Review: The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz

I’m a big fan of all those love-note-to-Paris-y books, and David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris is fully satisfying as either vicarious thrill-seeking or, in my case, a pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I-actually-live-in-Paris corroboration of my move to Europe. Lebovitz worked as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley (the place that pioneered the “organic-food craze” and is easily one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to) for almost thirteen years before deciding to uproot and go live in Paris for *however long*. The book is his collection of recipes and funny, candid observations on the French and life in “le Système D” we know as France. (Vegetarians like me will take heart in the fact that about 75 percent of his recipes contain no meat.) Some of his vignettes veer dangerously close to exasperating (yes, I have noticed the French seem to have absolutely no respect for personal space, but grocery shopping in Paris is really not the harrowing ordeal he claims it is), but then, hyperbole is the point of a book like this, and most of his scenarios ring true enough to conjure genuine laughs.  

Lebovitz doesn’t have quite the comic touch of, say, British writer Stephen Clarke (he of A Year in the Merde), but he gets off some good lines about grèves (strikes), French malapropisms (like confusing la vierge, a virgin, with la verge, a penis) and, of course, the perceptions of “life in Paris” from friends back home: “The image people have of my life in Paris is that each fabulous day begins with a trip to the bakery for my morning croissant, which I eat while catching up with the current events by reading Le Monde at my corner café. (The beret is optional.) Then I spend the rest of my day discussing Sartre over in the Latin Quarter or strolling the halls of the Louvre with a sketchpad, ending with my sunset ascent of the Eiffel Tower before heading to one of the Michelin three-star restaurants for an extravagant dinner. Later, after toasting the day with glasses of Cognac in the lounge at the George V, I stroll along the Seine until I’m finally home, where I tuck myself into bed to rest up for the next day.”

He also includes a list of restaurant/café recommendations, not all of which I agree with, but I really just said that because I wanted an excuse to come up with my own. I used to frequent most of these places back when I had a rich boyfriend so, sadly, my return to singledom and student-loan subsistence mandates that I can’t eat out nearly as often as I used to. (According to the Economist, Paris is the most expensive city in the world. Worse than London, Tokyo, Oslo or Moscow. I believe it.) That said, some (okay, two) of these places actually constitute a bargain, and anyway, it’s Paris and they’re worth it :-).

Godjo: This Ethiopian restaurant sits in the shadow of the Pantheon in the 5e, and is incredible (but only if you’re a fan of injera). Also, no silverware, which just about gave my dad a heart attack when I took him there.

Café le Buci: One of Paris’s many renowned literary cafés, in the 6e. Best onion soup I’ve ever had, and wonderful tartes des pommes. This was my ex-boyfriend’s and my de facto dining spot; I used to eat here once a week on average. Haven’t been in weeks.

La Cigale Recamier: The best of the best in soufflés, tucked away on a back street in the 7e. Warm, cozy and friendly (yes, even in Paris, imagine!) ambience.

La Fontaine de Mars: It’s known as the place Barack Obama took Michelle on their one night in Paris after blowing off the Sarkozys’ invite to dine at Élysée Palace. But the Obamas picked it for a reason, and this place has not only wonderful food, but the kind of very-French-but-not-“touristy-French” ambience everybody comes to this city hoping to find.

7e Sud: Lovely, delicious, casual Mediterranean place in the 7e. And lots of great vegetarian options.

Esplanade des Invalides: Expensive, but the perfect view of Place des Invalides is worth it.

Any of the cafes in Le Bon Marché: Le Bon Marché is supposed to mean “cheap,” but it’s also the name of a decidedly pricey French department store, which nevertheless has some great cafés sprinkled throughout. One of the only places to find good veggie burgers in Paris.

Chez André: This bistro in the 8e is supposed to have the best roast chicken and frites in the city, but that’s entirely lost on me. Still, the 1950s ambience, the quality of their limited vegetarian selections and the fact that the waiters will give you pointers on what to order first (pour la digestion) makes this place simply awesome.

Bar du Central: This place looks like any other Parisian café, but it has the best salade au chèvre chaud (hot goat cheese salad, a  French staple) in the entire city, and I’ve come pretty close to trying them all.

Restaurant at Le George V: This place is outrageously overpriced, but it boasts the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, anywhere (though at 14 Euros a pop, the Earth better move, as my mother would say).

Gerard Mulot: Best bakery in Paris, IMHO. The macarons are incredible, as is the bread (particularly their red-wine baguettes).

Kitchen Galerie Bis (KGB): This is one of those trendy places in the 6e where they add foam to the food, but it’s good. And trendy can be really fun sometimes.

Café Les Philosophes:  This is a typical Marais bistro—always lively, and always packed. But if they’re full, you can always go down the street to L’As du Falafel, a take-away place that—seriously—boasts the absolute best falafel, anywhere ever.

Dishny: For people who could eat Indian food all day every day, this place in the 10e is about as authentic as you’re gonna find. I went straight here after getting back from Pondicherry in January and it was like I’d never left :-).

And “on my list”:

Le Train Bleu: One of those grands restaurants in the Gare de Lyon; it opened in 1901 and is still supposed to be one of the best dining experiences in the city.

Café de la Paix: Really, really famous; I’ve never been. Near Opéra.

Le Grand Colbert: I’ve heard the food’s actually not that good, and yes, most of my desire to spend an evening here happens to stem from the bistro’s starring role in Something’s Gotta Give, but Lebovitz actually says it’s worth it, and why not?

Polidor: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac (yes, none of them French) used to hang out here; I watched Woody Allen film whatever his next movie is (something with Owen Wilson) right in front. My ex lived a couple doors down, and I used to sit on his balcony thinking how much this restaurant looked like it belonged in Paris. I’ve still never been, though.

Note: David Lebovitz also has a blog, which includes recipes for stuff like dandelion pesto. It’s fun.

(Another) Note: My mom’s good friend and one of the coolest people I know published an amazing book in 2001 on the historic restaurants of Paris. Definitely worth checking out.

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