samedi, décembre 20, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 8: Carla arrives!

Carla-time! It was Carla’s day to arrive, so the plan was that I would go get her from the airport and my parents would go for a walk and get some bread and fixings for lunch. The flight was a bit late and luggage claim was the usual slow mess, so we didn’t get out of the airport until maybe 13h00 or so, but Carla was nonetheless amazed at how non-traumatic the experience was. Usually, travelling through Charles-de-Gaulle airport is a scarring experience.

We got back to the apartment to find my mom hanging out of the second-floor window, shouting, “Hey! Hi! I see you! Welcome to France!” Sigh. So much for acting like locals.

Anyway, we ate a light lunch of bread, salad and small quiches from the nearby bakery, and then asked Carla what she wanted to do. Stunningly, she had actually slept during her red-eye flight, so she was fully awake and ready to go for a walk. We headed over to the St. Paul Village just south of rue Rivoli, and found the shops to be mostly “boutique artisan” shops of the sort you find in the Distillery district in Toronto, mostly full of hand-made tchotchke.

From there, we walked over the river and onto the island of St. Louis, where we wandered along the shops of the main drag. We made it to the other island (Ile de la Cité) and walked through Notre-Dame, since there wasn’t much of a crowd.

Just as we were getting ready to leave the church, an evening mass started. My mom wanted to stay for the mass and my sister agreed to accompany her, but my dad was in no mood to stick around, so I left with him and we walked around the island for a while. We sat down in the café facing the church for a coffee, where we were served by this adorable young guy who was probably 20 but had been dressed up in the most stereotypical, old-fashioned café garçon outfit I could imagine: black vest, pocket watch with chain, bottle opener hanging from the vest by another chain, little change apron, etc. Also, he was remarkable for being the only person I’ve seen so far whose butt looks good in those schlumpy black slacks that all café waiters wear here.

We timed the mass pretty well and met the ladies in front of the church as the service was letting out. We decided that an early and light dinner would be a good idea, so we walked back across the river and caught the métro to Belleville, where we went to my favourite Vietnamese Pho shop, TinTin.

There’s no point in describing the dinner in detail; I’ve written about this place numerous times before on this blog. The pho was delicious and satisfying, the tea was pretty good, and the Vietnamese spring rolls were pretty tasty.

After dinner, my sister was beginning to feel tired, but we all needed a long walk to digest the massive quantity of soup that we had just ingested. So we walked around Belleville, down Faubourg du Temple to avenue Parmentier, and then down past my apartment. From there, I sent them on their way home and I climbed the 6 flights of stairs to my place…slowly.

vendredi, décembre 19, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 7: Bois de Boulonge, Shopping, Le Dôme du Marais

Well it was cold today, but at least it was pretty sunny. We decided to take advantage of the sun and go check out one of Paris’s two big forests, the Bois de Boulogne (the other one is the Bois de Vincennes). We got off at the Porte Maillot métro stop, at the north end of the park, and walked right through to the south end. Of course, we had to stop frequently so that my dad could identify the trees and the birds.

We especially spent a lot of time around the lakes at the center of the park, which had a cute island in the middle and was inhabited by lots of waterfowl. We had bought some sandwiches and brought them with us, so we spent a few minutes sitting next to the lake, eating our little lunch happily while the ducks looked on expectantly. Of course, my dad made a sport of tossing bread to the ducks (and the one lone goose), from a bag of day-old bread he had brought from the apartment. The pigeons and gulls came over pretty quickly, too, but the most impressive characters were the ravens, who stood on the shore next to us, watching my dad’s hand carefully. As soon as he threw a crumb in the air, the ravens would fly over and try to catch the crumb before it hit the water. They were surprisingly fast, catching almost half of the bread before it even got to the ducks. Natural selection, I tell you.

Anyway, we had had designs on getting onto the island and having a drink at the café there, but apparently it was closed for the day (despite there being people visibly going in and out of the café), so we shrugged and kept walking. We never found any other cafés open in the park, so we eventually hit the southern end of the park, walked along past the Roland-Garros tennis courts (home of the French Open) and found ourselves at Porte d’Auteuil. There was a café right next to the métro station, so we treated ourselves to a very, very expensive coffee (we were in the 16th arrondissement, which is the wealthiest).

Mom wanted to do some xmas gift shopping, so she asked me where the middle and lower classes do their shopping (all of the shops she had seen in Paris so far were well out of our price range). I told her, “In chain stores and shopping malls, mostly in the suburbs.” Thankfully (or not), there was at least one shopping mall within Paris proper, so we hopped on the subway and headed over to Place d’Italie.

This was an American-style indoor shopping mall, so you can probably imagine what the interior looked like. I felt like I was back in Westmount Mall, London, Ontario (back in the early 90s, before it cratered). The shopping was mostly fruitless, but we did find a lot of stuff at a baby / children’s wear store called Okaïdi, where we got tons of stuff for the baby that my brother and his wife are expecting. I think we left with a metric tonne of cotton “onesies.”

We also went to the grocery store, Champion, and bought about 6 of their reusable grocery bags. I know, I know, it seems like an odd thing to buy, but the bags that they sell there are just the right size for laundry or carrying other big items and they’re really sturdy. They’re about half the size of those blue IKEA bags, but with a more square shape.

Anyway, we declared the shopping trip a mixed victory and headed home to get ready for dinner. We hadn’t made any reservations to eat that night, so we just dropped off our shopping stuff at the apartment and started walking around the neighborhood. I had read in one of the guidebooks left at my parents’ apartment that there was a restaurant in the Marais called Le Dôme du Marais, so we decided to go check it out. The guidebook said that it was the sort of place where you could show up in jeans or in a tux and feel equally at ease, but I realized as I took off my jacket that I was pushing it, wearing only a t-shirt. I took my wide cashmere scarf and wrapped it around my shoulders like a sort of shawl, making me look like a bearded old lady, but at least covering my forearms a bit.

The restaurant itself is located in some old building next to a convent that has this beautiful glass dome in the middle. The table settings are all white linens and silverware, which is a bit much for a "bistro" restaurant. Nonetheless, that didn’t prevent the restaurant from being one of the best of my parents’ entire visit.

The place is pretty haute cuisine in its own way, although the prices are surprisingly reasonable given the quality of the meals. The basic menu was 36€, which included three courses BUT ALSO about four mini-courses that came between the main courses. Check out this timeline of the dinner:

  1. Cheese biscuits to go with the aperitifs.
  2. An amuse-bouche of spiced carrot soup, foie gras & artichoke puree, and a savoury éclair filled with goat cheese and “iced” with roasted red pepper puree.
  3. Appetizers: a soufflé made with Jerusalem artichokes and a breaded-deep-fried-yet-soft-boiled egg for my parents; I took a winter vegetable salad with ham from Bayonne (Ibaïona).
  4. Main dishes: baked cod with sea snails in a green herb sauce for my mom, wild boar in a quince sauce for my dad, and pot-au-feu for me (a very slow-cooked stew with a clear broth).
  5. Palate cleanser of banana sorbet on a bed of chopped pineapple with cilantro (so good!)
  6. Desserts: Mille-feuille with vanilla-bean cream filling and plum-Armagnac ice cream for my parents; I had a warm pear tart with a green-apple / tarragon ice cream (!@#$ing amazing).
  7. A digestif of brandy made with berries from Houx (specialty of the house, apparently, and fantastic).
  8. With coffee, a plate of cookies and chocolates.

So we were FULL, as you could imagine, but also very satisfied. And all of that, including pre- and post-dinner drinks and a 43€ bottle of wine came to about 180€ for three people. Not bad at all, considering how very fine the food was. We made a note of the place and decided to bring my sister here after she arrives this weekend.

jeudi, décembre 18, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 6: Opéra, Chez Marianne, Moulin Rouge

The big plans for tonight were to see a show at the Moulin Rouge, so everything was organized around that. After a rather late breakfast/lunch, we headed off to the Opéra Garnier to finally take a look at the interior. I called ahead to make sure that the main performance hall would be open (since it is sometimes closed for rehearsals), which they assured me it was.

In addition to the usual mind-boggling opulence that is the Garnier opera house, there was a special exhibition of Maria Callas’s stage jewelry, some of it “costume”, some of it very real and precious. Amusingly enough, my dad didn’t have any snarky comments about the luxury here. I don’t think he necessarily had any respect for the people that once (and still) populate these halls, but at least it didn’t offend him with pretenses of helping or representing the poor.

After having been surrounded by the most literal example of the term “encrusted capital,” we decided to look at more congealed wealth by walking down rue de la Paix and across place Vendôme, Paris’s poshest shopping area and where you’ll find all of the most high-end jewelry shops. We stopped in the Piaget shop to ask about the cost of services Piaget watches, because my mother inherited a small 1950s Piaget watch from her mother, which was no longer working. Apparently, it would cost hundreds of Euros just to open it up and give it a good cleaning, let alone fix it, so we smiled and took their business cards and pretended that we could afford it.

From there, we walked along rue St. Honoré, the other super-posh shopping area of Paris, and over to place Madeleine…yet another posh shopping area. We stopped in at La Durée to buy some réligieuses for my sister (and us) and then at the Maille store to get some fancy mustard.

By then it was mid-afternoon, so we dropped by the apartment to leave our tasty purchases and then took a walk around Le Marais to look for a place that would be open for an early dinner before the show. We saw that Chez Marianne was still open, a restaurant in the Jewish quarter that is popular for it’s reliably tasty middle-eastern food. In addition to a pile of olives and bread, we shared a plate with 10 different “elements” from their cold-prep bar, including a fantastic eggplant caviar, an artichoke-citrus salad, and some méchouia (roasted spicy vegetables). The chopped chicken livers with onions, however, was a bit much.

Although the restaurant is apparently run by a Sephardic Jewish family, there was this one guy working at the restaurant that was dressed like some sort of odd caricature of an Ashkenazi Hasidic superstar. How so? He was wearing a wide-and-flat-brimmed black hat that approximated Orthodox dress, along with a full-length black trenchcoat that he never took off while working inside the restaurant; underneath, he had a white woven shirt framed on both sides by a pale blue cashmere scarf (read: Israeli flag) and hanging from his neck was A STAR OF DAVID MADE ENTIRELY OF ICE-BLUE “SAPPHIRES.” I kid you not. If there had been a discreet way to do it, I would’ve snuck a picture of him just to show the world that Ashkenazi bling is possible.

It was time to get ready for the show, so I headed back home to change into a nice suit, while mom went about trying to get my dad into presentable clothes. I was worried that we would be running late, but in the end we got there well before the doors would open, so we walked around Pigalle for a while and amused ourselves by looking at the various porn and sex shops.

We finally got into the Moulin Rouge for the show and…well…it was pretty lame. We had been expecting something closer to perhaps a cabaret, with a charismatic emcee, various burlesque solo acts, some vaudeville acts, all interspersed with the occasional mass dance number. Instead, what we got was a pale imitation of Las Vegas showgirl shows. Now don’t get me wrong, Las Vegas girlie shows can be very impressive and a lot of fun, but the Moulin Rouge troupe wasn’t even copying the formula well. It was easily 70% mass dance numbers, all of which were sloppily performed. My understanding was that the difference between the Moulin Rouge and the strip joint across the street was production values, but the only difference I saw was one of budget. The dancing was never quite in sync, the choreography itself was jerky and inelegant, the music director mistook “upbeat” for “undanceably-fast techno”, the costumes were expensive-looking but unattractive, and so on. Don’t even get me started on the bizarre colonialist aesthetics of the “Oriental” portion of the show. Gah.

Also, as if to rob my father of the only possible upside of the show, most of the dancers were also anorectic and therefore rather cureve-less. And I was surprised to see so many fake boobs in France, a place somewhat known for retaining a preference for natural breasts.

Oh, and my mother and I would like to point out that it’s not fair that the male dancers kept their clothes on.

Anyway, the sideshow acts were still pretty good (tumblers, jugglers, ventriloquists), and the champagne was tasty, so it’s wasn’t a total wash. We left the show around 22h30 and headed out in search of something small to eat before bed. We tried Café Charbon in my neighborhood, but they had just closed the kitchen when we sat down. After that, we gave up and grabbed a crêpe from a nearby stand and wandered around my neighborhood until we were tired.

mercredi, décembre 17, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 5: Buttes-Chaumont, Chez l'Ami Jean

According to the weather forcast, today was supposed to be sunny and somewhat warmer.

Lies!! All lies!

It was cold and wet the entire day, with a fine, mist-like drizzle and a low cloud ceiling the entire day. Nonetheless, this didn’t prevent us from going through with our plans of visiting the Buttes-Chaumont park. My dad’s still a farm-boy in a way, and he loves trees and birds. In particular, he loves walking through big parks and forests and identifying trees, identifying birds, and observing how they grow, what they’re doing, etc. So Buttes-Chaumont seemed like a must-see for him, since the entire park has been arranged in a sort of “English garden” style. That is, the trees and bushes and plants have been mostly arranged to look like a “natural” scene rather than a manicured garden. Also, the whole park covers a steep hillside with cliffs and waterfalls and pools and so on, so the whole thing looks really lovely.

Our walk through the park took pretty much the entire morning, as my dad needed to stop at every tree and inspect it, and then identify all of the birds in its branches. My mom obligingly took pictures of trees he couldn’t identify, presumably with the intent of identifying them later.

After the park, we started looking for a subway station and instead found ourselves near Belleville park, so we walked down the pergola-covered stairs of the park and admired the well-kept gardens, and then kept walking the short distance to my neighborhood. Somewhere along rue Oberkampf, near rue St.-Maur and opposite the very popular Café Charbon, we came across a bistro that I had heard about: Au Pied de Fouet (At the Foot of the Whip). I had been told that it served up solid, no-fuss, homestyle French food, so we dropped in. It was nearly the end of the lunch period (14h00) and they were to close between services, but nonetheless the lady server cheerfully waved us in.

The food was tasty and well-prepared and the service was chatty and casual, which made for a very pleasant lunch. I can’t remember precisely what we had, but I know that my parents both had the “salade de la mer” (seafood and rice salad) as an appetizer while I had the quiche Lorraine. I think my mom had fish as a main dish and I had chicken, but my memory’s foggy.

Anyway, I had to teach my English class that evening and I had a few things to take care of at the UofC center over in the 13th arrondissement, so I sent off my parents to wander around in their neighborhood and otherwise entertain themselves and I headed over to work. After taking care of some paperwork and some errands at work, I headed over to the Ecole des Chartes for class. The plan was to give the students an “easy” class by showing them an English-language movie, so I had rented out the film “You, Me and Everyone We Know” by Miranda July (2005), which I was pretty sure none of them had seen and which focused on the awkward banality of American suburban life—a topic many French intellectuals seem to love (mostly because they like to imagine that it only happens in the US). I quite like the film because it highlights how hard it is to maintain normality, that is, how much effort everybody expends to live a “good” / “normal” life, while trying to make it appear effortless or natural.

The movie deals with some difficult and uncomfortable topics (divorce, teenage sexuality, death, loneliness, kinky fetishes, internet courtship), but there was no nudity and no on-screen violence, so I figured that the movie wouldn’t be particularly shocking to these adult students, considering the sort of scenes regularly shown in cinemas and on TV here in France. What I had forgotten was that, as a grande école this class was largely populated by the privileged and conservative right-wing of the French population, and so their threshold for sex and difficult topics was possibly lower than the general population. Most of the students nonetheless sat through the whole thing quietly, but at least two students stormed out of the class during a scene where teenagers were engaging in oral sex off-screen. I made a point of not looking at the door as they left, so that I wouldn’t know who it was and there would be no suspicion of me “punishing” those who left. Anyway, it gave them something to talk about.

To avoid further discomfort, the other English teacher and I decided not to run a discussion after the movie, and instead let them go home early. From there, we walked back to the video shop to return the DVDs and then went our separate ways. I met up with my parents, who were waiting for me at their apartment, and we got ready for dinner.

Dinner was going to be at a Basque restaurant in the 7th arrondissement that only had a table for us at 22h00, so we had a bit of time to kill. We decided to head over to the Ecole Militaire, so that we could walk along the Champ de Mars and up to the Eiffel Tower. As I had sort of expected, my dad wasn’t particularly enchanted by the thing. He was impressed by its size and construction, but he was completely uninterested in joining the throng of people underneath the tower, waiting to go up.

From there we walked along rue St. Dominique at a leisurely pace until we got to rue Malar, where our restaurant was located. It was nearly 22h00 anyway, so we headed in to see if our table was ready.

The restaurant’s called Chez l’Ami Jean (“Buddy John’s Place”) and it specializes in Basque food from the southwest region of France / northeast of Spain. As you might expect from that region, most of the food involves foie gras, duck fat, smoked duck meat, eggs, and strong-flavored cheeses.

I have only a vague memory of what we ate for dinner, but I recall my mother eating some sort of artichoke puree with bone marrow on top, I had a parmesan cheese soup, and my dad had some seared tuna. The main dishes I barely recall at all, but I’m pretty sure they were stew-like dishes. Anyway, the restaurant itself is a neo-bistro that has haute cuisine aspirations, so the dishes were perhaps “rustic” Basque classics, but the portions and presentation were very precious and the dishes were mostly given fancy twists. While the food itself tasted quite good, I got the feeling that it would’ve tasted just as good without the fancy fuss and at about half the price. Overall, it’s a good restaurant that I would happily return to if invited, but I wouldn’t got out of my way to go there, given the other options in the city.

One of the upsides of the smaller portions, though, is that we all got home satisfied, rather than nauseatingly overfull.

mardi, décembre 16, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 4: Market, D'Orsay, Trois Marmites

Well, after the excess that was last night, my parents were feeling a bit tired. Apparently, the sheer quantity of beans they had consumed had kept a certain parent up all night (the poor thing).

Nonetheless, they got up and walked over to my place this morning to join me for my usual weekly market. We all went together to the neighborhood market and started walking through the stands. We stopped at an artisan charcutier (prepared-meat person, usually pork but not necessarily), where we bought some whole foie gras for xmas dinner and some fine dry sausage for me. Aside from that, I got some vegetables, cheese, pears and eggs for my place and then we bought some basic items for a lunch. We got a big bag of mâche (lamb’s lettuce) and then bought some bread on the way home and pigged out on bread, cheese, salad and vegetables.

Today was the day for the Musée d’Orsay, so off we went to pay a visit to my favourite impressionist and Art Nouveau works, housed in a nineteenth-century train station. There was a special exhibition of pastels, which were gorgeous. I love the bright colours you can get from pastels, despite their smudgy, photosensitive disadvantages. After the pastel exhibition, we looked at all of the major impressionist works on the top floor, walked through the decorative arts sections, and then walked along the main floor to get a look at the massive main chamber.

I was going to show an English-language film for my students the next week, so we all headed over to a video rental shop near Luxembourg gardens to rent out the movie. The shop, called Vidéosphere, has a huge selection of international films, including English-language ones. After a bit of searching and finally asking for some help, I rented out a couple of flicks and headed out with my parents.

We swung by my parents’ apartment to take a break for a while, and then headed over to my neighborhood for dinner at Les Trois Marmites. I’ve been to this place too many times to link to here, but if you do a search on my blog for the keyword “marmites,” you’ll see all of it. As usual, the meal was excellent and my parents were thrilled; the food here is always simple and wholesome, but finely executed. Unlike the previous two days, the portions were large but sane, so we didn’t feel sick by the end of the meal. I can’t remember the details of what we ate, but I recall having an appetizer of a savoury clafouti made of leeks and goat cheese, which tasted like a cross between a quiche and my mom’s lasagna. Tasty!

lundi, décembre 15, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 3: Louvre, Montmartre, Shopping, Chez Denise

We got up relatively early in the morning and headed straight to the Louvre. As much as the Louvre is a beautiful place full of beautiful things, every time that someone comes to visit Paris for the first time, I encourage them to get the Louvre “out of the way,” as if it were a tiresome errand. I’m awfully fond of what is to be found in there, but the Louvre can sometimes be really tiring, mostly due to the massive throngs of people that are also visiting the place.

So, with memories of endless lines to buy tickets and then again to get into one of the three wings, I said, “Let’s do this Monday morning, when everybody else will hopefully be asleep or recovering from the weekend.” It mostly paid off, it seems, as there was only a short wait to get the ticket and no real line to get into the Denon wing of the museum. This may have been partially due to the fact that it was December and thus low season for tourism, but I also think it helped that the ushers at the doors had taken something bordering on an honour system for entry. As you approached one of the three entrances, all you had to do was wave your ticket at them and they would nod. I think that, at some point recently, they decided that it was more cost-effective to just glance at tickets and trust people than to carefully demand and inspect every person’s ticket.

Anyway, we did the major works relatively quickly: Winged Victory, the Mona Lisa, The Raft of the Medusa (Géricault), the coronation of Napoleon, and many others. After an hour or so of painting, we headed over to look at the collection of jewlrey and precious objects in a nearby wing, through the classical Phoenician and Mesopotamian collections and then over into the furniture and decorative arts section. By then, it was well after midday and we were hungry, so I suggested that we went to a place I knew on Montmartre for a salad. We walked along the gardens of the Tuileries until we got to Place de la Concorde, and then hopped on the métro and headed over to Montmartre.

The salad place that I am talking about has been mentioned on here at least a few times before, Le Relais Gascon. It’s a lovely little bistro on rue des Abbesses that serves meal-sized salads in huge ceramic bowls, topped with fried garlic potatoes. The salads aren’t just big piles of leafy greens; most of them also come with heaps of vegetables, meats, cheeses, nuts, and in one case, foie gras and smoked duck breast. The salads were delicious, but (un)surprisingly filling. As you’ll see below, it was perhaps too much and too late (around 2pm), considering our dinner plans.

We headed to the base of the hill of Sacre-Coeur, planning to scale the hill, but it was really, really cold today, so we decided to take the cable-car up instead. Surprisingly, there were none of those West-African and Central-African merchants aggressively selling string bracelets as they usually do. Perhaps the weather made it intolerable, or the low tourist season made it unprofitable. Either way, I was relieved that I didn’t have to fend them off my bewildered father.

Sacre-Coeur was of course lovely and the mosaics were as shiny and glittery as I remembered. But also, my dad’s anti-clerical streak resurfaced as he looked at the massive mosaic of the trinity covering the dome of the choir. “As I get older,” he said, “I’m coming to see the Catholic church and religion in general as a massive wealth extraction machine.” Again out of earshot from my more devout mother, I chuckled and told him that he wasn’t alone in that critique, especially in France, birthplace of modern anti-clerical sentiment.

We headed out of the church and zigzagged down the small streets on the hill and back to Abbesses, where we checked out another art-nouveau church. From there, we headed down rue Lepic and pointed to the café were Amélie was filmed, Les Deux Moulins, and then down to Pigalle. We were right next to Moulin Rouge, so we stopped in to make a reservation for Thursday night. As my mom had explained by email a few weeks earlier, South American men from my father’s generation associate a trip to Paris with the girlie shows of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère, so we decided to splurge and pay the 99€ / person for the show without dinner.

Since we were so close by, I suggested that we head around the corner to my favourite chocolate shop in the world, Denise Acabo’s “À l’Étoile d’Or.” This woman, herself a “character” that dresses up in pigtails, plaid wool skirts, and schoolgirl blouse-and-v-neck combos despite having not been a schoolgirl for decades, collects the “Best of France” of each kind of candy and confection you can imagine: marshmallows from a convent in Dijon, salted-butter caramels from Brittany, bergamot-flavored chocolates from Nancy, and so on. Most importantly for my interests, she is the only person outside of Lyon that is permitted to re-sell chocolates from Bernachon, who is in my opinion the best chocolaitier in France. OM NOM NOM, as the LOLCATZ say.

So, after a rapid tour of all of her wares and sweets, we left with about 100€ in candy and chocolate and we were probably one of the more restrained customers that day. Her store has been “discovered” by many luxury tourism magazines—especially Japanese ones—and she is regularly invaded by busloads of heavy spenders. Anyway, she had run out of her amazing marshmallows, so I asked her to put aside a bunch for me on Thursday, so that my sister would have some to eat when she gets to town.

From there, we realized that we still had some time before dinner, so I suggested that we head over to the grands magasins and check out the famous Christmas shop windows. While we were there (by total coincidence! I swear!), we stopped in Célio and my Mom bought me an assload of new shirts and sweaters, which I declared to count as their Xmas gift for me. I usually find Célio’s stuff like a boring but more elegant version of the Gap, but this season they seem to have discovered some color, so I was happy to expand my wardrobe. Yay! Now I can’t gain any weight this holiday.

Also, we got a nice wool peacoat for my dad, which he sorely needed. He’s the kind of guy that has two or three pairs of pants and wears them until they’re falling apart, despite the pile of brand-new pants that his family has bought him. So he came to Paris with only an insulated hiker’s vest, which did not look so great for more formal restaurants.

We took a leisurely walk along the front of the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps [LINK], checking out the excellent window displays. The theme for Galeries Lafayette was apparently Alice in Wonderland, and the animated displays were really lovely and well-designed to entertain children as well as adults. The Printemps theme was “cosmic dream” or something like that, which I found less impressive. Nonetheless, very pretty.

We wandered through the luxury section of Printemps to see if we could find the La Durée counter that they had in the store, but once we found it, we discovered that they were out of the rose-flavored réligieuses that they are famous for. As we left the store, we couldn’t have known that the police would find 5 sticks of dynamite the next day in one of the toilets in the store.

It was almost time for dinner, so we headed over to Les Halles to walk around the gardens and then over to the restaurant, Chez Denise, to claim our table. If you were reading this blog when I was last living in Paris, you’re probably intimately familiar with this place, but just in case: here, here, here and here are links to my previous visits to the place. And, following in the format from last night’s post, here is my summary of dinner in point-form:

  • Surprisingly, one of the servers remembered me from when I came here two years ago, including even my name. Additionally, he was the cute one.
  • Apéritif? Yes please. Pastis for me and my dad, and Campari for my mom.
  • We had a platter of rillettes as an appetizer, which was just way too large, even for three of us.
  • Both of my parents had the famous haricot mouton (mutton and white bean stew), while I tried the tripe in calvados sauce, which was surprisingly good (I’m not usually a fan of tripe).
  • Considering we had had a late lunch and it was kinda filling, we had a lot of trouble finishing our food. However, my parents just couldn’t leave behind good beans (yes, they’re Latinos), so they were painfully full by the time we were done.
  • We had digestifs, and then staggered out of the restaurant. Between the wine, the aperitifs and the digestifs, my dad was a bit tipsy, so the walk home involved a lot of zigzagging.
  • We walked all the way back to the Marais, just to digest some of the meal, and I kept on walking from the Marais back to my neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement.

dimanche, décembre 14, 2008

ParisFamilyXmas Day 2: Markets, Churches and Shellfish

Sunday is the day of the big market at Bastille, so of course that’s how we started our day. We walked over to the market on the boulevard just north of the Bastille plaza and started our shopping in earnest. I can’t keep track of everything we bought, but there were some roasted chestnuts, fancy dry sausage, Jordanian dates, olives, and fruit of various sorts.

With our arms heavy with various tasty things, we walked up along the boulevard Richard Lenoir until we got to my neighborhood. We walked around my area and stopped at La Bague de Kenza (WARNING: crazy Flash-intensive, browser-crashing site; try this review instead), a fantastic Algerian sweets shop. We bought a ton of sweets (24, I think), a bunch of flavored flatbreads, and an olive loaf. We climbed the 6 flights of stairs to my apartment and made a late lunch out of the breads and olives we had bought, and then headed over to my parents’ apartment to drop off our purchases for the day.

We had reservations that night around 21h00 at a brasserie specializing in seafood, called La Rotonde. It’s located down near Gare Montparnasse, so our plan was to change into some more formal clothes and then wander around the neighborhood between Saint-Germain and Montparnasse.

After my mother and I spent a while cajoling my dad to put on something reasonably formal (he wanted to go in cargo pants and a hiking vest), we headed over to the Sèvres / Babylone métro station and wandered around the original grand magasin (department store), Le Bon Marché (“The Good Market”, but also “good price” or “good deal”). This remains probably the most high-end and non-touristy of the grands magasins; others, all located on the other side of the Seine river, include Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, BHV, and Samaritaine. We only walked through briefly, taking a moment to check out the elaborate Christmas window displays before leaving the store and walking toward the nearby church, Saint-Sulpice.

It just so happened (by total coincidence! I swear!) that the path to Saint-Sulpice goes right by the store of Pierre Hermé, a famed pastry and chocolate maker who is especially well-known for his adventurous and divinely-executed macarons. Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ve described French macarons in previous posts (nothing like North American “macaroons”) but it bears repeating: macarons are little sandwich cookies made of discs of soft meringue and flavoured cream, ganache or jelly filling. When properly made, macarons are soft, bite-sized clouds of AWESOME.

Of course, we couldn’t just walk by the Pierre Hermé shop without buying a few “for the road,” and I rationalized that a little bit of meringue wasn’t likely to spoil our appetites. My parents were rather easily convinced, and I bought a small collection of 6 macarons, including a salted-butter caramel one, a chocolate-passionfruit one, a coffee-flavored one, and a wasabi-grapefruit one. They were gorgeous.

The square in front of Saint-Sulpice had a Christmas winter market running, so we wandered through and checked out the wares available. Most of it was rather tacky tchotchke and/or from areas of the world outside of France (wooden bowls from Africa, “ethnic” jewelry, Southeast-Asian silks, Peruvian alpaca wool products, etc.), so we didn’t find anything to take as gifts for family and friends back home. If you go to Paris for Xmas, the expectation is that you bring back “French” gifts—whatever that might mean. Nevertheless, we did buy some roasted chestnuts and a few tantalizingly stinky Corsican sheep cheese.

We finally walked around the interior of Saint-Sulpice, a massive Baroque church built on a truly grandiose scale. As we were slowly walking around the church, dad seemed to wait until mom was well out of earshot before looking up at the vast vaults and saying to me, “What a waste of space and resources. Imagine the number of people you could house here; imagine the help you could give to the poor with the money spent here.” I wasn’t surprised at his reaction, considering that he had grown up on a rural cattle farm in Columbia and had always been endowed with a practical, pragmatic mindset. But there was something striking about the fact that he gazed at a monument and asked where the humanity was. My parents are hitting the phase in their lives where I sometimes think about what I’ll say at their funerals, and already at that moment I was bookmarking this remark as something that would encapsulate my father’s view of things.

After leaving the church, we found that we still had a fair bit of time, so we took a leisurely walk around the Luxembourg Gardens and eventually down rue Vavin to where the restaurant was. We circled the neighborhood for a while, popped into another church (with a sideways smirk from my father) and then eventually went into La Rotonde to claim our table. The meal was excellent and a great introduction to French seafood for my dad, but it was a pretty simple affair, so here’s the run-down in point form:

  • The main dish was a huge platter of oysters and other shellfish, which all three of us only barely finished.
  • We had a delicious sauternes [LINK] wine, which was a bit expensive but so worth it when paired with the brine of the oysters.
  • We were total gluttons and had dessert, despite the fact that we were stuffed to the gills with shellfish.
  • Including all of that and coffee, the whole thing came to 203€ for three people, 93€ of which was the seafood platter and 50€ of which was the wine.

And, despite the near-fatal doses of protein and phosphorous from all that shellfish, we all made it home OK, I actually biked back from my parents’ place, and I slept like a baby. A very well-fed baby.