Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Snack Chic

lunch n.
1. A meal eaten at midday.
2. The food provided for a midday meal.
3. A two-hour break in the middle of the work day used an excuse by French men and women all over the country to escape from their offices and consume copious amounts of artery-clogging food and wine.
Ah oui, the French take lunchtime very seriously. At “midi” (noon), time seems to be momentarily frozen as office buildings empty and restaurants quickly fill to capacity. No matter how busy the work day, déjeuner is déjeuner and a pause must be taken.
When I was working in New York, a “long lunch” meant walking down the street to get a sandwich to go from Cosi, rather than just scarfing down the special of the day from the company cafeteria at my desk. Now, in Paris, if I choose to bring a sandwich to eat at my desk, my co-workers look at me as if I have a hamburger sticking out of my head. Actually, there’s usually no one even here between 13h and 15h, so I can usually avoid the hamburger-in-your-head look if I choose my dining time wisely.
I too have – to my surprise – jumped on the “take-two-hours-in-the-middle-of-the-day-for-a-four-course-meal” bandwagon. Not only are my blood sugar levels sustained for a longer period of time (I was usually ready to eat my arm by about 5:00 in NY), but I’ve found that a little repose for the brain in the middle of the day allots maximum efficiency in the afternoon hours. But a long entrée-main course-dessert-coffee mid-day break every day can become exhausting, and often unnecessary. Why take two hours out of the day when you can leave the office that much earlier at night? And that presentation due tomorrow won’t write itself. Not to mention the oversized croissant still swimming in your stomach from breakfast.
Recently, however, the French have finally figured out that lunch can not only be light and healthy, but quick and oh so chic as well. Trendy cafés serving homemade, fresh soups, sandwiches, salads and fruit juices have sprung up all over the city offering nearby shoppers and employees a welcome change from lingering at a café downing buttery, creamy French cuisine. Cardiologists rejoice: there is life after steak frites indeed.
My favorite spot at the moment is Cojean, an uber-trendy lunch spot founded by Alain Cojean offering original and delectable sandwiches, salads, soups, quiche, daily specials, fresh fruit juices and desserts. Sandwich and salad recipes are seasonal, and the toasted sandwiches, soups and quiche rotate daily. Some of my favorites include the toasted sandwich with ricotta and hazlenuts, the the pumpkin and vanilla soup, the thai salad and the mini-breads with dried fruits and nuts. Furthermore, while 90% of the French population (and about 100% of the employees at Bon Marché’s épicerie as I recently discovered) have no idea what a “wrap” is, Cojean is currently serving three winter varieties including grilled tandoori chicken, bacon, turkey and cheddar and, my personal favorite, the “wrap de champignons” made with marinated mushrooms, hazelnuts, green beans, fresh herbs, and fromage blanc sauce. Their freshly cut mango melts in your mouth, and they even sell Elderflower soda, a delicacy I have been importing from London for years now, but the British government will be happy to know has finally made it across the chunnel without my help. And let’s not forget the fresh fruit crumbles, the cakes – both savory and sweet – and the cookies (in french, pronounced “kookees”). The decor is modern and the staff unbelievable friendly – they must be putting something in their food to make any one smile that much – and every location is always packed with diners midday. Cojean offers those dining alone complimentary copies of the International Herald Tribune, Elle and Vogue magazines, among others, to peruse while eating. Cojean has something for everyone – from ladies who lunch to vegetarians to those with larger appetites – and I have yet to taste anything I don’t like there.
Not far from Cojean’s Marbeuf location is Naked, on the rue du Colisée, which is very similar to Cojean in terms of cuisine and ambiance. Trendy media types from the Champs-Elysées, rue de Matignon environs huddle in during lunchtime for healthy food with international flair. From hummus wraps to brownies, Naked is a very American approach to lunch.
La Ferme (translation: The Farm), just a few steps away from the Opéra, serves all “bio” (organic) food. With a garden in the back room and a zen-like atmosphere throughout the restaurant, La Ferme is great for larger groups or for those dining “toute seule.” Diners can choose from prepackaged sandwiches and salads made fresh daily with organic ingredients, such as a chicken and avocado wrap, a honey and goat cheese sandwich on hazelnut bread or the bulgur salad with feta, mint, tomato and black olives, or the changing specials of the day such as an eggplant-artichoke tourte, minestrone soup or penne with vegetables. I love their scones – probably based mostly on the fact that its one of the few places in Paris to find scones, but these are great – and their rice pudding served with exotic fruits.
Though it’s a ubiquitous chain, Lina’s is a solid Paris staple, offering something very un-French and very American, namely the idea of “design your own sandwich.” You choose the bread – sliced whole wheat or kaiser roll – then the filling, with options ranging from shrimp and avocado to ham and swiss cheese to turkey with mimolette. There are also pre-made daily sandwiches and salads which might include turkey with curry sauce or tomato and mozzarella. Lina’s serves Laura Todd cookies, in milk, dark and white chocolate version flavors, which are heavenly. Other desserts include mini cheesecake tarts, white chocolate and raspberry tarts and brownies. It’s one of the few place in Paris that offers turkey sandwiches, a welcome change from the more popular ham and cheese and cheese and butter sandwiches.
Bagels & Brownies, a tiny little haunt near Montparnasse, looks like someone took it out of the Lower East Side and placed it on the Rue de Rennes. With only one dining-in counter large enough to fit 5-6 clients, Bagels & Brownies is more of a take-away place, that serves, appropriately, bagels and brownies. There is always a long line outside midday as one of the hostesses comes outside to ask what type of bagel you’ll be requiring – sesame, poppy, plain, cheese, onion or whole grain – and, once inside, you can choose from the long list of bagel sandwiches, each with the moniker of an American state, such as the Boston, the Hawaii or the the Detroit. Just hearing the French people waiting in line pronounce these names is often worth the long wait. Sandwich fillings may include smoked turkey, pastrami, cream cheese – chive and regular – and cheddar cheese. The ladies of Bagels & Brownies turn over sandwiches more quickly than anything I have ever seen, and their homemade desserts – brownies, apple crumble and cookies – are delicious.
Other Paris spots embracing the Americanized lunch include: Qualité & Co. (at the Place Victor Hugo, offering freshly made salads, sandwiches and soups. Sit downstairs for a more relaxed ambiance.), Delicabar (the super-modern café in the Bon Marché department store) and BioBoa (not far from La Ferme, offering delicious vegetarian sandwiches and daily specials to diners who sit on ultra-modern colorful seats).
Bon appétit!

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