For many, the knowledge of French food does not stretch too far. For long, the only French food I knew was French fries. Sadly, this piece of information, I later learnt, was entirely false. French fries, with links to the country right in its name, could well have originated in Belgium. It seems I am not alone in possessing threadbare awareness of what is touted to be the most sophisticated cuisine in the world. Many of my friends, after consuming mountains of French fries, have claimed to be equally ignorant about the feted cuisine.
Despite the gastronomy boom in post-liberalised India, French food never took flight in the way Italian cuisine and American fast food did. Even in the later years of a free-market economy, Asian cuisines in general, and Japanese cuisine in particular, tickled the taste buds of Indian diners. French cuisine, despite its deep links to various regions and trading stations in India, such as Puducherry and Chandannagar, had less dramatic influences on local food.
However, French cuisine did change its character and adopt a new course of journey when it came in contact with Indian spices and condiments. In an interview with online portal Women's Web, Lourdes Tirouvanziam-Louis, author of The Pondicherry Kitchen (2012) describes the outlines and inflections of the Franco-Pondicherry cuisine, revealing how interactions between diverse communities create complexities of flavour. “Many French dishes have been adapted to suit the Tamil palate, for example, the simple roast has become something very elaborate and tasty. The French would just use salt, pepper and roast the chicken but Pondicherrians add garlic, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, onions and ghee. The roast tastes different and definitely tastier!”
Given the cuisine’s history in our country, it is heartening to see restaurants devoted to French fare opening up in the Delhi NCR region in such quick succession. Despite one or two lone predecessors, Paul (or Paul depuis 1889) can be seen as making definitive inroads into the French restaurant territory. In its latest outpost in the Select Citywalk Mall, Paul offers a procession of viennoiserie, tucked into a glass counter just like artworks in museum displays. Slide along the counter, to check out the trail of pain au chocolat, strawberry tart, apple turnover, lemon tartlet, passion fruit gateaux, almond croissant and other confections that speak of French culinary artistry.
Right at the entrance, Paul has a well-appointed coffee counter with state-of-the-art coffee machines. A series of tables, with white countertops complement the green and black interiors. Framed posters, illustrating artistically shot French classics like macarons, profiteroles and much else, create a spectrum of beauty across the entire dining area. The sprawling dining space is divided into sections, one of which with giant glass windows looking out to the mall façade, with a bustling play area and groves of palm trees.
The menu offers options both to the well-heeled as well as to those who would like to dip their toes into French cuisine for the first time. Newbies will do good to order the French onion soup, an entry point to a complex cuisine but also a promise of familiar flavours. It comes to diners in a scooped out bread bowl with ribbons of cheese and buttery onions.
Connoisseurs who have already navigated the nuances of French gastronomy, should go for the Himalayan trout, paired with an effervescent lemon basil sauce and polenta. It is a French dish alright, but the local fish brings with it the flavours of glaciers and mountains, perfect foil to the earthy polenta. This dish, however, is available only at the Select Citywalk outlet of Paul.
Signature salads are equally exceptional at the restaurant. Emmental cheese, green apple, carrot, walnut and raisins form a bed for slivers of succulent chicken to create a jumble of textures and a bright taste profile.
Round off your meal with desserts that could be translated as poems conjured from sugar and chocolate. The piece de resistance is the Fleur de lys, a slice of dark chocolate mousse that is an adventure for the tongue on a cloud of chocolate.