Though I enjoyed my time there a whole lot, I can’t say Chicago struck me as much more than a weaker, duller, far-worse-fooded (albeit sometimes somewhat prettier) version of New York City. It wasn’t as if I was counting down the days until my return flight, but when the time did come, I wasn’t sad in the slightest. I’d seen Chicago—many times over, it seemed, as all I do on vacation is walk (and walk, and take the train, and walk)—and I didn’t have much interest in staying any longer.
In so many senses, Paris is Chicago’s polar opposite. Where the latter is blunt and rounded, the former comes to a fine point. Paris strikes no one as an aspiring anything-else—it’s a place of its own, and it doesn’t demand any comparison. Besides, to a remarkable degree, Paris is fleshed out; there are no (or hardly any) dead zones, no suburbs disguised as city proper. And as with NYC, there’s no seeing it all. That, I think, is worth traveling for. (Worth moving to, even…though not if you’ve recently decided to put all your eggs into the English-language-academia basket. But I digress.)
Now. The French are food-obsessed, but not in any Midwestern sense. Whereas Chicago signatures often pile on one high-flavor ingredient after another, as if trying to keep your focus from settling on any one in particular, French food…doesn’t, thank God. A French meal never feels like an assault. You’ll taste each and every ingredient, but certainly not as part of one heavy-handed, too-forward offensive. There’s no yellow-dribble cheese, no fry-topped dogs, no stuffed-crust pizzas, no jalapeño poppers. Nothing bacon-wrapped. Nothing giardiniera-bullied. There’s nuance. There’s subtlety. There’s actual depth of flavor. It’s all rather exciting.
That said, lowbrow food is far, far more nut allergy–friendly than any of the good stuff. (That’s a lot of the reason I eat the way I do. But I also just really like to chew, no matter what I think of what I’m chewing.) I had one hell of a hard time, then, finding sustenance in Paris. Everything has nuts in it—or probable traces, at least. It wasn’t as if I was expecting to find a crêperie without Nutella smeared all over; I’d had my hopes up, though, for, say, a bread-only boulangerie or two. (Nope.) And actual restaurants were worse yet: nut-filled, and usually allergy-unfriendly, too. A winning combination. So I lost some weight.
For my first couple days, I subsisted off a few repeat-(and-repeat-)buys from Monoprix, a grocery chain whose in-house products seem to be labeled rather well for allergens. (I’m sure there are other brands out there that label just as well, but Monoprix’s was easy to spot and easy to trust, so I stuck with it.) Thanks to Monoprix, I was able to find safe baguettes—not, like, bakery-tier baguettes, but baguettes nonetheless—and safe meats, cheeses, spreads, crackers, yogurts, and a whole bunch of other bullshit, too. I bought mascarpone. I bought caramel sauce. I even bought caviar—for 2,50€, and it wasn’t half bad.
But while Monoprix was a godsend, it wasn’t quite enough. Given I was in Paris, of all places, I wanted desperately to be able to dine out. Really, though, it’s not all that Paris-specific; for me, right around 80% of the fun of travel is the circumstance of getting plopped down in the middle of a brand new food scene. These days, finding new restaurants in NYC is pretty slow-going. Since starting this blog, I’ve developed a rather reliable restaurant-finding strategy, but I’ve exhausted most of this city’s easy options—and many of the hard ones, too—so new additions, while they do continue to trickle in, are relatively few and far between. But a trip to somewhere else means newfound access to untapped pool of restaurants, and newfound access to an untapped pool of restaurants almost always means a bunch of safe options, right off the bat.
Mathematically, at least. But Paris defied all my rules.
My usual restaurant-finding methodology—essentially a judge-first, ask-second process of combing through menus and then contacting the restaurants behind the ones that look promising—got me nowhere good. Of the restaurants that even had a website, most had no online menu. And when there was a menu, it was almost always far too nutty for me. Besides, when I did find pursuable options—almost never, mind you—I had no viable next step. My French is fine, but not understand-the-particulars-of-restaurant-jargon-on-the-phone fine. And most of my emails were going unanswered. So short of showing up and asking about allergens then and there—which I did try, and which did not go well—there wasn’t much else I could do. So I moped. A lot. And took to spicing up my Monoprix meals with (sweet, sweet) junk: jars of Biscoff, chocolate puddings, and about half a million varieties of European Haribo gummies.
Of course, that lifestyle expired rather quickly. I’d found no repeat-worthy restaurants, and within days, I got sick—literally—of eating like a moneyed, orphaned toddler, so faced with the choice of either figuring out a new approach to restaurant-finding or retreating, tail-between-legs, to NYC, I went ahead and chose the former. I ditched judge-first, ask-second in favor of its reverse—which basically amounted to Googling “where to eat in Paris,” sending the same cut-and-paste email to each and every restaurant that came up, regardless of the menu (or lack thereof), and then looking further into the ones that sent back a promising response. If a restaurant seemed allergy-aware, and if whoever I was talking to seemed confident about the kitchen’s ability to churn out a contamination-free meal, I’d stick the place right onto my to-try list—regardless of how nutty the menu was.
[That new approach seems, in retrospect, like the obvious one, but it wasn’t. I prefer to search for restaurants that happen to be relatively un-nutty, as with those sorts of places, I don’t have to worry about allergy-awareness or human error. That seems to be an unconventional approach to doing this whole dining-out-with-food-allergies thing, though—which explains why the list I’ve put together is so unlike any other I’ve found. Judging by the blogs I follow and the Facebook groups I (so begrudgingly) participate in, most nut-allergic folks either don’t think or don’t want to search for restaurants that are incidentally nut-free, choosing instead to go for the sorts that have nuts on site, but that are allergy-aware enough to offer contamination-free meals. (Which is all well and good, of course. I go for those sorts of places, too—they just don’t make up the bulk of my regular spots. Sorry. I know I’m rambling. Y’all are lucky I don’t permit myself to use footnotes.)]
Anyway. Here’s (the meat of) the message I sent:
Je suis sévèrement allergique à tous types de fruits à coques (c’est à dire les noix, les amandes, les noisettes, les pignons, les noix de cajou, les pistaches, etc.), et je pourrais devenir extrêmement malade si j’en consomme, même si ce n’est qu’une trace. Pouviez-vous donc preparer mon repas de manière à ne pas entrer en contact avec des fruits à coque?
And here’s what I hope is a relatively accurate English translation:
I’m severely allergic to all tree nuts (like walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, cashews, pistachios, etc.), and I could get extremely sick if I consume any, even if it’s just a trace. Would you be able, then, to prepare my meal in such a way as to keep it from coming into contact with any nuts?
I must’ve pasted that chunk of text upwards of 200 times, only to get about 30 responses, most along the lines of “I’m sorry, but while we’d love to have you, I don’t think we’d be able to offer you a safe meal.” (Fine. In fact, I really appreciate that sort of honesty, and I much prefer it to the alternative.) But I did eventually get a few promising replies, and so I did end up getting to build up a decent mini-list of options.
So. Here’s the rundown.
My first hot meal in Paris didn’t come from a restaurant, nor anywhere I’d contacted in advance; rather, it came from an unnamed curbside market I lucked into walking by on my second or third day. Toward the back, the market had a pretty wide variety of prepared foods—and I’m sure some of those foods would’ve ended up getting me a “no,” had I asked about them—but at the front counter, there was nothing but rotisserie chicken and three or four varieties of potatoes. Better yet, I could see another batch of chickens roasting on what appeared to be a dedicated rotisserie—and sure enough, it was. Per the guy who worked there, nothing at the front counter contains nuts of any sort, and none of it goes anywhere near any of the rest of the food. Apparently, this sort of rotisserie arrangement is pretty common in Paris. Nice.
Unfortunately, this particular stand wasn’t all that good. The food’s obviously meant to be reheated (so, uh, eaten on a park bench), so I can’t really blame anyone but myself for the fact that my meal was only half-warm, but the flavors and textures? I don’t know, man. The chicken was fine—it’s just chicken rubbed with herbs and spices, so I’m not sure how it could’ve been bad—but the potatoes were absurdly gummy, and to my enormous disappointment, they showed no signs of all the chicken drippings they’d evidently absorbed. (Yeah. There’s strategy involved: the potatoes are cook a few feet below the chickens, ostensibly so they’ll end up coated in rotisserie delight. That’s how it’s done at these open-air chicken markets. Naturally, my hopes were high.)
At that point, though, I didn’t have many other options, so I ate that lukewarm chicken-and-potato mess a number of times before stumbling upon O’Tacos, a chain of counter-service build-your-own “taco” spots with over 100 locations in Europe. I’ll just come right out and say it, I guess: O’Tacos horrified me. And I knew that would happen, but it was open, and I was hungry, and—most importantly, I guess—it looked a whole lot like all the incidentally nut-free fast-casual restaurants I’ve come to trust in NYC. So in I went, straight to the cashier, who told me that although there weren’t any nuts in anything made on site, I probably shouldn’t eat any of the sauces. (I don’t know. He was vague, and his vagueness stressed me out. I didn’t order a sauce.)
Now. Those things sold at O’Tacos aren’t tacos. They’re more like panini-pressed burritos…if burritos came filled with, like, the contents of a Happy Meal. Every taco comes stuffed with fries, and every taco gets a generous helping of their signature cheese sauce (which is overbearingly sweet, and which sort of tastes like Alfredo), but beyond that, the construction’s up to you. You’ll choose your meat (from options like ground beef, chicken cordon bleu, chicken nuggets, and chicken tenders), your sauce (there are a lot; just look at the menu), and your extras (mushrooms, eggs, extra meats, extra cheeses…). Then you’ll take a seat and wait, Shake Shack–style, for your buzzer’s vibration to signal the start of Eatin’ Time. Which is when things take a marked turn for the worse.
I ended up going with ground beef, chicken tenders, mozzarella cheese, and an egg. And truthfully, that thing was horrific. I’m not sure what else to say. The cheese was rubbery, the egg overcooked. There was an insane amount of their signature sauce, which just coated everything in a layer of icky—and have I mentioned that there were fries inside? The ground beef itself was all right, and the big-ass chicken tender (more of a cutlet, really) was inoffensive, but shit. I ate my side of (additional) fries, drank my Europe-tasting water, and got the hell out of O’Tacos, promising myself I’d never, ever consider stopping by again. (There isa location in Brooklyn, though…)
That was when I figured it was time for a real restaurant. And after a whole bunch of menu-reading and email-sending, I ended up at Le Relais de l’Entrecôte, a steak-frites place that serves basically nothing but. (Seriously. You’ll choose the doneness of your meat, what you’d like to drink, and whether you’d like dessert. That’s it.) At home, I’m a sucker for single-concept restaurants—the barer the menu, the less I worry—which had old-method me thinking that l’Entrecôte might be a good warm-up.
I sent then an email, and within a few hours, I’d gotten a response explaining that although they do serve everyone a salad that contains walnuts (and walnut oil, I think), it’d be no problem at all to serve me a safe version. He also mentioned that there was nothing for me to worry about with regard to the main course, and that each dish is prepared in its own area, meaning cross-contamination between courses is highly unlikely. So I went.
Big mistake. L’Entrecôte is a fast-paced, busy restaurant, and seemingly one that’s tired of American tourists’ shit (who isn’t?). I’m always polite—a little apologetic, even—when requesting any sort of special treatment, but our l’Entrecôte server was having none of that. When she came to ask how I’d like my meat done, I tried, in French, to let her know about my allergy, but from the look on her face (and, uh, the immediate switch in her overall demeanor), it was abundantly clear that she didn’t want to hear a word out of me that didn’t pertain to doneness. Still, I tried—and she seemed to get the point. “Okay, no sauce,” she said. And then she walked away. (I proceeded to kick old-method me in the shin.)
Soon, she brought out my salad, which did seem to be nut- and oil-free—but I was sort of on high-alert, so I decided not to eat it. (I probably wouldn’t have eaten it anyway. I don’t care anywhere near enough about salad to take the risk of eating one that’s been prepared right alongside half a million others both topped and drenched with walnut. But I really wasn’t going to eat it after such a decidedly un-reassuring conversation with our server.)
The steak came out next, mine without l’Entrecôte’s famed house sauce. The sauceless meat was strange, though, as I hadn’t asked for it that way, and I’m almost certain, based on the email I received (as well as a little of my own research [French, sorry; here’s English]), that the sauce is safe. Still, I didn’t want to test it myself, nor did I want to try to get any more information out of our server, so I went ahead and ate my meat sauceless. Really, though, I’m used to having to forego an ingredient or two when I eat out, so I didn’t mind at all; the steak was great, as were the fries, and neither suffered for the lack of dressing. I just wish our server would’ve been more accessible so we could’ve established what I’m (pretty) sure we would’ve: that the sauce was indeed nut-free.
But that wasn’t all. At l’Entrecôte, the servers sort of just walk around with sprawling platters of sauced-up steak, continually heaping more onto still-hungry diners’ plates. There’s sauce everywhere, and on everything—but that didn’t bother me much, given the likelihood that the sauce is safe for me. What did bother me was the fact that my server, who meant well enough to bring me my second helping of meat straight from the kitchen, didn’t have the sense to refrain from serving that steak to me with sauce-coated tongs—which itself made me wonder what other sorts of disastrous cross-contaminatory bumbles might’ve been taking place behind the scenes. Plus, I still thought it wise to keep from taste-testing the sauce myself. So I didn’t eat any more, and I definitely didn’t return.
Then came crisis, then new approach, and then À La Petite Chaise, the restaurant that singlehandedly made me glad I’d come to Paris. I found it by emailing each restaurant on this list. It was one of the only places that emailed back—and almost immediately, too, with a very promising answer. Here’s my clunky English translation:
We’re used to serving clients with different types of food allergies. During your visit, be sure to remind us of your allergy and we’ll do what’s necessary with the executive chef to provide you with a meal without traces of nuts.
Short and sweet, but so very refreshing. Nearly every other positive response I got made me feel brushed off: a “sure, yeah—now when do you want to come in?” But La Petite Chaise’s did the opposite. Though brief, and though not overflowing with detail, their response made me feel like my initial message had actually been read. Understood, even. And besides, it didn’t reek of just trying to get me (and my wallet) in the door; rather, its writer seemed genuinely confident in the kitchen’s ability to make me a safe meal.
[Brief interlude during which I’m going to make some generalizations, sorry: Like most Parisians in the service industry, our server spoke English. But unlike most Parisians in the service industry, he didn’t switch me over to English the second he noticed I was American. The switch happens a lot, and I’ve never met a French-speaking American who appreciates it, as in most cases, it seems more motivated by impatience than any desire to help or accommodate. It’s patronizing. Which explains, in retrospect, why I so appreciated not being switched over, despite the fact that my French is far from perfect. Rather than making me feel—as many other servers did—like there was nothing I could do to help being taken as a clumsy, clueless American, it made me feel…well, respected.]
I guess I’ve made it clear that I have a lot of feelings about this place. (I did eat there four or five times over the course of my trip, after all.) And I haven’t even written a word about the food itself—which was excellent each time I went, mind you. My favorite dish was the grilled fillet of beef, which was served with a kick-ass Bordelaise, some of my favorite mushrooms I’ve ever eaten, and the loveliest million-layered potato…thing. (Not sure what it was, but it was creamy, and I loved it.) The escargot were excellent, too, as was the house-made duck pâté (with onion jam!). And I also thoroughly enjoyed both the roast rack of lamb and the beef tartar—which is a little on the acidic side, but which is wonderful when balanced with the insanely buttery sautéed potatoes that come with it.
For real, my meals at La Petite Chaise were some of the highest-lights of my trip to Paris, and when it came time to return to New York, I wanted so badly to pack the restaurant up and take it with me. Of course, I couldn’t—apparently, it’s the oldest restaurant in Paris, and as such, its front gate is classified as a historical landmark—so I suppose there’s nothing else to do but search for its closest equivalent here in NYC.
There was, too, Les Pinces, a steak-and-lobster (well, lobster-and-steak) restaurant whose only nuts are some prepared-separately dessert, and The Sunken Chip, a fish-and-chips shop that happens not to have any tree nuts on site, but that does fry in a blend of peanut, rapeseed, and sunflower oil—but I don’t have much to say about either. The former’s lobster was great each time I ate it (which was every time I went, as I couldn’t verify the safety of the bread used in the lobster roll), but the latter charges exorbitant prices for decidedly average food, so I didn’t return. Mostly, I continued to eat from Monoprix. But with classic French from La Petite Chaise (and yeah, maybe a lobster or three) to split those supermarket meals up—to make me feel normal-ish, or to give me food to look forward to, at the very least—I felt no more need to complain.
[P.S. Here are the names of some other restaurants that wrote me back with promising responses, but that I didn’t end up visiting, either because they were too expensive, closed for the month of August, too inconvenient with the rest of my trip plans, or too late to get back to me: Atelier Maitre Albert, Le Braque, Le Camion Qui Fume, Le Comptoir du Relais, Le Coq Rico, La Dame de PIC, l’Îlot, Kiyomizu, La Régalade, and Le Trésor. Go forth.]
[P.P.S. I’ve left a lot of common-sense stuff out of this post, but if it doesn’t quite go without saying, please do be careful when dining in a foreign country, especially one whose language you don’t speak. Food is prepared differently in different parts of the world, and what’s safe for you in America won’t necessarily be safe for you in, say, France, where nut flours abound and even the pizzerias are packed with pesto.]
[P.P.P.S. Here, I have this irrepressible urge to apologize for the length of this post, but I’m actually not sorry, so. Here’s an acknowledgement instead: Yes, I’ve written too much, and no, I’m not any good at editing myself down. Whoops.]
[P.P.P.P.S I am sorry, though, for all these terrible photos.]