Saturday, March 11, 2006

Paris, La Defense, Courbevoie

March 7-10, 2006

Lina's - 1 star
CNIT building, La Defense

La Brasserie du Faubourg - 0 stars

L'Estivals - 2 stars
58, rue Montorgueil, 2eme

Poilane - 3 stars
8, rue du Cherche-Midi, 6eme

Cacao et Chocolat - 1 star
29, rue de Buci, 6eme

Au Vin des Rues - 2 stars
21, rue Boulard, 14eme

Berthillon - 3 stars
Ile St. Louis, 4eme

Gerard Mulot - 3 stars
76, rue de Seine 16eme

Perre Herme - 3 stars
72, rue Bonaparte, 6eme

It's amazing how much polite cheerfulness there is in the high-end retail sector in Paris. Everywhere you go you get a "bonjour monsieur" and a "je peux vous aider?," and then you get a "merci monsieur" when you hand over your money, another with your change, and another with your actual goods, all capped off with an "au revoir" and a "bonne journee" on the way out the door. Sometimes you even get the long forms, as in "je vous remercie" (that would be like saying "I thank you" instead of "thanks"), or "je vous souhaite une bonne journee" ("I wish you a good day"). All provided by perfectly dressed, thin French women with such cheerful smiles you feel like you really made their day just by buying a croissant. (Of course, the opposite is true of cafe waiters, who are almost exclusively men - is there a connection there?)

And all this in a city that I think no one would characterize as either particularly friendly or particularly happy. Looking back, it's clear to me now that I was depressed when I lived in Paris - not surprising, given that I was a graduate student with uncertain prospects, not a lot of money, and not many friends in the city besides other graduate students in similar circumstances, in a city whose architecture is always monotonous and gray and whose weather is the same for most of the year. So these days when I do go I try to place a premium on enjoying myself, which usually involves some combination of food and soccer, since Paris is where I first started watching professional soccer.

Plan A was to leave on Saturday (a Saturday night "stay" saves you about $1,000 in airfare), arrive late on Sunday afternoon, check in, and go straight to the Parc des Princes to watch PSG-OM (that's Paris-St. Germain vs. Olympique Marseille), one of the classic matches of the French soccer season. As it turns out, the match was moved to 4 PM for security reasons, and Marseille sent their reserve team in what was essentially a huge snub to PSG (and the reserves even managed a draw). More importantly, though, I moved my flight back by two days because my dog fell ill again.

As you may know, Dauber almost died last May from an acute attack of pancreatitis that required a stay in the ICU, and we only nursed him back to health by feeding him a few tablespoons of egg whites, potato, or boiled chicken every two hours (any more food at once and he would throw up). As recently as Sunday a week before I left, he was walking four miles a day (an hour in the morning, half an hour in the early afternoon, and an hour in the late afternoon.) But he threw up Tuesday, started throwing up regularly on Friday morning, couldn't even keep water down by the afternoon, and threw up green bile every few hours starting Friday evening. So at 3 AM we took him to the hospital so he could get an IV and pain medication. When we visited him on Saturday night he was stable but still weak, but it seemed likely that he would survive, and by Sunday evening he actually seemed angry to be there (the doctor reported that he kicked the food they offered him out of his cage). So we brought him home on Sunday night and took turns feeding him egg white and potato overnight.

By Monday morning, when I flew to Paris, it was clear that he would still be alive when I came back, and during the week I was away he got stronger and stronger, although he is still a long way from recovered. And so I began the fourth of five consecutive weeks of travel.

Because I missed PSG-OM, there was mainly just food for entertainment, although for the second year in a row I did manage to make my one trip to Europe during a Champions League week, which meant I could watch the last 20 minutes of Barcelona-Chelsea (the other 70 minutes were sacrificed to work) and a monumental goal by Ronaldinho, and most of the 4-0 clinic Lyon put on against PSV Eindhoven (DaMarcus Beasley's team, for those American fans). Watching real soccer, and hearing the sound of a soccer crowd, makes the variety we have in the U.S. seem slow, boring, and unimportant.

As for the food, I'll pass quickly over Tuesday, which I spent working in the hotel at La Defense, headlined by a passable tuna sandwich for lunch and a truly bad salade nicoise (beets? carrots?) for dinner at one of the omnipresent bar/bistro/brasserie/restaurants. The sales call was Wednesday afternoon, so lunch was a cafe sandwich (one of those times when it's tough to be a semi-vegetarian, because you can't eat the croque-monsieur for old time's sake). Tim, John, and I did have a moderately good dinner at L'Estivals on rue Montorgueil, the pedestrian zone just north of St. Eustache (at the west end of Les Halles), where the rouget with olive oil and basil was light and only slightly overcooked (although the tarte tatin was rather sloppy and had those inedible bits of the apple surrounding the core). Tim and John needed to rush off to the airport, so we didn't have time to find a more distinguished restaurant.

Thursday, though, was the day for making the tour of my favorite places. I began at Poilane with a croissant au beurre and a tartelette aux pommes. The best thing at Poilane is the bread, a pain au levain so dense and flavorful it makes everything else seem pale by comparison, even Acme in Berkeley (the second-best bread in the world), but the croissants do melt in your mouth like fresh butter (which, basically, is what they are). Cacao et Chocolat was actually disappointing this time - the hot chocolate too syrupy and sweet, the cake also sweet and rather uninspired.

I usually try to eat at least once in Denfert-Rochereau, my old neighborhood, at one of the restaurants I didn't go to as a student because I didn't have enough money. This time it was Au Vin des Rues, a very typical wine bar - small and moderately smoky (Paris seems less smoky in general than twelve years ago, which I guess is progress), where most of the people know each other, and with a menu heavily focused on meat - which is not so great if you don't eat land animals. (The salad with soft goat cheese even came with sliced duck breast.) The herring filets and the salad were hardly the best things I could have found for lunch in Paris, but they still exhibited the kind of care you have to pay a lot for in the U.S. - real French salad dressing (not that balsamic vinaigrette nonsense that is all the rage in the U.S.), buttery leaves of lettuce, etc.

After lunch, and a coffee break on the boulevard Montparnasse, I made my pilgrimage to Berthillon, whose sorbets count as my favorite food in the entire world - probably followed by the pizza in Naples, and bruschetta made the right way. They don't have wild strawberry until April, so I tried blood orange instead, and when it exploded on my tongue I decided I liked it even more than wild strawberry. Imagine the best blood orange you've ever had, and then imagine it about ten times as as concentrated, with enough sugar to balance its natural tartness. Per ounce, of course, you pay about 10 times as much as you do at Ben and Jerry's in the U.S., but it's entirely worth it.

The final stops were at Mulot for a wild strawberry tarte and at Herme for macaroons to bring home - chocolate, coffee, chocolate/coffee, rose petal, grapefruit, and passion fruit. The tarte was actually slightly disappointing because it didn't quite live up to my high hopes for it, but it still had that crust with pastry cream melting into it that you just don't find at home, at least not often.

There isn't much to say for Friday, which I spent flying home, except that the croissants you get in the train stations in Paris are better than any you can find in the U.S. (even in Berkeley), where they are uniformly too dry and too fluffy, and generally too much like bread. And Dulles finally has a passable place to eat, though it's a bit pricy - Vino e Volo, a wine bar with decent appetizers and snacks, and drinkable glasses of wine starting at $6, next to gate C4.