Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ah, Paris

“Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half.” -- Charles de Montesquieu



As a transit point, it's hard to beat Paris, especially when accommodations are gratis (thanks, Forest!) and we have a full culinary schedule. As a prelude to a week in Provence, we spent a packed two days in the City of Lights, and seemed to be eating most of the time! Arriving around noon on Thursday, we got to nap for a bit during the afternoon at our friend Forest's apartment while she was at work, in an attempt to offset our jet lag and be ready for a long evening.

By early evening, we were somewhat rested and headed out, dressed to the nines, with Forest, to our first stop:
Bar Hemingway at the Paris Ritz. The space itself was fun, if tiny, and contained all the requisite Hemingway memorabilia. However, none of us were thrilled with our cocktails, and mine at least was made differently than I'd requested. Normally this sort of thing would not merit a mention, but at €28 each, there really was no excuse. My advice: skip it. We did have one minor celebrity sighting while at the bar; we saw Hildi Santo Tomas from Trading Spaces. Or her identical twin.

After Bar Hemingway, we headed off to the headline act of the evening, a meal at Le Meurice. Le Meurice was not our first 3-star Michelin restaurant, and it won't be our last. As could be reasonably expected from such a place, it was elegant without being ostentatious, the service was spot-on, the wine list was fantastic, and most of the food was excellent (and all of it was fantastically prepared and presented). There were a few things that were not especially exciting (nothing was bad, or even average, by any stretch of the imagination), but Le Meurice is not known for being on the cutting edge of gastronomy, so we hadn't been expecting anything along the lines of foie gras cotton candy or mother-of-pearl sorbet. I will say, though, that the blush is off the rose, at least a little, in terms of my personal take on the level of restaurant that Le Meurice represents. In other words, it was a great evening and I have nothing but positive things to say about Le Meurice, but at the same time it's hard to recapture the sheer novelty of our first time at places such as Taillevent, the French Laundry, or Arzak.

One thing to note for wine lovers: We ordered a bottle of 1998 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape in anticipation of the visit we had planned for the following week to that winery; if you get a chance, don't pass one of those up! Also, Forest and I both tried very old Bas Armagnacs; I had a 1942, she had a 1962. Surprisingly to me -- though I haven't researched to find out why this might be the case -- the 1962 was better.

As with similar experiences in the past, I was presented with a menu that included prices; the girls' menus just listed the food options. Very old-school. I wonder how the staff decides who gets the prices if the guest party is more ambiguous, such as two men, two women, adult children and parents, or some other combination where the "traditional" male host isn't clearly evident or is missing entirely.

The next day (Friday), Wendy and I had lunch reservations at
L'Astrance. It was a beautiful day, and the two of us had never been to the Eiffel Tower together, so we took the opportunity to go there first. As a great option for skipping most of the lines, we elected to walk up to the second level rather than waiting for a lift. We were able to spend some time enjoying the view before heading acriss the Seine for lunch.

L'Astrance was a really fun space. The designers must have had an interesting time retrofitting an oddly-shapped room with a sleek, modern interior; one interesting decision was to shoehorn in a second floor, where our table was located (along with just a few others). The side effect of this was a very low ceiling. I think it was just over 6 feet (slightly under 2 meters) high, so I couldn't stand up straight! The food at L'Astrance is probably best described as whimsical. The lunch was fairly light (or at least it read that way on the menu), but somehow unlisted courses kept coming out! All of the dishes were inventive and beautiful; as a lunch option, the setting was less-obviously formal as well, so it was a great way to spend a few hours relaxing with each other in the middle of the day.

On Friday evening, we started the evening by meeting several friends of ours and of Forest at for drinks at the Experimental Cocktail Club. Great little bar; they have a good menu, fantastic spirits selection (especially for Europe) and really know what they're doing, plus they have extremely reasonable prices. Forget the €28 of Bar Hemingway; €8 was the norm, for far better cocktails.

A big group of us then proceeded to dinner at Spoon, an Alain Ducasse restaurant. The idea of the restaurant is novel: each diner is, in theory, able to freely combine any of a selection of sauces and condiments with their ordered items to give them various flavor profiles. In practice, the menu was disjointed and confusing, and the food not especially good or memeorable. On top of that, the service was lousy (and unapologetic). Definitely skip Spoon.

Here's my quick report card for culinary Paris this time around:
Bar Hemingway: C-
Le Meurice: A
L'Astrance: A-
Experimental Cocktail Club: A
Spoon: D-

On Saturday, we boarded a train (just barely!) bound for Avignon!

Our full set of Paris pictures can be found here.