I Am A Sub-Par Tourist, Part I (Paris)
This will probably strike you as depressingly unambitious, but all I really want to do when I visit Western Europe is sit in sidewalk cafés and enjoy the delicious-verging-on-erotic sensation of not tipping.
For the sake of my husband, I consent to one museum per city. In Paris, it was the Musée des Arts et Métiers (which I wrote about here), and in Amsterdam it was the Rijksmuseum. This is probably extreme, and I might be persuaded to relax this rule on a longer trip, but we were there for just ten days.
I really mean it about the cafés; they’re more important to me even than the restaurants. I would love to be the kind of traveler who arrives in a city with all of her restaurant reservations in order, but for me the planning stage always seems to coincide with some major deadline. More importantly, perhaps, I find the pressure to experience gastronomic perfection at all times while traveling to be exhausting. While I don’t ever wish to to encounter another croque monsieur like the one that I, having neglected to carry out any advance research and now weighed down with luggage, choked down at the Gare du Nord before getting on the train to Amsterdam, most of the time, any old food in Western Europe (Britain excepted) is pretty OK. And if you really find yourself in a neighborhood where you aren’t getting a good vibe from any of the restaurants you poke your head into, you can always improvise a picnic from a grocery store.
Admittedly, this one was improvised from the pinnacle of all grocery stores/food courts, the Lafayette Gourmet (part of the famous Galeries Lafayette department store), but we walked out of there with a jar of pâté de foie gras, rillettes, cornichons, good bread, and that tall jar of saucissons secs that now lives, tragically depleted, in my fridge in New York–all for under 20 euros:
And we got to eat it in a little park right off the boulevard Haussman that features not only a little chapel that used to house the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (before they were reinterred in the Basilica of Saint-Dénis), but free wifi. Of course, all Parisian parks have this, because Paris is not cheap like New York. Lovely, no?
For dessert, I had the most superb éclair from the Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki counter in the same food court. It was flavored with genmaicha–green tea with the nutty addition of roasted rice. I have such a weakness for Asian fusion pastries, particularly in the green tea family–they inject a much-needed touch of bitterness into French cuisine, which I think has entirely outsourced that flavor to the tannins found in wine. Gosh, the choux was so light, just collapsing into the pastry cream. I still think about this éclair.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t eat a lot of pastry in Paris. The only other pâtisserie I visited–happily, it was an exceptional one–was Pain de Sucre in the Marais. I had the excellent fortune of being taken there by my former NYU Food Studies professor and current friend, Christy (America’s preeminent authority on the role of Jell-O in Mormonism), who I had managed to bump into at random in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont!
The park, by the way, is a spectacular one. It’s not at all like the manicured Tuileries or Luxembourg gardens that we generally associate with Paris, but wilder and lusher, boasting a waterfall, grey herons, and places equally to bask and to hide. If you climb up to the little pavilion in the picture, you can see all across Paris. There are fun things for grown-ups (such as terraces by the pond where you can–gasp–drink alcohol, and while I hate sounding like an alcoholic when I rhapsodize about European drinking culture–in fact, I’m pretty sure that I had a pomelo-and-mint lemonade that day–I do like that adults are trusted to handle themselves in a civilized manner, which they generally do), and fun things for children (inexpensive carriage rides, pony rides, skating rinks, fairground games). If this all sounds rather cramped and hectic, it really isn’t; the attractions are all spread out, and it’s possible to entirely avoid the family sections.
The morning after I ran into Christy, we met to buy our pastries, and then carried them to a sidewalk café that was happy to serve us coffee and hot chocolate while we ate them. (This is a nice practice. Back when I was a student in Dijon, I used to buy sandwiches from one particular bakery and take them into a café whose sandwiches I liked less; they never seemed to mind just serving me a coffee. The eminently reasonable rationale seems to have been that I wouldn’t have ordered a sandwich anyway, so why sweat the fact that I brought one in?)
The lemon tart in this picture is mine. Lemon tarts are my absolute favorite; I once wrote an entire article about the evils of choconormative dessert culture, to which I proposed that lemon desserts were the only antidote. There are ground almonds in the crust and what looks like lemon and lime zest on the top; it was honestly the finest lemon tart I have ever had. They can be so chemical-tasting, lemon tarts–with a detergent-like note, or a whiff of lemon Pledge, which probably comes from using bottled lemon extract, a poor juice/zest balance, or both. This one managed to be tart and gentle all at once, with a crust that was firm without being heavy or brittle. The chocolate block was my husband’s, and is called a Momo. We’ve already established that chocolate is not my thing, but he certainly enjoyed the chocolate sachertorte base layered with mango and passion fruit mousses and praline. Christy had the verrine Fraicheur (from verre, the French word for glass, which is the container this parfait comes layered in): wild strawberries at the top, followed by rhubarb marmelade, pistachio cake, and a green apple/cilantro blend at the very bottom that, frankly, flummoxed me. Divisive cilantro experiments aside, Pain de Sucre is a great place, and you can look at the whole catalogue (in PDF) here.
Christy took us on a walk through the Marais, showing us the medieval libraries where she conducts some of her research (the sort of place where I know I would feel smarter just on entering, and produce infinitely finer work–somebody please award me the Fulbright), and dropped us off by Notre-Dame.
I did not go to the Louvre, which I had visited once before, but I did walk by and notice for the first time that their entire security force looks and dresses like they just stepped out of Italian Men’s Vogue. I also saw this delightful thing right across the street from the Louvre courtyard, which I have since verified really is what it claims to be:
I don’t think anyone wants to hear about the shoe-shopping I did that afternoon (least of all my husband, for whom any mention of the event will probably trigger PTSD), but I do want to commend the Galeries Lafayette shoe basement on installing a Pierre Hermé pastry counter right in the middle of the action. I actually don’t much care for macarons, but I liked seeing them there, joyful little symbols of indulgence. Sugar and shoes!
It turns out I wasn’t being entirely honest when I said I didn’t make any restaurant reservations before arriving in Paris: I did Skype one in to Le Hide at the insistence of a good friend. This restaurant is incredibly popular with American tourists, having made Saveur‘s list of the top 23 bistros in the city, and while I hope I’m not a dogmatic asshole about only going to “off-the-beaten-path” places, it was a little irksome to be seated next to an American cardiologist and his wife who elected to give us a detailed lecture on the mechanism of cirrhosis in goose liver when I was trying to eat exactly that.
Le Hide is a nice place to eat if it’s your first night in Paris. It’s right around the corner from the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées, along which you will certainly be needing to walk off your dinner, and its extraordinary location exerts no apparent effect on its prices. The Japanese-born chef, Hide Kobayashi, doesn’t seem to mind that a great deal of his business comes from American tourists, and obliges them with the most enormous portions. I was floored by my starter slab of foie gras (for which I paid a 4-euro supplement on top of the three-course, 32.50-euro formula) and could barely make a dent in the creamy monkfish that followed. The flavors are good and the execution is correct (I spied on a nearby plate of kidneys and they looked just perfect), but, really, the food is too rich and too French. Maybe it takes someone from outside of France to be that lovingly, slavishly French, at a time when much of Parisian cooking–from what I’ve read–is looking oddly New American.
Happily, I was revived after dinner by one of the smartest desserts I have ever had. I could have opted for an île flottante (soft blobs of meringue floating in custard) or a tarte tatin à l’ancienne, but instead my husband and I each chose a tray laden with a trio of very grown-up goodies: a scooplet of pear sorbet, good strong coffee, and a little snifter of our choice of digestif. I went for the poire William, a good part of which I doused over the sorbet, and the dessert did everything I needed it to: it prolonged my contented buzz, roused me gently into alertness, and gave me a soupçon of something sweet without weighing me down. I really wish American restaurants would adopt this. Obviously one could assemble all the components à la carte, but there would be too much sorbet, it would be far too expensive, and it wouldn’t come on a cute little plate!
There is an awful lot of sidewalk café loitering that I am not reporting on, because Parisian sidewalk cafés are all more or less the same, which is in fact their great gift. Wherever you find yourself, you can consistently plonk yourself down on a table on the sidewalk, order a coffee or a kir or a small beer, and watch people walk past for the next hour or two with absolutely no pressure from the waitstaff. It doesn’t really matter what the inside of the café looks like, or what goes on in the kitchen, because beer is beer, and in any case you’re only interested in the pedestrians.
My favorite thing to order in Paris, because I can’t get it in New York, is a demi fraise–that is, a small glass of beer mixed with (non-alcoholic) strawberry syrup. Think of it as the Casual Friday of kir. If it sounds a little juvenile, I promise you that people of all ages drink this. I got hooked on these in my college days in Dijon, and I’m still a fan.
I guess not all Parisian cafés are exactly the same. I came across this one, Bar Café Jin, while I was walking around the Chinese part of Belleville. It’s a café just like any other café in the city, only it has Chinese proprietors, and consequently has red dragons and other good luck charms strung up around the bar. This was fascinating to me, because Chinese integration doesn’t work like this in America. Here, Chinese immigrants open Chinese restaurants, full stop; I’ve never seen this perfect duality embodied in a single establishment.
On our last night in Paris, we went up to Montmartre to see the famous Sacré-Coeur and look out over Paris. It’s a strange scene up there; as my husband remarked, it’s practically medieval, with the throngs of gawkers all mixed up with the devout, with the pickpockets and scam artists. There were even acrobats doing tricks on the lampposts, and lepers begging outside the cathedral. Our clothes may have been modern, but everything else was straight out of Cadfael. We escaped to a quieter, winding street and had our last apéritif in the city on a steeply sloping terrace.
Dinner was at at Brasserie Wepler, whose address I think I pulled out of an Anthony Bourdain episode where he glutted on a seafood tower and had a whole bottle of Sancerre to himself. My tower wasn’t so lavish as his, but it had plenty of cold sweet bulots (whelks) on it, which you spear out of their shell, mindful to discard their sharp protective flaps, and dip in thick mayonnaise. Of course, the reason I could afford to order any sort of seafood tower at all in Paris was because I went the AirBnB route–which, by the way, I emphatically recommend.
This certainly isn’t everything I ate in Paris, but these are some of the dishes that stand out to me. Very soon, I’ll try to write down what I enjoyed in Amsterdam, too–you may be surprised to hear that, on the whole, I ate rather better in the Netherlands than in France!