Friday, April 24, 2009

The Foodie in Paris

In which city are vegetable producers, cheesemongers and butchers known by name? Paris, of course. Joel Thiebault, Marie-Anne Cantin, and Hugo Desnoyer are names that may be mentioned on a top restaurant's menu.

Like in the USA, French chefs are increasingly going back to basics and letting the quality of their ingredients shine through. In a country so proud of its heritage, technique remains important, but superfluous trimmings and add-ons are becoming passé.

Alain Passard at L'Arpege and Y
annick Alleno of Le Meurice are two examples of this trend. Alleno, who recieved his third star only this year, is known for his light touch, teasing out flavors from fresh meat, fish and greens at his opulent restaurant on Rue de Rivoli near Place de la Concorde.

Chicken BrochettesThis is the city filled with celebrity chef-run restaurants: Alain Ducasse, Taillevent, Pierre Gagnaire, Le Grand Vefour and many others. Reservations usually have to be made weeks in advance and the chef's tasting menu without wine pairing is usually upwards of €250. In recent times, the Michelin Guide has been springing some surprises: Le Grand Vefour, a revered two-century-old Parisian temple of gastronomy lost its third star last year as did Taillevent which held its three stars for 34 years. Here is the 2009 list of Michelin starred restaurants in Paris (pdf): there are 23 three-star restaurants in this list.

If you want my recommendation for three-star dining, try the Le Meurice: both the food and the setting are amazing and the chef is an rising star here. However, if you love history and tradition, you may want to dine at the Vefour or Taillevent (ignoring their dropped stars).

Cafe in Paris
Roadside CafeStill, Paris is not known as a foodie's paradise only for its Michelin starred restaurants. The city's ubiquitous cafes, bistros and brasseries have their unique charm and even the 'fast' food can turn out to be pretty appetizing. Cafe chairs set on the sidewalks don't face each other; instead, you sit together facing the street and watching people! We discovered the Croque Monsieur, a Parisian version of the ham and cheese sandwich and even the interestingly named Croque Madame which comes with a fried egg on top (apparently, this looks like a old-fashioned woman's hat and hence the Madame in the name). During the evenings, we sipped on some of the most interesting Bordeaux and Cote de'ventoux in these places with our food. The small Parisian restaurants usually only have a small handwritten menu (in French) and a dozen seats, but the food rarely disappoints.

Manta Ray with citrus sauce and potato fondantThen there are the many wine shops, fromangeries, boulangeries and speciality butcher shops for those who like to create gourmet spreads at home. Actually, there are entire gourmet food megastores (Fauchon, Hediard, etc.) that should be on your must-see places if you are a foodie. I don't think there is anything like this in any other city.

And for fellow Indian foodies, what is pleasing is the French too like their meat and produce fresh. Which means they usually buy directly from open markets and butchers' shops (unlike in the USA).

Rue Monterguiel Open MarketAmong the many things I ate here, I will remember the crepes. There are varieties of them with sweet as well as savory fillings. We loved the ones with chocolate, nutella or cream & sugar fillings. The savory ones are sometimes listed as Galettes. The ham and cheese galette we ate a few times are extremely filling and available at most tourist spots like the Concorde or Notre Dame.

Ham and Cheese Crepes
Crepe with CreamThe brioche, macacons, eclairs, mille fuielles and other heavenly breads and pastries are something you must try in Paris. Even cold sandwiches and hot dogs taste so much better there because of the high quality of their bread, cheese and ham.

I tried a number of different cheese including Brie, Roquefort, Lou Perac. BTW, the hot chocolate is also great here as are the desserts, even in the smallest cafe. I will remember the Cream Brulees, Chocolat Fondants and Apple and Cream Tarts I sampled here.

In restaurants I ate Steak Frites, Salmon with buttered Basmati Rice and flambeed Tomatoes, Salmon-topped Pasta, Panga on a bed of Ratatouile - a new fish imported from Vietnam and now on every French plate, Haddock on Blanched Spinach in a White Sauce, pate de Campagne, and much more. My little girl loved the hot-dogs, pasta and even the home-made onion soups.

Salmon Rillette at L'Artoise, Paris
Nougat at L'Artoise, ParisAmong the more interesting restaurants was the L'Artoise just off Champs-Elysees, run by a lovely couple. My friend Patrice took me here on my last day in this city. We settled for the menu of the day starting with Rillette of Salmon - sort of a pate - on toast with salad leaves in olive oil. The entree was a beautifully made dish of flaky, fresh Manta Ray (raie in French) covered with a citrus sauce and potato fondant.The dessert was a fitting end to this meal: a large portion of Nougat glace in a coulis of Framboise (French raspberry).

Eating EscargotsFinally, the snails! After debating if I would have the stomach for this, I did try them. Escargots are a local delicacy, made of large snails in a garlic-parsley-butter sauce. Check out the pictures. :)

Next: Au Revoir Paris
Prev: Museum Hopping


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Paris: Museum Hopping

Aremis and Deer at the LouvreThe Louvre is both the world's largest palace and its largest museum. While there are other palaces more impressive, as a museum there are no equals. The Louvre's collection covers a broad spectrum of history, from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the 19th century. Some 35,000 works of art and artifacts are on show, divided into eight departments and housed in three wings: Denon, Sully and Richelieu. Our plan was to spend quality time in the Egyptian and Greco-Roman sections before sampling the best of the rest.

The Louvre in Paris
The Louvre in ParisWe avoided the long queues at the Louvre's pyramid entrance by buying advance tickets at the Virgin Megastore and entering the museum through the Carrousel du Louvre. We were the first visitors of the day into Sully and while we were getting oriented, we found ourselves face-to-face with the museum's second most popular exhibit, Venus de Milo (only the Mona Lisa attracts more crowds). Shortly after, entered into Egypt Antiquities section announced by the pink granite Gaint Sphinx (1898-1866 BC).

Venus de Milo at the Louvre
Remains of Egyptian temple at LouvreWe were immediately immersed in the exhibits that evoked the glory of this ancient civilization. Artifacts and drawings presented Nile culture: fishing, agriculture, hunting, daily and cultural life, religion and death. Most fascinating was the Mastaba of Akhethetep, a decorated burial chamber from Sakkara dating back to 2400 BC. Elaborately painted sarcophagi, elements of the temple complex with goddesses, mummies, amulets, jewelry and entrails formed a vivid display that is difficult to forget. What was remarkable to me was how advanced the Egyptians were even during those ancient times: this is visible from their furniture, which almost looks contemporary, and their elaborate jewelry, toys and drawings. Mankind's progress seems to have happened in fits and starts. When the Egyptian civilization collapsed, it took with it a lot of its knowledge and we started all over again.

Stone Sarcophagus at Louvre
An Egyptian Mummy at the Louvre
Ancient Egyptian Wall Painting in the Louvre
Ancient Egyptian toy at the LouvreThe earliest Greek scuptures in the Louvre date far back into the 7th century BC. From Classical elegance to Realism: from depicting athletic, muscular figures to potrayal of old age and infancy. We saw the statue of the Centaur Chiron being teased by the young God Eros; in Greek mythology, Chiron became the constellation Sagittarius after his death. Among French sculptures we saw Artemis with a Doe from the 4th century BC.

Chiron and Eros at the Louvre
Mesopotamian artifacts at the LouvreThe opulent apartments of Napolean III are an exceptional record of Second Empire decorative art. The state dining room features an imposing table and sideboard in black-stained wood with gilt bronze decorations. The painted ceiling (a luminous sky traversed by exotic birds) is by Eugène Appert.

Opulent chambers of Napolean III at the Louvre
Opulent chambers of Napolean III at the Louvre
Opulent chambers of Napolean III at the LouvreThe Reubens hall containing a series of 24 paintings on the life of Marie de Medisi by Reubens was fascinating. Finally, we ended our day-long visit by visiting Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece the Mona Lisa. Given the hype, the small painting at the end of a large hall is somewhat of an anti-climax; here's a picture of the crowds eagerly photographing the famous painting.

Reubens Hall at the Louvre
Crowds in front of the Mona Lisa, Louvre
The Mona Lisa at LouvreHaving read (and seen) the Da Vinci Code which begins its fast-paced drama in this hall of the Louvre, we went down to the Inverted Pyramid in the Carrousel du Louvre where the movie ends (the Holy Grail supposedly buried underneath). As we walked back to our apartment, we ran into the 'Rose Line' in the book: these Arago disks trace the Paris Meridian line that once tried to rival Greenwich.

Inverted Pyramid at Carrousel du Louvre
Arago disks tracing the Paris MeridianOn another day, we went back to Sainte Chapelle on Ile de City, a gothic marvel of a museum with its huge stained glass windows which depict the stories of the Bible in 1134 scenes. This chapel once housed the Crown of Thorns and other Christian relics for which the king paid twice as much as the amont to build the chapel itself.

Sainte Chapelle, Paris
Sainte Chapelle Paris
Sainte Chapelle ParisToday, we visited Musee d'Orsay, an old rail station converted into one of the world's great museums. The Orsay boasts an astounding collection of big names: Manet, Monet, Delacroix, Renoir and many others.

Musee d'Orsay in ParisI have always liked the vivid colors of a Van Gogh, and it was particularly thrilling to be in a room filled with some many of his masterpieces. Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (the luncheon on grass) stirred up controversy when he seated a nude women among clothed men and is among the most popular works in this museum (picture below).

With Van Gogh's Self Portrait and The Italian Woman
Manet's controversial Luncheon on the Grass at Musee d'OrsayIn addition to the Impressionist painters, there were sections on the different schools of painting that emerged during the mid-1800s and early 1900s: Naturalism, Academic, and Symbolism. We were also lucky to see an entire exhibition devoted to Rodin and others who embraced a new, modern form of sculpture inspired by his works. Rodin's work departed from the classical works which were decorative and based on mythological themes; instead, he modeled the human body with a focus on human fraility as well as individuality.

Closeup of the Alligator Hunters by Ernest Barrias
Detail of Gates of Hell by Rodin
Rodinism at the Musee d'OrsayParis is filled with museums and it is difficult to choose. However, if you have time for only one, it has to be the Louvre. If you have time for two, I would also recommend the d'Orsay. If you plan to visit more, consider buying a museum pass.

Next: The Food!
Prev: Champs-Elysees and More


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Champs-Élysées and More

Bronze statues at Place de la ConcordeThe Champs-Élysées has been called the highway of French grandeur. It is a symbolic gathering place for celebrations, sporting victories and New Year's Eve. It has also been witness to some of France's worst moments, such as when Hitler's armies paraded down the street in 1940. Today this is among the must-visit attractions of Paris, its broad pavements lined with the most upscale shops, hotels and restaurants that draw the affluent and the screamingly fashionable pack.

The stroll down the Champs-Élysées from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe is among the two best walks of Paris (the other being the Quay-side walk along the Seine). We started late after a hearty breakfast and walked past the Louvre into the large gardens of the Tuileries. Spring was in the air and the trees were decked with the freshest of green leaves. Unlike English gardeners who like an element of wilderness, the French are almost mathematical in their gardens. This large garden was laid out with straight paths, manicured trees - every tree almost a perfect cube or a sphere - and flower beds in geometrical pattens. At the farther end of the garden are playgrounds for children with donkey rides and ice-cream stalls.

Park along the Champs Elysees
Park along the Champs ElyseesWe walked out of the large gilded gates of the Jardin des Tuileries and into the Place de la Concorde, a large, impressive square dominated by an Egyptian obelisk from Luxor. The 3300-year old obilisk was a gift from Egypt and once guarded the entrace of the Luxor temple. Its hieroglyphics exhalt the reign of pharaoh Ramses II. Here is a picture of the obilisk with me 'beheaded' - in remembrance of the many who were gullotined at this square during the Reign of Terror at the time of the French Revolution. Public beheadings at Place de la Concorde included the only king of France to suffer such a fate, King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Antoinette.

Obelisk at Place de la Concorde
Detailing on the Obelisk at Place de la Concorde shows how it was transported to FranceWe picked up some more of the crepes we had begun to love so much and a hot-dog for the girl. The hot dog was very good too because of the French baguettes they came in. Today's crepes were savory ones with ham and cheese. Very filling and excellent as always!

Ham and Cheese CrepeThe grandest walk in Paris begins here as you continue to the Champs-Élysées. The first third of the promenade is lined with trees and parks. Tulips, cherry blossoms, pansies and daisies bloomed amongst verdant green vistas. Couples cosied up on park benches while children played. There were painters with their easels oblivious to the crowds. Along with the caricature artists, there was a guy offering to create a silhouette within 2 minutes on a piece of paper. As you can see in the pictures below, he was very good!

Artist at work on Champs Elysees
Artist at Work on Champs ElyseesNow we were amongst the crowded pavement of the final stretch. Fancy shops and restaurants abounded. But the crowd was mostly tourists on their quick pilgrimage to the mecca of high society. We stopped to rest awhile watching the people mill around and tasted some excellent mini-macarons at a bakery; I also bought a loaf of French brioche.

The Arc de Troimph
Details of the Arc de Troimph
Details of the Arc de TroimphFinally, we were at the Arc de Troimph. This impressive arch was commissioned by Napolean and depicts his historic victories. Ironically, the Arc's construction was begun when his empire began to collapse. The Arc has an elaborate frieze of battle scenes and sculptures all around. After figuring out how to get to the underground passage that led to the Arch, we bought tickets to the observation platform at the top. Thankfully, because of our little girl, we were allowed use of the elevator - else, you have to climb 284 steps to get there. Paris was laid out in front of us! The Eiffel tower on one side, the Champs-Élysées all the way up to the Lourve on another. Oh what a view!

View from the top of Arc de Troimph
View from the top of Arc de Troimph
We didn't try walking back, but took the Metro back to the Louvre. The journey was rather pleasant - being a Sunday, not very crowded. After a brief rest and some more grocery shopping - more of that excellent Bordeaux - we were back strolling the Quay near the Louvre in the fading sunlight. I think the French have a better metro than the English.

Details of the Arc de TroimphOn another day, we walked past the Concorde, this time crossing the river towards the Eiffel Tower. We walked past the National Assembly building and past the opulent Pont Alexandre III with its gold adornments leading up to the Invalides with its glittering dome where Napolean now rests.

The area between the Invalides and the Eiffel Tower has lovely streets with great cafes. We sat down in one and had an excellent quick lunch. I had the Croque-Monsieur, a ham and cheese sandwich while my wife decided to try the Croque-Madame but with poulet (chicken). The Croque-Madame comes with a fried egg on top, remembling an old-fashioned woman's hat and hence the name! The girl decided to go for a Nicoise Salad, a French staple. All the three dishes were made well and we gorged on them. The hot chocolates in Paris are excellent too.

Croque Monsieur
Croque Madame
Nicoise SaladThe best way to see the Eiffel is to approach it from a distance, preferably from the Ecole Militaire and stroll through the gardens of Champs de Mars. After the mandatory pictures, we lazed in the gardens surrounded by beautiful tulips, black pansies, and cherry blossoms in full bloom while the girl played around. We stayed away from the hordes of tourists below the tower itself. I think the night-time sight of the tower is much prettier. Which reminds me of Guy de Maupassant : He visited the restaurant on the tower daily and said he did so because it was the only place he could look out and not see the ugliness of the tower! :)

The Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel at Night
Paris at NightOn our way back, we checked out an eclair au chocolat and mille-feuille at an artisan patisserie and both were absolutely delightful. The eclair is a cream-filled pastry topped with chocolate, while the mille-feuille is made by arranging thin layers of flaky pastry on top of one another along with layers of vanilla cream. Parisian bakeries rock!

Next: Museum Hopping
Prev: Walking the Quays

Travel Tips: If you decide to take a Metro to the Eiffel Tower during the day, you may want to consider getting out at La Tour-Maubourg station (rather than Ecole Militaire) and then walking down the pretty streets with their interesting shops and churches.