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Bitters/kirsch and espresso/cappuccino in Paris?

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Hi, chowhounds! I have 2 questions I wanted to throw out there:

Where do you go to buy bitters in Paris (especially Amer Picon, if it's available)? I am visiting Paris in a week and want to bring back bitters that are hard to find in the US. I'll be in centre Paris & can speak French well. Is there a good liquor store in Paris that has a wide selection of bitters? (Also, is there a good place to buy kirsch and/or eaux de vie of other fruits?)

Also, where do you go for good espresso-based (ie cappucinno, latte macchiato) drinks in Paris? I'll be mostly in the following areas--Bastille, Louvre, St. Germain/St.Michel, Invalides, and le marais--and would love a few recommendations for where to go for quality espresso drinks. (I know most cafes offer some sort of cappuccino on the menu, but I'm looking for places that really take pride in serving awesome drinks.)

Thanks in advance for any advice!

~Rebecca

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  1. Parisian coffee culture is quite different from Italy (and cities like Melbourne etc.), there isn't the fascination for the quality of the crema or smoothness of the steamed milk.

    The French don't really drink "Italian" coffee and use their own terms when you order. Their taste in coffee is also different, I find they tend to like a more bitter, almost slightly burnt flavour especially when compared to the smooth, milder flavours you find in Italy. when we first arrived in France it took a little getting used to, but after a few months we acquired the taste and started to enjoy it. If you are really looking for Italian coffee go to Italy, as each European country has a different coffee culture and as a result different flavours and styles.

    In the morning many people will order "un creme" which is quite a milky coffee enjoyed with your breakfast, and like Italy, as the day progresses coffee will be ordered with less milk especially after a meal. My favourite was a "noisette" which is an "express" with a small amount of steamed milk (slightly more than a machiato).

    Starbucks and their like are thankfully few and far between (although their is a local chain called Columbus) could this be because there isn't a demand for overly milky coffee?

    How do you choose a good place? As we do in many countries we generally looked at the machine first (automatic ones are a definite no) to see if it was well used and cared for, and if the place was busy and person operating the machine had the right panache, we would give it a go.

    In all honesty we never found a place we headed for simply for the coffee, the coffee tended to come in second to the location for people watching and the buzz.

    1. Just to add a few more comments to the excellent above post. Though most cafes have a large coffee menu such as cappcucino, latte, viennese, etc, most people order "espresse", "cafe au lait" (an espresso with good amount of hot milk, no foam) or a "cafe creme" (an espresso with a small pitcher of warm cream) in the morning. The rest of the day would be just an "espresse". Since most cafes use the bitter robusta beans (instead of the more well rounded mellow arabica), from the old French colonies of the Ivory Coast, the coffee tend to taste 'bitter' and 'astringent'. Some cafes use Italian marketed coffees such as Illy which one will get a better cup. Also I've found better tasting coffees at good pastry places such as Mulot, Paul, etc.
      Contrary to the above comment about Starbuck, it has made a big inroad Paris. One can find at least two or three in each of the central arrondissements.
      One can find a good selection of bitters, eaux de vies in the food hall of the big department stores such as Monoprix, Galleries Lafayette or Au Bon Marche. Also try the gourmet food shops around Pl de Madeleine, great wine shops such as Legrand, Ryst-Dupeyron and Caves Taillevent or the big chain, Nicolas.

      5 Replies
      1. re: PBSF

        Thanks, PhilD and PBSF!

        It's also great to know some of the things to look out for on the menus--when I've been in cafes/retos in France, especially for dinner, and ask for coffee, it seems like the choice is only between espresso or cappuccino (which is rarely what I would think of as a balanced esp/milk drink). So I will try ordering around those options this time with "cafe au lait" or something.

        Thx!

        1. re: PBSF

          PBSF - sorry don't think the coffee ordering is quite right.

          "Cafe au lait" is a coffee with a good amount of milk, however Parisians would tend to use the term at home rather than in a cafe - although if you ask for one it will work. If you want a coffee with milk you order a "un creme" (as in cafe creme) and it will come pre-mixed in the cup - not with a jug of milk.

          A "noisette" (a Cortado in Spain) will either be served with a little milk on the top or with a little jug of steamed milk. The "noisette" is really a Parisian coffee, if you try ordering it elsewhere in France you will often not be understood.

          When you see cappuccino's on a menu there is a good chance that they will be served with whipped cream not foamed milk - nice if that is what you want. I wouldn't order "cafe au lait" after a meal it is more appropriate to order an express or noisette. If you really want a milky drink after dinner you order a creme although more typically this is a breakfast dish.

          1. re: PhilD

            Hmmm... I ordered a cafe creme at Le Select several times and it always came with the milk in a separate little silver pitcher. Perhaps the way it's served depends on the particular cafe?

            1. re: pronek

              pronek, you're right. It depends on the café.
              At more expensive places (like Le Sélect), they tend to serve the milk separately.
              But there's no rule.

            2. re: PhilD

              I think the whipped cream thing is correct.
              Not sure - I always just order "un cafe," as I don't like dairy in my coffee, but my understanding is that cappucinos come with whipped cream. Don't know why, though.
              Also, a lot of places will give you a cafe au lait in the morning, but not later in the day.
              if your taste is for more Italian style espresso, you can order a "café serré" which is just an espresso w/less water run through the grounds. Also, the 'cafe calva' or the 'cafe cognac' are both really good. and the irish coffees i've had at irish pubs in Paris are better than any I've had here in the states. (Never had one in Ireland, btw, and I'm making no claims about authenticity).
              One other thing to think about - keep an eye out for places that say "brulerie." This is sort of the coffee equivalent to a boulangerie/cremerie/etc. They'll pay more attention to the coffee itself. OTOH, they might not have much of a place to sit. IIRC, there's a decent one near Les Gobelins, probably not worth a special trip though. Maybe one by Place Maubert? Not sure. They're around, though.

          2. Picon can bought at quite a few supermarkets, even lamer ones like Shopi and G20.

            I love a good 505 or Americano, baby, perhaps a decent Pineau de Charentes.