Eating Our Way Through... Paris

Nous sommes arrivées! Let’s eat!

Snow on December 1st in London and Paris is the sort of magically, romantic Christmas fantasy that seasonally challenged Californians dream about. What we don’t take into consideration is the impracticality of it all. Cancelled trains, closed airports, lack of appropriate footwear for trudging suitcases across snow-covered cobblestones... all very much real things that don’t normally make it into the snow-globe fantasy, but no matter — after a few extra hours staring out of the window of an extremely delayed Eurostar at the snow-covered French countryside, we had made it to Paris. NOUS SOMMES ARRIVÉES! Let’s eat!

I should have begun by saying it was my mom’s 53th birthday, and my younger brother and I were traveling from my new home in London to Paris to help her celebrate. The question of where to have dinner for the occasion had been on my mind for months. As I do when planning any travels, I began by surveying the experts. In this case it meant A: my little brother’s girlfriend who recently returned from studying abroad in Paris; B: my mom’s close friend, the editor-in-chief of a beauty magazine, who travels en vogue to Paris every season; and C: a designer friend of mine, known for her good taste; cross referenced with a handful of food and travel blogs, and confirmed by a few French friends. The list accumulated in the margins of my planner, stars next to some for emphasis, arrondissements circled next to scribbled Parisian phone numbers. I had options for wherever the day might take us, from the 2nd to Montmartre. All that was left was to narrow it down.

It was 8 p.m. by the time we made it to our boutique hotel in the 1st and set up to change for dinner. We needed somewhere comfortable and warm, a break from the never-ending snow, and classically French. The meal should be special without being pretentious: my list had just the place. La Fontaine de Mars had a table for “quatre personnes” at 9:45, leaving us just enough time to have a celebratory bottle of champagne before finding a taxi to take us to the 7th. Willi’s Wine Bar would do the job perfectly. Willi’s is somewhat of an institution in Paris, the sort of place that was super chic when my mom was my age, and has kept the reputation. Almost everyone we observed was speaking English, but in this instance it was of no matter to us. We sat at the bar, shared a nice bottle of champagne and noshed on complimentary hummus and crostini. Before we knew it, it was 9:30 and time for dinner. Willi’s is conveniently located right behind the Palais Royale, a short walk from a popular taxi stand, and in an instant we were crossing the Seine to the 7th.

La Fontaine de Mars looked festive with twinkle lights and red and white-striped awnings as snow fell all around us. We waited patiently for our table at the bar behind three bulb-shaped glasses of Bordeaux, nibbling from a house-cured plate of salami. The restaurant is a classic bistro, with a mirror behind the bar and red- and white-checked table cloths. We were handed menus in French, but upon realizing that we couldn’t recognize more than a few key words, we decided to swallow our pride and ask for an English menu as well. The Perfect Roast Chicken had been synonymous with Fontaine de Mars on everyone’s recommendation list, however we were saddened to see that it wasn’t on the menu for the evening. Any disappointment disappeared quickly, though, as we read the rest of the menu and finally chose.

My brother and I both began with lobster bisque, while my mom stuck with a lighter salad. We sipped our Bordeaux while bread arrived at the table. The bread in France! The crunchy, crispy crust and the soft, fluffy interior with good quality butter! It just isn’t the same anywhere else... and it is always replenished. The soup was brought to the table in a large ceramic — would it be correct to call it a cauldron? — and ladled into bowls at our table. It was velvety and decadent, the way bisque should be, and more than anything it was warming as the snow fell outside.

Our mains were classic: magret de canard for me, côte de veau for my brother, and duck cassoulet for my mom. The magret was beautifully done, with a glaze along the skin and tender in the center, but the real star of the show was the cassoulet. It arrived on the table in a red cast iron cassoulet, packed to the brim with white beans, sausage and duck. The base included tomatoes, which I hadn’t seen done well before. There was enough in the dish to fully feed all three of us, and the flavor was complex enough to keep eating without getting bored, as sometimes happens with the white bean saturated dish. We were stuffed to the brim when we finally asked the server to clear our plates, so full in fact that we almost walked away without dessert! Almost... Hey! It’s Paris, right? Our pear tarte came with a single scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a candle lit in honor of my mom. Night one: Success!

Morning in Paris for me really only means one thing, croissant and café au lait. Breakfast delivered to the room complete with the two aforementioned treats was included in our hotel price, so while there are so many beautiful places for petit dejeuner, I didn’t make it to any on this trip. Sorry, Angelina’s, Rose’s and La Duree — I’ll catch you next time.

It was back to Rive Gauche for lunch after a freezing wander through the Tuileries and a few hours spent in the Jue de Pomme. The restaurant we chose was Le Cinq Mars on Rue Verneuil, and it came as a recommendation from A, my brother’s girlfriend. She had described it is a “locals only” sort of spot where, unlike Willi’s, we would escape the tourists. There are many things that are important to me in my dining experiences, and while quality of food might be the bottom line, the ambiance always plays a part in restaurant decisions. Cinq Mars is well designed, rustic but chic, and as promised we were the only Americans in sight.  The menu is simple, only a few offerings per course, but French food doesn’t always need to be elaborate. As mentioned before, isn’t a basket full of baguette an example of the beauty of French simplicity?

The waitress came by to tell us the specials, including a carrot soup du jour, and as Lloyd Christmas said before me, “Sounds good. I’ll have that!” But first, a pot of Mariage Freres tea was absolutely necessary to warm my freezing hands. As a main, the warmed lentils and crispy bacon salad made a perfect compliment to the overeating of the night before. The meal shaped up excellently. Unlike dinner, each course at Le Cinq Mars was proportioned on the small side. I prefer smaller portions at lunchtime, and find often that eating too much in the afternoon can make you lethargic as you explore the rest of the city. Plus, when you are on a trip to eat, you know better than to waste precious stomach space too early in the day. Meal two: Success!

While not strictly a meal, let’s deviate for a moment to talk about Mariage Frères. Post lunch we meandered down St. Germain, twisting and turning along twinkle light covered streets. There are four different Mariage Frères shops (or Tea Emporiums) scattered throughout the city, three of which include a tea salon. We stumbled across one in our wanderings, on rue des Grands-Augustins. Admittedly I have a bit of a tea problem. Some people might have bottles of fine liquors to offer guests, I have varieties upon varieties of tea… and Mariage Frères is some of the most beautiful.  Even the boxes filled with tea bags are special. Each bag is a hand-sewn sachet, elegant yet sturdy. The Marco Polo blend is floral and light, perfect with a splash of milk. It is the sort of tea you can keep drinking as you sit leisurely and escape from the bitter cold. We left refreshed, warmed and each with a bag full of gifts for friends.

Friday morning greeted us again with a tray of warmed pastries and a pot of pressed coffee at the door of the hotel room. There is something so luxurious and indulgent about eating in bed, only suitable for vacation. My boyfriend had arrived late the night before after five hours of Eurostar delays, and after such a trek, waking up slowly beside a croissant with coffee already prepared seemed well deserved. Braving the snow for another day was much more bearable post-coffee. The Centre Georges Pompidou, destination number one for the day, is located smack in the middle of the fourth arrondissement, only a few blocks away from Alain Ducasse’s storied bistro Benoit.  White tablecloths, suited wait staff, mirrored bar, plush red banquettes and expensive-looking floral china greet you. In movies it is the sort of local where a beautiful man and a beautiful woman would argue in romantic accents while their wine decants and their cigarettes burn. Very, very French.

It is only appropriate to drink while luncheoning at such a spot, so we set about ordering a Sancerre to chill. Scallops were the special entree of the day, served in their shells with some sort of delicate beurre sauce. Yep, we’ll begin with that to share... and of course it wouldn’t be quintessentially French without pâte as well. After suffering from food envy a few nights before as the cassoulet was served up for my mom, my brother and I both decided to indulge in our own cassoulets... strictly to compare notes, of course. My mom opted to stay light with a filet of white fish, while my boyfriend scanned the menu in a panic. “I’ll have the tête,” he finally blurted in his confident British accent. The French waiter stared back at him. “You know sir that that is head? It is cheeks and tongue and brains... cooked in garlic and butter and eggs... is that ok?” This is where things went horribly wrong. He should have just said, "Oh... my mistake... I’ll have the.... ANYTHING ELSE." But being English and being stubborn and not being one to let the French get the best of him, he stood his ground and confirmed the order. One tête please monsieur.

Where does one begin to describe the dish that was presented? It looked almost like a spaetzle of sorts covered in a sauce of butter with bits of garlic and hard-boiled egg. It was the sort of sauce you wanted to sop up with all of the bread on the table. It disguised the dish, luring you in to try the rest. Underneath, the cheek bits were pink and fatty, the brain bits were grayish like liver on a 1950s plate of liver and onions. The tongue was.... tongue-y. To be fair to Alain Ducasse it was undoubtedly the best tête in all of France... but it was very difficult to get beyond the fact that it was a cow’s head on the plate. The raw bits of cheek pushed Stephen over the edge and were the end of his tête eating experience. Meal four: defeated by the head of a cow.

The tête stuck with us for the rest of the afternoon. "Perhaps a little less classical French for dinner?" my boyfriend requested subtly. "Maybe some vegetables?" The request led us to a smaller restaurant on l'Ile St. Louis for dinner. Mon Vieil Ami, French for 'my old friend,' greeted us behind draped black velvet curtains. The restaurant is one single room with high tables framing the edges. In the middle sat a spectacular huge vase on a central table. The whole place looked as though it couldn't have seated more than 35 people. The waitstaff left us to contemplate the menu and the wine list, but requested that we make our dessert choices up front and order everything at the same time, which should be a hint to the level of attention paid in creating the desserts. Leeks were the all stars of the meal, beautifully poached in my starter and incorporated in the vegetables along side my grilled fish. Despite being a small space with tables fairly close together, the restaurant was not loud and created the perfect environment for conversation while sipping from large glasses of red wine. The overall experience was one of intimate, beautiful refuge from the cold... A perfect end to the trip.

Sunday mornings always creep up too soon — especially at the end of a weekend away. Back to the train, back to London, back to reality, but there was time for one more quick (or not so quick, as why would the French rush an eating experience?) lunch. We had so enjoyed our lunch at Cinq Mars earlier in the weekend that I had decided we should try their sister restaurant, Quai Quai. The restaurant was located on l'Ile de la Cite, just at the tip of the island pointing into the Seine. When we walked in, it was toward the end of their lunch service and the host greeted us with a warning. "We are all out of the burger," he stated apologetically. He returned to his business behind the bar as if that would have deterred us from staying. We weren't particularly looking for a burger so no matter, we thought, and we asked him to seat us anyway.

The room at the other side of the restaurant was full of a few tables for two and a long table that appeared to be the owner of the restaurant's family. The menu was similar to Cinq Mars and we made our choices quickly. After ordering the tables around us began being served. The whole restaurant filled with the scent of juicy hamburgers. We watched as the last burgers of the day were served to all the parties around us. They were plump and perfect looking and immediately understood the apology we were greeted with. Note to selves: next time, get the burger. On that note we trudged back to Gare du Nord. Satiated and satisfied we boarded the Eurostar back to London. Au revoir, Paris! Until we meet, and eat, again!