Last fall, I tried in vain to convince my boyfriend to devote one of our six days in London to taking a brief day trip to Paris—not to visit the Louvre or to take photos at the Eiffel Tower, though those were certainly draws. No, I pushed for this jaunt into another country so that we could have my favorite schwarma.
My guy, bless him, almost went for it: The Chunnel cost next to nothing, and we could create a perfect Paris-in-a-day that hit the main spots—an amuse-bouche of a visit, if you will. In the end, our schedule in London shifted enough that we couldn’t take a day out of town. But he still hasn’t let me live down the fact that I was willing to go to another country just for lunch.
Clearly, he has never had L’As du Fallafel.
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Best To-Go Meal: L’As du Fallafel and Berthillon
Before I lived in a city where standing in line for food was no big deal, before I perfected the art of juggling a meal and drink in my arms while dodging people walking on cobblestones, I took my first visit to L’As du Fallafel. It was 2002; I was 14, following my dad from our hotel in the Marais just a few blocks to Rue des Rosiers. Sandwiched among the designer stores was a vivid green storefront with a daunting line winding down half the block.
This was before Mark Bittman’s glowing New York Times review, likely sometime after the restaurant put photos of musician Lenny Kravitz and mentioned his endorsement. At any rate, the locals—and many tourists—already knew it was a gem. Now, all of the praise goes to the falafel sandwich, which is admittedly great (they really get the need for including eggplant). But the true star at L’As du Fallafel is the schwarma: a mix of lamb and (unusual, to me at least) turkey, sliced off the steaming meat rotating on spits behind the men who take your order; then stuffed into pita with pickled red and white cabbage, cucumbers, spicy peppers, then drizzled with creamy hummus and smoky harissa.
You can eat inside, but it’s a long enough wait in line anyway. Schwarma is one of those foods that is made for on the go—though you will need extra napkins. My ideal meal is the same as what my dad and I did that day: get a schwarma and some fresh-squeezed orange juice, then carry it a few blocks to the closest interesting spot. I’ve stood in the courtyard of the Église des Billettes, a Protestant church, with hummus dripping through my fingers; or sat on a bench in the nearby park watching kids on swings while wolfing down the schwarma. I only wish that pita pocket were endless.
But your meal doesn’t end there. Now that you’re stuffed with schwarma, walk it off with a brisk 1-kilometer walk to Berthillon. It’s basically a straight shot from the Marais to Île Saint-Louis, the little island perched in the Seine. As you pass over the cobblestone bridge, it’s like entering a private little village.
Berthillon glacier (“ice-cream maker”) is rivaled only by the gelato in Italy—and while the Italians can make a mean stracciatella, none of their sorbets stand up to the flavors offered at this tiny shop. We’re talking more fruits than you knew existed; if it’s in season, get the fraises des bois, or “strawberries of the wood”—tinier berries than usual, and sweeter. Best to check ahead of time, as the Berthillon shop itself keeps odd hours. If they are closed, you may still be in luck; many establishments sell a limited selection, and display the distinctive logo in their windows.
This mini-food journey doubles as sustenance for a day of sightseeing. From Île Saint-Louis you can pop over to its twin island, Île de la Cité, to see Notre-Dame; cross into the Latin Quarter; or just go clockwise all the way around Paris.
In 2014, I got to spend 48 hours in Paris that were equal parts partying—I was there for a wedding—and nursing a hangover, and then repeating the cycle. While I got L’As du Fallafel and Berthillon out of the way before the festivities began, what really saved me was my second-favorite meal…
Best Sit-Down Meal: Ambassade d’Auvergne
This lovely restaurant is tucked into a small street, also in the Marais. Like the decor, the menu is modest but excellent quality; truly, your best bet is to order very specifically. Go for the (very affordable) prix fixe: your choice of meat can vary (I suggest the sausages), but you must bookend your meal with the lentils du Puy, aligot (a.k.a. cheesy potatoes), and chocolate mousse.
Rather than try to dictate serving size, the French do an amazing thing: They bring out the bowl of lentils du Puy, spoon out a generous helping, then leave the bowl on the table. Once you taste the lentils cooked in duck fat, cut with a bright vinaigrette, you’ll have trouble not lunging for the bowl. But no one’s watching you scoop out a second or even third portion—there’s an odd, implicit trust.
Thing is, you don’t want to fill up on the first course, as delicious as it is. Because so many more wonderful things are about to come out of the bowls at this place.
If you’re like me, part of the appeal of eating is the visual aspect. And unlike other restaurants who show you sample dishes in the windows or photographed in the menu, the chefs at Ambassade d’Auvergne stoke your excitement for your meal while you’re waiting for it. My favorite part of eating at this restaurant is while you’re still entranced by the lentils, out comes a cook with another bowl. This one has the aligot potatoes, which he whips in front of you. Thanks to all the cheese, the concoction is elastic; the cook lifts the spoon nearly to his head, stretching the potatoes out to the point that your mouth is watering. Then he disappears back into the kitchen. The suspense builds.
Like I said, the meat choice is unimportant. I found the duck breast too tough, and the sausages just right, but both are ultimately complements to the aligot—which is chewy and rich and yet somehow still light.
Finally, the most luxurious yet still light and airy dark chocolate mousse I’ve ever had. Again, the waiter serves the dessert and then leaves the bowl out. On my first visit (in 2012), my sister and I looked at each other like, There must have been some mistake. By that point, we could barely manage a second spoonful of mousse, so full were we from the other courses. We joked that we wished we’d known to bring Tupperware so that we could discreetly bring leftovers back to our hotel.
I guess I could have sneaked in some containers on my second go, but 1) I barely stumbled in and 2) I didn’t want to get banned from future visits. This time, as I struggled my way through a book to fight the rising nausea from my hangover, the lentils revived me, the potatoes sustained me, and the mousse was the perfect cap to my meal. By the time I stood up from my table, I was considerably less shaky than when I came in an hour prior. Then I had a Chunnel to catch back to London.
Image credits: andersphoto/ Shutterstock.com; L’As du Fallafel by Plot Spoiler/Wikimedia; Schwarma by FCHDX27/Reddit; Fraise des Bois by Solli Kanani; interior and exterior of L’Ambassade d’Auvergne courtesy of the restaurant; Aligot courtesy of TripAdvisor.