Thursday, May 24, 2007

Paris, again

Berthillon - 3 stars
29, rue St. Louis en l'Ile, 75004

La Chope Daguerre - 1 star
17, rue Daguerre, 75014

Gérard Mulot - 3 stars
76, rue de Seine, 75006

Bistrot du Dôme - 2 stars
rue Delambre, 75014

Poilâne- 3 stars
8, rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006

As I get older, I seem to spend more and more of my time trying to recapture moments and sensations from my past. I was just in Paris for three days on a business trip, and on the first evening I walked through the drizzle to Denfert-Rochereau, the neighborhood I lived in during the summer of 1993 and most of 1994. Denfert is a generally unexceptional neighborhood, with few attractions and virtually no tourists, and few Parisians would spend time there unless they lived there. And yet I visit at least once every time I go back to Paris. I walked around the old streets, paused to look up at the shutters of my old apartment, and ate dinner in one of the local brasseries - tuna in a sauce with capers, asparagus, carrots, and white rice, preceded by a green salad. The tuna was overcooked and generally mediocre, but the salad, while decidedly average for France, was better than at most restaurants in the United States - soft, almost velvety lettuce, lightly coated in real French dressing (olive oil, vinegar, and a little mustard as an emulsifier - not the stuff sold under that name in bottles in the U.S.). Then I walked back to my hotel.

Why did I visit Denfert? What was I hoping would happen? I have little desire to relive my time as a graduate student in Paris. I didn't realize it then, but looking back I realize that I was depressed a lot of the time, although there were certainly days that I was happy, especially at the beginning when everything was new and exciting. Why do I visit Berthillon for the wild strawberry sorbet (which I have sometimes described as the best food in the world), and a list of other places, every time I go back to Paris? I'm obviously trying to capture the feeling of an earlier moment in my life, to bring back to life a distant memory, although often those memories are more bitter than sweet. Denfert is where I lived when I was depressed; Berthillon is where I went with the longtime girlfriend I didn't marry, to sit on a bench and look across the river at the Tour d'Argent, a famous (and, by published reports, not so good) restaurant we could never afford to eat at. I looked in the window at La Maison du Miel, where you can taste more than twenty different flavors of honey (differentiated by the flowers among which the bees are raised), where my girlfriend and I used to go; but I didn't go in, because I never eat honey these days.

I have no desire to go back. I am pretty certain that I have never been happier, at least not as an adult, than I am now, with a wonderful family (my wife and I haven't had a fight in almost ten years) and almost the best job I could imagine in the business world. Maybe I just long to be younger again. Or maybe those memories are precious even though they come from a less happy time of my life, simply because they are part of me. I even find myself longing for the memories that are gone forever - like the first day I set foot in Paris, back in 1991, or the first day I spent there with my girlfriend in 1993, or the first day I visited with my wife in 2003. But in any case, each time I go back to Paris, I find myself retracing the same steps, and wondering why.

One of the places I always go is Poilâne, which makes by reputation the best bread in the world. I went there my first morning in Paris, to get the usual - a croissant au beurre (why anyone in France ever gets a croissant ordinaire I have no idea) and a tartelette aux pommes (small apple tart). While they are good, they are not as exceptional as the complex, dark, crusty sourdough pain Poilâne for which they are famous, and which is perhaps even better than the sourdough from Acme Bread in Berkeley.

I always go to Gérard Mulot, near the Eglise St.-Sulpice, in the Paris neighborhood where I would love to live - assuming I knew anyone in Paris - and where the desserts, if not that much better than anywhere else (the most ordinary patisserie in Paris can make a strawberry tart that you cannot find in the United States except at a handful of bakeries run by French people or a handful of very expensive restaurants), is at least as good as you will find anywhere. This time I had a raspberry tart, which was sublime, and an orange tart, which was actually too sweet and a bit too dense for an overmatched crust.

This time I ate dinner at the Bistrot du Dôme, the (slightly) cheaper sibling to the Dôme, a famous seafood restaurant on the boulevard du Montparnasse, where the salad of arugula and grilled langoustines was spectacular, while the grilled daurade (I can never translate the names of fish) was simply very good, its tender white flesh flaking away from the bones just the way it is supposed to.

I ate at some other places, but they don't really deserve mention, except for the bizarre cone-shaped pizza I ate in the Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for my flight home (which was, surprisingly enough, quite good).

Someday I will go back to Paris with my daughter and take her to all the places I remember, and perhaps we'll find someplace new to visit.