Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Last two days in Paris

We kicked off Sunday morning with a stroll down Rue Mouffetard, another pedestrianized food-centric strip similar to Rue Montorgueil, but in the Latin Quarter and with a more student-y vibe due to its proximity to the Sorbonne. What we didn't know was that morning Rue Mouffetard was hosting a flea market with people selling vintage clothes and loads of random old junk and books at tables up and down much of the strip. The street was positively bustling with locals sifting through the clutter, bringing more energy to an already pulsating corner of town.

Again, Terezia was impressed by several of the cheese and butcher shops, as well as a seafood market with a colorful array of fresh cousins from the sea. I wound up buying some medjool dates from a corner produce vendor, which happened to be some of the freshest, softest, more intensely flavorful dates either of us have ever had. Terezia was wowed by the whole scene and wanted to go back.

Last lunch in a Parisian restaurant

After being underwelmed by blah food the day before, we decided to make up for it by budgeting for one last meal in Paris in one of the restaurants on our list. The problem was that the vast majority of restaurants in Paris are closed both Sunday and Monday, and there was really only one place on our list that was open on both of those apparently sacred days: Le Richer.

Le Richer was started by the guy who has been running the apparently wildly popular l'Office right across the street as a more casual alternative. It's basically a restaurant, cafe, and wine bar all in one, and - weirdly for France - it's open all day, seven days a week. Also, it has a 'no reservations' policy, so if you hit it at the right time, you'll get a table and they won't turn you away. The place was refreshingly casual and non-stuffy, with super friendly t-shirt-wearing waitstaff who were happy to help explain the menu items in English.

For the starter, we split what was basically freshly sautéed porcini (or I should say cepes) in a green, creamy sauce with super thin slices of toast, shavings of raw porcini, and a few thin slices of prosciutto. Like a lot of things we've ordered in Paris, it was under seasoned (I'm going to have to discuss this particular phenomenon here soon), but a pinch of salt was all it needed to tie everything together. The porcini tasted super fresh and earthy, and the green sauce was instilled with their subtle flavor.

For the main, I continued the wild mushroom theme and ordered the cod with black trumpet mushrooms. This also came with a narrow strip of a molded potato gratin thingy, which I swear had a chickpea flavor to it, and which had more black trumpets and some other sautéed wild mushrooms draped over it. This was surrounded by a foamy sauce with a dab of something green in it. I usually don't order cod because it's typically devoid of flavor, but in this case its blandness worked as a good base for the earthy flavor of the wild mushrooms. The potato thing, however, had a slightly strange taste that didn't quite go with anything else on the plate - not sure where the chef was going with that. But whenever I had a mouth full of wild mushrooms, I was happy. The cod itself was, you know, cod, but it was perfectly cooked. Oh, and this dish needed a couple pinches of salt.

Terezia's dish arguably came together a little better. She ordered lamb with quinoa. There was a small piece of lamb saddle, as well as some more lamb stuffed inside a filo dough roll. That piece of lamb saddle tasted insanely delicious - but it was far too small! The lamb in the roll was tasty, but not as orgasmically sublime as the other piece. This was a great tasting dish that could have been mind-blowing had the chef not been so stingy with that lamb saddle. Interestingly, Terezia's dish didn't need any seasoning.

Overall, a positive experience. Despite a few quirks, the food was creative and tasty, and with friendly staff and a laid-back vibe, we would certainly go back.

Rainy afternoon = trip to the Louvre

After lunch, we zipped over to Berthillon to have our last ice cream there, since sadly they are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Shortly thereafter, it started sprinkling, so we strolled along the Seine toward the Louvre, and with the rain showing no signs of abating, we decided to go in.

I'd been hemming and hawing about going to the Louvre. As it was Terezia's first time in Paris, I felt sort of obligated to take her there. But I had a funny experience there back in 2009. The place is so impossibly vast, so oppressively and overwhelmingly massive, that there's no way anyone can see the whole thing in one day. You have to be selective and hone in on the things that interest you. That's at least what I attempted to do on my first visit in 2009, but about halfway through I lost my map and then started feeling so overwhelmed that I basically ran out of the place with my arms flailing, shouting I can't take it anymore! Well, not literally, but that's how I felt in my head.

But since the afternoon rain didn't look like it was going to let up, and since the entrance line wasn't too long and was moving at a decent clip, we decided to go for it.

Even with the map, figuring out exactly where you are and where you need to go in the Louvre can be a little daunting. You just have to pull over and orient yourself and really study the map first. We focused on the Denon wing, which houses all the old Italian painters and sculptors (da Vinci, Michelangelo), as well as some great old Greek statues (Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace), and some other stuff.

It didn't take long before we were overcome with exhaustion, and the never-ending sea of people really fueled that exhaustion. But Terezia was happy to see a few Caravaggios in that insanely long hall of Italian painters, and was amused to see how the Mona Lisa, isolated and a bit dwarfed by her massive lone wall, drew such a huge crowd like a rock star. The Italian sculpture room is great, and it's nice to see Michelangelo's orgasming slaves in person. After nearly two and a half hours, all of which was spent in the Denon wing, it was time to leave, as we both had headaches and needed to crash.

Random observations: Perpetually under-seasoned food at Parisian restaurants

Terezia and I have noticed that a surprising number of dishes we ordered in our nine days in Paris have been curiously under seasoned. And I'm not just talking about salt, but also herbs: there were several dishes that were just crying out to have their flavors elevated with some thyme, rosemary, or even a bit of garlic or onions. This left us both fairly perplexed.

I should mention here that Terezia and I are absolutely not the kind of people who dump huge amounts of salt on everything. In fact, for Terezia's job at the embassy residence, her employers were very conscious of their salt intake, and Terezia always had to strike the right balance and she knew where to draw the line with the salt. Also, when Terezia trained at the French Culinary Academy, her instructors were definitely more bold when it came to seasoning and herbs, and that made an impression on her, but also left her assuming that the French approach seasoning and herbs with more gusto.

Terezia has shown me how sometimes just a pinch or dash of salt is all that's needed to bring a dish to life or to tie everything on the plate together. And it's that pinch of salt that an alarming number of dishes we had in Paris were missing.

We'd love to know what the deal is with this chronic under seasoning. Most restaurants in Paris have salt out on the table, so perhaps the prevailing attitude is to let the customer season to his/her taste? But this was certainly not something we found in Italy, where the best dishes were often aggressively (but still tastefully, perfectly) seasoned.

It's as if the Parisian chefs prefer to mute their flavors, rather than unleash them. They're aiming for Mozart but we're expecting Coltrane. This was something I experienced when eating out in Paris back in 2009 - but that was pre-Terezia, and I wasn't always necessarily aware that a particular dish was lacking a bit of salt or could have been made better with certain herbs. To me some stuff just seemed a bit bland, and I wasn't always entirely sure why.

At any rate, we're curious to see whether this is just a Parisian thing, of if this trend will continue on our trip as we make our way south.

Last day in Paris

We made a point of tackling two things that had yet to be checked off our "to see" list. The first order of business was for me to finally go inside Notre Dame. You see, all week, the line just to get into the damn place was a trillion miles long and always wrapped python-like around the square in front. I refuse to waste my time in Paris waiting in epic lines, so I just kept thinking we'd come back another time. When we were waiting to climb the cathedral's facade and tower, Terezia walked into the cathedral interior while I held our place in line (and this is a line worth waiting in). Since it was before 10:00 AM, she was able to waltz right in. But by the time she'd gone in and out, I didn't want to risk losing our place in line for the tower, so I stayed put. And every time we saw the cathedral on subsequent days after 10:00 AM, there was that dreaded never-ending line, and I just didn't have the patience for it.

So, Monday morning we made a point of getting there at about a quarter to 10:00 and sure enough, we just moseyed on in.

It was kind of interesting to compare it to cathedrals like St. Stephans in Vienna, the interior of which is still pretty fresh in my mind. Surprisingly, Notre Dame actually felt slightly smaller inside than I remembered it, though still very impressive. But I think I prefer the gloomier, grittier interiors of St. Eustache or St. Severin. They're more intimate, less polished.

Next on the list: Eiffel Tower.

I never made it up this thing back in 2009. Every time I got it together to make it out to that end of town, the lines were already miles long, and I refuse to waste my time in Paris waiting all day in line when I could be enjoying some other part of the city. We had actually been by the Eiffel Tower a few times over the last week but were discouraged by either long lines or blah weather and left. This time, with the sun out and the weather gorgeous, we were determined to hit the place by around 10:00 and brave whatever line had formed. We wound up waiting only about 15 minutes in the line to climb the stairs (as opposed to taking the elevator) to the second level. If you want to take the elevator, the wait is notoriously epic (and it costs a lot more), and you'd have to have rocks in your head to waste your last day in Paris standing around in line for that.

Making the ascent was a breeze, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise, I suppose, since both of us do loads of cardio. We briskly climbed to the first level, but walked up to the second level at a more leisurely pace, in part because we got stuck behind a line of people who were taking it a bit slower. Which was fine. Once at the second level, we took in the insanely lovely views of the city. It still boggles the mind how vast Paris actually is. To just see nothing but seemingly never-ending city in every direction is truly impressive.

Having already been to the top of Tour Montparnasse, we didn't feel compelled to go to the highest point of the Eiffel Tower. Besides, the line for the elevator to the top (since from that part there are no stairs) was insane. I think the second level view is probably better anyway, because you're still extremely high, but close enough to be able to make out the details of the surrounding buildings. It was also fun to see the tower's intricate web of iron work up close.

After climbing back down and exiting the tower, we noticed that the line just to climb the stairs had already grown exponentially from when we'd arrived, so good timing on our part!

After that we zipped over to Rue Mouffetard to get a quick and cheap to-go lunch (we split a panini, a savory crepe, and two small dessert crepes) that we could take to eat in the lovely Jardin du Luxembourg. We basically just chose the crepe/panini joint with the most students eating at it and went with that.

I'm not a massive fan of severely manicured French gardens, but Jardin du Luxembourg is still quite nice, and it felt great to bask in the sun in those non-anchored down green chairs and people watch. It looks like lots of locals eat lunch there on their lunch breaks, which is exactly what I'd do if I worked nearby.

There are apparently different zones for specific activities in Jardin du Luxembourg. Dogs are only allowed in certain sections, people can only play cards in a designated area, and eating in certain parts is apparently forbidden. We sat and ate where hordes of locals were all eating, before relocating to a more central spot in the sun where no one appeared to be eating. A very orderly park.

We then took one last stroll through the Rue Montorgueil area, and another through the peaceful backstreets of Montmartre, before heading back to the apartment to get ready for the next leg of our trip: Lyon.

Terezia and I were deeply sad about leaving Paris. It really is in our opinion the coolest city either of us have ever been to, and if given the chance to stay, we'd take it in a heartbeat. It's such a genuinely inspiring place, bursting with so much life, and so visually stunning, that we don't see how anyone could get bored there. For me, nine days just isn't enough. We had tentatively planned on doing a day-trip to Chartres while in Paris, but we were so overwhelmed by the city that that plan was quickly scrapped. We are obviously coming back, it's just a question of when.

Click here to see the full set of Paris photos!

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