Sunday, 1 June 2008

Aquarius

I thought I'd start by telling you about the first vegetarian restaurant I visited in Paris. It's called Aquarius, and is in the 14th arrondissement. Here's a map. You'll need métro Pernety or Plaisance, on line 13. It's just south of Montparnasse.

The reason why this was my first vegetarian Parisian restaurant is that I used to live ten minutes' walk away. It's in a nice area (I'm hoping to go back there when I move house), with plenty of bars for pre- or post-dinner drinks. It's one of the oldest vegetarian restaurants in Paris, and you can occasionally tell.

Let's start with the basics. Everything is vegetarian, which is comforting. They have pots of nutritional yeast along with the salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar on the table. The waitresses are stunningly beautiful and pleasingly bonkers. The chap who owns the place is in there most nights, and is quite a character. He may well have been the first French vegetarian back in the day. He'll probably pretend to be disgustingly rude to you - he's just joking. I happen to find him very funny, and we've had big long discussions about the merits of veganism, the state of modern farming, and the French obsession with meat. He's fabulous, but does enjoy winding people up - especially American tourists. Impish.

Now for the food. It's not bad at all. For vegetarians, it's positively a treat. Stars of the menu include a mushroom pastry malarkey which I'm told is amazing, and the 'Couscous royale'. Now, my boyfriend is not only French but also an omnivore who loves couscous with all the trimmings. He says this is the best couscous he's ever eaten - meaty or not - and he's eaten a lot of them. They also do vegetarian versions of French classics like tartiflette (a creamy, cheesy, melty potato concoction).

For vegans, the choice is rather limited. Veganism is relatively new and extremely rare in France. There's a choice of two hot dishes and two salads (at the time of writing):

  • L'assiette indienne: the Indian plate. British people beware - this is nothing like a curry you'd get at home, but it's still nice. You get a TVP (extremely mild) curry dish, lentils, fancy rice, a raita made with soy cream, toasted cashews, and I forget what else. Pretty good, and it's often part of the cheap set meal.
  • Le chili sin carne: it's good, but not at all spicy. A bean and seitan chili, served with skewered seitan. No rice, which is almost as much of a pity as the lack of spice.
  • La salade du pêcheur: fisherman's salad. If you like seaweed, this is for you. Four or five different types of seaweed, along with various tasty salad bits like avocado and grapefruit slices. I'm not keen on the fishy taste of most seaweeds, so had a hard time with some of it.
  • La salade orientale. Great! Like a lebanese mezze plate with salad to boot! My favourite dish here.
There are a fair few vegan starters, like a delicious champignons à la grecque. Very rarely are there vegan puddings, but you lacto-ovo types will have fun! I do feel that there are quite a lot of dishes on the menu that could easily be veganised... Things as simple as using oil rather than butter, or pastry made with margarine, or avoiding using egg as a binder quite so often. That said, they do try!

Also worth mentioning is the 'formule'. In the evening, you can get two courses (either starter + main or main + dessert) for 15€. Bargain! The dishes included in the deal are written up on a black board that the waitress will bring you. Vegans are generally offered the Assiette indienne as a main, and usually just a compôte (apple purée) for pudding, but the starters change quite a lot.

If you choose to order from the main menu, expect to pay about 6€ for a starter, 10-15€ for a main course, and 6€ for a dessert.

Finally, the wine. It's good and cheap. Order a 'pichet bio', which is a jug of organic wine - at the same price as the non-organic stuff. It's about 8€ if I remember correctly (I may not... we tend to have more than one).

As with almost everywhere in Paris, service is theoretically included in the price of the meal. However, it's polite to leave a bit of a tip (say 5 - 10%) if the service was good and you enjoyed your food. You have to go up to the till to pay, but they're cool about splitting the cost and letting some people pay by card and others with cash.

Great for vegetarians, ok for vegans, not too expensive, cheap wine, bit health-foody, great staff, cute location.