Eating in France: wine, cheese…and tagine?

This time around, I realized that on all my previous trips to France I had been making a regrettable gastronomical omission. In my determination to eat through all the brasseries and patisseries, to sample and record as many wines, cheeses, meats, and sweets as possible, I had entirely forgotten about the ethnic foods. In fact, France is teeming with North African and Middle Eastern fare. Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, kosher, hallal – it’s all here. I rectified my error with a few tasty samples this summer.

Chez Younice, 13 rue d’Avron, Paris 75020

This unassuming family-run Moroccan restaurant in the unglamorous 20th arrondissement is charming in every way. From the moment you walk in and get in line, for there is almost always a wait for a table at this popular neighborhood joint, Younice makes sure you’re well taken care of. He’s the thirty-something owner / waiter / all around busboy who greets you and offers mint tea on the house as an apology for the wait time. His friend and co-waiter, Yassine, stops to chat with regular diners as he darts in and out of the kitchen carrying dishes that leave clouds of spices lingering in the air. Fatouma, mother to Younice, is the unseen doyenne of the kitchen. There’s nothing amiss here – the price is right (11 euros for a piping hot mutton tagine served with heapfuls of couscous), the service warm (somewhat rare in Parisian eateries), and if you stay beyond the regular dining hours you’re likely to have the company of the two waiters. As the restaurant quiets down, Younice and Yassine engage in pleasantries that, if you’re lucky, include offering you free sample-size dishes to further your education in Moroccan cuisine and drawing napkin maps of the best surfing spots in their native country. Oh, and did I mention they’re both dashingly handsome?
http://chezyounice.fr

La Ruche au Miel, 19 rue d’Aligre, Paris 75012

I came upon this ambient and ornate Algerian cafe by accident one Sunday while browsing the flea market, Marche d’Aligres. After looking at all manner of knick knacks at the lowbrow antiques section I needed to find a bathroom and ducked into the nearest cafe, La Ruche au Miel. Bladder emergency resolved, I orderd a drink out of a sense of obligation for having used the facilities. Two euros for a bronzed pot of mint tea and another two euros for baclava served me just fine. As I sipped the aromatic tea and delectable sweet I browsed the large selection coffee table books on Algeria and photographs of the desert that Habib, the friendly owner, had laid out. After we chatted a while Habib tells me that the “waiter” I had asked to point me to the bathroom upon entering was actually a celebrity. Rachid Djaidani, a curly-haired man with a friendly manner (who did not at all mind that I had assumed he was restaurant staff), is a published author with three novels under his belt and a series of mini-documentaries showing on French national TV. Between greeting regular customers and drop-ins who come by to say hello to the author/film-maker, Rachid and Habib show me videoclips from Rachid’s latest documentary, which features him riding a motorcycle across Texas to hilarious effect. (Imagine French-accented “howdy” and Texans figuring out whether Rachid is “French or Muslim?”). Definitely worth a visit here for a leisurely afternoon of reading. You’re likely to run into Rachid at his usual table out front!

Falafel King, rue des Rosiers, Paris 75004

The hip Marais area is filled with fashion boutiques, art galleries, and beautiful people. Surprisingly, in the midst of all this chicness is a street lined with quality cheap eats – rue des Rosiers. The sounds and sights on this stretch of road seem to me more akin to a lively hawker center in Singapore than the epicenter of cool in the world’s capital city of cool. Young Jewish and Arab men stand outside their respective eateries loudly advertising their goods, mostly falafel, hummus, and the like. After trying a few places on repeated walks down rue des Rosiers, I decided I like Falafel King (near the rue Pavee end of the street) the best. The “hawkers” out front aren’t too aggressive, the Indian chefs give you a pleased and knowing look if you ask for an extra dollop of chili, and the falafel is simply heavenly. Until I tried Falafel King I never knew falafel could be so soft, moist, and flavorful to every bite.

Marseille area

If you find yourself traipsing around Marseille it is imperative that you pop into one of the many Tunisian eateries in town. These are easy to spot – the window displays are usually piled high with honey-glazed desserts and groups of old Tunisian men are likely to be found chatting leisurely inside or outside. In my two days in Marseille I tried three of these eateries, for lunch, dinner, and late night desserts. None of them disappointed and it seemed that the more sparse the décor – to the extent I’d almost call these eateries “canteens” instead of restaurants – the better the food. If you’re following the red walking trail around the old city, the “Panier” walk, check out Chez Erouel at 29 rue Vincent Scotto. My favorites: mutton and vegetable couscous.

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