23 rue des Cinq Diamants
+33 1 45 89 58 87
Metro: Corvisart (0.1 km); Tolbiac (0.5 km)
The many immigrant communities that make up Paris have brought cuisines from all over the world – some of which are poorly represented in major cities in North America. My favorite discovery during my time there this summer was couscous, a typical north African dish that has regional subtlties (Moroccan vs Algerian vs Tunisian vs…) that I didn’t have nearly enough time to explore and decipher.
My favorite couscous spot was Chez Mamane, a small Moroccan style joint in the generally tourist-free and very cool little neighborhood of La Butte aux Cailles (“quail hill”) not far from Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement. There are plenty of bars (Le Diamant was my favorite, but those with more experience recommend La Folie en Tête) and restaurants (among others, Chez Gladines is a very popular budget Basque restaurant) in this area, with a crowd that was decidedly local. Chez Mamane was recommended to me by a friend who grew up in this neighborhood as having the best couscous in Paris and it sure seemed plausible to me.
In case you’re not aware, couscous (at least in Paris) is served mostly family-style in a few distinct dishes. First is the plate of steamed couscous which resembles the stuff we pour water on top of and let sit for 10 minutes about as much as Pizzeria Delfina resembles Pizza Hut. Second is the meat that you order. Third is a bowl of broth that contains vegetables, potatoes and beans (possibly only a subset thereof). Last but not least is the harissa, a complex spice paste from the region. To assemble, put couscous in your shallow bowl. Next, take a ladle of the broth and add harissa to it. Stir the harissa with the broth (still in the ladle) until it makes a smooth mixture and pour onto your couscous. Keep this up until you have it as soupy and spicy as you like. Grab a piece or two of meat, and some veggies, and dig in.
Chez Mamane does indeed have an old Moroccan lady in the back doing most of the cooking. I only ordered the couscous Royale, which is a fancy way in many couscous places of saying “combo meat platter”. Here, it came with merguez sausages (fantastic), grilled chicken (good), grilled lamb chop (excellent) and a stewed/braised on-the-bone lamb (or mutton? – to me this was the least exciting meat).
The whole experience of eating this dish is great fun. The perfectly steamed couscous is much fluffier but also firmer (if that makes sense) in texture than the quick stuff we find on this side of the pond. To me, it was a similar eye-opening experience to the first time I had the perfect al dente fresh egg pasta. The harissa here is on the spicier side and delicious. The meat was plentiful and delicious (though I could never get enough merguez). My one criticism was that the mix of veggies could have been a bit more diverse, as it was mainly carrots and squash. Overall, I found the flavors very exciting and complex. It’s also a very hearty meal and generally much cheaper than most other sit-down meals in Paris. The surroundings aren’t fancy (there are three largish tables that you will likely share with other diners) but there’s decent beer on tap and wine available and service is with a smile. My biggest endorsement: it’s one of the very few places I actually returned to dine while I was there. I can’t wait to return to someplace with a big north African community to continue my couscous education!