkiest oozing number, and it appears in multiples just on this street. I select a 36 month old Comte that’s every bit as tangy caramel as I could hope to dream of, with the crunch of little tyrosin crystals, and a trashy truffle flecked Gouda for fun, along with a super creamy, unpasteurised, demi sel butter.
Pretty much every third shop or so is a boulangerie of varying standards, not that I’m sure what to look out for at first though a surly french assistant seems to be a fairly safe start, stuffed with all manner of breads and sweet temptations. I have a brief moment of panic when I try to figure out quite how I’m going to be able to squeeze one of each variation into my five day eating plan.
Hmm, I’m frowning again.
Remembering David Labovitz’s advice on Twitter, I continue onwards to shop number 140 where I’m told I’ll be able to find some of the very best croissants and baguettes in all of Paris. A fine claim indeed. I’m initially overwhelmed, lingering at the back of the queue, trying to figure out which bread stick is ‘the one’, as there’s more variations than I’ve ever come across lain out before me, including those that are twisted and spiked in a most unusual and confusing manner. Relief washes over me when I spot the beasties in baskets at the back (or at least I think I got the right one). It seems remiss not to pick up one of the kouign aman pastries while I’m in there; a remarkable caramelised, buttery, sugary swhirl of pastry that must surely be AT LEAST 2 million kcals a pop.
I pass rotisserie chickens galore dripping juices onto mounds of potatoes below, smelling like heaven, and slope into one of the many supermarkets and loiter down isles, eyeballing foie gras next to regular packets of ham, prodding unnusual packets of sweets and cakes and emerging with a bottle of Diet Coke for the fridge. Essentials and all that.
An hour or so mooch that takes me up and down winding roads, down to the canal and over bridges, along roads that make no sense to my head yet, no points of interest established to plot and form a mental map. Tired, weary and hungry I trail back to my apartment, devour that bread that tastes like it must be the best baguette in the whole world, crisp crust that tears and splinters open to a chewy and airy interior, I spread with butter thick enough to take a good dentists impressions. Washing it all down with my gift of wine, I just about manage to force down my sticky pastry too, glistening with butter and sugar. I roll over in a carby stupour and sleep WELL.
The following day I make it up to The Cafes Belleville roastery, literally just around the corner from where I’m staying, for a nosy and to say hi to David, who owns the space, along with Thomas of the gorgeous Ten Belles and Anselme. They’re currently perfecting their roasting and already supply a number of cafes in the area including Ten Belles, HolyBelly and KP Cafe along with a couple of the bars including Bones and Le Dauphin. I enjoy my first taste, made as a chemex, very nice indeed, it’s also roasted significantly lighter than any one else is currently in the area. You may think this is a brave move, but he explains that rather than trying to sell the French an espresso that’s so far removed than that they’re used to, he’s pushing filter brews, almost as a different product; surely an easier sell. The space is designed primarily to be used as a roastery, training and tasting area, but will be open on weekends to allow public to have a look around and to try the coffee.
As it’s just the right time for a spot of lunch, we decamp to a local restaurant, a regular haunt it turns out of the Cafes Belleville staff who appear to know the menu just a little bit too well. It’s not the typically French place I might have been expecting, but a tiny Chinese dumpling spot, Restaurant Ravioli. For the top of Rue de Belleville may be the French scene of my dreams, all macaron shops and cobbled winding roads but the bottom end, as mentioned previously, becomes a strange mish mash of cultures including what seems to be a kind of Chinatown before you hit Canal Saint Martin right at the bottom. Anyway, it turns out to be the perfect spot for a cheap and casual lunch over a lot of coffee chatter. We gorge on plate after plate of freshly made pork and vegetable filled dumplings, sticky, with crunchy fried bottoms which we dip into our own concoctions of chilli and soy, we make a nod to health with spicy aubergine and slithery bok choy.
The Belleville area is famous (or so Google tells me) for it’s abundance of natural wine bars but it’s not until my penultimate evening there that I stumble upon what appears to be one of the very best, Le Chapeau Melon, just a heartbeat from my apartment, and in that flukey way of things, it’s where the Belleville launch party ends up after we’ve christened the roastery with a few beers. Just a tiny shop with a handful of tables to enable customers to enjoy some modern French cuisine whilst sampling some wine (there’s a set menu when I visit), it has the feeling of being sat in a friends dining room, and I’ve noted it for a return visit for dinner. The walls are lined with bottles and the charming staff help me pick a stunning white to drink with my Comte, it zings against the rich sweetness of the cheese as suggested. When I return as a guest of the party the following evening, I’m able to taste more of their selection whilst tucking into a formidable spread of charcuterie and bread.
As already noted, some of the local boulangerie’s appear better than others, but all had their versions of the famous religieuse, and myriad other pastries and patisserie. I actually ignored the more upmarket, fancy looking boutiques on the road in favour of the rustic, traditional and neighbourhood looking ones, whether that was a mistake or not, I’m not sure but when Jeff de Bruges was one of the sleeker looking names, I was put off. My favourite of those I tried was a little pistachio iced, slug like choux number with vanilla creme filling.
I did attempt to temper these days and nights of indulgence with a little exercise; most things are within a thirty minute walk, so I left the Metro for trips further afield, actually just one return trip to Coutume the other side of the river, and the Eurostar run. I also ran; a run beside the canal, though rather a lovely idea in theory, becomes a bit of a navigational nightmare in reality when trying to get there, battling through streets busy with shopping locals.
So after a frustrating first morning, I took David’s advice and hoiked my increasingly wobbly arse of doom up to Parc Des Buttes Chaumont; a breathtaking park set a little behind my street with equally breathtaking hills. Completely manmade, it includes 2.2km of paths, suspension bridge, waterfalls and towers. I join a throng of like-minded French folk every morning down joyful slopes and up their counterpart mountains of sheer pain and death, to complete a couple of laps. It’s worth mentioning that on the other side of the Rue is Parc De Belleville, a place for more leisurely pursuits, picnics and the like, and one of the best views over the whole of Paris.
One place that was consistently recommended to me, and by David, with an insistence I found hard to ignore, was Le Dauphin, sister wine bar to lauded restaurant Le Chateaubriand. When I realised how close it was to my proximity, literally a speedy ten-ish minute walk I reprimanded myself for not having the foresight to book, and when, on Sunday, I realised that they were closed for the next couple of days, with my impending departure Tuesday, I got that intense panic of that which is just out of reach. I couldn’t. Wouldn’t leave without a visit and just managed to squeeze in a quick lunch before my Eurostar home.
LeDauphin is a fishbowl of a restaurant, a glass casket that pushes slightly out onto the pavement. I enter the crystal cube, and although there’s no room at the solid central bar, I’m found a a small table tucked at the back, nestled between cold and shiny surfaces. From my voyeuristic vantage point, opposite a cliched romantic couple, I get the distinct feeling I’m on a theatre set; the bar is the clear focal point and I’m sure it fills rapidly of an evening, crawling with trendy young poppets. Outside this is a layer of tables with stools, then a level of lower ones, and the whole thing is encased in an uninterrupted solid, smooth and cool floor to ceiling marble that rolls all around, swallowing that bar. This cold slickness is lightened with panels of mirror that slice the cuboid room into scenes and acts, a natural light that tumbles in through glass front and the romance of candle light. The set references reinforced with giant floor dwelling flash lights and tall beaming ones that feel like props, including trailing wire, and lend a temporary and casual air, encouraging me to sit back and watch the view.
I believe the evening menu is a steady stream of delightful small plates but for lunch theres a set main with a selection of starters and desserts. I opt for 2 courses for a reasonable 23 Euros and my waitress scuttles off before I’m able to order wine, leaving me instead with the menu, perhaps drinking at lunch is uncouth or she’s taken umbrage to my inability to utter a word of French….A tiny basket of the most incredible sourdough is plopped before me, I’m guessing from nearby bakery Du Pain et des Idees, but no butter. Despite the magnificent nature of butter in this city, they don’t seem keen to over push it, I don’t think I’ve once seen butter served here with bread, as if gilding the doughy lily would cause diners to peak too early, eyes rolling back into an irritrievable high.
My starter is a sort of, stew’s not the right word but it springs to mind, roasted vegetable salad type thing; Aubergine is deeply smokey and cut through with silky slivers of pepper and scattered with salty feta anointed with lemon zest and plenty of herbs.
I just about manage to catch my waitresses eye and order a glass of red before my main arrives. What is set before me is a pleasingly rustic and hearty dish, described to me as a sort of traditional Basque style stew; veal mince and rice are lifted with parsley in a rich and wonderfully savoury tomato sauce, an egg yolk sits poised in it’s cup ready to enrich further. Satisfying.
Aside from the service wibble, I entirely adore Le Dauphin, it’s everything I love about my favourite places back in London; simple, relaxed and informal but with charm and class, a bar to eat at and a distinct lack of fussiness or pretentiousness. It’s already on my list for when I return to Paris, next time for an evening visit.
I reckon I’ve got at least another couple of posts to get out of this trip I’m afraid, and you’ll be able to read about my coffee adventure in the next Caffeine Magazine, but I’ll leave you with, for now, my overwhelming wish to return. And when I do, I’ve no desire to stay anywhere other than Belleville; the perfect charming balance between traditional France with a little grime and a hint of the new creeping in.