Saturday, May 26, 2007

Paris Report Part Trois: L'Art

Carvings on an apartment building across the street from the café where I discovered that Darjeeling tea is the ultimate jet-lag cure.

Paris has some of the best art museums anywhere in the world. But art in Paris isn't just in the museums; it's everywhere. It's in the streets, the stores, the restaurants*, the parks, the architecture, even in the street signs and Metro stations.

*Interior of the restaurant at Musée D'Orsay. The food is also excellent.

And the quality of the light in Paris really is special. It really is easy to understand why so many painters and photographers have found inspiration here. All of this sounds so cliché, I know, but it's so impressive when you're actually there.

Sun and clouds near Pont Alexandre III. The bridge itself is a work of art and so quintessentially Parisian.

It was really thrilling to get to see actual paintings that I studied about in various Art History classes, and especially my favorites from the period starting with Manet and going all the way through to Kandinsky. The Monet Water Lilies panels at L'Orangerie were particularly impressive. Doug snapped over a hundred pics of art alone. Here are some of my favorites:

Manet's "Dejeunner Sur L'Herbe", a very controversial painting in it's day, and not just because of the nudity. The idea that someone would portray a modern scene with no historical, mythological or religious theme outraged the art establishment of the time.

One of Monet's "Water Lilies" paintings. Below is the actual lily pond in Giverny where he painted these. The bridge in the painting is in the far background in the photo.

Van Gogh. The photos really don't do justice to his colors and textures.

Kandinsky, my favorite Abstract Expressionist.

One of the coolest things about Paris is the juxstaposition of ancient and modern. Fountain near the George Pompidou Center.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Paris Report Part Deux: Gastronomie

View from our hotel room window.

To say we ate well would be a gross understatement. While not every single meal was eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head good, enough of them were and the rest were still several notches above your above-average restaurant meal in the U.S. I joked that you almost have to be really trying to find a bad meal in Paris and we've been jonesing for the baked goods since we walked back in the door.

I don't know whether it's because the ingredients there are fresher, or have fewer preservatives, or whether it's because they aren't afraid of butter, or whether the French just have some extra cooking gene the rest of us are missing, but even dishes made from the most common ingredients just sing. When people talk about "French sauces" one tends to think of heavy, creamy sauces, but we found that this was rarely the case. Mostly the sauces even when made with butter or cream were complex and sometimes even delicate, and enhanced the flavor of the food rather than overpowering it.

Most restaurants also had good wine lists, and the staff invariably made excellent recommendations for which were best to pair with our food. We both enjoy wine, but neither of us will usually drink more than a glass or two, and so we were very happy to frequently find several offerings in "half bottles" which were just right for the two of us. Most places also had wines by the glass.

I was surprised that for the most part, portions seemed not much smaller than the restaurants we frequent here, though they do serve on smaller plates. I rarely was able to finish everything. They serve coffee after dessert, not with.

Some highlights:

Café Fernand in the St. Germain area. This place was in a little alley off the street, and we were looking for somplace to get lunch, saw the awning and wandered over. While we found very little in Paris that was "cheap", this was a great value for the money. I had Boeuf Bourgignon and it was falling-apart-eat-with-a-fork fabulous.

Taillevant. This was our one big spend-a-month's-rent-on-dinner (well not quite, but it was up there) splurge, and it was so worth it. Everyone should have one meal like this at some time in their life. The food was beyond incredible, and I loved that the prix-fixe menu we choose had several small courses that were just a few bites each. The servers were almost telepathic without hovering, it would seem like you'd be thinking, hmm, I'm ready for some more wine and they'd be right there pouring it. I can certainly understand how this restaurant garnered the almost legendary status it holds.

Le Comptoir. This is where we went our last night, and from all appearances, it's an unassuming little bistro. The prices are mid-range, but this place is also apparently one of Gourmet magazine's "five places you must eat before you die" selections. This is also in the St. Germain area (which really ended up being my favorite part of the city, had the most charm and atmosphere). I had the Carré d'Agneau (rack of lamb) and it was the best lamb I've ever tasted. And I love lamb. It was light, delicate and very, very tender. I also had a salad of haricots vertes with artichoke hearts and duck paté that I'll probably remember on my deathbed. Doug had heard about this place and that it was impossible to get into, but we had been tipped off the previous night by a very nice French couple that they have a first-come-first-served policy on weekends, so if you show up and are willing to wait for a table, you can get in. We did, and ended up only having to wait about 20 minutes, which apparently is nothing for this place.

The Little Brasserie We Found On Our Way To A Jazz Concert That We Didn't Write Down The Name Of. Here's where we met the nice couple who recommended Le Comptoir. I had an insanely good casserole type thing (which the waiter had recommended as being "very typical French") that was made with potatoes, cheese and wonderful ham and sausage.

Breakfast at the hotel. We'd purchased a package for our hotel that included continental breakfast as part of the price. The great part was that we could get it delivered to the room, which worked out well as I'm usually up first and sniffing around for coffee. The coffee itself was fantastic, made with a french press though decanted into a porcelain pot, and the baked goods that came with breakfast were everything you've heard about French baked goods. Croissants (and my favorite, chocolate croissants!) as light as air, rolls that were crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, brioche and very small sweet rolls. Excellent fresh butter and lovely jams were included.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Paris Report Part Un: L'Overture

Because there's so much to share from this first-time Paris visitor, and because I don't have six hours at a pop to compose blog posts, and because if you're like me, you read blogs because they appeal to your ever-shortening attention span, I'm going to break it up into small pieces (just like they tell you to do when you have a Really Big Project). So here's Part Un of my combination travelogue/Burma Shave ad, otherwise known as L'Overture, because I'm going to touch on a bit of everything.

In short, Paris is wonderful. To expand a bit, as English teachers were always after me to do, it's a city for all of your senses. The art and architecture will delight the eye, and the food, the palate. The sound of the language, the street musicians and those wee-oh, wee-oh emergency vehicle sirens (evocative of Euro-spy movies) remind you that you're not in Kansas or even LA anymore. The smells of cooking, and of varieties roses that were bred a few hundred years ago for color and fragrance, not for lack of thorns, as well as the aroma that hits you when you walk into one of the many fine chocolate shops are other unexpected pleasures.

The vast majority of Parisians we encountered were as nice as could be. In fact, some were downright friendly, to the extent of leaning over from the next table upon hearing us speak English (and mangle French) to ask where we were from and offer suggestions for dining or museums or art galleries or other attractions. My French was much rustier than I'd realized, and I often found myself scrambling to find the right words, but just about everyone at least knew enough English to allow communication to occur.

Regarding other images we 'Mercans have about Parisians, don't believe the hype about French women; they do too get fat. However, true to stereotype, they do tend to accessorize well, and scarves are ubiquitous. You really do see people walking down the street carrying a naked loaf of French bread, and sometimes even gnawing on it. The streets in many parts of the city are indeed charming and narrow, and many drive those cute little Smart cars. The food is really, really, really good. So is the wine. And the bread. And the chocolate.
Even with 8 days in the city, we feel as though we barely scraped the surface of all there is to see. We focused mostly on museums, restaurants and the usual tourist spots, though we realized as we were leaving we'd never actually walked over to the Arc D' Triomphe to look close up, nor had we set foot in the Marais district, and we explored the Latin quarter only very briefly after dinner one night. We devoted one day to visiting the Versailles Palace and Monet's house and gardens in Giverny (which was one of my very favorite things we did).
Stay tuned for Part Deux soon, in which I will pontificate on one particular aspect of our travels.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Off to Pair-EE

Car picks us up tomorrow at 5am for the airport. I'll post pics and a recap when we get back.

Au revoir, mes cheries! A bientot!