This fall I wrote 39 blog posts about restaurants in Paris. Here's the places I thought were particularly good or worth returning to. None of these are the best restaurants in Paris, but rather are chosen for their comfort and the care of the staff.
One place we found in France that I don't want to forget: Le Moulin Fleuri. It's in the middle of nowhere about 10km south of Tours. It's the kind of place that can only exist in France: a little place in the country, a beautiful and tranquil view, and a great restaurant with an impressive wine list. It gives the impression of having been a roadhouse for travellers for a hundred years. We bumbled into this with our Michelin guide for lunch one afternoon and got a much better lunch than we were expecting. There's a little hotel too, I think it'd be wonderful to stay there for a night.
There are two kinds of travellers. Those that conscientiously write postcards to friends during their entire trip and mail them promptly. And those that realize on the last day "oh crap, I have to send postcards" and send a stack destined to arrive after the writer has returned home.
Today's our last day in Paris. Guess which kind of postcard writer I am?
We had a truly excellent dinner the other night at La Truffière in the 5th near Rue Mouffetard. An excellent menu of French classics with some emphasis on truffles, but good broad coverage. The room was great, the staff was friendly, an amazing wine list, everything that goes into a comfortable dinner. Often hard to find in combination in Paris!
The one drawback is the place is very expensive. 110€ per person for the big tasting menu, and precious few bottles under 100€. (Note: this is much higher than listed on the web site. Hmm.) The non-smoking room was about half Japanese tourists and only one French table, I suspect their prices generally keep the locals away. Still, we had a perfect meal, so money well spent.
I've enjoyed having the time to take tours from English tour guides in France. A good tour guide adds a lot of depth and detail to a place without overwhelming you by boring or irrelevant detail. There are a lot of experts in France if you have the time and patience to find them. I already wrote about my trip to Chartres to have a tour of the cathedral by the amazing Malcolm Miller. There's good options in Paris, too.
In the cathedral vein, I just finished a very good tour of Sainte Chapelle as guided by Vicki-Marie Petrick. Ms. Petrick is a PhD student of middle ages art with a bit of thespian flair. She did an excellent job of explaining the role of the church and its relics in bolstering Louis IX's claim to the throne. She also gave a good explanation of the stained glass, in particular the Book of Judith window with its proto-feminist story. Her expertise was generously shared, I definitely suggest you take her tour if you are in Paris.
A good source for walking tours of Paris is Paris Walks. It's a fairly casual outfit, interesting and entertaining and with a wide menu of possible tours. I took two, one in the Marais and one in the Left Bank. The guide deftly wove together history specific to the streets we were on with a general view of how the neighbourhood fits into modern Paris. Entertaining, a bit bookish, and a very satisfying 90 minutes. If you're planning on visiting Paris take a look at their schedule and pick a couple that sound interesting. Then just show up and go for a walk, couldn't be easier.
Remember Janet Jackson, the Super Bowl, the "wardrobe malfunction" that gave us a brief glance of a bejeweled nipple? Remember how you laughed at how stupid and inconsequential it was? Except a bunch of people freaked out, and there was a $550,000 fine, and now American TV is even more prudish.
The Tuileries metro is decorated with photos early 20th century Paris. Including a beautiful image of a topless Josephine Baker.
Crêpes are one of France's lovely little fast foods. You see them on street corners made to order with some Nutella or butter or the like and they're pretty satisfying. But crêpes can also be a real meal, a specialty of Bretagne. Jason and I had a great lunch in Rennes during our little trip: ham and cheese crêpe, chocolate crêpe, some cider.
Paris has a zillion crêpe joints, but only a select subset are serious authentic Bretagne places. Like the Crêpe Dentelle, a casual little weekday joint in the 2nd near the charming market street Rue Montorgueil. The delicate buckwheat crêpes were deliciously buttery. The homemade salted caramel made for a delicious dessert crêpe. The cider by the bowl wasn't my favourite. But for 11€50 you can get a full meal of three crêpes served by smiling pleasant people. What's not to like?
I have a French name. I can pass for Minard if I pronounce my name "mee-nahr" with a Clouseau accent rather than the broad Texan "my-ner" my family uses. The silent d makes the name French and apparently common near Bourges. Then again, my name is really Mlinar; my father changed from the Czech spelling some 50 years ago.
I keep saying that I like the countryside of France better than Paris. Nothing against Paris, but the country is so relaxed and friendly and restaurants and hotels are particularly pleasant. But not always, as we learned in Bourges.
On a friend's recommendation we made a special trip to have dinner at l'Abbaye Saint Ambroix, a well regarded restaurant in the restored ruins of an old church. The food was good and the adjoining hotel was fine and I can definitely recommend it to any travellers in the area. But the whole evening felt a bit off. The music was loud and grating. Our drinks were wrong (really, does "mojito" sound at all like "amaretto"?). The food was rushed. Good butter but no butter knives made for awkwardness. The staff noisly started clearing the unused tables before the guests were done. Etc, etc. I'm being picky, but Ken and I enjoy a good restaurant experience so much that we've become aware of when it's just not quite right. Either the Hotel Mercure chain buying the hotel has removed whatever owner took personal pride in the place or else Wednesday night is his night off. Either way it lacked the personal hospitality that can make French places so wonderful. Now I appreciate that personal service all the more.
All that being said, Bourges is a lovely town. It's about 200km south of Paris, midway between the Loire and Burgundy, an old Roman town that was a wealthy power in the 17th century. It's still a lively and healthy city. Too many modern buildings to be entirely beautiful, but the old city center is nice and the impressive cathedral has some excellent 13th century stained glass. And we found an excellent lunch at Le Bourbonnoux with the personal service and comfort we enjoy so much.
Given the number of horrible people milling around inside Paris' most famous cathedral talking into their cell phones, they ought to rename the place Notre Dame du miracle du téléphone portable.
Finding a good hotel in Paris is expensive and difficult. Many places are small, overpriced, and desperately needing renovation. The guides do help you; for me I find that 3 stars on the sign or 2 pavilions in Michelin mean a comfortable room. More is luxury, and 2 stars/1 pavilion is clean but Super 8 quality.
Here's a small list of hotels that I know to be agreeable. Rates are very approximate for a basic double room; in Paris demand pricing is practiced with fervor.
It's amazing that a whole country could have a vernacular of bad web sites, but I think France has managed it. Hotels and restaurants regularly have terrible sites that give the user "an experience", complete with Flash and music and precious little useful information. For a typical example, see the text-free site of the luxury restaurant La Tour d'Argent. Or try to "enter" the site for the Petite Nice Passedat.
To be fair, a lot of American hotel sites have stupid "experiences" too. But in France even the informational sites are lousy. For example, Mappy, the main French map site (now obsolete, thanks to Google). Marvel at that front page, with 16 separate text entry areas.
But the king of awful websites is the SNCF, the online train booking. The have a site in English, which is awfully nice, only about a third of the links don't work and give you French error messages. Here's how to book a train:
I'm sure there are some wonderful French web sites out there, and I personally know some great French web designers. But the examples I keep finding are just awful.
As nice as Paris is, my favourite experiences in France are in the smaller towns and countryside. Life outside the big cities in France is still quite sophisticated with excellent food and art and life. But you also get some rusticness and relaxation.
I made a special trip to Chartres for a guided tour from Malcolm Miller. Mr. Miller is something of a legend; he's made a life's study of the famous cathedral and has been giving guided tours for nearly fifty years. His book about the cathedral was a revelation for me. It explains in brisk detail the iconography of the stained glass and sculptures. He argues that the cathedral is like a library; now I have a hint of how to read the books. The windows are no longer a blur of red and blue with funny faces to me, I now see the narratives and the artistic imperative. His tour was excellent, a 90 minute sampler of his life's work interpreting the cathedral delivered with delicious humour.
The tour alone was worth the trip, but Chartres turned out to be a revelation. The river is beautiful, the Saturday market is impressive, and Le Grand Monarque is a great old road hotel with excellent food. All in all a very pleasant overnight excursion from Paris. The train's only an hour, you could go just for the day. But better to settle in a bit and enjoy the rhythm of Chartres life.
As usual, I took some photos.
I don't know the area around the Eiffel Tower well. The immediate area is a giant park and tourist hell, and south of there is ugly and inhuman in scale. But it's also a popular place to live and work. And there are some sympa restaurants there, like Le Suffren.
It's a straight-up brasserie, lots of closely set tables and a menu with food options from oysters to fresh fish to steak to my pasta with tandoori chicken. Many of the locals were eating seafood, including an enormous fruits de mer platter, so maybe that's there special thing. The lunchtime crowd is fun, a bunch of Parisians enjoying a good meal without much fuss. And the service and food are a notch above the usual brasserie. Recommended, particularly if you're in the area and want something truly Parisian.
Auberge is French for "inn", traditionally a homely little place where you could get a room for a night and a home cooked meal. There are precious few auberges left anywhere in France, let alone Paris, so the name now implies "restaurant with cozy food". Such as the Auberge d'Chez Eux, a lovely casual little place near the Eiffel Tower in the 7th.
The southwest cooking is strongly on the "hearty" side, not sophisticated. But it's delicious and honest, paricularly the homemade charcuterie and desserts. Our dinner last night included an assortment of homemade salads, a fantastic salade gourmande with cured duck breast and foie gras, an impressively rich stew of deer, and a whole pheasant cooked with morels and girolles.
The hazard of this place is they love serving way too much food. My first time there I ordered the charcuterie sampling, which ended up being 12 kinds of dry sausage, 6 kinds of hot sausage, and a little fresh boudin noir to finish it off. That was the appetizer; my main course of two duck legs was to come. This kind of excess is atypical for France, and frankly a bit unwelcome, but it's done out of a generosity and joy of serving customers good food to make them happy. So you go with it, and just eat what you want, and it works out.
The wine list is surprisingly good; we had a lovely 1995 Madiran. And my friend Richard was crazy enough to finish his meal off with a glass of flaming prune eau-de-vie, a remarkably theatric presentation that ended up nearly burning his lips off. Everyone laughed, we ate a bit more dessert, and enjoyed the pleasure of a friendly auberge. It's no wonder Chirac took Putin here for dinner.
It's not all elegant dining in Paris; today's lunch was a hamburger, fries, and coke at Restaurant Quick, the French take on McDonalds. It's expensive by US standards at 5€90 for the basic burger meal. How is it? Nominally a little better than McD's but nowhere near In-n-Out quality.
But what prompts me to document this ignominious meal is the current "Say Cheese" campaign. Special meals include a hamburger with three slices of cheese, the intense raclette, and some nasty looking goat cheese burrito. Yes, in a land with a fantastic variety of local artisinal cheeses, "now with more goo!" also sells.
In the middle of the Marais in Paris there is a Jewish quarter with a complicated 800 year history. These days it's mostly home to recent Jewish immigrants from the Middle East. It's a great neighbourhood to find a quick cheap lunch, something different from the usual French food. Felafel, schwarma, bagels, etc.
One of the best known places there is Chez Marianne. It's an overgrown traiteur; their primary business is selling premade salads, deli foods, etc. But over time it's evolved into a restaurant with table service and is now quite popular at lunch. My assortment plate had hummus, tzatziki, roasted peppers in oil, feta, and a meatball. And some excellent pita bread. Way too much food, but good.
The best rating Michelin gives a restaurant is three stars, "worth a special trip". But three star places are too perfect, highly scripted food temples with extravagantly complex food. They aren't particularly fun. Which is why I like going to places like Au Plaisir Gourmand, indeed why I made a special second trip to Chinon just to have dinner there again. It ranks one star, which seems about right, but boasts the friendliest staff and most amazing local wine list I've had on this trip.
By no means is Le Lutetia worth a special effort for a short term visitor. But if you're in the neighbourhood of Notre Dame or the Ile St. Louis this little café is a good bet, much better than other nearby options. The folks are friendly, the coffee's good, and you have a wide selection of little snacks or more serious meals. They make a good American-style hamburger, nice meal-sized salads, and had a good looking onion soup. The staff is also very friendly and there's even free WiFi. Le Lutetia is our "around the corner" place.
Paris is expensive. So it's nice when you find something like the Auberge des Deux Ponts, a casual little restaurant right in the middle of the Ile St. Louis. Despite the location the lunch menu is a low 10€90 for three courses. I had a very good salad with warm goat cheese, a decent paupiette de veau (ground veal, spiced), and some ice cream. Nothing too special, but the staff cares about what they're doing and the place is good, nearby, and cheap.
The Rue Mouffetard is what the Left Bank / Latin Quarter would be if it weren't overrun by tourists. It starts at the charming Place de la Contrescarpe and runs south a few blocks on the far side of the hill from the Bd. St. Michel nonsense. The street is home to a bunch of student dive bars, "ethnic" restaurants (Greek, Chinese, Indian, ...) and several fondue joints. Some of these places are hideous (like Chez Papa, whose salad was dressed largely by the lettuce washing water), but if you choose carefully you can have a good inexpensive meal in a fun neighbourhood.
It's been cold, so last night Ken and I went for fondue at Assiette aux Fromages. 15€ gets you more melted cheese than you can eat along with a nice bit of ham and salad. There's lots of other things on the menu, some even not cheese-themed, but it's clear you come here for fondue or raclette. And they do fondue well. We'll go back if we have time.
PS: the blog title comes from an awful marketing campaign by the American Dairy Association. The theme was that any food could be made into a delicious meal just by adding cheese. I can't think of a more succinct summary of the American approach to food.
One of the pleasures of being in Paris for so long is easily taking little trips to other parts of France. Neither Ken nor I had been to Marseille nor much of Provence, so that's where we went. I took lots of photos, too.
We started in Marseille, the ugliest French city I've ever seen. Crazy Mediterranean traffic and nasty 1950s concrete buildings combine to make a beautiful bit of landscape quite unpleasant. It is an interesting old port though, and the Hôtel Passédat - Le Petit Nice was great with a truly fantastic restaurant. We also had a traditional bouillabaisse at Chez Michel, a hardcore fish place. Excellent, even if eating a quart of liquid, 4 fish, and a pint of mayonnaise as a side is perhaps a bit much.Castillon du Gard, a tiny restored hilltop town near the Pont du Gard. Ken found us another great hotel / restaurant there, Le Vieux Castillon. Despite the place being only about 5% full (ie: two parties) we were fed and treated very well.
Along the way we visited the 12th century fortress ruins of Les Baux de Provence, the Roman aqueduct of the Pont du Gard and about twenty little Provençal villages. A very pleasant few days, and perfect weather in November.
I just got back from a lovely trip down to Marseille, punctuated with stress because of a planned train strike. Expensive TGV tickets with mandatory reservations? Too bad, the train may not be running for social reasons. Just show up and hope for the best. Fortunately I got lucky.
There are constant strikes in every non-entrepreneurial industry in France. I'm sympathetic to workers' rights, but there's something galling about the persistance of strikes in a country with 35 hour work weeks, relaxed service expectations, significant social programs, and a huge unemployment problem. And for visitors it's particularly frustrating to randomly find the Louvre is closed because there are no ticket takers or the Pompidou is closed for some mysterious reason. Are museum workers really so oppressed?
One remarkable thing in Paris is the quantity and quality of street art. I don't mean crappy tag vandalism, but thoughtful and beautiful art by folks like Jèrôme Mesnager, L'Atlas and Space Invader. Walking around Paris is fun for all the beautiful old buildings, but look closer at some of the new stuff illicitly stuck to the walls, too.
Flickr is a good place to find images of Parisian street art. The Paris street art group is good, as are the photos of yoyo (and his website), tofz4u, chais, vitostreet and others. But I'm really enjoying stumbling into them myself. Many of the installations are quite big and ambitious; the nights must be quiet.
I've been taking photos of street art when I can. I'm particularly taken by the Kufic stylings of L'Atlas; Arabic calligraphy is beautiful, and somewhat provocative in Paris. And I recently stumbled into a beautiful gallery at 23-25 rue Ramponeau in the 20th. There's an artist workspace nearby, so I imagine this was semi-authorized.
A few days ago I had about enough of French food so I went looking for something "ethnic". Paris is big and there's all kinds of food here, but Indian, Thai, Mexican, even Greek are all a bit dicey. So we ended up with Italian, at a little place near me in the Marais called L'Enoteca. I'd walked by a dozen times, always impressed by the care of the daily menus and wine choices.
Generally in Paris if you find a place where the staff cares about what they're doing, you'll eat well. As it was at L'Enoteca. My strongest memory is of the pasta with duck. Excellent fresh tagliatelle, shreds of duck nicely peppered. Simple, elegant, perfect. The Italian wine list is excellent and modestly priced to match the menus. It's clear the owner has pride, and that translates to a good experience.
The best eating in France is in the country; in Paris what that means is finding places with regional specialities. L'Ambassade d'Auvergne is a good example, simple food from the Massif Central. But while the food is simple this place near Pompidou is elegant, good staff and nice tables.
I started with the assortment of cured pork; some ham, rillettes, blood sausage, and dry sausage. All excellent, particularly the ham. Ken was happy with his wild boar terrine but the best starter was the simple lentil salad with bits of bacon. Perfectly prepared. For a main corse we had duck breast and sausages, all served with aligot. Aligot is a riffe on mashed potatoes, mixed thoroughly with hard cheese to an elastic consistency. Hearty simple fare, very satisfiying. We'll be back.
PS: I've rolled the food posts back into my normal blog. No need for two feeds anymore.
Taking the train back from Auxerre the other day I got a live French lesson. Sitting across from us was a young tough guy, about twenty, wearing a permanent sneer and blocking the aisle with his legs. Originally he was sitting across from a pretty young woman, but after he wouldn't leave her alone she got up and moved.
So we're cruising along for a few minutes and suddenly the guy lights up a cigarette. French trains have been non-smoking for several years. I'm a non-confrontational wuss, particularly in French, but this pissed me off. Here's how the conversation went (in French, unless noted).
Excuse me sir, but this is a non-smoking train.My accent is so awful it's immediately obvious I don't speak much French. I think the game he was playing was to pretend he couldn't understand me, so the fault was mine. Turning the question around on him fixed that; he could hardly admit he didn't understand the sign. Either that, or my increasingly loud voice was attracting more attention than he wanted.
Anyway, off he went to smoke somewhere else. Next to a grandma, who also told him off. He jumped off the train at the next stop. And me? Apparently I know enough French to stare down a punk.
One of the more odious US credit card practices is charging "exchange rate fees" or "currency conversion fees" on non-USD transactions. I hadn't been paying attention but just looked and saw Chase is charging me
Mind you, this is on top of all the other fees they charge both me and the merchant. And it's pure profit; their friction for a Euro denominated transaction is at most 0.1%. Why do they charge it? Because they can.
Surprisingly Wells Fargo is much better on ATM cash withdrawals. There's a flat $5 fee, so at $1000 an ATM visit I'm paying 0.5% for eurocash. I guess I'm gonna have to start carrying a fat roll.
One of my favourite casual places to go on the left bank is Le Petit Prince de Paris, a comfortable and lively restaurant not far from Pantheon. The menu is sort of updated classic French; nothing too inventive, but not dull either. And achievable, with good ingredients and appropriate attention from the kitchen. But I like the place most because it has a good buzz. It's been a sort of gay restaurant for 20 years; nothing overt, not in a gay neighbourhood, but popular with young Parisian men. Lately it's been featured in a lot of food guides (including Zagat) so it gets a much broader mix of people. But it remains festive and comfortable and a place I'm happy to know and go back to.
My friend Richard booked us into this restaurant near Madeleine the other day. He knew it in its previous incarnation as a Burgundian brasserie, complete with cheap brass plaques commemorating regulars' favourite tables. It's morphed into Chez Cécile now, a comfortable restaurant with an ambitious chef. I'm writing this too far after the meal to remember details, but there were a lot of touches of inventiveness on the menu that worked. Meat flavoured with smoked hay. Ravioli with coconut milk and vanilla. Etc. New cooking, not hidebound French tradition, and it worked. We'll be back.
If you look in any guidebook for "authentic Paris bistro" you're likely to be sent to Benoit. It's been in Paris forever, was a favourite of politiians, bought by Alain Ducasse' prestigious company, and has even gotten a star from Michelin. But is it that good? Not really.
I've been twice in two separate years now and to be honest, the place suffers too much under the weight of its reputation. The clientele is 90% tourists, sapping the will and joy out of the staff there. The menu is classic bistro, which is to say a bit hackneyed. Everything is prepared well enough but nothing is particularly good. Nothing is bad either, and the service is very good. It's just uninspiring.
Paris is so full of honest and earnest places that there's no need to go to someone just making the motions. If you're looking for a good traditional meal in Paris and you're not sure how to find a place, by all means go to Benoit. It's certainly good. But if you want something interesting save the evening for somewhere new.
Ken pulled a real gem out of Zagat last weekend; Le Caveau du Palais. Everyone wants to eat at a bistro when they visit Paris, but the truth is most "bistros" are crappy French short order restaurants with the exact same menu. Duck confit. Steak with shallots. Broiled bass. Steak tartare. Roasted chicken.
The difference with Le Caveau is it's very very good. The food is prepared with great care and excellent ingredients. The terrine du porc was homemade, they just brought out a big casserole and said "cut yourself as much as you want". My duck confit was one of the best I've had in a very long time, with fanastically garlicky and leathery pommes sarladaise. Ken's chicken breast with cream sauce and morels was perfect as well. Good wine list, too.
It's rare to find a simple bistro that does so well. Benoit is where most people will be sent, and you'll do OK, but Le Caveau felt more like the real thing to me. The location is phenomenal as well, in the middle of the touristy Cité island but in a quiet corner on a handsome square. It felt like the kind of place where all the Parisian ministers go for lunch. On a Saturday night it was very quiet.
As pleasant as my apartment is, I live in the middle of tourist hell just behind Notre Dame. So I'm generally suspcious of the restaurants a short walk from my place. But there are a few gems here, including Le Brasserie de l'Île St. Louis. It's a 135+ year old Alsatian brasserie right on the island, just to the left from the bridge from Cité. And it's a lovely casual little brasserie, lots of hearty portions of sauerkraut and cured pork and the like. Lunch today was some lovely slices of roast veal served alongside cauliflower au gratin. Nothing subtle, but made with care, cheap, and delicious.
Several times I've heard American friends complain about how when they go to a restaurant, they're stuck in a corner with the other Americans in "the bad room". I've had it happen to me too, but I've learned that it's not really hostility at all, it's the restaurant trying to make me comfortable.
Foremost, the non-smoking room is often the American room. French people don't seem to ask for l'espace non-fumeur very often, so the folks who want to eat their meal without smelling noxious smoke often end up being Americans. And secondarily, good restaurants often have one waiter who speaks the best English; you'll be assigned to his room as a matter of course. No insult intended, they're just trying to make you (and themselves) happy.
So go with it. And when the table next to you starts bleating loudly about their diets and stock portfolios, enjoy the pleasure that they can overhear you commenting nastily about them.
Do you dream of going to Paris and eating in a little crowded hip bistro, inventive menu and a buzz? If so, Le Reminent is the place for you. Except one thing; it's bad.
Everytime we've walked by this place it was crowded with happy people. And the menu looked good. So tonight we went in and found a disaster in action. Ten minute wait to have anyone ask us about drinks or food. So we ordered food, asked for the wine list, then five minutes later are asked by the same person for our food order again. Lots of grumpy people sitting around demanding checks, service, etc. Clearly things were not going well.
The menu was ambitious but disappointing. My cod salad with capers was pleasant enough, Ken's croustillant of chevre was unimpressive. And both of us were served salad out of a bag. Partridge was a welcome item on the menu but came out overcooked and in a muddy brown sauce. Ken's steak was good meat, but again with the mud sauce. Desserts equally uninspired. Good? Earl grey tea flavoured creme. Bad? No other flavour.
The restaurant was packed with English speaking tourists, all smugly happy they'd found a sophisticated experience. The British forty-something gals across from us were drunk and taking two flash photos a minute. And the culmination of the meal service? The woman running the restaurant sat at a table in the middle of the dining room, patrons still having their meals, and proceeded to eat her own dinner and read a magazine. Shocking, unacceptable, and a good reason not to go back.
Sadly, about half the restaurants we go to in Paris seem to have similar lapses. I'll endeavour to write more about the good half.
One thing that's new in Paris since my last time here is the semi-permanent encampments of people living on the streets. Not exactly the streets, but along the Seine and the Canal St. Martin. I have a few pictures if you're curious.
I don't know what mistaken progressivism is allowing people to move in but it concerns me greatly. I come from a city with a significant problem of people living in the streets and it's hideous. Downtown San Francisco regularly ashames me, particularly when I talk to visitors. Why would Paris let that happen to them? Particularly in a country with such extensive and expensive social support?
Judging by some of the signs I saw I gather there's a political point being made about the right of people to live in the streets of Paris. Bullshit. People have a right to a roof, but not a right to a tent in a public space in the middle of the city. My impression is social support in France is more than adequate to care for people too sick or poor to care for themselves. What's the problem?
I'm feeling a bit homesick today. Nothing serious but I'm missing my cat, burritos, dogshit-free sidewalks, and running errands without linguistic adventures. But what I'm most homesick for now is an American shower.
The French may have given the world the bidet, but they have alarmingly bad showers. Shower curtains and sprayers are considered optional. It's common to find hotels with nothing but a tub and a handheld sprayer on a flexible hose. You cower in one corner of the tub, awkwardly holding the sprayer above you with one hand while trying to wash with the other. You rush and try your best not to spray outside the tub, but are inevitably ashamed of the swampy mess the bathroom has become.
A good American shower is a sybaritic pleasure. A solid watertight enclosure, allowing splashing and spraying with no fear. A large, high flow showerhead hung about 2 meters overhead, spraying out and down to soak you. The best showers are large enough that you can stand fully in the shower without the water touching you, but even the usual bathtub arrangement allows plenty of room for soaping, relaxing, lounging.
I used to think Vegas was the tackiest place on earth. Now I've visited Versailles. It's all beautifully done, don't get me wrong, but so excessive and so fake (down to the "marble" columns) that I ultimately found it depressing. I can almost understand the beastly behaviour after 1789.
The grounds are very beautiful; excellent site architecture, placed on top of a gentle hill with expansive gardens stretching out on all sides. Great statuary too, although a lot of it was covered; made for some creepy photos.
I'm glad I checked Versailles off my to-do list, but I wouldn't recommend it unless it's a warm sunny day and you feel like a garden stroll.
I am now exhausted in France. After a couple of weeks of wondering what I should do with myself here, I suddenly find myself with 600 photos to edit, 4 books to read, two trips to narrate, not to mention all the daily routine of Paris.
I had a nice few days in the Loire followed by a nice few days in Bretagne and Normandie. Lots of detail to come, but I have to say now that travelling in the countryside in France is the best thing ever.
Do not assume you can find a cab at 19:30. Even if it's Wednesday, the weather is lovely and you're in the middle of the city. Being dressed to the nines for an evening at Pre Catalan will not help. The Parisian taxi driver won't be impressed by your cufflinks. He already has a fare.
What should have been a pleasant cab ride through the Bois de Boulogne towards one of the best restaurants in Paris ended up in a hellishly stressful hour plus search for a cab. We finally gave up and took the metro to Porte Maillot, nearer the restaurant and with a cab stand. Even there we waited 10 minutes.
Time to learn how to reserve a taxi by the phone.
Paris is best taken at her own pace. And while the Musee d'Orsay is the #1 essential visit for any visitor to Paris, it can be a difficult place to pace. Hour long waits to buy tickets, giant crowds, a lack of good nearby dining. The solution for the tickets is easy; go a day or two in advance and buy tickets at the nearby kiosk. Then the day you visit you whisk right inside, no wait. (Except for today, where the kiosk was perversely closed.)
The solution for dining was also easy, but alas has gotten harder. There is a serious restaurant inside the museum, on the second floor in a beautifully restored ballroom. Alas, the service has gone downhill significantly since last year; the lack of linen makes the place feel just a bit too much like a dismal cafeteria. The menu is still slightly ambitious and the execution is still just as uneven. Our filet of pork was great, the entrecote serviceable, but the mushroom terrine was watery. I can recommend this place for lunch, but only as a comfortable part of an extended visit to the museum. It's a shame they gave up on the tablecloths and other trappings of a real restaurant.
The entitlement of Paris is no matter where you are, there's a comfortable little restaurant a block away. In the middle of the city there's a lot more than one little restaraunt, so finding the comfortable one can be a trick. For today's lunch A La Tête D'or was just the thing only a block from Chatelet metro.
The bistro is run by a family from the Aveyron, but other than the advertised Aubrac beef I have no idea what that would mean for cuisine. The menu was quite pleasant though, straying far from the usual steak/chicken/fish dishes of the everyday Parisian bistro. I had a nice little filet of lieu jaune (pollack), a firm white fish like a cod served in a green herby sauce. Being in a hurry I appreciated the rapid service, but the fish came out a bit too quickly. I fear it was not prepared to order, but it was quite tasty. A little pichet of rich white wine, a homemade tarte tatin, and I was done with a very pleasant lunch 45 minutes and 28€ later.
BTW, across the corner is a pleasant patisserie where I bought lovely croissants a few years ago.
My first (and so far only) outing from Paris was a quick trip up to Brussels, to see a friend visiting there for EuroOSCon. I'm sad to say that Brussels lives up to its reputation, a dreary and boring little business city. What surprised me most was how ugly so much of the architecture is in the middle of the city, a lot of 60s/70s concrete brutality. It's not all bad; the Begijnhof is handsome, there's a cool shopping arcade, and the center square is quite a showpiece. But overall? Not such a beautiful town.
We did eat well. We were steered the first night to L'Huîtrière, a seafood place built at Brussels gone-100-years docks. Excellent fresh fish, comfortable room, nice dinner. I was a bit disappointed with our second dinner at L'Maison du Boeuf, not because anything was bad about it but because for a place of its reputation (and price!) you expect excellence, and it was merely very good. The best surprise was Aux Armes de Bruxelles, an excellent old world place with gentileness and charm smack in the middle of Brussels tourist hell. I had moules frites just because I felt obligated, but my friends did much better with careful lobster preparations with cream sauce. Excellent place, I strongly recommend.
My friend Richard took me to Les Marronniers first, for a quick lunch across from BHV in the 4th. It's a casual sort of cafe, excellent salads and small sandwiches. I went back with Ken because we were jonesing for the promising looking American-style hamburger, which was OK but a bit of a disappointment. Should have had the Sunday brunch like everyone else!
I believe in the afternoon / early evening this doubles as a place for a quick glass of wine for the young gay men that suddenly appear all over the Marais. Tres gentile.
I've been to Au Bourguignon du Marais in the 4th twice now. It's a straight up bistro, simple French dishes, with a burgundian slant and a good wine list. The outdoor seating is quite pleasant on a quiet seat and the kitchen and staff are serious enough to make for a very good lunch.
Some favourite dishes.. A blanched tomato and fresh goat cheese salad, the classic hangar steak with shallots, and a surprisingly robust penne with chorizo. They also feature andouillette and it looks good, but I'm just not quite brave enough. Last time we were there we had a fantastic chocolate tarte, way better than anything else like it in Paris. Creamy and eggy, rich with chocolate but not too dense. Yum.
If you want a slightly odd and rustic experience in Paris, check out ChantAirelle in the 5th. It's a simple restaurant featuring recipes and products from the Auvergne, plus a bit of touristy stuff stuck on front. Don't fear though, the staff is friendly and the cooking is good. Nothing we had was subtle; this is casual mountain food. But the potatoes and cheese dish was tasty with a delicious thin sliced ham. My "salmon trout" turned out to be salmon prepared as if it were a mountain trout; a bit bizarre, but good.
I'd say this place isn't worth a particular trip, but if you're tired of the Parisian experience you can get a bit of Auvergne feel for a cheap price. Nice outdoor space in back, too.
An excellent and innovative French place in the 15th, Stéphane Martin is what I keep expecting to find in Paris and missing. The chef is quite ambitious, with a changing and challenging menu. The highlight of our dinner was an Indian preparation of rabbit; quite strongly spiced but with the subtlety and integration of a French chef.
While the cooking is great the service is a bit uneven; it almost feels like they hired untrained staff. But they're nice and attentative, just a bit clumsy, so go with it and it's fine. The entire restaurant is non-smoking, a welcome thing.
PS: I promised to write more, and I will, but got sick of writing up the places I didn't like.
Bread is serious business in France, but not all bread here is good. Even the simple baguette has huge variation. Now thanks to my friend Marc I know how to articulate the difference between the good and the bad.
A good baguette starts with an open crumb, an airy interior texture with different sized holes. This structure is the result of careful handling and longer proofing and is one of the visible marks of a good baguette. Of course what really matters is the taste and texture, but the easily-visible crumb structure (miette) is a good indicator.
I've been buying baguettes all over town as an experiment. And almost every shop has mediocre baguettes, including the fancy gourmet store (1.05€), the place with fabulous croissants (0.90€), and the permanent boulanger in Place Maubert (0.90€). But the best bread I've had so far comes from just around the corner on the tourist-swamped streets of Ile St. Louis (0.80€). It has enough flavour you can enjoy it plain, good chewy bite, and yes, the open crumb.
See also this sinister explanation for lousy Parisian bread
Shopping for groceries is a lot of fun in Paris. The ingredients here are fresh,and there's such variety of fruit and cheese and meats and bread and pastry. The produce quality is better than in San Francisco, too; it's shameful how bad lettuce is in California.
The trick in Paris is to buy things from specialists, not supermarkets. This means going to several different stores on a shopping trip and figuring out which boulanger has the best bread, which cheese shops are better at mountain cheeses vs. soft cow cheeses, and careful produce inspection.
My favourite place to shop is the Marché Maubert, a three days a week outdoor market. Some 30 different vendors selling fruits, vegetabls, meats (calves brains!), cheeses, pastas, middle eastern specialities, and, oddly, suitcases. The two or three permanent shops there are quite good as well. My Parisian restauranteuse friend Evelyne was kind enough to go shopping with us the first time and show us the ropes. Quite easy; afterall, the vendors want to sell to you as much as you want to buy.
Sometimes being in Paris feels like an adventure game.
ride metroThe Paris metro is actually pretty easy; just buy "un carnet" from the agent, 10 tickets for 10.90€. But living here you want a monthly pass; Here's the walkthrough on how to do it. WARNING: SPOILERS.
I'm at that point in my trip where getting things done in a foreign country seems so difficult. For instance, getting shirts washed and ironed. Do you go to the 5 a sec chain where it's $4 a shirt, the shirts come back wrinkled, and the troll at the counter is mean? Or do you go to the local pressing where it's $8 a shirt, the shirts come back perfect, and the mademoiselle at the counter is so lovely and nice you wish you could ask her out?
Either way, it's a lot of money for a shirt compared to $1.25 in the US. But then again the shirts are hand ironed, the staff is being paid a living wage, and the experience is altogether more personal. But I feel certain it's possible to get a shirt done right for, say, $5. if you just knew where to look. My Parisian friends just have their cleaning lady iron their shirts. Cleaning lady; how do I hire one of those?
I've found a solution to my Paris-photo-cliche problem; Space Invader. My new daily challenge is to go find invaders around Paris and photograph the surroundings. I've liked this guy's street art for awhile now and they provide a good excuse for walking around the city slowly.
Paris has so many surprises. Today's walk took me on a tour of the 5th. Along the way I discovered the Arenès de Lutèce, a 2000 year old Roman amphitheatre. And the lovely little Place Monge, a small village feel in the middle of the city. And the tomb of St. Genevieve, a 5th century saint whose bones were burned by the democracy-loving revolutionaries in 1793.
And on and on, so much in this city to find. The invaders are my breadcrumbs.
I am sitting at my neighbourhood cafe with a fantastic view over the Point Louis Philippe and beyond to the late afternoon sun-drenched limestone buildings along the Seine. Free WiFi, a big glass of mediocre Chinon, and the tranquility of a shady Parisian cafe. La vie est bonne.
I've been a bit at loose ends in Paris, not sure what to do with myself here. But then I relax a bit and the city comes to me. After lunch yesterday at Les Marroniers in the 4th (casual cafe, good sandwiches) we walked a bit and found a Sunday exhibition of the national police. Equestrian demonstrations, acrobats on motorcycles, zip-lines for children.
And then on we walked to the eastern tip of our island, to the garden featuring a statue of the now-forgotten artist Antoine-Louis Barye. Then from there past the public shower for the indigent (on the most expensive real estate in Paris), and on to the St. Louis church whose open door invited us in to an organ rehearsal of Buxtehude and Bach.
When you slow down, most every street in Paris offers some sort of pleasure to the visitor.
With many thanks to Jason Kottke for the recommendation, I just finished enjoying a lovely pain au chocolat from Boulangerie Malineau in the Marais about five blocks from me. Crisp, nicely layered, and warm, just a bit too buttery. A superior pastry, even for Paris.
One wonderful thing about Paris is the diversity of bakeries, cheese stores, butchers, etc. Everyone seems to have specific favourites; this place is good for pain ordinaire, this one for croissant, this one is more convenient. So much to learn.
Yesterday's afternoon had one of those happy random experiences that make being in Paris wonderful. We went out for lunch and some grocery shopping, and on the way inbetween got pulled into the Musée Carnavalet over in the 3rd. The lovely courtyard is what brought us in curious, but since it was free that day we went inside to look.
The museum collects works of art in and about Paris, focussing on 18th and 19th century stuff. Lots of minor fine art works by lesser known artists, along with some amazing decorative arts. It was interesting going to a museum that had a lot of art, not all very good. Seeing bad impressionism helps put good impressionism in context! Maybe all museums should have a few ringers, bad pieces to keep you on your toes.
Anyway, lots of beautiful things, and the old mansions the museum is in are lovely. I liked the Paris focus of the collection, a different way of organizing things.
Ken and I have finally discovered a good area to wander from our place in search of dinner: between the Ile de la Cité and Place Maubert. It's close enough to the tourist zone to have lots of casual restaurants, but far enough on the wrong side to not be awful. Lots of promising options.
Like Degreés de Notre Dame, a restaurant with a pleasant outdoor seating area next to a modest hotel. Like most French restaurants of this type it serves the usual fare along with a speciality. In this case, Moroccan food. My tagine was fantastic, richly spiced and sweetened with raisins and plums. Ken's warm goat cheese salad was also excellent, although his couscous was a bit bland. Mostly we liked the place because they seemed to really care about serving good food and making people happy.
Brasserie is French for diner and a lot of the French comfort food I enjoy is the French equivalent of the blue plate special of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Poulet frites is one such dish: a quarter roasted chicken, some fries, and if you're lucky a little salad with mustard vinaigrette. Which is exactly what I had for dinner late on Sunday, then again for lunch on Monday.
Nothing exciting, but made well it satisfies. The chicken skin should be crisp, a little brown gravy from the drippings, the fries crisp and hot and just oily enough to not quite soak up all the gravy. Which, alas, is not quite what I got at neither Le Village Ronsard in the 5th nor Le Dôme in the 7th. Sunday night chicken is a risky proposition, and while the Monday lunch was better it wasn't made with much love. Just have to keep trying!
It's been a week since landing in Paris and I'm slowly settling in. It's taking me longer to feel comfortable than I expected. I think the problem is I'm not working, so I have nothing to structure the day. I feel like I should be In Paris 16 hours a day, but that's too much. Fiddling with cameras and GPS units is giving me something comfortable to do (while still useful to Paris) and I suspect before too long I'll take up one of my programming projects. Eight hours a day of Paris is enough.
Having an apartment of your own is a wonderful thing. We rented a place right in the middle of the city on the Ile St. Louis. Being central is great, but even better we're just a bit east of the tourist center, making the Marais more "our neighbourhood" than the Latin Quarter or the 2nd. Feels a bit more real. Also the island itself is incredibly quiet and calm. Few cars, a nice respite from the moped madness of the rest of the city.
I had a lovely Sunday lunch today at Les Fous d'en Face, a sidewalk bistro with a great location. It's in the 4th at 3, Rue du Bourg-Tibourg, just north of Rue de Rivoli in a charming little restaurant lined square. Just the thing on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
My salade du chevre chaud was a surprise; the salade is served separate from the cheese, a fresh mild crottin that looked more like a poached egg. Very nice, a bit heavy. The salmon main course was excellent; fresh and well cooked if a bit plain. Dessert, a fresh strawberry soup, just the thing for the end of summer. Ken enjoyed his rabbit terrine but was a bit unimpressed with the veal cutlet and girolles. The Languedoc rosé we chose (Peyre Rose) was excellent if a bit strong for the day. A deep color, almost a red, and strong for a rosé (14%!). Excellent wine, just not the perfect choice at the time.
Our waiter was quite friendly and made the experience all the more enjoyable. Definitely a comfortable place for a tourist to visit, but being a bit up the Seine in the 4th it wasn't overwhelmed by Americans in shorts. Not cheap but not terrible, three courses will cost you about 30€. A good choice if you're in the Marais.
We went back and had another good lunch. My tuna was great, Ken's steak was not as good but that's what he gets for ordering steak in France. Our Beaujolais order (Chiroubles, of Eric Morin) got us a special friendly visit to explain what we'd ordered. The place is choosing wines carefully.
After all this dining out I couldn't take anymore, so we finally did some local shopping and had dinner at home. A trip to the local fromagerie yielded an Epoisses (Berthaut; like home, not raw milk), a St. Marcellin, and some very strong dry goat cheese. Along with some Corsican sausage, a baguette from the boulanger and some wine from Nicolas it made for a fine quick dinner.
One of my goals in Paris is to get friendly with a local cheesemonger, to be able to go in and say "what's really good today?". Cheese is a living complex thing, not to be shrinkwrapped and sliced to individual servings. Time to find that in Paris.
The Place des Vosges is one of those old European city planning miracles, a lovely square with uniform architecture surrounding a comfortable park square. There are a few good restaurants surrounding the square and Ma Bourgogne is a storied old bistro/café you can't miss. The tables under the colonnade are very comfortable so you can excuse if the food is a bit dull, if proper.
Ken and I made the mistake of both ordering some dry cured sausages. Which is what we got, giant chunks of sausage with no proper knife to cut them. Good enough charcuterie but not exceptional, and too much of it. Our steaks and frites came out better, particularly my bavette, but other than the fried shallots there wasn't much to dress the steak. Very plain food. If I had a bit more courage maybe I could be telling you how good the andouilette or tête de veau are, but having had those French soul food adventures once I'm not in a hurry to do so again.
If I'm in the area again I'd definitely stop in for a quick bistro lunch, but not worth a special trip. I'm still unsure about whether this restaurant is the same as the Ma Bourgogne on Bd. Hausmann in the 8th. I was there a few years ago, that place was marvelous.
Hot on the heels of our lousy salad-in-a-bread-bowl, Ken and I finished another 45 minute marché de manger at some random pizza place we found in the 6th or 7th that was open and advertised "feu de bois". Nice enough neighbourhood joint, slightly rowdy and good spirited, but nowhere near good enough to warrant remembering.
The one thing I do remember was the gentleman sitting next to us, a regular. In his mid 60s, very large, slight difficulty moving. But well loved by the staff despite (or because of?) his tendency to flirt with the young male staff. His eyes followed every young man in the room, not rudely, just enjoying the scenery while dining. Tres gentile. He helped us get the waiter's attention a time or two, was friendly, but alas my French isn't good enough for casual conversation. I did get a good smile from him when I made a mildly intimate gesture with Ken, letting our friend know we were fellow travellers. Paris is good for people.
The nadir of my dining in Paris so far is a joint right across from Notre Dame at the end of the Petit Pont. There's a string of several outdoor cafes; good for a beer, bad for food. Should have run away with I saw they proudly advertised "salad served in a bowl made of bread!". Nasty day old pizza dough, inedible. And the salade nicoise was lacking in all the goodness that makes a French salad. Hey, they're not all good.
Our first serious dinner was at La Bouteille d'Or, a fine restaurant with a slight Corsican bent just across from Notre Dame. We had no particular plan that night but the spacious tables and well dressed staff brought us in. And it worked fairly well.
Ken and I both had wild boar (sanglier) for our main courses. Very nice, if a bit plain in preparation. I confess I can't remember much about our first courses except that Ken's beignets of chestnut flour didn't work as well as we'd hoped. I think I had snails. But I distinctly remember the fantastic selection of Corsican cheeses we had to finish the meal, the perfect accompaniment to the dark red vin de Corse.
There are so many good restaurants of this caliber in Paris, I'm not sure this one is worth a special effort to visit again. But it was a good dinner for us.
Our apartment is on the lovely Ile St. Louis. Dining options are limited here, but one place that seems to work well for a casual lunch is the Auberge de la Reine Blance. It's just a bit further west up the street than most tourists go and the door is kind of small, but inside is a very typical little comfortable lunch joint.
The menu is a bit ambitious for a casual place. Ken had an eggplant gratin with curry flavouring along with a rich, solidly prepared beef burgundy. I had an excellent set of snails in little puff pastry with pesto and a lovely millefeuille preparation of fish. Well executed, simple, not terribly expensive. We'll be back.
We went back, it was as good as remembered and is now our favourite neighbourhood place. I see someone agrees with me: it gets a 21/30 food rating in Zagat.
Our second night in Paris found us stumbling around again looking for a restaurant, this time by heading off in a direction of the Marais we'd never been in before. We ended up at Le Bouledogue at 20 Rue Rambuteau in the 3rd. A tiny little place, half empty at 20:45 and totally full by 21:15. About half the crowd were skinny French gay men there for a quick pre-crawl meal. And proper brasserie service, friendly people, all good. (Except the weather, a miserable 30°C).
Ken and I both had gaspacho, passably good but nothing special. Ken's duck confit was undercooked but the skin was nicely crunchy. My breast of goose was absolutely fantastic, unctuously oily with just enough vinegar in the sauce to balance. We liked the place, but in retrospect maybe the food was just ordinary.
Our first few days in Europe Ken and I always do the same thing; wander around for 45 minutes looking for somewhere for lunch getting increasingly cross with the city and each other. Santorini, deep in the tourist maze of the 5th at 24 r. Harpe, is typical of the place we end up at. Good enough food, OK staff, nothing remarkable. We had grilled meat and a salad and were done.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the friendly brasserie Le Dauphin even if it may not be among Paris' best restaurants. It's conveniently located near the Louvre at 167 Rue Saint-Honoré, the staff is friendly and easily accomodates English (or Japanese), it's open for dinner on Sundays, and it's lively but easy to get a table at.
The food is good and solid. They have a southwestern France bent (cassoulet, etc), but the menu is generally typical brasserie fare with some well considered specials. And while 37€ isn't cheap for a three course menu it's not bad for the quality and location. Ken and I always seem to end up here on our first night in Paris (it's near the hotel we favour) and for that, it satisfies.
My partner Ken and I will be living in Paris this fall. We've rented an apartment for September through November and will be spending most of our time in Paris itself, with occasional weekend trips around France.
Ken and I have talked often about living in Europe, either full time or part time. We really enjoyed being in Zürich last fall but in the end decided it wasn't quite the city for us. We've spent enough time in France as tourists to know we like it, so time to take the next step of actually living there for awhile.
If you're in Paris or think you may be visiting there sometime this fall, drop me a note!