Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco; I left my heart in Paris. I also left my jeans in Paris. Seriously. They were my favorite pair. And right now they’re under the bed in room 204 of the Pavillon Pereire Arc de Triomphe Hotel. I suppose the saying is true: you can take the boy out of Paris, but you can’t take the boy’s jeans out of Paris. Now that bumper sticker totally makes sense.
Abrupt segue alert: French Toast!
This is my favorite food picture I took the whole trip. It comes from “Au Gourmand” a restaurant I discovered from Patricia Wells’s website. She writes: “A Left Bank newcomer worth visiting is Au Gourmand, a tiny restaurant the size of a railroad car just across from the Luxembourg Gardens. Chef Christian Courgeau and partner Hervé de Libouton offer an unpretentious, carefully conceived little spot that’s run with care and attention….If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss the pain perdue aux cerises, classic French toast paired with super sweet cherries and a dollop of pistachio ice cream.”
You can just look at that picture above and savor the simplicity and the wonder of those flavor pairings. And the color and presentation. This is what Paris is all about. And this was the first meal I ate after John left…
It was a cool and blustery Wednesday. I began that morning planning my day using the internet. Patricia Wells’s site was really useful, especially since I couldn’t track down her essential “Food Lovers Guide to Paris” before I left. Once I had a few restaurant recommendations written down in my pocket Moleskine, I could incorporate other day-planning factors such as: “what do I want to see before I leave on Friday?” One of the places I wanted to see was Shakespeare and Co, the famed bookstore on the left bank. My day began trying to track it down.
I had my fold-out map of Paris the hotel gave me and I stood there looking like “Ernest Goes to Paris” trying to find the correct street. Finally, after asking several people, I honed in on it: right on the Seine across from Notre Dame.
The two main reasons I wanted to see it were: (1) Ernest Hemingway writes about it in “A Moveable Feast” as his primary source for books; (2) this guy who works at my favorite coffee shop in New York told me I had to go there, that when he came to Paris he stayed in one of the cots (they let you stay there for free if you work the store for a few hours.) And so in I went and I found the place very charming, though a tiny bit too not French. Meaning: all the books were in English which, I suppose, is nice if you’re an ex-pat living abroad but if you’re only there for a week, a bookstore selling books in English isn’t really that exciting. I scanned the several rooms of books and then made my way to the Luxembourg Gardens.
These gardens weren’t very gardeny in the middle of December, but they maintained a certain grandeur. I traipsed through them and observed men practicing karate and women riding horses. Once on the other side, I used the list I’d made from the morning and decided Au Gourmand was the place for me to lunch.
One of the more bracing aspects of dining alone is the fear that you won’t measure up to whatever standard a specific restaurant has for its customer base. Knowing New York, it would indeed be very scary to dine at The Four Seasons or The Lever House by yourself. When I peaked into the windows at “Au Gourmand,” I had a sudden fear that maybe I wasn’t dressed right; maybe they’d turn me away.
In fact, because no one was in there yet (it was 11:30, the place opened at 12) I walked around the block a few times and tried to find alternative restaurants. But then my inner motivational speaker said: “Yo, girlfriend” (My inner motivational speaker is Oprah), “Turn your butt around and go back to Au Gourmand. You’re only here for two more days! Act like it!”
So back I went, walked inside and asked for a table. Imagine a movie with a little boy who’s afraid of playing baseball who finally works up the courage to step up to plate and then hits a home run. Same thing here: they were extraordinarily nice to me. So nice in fact that I felt terrible I couldn’t speak their language.
At first, I was alone in the restaurant and then another woman came in by herself. Then a man by himself. Two ladies completed the picture and that was it for Au Gourmand’s lunch crowd. Lever House it was not.
But the food puts Lever House to shame. Observe: “Soft boiled egg from the farm on truffled buttered mashed potatoes, emulsion and chips of celeriac.”
The egg itself was a work of art: how did they get the outside so firm and the inside so runny? And then the way the yolk drizzled on to those truffled potatoes creating a new food substance few men have enjoyed in their lifetimes. Louis IV would be humbled at such a dish.
Lest you think I am too glowing, though, I will say that the main course–“”Fillet of wild sea bream and mussels, spinach, preserved lemons, shitake and roasted pine nuts, parsley coules”–was just ok.
Talking to Clotilde that night, we agreed that fish is difficult to make spectacular. I ordered fish because of all the heavy food we’d eaten the few days before, but I don’t judge “Au Gourmand” any less for the sort of mutedness of the fish. The accompaniments helped a lot and so did the wine.
And then the dessert. It was all redeemed in the dessert. Think of it this way: this is one of five meals I’m going to describe to you from the rest of my trip (one of which happened at Joel Robechon) and I led with THAT photo. That bodes well for Au Gourmand, a restaurant whose fancy trappings mask the generous heart and playful spirit at its core. I put this in my Top Five favorite Paris meals because the food was solid but the service was superb. My waiter was so eager to please. When he saw me taking notes and taking pictures he asked where I was from and I said: “New York.” (“The French love writers,” said David Lebovitz the last day. “Tell them you’re from New York and they’ll be all over you.”) So maybe it was that. But even before that, he made conversation and offered me an English menu when he saw me struggling. This was a great lunch.
After lunch, I did some more exploring. Don’t you like this pretty carousel?
And then that night I met Clotilde for dinner.
Clotilde and I made our dinner plans a while back, but I hadn’t put it together that my day plan (which I made somewhat spontaneously) would correspond so well to my dinner plan. Only I had to return to my hotel 8000 miles away to change; but essentially, Ze Kitchen Galerie is right in the same area as Shakespeare & Co. and Au Gourmand: the Left Bank.
Even though I’ve only met Clotilde once before (well twice, if we count her NY get-together before she and I had dinner at Babbo), she knows me well enough to have anticipated that I’d arrive to dinner early (I’m a geriatric at heart: always early for everything) and gave me the name the reservation was under. When I gave the man the name, he led me to a table far in the back and I worried Clotilde wouldn’t find me. So I told him I’d actually wait for her at the front.
She arrived not much later, we said our hellos and made our way to the table.
Ze Kitchen Galerie is certainly a modern French restaurant. I’m not even sure it’s French, there are so many international influences. For a starter I had “Saumon A l’Algue Nori, Poulpe Marines, Mangue Verte & Enokie” which, I think translates to: raw fish.
Everything was fresh and zingy. Clotilde had a chestnut soup which she let me try (you can see it on her site’s Moblog) and it was equally mouth-popping.
For my entree I had : “Caine” (Caine? Or Caire?) “de Porcelet Marine.” (I can’t read my own handwriting) which translates to: pig.
Twas tasty, though occasionally hard to eat with bones here and there. Clotilde had “Poule Faisane à la Plancha” which she enjoyed very much.
We spent the meal talking about food blogs, book writing and the existence of God. Just your average light dinner conversation. I did say something so profound Clotilde wrote it down. I can’t tell you what it is but it involves the phrase: “You can take the boy out of Paris…”
[You will only find that funny if you read this whole post carefully.]
I had a passion fruit dessert:
And Clotilde, who looks adorable here, doesn’t she?, had a dessert with candied olives in it:
That makes her the braver more respectable food blogger. I bow to her adventurousness and cute new hairstyle.
At the end of our night, we rode the Metro back together and as we were waiting for a train to arrive these men got into a fight across the tracks. It looked really serious: one kept punching at the other and kicking while others were holding him back. The angry one took the other’s bag and threw it on to the tracks. Just as it looked like it was going to escalate towards some extreme violence, some main yelled out (in French): “STOP IT!” and to the astonishment of everyone watching, they did.
Clotilde marveled at how one man’s tiny gesture could be so effective. I marveled at the idea of candying an olive: who would ever think to do that? Eventually, Clotilde and I said our farewells and I made my way into the night.
Which leads us to the next day. Clotilde suggested I check out the fancy shmancy department store Le Bon Marche, so I did:
This is a place my mom would like with its Louis Vuitton and Chanel departments. I thought the interlocking escalators were eye-catching:
I took Clotilde’s advice and had lunch at Delicabar upstairs:
Quite obviously, I didn’t fit in there: wealthy women with shopping bags and beautiful waitresses sort of eyed me suspiciously. Very few of them spoke English. I ordered the “Salade Toute Verte” which I now understand means everything’s green:
It made me feel healthy. I combatted that healthiness by eating lots of bread:
After lunch, I went and discovered the true reason Clotilde sent me in this direction:
La Grand Epicerie De Paris: one of Paris’s most beautiful food markets. I went and let the room wash over me. I then took a picture and a man said: “No photos” (except in French.) I let his words wash over me and the man said: “Get a new phrase.” I stepped forward and began exploring.
There were two big things that caught my eye as very different from America while exploring. (And you’ll see the same thing in the David Lebovitz video.) #1: Birds with heads, feet and feathers.
(I covertly broke the no picture rule.)
It looks a bit freakish to us to see feathered birds with heads on in a glass case but as David will tell you on video, “It lets you know it’s fresh.” That makes sense. And I think it’s useful to be VERY aware that what you’re cooking for dinner was a living thing and you need to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Which leads to the #2 observation: ham carved from a leg that still has a hoof on it. Can you see?
Same deal: a bit off-putting for Americans who rarely see hooves in their supermarkets, except for club-toed old women who walk around barefoot. (Sorry club-toed old women: I jest with love.)
These were the things I observed. I also observed a kind of instant risotto in a tall glass jar:
I was so taken by this idea that I purchased one of the jars for myself, wrapped it in a t-shirt and brought it back with me. It’s in my kitchen now and I’ll make it later in the week, perhaps.
I also bought some praline spread to give my catsitters and a cannele because I never had one:
David Lebovitz writes about these on his site, so I wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. I can tell you that the fuss is warranted: these are nice and crisp on the inside and surprisingly gelatinous on the inside. The whole thing has a rich, burnt caramel taste and goes down right quick. I ate it before I even knew I started.
The rest of the day was spent hopping around Paris, and then that night I decided to live the life of Reilly and have the “blow-out” meal someone suggested at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
Don’t be mad but my experience here was so extreme, so–well–memorable and vital that I’m not going to write about it here, I’m going to use it for my book. Suffice it to say, all the positive experiences I described about dining alone at Au Gourmand were turned on their head here. So much so that it’s going to make you laugh when you read about it. But to appease you I’ll show you some of the food (but not much because I couldn’t use a flash and they’re dark and blurry). This is a foie gras cappuccino:
Actually, that’s the only one I can show because it’s the only one I can identify. They wouldn’t give me a menu to reference and the picture I took of the menu is hard to read. Let’s just pretend that this meal didn’t happen and if 18 years from now when my book is finally done, you still want to know more details I promise to tell you!
Which brings us to our last day. Thursday.
This day existed because of David Lebovitz. My initial package was for a five day trip but I wanted so much to meet him that I extended for an extra two days (he was just getting back from his US book tour.) It was super nice of David to meet me when he was still jetlagged and fatigued, but I think he’ll agree after watching his star turn in the video I’m about to post that it was completely worthwhile.
The video I speak of features David taking me around his favorite Paris market as well as a few of his favorite chocolate shops. In between all this, we went for lunch at Chez Paul which goes up there with Chez Omar as some of the best authentic French food I experienced on my trip:
David’s philosophy is simple: why have fussy, fancy French food (Ahem: Joel Robuchon) when you can have real, authentic French food in a much more genial, less-oppressive atmosphere. I agree wholeheartedly.
Chez Paul is a friendly place. When they tried to seat us near a door, a boisterous table told us not to sit there: “There’s a draft every time the door opens.”
Upstairs, where we finally sat, the table next to us asked permission for one in their party to smoke. Can’t imagine that happening at Joel Robuchon.
I started with “frisee au lardons” served with a poached egg:
I love the idea of this salad and I’m so glad I got it, but I think I’m too much a nervous eater to eat frisee. I constantly have a fear of choking and for someone like me, frisee is my own personal salad Everest. Each bite is like a dance with death. Yet the bacon and the egg yolk (once again, egg yolk!) make the journey and the dance a worthwhile endeavor. David said the yolk should soften the frisee so next time I’ll toss that yolk around more and put my fear of choking behind me.
David, on the other hand, had a shredded carrot salad which is, he told me, very French. “Very simple: just shredded carrots and some lemon juice.” (I think David’s confused the French diet with a horse diet, but we won’t judge him poorly.)
For my entree, I had one of my Top Five dishes of the trip: Pot Au Feau au Trois Viandes.
Pot Au Feau is French cooking at its most rustic. Just a big pot of meat: in this case, knuckle, tail and cheek. What I loved about this dish was how it was served. It came in this iron pot next to an empty plate served with some hot mustard and a jar of grainy salt. I spooned the meat on to my plate, sprinkled the salt over it and spooned some mustard on to the side and I was in meat-lover ecstasy. Those condiments spiked everything up to a holy level of experience. Pot Au Feau? More like Pot Au FANTASTIC.
And here he is, the man of the hour, Sir Mister Duke Lebovitz himself:
Let’s give him a round of applause for exposing me to such authentic, transportive French cuisine. And then let’s give him a moment to prepare for his grand debut as the star of “David Lebovitz in Paris,” about to be posted after this post in my Paris Film post.
I can’t think of a better way to end my Paris round-up than with this meal. True, I ate some more food after this but this is where it truly ended. A big tub of meat, good company at the table and an apologetic French smoker smoking next to me.
Paris was a blast and if I never get to go back, I’ll always carry it with me. And I’ll always remember what I left behind: a pair of jeans. Room 204. Lucky Brand. Like Paris, they fit me perfectly.