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Esu Lee's guide to Paris

Esu Lee's guide to Paris

by Pete Dreyer 08 March 2019

Paris is home to one of the greatest culinary scenes in the world, but navigating its streets in search of good food can be daunting! That's why we joined forces with one of Paris’ hottest properties – chef Esu Lee of C.A.M. Import Export – to track down some of the city’s best restaurants, cafés and bars. Photography: Elin Hörnfeldt

There’s no questioning Paris’ status as one of the world’s greatest culinary cities. It is the capital city of the most influential food culture on Earth – a city that entices millions of tourists every year with promises of fine food and romance. The importance of French culinary technique and the French brigade system cannot be understated – walk into a fine dining restaurant anywhere in the world, and you’ll likely hear regular, enthusiastic shouts of ‘oui chef!’ coming from the kitchen. French cooking principles have shaped and defined haute cuisine all over the world for generations, and Paris has always been at the very epicentre of that.

So often when we think of Paris, we think of tradition and history. We think of crusty baguettes, wines and cheeses – foods that have been made the same way for hundreds of years. We think of the old guard of Michelin-approved restaurants, like the Pavillon Ledoyen – now over 200 years old and boasting three Michelin stars under chef Yannick Alléno, or the restaurants of legends like Alain Ducasse, Alain Passard and Guy Savoy – chefs who execute the quintessential French style with flawless precision. We think of Michelin themselves, of course, that dusty arbiter of good and bad food that still determines so many successes and failures both here and abroad.

The truth is though, Paris is not just about French food and French cooking and French chefs. The city has always been a focal point for the multiculturalism that resulted from France’s colonial era, and Parisian gastronomy reflects that. Paris has much in common with London in that respect – explore the city and you’ll discover incredible food from all over the world. Not only that, you’ll find a new generation that are embracing the new and departing from the old, whether that means bakers making sourdough instead of baguettes, cafés adapting to modern coffee culture, or chefs exploring the flavours of their multicultural heritage.

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Esu took time away from C.A.M. in 2018 to stay at Baekyangsa Temple with Jeong Kwan – the South Korean monk made famous by Chef's Table
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Among his favourite spots was Ten Belles – a bakery that locals flock to for its outstanding sourdough and pastries

One such chef is Esu Lee. Born in South Korea, Esu left home at seventeen to enrol at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, before training with the late, great Australian chef Jeremy Strode. He returned to South Korea to complete his compulsory military service and cooked for the military commander, and honed his craft in Hong Kong before promptly arriving in Paris and taking the city by storm with his unique Asian-influenced cooking. By blending the classical French technique taught at Le Cordon Bleu with his South Korean heritage, Esu embodies what is great about the food in this city. No one would ever consider his food to be French, but Parisian? Absolutely.

So, who better to show us around some of the best of Paris’ new wave restaurants, cafés and bars? We jumped on an early train and joined Esu on a tour of Paris, as he showed us some of his favourite up-and-coming spots in the city.

Restaurants

C.A.M. Import Export

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We should stress that Esu did not specifically include his own restaurant in this list, but the guide wouldn’t be complete without it. Both Esu and C.A.M. are fairly new on the scene in Paris, but to say they have captured the city's imagination is an understatement. Just a few months after opening, Esu’s cooking was drawing long lines of punters every evening, including the likes of Alain Ducasse, who himself gave the upstart restaurant his seal of approval. Eighteen months ago, this wasn’t even a restaurant – it was a wholesaler of miniature souvenir Eiffel Towers. In November 2017, Esu and owner Phil Euell joined forces to take over the building and start the restaurant, and they haven’t looked back since – between them, they now run one of Paris’ hottest properties. Steak tartare served with gochujang and XO sauce seems a perfect encapsulation of Esu’s way of thinking, but don't go to C.A.M. expecting to know what you're going to eat – once Esu gets bored of a dish, it’s probably gone for good.

55 Rue au Maire, 75003 Paris, instagram.com /importexportcam

Passerini

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Giovanni Passerini has been a fixture in Paris for over ten years now – he left his native Rome to work with French luminaries like Inaki Aizpitarte at Le Chateaubriand and Alain Passard at L’Arpege, before his debut restaurant Rino sent culinary shockwaves across the city. Gio has since moved from Rino to Passerini but his signature style remains the same – he executes the traditional, rustic flavours of Rome with Parisian elegance and precision. Gio may have ascended the culinary ladder somewhat, but he remains a chef’s chef – he insists on being with his team to do prep and service, and you’ll regularly see him plating dishes in the restaurant’s open kitchen. It’s worth popping around the corner to his fresh pasta shop too – chefs all over the city come here for Gio’s ravioli.

Esu says: 'For me, Gio is one of the best chefs in Paris – he’s pretty big in French media, but it always surprises me that he isn’t better known outside France! He’s a very romantic cook with an incredible palate, but I think the thing I’ve always loved is his balance. He’s really creative and he doesn’t limit himself, but he doesn’t sacrifice any flavour at the same time, which is really tricky. I don’t think there are many better restaurants in Paris than Passerini.'

65 Rue Traversière, 75012 Paris, passerini.paris

Waly-Fay

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Those looking for quality west African food would be well advised to drop into the very elegant and welcoming Waly Fay on Rue Godefroy Cavaignac, just around the corner from Septime. Paris has a great west African tradition, and Waly Fay has been a big part of that for over two decades, feeding Parisians with west African classics like aloco (fried plantain), boudin, pepper soup, grilled beef suya and n'dole – a Cameroonian stew of nuts, bitter leaves and fish or beef. Dinner at Waly Fay is certainly one for the more adventurous, but knowledgeable staff will help you find the right dishes, and the restaurant always has a pleasant buzz to it.

Esu says: 'I think people often come to Paris for French food, but Paris is a very multicultural city, just like London. Waly-Fay is just as Parisian as L’Arpege or Septime – for me, there’s no divide between African and French cuisine in Paris. This is actually where Phil and I had our first meeting for C.A.M. Import Export! I had zero expectations, I’d never heard of it, then we started eating and I was blown away. I’ve been coming here regularly ever since.'

6 Rue Godefroy Cavaignac, 75011 Paris, walyfay.fr

Osteria Ferrara

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Credit: Luca Grappi
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Much like London, Paris has fallen back in love with authentic Italian food, and two of the men responsible for that are in this list. The first is the aforementioned Giovanni Passerini, and the second is Fabrizio Ferrara, chef and owner of Osteria Ferrara in the food-forward 11th arrondissement. Fabrizio’s cooking is rather more classic than his Italian compatriot – he hails from Sicily originally, and his menus riff heavily on classic Sicilian flavours, featuring dishes like burrata and bottarga in an anchovy vinaigrette, and linguine with orange, chilli and mussel sauce. Add a superb collection of biodynamic Italian wines, friendly staff and arguably the best risotto in the city, and Paris has a true osteria to be proud of.

Esu says: I love the food here – it’s definitely more classic Italian than Gio’s food at Passerini, but no less delicious. Fabrizio strikes a really good balance – it’s homely Italian cooking but still elegant, and the restaurant itself has a really beautiful atmosphere, with a really good selection of biodynamic Italian wines and very thoughtful and accommodating staff.'

7 Rue du Dahomey, 75011 Paris, facebook/com/osteriaferrara

Chez Omar

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A Parisian institution, Chez Omar is everyone’s first port of call if they’re looking for good, authentic north African food. It might look a little drab from the outside, but the inside is quintessential Paris – a long zinc bar, adorned with old claret bottles and a beautiful vintage coffee machine, polished wood-panelled walls and white linen tablecloths. Chez Omar doesn’t take reservations, so unless you get here early you’ll be queuing for a table, but that’s half the fun – the queue is a right of passage, and the reward is mounds of fluffy couscous and grilled meats.

Esu says: 'Everyone knows Chez Omar in Paris – it’s the place to go for authentic Algerian couscous. Omar doesn’t take reservations so get here early to avoid queuing, and get the couscous royale and the amazing merguez sausage!'

47 Rue de Bretagne, 75003 Paris

Urfa Durum

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Tucked away on the bustling Rue du Faubourg in Strasbourg Saint-Denis, you could easily wander straight past this unassuming little gem without batting an eyelid. The first clue that there might be something good comes in the little front window, where you’ll see someone rolling out flatbreads. Head inside and you’ll find a small menu of kebabs on offer and a little charcoal grill in the back, loaded with skewers. A bit of spare change will get you a delicious lahmacun (or go for the lamb if you have €8 knocking about), all made fresh and packed with beautiful crisp salad. A genuine gem in the heart of Paris.

Esu says: 'I almost didn’t include this in the list, because I’m wary of too many people knowing about it! This is my day off spot with my friends. The guys here are really friendly, and they make really great kebabs with very fresh ingredients – there are no heavy chilli or garlic sauces, the flatbreads are all made fresh during the day, and everything is cooked à la minute on the charcoal grill.'

58 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010 Paris

Bread, coffee and pastry

Boot Café

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Phil Euell (who also owns C.A.M. Import Export) looks after this little nook on a beautiful cobbled backstreet in Le Marais. If you’re looking for somewhere spacious and comfortable to unravel with a laptop, this probably isn’t your spot – the inside is tiny, with only a couple of small tables and a handful of stools to speak of, alongside a smattering of greenery and glossy lifestyle mags. Paris may have changed somewhat in the last few decades, but it remains a city fuelled by espresso, and Boot Café serves some of the best coffee in the city. All its beans come from the fantastic Fuglen Roastery in Oslo – a superb micro-roastery that specialises in light, Nordic-style roasting – and the café has a history of employing excellent baristas.

Esu says: ‘I’ve been coming here since I first arrived in Paris! It’s a really beautiful little place to come and relax with friends, and the coffee is really, really good – it’s quite easy drinking, and not too overwhelming. Phil really takes care over the quality of the coffee. It’s pretty small so you can’t always sit down, but we often just hang out outside. You meet lots of interesting people here, from fashion designers and chefs to tourists!'

19 Rue du Pont aux Choux, 75003 Paris, facebook.com/bootcafe

Ten Belles Bread

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Bread is one of the areas where our romantic idea of Paris matches up to the reality – there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of great boulangeries all over the city that serve fantastic French-style bread. That’s all well and good if all you want is a crusty baguette, but a new wave of Parisians have begun to broaden their bread horizons, working with new types of flour and modern methods. Ten Belles founder Alice Quillet honed her skills at Tartine in San Francisco – famously the birthplace of sourdough – before returning to Paris to open Ten Belles. As a result, the bread here is exceptional, but the Ten Belles team are talented beyond just loaves – the sweet and savoury pastries that emerge from the bakery are faultless, as is the coffee.

Esu says: 'Sourdough is still not nearly as established in Paris as it is in London, but Ten Belles is one of the few places that does it, and they do it really well. They supply our bread for the restaurant, but I come here quite often anyway – the cafe is a really nice spot to hang out and all the staff are super friendly!'

17-19 Rue Breguet, 75011 Paris, facebook.com/tenbellesbread

Wine

Le Vin au Vert

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A mere five-minute walk from Gard du Nord station, Le Vin au Vert is perfectly placed for city-breakers who might be hovering around the Eurostar terminal. The 9th arrondissement does lean towards tourists as a result, but this cave-à-manger bucks the trend – it’s always bustling with locals and offers simple French home cooking like sausage, pomme purée and salad alongside cheese and charcuterie plates and of course, a stellar wine selection. Owners Etienne Lucan and Sebastien Obert are omniscient when it comes to wine, and between them they stock one of the best collections of biodynamic French wine in the city.

Esu says: 'Paris is full of wine bars, but in terms of the really good ones, you always end up going to the same places – Septime la Cave, Chambre, Noir, Le Verre Volé. One day a good friend of mine brought me here and it was a revelation – they cook simple, delicious food, and the wine list is excellent. Best of all, everything is very affordable – especially in comparison to the other places I mentioned – and it has a really nice local vibe.'

70 Rue de Dunkerque, 75009 Paris, facebook.com/levinauvert

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