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Reception Room, Hotel de Vigny, Paris

City of Lights and Food

Parisians-and their love of food and wine remain unchanged. Everyone continues to treat food with reverence, and the produce in the markets is arranged as carefully as a Cézanne still life. Yet, never before has Paris seen such a vast choice of tastes, flavors, cuisines and styles of dining as it enjoys today

by Carole Kotkin

Paris is maddening, sprawling and chaotic. And yet it is also stunningly beautiful, rich and vibrant.

With its wide sweep of boulevards and the procession of bridges across the Seine, fantastic museums, and its multicultural neighborhoods, Paris is a city that you can't forget whether it's your first trip or your twentieth.

If you have already done the big sights-the Louvre, Notre Dame, Montmartre-you may want to get off the tourist beat and go exploring. In fact, simply wandering around is the most fun-then you can sit on a park bench in the Tuileries and reflect on the wonders of it all, or stop at an outdoor café where your seat provides instant access to the inner rhythm of the city.

On each trip to Paris, I notice that no matter how much things change-and they've changed a lot-there is so much that remains the same. This makes it a city of remarkable contrasts: the Louvre and the Pompidou Museum; Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower; art nouveau bistros and fast-food stands, matrons in Chanel and young women in Thierry Mugler.

Parisians-and their love of food and wine remain unchanged. Everyone continues to treat food with reverence, and the produce in the markets is arranged as carefully as a Cézanne still life.

Early morning strolls to the open-air food market on rue Mouffetard never disappoint. Perhaps plump, red, first-of-the-season cherries from Rousillon, a new goat cheese Camembert from the Alps, or half a dozen varieties of earthy wild mushrooms will be on display. All over France, inspiration for dinner comes from these daily-shopping rituals.

The colorful Marais district, easily accessible by the Paris Metro, weaves together 17th century grandeur and 21st century style. The small but distinctive neighborhood stretches along the Right Bank of the Seine between the Hotel de Ville and the Bastille district.

It had long been the home of Paris' Jewish community, but it has lately become one of Paris' trendiest neighborhoods. Antique shops, cutting-edge boutiques, and cafes and restaurants (even a Jewish deli) flourish.

Never before has Paris seen such a vast choice of tastes, flavors, cuisines and styles of dining as it enjoys today. There is a new cosmopolitan charm, openness and warmth-a new sense of vitality and modernity. While tradition continues to be bedrock of Parisian cuisine, it is now often the foundation for innovation. The willingness to expand a classical French repertory and include uncommon ingredients like touches of curry or coconut, or Moroccan or Asian spices is relatively new to Parisian chefs. This fusion cuisine makes Paris more vibrant, dynamic and delicious than ever before.

What to do:

Bicycle lanes cover 160 miles in the city and are spreading. A delightful Fat Tire guided tour starts at the Eiffel Tour and cruises through the city (01-56-58-10-54, ).

If learning how to cook French cuisine appeals, the Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Française offers an assortment of classes, including pastry demonstrations, Burgundy wine tastings and half-day workshops on making soups and petits fours and week long classes on seasonal and regional cooking. Classes are held in the historic hotel, close to the kitchens once under the thumb of the great Auguste Escoffier himself. French is the working language, but English translations are available.Ritz-Escoffier Cooking School, 011-33-1-43-16-30-50

Degas, Monet and Van Gogh can take up many an afternoon at the Musée d'Orsay, the gorgeous building that occupies what used to be the famous train station Gare d'Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine across from the Louvres. Phone: 01 40 49 48 14. Closed on Mondays.

Where to Stay and Eat:

Hotel de Vigny, 9-11, rue Balzac, 33 0 1-42-99-80-80,
Popular both because of its location on a quiet street right off the Champs-Élysées and the friendliness of the staff, the hotel is a haven from the buzz of the city. The only Relais & Chateaux hotel in Paris, this is a true boutique hotel. Noted designer Nina Campbell has decorated the 37 bedrooms and suites with refined antique furniture. The adjoining Baretto restaurant and bar was designed by Adam Tihany and offers traditional French brasserie cuisine.

Hotel Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, 011-33-1-44-58-10-10
One of the oldest of the grande dame hotels. The baroque splendor of the hotel and two-Michelin starred Restaurant Le Meurice has been brought back to life with a recent renovation. No other restaurant in Paris has a more glittering past than Le Meurice. Yet it remains one of the city's most exciting places to eat. Since Chef Yannick Alléno's arrival, the restaurant and his team have received phenomenal reviews. The 50-seat dining room is a gracious and elegant room filled with shimmering crystal chandeliers and antique beveled mirrors that reflect large bay windows framed in rare marble. A special degustation meal orchestrated by Alléno and his staff was magical. Specialties may range from the purely simple such as a superb pan seared duck foie gras with acacia honey on a mound of sweet and sour turnips to the wonderfully complex fricassee of pink Brittany dorado and saffron mussels with mushroom duxelles and lemon-thyme potatoes. No matter the menu, his food combinations are always out of the ordinary, but never go over the edge toward pretentiousness.

Hotel Plaza Athenee, 011-33-1-53-67-66-67 The newly-renovated hotel on avenue Montaigne puts guests in the middle of haute couture. The 3-star Michelin restaurant is run by super chef, Alain Ducasse at super prices. The more affordable Le Relais Plaza, a chic rendezvous spot, will welcome you with its Art Deco style. Don't miss roasted chicken from Bresse with artichoke flan and simmered bacon or grilled and flambéed spiny lobster with curry sauce and madras rice, or desserts by Pastry Chef Christophe Michalak, Pastry World cup winner five times in a row.

Where to shop:

E. Dehillerin, 18-20 Rue Coquillière,
Founded in 1820 and still owned by the Dehillerin family, this toy store for cooks, and favorite of Julia Child's, sports an array of everything imaginable for the kitchen stacked from the floor to the ceiling.

Poilâne, 8 Rue du Cherche Midi.
Each day moist, thick-crusted sourdough loaves nourish thousands of Parisians.

Fauchon, 26 Place de la Madeleine.
Picture perfect food. Everything from cakes to baby artichokes.

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