Saturday, October 11, 2014

Even more Paris: Saint Chapelle, Le Comptoir du Relais, Tour Montparnasse, and one of the best records stores I've ever set foot in

Next on the list of stuff to see was Saint Chapelle, the Gothic chapel not far from Notre Dame known the world over for its beautiful and mind-bogglingly intricate stained glass work that gives off the effect of standing in a massive jewel box. Frustratingly, this time Saint Chapelle turned out to be kind of a bust: nearly a third of its windows - including the big, round rose window on the western facade - were totally covered with scaffolding.

Frequent European travelers know that wherever they go on the continent, they can expect that at least a few of the things they really want to see will be covered in cladding. It's a necessary evil (and a photographer's worst nightmare), but it's just an unavoidable part of the European experience these days. I just wish that certain monuments would let people know before paying to see certain things that part of what they want to see is all covered up, or in the case of something like Saint Chapelle, where an essential part of the monument is obscured, I wish they'd at least offer a discounted price. And Saint Chapelle is already overpriced - €8.50 a person - considering how it's really just one big room that you can see in 15 minutes.

This is what we saw instead of the lovely rose window. Would it kill them to put a sign up to warn people about this?

So, I was a bit bummed to bring Terezia here at a time when she couldn't get the full effect. But she still appreciated what you could still see and the effect is still visually striking. Oh well - maybe next time.

Lunch at Le Comptoir du Relais

We decided to meet Randy for lunch at Comptoir du Relais. For those who don't know, Le Comptoir has become one of the most wildly popular and hyped restaurants in all of Paris. Some of the write-ups about this place warn that reservations for dinner have to be made 4-7 months in advance. Fortunately for lunch you can just walk in, but you have to get there just before noon when it opens, as getting there any later will require you to wait in a growing line. This place has been hyped to death and its chef, Yves Camdeborde, has become one of the most highly revered in the whole city. Le Comptoir is the kind of place that's been elevated so much by all the high praise that cynics like me have to wonder whether it will actually live up to the hype.

At any rate, we met Randy there a bit too early at 11:00, anticipating an early-bird line, but there wasn't one, so we strolled over to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg and sat around on the chairs they have there before heading back at a quarter to noon. When we got there, there was still no line, but a small gaggle of other diners started queueing up behind us. The next 10 minutes felt like 10 years, but when we were finally let in at noon on the nose, we were seated at an awesome table wedged in a corner with a huge window view of the street.

For the starters, Terezia ordered a small croques monsieur with salmon and caviar, I got the escargots (I wanted something tasty but light), and Randy got what was basically raw, sushi-like salmon with a kind of cream and clumps of pickled onion. All three were great, but I thought Terezia's was the best. The way the salmon melded with the melted cheese was heavenly perfection.

For the main dishes, Terezia ordered one of the specials of the day, which was basically extremely tender chunks of stewed veal in a kind of mustard-based sauce which came with a small scoop of mustard herb ice cream on top. The waiter told her this was a special dish that doesn't make it on the menu often. It had an incredibly unique flavor and the taste of the veal was to die for. This was nothing like that uber-bland, crappy veal dish I got several nights earlier at La Cantine de le Cigale. This was bursting with flavor and it was well seasoned too. The mustard sauce almost threatened to overpower the meat, but once you started chewing, the tender meat's rich, earthy flavor came through in spades. The mustard ice cream melted and fused with the sauce, adding a kind of creamy element. This was a creative, flavorful, and well-conceived dish.

I opted for the braised lamb shank, which came in a sauce with a side of couscous with these massive, plump, juicy prunes and apricots. I wasn't wild about these sides at all (not because they were bad; I'm just not wild about cous cous and prunes), but the lamb shank was cooked to perfection. It did, however, need just a tiny pinch of salt, but once that was taken care of, we were in business, and this was probably the best (juiciest, most tender and flavorful) braised lamb shank I've ever had. And I just love how the flavor becomes richer and lambier the closer you get to the bone. I even dug the bit of marrow out of the end of the bone for that little dab of intense lamb flavor. I have to say, in terms of the entire dish, the lamb saddle with wild mushroom dish we had La Cantine de la Cigale was definitely better, but this was still totally satisfying.

Randy ordered a lamb chop that came in a sauce with white beans and bell peppers. He was coming down with a sore throat, so we didn't sample each other's dishes, but he seemed pretty content with it.

To drink, we shared a mini-bottle of house red that suited the dishes perfectly.

Overall it was an incredibly fulfilling meal. We would come back. But did it live up to the hype? Well, I can't say that these were the most mind-blowing dishes I've ever had, but they were extremely good. So, yes, it was absolutely wonderful, and it was a fun experience overall. Also, Le Comptoir is probably best judged for its impossible-to-get-a-table dinner services, where diners eat solely from a special €50 prix fixe menu devised by the chef each evening. I suspect those may exhibit a little more personal flair and creativity from the chef. But we're not the kind of people who are willing to eat at a place where a table has to be reserved half a year in advance, so we may never experience that.

Tour Montparnasse

After lunch, the sky cleared in a totally beautiful way, so we decided kind of spur-of-the-moment to head down to Tour Montparnasse, the big, black eyesore skyscraper in the middle of the Montparnasse borough that sticks out like a blackened tooth because it's not anywhere near the other, much further out clusters of skyscrapers (like La Defence). At 59 stories high, Tour Montparnasse is about as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and you can quickly ascend the elevator all the way to the observation deck at the very top, but without the epic, hours-long lines at the Eiffel Tower. Some say the view from Tour Montparnasse is even better than the Eiffel Tower simply because you can see the Eiffel Tower and not Montparnasse.

At any rate, the views are truly spectacular, and it's just mind boggling to see how vast Paris is - and it's not even the biggest city in Europe. Yet it seems to go on forever - even from the top of Tour Montparnasse you can't really see an end to the city's outer sprawl. The cityscape is beautiful with its dense clusters of jagged, uneven rooftops and occasional spires and domes, and the broad, lengthy Haussmann boulevards that run through the city like arteries bring a sense of order to Paris' messy web of a street plan.

After Montparnasse, we zipped back across the city for some amazing ice cream from Berthillon before strolling through the Marais back to the area near the Pompidou and Les Halles to check out a record store I'd read about and somehow missed the last time I was in Paris...

Monster Melodies

When you open Monster Melodies' heavy door, it makes an unnervingly loud metal-on-metal screeching noise as it scrapes against the floor. Once inside, you're faced with a split-level deal, with an absolute mess of secondhand turntables, amps, and other audio gear on the lower level, and densely packed and narrow aisles of LP racks on the upper level. Boxes stuffed with LPs stacked randomly in some of the aisles make the dimly lit record section a fun obstacle course. In some cases, boxes of more LPs and 7"s are sitting atop the records in the racks. Every available inch of wall was covered in LP covers.

I found a kind of 80s/alternative section and quickly honed in on the most stunning and massive Smiths collection I've ever seen in one record store. This place had nearly every Smiths 12" single, and I probably could have completed my collection all in one shot in this very store, except for the fact that the prices were through-the-roof outrageous. They wanted €50 for most of the singles, which is just an insane amount of money to charge for these - as rare as they are - especially since if I'm patient I could find the ones I want in the US for $20-ish a pop. Plus, I have no way to get these records home safely. They also had a shockingly impressive Go-Betweens section - a band whose LPs are notoriously difficult to find - and loads of other super rare records by other bands I love as well. In terms of stock and the sheer volume of super elusive LPs, this was simply one of the most amazing record stores I've ever set foot in - save for the crazy prices.

Randy wound up getting into an impassioned conversation with the owner about a French artist he's really into named Alain Bashung, at which point Terezia and I took off and headed back home (with a pitstop on Rue Montorgueil for some figs and a baguette). But I'm still salivating thinking about this record store.

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