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Paris Modern

Even the best rule-breakers eventually succumb to the Parisian way of life. Over dinner in the upstairs room at Caviar Kaspia, a froufrou favorite of the fashion crowd, Marc Jacobs, the transplanted Louis Vuitton designer who was once a fixture on the New York club scene, cheerily told me how he, too, had embraced bourgeois Paris with gusto. "I never go out at night anymore. I walk Alfred, my dog, on the Champ de Mars, and I go to my neighborhood bakery where everyone knows me," he said. "I like to stay close to home."

My idea of home in Paris is a cracked leather banquette in an old family-owned bistro such as Aux Fins Gourmets on Boulevard St.-Germain, where the walls are yellow from so many years of tobacco smoke and where you can still get a simple salade mixte and steak frites without too much fuss. So I was intrigued by Alain Ducasse's buzzy new brasserie, Aux Lyonnais, a former 1890 stockbrokers' haunt he had taken back to its gastronomic roots. Here was old Paris meeting new with all the authentic accoutrements: a dish towel for a tablecloth, linen bags stuffed with sourdough bread, and kitchen bowls filled with cervelle de Canuts—a delicious concoction of white cheese, scallions, fresh herbs, and oil. Ducasse serves up food so traditional, even the French marvel: minute steak à la lyonnaise lands on the table in front of you still sizzling in the frying pan. Every night the place is packed with long-limbed French fashion editors and leathery society types gorging on huge helpings of bugnes, Lyons's sweet, chewy answer to the doughnut.

The talk of the town, though, was Joël Robuchon's three-week-old restaurant, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Once branded the chef of the century, Robuchon had closed his famous restaurant Jamin in the 16th Arrondissement and disappeared for seven years from the Paris scene. Now his modest conceit on Rue Montalembert was whipping Left Bank intellos into a frenzy: no reservations, no tablecloths, no tables. Robuchon's idea was to serve delicious food casually at a barlike tapas or sushi counter. His cooking is not French or Spanish or Japanese (and it certainly isn't fusion). By creating his own culinary language and style without changing the ingredients, he has defied the cultural conventions that have clearly divided the French from the rest of the world. But his no-reservations policy was not sitting well with the French noblesse oblige; even Robuchon was getting his hand slapped.

"If you want to eat filet mignon at midnight or foie gras at 11 in the morning, then it's the place for you," said Florence Maeght, the owner of Le Rideau de Paris, a shop that sells wonderful reproductions of 18th-century fabrics from Lyons. "I've lived and worked in this neighborhood all my life," she laughed. "I've never seen people get so upset. He has caused a scandal, because nobody can get in. The French are up in arms!"

My first three attempts to secure one of the 37 seats at Robuchon's bar were aborted quickly by a polite woman in a long black Matrix-style apron. She peered around the glass door, told me the place was full, and then slammed the door and locked it. It was only 11:45, but at least 20 people were turned away in succession. Three Japanese women made a big show of arriving in a sleek black Mercedes 300SEL— the obligatory Mombasa bags in hand—then scampered away when the door was slammed in their faces. Even the valet parking, for eight euros, was rumored to be full.

On the fourth try I got in. It was the afternoon of a long weekend when everyone had left town early (including my family), and I sat down to an incredibly precise and delicious mille-feuille of vegetables—tomatoes and zucchini with mozzarella—that tasted as though they'd been nestled in a sunny garden in Provence. Plate after plate of tiny servings of crab salad and langoustine tempura, along with the intense attention of Robuchon's dedicated waiters (many have worked for him for more than two decades), dazzled me.

"The guy is a god," the French garmento on the stool next to me said as he pierced a soufflé of Chartreuse withpistachio ice cream. He had traveled all day from St.-Tropez just to sample Robuchon's latest food. It had taken him two days to get in, but it was worth it. "I hate the French, they're turncoats," he said. "I'm so embarrassed by our behavior during the war in Iraq. But when you see a guy like Robuchon, you have to admit that the French have a gift for genius in some areas."

Robuchon's iconoclasm was inspiring. We'd made the rounds of the old haunts—the Luxembourg Gardens, the favorite bistros, the nostalgic walk across the Pont des Arts. So, on a rainy Saturday my husband and I strapped our four-year-old son into a stroller (much to the disapproval of passers-by) and rushed out to explore the Paris we didn't know. We dined on soggy ravioli at La Suite, a trendy place where each room resembles a different kind of hotel suite, the ceiling over the bar opens up to the sky, and regulars include Mick Jagger, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro. We checked out Kong, the new Philippe Starck-designed restaurant on top of the Kenzo store near the Pont Neuf. We sampled crusty organic zucchini with ricotta and basil at R'Aliment, an organic "resto relax" popular with the gallery crowd, on Rue Charlot. Then we strolled through the Passage de Retz, once a toy factory but now home to a sampling of galleries.

We rode the super-sleek, driverless METEOR subway (No. 14) east to the Bibliothèque Nationale, the area Parisian cool-hunters are calling the new Latin Quarter. At a café outside the MK2, a cinema complex designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, with 14 screens, three restaurants, and a lounge, young Parisian couples wearing iPods and sneakers were discussing the merits of the latest CD by Carla Bruni, the ex-model who once dated Jagger. We crossed the Pont de Tolbiac and poked around Rue Louise-Weiss, where gallery owners like Emmanuel Perrotin and Almine Rech attract a fashion-conscious crowd with their monthly vernissages. A neighboring bookshop named Images Modernes, owned by Bernard Picasso, caters to curious collectors flocking to what they refer to as Chelsea-sur-Seine.

At Balenciaga, on Avenue George V, we discovered a similar contemporary artistic spirit. Instead of hiring a traditional architect, the designer Nicolas Ghesquière had asked Alsatian artist Dominique Gonzales Foerster to transform the store into a kind of quasi-subterranean swimming pool—complete with an Yves Klein blue-painted underground passageway to the neighboring accessories boutique. Across town at Surface to Air, pouty punk rockers convened in turquoise miniskirts and matching leg warmers. And traditional perfume shops and pharmacies seemed to pale in comparison with places like Iunx on Rue de l'Université, where salesgirls in long black aprons dispense fresh, distinctive fragrances such as mint tea, zucchini flower, and a blend of linen, wheat, and wild rice. Or the Parfumerie Générale, off the Champs-Élysées, where Victoire de Taillac sells hard-to-find organic beauty products from the United States and Britain.


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