THESE POSTS UPCOMING ARE DEDICATED TO A LONG TIME BLOG READER OF MINE WHO UNEXPECTEDLY PASSED AWAY. HE WAS A LIGHT IN MY LIFE FOR MANY YEARS. AN INCREDIBLE LAWYER FIGHTING FOR CIVIL RIGHTS AT THE SUPREME COURT WHO NEVER LOST A CASE. A GREAT FATHER & HUSBAND, AND A TERRIFIC FRIEND I MET THROUGH THIS BLOG WHO ENCOURAGED ME AND ALWAYS HAD SOMETHING POSITIVE TO SAY. JOHN SHEEHY YOU WILL BE MISSED. AND I WILL THINK OF YOU WHEN EATING OYSTERS AND DRINKING BURGUNDY AND ALWAYS WHEN I AM IN PARIS BECAUSE YOU LOVED IT SO AND FOUND MY COOKING STORIES SO FUNNY. MAY YOU BE RESTING PEACEFULLY AND LOOKING DOWN UPON US WITH YOUR SMILE AND WARMTH AND SELFLESS GENEROSITY. WHO WILL TAKE YOUR PLACE HERE ON EARTH AND PICK UP THE TORCH YOU CARRIED FOR SO LONG? WHO? THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME AND FOR SO MANY OTHERS. GOODBYE DEAR FRIEND…
Catapulted into the next city by train. Watching the Tuscan country side glide by through my cabin window in long blurred brush strokes of green, mustard yellow, papovero poppy red – as if a painter took his big thumb to a wet oil canvas depicting vineyards and 14th century castles and smeared them all together into one fat horizontal smudge. The cloudless blue sky stays ever motionless. The train silently pushes on. I sip my warm, flat, first class Prosecco, munch on salted peanuts, and contemplate why train travel makes for better writing.
Is it the motion of going forward that allows one’s mind to stop and focus? The temporary vulnerability/insanity of handing over one’s inertia and life to an unknown conductor that aids in the journey inward?
This story is long (and I will break into installments) with new revelations about the French and Italians – brand spanking never been heard before commentary on them thar Euro-peans! In this epic adventure there are: good times, rain, good food, shitty food (lots of it), sun, total exhaustion, too many churches, too many cities, sudden death (and that’s not meant to be funny), exciting wines, renewed love, stolen bags, and plenty of gained weight…
I arrive in Paris the end of April From San Francisco.
The rain in SF ends and a heat wave arrives – the first in years. The heat wave in Paris ends and wind, freezing temperatures, and rain that falls hard & sideways takes over the entire country. Fun! I am so happy I packed summer dresses, sandals, sexy stilettos, and slinky dresses. Let the honeymoon begin! And please God, let this not be a sign. Who wants to start out on this note?
I lived here for five years through some of the hottest summers and darkest coldest winters in France’s history and now I’m reliving it again. Yay for me. What was wrong with a vacation in Belize or Hawaii? I can’t remember my rationale…
There will be no picnics on Pont Neuf or in Tuileries, no jogging along the Seine or in the Bois de Boulogne.
There will be a lot of cafe sitting, croissant munching, deustation menu taking, and champagne popping, and dragging my new husband from museum to museum – he’ll just love that – he’s such an art buff. (sarcasm here, just a little bit) And he just loves to sit and people watch too and take super long meals that absorb the whole day. (a little more sarcasm here, just a tad).
Oh who cares, it’s our honeymoon. Isn’t that the time where you pull up the sheets and order room service and stay in bed? And we’re in Paris the most romantic city in the world! Let it rain! Let them eat cake! I don’t care!
Touching down in Charles de Gaulle is always a pleasure. This airport , if you’ve never had the good fortune of visiting, is like a hamster cage on steroids. I’m talking about the type of rodent habitat that has all those plastic connecting tubes, wheels, and balls. The only difference – besides scale – between this French monstrosity and my niece’s pet project is that the former is partly flocked with an interesting texturized cement that looks like asbestos. It probably is asbestos.
It’s France after all which is a little like America in the early ’80’s – and remember that the ’80’s heavily idolized the ’50’s with just a bit more color and geometric glam. This is not necessarily a put down, many Americans liked the ’80’s and neon is definitely making a come back this year in America and so is Marilyn Monroe for that matter.
Neither of these two have left Paris since I’ve been gone, but more on that later. Asbestos is still not a class action suit here in Paris – that is what I’m really trying to say.
My new husband stares in disbelief as we drag our way too heavy luggage along the human conveyor belt. He laughs and blurts out: “You were right. It is exactly like a hamster cage. Even the people look rather hamsterish.” Ah jet lag, it makes every thing look distorted. “Yes,” I reply “The French are much smaller boned than us. We, as Americans, are porky pig-ish. Perhaps SFO looks like a feeding trough to them.”
I hustle my Hubby past the new arrivals that are looking up and down and all around and trying to figure out where to go. I know this airport way better than I’d like to. I will admit that the Hamster Staff have added a plethora of new signage in French and English which is quite the pièce de résistance when you think about it (and I mean ‘piece of resistance’ here). Nonetheless, most people are lost, and we are the first to make the taxi line. Why? Because it’s at the opposite end from where international travelers are let out and only a few people know that. Superb design. Just like a hamster cage. We hop into a nice big taxi and shove our two big bags (a total of 100 pounds) in the backseat along with two carry ons (50 pounds each), 2 laptop carry ons (2 X 25 pounds), and my big black purse (oh, at least 5 pounds, I have everything in there). That’s a total of 255 pounds of luggage. Luckily for me my husband is really strong. And luckily for him, I’ll let him prove just how strong he is.
The journey from the Hamsterhoff to our hotel takes no time. We have chosen a hotel close to the l’Arc de Triumph for the first few days. It’s a so-called boutique hotel just off the famous (yet not so pretty) Avenue de la Grande Armée. I lived in this neighborhood not so long ago and know all the great little markets and restaurants in this little uppercrust quartier. Oh and my old place of work, Guy Savoy, is just around the corner.
The reason we check in here at Mon Hotel, and yes that’s really the name of the hotel – it’s not my hotel per se – is that the Ritz is closed for renovations. No. That’s a joke. Well it is and it isn’t. They are closed for reconstruction. And so are our bank accounts for that kind of expenditure. But the real reason is that my husband must spend the first two days of our honeymoon doing some work in Italy so I figure it will be easier for him to get back and forth to CDG aka the Hamsterhaven.
We yank our luggage out of the taxi and you’ll never guess who greets us at the door. Yes! Marilyn Monroe! She is everywhere! The hotel has been given a trendy chic overhaul which in Paris always looks a little like Z-Gallery in the 80’s meets Ikea of the 90’s meets a True Blood vampire den with some crazy expensive 17th century Murano Glass chandeliers thrown in to really confuse the matter. Photos of Marilyn are tastefully framed and hung all around. Some lava lamps would really get the party started. Nonetheless, the receptionist is super friendly. She is young, pretty, Parisian, nice, and she answers my rusty French with perfect English without trying to suck my blood. The service here definitely makes up for the vampish décor.
However mod Mon Hotel (I’ve linked here to the hotel for your enjoyment) is trying to look the elevator gives away its true age and identity. We squeeze ourselves into it and laugh nervously as the accordion door seals our fate. I push the button for level four and the lift kicks into gear with a worrisome up and down motion before slowly taking us up, up, and away. The hotel reeks of fruity floral air freshener and the smell, for unknown reasons, is concentrated in the elevator. Oh well, at this close proximity, it’s probably for the better. We have both sat on a plane for 14 hours after all.
Our bags are waiting for us in our room. How did they do that? Perhaps the bell boy flew them up with his bat-like wings? The hotel room is very small. Much smaller than the photos advertised, but it’s nicely furnished and the bed is comfy. Another picture of Marilyn holding her skirts down over a cool vent is framed on the bedroom wall and yet another lesser known print hangs in the bathroom. I find the odoriferous air freshener culprit – ten perfume sticks in a vase – and hide them under the bathroom counter. These must be everywhere in the hotel. Why? Hasn’t anyone complained of an allergic reaction yet? And if not, can I be the first?
I would like perfume sticks to be added to the list along with asbestos of things France doesn’t know is not en vogue anymore. Oh please, cigarettes would be too obvious…
We were promised a terrace and what an interesting twist on the concept it is. Probably in a former decade this top hotel room in this Haussmann building was one of the maids quarters. In those days, without air conditioning (ahem, France still has no air conditioning), the top floors would be the hottest during the sweltering summers and also the toughest to get to without the aid of an elevator – which was a later addition to most buildings and a reason why they are normally ill constructed.
The ceilings in our chambre are vaulted but still hang lower than the two floors beneath where the bourgeois probably lounged around at one time. Nowadays these tops floors go for serious euros – more than the floors below. I have no idea why. Our window is tiny and the recent addition of a little patio only allows for one very small table and one very small chair. We can take turns sipping our morning coffees assuming we can actually squeeze through the window to get out there. The room does come equipped with a Nespresso maker and I like this gadget.
We skip the shower and hit the streets. I briefly debate whether using the perfume sticks like deodorant would be a wise choice but my husband thinks this might cause skin cancer. We head out on Avenue de le Grande Armée in search of a light bite. The triumphant L’Arc de Triumph sits like an imposing luxury cruise liner in the midst of turbulent waters. It’s not going anywhere fast. Rain starts to pour and I just changed into sandals. Damn. We duck into an upscale brasserie called (here’s a shocker) Le Grande Armée, that is just a block away from the sainted Arc and the craziness of Étoille: the voiture merry-go-round that whips around the Arc de Triumph morning, noon, and night.
I know this restaurant. It has always been expensive but never touristy. Foreigners usually don’t make it to this side of the Étoile. And, by the way, ‘étoile’ means ‘star’ and if you look down upon the L’Arc de Triumph from an aerial perspective you will see that there are five roads that dead end into it, each one named after something Napoleonic, and a circle (the car merry-go-round) that protects anyone from trying to capture and run away with the enormous monument. It looks like a really big star from up above or so I’m told. The opposite street from the unimpressive Avenue de la Grande Armée (named for Napoleon’s sometimes victorious army) is the very impressive and upscale Champs Élysées.
We are seated at this resto. The table cloths are starched white and all the French business guests are wearing suit and ties. My, this place has certainly grown up in the last four years. The menu is traditional. Traditionally bad. But the china they are serving it on has much improved. We sit and my head starts to swim from the jet lag. I feel terribly American and very conspicuous. The server comes to take our order and I have just completely hit the wall. I can’t remember for the life of me how to order a diet coke. Coca Light! Je vais prendre un Coca Light! (Whew…)
I order a Cesear salad with chicken that has absolutely no flavor and my husband orders steak tartar that also has no flavor or special acctrouments to make it better. It is simply a disgusting enormous huge portion of chopped meat that is neither seasoned properly nor presented elegantly in the center of his plate. There is no cute little quails egg floating atop. There are no swoops of Violette mustard strewn across the plate. No sea salt or freshly ground pepper dusting the edges. No capers. No onions. Rein de tout – lame!
I forgot about this side to Paris. I did try to warm my hubby but he didn’t believe me at first. Gone are the Julia Child days when France was a gastronomical paradise. Don’t get me wrong I cooked here, I studied here, I love French cuisine. But this new energetic foodie movement that is supposedly taking over needs to hurry up a little bit. The number of bad restaurants far out numbers the good. And the ones that are good are normally VERY expensive. If they are good but not expensive, they are impossible to get a reservation at. However, the French do some things better than anyone, and I will come to that later.
We pay our check of 75 euros, that’s around 100 dollars for a salad, steak tartare, and two cokes. We leave. Wow. That was not the type of French experience I wanted my husband to have for his first meal in Paris. That was not the kind of meal I wanted to have in Paris. But you know, the French, they love it. So what can you do? The two French business men sitting just next to us had ordered entrecôte (steak) and that was the only thing on their plates. Two big steaks both cooked bloody – or bleu as they call it. (Cold in the middle. This temperature should not be confused with saignant with mean ‘rare’ and should be raw but warm in the middle). The french fries were in a separate bowl untouched.
(Our French fries were left untouched too because they were cooked about 7 hours ago, if not the day before, and probably recooked about 3 hours before we sat down. Harumph!)
Disappointed we go back to the bat cave and pass out. My husband has to wake up at 3AM anyway to go back to CDG and fly out to Italy for business. I fall asleep quickly and have crazy emotionally charged dreams. I left Paris the last time a much different person than when I first arrived. And not necessarily for the better. I left Paris embodying the ugliness of: blinding ambition, divorce, guilt, serious physical exhaustion, health issues, and a torn apart life mostly self-inflicted. I was hoping this time to rewrite those pages. But now I wonder if the rain is trying to wash me out….
The alarm clock goes off and it feels like we just shut our eyes. I’m happy to be awake instead of furiously slaving over the stove of hell’s kitchen in my dreams yelling and being yelled at by French Chefs. My husband has not slept as soundly but I know he will be okay on no sleep. He catches a taxi and I go back to bed.
At 12PM I get up and it is bright and sunny! Ha! Maybe the rain cloud is following him and not me!
I pull on my running gear and head for the Bois de Boulogne which was once the hunting grounds for Henry II and Henry III. This is the real reason I chose this hotel. It’s not too far from this magnificent park which is sort of like NYC’s Central Park (just not central and 2.5 times bigger). The “Bois” which is partly manicured and partly wild wood, was my therapy for five years. It was the only place I could run and sweat and not feel ridiculous. Now running in Paris is trendy but four years ago it was a laughably very American thing to do. I’ve always enjoyed running along the Seine too, but the Bois is peaceful if you don’t mind the random transvestite prostitutes that linger in off-road places waiting for their usuals.
At night they line the streets that bi-sect the park more prominently, but not during the day. They often park their vans close to where they wait for customers so they can take their “work” back to the car if the park isn’t providing enough cover. It doesn’t really bother me – at least I don’t feel threatened by it – and I don’t think anybody else feels endangered either.
You know Parisians are funny about what they consider their private life. They don’t butt their heads into other people’s business the way we do in America and they fully resent it when other people attempt to pry open their lids. It’s very much a ‘live’ and ‘let live’ city. And if it’s not hurting anyone – well then – who cares? Sadly I’m sure the prostitution in the park isn’t so innocent and I know there have been several attempts to clean it up, but from what I can tell none have been successful.
I often wonder if this idea of ‘private life’ is left over from WWII when people had to be private – really private – about everything. And I often wonder if that is why they are not always so welcoming up front because they are truly lovely people once you get to know them. And once you are accepted into a French social circle then you are easily adopted and befriended by others. It must be because of the war. I’m quite certain about it.
My run is refreshing and cleansing and even though the Bois is huge with many undocumented trails, my legs instinctively find my favorite off-road paths before my head even has time to think about it.
Today is going to be fun because I am going to see MEG ZIMBECK, one of my favorite people in Paris (and in the world for that matter). Meg and I met as two ex-pat bloggers slightly enamored with each other’s French perspective and writing styles many years ago. I was working as one of the only employed American female 3-Michelin star cook in Paris at Guy Savoy and she was working for the World Woman’s fund documenting women’s issues by day and at night shedding light on the Parisian music scene, the food movement, and French culture. She is a fantastic writer. And she is the owner of Paris by Mouth which has the BEST restaurant rec’s in Paris and also the best tours. She’s been reviewed by all the big U.S. newspapers and Ruth Reichl (the former editor of Gourmet Magazine and also author of several food memoirs) just took one of her food tours of Les Halles.
In order to see Meg, I have to take her Paris By Mouth tour of Les Halles, because she is handing the ropes over to a new guide and wants to follow along. This is more than fine by me. I know Les Halles well and the history, but I love to hear it all again. You do know what and where Les Halles is right? And it’s significance?
This is Emile Zola’s Ventre de Paris or “Belly of Paris”! And it was at one time the biggest wholesale markets in the world. This market dates back to 1183. Over 800 years the market thrived and expanded. It was at one time inclosed with a beautiful wrought iron and glass structure that finally began to collapse in the 1970’s so it was destroyed and replaced with a park (not so pretty) and a bizarre underground shopping mall that has become a haven for teens and drug addicts.
The wholesale market is outside the city now in its own city called Rungis (it’s so big it even has its own barber shop, bank, and transit system but you can’t enter without a special permit) and it is still today the largest wholesale market in the world. The remains of the original Les Halles can be seen with a guide who knows how to peel back the layers and make it come alive. Most of what’s left today is on rue Montorgueil where you can find bouloungeries, patisserries, fromageries, butcheries, poissoneries, and resaurants that date back to the 17th century.
There’s so much more to this area and the life that surrounded it, but I will have to come back to this in a later post…
The new tour guide for Paris by Mouth is French and she knows her stuff. She brings an architectural background to the experience which makes the history of the area come alive. Her English is much better than mine and so is her French. I’m jealous. Meg and I had intended to hang back and catch up during the tour but we are both heavily engrossed in the experience. The tour ends at Spring’s wine shop (owned by American expat Daniel Rose who started Restarunt Spring in this same location before expanding at a new venue down the street) with ex-pat Josh Adler (who also worked at Bi-Rite in San Francisco) tasting the cheeses we have purchased along the way and sipping wines that Josh chooses to accompany them . Slightly intoxicated we leave the wine shop for another ex-pat friend’s new restaurant: Verjus.
I have been dying to check out Verjus and I know this is going to make up for my lame lunch yesterday. Shit, was that the last time I ate? No wonder I’m slurring my words. Meg and I saunter down the cobblestone streets arms linked happily talking about ex-pat gossip and catching up on each other’s lives until we reach the 1st arroindissment.
I’m going to let you in on a secret and it’s probably going to send up a lot of red flares, and lots of huffing and puffing and blowing out through the lips and all those little idiosyncrasies the French do when they are really upset. The Expat restaurants are kicking major boo-tay in Paris. Why? Because these places are bringing great service, fresh ingredients, reasonable prices, and cross-culturally inspired tasty beautifully presented food to the table. Boo-yeah! And here’s one more secret: many of the new trendy happening restaurants owned by French chefs have trained or cut their teeth in America. Yup. That’s right. No joke. Have you heard of Frenchies in Paris?!? NO?!?! Well have you heard of Gramercy Tavern in NYC? Same chef.
And one more interesting note before I dive into a bottle of burgundy at restaurant Verjus – recently an older French friend of mine who, at one time, used to dine only in Michelin star restaurants said to me, “If you want to know where the really good places are to eat and drink in Paris, follow the Americans.”
I’m doing my victory dance right now, you just can’t see it. It’s sort of combination of the sprinkler dance (one elbow behind head the other arm outstretched notching its way around the lawn) meets the mashed potato (if you don’t know this one then ask some one older about it).
Now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag I of course have cover my tracks a little. Because I am the product of one of Paris’s most loved 3-Michelin star restaurants and I did do my training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu. There is nothing in the world like a French 3-Michelin star restaurant experience. Nothing. It is something to experience at least once in a lifetime. American 3-Michelin star restaurants are also great, but the French take it to an unearthly level. Here’s why: the servers have degrees in serving you. That is what they have trained to do at a prestigious university for four years including a lengthy apprenticeship after graduation. And after receiving so much hostile service in Paris when you actually walk into a restaurant and they treat you like royalty it’s sort of shock – a memorable shock. Seriously, the service is incredible.
And, from a food standpoint, some poor kid in the kitchen will likely end up on the daily specials if he or she messes up your dish and I’ve seen it happen in ways Gordon Ramsay wouldn’t even dare to copy. Sidenote: Gordon Ramsay did cook at Guy Savoy when he was a lot younger and Thomas Keller did an apprenticeship there. Both have been quoted as saying it was the toughest restaurant ever. You can quote me saying the same. Pixar spent four years in the kitchen documenting how it all works and you’ve seen that movie. And, on a serious note, most of these outstanding 3-Michelin star chefs started apprenticing when they were only fifteen years old. The experience and lifetime devoted to discovering and building upon French cuisine with their own personal artistic perspective and appreciation is unparalleled.
The other thing the French have going for them are all the artisanal products that we are now striving to copy and surpass but somehow can’t. I’ll come back to that and I’m sure there are readers out there already whose blood I’m boiling. Yes, SF makes great bread, Okay?!?! And great sausage. We have amazing cheese. And great cupcakes too. And we definitely kick ass when it comes to the Whoopie pies that many Paris Patisseries are trying to recreate. However, yogurt we will never get right. And this little pasteurized dilemma/issue we have got to get over…
Meg and I saunter (stumble) into Verjus like we own the place. And this is such a cute restaurant – very 16th century. The wine bar is on the ground floor with cobblestone walls & wood beams. The restaurant on the upper floor is elegant surrounded by beautiful old glass windows, white clothed tables, and sparkling crystal glasses. We slide into the bar, plop our purses on the floor, and start chatting a mile a minute with Laura who is the beautiful owner along with her husband Braden who is also the chef. We love them. We have known them since they started Hidden Kitchen which was a long-standing 12-course pop up dinner. It was pop-ular. Very popular!
I’m starving so Meg, who eats there regularly, starts ordering off the menu. Upstairs Braden, who I must admit sometimes reminds me of a debonair scientist with his wavy dark blond hair and thick black rimmed chemist glasses, does a beautiful tasting menu crafting Japanese flavors with French. And as earthy as this might sound Chef Braden has somehow figured how to add something the French are normally scared of: FLAVOR! Come on, let’s admit it, French food is about subtly and layering of flavor and I love and appreciate that. But sometimes don’t you want something that’s like: POW?!? Braden sneaks this smoking gun element in to every dish with a sophistication I think many guests aren’t quite used to. Sure shot. I love it. And apparently Saveur magazine does too! Waaaay to go Verjus!!!
Downstairs you can order tasting dishes à la carte and share. We decide to start with a bar bite of fried chicken and it is absolutely delicious. A grown up version of spicy popcorn chicken. Next we take the fat Spring asparagus starter cooked two ways: grilled & tempura battered served with a beet-soyu sauce for dipping. We finish up with meatballs that melt in our mouths. Then we reorder these same three dishes plus a few more like dumplings with tam tam sauce and pork belly with I can’t-remember-what-but-it-rocked.
Laura, is chatting with us like we are the only ones in the place while at the same time managing to keep several other groups wine glasses filled. She’s a pro. With one eye on us, she never for a second lets the rest of the intimate space be ignored. I love her for this. It’s a rare gift. She pairs our dishes with outstanding wines by the glass and I am by this point inebriated and totally jet lagged so my memory is swiss cheese when it comes to remembering the wines. The pictures I take of the wine bottles come out blurred. Oh well, what a great excuse to come back with my husband.
The empty bar stools fill up with solo expats and Meg and I are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. We came here to catch up and chat with Laura and eat good food and drink good wine, but Meg being the ex-pat celeb that she is, is now having to deal with an onslaught of questions from all sides. She politely asks one acquaintance to” table the tour guide discussion” for another time. Many expats do tours in Paris, but not many are as good, and I can sense her growing uncomfortable. Meg, for all intents and purposes, has crossed to the other side and become French and I know she values her private life (although I’m exposing it here) and we are trying to squeeze four years worth of crazy adventures and stories into one evening. The French are very serious about manners. And I like that. Business talk happens only after the meal is finished and ours is still going strong.
Laura is expertly keeping the expats and the French groups happy. She chats as easily in French as she does in English. This is a place where anyone can come and enjoy good food and wine. The smiles abound. The joie de vivre reverberates off the cobblestone in a unselfconcious tone. This is rare for Paris. For a country that prides itself on being au naturel, it is often an excruciatingly tense and overly conspicuous experience to dine out.
We bid our farewells. Meg is leaving for a short but much needed vacation the next day and I await my husband who has hopefully solved the world’s problems in Italy. I miss him already…
I hop on the metro and make my way back to Étoile, the shining star of Paris. Marilyn greets me at my hotel with skirts a-blazing, the elevator performs it’s turn of the century magic trick taking me vertical in no particular hurry, and the perfume sticks in my room knock me out cold. It’s been a beautiful mostly sunny day with great friends and fantastic food and wine and cheese.
This is only the beginning. The best and rest is yet to come…