My Most Memorable Restaurant Meal
It took me too long to get to Paris. Too many years, too many reasons not to go. Maybe I was afraid it would not live up to my expectations after years of reading and fantasizing about this almost mythical place.
Then, I finally got there.
I don’t remember much about the trip. DeGaulle airport was a mess, having been bombed by terrorists and still under reconstruction. Not having any Euros and searching for an ATM in a construction site so we could pay for a cab. Typical travel stuff.
The first hint that things were different was that cab and the cabbie, a gorgeous older woman dressed very stylishly, so stylish that my ingrained chivalry, now disdained, had me helping her put the bags into the trunk of the very nice Mercedes she was driving. Everything about that cab ride and driver was as foreign as I could have imagined, in a great way.
And she was just that side of rude to a couple of middle aged Americans who obviously were not chic, not French. Until we got into Paris and our destination.
We had rented an apartment for ten days in the Marais, a district or arrondissement of central Paris, walking distance to all the must sees. It was in a characteristic Parisian building, a l’hotel, which is not a hotel, but a four story building, circa 1880, once a private dwelling, now divided into apartments, some like ours looking into the large courtyard. Tres chic.
As we pulled up to the address the driver looked momentarily confused. Did these provincials actually have an apartment in an expensive district? She became noticeably friendlier and more helpful. By this point, in spite of my jet lag, I was amused at my first Paris attitude encounter. It was mid afternoon as we met the rental agent and climbed an ancient curving staircase to the third floor, the oak steps worn and the curving oak rail with a patina you simply don’t see in the US. We would have cleaned it up too much.
The apartment was lovely, with a contemporary kitchen, which I had no intention of using, and tall windows in the bedroom that opened out into the courtyard. I don’t think we ever closed them. There was a bottle of chilled white wine in the fridge and we sat having a glass, in that dissociated state that jet lag and a new place creates.
Where to eat? Would French food live up to my obsession? All those years with Julia Child’s massive volumes trying to absorb a culture? Not to mention Hemingway, Henry Miller, Picasso and an entire pantheon of those I’d admired growing up while dreaming of being a writer?
After regrouping, my then girlfriend and I decided to get out and find food and see the hood, which she had researched. Here is where this starts to sound like one of those Paris fantasy movies that appear regularly.
During the course of those ten days we had our share of crummy meals, bad cab drivers, and rude cafe staff, but only a very little share. The rude cafe staff loosened up considerably as we stopped there each morning for a cafe creme and croissant (yes, they were excellent). The Parisians we encountered were not that stereotype of French rudeness as I found out when we wandered out to find a meal that first evening.
The research told us that there was a legendary medieval square nearby, the Place de Vosges. A city block from before Haussman’s rebuilding of the city, surrounded by a four sided covered arcade with ancient stone arches. The block itself was paved with stone and there were many people strolling about, no cars, nothing modern except a few neon signs for restaurants along the interior of the arcade. It felt dreamlike.
We circled the arcade twice, looking at restaurant menus posted outside restaurant entries. Many were simply doors in a stone wall (no windows) and we had no way of knowing if they were any good. Finally we just took a chance on one as that jet lag exhaustion was setting in, creating dislocation and a sense of lost time.
During those ten days we did the tourist thing and walked non stop. Walking under the Eiffel Tower was in some ways more magical than the long elevator ride to the top. It is magnificent to look up at it from directly underneath, perhaps my iconic memory of Paris. We saw art, we ate at cafes, we wandered the Seine, we visited gardens- all those things I’d fantasized about for years.
But, back to that first meal. I only vaguely remember what the place looked like, but recall it as a white tablecloth place. A gracious hostess and waiter who helped us order. Our appetizers came. I don’t remember what I ordered but she had fat spears of pale asparagus in a creamy yellow sauce. I watched take her first bite and saw a look cross her face that I could not decipher.
Concerned, I asked her what was wrong. She shook her head and gave me a forkful of the asparagus. When I tasted it, time stopped. It remains one of the best things I have ever eaten, perfect.
At that moment I knew Paris would live up to my dreams.
A note about the Eiffel Tower, le tour Eiffel: it is being painted gold for the upcoming Olympics. It takes 60 tons of paint. It is being stripped, which involves lead paint so the paint job will cost $60 million, easily the most expensive painting project around. And, apparently, when it was built, the designer Gustave Eiffel had it painted red!