Oct. 9: I write this piece from a plane, flying from Paris to Lisbon. It’s about a two hour flight and, knowing an entire other country and culture awaits us when we land, we have to make the most of our time for blogging. But let me go back to yesterday morning.
We had planned our day in northern Paris strolling through Montmartre, but since Tour Montparnasse was a block away, we started there. From the outside, it’s a very ugly building, and out of place with its surroundings. On the upside, if you get to the top on a sunny day, you get a great view.
The elevator dropped us off at floor 56 and we walked three more stories to the rooftop. It was a different vantage view from being on top of the Arc and we spent some time identifying our favorite places (and others we’d love to visit) and soon enough we were carrying on.
The Metro dropped us off near the islands and we headed straight to Sainte–Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is a gothic chapel that Louis IX built in the mid-13th century. He commissioned it to house his collection of religious relics, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns, which was one of the most important relics of Medieval Christendom. He was devoutly religious and was eventually canonized by the Catholic Church, as Saint Louis. Sainte-Chapelle is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the royal palace complex that was on the Île de la Cité.
What really is spectacular and sets this church apart from others is the intricate and extensive stained glass. It has one of the largest stained glass collections anywhere in the world. If all you saw was the bottom floor, which was the “modest” parish church, you’d be in for a treat. When we went upstairs to the chapel itself and saw the 90 feet high walls almost entirely decorated in stained glass, it stopped us in our tracks. ‘Twas like being inside of a kaleidoscope!
There are fifteen windows, each one telling biblical stories. Each story is comprised of about 70 different panels. All in all, there are 1,130 individual stained glass scenes. Dan and I were both impressed that 70% of the glass is original from the 13th century. Later on, after we stepped outside to admire the stonework, one thing we noticed is that the stained glass is nothing spectacular from the outside. So please go inside and do so when the sun is shining. Although what was spectacular was that as we stepped out we could hear above the hubub of the city the church bells ring from Notre Dame just across the Seine.
A couple blocks west, we went to a bird market. During the week it is a flower market and some of those booths were open as well. On Sunday it has a weekly bird market. Lots of junk was being sold, but if you could look beyond the junk, there were many cages of birds. Although there were common European varieties, the gaudy tropical ones caught our eyes. Each cage was filled with a certain colored bird and together they were a chirping rainbow. Electric green parrots and peachy orange canaries and so much more.
We did a quick walk through the flower market which ran parallel to the bird market and the shop, Maison de Orchid was a show stopper. A large room filled with everything orchids – very captivating!
To save time, we took the subway up to Gare Saint-Lazare. We were in a desperate quest to get out of purgatory. As sequel from yesterday, we were looking for Choux d’Enfer. Dan spotted the fancy kiosk immediately and like little kids we gleefully ran across the plaza to see the offerings. There was a variety of choux pastries, which are small puff pastries with different fillings, either savory or sweet. We each made a selection of four savories and one sweet. They were good, but not as good as the choux we got at yam’Tcha last night. And in and of itself, not really worth a quest that spanned two years (with an 11.75 month break in there). But we were pleased at having successfully accomplished our mission and should we be in the area again, we might have a snack there.
At this point, we were in the 9th and headed up to the 18th, via Rue d’Amsterdam. Once we got to Montmartre, we planned on using Rick Steve’s Montmartre walk as a guide, knowing we would adapt it to suit our needs. We were actually approaching Montmartre from where he ends his walk, so we basically were doing it in reverse.
We started at Moulin Rouge, and passed by Van Gogh’s old home and Picasso’s art studio. Locals and tourists abounded on this sunny Sunday. Maybe that was an understatement, because certain plazas were shoulder to shoulder full of tourists. Our walk wove together some famous spots and some quieter narrow cobbled streets which gave us a sense of Montmartre’s humble village beginnings.
The plazas were scattered with street musicians and artists. Melodies carried through the air above the usual hustle and bustle. Particularly lovely was some traditional French accordion music. Place du Terte was a market comprised completely of artists including at least 80 portrait and caricature artists. You can’t imagine such a concentration of caricaturists. I have no idea how they could make a living, even with the throngs of tourists. But maybe they were into it for the joy of the experience.
To get a little breathing space, we took a side street to go to the Monmartre Museum. The museum commemorates the writers and artists who helped shape the neighborhood in the last 100 years. It’s housed in two 17th century homes with a garden in between. One of the homes is the oldest in Paris, which felt very special to us. The first home was the old residence of Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo. We went into her studio which had been recreated from her days in the early 1900’s. Valadon was certainly one of the people who helped shape Montmartre.
Starting as a 15 year old in 1890 she posed as a model for such notables as Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. She was in high demand as a model, but, being talented herself, she made the transition to painting and was very accomplished. She became the first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts at the end of the 19th century. Although we enjoyed seeing her work, we were really interested in learning how woven she was into the art scene as a model, muse, lover, and artist herself.
The other home was filled with art that depicts Montmartre’s evolution from an agricultural and mining region to the 18th Arrondissement of Paris. The windmill at Moulin Rouge is from the old days of it being a flour mill. And gypsum had been mined from here, around the same time the limestone was being mined from southern Paris, creating the catacombs. The museum adjoins Paris’ last remaining vineyard, Clos Montmartre. In fact, earlier that morning, I had read about their once a year event where people come and crush grapes with their feet. It had happened just a week earlier – we missed it!
Today Montmartre is such an integral part of Paris that it is hard to believe that it was a separate village at the turn of the 19th century. However, it was a rough and tumble place that lived by its own rules. For example, it was a popular place for drinking. Since it was not a part of Paris, it was not subject to the same taxes, in particular the taxes on alcohol. So drink was cheap. Today drinks are available at the many bars and cafes, but the ambiance is considerably more gentile and the prices are comparable to the rest of Paris.
After our tour of the Museum and its grounds, we took the Metro down to Saint-Germain, where our favorite restaurant, L’Atelier St-Germain, is. We arrived about 25 minutes before they opened and we waited in line, knowing that those in front get seated in the far end of the bar. From former visits, we have determined the far end of the bar is the best seat in the house. The line grew as more people arrived. At least half of them made the effort to come to the front of the line and cut us off, with some offhand comment like “excuse me, but we have reservations”. I fiercely held my ground and directed them to the back of the line.
The hostess opened up the door, and we were greeted by all the waiters behind the counter smiling and calling out bonsoir. I was truly surprised when the sommelier whom we had met last year greeted us enthusiastically saying “it’s great to have you back.” It stands to reason I would remember him, from my one time of seeing him. But, I am sure he has seen thousands of people since twelve months ago, and I just couldn’t believe what had just happened. I had excused myself to use the ladies room and when he and Dan conversed, he stated “how could I forget La Madame.” I was grinning from ear to ear when Dan relayed this to me. And when I sat down, they greeted us with a complimentary plate of beef carpaccio. They certainly were paying attention when it comes to the finer points of customer service.
L’Atelier St-Germain just has all the elements buttoned up for a fabulous dining experience, which could explain why it has two stars and Étoile has one. The restaurant is busy, which adds a certain energy to the experience. And while the wait staff is hustling, they do so in such a way that doesn’t seem rushed or off putting.
None of the courses we had in the tasting menu were repeats of L’Atelier Étoile. Joël Robuchon’s dishes have a certain style to them, so we could tell “this is Joël’s” but with his broad use of ingredients as a palette, he can create endless combinations of delectable dishes.
Some of the dishes that we had were the same ones that we had last year. For example, we had Chocolate Temptation for desert. It is a dish that exemplifies Joël’s use of layers and textures for both sweet and savory dishes. It was just as good this year as it was last. In fact, we understand that this signature dish has been repeated every night since the restaurant opened. In any case, we were pleased to repeat certain of his classics. And at the same time we enjoyed some new (at least to us) dishes.
For example, the veal sweetbreads were simply delicious. They were studded with fresh laurel leaf for a little extra flavor and served with a stuffed leaf of Romaine lettuce. Now some people really don’t go for organ meats (these sweetbreads were probably the thymus of a veal calf), but let me tell you, they are missing something. The preparation was perfect and the sweetbreads were rich, firm, and delicious.
Another excellent, new-to-us dish was the grilled Saint-Pierre or John Dory. This firm, white fleshed sea fish was prepared with sweet onions from the Cévennes region in south central France and served with a creamy avocado and coriander sauce. Oh my gosh, essence of delicious, white fleshed fish. And the picture gives you an idea of how one can eat a nine or ten course meal as we did. A degustation, or tasting menu, with someone like Joël, is a set of small portions exquisitely prepared and presented. Each course gives the diner a chance to experience the chef’s art in a particular way. No course is so large as to be overwhelming or too filling.
I recall last year the sommelier, Benjamin, responded to us telling him we are from Oregon, with “that’s super, Oregon has excellent wine.” Now in our dreams, Benjamin may have occasion to come to Oregon or elsewhere in the States. We let him know that if he does, please email us. We would love to give him tours of the best wineries and restaurants. I could sense that he was genuinely touched that we had made such an offer and he made notes on the back of Dan’s business card. We also let him know we both travel to NY on occasion, so if his life brought him there instead, we’ll meet him there and there’s no shortage of fine restaurants to indulge in. Now we just need to wait with bated breath for an email from Benjamin!
We walked back home, a little bittersweet that our months of Paris planning were drawing to a close. But pleased with all we had experienced in the City of Light in the past five days. And affirming that our ritual of having Joël as our “Last Supper” was a wise and delightful ritual to engage in.
We packed up, jars of mustard and heavy books and all, and conked out knowing that after four short hours, our alarm would wake us up and we’d need to get a move on to Portugal.