Oct. 8: Now it’s really late. The subways shut down at 1:40 AM on Saturdays and we caught ours in the nick of time. It’s been a full day. From the Bastille in the east to the Pont d’Alma in the west and things in between, we have covered a lot of real estate today. We mixed it up with subway rides and lots of swinging from the hips.
With our interest in certain chefs, Ducasse being one of them, we wanted to find his patisserie just as we had wanted to try his bouchon, Aux Lyonaise. In addition to being a chef, Ducasse is an ever expanding entrepreneur. He has a food empire and is well known in France. He developed the patisserie in collaboration with the noted pastry chef, Christophe Michalak. It is in the form of a kiosk, Choux d’Enfer.
Initially the kiosk was located near the Eiffel Tower, but we had heard that it moved to Gare de Lyon. So that is where we started looking. Google maps said we were standing right on top of it, but we couldn’t see it and the French people we quizzed hadn’t a clue. After several minutes of going around in circles we decided to move on to his chocolate factory to get chocolate and also to see if they knew where Choux d’Enfer was.
Choux d’Enfer translates to pastry of hell and since we were going around in circles and couldn’t find our way, we felt like we were in purgatory and couldn’t get out.
We did end up at his chocolate factory, which has a shop attached to it. Both of us are chocolate snobs and think this is some of the best chocolate we’ve ever tasted. We tried to see if the gourmet chocolate shops in Portland could carry it, but our search last year led us to find out that Ducasse doesn’t ship it to the States. When we checked this year, the same (annoying) policy is still in place. Although when you see how small the factory is, it completely makes sense. In fact, his products are only sold at a handful of places in the city.
I am not sure if there are oompa loompa’s working in his factory, but they have a strict policy against taking pictures. Not having realized this, I innocently took some pictures. Dan only informed me later I was totally breaking the rules. In any case, we left with some good snaps and a nice variety of bars to bring home as gifts to our friends in the States.
Dan asked at the factory about where Choux d’Enfer was. The first woman didn’t know what he was talking about. Her colleague knew it existed, but didn’t know anything about it. She was kind enough to track down the factory supervisor and he made a couple phone calls to find out what was up. In short, it had moved from Gare de Lyon to Gare St-Lazare.
His helpful response was typical of what we often see in France these days. It is a common belief that the French in general, and especially the Parisians, are very rude. And we just have not observed this. Like most places we have visited in the world, citizens are proud of their home and delighted to share it with others.
Nearby was the Marché d’Aligre, which is open every day but Monday. We read about it recently on one of David Lebovitz’ blog posts. Since we love David, we figured we would love the market. And our secondary motive was that we might bump into David, even though the chances were slim. I had a plan of going up to him like a long lost friend, if we were lucky enough to spot him. Undoubtedly, he’d be confused and I would remind him we had worked at Chez Panisse (in Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area) together. And then I would suggest let’s go to dinner and talk about old times.
This market included an outdoor market with mostly veggies and fruits: an indoor market, which had more meats and cheeses; and an outdoor flea market. The scene would not be complete without some colorful street musicians in the mix. I picked up a book in the flea market on the environment and turned to a random page. It featured a story about frogs in Corvallis, which is a town 40 minutes from where I live. How’s that for weaving a tapestry in this small feeling vast world?
Being from Oregon, we think of farmers’ market as being farm to table, that is that the booths are staffed by the farmers themselves. In Paris, most of the veggies and fruits instead come through the centralized wholesale market, Rungis. Rungis replaced Les Halles, which was located in central Paris. Unfortunately Les Halles was obliterated. Georges Pompidou wanted an international art center built, which also happened to be a memorial to him, bearing his name. He has an ego.
The market is an interesting enough place that we could have stayed longer, especially when you take into account all the foodie shops surrounding the market, but we had an agenda and so we took the subway to the Musée des Egouts de Paris, the Sewage Museum. We had noticed it a couple years ago in the LP guide, and although it’s not a pretty topic, it’s important to see how humans deal with this part of themselves. It also tied in with the Catacombs and checking out the underground scene in Paris.
We met a fellow American on our walk there who is an architect from San Francisco. He shared with us some of the interesting backstories of Paris icons like the Louis Vuitton and Pompidou Center.
Paris has had six states of development to their sewage treatment through the years. They are traced out in interesting detail in the museum. The Roman’s only occupied what is now the islands and so they had the marshes and swamps, which are currently the Saint-Germain and Marais, to dump their wastes. Channels in the streets came later to deal with human water, rain water, and other garbage. And the progressive development of the sewage system proceeded from there.
The museum was quite literally in the sewage system. We saw a boat that they float down the sewer to clean the line and then we saw the huge ball that they use to clean the sewer connections under the Seine. The size and power of the tools were impressive and when you consider that the plant is designed to deal with 2.2M people’s waste, not to mention all the visitors – you realize it’s an amazing feat (albeit a stinky one).
In most of the tour, we walked on grates above running sewage and as you could imagine, it was an odiferous experience. The TripAdvisor ratings were either a 5 (because it was an interesting explanation of an important modern process) or a 1 (because they complained it stunk).
The museum is located near the Pont d’Alma and underneath the bride is a statue of a Zouave, a French infantry man. Parisians measure floods by where the water level is on his body. It was beneath his feet today, but this spring it was to his shoulders and almost to the level it was in 1910, after the great Paris flood.
Paris gets its drinking water from the Seine, which combines storm water with treated sewage. I am sure the drinking water is extensively treated, but the tap water is some of the worst I have ever had. And boy, it is laden with minerals. You boil one pot of it and you get loads of sediment. I drink tap water with no hesitation almost everywhere I go, including places like Mexico, but seriously, when I took a sip, I thought I was being poisoned.
We took some time to blog and recharge before dinner. yam’Tcha is considered a top rate Asian inspired restaurant and every source we read about it gave rave reviews. Although they purposely choose to not engage much with the digital world. Their website is only one page with very little information. And they only take reservations by phone and they often don’t have the answering machine turned on.
Having been unable to get reservations last year, we were determined for this year. Thirty days before our desired reservation, Dan stayed up until midnight to call them at 9 AM Paris time. He got a busy signal for an hour. Then he finally got through and they told him he was calling six days too early for our desired date. In six days the drama repeated, but ultimately he was successful in obtaining a reservation. With all the effort it took to assure us a spot, we had high expectations on the food and experience delivery.
Getting dressed for the evening, I realized I was missing my hat and probably left it at La Dam de Pic last night. As luck would have it, yam’Tcha was a block away so we stopped in and they had it in their lost and found! Now I was dressed to the nines and headed on to dinner.
Dinner was an incredible experience, any way you looked at it, and worth the drama. There is no menu and basically you can have what they serve with water, wine, tea or some combination. We had never encountered a tea pairing before and thought that would be a lot of fun to try. They even had their own tea sommelier to explain the varieties and curing methods.
The dishes were delicate, but not overly so. They were mostly fish based, which made for a light dinner, yet they combined classical French sauces. It was truly a French-Asian fusion. The four waiters and waitresses worked equally to take care of all of the tables.
Little needs to be said about the lobster tail and eggplant. “Less is more” aptly applies here. The morsel of lobster tail rested upon eggplant that was perfectly prepared. Often, eggplant is either under or over cooked. The chef hit the sweet spot and it melted in our mouth. The sauce was rich and elevated the whole dish to something greater than the sum of its parts. And the purposefully placed greens brought a spark of lightness to the dish.
The curried bao provided another example of how the chef fuses the French and the Asian. The bao, or, as the French would say, les brioches vapeur, are obviously Asian. Then the creamy curry filling wonderfully combines the Asian curry and a creamy French style sauce. The result was delicious. And fortunately for eaters who would like to sample the fare, but not step up for a full dinner, a wide selection of les brioches vapeur are offered around the corner from the restaurant at the yam’Tcha Boutique and Tea House.
On the sweet side, there was the sponge cake. So simply said, but what an exquisite creation. The cake was glazed with a mango sauce and served with mango; citrus ice cream with shaved citrus peels; figs three ways – confit, fresh, and glazed; and topped off with ground pistachios. It could definitely bring even a non-sweet lover to the table.
Finally, I should mention the tea pairing. As we anticipated, it was a lot of fun. Although I would be hard pressed to explain the nuances, they were really very good at matching a variety of tastes and aromas to the dishes – bold, earthy pu-erhs to light, flowery jasmines. It was a delightful alternative to a wine pairing and the perfect complement to the French-Asian fusion. We only wish we could remember more of the specifics. Oh well, another project for the future.
When we left we decided to check out the tea house. It is just around the block and while we figured it would be closed we just wanted to peek in. To our surprise a woman Dan recognized from the kitchen opened up the door and let us in. She said she saw us eating there tonight and wanted to say hello. We were surprised when she introduced herself as the chef. She also introduced her Chinese husband who is her business partner and runs the tea shop. We had thought that the chef was Asian, but seeing she is French explains the fusion menu. Her name is Adeline Grattard, and she grew up in Burgundy, being taught cooking by her mom and grandma. She later married, lived in Hong Kong and traveled in Asia, picking up different cooking influences.
She informed us her menu is so flexible that what is served for lunch on any given day, may not be what is served for dinner. It’s all based on her current inspiration and what she found at the market. We asked her about her lack of web site and any other technology to speak of. She said she prefers the personal touch of speaking on the phone to all who want to eat there. She felt a little bad when we described the saga for someone living near the Pacific Ocean trying to make reservations at her restaurant. Yet, when she explained that a lot of her business comes from Parisians who visit again and again, her policy made a bit more sense.
Adeline was totally hospitable and welcoming and we really appreciated her going the extra mile to personalize our experience with yam’Tcha. She and her partner took time to help us select the right variety of tea that we would enjoy and gave us very specific tips for how best to prepare it. They were both completely down to earth, and started telling us stories about the original restaurant, the tea, the dishes, as if we were friends sitting in their living room. It may not be a stretch to say that they strive to make yam’Tcha feel as though you are amongst family and close friends. We certainly felt that way.
We took a circuitous walk home to stroll by some of the sights that we knew we would not have time to hit during the day. Église St-Eustache where we attended an organ concert year, Pompidou Center, and Notre Dame. The hacky sackers were not there tonight and it was more subdued. But little else is needed, when you have such a glorious and stately church to admire. We caught the subway just in time, since they were about to shut down for the night.