What dish is worth hopping on a plane to Paris for? Maybe the flaky, spiral-shaped escargot pastry from the groundbreaking boulangerie Du Pain et des Idées, especially the variety with seams of green pistachio paste and bitter chocolate so rich it melts your senses. Or maybe it’s the crisp and earthy perfection of a buckwheat crepe at Breizh Café in the cobblestoned, tourist-overrun Marias.
But maybe you should be getting on the plane for a dish labeled “Pyongyang tofu, gondre, Brie” at CAM, a restaurant run by Korean chef Esu Lee and restaurateur Phil Euell. The dish arrives as two bites of fried tofu, hollowed out until only the crisp exterior remains, filled with an oozing mixture of funky Brie and rice. The crispness of the tofu and the lushness of the cheesy rice, made earthy by gondre (a bitter, wild Korean herb associated with the country’s temple cuisine) combines into a pleasure much greater than the sum of its listed parts.
While it was common as recently as 2011 for people to complain about the quality of Asian food in Paris, over the last decade, the scene has shifted dramatically. Most notable are the groundbreaking neo-bistros opened by Japanese chefs, which ascended in tandem with the rise of casual restaurants serving everything from killer okonomiyaki to hipster bo bun. Now, old-school Chinese restaurants are hip with the fashion and natural-wine sets; hot-pot and Korean barbecue restaurants dot cool neighborhoods; and high-quality regional Chinese cooking is growing in popularity. The casual Vietnamese food that’s powered the city for decades as a legacy of colonization is now recognized as a distinctly Parisian pleasure.
One should still go to Paris for the sourdough baguette warm from the oven and the three-course lunch of country pate, boeuf bourguignon, and souffle, yes. But it is just as vital a destination for flaky, spiced lumpia; pork and green cabbage jiaozi; miso-sesame cookies; pork katsu sandos; luscious and crispy nems; binchotan-cooked skewers; and bao filled with creme patissiere.
Asian Parisians and their cuisines are nothing new to the city. Vietnamese people have lived and studied in Paris since the 19th century, and the first Chinese restaurants opened in Paris in the 1930s in the Latin Quarter, after an influx of Chinese immigrants during World War I. As immigration from across East Asia to France grew over the second half of the 20th century, a large share of those immigrants settled in and around Paris. The city’s Chinatown in the 13th Arrondissement has been growing since the 1960s, and several other neighborhoods, most notably Belleville, are known for great Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. Over that same span of decades, the rising Asian middle class became a dominant force in tourism, with Paris one of the most popular destinations.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, French chefs’ approach to cuisine was upended by their exposure to Japanese fine dining traditions, especially kaiseki. “Nouvelle cuisine” rejected the white plates and white tablecloths and white sauces of traditional French fine dining, and substituted in colorful, seasonal vegetables; visually dynamic presentation; light and subtle flavors; and many tiny courses, all of which have Japanese antecedents. At the same time, Japanese chefs began working in French kitchens in large numbers. (The engine of this cultural exchange was Japanese culinary instructor and Francophile Shizuo Tsuji, especially in his friendship with Paul Bocuse.)
The groundwork for the current wealth of ambitious, Asian-influenced cooking in Paris was laid by this melding of French and Japanese cuisine, which has been ongoing, ceaselessly and intensely, for decades. The two-year-old restaurant Le Rigmarole, the current darling of the ever-trendy 11th Arrondissement run by Americans Jessica Yang and Robert Compagnon, is making waves by serving Japanese-style skewers cooked over binchotan, broken up by tiny bites of pasta as palate cleansers. Using this Japanese technique to prepare an ever-shifting collection of Mediterranean-skewing dishes is innovative and daring; it’s also part of that long trend.
What’s interesting about Le Rigmarole and a spate of ambitious Paris restaurant openings from about 2017 onward — including the brash and playful Double Dragon, the Belleville sensation Cheval d’Or, and the austere newcomer Maison — is how much chefs at the foreground of Paris dining have expanded their influences far beyond Japan to all of East Asia and its diaspora, including the Asian-American chefs who redefined American cuisine in the 21st century. Wide-ranging curiosity mixes with a rejection of the trappings of authenticity. Le Rigmarole serves skewers of extremely French duck hearts followed by one reminiscent of a kofte kebab, accompanied with yogurt and flatbread, with a fancied-up candy bar for dessert. The pleasure of cheesy rice and tofu at CAM paired with an Alsatian orange wine reminded me, more than anything else, of the thrill I experienced at Los Angeles’s Night + Market Song in 2015 while eating a spicy papaya salad and drinking a rosé pet-nat onomatopoetically named Moussamoussettes.
Esu Lee says his cooking at CAM, which is located in a former import-export store in Paris’s Chinatown, resists definition. But it pulls from influences from Korea, where he grew up; Australia, where he cut his teeth as a chef; and France, where he makes his home, as well as travels across Asia and beyond. His tofu dish was inspired by a photo of a type of street food popular in North Korea, tofu bap, where the hollowed-out tofu is filled with rice mixed with various sauces; the dish originated during the famine in the 1990s but is now common dish across the country. For his version, Lee hollowed out the fried tofu and filled it with a risotto made with gondre and Brie, and served it with an onion gel made from onions preserved in-house. “There’s a lot of technique hidden in this small dish,” Lee says. Also popular at CAM is a riff on shrimp toast made with some of Paris’s finest brioche. “Maybe the fact that I’m not from here means I do whatever I want, and maybe customers are more open to it,” he says.
Business partners and sisters Tatiana and Katia Levha’s first restaurant, Le Servan, opened in 2013 and made serious waves both in the Paris food world (it was Le Fooding’s Bistro of the Year in 2015) and internationally. At the time, the mix of French bistro cooking and Asian techniques and ingredients seemed novel. Now, it’s clear the restaurant helped usher in a wave of new Parisian cooking. At Le Servan, breakfast can be a tender, burnished croissant and lumpia filled with spiced root vegetables, both flaky and tender, the best possible versions of themselves. It should be a bowl of skinny noodles in a comforting and clear chicken broth, too. Dinner must begin with blood sausage wontons, crisp and funky; you cannot leave Paris without having sweetbreads, and Le Servan’s, served in XO sauce, put the other bistros in the city to shame in both technique and flavor. End with a Paris-Brest, a casual and unfussy version of the sometimes-intricate pastry, and a perfect cap to Le Servan’s democratic vibe.
The Levhas’ second restaurant, Double Dragon, opened in 2018 a few blocks away from Le Servan, trading in classic bistro style for bold, international minimalism. The restaurant breaks with Parisian orthodoxy in a number of ways, starting with the fact that it doesn’t take reservations, something common in the U.S. but not in France. The neon Chinese dragon glowing on the wall and the late-aughts mainstream hip-hop bumping in the room will make you think of small plates shared in New York or Los Angeles circa 2012, but none of them could have been as divine as Double Dragon’s seared tuna belly, cut from a single fish the kitchen is especially smitten with, which tastes of melting butter with a pleasant hint of char. It was what a ’90s slab of rare ahi wanted to be when it grew up.
The menu at Double Dragon runs the gamut of influences across Asia — one night, it might feature steamed mussels, mapo tofu, crispy pork feet, duck hearts, and a pork katsu sandwich. Vegetables appear as sides, rarely. The night I visited, the restaurant served a version of the Vietnamese dish chicken caramel, lacquered and luscious, the caramel smoky and complex. It mixed sweetness with a mild, acidic bite — the flavor profile for a number of dishes at Double Dragon, and one that struck me as distinctly French. (Chicken caramel is not a dish I’ve often encountered in the States, but interestingly, it was also on the menu at an old-fashioned white-tablecloth Chinese restaurant called La Couronne d’Argent in the small city of Fontainebleau.)
While Double Dragon ranges widely, the newly opened restaurant Cheval d’Or from Paris power players Taku Sekine and Florent Ciccoli takes primary inspiration from a former workaday Chinese restaurant whose sign (and name) still graces the front. Sekine came to Paris from Japan after working for Alain Ducasse in Tokyo, and made his name with Dersou, a neo-bistro with a Japanese bent known for pairing each course with a cocktail. At Cheval d’Or, the minimalist space, with distressed, pitted white walls and blond wood, is home to a maximalist menu broken into 10 sections, labeled with cheeky terms like Cold, Fried, and Slurp (in English). Chinese dishes abound, from dan dan noodles to lu rou fan to large fried morsels of black vinegar chicken. French ideas and dishes appear too; there are sweetbreads served salt-and-pepper style and fried in a delicate batter, and a wonderfully classic, palate-cleansing creme caramel for what the menu labels Betsubara, or second stomach, otherwise known as dessert.
It’s thrilling to eat this type of food made with French ingredients by some of Paris’s best chefs, but what France giveth, it also taketh away. In this case, what’s missing is heat. The least successful dish at CAM was a take on kung pao chicken. My dining companion asked if the kitchen had hot sauce to perk it up, and our young French server in mom jeans widened her eyes and said, “More spicy?” She brought us a bowl of chile paste, likely gochujang, with slight incredulity. The Le Monde review of Double Dragon poked fun at its excesses of spice; when I ate there, I missed whatever heat had previously offended. At Cheval d’Or, the dan dan noodles were the most subtle (or maybe plainest) version of the normally punchy dish I’d ever encountered. Restaurants in Paris tend to be spice-averse across all cuisines, even those that are built around it; at times, dishes heavy on umami or fat suffered for the lack of counterbalance. At CAM, Lee said he sought to create a gentle spiciness in his food, in part because he does not enjoy getting blasted with heat. He wants to give his diners’ palates room to breathe so they can taste every course.
What’s on the horizon? One glimpse might come at Maison, the new restaurant by Sota Atsumi, who made his name serving dishes like whole calves’ brains in dashi during his sensational turn at the restaurant Clown Bar. Sekine opened Dersou at roughly the same time that Atsumi cooked at Clown Bar, but while Cheval d’Or is big and playful, Maison swings austere and French. A five-course lunch largely sticks to classic French flavors and inventive riffs on French dishes, like a trio of bite-sized tarts filled with onion, beets, and hazelnut, or the show-stopping pithivier, a savory puff pastry, stuffed with duck, foie gras, and mirabelle plums, a classic dish he also served at Clown Bar. Over the course of the lunch, Atsumi stood behind the space’s massive counter, cleaning orange chanterelle mushrooms that gleamed in the natural light. The dish they appeared in was built around the body of a squid: the mushrooms doused in ink, celtuce wrapped in translucent squid skin, and its tentacles in another translucent package alongside, recalling a Vietnamese summer roll.
This is cooking that resists classification and expresses the chef’s own unique, thrilling point of view, but maybe it’s best just to call it French. Atsumi’s restaurant is first and foremost Parisian, from the structure of the menu to the seasonality of the ingredients to the wine to the fashionable people from three continents who fill the room. Restaurants like this are worthy not just of a plane flight but a boat, or maybe even swimming.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.