Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Saturday, June 3rd: Welcome to Paris

When Fumiyo and I were driving down the coast from Vancouver to Southern California in November, 2015, we heard about the Bataclan massacre and other terrorist attacks in Paris. We decided to go to France, to show our solidarity.
Fumiyo hiked across Provence with her friend from May, 19-31. Upon her return, she told me the flight was claustrophobic and I should get a seat that would be more comfortable. I went to the Air France website and chose what I assumed would be a more comfortable seat. When I got to Vancouver airport, I discovered I'd chosen a seat on the return flight. The flight to Paris would indeed be claustrophobic. I watched a pretty good movie about how the McDonald's empire emerged from theft, listened to some Earth Wind and Fire on the free headsets, enjoyed a free glass of champagne, read the April issue of The Atlantic and several chapters of Montaigne's essays and had two decent meals. The first, “dinner,” promised chicken in lemon sauce. The lemons never appeared on my palate, but the meal was pretty good, particularly the apple sauce which included a number of different fruit instead of just apples. Also pumpkin and wild rice, which was quite tasty. My glass of white wine suffered from turbulence, spilling onto the tray and soaking several courses. I should not have poured it into the plastic cup. What I didn't do was sleep. Arriving at Charles De Gaul, we were bused to another terminal and then forced to stand in line for 2 hours to see the passport people. I was exhausted and sore from the flight, and standing for hours made things even worse. As I finally approached the passport folks, a loud bang was heard. The security people were alarmed and scurried about. Apparently it wasn't a bomb. After getting my passport stamped, I acquired my suitcase and then had to wait another hour before I was allowed to leave the airport and catch the train into Paris. In my studies of desirable places to eat in Paris, I kept reading about the wonders of a creperie called the Breizh Cafe which apparently had Japanese-inflected crepes and only took reservations from 9:30 to 11:30 in the mornings. I tried to call from Vancouver but no luck. I tried to call from the airport with the same lack of luck. After a long, uneventful train ride to St. Michel station, I got off at the wrong exit and had to ask several people where Shakespeare and Co. was. I was to spend most of my trip asking people for directions. My hotel was next door to the great English language bookstore. Upon checking into my ancient hotel, The Esmeralda, I was given a room on the 4th floor. “I hope you're strong,” says the concierge. An ignorant hope. Already exhausted from the flight, I somehow climbed up to my room, only to be told a few minutes later that a room had just opened up on the 1st floor, so I could save several steps a day! Lucky me!
I'd bought books at Shakespeare and Co. on my previous trips to Paris, in 1980 and 2002. Planned to buy one this trip to. However, what most excited me about the store was that it now had a cafe. I could order in English. I did. Unfortunately I ordered a quiche and a cidre. A salad came with the quiche which had a tasty balsamic dressing. The Sassy cidre (from Normandy) was drinkable and necessary on a muggy day. The quiche was a disaster. Not a good beginning to my culinary adventures in Paris.
I had booked a reservation into the Louvre for 2:00. It was great to avoid the long lines. My favourite painting (Joseph the Carpenter, by La Tour) is in the Louvre. I saw it in 1980. Unfortunately its room was closed in 2002. Closed again this time. I knew that, but wanted to see the Louvre's new (since 2002 anyway) collection of Islamic art. I had been very impressed by the Islamic art I'd seen in Spain in the 2002 trip. This art was not impressive at all. I asked about the Vermeers, which had thrilled me on both previous visits. They were gone too. I'd seen a sign on my way into the Louvre courtyard advertising a Vermeer exhibit that ended in May. Not only were the borrowed Vermeers gone, so were the Louvre's. The Louvre WiFi didn't work for my phone either. Bad Louvre!
In my search for great French food, the restaurant Les Bouquinistes had been recommended. Run by Guy Savoy, whose restaurant in Vegas is one of my faves. Close to my hotel too. I was there when it opened at 7:00. Would it be as good as the Savoy in Vegas? It was considerably cheaper, though it had a Michelin star. The amuse wasn't promising. I had thought of ordering the cheap fixed price meal, but the Mushroom and Prawn Ravioli, Ginger and Lemon Grass Broth wasn't on that menu. I went with the prawns. First whiff reminded me of Lobster Bisque, but far more complex and palate-enchanting, as I expect from Guy Savoy Every bit as good as Savoy's Vegas food. As good as I anticipated. Phenomenal food. Next up, spiced tuna with a pea risotto and potatoes. Not only superb but very filling. Not spicy at all, just the way I like it. Both courses paired perfectly with a glass of Chablis.

 Neglecting the quiche, which deserves all the neglect it can get, this was my first Meal in Paris and it was good as I'd hoped. In spite of the thundering bells from next door Notre Dame, I easily went to sleep by 8:30. Unfortunately, I awoke at 11:30, not because of noise but because of my skewered sense of time. I eventually went back to sleep and arose for a busy Sunday.

Sunday, June 4th: Ellsworth, Louis Vuitton, Breizh, Pas de Loup

I'd heard the restaurant Verjus was very good but it wasn't open on Sunday. It did however have a sister restaurant called Ellsworth, which also received great reviews and was rather difficult to get into. Ellsworth was supposed to send me a code to my cell phone, which I would then read and email it back to them confirming my reservation. No code appeared. I emailed them asking if my reservation was still good. I was assured that it was, even code-less. I gave myself a long time to walk to the restaurant, though it looked close on the map. I'd paid a small fortune for a travel package for my phone that was supposed to let me roam at will. Didn't work. I had to ask many people for directions. Finally found Ellsworth, which was right across from a statue of Moliere. His house was near by. Pleasant bit of synchronicity, we can thank Moliere for the founding of the Firesign Theatre. It was a Moliere play Phil Proctor was performing in New York that traveled to LA, bringing Proc along in 1966. Once in LA, he discovered his Yale playwright friend Peter Bergman was the town's great radio star. Getting together on Pete's radio show, the Firesign Theatre was born. Now did all this mean I'd get good food? My server was delightful and unintentionally hilarious. On the list of mocktails, there was one called Clovis. I asked if it was a mocktail made from cloves and she assured me it was. I ordered a dish of peas (again), asparagus, fava beans, spinach and Parmesan cheese as an appy, 

and smoked trout (From Banta!  Actually Ellsworth misspelled Banka, the home of some of the best trout in the world) with scrambled eggs as a main. My server than came back and apologized, saying Clovis was a person, not actual cloves. I went with a grenadine soda, which was a bit sweet but went fine with the food.. Ellsworth buzzed with young female energy. Maybe the “Elle” in Ellsworth is related to that. The collection of green vegies is very refreshing and balanced, no single veg dominates. I can make this. The grenadine soda pleases the eye as well as the palate. Combined with the vegies, it nudges the overall flavour into a kind of savoury pastry, something yesterday's sorry quiche should at least have aspired to. The scrambled eggs, smoked trout (From Banta!), creme fraiche and herbs appears. The herb turns out to be dill. Dill is a kind of Ukrainian lemon; it improves whatever it touches. I think this would have worked better with a harder egg product; an omelet perhaps or a frittata. Its sogginess works against the other ingredients, excellent as they are by themselves. Thanks, Banta. Mushiness is not their friend, particularly after the delightful crispiness of the previous dish. After the meal, I tell my server to ask her bar tender to come up with a real clove mocktail and depart, forgetting my copy of the New Yorker I was reading while awaiting my food. I would miss it in adventures to come.
The main thing I wanted to see in Paris was Frank Gehry's Fondation Louis Vuitton Building. It was out of town, in the Bois de Boulogne, in a large park called the Jardin d'Acclimation. When, after a long metro ride and another long walk, the Fondation comes into view, I tear up, as I always do in the presence of great beauty. Just looking at it from the outside is enough. It looks like a giant UFO has landed in Paris, bringing harmony to the planet. 

Though nowhere near as overpowering as the outside, inside the building is somewhat interesting as well. On exhibition is Art/Afrique, Le nouvel atelier, a collection or works by various African artists. Some of the paintings are quite subversive, reminding me of some of the profoundly political and sarcastic First Nations works I've seen in Vancouver; cartoony in a good way. There are some futuristic toy cities that my 5-year-old grandson would enjoy.

 And speaking of young children, all around the Jardin are multitudes of them, with their attendant adults. It is after all, Sunday. Young children chirping their not-quite French phonemes reminds me of young birds still learning the songs of their species. It is very affecting. Maybe I notice the kids so intensely because I first came to Paris with my then 22-month-old daughter 37 years ago.
I have wanted to eat a crepe and drink a cidre at Breizh (the Breton word for what we call Brittany) Cafe since I heard of the place a few months ago, when I began researching what to eat in Paris. Time calls it one of the 10 things every visitor to Paris must do. And the crepes come with assorted Japanese-inflected ingredients. Yuzu perhaps? Shiso certainly. The reviews cite sea weed, which I can do without. Still, my attempts at phoning the place from Vancouver and Charles De Gaul being unsuccessful, I decide to go the place in mid-afternoon and try and get in. There is of course, a line-up. Half an hour I stand in the hot sun. That New Yorker would have come in handy. Then I am in. Will the crepes be worth the hype? I order the ham and cheese crepe. There is a long list of cidres from Brittany. Unfortunately, the list is in French. There are 2 Japanese waitresses, one young and perky, the other older and sullen. The sullen one approaches and brusquely asks which cidre I want, as if I could read the menu. You want sweet or dry, she sneers. I choose dry. The perky one then shows up with a bottle of Cidre Bouche, Jean-Pierre Semery Artisan Cidrier. Les Courtils de Montchevron Brut 5%. It pairs wondrously with the immense buckwheat crepe, or galette as the they call them in Brittany. It's 3:30 and Pas de Loup, the bar I want to go to later, doesn't open til 6. I eat my crepe and savour my cidre very slowly.

Having luxuriated in some of the best cocktails in both Vancouver and Vegas (among other cities), I wanted to do the same thing in Paris. Pas de Loup's bartender, a woman from Minnesota named Amanda Boucher, was described as the city's most creative mixologist. My cousin won the award as the World's Most Imaginative Bartender a few years ago so they may have something in common. My palate craves imagination. I get to PDL and ask for Amanda. Alas, she is no longer at the bar. When it is discovered that I'm from Vancouver, my friendly chef Lori from Austin tells me that Amanda's partner was from Vancouver, but both women have moved on. Still, the Amanda-less bar makes fine cocktails. I have one called New Moon aka Free Melania (yes, that Melania) made with Mezan Jamaica XO, velvet falernum, Dame de Piques and Vielli en Fut. The mixologist shows me what those ingredients are. It is a tasty concoction indeed. Later, I have the appropriate The Boy Who Cried Wolf : Sirop de pomme, houblonne, jus de citron and jaune tonic. Also excellent. I also have a mocktail resembling lemonade and when I ask the mixologist to make up something original and I tell her I love fruity Tiki drinks, she comes up with something whose ingredients she won't reveal but one of them is mint, in copious quantities. The Tiki Gods would approve.

 I'm too full from my massive galette to try any of PDL's food. The critics rave about it's pyrogies made from cauliflower. Now that I'd like to eat. My Ukrainian grandma would probably approve, and she's been dead for 35 years. Lori tells me it isn't cauliflower season and she's making them now with green onions, not one of my 10,000 or so favourite foods. I am not tempted. PDL, whatever the quality of its food, is a profoundly friendly space. It fills up quickly as I sit there. Finally it's time for me to leave. Lori tells me Overkampf metro station is near by. It appears so on my phone's map. But I can't find it. I see the Bataclan. I see other stations. I ask and ask and ask, but get no nearer. My expensive travel package is useless. Finally, 3 young ladies tell me it doesn't matter which subway I take, they're all connected and I'll get back to my destination St. Michel on Line 4 from anywhere. Great advice. I return to my picturesque garret. Tomorrow, the achievement of my long quest.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Monday, June 5th: Mont St. Michel, Mere Poullard and Ham-flavoured cidre

At last, on the way to Mont St. Michel. Metro to Montparnasse, with all its literary echoes. Get there too early as usual and my destination Rennes not on the board yet. I have a quiche Lorraine from one of the station's fooderies. It is filling. I wonder if I have to get my ticket validated? I had ordered it from their website and it remarked on the need for validation on the ticket. Fumiyo and friend failed to validate their tickets last week in Nice and the authorities weren't nice at all. I decide to ask at the Information booth. I try it in French. The man listen's to my French in horror and asks if any of his colleagues speak this alien tongue. A woman volunteers her English. I ask her where to validate my ticket. She tells me it's not necessary. Later, when a conductor scans my ticket while en route, she proves to be right.
On the way to Rennes, a woman of substance sat down across the aisle from me. I'm scared enough to be having the wrong ticket, as happened to me on both my previous trips to France, long ago. I begin to hear the sounds of farts. Lots of farts. I thought, I've wanted to see Mont St. Michel for 46 years. I'm on a train there now. But before I get there, I'll be suffocated by these farts.
I escape death.
It's only her phone. No one young could understand why I didn't immediately recognize the phone sound. This is new terrain to me, particularly in that different acoustic world that is France. Anything can happen here. The senses are easily befuddled.
I get off at Rennes. Much smaller than Paris, but I thought the bus station would be connected. It's elsewhere. I ask. Am directed to a closed building. Then learn that the buses for St. Michel do indeed appear there. One more attuned to the digital world would have solved those problems for me but I am from another now. Slower than this. I interact with 6 people to get to my bus, different in number from my ticket. This is better for me and them than interacting only by phone. I have a memory of those interactions. But I think the ability to remember will atrophy when we let our phones do it for us. I am going to the Mont because I saw it in the background of a TV commercial in Aug, 1971. Was it real? I wanted to find out. Our bus appears. It is as claustrophobic at the Air France flight, but at least it has Wi-Fi. I entertain myself on line and then read Montaigne until we see signs announcing the imminence of the Mont. And...There it is. As thrilling as a Mont can be! Looming over the road! It exists. It's exhilarating. We are let off the bus near a Centre. We get maps. We walk a short distance. A street opens up before us. 

We are encouraged to spend money. That's not what I'm here for. I begin the long climb. There are, thankfully, many stops along the way. Places to catch one's breath. But there are then more steps. As I'm walking, I pass half a dozen soldiers, clutching their machine guns. The steps aren't that wide. I fear brushing against them and their primed weapons. Rain had been promised for the day but it wasn't raining. The path wasn't full of slick, wet stones. I passed by the machine gunners without difficulty, but with ever alert trepidation. I am asked to give 10 Euros to enter the Abbey. Is it worth 10 E? Isn't there supposed to be someplace inside where I feel something, perhaps a communion with its millions of previous pilgrims and the creator monks? The Euros evoke no such communions. Instead of the garden at the top I was looking forward to, only cement mixers. The Mont is being updated, paved into the uncaring of the digital age. I begin my descent. Fumiyo had asked me to buy some cookies, which I do. All this climbing has made me hungry, and I discover Mere Poullard hawks not just her vast omelets but crepes as well!. Will it be as good as yesterday's? I order the smoked salmon galette and the Mere Poullard traditional cidre. They are a magnificent combination. 

In preparation for the trip, I bought a copy of Curiosities of Paris by Dominique Lesbros and had been using it to magnify my interpretive visual abilities in the city during my first week end in Paris. The night before I went North, I was reading about the image of a dove carved outside Notre Dame.
  "The street's name colombe (dove) is a reminder of a 13th century legend: a male dove is said to have come to the aid of his mate who was buried under the ruins of a house. He saved her life by bringing her seeds and water on a wisp of straw. The story is that this ingenious conjugal rescue touched the hearts of the local population. Above the door at no.4 and at the corner of rue des Ursins, two bas-reliefs reflect the tale."
 While enjoying my salmon crepe, I was thinking of that story as a small bird landed on the Mere Poullard sign outside the window and began chirping.At first I thought it was someone's phone. Then I saw the bird.
A tram up to my hotel. It seems to be in a neighborhood of only hotels, no other signs of village life. Obviously here for us tourists alone. The hotel is splendid. The exact opposite of my dungeon next to Notre Dame. A TV! The workable shower is quickly savoured. The BBC just brings me news of terrorism. A woman from British Columbia is a victim. Her family urges us all to be be inspired by her generous spirit. I go downstairs for a cocktail the bar advertises but it's far too sweet, and then dinner: John Dory, a great fish when done right, and a bottle of local cidre. What could go wrong? Thankfully I'd made a reservation as soon as I'd checked in, as the restaurant “fills up fast,” I'm told and that is correct. I get there as soon as it opens and it is soon jammed. My cidre arrives. I have a glass. It tastes like ham.

I loved the ham in yesterday's galette at Breizh. I loved the ham in my Quiche Lorraine at Montparnasse Station. I do not want an apple drink to taste like ham. “How is the cidre?” asks the waiter. “It tastes like ham,” I inform him. He laughs. John Dory swims into view. It swims in the same ocean as good taste, but at some considerable distance. It is good food for people who have never tasted good food. A small increment to tastelessness. 

After dinner, I decided to walk towards the Mont to look at it again. The purpose of this voyage is to Look at Mont St. Michel. I begin the walk, but a fierce wind blows me backward. I feel like a hobbit on the wrong mountain. To escape turning into frozen food for ravenous snails, I retreat back to my hotel. Its bar, devoid of interesting cocktails as I've discovered, does offer a tasty cidre called Loic Raison. It does not taste like ham. Pigs everywhere celebrate.

Tuesday, June 6: From MSM to a terrorized Notre Dame

Even though it was only a few days ago, I don't recall much of the trip back to Paris. I didn't get lost. Wasn't threatened by lethal farts. While waiting for the bus, the wind whipping through the trees across the street reminded me of the trees in my hometown, Yorkton, when its trees were similarly annoyed by the wind. When I get on my train and seek my seat, I have to pass by the person in the aisle seat. Pardon, Madame, I first offer. Then I change it to Pardon, Monsieur. I'm not sure. The seated person doesn't seem to mind. What can be expected of a non-Francophone? I'm back at Montparnasse by 2. I'm starving, so grab a quick Croque Monsieur on my way back to my hotel. I was planning to see the Arab museum   this afternoon. It's only a few blocks from my hotel, yet the concierge has never heard of it. My interest in the building again is the outside. I seek the great brain-clanging experience I got from the Moorish buildings in Spain. The outside of the building lends itself to that aesthetic, but it is raining. I go inside. It's a bunch of euros. I'm asked which exhibit I wish to see. Can't I see them all? No. Switching to English, the ticket seller suggests I see Islam in Africa. Should fit in well with the African art I saw on Sunday at the LV Fondation, as well as the recent PBS series I saw called Africa's Great Civilization. The exhibit is excellent. More cartoony modern stuff 

along with beautiful objects of great age. Outside of the exhibit, I try and get into the museum itself but am told my ticket does not permit me to do so. That turns out for the best. Dramatic as the Islamic patterns are on the outside, within the building they are stunning. One of the great aesthetic experiences of my life. 

Outside the museum, I find blackberries at a nearby store. I will dine fine tomorrow morning. I begin to walk the few blocks back to the Esmeralda hotel. Police vehicles appear. Then, a lot more. Cops are suddenly everywhere, machine guns cocked. Along with everyone else on the sidewalk, I am ordered against the wall, out of sight lines. A woman with a young daughter asks the closest cop, in English, what is happening. The cop answers, in English, to my astonishment, that 2 shots have been fired at Notre Dame, which is very close to my hotel. Every cop seems very nervous. The English speaking cop tells the woman and her daughter that she has goose bumps. This is the day after the killings in London. Everyone is very scared.
By back streets, I make my way back to my hotel. A fellow guest is speaking about how loud the 2 gunshots were. No one knows what's happening. Thankfully, through the phone, Fumiyo is able to give me some information. The shots were fired By the cops at an attacker, not By the attacker. We needn't hide in our hotels, though the streets outside are cordoned off. I had reservations as a fish restaurant I had to cancel. Instead, I prowled the nearby places for something that looked good. I saw Poire Wiliams at a nearby restaurant chalk board. A drink I'd loved in first Euro trip in 1980. The food sounds good too. Gratin, fish stew. What could go wrong?
Gratin is a common meal in Japan. Macaroni, shrimp, scallops, fish, mushrooms, onions, peppers and cheese. Baked. Fumiyo and friends make fine versions. You can get it as frozen food in any Japanese market. Common food. Should be better in France, right? Uh.. Well. It's edible. No Mac and veg. Limited cheese. Some of my least favourite shell fish but, it was Edible. And then the stew arrives. Potatoes. Salmon. Big Prawns. Mystery Fish. OK, I'll start the with salmon. How bad can salmon be? I was unprepared for the answer. And I thought I knew bad food. My palate was under assault. I gobbled a bit of potato for relief. Ah. Now the prawns. It's impossible to have bad prawns. I had thought. This restaurant is reaching for the record books. Worst Food Ever. Has the terrorist poisoned my food? The mystery fish retains its mystery. I recall having A Lot of bad food in France on our two previous trips. Until I discovered fine French dining in Vegas, I didn't know there was such a thing. My anti-meal, after scary terror and a 2-day trip to Mont St. Michel that should have been a day trip, though the shower and high thread count sheets were vastly appreciated, is making me wonder what I'm doing here?

Wednesday, June 7: From Musee D'Orsay to The Eiffel Tower

Wednesday, June 8

The answer to that question is that I was here to see beauty. To taste delicacies that would thrill me as much as the most long desired Mont, the most startling new painting. Mostly it was the paintings. 2 Day Museum Pass for 48 Euros, let 's get my money's worth. First up, an old church with famous stained glass. A kind woman informs me I'm in the wrong line and I get in. Sainte Chapelle is OK. Not the kind of stained glass Tsunami that is Notre Dame, but not bad. It's still cold and early outside when I leave the church and begin walking to the Musee D'Orsay. Unlike other museums that I can view their insides or their special exhibitions but not both, D'Orsay is a offering a Free exhibition that is absolutely exhilarating, Beyond the Stars: The Mystic Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky It was my favourite museum even without it but the exhibition makes even a great museum even greater. I wonder what the Canadian paintings are doing there. Later I discovered that the exhibition is co-sponsored by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Later, still on the lower levels before ascending the Impressionist floor, I'm in a room with some paintings that are said to be from the 19th century war with Algeria. A guide is talking about the paintings and France's long history of conflict with North Africa in general and Algeria in particular Bombs were going off in Paris is the 60s, just like last night's attack I was momentarily inconvenienced by.
In my 2 previous trips to France, I had a memorable meal only once: a fish dish at the restaurant inside the Musee D'orsay. Needless to say, I was looking forward to today's lunch. I began with
Composition colorée de légumes crus et cuit emulsion passion sesame 15
Raw and cooked seasonal vegetables, passion fruit and sesame vinaigrette.
Pretty,” said my server as she delivered the lovely and tasty vegetables along with a carafe of rosee. 

My fish main was
Cabillaud à la Grenobloise, siphon de béarnaise, pomme de terre émulsionnée aux herbes 22
Cod fish cooked à la Grenobloise served with mashed potatoes and mixed with herbs. 

Another fine meal to go with great art. After D'Orsay, I decided to visit even more Monets at the L'Orangerie. The museum is most famous for what I assume is Monet's biggest canvas, the water lilys in a vast room of their own. A special exhibition of Impressionists from Tokyo's Bridgestone Museum is also on view. That's a lot of great art I've ingested in a relatively short period of time. For a break, how about some really bad art? That wasn't my intention on walking over to the Pompidou Centre. It's supposed to be the biggest museum of modern art in Europe and I like much modern art. Unfortunately, none of the art collected in this vast museum. Even painters I like such as Kandinsky, Dali and Chagall manage to find work bad enough to exhibit here. It really is amazing. I search room after room and there's NOTHING AT ALL worth looking at. I envy the blind.
Dinner today would be my first adventure in Fine Dining here, and my first visit to the Eiffel Tower. They are connected. My parents only became interested in Fine Dining when good restaurants began moving into their neighbourhood in LA in the early years of the new millennium. When they moved to Vancouver in May, 2006, they insisted that the seniors' home they were moving into had excellent food. This was not something they had ever cared about before. In August, 2006, I was attending a sustainable energy conference on Salt Spring Island, near Vancouver. As I was eating halibut at a hotel restaurant and gazing outside into its English garden I was suddenly struck by the need to go on a quest to find out how good food can get. A quest I've been pursuing for the past 11 years and which has brought me now to France. Not long before my father's death in 2008, we took both my parents to a small French restaurant near their seniors' home. There was a photo of the Eiffel Tower on the wall of the restaurant. My father had been spending most of his recent consciousness convinced he was in his early childhood, having to take care of farm animals. When he saw the photo, he was suddenly outside of childhood. He recalled going to the Eiffel Tower with my mother 20 years before. Dementia took a break. Now I was going to the Eiffel Tower to eat well. The first transcendent meal I ever ate was as Alain Ducasse's restaurant Mix in Vegas in Feb, 2011. The Eiffel Tower restaurant Le Jules Verne was now a Ducasse property. Would the food be as good as in Vegas? The elevator rose, like one of Verne's balloons.
The website seemed to indicate a jacket would be required so I brought one in my suitcase from Vancouver. I don't mind, as long as they don't ask me to wear a tie. The concierge suggested I look like a classical actor. I feel the artifice of my situation, but it's an adventure. I'm asked if I would prefer the shrimps or the pigeon. I go with the shrimps. Would I care for a welcoming glass of champagne? I recall from Mix that Ducasse makes or inspires very good cocktails, so I choose one that seems appropriate, Le Belle Eiffel. It has passion fruit in it, usually a winner in cocktails. It's 9:00 but still bright out. Paris spread out before me. I sip the superb drink. My bouche is amused by
the marinated sea bream with sorrel. Chewy, both strong and subtle. Really tastes of the sea, a friendly sea. The passion fruit-champagne cocktail makes it even more refreshing. Next up, preserved duck foie gras, cherry, fresh almond and flowers paired with a 2015 CONDRIEU Rouelle-Midi - Domaine Vallet. A lot of edible, fragrant flowers, rose most distinct. Far and away the best foie dish I've ever had, as well as the best use of flowers in cooking. I went to the restaurant Sooke Harbour House to eat its flower-covered cuisine a few years ago and found it quite disappointing. Didn't get anything from the flowers. This was different. The flowers make the foie. There's even a piece of French Toast with the dish. How French can it get? Next, warm white asparagus with maltaise sauce, and crumbled hazel nuts. This was extraordinary. The goat cheese/hazelnut mixture lends a genius to the already clever asparagus.

 I have reached the level of cheffery Ducasse first exposed me to in Vegas 6 years before. Much as I've always loved asparagus, I had no idea it could taste This good. The wine doesn't hurt at all, A glass of 2015 Puligny-Mont Rachet 1st cru Les Referts Marc Morey & Fils rounds out the vast excellence of this dish. For the protein, I'd chosen the shrimp over the pigeon, specifically the seared large langoustine with a shellfish reduction and vegetables, combined with a red wine this time, 2011 / PAUILLAC Château Haut-Batailley. I first had langoustines in Florence in 2002 on my last trip to Europe. I've eaten them a few times since in Vegas, Chicago and New York. This is the best langoustine dish ever.

I'm swimming in great food here. Finally the desert onslaught begins with a desert wine, 2009 / SAUTERNES Château Haut-Bergeron and a raspberry shortbread dish with olive oil ice cream. They also try and serve me a crispy Tower Nut with chocolate from their Manufacturer in Paris. I avoid it, drinking only the 2002 / RIVESALTES Gérard Bertrand. I have been in Le Jules Verne for 2 ½ hours and I've had more than enough. I take some photos of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night and declining the taxi the restaurant offers to call for me, I go back to the train station for the short ride back to St. Michel station. Turns out it's the last train. We are urged to hurry on board. I had no idea trains stopped running in Paris at 11:30. Seems a bit early to me, considering young children are still out and about at this time. I return to my dungeon after a miraculous meal. Great as the meal was, my hotel room nearly cancels it out.

Thursday, June 8th: 4 museums, 1 restaurant

Thankfully, the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages is a short walk from my hotel. The hotel has Some advantages. It's like walking back a thousand years in time. When I take a photo, my flash erupts and a woman calls out, No Flash! I didn't even know my phone camera Had a flash. As detailed in a Rick Steves show about Paris and this museum in particular, the tapestries of The Lady and Unicorn are quite moving. The love in the unicorn's eye for the lady, for example. The whole scene seems to be out of the life of St. Francis: the lion shows no inclination to eat the various little animals surrounding it, and they know that.
From there I make my way to the City of Science and Industry. I have read online that it has a restaurant. I'm getting hungry, but it's not open yet, just like yesterday's delayed lunch at the Musee D'Orsay. The museum is full of small children. Once again I'm enchanted by their tiny voices. Most, if not all the exhibits are geared towards school kids, though some have English signage. There are some interesting video exhibits I film with my phone but have no idea how to move here. Finally, the restaurant opens. I have to ask about the menu items, and finally order what appears to be an enormous Yaki Tori, chicken on a stick with basmati rice and BBQ sauce. The sauce is Very Good. Like with yesterday's fish at the Orsay restaurant, I order a carafe of Rose. The reason I had come here in the first place was to gaze at the Geode, a theatre in the shape of a soap bubble. 

I've now seen all the architecture I've come to France to gaze upon. Mont St. Michel, L'Institute du Monde Arabe, Fondation Louis Vuitton and the Geode. As the Geode is a theatre, I do not enter. Looks good enough from the outside.
I had planned to go to the Paris Modern Art Museum but was so appalled at the collection of modern art at the Pompidou yesterday, I don't trust Parisians to come up with a room full of good stuff, so I go Asian: The Guimet Museum is said to have the greatest collection of Asian artifacts outside of Asia. I find the museum and stroll its cool floors on a hot day. Unfortunately, most of the collection is sculpture, my least favourite art form. There is an interesting modern black sculpture of a woman with a dog's head.

 The signage tells me of a sculptor who went to India and was appalled to see women treated worse than dogs there, hence that particular sculpture. Reminded me of a piece at Louis Vuitton:

 Also lots of plates and vases. Nothing of much interest, except the air conditioning.
When I got off at the Eiffel Tower train station the previous night, I'd seen ads for the Branly Museum, a collection of indigenous people's artifacts from around the world. The building is enticing enough from the outside. Once inside, the walkway into the museum has an undulating river of words on the floor that pours over you as you walk up. There must be a video of it somewhere, it's very affecting. The same can be said for the whole museum. Finally, a well-designed, well-thought-out collection of Stuff. The windows have all been painted green, to create the illusion that you're always in a jungle or forest. Non-stop interesting stuff from Africa, Australia, the Pacific Islands, South and North America including a totem pole and some toy canoes from my neighbours. For the first time today, I'm more entranced by the exhibits than the classrooms full of kids being educated. 
A great museum event deserves a great meal. I'd been encountering the name David Toutain since I began to investigate dining possibilities in Paris. He'd previously worked for the chef at Arpege, where I would lunch on Friday, my singular 3 Michelin Star restaurant of the trip. He must really know what to do with vegetables. The restaurant with his name on it was certainly friendly. I discovered they had cidre! I told them of my recent trip to Normandy and the cidre tradition back home in B.C. I was assured that their cidre was well chosen after considerable effort to find the best cidre in Normandy. I assumed it would be superb, as good as any wine restaurants usually brag about. I was unsure how to pronounce the chef's name. Turns out it's just like my nickname. When my daughter was a baby in Japan, she couldn't pronounce the Japanese word for father, “O to san,” so she called me Tootan. It remains the family name for me all these decades later. A name in common with the chef? That sounds promising. The amuse bouches are intriguing. A blackberry wrapped up in thin slices of beet. Described as beetroot carpaccio, blackberry on a hazelnut crumble A raspberry surprise inside a cannelloni? Described as crispy tube of oyster, raspberry and shallot. For once, I didn't mind the oyster. Something else I wasn't paying much attention to. And then a Parmentier of beef and porc with tomatoes, onions and garlic, potatoes cream and roasted, hazelnuts from Piemont, caramelized onion powder, grilled chicken skin and trout egg. 

This is the kind of food I go to these kind of restaurants for. The hazelnut asparagus at Jules Verne is that kind of dish, but at least I knew what it was. This was intriguing as well as overwhelming. I guess the chef deserves all the praise he gets in the food press, I observed. A bit too quickly. Although the amuses have gone well, the cidre really wasn't making it for me. Not bad cidre, like the ham-flavoured beverage at the Mont St. Michel restaurant, not awful, just in no way contributing to my enjoyment of the food, like the great cidres did at Breizh and Mere Poulard's. I'm asked if I want caviar? Is it part of dish, I inquire? I'm then served with a dish that, while very pretty in my phone, I have no memory of at all. Probably vcg. Maybe flower petals? Turns out to be glazed white asparagus, young onions and garlic, almonds, fresh sherry and Dorenki caviar from Petrossian house. Like when a server asks me if I want cheese later (Yes, please!) I hadn't picked up on their up-selling until I got my bill at meal's end. Doubt the caviar added any enjoyment to the dish or I'd at least remember it. A dish of fish and peas looked promising. Whiting confit on extra virgin olive oil, peas with new onions, ginger, rhubarb and lovage. I'd had such a great pea/fish combination at Bauhaus in Vancouver just before this trip as well as the pea risotto with the tuna at Les Bouquenistes my first meal in Paris. However. This dish did not make it at all. By far the worst use of both peas and asparagus I've encountered on the trip. And the fish in sauce wasn't very good either. Pedestrian at best. I explained my lack of enthusiasm for the dish to one of the servers, who actually seemed concerned. I told her of much better uses of those vegetables I'd so recently enjoyed. She insisted that this was a great dish. It has Ginger! It has Rhubarb! But what it lacks is good flavour, for all its ingredients. Another asparagus dish, this time BBQ green asparagus, brown butter mayonnaise, smoked yolk of egg, bread tuile and fresh sorrel. And then things really begin to plummet down hill. Next up, a dish of eel in a thick sesame sauce, more of a paste than a sauce. Smoked eel, black sesame, green apple. I don't know if I've ever had eel before but this is light years away from edibility. My single bite is nearly fatal. The same server who insisted I was wrong about the fish with peas is more sympathetic to my un-eaten eels: the sesame sauce is quite strong, she rationalizes. Next, a woman comes in with two fat, roasted birds, and displays them to me. I tell her there's no way I can eat that much food. She says she'll tell the chef. What she told him, I'll never know but thankfully, the two fat roasted pigeons are not all for me. I am offered a box full of knives, to choose from. Am I to fight a duel? The pigeons are sliced up by the chef for all the customers to enjoy. Well, almost all of them. With my chosen knife, I saw off a bit of pigeon. I begin chewing. And chew. And chew. It tastes like rubber! It belongs in a Michelin tire, not a Michelin starred restaurant! Pigeon, risotto of seeds, carrots, hogweed.
As a palate cleanser, I'm served some Comte cheese. After the eggplant thing, this was the highlight of the meal. And it's a cheese I can get easily in Vancouver.
Finally time for desert. Ice cream made from coconut, white chocolate and cauliflower. I expect inventiveness from a famous chef but this experiment leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. An apricot tart, actually its a shortbread biscuit, apricots, almond cream and thyme sorbet. I'll be having apricots for breakfast tomorrow so I appreciate this as a sort of amuse bouche for that meal. Some strawberries, edible without ever suggesting the magnificence of the strawberries with cheese and olive oil I'd had at Jules Verne the previous night. They keep bringing me more deserts but I've had more than enough. I flee into the night. Although the tomato-meat dish was memorable, the mediocre vegie/fish thing, the poisonous eels and the rubber bird put the whole meal in the same category as my hotel. Would be appropriate only in a horror movie.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Friday June 9th: Arpege, The Marmottan Monet Museum, Spring

I wanted to go to Arpege as soon as I read its website. Not just concern for the soil (the French invented the word “terroir”) and the quality of the vegetables but the desire to share them with whatever animal chose to eat them really made this seem like a dream restaurant to me. However, getting into such a famous restaurant is rarely easy. Two other 3-star places I was interested in were not interested in me because I was a solo diner. The smallest number of diners they would take reservations for is two. That strikes me as very strange, but chefs of this caliber can be eccentric. Thus it was to my considerable surprise that Arpege approved my request for a reservation after first requesting my credit card number, and then insisting that I reconfirm 48 hours before dining. As I had a reservation for 12:00 Friday, I reconfirmed on Wednesday. I was asked for my credit card number again, and then I was supposed to be in. I arrive at Arpege, carrying a jacket in my bag in case it's needed. At the front desk, the woman informs me I'm not on the list of diners! How is this possible? I hadn't Re-RE-confirmed on Thursday! Now that's getting ridiculous. They finally find a table for me and I'm in. What wonders will now ensue?
I'm asked if I want wine with my meal. I tell my server only if one of the courses will be fish. The menu is called a Surprise menu because whether anything but vegs will be on the menu is a Surprise. I stick with tap water.
My first amuse is not only ridiculously beautiful but just as good as the meat and tomato amuse at last night's “restaurant.” 

That was the only tasty dish of the entire menu (not counting the cheese, which wasn't actually ON the menu but a supplement, as I discovered too late). I assume there will be lots of good stuff at Arpege. The Arpege amuse consists of 3 warm tarts. They contain, I think I hear, nettles, strawberries, turnips, rhubarb, white spinach and onion. And they're tiny! Imagine getting all those ingredients into tarts the size of quarters. However they did it, it's as good as the Parmentier from last night, the prawn ravioli from my first meal and the asparagus and cheese with hazelnut sauce at Jules Verne. That's the top of the line. As good as food gets. What can possibly top that? Next amuse course is bouillon with veg. raviolis. Not sure which vegs, but one was red so probably tomato. A kind of strawberry salad is up next. Strawberry halves in olive oil with mozzarella, cucumber and threads of red onion. Something I can make. Then something I definitely can't make, hay chantilly in asparagus veloute with peas, and of course, nettles. Don't think I've ever had anything made with hay before. Will I turn into a horse? An egg us up next, the chef's specialty since he first began collecting Michelin stars: raw egg, allspice cream, sherry vinegar in maple syrup stuffed into half an eggshell. Could still taste the raw egg, but the allspice helped. Next up, spaghetti with parsley and thyme, fresh eel, potato and poppy leaves. Aha! The spaghetti is made from potatoes. Very smoky. Didn't mind the eel at all. A woman at a nearby table tells her man to slow down. Good advice for me too, as the “pasta” is quite filling. Great to know I CAN eat eels, as long as David Toutaine goes nowhere near them. Next up: Fish! I order a glass of white wine to go with the turbot with peas and asparagus in a white wine sauce/foam along with some sorrel paste. The paste really helps the dish, as does the wine. The fish melts in my mouth, but the vegs are not up to my encounters with them at previous restaurants this week. And I'm getting very full. This is, after all, Lunch, usually a small meal for me. I had planned to go on a 4.5k hike before this meal, There is a kind of abandoned railway line turned into hiking park through Paris called La Coulee Verte (also referred to as Promenade Plantee) I thought I'd walk before lunch to give me a sufficient appetite. However, I've done so much walking already this trip, my legs were constantly sore and the idea of Yet More Walking was no longer something I could contemplate doing. Nevertheless, my appetite has expanded considerably since coming to France. And the fish dish is my last savoury dish of the meal. For desert, hay ice cream (is there a horse in the kitchen?), honey, sea salt, sauce of caramel. Hazelnut fragments. Nowhere near as good as the hazelnut/asparagus dish I'd had at JV but ok. I'm offered some cookies and candies which I decline. For all its stars and reputation as the restaurant with the best use of vegetables on the planet, the whole meal itself was OK. One great dish (the 1st amuse), tasty fish and such, but in general I was paying for the prestige and the creativity of the chef, not for the kind of overall delight that was Wednesday's meal at JV.
Next up, More Great Art. Specifically, more Monet. His name is even part of the Museum's. A long trek (my legs are complaining) takes me to the Marmottan Monet Museum in a distant suburb. It's supposed to have the biggest collection of works by my favourite painter. I've taken two pictures with my phone, one of a Monet and the other of a Chagall before I'm informed that no photography is allowed.

 I wander through an exhibition of Pissarro's works. They're OK. Better is a room full of Berthe Morisot. Following the signs, I descend into the Monet realm. It is spectacular. I had wanted to see this museum befor my trip to Monet-land tomorrow. Glad I did so.
Two great meals in one day? Is that possible? What is this, Vegas? I have managed to get a reservation at Spring, one of the most popular restaurants in Paris. Perhaps because it lacks recognition by the tire company, Spring not only doesn't ask me to reconfirm, it calls me at my “hotel” on Thursday to see if I'm still on for Friday night's dinner. I get there as soon as it opens, and am alone for quite a while. It never really fills up, which strikes me as odd.
Like almost all the restaurants on this trip, the staff is very friendly. Asked if I want a wine pairing, I inquire if they have cidre. They have pear, not apple, so I go with the wine pairing instead. This is not an expensive restaurant. As part of the pairing, I'm offered a glass of champagne. My first amuse is deep fried, breaded shrimp with a relatively tasteless dipping sauce (Boo!) and a piece of pimento (Yay!). OK, now I've learned something important, something I can do at home: pimento goes really well with squid. My server then brings me a glass of wine from the French alps, instructing me about how the cool weather there Forces this wine to be perfect with my first course, Trout from Banka, radish, dill. It turns out to be the best trout dish I've ever eaten. 

I am stunned by how good it is. I'm fond of trout, but I had no idea it could taste this good. Thanks, Alps. Next I'm offered a wine from Corsica. All I know about Corsica is that Napoleon is from there, I tell my server. This wine is from his home town, she tells me. The next dish is Turbot, fennel, saffron saboyon. I had turbot for lunch at Arpege which was quite good. This is 10 times better. This is why we have the capacity for pleasure. I'm stunned. Next up, a red wine and pigeon 2 ways, the first with eggplant and chickpeas, the 2nd with foie gras and chanterelles. After my disastrous pigeon “meal” at Toutain's, I was afraid that pigeon itself was not to my taste, but that did not turn out to be the case. Spring's pigeon with eggplant and chickpeas was delicious. I'm surprised and delighted. The foie pairing in the other pigeon dish unfortunately didn't make it. The chanterelles were good though. The red wine helped a lot. For desert, first an apricot (my breakfast meal as well) and then a Cherry clafoutis, a kind of pie that I couldn't stop eating, even though I had to remove pits from my mouth after each bite. Far and away the best desert I've had in Paris, and I really don't care for deserts unless they're just pieces of fruit and maybe some cheese.
On the walk over to Spring, I passed a bistro that listed 4 kinds of cidre on its menu. I went in and ordered one. It was delicious. I asked which cidre it was from their menu but the server offered no information. I noticed the staff were putting the chairs on top of tables and preparing to close. Odd, I thought for a little after 8 on a Friday night. I had seen a bar advertising cocktails earlier so I went there and ordered first a large mocktail, then a small cocktail, both of which were quite good. I had planned to go to the Experimental Cocktail Club but this would do. The Pink Bishop, 18cl, M de Minuty, Limanade Raspberry crush, Liqueur Framboise, Bitter Cherry Fee bros and BPF Blooming Passion Flower, 12cl. Brandy, Nectar de Fruit de la Passion, Miel, Triple Sec, Sirop d'Hibiscus Homemade. Very good luck with flowers this trip.

Saturday, June 10th: Shiso burger, Giverny, more prawn ravioli and out

The Air France office not too far from my hotel let me check in for the following day's flight, only never informed me that the printout they gave me was indeed my boarding pass. There are always new things to learn.
A restaurant near my hotel was named Shiso Burger. It would be difficult to overstate my love of shiso. On a burger? Why not. I discovered that they opened at 11:30 and was waiting outside as the minutes ticked by and the place didn't seem to open. Finally, I inquired and was told they were open, just hadn't turned their sign around. The shiso burger is a tuna burger with a bunch of shiso leaves on a soft bun. It is exquisite. The best burger I've ever had, I tell the server.

One thing I had most looked forward to on this trip was the voyage to Monet's house and garden. It would be like walking into one of his paintings, I might have thought. The tour assembled at Les Pyramides. I was able to find water for sale nearby, but far from frigid. Our tour guide entertained throughout the trip. I learned the population of greater Paris, the fact that Normandy is much bigger geographically but has more cows than people, and assorted information about Monet as we cruised in air conditioned comfort to his town. We get there and park. We are supposed to remember our bus number. The guide takes us over Monet's famous bridge, but can't go into his house with us. Says he'll meet us at the cafe outside. We wait in line for a while in the serious heat, then enter. Monet sure loved Japanese prints. I have a certain affection for them myself, but this is ridiculous. I thought I'd encountered a lot of Japanese people in Paris and MSM but there were even more on Monet's walls. Plus a few copies of his own and his friends' works. Lots of people crowding about. Nice gardens, if you're into such things. I saw several flowers that are growing in our gardens back home, Not once did I feel any great sense of connection to Monet. No greater appreciation of his already most appreciated paintings. Like MSM and even Arpege the previous day, these were items to cross off a bucket list instead of the kind of inspiration I thought they'd be. 

Back in Paris, I had made a reservation for Les Bouquenistes for my last meal. The prawn ravioli. Was a perfect beginning to a trip with some fine meals in it. Would the shrimp still shine as bright? Uh, no. Not even close.

Not nearly as good as the shiso burger I had for lunch. Not as good as many things I've had on this trip. But if I went back to shiso burger again, would it taste as good? The asparagus/hazelnut thing at JV?
Knowing that X doesn't taste as good as it first did doesn't make Y liable to the same diminution. Each event has its context. The first ravioli dish came when I was in a totally different state, having been awake for a vast number of hours and quite hungry. Today's was different. Tomorrow, I will return to Canada. Nothing in Paris could be as welcome as that.