Paris, Day One (Part Two): The Eating Begins [Charles Traiteur, Boulangepicier, Le Clou]

Here I was, eager to share with you every moment of every experience I’ve experienced thus far on my Paris adventure and then Typepad goes nuts and won’t let me post for two days. Ah well: now’s the opportunity to scramble and catch up. John’s already asleep so I’ll keep my typing noise down and try to cram as much in here as I can without writing a mini-novel.

When you last left me, I had reached my hotel in the 17th arrondissement. John’s brother Chris (who arrived yesterday) joked that our hotel’s so far out of the way we’re practically in Normandy. He’s not even kidding. What’s frustrating is that part of the reason we chose this hotel from the options Virgin Vacations gave us is that the hotel has “Arc De Triomphe” in the title and so we figured, naturally, that the hotel was quite close to the Arc De Triomphe. Boy were we wrong. Here’s our hotel:

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The Arc De Triomphe? Oh it’s about 30 minutes away by foot. Not exactly in the hotel’s backyard. The hotel is about 10 minutes from the nearest metro station and once on the metro it’s not a problem getting anywhere we need to go. So in the end, this hotel is fine it’s just not ideal but when you’re paying as little as we did for this trip I guess we can’t complain. Plus we got hot water back last night and for that I am very grateful.

But you’re not here to read about hotels and hot water and Metro rides. You’re here to read about food. Are you curious about the very first thing I ate upon my first visit to Paris in seven years? Click ahead to find out.

I arrived at the hotel by myself at 10 am (John arrived the next day at the same time; different flights because of different packages) and the unfortunately rude hotel clerk (I say “unfortunately” because it’s such a nasty stereotype that the French are rude and as you’ll see as I share much of my trip, almost everyone else has been super friendly) informed me that my room wouldn’t be read until 2. So I dropped my bags behind the desk and went a’walking.

I was hungry. The food on the plane (American Airlines) was expectedly bad—the dinner was boiled chicken in a chunky orange sauce—but the breakfast was even more unforgivable. It was a little carton with Wheat Thins, imitation peanut butter (made with sesame seeds) and jam. You’re supposed to spread them on the Wheat Thins. I think that’s gross.

So as I went a’wandering out the hotel door, I made my way through my arrondissement and discovered this place:

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Even though this place–Charles Traiteur Patissier–wasn’t one of the many recommended places I carried around with me in my little black Moleskin notebook, I ventured inside and explored the pastries.

“Bonjour,” said a man behind the counter.

“Bonjour,” I said studying the eclairs.

“You are American?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I suppose I don’t hide it well.

“Bush,” he said, shaking his head “no.” “Bush is very bad. Clinton—I like Clinton.”

“You’re preaching to the choir,” I said and strangely a choir entered behind me. We sang a rousing version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and then I ordered an eclair. A chocolate eclair. This is the first thing I ate in Paris on this trip:

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For 10 in the morning, this eclair was a little rich for my taste. But it was pretty excellent. Cool chocolate cream in a doughy pastry shell. I paid, ate half of it and continued on my way.

“Au revoir!” said the man.

“Au revoir!” I said.

On my walk I beheld many scenic Parisian sites, like this statue to Alexander Dumas:

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And this very scenic park:

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And this eye-catching Metro sign:

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At several corner stands, they were selling clams, oysters and sea urchins:

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As I made my way closer and closer to the Arc De Triomphe, I began to enjoy the many festive decorations on various restaurants:

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As you can see, this one was bright red. And then there was this one:

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I loved the simple white decor outside and I peaked inside to see what the food was like. It seemed like a pretty standard sandwich shop. It was close to 11 now and I was getting hungry but I didn’t want to waste my first true meal on something that wasn’t sanctioned by one of my readers, guidebooks or food blogging friends. So I continued exploring, walking and walking and growing more and more tired.

Finally I decided to remove the Moleskin notebook from my pocket to read the giant list of restaurant recommendations I’d written down on the hard back cover. What was near where I was? Anything near the 17th?

Under Clotilde’s rec’s I’d written: “Boulangepicier (Pricy Sandwiches): 73 bd. de Courcelles.”

I pulled out the map I’d taken from the hotel and scanned for Bd. de Courcelles. Hey, that’s not far from where I am right now!

So I studiously navigated my way to Bd. de Courcelles and began hunting down 73. When I came upon it, the site seemed familiar:

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Dude, wasn’t that your last picture?

Yes, Ashton Kutcher, it was! See: I should’ve trusted my instincts and my knack for literacy. Boulangepicier was destined to be my first lunch spot and I could fight it no longer.

Outside was this chalkboard menu:

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And though it all looked nice, I remembered that Clotilde raved over the three tiny sandwiches on a skewer. Inside, a very friendly man offered me a table. I took it and began studying the menu. When he came around to take my order, I said (with a French accent, as if that would help): “Three sandwiches on skewer?” I mimed skewer.

The man said: “Oh, that you get at counter. Here menu only. You get at counter and eat at bar.”

“Merci,” I said, and placed the menu down. I went to the counter and watched a man scour large loaves of bread before putting them in the oven.

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I studied my sandwich options:

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No sandwiches on skewers were to be found and when I asked for them they kindly told me that they’d sold out. So my choice came down to Le Parisian (Ham and Cornichons) or Sardines on Olive bread.

Being the adventurous type, I went with the sardine sandwich because it actually looked tastier to me:

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And indeed it was super tasty. The bread was perfectly cooked–not too chewy, not too crunchy–and the condiments (sundried tomato and some kind of pesto) accented the sardines (which weren’t too oily) in an excellent way. Next to me on the bar was a giant Alain Ducasse cookbook which made sense because Alain Ducasse is a co-owner of this place. In fact, this was some of the first Alain Ducasse approved food I’d ever eaten.

After lunch, I was ready to return to the hotel. On the way I passed many sites of interest. Like working people lined up for large loaves of bread which they carried back to their offices:

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A Charcuterie store selling foie gras and other meats:

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A classic French cheese shop:

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With a lovely selection in the window:

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Someone on my Flickr wrote a comment on this photo: “In a word, ‘Paris.'” I agree.

Now back to the hotel, my room was ready and I literally touched the bed and instantly went to sleep. I’d been up for more than 24 hours and I swam in the silky seas of my unconscious for 6 hours, waking up at 8 pm, slightly refreshed, slightly disheveled and very hungry.

“Where shall I go for dinner?” I asked myself.

“I’m not sure,” my other personality responded.

I whipped open my Time Out Paris book and looked for places in my Arrondissement. There were several, but the one that seemed most appealing was called Le Clou. Here’s what Time Out has to say:

“This red-fronted former brasserie is somewhat off the beaten track,” (Haha, welcome to my hotel), “but its combination of honest cooking, smiling service and terrific value makes it well worth seeking out….”

And seek it out I did. It was surprisingly close. Here it is from the outside:

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I have to admit, I was slightly nervous going to eat alone—not nervous, really, but just slightly uncomfortable. Yet I’d heard that in Paris it’s done all the time. And sure enough, even though every table in this place was full with loud, cheering parties I was greeted warmly at the door, I hung up my coat, studied the menu at the bar and eventually they led me to a table next to several people already engrossed in their meal.

I studied the menu and attempted to translate. I had my Lonely Planet translation guide in my pocket and I used it to figure some things out.

For my “entree” (or appetizer) I chose: “Chevre frais de Touraine, salade d’autumne a’l’huile de noix cuisinale.” Obviously, I could pick out some words better than others. I know chevre is goat cheese and “salade’ d’autumne” is pretty obvious and here’s what arrived:

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This salad was wonderful. The chevre was unlike any I’d ever had before. I wrote down in my little Moleskin pad: “Creamy, milky goat cheese. Deep grassy flavor.” Moreso than any cheese I’d ever had, it really tasted of its origins. I felt like I was on a hillside surrounded by goats as Julie Andrews sang a song from “The Sound of Music.” I stood on the table: “High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd…”

My neighbors stared at me. I sat back down.

The rest of the salad had tomatoes, walnuts, avocado, hericot verts, and raw mushrooms that were very flavorful. I give this salad an A+.

For my entree, I ordered “Civet de gibier selon la chaste cuisine a la Poitenne, servi en cocotte.”

I asked the waiter what Civet was and he responded: “bah-m-by.”

“Bah-m-by?” I repeated. What’s bah-m-by?

“Bambi,” he said again.

“Oh Bambi,” I said, laughing. “Deer.”

“Yes,” he said. “And don’t call me dear.”

The civet came in a beautiful cast iron pot and the waiter spooned its contents on to the plate.

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The stew (as you can see) was an incredibly rich chocolate color and just as thick as chocolate might be. The mat was perfectly tender and all the accouterments–little carrots, scallions, unidentifiable pods that may have been juniper berries or peppercorns–ratcheted up the stew to sublime heights. With each bite I knew I was in Paris and that I was going to love it here.

Finally, for dessert, I chose “Compotee de fruits d’automne et pruneaux au vinde cannelle, glace du paind’epices.”

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The key words here were “fruits,” “autumn,” “cannelle” and “glace” and I was not disappointed. The prunes were saturated with spicy wine sauce and the cannelle was wonderfully prepared. How did they make all these things in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen?

When the waiter came to take it away, I used my language guide to tell him the food was delicious. “Merci,” he said smiling widely.

Meanwhile, the room was quieting down. I’d been watching everyone through the meal— a table of men sent back a bottle of wine because it tasted funny; a woman knocked a coat rack on to a wine glass and it shattered everywhere; a table in the corner chainsmoked a pack of cigarettes.

After I paid the bill, I put on my coat and I was glowing with satisfaction. This was the most perfect first dinner in Paris ever. Not one tourist in the room except for me and the food was exceptional. It’s just the sort of experience you carry with you always–eating alone in a restaurant in a foreign country and not feeling funny about it, embracing it, in fact. Back in the cold night air, I walked back to my hotel whistling Parisian music. True, upon my return there’d still be no hot water and I’d discover funny stains on my bedspread, but I didn’t care. Paris was my oyster and I’d shucked it open with vigor. My Paris journey had begun!

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