food + photos on the right bank

Toward the end of last week, I got very busy with schoolwork and did not have any time to write. This weekend, however, I had both days off to do whatever I wanted. Most of my classmates fled to London or Brussels, but since Seth’s friend Evan was visiting from Seattle, we decided to stay and tour the city.

On Friday night, we took the subway to Montmarte for a nice walk and a leisurely dinner. Sanket met us at the station, and off we went in search of a fondue place Evan had his heart set on. The restaurant was swarming with American sorority girls, so we decided to try another. (Unfortunately, in Paris if you do not have reservations or if you are not at the restaurant—any restaurant—before eight o’clock, you will not get a table until ten thirty, when the next round of dinner is served. Some restaurants only serve one round of dinner.) We walked until we found the promising Chéri Bibi, a trendy French restaurant located just beneath the Sacre Coeur. While we waited for our 10:30 seating, we stopped in a café for a glass of wine. (3-4 Euro. I will never, ever take the wine-by-the-glass prices in this city for granted.) By the time our table was ready, we were all very hungry. We sat down, fully prepared to speak broken French, when our waiter approached us. He immediately asked whether we preferred him to speak in French or English. Despite our insistence that he talk to us in French, he spoke English most of the time. We interpreted the prix-fixe chalkboard menu without any problems and placed our orders with ease. Seth ordered a spicy grilled shrimp appetizer with a veal main course; Sanket chose a fresh mozzarella and green pepper appetizer with a gorgonzola and walnut pasta; Evan opted for a salmon pâte appetizer with a duck breast main course; and I chose the pork pâte with the duck. All of the dishes were good, but none of them were spectacular. I will say though, if there ever was a myth about the French serving small portions, consider that false. Seth, Evan, and I received unusually large chunks of meat. I had to pawn off at least half of my duck (which was cooked a delicious, juicy rare) to the boys. By the time we finished dinner, it was already one in the morning. (We were not even the last group to finish our meal; several other tables were still occupied.) We decided to head home so we could wake up at a reasonable hour and enjoy our Saturday.

The next day, Seth and I met Evan at the Pompidou. We walked around the plaza a bit before making our way to L’île de la Cité (the island of the city). Evan had never been to Paris, so he was dying to see the Notre Dame Cathedral. We spent about three hours touring the church, photographing tourists in the plaza, and examining the old city. After all that walking, we began to crave some ice cream from the world famous Berthillon. Evan ordered a simple chocolate, and Seth scarfed down a cherry and caramel. I savored my fig and caramel scoops as long as I possibly could. They were just so… heavenly. For dinner, we journeyed to the sixth arrondissement. Evan picked out a small, somewhat hidden place called La Ferrandaise. Because we arrived around seven thirty, we secured a table without any problem. As we scanned the menu and sipped a Bordeaux, our waitress brought us a “welcome soup,” which I think was made of creamy butternut squash and cauliflower. It was warm, comforting, and, most importantly, very tasty. Like Chéri Bibi, this restaurant’s menu was also prix-fixe. I chose the feuilleté d’escargots et tétragones, beurre de ciboulette (a puff pastry of snails, butter, and chives) for my entrée. Then, Seth and I shared a large pot of bouille de rascasse et daurade, sauce rouille et croûtons (a stew of boiled scorpion fish, served with rouille sauce and crispy bread) for our plat principal. I had never eaten snails before, so I was surprised to find that they were not so slimy. They were actually quite chewy, like mussels. The rubbery texture of the escargots and the flaky texture of the pastry contrasted strangely, but I still enjoyed the dish. As for the soup, it was not as broth-based as I expected. It was thick, creamy, and spicy, much like an étouffée. All of the food was very filling and comforting, almost as if it was home cooked. For dessert, I ordered a cheese plate. I wrongly assumed that the waitress would bring a plate of four, modestly sized pieces of cheese to the table for me to enjoy. No. She brought a huge cutting board with four amazingly large chunks of cheese from the Puy de Dôme region and two knives. “Vous vous servez,” she said. I was mortified! Everyone at the restaurant stared at me, wondering how (and how much) I was supposed to serve myself. I carefully sliced one sliver from each bleu cheese and one from each cream and pushed the cutting board to the edge of the table. As I bit into a mild bleu cheese, my heart melted. The taste was totally worth the initial embarrassment.

After dinner, Evan, Seth, and I wandered around the sixth to the Senate and to Saint Sulpice. Once we began to feel less full, we met Sanket and slipped into a bar. Evan and I had one round of beer (Heineken, blah!) and we were ready to go home. Seth and Sanket stayed out a bit longer.

This afternoon, Seth and I met Evan at the Bastille for some shopping at the market. Afterward, we walked along the Promenade to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Since few stores are open and few people seem to leave their homes, Sundays in Paris are quite dreary. Seth and I began to feel drowsy and draggy, so after one last stop to the Montparnasse cemetery, we took the subway home. Luckily, we managed to find an open bakery, and we are now enjoying a baguette and some cheese.

I have posted some photos from this weekend. Enjoy!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aclearglimmer/sets/72157626042633460/

i ate a pony!

JUST KIDDING, sort of.

Last night, Seth took me out for my belated birthday celebration at Le Verre Volé. We arrived around eight, just as most of the other diners were trickling in. (The restaurant typically opens at 7:30, serves one round of dinner, and closes at 10:30.) The space was cramped and brightly lit, and the walls were lined with wine bottles and chalkboard menus. As we searched for a modestly-priced, medium-to-heavy red, a couple walked in and asked, in English, if their table was ready. Shortly after, our waiter asked us if we preferred him to speak French or English. Looking around the restaurant and eavesdropping on conversations, we quickly realized that at least half of the customers were British. No matter. We told our waiter we would try to speak French.

Luckily, Seth and my French vocabulary is strongest in the food department. We knew what most of the entrées and plats entailed, and our waiter kindly helped us with the words we had not yet learned in class. He suggested we order four to five entrées to start and, depending on how hungry we were, one or two plats to finish. For our first round, we settled on les coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops cooked in their shells), tartare de cheval (horse tartare, or raw horse meat, served with a raw quail yolk and greens), foie gras (duck liver served with fig jam, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper), and une assiette de fromages (a cheese plate which included one triple cream, one cow’s milk cheese similar to Camembert, and one harder, saltier cheese). Of the four dishes, the horse tartare was definitely my favorite. It looked very similar to steak tartare, like a raw ground beef patty, but it tasted completely different. According to Seth (I have to trust his evaluation, as I have never eaten steak tartare), horse is much tougher and leaner than beef. However, because the meat was chopped and then loosely reassembled rather than simply ground, it did not feel so tough on the teeth. Also, because it was served with citrus juices and fresh herbs, it did not taste much like meat; it tasted more like ceviche. The textures and flavors of the dish were light and absolutely heavenly. Of course, I very much enjoyed the subsequent foie gras and cheese, as they were very rich in flavor. The scallops, on the other hand, were very delicate in taste, as they were seasoned with only a dash of salt and pepper. I was thankful that we chose to eat them first, before our palettes became accustomed to the more highly seasoned, fatty foods.

After a few glasses of heavy red wine, four small plates, and some fresh bread, we were feeling pretty stuffed. But we saw a plat of boudin noir (dark pig’s blood sausage) on the menu, and we could not pass it up. When the dish arrived on our table, Seth and I were somewhat surprised. Its color and texture met our expectations, but it was not encased! Instead, it was served in a trapezoidal slice alongside homemade mashed potatoes and fresh greens. It tasted very similar to a British black pudding, only it was very moist, almost like a tres leches cake. I had never eaten a meat so simultaneously soft and grainy. I really enjoyed it, and I would definitely order it again. Maybe next time I will try a boudin blanc!

Overall, the meal was completely satisfying. I savored a night of wonderful company, delightful conversation, and interesting, delicious food. I have actually found trying new things to be somewhat addictive.

Speaking of new foods, today our class avoided work (again) by attending a food exposition at the Château de Vincennes. We sampled about fifteen different meats (a mixture of cured meats and pâtés), ten different cheeses, and a few chocolates. Best of all, everything was free! Well, except for that one thing I bought at the truffle stand: a jar of fresh goat cheese soaked in truffle oil. Oh, and that other thing Seth bought: rillettes de canard et foie gras (a pate of duck skin and liver). Whatever, they were totally worth it.

my first éclair

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t my first éclair ever or even my first éclair in Paris, but it was my first on this trip. Mmm mmm mmm… It was chilly, rich, and delicious! I got a bit confused with my ordering. I said, “Je voudrais du éclair de chocolat, s’il vous plaît,” but the cashier thought I said, “Je voudrais deux éclairs de chocolat.” Oh well, more for me! Just kidding. I gave one to Seth, I promise. But seriously, I will have to learn the difference between “du” and “deux” so as not to buy two of everything.

After a long, leisurely sleep last night, Seth and I journeyed out for a quick lunch at a local bakery. I successfully ordered un panini de jambon et fromage (a ham and cheese panini) and quickly gobbled it up. As I told my mom, I was very tempted by the pan au chocolat, but I was somehow able to resist. Once our stomachs were satisfied, we took the train to the sixth arrondissement—home of Saint-Germain Abbey, St. Sulpice, the Pont des Arts, and the Jardins du Luxembourg—to visit the locksmith and the insurance agency. Two of our three keys had been copied incorrectly, so Seth and I had been sharing a single set. Our apartment locator kindly warned the locksmith that two bumbling Americans would be stopping by, so the clerks had their English at the ready. While we waited for our keys, we walked to the insurance agency to pay for our renters’ insurance. One of the agents worked in Mobile once upon a time, and he was disappointed that we did not have southern accents.

With great anxiety, Seth and I tackled one of our biggest foreign-city fears: grocery shopping. It turned out not to be painful at all. We had some difficulty figuring out the differences between kinds of cream—heavy whipping cream, low-fat cream, blah blah blah—but we were able to choose wisely by looking at the pictures on the bottles. We made it back to our apartment safely (with the correct gate code memorized) and proceeded to cook our first meal in our new apartment. Mmm… potato leek soup. Très français!

parlez-vous anglais?

Seth and I had an unfortunate mishap tonight. After our very long “nap” we decided to unpack, then walk around our neighborhood to fetch some dinner and wine. We did not want to spend too much, as we have to pay for rent, renters’ insurance, train tickets, cell phones, and groceries within the next couple of days. We walked around for an hour or so and ultimately settled on a small Lebanese place with counter service. The guys behind the counter were surprisingly sympathetic to our lack of French language skills. They told us how they wanted to visit New York City one day to see the Statue of Liberty. (They had never heard of Texas.)

On our way home we stopped in a grocery store to buy a cheap, sustainable Bordeaux blend. We thought it would help us relax and sleep through the night, even though we had already slept six hours. We arrived at the gate to our apartment complex, and—surprise!—the code our landlord gave us did not work. We looked for a pay phone to call Chuck (our landlord), but the phone we found only accepted calling cards. After lots of pacing and panicking, I suggested we walk back to the apartment and speak to someone at the brasserie downstairs. Lucky for us, one of the customers spoke English and provided us with the code. Rejoice!

The locks to these old buildings are very tricky. Seth and I have three keys in our possession: a four-pronged key (which opens our building), a regular-looking key (which unlocks our unit), and a skeleton key (which opens the door to our unit). Unlike American locks, the French ones don’t unlock by simply turning the key clockwise or counter-clockwise. They require multiple turns in different directions. Of course, Seth and I were standing outside our apartment unit for five minutes, looking like dumb Americans, trying to unlock and open our door.

I think the wine is well deserved.

jet lag

Seth and I arrived in Paris this morning thirty minutes behind schedule. No biggie. We hopped on an express train into the city which, at the time, we did not know was an express; as we sped by stop after stop, I really started to get nervous. Eventually it did stop. We wandered through the rain and, thanks to Seth’s navigational skills and my memory, found the apartment easily. After getting a tour of our new home, we sent a couple of E-mails letting people know we were safe. Then we fell asleep.

Oops.

We were only supposed to sleep for two hours, but we accidentally slept for six. We probably won’t be able to sleep tonight.

Before we can think about that, we should probably shower and eat something. I am terrified to enter a café and rattle off my order like a tacky American, but I guess I have to start somewhere.

foux du fafa

Je vais en France le 5 janvier!

Confession: I do not know a word of French. I had to rub the FreeTranslation(.com) genie to help me type that one sentence.

For the next five months eight classmates, including my boyfriend Seth, and I will study at the Rice University School of Architecture in Paris. Our course load will include a studio, a French language and culture class, and a film making class. Despite the fact that I will be surrounded by Americans and English-speaking Parisians for the duration of the program, I hope to at least somewhat immerse myself in the local culture. I want to learn to order my own food, bargain at thrift shops, and roam the cobblestone streets with the ease and sophistication of a French woman. I want to learn to use my new camera to document the people and buildings I see everyday. For those things I cannot show through pictures, I want to write about them. I have not kept a journal or a blog in quite some time, and I have found I am no longer comfortable with writing. I hope to change that.

I expect my life to change immensely over the next five months. I hope you will enjoy reading about my journey as much as I will enjoy taking it.