Though vegetables are slowly but surely attracting the serious interest of a growing number of Paris chefs, the French capital still lags very far behind such cutting edge cities as San Francisco or Sydney when it comes to eating green and leafy. To be sure, central Paris is suddenly truffled with sleek-looking take away places that want you to think they specialize in 'healthy' eating, i.e. salads, because of their souped-up design visuals, but for anyone who is a committed vegetarian Paris remains a challenging place to eat well.
Though I am not vegetarian, I have many friends who are, and I love the regular meat-free meal. So aside from a couple of reliable local favorites--Bob's Kitchen leaps to mind for its fabulous vegetrian 'stew' and all-vegetarian futomaki, plus terrific smoothies, I find that too many vegetarian places in Paris veer between an attitude of exalted preciousness, i.e., everyone who isn't vegetarian is an ignorant pig, and/or a chip-on-the-shoulder late hippy pleasure-is-so-bourgeois foolishness. And worse than either of these attitudes is the fact that so few of them are any good.
With my very good vegetarian friend Greta coming to visit from Portland, Oregon early next month, I recently decided to see what I could find among the most recently opened flock of vegetarian restaurants that might make her happy (the item she's craving most of all in Paris, by the way, are the 12 vegetable spring rolls served at the wonderful Indochinese restaurant Au Coin des Gourmets, 5 rue Dante, 5th, Tel. 01-43-26-12-92. Metro: Maubert-Mutualite).
The best of the bunch by far was Green Pizz (clever name alert!), which specializes in organic pizzas made with a tasty dough created from a mix of different organic flours. The casual but attractive look of the restaurant with its California hip decor of milk-glass suspension lamps wood panelling and some fire-engine red chairs was immediately appealing, service was friendly, and the place was packed when I popped in for lunch on my own last week. I ordered an "All Green," which came topped with a lively pesto sauce, arugula, baby peas and ricotta and it was delicious if not exactly a pizza most Neapolitan pizza-makers would ever lay claim to. This place is fun, reasonably priced and good, however, and I know Greta will like it, too.
Going out on bread run the other day--Arnaud Delmontel's ''Rennaissance" is my idea of baguette bliss so I was headed for his shop in the rue des Martyrs in the 9th, I saw a line of people on the pavement in the rue Notre Dame de Lorette and wandered over to see what it was about. It turns out people were waiting to get into a tiny little vegetarian place called Pousse-Pousse, which confirmed my hunch that a cutesy pie name is one de rigeur aspect of the new generation of veggie places in Paris. Peering over people's shoulders, the food looked good, so I decided to get my bread and come back for lunch. It turns out that the specialty of this very popular vest-pocket place is dishes made with 'pousses,' or sprouted grains. Hungry, I decided to go whole hog--oops, why don't I say whole potato instead, and order the pousse-pousse plate, which changes daily but included bulgur with tomatoes, olives and sprouts, a slice of sweet potato sprinkled with sesame seeds, a julienne of carrots and cucumbers with herb pesto and a green salad the other day. All of it was delicious, and my only regret was that this place isn't much larger than a shoe-box, although they also do take away if you want some elbow room.
Unlike many vegetarian restaurants, Soya is also open in the evening, so I stopped by for dinner with an avidly gourmet friend who also happens to be vegetarian, and we had a pleasant meal in this relaxed, friendly bobo nest in the 11th arrondissement. Among the dishes we liked were their mezze, houmous, soy couscous, lasagna stuffed with tofu, and tofu cheesecake. The menu changes daily but always includes two starters, two main courses, two desserts, and two different smoothies, almost all of which involve soy products in one form or another.
If this fresh crop of veggie newcomers is much better than most of what was on offer before, I know what I'm going to get up to for dinner the first night that Greta's in town. Even though I agree with the critic of the French newspaper Le Figaro Francois Simon who recently described chef Alain Passard's restaurant Arpege as "monstrously expensive," and it is, Passard's website regularly offers new recipes that are pretty much within the ken of all comers. So my plan is to set aside a couple of these recipes, shop the terrific organic Saturday morning market at Les Batignolles, and offer Greta a superb home-cooked meal the night she gets in. Asparagus should still be in the markets, there will be new potatoes, baby beets, and fava beans, and it'll be fun to cook up a storm at home that night, since the stunning organic produce available in many French markets and shops is any visiting vegetarian's best bet.
Bob's Kitchen, 74, rue des Gravilliers, 3rd, Tel. 09-52-55-11-66. Metro: Arts et Metiers. Mon-Fri 8am-3pm, Sun 10am-4pm. Average 10-15 Euros.
Green Pizz, 8 rue Cadet, 9th, Tel. 01-48-00-03-29. Metro: Cadet. Open Tuesday to Friday, Monday dinner only. Average 14 Euros, lunch menus 9.90-16.50 Euros.
Pousse-Pousse, 7 rue Notre Dame de Lorette, 9th, Tel 01-53-16-10-81. Metro: Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. Tuesday-Friday noon-3.45pm, Saturday noon-4pm. Average 20 Euros.
Soya, 20 rue de la Pierre-Levee, 11th, Tel. 01-48-06-33-02. Metro: Goncourt. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Monday lunch only. Closed Sunday. Average: lunch-menu 15 Euros, a la carte dinner menu, 25 Euros.