Paris! Les premières journées!

Joshua Christian Dean stepping in for the sweetest wonder girl Celina.  See, she’s been doing most of the typing while I’ve been doing most of the napping.  Five nights in a row of either gigantic red meat meals or creamy buttery red meat meals means that I have not been sleeping, just trying to find a position in which my stomach stops nagging my brain about the abuse I’ve been handing out to it.

So now it’s my turn!  When we last left off we were eating ridiculously and on a train.  Here’s what happened next…

That bullet train brought us in to the center of Paris some danged place.  Not the main train station but some kinda creepy one.  We dragged our stuff to the curb, found a cab and took what was likely the most scenic (and therefore the slowest) route the cab driver could think of to our hotel.  A simple cab ride turned into an expensive but absolutely beautiful tour along the Seine, meaning we passed by everything from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower to the Hotel D’Invalides (a war museum where Napolean’s teensy tiny body is entombed.)  For Celina I can only imagine what this experience was so I’m gonna leave some space here for her to scat and bebop on the subject, but for me it was truly like seeing everything for the first time.  The size, the grandeur, the beauty of every single freaking building.  It’s not possible to take it in all at once.  I suppose that’s why people recommend just taking it slow and wandering where your feet take you.  It lets the city slip past your brain and into your body, because trying to process it mentally is just about impossible.

After a short detour that took us to the wrong hotel (not the cabbie’s fault so don’t worry) we took another cab across the Seine and back some of the way we’d come to Les Halles, an area of Paris which was formerly called “The Belly of Paris” because it was one giant centralized fresh market for the entirety of the city.  Imagine if New York decided to just have every restaurant, butcher, food provisioner, grocer etc just get all their product from one insane giant market in the times square.  That’s what it would have been like.  They’ve since moved the market quite a while back but the area remains and many of the cool restaurants the workers at Les Halles frequented are still there.  Like Le Pied Au Cochon, foot of the pig, which specializes in pigs trotters, or did.  We stopped by for a bite and found it to be extremely touristy at this stage.  I think one of the worst for us/best for them things that can happen to a restaurant is for it to be mentioned in a guide book.

This is proving to be an ongoing issue.  We want to eat real food in real Parisienne restaurants, not wind up unwittingly in a tourist trap or the Paris equivalent of TGIFriday’s or the Olive Garden (though I know soup salad and breadsticks has its value).  But how to do that?  We’ve pieced some hints together.  First, if they serve food all day and night, they are not for people from here who eat a huge lunch at like 1 and then dinner at 8 and all the restaurants close in between.  We also noticed that while most places have a Zagat sticker, only a select few had “best of 2006” or something like it from the local weekly paper stickers.  Like Vue’s best of Edmonton.  That means those places are where the locals go.  Side bar!  Boring!  Moving on!

After checking into our hotel by Les Halles we were hungry so we headed out into the streets and looked for some eats.  First thing to catch our eye was a roast chicken stand.  Super cheap, insanely salty and greasy (cooked rotisserie style with the fat dripping from the top chickens down onto the bottom ones) and delicious!  Deciding we’d want to sample as much as we could we declared this “The Night of Bites!” and moved on to our next stop.  Apparently a popular new year’s eve and winter time fave is the Oysters and Champagne.  What are we, not gonna do that?  So we found a suitable looking bistro and had a sit, a sip and a slurp.  Yum!  We needed a main course though and we happened upon Chez Denise, which I’d seen on Anthony Bourdain’s no reservations show.  It had looked awesome so we went in.  It was empty and we thought, uh-oh, warning sign, but when we decided to try anyway the waiter was like, what?  For dinner?  It’s 5:30.  We open at 7:30.  Aaaaahhhhh.  So, determined to eat there we went for drinks for a while to kill time and returned to find there was no space, we should have made a reso.  Boo.  Tomorrow then!  Instead we walked across the street to a brasserie that had caught our attention because it seemed to be called the Restaurant of Meat and there was a giant rotisserie with… 15 giant legs of lamb spinning on the top row, a ton of chickens spinning on the second, and an entire pig spinning on the bottom.

This being France we ordered Escargots (look, anything in garlic butter is going to be awesome, let’s just agree), some head cheese (my first try at it, looks like gross, tastes like yum, I still prefer a pate de campagne or something less aspic-y), a bottle of wine and the hugest portions of meat ever.  I don’t know how but I stumbled into the Fogo De Chao of France.  Martin – Cote de Boeuf.  Celina – Steak Tartare.  Josh – the rotisserie sampler.  So much meat!  What’d we have on the side?  Every dish was just the meat, then a plate of fries, a plate of mashed potatoes, and some roast potatoes, you know, for variety.  It was good not great, expensive but not ridiculous, and all kinds of fun.  We finished up with a drink in the empty hotel bar while making fun of the DJ because he too was having a drink at the hotel bar while his “turntables” did everything for him.  The only time it sounded off was when he was touching them.

The next morning Martin was staying in so we headed out to grab a coffee and do some sightseeing.  We did the Parisian style breakfast.  You go into the cafe, lean on the bar, order deux cafe or deux espress, un pain au chocolat, and eat and drink while leaning.  Its much cheaper this way and is the perfect quick jumpstart.  Then a bunch of amazing stuff happened but I want a nap now so maybe Celina will take over… honey?

It’s me! Celina Dean! We walked forever and ever and saw so much, I was shocked. I guess I didn’t expect everything to be as close together as it all seems to be, or perhaps we’re just well situated, but basically we rounded the corner from the cafe to see the Louvre. I knew it was gonna be big, buy I wasn’t prepared for it. If you had a week, it might be enough time to get through the whole thing? We toured the garden outside, which took more than an hour. Statuary from the 1500’s standing amidst bare branched trees… it’s enough to take your breath away.

I’m back and get this, I wrote like three hundred paragraphs and they were all deleted by the internet fairy (he’s this guy in jean shorts that deletes blog entries.)  So here’s the broken spirited rehash of what happened since now we’re a billion days behind.

We had our cafe’s and pain au chocolat leaning at the bar of a random cafe, then proceeded to wander wonder at the L’Ouvre, the Seine, the gardens and grounds of the L’Ouvre, the Obelisk, le Musee l’Orangerie, the Musee D’Orsay, the Palais, Le petit Palais, un Universite of some kind or other, le Champs D’Elysee (sucks, it’s just like West Ed Mall spread out which was so disappointing), L’hotel D’Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, and that only took a few hours.  Plus we were walking slow as heck!  They sure know how to bring the thunder here.  Since these sites have been described by millions already we’ll skip em and just say WHOA MOMMA!

Hungry and wanting to avoid the crush on the way back to Les Halles we took an adjacent street.  Turns out we stumbled on to the fanciest shopping street in all of Paris, St. Honore. This must be the REAL Champs D’Elysee.  Maybe everyone knows about it, we didn’t see it in our research as shopping generally requires the exchange of cash for goods and services and we have at best one of those three elements, services, and they probably aren’t worth much.  Couture dress shops with the impossibly chic designer outside smoking and receiving compliments from the lady who just bought his six thousand euro coat.  A clock store selling ONLY timepieces from the 15th century, cuz you need a store for that.  A book shop specializing in first editions, their ancient fabric or leather covers perfectly maintained.  It was remarkable and it went on for miles.  Literally miles.  It was also not the place for a couple ne’er-do-wells to grab a quick lunch.  The cafe’s and brasseries we peeked into all had the same things as in our neighborhood, they were just a lot more expensive.  So we ducked off St. Honore down a side street, then we took another side street, and another, and finally wandered past a shop window, covered in steam from inside, with little stickers all over the door.  There was an awning but I couldn’t find a name on it.  It was not the most welcoming of places but we’d been told to truly enjoy Paris you have to go through some uninviting doors and so we did…

Inside was a long skinny room, a bar running the length of one side, a communal picnic table down the left, and every seat was filled with happy smiling Parisienne’s chowing down on roast chickens, pots of stew, plates of pate and fois gras, and everywhere you looked there were simple casse croute sandwiches being shoved down gullets.  Two seats at the bar were vacated right in front of us and we tentatively sat in them not sure if they’d been spoken for, if their owners were just stepping out to smoke, or what.  No one yelled at us incomprehensibly so we took off our jackets and settled down to figuring out what the hell to order.  My french has come back fairly well but even at it’s absolute best it’s the french of a 14 year old Canadian.  I couldn’t make heads nor tails of any of the chalkboard menus hanging around the room, and there were lots.  I mean, I would recognize some words but they didn’t seem to belong in the order I was seeing them in, and those surrounding words were giving me the impression that what I thought I knew I did not know.  I should mention, a bar in Paris is not the traditional North American bar that you sit at to have pints.  You can do that, but it’s actually a multi-functional part of things here.  In the morning you can lean on it to have a quick coffee and croissant (cheaper than if you sit), they’ll display the various fresh cheeses and dried meats of the day (just out on a shelf, illegal in North America for food safety I guess?) on the bar, you can of course order drinks and such or eat a full meal.  Obscuring us from the Annie Lennox look alike waitress busily preparing sandwiches and pouring wine behind the bar were five giant cured sides of meat and salamis and a stack of about twenty million little baguettes.  I tried to find her between the various delicious treats and yelled what might not even have been words over the din.  She asked what we spoke (in French).  I answered “English” (inexplicably in French).  She looked around, turned to the guy sitting beside us, a grumpy middle aged man mowing through his second sandwich and fourth glass of wine, and said “Jacob, translate.”  He turned to us and instead  of sneering just asked what we wanted.  What’s good?  Everything’s good.  What do you order?  Sandwich.  What kind?  Camembert.  Their ham is very good too.  We’ll have two sandwiches then.  Anything to drink?  Wine?  What kind?  What’s good?  It’s all good.  Just the house wine.  White or red?  White.  And he rattled off to the waitress who instantly sprang into action shouting “Merci Jacob” over her shoulder like it happened every day.  We sat and chatted with him, he lives next door and eats most meals here.  We ate delicious butter, ham and sharp cheese sandwiches with dollops of spicy dijon mustard on a baguette that was crunchy, crispy and chewy all at the same time, and we talked with him over our lunch.  Politics (the Italians, Greeks and Spanish are “peegs”), food and wine, travel around the world, how France is heading for a fall since they pay for everything and anything their citizens want.  It was amazing.  We’d stumbled into that perfect Paris experience, the one you hope to find but don’t quite imagine doing so.  In the days since I’ve tried to figure out where that was but it’s like a mirage, I have no idea.

We made it home eventually, a long walk, and started getting our fancies on.  Tonight, as a belated birthday gift from Martin, we were going to the ballet at the actual Palais Garnier (known as the Opera to most.)  We hopped a quick cab and emerged into the rainy night, the giant, Beaux-Arts style cathedral to the arts complete with glowing golden statues and gigantic columns in front of us.  The amazing thing about this experience was getting to actually use this building, a landmark on par with the L’Ouvre or the Arc de Triomphe (in fact, the most expensive of all of those buildings) for its real purpose.  Not just getting to look at the outside, not just getting to go inside to the stunning elaborate marbled friezes, staircases and statuary, not just getting to then go into the auditorium itself, with its five stories of balconies, its lush red and golden decor, its every surface covered in gilt and statue, its original Marc Chagall ceiling and the grand chandelier (yes the one from Phantom, this is where that story is based), but to actually see a show there!  Like they would have done in the mid 1800’s!  In those seats!  On that stage!  Amazing!

I’d not seen a ballet before and I was mostly thinking of that scene from Top Secret, and yes when the first male ballerina (ballerine?) stepped out he truly did have a ginormous cod piece, but it was one of the most exciting (not for that reason) live shows I’ve ever experienced.  The show was “Oneguine,” based on a novel by Pushkin, and it was stunning.  It helped that it was a very traditionally dramatic production, full costume and sets, where I could follow the story rather than being some modern abstract piece with folks flailing around, but parts made me genuinely sigh, or exclaim, or gasp.  And with each act only being around a half hour or less, it flew by!  My favorite part was when all the guys lined up and the girls ran cross their junk.

After having our minds blown we were hungry so we went to a place I’d seen recommended by Anthony Bourdain.  Chez Denise was half a block from our hotel (handy after an awful lot of champagne during the ballet) and having stopped in and made reservations before we were assured of a seat.  We walked into a homey, dark and warm space where they have to pull the tables out in order to seat you.  You are cheek by jowl (which is probably even a menu item) with your neighbors and it’s as though you’ve been thrust back in time to the French countryside.  A fire crackling, bottles of the house wine being refilled out of a giant keg on the bar, little bursts of laughter from different tables.  Our waiter took one look at us and walked us in English through the whole menu, written as so many are here on a chalkboard since the menu changes daily according to what’s looking good in the market.  It’s traditional, and realizing I’d accidentally ordered Veal livers (not that I would’ve minded, but I was feeling more hungry than adventurous just now) I switched my order to the mutton and white bean stew.  Celina ordered the rabbit in mustard sauce (not too mustardy, its cut with heavy cream and butter), Martin had the world’s largest filet of Cod, smoked and covered in a brown butter sauce.  On to our second bottle before the food arrived we started becoming chummy with our neighbors and for the second time in one day we were warmly received by strangers, happily chatting in pigeon french and pigeon english to a pair of Hipsters to our left (from Paris, this is their favorite restaurant) and two older couples to our right (visiting from the south east of France).  The food was incredible.  Humungous portions (the sizes of the portions are completely counterintuitive to the diminutive size of the people’s waistlines in France.) Rich, decadent recipes that hadn’t changed in a hundred years.  The rabbit was the winner but I would have eaten my mutton stew, the meat falling off the bone, forever.  The older group next to us had brains and a tripe stew.  These brains were not in any way disguised.  It was like from the Dark Crystal or Indiana Jones, just a plate of five plum sized brains, all brainy looking.  Averting our eyes we ordered dessert, chocolate mousse and baba au rhum, a sponge cake soaked in rum until it can’t take anymore with custard on top, served with whipped cream and literally the whole bottle of rum, so you can pour more on as you go.  Stuffed, drunk, happy, our souls and stomachs full, we bid goodnight to our new friends and stumbled back to the hotel.

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