This was once the gateway to Paris’s most notorious slum, then part of its textile industry. Now it is a forward-thinking foodie heaven. Jeffrey T Iverson visits rue du Nil…
When, in 2009, chef Grégory Marchand opened a tiny restaurant at 5 rue du Nil in an erstwhile sketchy corner of Paris’s garment district, it would have taken a true visionary to imagine that such a secluded, moribund side street could serve as a launching pad for a truly paradigm-shifting eatery. And yet Marchand’s little bistro, which he called Frenchie – after the nickname he’d carried from the London kitchens of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen to the Gramercy Tavern in New York – would become one of the most fantastically popular tables in the capital, thanks to its refreshingly laid-back ambience, Brooklynesque décor and bright, hybrid cuisine mixing impeccable seasonal French produce, British condiments like pickled onions and mustard seeds, and Italian flourishes like bresaola and gnocchi. But if the success of Frenchie was improbable, what happened next was almost miraculous.
With every seat in his restaurant packed months in advance, in 2011 Marchand opened a no-reservations wine bar serving small plates and choice bottles across the street. Soon a queue of oenophiles appeared nightly at his door. So, in 2013, Marchand opened a gourmet fast-food shop, Frenchie to Go, at 9 rue du Nil, revisiting pulled pork sandwiches, Reuben sandwiches and fish and chips.
By then Marchand’s suppliers had decided to join him. In 2012, the creators of Terroirs d’Avenir, suppliers of exceptional produce and gourmet products to the best restaurants in Paris, opened an epicurean grocery, a fish shop and butcher shop at 6, 7, and 8 rue de Nil. In 2013, French coffee guru Hippolyte Courty of L’Arbre à Café, importer and roaster of extraordinary single-variety, fair-trade Java, opened his first boutique at 10 rue de Nil. By then, food bloggers were calling rue du Nil, a street which only five years earlier was barred and shuttered from one end to the other, “la rue la plus gourmande de Paris”.
As this delicious transformation has continued – with the wine shop Frenchie Caviste (9 rue du Nil) and the Terroirs d’Avenir Boulangerie (3 rue du Nil) opening in 2015, and expansions of the Frenchie Wine Bar and Frenchie To Go restaurants in 2018 – journalists have begun to try to make sense of the phenomenon. For the authors of La République Bobo, rue du Nil is a “bobo magnet”, a Slow Food haven ingeniously conceived to draw high-minded, hedonistic hipsters from across the capital. Yet, at a time when so many small businesses have been pushed out of city centres, the culinary publisher Marabout sees in rue du Nil a herald of something less modish than genuinely heartening: “the comeback of local commerce”. And to explore this street, and speak with the men and women refashioning it in their image, it’s hard not to hope that it is more than a passing trend; that it is a sign of a genuine shifting in how we eat, and of a lasting renewal of a fascinating if once notorious corner of Paris.
In the 17th century, rue du Nil went by another name: rue de la Cour-des-Miracles, a reference to the most infamous slum of the time, of which the street was a main entranceway. Situated between today’s rue des Forges and rue de Damiette, where a plaque recalls its history, the slum’s name referred to the beggars said to have pretended to be crippled or blind in the day, only to have their sight or lameness ‘miraculously’ restored each night. “That redoubtable Cour des Miracles,” wrote Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, “a city of thieves, a hideous wart on the face of Paris; a sewer, from which escaped every morning, and whither returned every night to crouch, that stream of vices, of mendicancy and vagabondage which always overflows in the streets of capitals.”
The Cour des Miracles was finally razed and, in 1867, the street that took its name was rechristened rue du Nil. Naming a 72-metre cobble-stone walkway after the longest river in Africa may seem odd, but the garment district has many vestiges of the Egyptophilia that swept France after Napoleon’s expedition there in 1798, including the magnificent façade on nearby Place du Caire, decorated in hieroglyphs and sculpted heads of Hathor. Yet, despite such architectural gems, the neighbourhood never truly shook the stigma of its seedy past. If there’s an upside, it’s the cheap rents which drew so many immigrants and entrepreneurs, like the Eastern European and North African Jews who made the neighbourhood, called the Sentier, the ready-to-wear capital of Europe for a time.
Though the Sentier’s textile industry has declined in recent decades, the quarter has continued to attract entrepreneurs, from dot-com start-ups to the Paris Bitcoin HQ. Today, rue du Nil is adding another chapter in that story. “The Sentier is a neighbourhood where entire fortunes have been created,” says Grégory Marchand. “In the 1980s it was about textiles. Today for us it’s about food!”
But no-one associated the Sentier, let alone the deserted rue du Nil, with food when Marchand first opened Frenchie in 2009. So why not set up on a busy market street instead, like rue Montorgueil just around the corner? “I didn’t want to create a restaurant for people passing by, I wanted to create a restaurant that would be a destination,” he says. “I remember in my business plan, I said I wanted to create a restaurant where I’d want to go myself. In the end, I just created a place which represented me, a mix of Brooklyn, London and Paris.” In December 2009, just eight months after opening, Marchand and another globe-trotting Paris chef whose travels had seasoned her cuisine – Adeline Grattard of Yam’Tcha – were awarded best chefs of the year by the next-generation restaurant guide Le Fooding.
MEDIUMS FOR STORYTELLING
The revolution that they’d become part of, says Marchand, “was about infusing gastronomy with identity.” Suddenly, dishes were becoming mediums for storytelling – the tales of chefs and exceptional foods. People no longer wanted to be intimidated at restaurants; they wanted to sit down, relax and be taken on a voyage. “People were tired of the formality and pretence so often surrounding gastronomy, and were becoming more educated about what they were eating, the origin of ingredients,” says Marchand. In this way, Frenchie’s success reflected a much wider movement: “the democratisation of gastronomy”. Today on rue du Nil, perhaps the purest manifestation of that foodie freedom is Frenchie To Go.
Created by Marchand and his wife, Marie, who was inspired by the pulled pork sandwich her chef husband made for her one day on the fly, Frenchie To Go has several such mouthwatering sandwiches, which are mainstays, but also a constantly evolving market menu of dishes and salads. Everything is made from scratch, with the same impeccably-sourced ingredients used at the gastronomic restaurant. Manager Nicolas Tsadiroglu never tires of the daily scenes of unabashed delectation.
“On the same table, you can see pulled pork sandwiches and Banka trout salad, fish and chips and smoked cauliflower with anchovy vinaigrette, hotdogs and buffalo milk burrata,” he laughs. “This mix of genres is surprising, but it works. We don’t have the same clientele as just any fast-food restaurant.”
And in reality, it’s the street that makes such dishes possible. “What’s really unique about Frenchie To Go, is this dynamic you have on rue du Nil,” says Nicolas. “Basically, the way we work is the chefs walk two steps down to Terroirs d’Avenir, check out the produce, get inspired, and come back to create something new.”
If seasonal market menus are de rigueur in the Paris restaurant world today, it’s in no small part thanks to Samuel Nahon and Alexandre Drouard of Terroirs d’Avenir, who created their company in 2008 to circumvent the system of mass distribution and bring products from small French farms directly into the city. “Before we came along, the buyers’ demands dictated the suppliers’ offering, so you’d have tomatoes on menus every season of the year,” says Samuel.
“We reversed that system. Now it’s the farmer who tells us what they have. So, we offer chefs a limited choice of produce, but what they do get will be exceptional.”
By building a clientele of more than 100 restaurants in Paris, soon it wasn’t uncommon to see heirloom vegetables like Pointoise cabbage or Pardailhan black turnips, or humble Basque Country smoked Banka trout on the menus of bistros and palaces alike.
“With chefs as our ambassadors, we showed that every ingredient can be sublimated,” says Nahon. “Working with chefs was a great start, but we felt if we were really going to change things, we needed to reach a mass market.” Thus, when one of their earliest clients – Grégory Marchand – invited them to visit some empty shops on rue du Nil, they got straight to work. “We created boutiques in which we’d like to shop ourselves. Open spaces, without barriers between artisan and client, where we take time to talk, explain, advise…”
Shopping on rue du Nil today, you might get a lesson on non-GM oysters at the fishmonger, or learn about the gluten content of heirloom wheat varieties at the bakery, or hear about the impact of your euros on farming communities.
“We work directly with livestock farmers who are trying to revive local heritage breeds, which can influence the economy of a whole region,” says Bastien Nicolas, butcher at Terroirs d’Avenir Boucherie.
“The simple fact of promoting the Basque lamb helps keep an entire valley alive; it keeps a post office running, keeps an elementary school open. There’s a whole chain of actors who are influenced by our decisions about how we eat.”
Just next door to Terroirs d’Avenir is another supplier of Frenchie. L’Arbre à Café imports biodynamically farmed, single-variety coffees from small farms all over the world, and roasts to such precision as to reveal a kaleidoscope of aromas and flavours, and a wealth of new possibilities for pairings in cuisine and pastry. Indeed, if Terroirs d’Avenir introduced Paris chefs to grand cru vegetables, L’Arbre à Café’s founder Hippolyte Coutry did the same for grand cru coffee. “Samuel and Alexandre and I work the same way,” he says. “We work directly with our producers, pay them very well, support sustainable agriculture, and promote what’s good for people, the planet, and our taste buds. Our hope is this will be the way of the future for food.” Perhaps it can be, if the revolution comes one street at time.
“What we’re making here runs counter to what’s happening everywhere in the world, not just Paris,” says Grégory Marchand. “And that despite all the critics who try to call it something else, une rue bobo, a street for hipsters. I couldn’t care less, because I see how happy people are when they come here. With our limited means, in a street on which nobody would have bet a dime, we’ve managed to create something here: a community.”
RESTAURANTS AND BOUTIQUES
9 rue du Nil, Tel. +33 (0)1 44 82 07 82
This charming wine shop embodies the belief of oenologist Jacques Puisais that “wine should have the face of its birthplace and the guts of the man who made it”. Sommelier Aurélien Massé has uncovered myriad exemplars of that credo by artisan vignerons from France and the world, which he presents to clients visiting his boutique and during his lively wine and cheese tastings.
10 rue du Nil, Tel. +33 (0)1 84 17 24 17
Java lovers come here to discover the company that introduced the idea of grand cru coffee to French gastronomy. With an approach inspired by wine, founder Hippolyte Courty imports single-estate, biodynamically grown, single-variety coffees, fermented and roasted with precision to unveil maximum complexity and to create an espresso unlike anything served at the corner brasserie.
9 rue du Nil, Tel. +33 (0)1 40 26 23 43
Frenchie To Go is a quick-paced restaurant with a laid-back ambience offering takeaway versions of the creative dishes offered at Greg Marchand’s renowned bistro and wine bar. Here, even the pulled pork sandwiches and hotdogs are composed from the same exquisite Terroirs d’Avenir-sourced meat and vegetables used by gastronomic restaurants.
6 rue du Nil, Tel. +33 (0)1 85 09 84 48
This is a meat shop that’s “different in every way”. Working directly with farmers to see they are paid fairly and to ensure that animals are raised with care, it’s a boucherie that embraces the Slow Food ethos, proving that respectful farming and the revival of heritage breeds makes healthier, and far better food.
7 rue du Nil, Tel. +33 (0)1 85 09 84 47
This epicurean grocery shop offers foodies the chance to taste the exceptional produce and gourmet products that have made Terroirs d’Avenir the favourite supplier of many of France’s finest chefs. Locavores will love heirloom vegetables like Argenteuil asparagus and Pontoise cabbage, or brie de Meaux cheese, all of which come from the Île-de-France region.
3 rue du Nil, Tel. +33 (0)1 85 09 84 45
A bakery ‘outside the system’, it uses flour sourced straight from farmers of rare, ancient wheat varieties. Flour from genetically modified wheat may be easier to work, but one taste of this bakery’s house bread – Le Pain du Nil, made from four different flours – proves that these forgotten varieties create bread of incomparable quality.
From France Today magazine