Monday, April 7, 2008

Paris Perfect

celest-montmartre-sepiaWho would’ve thought my favorite dish in all of Paris would be cucumbers?!

Enjoyed at a gorgeous little bistro on the Left Bank, steps from the Siene, on a street with a collection of the most exquisite papierboutiques imaginable. It was the entrée course (the first course; we’d call it an ‘appetizer’) from the menu du jour at Chez Julien and it tasted exactly like Paris in springtime should taste: luscious and bright with a satisfying crispness and enough salty brine to startle and remind you that any day in Paris is one to savor. The beautiful, skinless, green discs were topped with a mound of impossibly light cream (a combination of crème fraiche and Chantilly) and finished with tiny snippets of chives. “Delicious” doesn’t begin to describe…The meal’s next two courses included a salt cod brandade (a dish that’s making the rounds all over Manhattan right now: I’ve eaten it recently at BoqueriaBacaroEl Quinto Pino and Belcourt) and the most perfect tarte framboiseimaginable. It was just the lunch to precede a day at the Musee D’Orsay with the Impressionists.

cukesParis with a lover means playing hide-and-seek in the narrow streets of Montmartre, moonlight kisses on the Pont Neuf and mornings making love with the window open so you can smell the fresh croissants wafting in from the boulangerie under your window.

Or so I’ve heard; I’ve never been to Paris with a lover.

I’ve been with Sara and Amanda.

Paris with them, in college, meant spine-bending backpacks and the three of us sharing a queen-sized bed—me at the foot and Sara trying to spoon Amanda a little too close. framboiseBack then, Sara proved her prowess by climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, Amanda by going home with more than one greasy philosophy student promising Absinthe and a view of the city at sunrise. I ate my weight in pain au chocolat and drank gallons of café au lait.

I haven’t been in Paris in a while and this time the city was refuge for Mother and me—an adventure in art, gastronomy, history, architecture, spirituality…a time and space for the two of us to be together. I told her I expected the holiday to fix all of my life problems. She said she’d offer sage advice where she could, but maybe I should just get another crepe fromage and climb the butte to Sacre Ceour to clear my head. So I mused at the Louvre and sat through mid-day mass at Notre Dame, but I tried during this trip to get out of my head a bit and taste Paris in a way that countered its (and my) cerebral-ness. quicheI was pleased at how my palette has developed since I was last in France. I realized this time that I didn’t need to eat a madeleine at every patisserie we passed; but I also resolved never to let any meal end without dessert.

Gastronomical highlights included that meal at Chez Julien, a quiche of spinach and chevre eaten on the train back from Versailles, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone shared at an impossibly chic little bistro near the apartment I’d rented in the Marais, called le Petit fer a Cheval, an éclair and tarte citron picked up at Dalloyau, near the Bastille, crème brulee at the Alsatian Brasserie, chevalChez Jenny, and an obscene asparagus dish that featured rich hollandaise and black truffle shavings, served in the exquisite Belle Epoch surroundings of the famous and glamorous train station restaurant, Le Train Bleu.

I only had one bad meal in Paris—an inedible plate of steak fritesat an ill-chosen restaurant in Les Halles. But I quickly made up for the misstep with a midnight crepe ordered from a street vendor; it steamed in my hand as I ate it on the walk home down the Rue di Rivoli. That’s one Paris food feature that I guess New York will never match—abundance of exquisite street food. In New York, you have to be savvy to know where to find the Dessert Truck or Thiru Kumar, the “Dosa Man”, patisseriea street vendor who serves all-vegan, South Indian dosas off Washington Square South (he won last year’s “Vendy Cup”—an award for greatest NYC street fare); in Paris, it’s hard to go wrong with any stand that will press a cheese sandwich before your eyes.

On the way back to New York, Mother and I spent a single day in London, shopping at Harrods and pub-hopping around Knightsbridge. Our afternoon tea, with Victoria sponge cake and buttery scones was our last fine repast before eating a meal requiring plastic utensils and the peeling back of a layer of plastic with the “menu” item printed across the top. Somehow, American Airlines’ finest penne and coleslaw train-bleudidn’t seem of a piece with the rest of our gourmet adventure…

So, our first meal back in New York, I insisted on a sophisticated brunch at Belcourt, where I knew we, still enamored of our Parisian state of mind, wouldn’t be disappointed by an excellent croque madame and omelet au saumon. The bistro and its egg dishes didn’t let us down, and I thanked my lucky stars that in New York, I have the culinary world at my fingertips; you can play Parisian whenever you desire here, and even if the adorable hipster bartender on 2nd Ave. (John) doesn’t greet you with the fantastically civilized croque“bonjour,” your taste buds will feel welcomed when you savor familiar flavors of rich yolk, sharp melted gruyere and salty house-cured lamb.

For perfect street crepes, you’ll have to buy an airplane ticket.

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