Paris

Another blisteringly fast TGV ride and we arrived at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Instantly, I felt a wave of familiarity crash over me as I stepped off the train onto the platform. There’s nothing quite like it; whenever I revisit a place I’m filled with the confidence gained whilst I was previously there. It almost makes me feel at home. I have the quick step and limited patience of a local that knows where they’re going and just wants to get there. It’s a feeling that, even after just a week of being in completely unknown places, I fully embraced. Paris, how I missed you.

Our first day was spent walking all around the Marais, the neighborhood where our apartment was, over to Bastille than up to Les Halles in the 2nd. Our first stop was at a really awful, touristy café somewhere in the 4th. An order of frites and sangria reminded us for the first time since Nice that just because we’re in France doesn’t mean everything is good (I won’t even go into the charcuterie platter I got on Rue Saint- Honoré or the cheese plate shared at a jazz bar).

After that, my vegetarian friend had a craving for snails, of all things. Our handy, tourist-friendly guidebook told us L’Escargot Montorgueil in the 1st was the place to go. We figured if escargot is in the name of the restaurant, it must be good. Lo and behold, a giant golden snail actually sits atop the marquee. We ordered a dozen snails: six cooked in pesto, six in blue cheese. With snail tongs in one hand and a tiny fork in the other, I dived in and started going after the snails ensconced within their shells. Some were a bit tougher than others to remove, almost as if in their deceased, delicious state they still knew where their final resting place would be. This was the first time I had snails from the shell and, honestly, it’s not worth the effort or the price. There just wasn’t enough flavor for me to justify it.

After a week of traveling, we went to our first vegetarian restaurant, one of the most highly recommended in Paris. Le Potager du Marais was packed at 6:00pm. We were lucky to get a table as we squeezed into the tiny space provided to us. It was as small and sparsely decorated as most vegetarian places I’ve been to in the States. I was just happy to finally get some French onion soup. Covered in a floating layer of congealed cheese, it was perfect; everything I love about that soup. My companion got the beef seitan stew, which was pretty good, as far as fake meat goes.

The next day brought a trip to Huitrerie Regis, an oyster bar in the swanky 6th. My goal was to get a taste of Belon oysters, which are supposedly the best in the world. At €60 a dozen, they had damned well better be. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any when we visited. Instead, we ordered a dozen of the medium Fines de Claires and a dozen of the large Spéciales de Claires, plus a half dozen shrimp. The oysters were incredible: plump and juicy pieces of meat unlike any oysters I’ve seen in the States. Usually oysters are a starter or a snack. This was a full meal. I wish I had the same feelings about the shrimp. This might not be very “foodie” of me, but I’ve never peeled and deveined shrimp before this. And you know what? It’s not worth it. Shrimp is not good enough for all that work.

One of the most memorable experiences was at an Armenian/Iranian restaurant along a stretch of student restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, upon review of our trip notes, we realized neither of us had written down the location or name of this place. However, the story has to be told, it was too surreal. The food wasn’t anything special; I had a lamb shish kabob which was surprisingly spicy, but besides that it was all pretty standard.

Then the entertainment started. As we entered the establishment, we were greeted by a man whom I believe was the owner dressed in what I can only assume was some traditional outfit: bright red Prince of Persia-inspired pants and a bright red jacket topped with a bright red hat. At the back of the dining room in front of the kitchen, a keyboard was set up with a black and white poster of a gentleman with a horrendous mullet. Much to our delight, said gentleman soon came out and powered up the keyboard. He picked his favorite preset beat and started singing songs with a vague Middle Eastern sound.

As he unironically sang right in front of a poster of himself, the owner started dancing and trying to pull people out from the tables to dance with him. He persuaded a woman sitting next to us to dance alongside him, until he turned to face her and started acting in a not especially appropriate manner. As this is happening, two of his stunningly gorgeous daughters come out from the back. One had been our server; the other was taking off her chef’s whites. They started dancing and laughing and drawing patrons up to dance also. The whole experience was so incredibly bizarre. We just took it all in as we finished our bottle of wine. No, we didn’t dance.

For Sunday brunch, we went to Le Loir dans la Theiere, a cafe in the Marais. Besides the food, the draw here is the decor. The interior is plastered with knick-knacks, abstract art, theater posters and huge Alice in Wonderland murals. Quite an interesting mix of decoration. Something new caught my eye whenever I lifted up my head from the ongoing parade of food set in front of me. The fixed brunch menu gets you coffee, juice, three types of toast, a croissant, a chocolate croissant, three types of jam, a fruit cup, yogurt and poached eggs with mushrooms. An incredible amount of good food that kept us going most of the day.

On our last night we went to Rue des Rosiers, home to four or five falafel places. The most popular place, L’As du Fallafel, was closed. Instead we went to King Falafel Palace. It was incredible. A nice gooey mess of a pita stuffed chock full of actual falafel, not the three or four pieces you get at places in New York. Red cabbage, eggplant, cucumber and crispy onions rounded out this delightful experience. If this wasn’t the best falafel place on Rue des Rosiers, I might need to make a special trip back to Paris just to try the best.

Our last day was spent mostly in the area around Gare du Nord. Our train to London didn’t leave until 6:00pm, so we had a lot of time to kill. As luck it would have it, it was pouring rain. After a brief shopping excursion to Champs- Élysées, we returned to the station wet and starving. A little bit north of the station is a whole mix of Indian and Bangladeshi shops and restaurants. My friend remembered a place she had previously been to and remarkably led us right to it.

Due to our state of being wet, cold and wracked with hunger pangs, I neglected to write down what I had. Rest assured, it was the best damn Indian food I’ve had (yes, I’ve eaten Indian in London, no I haven’t been to India.) Krishna Bhavan is a vegetarian Indian restaurant with two locations directly across the street from each other. The larger, fancier looking one was already full by the time we got there. By the time we left its smaller, run down cousin across the street, it was full also. Not bad business for late afternoon on a Tuesday. The service was a bit slow and the menus confusing, but it was all worth it.

Since we still had several hours until our train left, we decided to end our trip to France in the classiest way possible. As we sat in an Irish-themed pub inside Gare du Nord for hours reading and wasting time, we ordered a large plate of frites and their cheapest bottle of red. Thank you, France.

The Markets

Wherever I travel, I try to make it to the local markets. The camaraderie between the proprietors and the relationships they’ve built with their regular customers is always a joy to watch. Oh, and the food, of course. I’ve spent hours wandering markets, just observing. I love everything about it: the contrasting colors, hand-written chalkboards, free samples, mountains upon mountains of fresh food. Using the markets as a resource makes me feel just a little bit less like a tourist and more like a local.

Our first market experience was in Les Halles of Avignon. An indoor market, we were there early enough that some stalls weren’t even completely set up for the day. We had to step through a small pond over by the fish guys as they were still unloading the day’s catch. It was a weekday morning, so it was slow and most of the vendors, while friendly, seemed a bit bored.

We bought a small assortment of food for lunch. Carrots, French breakfast radishes, a local soft cheese and a full baguette that stuck stereotypically out of the back of my bag. All fresh, all organic, all incredibly delicious. For lunch we just sat down on the steps of the square in front of the Palais des Papes and had a small picnic.

We had a kitchen in Lyon, so our first full day there we went to the farmers’ market. This was my favorite market of the three we visited. It was a long corridor of stalls and vendors stretching along the east bank of the Rhône. We saw a lot, and I don’t think we got through half of it. It was a Saturday morning, so the market was bustling and all the vendors were in full selling mode. Sensing we were tourists, they would joke with us as we walked by, poking fun at our lack of French language knowledge. The woman we bought salami from was particularly joyful and jesting.

We bought a lot. Melon, strawberries, onion, garlic, white asparagus, three types of cheese (including a hard cheese that lasted us through Paris and the local Saint-Marcellin), two types of bread, two types of salami (one pepper and the other chèvre, both lasted through Paris), potatoes, olives and eggs. Everything except the strawberries was top notch. The eggs were especially amazing. I’ve never had eggs quite like them. I used them for a scramble and the textures and deep flavors produced were something I’ll never forget. Our haul saved us a lot of money. We were able to scrape together at least six meals, all said and done.

The Bastille market in Paris was a bit, well, Parisian. The vendors were much more cosmopolitan and clad mostly in black. They were brusque in their dealings, preferring to sell you what you wanted without a lot of small talk and niceties. I purchased eggs, spinach, peppers, mushrooms, grapes, raspberries,and two cheeses which included an amazing Camembert hand picked by the fromager. For bread, we made a daily stop at the local boulangerie and picked out whatever looked best. An olive loaf was a particular stand out.

Conclusion

All in all, the trip reinforced some viewpoints. First off, no matter how much France’s culinary scene is maligned or how many people prefer Spain’s gastronomic movement right now, France still knows what they’re doing. They make excellent food, be it traditional, ethnic or part of a new wave of techniques.

Secondly, slow food is all it’s cracked up to be. Here in the States, we’re always rushed when we go out to eat. If our waiter doesn’t come with a minute of us sitting down, we’re huffing impatiently and calculating how much to take off their tip. I much prefer the style of sitting down to a nice, long, relaxing meal. What does it matter if it takes 20 minutes between plates? Have some more wine, take in the ambiance of the place, people watch, have a conversation. Not only does it make the experience more memorable, the food is better. Instead of a crew rushing to get your food plated only to sit under a heat lamp, I would rather have the cooks take their time and make sure the dish is up to their standards before sending it out.

Finally, local, organic, seasonal food is king. I know this is a huge movement here in the States, but traveling brought it to the forefront of my mind. Sure, it costs a bit more and you’re restricted in what you can eat, but that’s how it should be. Bioengineering has given us a luxury that is not in our best interests, no matter how you look at it. Since I’ve returned, I have tried to follow this movement to the best of my abilities. The food I’ve prepared for myself has been healthier, more ethical and much better tasting. If you have to travel abroad to realize this like I did, there’s no place better to go than France.

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