What do you do if you’re in Paris but you don’t want to eat French? Crazy question, right? After all, France pretty much put gastronomy on the map (and in the dictionary). How could you possibly want anything else?
Hard to say. Maybe you’re looking for variety. In any case, this strange desire introduces a slew of problems. After all, the French do their own cuisine quite brilliantly (I wrote about three good examples here). But foreign cuisines? Well, it can be rocky. Good luck finding an excellent Tex-Mex place, or even a decent curry (it exists, but it’s rare). The fact is that French cuisine loves its savory sauces, but it greens at the gills when things turn spicy. (Think about it: what French dishes do you know that have a real kick? Even the North African cuisine tends toward the Moroccan variations, which are pretty tame.)
So, if you’re searching for good foreign food, the best bet is to consider cuisine that tends not to rely on spiciness. For example: Japanese! Aside from some mashed wasabi or dabs of miso sauce, dishes like sushi, tempura and Japanese soups play on notes of subtlety. For this reason, Paris has a plethora of good Japanese options. I’m going to tell you about three of them. And none of them are principally sushi places.
Where to start? That question, at least, is easy: If you want the highest density of good Japanese restaurants, take the Métro to the Palais Royal, start up the Avenue de l’Opéra, and take your fourth right onto the rue Sainte-Anne. My guess is that Anne was the patron saint of Japanese restaurants, because there are a dozen of them here within two-blocks. I haven’t tried them all, but I’ve been in over half, and none have disappointed me.
My favorite in this neck of the woods is Yasube (9 Rue Sainte-Anne, 75001): a pretty simple cantine japonaise, especially good for its yakitori (little skewered delicacies). I’ve not spent much time in Japan (maybe a month), but this place reeks (in a good sense!) of authenticity. You can sit on tatami mats (downstairs) or elbow your way to the counter. Order up; service is great, and you know you’re getting the real thing.
Of course, maybe you don’t have time to traipse down the rue Sainte-Anne. You want something a bit faster, and maybe even cheaper, but still delectable. Not too far away is Higuma (163 Rue Saint Honoré, 75001; note, they also have an address on the rue Sainte-Anne, but I’m not as crazy about that one.) Their specialty? It’s ramen. Or lamen. (In Japanese there’s only one liquid sound, halfway between L and R, so you see it written both ways). The “lamen” dishes all have noodles, but that’s where the similarity ends: some are broths, others are stews, and yet others are a bed of noodles with medallions of pork or duck. (And there’s a Korean version that actually pulls off a bit of spice, if that’s your thing.) Better yet, you can get a kind of fixed menu (a set) that includes gyoza—those little raviolis with different fillings. The décor at Higuma is simple and casual; this place isn’t fancy—but the food is good, and the price is right.
OK, so now you’ve had your appetite whetted and you’re ready to splurge on something a bit more elegant, even vaguely exquisite, you’re going to want to make reservations at Shu, at 8 rue Suger (75006, Métro Odéon or Saint-Michel). Among many other splendors, Shu boasts the lowest entry of any restaurant in Paris (see the photo at the top of this article): Snow White would have to crouch down to get in this place, and even her seven companions would have to duck their heads at the door. But once you’re inside, you’re treated to a warm yet crisp surrounding. The wine and sake offerings are a little overwhelming (unless you know your stuff), but you can also get a simple Sapporo beer. But the real treat is the food. There are just three fixed menus—small, medium, and large—and after you make your choice, you alert the staff to any food allergies, after which you put yourself in the hands of the chef. When I was there, we went for the medium menu, which consisted of an appetizer, a wonderful tuna sashimi, a small fried fish, fifteen (yep, count ’em) mini-kebabs of everything from grilled shitake to scallops to chicken, and ending with a choice of rice soup or cold noodle soup. It was a little pricey (52€), but worth every centime.
Those are my faves for Japanese cuisine. Let me know what you’ve discovered.
Scott Dominic Carpenter is Contributing Editor at Secrets of Paris. The Author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth, Scott writes often about life in Paris.