According to Wikipedia—never fear, we don’t get all our information from this much-used site—couscous is polled as the third most favorite food of the French people. Well, if our experience in Paris is any example, we believe it!
Perhaps it has something to do with where we were staying. After all, we tended usually to stay in the Rue Cler area, near the Eiffel Tower (below), in a slightly tonier neighborhood. Residents and tourists there tended to be a bit older and a bit more affluent, and tourists in the area tended to be a bit more . . . well, touristy. That is, they flocked to traditional tourist sights, tourist traps, tourist-filled restaurants and cafés. Don’t get me wrong. We loved the Rue Cler area and will probably go back when we get the chance.
But this summer, we stayed in the north Marais neighborhood, just south of Republic Metro stop (view from our fifth floor apartment patio is the picture below). People here were younger, hipper, and amazingly fashionable. They were also much more ethnic than we remember Paris being. In retrospect, we realize that Paris must have been like this all the years we’d been traveling here. We must have just eaten in the usual Rick Steves recommended restaurants and stayed in the same Rick Steves recommended hotels where we were bound to run into other tourists clutching those iconic blue travel guides. We still think Rick Steves guidebooks are terrific, but we realize now that staying in the north Marais area for two weeks allowed us to get a glimpse of people who actually lived in Paris.
It bears repeating. North Marais is much more ethnically diverse than other areas we’d stayed at in Paris. Within just a few blocks of our apartment, we found a Chinese take-out, a market where we could get Japanese and Moroccan food, an Italian deli, excellent Thai. Two blocks south got us one of the most amazing falafel places in the Jewish Quarter (picture of line of people below). You get the idea. In addition to the roast chicken, steak frites, and croque monsieur, you had the rest of the world at your disposal.
We heard great things about the Moroccan stand—with long, snaking, lines—at our local market, Le Marche des Rouges Enfants. We did try the lamb tagine with plums and almonds as recommended. It was good, but it seemed the portions were somewhat small for what they charged and ultimately not nearly as tasty as the lines seemed to promise. (But that could also be because we make a good lamb and date tagine at home…)
We decided to give Marais Moroccan cuisine another try when we heard about Chez Omar, a place apparently famous for its old-style couscous dishes and clientele that included the likes of supermodels and director Sophia Coppola. Plus, it was only two blocks from where we were! The important thing was to be completely unfashionable and to get there at an ungodly time of 6:30, a time at which no self-respecting European would be eating dinner. Never mind. We’re Americans on vacation. So off we went, got one of the last tables, and were ensconced between a large young family (French family with an American father—and children who switched back and forth between perfect French and English) and two young women who did indeed look like they might be models. They were incredibly thin, photogenic, ordered a ton of food and touched practically none of it while gushing about how amazing it was and how full they were.
Like everyone else we ordered the couscous (their specialty). You get a heap of steamed couscous grains—and they’ll bring more if you actually need more—and a tureen of vegetable stew. That’s your “couscous” dish. You spoon some grains on your plate and top with the stew, and then you typically accompany that with the meat or fish of your choice that you order along with it (pictured at top of post). Our order was for lamb brochettes and merguez sausages. Perfect. It’s the kind of food that I crave now that it’s finally turned to a chilly fall weather here in Chicago.
Then, when we were done with as much of this food as we could manage—which we did much more successfully than the two tables next to us—we could not contemplate a larger dessert. So, we got espresso and a small pastry each from the gigantic mound they bring you to choose from.
We cannot wait to get back to Paris!