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Flustered by Paris’s 7,000-plus restaurants? Dine where heads of state do.
The wine cellars of Paris' Tour d'Argent restaurant, in Oct. 20, 2009, before an auction of 18,000 of its 450,000 bottle of wine and spirits. A visit to Paris isn't complete without indulging in the country's fine cuisine. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
Last year, the Obamas made headlines after turning down a dinner invitation from President Sarkozy and his super model-wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Instead they chose a romantic dinner at the traditional restaurant “La Fontaine de Mars.”
A meal at the Elysee Palace with France’s president is certainly no culinary yawn. A foodie actually collected menus of VIP dinners at the Elysee Palace(in French) where you can see, for example, that in 1961, the king of Belgium and president Charles de Gaulle had sole cooked in Champagne, lamb, Caprice frozen cookies served with Chateau Latour 1947. (Warning to anyone contemplating recreating this fine meal at home: today a bottle of Chateau Latour 1947 will cost you between $1,300 and $5,400, according to Wine Searcher.
And here’s what Silvio Berlusconi of Italy had in April of 2010 with Nicolas Sarkozy – it includes cannelloni with foie gras, carrot tatin, and frozen truffles with saffron for desert.
But no matter how fine the bubbly, no matter how tender the oysters at the Elysee Palace, even president Nicolas Sarkozy tires of his own palace’s menu. He is actually a regular at the five-star hotel Bristol’s restaurant.
On the other hand, his predecessor, President Jacques Chirac, was more into Asian food, and in particular a Vietnamese restaurant called Tong Yen, which is just a few steps off the Champs-Elysees, the city of lights’ main drag. It was at Tong Yen where Chirac and Sarkozy famously called a truce to their many-year rivalry.
As for politicians in France’s National Assembly, Les Ministeres is the restaurant of choice, with its very own all-inclusive “Minister’s Menu.” You can easily spot the parliamentarians when they meet to vote on Wednesdays.
For something more exotic, there’s Fakhr El Dine, a chic Lebanese restaurant frequented by Middle Eastern dignitaries. This place was among the happy few to cater to a Bastille Day presidential garden party (although the event was scrapped this yearto save costs). Incidentally, Fakhr El Dine also does takeout!
La Fontaine de Mars: yes, he did! (say “non” to Sarko)
Who could possibly say “thanks but no thanks” to Sarkozy and still be courted by the famously proud French president? The answer: Barack Obama — at least in his early months. La Fontaine is a quintessentially French restaurant serving the cuisine of South West France, ideal for a smart or casual dinner in town.
As the tab will certainly remind you, La Fontaine de Mars is upscale, but with a cozy family restaurant feel. The service is impeccable, and the food hearty, especially the cassoulet, a combo of white beans and sausage bathed in a rich sauce. Yum.
A small plaque on the wall reminds the visitor that the Obamas dined here. And if you happen to book a table on the upper floor, the waiters will remind you that you are sitting right where the Obamas had their romantic getaway. The presidential couple got the entire upper floor to themselves, which unfortunately, with the place’s newly acquired prestige, is unlikely to happen to you; a reservation is a must. Don’t miss the full-bodied Bordeaux wines. This is exactly what you need to complement the cassoulet.
Le Bristol: Sarkozy’s delectable canteen
Just a few steps away from the Elysee Palace, the restaurant of the luxurious hotel Le Bristol is one of President Sarkozy’s preferred destinations. His usual spot is reportedly right next to a painting of Marie-Antoinette (the queen who was guillotined during the French Revolution) and his favorite dish: macaronis stuffed with truffles and foie gras ($115).
Sarkozy introduced Carla Bruni to other dignitaries, including former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar, at the Bristol. Former Russian president Vladimir Putin is also a regular, along with such stars as Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Leo DiCaprio.
Nowadays the dress code is more casual than when Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles dined here. You may even come across customers wearing jeans and sneakers. But the tab definitely keeps the proletariat away.
The Sarkozy-Bruni-Aznar affair apparently cost a lofty $270 per person, without the wine. The cuisine is rather modern, with roasted blue lobster or rabbit for $130, fried tandoori frog legs for about $90, and raspberries with ginseng and meringue for $40.
Tong Yen: peace rice
During the 1995 election, right-wing heavy-hitter Nicolas Sarkozy famously decided to support Edouard Balladur over future French President Jacques Chirac. This triggered a twelve year cold war between the old-school Chirac and the ambitious upstart Sarkozy. It took fifteen years before the two politicians officially buried the hatchet, and it happened in one of Chirac’s favorite restaurants, a mid-range Vietnamese place called Tong Yen, off the Champs-Elysees. Here is a Parisienarticle and video report of the encounter.
It would be an overstatement to describe this place as attractive, but it surely is pleasant and quiet. It’s also a rarity, as a mid-range restaurant with delicious food and a calm ambiance in the tourist-heavy Champs Elysees. The owner, known as Madame Therese, is a lovely and smiley elderly Asian woman, who makes you feel at home at first glance.
Chirac is known to have an odd taste for veal heads, so at Tong Yen he’s likely to have sampled the exotic offerings. Personally, I recommend the stuffed crab.
Rather than ordering wine, stick to beer in true Chirac fashion, or try the healthy jasmine tea.
Les Ministeres: A French parliament hangout
If you fancy a snack where the powerful eat without blowing your vacation budget, then Les Ministeres could be the right place. It’s an unpretentious 1900 brasserie, right next to the National Assembly and many ministries in the beautiful and quiet 7th arrondissement.
Members of parliament and politicians are regulars at Les Ministeres. They even have their own prix fixe menu, “Le Menu du Ministre” (Minister’s Menu) at $40. It includes a starter (fish stew, salmon, and yes, veal head), a main course (caramel duck, grilled beef with bearnaise sauce, or grilled sea bass) and a desert (nougat, baba au rum cake or creme brulee). Add around $10 for kir and Gamay wine.
Also, this place serves continuously from noon to 10:30 p.m., which is not standard in Paris.
Fakhr El Dine: Middle East connection
At Fakhr El Dine, with a little luck you may find yourself dining next to one of sons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, or even the Lebanese Prime Minister. The atmosphere here is serene on weekdays. There’s a cute yellow bird twirling in an old-fashion white metal cage. But the restaurant can also be very animated on weekends. A reservation is a must on weekends. The dress code is rather formal.
Beside being a haunt for Middle Eastern dignitaries, this place is famous for its savory baklavas (honey-filled pastries) and its wide range of Lebanese mezze (tabouli, hummus, and tomato and cucumber salad for example). At around $35, the express lunch menu includes a main course, a dessert and coffee. Full dinner with wine costs at least $80. You can also order takeout at $25 for a plat du jour or a simple and delicious kofta sandwich.