Why the 20th arrondissement of Paris is the most exciting culinary destination in France right now
Today head chef at Babel, a hotel in Belleville which opened its doors in October 2021, Sofiane – with Franco-Afghan chef Claire Féral Akram and Syrian Haitham Karajay, who had participated in the Refugee Food Festival in Paris – complicates the idea of what French cuisine really is. is. Veal brains from the kitchen are breaded, fried and served with a refreshing cilantro raita. The succulent dumplings, a nod to the local Chinese community, are stuffed with lamb from Lozère. And playing on the classic Paris-Brest pastry, the “Paris-Damascus” draped in pistachios and rose petals evokes gourmet memories of the Middle East. “We are inspired by what exists”, explains Sofiane.
It certainly helps that the twentieth is packed with inspirational ingredients. With a network of supply chains to French farms, the half-dozen markets here bring fresh produce to locals several times a week.
Despite its low profile, the Marché Réunion, in the far south of the arrondissement, is a gourmet market par excellence. On a stand, the gorgonzola is served by the ladle. Another is attacked by an army of Cancale oysters. And on the third floor, huge bunches of grapes hang from the stall like jungle vines. “You won’t find a tastier grape anywhere than this,” beams Mahmoud El Seady, who has had a stall here since 2009. “Even if you paid €1,000 at a Michelin-starred restaurant.”
At the Marché Réunion, made up of around fifty stalls around a circular fountain, a loyal clientele has been eating this way for centuries. There’s crispy-skinned poultry, slices of rich rabbit terrine and chocolate brioche. “That’s how real Parisians eat,” says Mahmoud. “You just don’t know because we’re not near the Eiffel Tower.”
Yet parts of the twentieth adhere to a more stereotypical image of Paris – a chain of garlic slung over the shoulder, a baguette in hand. And at Le Vieux Belleville restaurant, this image is consciously preserved.
Evoking simpler times, the packed tables are covered with pitchers of full-bodied Merlot, sprawling platters of cheeses, plates of golden fries and cuts of tenderloin immersed in beef brown gravy. On the weekends, a singer performs post-war French classics that cover all the hits of Belleville’s most famous girl, Piaf, happily encouraging diners to join in.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Malène Lamarque said, flamboyantly lifting her dress and dancing around the room with her accordion. “With my memories, I lit the fire…”
Seen from Parc de Belleville across the street, the Eiffel Tower glistens seductively in its light bulb dress. Inside Vieux Belleville, meanwhile, a stack of glistening Camembert slices and another pint of Merlot arrive at the table. With gluttony-induced fatigue setting in, finishing it will take one last challenging effort. Has it gone too far? No, as Piaf would say, I regret nothing.