À la Carte
A writer eats her way through France’s Michelin-star restaurants and gets a snapshot of regional cuisine culture.
I landed in Paris the afternoon of my birthday. My red-eye flight had been delayed by four hours, and by the time I arrived I felt grubby, tired and—after picking over a terrible breakfast on the plane—incredibly hungry. Thankfully my sister Lisa, who had arrived that morning, knows me well and had already gone out and purchased an array of French cheese, bread and fruit. It was the perfect beginning to our weeklong French culinary adventure—a trip that took us from Paris to Provence to Nice, sampling Michelin-star restaurants in each city.
“Each of these restaurants came to define our experiences
in the cities we visited…”
We began that night with the tasting menu at Spring, a Michelin-star restaurant with Chicago-bred, Le Cordon Bleu-trained executive chef Daniel Rose at the helm. Spring is located in a 17th-century building on a side street in the 1st arrondissement.
The sign is so subtle one can walk by and not even see it, which we did—twice. Upon entering we were led down to a cavernous, dimly lit lower level that would’ve been the perfect setting for a romantic dinner. But alas, I was there with my sister.
We had a full view of the open kitchen, which provided a lively atmosphere balanced by quiet, respectful service in which the waiters spoke barely above a whisper—allowing us to focus on our food.
The seafood meal began with a creamy potato soup with saffron and mussels, followed by eggplant that was balanced with smoky bonito and briny bottarga. Pike was served with rich lobster, complemented by sweet peas.
The main course was incredibly tender pigeon with apricots and girolle mushrooms. The meal was topped off with three desserts: cherry clafouti, Greek yogurt sorbet, and a mixture of chocolate, caramel and almonds. It was a birthday dinner like nothing I’d ever had.
6 rue Bailleul in Paris, springparis.fr
Several days later we left for Arles in Provence. Unfortunately our trip did not go as smoothly as we planned, and we missed our train. We got on another, but by the time we arrived in Arles the rental car company had closed—meaning we had no means of getting to our planned dinner at La Chassagnette, which sits outside the city.
We quickly learned from the cab driver who picked us up at the station that it would be an absurdly expensive taxi ride to get out to the restaurant. But by some small twist of fate, as the driver pulled up in front of the apartment we’d rented, he saw Chef Armand Arnal himself about to get into a car. The driver jumped out and explained our situation, and Chef Armand smiled broadly and told us if we were willing to take a taxi one way, he would be sure to get us home.
Apologies in advance for the cliché, but eating at La Chassagnette is not just about the food; it’s about the experience. Chef Armand’s passion for local food has been with him since he was a small boy, when he spent his Saturdays with his great-grandmother as she sold produce at the local farmers market. So after a career evolution, it seems only fitting that he would come to reign over this restaurant nestled in the Provence countryside—complete with an abundant vegetable and flower garden.
When we arrived Chef Armand came out and discussed with everyone what they preferred: a focus on seafood, meat or both. Lisa and I both chose seafood. We were then taken into a screened-in garden where a three-legged cat wandered about visiting each table.
We began the seven-course meal with strawberry gazpacho. Cool and sweet, it tasted like summer. Poached prawns were served with green beans and a bouillabaisse broth. Carrots with gremolata accompanied braised sea bream. And the dessert was a cherry crumble.
After this leisurely dinner that went on for several hours, Armand drove us back to town and put up with me peppering him with questions from the backseat about his food, his inspirations and how he got to be where he was. “She’s a journalist,” my sister explained.
Route du Sambuc in Arles, lachassagnette.com
The final stop on our culinary tour was Nice. Unlike in Paris and Arles, we had no plan for where we wanted to eat there. A little bit of last-minute research took us to Flaveur—a modern French restaurant owned by two brothers, Gaël Tourteaux and Mickaël Tourteaux.
Flaveur served the most artful meal either of us have ever eaten. Caviar was delicately served on a porcelain board. The seafood risotto was presented as a foamy masterpiece. Seared scallops and gyoza ravioli were topped with the petals of zucchini flowers. A textured assortment of chocolate—including chocolate ice cream and raw chocolate—was so lovely, we had to pause before destroying it.
25 Rue Gubernatis in Nice, flaveur.net
Each of these restaurants came to define our experiences in the cities we visited: a tucked-away restaurant in Paris that feels like you’re in on a secret; a wild garden in the countryside; and an elegant meal in a seaside town that has served as an escape for the toast of Paris for decades past. Eating your way through the country provides a small glimpse into the lives of the French.