Story & Photos by Susan Benton
(Photo: Susan Benton Savoring Paris)
For the culinary connoisseur, foodie, or anyone who loves to try new things, tasting exotic foods from other parts of the world is an adventure. For those, like me, who also love to travel, Paris is the ultimate gastronomic destination.
A few years ago, I was introduced to Wendy Lyn of The Paris Kitchen at a dinner party in her honor, which was hosted by my good friends, Dr. Phillip and Brenda Nunnery. The gathering was held at their beautiful home on the picturesque St. Andrews Bay in Panama City.
(Photo: Philip Benton and Sparky Lovelace look over sommelier Josh Adler’s wine selection, in Spring’s 16-century wine cave.)
Wendy had grown up in Panama City; in fact, she was back in town to visit her parents. By the end of the evening, the makings of an adventure to Paris and beyond had started to come to fruition. Brenda, Phillip, Wendy, my husband Phil, and I invited two other local foodie friends of ours, Susan and Sparky Lovelace (who also have a passion for travel) to join in, and we set our plans in motion.
Wendy has lived in Paris for the past twenty-three years, is a former restaurant consultant to such top chefs as Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Charlie Trotter, and has become well known for her food tours, her personal connections with the hottest “it” chefs in town, and her food blog, The Paris Kitchen. While most have to wait months for a reservation, Wendy makes it happen by calling in special favors from the chefs she refers to as her “little brothers.”
My husband and I arrived at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport and were soon situated in our lovely boutique hotel, the Hotel Chambiges Elysées, located a short walk from the Champs-Elysées in the heart of the famous Triangle d’Or. (We were thoroughly pleased with the Chambiges Elysées: the staff was warm, knowledgeable, and accommodating; our suite was elegant yet modern, and we received a scrumptious complimentary breakfast each day.) Though excited to hit the streets, we were also jet-lagged, so we opted to dine nearby, at Marius et Janette.
Located in the 8th arrondissement (district), Marius et Janette exudes the feeling of an elegant yacht. We felt fortunate to be seated side by side in a banquette that faced the large front window of the restaurant. Apparently, our timing was perfect, as the restaurant quickly filled to capacity, with many would-be patrons were turned away on this busy night. Inside, we watched extravagant tiered trays of seafood being presented to fellow diners.
(Photo: A moeca, a soft-shell lagoon crab, is served at Vanissa. The rare crabs molt only twice a year, in spring ad fall.)
The menu read with the finest of seafood choices, including an extensive and rare oyster selection. Chef Bruno Brangea is called “the magician of all things seafood”—an apt nickname, as we discovered. My sautéed skate wing in browned butter was cooked to perfection, as was my husband’s grilled turbot fillet, which paired deliciously with the crisp Bandol Rosé from Domaine Tempier, familiar, as it is one of my favorites. The dishes were accompanied by fresh local vegetables, and I was impressed to learn that Marius et Janette only serves wild fish caught from small boats, except for the salmon, which comes from the Scottish organic sector.
On Friday, Wendy surprised us by taking us to a Parisian bistro close to her heart, Bistrot Paul Bert. This classic, hearty eatery often wins awards for being among the best in Paris. Upon arrival to this charming and eclectic restaurant nestled in the 11th arrondissement, we were treated like family: owner Bertrand Auboyneau welcomed us with open arms. My husband commented on the excellent wine list filled with hard-to-find selections, and talked with Bertrand about the interesting antique mosaic floors that bear the restaurant’s name.
We noshed on the famed steak au Poivre only served rare, a luscious order of roasted chicken with crispy skin, and a thoughtfully prepared succulent veal piccata, finishing with the sweet, creamy indulgent pastry Bistrot Paul Bert is known for, the Paris Brest. I could not leave without a signed copy of Bertrand’s recently released cookbook, French Bistro, which he coauthored with well-known restaurant critic François Simon.
That evening, we met up with our group for special reservations at Restaurant Spring. Just before dinner, we visited nearby Spring Boutique, and were then guided past Spring Buvette to the four-hundred-year-old wine cave located beneath the lower level of the main restaurant, where we gathered around a communal table.
Josh Adler, the sommelier and wine curator for Spring at the time, shared a dizzying array of spectacular bottles with us as decadent plates filled with plump juicy crabs, French breads, and sausages that melted like foie gras on the tongue arrived from the kitchen
We were swiftly moved upstairs to dinner, where we met Chef Daniel Rose, a Chicago native who opened Spring in the 9th arrondissement before relocating it to the 1st arrondissement two years ago. Spring is located in a sixteenth-century space, and the restaurant is an masterpiece after its exhaustive renovation. Architectural details were unearthed and left in place, yet the design is contemporary with a relaxed, casual vibe. Boasting only twenty-eight seats, the dining room surrounds the open kitchen so that all can see Chef Rose and his staff creating their masterpieces. Spring is booked months in advance, and one did not have to look far at the plates being cleaned by diners to see why.
(Photo: Eric, the manager of L’Avant Comptoir, was a gracious host.)
The next morning, we gathered at L’Avant Comptoir, located next door to the revered La Comptoir, a small wine and hors d’oeuvres bar that is standing room only for about twelve at the zinc bar, and at a second counter located on the back wall. They don’t take reservations. While savoring the selection of cornichons, freshly baked baguettes, creamy Bordier butter, and Breton artichokes that lined the bar for sampling, we also sipped small-production wines and learned the menu with help from Eric, the manager. Hanging from the ceiling were hams and dried sausages, on which were the names of their producers, like charcutier Philippe Camdeborde, brother of owner Yves Camdeborde, who popped back and forth between his two restaurants to say hello. The waffles topped with artichoke puree and jambon were mabnificent, as was our ham and mushroom crepe that delivered delicate flavors. Located in the 6th arrondissement, this is a place where time is well spent.
Next, a few of us struck out for Willi’s Wine Bar, a landmark near the Palais Royal, where owner Mark Williamson, a dry-humored British expat, happily shared his wine secrets with us as we sampled a few glasses of his offerings. This small local haunt, inspired by the 1930s, displays a collection of bottle art posters against a white-wall backdrop; Mark commissions a contemporary artist to create a new image each year.
Later, we headed to Stéphane Jego’s gastropub, Chez L’Ami Jean, well known for long late-night dinners and hard-to-come-by reservations. Wendy brought along an American friend to join us: Pierre Rovani, one of the world’s experts on the wines of Burgundy and a former member of Robert Parker’s team. Having Pierre with us was a real treat as we swapped stories of fabulous wines remembered and SEC football, while sipping on champagne outside of the restaurant, awaiting our table, and nibbling on extravagant trays of charcuterie.
Though the decor may be cartoonish and charismatic, the food is serious; Jego obsesses over each detail. We ordered carte blanche, which meant that it would be whatever Jego wanted to prepare and were served until each diner yelled, “No more!” We started with the most incredible bowl of creamy Parmesan soup, cradling seasonal vegetables and topped with crispy bacon and tiny sprinkles of croutons. It was followed by Breton langoustine and wood pigeon, including its legs and meticulously severed head with brain. (Jego’s rustic country cuisine is inspired by his Basque upbringing and is not for the faint of heart.) Pierre selected our wine pairings as we finished with the noteworthy rice pudding, and the moment could not have been sweeter.
Four-thirty in the morning comes early no matter what the language, especially after the amazing night we all shared. It was Sunday, Mother’s Day, and while our new friend Pierre was off to the states to visit his mother, Wendy arranged for us to fly to Venice, Italy, for lunch. We met at Orly Airport, boarded a short flight that took us over the Alps, and arrived in the water city, where Alessandro, Wendy’s driver, picked us up in his vintage teak speedboat. We motored through the Grand Canal viewing ancient buildings whose facades ranged from those influenced by Byzantine and Moorish styles to the more Italianate—it was amazing that in one short boat ride we would pass by a thousand years of history. Our destination was Venissa, a small restaurant and hotel located on the sparsely populated island of Mazzorbo. Mazzorbo is just a wooden bridge away from the neighboring island, Burano, known for its lacework and brightly painted houses.
Entering its second year, Venissa sits on a vineyard in a walled private estate owned by the Bisols, a centuries-old wine-making family. After an arduous, decade-long restoration led by Gianluca Bisol, the estate was designated as an Italian National Environment Park. Maitre d’ Franco Bianchi greeted us on arrival and we were quickly shown to the state-of-the-art kitchen for a tour with Paola Budel, who is at the helm of the restaurant.
The restaurant is small but pristine and boasts touches by Bisol’s friend, designer Philippe Starck, who has a home on the island. The glass walls of the building allow for natural light to pour through, and diners have a clear view of the twelfth-century tower that sits alongside the vineyard. A panoramic patio, used also for dining, affords guests a view of Budel’s abundant garden of fresh vegetables and herbs. Bianchi passionately described the local purveyors from which they source all other ingredients, such as honey, fish, oysters, birds, and the lagoon delicacy, the soft-shell crabs or moeche. Bianchi said, “We live from the waters or what we shoot from the sky.”
We dined on the prized and succulent soft-shell crabs and were honored to do so, as they are only harvested in spring and fall, with females only available in the spring. There is a small five-hour window to locate the lemon-sized crabs when they are molting (shedding their hard shells). Budel fried them to crispy perfection along with small shrimp and calamari. Her goal, like Bisol’s and Bianchi’s, is to choose the restaurant’s sources carefully from local waters, farmers, and on-site agriculture. One of our great delights was opening a bottle of one of the estate’s first vintages in two hundred years. The wine, made from the Dorona grape, was sealed in a Murano glass bottle with a label of 24-karat gold. Until Bisol reclaimed and restored the Dorona, this Venetian varietal grape had not been cultivated for more than six hundred years.
We ended our visit with a tour of the vineyards and gardens that have been flooded with seawater off and on over the centuries but now bloom with a sensational display of colorful edibles and roses. We walked to where our boat transport awaited and, with prosecco (Italy’s version of champagne) in hand, departed the tiny isle. We were then sped through the waters of the Venetian Lagoon to the airport for our evening flight back to Paris.
Before leaving Paris the next day, we wandered the streets near our hotel one last time, absorbing again the lunching Parisians at the bistros, the picture-perfect charcuteries such as Bellota-Bellota, where one sits to have fine jamón ibérico, or caviar and champagne. We made our way back to the hotel, passing windows full of the high fashion so common on the Rive Droite. Then, it was into the taxi and a big “Au Revoir” to Paris, where in relatively few hours, we were back to our home along the shore.
This article first appeared in Vie magazine.