A week of meals (mostly) and lazy sightseeing in the City of Lights with my friend Randy.
My traditional first meal in Paris: Brasserie Balzar, with the now-traditional steak tartare and frites. I remember it very unclearly, as I was tired and jet-lagged and not even a good meal in Paris could really wake me up. Randy had lamp chops. After lunch and a long walk, we went back to the Hotel Sevigné to nap, and only rose at about 9 to head off to the Open Café for several large beers and people-watching.
In the morning, we lazed, then wandered: my favourite thing to do on a nice day in Paris. Lunch at Willi’s Wine Bar is always a treat, and we were both hungry enough at about 1.30 to set off towards the restaurant. It took awhile to get there on foot, and I was worried we were too late, but they were happy to seat us. We did end up the last lunchers by about 20 minutes, so my fears weren’t misplaced. I ordered a “giraffe” (500 ml carafe) of Touraine sauvignon blanc, which sounded refreshing, and was—very cool and nicely acidic. I had a lunch of cold meats. I started with super-tasty beef carpaccio, and followed that with vitello tonnatta, which was cooked veal, of course, but was arranged on the plate exactly like the carpaccio. I hadn’t had it in ages, and really enjoyed the sauce of puréed tuna. Randy ordered something with crab for a starter, and followed with the vitello tonatta as well. He thought it very odd, indeed, but tasty. For dessert, I felt compelled, as I often do, to order le specialité du collège de Cambridge (crème brulée—it’s an in joke at Willi’s,
where a patron once claimed that crème brulée was invented in a dining hall at Cambridge). Randy had the always-delicious chocolate terrine. I wanted to pick up the year’s Pudlo guide (my favourite French restaurant book, available in a Paris and a France edition), so we headed off towards the Louvre and visited the mall, rather than the musée. Then Randy napped and I made our dinner reservations for the week. After that, we wandered the Marais. We shopped at the excellent gay bookstore les Mots à la Bouche, and snacked on cold cuts & cheese with a nice Chinon at our favourite Marais wine bar, the AOC Café.
Our activity for the day was the Musée d’Orsay. I was expecting a crowd, but it was calm. There was a huge retrospective of some mediocre Dutch painter named Jongkind, and smaller ones of a Polish symbolist hack and a very odd glassblower. Most disappointing. The permanent collection is always good for a few hours, though, and I got to show Randy my favourite bad painting, a huge 1890s canvas entitled “The School of Plato.” I’ve always called it by the more appropriate title “Jesus and the Nelly Apostles.” It’s a hoot! After that, we walked back to the Marais via the Café Les Deux Palais, where Randy had a salade Perigourdine with paté and duck breast, and I had a croque madame on Poilâne bread. Les Deux Palais looks very unpromising, situated in prime tourist country and sporting a big sign offering “American Coffee.” But it’s the unofficial canteen of the Ministry of Justice, and they’re demanding customers. The place is really quite good. After lunch, we both had a long rest.
Few good Paris restaurants, aside from the big brasseries, are open on Sundays. Who knew Le Table d’Aligre was one of them? Apparently not many people, because it was very quiet. This was our first real dinner of the trip, and I was looking forward to it. Randy was jonesing for foie gras, so he ordered a ballotine of foie gras surrounded by a mixture of smoked duck breast and onion confit. It had all the usual accompaniments, but Randy was reluctant to use the cracked pepper and fleur de sel, because he liked it so much plain. I encouraged him to try them. Meanwhile, I was enjoying an asparagus dish and a half-bottle of lovely Cheverny. For seconds, I had a rascasse (the main fish in boulliabaise, and quite rare outside the Mediterranean) and Randy had confit of pork cheeks, which he’d never encountered before. He made an entire meal of cold meats (much as I had done the previous day at Willi’s), but he liked it fine. We shared a carafe of a rich, red St-Joseph from the upper Rhône Valley. For dessert, Randy chose a clafoutis au cerises and I a rhubarb tarte. Then we set off into the night and walked home.
My friend and business partner, Clay Doyle, suggested that Randy and I make a day trip to Rouen, where neither of us had ever been. It was raining on and off when we arrived (one hour and five minutes by train from the Gare St-Lazare). We left the train station and made purposefully for the Cathedral, since I was convinced from long experience that the tourist office would be across the street from the cathedral. I was right, of course, and wanted to get directions for lunch. I forgot to ask, though, and went back about an hour later as our lunch window was nearing its end. In the meantime, we wandered, and visited the St-Maclou church. Clay also gave us a lunch –the restaurant Le Vieux Carrée was great! Our lunch there was our big meal of the day. We both started with an asparagus gratin, very eggy, with fennel seeds on top. The fennel was a nice touch. After that, I had a pissaladière tarte with caramelized onions, anchovies and olives. This being Normandy and not Provence, there was a custard base to the tarte as well, which I wasn’t expecting. It was very tasty anyway. Randy had a skate wing, which he liked a lot. By mid-meal, we were the only people in the place (we’d arrived for lunch just a bit before 2, and they were quite busy), so I was a bit relieved when an odd gay couple (probably drawn there by a recent article by Clay in Out and About, I imagined) stopped for coffee. They were followed by some young straight French kids in love.
For dessert we both had a very good rhubarb tarte, and I bought a couple jars of jam to take home. After lunch, we returned to the very impressive cathedral to look inside (it was closed til 2 pm), then made our way back to the train station. With a few minutes to kill before the train, we sat down at a café and had Kir Normandes, which (no surprise) involve cider. Quite odd.
We got back to Paris to find the metro unusually busy, and every third passenger seemed to be carrying a musical instrument. We both wanted to rest, but a bad band was making a racket by the Metro entrance. I discovered in my guidebook that it was the solstice tradition of the Fête de la Musique, when anybody could set up and play late into the night. We got enthusiastic, and went down to the Metro entrance to hear what was by now a much better band. Apparently the etiquette of the evening involved no one group monopolizing a good spot. I got the bright idea to go to the Trocadero, because I thought it would be a happening, young music scene. The trains were by now truly mobbed, and there were lots of policemen in the Metro keeping order. We never got to Trocadero, because I found a discarded program for the evening’s more organized events, and thought an alternative-rock bill at place Denfert-Rochereau sounded good. So we made our way there, and stood around in a big, fun crowd (I fell in love three times), but the music was uninspired. When the last act turned out to be bad, mass-market American punk à la Green Day (but worse), we split. We set off towards home. I suggested we come up from the subway at St-Michel, and walk home from there, hoping to hit on a fun scene on the way. There was an odd little band at Place St-Michel doing a sort of klezmer-ska-Camper Van Beethoven thing that was ragged but fun. When they quit, we wandered toward home, and ran into a huge throng of gays on rue des Archives. The DJ playing standard gay dance music didn’t seem at all in the spirit of the evening, so (with much pushing and shoving) we moved on. At our doorstep, and disappointed by the Fête de la Musique, we heard something fun coming from the Metro entrance. There was a band standing around, waiting for a loud horn group to finish up. They looked like teens from the neighborhood, mostly Jewish kids, with an incredibly cute, baby-faced lead guitarist who couldn’t have been more than sixteen. Then they started to play–the Pink Panther theme, also in a klezmer-ska-Camper Van Beethoven vein, but much better than the kids at St-Michel, and with a big dose of Django Reinhart added. They were brilliant. They drew a fun, cute, mixed crowd, and encouraged audience participation. Gentle moshing ensued. We were very, very happy. I tried several times to photograph the angelically beautiful guitarist with my cellphone, but it was too dark, and the photos all came out crappy.
In the day, we went to Montmartre and to the Catacombs. Heights to depths. It was a concept.
Montmartre was as dull as I remembered. The basilica of Sacre-Coeur is astonishingly ugly, and historically associated with the right wing of French politics. The neighbourhood is full of t-shirt shops and pushy street vendors. The views are spectacular, though, and the funicular is fun.
After our trip to the top of the hill, we headed back to place Denfert-Rochereau, and the Catacombs. The caverns full of human bones arranged in layers like a fancy paté are very impressive, and the tour is very popular with boisterous American kids. It’s a jarring combination.
Both Randy and I were especially looking forward to our dinner at le Villaret. I’ve been there many times, and i has never disappointed—and once again, it didn’t. We were the first to arrive (always embarrassing), but a French couple followed almost immediately, which was nice. I ordered us two glasses of Banyuls for aperitifs. I still think it’s an odd aperitif (I drink it with dessert, since it’s the only wine I know that goes beautifully with chocolate), but what do I know? For wine, I ordered a positively cheap white Burgundy from Pernand Vergellesse (Clay and I drank some when we were there, and liked it a lot). It was brilliant–exactly what a white Burgundy should be, with buttery and tannic flavours above the fruit.
For the amuse-bouche, they served a little cold asparagus cream soup, ideal for the warm weather. For the first course, I had a delicious terrine of pigeon with a confit of onions and balsamic vinegar, and a rocket salad. Randy had a salad of langoustine tails. Since I couldn’t taste his (I have a potentially-fatal shellfish allergy), I forget the details. So does he. During the first course, the surrounding tables filled up. To my left was a very odd couple indeed–a Frenchman of about 50 with an American girl of about 24 (Randy says “no way, she was 35.”) He manages the Gipsy Kings (!) and she works for the record company. He was obviously trying to seduce her (in a businesslike way, just to keep his hand in, cuz he’s French) while she kept talking about her recent wedding. To my right was a party of four Americans from Boston, who were grateful that I could translate the entire menu for them. I couldn’t talk any of them into ordering lamb’s tongue, but they enjoyed themselves hugely, nonetheless.
For the main course, I ordered the dos de lieu jaune, which I remembered as being a tasty fish. It was very richly flavoured, and sat on a lovely leek purée. Randy had a dish that was mostly mushrooms, asparagus and artichokes, with a bit of mackerel. It was perfect warm-weather food. For dessert, Randy had a sort of milk-chocolate soup with a cookie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I had a sablé cookie on top of a layer of very good raspberries and whipped cream, with a spoonful of rhubarb sorbet. We walked home in a fine mood through intermittent light rain.
In the day, we went to the Louvre to see “The Raft of the Medusa,” and a few other highlights. Then we shopped—it was the season for les Soldes—the big summer sales.
Dinner was at Le C’Amelot (on the rue Amelot, on the border between the 3rd and 11th arrondissements. This is the new place we tried in Paris on this trip, based on very favorable reviews both in the New York Times (by Jacqueline Friedrich, who wrote the wonderful Wine and Food Guide to the Loire Valley) and in le Pudlo de Paris 2004. What tipped me in its favor was the fact that they serve a set meal, with choices only for dessert. I knew Randy agreed with me that lack of choice is a luxury, so I reserved a table.
We’d walked by the restaurant the night before, coming home from Le Villaret. It was super-cute, and looked tiny and rustic. They had the wine list posted in the window, and I noticed absinthe listed among the aperitifs. Of course, I had to have it, so when we arrived the next evening I ordered two. They came in proper, tall, parfait-shaped absinthe glasses, with proper, flat, antique, slotted absinthe spoons, sugar cubes, and a miniature pitcher of water. I instructed Randy in the ceremony, and we drank what tasted like slightly watered-down Ouzo. Sadly, a little crock of delicious, garlicky sausissons secs in olive oil arrived as an amuse-bouche, and clashed violently with the absinthe. They were, of course, swept off the table when our soup course arrived, so we missed out on enjoying them.
Our wine choices included my usual suspects of Loire Valley and Burgundy whites, so I asked for a recommendation and got a white St-Joseph, which was a bit pricey but really, really good. It was especially nice in contrast to the Pernand Vergellesse of the previous evening, because it was equally fruity while much less tannic, so the flavours were vastly different.
Our first course was a cold tomato soup with a curry cream quenelle. That could go either way but it was brilliant. The soup itself was just tomato-y enough, the quenelle was just curry-y enough, and the tiny croutons were just crunchy enough. Very refreshing on a warm and humid (and incredibly windy!) day. We got two bowls, each containing a quenelle, scattered croutons and a dusting of finely chopped chives. Then a big footed bowl of soup arrived—that sort of French bowl with the lions on the side–so we got a generous course of soup, both in quantity and in time.
That was followed by a couple slices of roasted monkfish on a bed of fennel remoulade with a simple sauce of some meaty jus and some mild acid (I forgot to look at the menu again as we left). It was a perfect smallish portion of beautifully melded flavours.
The main course was a Pintade de Bresse with roasted potatoes and girolle mushrooms. The entire pre-dessert menu was ideal for showing off the virtues of a really appropriate white wine, so I’m glad I asked for advice. By this time the very specific absinthe buzz had kicked in, and we were plastered–but in a good way.
For dessert, I had a mi-cuit chocolate soufflé cake thing, and Randy had peach slices with milk/mint sorbet. Mine was excellent but his was better. Our walk home revealed just how buzzed we both were.
A day of shopping–Randy went hog-wild at my favourite men’s clothing store in Paris, Melchior. The clothes there are beautiful, but designed for a longer, leaner silhouette than mine—so I shop there vicariously. I a bit wild at Celio (Spain’s answer to The Gap) Then, lunch in Belleville at le Baratin. Clay, Randy and I had been in Paris last May for an open artists studio weekend in Belleville, and we’d been smitten with this little bar. The place has been written up as the pick of the 20th in the new Pudlo guide! I started with one of the specials: a whole small rouget, simply prepared. It was very nice. I followed that with poitrine de porc with mashed potatoes, then charentais melon in a light vanilla syrup. Everything was simple and delicious. Randy started with especially good sautéed chicken livers on a salad, then lamb shoulder with curry and rice, and finally a clafoutis au cerise again. For wine I chose a cinsault vin gris from “the Valley of Paradise”–slightly, pleasantly sour and a tiny bit pettillante. After lunch we popped into a show of photos of the restored Giotto frescoes in Asissi ,with lots of useful explanation. The Italians seem to have done a great job. And, apart from a nice little concert at the Sainte-Chappelle, that was Paris. A good time was had by all.
The next day, we set out for London.