By Ann | April 2, 2014
My apartment in Paris is right next to the Eiffel Tower, which sounds fancy, but in reality the neighborhood is more crowded with young families than fashionistas. I first got to know the area when I was working at the American Library in Paris and even though someone recently described it to me as stuffy/ snobby/ boring/ touristy/ impersonal (er, thanks a lot), I’m fond of my quartier—its haughty Haussmannian façades belie a village atmosphere, with eccentric shops (among them a milliner, an embroiderer, and more framers than I can count), and neighbors who drop by with jars of chestnut honey. It’s especially familial on Sunday mornings, when the stores around the Rue Cler open for a few hours, and everyone makes a mad dash to buy food for the week.
Nonetheless, I do share my neighborhood with Paris’s biggest tourist attraction. And where there are tourists, there are tourist traps—restaurants serving sloppy, bad, or even reheated factory-frozen food. Whenever I see poor unsuspecting visitors heading into one of these places, I want to throw myself between them and the bowls of desultory French onion soup—which I’m sure would not win many favors with the café owners who are, after all, my neighbors.
But I’m happy to say that my neighbors also include folks who serve honest, fresh, thoughtful fare, like Anne and Valeria Arella, the mother-daughter pair who own Les Deux Abeilles. Though their charming tea salon is “so British!” (as the French might exclaim), decked out in flowered wallpaper and family furniture, the food is like something you’d eat at Mémé’s house—a light cuisine of composed salads, pureed soups, or savory tarts (the French would call it sain, or healthy). On my last visit, I ate an omelette filled with mint leaves and fresh goat cheese, a plump, soft, eggy roll. There are other choices, too—broccoli quiche that could have descended from a cloud, a courgette-layered flan with tomato sauce that’s a house invention, and a gently warmed lentil salad that combines the nutty pulse with a tangy vinaigrette, to name a few.
My husband always jokes that 99% of Les Deux Abeilles’ clientele is women—which is actually true. But I’m not sure why men don’t flock here, too. Is it because the food is too sain? Do men not care about their waistlines? If that’s the case, there are certainly temptations here, like my favorite chocolate-almond cake, moist and crumbly, almost like a dense pudding, or the tarte au citron meringué, topped in swooping clouds of sugared egg whites. Crumbles often feature fruit from the owners’ country garden and for those who truly are en regime, they make a batch of compôte everyday, stewing apples, pears, orange peel, cinnamon—and not a grain of sugar. Still, you’d never think of it as diet food.
A few blocks away, on a quiet side street, is Café de Mars, a casual, little neighborhood place with plain tables and Thonet chairs. The chef here is an American—one overlooked for her flashier compatriots—which is lucky for me, because I prefer her simple, heartfelt food and I like being able to slip into a table here at the last minute. The menu mixes lots of different influences—Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern—the plates are clean and bright, and the prices reasonable.
Like many Paris restos, the lunch menu here is scrawled across a chalkboard, and it’s a formule of two or three courses (€16 or €20 respectively—dinner is a similar format, but I’m not sure of the prices). You select from two to three entrées (first courses), the same number of plats (main course), and desserts.
I started with a tourte aux épinards—a disk of puff pastry topped with spinach, tarragon, and everyone’s favorite adornment, a runny poached egg. My main course was an expertly sautéed filet of rascasse—all crisped skin and moist flesh—accompanied by chard and pleurotte mushrooms. My friend had a tidy salad of bok choy and miso-marinated daikon, followed by braised pork cheeks. Pas d’dessert, we just finished with coffee.
One of the fun things about the Café de Mars, is that they post the week’s menu on their Facebook page—if I were going this week, for example, I’d order the watercress salad with beets and confit de canard, followed by the eggplant tian, and then balsamic ice cream with strawberries (yes, please!). They also post a lot of photos of the kitchen team; maybe it’s all a front, but they look like they’re having fun, which is the same feeling I get from the food. This isn’t one of those Parisian hotspot restaurants, and if you’re looking for an experimental, luxurious, life-changing dining experience, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re in the neighborhood anyway (visiting, say, a large, iron, lattice-work structure?) it’s a delightful spot for lunch.
Finally, the Rue Cler can be a veritable minefield of bad food, but Le Petit Cler is one place where the food is truly correct. Run by the same folks who own the restaurant where Obama ate in Paris, this is just a café serving regular old café cuisine—salads, sandwiches, omelettes, the odd steak frites, nothing out of the ordinary. And yet, the food is prepared with such care, it’s lifted into the memorable. On my last visit, I satisfied my perpetual craving for a croque madame, which, unlike its male counterpart, is topped with an oeuf miroir, or sunny-side-up egg. The cheese was toasted to golden perfection, the Poilâne bread chewy and crunchy, the egg runny enough to soak its crumb, and the accompanying dab of mustard sharp enough to sting my nose. Just a simple toasted ham-and-cheese-sandwich, and yet extraordinarily satisfying.
Even my friend Meg, who has lived in Paris for decades and has the discriminating palate to prove it, was pleased with her tartine topped with rare roast beef and shavings of Parmesan. I can also recommend the tartine with tuna and ratatouille, and I always say this but next time I swear I’m going to try the one with raw ham and flash-broiled St-Marcellin cheese.
It’s unusual for a café, but desserts here are exceptionally good—plain, yet classic and delicious. Meg and I shared a tender baba au rhum, which featured a cakey (not brioche) base and enough liquor to make a pirate happy. But I’ve also loved the crème brûlée, as well as the nonfat fromage frais with raspberries which–though it admittedly does not sound very tempting—is utterly marvelous, lightly sweet, and whipped into a cloud. I’m not sure what they do to it, but in a way I’m kind of glad I don’t know because then I would cook (and eat) nothing else.
And you know the best part about eating near the Eiffel Tower? When it’s time to go home, you run into views like this:
Les Deux Abeilles (no website)
189 rue de l’Université
tel: 01 45 55 64 04
Service nonstop, 09h00-19h00, closed Sunday
Café de Mars
11 rue Augereau
tel: 01 45 50 10 90
12h00-14h30, 20h00-23h00, closed Sunday
Le Petit Cler
29 rue Cler
tel: 01 45 50 17 50
Service nonstop, 08h00-21h00, open seven days
Update: My favorite CHEAP eats around the Eiffel Tower are here.