This was the trip to Paris that almost wasn’t. Back in May 2007 my wife, Laurie, and I had been forced to cancel our trip there because it collided with our apartment purchase. Then, this past October, we had to cancel yet again because our daughter, Antonia, got a cold the day before we were supposed to leave, and it didn’t take a doctor to make us realize that dragging a sick child to France was asking for trouble. At the time, Laurie and I were confident that we had made the right decision, but I realize now that I was in big time denial of just how disappointed I was at not being able to go.
The thing is I love Paris. A lot. Everything about it. Aside from New York, it’s really the only place that has ever felt like home to me. I really enjoy the Parisians too, and I’ve never had that sort of behavioral disconnect with them that some Americans have. I’ve come to realize that this is probably because I grew up in a somewhat formal household with lots of rules. Therefore, while in Paris, I’m always conscious that there could be some type of protocol that must be followed at any moment. I tend to stop and think before I speak or act when I’m in Paris. I make lots of eye contact, and I’m excruciatingly polite. This tends to go over very well with Parisians, who adore their rules and codes of behavior (although I’ve noticed over the years that they love to break these rules too, they just don’t want YOU to break them). The fact that I speak decent, intermediate French hasn’t exactly hurt either.
Anyway, getting back to how this trip came to be, Laurie and I decided after the second cancellation that maybe what we would do was to take our daughter and soon-to-arrive son to Paris for two whole weeks sometime in 2008. That way everyone would have time to adjust to the new time zone, and the four of us would likewise be able to get into a comfortable routine. It’s been our experience that keeping a routine is essential with small children, as the world can sometimes seem overwhelming to them, and the predictability of life’s routines is very comforting.
As time passed, however, I had to really look inside and ask myself if that type of family trip was really what I wanted from Paris, and as it turns out it wasn’t. I didn’t want to take an infant and a precocious toddler (two creatures that as any parent knows have very different needs and schedules) across the ocean and basically do our family routine in Paris versus in New York. It would not be easy to go to all the interesting restaurants, spend lots of time in museums, or dart to this or that exhibit at a moment’s notice. While I have nothing but respect and admiration for people that take young children on trips like this, I had to be honest with myself and face the fact that it wasn’t my thing. End of story, and end of Paris trip.
Or was it? Early in January 2008, an idea began to take shape in my little brain, and so one morning over breakfast I finally got the courage to ask Laurie how she would feel if I went to Paris by myself for a few days. I would do it in March, almost two months before the baby was supposed to arrive, and get it out of my system. Expecting either mocking laughter or a withering rebuke about leaving a pregnant woman behind while I dashed off on a free and easy single guy’s sojourn, I instead nearly spit out my brioche when she blithely said that she didn’t have a problem with it. She also said that she could ask her mother to come up and stay with her and Antonia while I was gone (this was a huge part of my being able to enjoy the trip with peace of mind).
Just when I started thinking that this was way too easy, Laurie threw in a couple of non-offensive conditions: 1. no high-end restaurants, and 2. I would have to get my airline ticket for free with points (as understanding as my wife is, there was no way she was doing without a new light fixture for our dining area or some other item in our home in order to facilitate a trip that she would not be a part of). No problem, I thought. Even though I’ve been known to enjoy a fancy pants meal now and again, I don’t really like that type of thing unless Laurie is with me. Then there was that part about the airline ticket. Although I thought I was arriving a little late in the game in January to be looking for a freebie ticket for March, I was fortunate enough to get one that allowed me five full days in Paris with a reasonable departure and return time. I was also able to book the same apartment that we were supposed to stay at in October from Paris by Heart, so I didn’t have to waste any time doing all that research again. My trip to Paris was re-born!
As if all these pleasant surprises were not enough, there was one more in the offing. About a week or so after everything for the trip was set, I got the whacky idea to ask my good friend David to join me on the trip. Fully expecting him to decline (David has a busy life with a wife and family of his own), I naturally welcomed his unexpected and enthusiastic acceptance of my invitation. The New York dads were on their way to Paris!
The flight over on Air France was blissfully uneventful. There was just one thing out of the ordinary which was that my plane landed about a half an hour early. As we were on separate flights that had slightly different schedules, David and I agreed that upon landing, we would each try and go to the other’s terminal to see if the other one had already arrived. If one guy discovered that the other had already landed, the plan then was to head over to the RER ticket window and meet there. If not, the early guy would stay put and wait for the other guy. We ended up, funny enough, meeting somewhere in between while in transit to each other’s terminals. As they say, life’s what happens when you’re busy making plans.
So we each bought our RER roundtrip tickets and a carnet, and we were ready to go! There was a train already waiting there which took off about 30 seconds after we got on. The approximate 50 minute trip to the St. Michel RER stop went by in a blur. Afterwards, we switched to the number 10 metro line for the quick, two stop ride to the Cardinal Lemoine station in the 5th. When we got out onto the street, I had that same surreal “I’m really here!” moment that I always have when I arrive in Paris. It’s like you’re magically stepping into that street map that you’ve been studying for all those weeks. Pure magic.
We were about 45 minutes early for our 9:00am vacation rental arrival appointment, so we headed for Place de la Constrescarpe where we planted it at a café called Delmas. I got a café au lait with a croissant while David had a hot chocolate with a couple of pieces of whole grain bread. We sat in an area that I presume is normally outside, but that had been enclosed in transparent plastic (and kept warm with portable heaters) for the winter. Just sitting there in that comfortable chair with my coffee and croissant, and watching the neighborhood wake up felt perfect.
Soon thereafter, we headed over to 41 rue Monge where we arrived ahead of Maurice who was supposed to let us into the apartment and show us around. I had the digicode for the building so we entered and waited in the interior walkway for a couple of minutes before Maurice arrived. I jumped into the coffin-like elevator with him (way too close for comfort), but David had to wait and come up on a second trip. I suspect that many of you reading this will know that lilliputian elevators are a rather common occurrence in Paris as many of them have been retrofitted into their respective buildings.
Maurice was quite genial, and explained to us all the particulars of the apartment including the free phone (including unlimited free international calls!) With that done, he bid us farewell. David and I took a few minutes to settle in a bit, but before long we too hit the street. I had two back-to-back appointments to view vacation rentals for a future trip, so I jumped back on the metro while David commenced his first exploratory walk in Paris which took him through the Luxembourg Garden and the St. Germain.
We met up again just before lunch at our agreed spot – La Maison de l’Amérique Latine. I’d been intrigued about this place for some time now, and entertained the idea of possibly eating at their restaurant. We asked if we could take a peek at the restaurant (the salons of the two 18th century mansions that comprise this structure looked beautiful on their web site), but the young woman at the front desk said that they really weren’t open yet and that everyone was still setting up. We briefly contemplated hanging around until lunch time, but quickly decided that this place was really better suited for warm weather dining due to its terrace and gardens. So we walked.
Headed back east along Boulevard Saint Germain until we hit rue Bonaparte. I’d wanted to go down to Bon Marche to buy our museum passes and tickets for an exhibition at the Grand Palais, so we headed in that direction. On the way, we paid a visit to Pierre Herme’s shop to buy some of those renowned macarons (ha, my Microsoft spell check wants to turn “macarons” into “macaroons” but we all know there’s a world of difference between those two things, right?). I’d never been there before, but had heard much about it from friends and online. Several people had told me to expect a line out the door because the place was so popular, so you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when we got there to find only two or three other customers inside the shop (maybe the rain kept the macaron-buying masses away?). There was a rather dazzling mélange of viennoiserie and desserts on display (like jewelry), but I stuck to my mission and just ordered a box of seven assorted macarons, plus one Arabesque macaron to eat on the fly. That Arabesque one was a doozy too. It had pistachio chips on the shell, with an apricot filling. Heady, heady stuff for sure. Unfortunately, they did not have the chocolate and foie gras macarons that day (I’m not kidding, that’s really one of their flavors – sounds kind of gross, but I was intrigued) but you can’t have everything.
Since we were right in front of St. Sulpice I thought it might be nice to poke our heads inside (I’d never been). Before doing so, however, I decided to give La Florimond a quick call since it was lunchtime. This was one of the restaurants I had on my list, and I was curious about it as I’d never heard anyone say anything remotely negative about the place (not to mention Amy’s glowing review). Fortunately, they had room for us, so since we were getting hungry by that point we decided to bag St. Sulpice and hop on a metro train.
Upon entering La Florimond, I immediately felt a pleasant, welcoming yet low-key vibe. Laurent, the host that has seemingly charmed everyone who has ever set foot in the place (think a less regal and younger version of Jean-Claude Vrinat) came over and sat us at a two top against the far wall. He remarked, upon seeing my bag from Pierre Herme, that those were the “finest macarons in all of Paris.” It’s funny too, because he said it in a tone that suggested that I had somehow been quite fortunate to avoid the many substandard macaron vendors preying on unknowing tourists.
Before long we had a small plate of these delightful mini carrot breads set before us as an amuse. Their small size and simple appearance left one unprepared for the delicious and complex bursts of carrot, cumin and nutmeg. I ordered a glass of house red, while David stuck with water.
We both ordered the prix fixe lunch, which had about three or so options per course. My starter was the pate of pork with cornichons that came with a side salad. Although it was quite good, I couldn’t help but think that there was an unmistakable resemblance in the flavor to Underwood Deviled Ham! Wow, that brought me right back to being a little kid and getting so excited when my mother used to let me indulge in this rare treat. My mother, you see, used to turn her nose up at “all that processed American food.” She eschewed things like deviled ham, Hamburger Helper, Kraft macaroni & cheese, yada, yada. Those were unhealthy things that “lazy mothers” fed their children. Anyway, while I was taking my trip down memory lane, David was savoring his starter of gnocchi that were splashing around in a pool of blue cheese sauce.
From there we moved on to our main courses (we each ordered the same dish) which was like a fish “flan” in a creamy shrimp sauce. Elegant, refined and truly unique. The buttery and al dente julienned vegetables to the side of the fish were a nice textural contrast.
For dessert, we both had the apricot pudding cake with crème anglaise. The texture of the cake was not too unlike that of the fish flan oddly enough, but it was wonderful and the dollop of cream on the side was the perfect finishing touch.
From the food, to the service to the calm surroundings (none of that silly “look at me” décor), La Florimond was the ideal first Paris meal. At €50 for two (including a glass of wine and a small tip) I also thought it was a good value. Oh, one more thing. La Florimond apparently has a reputation for attracting a large American clientele. While this may be true, it’s interesting to note that the only English being spoken there that afternoon was at our table.
Back out on Avenue de la Motte Picquet, refueled and refreshed by our lunch, we quickly headed back to the Ecole Militaire metro stop as we were Bercy-bound. When we got out at the Cour St. Emilion stop I felt so happy in spite of the drizzling rain (this rainy first day in Paris was a false harbinger by the way, as we would enjoy many long patches of sun throughout the rest of the trip). Why was I happy? Well, because I love it when I get to see new areas of Paris. “New” for me, of course, and since I’d never been in Bercy Village before I was happy. Doesn’t take much to make me happy.
Anyway, since we were kinda late for our guided tour of the Musee des Arts Forains, we kind of booked it over there. This private museum of fairground arts dating from around the mid-19th through mid-20th century, houses a multitude rides, games, stalls and decorative signage. When we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that the tour had started without us, so we just walked into the cobblestone courtyard and started searching amongst the various small pavilions until we found the group. It was interesting to see the place, but to tell you truth after about 20 minutes or so David and I decided that we’d had enough (I think we were just tired, and it was dark in there) so we discreetly slipped away as soon as we found an appropriate moment. Later that evening, our expat friends would tell us that “you missed the best part at the end with the rides and the games!” What are you gonna do?
We walked around Bercy Village for a couple of minutes before I found myself at La Cure Gourmande. Back in 2006, Laurie and I had discovered their (now closed) Marais branch near St. Merri. On that trip, I made the stupid mistake of not buying some of their offerings right then and there as I would not make it back again, and I regretted it for months after the trip. I did not, however, make the same mistake this time. I bought some fig candies that came in a lavender-colored tin that I knew would look great in Antonia’s bedroom when the candies were gone. I also bought some caramels and nougats as well as some caramel/nougat combos which I knew that Laurie would love. The fresh biscuit-style cookies were delicious here too. The sales lady finally gave me one as a sample to stop me from drooling on the stack of them, no doubt.
I wouldn’t have minded strolling for a bit longer in Bercy including the park, but it was time to get to our next “appointment” and so it was back on the train.
This time, the “new” neighborhood that I’d never set foot in was Belleville. This ethnically diverse quarter (located close to Pere Lachaise) became the home of immigrants from several different countries during the first half of the last century. In more recent memory (thanks to the release of La Vie en Rose) it is known as the neighborhood that gave us Edith Piaf. Indeed, it was my interest in “La Môme” that brought David and I to Belleville, and specifically to the Musée Edith Piaf.
This private, two-room museum is located in the apartment of a gentleman who clearly has no competition when declaring himself to be the late singer’s number one fan. When you arrive at his building, you have to enter separate security codes (given to you at the time you make your reservation) for two doors then you take the elevator up to the fourth French floor (the elevator is clearly a recent addition as most previous accounts on the Internet mention having to walk up stairs).
When you walk through the door, you are escorted to the left by Bernard Marchois who is the director of the museum, and the aforementioned number one fan. The place has an intimate vibe. Nothing shouting out at you here. Just a very humble presentation of Piaf’s possessions like framed gold records, furniture, correspondence, as well as a couple of her famous black dresses draped over forms. There’s even a life-size cardboard cutout of Piaf that you can stand next to in order to see how you measure up to La Môme (as she was only 4’8”, chances are you’ll be taller). Your visit here is set to music, as the great one’s voice can be softly heard playing in the background.
Although Monsieur Marchois was polite, I wouldn’t say he’s the chattiest person you’ll ever meet. So if you want to know what it is that you’re looking at, you’re going to have to ask questions – a lot of them – and in French too because Monsieur doesn’t speak much English from what I could tell. Obviously, if you’re going to make the pilgrimage here, you either better love Piaf, or you keep those expectations in check. I actually enjoyed my visit very much. The museum is free, but we each left €5 as a courtesy. You can also support the preservation of this collection by buying CDs, books, etc. that are for sale there.
Back on the streets of Belleville at around 5:30pm, I called an American expat friend of mine who lives in the 2nd. We had emailed back and forth before I left New York, and had agreed that we would get together tonight at his place. We talked for a couple of minutes, before he said “So where are you? We have booze and food here. Come over now.” Sounded good to us.
Believe it or not, we decided to walk from Belleville all the way to my friend’s apartment in the Palais Royal ‘nabe. It sounded like a good idea at the time, as we were both still running on a Paris high. We started west on rue Oberkampf. When we hit Avenue de la Republique, I bit the bullet and took out €300 from a Crédit du Nord. I tried to block from my mind that it was really $450 that I was being relieved of back home at JP Morgan Chase.
A little bit after entering the 3rd, I picked up a bottle of wine for my friends. Further along in the 2nd, some mimosa flowers were purchased. Although I’m usually a big time walker, I guess the jet lag and the long day were starting to get to me because I was starting to get tired and grumpy! Fortunately, David was oblivious to my mood and just kept remarking about the interesting and varied shops, buildings and people. As we passed by the northern end of rue Montorgueil, David asked if we could explore it. “No!” I barked. “We’re already late to get to my friend’s place.” Grumpy, grumpy Daniel.
Soon thereafter, we arrived at my friend’s apartment, and after the coat was removed and I was ensconced in a comfy chair with a stiff cocktail in hand, I started to feel like myself again. Several hours of drinking, eating, laughing and storytelling followed, and before we knew it, it was way too late and we had drunk way too much (but in a good way). With the assistance of my friend, David and I made it to the closest metro station and back to the apartment. I called home and was immediately sobered by the sound of my mother-in-law’s voice answering the phone. I was happy to learn that everyone was surviving without me, and it was great to hear Antonia’s sweet voice say “Hi Daddy!”
Just before calling it a day, I managed to snag one last macaron from the box as a nightcap, and with that our first fun-filled day in the city of lights came to a close.
Woke up feeling surprisingly human after the previous evening’s drinking. The second surprise of the morning was David’s pleasant disposition. Since I’ve always known him to be a night owl, I was afraid that he was going to be a horror show in the morning. You know the type. Sleeps in until 10:00 (or later), can’t have a conversation before the first cup of coffee, difficult to get out the door, etc. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear because throughout the trip David always woke up with a good attitude, lots of enthusiasm and ready to enjoy the day. Now THAT’s what I call a good travel companion people.
While David was showering, I thought I’d check out CNN to see what was going on with the whole Elliot Spitzer hooker scandal; however the television was not working. It had worked the day before when I turned it on in front of Maurice, but now I was just getting a black screen with weird lights. Both David and I tried pushing every button, checking every cable, but no luck. Just before leaving the apartment, I left Maurice a voicemail asking if someone could fix it.
We decided to suss out the market at Place Monge to see if we could find some breakfast. After walking up and down all the aisles, however, we discovered that there wasn’t much there of interest to us. No bread, cheese or pastries. It seemed like it was all flowers, meat and cheap shoes. We checked out a simple bar/café that was on the southern side of the square, but there was one too many gruff, older guys sitting at the bar, and, as I wasn’t in the mood to be a curiosity, we passed. We decided to head north on rue Monge toward the metro when we found a patisserie on the corner where Monge meets rue des Boulangers. I bought a plain croissant, while Dave got himself a pain au chocolatwhich we each ate as we headed for the metro, ready to begin our second day in Paris.
Emerging at l’Etoile, David was clearly impressed when he first laid eyes on the Arc de Triomphe. “It’s freakin’ huge!” he said. Indeed. With no lines ahead of us, we walked right in and bought our two-day museum passes which, of course, included admission to the Arc itself. We checked out the museum in the Arc that documents its history and construction. Then we went out to the observation deck. While the view of the city from up there was obviously extraordinary, it was also so abysmally windy that it really wasn’t enjoyable. I’ve never suffered from acrophobia, but I felt like the wind was going to rip us off the building at any second. Once we were safely back on terra firma, we walked around the base of the Arc for a bit, took some pictures and checked out the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Then we commenced a stroll down the Champs-Elysées. As we walked, I wondered why so many Americans who’ve been to Paris several times seem to hate this elegant and spacious boulevard so much. Yes, there are the big, international chain stores, but from the hysterical denunciations, you’d think people were describing a visit to Abu Ghraib.
As David urgently needed batteries for his camera, our first stop was a souvenir store. Isn’t it funny how these places sell the same crap no matter if they’re in Times Square or on the Champs Elysees? Only the graphics on the t-shirts, ashtrays and salt and pepper shakers are different. In New York, it’s all about the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. In Paris it’s the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa. Ha, I just thought of a naughty little analogy, but I think I’ll keep that to myself.
At this point we both needed some coffee, and as we didn’t really want to stop and sit, we went into McDonald’s. David is a marketing guy, and so throughout the trip he had fun observing how American brands were reinterpreted and modified for the French market. Naturally, McDonald’s is fertile ground for such interests, so I knew he’d enjoy our brief stop there. What I did not expect, however, was that we’d encounter essentially what was a McDonald’s within a McDonald’s via a concept that I’d never seen called McCafé. Basically, they were offering fancier, Starbucks-like coffees, very appealing pastries and – are you sitting down? – they had macarons! No lie. I thought that was hilarious.
We were enjoying our resumed stroll with our coffees when I spotted an enormous Louis Vuitton shop across the boulevard. I just wanted to go in there quickly and maybe price a wallet or something for Laurie, and David was good enough to hold my coffee for me while I went inside. David didn’t have to be psychic to divine from my stunned expression when I came out that at €1.6 to the dollar, I would NOT be buying Laurie ANYTHING from LV on this trip.
Further along the Champs, we were able to savor more affordable luxuries at Ladurée. I bought a mini Almond macaron (on this visit I learned that the small macarons are also referred to as gerbets), as well as my two all-time favorite French pastries: a kouign aman and a canale. In case you don’t know, a kouign aman is a dense, multi-layered, buttery, puff pastry extravaganza from Brittany. The canale de Bordeaux, on the other hand, is smaller delight possessing a chewy caramelized exterior and a moist, eggy center. If you’ve never tried either of these while you’re in Paris, well, then you simply must on your next trip. Trust me on this.
When we got to the spot where the Champs meets Avenue Montaigne, we found ourselves in front of the elegant Hôtel Dassault. These days, this august hôtel particulaire houses the renowned modern art gallery and auction house Artcurial. Despite walking by it a bunch of times, I had never been inside. We perused the impressive bookstore there for a bit, but since there were no children’s books to be found, I was not a customer. We poked our heads into the restaurant, and briefly considered having lunch there since we were getting hungry, but honestly, the stark, minimalist environment did not invite. So we moved on.
As we had skipped going to Bon Marché the day before, we decided to stop at the Grand Palais and see if we could buy tickets for the Marie Antoinette exhibit which was opening there later in the week. The place was closed, however, so we walked across the street to the Petite Palais as we both needed to make a quick bathroom stop. When we walked downstairs I headed for the private, handicapped bathroom (there were no other people down there at the time) when I noticed that David was right behind me. I informed him that it was a one person bathroom and pointed to the door down the hall which was the entrance to the main men’s room. Unfortunately, David thought I’d pointed to the door that was adjacent to the handicapped bathroom, and as the signs on the bathroom doors were a bit on the androgynous side … yep, you guessed it; he went into the ladies room. The real funny part, however, is that David said that the French women who went in there afterward and saw him emerge from the stall didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Such is the French sensibility.
We had ourselves another “ooh, ahh” moment when we finally arrived at the Place de la Concorde. Truth is, even after so many trips to Paris, I still find this noble square to be breathtaking. We took some pictures then headed for the Orangerie.
Once inside, we headed straight for Les Nymphéas. These large format masterpieces by Claude Monet are the centerpiece of the museum and, notwithstanding the impressive collection of impressionist and post-impressionist (Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir) paintings downstairs, they’re the main reason people come here. I had never been to the Orangerie even before the renovation, so this was all new to me.
While I was prepared to be wowed by the scale of Les Nymphéas, what took me completely by surprise was the effect that the natural light had on the paintings. I remember sitting down on a bench facing the section called Le Matin aux saules. Lovely scene with weeping willows. Anyway, when the passing clouds blocked the sunlight from above, it looked like it was sunset in the painting and the blues became very dark and moody. Then, when the clouds passed, the sun would come out and suddenly the whites would really “pop” and get “hot” and it looked like it was midday in the painting! It was utterly fascinating and engaging, and I’ve never in my life ever felt like I was being drawn into a painting quite in that way. I’ve read that Monet had always wanted Les Nymphéas to be exhibited under natural light, and after experiencing these works in this setting I can see why.
As I was so blown away by Les Nymphéas, I kind of breezed through the collection downstairs. David, however, wanted to take his time a little more, so I just found myself a comfortable spot to sit down, savor my macaron, close my eyes and just chill for a while.
Once we were ready to move on, we headed toward the Passerelle Solférino and the left bank. Before crossing the bridge, we both took some pictures. While I darted up the steps of the bridge to get a higher perspective, Dave, who has an approachable “aura” and always seems to attract these type of people, was chatted up by a con artist who tried to pull the “I found a gold ring and I’ll give it to you for a price” shtick. Fortunately, in addition to being approachable, David’s also New York street smart and so he passed.
David had really wanted to visit the Orsay, and so we headed there next. Although we had our handy dandy museum passes, we didn’t get to experience the delightful schadenfreude of passing the masses on the usually long line as there was simply no line. We decided to head straight for the restaurant and grab some lunch as it was past 1:00pm, and we were quite hungry.
For years I’d been hearing about the magnificent room that houses the museum’s restaurant. Indeed it was an elegant, exuberant, belle epoch salon which was the antithesis of the cold and bare restaurant at Artcurial. It was the size of a football field too, so you could really spread out and breathe in the space (the ultimate luxury for this New Yorker). We ordered the two course menu (main and dessert). Dave stuck to water, while I enjoyed a refreshing Heineken on tap.
When the main course hit the table, we were both somewhat surprised. I suppose the description on the menu hadn’t prepared us for the colorful and textural creation that had been set before us. It was a piece of fish that was set on some creamy pasta and topped with these cubed, pickled and kind of relishy vegetables all crowned with a sheet of rice paper sprinkled with poppy and cumin seeds! Holy crap, it was beyond delicious and complex! It was a lot of flavors going on for sure, but it all worked somehow. Then the dessert came which was a more traditional île flottante. Here we had a fluffy piece of meringue set on top of a puddle of crème anglaise, drizzled with caramel sauce and sprinkled with slivered almonds. Straightforward and beautifully executed.
I feel like we were both the accidental foodies here at this lunch, because we really thought we were going to have a quick bite at a museum cafeteria, not a fine dining experience! No complaints from me, obviously.
After our gourmet drive-by, we started our visit to the museum. David had a few specific things he wanted to see; while I just wanted to meander so we split up, agreeing to meet at the Four Parts of the World statue in about an hour and a half.
I’d been to the Orsay several times, so I just walked here and there, enjoying some old favorites. Took several shots of some paintings by my favorite expressionist whack job, Van Gogh. Love that guy. I really missed Laurie when I got to Camille Claudel’s The Age of Maturity. It’s this beautiful bronze that shows a young woman longingly reaching for this older man who’s being led away from her by this witch-like hag. It’s such a beautiful yet sad and emotional piece, especially if you know something about the artist’s life. Laurie just loves that piece, and so do I.
After a while I came upon a gift shop upstairs that was behind the big clock where they had lots of books. Picked up a copy of Mon Petit Orsay for Antonia. Soon thereafter I went downstairs to meet up with David.
So can you believe we weren’t “museumed out” yet? Next up was the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, or more specifically the division of that museum which goes by the name Musée de la Mode et du Textile, where we checked out the Lacroix exhibit Histoires de Mode. While all the dresses and outfits were interesting to look at, I found the historical through line to be somewhat vague, scattered and too “conceptual” for my taste. I’m glad we walked through it though. Quickly.
From there we turned our focus to the adjacent Musée de la Publicité, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Lots of old advertising posters and signs. David was in heaven with the signs as he is a collector of vintage signs himself. What I really enjoyed most, however, were the small screening rooms where they were showing old French commercials! It was fun to see the somewhat different approach to selling to the people living in 1950s France versus the U.S. It was also a great spot to rest and visit a clean bathroom as very few people seem to visit this section of the Arts Décoratifs.
Then we turned our attention to the area of the museum where they have all the furniture. I’d been told some time ago, by what I presume was a well-intentioned individual, that all the 18th century furniture in the Arts Décoratifs had been moved to the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Well, I soon realized that it was not the case at all as I saw room after room filled with some of the finest antiques I’d ever seen from that period and some even from the time of Louis XIV and earlier. I also came upon an interesting section titled L’évolution du siège 1700-1800which was essentially a wall covered in chairs which provided a crash course in seating styles during that period (often referred to by furniture geeks as the “Golden Age” of furniture design in France). There was one particular room that was especially near and dear to this neoclassicist’s heart, and that was the Salon de l’hôtel de Serres; a resplendent example of high-end, late 18th century interior design whose boisseries had been ripped out of the Place Vendôme many, many years ago.
At some point, I found myself surrounded with all this stuff from the Empire period (not my fave), and just as I was starting to examine this ornate cradle I suddenly heard all this running noise coming in my direction. I swear it sounded like a SWAT team was coming so I put my arms up in mock surrender. Strangely enough, it was just a couple of female museum guards who were in a rush to tell me that the museum was closing soon and they were shutting down this section. It was a rather odd moment (why were they running?), but they thought my surrender was funny (who says the French don’t have a sense of humor?). I was a little concerned because David and I had drifted apart a bit earlier, and I didn’t know where he was as I was getting shooed out.
In looking around for Dave, I stepped into a gallery that had these beautiful Venetian-looking chairs (I know they weren’t Italian, as the Arts Décoratifs is about the history of all things French, but whatever) with an old tapestry hanging behind them. Their look, combined with the warm, dappled afternoon light just took me right back to the Grand Canal where Laurie and I spent part of our honeymoon.
I finally found David and then, after a tossing it around for a minute, the two of us decided that we had time for a quick dip into the Louvre. We entered the museum’s complex on Rivoli, took the escalators down, and walked through the Carrousel du Louvre (that big shopping mall complex down there). Just before we arrived at the pyramid, we briefly stopped at a museum bookstore where I bought another book for Antonia called Mon Toutimagier. It’s a great book for toddlers that illustrates lots of basic words for the body, home, school, food, animals, etc. What I liked about this particular book was that it really went into detail on the body by showcasing not only the basic words like “eye” or “mouth”, but also real specifics like “eye lashes” and “nostrils.” (It has since become an Antonia favorite.)
After the bookstore we went up the escalators under the pyramid then immediately grabbed an available table on that landing there in front of the Richelieu entrance where we sat down for a quick break. As I am a saint, I split my kouign aman from Ladurée in half and shared it with David who seemed to enjoy it immensely. Then it was on to the over-the-top Napoleon Apartments whose crazy, Las Vegasy extravagance I always enjoy.
While this was the Louvre’s late night, and we could have chosen to stay longer, we decided that we’d finally hit our museum wall and it was time for a pre-dinner cocktail. So it was back out onto a drizzly Rivoli where we hopped on a bus that dropped us off on rue de Castiglione. From there it was a short walk to the Ritzwhere we settled our weary bodies into a couple of chairs at the Hemingway Bar. Some people who are reading this may recall that for several reasons I have a rather soft spot in my heart for the old Ritz; so much so in fact that it’s the only place in Paris that I return to again and again. As I was traveling with David, going there was particularly “necessary” this time as he and I had worked together on a project in business school that involved doing some research on the important role that the Ritz had played in the evolution of the luxury hotel industry. So let’s say it was a delayed field trip, of sorts.
There were several tables available when we got there so we chose one that was in that small, elevated section in the back. While the Hemingway Bar is not my favorite spot in the Ritz (I much prefer the spacious Vendôme Bar in the front of the hotel) I knew that when David went back home and mentioned to people that he’d been to the Ritz, everyone would ask if he’d gone to the Hemingway and so I put aside my own personal preferences so he would not feel as though he’d missed out on something. Yes, I know, I’m a saint.
Colin Field (everyone’s favorite celebrity bartender) was working that night, and the room had a pleasant, if subdued vibe. If you closed your eyes and listened to the conversations, you’d think you were at a bar in New York; however I’ve found that to be the case every time as the Ritz has a large American following. I don’t have a problem with that.
Anyway, as we looked over the cocktail menu, David and I both had ourselves a laugh over the prices. Naturally, if you’re going to the Ritz, you know it’s not going to be a bargain; however we didn’t expect that they were going to open a vein in our wallets and watch as a massive hemorrhaging ensued. My usual cocktail, the delightfully citrusy yet inauspiciously named “Jeff II”, was €26 and David’s (which I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it had champagne in it) was €28. Indeed, those were $41 and $44 cocktails, respectively. Just let that roll around in your head for a second, OK? While the service was impeccable, the cocktails delicious and the olives and kettle cooked potato chips that came with them also top notch, there’s just no way that I could come away from that experience thinking that it was “worth it.” David and I made a pact on the spot that we would NOT tell our wives about this expense, as we did not want to experience a bloodletting of a different sort.
After slowly savoring our one round of deadly dear beverages, we realized it was time to meet my friends for dinner, so we hightailed it out of there while we still had a few euro left. We were kind of running late, so we had the doorman at the hotel get us a cab. Winding our way through the rainy Parisian night, I remember pointing out to David the various places that Laurie and I had been on past trips. Pretty soon though, the memories of the 1st and the 7th gave way to the unfamiliarity of the 15th, and before long we were dropped off in front of Afaria on rue Desnouettes. We were about 10 minutes late, and as I don’t like to keep others waiting, I was very pleased to see my friends walking up to the restaurant at the same time. “Oh please, are you kidding? Everyone’s always late in Paris”, my friend reassurred me.
The unassuming exterior of the restaurant gave no indication of the upbeat energy within. It was a young bobo crowd, I’d say 20s through 40s, and everyone seemed very happy to be at this Basque-ish eatery. The energy was contagious, and I felt like I was having a good time even before any food or booze hit the table.
I ordered a bottle of the €26 Côtes du Rhône which, after my cocktail at the Ritz that had the identical price tag, seemed like a gift. Then, I looked at the menu. My eyebrow automatically rose when I realized that the dishes were all organized by “theme.” See, the thing is I’m allergic to gimmicks in restaurants. It’s usually a harbinger of disaster in my experience because if someone’s relying on a gimmick, it typically means the food is lame. So I was not pleased when I saw several dishes listed under headings such as “Les Sudistes”, “Voyageurs” and “Nobles.” It all seemed more than a bit precious and confusing. My eyes must have been rolling out of my head when one of my friends figured out that these headings all contained complete meals (i.e., starter, main and dessert). Now why hadn’t the rest of us figured that out? Regardless, I was still skeptical.
Thankfully, none of this mattered when the first courses arrived as they were all terrific. Our friends both had a pumpkin velouté while David got the bulgur wheat salad with hummus. Since these dinner companions of mine were all vegetarians (I seem to attract a lot of veggies for some reason) they were quite pleased with their choices. I went a decidedly different route and dove into the restaurant’s signature dish – the boudin noir napoleon. They tell me there was blood sausage in there, but I don’t believe it. I just tasted warm, savory and cake-like layers with apples and cinnamon all topped with a mustard crust. It was like Christmas on a plate, and just the thing you want to eat on a cool, drizzly winter evening with a glass of red wine.
For the main courses, everyone but yours truly went with the daurade whose molded, circular presentation looked interesting. I had the small-sized but intense terrine of venison with a bit of foie gras in the center. Although the foie was somewhat lost in the savory commotion, it was still a beautifully seasoned and textured dish that included a few toasty pine nuts and tangy sauce thrown in on the side for fun.
Finally, the desserts surprisingly held up to those preceding tough acts. The two sitting across from me had the refreshing kiwi gazpacho with crème fraiche, while Dave opted for what looked like a roquefort napoleon. I had the tiramisu, which was like none I’d ever had before in that it was not at all like a dense, creamy thing, but rather delicate and foamy! Très Espagnole indeed! It was the perfect follow-up to the intensity of the previous courses.
Our service started off on shaky ground with a waiter who was unfocused and uninformed about nearly everything we asked about, however he was soon replaced by an attractive woman who was totally on her game and stayed with our table for the remainder of the evening. One of my friends even overhead her admonishing the waiter for not having explained the menu to us properly. Tables were kinda close, but not horrifically so. Noise level was pretty high (so much for those soft spoken French people we all hear about) but it went right with the convivial atmosphere. All in all, a terrific meal and worth the schlep.
The four of us headed for the Convention metro station. We made plans to hook up the following evening at Harry’s Bar, then went our separate ways. When we returned to the apartment I tried the TV again, but no luck. Oh well, no update on Spitzer and his hookers. Such is life. David and I both called home and caught up with our respective loved ones before hitting the hay.
On this day, we started off by heading over to the large street market on Boulevard Richard Lenoir in the 11th. This was head and shoulders above the somewhat anemic market at Place Monge (maybe we hit it on a bad day?) You could find anything at this place. Food, clothes, stuff for your apartment – you name it. It was really a pleasure to stroll up and down the aisles.
Our first priority was to grab something quick to eat which we did at a bread stand. David and I each bought a loaf of pain aux fromages, and we both ate the whole bloody loaf. It just tasted so fresh, yeasty, cheesy and delicious. Really hit the spot.
Kept strolling right along. Enjoyed seeing all the flowers as they reminded me of my girls back home (Antonia especially loves flowers). All the meats, seafood and other raw food products were so appealing too, but as I was not cooking on this trip there was obviously no reason to buy. One thing I did buy was four bars of soap from Marseille for Laurie. Bought one each of violette, verbena, lilas and cannelle.
After our market exploration, we went to the FNAC on the eastern side of the Place de la Bastille and finally bought our tickets for the Marie-Antoinette exhibit at the Grand Palais for Saturday. We chose the 5:00pm slot hoping that would both give us most of Saturday to explore the city, and catch the exhibit at a time when there would be fewer people there (this turned out to be a good move).
Continuing east on rue de Lyon, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the Viaduc des Arts. This was yet another one of those places in Paris that I’d always wanted to visit, but had never made the time for. We took the first available set of stairs to get to the elevated garden walkway. It was very pleasant and felt like a mini trip out of the city. There was hardly anyone up there too because it had been raining lightly on and off that whole morning.
We came back down to street level to check out some of the ateliers and galleries under the arches. We only checked them out by looking through the windows however, as they really didn’t seem to be open for visitors. It was still interesting though, and I particularly enjoyed watching the artists that were painting on ceramic. At one point, David got so caught up in taking photographs that he didn’t see the gift that a dog had left on the sidewalk and, well, you’ll see the pictures.
After a bit, we hung a left and found ourselves at Place du Colonel Bourgoin. I was stopped in my tracks at the window of a boulanger called Banette so I went inside. Although I was tempted by the myriad of quiches, tarts and God knows what else, I exercised some uncharacteristic self restraint and chose a small, humble brioche to gobble as I strolled.
We arrived at our lunch spot on rue Paul Bert, Le Temps au Temps, a little early so we just walked around that street for a bit. As some of you may know, rue Paul Bert has become something of a “foodie street” with no less than three hot restaurants and a beloved cookbook shop along a somewhat short stretch.
We were supposed to have lunch with Anne, a Parisian who has a food blog with the amusing name A Foodie Froggy in Paris. I’d met Anne online some time ago; she’d given me some advice about cooking classes in Paris, and I’d given her suggestions for Miami dining for a trip that she was taking there with her family.
As David and I walked along, I suddenly recognized Anne who was walking on the other side of the street. After introductions were made, Anne took us to La Cocotte (the previously mentioned cookbook shop) as we were still early for lunch. I enjoyed flipping through some of the books in this cozy, Martha-Stewart’s-New-England-style shop, but what caught my eye were the select food products they were offering. After careful consultation with one of the owners (in Spanish, no less) I ended up buying some dulce de leche from Spain (so good on ice cream), and a bottle of fig syrup (brilliant on pancakes) and a small jar of confit de cannelle jam from Provence. I passed on the biscotti, which we were told were baked nearby, but David bought himself a pack.
After that pleasant diversion, we sat down for our lunch at Le Temps au Temps. The place was empty when we got there at 1:00pm, but it would soon fill to capacity within the hour. Anne and I both ordered the three course, €30 menu which had several choices per course, while David had the three course €18 menu which, ostensibly, was set without choices. At the waitress’s suggestion, we chose a reasonably priced bottle of red Beaujolais from Moulin à Vent, which worked well with the food. David and I started with the cream of celery soup (this was not on his €18 menu, but they were cool with the substitution) which was dotted with all these flavorful drops of I-don’t-know-what on top. My soup also came draped with crispy and savory strips of poitrine fumée (like bacon) which they kindly edited from Dave’s soup. Best soup I’d had in a long time. Anne had the snails cappuccino which she seemed to enjoy very much. The “cappuccino” part according to Anne was in the foam on top of the snails, which were actually in a garlic sauce themselves.
David’s main course was the marinated salmon with small potatoes in a horseradish sauce. Although he seemed to enjoy it, I suspect he was secretly jealous of the dish that Anne and I had chosen, which was the sea bass with caramelized endives and cumbawa. Cumbawa? I don’t know about you, but if someone throws something called “cumbawa” my way, I usually can’t resist. It’s actually just an Asian lime (also known as a “kaffir lime”), which Anne and I both found to be not as tart as expected. The waitress had also told us to eat the skin of the fish, which, when integrated with all the other ingredients, worked beautifully to create a complex and satisfying dish.
Desserts were no less thoughtful and interesting. Anne had the crème brûlée with orange jam; very interesting particularly in its ramekin-free presentation. David had the gratin of citrus fruits (oranges and grapefruits) which almost looked like crème brûlée to the naked eye. I think I hit the jackpot, however, with the rice pudding with salted caramel on the bottom and topped with a scoop of peanut ice cream! It’s like the chef had me in mind when he created this dessert, and it was such a brilliant way to end a wonderful meal like this.
We were the first to arrive, and the last to leave as it turns out, no doubt due to the interesting conversation we had with Anne which ran the gamut from politics, to religion to our families. Anne couldn’t have been more gracious, and I encourage you all to read her blog, particularly if you’re really into food.
Oh, I almost forgot, since the subject of bringing babies and small children to Paris was discussed during lunch, Anne took us across the street to a G20supermarket to show me that, yes, there are diapers, formula and baby food all here for the buying. I even picked up a couple of Bledichef toddler meals for Antonia because they sounded so cute. I got her a légumes et volaille à la basquaise and a pot au feu à l’ancienne. With names like that, how could I resist, right?
Goodbyes were said underground in the Faidherbe Chaligny metro station, where Anne headed east to pick up her daughter from school, and David and I headed west to continue the previous day’s too short visit to the Louvre.
Once inside the museum complex, I stopped at the same book shop as the day before since I remembered that they had a really broad selection of children’s books. This time, I bought Antonia a copy of Carlota y la Princesa Española. This is a charming story of a little girl who visits a museum and magically enters several of the paintings there. Apparently, Carlota is a character that appears in several Spanish children’s books. She seems to like art too, as there were other titles available there such as Carlota Descubre a los Impresionistas and Carlota y Monna Lisa.
Our return to the Louvre was really just an opportunity for David to see “the biggies” like Mona, Winged Victory, Venus de… whoops! Actually, we didn’t get to see the Venus de Milo because they started shutting the place down on us. I did, however, get to show David Laurie’s favorite sculpture, Cupid et Psyche by Canova. I must have photographed this thing a million times, so on this round I decided to take a shot of just a detail of the piece; the urn resting on a swath of fabric behind Psyche (and Psyche’s behind).
Once we were done with Louvre 101, and we were back outside, I called my friend who we’d had dinner with the night before, and confirmed plans to meet for a drink at Harry’s Bar.
Just before we got to the bar, we both stopped at an ATM on Avenue de l’Opera to get some cash. I took out €150, and didn’t even bother to do the conversion to dollars in my head. Why ruin the evening with depressing thoughts?
My friends were already sitting down in a small nook in the back of the bar when David and I walked in. What immediately struck me about Harry’s was the warm, homey vibe. It reminded me of some of the nicer Irish pubs in New York. The service was prompt and friendly, from what I recall. The main thing I remember, however, was that it was good to spend some more time with my friends. I find that there’s a great intensity with people whose company you really enjoy, but that you don’t get to see that often. Know what I mean?
After a couple of rounds, David and I headed for yet another wonderful meal. Quick background story – I think it was sometime in February when I had a conversation with Daniel Rose of Spring fame. I had called the restaurant looking to make a reservation only to find out that Daniel was going to be in Japan for most of March and so he’d decided to close the restaurant during that time. We talked about this and that when I asked him where I should eat in Paris if I wanted to experience something similar to Spring. He thought about it for a moment, and then said there was a place that he had consulted for called La Bigarrade out in the 17th. He thought they were doing a really nice job, and that I would probably enjoy it. Fine, I thought. Whatever’s good enough for Daniel Rose is certainly good enough for me.
Once again, we were the first to arrive (at 8:00pm!), and once again we would watch how the place would soon fill to capacity. The atmosphere was a little more up market than the other restaurants we’d been to so far. The small dining room with a view to the open kitchen was more refined and “white tablecloth”, and the service was more polished and formal. There was a touch of whimsy, however, in the upside-down candles dangling from the ceiling.
There were two choices of set menus at €45 (the “Gourmet”) and €65 (the “Gourmand”), respectively. The pricier one had one or two more courses, I think. We went with the cheaper one. Since we’d been drinking a lot of red and we were going to be having fish, we went with a Saint Bris (a white from Burgundy) as our wine. Refreshing and “minerally.”
The amuse was the best focaccia I’ve ever had. It was served warm, and you could peel the layers off. It was like cake, and the fresher-than-fresh olive oil that was served next to it only added to this delectable treat. The first dish was a delightful bite of tuna (and some other type of fish) carpaccio that had shaved garlic on top. The acidity of the carpaccio went great with the wine.
Then it was onto a langostine with all manner of interesting ingredients including a bergamot confit. So much going on in such a small space, and it all worked. Next up was a piece of mackerel sitting on a bed of carrots with micro greens on top. I know that sounds really simple, but the strip of ginger sauce on the side was anything but. Finally, we were served a piece of monkfish flavored with Indian spices (a little curry in there maybe?) with an asparagus spear.
Then, a delightful mini parade of desserts commenced. First in line was the mascarpone cream with honey spice cake, with mocha and cardamom juice. Nothing wrong there, obviously. Then it was onto a citrusy duo of passion fruit cream with fromage blanc ice cream, and a small pot of lemon cream. Finally, there were the über dense and intense mini chocolate towers.
As someone who is not a big fish lover, never in my life would I think that I could eat this much fish at one sitting, and be delighted at every turn. It says a lot about the creativity level of that chef. I should also point out that I think the reason we got so much fish is because they knew David was a vegetarian. I saw plenty of meat dishes set on other tables, and I don’t think all of them went with the €65 menu.
I wholeheartedly recommend La Bigarrade to anyone wanting to experience a three star vibe, at a fraction of the cost. We enjoyed the experience very much, and I can’t recommend this hidden gem enough. Actually, it’s not so “hidden” anymore as the Parisian foodie world has clearly discovered it.
When we got home, I called Laurie who audibly swooned over the soaps, dulce de leche and other treats coming her way. Maurice had fixed the TV during the day while we were out, and so we were able to catch up on the demise of Bear Stearns and other disasters occurring back home. Lovely.