Travel is a funny thing. The more you build it up in your head, the less likely you are to do it.
Which is why, a few months ago, when our friends Harry and Cris told us that they were going to France for Christmas and New Year’s (Cris is from Bordeaux), I spontaneously suggested that we all spend New Year’s together in Paris. The idea took, especially since Craig had never been to France, and I cashed in all of our Delta miles and booked us two roundtrip tickets to Paris. In terms of great spontaneous decisions, this was one of the best I’ve ever made.
I’ve been to Paris five times now, four times in winter and once in summer, and I much prefer going in the winter, when all of that rich, hearty food feels oh-so-right and keeps you oh-so-warm. (Plus, it warmed up quite a bit once we got there.)
The only downside to going for New Year’s was that quite a few restaurants were closed while we were there, including the ones most universally recommended: Clown Bar, Yam-Tcha, Septime. But, as you’re about to see, we did really well for ourselves and by the end of the trip, I was so full that if any of those restaurants had actually opened back up, I’d have waved a white flag and said, “Maybe next time.”
Funny enough, the best meal of the whole trip was the one that we had with Harry and Cris on New Year’s Eve. Where did we go? L’Arpege? Another Michelin three-star? Hardly. We went that morning to the Marché d’Aligre (on the recommendation of Verjus chef, Braden Perkins) and stocked up on cheese, bread, radishes, clementines, dates, butter, and all kinds of sausages and pâtes.
We brought it all back to a friend’s apartment and enjoyed it all that night with lots of good French wine and champagne. Seriously, the best bite of the whole trip was a torn off piece of baguette from Maison Landemaine (a David Lebovitz recommendation) smeared with the grassiest, creamiest, unpasteurized Camembert, washed down with a sip of cold, crisp champagne.
The other best bite of the trip? Well, prepare to be very jealous: legendary cookbook author, and just all-around incredible person, Dorie Greenspan, invited Craig and I over for pre-dinner drinks with her husband, Michael, and she fed us homemade gougères. Makes me think of The Sound of Music lyric: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood / I must have done something good.”
Other highlights, before we get to the restaurants. We had drinks at Ina Garten’s favorite bar, on the recommendation of our friend Marcos. The bar is called Bar 228 and it’s in the Hotel Meurice and the two drinks that we had there were the most expensive drinks I’ve ever had in my life (we’re talking over sixty Euros for a Negroni and a Daiquiri). We drank them very, very slowly.
But it was worth it, especially because drinking them cast a magic spell and, you’re not going to believe me, but Ina and Jeffery were on our flight home to JFK. That’s not a joke: I heard a familiar voice, looked up, and saw Jeffery making his way down the aisle, with Ina following close behind. It was probably the highlight of my life (and, no, I didn’t talk to her; I was really clammy and gross because, without going too much into it, I experienced food poisoning on our last night in Paris. And also, I wanted to respect her privacy. And also I was afraid she’d accuse me of stealing her broccoli recipe.)
Another highlight: after giving up on the line outside The Musee D’Orsay (which I’ve been to before, Craig hadn’t), we decided to check out the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, which I found to be ten times more fun and unique. What is it? It’s kind of a hunting museum, but also a nature museum, infused with strange French art. It felt like we were exploring the home of a mad, French, hunter and artist who left cryptic messages everywhere, especially cryptic for people who don’t read French.
We walked around Montmartre after a rainstorm, and it was just as charming as everyone says it will be.
I used this New York Times article as a shopping guide, and wound up at Marché St.-Pierre at the base of Montmartre where I spent way too much time trying to find the kitchen section.
I did find it eventually and stocked up on kitchen towels and a handsome linen apron that cost only fifteen Euros (half a drink at Bar 228).
OK, now for the restaurants!
How do I talk about the restaurants? We went to ten restaurants. I’ll tell you about my favorite five, but mention the other five too so you can get the whole picture.
Favorite Restaurant Meals in Paris 2018:
If you’d have interviewed me five minutes after our dinner at Bistrot Paul Bert, I would have told you that I’d had a terrible time. “Wait, what? What do you mean?” I mean that when we arrived for our reservation, we were immediately seated in a back room full of loud, obnoxious Americans. One table demanding hamburgers, another table demanding “the sweetest, cheapest bottle of wine that you have.” I don’t mean to be a self-hating American, but part of the fantasy of going to Paris is that simply by being in a room full of chic Parisians, you become somewhat chic yourself. Eating at Bistrot Paul Bert was the least chic meal of our entire trip; it felt like we were eating at the French pavilion in EPCOT.
So why in the world is it my number one pick for favorite restaurant meal of the trip? Easy: the food.
The food at Bistrot Paul Bert is phenomenal. The front rooms are full of savvy Parisians who know a good thing when they see it. This is the French food of your dreams, the kind of meal you hear someone talking about in rapturous tones while closing their eyes, whisking thesmelves back to happier times.
In fact, Craig ordered the very dish that made Julia Child fall in love with Paris in the first place: Sole Meunière. (Actually, not sure this was Sole Meunière… but it was definitely sole.)
And I had a dish I’ve been wanting to try forever (especially since it’s prominently featured in the screenplay I’ve been working on for the past two years): Blanquette de Veau.
Served over rice, this was chicken soup for the French soul. Except instead of chicken, it was baby cow.
Then the most wonderful thing happened. Craig ordered cheese instead of dessert and they brought out this giant board of cheeses and let him eat as much as he wanted. For someone who’d never been to France who absolutely loves cheese, this was like being given the key to the city.
And me, I had the best dessert of the entire trip (and this all happened on our first night) a Paris-Brest bigger than my head.
Here’s the thing: if you go into your meal at Bistrot Paul Bert knowing that, if you’re American, you’ll most likely be seated amongst the other Americans, given menus in English, spoken to somewhat patronizingly (though with the best of intentions; our waiter was very sweet), you’ll have what’s probably the best French food of your entire trip. Again, I was in a terrible mood when we left. But I was incredibly well fed.
2. La Bourse et La Vie.
There’s a new phenomenon happening in Paris involving American chefs: basically, they’re running the kitchens at some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants. In fact, the next three places I’m going to mention all have American chefs. It’s just a thing that’s happening. And Daniel Rose, the chef at La Bourse et La Vie, happens to also be the chef at Le CouCou in New York, which I recently named my second favorite meal of 2017.
Located in the financial district, La Bourse et La Vie (La Bourse refers to the stock market, though the full restaurant name also colloquially means, “Your money or your life”) has a real polish and sheen to it that, again, makes a place like Bistrot Paul Bert feel like EPCOT. You’ll feel very stylish eating here, though most of the other tables, once again, were full of Americans. These ones, though, weren’t demanding hamburgers or asking for sweet wine.
The food at La Bourse et La Vie is absolutely lovely. That feels like the right word for it: it’s carefully made and very subtly executed. My soup, made of Jerusalem artichokes, wasn’t bright with too much acid or over-salted. It was just soothing and creamy and earthy. And Craig’s leek salad was mellow, not at all stringy, and satisfying.
We each had steak frites for our entree:
There was a tiny bit of gristle to work through (Craig had to spit out his first bite) but those fries were phenomenal and with a glass of red wine at lunch, the only thing I really needed afterwards was a nap.
Instead, we had the dessert which was a killer crème caramel.
OK, then I really needed nap.
Remember our friends Harry and Cris who inspired this whole trip? So we finally met up with them on our third night in Paris (they were coming from Bordeaux) and our reunion happened at one of the most charming restaurants that we visited the whole week that we were there: Verjus.
The craziest thing about Verjus is that, apparently, a few years ago I met up with the chefs/owners, Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian, in New York. “We had a cookie at Birdbath,” said Braden when he came over to visit our table. “Oh yeah!” I said, the memory coming back to me. When we’d met, Verjus was just a twinkle in their eye; they were still hosting pop-up dinners in Paris. Now they were at the helm of one of the most recommended restaurants in Paris.
And the food at Verjus is truly wonderful. My pictures didn’t come out so great, but the meal started with all kinds of little bites set out before us: a hollowed out squash filled with cheese, an egg with truffles in it that Harry and Craig couldn’t stop raving about, a crostata-like tart filled with greens.
There was so much more that came out, including my favorite dish (a wedge of pumpkin with a mussel sauce), but the most memorable may have been the seared foie gras served over lentils:
And the desserts totally hit the spot.
We loved our dinner at Verjus.
4. Au Passage.
Down a dark alley, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, lives Au Passage, a restaurant recommended to me by Melissa Clark and, once again, a restaurant run by an American chef.
This place just oozed cool. And we were surrounded by French people here, including our friend Brad Comfort who was visiting Paris from L.A. because this is where he grew up. Well not this alley, but Paris.
He supervised as I ordered the food in French; that’s one thing my French lessons prepared me well for: ordering food with proper inflections. We ordered oysters, which in French are called “huitres.”
We, of course, ordered more foie gras (when in France).
We ate some kind of raw fish.
We drank a really nice Beaujolais.
And we also ate more fish, some pork, and dessert.
Actually, that dessert was the most memorable: a baba au rhum that was positively packed with flavor.
Our meal at Au Passage was definitely the coolest one of our trip. If you want to visit Paris and feel like a hip Parisian, eat here.
When we knew we were coming to Paris, I reached out to my old pal Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini to let her know that we were coming. And she was kind enough to make a reservation for us at Alain Ducasse’s new brasserie, Champeaux, situated in the historic marketplace, Les Halles.
We met up there with Clotilde and her husband Maxence and they guided us through the menu of French classics. Craig and I each had French Onion Soup, which was very good indeed, especially on a rainy night.
But the highlight of the meal came next, and it was so good that it put Champeaux in my Top Five list, above places like Frenchie and Chateaubriand, where we also ate. And that dish was the chicken for two:
This chicken. Oh my God, this chicken. Perfectly cooked, perfectly moist, but, more importantly, exploding with bright, lemony flavor. And, even more important, surrounded by bright, lemony, chicken jus, which I over-eagerly sopped up with bread. Apparently, Clotilde has a recipe for this chicken in her new cookbook that’s coming out soon; I’ll be first in line to buy it just so I can try to make this at home.
There was also mashed potatoes, rich with butter:
And a molten chocolate cake for dessert.
All of that was great, but oh my, that chicken. I’ll be dreaming about that chicken for a long time.
* * * * *
So what of the other places that we ate? Frenchie was a classy place with beautifully prepared food. Here are some pics:
I enjoyed everything that we ate at Frenchie very much, and especially appreciated the service which was convivial and professional, but frankly the food felt like food I could have at a good restaurant in America. Nicely made chicken. Nicely prepared fish. The cheese came from England. The dessert was very familiar to me, like something we might have at Trois Mec here in L.A.
It’s not really a dig on Frenchie. It’s more a point about the kind of food that you want to eat when you’re traveling; for me, that’s food that tastes like nothing I could get at home.
As for the other places we visited, Chateaubriand was vibrant and exciting, though the food was tipping its hat a bit too much to what’s trendy right now in America. So we had a watermelon gazpacho, a ceviche, etc.
Le Comptoir was great on a rainy night.
Here’s where we had the obligatory escargot:
We also had the most intriguing salad of cooked and raw vegetables with chestnuts.
For my entree, I had a rabbit stuffed with liver. Yeah, I wanted to try something I couldn’t easily get in the States. The sauce sort of tasted like French mole.
Here’s where we first encountered these really cool steak knives that I ended up buying as a souvenir (Clotilde told me where I could find them; Courty et Fils.)
If Le Comptoir’s not in my top five, it’s only because the food came out a little too fast and I wasn’t sure how I felt about everything. Like the escargot was good, but not as good as the one at Petit Trois here in L.A. But frankly, this could easily switch positions with Champeaux on my list. They’re both equally good.
Finally, I have to mention Le Fontaine de Belleville, where we had breakfast one morning.
It was cold and rainy out, but we found a little table in there and the servers only spoke French, but we figured out that the stove wasn’t working so we ordered the meusli and two baguettes with butter and ham.
It was an utterly simple breakfast but, in its simplicity, incredibly memorable. Especially that baguette with the butter and the ham; the butter had a grassiness to it that American butter just doesn’t have.
In fact, if I had to sum up my food takeaway from this trip, there are only three things you really need to eat in Paris to experience the sublime: bread, butter, and cheese. Everything else is nice, but those are the three things that are just categorically better in France.
To that point, Craig’s favorite bite of the whole trip may have been the one we had at a random coffee shop that we stumbled into called Blackburn. We ordered eggs cocotte and Craig could not stop raving about what he was eating: eggs baked in the most luscious cream (tangy and rich, like creme friache), browned bubbly cheese, and a simple yolky egg that we sopped up with good bread.
And so ends this GIGANTIC post. I won’t bore you with details of our journey home, except to say that after getting sick at our last dinner (not saying where, because they were so nice, but I’ll tell you the dish: tripe and calamari… just typing those words makes me want to vomit), being too sick to say hi to Ina on the plane, we got stranded at JFK for the night because of the bomb cyclone.
Luckily, we had our memories of Paris to get us through it.