9, rue de Bearn.
- Sesame seared tuna with sesame and sweet chilli dipping sauce
- Fillet of lamb with basil cream, mashed potato and mange tout
- Chocolate fondant with praline creme anglaise
The moment when you know you’ve arrived somewhere new is different for everyone. For some people, it’s when the train pulls up at the platform or the point where wheels hit the runway. For some people it’s when you first see signs in another language, or buy something in an alien currency. It can be when you take a sip of that first crisp, cold beer (as it is when I go to Prague) or the point when your mobile lights up with a text telling you how exorbitant everything is going to be for the duration of your stay. I think, for me, the moment I know I’ve arrived in Paris might well be when I take my seat in Le Petit Marché and look at the menu.
It wasn’t always like this. The first time I went to Paris with my wife, on honeymoon, we stayed in Saint Germain des Pres on the left bank. Our hotel room – sleek and minimalist, muted lime green bedding and clean-lined dark wood furniture – was more expensive than any we’ve ever stayed in, before or since. A short walk round the corner were the famous writers’ haunts of the Twenties and Thirties, Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, now mainly full of Japanese tourists. Next to the latter, a Louis Vuitton store looked out across the square at an ancient church, the new religion juxtaposed against the old. The market on rue de Buci bustled with florists and grocers and the steam from my chocolat chaud smudged into the cold air. It was hard to imagine a more perfect part of the city, and back then the Marais was just an area on a map and an item waiting to be ticked off on a checklist.
Going there, towards the end of our honeymoon, was a revelation. We got lost in the narrow maze of streets, cool boutiques and tiny restaurants scattered everywhere, and couldn’t help but feel like we had stayed in the wrong part of the city. Everywhere we looked, we could see people we wanted to watch and views we wanted to exhaust. It was like the set for the film we wanted our lives to be. We sat under the elegant vaults of the Place des Vosges, sipping a sneaky glass of Moulin-à-Vent and planning our return. When we did, we knew we would stay in the Marais and we knew we would come here again.
When we did, a few years later, we did exactly that and Le Petit Marché was one of the restaurants we visited on that trip. I remember that I ordered badly – I always order badly – and I sat there in the atmospheric lighting trying, with limited success, to dissect a chicken that seemed to be more bones than flesh while Kelly looked on, ate her fillet steak and tried not to be smug, also with limited success. Despite that, I loved the place; cool without being intimidating, smart without being fussy and casual without being shabby. The menu was full of Asian influences without screaming anything so obvious or naff as fusion and the lighting, if not quite up to aiding a post mortem on poultry, was the kind that made people you knew look attractive and people you didn’t know look interesting. It was close to my ideal restaurant, and I wanted to pick it up and take it back home with me, even though deep down I knew that it wouldn’t have flourished in captivity.
Since then, any trip to Paris has involved a visit to Le Petit Marché on the first night and my most recent trip was no exception. As a precursor, we sat at the pavement tables outside Au Petit Fer A Cheval and polished off a couple of carafes of red wine while watching the evening begin and the streets fill with characters. We fell into a conversation with David at the table next to us, a perma-stoned American expat with little hair left, wire-rimmed spectacles and a strange multi-accented voice that always sounded on the verge of breaking like a teenager - or a muppet, perhaps. He had a keen interest in the opposite sex (which largely seemed to entail turning to Kelly and saying “will you be my wingman?”, despite my protestations that I was far better qualified for the role than she was) and a complicated personal life which doubtless would have made even less sense if I had had less to drink. It seemed to involve, as far as I could tell, an Iranian wife who lived in Morocco and saw David for a couple of nights every couple of months.
I could well imagine that an arrangement like this might well constitute David’s best shot at some kind of lasting happiness. I also imagined that David’s hangovers probably lasted longer than his happiness ever did, and when I realised this I felt a sort of tender protectiveness towards him, while simultaneously not wanting to spend much longer in his company. I also understood – too late, I’m afraid - why Kelly and had I got such a sympathetic look from the pair of pretty girls who had given up the table next to him as we’d pounced to grab their still warm wicker chairs.
David was very vague about what he did for a living. In fact, after a couple of carafes of white wine David was pretty vague in general, and his pretty vague pronunciation and diction hardly helped matters. The impression was that he was too rich to have to work, although he still did, and that at one stage he had jacked it all in to spend the best part of a year sailing around the Mediterranean. I really didn’t know whether that last bit was true. There were also stories about living in the same apartment block as Dominique Strauss-Kahn and being told to keep the noise down, but I couldn’t be sure if these were true. By that point I wasn’t even sure whether the wife in Morocco was true. David leaned over to me. “This is the best bar in the whole damn world.” he said. I knew that was true.
“We have to go I’m afraid. We have a dinner reservation at Le Petit Marché.” I said. That was true too.
We walked through the Place des Vosges, still as grand and gorgeous as ever, and passed under the archway onto rue de Bearn. It was odd to think that only the night before, walking through Reading, I had called the restaurant on my mobile and just about managed to make a reservation in my stumbling best attempts at French. Going through the door, it looked exactly the same as I expected from all my other first night memories. The tables were dimly lit and crowded with the handsome and the pretty, the expressive and the expansive, and we took our place in a room humming with the noise of conversations we couldn’t understand. It felt as much like home as a public place in a foreign country could be.
They sat us next to the table of Americans, something I suspect was deliberate on their part. I'm almost certain that, as some venues used to have smoking and non-smoking tables, the French like to have special zones for foreigners so that they are only polluting their own kind with any emissions. Many is the time in Paris that I have been right next to a table of Americans only to hear all the French speakers at the end of the evening as I make my way to the exit. But it was fine because they were nice enough; reasonably cultured, well enough travelled, not too loud and in no way obnoxious. Besides, we were making an effort to order in French and I was hoping that would set us apart.
Nights like our first nights in Le Petit Marché aren’t really about the food but I’m going to tell you about it anyway, because it was delicious. The starter has been on the menu for all the time we’ve been going there and I always order it: cubes of raw tuna, studded with sesame seeds and served simply with tiny ramekins of sauce – sweet chilli in one, soy and sesame in the other – and a handful of leaves, also dressed with sesame oil. You slice the tuna as thin as your knife will let you, dip the slices into the sauce for just as long as it takes to coat them, and enjoy. It’s the perfect dish in all ways but one; it’s over far too quickly. But I find the best starters are always like that. The main was just as good – thick, pink-middled discs of lamb served with a light, creamy sauce with a tinge of basil, with a generous helping of the best mashed potato I’ve ever tasted. Even the mange tout – a vegetable I’ve never liked – was so fresh and so terrific that I wasn’t sure whether mange tout was a name or an instruction.
Best of all, it was all washed down with a carafe of red. Everywhere you go in Paris you can get wine by the pichet or carafe - something which seems symptomatic of a culture where it’s acceptable to drink just enough, as opposed to back home where the only options seem to be not enough and too much, with an implicit predisposition towards the latter (“Are you sure you only want a small glass of wine?” someone had said to me at Kelly’s work leaving do, only the weekend before. It seemed somehow a very British thing to say.) I wish carafes would catch on at home, although I think I’m fighting a losing battle on persuading anyone of the benefits of that.
Dessert was disappointing. I made the mistake of ordering the chocolate fondant, even though I know I’ve never much liked chocolate desserts warmer than room temperature. And yet I wasn’t quite sure what it was from the menu, only that it contained chocolate, and I felt I’d been doing so well distancing myself from the Americans through my attempts to order in French that I didn’t dare ask. It didn’t matter though, partly because the praline crème anglaise - so far from the congealed English custards I’ve always hated so much – was so delicate and gorgeous that I half wanted to ask if I could take some away with me, or at least order a separate carafe full of the stuff.
That wasn’t the main reason why my underwhelming dessert was not important, though. The main reason was that I knew, as I watched the Americans gamely struggling with understanding the bill to my left and enjoyed the sight of the gangly French hipsters on my right talking about English film actors, a jumble of incomprehensible words and exaggerated gestures punctuated by the occasional incongruous famous name (an Alec Guinness here, an Albert Finney there) that I had arrived. I was in Paris, my favourite city, in my favourite Parisian restaurant, with a week of wandering and watching and meals ahead of me. I knew that when we left this place we could wander down to the Seine and take in the lights and the boats and the bridges. Best of all, I also knew that I might have better meals than this on my holiday, but I wouldn’t have one with greater significance.