Numerous writers have celebrated the sumptuous buffet that is Paris. Admittedly fewer have extolled the allures of Milan. So when a friend invited my wife Simone and me to undertake a week-long gastronomic sojourn to these vibrant metropolises, we were greatly tempted.
Flying Air France from Mumbai, our epicurean adventure began in the gleaming business class cabin itself, with welcoming Kir Royale cocktails followed by a delicious salmon dinner curated by Michelin-starred grand chef Guy Martin. The next morning at the Charles de Gaulle airport, in transit to Milan, we were warmly received at the tarmac and whisked away in a limousine to the La Premiere lounge, where celebrity chef Alain Ducasse revives weary travellers with meals commensurate with his many Michelin stars. Tucking into fluffy truffle-infused omelettes, flaky croissants, and invigorating espressos, and then being pampered with a relaxing massage at the Biologique Recherche spa, we got a distinct sense that this was a precursor to how decadent the next six days were going to be.
Upon landing in Milan, we checked in at the resplendent Mandarin Oriental. We resisted the urge to take a quick nap and chose instead to spend the evening indulging in the Italian custom of aperitivo – meeting up with friends, enjoying cocktails and hor d’oeuvres. We kicked off with a classic Aperol spritz at the buzzing Mandarin Bar and Bistrot, where Milan’s bella gente converge nightly to see and be seen. Taking a stroll, or passeggiata, down the cobbled by-lanes, we then wound our way to the Brera district in the historical heart of the city, where upscale al fresco cafes serve unlimited appetisers until midnight. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the tradition of dining a la carte is declining in cities like Rome and Milan, as both locals and tourists prefer drinking leisurely through the evening while nibbling from a smorgasbord of pastas, pizzas, focaccia, and sundry insalatas. Ordering a bottle of Tignanello, our favourite Tuscan rosso, we observed the fashionable Milanese play out tableaus that could have been straight out of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, rife with red Ferraris and pink Vespas. Paris may well be the city of love but nothing quite matches the passion of the amorous Italians.
The next afternoon, master chef Antonio Guida invited us to lunch at Seta, his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, located in the courtyard of the Mandarin Oriental. This culinary virtuoso specializes in giving classical Italian cuisine a colourful, contemporary twist, and the results are delectable. The memory of the roasted blue lobster with mushroom zabaglione and the pigeon breast stuffed with duck liver escalope still holds us in thrall. If that were not enough, pastry chef Nicola Di Lena served up a slew of exotic desserts like liquorice parfait with crystallised Kentucky tobacco leaves, spiced pear and coffee cream, and strawberry stuffed with timut pepper yoghurt, rose water sauce and almond ice cream. Di Lina’s creations are inspired by Seta’s philosophy of highlighting individual flavours and then combining them and even Simone, who doesn’t have a sweet tooth, found it impossible to resist these intriguing concoctions.
We decided to walk off the glorious excesses of the afternoon with a visit to the Fondazione Prada, a sprawling space located in an erstwhile distillery devoted to showcasing contemporary art and culture. Five Car Stud, a powerful exhibit featuring the works of American artists Nancy and Edward Kienholz that deals with themes like racial violence and institutionalised religion, enraptured me. This “art of repulsion” strives to jolt the viewer from perceiving art merely as pretty pictures and was as thought provoking as it was provocative.
As the evening wore on, our resolve to eat healthy weakened and we ventured to the picturesque Navigli – a system of interconnected and navigable canals – where more vino and aperitivo got the better of us at Ugo, ‘the unusual bar’ famed for its innovative cocktails and wide selection of local wines. Perched on quaint barstools we sipped our Barolo and bemusedly surveyed this heaving hipster joint where young couples canoodled and quarrelled with equal vigour.
The next afternoon, we headed to the opulent Hotel Principe de Savoia for a farewell Milanese lunch, and opted for classic Lombardian fare like saffron-infused Risotto alla Milanese and tender veal cutlets or costoletta at the landmark Acanto restaurant. Much like Indians, the Italians are an emotional people, where famiglia e cibo (family and food) take precedence over everything else. A waiter who had served at this hotel for the past forty years became misty-eyed as he revealed this was his last day before retirement. We bade him, and bella Milano, a fond arrivederci before making our way to Paris.
Filled with memories spanning four decades, Paris will always remain my favourite city. I have been fortunate to film and feast in Paris on many occasions, most notably working with French diva Jeanne Moreau on The Proprietress, which was directed by my uncle Ismail Merchant. Immigrants from diverse cultures have enriched the Parisian culinary scene and several years ago, Ismail, himself a celebrated chef, had introduced me to what would become one of my favourite restaurants. Lao Lane Xang is an authentic Laotian eatery run by proud owners who migrated from Laos. The orchid-festooned contemporary decor is somewhat generic but one can rarely go wrong with their larb (marinated meats or fish), sticky rice, crispy duck, and spicy sausages, all washed down with chilled Singha beer.
We fortuitously found ourselves staying not far from Lao Lane Xang at the Hotel Scribe, where the Lumiere Brothers famously projected the first cinematograph show in 1895. A luxury hotel of exquisite elegance, we were chaperoned to our gorgeous duplex suite designed by French aesthete Jacques Grange. Great hotels must necessarily serve great food and chef Sebastien Crison of La Lumiere did not disappoint, presenting a stunning seafood meal featuring Tataki-style salmon with cucumber carpaccio, and crab with crispy buckwheat. Pairing these piscean marvels with exceptional white wines from the Loire Valley, the usually reticent chef Crison joined us over dessert and spoke passionately about his love for Brittany and how premium local ingredients always inform his meticulous style of cooking. Later that evening, gazing out at the city of lights while sipping a well-aged Calvados, the mellow apple brandy distilled in Normandy, I became profoundly aware of just how hallowed this hotel really is—the veritable birthplace of cinema and the magic that is the movies.
The next morning, Simone awoke with a toothache and could not attend the Cordon Bleu cooking course for which she had enrolled. I was duly enlisted to take her place and arrived quite fretful at this fabled school of gastronomy having never cooked up anything more than a tall tale in my life. But rather than being condescending, the management made me feel so welcome that I soon began to enjoy ‘The secrets of making choux,’ which is the puffiest, crispiest pastry from which éclairs, profiteroles, gougères, and other patisserie delicacies are produced. The maître pâtissier indulgently guided me through the painstaking process of mixing, rolling, and eventually baking the batter made from butter, water, flour, and eggs. He revealed that the trick of creating this airy, fluffy pastry is to use steam rather than raising agents to conjure the magic that is Choux. I emerged four hours later with a box of freshly baked éclairs, triumphantly waving the diploma that I had just been awarded. Mercifully, Simone’s toothache soon subsided but she had to endure repeated jibes about my culinary prowess now that I was a certified Cordon Bleu chef!
There are few greater pleasures for a bibliophile in Paris than languidly browsing at Shakespeare and Company, and savouring a dark roast coffee and slice of tangy lemon pie at the adjacent café. Bearing our bundle of freshly bought books, Simone and I crossed the Seine, past Notre-Dame— its Gothic spire luminescent in the afternoon sun— to Le Marais. This old Jewish quarter of Paris is a beguiling warren of boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and art galleries. Though now gentrified, it still manages to bewitch all those who venture here. In Le Marais, we unfailingly make the pilgrimage to La Boutique Jaun, Sacha Finkelsztazn’s canary-yellow Yiddish bakery, which in my opinion serves the best pastrami and onion bread sandwiches this side of the Atlantic. The cheesecake and apple strudel here are also sensational. We always stock up on their renowned kosher smoked meats to share with friends back home.
Our days in Paris flew by in a food coma but we were determined to indulge in a final gastronomic tour de force before boarding the flight back to India. I had read glowing reviews about Sur Mesure, the much-lauded Michelin-starred restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental where the presiding lord of Parisian haute cuisine, chef Thierry Marx, offers a complete sensory experience for gourmands blending the technical and emotional aspects of cooking with sight, sound, and taste. Upon entering the restaurant, we discovered an intimate all-white cocoon, which acts as a blank canvas for the menu. While the décor was ethereal and impressive, nothing prepared us for the eight-course feast that was about to unfold with exemplary service by impeccably trained staff. Standout starter dishes included the onion soup “in trompe-l’œil (three-dimensional) style” that sprang to life not only in the tureen in which it was served but also on the palate, a superbly nuanced shellfish mousse, and the “Earth&Sea”-— a harmonious complement of foie gras and smoked eel. In the mains, the pan-fried scallops & truffle snow was an utter treat as was the tender veal rack & Swiss chard. As the denouement, dessert was served in the form of a sweet bento box offering up a flurry of bite-sized surprises in terms of textures and flavours that ranged from creamy to tart. Sur Mesure proved a fitting finale to our culinary sojourn and remains enshrined as one of our more memorable meals.
Back home in Mumbai, I fondly reminisce our culinary excursion and while my shaky experiments with choux pastry continue, I have prudently gifted my talented wife all my Cordon Bleu accoutrement. After all, it is a wise man who knows just when to let go of the apron strings.