PARIS - How do you celebrate Valentine's Day in Paris - an obvious romantic destination for courting lovers?
You can wait till spring, and have a cheese, ham and baguette sandwich sharing a bottle of wine under a bridge by the Seine. Nobody notices when you are stealing kisses, because that's so Parisian. But Paris offers dozens of more appealing places for combining romance and food. Remember that the French devote as much care to gastronomic pursuits as to love - pastimes that go together here. Here are some restaurants where feasting lovers will be treated like guests of honor.
TAILLEVENT, TEMPLE OF ELEGANT DINING. This renowned monument to gastronomy near the Etoile-Arc de Triomphe is a perennial winner with guidebook gourmets and well-heeled honeymooners - whether French, American, Japanese or Russian. Service is elegant, never condescending.
Opened in 1946 by Andre Vrinat in a 19th-century mansion, it once belonged to the Duc de Morny, an illegitimate grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte. Morny used it as a bachelor pad for trysts. The restaurant was named after the first famous French 14th-century chef, Taillevent. Vrinat's son, Jean-Claude, the current owner, is an affable host who enjoys sharing the mansion's history.
Treats here include the "boudin" sausage of lobster and salmon, with tarragon, plus a frothy emulsion of lobster stock flavored with star anise; or an excellent Chalosse duck foie gras with apricot marmalade and toast. Other remarkable dishes by chef Alain Soliveres are a "barigoule" or fresh warm salad of baby artichokes with crayfish; or a creamy pudding of crayfish with an Iranian caviar topping and a perfect lobster sauce.
Main courses like roast veal chop with young carrots and arugula salad sound deceivingly ordinary, but are perfect in quality, sauces and execution. Desserts and petits fours follow suit with sweet-tart flavors. The wine cellar is legendary, but you can choose by glass, carafe, or bottle, according to taste and pocketbook.
Taillevent is in the galaxy of top prices, but worth it, starting at about $140 or so a person, up to $200 or so for a real blowout. Location: 15 rue Lamennais, Paris; phone (33-1) 44-95-15-01.
1728, A FINE ROMANCE IN SENSUOUS STYLE. The elegant restaurant 1728 is reasonably priced for its superb setting, food and service. Named for the year the building was constructed, it is also known as the former home of the Marquis de Lafayette, champion of the American Revolution.
Its fabulous and frivolous decor reeks of Mme. de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of King Louis XV, who rented the mansion in the mid-18th century.
The cuisine by a chef from Beijing is fusion at its very best, mixing the best French ingredients with exotic spices and herbs.
Fusion, in a French monument? "It's working well," said the owner, Jean-Francois Chuet. A high-powered French businessman, he is married to a Chinese musician, Li-ning, a classical musician who runs the staff and reception with a firm but silky hand, and chooses the muted classical background music.
Chuet loves the restoration he invested in and the art he has acquired for the building. Some is for sale, but not the beautiful recent bust of Lafayette by Parisian sculptor Marc Deligny, prominent in the restaurant's bar-entry.
"We're like an art gallery, restaurant and tea house," says Chuet.
In the gleaming new kitchen, chef Gao-Lin turns out tempting dishes like Duo Pompadour - shelled Norway lobster tails with carpaccio of sea bass, flavored with dill, truffled olive oil, Thai basil, spiced with a tad of cayenne, and sprinkled with Chinese truffles.
Many seafood main courses also vie with steak or game for attention. A favorite is a spicy beef fillet perched on a mound of mashed potatoes finely dusted with Chinese truffles. Fabulous exotic fruit sorbets, dark chocolate cake-puddings and meringues wind up a sensuous meal.
The limestone wine cellar is stacked with 3,000 bottles, some of them priceless, others reasonable. "This was used as a prison during the French Revolution," said Chuet, unlocking an iron gate.
The main salons, however, look suitable for tender trysts by candlelight, or perhaps lunch-business meetings for people from fashion boutiques on the nearby Faubourg Saint Honore.
Menu is a la carte. With a glass of good wine, plan to spend $65 to $100 a person; several courses and better bottles will run $129 a person. Location: 8 rue d'Anjou, Paris; phone (33-1) 40-17-04-77.
LES ARTS, A GARDEN HAVEN. This elegant restaurant housed in a former club for engineers, near the Guimet Oriental Museum and the Trocadero, boasts a peaceful terrace for balmy summer days. In cool or rainy weather, the classic indoor rooms are spacious and chic. Service is discreet, friendly and efficient.
On the reasonable $47 menu (not including wine), a recent tasting turned up a tender puff pastry filled with wild mushrooms in a creamy-wine sauce, main courses such as a succulent slice of roast veal in light sauce of veal reduction, celery and chestnut purees on the side. The "guanaja" dark chocolate tartlet was positively voluptuous, and the fresh peach and raspberry soup with mint made a fresh contrast.
With wine, prices range from $50 to $100 a person. Location: 9 bis, Ave. d'Iena, Paris; phone (33-1) 40-69-27-53.
L'ESPADON BLEU, LATIN QUARTER CHARM. L'Espadon Bleu (which means blue swordfish) offers delicious food in a small, yet spacious, restaurant between the Seine and the Odeon. It belongs to Jacques Cagna, famous for his Michelin-guide starred establishment a few doors away.
When Cagna bought the Espadon a couple of years ago, it was converted from an all-fish menu and rather dreary decor into a charming Mediterranean-style spot in ochers and sea blues.
Fish is still important, but now the menu includes choices like osso bucco with a touch of orange and fresh tagliatelli. Prices at lunch are in the $40 range (wine extra) for a set menu, less than a third the price of Cagna's flagship restaurant.
A recent sampling at lunch included a wonderful fresh crayfish salad with arugula greens and excellent spicy vinaigrette; a foie gras pate with small watercress salad, and small, fresh grilled sea bass, with sorrel. The fish was perfectly cooked, but was served whole, and demanded skilled filleting at the table to avoid tiny bones.
A good house white Pouilly fume wine plus chocolate-pudding cake and Granny Smith tart apple compote with bitter-almond ice cream completed the superb but not heavy lunch.
Prices are $50 to $90 a person. Location: 25 rue des Grands Augustins, Paris; phone (33-1) 46-33-00-85.
LE PARC A HUITRES: OYSTERS AS APHRODISIACS. This unassuming little oyster-shellfish bar between the Seine and the Invalides might not seem a romantic haven. But it's great for quiet lunch or candlelight supper and boasts the freshest, best live oysters in town. In cinematic Tom Jones-style, you can slurp up the "pearl specials," the "butterflies," the flat belons, the clams or cooked crabs with house mayonnaise, while gazing at your beloved.
The bar-restaurant has menus at $23 and $36; your choices are accompanied by great bread and sweet butter, a glass of wine, and can be topped off with a warm apple tart from Poujauran, a terrific nearby baker. For those who are not keen on oysters or the other shellfish available, the little restaurant (seating 22 maximum) also offers the best fish soup east of Brittany - complete with little country-style toasts, fresh-ground cheese, saffron and garlic-flavored mayonnaise (rouille), and extra garlic buds, if that is your preference.
The owner, Philippe Carre, from Arcachon, on the Atlantic coast, has three helpers - the lovely waitress, Sandrine; a portly fisherman-type named Jacky, who shucks oysters and opens good wines behind a bar built like a ship's hull; and Reverse, the amiable golden retriever, who loves his fake rag bone more than oysters.
The Quincy white wine (among many choices) is crisp, and fine with shellfish.
An a la carte lunch or dinner could not exceed $58 a person, wine included. Location: 50 Blvd. de la Tour-Maubourg, Paris; phone (33-1) 40-62-93-97.
LE CLOS DES GOURMETS: GOURMET THRILLS. This small and cheery restaurant near the Eiffel Tower offers friendly atmosphere and excellent food with some new twists, such as juicy Colvert duck topped with spiced honey, warm quince with cinnamon and celery.
A three-course menu at lunch is $43 a person, wine extra. Totals can range from about $50 to $100 a person, depending on wine. Location: 16 Ave. Rapp, Paris; phone (33-1) 45-51-75-61.
ROMANCE ON THE SCENIC SEINE. Hold hands, sip and taste, as you cruise by the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Several tour barges cruising the Seine offer sound-and-light candlelit dinners, a good way to sample Paris by night, though food quality may vary. The well-known Bateaux Mouches (phone 33-1-42-25-9610) has a special evening menu with music, wine and service included, for $160 a person. Special lunches (weekends, holidays only) cost $65, wine and service included.
The Capitaine Fracasse line (phone 33-1 46-21-48-15) offers "gourmet" dinners for $50 a person weeknights or $76 Saturdays, wine not included. Call for details on a special higher-priced Valentine's Day dinner.