Patricia Wells gives us an impish smile, eyes twinkling, as she poses her question. It’s not that we haven’t consumed anything at all; by this point in our day, in fact, we’ve sipped “flat whites,” shared torn-off pieces of crisp-chewy baguette and tasted apricot-lavender jam (and three other kinds) straight from the jars. But we’ve ogled far more than we’ve eaten: salted caramels and fondant-topped cream puffs, chocolates sculpted into monkeys, cakes caged by sugar-coated carousels, butter-filled croissants and glaceed fruits, cheeses with bruleed rinds and truffle-stuffed interiors.
Enough scrambling for change, enough juggling of the shopping bags, enough remembering to issue a polite “Merci, au revoir!” as we head out of one Parisian shop and onto the street to find another. Enough pointing in this window and that pastry case and trying to find new synonyms for “exquisite” and “wow.”
Enough talk. It’s time to sit down and eat. Really eat.
I waited far too long for my first trip to Paris. I didn’t do the backpack-through-Europe thing as a teenager, there was no junior year abroad at my university, and my college (and post-college) days were spent working — and trying to scrape together money for bills, not travel.
But the City of Light always beckoned. When I finally made it, in my late 20s, I was ready to milk the city for everything I could — particularly everything edible (and potable). I practiced twisting my Texas accent around French pronunciations, mostly unsuccessfully, in preparation for the trip. And I practically memorized one guidebook, which was already dog-eared and broken-spined by the time I lugged it across the Atlantic. This book led me to places like an understated little patisserie on the Ile Saint-Louis, where I rushed one morning to snag a croissant and a pain au chocolat, before they sold out, and carried them down to the Seine, where a fog was rolling in just as a young man decided to pull out his saxophone and start practicing. Seriously.
I sat at river’s edge, tearing into the croissant as its crisp shards covered my lap, nibbling in pleasure and thinking, “Merci, Patricia.”
The book, of course, was Patricia Wells’s “Food Lover’s Guide to Paris,” and I built not just an itinerary but also an entire mind-set of French travel around her advice, during that trip and several thereafter. Wells demystified Paris for me, a small-town-America guy who wanted to explore la vie en rose without sticking out like a fanny pack over cargo shorts. I wasn’t alone. Readers snapped up four editions of her book, from the first in 1984 to the latest in 1999.
Since then, the expat-in-Paris beat has drawn other writers, some of them just as focused on food as Wells: Most famously, perhaps, there’s David Lebovitz, the pastry-chef-turned-cookbook-author whose hilarious dispatches by blog and memoir show the city’s unvarnished side. Lebovitz (among others) has appealed to a new generation of travelers through social media and smartphone savvy, but he’s quick to give Wells her due as a pioneer. He, too, carried Wells’s guide on his first trip to Paris, long before he moved there. “Many of us had trepidation about exploring French culture,” he wrote me when I asked about her, “even though we loved their cuisine, so her book made it accessible to Americans (and others) who needed a little more confidence, perhaps, about stepping into a cafe or ordering from a bistro menu.”
Meanwhile, Wells hasn’t gone anywhere. The former longtime global restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune has continued writing cookbooks, teaching sold-out week-long cooking classes in Paris and Provence, maintaining a Web site and a blog — and fending off strangers-on-the-street pleas to update her landmark guidebook.
“You can only sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ so many times, you know,” she said over lunch at Lazare, a bustling new brasserie tucked into the Gare Saint-Lazare. “From ’99 on, doing the book again would mean giving up any other books I was doing. I had moved on.”
She finally caved in when the plea came from her husband, Walter. “He said, ‘I know what you should do. You should redo the Food Lover’s Guide as an app.’ The second he said ‘app,’ I said, ‘Yes! Finally, that’s what this is made for.’ ”
The app debuted in 2012, allowing visitors to plot their Wellsian itinerary on a GPS map, among other features. Meanwhile, when publisher Workman asked her to reconsider her refusal to write another edition of her greatest hit, with new recipes and photos, this time the answer was yes. Now that she and her team — assistant Emily Buchanan and fellow author Susan Herrmann Loomis, among others — were already doing so much of the research, why not?
When I asked Wells to show us an example of a Paris that some Americans might not experience, she settled on a walk mostly in the 9th arrondissement, an area largely absent from previous editions of her guide.
In 1984, she said, “nobody went to the 9th.” Even in the 1999 guide, the quarter had just a few entries. “This whole area has prospered,” she says as we step out into the rain. “We’ll see great bread, great chocolate — things that weren’t here even six months ago.”
Wells, 67, displays a journalist’s commitment to details; in the 1970s she worked at The Washington Post as an art critic and the New York Times as a food writer before becoming the Herald Tribune’s restaurant critic. She arrives at our meeting spot armed with a copy of the book, a smartphone loaded with the app — and also a printed itinerary complete with the book’s listings and descriptions of each of our stops. Just like any food fiend, she enjoys talking not just about what we’re experiencing in the moment, but also what’s next on the list; she likes to tantalize. “Unfortunately, you’re here at the end of black truffle season,” she says with mock chagrin at one point, “so I’m afraid we’re going to have to get you some black truffles in a few dishes. I do hope that’s okay.”
We start at a modern epicerie called Causses, where she poses for portraits and can’t help buying a little wedge of date-and-nut paste, just the thing for a cheese plate. “I like to buy things in stores to see if I can copy,” she says. “So many recipes have come that way. I mean, this can’t be brain surgery!”
Then it’s on to KBCafeshop, which looks like someplace straight out of Brooklyn, with a young crowd squeezing into the little wooden cube chairs and sipping their coffee drinks (although its real inspiration is Australian). Good coffee in Paris? This is a revelation indeed, a recent turn for the better in a city where the cafes are charming but the brew itself has long lagged far behind that in neighboring countries. It’s just the thing to fuel us for a morning of food shopping.
We poke into Le Pétrin Médiéval, a boulangerie with an antique bicycle in the window, creamy quiches fresh out of the wood-fired oven (a rarity), and a wall full of darkly burnished baguettes labeled “agriculture biologique,” or made with all-organic flours. “You want to get some?” Wells asks. “Maybe just the little ficelle so you don’t have to eat too much?” But of course.
Just as the rain stops and the sky starts to clear, we head around the corner and start downhill on the Rue des Martyrs, named for the martyrdom of Saint Denis (who, legend has it, picked up and carried his severed head for miles before dying). These days, Martyrs is a market street, one of those where locals line up for the perfect baguette from one boulangerie, a famed unsalted butter from a particular fromagerie, pick out straight-from-the-shell sea urchin at a marché aux poissons and find giant oyster mushrooms, miniature pineapples and more right next door. “That’s just your normal day of shopping,” Wells quips.
At Pascal Beillevaire, one of the Paris shops of a large family cheese business, she points out the tomme brûlée, a sheep’s-milk cheese whose rind has been torch-burnt in the same way as the famous crème dessert. My friend Rachel draws a little scolding from the shopkeeper when she aims her iPhone camera at the display. “It’s always a good idea to ask whether you can take pictures,” Wells says — but within minutes she’s drawing a scolding of her own.
“Madame, ne touchez pas, s’il vous plaît,” the shopkeeper says gruffly. (“Please don’t touch.”)
“Pardon, pardon,” Wells chirps. She proceeds to buy a few cheeses, including a Brielike cheese, Coulommiers, that’s stuffed with peppercorns. We are all extra careful to say “Merci, au revoir,” on our way out.
Some of our stops reduce us to monosyllabic exclamations. Does pastry make everyone act like an 8-year-old, or is it just Americans or . . . just us? At Sébastien Gaudard Patisserie des Martyrs, the icy blue, white marble and gleaming glass decor perfectly frames this Pierre Hermé protege’s commitment to the classics. We try to keep our voices down, as if we’re toddlers in church, but it’s hard to control the outbursts of “Oh. My. God” when you come upon a pile of candied kumquats sitting beneath a glass cloche like so many jewels.
Who needs museums when you have shops like this? The scene repeats itself when we taste jam at La Chambre Aux Confitures, with its floor-to-ceiling wall of jars; when we get as close as possible (without touching) to Patrick Roger’s wildly lifelike chocolate sculptures of apes (and a perhaps less tasteful rendition of a bra, done in red for Valentine’s Day); and after we wind through the Printemps Mode department store to find the ornate corner that is Café Pouchkine. At this “Franco-Russian pleasure parlor,” as Wells describes it, the cakes are embellished with layer upon layer of gilded design, Anna Karenina meets Marie Antoinette.
Let them eat gold-dusted truffles.
We could do this all day. And we almost do, except for the small fact that we eventually want something more than pastries and salted caramels. Wells and her assistant, Emily, lead us through the Place de la Madeleine to the Gare Saint-Lazare station. We move past the entrance, where locals have been lining up to get into (it’s true) a new Burger King, and head into the buzzing Lazare, where chef Éric Fréchon is trying to reinvent the very idea of a brasserie.
Over glasses of Champagne and bites of haricots verts, artichoke and hazelnut salad; croque Monsieur stuffed (and dusted) with black truffles; seven-hour lamb; pureed (really, cream-infused) potatoes; and île flottante (those floating islands of meringue in crème anglaise) studded with candied violets, we talk about the state of restaurant criticism in the age of Yelp and the challenges of a journalistic approach.
“I was always taught that you are not the story,” she said. “You are an observer. You are a researcher. So many reviewers write, ‘I sat down with my aunt Harriet, blah blah blah, and I’m thinking, ‘Get to the food!’ ” I look at my iPhone, recording everything she’s saying. And I pick it up, excuse myself for a trip to the men’s room, and, while in there, rattle off some thoughts about, ahem, the food.
That night, after a much-needed nap break (not as long as intended because we stayed at lunch until well after 4 p.m.), Rachel and I trudge up the hill into Montmartre to meet Wells and her husband, the retired International Herald Tribune editor, for dinner. From the outside, the restaurant casts a lavender glow on the dark, steep street, and for the first time, the spell of the city — that swoony “Midnight in Paris” feeling — starts to come over me.
We’re not exactly hungry, but soon enough that’s beside the point. The Wellses charm us with stories of their life together in Paris and Provence, and the wine starts flowing and the food starts arriving. Le Coq Rico, owned by Antoine Westermann (who also has one of my favorite restaurants on the Ile Saint-Louis, Mon Vieil Ami), focuses on poultry: chicken, duck, pigeon and more, all farm-pedigreed on the menu. (Thankfully, as at Lazare, there are also plenty of options for vegetarians like me.)
We devour truffled soft-boiled eggs (served with their truffle-dusted toast stick “soldiers”), golden brown frites (which prompt a second order), and, for the omnivores at the table, a platter of poultry parts (wings, hearts and gizzards) each given a different preparation.
The crowning glory is the whole roasted chicken, the famed poulet de Bresse, which the waiter brings to the table and presents whole before taking it away for the carving. My favorite touch: At meal’s end, the restaurant tucks into the doggie bag a card of their own recipes and strategies for using the leftover chicken (stock, with beans in a salad, even a vinaigrette to dress it).
Wells loves it, too. Which makes sense, because it’s just the type of thing she’s been doing all day for us. For every cheese we’ve eyed or chocolate we’ve sampled, she has suggested a half-dozen ways to extend the experience. So before we part, she has some ideas:
“Aren’t you going to go back and buy some of that jam you liked?”
“You know, they’ll shrink-wrap cheese for you so you can take it on the plane.”
And my personal favorite, the question that Rachel and I have been asking ourselves every day since we got here: “How many meals do you have left in Paris?” The short answer is the same as always.