Vin­tage Paris on the menu

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment

THE man at the bar is beau­ti­ful, it can­not be de­nied. With sculp­tured fea­tures and salon-per­fect hair, he is noth­ing if not a Calvin Klein model. The guy he’s talk­ing to — heav­ier, tweed­ier, but no less splen­did — is Ralph Lauren cat­a­logue ma­te­rial. Their girl­friends are surely Prada mod­els.

I could be con­jur­ing th­ese char­ac­ters from some cliched ad­ver­tise­ment for Paris af­ter dark. But no, they’re real. And, here, they are hardly ex­cep­tional. For I’m at the Ho­tel du Nord, at 102 quai de Jemmapes, in Paris’s rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing 10th ar­rondisse­ment, and this is where the beau­ti­ful peo­ple hang out.

‘‘ Of course,’’ a rag-trade in­sider in­forms me later. ‘‘ All the fash­ion crowd goes there. When the shows are on, you wouldn’t go any­where else.’’

I feel as if I’ve spent half my life search­ing for the place to be, only to stum­ble on it quite in­no­cently. I’m here on a prom­ise of in­ter­est­ing French food, served in an at­mo­spheric lo­ca­tion, but it seems my in­for­mant has grossly un­der­stated the mat­ter.

In­deed, it is ap­par­ent that this is Paris’s it spot as soon as our cab pulls up be­side the build­ing made fa­mous by Mar­cel Carne’s 1938 film of the same name. Through the early evening fog, the Ho­tel du Nord sign throws light on to the wa­ter of the Canal StMartin, which runs along­side the quai de Jemmapes.

Sleek bod­ies are col­lected on the ter­race, smok­ing and sip­ping wine. The place is in­stantly recog­nis­able from vin­tage pho­to­graphs, and as we pass be­yond the in­ner black vel­vet cur­tains we ex­pe­ri­ence a sense of step­ping back in time to a more the­atri­cal era.

Built in 1885 as a rough-and-ready wa­ter­front inn, the prop­erty has en­dured fluc­tu­at­ing for­tunes. Af­ter nar­rowly avoid­ing de­mo­li­tion in the 1960s, it has been re­dis­cov­ered in re­cent years and given a sen­si­tive ren­o­va­tion be­fore re­open­ing as a restau­rant, tea ter­race and bar in 2005.

Thank­fully, the de­sign­ers avoided the min­i­mal­ism ram­pant in many Paris venues. The flagged blackand-white floor­ing, wooden bistro furniture, soft light­ing, filled book­shelves, an­tique cof­fee ma­chine and plush so­fas chan­nel a night­club of the 1930s.

We are ush­ered to our ta­ble by a smil­ing waiter, clad in a black T-shirt and with his pretty hair tucked be­hind his ears, and handed chef Pas­cal Bre­bant’s East-meets-West menu.

By the stan­dards of most Parisian brasseries, where steak-frites and poulet-frites still reign supreme, the menu is de­cid­edly ex­cit­ing. In­trigu­ing com­bi­na­tions in­clude gateau de to­mates con­fit, chevre et se­same and mille­feuille de thon cru a la japon­aise, ar­tichauts marines, petals de to­mate sechee (pas­try with Ja­panese-style raw tuna, mar­i­nated ar­ti­chokes and dried tomato).

We make our se­lec­tions and pause to ad­mire our fel­low din­ers over a glass of good lo­cal wine. The clien­tele is im­pec­ca­ble, as Parisians are. Men wear suits, women have been out for a sham­poo and blowdry. Cut­ting-edge fash­ions abound.

The restau­rant is full, the bar hum­ming. A French friend tells us the 10th ar­rondisse­ment — out of favour for decades since the use­ful­ness of the canal, com­mis­sioned by Napoleon in 1802, went into de­cline in the mid-20th cen­tury — has be­come fash­ion­able again, re­dis­cov­ered by the arts and ad­ver­tis­ing crowds.

Charm­ing wait­ers, al­most as gor­geous as the clien­tele, keep the meal flow­ing. The prices are em­i­nently rea­son­able, with en­trees from ($11.26) and mains

There’s one hic­cup: some of the food dis­ap­points. While the Ja­panese-style tuna is light and won­der­ful, a fil­let mignon de porc, sauce es­tragon et lin­guine noires (pork fil­let with tar­ragon sauce and black lin­guini) is bizarre. Ginger-spiced duck is un­der­cooked, bloody and com­i­cally tough. How­ever, a choco­late torte is lux­u­ri­antly de­li­cious.

But such dis­ap­point­ments hardly mat­ter. As we step back into the night feel­ing de­cid­edly more chic than when we en­tered, the twist­ing, green iron-railed foot­bridge across the Canal St-Martin in­vites a latenight jaunt. This, we agree, is Paris.


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