Oct. 5: Aaaahh – The City of Light. How invigorating it is to be back in the City of Light. It hasn’t taken long for Paris to move to the top of my list of favorite places. For hundreds of years, it has charmed people from all over the world. And I have officially joined the “Oh, I am just in love with Paris” club.
So here we sit in our apartment in Montparnasse, which has an excellent view of Tour Montparnasse and a sort of view of the Tour Eiffel. It’s been a long day. Let me go back to the beginning.
Dan spotted me as I exited the baggage terminal at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and we excitedly greeted each other. We took the train to Paris, which took just under an hour. As we headed south to Paris, the train got busier and my excitement mounted with each passing moment.
We caught a subway connection to Montparnasse, a neighborhood in the 14th arrondissement, on the left bank. Our apartment was a mansion by Parisian standards, perhaps it was about 500 square feet. Any apartment where there is room to walk without hitting the furniture is a mansion by local standards. The one funny thing about this Airbnb is that it looked like the owner, Adrian, stepped out for a few minutes. His closets and dresser were stuffed full of clothes and the freezer was full of food. And the mail piled up, which I find very curious (as in, doesn’t he need to have access to his mail on a regular basis).
But hey, the shower had great pressure and I lavished under the warm water without guilt to work out the kinks from being on a plane across the big pond. Dan was thoughtful enough to have an array of snacks ready to consume. I plopped myself on the couch and he sliced some cheese and paté and served them along with yogurt and kombucha. He had remembered the health food store in the Marais where we found kombucha last year and had stocked the fridge full of it.
Based on how perky I felt, it was hard to believe that I just finished a sixteen hour trip. I was fortunate enough on the second leg to have two unoccupied seats in my row, which allowed me to lay down and catch some shut eye. So indeed, I was ready to rip!
As usual, our TDL was ambitiously long so without hesitation, we were on the Metro to the 8th arrondissement. We were off to see some icons, the Arc de Triomphe & Tour Eiffel. It happened that Dan’s French school was there a couple of blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, so he knew the route like the back of his hand. I was eager to climb the Arc and enjoy the park at the Eiffel Tower – both quintessential Paris activities – but first we were going to have lunch and do a little Parisian food shopping.
Pre-trip, I had researched Patricia Well’s book, Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, and some gourmet food shops in the 8th sounded irresistible. Caviar Kaspia, which has been around since 1927, is a caviar shop downstairs, with a restaurant upstairs where we had lunch. We split some pierogis and then we each had some blinis with smoked Scandinavian salmon and a dollop of crème fraiche. Very nourishing after airport and airline “food”. We also each had a serving of sturgeon caviar with mine being served atop a baked potato. The ambiance was elegant old school wooden paneling with antique plates adorning the walls for a decorative effect. Most of the patrons were French, which is often a good sign. It means we found a place that the locals approve of.
We stepped out on the Place du Madeline and walked to the other gourmet food stores. All of them are a stone’s throw from Caviar Kaspia. Walking into Maison de la Truffe, actually Kaspia’s sister shop, provided us with the experience of being overcome with the distinctive earthy aroma of truffles. If you haven’t had the pleasure of smelling truffles, it’s impossible to accurately describe it (sort of like, attempting to describe the smell of vanilla). If you know what truffles smell like, then I bet you are just drooling with envy as you read this. They had fresh ones and all sorts of preparations with infusions. Oils, mayonnaise, potato chips, nuts, mustards. It was hard to choose, but I picked up some truffle infused macadamia nuts and called it a day.
The next stop was Boutique Maille, a mustard store that sells mustard the old fashioned way, on tap. Yes, you read that right. You buy a crock with a choice of three sizes and pick out the flavor mustard you want. Of course they let you sample them, to ensure you have the perfect accompaniment for your meals. There were also additional flavors in jars that lined the wall and I couldn’t resist grabbing a saffron mustard to take home. How good would that be on a mustard greens salad in the winter? This company was started in 1723 in Marseilles. Maille was chartered by Louis XVI in 1769 as the king’s mustard maker. They’ve been at it a long time perfecting and expanding their recipes.
Place du Madeleine surrounds l’Église de la Madeleine which in its current form was designed as a temple to the glory of Napoléon I’s army. Although it would have been interesting to enter, remembering our ambitious TDL we opted for carrying on to the Arc de Triomphe.
Last year we didn’t get to climb the Arc, although we made a noble attempt. This year, I wanted up. We entered on the outside of the Charles de Gaulle ’Étoile, which is a traffic circle fed by twelve streets. Then the staircase took us through a tunnel which emerged at the foot of the Arc. We got our tickets and up we went 284 steps, which translates to 160 feet to the top. There was a little museum on the way that provided some interesting history, but I was really there for the view.
The Arc is taller than anything else in the nearby vicinity and it afforded us a sweeping panoramic view of all of Paris. From the Bois de Bologne on the west to the Bois de Vincennes to the east, Sacré-Coeur to the north and the Eiffel Tower to the south. We had fun spotting all the landmarks we knew and loved and had explored in previous times. One thing we realized was how many buildings have rooftop gardens. There is just a lot more green than one would expect on roofs and it was a delightful surprise.
When we got down, we saw preparations being made for an event that included both adult and children’s bands, all of whom were buzzing around with great excitement. We would have loved to see the show, but didn’t want to wait for another hour so we carried on.
Now this will sound funny, but I knew I would need a nap after my trip. So part of my grand plan was taking the nap by the Eiffel Tower. It seems only reasonable that every visit to Paris would include an Eiffel Tower stop. Having our rough itinerary laid out for the next four days, I knew that today was virtually the only day to fit it in. And I came prepared by bringing a blanket from our apartment along with us.
On a different day (one where I didn’t just step off of a plane), we would have walked from the Arc. Today we opted for a tuk tuk ride, so I could conserve my energy. Our cab driver was Alain and he took great pleasure in being our tour guide. He was very entertaining and well spoken. Some of his sharings we already knew, but he also threw in some new factoids for us.
He took our pictures at the Eiffel Tower and we set ourselves up in the little strip of sun that was left for the day. I cuddled in and I had not a clue as to how many offers of champagne and wine from street vendors I had received or how many birds were hopping around on my legs. When I finally woke up because I was too cold, Dan asked me if all that action was bothersome and I didn’t even know it had happened!
It was getting to be dusk and we navigated the angular Parisian streets back toward the Arc. Joël Robuchon’s second Paris restaurant, l’Atelier l’Étoile, is located a half a block away. Both restaurants are L’Ateliers, which seems to be his trademark for many of his restaurants spread across the globe. Joël’s L’Atelier Saint-Germain is the one that started it all and as a result it has more notoriety. We thought it would be fun to compare and contrast the two. So having our first supper and our last supper in Joël style, like a pair of sumptuous bookends, was what we planned on.
The L’Atelier concept was inspired by the theme of tapas served in a casual setting. In Joël’s case, it’s been translated into small plates of haute cuisine. I will not try to describe all of the plates that we enjoyed, but will mention a couple. We started (pour commencer) with a unique palate cleanser and teaser – a lemon vanilla gelée with anise seed cream. From the pictures you can see the different layers and textures in the dish. Eating them together maximizes the feeling and texture in the mouth. We have noticed that Robuchon uses layers and textures like this quite often and quite creatively.
Another of the dishes was a delicious black cod cooked with a piquant herb sauce and served “en civet”. And no that civet is not the stinky mammal. It is a manner of cooking in red wine with onions and bacon to produce a thick sauce. The cod was served with a few perfect baby leaves of spinach. As a tasting menu should, it clearly established the kitchen’s cred with fish and sauce.
The caramelized quail was another tasty treat. The quail was delicious in its own right. I also have to mention it because it was served with mashed potatoes. To be specific, that is Joël Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes. Properly speaking they are really a purée and are pretty incredible. They have a pound of butter for every two pounds of potatoes. They are rich, but you can’t resist them. Pretty amazing what a skilled chef can do with very simple, every day ingredients.
The food was outstanding, but the service was not as dialed in as we have experienced at the Saint-Germain atelier. The servers were young and while we give them credit for being friendly, they were inexperienced and the timing was just off. We were also struck by the fact that they were unaware of the Saint-Germain location, when we asked questions about comparing them. Maybe that is fine with Joël, but since it is one of the most famous restaurants in all of Paris (any cab driver or hotel clerk is familiar with it), we still found it strange that the wait staff had not heard of it.
This being said, the food made a fine welcoming meal to Paris and here are some more pics to get your mouth watering.
The autumn air was cool and crisp and we decided to walk down the Champs-Elysees to the Seine for about half an hour before catching the metro back home. Dan and City of Light – it’s SO good to be here again, in many ways, I feel at home.