It's about time we talk about food
Updated: Aug 14, 2018
A shout out to Mike, Benoit, Eric and Ping, if you're reading! And to Mitchell and Cat, too! To the rest of you, you'll hear about these people in a bit...
If you're a foodie, Paris has lots to offer. Which is not to say every cafe/bistro/brasserie/
restaurant in this city is fabulous, and it's very disappointing when it's not, especially since generally speaking, you've plunked down a good bit of money for some unexceptional food. Still, a bad or lackluster meal is definitely the exception rather than the rule.
The first thing I need to mention is that I'm the type who likes to research and I'm also the type who has no interest in going to a foreign country only to dine with tourists, especially of the American variety. I don't need a plane ticket to do that, but also the touristy restaurants are often not the best ones--any self-respecting New Yorker knows that. And yet, there are those establishments that are fantastic enough that they attract both locals and tourists. Balthazar in New York is a perfect example. In Paris, as you know from a previous post, I ate at the legendary cafe, Les Deux Magots, the other day. Les Deux Magots is about as touristy as it gets and I have never been there at any time of day or night, going back to my first trip to Paris in 1993, when it wasn't bustling, yet the food is actually very good, if pricey.
My point is, while there are certainly exceptions, when I travel, I try to find the restaurants and cafes that are off the proverbial beaten path. I truly enjoy struggling through a foreign menu and sometimes winding up with a dish that I'm not sure exactly what it is. I want to rub elbows with the locals and people-watch in another language and culture. Nothing is more fascinating to me, but I also want outstanding food, well-prepared, with nice ambiance and professional yet warm and friendly service. Not much, right?
The second thing I need to mention is that I'd heard about how different Paris is in August, due to all the Parisians being on les vacances for several weeks, and I'd never have considered coming at this time of year in the past, but this time is different, of course, because I saw the slower month as a perfect opportunity to get settled when the city wasn't its "normal" self.
Everything I'd heard is one-thousand percent true. The city is absolutely teeming with American tourists right now. If I close my eyes and listen, I could believe I'm in a U.S. city, albeit one with lots of cobblestone. It's strange, too, because I don't feel like a tourist really. I'm not in a hotel, but rather living in an apartment for three months. I'm grocery shopping, doing laundry, taking out the garbage, making my own bed. At the same time, I can't say I live here, as much as I wish I could!
But back to the food... The point I wanted to make is that I researched many restaurants and have a list of some I want to try (which would take much longer than three months to get through), but almost every single one of them is closed until the 27th or 28th of August, some till September. In the most touristed areas, though--le Marais, for instance--some of the most popular places have remained open and all you hear is English spoken.
I have to say, with no exception, all the waiters and waitresses I've encountered at these establishments have been, at a minimum, helpful and professional, but most have been kind and generous and...smiling. I've never really understood the bad rap French waiters get, because I've been to Paris several times and virtually every restaurant or cafe experience I've had here has been a positive one. Look, every city has rude people and surly waitstaff, whether it's Paris or New York or Sydney or Los Angeles or Sheboygan. It's a personal crusade of mine to get people to stop badmouthing New Yorkers and Parisians as rude. Direct, sometimes impatient, sure--but that's different from rude.
The food, Jude! Don't forget about the food!
So Saturday night I treated myself to my first real restaurant meal since arriving. (I'd been popping into cafes up till then.) I'd read about a place about a ten-minute walk from my apartment that sounded interesting--in a space converted from an old pharmacy. Bet you can't guess what it's called...
La Pharmacie turned out to be a wonderful treat indeed. It's a cozy space, dimly lit, with rustic tables and quotes about the pleasures of eating written in French lining the top of one wall and shelfs of apothecary and wine bottles along another. The waitress was charming and adorable and gets extra bonus points for being patient with me while I spoke French with her. And my meal was fabulous...foie gras with toasts to begin, followed by sturgeon (fresh--not smoked!) with Caribbean black garlic butter sauce and sweet potato puree. Add a bottle of Badoit and a glass of wine to quench my thirst and I was firmly in my happy zone.
Meanwhile, at the table next to me were two couples speaking English, all with a different accent (two British, one Belgian, one Vienna via Boston). These couples turned out to be Mike and Ping, Benoit and Eric, all of whom were in Paris for the Gay Games. We struck up a conversation when they saw me smiling to myself over their great dessert debate. The chocolate fondant cake with salted butter caramel is all the rage in the social media reviews and the adorable waitress recommended it, but Mike was reminding everyone that they'd eaten a crazy amount of ice cream earlier in the day and had sworn off dessert.
While I was completely happy eating in solitude, our far-ranging conversation was a delightful bonus that made a great dinner even better. Benoit was also generous in writing down recommendations of some restaurants (and ice cream joints) for me and he will be glad to know that I did find my way to Une Glace a Paris this evening. I limited myself to a single scoop, but the fleur du lait was tres formidable and I have a feeling that over the next 11 weeks (!), I will be sampling other flavors.
(Speaking of spontaneous conversations, I had a similar experience at a cafe this afternoon, when over lunch, I met Mitchell and Cat, a young couple from San Francisco celebrating having gotten through the bar exam with a trip to Paris and Provence. If you two are reading this, I hope you enjoyed the train ride and are having a wonderful time!)
All things considered, my dinner at La Pharmacie was not all that expensive and it was well worth the price. I never mind paying good money for a meal worthy of its tab. (Did I mention that of course I ordered the aforementioned dessert?)
Contrast that with the cafe the next morning. Generally, I've been good, eating breakfast and making coffee at home, but I figure Sunday mornings can be an exception. So I took myself and a bunch of blank postcards over to the nearest cafe the morning after La Pharmacie and ordered a cafe creme, a croissant and a fresh squeezed orange juice. Neither the coffee nor the orange juice were as good as I've had elsewhere, but I ordered a second coffee nonetheless--it was that kind of beautiful morning and I liked the way the waiter smiled at me. It was not a breakfast to write home about, but satisfying nonetheless.
The bill? A tad over twenty U.S. dollars. Big sigh. And yet, what price can be put on the feeling of serenity I had while sitting there? An early Sunday morning in Paris. Quiet streets. People moving slowly. The sun playing tricks with the glass window of the cafe...