Eating in Paris

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Sunday, July 4, 2010

It is now possible to take the high speed train from Amsterdam and arrive in Paris 3 hour 10 minutes later thanks to recently upgraded tracks in the Netherlands and Belgium.  To celebrate, Thalys, the train company, has been running some great deals, of which we took advantage the first weekend in July.  We left on Thursday afternoon, arriving in time for dinner, and arrived back in Amsterdam late on Sunday.  For this trip we decided we just wanted to wander the neighborhoods, stroll along the Seine, and eat some wonderful meals.  After all, if one can't eat wonderfully in Paris, something is definitely wrong!

Our challenge, though, is that we really aren't the 3 star Michelin type of diners.  Many people looking for the best food in Paris make reservations weeks in advance at the creme de la creme restaurants where the chefs were celebrities before there was such a thing as a celebrity chef.  These are very fancy restaurants where it is necessary to dress formally, where there are waiters standing by looking over your shoulder to be ready to serve your every need, where the food is exquisite, both in presentation and taste, and the bill will be several hundreds of dollars.  We don't like dressing up; we don't like people hovering about; and we don't like spending more on one meal than on our hotel room and train ticket combined.  However, we do love exquisite food.  And, this weekend, we found it.

Our hotel was in the Trocadero neighborhood - just a short walk to the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees.  After checking in we walked around the neighborhood, looking for a restaurant crowded with French people.  We found a lovely Italian(!) place with lovely fresh pastas and risottos and Melanie's favorite French dessert - chocolat fondant - the little chocolate cake with the liquid center!  Amazing!  Unfortunately we have managed to lose the card of the restaurant so we can't share the name, but it is on Avenue Raymond Poincare.  If you start at Place Victor Hugo and walk away from the Eiffel Tower it will be on the left hand side.  Look for the crowd!

On Friday we had lunch reservations at Restaurant La Cordonnerie, a wonderful little restaurant which is only open M-F and is fully booked all the time. The weather was nice and, in addition to eating strolling was on the itinerary, so we decided to walk to the restaurant.  An hour and 1/2 later, we arrived, very hot and ready to be inside with some cold water.  This cozy restaurant was started by the chef's father and mother in 1964.  With only 6 tables, plus a few outside when the weather is nice, it maintains it's intimate family feel.  And the food!  Spectacular!  It was creative, but not overly so.  Melanie chose an appetizer of pink melon mousse with mint and pepper(!).  It was actually more of a foam than mousse; incredibly refreshing with a little kick at the end from the pepper.  Chris' appetizer was fresh chanterelle mushrooms beautifully sauteed in a lovely mixture of herbs.  He had a wonderful slowly cooked shoulder of pork (roasted 8 hours) for his main course and Melanie had roast chicken with a sauce made from a reduction of raspberry vinaigrette.  Dessert for Melanie was strawberry mouse (again, more like a foam) with fresh raspberries inserted throughout while Chris had a chocolate masterpiece of warm chocolate cake with cold mousse on the inside.  All this was accompanied by a small carafe of cool French rose wine.  Yum!

We had taken a very late reservation (2:00 and perhaps a little late by French customs) and were the last people in the restaurant, so we had an opportunity to spend some time chatting with the chef, Hugo Wolf.  In addition to telling us the history of the restaurant, and his philosophy (it should be comfortable and friendly and taste good; no need for music or anything fancy) he gave us a great recommendation for dinner the next night.  We would definitely recommend going here, but have your hotel make a reservation a day or two before by phone for lunch and several weeks ahead for dinner. Although Hugo's English is perfectly fine, he told us that responding to emails in English is just too time consuming so trying to make a reservation this way just won't work.

Continuing our eat and stroll theme, we left the restaurant and wandered into a church around the corner.  As you can see by the pictures, it was a really pretty church, but not one that is on the tourist map nor as spectacular as Notre Dame, for example.  From there our stroll took us to the Louvre courtyard where people (Melanie included) were cooling their feet in the fountains.  

We had signed up for a wine class (in English) for the evening, and strolled over to O Chateau next.  We had expected something quite serious based on our previous experiences at the professional wine events in Italy and Burgundy.  However, this class was not quite like that.  When we arrived, each seat had a listing of the wines we would taste, which also served as an "order card" in case one wanted to buy the wine.  Little alarm bells - this might be more marketing than learning.  After the 1st tastings we noticed that, although there were a couple spittoons, we were not encouraged to spit out the tastings.  As the instructor said, "It's ok to get shit-faced." Hmmm, we thought, will we really learn something or is this like the frat party version of a wine tasting?  

The reality?  This class was the perfect mix of fun and serious.  It focused on French wines only and the importance of terroir (the place where the wine is from) to French wine making.  We learned how to decipher the labels (AOC), which locations have, in general, the better price/quality ratios for which types of wine (Provence has the best roses), whether synthetic and screw on caps are a good or a bad thing (it depends), and whether to continue aging a wine that tastes good now (if it tastes good now, drink it!).  We also learned a lot about the difference in philosophy between those advocating for small traditional wineries vs. the bigger, but consistent production.  We got a take home cheat sheet to help us remember all the tidbits we might forget and the people running the program didn't even remind us to turn in our "order sheets", so this was definitely not a marketing ploy.  If you want a fun way to learn something about French wine in a very low pressure environment, this could be a great class to take.  Not too serious, but you will learn something - and you can get shit-faced if you want! :-)

We, however, did not overindulge.  We didn't spit every taste, but we did dump a few of the less memorable glasses.  We left the tasting feeling fine and ready to for the 2 hour stroll back to our hotel.  We walked along the River Seine where we saw plenty of picnickers enjoying the Friday evening with friends.  It was a beautiful and pleasant walk, except that it was still really, really hot- especially after we left the river.  The last 1/2 hour was tough, but we made it with a minimum of blisters and felt we had at least worked off part of the day's indulgences.

On Saturday we had a leisurely buffet breakfast (a 27 euro/pers value, which we got free - as the hotel reminded us at least 3 times!) before deciding to walk down the Champs-Elysees, eventually reaching the Musee de L'Orangerie.  We had been attracted to the building in our walk yesterday (entering momentarily for a bit of air conditioning!) because of the temporary Paul Klee exhibit there.  What we did not realize is that the museum was actually built specifically to house a series of Monet paintings.  On the ground floor are two adjacent large oval rooms whose walls are covered in Monet's garden.  Monet had envisioned the space as a place of contemplative retreat in the center of an overly hectic city; a place where urban people could escape the stress of the day and relax in a peaceful setting.  

After the museum we wandered to the Hotel de Ville (town hall), and had a picnic sitting on the edge of a fountain there.  There were several happenings on the Place de Ville.  One was an exhibit about the French resistance which was very interesting - especially for Melanie who is always amazed to learn how much she doesn't know about history.  The 2nd surprise was a really fun series of mechanical things that were set up for people to play with.  It's impossible to describe, but the "machines" illustrated various mechanical concepts such as levers or pulleys and the like.  All were made from bicycle parts and the idea was to use the machine to move an object, like a small ball or toy car, somehow through the machine.  Anyway, it was fun seeing kids and adults working hard to win the machine's game. 

Our fine dining experience for today was Hugo Wolf's suggestion, River Cafe.  This restaurant, which is on a boat docked just outside of Paris (only 3 stops from the Eiffel Tower on the RER), seems to attract two sorts of crowds:  1) People who have been coming there forever and 2) people coming for special occasions (there were several parties on board).  We arrived without reservation (not recommended) and under dressed, but were still able to have a table on the boat's small outside deck.  Since this restaurant is technically not in Paris it doesn't seem to get many tourists.  The wait staff are young and nice, but clearly not used to speaking English (and you all know, already, we have zero French skills).  This was not an issue as they did have an English menu and were able to provide translations for the daily specials, but getting detailed answers to Chris' litany of questions simply wasn't going to happen.  It was probably more awkward for them than for us though.  The food was wonderful, again.  Inventive, but not too much.  We shared an appetizer of 3 gazpachos - cold soups made with, for instance, avocado and lettuce, for one, and 2 other interesting combinations.  Melanie had a beautiful grilled sole and Chris had duck with the most amazing caramelized cabbage.  For dessert we split a chocolate mousse with raspberries.  Yum! Yum!

Sunday started with another leisurely morning, a good workout at the hotel gym and exploring the Trocodero neighborhood.  And what would a trip to Paris be without a gourmet picnic?  For our final meal of the trip we got ooey-gooey-stinky cheese from Marie-Anne Cantin  a traditional baguette, couscous salad and 1/2 bottle rose wine from Provence, followed by a small luscious raspberry tart.  All of this was acquired in stages as we wandered more or less aimlessly in the neighborhood and down to the river.  We bought the cheese and baguette at Public Drugstore by the Arc de Triomphe; couscous at a deli that we only entered to use the WC, not expecting to find wonderful middle eastern salads; the wine at (are you ready?) Palais de Tokyo/Musee d'Art Moderne, where, by the way, one can also purchase ice cold cans of Asahi beer for $3 and the tart at a small neighborhood bakery.  All was enjoyed on the banks of the River Seine on a sunny 4th of July before taking one last stroll by the Eiffel Tower and heading back to the train and home to Amsterdam.

So, are you hungry now?  If so, here are Melanie and Chris' tips for eating good food in a European country and avoiding the more touristy options:

What to avoid: 
* Restaurants sporting a statue of a fat smiling chef with a "Thumbs up"
* If the biggest selling point is that the menu is in 4 languages that really might be the best thing about the restaurant
* If it's empty and it's normal meal time, there's probably a reason it's empty
* If it's full of people with cameras, reading guidebooks, looking at maps, wearing baseball caps and / or speaking loudly in English, it's probably highly touted in one or more guidebooks.  Maybe this is with good reason or maybe the restaurant is milking that guidebook entry for all it's worth.
* Every major European city has at least one "restaurant row" filled with mostly empty restaurants with friendly staff standing outside asking passers-by if they'd like to come in and have a seat.  We joke that these fellows are casting for clients and are just waiting to "reel 'em in".  Maybe you'll get lucky; more likely it's a tourist trap.

So, how does one find a good restaurant?  Look for restaurants that are:
* Crowded with locals (speaking local language, dressed as if just left work, mixed group of couples, friends - relaxed, looking like they go there all the time) 
* Only local language menus visible, or maybe English too.  See what to avoid, above.
* Daily specials written on a blackboard in local language 
* Do some research before you go.  TripAdvisor is good for this as are many other travel websites.  Are there a large number of reviews or only 2-3 (which might have been input by friends of the owner).  Notice who is writing the reviews. Are the reviews all Europeans or, even better, (for France) French?  If there are a lot of reviews, the ratings are good and the reviews are local it almost doesn't matter whether you can read them or not - as long as you're comfortable with the possibility a similar language barrier at the restaurant itself.
* When walking by, look at what people are eating. Does it look good?  Do people look happy to be there?  Does the restaurant smell of good food when you walk in? 

While these tips are not foolproof, they can at least increase your chances of finding something of better quality.  

Bon Appetit!
Melanie and Chris
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