About the Author
Judy Gorman Browning is a food writer, who recently returned to live in Hawai'i and was previously living and traveling with her husband Frederic in Europe. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "The Culinary Craft," which won the 1985 R. T. French Tastemaker Award for best cookbook. She formerly wrote a syndicated newspaper column called the "Recipe Clinic" and food articles for several magazines.
The Reluctant Parisienne
I never really wanted to visit Paris … I mean, it wasn’t one of those places way up on my list of things to see and do. But at the last minute, Kacey and Craig Lewis, who were flying in from Hawaii to spend some time with us in Germany, said they wanted to see some friends in Paris so they invited us to join them. That explains why, on the Friday morning of January 12th I found myself up at “oh-dark thirty” and on the way to catch Air France flight 1319 to Charles De Gaul airport.
The temperature was surprisingly mild so a light wool coat and scarf was enough over my black turtleneck dress. The drive was uneventful and so we arrived at the airport just about 7 o’clock, and just in time to meet up with Kacey and Craig at the ticket counter, where, at this point, they were shuffling the contents of their luggage around in an attempt to avoid Air France’s fairly stiff over weight charge. Fortunately, since we were all flying together the clerk agreed to pool the luggage and assign some of the weight to us.
The flight was comfortable, and as much as I never thought I’d say this, I could sense something very different, and very French, almost from the start. Perhaps it’s the way “Bonjour” falls so softly on the ear, or the aroma of excellent coffee and the basket of assorted croissants, but I was being wooed and didn’t even know it.
The taxi ride to our hotel turned out to be quite an adventure. There we are, three of us jammed in the back seat with our luggage loaded precariously behind our heads, Craig in the front with the driver, and the car careening along at top speed. When we entered the city, madness ensued. Not one of us could figure out what, if any, system determines which car has the right of way, who proceeds first, or indeed how one changes lanes without getting smashed to smithereens. However, in spite of that, our skilled driver delivered us safely to the Concorde Saint Lazare.
This is a grand hotel of the old style. The entry is massive and elegant and the lobby is an expanse of gracious hospitality. Our room, which turned out to be a bedroom and separate sitting room with a bath in between, was charming, although small in scale. You could almost imagine the shorter, smaller people of centuries ago moving quite comfortably around the rooms.
We do some cursory unpacking and decide to go downstairs for lunch in the Café Terminus. While we don’t usually head for the hotel restaurant, this time it seems the right thing to do. “Terminus” refers to the fact that this classic looking bistro is situated right around the corner from the train station and it has been a fixture in this location for centuries. The room contains the requisite amount of brass railings and the tables are laid with stiffly starched white cloths. It’s an inviting atmosphere.
We are led to a table in the glassed area, which in warmer weather is no doubt open to the sidewalk. The table is a bit small, one might say “intimate,” but somehow the waiter manages to place our champagne, a bread basket and two dishes of gorgeous butter in and among the large white place plates. We order only a first course; Freddy asks for rillets and foie gras and I request the fresh green pea soup. With the very first spoonful, I know I’m on to something special.
Anyone who loves to cook, and has studied the art, knows why French cooking is held in high esteem. But some of us, for one reason or another, hold other cuisines closer to our heart. My love affair has always been with Italian. And so, while I accepted the fact that French cooking was great, I didn’t spend that much time eating it. Given a choice I would always choose Italian. I just hadn’t been right up close and personal with this cuisine before and I sensed I was in for a pleasant surprise.
The waiter approached with a suggestion from the chef. He has only a limited number of servings of turbot. Would we be interested? Would we ever!! I have always wanted to try turbot and never had the chance before. We both accept the offer. The preparation is outstanding. I think I’m in heaven. Then to add to my state of euphoria, I order Crepes Suzette for dessert. A trite choice? Perhaps, but this is my first time in Paris and I’m going to have all those things I’ve come to think of as classically French.
By the time we finish lunch, it’s mid-afternoon and we’re stuffed so we go out for a walk. The weather is beautifully balmy as we stroll along the streets in the vicinity of our hotel, getting our bearings and familiarizing ourselves with the landscape. This appears to be a business district and people move briskly along intent on their destinations.
After a while, we realize that we’ve been up since early in the morning and we’ve done quite a bit, and we’re tired, so we retreat to the cozy warmth of the hotel bar. It’s a convivial place with floor lamps for reading and wide circular chairs for lounging. We settle in with a couple of bourbons. Soon Kacey and Craig arrive, looking like they’ve explored the entire city in one afternoon. There are more drinks all around and we’re all exhausted. We don’t feel like moving very far so we opt for a bite to eat in the Café Terminus.
At lunch, I had noticed a delicious looking steak sandwich with a little pot of mustard butter being delivered to a table nearby so I order that. Freddy orders an omelet and a bottle of Chateauneuf Du Pape. The wine is exquisite. It more than makes up for the disappointing steak sandwich, which does not come with the promised mustard butter. I have to ask for it and am brought a jar of Dijon instead. I’m thinking it’s late and the chef has probably gone home leaving the kitchen in less capable, or caring, hands.
Saturday morning dawns sunny and bright, an unusual occurrence, I’m told, for January in Paris. Gratefully, we dress and head out the door. There’s a neighborhood patisserie across the street so we decide that will be our breakfast place. This is a Pomme De Pain shop, one of several scattered around the city, and because it is a chain operation, we’re not so sure what the quality will be. Not to worry, the tables are occupied by local looking types … working men and students; service is at the counter. Freddy brings me a wonderfully hot café au lait and one of the best croissants I’ve ever eaten in my life.
From here, it’s off to the Louvre. We take a taxi, which affords us a brief tour of the nearby streets. We are deposited on the sidewalk outside of the museum complex, so we walk above ground to the Denon Building, which houses the Mona Lisa. The alternative would be to take the underground entrance, which consists of a walkway lined with shops, but I want to see the famous glass pyramid, which is located in the middle of the center court.
There are actually three glass pyramids, one small, one medium sized and one large. The entrance to the Denon Building is through an opening in the side of the large pyramid. We put our things through the x-ray machine, show our tickets and descend on an escalator to the under ground floor. As we approach the audio rental desk, Freddy asks me if I want to do the “Da Vinci Code” tour. At first this seems kind of hokey, but putting pride aside, I say, “yes.”
Good thing. It turns out to be a lot of fun. We’ve both read the book and seen the film so we’re easily immersed in walking along with Robert Langdon as he discovers the body of the murdered curator and proceeds to find clues hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. Of course, the ultimate thrill is seeing the actual painting of The Mona Lisa. There is quite a sizable crowd gathered in front of the small painting, but people move on so it is possible to jostle our way up to the front and gaze at the masterpiece as though we are alone with her.
The end of the tour takes us to the lowest level of the building where an inverted glass pyramid points to the alleged location of the Holy Grail. We decide that we’ve seen enough of the Louvre for this trip and we head off in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a lovely day, so we walk across the street to the bridge spanning the Seine.
The Eiffel Tower looms in the near distance, so we cross over the river and proceed to wend our way along the left bank. I have to admit, it’s at my urging that we walk. I feel so romantic. After all, there’s the countless number of times I’ve read about the glories of strolling the banks of the Seine, arm in arm with your lover.
Well perhaps … if you didn’t have a destination in mind. But after we’ve walked for over an hour, and the Eiffel Tower is still out of reach, this plan is beginning to lose it’s charm. We soldier on, but we are completely worn out. Arriving at the Eiffel Tower, we had hoped to have a drink and a relaxing interlude in the restaurant there, but the restaurant is closed “for the afternoon.” And because this is not considered tourist season, there are only two entrances to the Tower that are open. One has a line that looks to be two hours long; the other one has a shorter line, which we stand in for a brief period of time before realizing this is the line for those willing to walk the stairs.
We depart the line and make for the taxi stand. And here, there is a brief moment of despair when our driver pulls over to the side of the road, refusing to go on because he doesn’t know how to get to our hotel. He doesn’t speak a bit of English and we have no hotel identification on us. Fortunately, Freddy hits on the fact that it’s next to the train station, and that registers with the driver so off we go.
When we get back to the hotel, there’s hardly enough time for a quick drink in the bar and to change our clothes. We have a 6 o’clock reservation at Chez Flottes, a brasserie that has been recommended to us by the concierge. We need an early dinner time because we have reservations for the 9:30 performance at the Moulin Rouge. No problem. They’ll take us in as soon as they open.
Chez Flottes has been recommended to us because Freddy asked for a high quality fish restaurant. When we arrive, it’s just the beginning of dinner service. Places are being laid and there is that hustle and bustle, which accompanies the last minute rush before guests descend, but we are greeted warmly by the sophisticated looking woman who is obviously not only the hostess, but also the owner. She leads us, knowingly, to a side table.
Freddy orders the Seafood Tower. Within minutes, there appears a gentleman with a weathered face, wearing a woolen fisherman’s cap. We watch as he walks in and out the front door, each time carrying pans of fish or buckets of ice. It doesn’t become immediately clear, but he has driven into town from some oceanfront location in a worn white van and set up a sort of sidewalk fish shop right in front of the restaurant. As it turns out, he provides all the fresh fish for the evening. And it is wonderful. Freddy’s Tower is piled with an abundance of fish and shellfish so fresh it squeaks. He’s in heaven.
I, on the other hand, have taken a different route. Despite the conventional wisdom that one should never order steak in a fish house, I am lured by the brasserie surroundings into ordering, first of all, the Baked Onion Soup. It is superb. So then it seems to me a logical sequence to have the Steak Béarnaise. This is somewhat of a letdown as the steak is less than spectacular, but the Béarnaise Sauce has the bright flavor and silky texture of being handmade. Freddy is satisfied with having a Calvados for dessert, but I must try the Tarte Tatin. It is so good I resolve to go back to my French cookbook collection and try this at home.
The service has been wonderfully attentive and they have even called a cab ahead of time so that it is waiting for us outside at exactly 8:30. We drive up the hilly streets into Montmartre and approach a one-story building with an old, red wooden windmill on top. Of course, it’s the “moulin rouge” of Moulin Rouge fame! Since for me, the Moulin Rouge has always been associated with the “high life,” I’m a bit taken aback by this crude edifice on the roof of the theater, famous since 1889 as a cabaret featuring exotically beautiful women and scandalous performances.
We have opted for the champagne-only service, although a dinner seating is offered, and as we are led to our place, we see around us the remnants of dessert yet to be cleared away. Our waiter brings us a silver bucket of chilled champagne and two glasses. The curtain is about to go up. We’re sitting at a long table with four other people who have also just come in. It is necessary for some to turn in their seats in order to see, so for a few minutes there is a general uneasiness while people get themselves situated, but there is definitely an air of expectation in the room. The production tonight is called “Feerie,” and it consists of a series of vignettes such as “The Pirates,” a magical sequence with an Indonesian flair that includes a bare breasted woman swimming underwater with a set of pythons. In subsequent scenes the costumes become more and more lavish, adorned with huge feathers and glittering jewelry. It is quite an entertaining experience and very well done, but Freddy is somewhat disappointed in the modern format. He has fond memories of productions he attended in the past.
The next day is Sunday so we hop in a taxi and head for the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which is located on a small island in the middle of the Seine. It’s about eleven o’clock and Mass has begun. It is an extraordinary sensation to walk from the sunshine into the dark interior of this massive church to be surrounded by organ music rumbling off the steep walls, and hear, as if from a distance the faint, yet familiar, cadence of the Mass being spoken, this time in French.
Visitors are allowed to walk quietly down the left side of the nave to an area behind the altar so we join the slow moving crowd that is making its way and go out the rear door. It is a beautiful day. People are gathered in the street listening to a trio of jazz musicians, who are standing on one of the bridges that connects this little island to the right and left banks, and also to the Ile Saint Louis, another small island. It is here on lle Saint Louis that Freddy takes me to Le Flore En L’Isle, a restaurant he remembers from years ago. We are lucky to get a table because the place is packed with couples and families having Sunday morning breakfast. Huge omelets and baskets of croissants whiz by in the hands of busy but congenial waiters. We have a direct view of the back of the cathedral.
Freddy orders a braised pork shank and I decide on the soupe de poisson. This is another traditional dish that I have always wanted to taste in its authentic form. And I am not disappointed. It comes accompanied by perfectly toasted tiny croutons and a small pot of zesty rouille, alive with the flavors of hot chilies, garlic and olive oil. I stir a generous dollop into my soup, sprinkle on a few croutons and experience one of the best soups I have ever tasted.
After lunch, we stroll back alongside Notre Dame to the front of the church where there is a line of taxis awaiting fares. Freddy tries to communicate with the first driver, who pretends not to understand, so we approach the second driver. This time with a bit of trepidation. But that’s not necessary; this driver not only speaks excellent English, but also puts forth an enthusiasm that is captivating. We pile in and settle ourselves while he begins to ask if we would like to see this or that interesting part of the city. What a bit of serendipity. We’ve found a driver who is knowledgeable and entertaining.
Freddy suggests a trip through the streets of Montmartre. He has stayed there many times in the past and wants to see it again. Off we go, with our driver, Jean Francois, pointing out all kinds of interesting and esoteric details. Montmartre is a bustling little town with an artsy feel to it. We drive partway down a narrow street of very old, but very charming homes. At one time, these were the homes of men who ground wheat into flour, but they have since been renovated and are now obviously occupied by young and prosperous professionals. We drive all the way up the hill to Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre, the church of the Sacred Heart. From here we can see all over the city of Paris. The view is breathtaking.
After winding our way back down through the town, we head off to see some famous landmarks, like the Arc de Triomphe and Place Charles de Gaulle, and some hidden points of interest our driver thinks will surprise us. Two hours later, we pull up to our hotel, tired but exhilarated from our whirlwind tour of the city.
We fall into our favorite comfortable chairs in the hotel bar and wait for Kacey and Craig to catch up with us. We’re supposed to go to dinner together. Meanwhile, we are somehow joined by the single fellow sitting at the next table, and then by his business associate who wanders in and plunks himself down. Freddy has convinced them to try a bourbon and soda, which turns into another bourbon and soda, so by the time Kacey and Craig arrive, and we pull up extra chairs, it has become a party. I reflect on the fact that it’s this accidental meeting of companionable people in far away places that makes travel so much fun.
When we eventually get around to deciding where to eat dinner, we’re well past the point where we care. Someone has recommended a brasserie to Kacey and Craig that is supposedly near our hotel, but because we think it’s quite a way down rue Saint-Lazare we hail a taxi. The driver swings wide around to go back in the direction from which he just came when we spy our intended destination right across the street. Laughing with embarrassment, we offer huge apologies, and money, to the driver and spill out into the middle of the street.
We’ve come to this restaurant because it has a reputation as being famous for its fish. However, when we walk in, we receive what seems like a fairly tepid reception from the maitre d’ and the other staff are standing around looking bored. There are a few people seated off to one side of the room, and although there are plenty of tables available, we are shown to the back near the kitchen door. And things never quite get any better than this. Maybe it’s too late, maybe the waiter just wants to go home, but I’m not feeling very welcome. We order champagne and begin to decide what we’ll have to eat. Cold lobster is listed as a course in a set menu, so since I love lobster in any way, shape or form, I ask if I can have just that. The waiter abruptly says “no, not unless you have the other items with it.” This is the only time all weekend that we come in contact with the haughty attitude for which French waiters have come to be notorious.
We wake up early on Monday, and move out quickly because our plane leaves at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we want to have some time for shopping. My heart’s desire is a visit to Fauchon, where I plan to buy some authentic madeleines, those delicate little sponge cakes that are baked in the form of a sea shell and eaten like a cookie. I have always wanted to get my hands on the real thing; I’ve seen and read so much about them. In my head, I hear those famous words by Marcel Proust that he wrote about madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past … “I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake … a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.” I wonder if I’ll feel the same way.
The bell captain hails a cab and tells the driver to take us to place de la Madeleine, a street which boasts several fine specialty food shops. We stroll around a bit, looking in the windows at the fantastical array of crusty breads, plump sausages, pates, truffles, exotic vegetables, all piled against each other; pastries, jams, chocolates and candied fruits that glisten in the sun like jewels. Finally, we enter the Fauchon shop and I head straight for the stacks of delightfully decorated tins of madeleines. After picking each design up and putting it down again several times, I decide on the black oblong that is a replica of the Fauchon delivery truck. On one side of the truck is the Fauchon delivery man, wearing his distinctive apron and holding a Fauchon tote bag; on the other side, stands a couturier dressed matron holding her poodle on a leash with one hand and her Fauchon tote bag with the other.
Now, I must also buy a Fauchon tote bag. It will come in handy when I grocery shop because the German stores don’t supply shopping bags, and besides, that’s a good excuse for the purchase. We browse around and I’m also pulled in by the colorful Fauchon apron, which is cut in the long French-market style and made of polished black cotton with bright magenta trim. It will be a great conversation piece at our next dinner party.
Food shopping always makes us hungry, and we haven’t had breakfast, so we make our way to a restaurant nearby that is situated on the corner where place de la Madeline meets rue Saint-Lazare. Entering Mollard Brasserie, it is apparent that this establishment is of historic significance. The interior décor is done in the elegant and fashionable style of Parisian life prior to World War I. There are mirrored walls, gold ceilings and paintings of voluptuous women all around. I feel like I’ve stepped back into some far more glamorous time.
But because it is a warm sunny day, we elect to sit in the outer portion of the room where floor-to-ceiling glass abuts the sidewalk. From here we have an excellent vantage point. We can see people walking, driving and bicycling in all four directions. What marvelous entertainment … we have this panoply of Paris life moving right by us as we order brunch.
This will be our last meal in France, so it must begin with champagne. Freddy orders what is described as a “tartare sandwich” and I ask for a Croque Madame. And they are beautiful when they arrive. Sided by lightly browned French fries, Freddy’s sandwich is, as the menu suggested, a slice of toasted French bread, cut the long way, topped with chopped raw beef and accompanied by a tangy mustard mayonnaise dressing. Mine is a picture straight out of a classic French cookbook … it’s a gorgeous grilled Gruyere cheese and ham sandwich with a perfectly shaped fried egg on top. We have a couple of glasses of brisk white wine.
Completely satisfied, we exit Mollard Brasserie and amble down the street in a different direction. We only have a little time left before we need to return to our hotel and gather our luggage, so we walk somewhat aimlessly. At least for a few yards.
January and July are sale months in Paris. We’re told that if a retail store wants to put its wares on sale, it must be done during those two months. Consequently, nearly all the store windows are covered with signs advertising price reductions, which I manage to resist until the Baccarat crystal shop. There in the window, I see the most beautiful glasses in the world. I am awestruck. They are “rocks glasses,” in other words, short and wide, they are meant to hold ice cubes and some alcoholic beverage “over the rocks.” Their sides are faceted, so the sunlight breaks into the brilliant colors of a rainbow as it passes through. I try hard not to look at them, and even walk away, but the thought that they might be on sale and I could get them for a bargain, is too much temptation for me. I drag Freddy back to look one more time. Of course, they’re not on sale, but by this time Freddy has maneuvered me inside and is asking the salesman to let me hold one. The way it feels heavy in my hand; the way it looks like a fist-sized diamond when I hold it to the light; my knees are weak. We walk out, proud owners of two Baccarat “Harcourt” Old Fashioned Tumblers, having spent way more on them than two glasses ought to cost. But then, how often does one get to sip bourbon from a diamond?
We have just enough time to get back to the Concorde, grab a last minute café au lait in the lobby and meet Kacey and Craig for the taxi ride back to the airport.
It has been a fast paced four days. And for someone who didn’t particularly want to come in the first place, I’m not at all anxious to leave. I feel there are so many more things to do and places to see, and not least of all, wonderful food to eat. It occurs to me that what sets France apart is that these people genuinely care about food … about how it is produced, how it is prepared and how it is served. They have pride in their cuisine and they pay attention to the quality of the raw ingredients. That is what makes the difference. This reluctant Parisienne is looking forward to returning.