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Paris, Tea and Wine

Dennis Love

This is a story about how a relatively normal, middle-class, red-blooded American guy - namely, me - came to love tea.

The tea I'm talking about isn't the kind I was raised on, which is to say the very sweet and very iced variety that has washed down Southern meals for as long as there has been a South. No, I'm talking about the kind of tea that proper guys with names like Nigel and Winston and Jacques and Pierre drink, which is to say the hot, steaming kind poured from a pot into a fine china cup and sipped luxuriantly with the pinky finger extended just so.

You might reasonably ask: How could this possibly happen? How could someone who grew up in Alabama - thinking that salmon patties from the can were an extravagant delicacy - find himself longing for a nice spot of tea?

It all has to do with Paris - and, oddly enough, my search for the perfect wine bar. Confused? Think of how my coon-huntin' buddies must feel. (All right, I really don't have any "coon-huntin' buddies." But if I did, they'd be wondering how I went so terribly wrong.)

This all began recently when my wife, Terri, and I spent a week in Paris. It was by no means our first trip there, but it was the first time we had focused a vacation exclusively on the City of Light. In the past, a visit to Paris had always been part of a broader European tour; we've even been known to arrange our flight schedule to spend only one night there just so we could eat at our favorite Parisian restaurant (Le Pre Catalan, housed in Louis XIV's old hunting lodge on the wooded edge of the city).

This time, however, it would be all-Paris-all-the-time. And Terri and I had two compatible but yet different goals: she wanted to find the perfect Parisian tea house, while I wanted to find the perfect Parisian wine bar. Sure, we would return to some of the haunts with which we'd fallen in love during our first visits to the city (lunch at Bouillon Racine, ice cream on Ile Saint Louis, the Paris flea market) and do some of the things there we'd always wanted to do but had never gotten around to (shopping along Avenue des Champs Elysees, viewing the Monets and Manets at Musee d'Orsay, scaling the Arc de Triomphe). We would have been perfectly happy just by simply reconnecting with our familiar places, but one of the challenges of traveling is to delve more deeply into places you've visited before. Venturing off the beaten Parisian path in search of fine tea and good wine seemed as good a strategy as any - especially now, as tea houses and wine bars in Paris are growing in numbers and popularity.

It worked beautifully. We escaped the tourist throngs, sampled some sumptuous beverages and, when it came to the wine bars, saved some money in the process.

Here's why: Done full-bore, lunch and dinner in Paris aren't just meals, they are events - theatrical, pleasurable, yet time-consuming and expensive events. But for those who don't necessarily insist on white tablecloths and a cheese course every time out, an economical and enjoyable alternative can found by seeking out the quaint wine bars that not only offer a multitude of wonderful wines by the glass but also feature excellent, reasonably priced food that is easier on the pocketbook and more suited to sightseers trying fill each day in Paris to the rim.

One such oasis is Le Rouge Gorge, found on a quiet cobblestone street in the Village of Saint Paul in the Marais, a picturesque district near the Seine filled with antique shops and teeming with uniformed, ruddy-cheeked children meandering home from school. At Le Rouge Gorge - warm and airy with flowerbox windows that look out onto the street - the wines of the month are listed on a chalkboard. I chose a glass of 2001 Champalay Vouvray, while Terri ordered a 2000 Toutaine by J.F. Merian. Both coupled nicely with the attractive spread of simple fresh green salad, a tureen of goat cheese and tapanade and a tasty charcuterie of pork, ham and sausage.

We enjoyed the Vouvray so much that we decided to buy a bottle to smuggle home (one of several we purchased on the trip); it turned out that bottles of the featured wines were for sale at the cellar price, in this instance about 9 euros. In all, lunch was less than 30 euros, wine and gratuity included - an outstanding bargain. The proprietor was even gallantly tolerant of our pitiable French, although it seemed to amuse the couple at the next table. (True to the friendly vibe of the place, however, that same French husband and wife stopped by our table to chat on their way out; it turned out that he was employed by a company headquartered in Memphis.) The bottle of Vouvray now is collecting dust in our modest wine cellar at home, but when we get around to uncorking it - and we will, we will - we'll fondly remember the neighborly Le Rouge Gorge in the Marais.

A few nights later, we set out from our hotel near the Champs Elysees, headed for Ma Bourgogne on Boulevard Haussmann. The 40-minute walk took us across Rue de Fauberg Saint Honore, a gloriously illuminated gallery district with block after block of mesmerizing window shopping. Punk art, antique furniture, clothes to die for - it was all there along Saint Honore, a part of the city we never would have seen if not for our determined wine-bar sojourn. As for Ma Bourgogne, reputed to be one of Paris' better wine bars, the by-the-glass list seemed limited and communication with the wait staff was difficult, but everyone persevered until we were served some tasty Beaujolais and marvelously garlicky escargot.

The highlight of our wine-bar jaunt, however, was the peculiarly American oasis that is Willi's Wine Bar in the First Arrondissement. Again, half the fun was in getting there. We took the Metro to the Pyramides stop - we're big believers in the Paris subway system, a cheap and efficient way to comb the city - and took the escalator to street level. One of the wonderful things about Paris is that you never know what sight may greet you as you emerge from any of the dozens of metro stops; more often than not, you find yourself stepping into a scene from a 1950s French film. On this evening, we were greeted with a striking view of the magnificent Paris opera house, bathed in gorgeous floodlight. That singular view made the several-block walk down Avenue de l'Opera a special experience, and we resolved to attend the opera on our next visit.

A narrow street veered away from the boulevard and led us at last to Willi's, where we were greeted by a cozy but lively bar scene and where English was spoken freely by proprietor and patron alike - a nice respite after struggling with French for several days. Beyond the bar, an equally cozy dining room beckoned, where the walls were decorated with a series of Willi's posters, commissioned by the establishment to well-known Parisian artists. The place was alive with people happy to be there, and the wine selection did not disappoint. Willi's features small tasting glasses so that patrons can economically sample wines, and we eagerly tried a 1997 Beaucastle, a 1998 Pessac Clementin and a 2001 Jamet Cotes du Rhone. We had dinner plans elsewhere but were tempted to break them - the American-style cuisine that flowed past us toward the dining room looked delicious and was reasonably priced. We left the convivial Willi's grudgingly, declaring it the champion of our highly unscientific but immensely enjoyable wine-bar competition.

The tea house competition, by contrast, offered a clear winner.

Terri is the tea connoisseur between us, and as we dabbled in tea here and there I was largely unimpressed, even bored. After all, I was mostly humoring her - absent-mindedly sipping a cup while mentally plotting our next trek to the next wine bar. I figured that all this languishing in tea houses was simply the price to be paid for Terri's participation in the wine-bar exploration - one of those tradeoffs that marriage is made of. Except that Terri seemed to be enjoying the wine much more than I was enjoying the tea - until, that is, Mariage Freres.

Mariage Freres, like Le Rouge Gorge, is located in the charming Marais, very near the Hotel de Ville, which essentially functions as Paris' city hall. Mariage Freres is a sensory experience from start to finish, from the moment you walk in the door and are greeted by the rich and overwhelming scent of tea until the check is proffered on a silver tray by a white-gloved waiter. At the center of the tea room was an opulent table swimming with a glistening array of desserts and pastries that looked as if they belonged in a famous oil painting. And the tea - there were literally hundreds to choose from, all listed in a tea menu that went on for pages and classified the various teas by country of origin. (Who knew there were so many teas from, say, New Zealand?)

Terri went for the Bourbon tea, which was described as a classic French selection, while I chose the Marco Polo Rouge, a red tea from Africa. They were amazing. The flavors were remarkable, complex, a revelation. So this is what tea is all about, I thought to myself, at about the same time that I noticed that the several antique clocks in the room all were set at either 11 or 5. At Mariage Freres, I suppose, it's always tea time.

We purchased some tea to bring home - the tea shop has an enormous selection - and left Mariage Freres with conflicting emotions: glowing at our discovery, yet resigned that we wouldn't have time to make it back before our trip was done. It's the conundrum of Paris - it's full of those irreplaceable moments when time seems to stand still, and yet there is never enough time.

Resources

Reservations can be made at Willi's Wine Bar (www.williswinebar.com, 01 42 61 05 09) or you can just eat at the bar. The same goes for Le Rouge Gorge at 8 Rue Saint-Paul in the Marais (01 48 04 75 89). Both are relatively informal and offer tempting and economical wines by the glass. Ma Bourgogne (133 Boulevard Haussmann, 01 45 63 50 61) is more old-school but still enjoyable. Mariage Freres (30 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 01 42 72 28 11) not only offers all the tea in China and beyond for on-premises consumption but dozens of teas (and tea pots) to go. Also featured upstairs: a quaint little tea museum, perfect for browsing while waiting for your table.

© 2004, Dennis Love

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