Monday, October 13, 2014

Paris con't: A morning with Imodium, crepes in the Marais, modern art in the Palais de Tokyo, and a day of blah food

Thursday night was rough. For the previous day or so I'd been getting these very mild, occasional, brief, fleeting stomach cramps. I was popping Pepto Bismol tablets here and there, but the cramps were infrequent enough that they really didn't slow me down. But the bug I apparently had reached its crescendo Thursday night, when I spent an inordinate amount of time on the toilet shitting liquid and then fighting off some fairly serious fever chills. The next morning I felt exhausted and achy all over, but the chills were gone, so I headed to the nearest pharmacy for some Imodium and the problem seemed to go away.

Shockingly good crepes

Still, by noon that day, I was hungry, so I hadn't totally lost my appetite. But I really needed something light - not another full-on french meal. So, we opted to have what Rick Steves and others have called the best crepes in Paris at Breizh Café, a small place on an unassuming corner in the Marais. So, after an awesomely pleasant morning stroll through the Marias' picturesque narrow streets, we popped into Breizh for lunch and grabbed one of the last tables. The clientele appeared to be a mix of French-speaking folks and tourists.

The waiter brought a small, handwritten card with some specials of the day, one of which was a crepe with chantarelle mushrooms, which I clearly had to order given my love of wild mushrooms. Terezia got one with chorizo.

Technically what we had were actually galettes, because of the way the crepes were folded - square, with the sides folded inward, leaving an exposed hole at the top, at the center of which was a poached egg. Both came with raw milk gruyere for the cheese. My crepe was easily the best savory crepe I've ever had in Paris or anywhere else. The chantarelles were fresh and packed with their forest-y flavor, and I savored every bite. Terezia thoroughly dug her chorizo crepe too. Both of us would easily come back. A great, inexpensive lunch option.

After the crepes we split a small piece of extremely tasty hazelnut strudel from Chez Marianne on Rue des Rosiers, one of the pedestrianized streets in the Marais, and wandered over to a quiet square/park to eat it and just space out. My brother turned me on to the pastries at Chez Marianne back in 2009, so I'd made a note to go back there this time.

We both really dig the Marais, even though it has become rather yuppified. The atmospheric, gently meandering web of old streets are beautiful, and when you're off the main roads the place has a cool neighborhood vibe. The Marais is home to loads of boutiques and small shops, some overpriced and chi-chi (usually involving clothing), but others genuinely interesting (like an art book shop and a 50s/60s vintage/modern furniture shop). The Marais, of course, was the old Jewish quarter, and you still see a good number of orthodox Jews in some corners of the borough. Definitely a fun neighborhood to get lost in.

Terezia had wanted to see the Tuileries park so we zipped over there on the metro and sat on a terrace in those green chairs they have for the public to sit in, and took in the view over a pond with the Eiffel Tower off in the distance. It really says something about French society when the city can put hundreds of these nice chairs in a public park and not have to anchor them down because no one is stealing them. In a US park these chairs would be gone in a flash.

After that we took the metro to the Opera Garnier, just so Terezia could see what that's all about, then walked to a little record store I went to back in 2009 called Plus de Bruit. Though this place's stock is nowhere near as vast and impressive as Monster Melodies', it's still a cool little store, and the prices are much more reasonable.

After that we strolled up to Rue Lepic, which is a nice strip in Montmartre with a very cool and lively neighborhood vibe and several good speciality food markets, including a great cheese shop and a pastry shop/bakery with yummy, fresh baguettes and some of the most seriously amazing macarons either of us have ever tasted.

A pistachio and a vanilla macaron - big, and insanely good.

A perfectly lazy day.

Random observations: Every neighborhood seems to be pulsing with life

One of the things that both of us love about Paris is that whatever neighborhood you end up in when emerging from the metro station always seems to be bustling with people. And if you get to a quiet back street, you never seem to be more than a block or two away from an intersection that radiates energy. It just never seems to be dead anywhere, at least within the Périphérique, or ring road. This stands in stark contrast to Bratislava, of course, which can seem like an endless chain of one bleak dead zone after another. This Parisian energy is a big part of the city's appeal.

Also, every neighborhood in Paris seems to have its own set of cozy cafes, dimly lit bistros, bakeries, pleasingly pungent cheese shops, butcher shops, wine shops, patisseries, and a produce market on nearly every corner, or at least every few blocks. Terezia said that practically every corner looks inviting because you see all these little chairs and tables out front, beckoning you to come and sit and enjoy whatever it is the place is offering.

There are probably more cheese shops in a single square mile of Paris than in all of Slovakia. And every cheese shop or charcuterie or patisserie looks like a great one. As a chef, Terezia finds these food shops especially inspiring. You just don't have anywhere near this level of variety and choice in Slovakia, not to mention the attention to quality. The difference of course is that in Paris people take their food seriously; in Slovakia not so much. Of course, there are a lot of reasons for this, since you're dealing with two vastly different cultures and histories and a sizable difference in average income. But that doesn't change the fact that Paris feels truly inspiring and invigorating, and Bratislava feels like a sleepy, provincial town where not much ever really happens. Paris feels positively alive, while Bratislava feels like nap time.

A day of blah food

After that relatively low-key Friday, and with my stomach appearing to have fully recovered from the bug, we decided to reconnect with Randy on what was his last day in Paris for not one but two Paris meals. For lunch we were bent on Je The...Me, a small neighborhood restaurant embedded deep in a non-touristy part of Montparnasse with a solid reputation and a chef who likes to cook with offal. By all accounts this place is an unmissable experience, and as they are open for lunch on Saturday, we met there at 11:30 just in case there was any sort of line or wait.

We spotted Je The...Me from about a half a block away, but I immediately noticed that something was amiss: the windows were all shuttered and I could just make out a small white note affixed to the door - clearly a bad sign. Sure enough, when we got to the place, the note, written in French, offered an apology for being closed for the weekend. Major bummer! Especially since it was a bit of a trek to get out there.

But we had a back-up plan and zipped up on the metro toward the neighborhood between the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides to check out l'Ami Jean, another hot, hyped-to-the-skies bistro that we had on our list. After scanning the promising menu posted out front it was immediately clear that this place was definitely not going to be cheap, but we decided that maybe we could just do lunch there and skip dinner plans. Besides, the place was empty. We walked in and said "bonjour" to the hostess, who immediately asked if we had a reservation. When I said "non", she said to us in English "you need to have a reservation for lunch here" with a mildly condescending tone and a slight shake of the head that seemed to say how could you not know that? Well, we'd had no problem squeaking into other places for lunch, so it didn't seem so far-fetched.

Undeterred, we walked several blocks to check out Bistro le P'tit Troquet, a place where I'd had a life-altering wild mushroom risotto back in 2009 that made me want to jump up and down and run around the block three times. Sadly, this place was not open for lunch, but I noticed Terezia and Randy eyeing another little bistro up the street called Philippe Excoffier. Quite bizarrely, several framed pictures of the chef posing with both George Bush Sr and Jr were prominently displayed in the window. This fairly surreal detail alone should have been a sign to steer clear of this place, but by this point Terezia and Randy were falling deep into the throes of a hunger haze, and the place looked promising enough, so we went inside.

Despite some promising items on the menu, we all ordered the lunch 'menu formule', which came with pumpkin soup and shrimp risotto. The soup was pretty tasty - well seasoned, with bits of micro greens and sprouts floating around in it and a dollop of white foam on top that had a slightly smokey flavor. Not bad.

No, I didn't spit in the soup, that's the foam - kind of a trendy thing in contemporary cuisine. This had a surprisingly smokey flavor.

The shrimp risotto, however, was another story. I honestly thought it was crap. Whatever flavor it could have had was totally drowned out in a dominating sea of citrus-y lemon zest flavor. Even worse, the shrimp were on the bland side because they clearly hadn't been sautéed in any garlic or herbs, which is just an idiotic thing to omit when cooking with shrimp, especially with an Italian dish like this. Terezia also felt that the shrimp, while not rubbery, seemed almost undercooked (though I'm happy to report that none of us got sick, so this was probably not the case).

This risotto may have looked nice, but I thought it tasted pretty blah.

Overall, I thought this place was a waste of money, and those photos with Bush Jr and Sr really should have been seen as a red flag. Oh well.

Cool Art Nouveau facade near the Eiffel Tower

Modern art at the Palais de Tokyo

After walking over to the Eiffel Tower to check out the lines and seeing that they were fairly epic, we hopped over the river to the Palais de Tokyo to see the free modern art museum there.

For a free museum, the Palais de Tokyo is shockingly big and has a pretty extensive collection. The place is housed in a very fascist-looking building that Mussolini would've been proud of. The collection runs the gamut of 20th century modern art, with a nice selection of cubists, like Leger, Delaunay, Picasso, Braque, and several other lesser knowns. There's also quite a bit of stuff by Georges Roualt, a piece by Duchamps, some Matisse, and even a Modigliani, and of course much more.

Maybe not the most earth-shattering collection of modern art, but definitely a nice and cheap way to spend an hour or two in Paris. The place was totally not crowded both times that I've been there, and it seems to be strangely overlooked by tourists. I realize 20th century modern art doesn't quite have the broad appeal of, say, Impressionism, but this place is worth a detour, especially for people staying in Paris longer than a few days. And Paris is such an expensive city that it feels kind of odd to be able to just walk into this place without paying anything.

Not so great Thai food in Paris

We reconvened with Randy later that night to try a Thai place that we'd read about called Tuk Tuk in the vicinity of the St. Lazare train station. The place had great reviews and I was intrigued by how their website claimed they specialize in Thai 'street food'.

I'll tell you right now that the street food bit was pure BS - everything on the menu was standard Thai restaurant fare. But things got off to a good start with the tom ka gai, or chicken lemongrass soup, which was bursting with that pleasing aromatic flavor, and had a spicy kick, as we'd asked them to make everything spicy. The papaya salad was also pretty darn good.

The tom ka gai was the best part of an otherwise "meh" meal.

Things went awry, however, with my green curry chicken, which was very run-of-the-mill green curry that you can find at any mediocre blah Thai place. Terezia's stir-fried chicken with cashews was a thoroughly Chinese dish and had no place on a Thai menu. The only winning dish was Randy's yellow curry chicken, which was surprisingly good. I don't normally get yellow curry because it's milder and sweeter, but the chef actually seemed to put some special care into this one, maybe because it was the day's special.

Randy clearly had a better experience than us and would give it a higher rating, but despite some decent starters, Terezia and I thought this place basically kinda sucked. There may be some truly good Thai food somewhere in Paris, but you won't find it at Tuk Tuk. Maybe we've been spoiled by the utterly mind blowing Sri Thai Imbiss in Vienna, plus several great Thai joints back home in the Bay Area.

After a day of largely blah food, we said goodbye to Randy as he was heading to London the next day, and we headed back to the apartment to plot our last Paris restaurant meal - no easy feat given that our next and final two days in this city were a Sunday and Monday, two days when the vast majority of restaurants in Paris seem to be closed.

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