Eating Paris - bistro round-up
(Philippe on the left, power walking through Paris' Palais de Justice. Off to a 3 hour lunch maybe?)
Many people, myself included, often forget that Philippe is French. He's lived in Asia for the last seven years, speaks perfect English, Mandarin and the odd smattering of Singlish, loves Stephen Chow movies and gamely eats at home with one leg propped up, knee bent, on his seat. In many ways, he's more Chinaman than anyone I could've married in Singapore.
I, on the other hand, am far from passing off as a good French wife. My French, while passable, could never make an Alliance Francaise professor weep with joy; neither am I a big fan of the existentialist debates/80s gameshows/corny cop dramas that seem to dominate the programming on TV5, the French TV station. My single display of loyalty to date has been to faithfully wear my Les Bleus jersey to every World Cup match involving the French team. Which, I must declare, took some b*lls when they were up against Brazil and I was severely outnumbered (not to mention mercilessly mocked) by the legions of yellow and green fans.
But on top of my lengthy list of transgressions sits one shameful truth that draws gasps of horrors from every starry-eyed romantic I've ever admitted it to:
I don't like Paris.
For most people, Paris is the soaring spires of Notre Dame or the sweeping view of the Seine, inspiring imaginations of romance and history.
Paris is the laidback urban chic of people-watching sidewalk cafes and weekend markets pregnant with artisanal produce.
Paris is the glitzy, haute couture world of Galeries Lafayette and Louis Vuitton, all sequins and stilettos.
Paris is the dizzy purr of the French language, the meloncholy whisperings of Gainsbourg seducing your ears and making love to your soul.
But for me, Paris is sweltering summers and freezing winters, surly service staff, overpriced menus, depressing subways, neverending strikes and extremely high risk of stepping in dog shit while promenading in new heels.
Such griping has allowed me to avoid visiting France for the last couple of years. But recently, I noticed with horror my smug and long-defended determination beginning to erode, as some old friends gradually chose to call Paris their home, while others jetted back from vacations bubbling with stories and shopping.
So when wifely duties necessitated that I join Philippe on a trip to Paris, I was apprehensive, concerned that I too might fall in love with the very same city that I had feverishly decried to all and sundry.
A week later, and while I can safely say I am still not enamoured with the city, I do have to grudgingly admit that it's got some good things going for it.
In particular, chocolate foie gras.
Chocolate foie gras with fleur de sel and crushed cocoa beans, served with toast and salad. Who could say no?
The dish is one of many toast and salad combinations available at Delicabar, on the second floor of Le Bon Marche.
Le Bon Marche is typically considered the queen of Paris' grands magasins for its endless designer boutiques and "did I die and go to heaven" basement food emporium, and Delicabar is a worthy extension of the store's laidback, effortless chic.
The cafe is liberally splashed with fun swaths of fuchsia and lime green, waitstaff are surprisingly friendly despite their Prada bitch uniforms, and the lunchtime crowd is a cheery mix of haute couture tourists peeking out from behind skyhigh shopping bags and execs frantically loosening silk ties. The food is light and a riot of colours - flaky pastry, crisp salad leaves, scarlet tomatoes, hunks of cheese. Ooh, and a range of Mariage Freres teas, their woody, intoxicating aromas adding the final touch on the "I could seriously get used to this" musings that invariably arise.
While I was pleasantly surprised to find out that light lunches can exist in the land of 3 course, 2 hour weekday lunches, dinner turned out to be an entirely different matter.
To celebrate our first family get together (family being Philippe, me and his parents) in 9 months, we decided to dine at Chez Leon, a Bib Gourmand recipient not far from our Montmartre hotel. Bib Gourmand, I learnt, is a title issued by the Michelin Guide, the same guide that endows the famous (or infamous) 1-, 2-, 3-star rating. The Bib Gourmand award is for more downmarket establishments - bistros and brasseries mainly - where you can have a good meal without having to (a) waitlist for 6 months, (b) get dolled up with mommy's jewels or (c) sell a kidney to finance said meal.
Dinner at Chez Leon was a hearty affair. My starter of crab and celery was a whopping mound of Hard Rock Cafe-sized proportions, and the moat of mayonnaise that encircled it did little to help me get past more than half the serving. Jelat!
Likewise, my main dish of lentils and ecrevisses with truffle vinaigrette stood as living (ok, not quite living) testament to the law of diminishing marginal utility, beginning at amazing and rapidly declining to "please take that away from me before I throw up".
The two dishes would have been wonderful as standalone main courses, but the unfortunately combination of two creamy, seafood-based, slightly tart and incredibly heavy plates was a bad choice on my part. That said, the ingredients were undoubtedly fresh, the preparation meticulous and the flavours complex, so I could definitely understand how Chez Leon came to earn its Bib Gourmand title.
Dessert, on the other hand, proved a wonderful fit with the meal - the incredibly sour, cold and crunchy combination of pears in red wine and cassis jolted me back to life and had me in a gobbling frenzy. Heck, if just the thought of the dish causes your salivary glands to immediately fire on all engines even a month after eating it, it must be good, right? :)
Last bistro of the trip was something we stumbled on while waiting for a friend at Place de Clichy. It being a late Saturday morning, the neighbourhood was filled with scenes of weekend langour - babies in strollers, dogs on leashes, newspapers and coffees - yet La Bourgogne was pulsing with an energy of its own. Large groups of friends boisterously relaying the week's experiences, clusters of anxious couples clamouring for an empty table, waiters marching purposefully forward with laden trays... even the pigeons pacing the overhead beams seemed nervous with anticipation.
After a 15 minute wait, our turn came!
Starter was a mountainous salad of leeks in mustard vinaigrette, which is quite possibly my favourite French dish of all time. Nothing groundbreaking, but oh so good. Main was braised beef cheek, tender and comforting, but perhaps a little too hearty for the early days of autumn.
So yep, Paris has some good things going for it, especially when it comes to eating out. But for all the cosy brasseries, flashy bistros and quirky cafes, give me a good French patisserie any time! And that is the subject of another post entirely... that should be up next week :) See you then!