Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 1134: Mademoiselle X Goes to Paris
By Daniel from France, Winter 2006
Trip Description: Our "babymoon" trip to Paris which took place from February 10th to February 18th.
Destinations: Countries - France; Regions/Cities - Paris
Categories: Vacation Rentals; Art Trip; Day Tours; Foodie Trip; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People
Page 1 of 9: Day One - Let the Eating Begin
Moon Over Les Halles
The trips we take are inspired by different things. Sometimes we’re just tired and need a break from our routine. Sometimes we’re stimulated by tales of a friend’s trip, or even a travel show which makes us want to plan a journey of discovery of our own.
Other times, however, it’s a life event that begets a trip. Such was the case back in September of 2005 when my wife, Laurie, told me that we were expecting our first child. After the initial euphoria of that announcement wore off, a certain realization began to sink in. Although we would certainly be able to travel with our little one in the future, it would not be the same as we’d done in the past. We’d be saying goodbye to three hour lunches at three star restaurants, and hello to a totally different, if potentially very rewarding, travel experience.
So, the following month, I brought up the concept of an April 2006 “last hurrah” trip to Paris. Laurie liked the idea overall, but thought that April was too close to the baby’s anticipated early June 2006 arrival. After our doctor confirmed this, the April trip got bumped up to February. Although initially I wasn’t thrilled about going to Paris in February (cold, rainy, can't eat al fresco all that much), I was soon introduced to the charms of booking a trip during low season. First of all, I was able to a get one free round-trip ticket on Air France with frequent flyer miles only a couple of months before the trip! Secondly, every vacation rental that interested me was available including a top floor apartment in the Les Halles neighborhood that I’d had my eye on for a while. Finally, every restaurant that I called to make reservations for (except for Le Comptoir) had a table for us. With all those plans made, our “babymoon” (a term a friend of ours suggested to replace “last hurrah” which she found too negative) was set.
Just before New Year’s, we got the great news that we were having a little girl. Upon telling a Parisian friend this happy information, our little one was promptly christened “Mademoiselle X.” Laurie and I embraced this moniker immediately as it instantly imbued our future daughter with a delightful sense of elegance and mystery even before she was born!
So with that little bit of background, I give you our latest Parisian adventure ...
The flight from JFK to CDG was unremarkable (which is how I like my flights) save for the fact that we got the exit row which gave us a nice amount of legroom. We watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pride and Prejudice. I forget what they served us for food, but I recall thinking it wasn’t half bad. What I do remember was reviewing in my head all the French words for those classic foods that Laurie would have to avoid while we were in Paris. No raw milk cheeses, no chocolate mousse made with raw egg whites, no undercooked meats, no foie gras, etc., etc., etc. I remember posting about my food concerns on the Slow Travel France board, and getting an interesting mélange of answers and opinions.
Day One – February 10, 2006
When we arrived at CDG, we had to do something we hadn’t done in a while: go get our checked luggage. You see, we’re carry-on luggage folks. For years we’ve enjoyed the pleasure of arriving someplace and just zipping right off the plane with un-stolen, un-damaged and un-lost luggage. However on this trip, for whatever reason, the Air France agent back at JFK had us weigh our bags and then, to our surprise, informed us that they were too heavy to be carry-ons. At first I felt kind of naked without my carry-on, but I soon noticed that not having to drag the thing around through security as well as the plane itself did have its appeal.
After we claimed our bags, it was time to head to the apartment. So the thing is that Laurie and I really don’t have a set way of getting into the city. If we’re feeling really beat up from the flight, we take a cab. However, that morning we were both feeling up to the slightly more challenging method of taking the RER. It was past rush hour, so I knew the crowds wouldn’t be that bad. Furthermore, our apartment on rue Pierre Lescot was only about a block away from the RER station at the Forum des Halles. Although that all sounded good on paper, we didn’t plan on the police finding a “suspicious package” on the RER tracks at CDG. No worries though, because the official at the airport told me that we could grab a free shuttle bus that would take us to an RER station at another terminal. Fine. So we took the bus over to the other terminal, but when we got there the scene resembled a refugee camp. It was a huge morass of people with the majority of them on lines that stretched forever, and many that just seemed to be walking this way and that in a zombie-like state. I took one look at this landscape, looked back at Laurie (who had the same expression of dread on her face that I must have had) and said “Babe, we tried, but we’re taking a cab.” No protest was forthcoming.
Once we were on our way into the city, I called Paul from Marais Flat on my nifty new cell phone (courtesy of the 2006 Slow Travel contest and the great folks over at Cellular Abroad). I told him we were on our way, and he detailed what to tell the cab driver vis-à-vis accessing our pedestrian street. However when we arrived at rue du Cygne, there was a barrier there preventing the car from entering, so we had to walk a couple of blocks to get to the building. This really wasn’t a bad thing because we didn’t have a lot of stuff on us and it allowed us a mini-introduction to the neighborhood.
When we got to rue Pierre Lescott, I got the most intense feeling of déjà vu due to the fact that I had already seen so many photographs of the street thanks to Pages Jaunes and Insecula. Isn’t it amazing how much you can find out about a place thanks to the Internet? Anyway, when the elevator reached the seventh floor of our building, Paul was standing there in the front door of the apartment waiting for us. He showed us around the place and explained how things worked. Everything was very straightforward and dummy proof. I liked the apartment right away. It wasn’t huge or drop dead gorgeous, but it seemed to be very well laid out and appealing in its own way. I guess a big part of the appeal had to do with all the light in the apartment due to the fact that we were so high up with no obstruction.
After Paul finished showing us everything, Laurie stayed in the apartment unpacking while I went down with Paul to the cash machine to pay him the balance of what I owed him for our stay. As we were walking I asked Paul if I could see either of his other two apartments, just so I could have them in my mental “inventory” for the future. He said that his one bedroom in the Marais was occupied, but that he’d be happy to show me the studio on rue Marie Stuart which was adjacent to his own apartment. First, we went to Paul’s place where I counted out the cash (and felt like I was doing some kind of illicit business). I wish you all could have seen his place. A huge, loft-like and art-filled space that had a double height atrium and a kitchen that looked like a set for a cooking show. Really cool. Then Paul showed me the studio which could be accessed both through a door in Paul’s apartment, and independently from the street (Paul told me that when he needs an extra guest room for friends or family he just rolls the armoire away from the studio’s door - et voila! – instant guest room). Anyway, the studio was very nice, and also benefits from being on a quiet pedestrian street.
With that, I said thank you and goodbye to Paul, and happily made my way to the famous market street: rue Montorgueil. Oh boy folks, now I was feeling like I was in MY PARIS!! Fromageries here, boulangeries there, and edible pleasures everywhere – plus, I was taking in that wonderful and intense ENERGY of a city full of great things to savor and the refined residents who demand them. I swear to God I felt like there was music in the air. I think I smiled and gave a hearty bonjour! to anyone that dared make eye contact with me. I’m sure some people thought I was a little too happy (or crazy), and maybe I was at that moment, but honestly that’s always how I feel during my first moments back in Paris. Pure and uncensored happiness.
Just as I was sure I would break out into song, I caught sight of a tabac where I figured that I could get a copy of Pariscope and a map of Paris called L’Indispensable. Fortunately I was able to buy both, but as I walked out of the tabac I realized that it was getting close to time for our lunch reservation, and so I quickly started back toward the apartment. However, not so quickly that I was able to pass by Amorino (one of my favorite places on Earth) without stopping in. Unlike summertime, when there is always a line coming out into the street, there were no other customers when I walked in (another good thing about coming to Paris in February). I had the guy make me a cone that was mostly biscotto, but also included a few “petals” of stracciatella and crème caramel. An exquisite and refreshing first taste of Paris for sure. I had to tear myself away from rue Montorgueil immediately thereafter, less I eat any more and totally ruin my lunch!
Laurie was ready to go when I got back to the apartment, so off we went on foot. Before long, we arrived at Benoit. We got there at about 1:30 and the joint was packed, however we were taken to a smaller dining room in the back which was initially empty and free of the cacophony of the front room.
We started with an amuse of these delicious, straight-out-of-the-oven cheese puff type things. Just then, I caught a whiff of some cigarette smoke coming from the table next to us which had recently been seated with two gentlemen. I discreetly asked our waiter if he wouldn’t mind moving us over to the far end of the room because my wife was pregnant and the smoke was not good for her. The waiter quickly obliged, and as we were getting up one of the smoking patrons told the waiter that he would put out his cigarette if it bothered us. I intervened and told the guy to please enjoy his lunch and his cigarette, and that I was well aware that I was in Paris and not in New York. It was actually a very pleasant exchange. Once the move was complete, everyone was happy.
We only ordered main courses since we weren’t that hungry (not to mention my little indiscretion over at Amorino). Laurie had the endives gratiness wrapped in ham. She hesitated briefly because she recalled that deli meats like ham were on the pregnancy “no no list”, however I reminded her that our doctor said she could have deli meats as long as they were part of a cooked dish. I barely finished my words before she pounced on her food. I then dug into my own savory cassoulet which had been initially presented in its pot, then carefully plated. Is there any dish better on a chilly day than cassoulet? I think not, and mine was perfection. We decided to split a lovely and orangey crepes suzette for dessert. It was a delightfully tangy end to our first meal in Paris.
I was glad that Laurie didn’t seem too zapped from the flight, and was actually in the mood to do some exploring. We started walking along rue St. Martin when I caught sight of some pistachio and chocolate pastries in a shop window. Oh yeah baby, now you’re talkin’ my language. Continuing on, we came upon a church that neither of us had been to before – Saint Merri’s. Since Laurie and I have never met a European cathedral that we didn’t like, we stepped inside. It was really interesting because they had all these modern art pieces scattered throughout the church, and it sort of reminded us of St. John the Devine back home in New York where there’s always something “modern” going on.
Continuing north along rue St. Martin we had another discovery in the form of a candy shop called La Cure Gourmande. We really liked the broad selection of beautiful confections, and so much of it was perfect for gift giving. Laurie wanted to buy some stuff to take back home to our respective friends and offices, but I told her that we shouldn’t buy anything so early in the trip. Dumb move on my part, because we would not make it back there. Why can’t I remember that when it comes to shopping, my wife is always right?
Pretty soon we found ourselves in front of the Pompidou. I hadn’t been back to the place since the late 1980s, so I was up for a visit. However, I could tell that Laurie was starting to hit a wall, and so we skipped the museum and slowly walked back to the apartment where we both napped for a couple of hours.
The two of us felt great after the rest, and then we slowly showered and dressed for dinner. Taxis were scarce at that hour, and so we decided to take the number four subway at Etienne Marcel, switched at Chatalet for the number seven which eventually dropped us off at Place Monge in the Quartier Latin.
You know, people say I’m nuts for going back to Paris again and again, but I tell you part of the pleasure of really getting to know a place via return visits is that you have such wonderful memories almost everywhere you turn. Such was the case when Laurie and I walked over to Place de la Contrescarpe. Both of us recalled fondly how the last time we were here it was at a simple pizza restaurant with our friends Sandy & Martin who, are you ready for this, were also expecting their first little girl (they were just two weeks or so ahead of us)!
However, tonight’s meal promised to be anything but “simple.” When we arrived at La Truffiere, I could tell right away that this place was going to be a winner. I can’t exactly put the feeling into words, but I just felt that we were so well taken care of from the moment we stepped inside. We were seated in this stone-vaulted and cave-like room which served as an enveloping conversation piece. Service was perfection from start to finish: efficient, but not rushed – friendly, but not forward. We were probably in there for three hours or so, and the time just flew.
I ordered a rather pricey bottle of Beychevelle 2000 for our wine, which Laurie and I “shared” (meaning she prudently only had about half a glass throughout the entire meal). The food was one delightful moment after another. We started with an amuse of butternut squash and carrot soup. Laurie says there was a second amuse, and I think she’s right, but neither of us can recall it. From that we went to a starter of pressed artichoke and black truffles in port wine which they split for us. Very interesting flavors that sort of changed in the mouth. For our main courses, Laurie enjoyed pigeon on a bed of small, cubed potatoes, with a cepe mushroom, balsamic, beet and truffle sauce. I had what I like to call the “Tower of Joy.” This was a molded cylinder of shredded duck meat, mashed potatoes, a big hunk of seared foie gras and, if that wasn’t enough, a generous shaving of black truffles to crown it. Words cannot even BEGIN to describe how delicious this was. I really don’t think I’ll ever have something that spectacular on a single plate ever again.
Although we could have left at that point and been quite happy, there was more gastronomic splendor to be had. Namely, a cheese course to top all cheese courses. When the stinky cart came rolling our way, I knew we were in for a treat. He asked Laurie which cheeses she would like to try, and with hope in her eyes she asked if he had any that were made from pasteurized milk. When he seemed a little confused by the request, Laurie mentioned that she was pregnant, yada, yada. The poor man’s expression turned visibly nervous when he was forced to reply “I’m sorry Madame, but no.” Laurie, being the gracious person that she is, quickly broke the brief moment of tension by saying that she was getting full anyway, and wanted to save room for dessert. Incredulously, after all that food, I chose six different cheeses, which the cheese guy arranged from delicate to killer strong. But it’s what he did next that was new to me. He pared the cheeses with complementary chutneys, honeys, and confitures. Now that was what I called a cheese course. The bouncing back and forth in my mouth between each cheese and its corresponding garnish felt like there was a party going on in my mouth. The cheese guy also did something very thoughtful, which was making a full plate of all these various accompaniments for Laurie to have with extra bread. I just thought that was a nice touch.
Finally, for dessert, we shared a tangerine meringue ice cream cake with candied tangerines on top. A refreshingly light finale to this intense meal. Overall, I’d have to say that this was one of the best high end dining experiences that we’ve ever had in Paris, and between the quality of the food, the great service, and the out-of-the-ordinary ambiance, I can’t rave enough about it.
The restaurant called us a cab, and in a matter of minutes our sated little bodies were back home on rue Pierre Lescot. Before going to bed, I stared out at the beautiful tableau of a full moon over the Parisian rooftops. It was so striking that it almost looked like a theatrical set. I wanted to scream “Paris I love you!” out the window, but I thought that was a bit much, at least for my first night.
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