January 2009

Day 3: Serious Service and Astonishing Art

Posted on January 11, 2009 at 11:48 am in

We planned to wake up early, see the Louvre and then go to lunch at a 3-star (the highest appellation possible in France). Not so much. We slept until 11am and that meant that lunch was our breakfast. So as to not completely lose out on sightseeing, we took a taxi to a point about ½ way up the Champs Ellysses and from there walked up to the Arc d’ Triomphe.

In retrospect, I’m not sure what the big deal is about the CE. Oh, I know it has a history and is grand and all of that. I dare say we both thought it was pretty ugly. It’s just a street lined with stores (seeing the car dealerships reminded me of Van Ness Street in San Francisco) and not even particularly great stores at that. I mean, if we’d seen Chanel’s place or any of the great designers at least we’d understand. But this was more like Target and Macy’s than anything impressive.

The AdT was also a so-so sight. It’s big. Very big. And interesting. But nothing I’d specifically recommend to a tourist. Maybe if I was more into history than I am . . .

Lunch, ah lunch at Taillevent. Seriously amazing food. Seriously incredible service. For not-rich people like us, they offer a small number of prix fixe lunch menus, four courses for 80eu (approx. $100). Yes, that is a lot of money, but for 2.5 hours of delicious food it’s an event not a meal. (At least for us foodies it is.) It was THE meal of the trip. This is the kind of place where when you go to the bathroom you are escorted there, and they are politely waiting to escort you back to your table when you are finished.

Our amuse bouche was a perfect lentil soup, thick and rich with bits of sausage – it’s the lentil/pea soup I always wanted to make and can’t. The bread (of course) was superb. J started with a scallop dish of a couple of perfectly fresh scallops sliced in ¼” disks and presented like a flower on the center of the plate. Preserved red onion was sprinkled over, and a bright citrus sauce drizzled over that. I had an artichoke and shrimp dish that melted in my mouth. For our main course I had a red snapper, roasted with paprika. Very fresh and tender. J had a braised beef dish that had him surreptitiously cleaning the plate with a bit of bread at the end. The digestif was a spectacular failure for us – preserved prunes in a rich, deep prune sauce and a quenelle of Rocquefort cheese. We ‘got’ the point, but just didn’t like the taste (and I for one loathe the moldy cheeses). Dessert was beautiful. A three inch long ‘box’ of chocolate filled with chocolate mousse and embossed with gold leaf (including a ‘lock’) served alongside a box of apple preserves, minced fine and perfectly spiced. We shared a bottle of Pinot Blanc Trimbach (’02) which we both enjoyed very much and had café (chocolate for J.) with dessert. Simply incredible.

From there we walked down to the Opera Garnier. This is an old-fashioned Opera House in the style of grand opulence. If it can be carved, it was. Gilded, absolutely. Made out of marble instead of plaster – heck yes. Everywhere you look in the main hall there are faces of gods and goddesses, muses, and cherubs. It is incredibly overdone – and glorious. There are even tall cast iron lamp posts where they used to have gas lamps so all of the wealthy people would glitter even more brightly. But here’s the super special dissonant aspect: the ceiling of the seating area was painted by Marc Chagall. He used motifs from well-known operas, but they are unmistakably done in his style and they stand out like an alto in a room full of stringed instruments.

From here we (finally!) went to the Louvre (which fortunately was open until 9pm).

The first surprise was that the glass pyramid is the ceiling of the entrance to the Louvre – you can’t get in any other way. The second was that your museum pass doesn’t get you to the front of the first line, which is a security line. All bags must pass through an xray. So we waited in a fairly long line (about 45 mins) just to get inside. And then – thank you Rick Steves! He has a cogent, interesting, and effective tour that took us through the Greek Sculptures, up to the Italian Renaissance, and ends with the French Impressionists. Since those are our ‘big 3’ we were happy. A few comments:

  • The Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos) is almost more interesting from the back.
  • The Winged Victory of Samothrace looks as if it is just about to take off.
  • The Mona Lisa has better press than she’s worth (you also can’t get closer than 15 or so feet away and she’s behind 3 inches of green tinted glass.
  • The best kept secret of the Louvre: the ceilings. Yes, look up.

It took a few hours, but we developed museum brain drain and had to leave (when you don’t care that it’s a totally new Renoir (to you) in front of you, its time to go). So much more to see (next trip).

Dinner was a long evening at Café Soufflot where Bernard served us a lovely bistro meal of grilled skirt steak and duck (guess who had which) with salads. Simple preparation and excellent quality. J continued to practice his French and we had a quiet evening.

We now interrupt the Paris deluge. . .

Posted on January 7, 2009 at 3:47 am in

. . . to talk about the fact that I have jet lag like I have never had before.

It is 3:45am (Pacific) as I write this. I didn’t get enough sleep yesterday and so I went to bed at 9pm, feeling that a good 9 hours would get me back into shape.

At 3am I was wide awake and wondering if we’d actually turned on the alarm. (We don’t have any electrical devices, including clocks, in the bedroom. This is occasionally a problem as we can’t tell what time it is until we go into another room.)

Apparently I’m now an even-earlier riser.


Day Two: What Meal Is This and Getting A Feel for the Left Bank

Posted on January 6, 2009 at 2:22 pm in

We slept until after 11am, and it easily could have been after noon. We clambered up from the depths of a very good sleep and looked at various walks for the day. (Breakfast was a croissant and hot drinks from a local boulangerie.)

We started just across from the center of the Ile de Cite, the heart of Paris, the island where it started 2300 years ago. Think about it for a moment: two THOUSAND, three hundred years ago. America is barely a 10th that old. It’s older than our current (AD) calender starting at ‘0’. Crossing the Pont St. Michel we walked up to the Palais de Justice — which was closed to the public and the Ste. Chappelle, also closed for the day. Le sigh. But it was purty on the outside. Across from that is the place Louis-Lapine, which has an incredible art deco Metro entrance. (Yes, pictures WILL be uploaded . . .) The lightposts on the square even have gilded vines climbing up and around them.

From here we meandered down to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was amazing — and the waiting line to get in was hours long. In 29 degree weather we weren’t interested in playing the game. In fact I will reveal to you now that we *saw* a lot of churches in Paris, and yet never went inside a single one of them. Neat, huh? Back to the big ND . . . if you have any interest in architecture, you will go nuts over ND. It is silly, absurd, dramatic, and phenomenal — and that’s just the carving on the outside. We’ve got martyrs and saints, scenes from the Last Judgment (still to come, as far as we know), demons and temptations . . . its crazy.

We walked from there through the Ile St. Louis, an incredibly old urban village (that does not look like a village, it just *is* if you know what I mean) where, its said, the residents never leave the island if they can help it.

From there we returned to the mainland and walked along the Left Bank of the Seine and admired (and giggled) at the books, postcards, drawings, maps, and *stuff* offered by the intrepid (did I mention it was COLD?) vendors (bouquinistres) who unpack their stalls each morning for the delight of anyone happening along.

From there we meandered into the Latin Quarter. Our first part of the walk was down the (aptly described) smarmy rue de la Harpe. This is an ugly tourist trap of nightclubs, restaurants and cafes of dubious quality (they display their meals on open air tables on the sidewalk — which might be appetizing at 11am, but not at 3pm. Ugh. There are — I swear — barkers on the street inviting you in. I got my New York attitude (no eye contact, pleasant expression but not quizzical) on quickly and no one bothered us.

At this point let me digress by noting that I think J and I looked Parisian. Or something. Because we had on full-length, good quality overcoats, gloves and hats (I had on a cute velvet one with a black satin rose perched above my forehead) and we didn’t openly hold cameras in our hands, I really think the locals took us for locals. At least until we opened our mouths. (That’s J’s tale to tell. .  .)

Rue de la Huchette is the narrowest street in Paris, and it felt like it. I could only imagine how it must have been in medieval times . . .

Eventually we emerged across from Notre Dame and stopped at the venerable Shakespeare and Company. (At this point, our camera’s battery ran out. Le sigh.) We browsed a bit, but didn’t stop too long, and continued through to rue Galande, where we saw the city’s oldest street sign. (We returned here later in the week to get a picture of it.) This sign dates back to the 14th century (pause for a moment and think about that — 700 years ago there was a street sign here) and shows St. Julien and his wife helping Christ to cross the Seine.

From there we walked around and down rue Dante (of Divine Comedy fame) and then took a quick right onto the bustling rue St Jacques wher we found a sundial by Salvidor Dali. Very weird. I’m not sure if it was even useful since the weather was overcast and grey.

South(ish) from there we found a huge intersection, nearly every corner of which had a ‘geek’ shop. Music in one, minis in another. Over there were several comic shops (looked like manga type stuff in one, traditional comics in another, and Tintin/graphic novels in YET ANOTHER). One shop had nothing but figurines in various sizes . . . it was sort of awesome.

Down along the Sorbonne, right onto rue Soufflot (home to the delightful Cafe Soufflot) and up to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon is a great way to describe Paris: it was originally built by Louis XV as a shrine to St. Genevieve, in thanks for saving his life via intercessionary prayer. (She’s the patron saint of France.) The walls are adorned with lovely frescoes of scenes of her life done in a style like that of Rossetti. It wasn’t finished, or consecrated, however, before the Revolution. So they made it into a shrine to the Nation’s dead. One wall now has four paintings of scenes from the life of Joan of Arc, complete with a final one of her praying while the torches are being lowered onto the wood piled at the her feet. Weirdly (as if that isn’t enough) at the entrance we have St. Denis picking up his head after having it removed (I believe he then walked two miles, preaching a sermon all the way).

Most delightful: Foucault’s Pendulum is here (one of them, that is). Although why on earth there  is a huge Bast statue to the north side I do not know.

Apparently Voltaire is buried here, along with Victor Hugo, Dumas, Rosseau, and many other of France’s greatest intellectuals. We did not bother to go see the crypt (cold, damp, and we’re not that interested in the dead).

With that we called it a day and went back to our hotel to prepare for dinner: Bouillion Racine.

oooh la la! This place is incroyable. It is gorgeous. Let me share a quick blurb from the menu (and website):

“The complete renovation of the Bouillon Racine took place in 1996 thanks to the “Companions of the Duty”. It then called upon old expertise of almost lost techniques and skills. Bevelled mirrors, painted opalines, stained glass, carved woodworks, marble mosaics and gold-leaf lettering provide the public with the pleasure of a rich place, as much by its beauty as by its conviviality. It was subsequently classified as an Historic Building.

With his olden splendour back, the Bouillon Racine offers Parisian life an immersion in the Paris of the 1900’s.”

It truly was magnificent. Moreover, they have a very affordable prix fixe menu of three courses: entree, plat and dessert for 29eu. It is well worth it. (I’m linking to their menu, here.) I started with a pumpkin soup with chestnuts, J had cheese ravioli. Our main course was duck confit for me and a pork shank with sauerkraut for him. For dessert, J had the homemade creme brulee with maple syrup and I had pressed apples with gingerbread. Very good, everything. Service was slow, but for NY’s day, not at all awful. Definitely a place I would return to.

On our way home we stopped at Cafe Soufflot for a vin rouge and chocolat chaud to wind up the night.


Day One: Disorientation and Unexpected Darkness

Posted on January 6, 2009 at 12:47 pm in

Business Class is _the_ way to fly to Europe, and Melatonin is your friend. We ate well, I had yummy wine (1st Class was essentially empty so the cabin attendant brought me back wine from that cabin to drink — and gave me a bottle “to taste” for the hotel room.) and we slept at least 3 hours. I say this with pleasure because our trip to London elicited catnaps and maybe an hours sleep — TOTAL. *shudder*. Business Class seats are much more comfortable (they recline nearly 180 degrees for one thing) than Economy Plus, and the food was very very good, and so is the wine. It was seriously empty, so we had lots of individual attention. Oh — and the ‘amenity bags’ are great! Eye mask, ear plugs, socks, toothbrush & toothpaste, and really nice moisturizer. All in a very handy bag.

You saw my previous post about CDG, I won’t repeat my impressions.

Dinner was at 8:30pm at Le Tastevin, a multi-hundred year old restaurant on the Ile de St. Louis, an island in the middle of the Seine River which is nearly as old as the birtplace of Paris. We walked from our hotel, and it took a little longer than we expected, so when we rounded the corner to the restaurant, we walked right in  . . . to a woman in a long gown and pointy-princess hat (you know — the fancy dunce cap with a piece of gauze on the tip) singing. She looked at us like we were carrying dog shit, so we quickly stepped back out and consulted. Yes, we were in the right place. Yes, it was exactly 8:30pm, the time of our reservation. Yes, the singing woman was right in front of the only entrance in to the restaurant. Ok, clearly this is surreal time.

We waited for a break in her set, and then went in. (Please understand — it was also below freezing and quite damp outside, It was NOT comfortable for us to wait in the street when we had reservations for a table in this warm cozy food-filled place.) Le Tastevin is amazing.

I’m going to get my one serious complaint out of the way right now: we were seated in the WORST table in the place. It was literally right next to the kitchen entrance. I would have thought that making a confirmed reservation in SEPTEMBER would have given us a better place. But no, and the people who arrived just behidn us were, in fact, given a better place. My second compliant is that the quality of the food was a B+, and that includes ‘slack’ for it being NYE. Keep that grade in mind as I discuss the meal.

Le Menu:

Entree (what they call the appetizer course)

Scallop soup with champagne

Lobster mousse

Puff pastry with Munster-cumin sauce (J had this, quite yummy)

Escargots (I had this — YUM)

2 kinds of foie gras preparations

Plats (Main Course)
Wild Boar w/ raspberry sauce and chestnut puree

Filet of beef w/ potato gratin (J had this, very yummy)

Breast of duck, apple chutney onion confit (a sort of jamlike preparation) (I had this, very good)

Turbot (or monkfish) steamed in paper with orange sauce

Lobsters, deep fried

Cheese course: a kind of fondue with crostini

Digestif: pear sorbet with pear eau de vie

mango sorbet
chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and creme fraiche : dry cake but very intense flavor. *just* this side of overly sweet and definitely assisted by the sauces rather than standing beautifully on its own.

All throughout the meal, the singer is singing, accompanied by a tape player. Despite the three (yes, three) costume changes, her work was very simple and she was quite good. Just after 11pm she walked around offering her music on CD and tape. John had a bet that she was the sister of the proprietress, who kept trying to get the crowd to sing along with the Piaf-like songs, clearly old favorites and ones locals might well be used to.

That’s when it struck me — more than 3/4 of the people there were American. Did we all read Rick Steves and think ‘that’s where I’ll spend NYE’? Maybe so. There was a couple from New York, another from Los Angeles, I could hear other American (as opposed to English) accents from over there . . . No wonder no one was singing along.

Not long after 11pm, the most magical thing happened. The power went out. At that point we’d all been served our meals and were waiting for the cheese course. There was a moment of — huh? — and then we all just went back to talking and laughing. The chanteuese sang a few songs sans tape, but was drowned out by the crowd, so I think she went home. The waiter/ess went around and lit candles at the tables — not all — and mentioned that the building was 700 years old and that this sometimes happens. A few people used it as an oportunity to leave (presumably to see the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower). We stayed.

Since we were also right next to the way to the bathroom, we found ourselves offering up our candle to people in need of relief. (There was no light in the back area, nor in the bathroom.) We met soem very nice people (mostly American) that was as we kept people from getting lost and or losing their way (such as it would have been) in the deep dark.

J. had his first taste of port (very nice, very sweet, very mellow.) The cheese course was a bit salty and not to our taste. The dessert was sweet, served with the aforementioned port and champage as we shouted Bonne Annee! at the turn of the year. (Yes, we kissed across the table, thank you for asking, and said private endearments to one another.)

More laughter, the candles glowing, and people began making their way home.

We left near to 1am and walked home. There were groups of young people wandering around yelling Bonne Annee at any opportunity. We yelled it back and kept going. In bed by 1:30am (blessing that nap) we ended our first day in Paris, and began a new year.


A Bit About the Delay

Posted on January 6, 2009 at 12:32 pm in

I will now tell you three funny things and the not at all funny thing that came about as a result of their existence. Funny thing about a laptop — it needs power to operate for more than a few hours. Funny thing about France — they have a different power source/plug configuration. Funny thing about the power converter we bought (good for use in 150 countries!): it sisn’t designed for three prong plugs, only two.

So we got a converter at the airport on our way home. That’s why we’ve been silent since the first ‘we’re here!’ posts.