Vintage Paris on the menu
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.