London & Paris: Our Ultimate Guide

Yes, that’s me at the Duane Reade check-out, grinning ear-to-ear. I’m buying a box of Airborne and I’m ecstatic. Because that little box means I’m about to get on a plane. And planes mean travel. And I love nothing more in this world (save my little family) than traveling. Yes, I know that’s like saying I enjoy sunset walks and Golden Retriever puppies. What I mean is that that I enjoy everytinydetailofatrip.

Even down to the Airborne.

But let’s be honest: All of the trips that I plan are foodie tours with cultural stops along the way.

 

The Tower of London isn’t close to a gastropub? I almost deleted it from our itinerary.

It isn’t the architecture or cultural significance of the Eiffel Tower that made it a “must see” but the quaint wine bar near the Champ de Mars.

Borough Market trumps Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament and just about everything else in London with its boisterous, super-knowledgeable vendors peddling everything from Stilton to sizzling venison burgers to bean-to-bar chocolate yummies.

So, if you’re like me and you’re like Jamie and you gleefully travel, “Belly First,” save in your files my itty bitty black book of London & Paris favorites. Yes, there are galleries and monuments — but only because they’re next-door (or easy walking distance) to some of the best food in town!

 

London

The Ham Yard Hotel– The sister property to the Crosby Street Hotel (part of the Firmdale group) is pure perfection. It’s British refinement with a one-two punch of kitsch and style. While it’s located in Piccadilly, aka the Center of London, you’d never know because it’s set back on a tiny mews that is both quiet and beautiful. The gussied up bowling alley and unfussy-yet-fancy tea time were a BIG hit with all three of us. Make sure to book daily breakfast with your room because their “Full English,” a plate of perfectly cooked eggs, crispy bacon & juicy sausage and ‘black pudding’ (aka blood sausage patties) is more than memorable. The buffet of fresh fruits, granolas and organic yogurts is for the taking as well.

Piccadilly, Theatreland, Trafalgar Square, New/Old Bond St shopping, National Gallery

Do a kid’s “hide-and-seek” tour of the National Gallery, see one of London’s famous Theatreland productions and then…

The Palomar– If this is “Mediterranean fringe” food, I want to always live on the outskirts. Borrowing most heavily from Israeli cuisine—and serving it all tapas-style— The Palomar and its handsome (sorry, honey!), super friendly chefs made for one of the most delicious meals of our holiday. Chef Joffrey was at the helm that night and I immediately liked him when he handed over a set of drumsticks to our daughter and told her she was a rock star. With a spirit like that, how could he not produce fabulous food? Here’s what we ate:

  • Kubeneh- almost like an air-filled brioche, baked in a tiny pot, served with heavenly dipping sauces
  • Yiddish Bruschetta w chicken liver pate’
  • Fattoush Salad w tomato, cucumber, za’atar, sumac, pita croutons, brazil nuts, homemade labneh
  • Shakshukit- spiced, ground kebab meat, yogurt, tahini and one incredible savory sauce
  • Pork Belly Tajine- Israeli couscous & chopped apricots

And because Chef Jeff was so sweet, he brought Parker two desserts: Malabi— rose-scented pudding with raspberry coulis and Chocolate Cremeux— an insanely rich version of chocolate mousse. The Palomar is a must.

Enjoy high-end shopping (or window shopping, in my case) on Bond Street and then…

Gymkhana– Why can’t New York get Indian food right? Either it’s Curry Hill take-out joints or expense account-only Midtown haunts. What about something that’s authentic, in a well-appointed room and with amazing cocktails? Gymkhana stepped in and kinda fulfilled all my dreams.

The polished mahogany walls, and seriously handsome bar set-up (think sterling silver shakers, tiny cups & cocktail spoons galore) evoke Colonial-era India and some serious poshness (if that’s even a word…). Tucked away on quiet Albemarle Street, the restaurant plays host to everyone from well-to-do Indian families (always a good sign re: authenticity!) to date night couples. Oh, and us, the American tourists. I can attest that the tandoor oven works its magic as do the seasonal curry blends. The skinny (or not so skinny) on what we enjoyed:

  • South Indian Fried Chicken Wings, Tomato Chutney
  • Amritsari Shrimp & Dill Queenies
  • Duck Dosa w Coconut Curry
  • Chicken Butter Masala
  • Bread Basket (*And it was the bread basket to end all bread baskets)

I don’t think we’ll enjoy Indian this exceptional until our next trip to London. And that’s why I’m stalking for Travelocity for spring plane tickets to London.

Buckingham Palace, (Upper Knightsbridge), Hyde Park

Tour the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, walk Green Park, follow Birdcage Walk and then…

“Dinner” by Heston Blumenthal (at the Mandarin Oriental)– Dreams do come true! Or so thought Jamie when he finally dug into Chef Blumenthal’s “Meat Fruit” appetizer, one of the most clever presentations of liver that he or I have ever enjoyed. This was our high-end “splurge” restaurant in London and we all felt very fancy- particularly Parker. She wore a golden flower headpiece (H&M Kids accessories never let me down) and was a gastro-princess, particularly during the dessert course when the staff brought out a liquid nitrogen ice cream-making machine.  But the dessert course as well as the spare, ultra-modern interior are in stark contrast to the theme of the restaurant. Chef Blumenthal wanted to honor- and have a little fun with- “historic British gastronomy” with long-forgotten dishes. The names of the classic dishes sound scary… but his riffs on the classics are divine. We ordered things like:

  • “Rice & Flesh- circa 1390” (saffron, veal, red wine)
  • “Savoury Porridge-circa 1660” (frog’s legs, smoked beet root, garlic, parsley & fennel).
  • “Hereford Ribeye with Mushroom Ketchup and Triple-Cooked Fries”

The latter might date to the 1800’s but it was absolutely in keeping with the times and the steakhouse craze. It also just so happened to be one of the most perfectly cooked steaks that we have ever eaten.

We will absolutely be back, if not for dinner at “Dinner,” definitely to sit at the bar for a martini and two decadent orders of “meat fruit.”

Ogle at the tiaras and fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum and then…

Harrod’s Food Hall– A whole lotta food and a whole lotta people. Are you ready? You’ve got to put your game face on when you enter Harrod’s Food Hall. BUT it’s worth it. The vaulted ceilings with art nouveau tile decoration, all that glass & brass and the mountains of exotic foods barely contained behind low glass partitions make it a “must” for any gourmet in the Knightsbridge area (or in London, I’d venture).

Work up an appetite by touring St. Paul’s Cathedral, walk over the Millenium Bridge (a really cool steel suspension number), and then get ready for…

Borough Market– “London’s Larder,” aka the city’s oldest food market, was the highlight of our trip to London (sorry Buckingham!) “This is how they ‘grocery shop’ed’ in the olden’ days,” declared Parker. We were definitely born in the wrong era. There are pigs on spits, pretty ladies proffering flutes of Prosecco, wheels of deliciously stinky cheese and more local offerings than I could list. While Harrod’s Food Hall is largely dedicated to exotic foods & flavors, Borough Market exists to showcase all things UK.

Don’t forget these, just make sure to tuck snacks into your tote bag…

Big Bus Tour– Swallow all ideas of, “I must fit in! I don’t want to look like a tourist!” and go for it. It’s FUN to be on top of a bus, looking like a puppy in a convertible, wind whistling through your hair…

Tower of London– There are jewels, specifically THE CROWN JEWELS, and a torture chamber. What more would any mom/dad/small child need to be entertained?

Bridge of Westminster– Get off the bus. I repeat, get off the Big Bus (they kind of mesmerize you with the audio) and walk over the “Big Ben Bridge,” as Parker called it. Stand in the shadows. Ok, you can close your mouth.

Kensington Palace Gardens & Diana Memorial Playground– I grew up with a mother who subscribed to “Royalty” magazine—of course I had to check out the London residence of Princess Diana!Kensington Palace, the swan pond and the surrounding gardens were expansive, unfussy and a lovely break from the hustle & bustle of the city.

Paris

General Left Bank beauty, St Germain-des-Pres boutique shopping, Boulevard St Germain, L’Odeon, Jardin du Luxembourg, Musee du Luxembourg, Place St. Sulpice, Bon Marche’

Do a pre-breakfast architecture walk down Boulevard St. Germain, cut over to one of the most picturesque and coziest ‘places’ in all of Paris, Carrefour de l’Odeon and Place de l’Odeon. Make a command decision! Either a classic, sit-down “café breakfast” on the square or a take-out breakfast from one of the best boulangerie/patisserie in the city and a stroll…

Le Hibou– I think it’s rare in Paris to find a full-service, comfortable AND chic café/bistro with lovely proprietors & staff who will not only give you traveling tips but will fresh squeeze the orange juice for you themselves. And the super buttery croissants that they serve at Café Hibou are from a renowned boulangerie on rue de Buci (yes, I asked where they were from!) and they almost shatter with the first bite. If Jamie and I lived in Paris, I swear this place would be our “Cheers.” Morning coffee & croissant, afternoon salade nicoise & rose’, late afternoon aperitif, filet de boeuf sauce au poivre with a big glass of Bordeaux…

OR

Gerard Mulot– When it’s 8am and you file in line with Parisian housewives, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, you know you’ve hit the patisserie/boulangerie jackpot. Gerard Mulot has been at it’s corner perch, 76 rue de Seine, for almost three decades. The haven for all things sugar & butter stands out for not just serving breads and sweets, but for whipping up savory offerings as well (yes, this is something of a rarity in Paris- and France, in general- where distinct divisions are created for all things food-related).  Famous for its fruit tarts, extraordinary pain au chocolat, special occasion cakes and aperitif-hour savory nibbles, Gerard Mulot can do no wrong. We carried out a bag of still-warm croissants, caneles and a slice of apricot tart to Place St Sulpice and enjoyed breakfast on-the-go with some very chic pigeons. Memorable and delicious.

Stroll out of Place St Sulpice, think about doing something aside from eating, change your mind and then march right into…

Pierre Herme– It’s all about the filling. To me, Laduree can be skimpy. Too thin, too restrained. My man Pierre Herme knows how to pipe in just enough macaron filling to make each bite feel naughty. At first glance, his flavor combinations make no sense. And then you realize that they’re perfect. For me, these are the only macarons that count in Paris.

Bon Marche’, La Grande Epicerie– This was our last day in Paris. Yes, we spent almost an entire day in Bon Marche department store’s, Grande Epicerie. In case you’re wondering, the name basically translates to, “The Biggest Bad-Ass Grocery Store You Will Ever Visit.” In much more French fashion, they deem it, “A leading light in the world of Parisian gastronomy.” Yes, heck yes! This means they have a truffle tasting bar, a foie gras, station, aisles (with an “S”) of olive oils, aisles of mustards, aisles of butter, aisles of dried sausages… You get my point. Set aside 2-3 hours for this beauty. Shop, eat lunch at one of their specialty bars (to mix things up, we enjoyed Spanish tapas here) and shop some more.

Power walk around the Luxembourg Gardens to work off some of those calories, enjoy the great playground within the park, see an exhibit at the Musee du Luxembourg. And if you haven’t made it to the other side of the Seine by dinner time, make sure to enjoy…

Le Comptoir du Relais– Check out my post…

Les Invalides, Pont Alexandre III, Grand Palais, Avenue Montaigne, Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower

See Picasso Mania at the Grand Palais, play hide-and-go-seek with the Eiffel Tower as you wind your way around the Seine, walk across THE most beautiful bridge in all of Paris and then watch out for paparazzi at…

L’Avenue– Justin Bieber and the Kardashians come here- but don’t hold that against L’Avenue. They still make the best plate of steak tartare in town, the fries are perfectly thin and they shake up a really good cocktail (something of a rarity in wine-centric Paris). L’Avenue is right up there with Café de Flore for people-watching. Plus, the restaurant is perfectly located for lunch placement after an exhibit at the Grand Palais and luxe shopping on Avenue Montaigne.

Le Marais, Place des Vosges

Lose yourself in the side streets of Le Marais, nibble classic Jewish patisserie on rue des Rosiers and then find yourself again in Place des Vosges, the first example of urban (albeit royal) city planning. Paris has been your al fresco museum for the afternoon and so you deserve a stylish, decadent dinner at…

Grand Coeur– No more cafés, no more cramped bar stools—Grand Coeur is a wonderfully hip, decadent restaurant in the heart of the Marais that knows the value of a crisp, white tablecloth. The stone arches and rustic beamed ceiling of the former stables are somehow perfectly suited to the royal-blue velvet, high-backed banquets and brilliant wine list. The star Franco-Italian-Argentine chef wow’ed us from start to finish with:

  • Straciatella with Kale & Flash-Fried Leeks
  • Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, Poached Egg, Parmesan Foam
  • Wild Seabass, Brussels, Spiced Yogurt
  • Suckling Pig
  • Chocolate Mousse

Not near any great Parisisan sites, but absolutely worth trying out…

Pirouette– Jamie spent one year in the kitchens of Restaurant Daniel, and hasn’t been the same since. (I think that’s a good thing.) As our cookbook editor used to tell us, “Every chef worth his toque has been through those kitchen doors…” One of the many upshots is having chef friends, and friends-of-friends, around the world. Two Tweets and a text later, we were booked at this totally innovative and surprisingly affordable (for Paris, at dinner, folks- not Lenny’s Bagel Shop affordable) restaurant located in the somewhat gritty area north of Les Halles district. The unscrubbed neighborhood kind of works to Pirouette’s advantage, making the dining room appear even more polished, the staff even more polite, the dishes even more pristine. This is Modern French at its best. Chef Tomy Gousset nails his techniques and his flavor combinations to turn out what was our best meal in Paris.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page.” ~Saint Augustine

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