Cook like Stephanie Alexander in a pied-à-terre on the Seine
You too can stay in this gem of an apartment on the L'Île Saint-Louis, a Parisian village that has long been a magnet for foodies and chefs.
I am descending the staircase in an elegant little apartment at the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis in the heart of Paris. With me is Christophe Chastel and, with each step, we have views through leafy chestnut trees directly onto the Seine, where river craft of all kinds are passing.
The apartment we are visiting is the Rose, one of dozens in the Guest Apartment Services portfolio founded on the island by Chastel and his partner, Philippe Pée, in 1997, most of them decorated by Chastel to celebrate their 17th-century heritage.
Houses on the island were mostly built between 1618 and 1660 and today are filled with elegant apartments, an occasional small hotel and, at street level, bistros and brasseries, suave bars and idiosyncratic shops. These include a number of celebrated food shops, among them a couple of fromageries and boulangeries, a wine cellar, the butcher Gardil and the ice-cream shop Berthillon, the latter two consistently listed in "best of" foodie guides to central Paris.
Île Saint-Louis has been likened to a French village dropped right into the heart of Paris.
The island even has its own magnificent baroque church, St-Louis-en-l’Île. Unfortunately Notre Dame Cathedral on the nearby Île de la Cité was seriously damaged by fire in April, casting a pall over that much more visited isle.
Back at the Rose, at the foot of the staircase the finial on the upright is an exquisite little gilded pine cone from the late 17th century, a neighbourhood find that is a clue to Chastel’s abiding interest in decorative keynotes of the period.
Chastel tells me that next door is an hôtel particulier, the Lambert, a beautiful 17th-century building now owned by the brother of the Emir of Qatar after he bought the building from the Rothschild family in 2007. He is said to have spent €13 million ($21 million today) on what became a controversial restoration.
“During the refurbishment,” Chastel says, “there was quite a lot of debris sitting about waiting to be dumped and, passing the site, we came upon the pine cone, a significant motif of 17th-century design.”
In that "century of discovery", natural philosophers were interested to know how nature worked. The mathematical precision of the pinecone’s spirally petals was said to illustrate the "mathematical harmonies" of natural laws, and the pine cone turns up in decorative form throughout this period and on into the early 18th century.
A significant proportion of Chastel and Pée’s clientele are Australian, and a number of them have been chefs.
One of the earliest to stay in the Rose was legendary Janni Kyritsis, who opened the ground-breaking MG Garage in Sydney’s Surrey Hills in 1997 (sited in a classic car showroom, the restaurant won three chef’s hats in its first year.)
Early in his career Kyritsis had worked with the likes of Stephanie Alexander and, over the years, both have stayed in the apartment and given its well-endowed downstairs kitchen a good workout.
Île Saint-Louis has been likened to a French village "dropped right into the heart of Paris", thanks to that concentrated strip of prestigious food shops that line the island’s main thoroughfare, Rue Saint Louis en l’Île – a magnet for fine food connoisseurs and chefs alike.
Kyritsis, who had travelled to Paris for 25 years until the death of his lifelong partner David in 2012, revelled in those food shops and eateries. “You’d go for the one dinner,” he says, “you came back the next day and you were a customer.
“Most of the time we would shop on the island. I’d be at the bakery at 7.30am for the hot bread and some small savoury tarts [the larger ones would be cooked later in the morning].
“Then I’d go to a tiny little shop opposite the supermarket for things like jars of foie gras, white asparagus and cassoulet. There was nothing fancy about this shop,” he adds, “except for what it sold. It was narrow with a roll-up metal door that the proprietress would bang shut at the end of the day.
“I’d drop in on Gardil the butcher for the Toulouse sausages for the cassoulet and then on to Nicolas Wines, where I’d say, ‘I’m sharing this cassoulet tonight’, and he always had a very knowledgeable suggestion on the wine. I would also shop at Gardil for excellent veal escalopes that were so pale they were almost white.”
Nearby was butcher extraordinaire Jean-Paul Gardil. I conferred with him about how I wanted my poulets de bresse cut for a sauté.
— Stephanie Alexander
Kyritsis remembers the greengrocer who’d bark, “Don’t touch!” the moment you got too close to her perfect fruit or vegetables. “In Australia,” he says, “we’re used to checking fruit and vegetables for ripeness but in France anything on display is perfectly ripe and ready to use on that day. Handling is not allowed as it could damage the produce.”
There was also an advantage in living on the island when it came to shopping at the famed Berthillon for ice cream or sorbet, Kyritsis explains. “If you were just buying ice creams to eat on the spot, the queue went forever. But I’d go straight up to the counter to buy a bucket of either for a dinner party and be out in minutes.”
In the chapter “Classically French” in her book The Cook's Table (Penguin, 2016), Stephanie Alexander recalls preparations for a dinner for friends on the island. “Around the corner from our apartment was butcher extraordinaire M. Jean-Paul Gardil. I conferred with him about how I wanted my poulets de bresse cut for a sauté …
“M. Gardil asked whether I wanted my chickens cut into four, six or eight pieces. The gizzard and liver were cleaned, and the back and neck included so I could make a stock. Such beautiful chicken, taut-skinned and rosy-pink with firm yellow fat.
“I seasoned each piece, brushed it with olive oil and mustard and generously sprinkled on tarragon. Alongside were glazed shallots, slender green beans and exquisite yellow potatoes, each about the size of a large olive. All favourite tastes and hardly experimental, but I know from experience it is wise not to be too ambitious in a small and unknown kitchen.”
That same visit occasioned an emergency call on the island’s wine shop. “One of the guests brought a 1981 bottle of Penfolds Grange,” she relates. “The bottle opener in the apartment was not up to the task and the cork crumbled at first touch.
“My resourceful friend dashed downstairs to the Nicolas wine store, conveniently located on the Île, and fortunately still open at 8pm, where the damaged cork was drawn and a clean cloth was proffered in case we needed to filter the wine of cork fragments.
“All this for a smile and a tiny taste of the wine, which was delicious, as was the tarragon chicken.”
NEED TO KNOW
Concierge services You don’t need to be a chef to eat gloriously at any apartment in the portfolio, whose footprint stretches to nearby on-trend neighbourhoods such as the Marais, the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germaine-des-Prés. Among the many services offered by Guest Apartment Services are restaurant bookings, or they’ll organise a cocktail party for you, even a chef and butler for a slap-up dinner party. Concert bookings and limousine transfers from the airport or train stations can be arranged. Weekly housekeeping is included.
Apartments These range from stylish studios to four-bedroom mansion flats, a number of them offering roof gardens, terraces or balconies. The latest addition to their listing is the Golden Rose with magnificent views over the Seine.
Bookings The Rose is available from €296 ($480) a night, for a minimum stay of seven nights. For more, see www.guestapartment.com.