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I Love Paris….In The Autumn, When Its Veggie!

Rita Bhimani

So you are still in that chanson-led mindset about loving Paris in the springtime? Change of tack, and heart please, especially as Paris in October, in the autumn could be just the place to chill. Oh sorry, not chill, but warm your soul with the Montmartre Wine Harvest, which happens in October, get inside those wonderful museums and galleries, enjoy crowd-free shopping in temperature- controlled malls as it is off season, and snuggle into the cafes and espresso your time away…

Did I mention veggie? Well yes. When the two of us travel, I am the diehard food sampler, who writes on restaurants and events and chefs who ramp up on culinary excellence and will obviously eat “everything that moves” as the better half puts it. And he, vegetarian that he is, has to content himself in European countries with breads and cheesy confection and pastas and anything that is non-steak, non-poached fish, minus the bacon, sans oysters, mussels and lobsters.

How have we managed so far, all these years? Pretty well, thank you. But now, I am armed with something that took me by total surprise, Rashmi Uday Singh’s book on Why Be Vegetarian. She has spoken about how the Mahabharata is unequivocal about vegetarianism, and why vegetarians are certainly not puny (think the elephant, zebra, horse or ape) and that cancer research says that veggie foods can prevent the Big C, that veg food has the maximum nutrients and that ecology is a compelling reason to become vegetarian, for to produce a pound of meat you require 16 pounds of greens and multiple gallons of water. Plenty to chew on.

The effervescent Rashmi is someone I got to know a few years ago, always full of sparkling ideas. But her latest book A Vegetarian in Paris takes the cake! And certainly gives me a chance to throw away all those pre-conceived notions about meaty-fishy-eggy French cuisine and do a fresh dekko into the numerous restaurants, cafes, fast food joints, from many countries where a vegetarian could feel mollycoddled. And a “non-vegetarian” (I hate this term) would find some wonderful flavors that could play into his palate.

I am amazed that this food critic could venture into such uncharted territory, and come up trumps. Quite apart from French fare, there is what she labels “M.I.L.E.S.” or Mexican, Moroccan, Iranian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Spanish in one section. For instance, at Dar Lyakout, “a charming Moroccan restaurant where you can sit under fragrant trees, opposite Napoleon’s tomb” and enjoy a Tchakchouka—green pepper, tomato and onion in a tagine dish, or go into Lisa termed one of the best foreign restaurants in Paris, on the second arrondissement, for its lentils, salads and grilled haloumi cheese with homemade apricot preserves. Or, forget the foreign hand, and make for her most favorite L’Arpege, at the 7th arrondissement, which gets five stars for its food, and where Rashmi has had some of her most memorable vegetarian meals. Run by Alain Passard, “the devastatingly charming owner-chef, musician, sculptor and artist who learnt cooking from his granny”, this 30-seater pear wood paneled restaurant is a Michelin-starred, 15 year old haute cuisine restaurant, and Passard actually grows his own vegetables. Says the writer: “His classics of Onion Gratinee with the sweet tart notes of pear and the amazingly simple yet sublime Egg with Maple Syrup Cream are the stuff that dreams are made of.…The flavors of pumpkin sparkled with saffron and the tiny potatoes smoked in oat straw” lodge in her taste bud memory.

Or try her take on Zo—an Italian, Mediterranean and Japanese restaurant where you can get pasta with rocket and truffle cream and parmesan shavings or a risotto with baby zucchini and parmigiana courgette.

The book also has a Shop-Eat-Cook section which describes bakeries, patisseries, gelaterias, food shops, and markets, cooking classes and food tours and rare recipes (An Eggplant Clafoutis by Alain Ducasse, for one.) She is quite positive about the fact that the Indian culinary scene is a no-no in Paris, so look instead into the section which tempts you to try the crepes, fondues, soufflés, the Classic French section and the Bite of History section (the famous Bar Hemingway where you can get an artichoke platter).

It’s all there, temptingly, in the book, but you have to think out of the book if you are to hit the high spots in Paris as the burnished autumn leaves fall in your path.