Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Journey to Paris

As I reflect on my time in Paris, I find myself daydreaming, sighing, and fighting the urge to describe it in fluffy terms like lovely and exquisite.  In essence, that’s exactly the kind of week I had.  Preparing oneself for a holiday in such an idyllic city presents an interesting array of presumptions and expectations.  As I pored over saved magazine and newspaper articles, internet “best of” lists, and recommendations from friends, I painstakingly whittled away at a pages-long list of options and settled on a culinary itinerary that I hoped would provide a broad range of experiences.  From markets and quaint shops to highly rated restaurants, I set out to immerse myself in the Parisian ways.

We arrived in Paris late Sunday afternoon.  After checking into our hotel and unpacking, we set out to find a casual spot for dinner in St. Germain.  Because most restaurants are closed on Sunday and one never knows if a flight schedule will actually hold true, I made no reservations for Sunday night.  It provided us an opportunity to have at least one night to simply choose a café and just be in Paris without an agenda.  We grabbed a table at Le Bonaparte, and I began my first foray into the French language on actual French soil (as opposed to three years in a high school classroom and the last eight months of podcasts alone in my car).  I successfully ordered a beet carpaccio salad, croque madame sandwiches, and wine, and we settled into our first meal in Paris.  In all honesty, I make a better croque madame than the one we had at Le Bonaparte, but the ethereal atmosphere of dining in a Paris café for the first time completely outweighed my disappointment in the sandwich.  This casual dinner was not meant to be the culinary culmination of the trip rather an opportunity to sit back, relax, and imagine the days to follow.

grilled duck necks from dans les landes
click here for more dans les landes photos
Monday morning began with coffee and tartine followed by a trek around the Latin Quarter.  We enjoyed a great lunch at Dans les Landes, a casual neighborhood spot offering Spanish-style tapas dishes with a definite French influence.  I’d read rave reviews about their smoked duck and polenta croquettes and their fried baby squid, so I knew those were required orders.  Apparently, I was in a “poultry” mood, because I selected grilled duck necks and quail filets as our other plates.  Every dish was fantastic and full of flavor.  While I expected the croquettes to be one of our favorites, I was surprised at how much we gushed over the grilled duck necks.  The sauce boasted an addictive sweet and sour quality, and the tender meat pulled away from the bone with ease. In retrospect, we didn’t fully appreciate the unusual quality of the restaurant’s bold flavors and unique plates, because this was only our first day in Paris.  Still, we adored it.  Without question, it’s the kind of spot that we’d frequent if we lived in the neighborhood. 

Our plans for Monday evening took us to the Marais district.  Before dinner, we stopped by The Experimental Cocktail Club for drinks.  This was quite the experience.  As someone who grew up in Tennessee, I couldn’t get enough of these Parisian hipsters donning overalls and piping Hank Williams through the speakers as if this somehow represented the epitome of cool.  Oddly enough, it is cool in Paris.  I guess Paris has a way of making everything better.  The drinks lived up to the vibe, too.  I had l’ecume des jour, a whiskey sour with fresh celery juice and celery bitters, and with each sip, I began to calculate how I would recreate this cocktail at a later date.  

After drinks, we walked a few blocks to Frenchie for dinner.  The concept here is to present a nightly prix fixe menu of dishes crafted to emphasize local, seasonal foods.  The menu offers two choices for each course and an optional fois opening course, so between the two of us, we sampled the full menu, as follows:
duck fois gras torchon and pear
black trompette mushrooms, chicken liver parfait, figs, fresh hazelnuts
crab, tomato, basil, hysope
trout, cauliflower mushrooms, walnuts
guinea fowl, eggplant, bell pepper, feta
wild blackberries, lime, hazelnuts
miso ice cream, plums, raspberries
black trompette mushrooms, chicken liver parfait,
figs, fresh hazelnuts from frenchie
click here for more frenchie photos
Each dish presented a balanced, thoughtful combination of ingredients.  The black trompette mushroom/chicken liver parfait and trout courses were our favorites, and while we enjoyed every dish and appreciated the skill and creativity necessary for such a menu, I found myself a bit puzzled that nothing about it brought forth a “wow” moment.  After all, this is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the city, right?  At the time, I was surprised, but after a few more days in Paris, I began to understand that the chefs in these seasonally-focused restaurants are not seeking to wow with big bold flavors.  Not at all.  That’s not the point.  This is not rock ‘n’ roll, rather jazz improvisation.  They endeavor to take an ingredient in the peak of its season and subtly elevate it by accentuating its best qualities with other local ingredients.  Upon recognizing this philosophy, the delicate intricacies of these dishes revealed themselves, and the imparted flavors became better defined.  Even now, as I recall this dinner, I smile at its charm and thoughtful quality.
From a planner’s perspective, Tuesday’s lunch and dinner were a mess.  My idea to have a galette and cider for lunch at Little Breizh stalled when we arrived to a sign stating that they were closed for the day so that they could paint the restaurant.  Insistent that I find another creperie in the neighborhood, I began an internet search that should’ve landed me at La Creperie des Canettes. As we approached rue des canettes, we saw a large yellow sign proclaiming CREPERIE and darted right in.  The server brought us menus and while I found it odd that they were covered in pictures of clowns, I forged ahead and ordered.  Shortly thereafter, I realized that we were not in La Creperie des Canettes when I spotted the sign in the restaurant for Creperie du Clown.  Still in the dark, I assumed that the name of the restaurant had changed. My galette arrived, and it was okay.  Not bad, not great.   We finished our lunch, crossed the street, looked back, and saw La Creperie des Canettes right beside the clown spot.   We were oh so close. 
goat cheeses from androuet
click here for more androuet photos
Tuesday afternoon improved dramatically with the onset of our Tour de Fromage with Paris By Mouth founder Meg Zimbeck.  I’ve always loved cheese, but this experience sparked a new fascination for me.  Mesmerized by the sight of France’s best cheeses and intoxicated by their aroma, I stood in Androuet and listened to Meg explain the history of cheese-making in France, how the country’s geography has informed so many varieties, an affineur’s process for maturing and ripening a cheese, and the innovative initiative of Henri Androuet to curate a shop of cheeses from all over France in 1909.  We purchased twenty cheeses and took them to La Derniere Goutte, a charming wine shop specializing in small French producers.  In the back salesroom, our small group of seven sat in a tightly knit circle of chairs and commenced our exploration of French cheeses with paired wines straight from the sales floor, and each taste initiated a discussion of geography, terroir, and comparisons to previous bites.  Within minutes, our group of strangers found common ground, and I suspect anyone passing by would’ve thought us old friends catching up on life over a feast of fantastic cheeses and wines.  I cannot imagine a better way to experience the history and culture of France.  This afternoon topped my list for the week…above any museum, garden, café, or restaurant.
In keeping with Tuesday’s theme of poor planning, we walked back to the hotel and wondered how we would ever eat dinner after such an incredible afternoon.  We lay around in a cheese coma for a little while and finally mustered up the energy to dress for dinner.  We walked a mile to La Table d’Aki to discover that something with our reservation was awry.  Long story short, we turned around, walked back to the hotel, and went to bed. 

le crabe royal from l'atelier de joel robuchon
click here for more l'atelier de joel robuchon photos
Wednesday morning I awakened with a resolve to conquer my disappointment regarding the La Table d’Aki reservation.  After an inspired morning at the Musee d’Orsay, we walked a few blocks to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Saint-Germain.  We settled in at the bar that surrounds the kitchen, and I was taken with the show before me.  This immaculate kitchen buzzed with energy, and as beautiful plates appeared on the service counter like clockwork, I watched in awe of the calm, yet focused, atmosphere.  My initial plan for this lunch was to order a la carte, but in an unusual (and welcome) turn of events, the hubs overruled me and ordered the tasting menu.  What’s a girl to do?  Of course, I obliged.  A technically flawless menu like none other followed:
la tomate
en gazpacho aux croutons dores, sorbet moutarde a l’ancienne
le crabe royal
aux fines lamelies de raves epicees
le caviar
et sa crème aigre, sure une pomme de terre mixee a l’huile d’olive des baux
cocotte a la crème legere de girolles
le foie gras
de canard chaud, cocos de paimpol au jus d’hibiscus
le gyoza
a la plancha, farcie de volaille, dans son bouillon au parfum d’asie
le saint-pierre
dore a la plancha sous une vierge condimentee a l’huile de pistache
l’agneau de lait
en cotelettes a la fleur de thym
le black angus
Coeur d’onglet fondant, aux echalotes confites
le parfum des iles
crème aux fruits de la passion et a la banana, granite au rhum, legerete a la noix de coco
le chocolat tendance
ganache onctueuse au chocolat araguani, glace au grue de cacao, biscuit oreo
We enjoyed every dish.  Our favorites included the tomato gazpacho with mustard sorbet, the crab royale, the 65-degree egg layered between cream and mushrooms, the saint-pierre with nori and pistachio oil, and the beef with shallot confit. Oddly enough, I expected this to be the disappointment of the week.  With so many quaint, trendy spots on my list, I suppose I thought this wouldn’t live up to the hype or the “big name” label.  When I mentioned to friends that we planned to lunch there, most responded with lackluster comments seeming disappointed that we’d spend our time there.  I know this much…there is a reason Robuchon’s name is on the door.  This meal was nothing short of magnificent.
After our leisurely two-hour lunch, we ditched all plans for afternoon museum tours and hiked around the city for the next three hours…from Saint-Germain into the Jardin de Tuileries down avenue des champs-elysees to the top of the Arc de Triomphe under the Eifel Tower through the Invalides neighborhood, and back to our hotel in Saint-Germain.  We needed every mile of that walk. 
I opted for dinner at Chez l’Ami Jean on Wednesday night, because I wanted to experience a real neighborhood bistro in Paris.  I imagined a casual spot where the chef and the servers know the patrons, and everyone is there to enjoy great food in the company of friends and family.  With so many endearing reviews about its food and charm, I expected Chez l’Ami Jean to be one of our best dinners, but alas, it was not.  It’s a shame, too, because from the moment I walked in, I found it brimming with possibilities for greatness.  By all means, the atmosphere lived up to the hype.  Locals finishing their meals walked over to the service window to shake hands with the chef, have a few laughs, and thank him for their meals.  As we took our seats near the kitchen, a server delivered a full terrine of pate de campagne, a crock of cornichons, and a basket of fresh bread.  I couldn’t help gushing, and my anticipation for dinner heightened.  We ordered the tasting menu, and the first dish arrived, a parmesan soup with buttered breadcrumbs and parsley.  A simple, flavorful opening course that anyone would enjoy.  The second course arrived, sausage and oyster in a mushroom broth, and I liked it but immediately thought the broth was over-salted.  In the midst of this course, my opinion regarding the bistro’s charm began its steady decline as I witnessed the chef yell at a server on the floor a la Hell’s Kitchen, not to mention his incessant loud clapping to summon servers to the window.  The third course arrived, calamari noodles, chanterelles, and fois gras in another salty broth.  Again, the execution and the quality of ingredients impressed me, but I couldn’t get past that broth.  At this point, I asked the hubs, “is it just me?”  He tends to like saltier dishes, and even he agrees.  The fourth dish arrived, roasted monkfish with white beans and bacon in yet another salty broth.  Not wanting to offend, I tried to finish the dish, but the fish was overcooked to the point of requiring a knife to cut it, plus it had a large, ugly bloodline in it.  I realized that I was in serious trouble as I began to wonder how I would finish another dish.  It wasn’t just that the portions were large, but that coupled with the saltiness made me feel as if I might swell up and pop the zipper in my dress.  I left a chunk of the fish with bloodline on the plate and reluctantly finished the rest of the dish.  When the server came by, he asked why I hadn’t finished the fish.  I paused and considered my options.  No matter my response, I would surely be labeled the ignorant American, so I opted to play the role of the woman who was simply getting full and saving room for the next course.  Thinking this strategy more polite than criticizing the heavy-handed saltiness of the broths and the overcooked fish, I expected the server to smile and take away the dish.  Instead, he raised his voice to ask again why I didn’t finish the dish and if there was something wrong with it.  At this point, what appeared to be the entire front of house staff surrounded our table to hear my answer, and I suddenly felt like I had been transported to a theater stage with a full chorus chanting in stage whispers “she didn’t eat the monkfish,” and “what’s wrong with the monkfish?” as the music swelled behind them.  Embarrassed, I stuck with my original answer that I was just getting full, and a cacophony of sighs emerged from the chorus.  The rest of the meal is a bit of a blur.  We had two more large (and salty) protein courses each preceded by our server taunting me about whether or not I would be able to finish them.  I did finish them, but it was a miserable experience.  To add insult to injury, the server arrived at our table with a wry grin on his face and presented a vat of rice pudding large enough to feed an army.  At this point, laughter was the only antidote to the evening’s progression, and although we didn’t love the food, the sheer spectacle of it will forever hold a special place in my heart.  We laughed all the way back to our hotel and then some.
croissant de beurre and tarte aux pommes from poilane
On Thursday morning, we took the metro to the Marais district for another Paris by Mouth tour.  Unlike the Tour de Fromage on Tuesday, this tour was a general overview of artisanal shops and markets in the neighborhood, and we certainly discovered several local gems that I don’t think we would’ve found without the tour.  For me, a tour like this isn’t for the experience of walking through the neighborhood and trying a few bites here and there, rather it is for the back story.  Visiting a shop with someone who can communicate its history and significance provides a sense of greater understanding.  Our tour began at Poilane with tarte aux pommes and the most incredible croissant de beurre I’ve ever tasted, and the stage was set for a great morning.  We browsed the city’s oldest covered market, Marche des Enfants Rouges, and we sampled French olive oils from Premiere Pression de Provence (so amazing that I bought three olive oils and a bottle of fig vinegar to bring home), cheeses from Jouannault Pere et Fille, and rabbit pate and duck rillettes from Ramella Charcutier et Traiteur. 

pate de fruits from jacques genin chocolatier
We concluded our tour at Jacques Genin Chocolatier.  I conscientiously tried not to deign everything delicious in Paris with the label of “best” as it can sometimes be a term used in the moment and not literally, but without question, Jacques Genin’s chocolates, caramels, and pate de fruits truly earned that label on every level.  I’ve never experienced candies like these, and I do not have the words to describe them.  Every attempt at writing a description here culminates in me deleting the words because they don’t quite communicate the full elevated experience that is Jacques Genin Chocolatier.  In a word, they are perfection.
We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Pompidou Centre and leisurely walking back.  As we strolled through Les Halles, I noticed a large kitchen store on a corner and darted in.  It was full of people, which seemed odd, until I realized that it was the store made famous by Julia Child’s patronage, E. Dehillerin.  For a while, I just worked through the utensils one by one giving myself a sort of, “hmm, what does this do?” quiz.  If it hadn’t been so crowded, I could’ve stayed for hours.  Instead, we ventured west and ducked into Telescope for a coffee while we waited out the first rain shower of our trip. 
raw oyster from spring
click here for more spring photos
Thursday evening began with a downpour of rain on our walk to Spring.  I can’t complain though.  Squeezing under an umbrella with the one you love while walking next to the Seine is quite romantic, and we arrived at Spring happy to come in from the rain and have a glass of champagne.  Similar in style to Frenchie, Spring offers a prix fixe dinner of local, seasonal dishes.  Not surprisingly, we saw a reprise of many seasonal ingredients from our trip: oysters, trout, chanterelles, turnips, and pears.  The meal was spectacular...simple, playful, thoughtful, delicious.  After the previous night’s circus, I welcomed the calm, comfortable atmosphere, and when our first course arrived, a bowl of buttery potatoes with a smiley face drawn in chervil oil, I breathed a sigh of relief, settled in with our bottle of wine, and savored everything about the night.  The menu included:
buttery creamed potatoes, chervil oil
raw oysters, apple gelee, raw green apple
trout, honey-olive oil sauce, radish, herb salad
langoustine, butternut squash puree, chanterelles
pigeon breast, bok choy, marrow broth
pigeon leg quarters, roasted turnips, microgreens
cheese course of chevre served on a chestnut leaf, brie de meaux, roquefort
pear, mini mille-feuille, raspberries and thyme
buttery potaoes and chervil oil from spring
All in all, this meal fully illustrated a perfect example of what a local and seasonal-focused menu should be.  Each dish captured the essence of its components.  When I ate the raw oyster, I tasted the brininess of the oyster, the sweetness of the gelle, and the tartness of the raw apple while I felt the softness of the oyster and crunch of the apple…all in one glorious, well-composed, simple bite.  Such a bite defines balance, and every course at Spring exemplified this idea. 

We slept in a little on Friday morning before visiting the Louvre for an obligatory glance at Mona Lisa and a few Michelangelo statues.  Then, we lingered around the nearby gardens and just soaked in as much Paris as possible on our last morning there.  Eventually, we sauntered over to yam’Tcha for lunch, and it set the course for our best culinary day in Paris.  I arrived there with high expectations, and even still, they were exceeded.  This small, unassuming space brimmed with positive energy.  I settled into a seat with a view of the open kitchen, and they presented us with welcoming tea.  We ordered the prix fixe lunch, and while the hubs opted for the wine pairing, I selected the tea pairing.  Our menu included these dishes:
crab and tofu spring roll with plum sauce
sweet potato noodles, white sesame, and shiso
steamed oyster, fois gras, and raw cucumber with date-seaweed sauce
steamed buns
shrimp and chanterelles in fish broth
chicken and apples with shaoxing wine sauce
chocolate cake with almond cream and brittle
raspberry sorbet and fresh raspberries
shrimp and chanterelles in fish broth from yam'Tcha
click here for more yam'Tcha photos
One by one, the dishes arrived, and a pensiveness overcame us as we fell into the spell that is yam’Tcha.  Each dish had one “pop” that elevated it from good to outstanding, such as the date-seaweed sauce under the oyster/fois dish, the fish broth in the shrimp/chanterelle dish, or the shaoxing wine sauce served with the chicken and apples.  The dishes were delicate, balanced, and thoughtful, and most importantly, the flavors wowed.  As a bonus, I found the tea pairings fascinating.  With each dish a new tea arrived.  Red tea, black tea, blue tea, green tea…each presented with an interesting description of its origin and the reason for its pairing.  The exercise of considering each tea as an element within its course made the full lunch experience even more exhilarating, like I was in new culinary territory.  As I watched the chefs in the open kitchen working calmly with smiles all around, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps we had glimpsed a bit of realized utopia.
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through St. Germain.  After a leisurely visit to Delacroix’s home, we headed to Pierre Herme for a sampler box of macarons.  (Earlier in the week, we sampled macarons from Laduree and Sadaharu Aoki, and I needed to try Pierre Herme before we left the city in order to form a somewhat knowledgeable opinion in the whole “best macaron in Paris” debate.  While we enjoyed them all, Laduree’s pink peppercorn macaron received my vote for best macaron of the two dozen we tried over the course of our week.)  For our final order of business, we circled back to La Derniere Goutte for our final souvenir…a box of wine.  These guys are so nice, and their selection and pricing is great.  Just as impressive as their selection and pricing, the case of wine they packed for us to check as luggage arrived to Miami in pristine condition.  We began our walk back to the hotel, and I couldn’t help wondering if yam’Tcha for lunch, instead of dinner, had been a mistake.  It seemed an impossibility that any restaurant would compare….but I was wrong.
Friday evening, we headed north on the metro for dinner at Le Chateaubriand.  Until this point, our Paris restaurant experiences had been fairly low key and quiet (with the obvious exception of Chez l’Ami Jean), and as we stepped onto Avenue Parmentier, I immediately recognized that we were embarking upon new territory.  The streets buzzed with energy, and I discovered that the “rock n roll” vibe I expected to find in Paris’s hot spots was alive and well at Le Chateaubriand.  Our meal was phenomenal.  The dishes ranged from minimalist thought-provoking ideas to full-flavored bold presentations.  Our menu included:
cheese puffs
ceviche shots
fried shrimp with passionfruit powder
squid noodles, squid ink, raw pear
raspberry lobster broth
red snapper, green tomato, pimenton
bream, mushrooms, yellow beans, fermented black beans
rare beef with thin potato crisps and chives
egg yolk atop crunchy meringue
chocolate ganache, fresh mint granite, cocoa powder
fresh strawberries and candied anise seed

egg yolk atop crunchy meringue from le chateaubriand
click here for more le chateaubriand photos
As the menu progressed, my admiration for everything Le Chateaubriand amplified.  We reached the pinnacle of the meal when a server presented the egg yolk atop crunchy meringue.  He instructed us to eat the whole yolk and meringue in one bite, so I carefully scooped the full bite into my spoon.  Wow!  The yolk oozed into the meringues, and as the crunchy bits of meringue began to melt, the textures and flavors achieved a beautiful synergy.  Without question, that was the best bite of our vacation.  The server smiled and nodded.  Later, he told us that it is his favorite dish, as well, and the three of us spent a few minutes discussing and honoring every perfect detail of it.  This is the kind of energy I love in a restaurant.  From the bussers to the kitchen, everyone working there believed in, embraced, and supported the cause wholeheartedly.  Fresh and hip.  Bold and creative.  Emotive and smart.  Dinner at Le Chateaubriand transformed and elevated my idea of a great meal, and its spirit will forever dwell within me.  Best meal of the vacation!
Our week in Paris was truly unforgettable.  I’ve returned to Miami with a new respect for the Parisian way and a keen curiosity for further exploration.  From the happy accidents to the less-inspired plans, I will cherish every moment.

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