Book Love: An Everlasting Meal

March 8, 2013

I’m not going to quote an entire chapter of this book I recently read and fell in love with, but bear with me while I cite a few paragraphs, and then please, please, read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar E. Adler. This book is a love letter to cooking and a reminder that making food is a simple thing, an exercise that carries over from one day to the next that is uncomplicated, inexpensive, and filled with opportunities to share moments around a table with people you enjoy. Those are my favorite moments.

The title of this book comes from the philosophical approach that Adler takes to cooking: that every meal should be a continuation of the one before it. Stop doing things like making something for dinner every night that requires you to entirely restock your fridge and pantry. I grocery shop every day, but I might only buy a handful of spinach, a bag of tomatoes, or a carton of eggs. When you cook in continuity, things just work.

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On Monday, I bought roast chicken. The weekend prior I had made pasta (part of our high-carb half marathon prep, but mostly just because I love pasta) that had carrots, onion, and celery in the sauce. I saved all the bits and ends of the vegetables, and after Jay and I made chicken Caesar salads (recipe to come) for the six euro rotisserie chicken’s second night of usefulness, I boiled the carcass (gross word, sorry) with all the vegetable scraps to make stock. Nothing wasted. Then last night, it was a pantry meal. I simmered a can of white beans with bay leaves, garlic cloves, chicken stock, and the rind of a wedge of comté cheese that had recently been finished off. I added them to sautéed leek and carrot (also pasta purchase leftovers), a bit of white wine, a can of peeled tomatoes, and a handful of dark spinach that was the only thing I purchased just for this meal. I added a soft boiled egg because I had eggs. I added grated Parmesan because I had Parmesan. But the soup would have been hearty and satisfying without any one, or two, or three of those components. And I have enough leftovers to add the rest of the stock and invite my brother over to eat on Sunday, with just the addition of a fresh baguette. We need to stop making cooking complicated, stop making eating a chore. These little moments of economy, coaxing comfort and flavor out of the simplest ingredients, are things to savor.

Here’s what Adler has to say about approaching the stove on those days when
finding the closest happy hour sounds like a better idea.

(For the record, I firmly subscribe to the idea that happy hour is always a good idea)

There are times when I can’t bear to think about cooking. Food is what I love, and how I communicate love, and how I calm myself. But sometimes, without my knowing why, it is drained of all that. Then cooking becomes just another one of hunger’s jagged edges. So I have ways to take hold of this thing and wrest it from the claws of resentment, and settle it back among things that are mine.

The first is remembering that ill-tempered as I am, I resent everything sometimes. I get infuriated by the weather and missed trains and missing buttons. I think that cooking must be allowed to swell to contemptible proportions when it seems contemptible, just like other disproportionately terrible annoyances, and then allowed to shrink when it is time.

Then the question is: How do you fall in love with it again, or if it has never made you truly happy, fall in love with it for the first time? My answer is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love.

We have different loves. Mine are foods and words. Others’ are how buildings slant away from dark sidewalks, or how good it feels to solve an equation. I say: Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn’t lead you back to what you ate and when you loved it.

It helps me to think of meals I’ve cooked or eaten before, if not for the food, for the light in the room or in the sky when I ate. What the light looked like, or what music was playing. It doesn’t take more than my opening a window, head lifted to the air, for the sound of glass against a marble table, or the rustle of the wind to remind me that I’ve sat at marble tables outside, drunk out of glasses, listened to their light clatter on the table, noticing a rustling wind.

I may not remember what I ate, or whether it was the lunch where I realized I do not like black pepper to have been ground before I use it, or the one where I spilled water in my lap, but I will remember how the day felt on my face, and my creative soft self will have been awakened. So I listen hard. I listen with the purpose of remembering. And this digging into sounds and into days I have heard and felt roots future meals in the unchangeable truths of past ones.

This book is lovely. It’s really lovely. And this description of recalling past food memories to anchor you to a present meal and its preparation is something that rings true for me. The food moment I go back to that is a memory so perfect I wish I could put it in a frame was four (five?) years ago in the backyard of a country home in Provence. We were four at a big wooden table under the shade of fig trees, the heady aroma of wild sage and thyme baking in the Provençal heat, shucking beans and chopping carrots and onions and milky, slippery chunks of mozzarella cheese, prepping a simple lunchtime pasta and hearty dinner soup to take to a birthday party. Staining my hands melted Popsicle purple with vivid beet juice. Listening to Xavier Rudd and soaking in every sensation, from the feel of the rough hewn wooden table we sat at to the sweet and acidic flavor of sun-warmed wine. Fortunately I took photos.

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Oh, look, new shoes! I mean a new home.

March 7, 2013

Well, I moved the blog. Why? Because blog.com was terrible, and WordPress seems nice. Plus I’m making a little-bit-late New Year’s resolution to write more on here, and so a fresh start seemed in order. Now I just need to figure out how to get the Pinterest widget up and running and we’ll be good to go…

Part of my blogging resolution involves posting more photos, so here is a picture of the hilarious and only moderately offensive gift my friend Lauren was given by her employer in China for International Women’s Day.

amway dish soap and body shampoo

Miss U, You S A

March 6, 2013

When I move back from France, I know there are a lot of things I will miss. Good baguettes for one euro, everywhere. The sheer quantity and variety of cheese. Amazing and inexpensive wine, the fact that every apartment looks like a Shabby Chic photo shoot set (except mine).

Living here, I’ve noticed that there are some things I really miss about America beyond the obvious (dogs, family, friends, not necessarily in that order). Here is a short list:

1. Dental hygienists do not exist in France.
2. What do you mean I have to take all of my clothes off for the doctor to take my blood pressure? This seems unnecessary.
3. Letter size paper. I am forever accidentally printing letter size documents on A4 sized paper.
4. 4G. Technically 4G happened after I moved, but it exists there, and not here, and so I miss it by proxy.
5. HBO, Netflix, Hulu, free streaming from every network television website. I love you, Project Free TV, but I long for the days of DVR.
6. Television in general. French TV has an over abundance of shows where a bunch of people sit around a glass table under purple lighting in front of a studio audience and discuss issues to. no. end. Perhaps this is an extension of a philosophical tradition. I just want to watch Jeopardy.
7. Football, and I don’t even like football. I guess tailgating is really what I miss.
8. Goldfish crackers. Whole wheat cheddar Goldfish crackers.
9. Good Mexican and Asian food.
10. Holidays! Why do the French not do Halloween?? Why do they barely do Easter, and Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day, and CHRISTMAS?? WHERE ARE THE DECORATIONS, PEOPLE
11. Common courtesy. Okay, okay, it’s the Latin passion for life that makes people pushy, impatient, and opportunistic. I don’t care. Do not cut in front of me in line, and please do not drive over me while I am crossing the street. Four words: Pedestrian. Right. Of. Way.
12. Customer service. Full stop.
13. Enthusiastic American advertising, especially those wild waving arm men at car dealerships and Olive Garden commercials.
14. Whole Foods
15. J. Crew
16. J. Crew

tbc

On Paris Syndrome and Transportation Woes

February 8, 2013

I’d like to address a serious misconception about Paris. Specifically, I’d like to talk about people who associate the words “sophisticated” and “elegant” with Paris. I’d like to concede that in a small, tiny, geographic cluster, there is a certain density of Christian Louboutin heels and Chanel No. 5 fumes and small dogs in Louis Vuitton carrying cases. And then I’d like to put forth the hypothesis that the elegance factor drops exponentially with every concentric circle with a ten food radius expanding out from this misleadingly refined epicenter of Paris. And I’d like to suggest that by the time this hypothetical perimeter has passed the Place Vendôme, descended into the metro, or reached, say, my neighborhood,  it has passed some boundary and warped into an alternate Parisian universe that is actually the opposite of what people think Paris is like. A while ago there were a bunch of articles published about something they were calling “Paris Syndrome,” which was happening to tourists who arrived in Paris only to develop such an acute case of cognitive dissonance due to the total dissimilarity between their expectations of what Paris was like and what Paris is actually like that they had panic attacks, were hospitalized, had to leave the country immediately in a state of severe distress. The only cure for Paris syndrome? Leave Paris. Contact your cable provider and have all commercials for Mademoiselle by Dior blocked. Never go back to Paris again.

In the spirit of grinning and bearing it, here’s a list of things that have happened to me on my way to or from work in the past several weeks:

1. The scene: a crowded metro, jostling elbows, your face too close to my face. The culprit? A sixty year old man. His crime? Watching porn on his Android, thankfully with headphones in, unfortunately, with the screen in my face.

2. A fascist brawl on the metro. There was spitting.

3. Another brawl with an old, fascist French man. This time there was punching, and a hysterical adolescent boy trying to do the right thing and restrain them, until he, too, was punched in the face.

4. The time: 7:45 am. The setting: the not-so-sanitary RER A. The culprit: a 60 year old woman. The crime: eating an entire bag of hot dog buns in fifteen minutes.

5. Woman on the bus, wearing only underwear and a cowboy hat.

6. Woman at the bus stop, ferret on a leash.

7. Vomit. A lot of vomit.

8. Poop. A surprising quantity of poop.

9. An elderly gentleman testing every single ringtone on his cell phone, before landing on Moonlight Sonata.

10. A man on the bus refusing to answer his cell phone because “it’s my wife.” Also refused to silence, and had selected a Celine Dion tune (an entire 1:30 of it) as the ringtone for his wife. She called approximately 8 times.

11. A man on the metro, carefully combing his beard.

12. A woman on the RER, discreetly tweezing hairs off her chin.

13. An incredibly obese individual (French Women Don’t Get Fat  was a marketing ploy) on the bus eating not one but two entire cakes between Pigalle and Barbès.

There are always body odors. There is always a wealth of other aromas, such as alcohol, and kebab, for example. There are always crowds, and as a general rule people are incapable of A. keeping to their right, and B. letting people off of the train before throwing their entire body weight into a mass of people shoving their way on. The trains are always stopped, or late, or cancelled, or inexplicably delayed just long enough to make me miss the next train. There are often McDonald’s French fries everywhere. There is an absurd number of strollers blocking aisles and people who pretend to be sleeping in the fold-down seats and who remain seated when the train is clearly too overcrowded for that nonsense.You are always dirty, always sweating, always trying not to be trampled, run over, or trapped in a mass of irritated people.You are always trying just to get to where you’re going without snapping and starting a spitting brawl or eating an entire bag of hot dog buns for solace.

And yet every once in a while, you’ll see a woman prance down the stairs of the metro in her four-inch heels, with her Chloë shopping bag swinging behind her, her lipstick perfect, her hair not flattened to her head with other peoples’ sweat, the sweet perfume of Chanel No. 5 trailing behind her in lieu of the more standard eau-de-métro-funk, and you’ll think, “What city does she live in?”

I think I have Paris Syndrome.

Oh, OUI, docteur!

July 11, 2012

While I haven’t been sharing the stories, my interactions with the French administration have been continuing as I’ve been going through the process to change my visa status from ‘student’ to ‘worker’ and get the card that says I can live here more. The thing is, this whole process was a lot less entertaining than the initial one, because there are only so many times you can take a day off work and stand in line for two hours at the police station just to be told ‘you’re missing the original dated from within the last three months of the official translated copy of this certificate with the color authorization from blah blah blah blah’ before you very much stop laughing and very much start contemplating homicide. Anyhow, after a handful of experiences along these lines and some serious internal dialogue about anger management, ten months of paperwork and visits and re-paperwork finally culminated in this: my convocation to the Office of Immigration for my medical visit. This medical visit is the final step. It means your file has been processed and your carte de séjour is sitting there waiting for you. You just need to prove that you don’t have tuberculosis or bad vision and you’re clear.

Now, I did this visit in 2010, when I entered the country as a student. Basically they check your eyes by having you read a row of small letters on a poster (though I know for a fact they don’t even listen to what you say because I started reading them in English and the nurse filling out my form said, ‘très bien.’) Then they check I guess your eyes again, or your literacy, by having you read a few lines out of a book. And then things get a little weird when they lock you in a tiny cabin with two doors and tell you to get naked from the waist up for an X-ray. I don’t understand this, because I’m pretty sure the Transportation Security Administration has x-rays that are able to tell whether or not a fully clothed woman is menstruating, but apparently French x-rays can’t see through fabric and this partial nudity in a public facility is just something you need to accept. You take off your clothes and stand there awkwardly for a very long time until they open one of the doors and invite you in for an x-ray. Following this, you re-enter the waiting area (clothed now) until the doctor is ready to see you, check your x-rays, and sign off on your health and eligibility to live in France.

And this is where things got weird. The doctor called me in, or tried to, but both my first and last name are tricky pronunciation tasks for francophones. Once I understood he was speaking to me, I stood up. He asked if he’d pronounced my name right. I said no. And then he said, ‘Well, it’s too complicated to pronounce. Wouldn’t you rather marry me and take my name?’

This is the sort of macho, condescending thing I’ve gotten used to hearing in France, where gender roles feel almost more dramatically in-your-face than in the first season of Mad Men. It’s annoying, it’s forward, they think it’s charming, and I just am not quite quick enough in French to respond how I’d like to. So I smile in a way that I hope says ‘not a chance in hell’ but is probably more ‘ok yeah cool when,’ because things go downhill from there.

The X-ray goes up on the wall. The doctor’s professional opinion? “You are as beautiful on the inside as out.”

Let’s pause a moment and recognize that this is really a very weird thing for an internist to say. It’s just… really weird. We’re literally looking at a picture of my internal organs. This expression is sweet and cheesy when an old person who uses this kind of expression is talking about someone’s intangible qualities, but he actually said my lungs were as beautiful as my face.  I wasn’t going to say, “Thank you,” and he had already made me uncomfortable so I’m pretty sure I said “good” and hoped we were done now. We weren’t done now. He then leaned forward until he was kind of close to my face and said, as if in wonder, “What are these eyes? What do you think are, a cat?”

I said, “No, I don’t think I’m a cat.”

Then he worked for an inordinately long time to listen to my heartbeat or my breathing or whatever it was he was trying to assess by holding a stethoscope to my chest. Evidently my discomfort was palpable, because he then asked, “What is it? Are you afraid of doctors?”

Fact: Guys, if you have to ask a girl if she is scared of you, YOU ARE BEING TOO SCARY. And if you are a doctor, you should make extra efforts NOT TO BE A CREEP.

Anyway, I got the signature, I got the certificate, and at LONG LAST and after ten months of employment, I am legally entitled to work in France.

And for future reference, Docteur J. Tretout at the Office Française de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration on Rue de la Roquette in Paris is a huge weirdo with a lung fetish.

So much to eat, so little time!

February 3, 2012

I get asked a lot for restaurant and food recommendations in Paris by people coming to visit, so I thought the easiest thing to do would be to collect all of my favorite tips in one place, then I can share and update as needed! Paris is known for being one of the food capitals of the world, and while I won’t disagree, I will say that it is way too easy to spend way too much money on really shitty food, particularly if you don’t know what you’re looking for, and especially in the tourist centers, which is unfortunate. Ideally you would be able to wander to any corner café and trust that you’d be able to find a nice fixed menu or plat du jour that is homemade from seasonal and locally sourced ingredients, served with reasonably priced wine, and with pleasant service and a killer people-watching terrace to boot. More often than not, however, if I leave home without a destination I end up wandering for too long past a surprising number of overpriced spots with boring menus, bad bread, and french fries that look suspiciously like they all came out of the same freezer bag. But as one of my favorite people once told me, “Every meal time is a chance to put something delicious in your mouth, so why would you waste it on crap?” To that end, this list is by no means all-inclusive, but these places are all tried and true!

Other great references for visitors to Paris are lefooding.com, which has an easily navigable website (and great iphone app) that is searchable by cuisine/neighborhood/price range (though many of the detailed reviews are in French), and parisbymouth.com, run and written by mostly anglophone food lovers that is growing in content and sources reviews from a good mix of publications and individuals. David Lebovitz also has a reliable and sizeable list of recommended spots.

If there are any obvious places I’ve forgotten that you’ve told me about or that we’ve visited together, remind me in the comments section.

Bon appétit les p’tits ogres!

Casual, fast, and street food: things to eat outside

This is doubtless going to be the longest list, as even since becoming employed I am still desperately poor.

1. L’As du Falafel (métro St. Paul): The line is always long, and yes, it’s worth it. I like going on Sundays; whereas most stores and shops in Paris are shut down, the Marais is open and lively with people strolling, eating, and shopping. This falafel spot is one of several on the lovely, medieval Rue des Rosiers, but budget an extra few minutes for the wait, because it’s actually that much better. They have indoor seating, but I like to take mine to go and walk to the nearby Place des Vosges or a bit further down to the Seine to sit down and eat this middle eastern fast food al fresco.

2. La Grand Epicérie: (métro Sèvres-Babylon) Truthfully, if the sun is shining, there’s no better dining experience in Paris than the pique-nique. The best way to picnic is to stroll through a neighborhood outdoor or covered market, or visit specialty shops, to pick up good cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, poulet rôti, desserts, and baguette (always get a baguette tradition as opposed to a normal baguette, and never buy it from a supermarket). If you’re short on time, or missed the market, or just want to visit one of the nicest grocery stores in the city, go here. They have everything. And it’s right next to Le Bon Marché, so you could coordinate it with a shopping trip. Makes a good place to pick up food-themed gifts to bring home, as well: chocolates, oils, vinegars, regional treats, etc.

3. Marché aux Enfants Rouges (métro Temple): The oldest covered market in Paris, and on my favorite street in the city no less. This market is open most weekdays and on the weekends through lunch time, and aside from being a great place to pick up picnic supplies, groceries, flowers, and baked goods, they also have a handful of really, really good traiteurs, basically food stands. So far I’ve tried the standard French place with roast chicken, salads, potato dishes, and quiches, as well as the Morrocan, Japanese, and Italian. The Italian stand has been the standout favorite so far, with great pastas and little cannolis that I buy to go to serve as dessert at home, and the Moroccan seems to be the neighborhood favorite, with a long line of regulars waiting for tagines, couscous, mint tea, and pastries. There are still a few I need to try: Cajun, Lebanese, and the one I can’t believe I didn’t go to first where everyone sits in the sun drinking white wine and eating oysters.

4. El Nopal (métro Chateau Landon, Louis Blanc) Google has it classified as a pizza place. That is wrong. So if you’re visiting from the states, you might not necessarily be craving Mexican food. But as a self-declared burrito fanatic, living in a city that up until about a year and a half ago didn’t have Mexican food was tantamount to living in a town without a J.Crew… which I also do, but the dearth of Mexican was more sobering. Fortunately, right about the time I moved here, a few legitimate Mexican spots moved here, too, and while there’s still nothing quite like happy hour at Chevy’s, El Nopal (along with Candelaria, listed below among the watering holes) fills the void. Run by a guy from Monterrey and his French/Venezuelan wife, El Nopal is a tiny hole in the wall (literally) just off the Canal St. Martin. They keep weird hours, so I normally call ahead to make sure they’re open, and generally there’s a bit of a wait because they make everything to order (get the guacamole), but it’s a favorite sunny day pasttime to get a burrito and a Mexican beer to go and take it (along with a healthy portion of their homemade hot sauce) to eat on the edge of the canal and watch the barges go by.

5. Mmmozza (métro Temple) If it’s not obvious already, I really love the Rue de Bretagne, and since I used to live just a block off it, a lot of my favorite spots are in the vicinity. This Italian “mozzarella bar” sells an amazing selection of different mozzarella cheeses and other Italian specialty foods, as well as killer simple sandwiches with nothing more than some of the fresh mozzarella, a slice of prosciutto, and a little bit of arugula on a crusty baguette. Good take-away food to eat while you walk or to carry across the street into the little park, the Square du Temple for a quick outdoor lunch.

6. Al Taglio: (métro Temple) Technically, this pizza outpost has more than one location, but the Rue de Bretagne restaurant is the only one I’ve visited. Here you buy pizza Roman style, by weight, from among a rotating selection of topping choices: spicy coppa and tomato, pear and gorgonzola, or the consistent favorite asparagus and black truffle. It’s good, it’s casual, it’s easy for a group or for just two or three, and with wine by the pichet you can sit and order as much to eat and drink as you feel like.

Bistro fare: traditional, reasonable, and good

1. Le Vaudeville: (métro: Bourse) Finally went! It’s big and pretty and very, very classically Parisian. It’s on the pricier end, but if you want the real French brasserie experience, this is the place for it. Lots of marble, big mirrored walls, waiters in penguin suits, and a view on La Bourse.

2. Bistrot Renaissance (métro: Strasbourg-Saint Denis) My favorite, from the decor to the friendly staff to the consistently good menu. A good mix of traditional dishes and some slightly more original, it’s great at lunch and at dinner, and equally nice on the terrace and inside.

3. Les Puces des Batignolles (métro: Brochant) This place is also a little removed from the center, but if you find yourself in the neighborhood, I’d seek it out. It’s cute in a we-bought-all-our-dishes-and-decor-at-the-flea-market kind of way, the area right around it is full of sweet shops and cafés, and the food (especially brunch) is just good.

4. Autour d’un Verre (métro: Grand Boulevards): Simple, adorable, with an amazing natural wines list, a friendly staff, and a simple menu of perfectly prepared dishes. Great atmosphere and reasonably priced, but small, so think to reserve ahead.

Less traditional, also good

1. Le Grenier Voyageur: (métro République) If you are looking for a place to go where you definitely won’t find other tourists, this would be one of those spots. And if you are looking for a place to go where you can eat, say, antelope, ostrich, or kangaroo, this would be one of those spots, too. More conventional menu offerings, as well, but in general sort of a fusion flair. Nice ambience, free jello shots in syringes on occasion, normally classier than that. Good green beans, which kind of seals the deal for me on a restaurant.

2. Presto Fresco: (métro: Les Halles) I suppose this place actually is pretty traditional, but it’s Italian, not French. It’s located right near Les Halles, which used to be the big central market in Paris, until the 60’s when they relocated it to Rungis, south of the city, and built up a really heinous shopping mall instead. The city is in the midst of a big renovation to turn the space into a park, but tucked behind the St. Eustache church (and thankfully out of sight of what is now Les Halles) on the Rue Montmartre is this amazing Italian place. It has a dumb name, and pizza and pasta might not sound like much, but really, the best. Evidently their pizza is great, but I always get one of the homemade fresh pastas… my go-to is the veal/pear/pine nut tortellini, but on a visit last summer we tried the daily special: strawberry pasta with balsamic cream. Possibly the best thing I have ever eaten.

3. Lao Lane Xang: (métro: Tolbiac) If at any point you tire of French food, this is the detour to make. Out of the center and down in the 13th arrondissment, the two outposts of this family-run Laotian restaurant serve amazing versions of southeast Asian food. I think it’s mandatory to order the Nem Lao (crispy rice salad in lettuce wraps) and the canard lacqué au basilic (tamarind glazed duck with Thai basil), but the more familiar dishes like red curries are good, as well. Basically you can’t go wrong. It’s inexpensive, and it’s delicious.

4. Les Crocs de l’Ogre: (métro: Ecole Militaire) A recent discovery in a neighborhood that normally is pretty sleepy. We were near the Eiffel Tower and wanted to eat without having to cross town first, and stumbled into this, a meat-eater’s paradise. Don’t take your vegetarian friends, because the tête de veau in the corner might alarm them, but the carnivores among you will appreciate the glass butcher’s case and the option of ordering whatever cut of meat you would prefer, or even a whole roast suckling pig to share. They give you a little piece of saucisson with a basket of really, really good bread to start, and the focus is on the meat no matter what you order (unless you get fish, which I did, as I was feeling a bit contrarian and the waiter had already said no to my wine order and brought us something else. Which, to be fair, was better.) The service is friendly, if slow, but enjoy the beautiful space and the energy of the dining room (even on a weeknight) or just take in the pleasantly gruesome spectacle of the giant counter of raw meat. This, too, is fairly traditional in terms of the dishes offered, but I’d say it’s a step apart from the classic bistro ambience, so, different category.

5. Glou: (métro Rambuteau or Saint-Sébastien Froissart) good, reliable, great lively ambience, amazing neighborhood, good wine, reasonably priced. I say less traditional because it doesn’t look like a typical bistro, but the food is French through and through. I had pork cheeks with lentils on the most recent visit. A good spot to eat and go out from. UPDATE: if there is carpaccio on the menu when you go, get it!

Places to make a reservation and dress up for

I never wear high heels in Paris, because between the metro stairs, cobbled streets, and the inevitability of returning home late by bicycle, they are a death trap. More than one of my friends can attest to seeing me me casser la gueule while trying to look like a well-heeled Parisienne and hitting a section of uneven sidewalk. That said, for Spring I was willing at least to carry high heels in my purse for potential dressing up, and that’s saying something. And as if you hadn’t already gathered that I’m poor, the fact that this section only has one restaurant in it is a little indicative of my dining-out budget.

1. Spring (métro Louvre-Rivoli): amazing, amazing, amazing. Went with a large group and were seated downstairs, which at first I was disappointed by because I had wanted a view of the open kitchen. It was great. The next visit, we were upstairs by the window and that was great, too. A beautiful, cozy space, and a killer fixed menu that changes weekly (daily?) based on what American chef Daniel Rose finds freshest at the market. No special orders, you get what you get, though you can warn them in advance if you have allergies. Speaking of advance, make a reservation. They now do two dinner seatings. The multiple course menu is refined without being stuffy and inventive without being weird; one particularly memorable course from when we went was seared foie gras with mint and spring peas. Prix fixe is the only choice, at 72 euro a head, plus wine, of which they have a good selection at a range of prices, and the English-speaking staff can suggest good pairings. Catherine Deneuve was dining upstairs the night that we were there, and we hung out long enough that the chef came down to share a digestif with us and offer a free bottle of crémant. Eat here.

UPDATE: Old post, new restaurants. Two great spots visited when my mom and brother were recently in town:

1. Les Fines Gueules (métro Bourse): so it’s not the most lively neighborhood, but the space is sweet, the food is (quite) good, and the prices are fair. The lights are a little bright, but that might have been heightened sensitivity due to the fact that three of the four of us dining that night were jet-lagged and fresh off red-eye flights from opposite corners of the globe… all things considered, mood lighting might have put us straight to sleep anyway! Staff is friendly, and even English speaking. We split a very generous charcuterie plate to start, main courses were simple and good, and we even hung out for dessert, we were having so much wine fun. That said, the “seasonal fruit salad” was a bowl of grapes, and that was a little silly, so maybe ask for clarification before ordering.

2. Les Enfants Perdus (métro Gare de l’Est): LOVED this restaurant. We chose it for it’s proximity to the train station, since one of our party had a train to catch just after dinnertime, and couldn’t have been happier. Super cozy decor, with big pillows on benches in the back and a little bit of a kitchen view. For the location-concerned who aren’t planning their mealtimes around the new SNCF schedules, it’s also right next to the Canal St. Martin, which (if it’s not obvious from this post alone) is one of my favorite places in Paris to eat, drink, and generally be merry. Everything here was good: seared duck breast, crème brulée in 3 flavors (none too weird), and a waitstaff that was nice enough not even to raise an eyebrow when my 18 year old brother asked for a White Russian in lieu of a wine glass to accompany his meal.

Drinks: on a terrace, on the town, or illegally in public with a killer view

The concept of ‘appy ‘our (that’s the French pronunciation, they can’t say ‘h’) has sort of been adopted by our gaulois friends, though I’d say in general it’s a pretty unsuccessful counterpart to the American version. Namely because  if you’re looking for good, interesting cocktails, you’re in the wrong country (you don’t want to taste the Listerine-esque Get 27 that my roommate recently ordered by acccident), and bar food  is… well, misunderstood. However, no one could say that the French don’t like to drink or that they don’t know how to do it well. Here are some of my favorite places to imbibe:

1. In a park, any park, more specifically one that lets  you sit on the grass, like Montsouris in the 14th, which you might recognize from the end of the film Paris Je T’aime (RER B- Cité Universitaire), the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th, which is beautiful in and of itself but also has great views AND is home to its own special bar that is only available to people who make it into the park before the gates close at dusk (métro Buttes Chaumont or Laumière), or the Place des Vosges in the Marais, which was the first planned square in Paris and is in close proximity to lots of shopping, restaurants, and things to visit (métro Bastille, Chemin Vert, St. Paul, or Bréguet-Sabin). Also, touristy though it may be, taking a bottle of wine to the steps of Sacré Coeur is a must for the view and the general ambience of Montmartre. Don’t expect to be alone, but sometimes the street performers (musicians, people who do tricks with soccer balls) are actually pretty good, and to look down and out over Paris as the sun sets is something not to be missed (métro Abbesses, then lots of stairs).

2. Le Bloc: (métro Brochant) We just discovered this place, not far from my apartment in the 17th (so a bit removed from the center), near the lovely Batignolles neighorhood and more-or-less across the street from a nice indoor market. It’s relaxed, with low lighting and a sort of funky old architecture that creates lots of funny nooks and crannies for hanging out in, that they’ve filled with sofas, tables, and mismatched chairs to fit. Photography on the walls, good music and a cool crowd combined with a very inexpensive wine and drink list make it a great, low-key weeknight hangout spot. The girls at the table next to us were reading tarot cards, if that gives you an idea of the general ambience. The burgers, as well, are reasonably priced and good (with homemade fries!)

3. Verjus: (métro Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre, Pyramides) Recently opened by a few fellow Seattle-ites, I was partial to this place before I tried it because of the hometown link and because I think you can probably safely bet on a Northwest cook who worked with Tom Douglas. Beyond that, the couple who run Verjus also ran the very successful and not very secret Hidden Kitchen for the last several years. There’s a restaurant upstairs which I hear is lovely, though with menus fixed at either 55 or 77 euros sans vin it’s out of my range for the average night out. We opted instead for the wine bar downstairs, where a small but good and reasonably priced wine list and a few of their small plates (including fried chicken, celeriac dumplings, and beef cheek tostadas) made for a nice light dinner. Nice in that it was very nice, and the food was very good. Light in that it was very light, so don’t go hungry… for about 10 euros a small plate, we hoped that splitting four between two people would be sufficient but left feeling like we’d just shared an appetizer. The space is great, a beautiful renovated cave with stone walls and a window to the street, the clientèle is international (read: American) and friendly, and for a drink and a snack (like a real happy hour, minus the prices) it’s perfect. Maybe the classiest of the places on the list. Take your parents, have them buy you two orders of the fried chicken.

4. Candelaria (métro Filles du Calvaire, Temple): a Mexican speakeasy in the haut Marais, you say? I am pretty sure this bar was actually designed specifically for me. First, the tacos are great, though you may have to battle for space at the tiny counter and single table, and up until recently finding good Mexican food in Paris was a serious challenge. Eat there for lunch or dinner, try the black bean brownie or take it to go, and then push through the unmarked white door to the left of the man melting the cheese on the vegetarian taco with pineapple to get to the lounge. Low lights and great cocktails, including good tequila drinks and a punchbowl to share (apparently this trend has already come and gone in the states, but things like that are just a step behind here), plus now I hear they serve tacos in the bar. It’s really cool.

5. Le Point Ephemère (métro Louis Blanc, Jaurès): This cool concert venue and bar is located at the north end of the Canal St. Martin, a funky, young area that is often overlooked by visitors to the city. Check show listings before you go if you’re into live music (the room is small; last year I was very up close and personal there with the Head and the Heart as well as French singer Sophie Maurin, and able to talk with them both after the show), or just go on an evening when the sun’s out to enjoy a drink along their pedestrian-only stretch of the canal.

6. Le Comptoir Général (métro Jacques Bonsergent): Not far from the Point Ephemère on the Canal St Martin is this eclectic space, frequently home to various events and otherwise just a cool bar to hang out in. Different rooms, some outdoor space, cheese and charcuterie plates, and strange enough decor to keep you surprised.

7. On a roof: The department stores Galéries Lafayette and Printemps (métro Grands Boulevards) both have rooftop terraces that you can shop your way up to, with great views as well as bars. They’re not open after dark, so plan on going early, and in the summertime. The Centre Pompidou (métro Rambuteau) also has a top floor restaurant with a rooftop terrace. It’s expensive, and honestly I don’t really like the style (or the attitude) but there’s something super cool about all the outdoor tables fitted with one red rose in a vase. Go for coffee. The Terass Hotel near Place de Clichy and Montmartre has a rooftop bar and restaurant with unreal views of the whole city. The food and wine are skippable, but for an after dark cocktail it might be the best place I’ve ever been for watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle.

8. Prescription Cocktail Club: (métro St-German-des-Près, St. Michel) Okay, a little swanky, and not necessarily very French, but for good drinks in a cool space smack in the center of Paris, this chic bar with a discreet entrance is one of the few places I (and I rue the day) risked wearing high heels in the city.
10. La Cordonnerie (métro: Réamur-Sébastopol) Go on Thursdays, and go early. Drinks are cheap, happy hour goes ’til 7 (or maybe 8: €2 beers, €3 glasses of wine), and if you stay past nine and manage to find a table, you get free lamb couscous. That might sound disconcerting, but it’s good.

11. La Fourmi (métro: Pigalle) We went to this place for the first time one Friday, stayed all night, and went back the next day. Cool decor, cool crowd, cool location, relatively inexpensive.

12. Glass (métro: Pigalle) From the folks at Candelaria, this unmarked door on a street full of strip clubs might weird you out, but you should really go in. Great cocktails. Amazing hot dogs. That sounds ridiculous. The hot dogs are really good.

And if you have a sweet tooth…

There are a few Parisian delicacies that really can’t be missed, and while I’m not really a lover of desserts, these are a few things that everyone should have at least once in their lifetime

1. Hot chocolate at Ladurée (métro Georges 5, multiple locations) or Angelina (métro Tuileries). Both of these traditional tea salons serve chocolat à l’ancien, which means thick and rich and with a carafe of water and a little bowl of homemade whipped cream. Angelina is also home to the Mont Blanc dessert, a pastry of meringue, cream, and sugary chestnut cream. One is easily enough sugar for two people, or maybe three, but it’s a classic.

2. Macarons at Ladurée: I like the salted caramel and the pistachio, but you probably can’t go wrong with any of the twenty some odd flavors and colors. Sit down and eat a large macaron with a knife and fork and a café crème  if you’re feeling fancy, or pick a handful of flavors to fill one of their beautiful little gift boxes and take them to go.

3. Ice cream at Berthillon (métro Cité or St. Michel) on the Ile St Louis. So good. On a hot day, there’s sure to be a line, but it is well worth the wait. I try to get whatever seasonal fruit flavor they have at the moment, like pear in the fall or melon in the summer.

Leaving Paris?

A book came out recently called Paris, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. I understand this sentiment, like I think anyone who lives in a big city and has to do things there other than just stroll alongside the Seine sipping wine and listening to accordion music. I always love getting out of the city, and periodically end up at some pretty good eateries. So if you happen to find yourself in any of the following places, I highly recommend:

St Emilion, France: L’envers du Decor

Toulouse, France: Chez Emile

Beaune, France: Ma Cuisine

Barcelona, Spain: Paco Meralgo

Cadaquès, Spain: La Sal

Rome, Italy: Il Bacaro

Budapest, Hungary: Bock Bizstro

Vienna, Austria: Cafe Korb

To be continued!

You look sweet, upon the seat…

September 9, 2011

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Ah, Paris. City of lights, city of love, city of omnipresent and yet completely miserable mass transit. The Paris metro is poeticized. It’s in movies. There are books. People buy the white tiles that line its stations to decorate their houses. And whether it is the middle of winter or the height of summer, it is a nightmarish cluster of humans (and sometimes dogs, and groceries, and take-out food) jammed together in a sweaty, steamy, claustrophobic, slow-moving capsule of body-odor scented transportation purgatory. I can’t help it. Every time I go through one of those pretty art nouveau metropolitan archways, I develop a case of the metro sweats.

So I walk a lot. But when I’m pressed for time and can’t handle the prospect of thirty minutes of stagnant air underground, the city of Paris has cleverly devised the ultimate solution: the velib.

The city sponsored bike program is cheap (1.70 for a day, 29 euros for an entire year), relatively easy (I mean, if I managed to figure it out, anyone can), and not only is it generally faster than taking the metro it has the added benefit of being exercise. The Velib app for iPhone can locate nearby stations, calculate your route, and even tell you how many calories you will burn in pedaling from point A to point B!

They do, however, have their drawbacks, and while I am sure I am far from exhausting the list of potential mishaps on bicycle, lord knows I have made a dent. For starters, to ride a Velib, you have to ride on Paris streets. These can range in size and intimidation level from “tiny and medieval and sporadically blocked by improperly parked vehicles” to “hellishly terrifying six lane roundabouts where people apparently follow no rules.” I find that I feel safest on a Velib late at night on an empty street with a generous and well-marked bus lane, but since I often need to go places during daylight hours I don’t often get the luxury of these ideal biking conditions.

To rent a Velib on the street, all you need is a chip and pin credit card. The Velib stations are well distributed, and the aforementioned iPhone app will tell you which stations are closest, how many bikes and parking spots they have available, and whether or not the bikes are broken. When you see one of these stations, you will note a row of gray bicycles and a little kiosk-like machine.

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“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

When approaching the kiosk-like machine, try to be calm. Imagine a flat pond, or a sunny field, or a leprechaun sliding down a rainbow into a pile of puppies. If you are stressed it will go wrong. While the process should appear straightforward, you will have to press a lot of buttons. First, you need to tell the machine that you want to rent a bicycle, and for how long. Then you have to read and validate liability information (never read it; if you press 5 it skips to the end). Then you have to make payment, validate the payment, validate the guarantee of 150 euros, enter your pin, validate your pin, make up a secret code, enter the secret code, enter the secret code again, and validate. Then you will have to read instructions (never read them; if you press 5 it skips to the end). Then you will be taken back to what appears to be the screen you started on. While it appears to be a problem, this is what you want. You now have to tell the machine that, having rented a bike, you want to take one out. Don’t get stressed if the person waiting behind you to get a bike is becoming agitated, or if the person waiting for you to take your bike so that he can park his is rolling his eyes. There is absolutely no human way to expedite the button-pressing process.

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This guy absolutely hates his life and feels more confused than he did when he got his first TI-83

 

The machine will tell you to enter the code on your ticket, then enter your secret code, and then enter the secret code again. Then it will give you a list of the available bikes and let you choose your vehicle. THIS PART IS VERY IMPORTANT. Do NOT choose a bike with a broken seat. DO NOT choose a bike with a flat tire. DO NOT choose a bike where it looks as if the gears might have been tampered with. If you choose a faulty bike, you have to press all the buttons again, and no one wants to press all the buttons again.

So you’ve chosen your bike. You know the names of the streets you are taking in order to go in the same direction as the traffic. You don’t totally trust your sense of direction but hey, it can’t be that confusing, right? Plus, the app with the map is so helpful!

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At this point I think it’s important to talk about wardrobe. When biking, one must be certain that ones shoes will stay attached to ones feet, that ones scarf will not blow away in the wind, that one has proper eyewear to protect ones eyes from dusty city funk blowing in ones face, and, the cardinal rule, that if one happens to be wearing a dress or skirt that one is comfortable with the length of said dress or skirt and/or is thoroughly undergarmented.

One sunny, Velib-worthy day, Lauren and Laura and I set out to go from my apartment at Republique to Laura’s in the bottom of the 14th. This little trek would take us across most of the city in about 35 minutes. It was hot out when I got dressed that morning, so I picked a short and flowy, loose-fitting dress with a lightweight skirt. It was very weather-appropriate. We got our bikes near my place after pressing buttons for about twenty minutes and were on our way. Lauren, the Velib master, was leading the way. We made our way down to the Rue de Rivoli, the center of Paris and the heart of the tourist area. People were everywhere. We were really bad on our bikes, and the streets were only going one direction, and as we went onto the sidewalk I saw Lauren turn around and look at me but couldn’t hear what she said.

So obviously everyone is familiar with the picture of Marilyn Monroe standing over the Manhattan subway grate with her white dress billowing up around her. In that scene from The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn’s character says, “Oh, can you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?”

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Well, Marilyn, yes. Yes, I can feel the breeze from the subway, but no, delicious is not how I would describe the sudden gust of air that grabbed my loose-fitting, lightweight summer dress and blew it up completely OVER MY HEAD. Marilyn Monroe might have made that image iconic. I assure you that swerving on a bicycle, blinded by my own dress and for all intents and purposes mostly naked in the middle of Rue de Rivoli was not my iconic moment.

The rest of the Velib mishaps are too numerous to recount: seats suddenly becoming loose and dropping, broken gears that leave you feeling like you just completed an Iron Man by the time you get home, dangerous swerving and last-minute turns across Place de la Bastille that would probably give my parents heart-attacks, being jarred and rattled by accidentally taking a cobblestone street, paying for a ticket only to realize that the bikes are broken and just sort of leaning there uselessly, getting a fly inside of my eyeball, watching Laura run into a van that had run a red light while she screamed at him in French, “Learn how to drive!”

The good news is that the city of Paris just added a section to their website so that you can buy your Velib passes online, since with most American credit cards, the little kiosk machines don’t work. Which means that before, you would have had to press all the buttons over and over again in vain, without ever getting to risk your life on a French bicycle. But now you can ☺