Friday, August 13, 2010

Eating in Paris: Polidor

Paris is full of very chic, very fashionable, very crowded restaurants doing all kinds of modern things with food for a very discriminating clientele. I stay away from those.

I unabashedly admit that when I am in Paris I want to overdose on the atmosphere I know from the old Hollywood movies. Think "The Last Time I Saw Paris" or "An American in Paris."

Give me a cluttered, cozy old cafe or bistro serving stick to your ribs French classics on porcelain dinner wear. I want croque monsieur dripping with bechamel sauce or onion soup gratinee with a cap of bubbly, melted cheese, or steak, roast chicken or moules with piles of golden pommes frites or a heap of homemade mashed potatoes.

I want something like Cremerie Restaurant Polidor.

Polidor's cozy interior looks like a Hollywood movie set. A window filled with greenery. Yellowed lace curtains. Mottled mirrors with wine lists scrawled on them. Chalkboards promoting the daily specials. Tarnished brass and silver. Crowded noisy bench tables with communal pots of salt and mustard. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time.
When I ate there in Spring 2007, cigarette smoke still swirled about in an atmospheric cloud. That's changed now since the smoking ban, but everything else is still the same.

While the atmosphere here is so Parisian as to almost appear manufactured, Polidor's patina is genuine. This place has been around over 100 years. And though Polidor is a tourist guide staple and has been featured on Rachel Ray's "40 dollars a Day" show in the U.S., the prevailing language here is still reassuringly French (although the menu is written in many languages).

On my visit, I was disappointed that they didn't have pumpkin soup, which I hear is a house specialty, but the bean soup was hearty and tasty.

The bouef bourguignon stock on the other hand was watery, the meat a little tough -- but then that's bouef bourguignon pretty much wherever you go.

The tartes here are homemade. I wavered between the lemon and chocolate before going with the citron. Delicious
The fixed formula menu is a good value as is the house wine.
The restroom facilities are, ummm, interesting.
A gourmet experience? Hardly, but but if you want to experience a weathered French bistro as you always imagined it would be right in the heart of Paris (the popular 6th arrondisement), Polidor is it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Shopping in Paris: L'Arche de Noe

You don't have to be a child to be enchanted by a Parisian toy store window.

No big-box Toys R Us these, merci beaucoup, but tiny curiosity shops, bursting at the seams with the most delightful treasures.

At L'Arche de Noe (Noah's Ark) on Rue-St-Louis-en-Ile, hand-painted ceramic cups, plates and a curvy, baroque silver tea service, complete with candelabra, are laid out ready to serve a beautifully decorated wooden gateau.

In a tableau reminiscent of Goldilocks, a fair-haired rag doll, with a body shaped like the Eiffel Tower, snuggles up to a giant bear's head that unzips at the collar, et voila, out tumbles a family of little stuffed bears.

High up on a shelf, spare, sleek leather lunch satchels, that look more like designer handbags with their intricate contrasting top-stitching, promise to elevate a sandwich, banana and bag of chips to haute cuisine.

A hint of pink tulle peeks demurely from behind an old-fashioned chalkboard. I instantly whoosh back to Christmas 1965, when I awoke to discover my very own pink tutu with a silver sequined bodice -- exactly what I had put on my Christmas list.

I can't tear myself away from a display of wooden music boxes. On each lid, a trio of bumblebees, ladybugs, clowns, giraffes, frogs, butterflies or fairies, twirls in time to the tinkling melody. I agonize over which one to bring back to my niece.

If I write Pere Noel a nice note (en francais mais bien sur) on the pretty pre-addressed stationery by the register -- do you think he might deliver one of these lovely little stores to my neighborhood?

It couldn't hurt to ask; after all he came through on the tutu didn't he?

L'Arch de Noe
70 Rue St-Louis-en-l’Ile

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shopping in Paris: Melodies Graphiques

According to the nuns who taught me, and anyone who has ever tried to read my chicken-scratch, my handwriting is hopelessly awful.

That said, I love the idea of letter-writing --sitting down at a cozy desk with lots of cubby holes, the rustle of scented, textured paper, melting wax sensually dripping onto an envelope, stamping the still-warm puddle with a baroque rendering my initial -- the beauty of the ritual just gets to me.

So it is small wonder that the ebony exterior and warm, lamp-lit windows of the stationery shop, Melodies Graphiques, in the 4th beckoned during my entire last visit to Paris in December. Finally I succumbed to the siren's call.

As the door bell tinkled, I told myself that I wasn't a fraud. I was Christmas shopping for my friends with epistolary leanings. I actually know people whose handwriting is not tragic.

And, oh,what a treat for the senses this shopping expedition turned out to be. Beautiful hand-drawn Christmas cards bearing whimsical images of Pere Noel in a horse-drawn sleigh. Italian paper sold by the sheet. Colored pencils displayed like bouquets of exotic flowers in glass jars and vases. Sealing wax in colors undreamed of by Crayola. Pots of gold, silver, copper and bronze dust with which to gild the seal. Family tree certificates, as intricately illustrated as the Book of Hours, just waiting to be personalized with calligraphic flourishes.

If so inclined, one can study the fine art of calligraphy here. Various graceful styles are presented for perusal on heavy creamy stock. How grand.

And I feel the flicker of possibility. Perhaps, if I put my mind to it ... and practice enough I could learn to write like this ... and play the harpsichord ... and make my own cheese .. and speak French fluently.

I realize where this is headed and reluctantly put back the calligraphy kit in its own lovely cherry wood box.

But I don't leave empty handed. I buy one of the handmade cards -- suitable for framing -- and one of those lovely family trees. I have been spending a little time on after all.

As for the calligraphy to fill it in ... well, you can pay people to do that for you you know.

10, rue du Pont Louis-Philippe
75004 Paris

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Eating in Paris: L'heure Gourmand

It's been a busy morning of shopping. I want to relax in a cozy little salon de the surrounded by all my pretty little bags, so I can inventory my purchases and enjoy a light lunch and perhaps un petit gout of something sweet to fortify me for a vigorous afternoon of sight seeing. I contemplate my choices.

There are the grand dames -- Angelina, Laduree, Mariage Freres -- all sure to be bustling this time of day. But I'm in the mood for something quieter, more personal, a bit off the beaten path.

I see a street sign, remember a blog posting and step through a large iron gate into the quiet cobblestoned Passage Dauphine. Ah, serenity. There's a toy store, a librarie, and, just as I had hoped, L'Heure Gourmande.

The interior is small, warm, inviting. Tartes, savory and sweet, are showcased under glass covers. In short order, a demi-carafe of white wine, a basket of bread and a slice of vegetable tart, accompanied by greens tumbled in tangy vinegarette, appear in front of me.

I peruse the day's yield: a few bars of convent-made lavender soap, antique crocheted gloves and a lace hanky, a lovely rose lipstick for my sister, embroidered "lingerie bags" for the girls back home (oh, how delightfully French are these), a second-hand book for my brother-in- law from "Shakespeare and Company" and, pour moi, a tiny madeleine pan.

I celebrate a day of successful shopping with a tiny sliver of chocolate mousse cake sprinkled with lovely green pistachios.

Can this day be any more perfect?

L’Heure Gourmande
22, passage Dauphine, 75006 Paris
Tel. +33 (0)1 46 34 00 40
Métro: Odéon

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Stroll down Rue de Rosiers

I didn't see or smell any roses on this street named for them in the old Marais district.

But then, I'm not sure I could have handled the sensory overload.

In this old neighborhood, the heart of Paris' Jewish quarter, ancient synagogues and crumbling delicatessens share real estate with modern fashion boutiques and industrial-mod art galleries. Soberly clad Hasidic Jews rub shoulders with tourists and the Marais' uber-trendy new denizens.

The neighborhood bustles on this overcast fall Sunday before Sukkot (the festival of the harvest). In front of the festival's traditional temporary booths, young men in yarmulkes and neatly pressed white shirts sell the four species -- willow and myrtle branches, palm fronds and puckered etrog fruits -- to families preparing for their week long religious celebration.

Parisians throng three deep around the take-out windows of the street's most popular falafel stands, desperate to get their fix before the stands shutter up for the week.

The smell of the fried chickpea-patties, eggplant and that incredible hot sauce they dress it all with is dizzying. I unwrap my prize and chow down on the spot, licking the sauce off my fingers (very discreetly because of course this is Paris not KFC) while simultaneously "licking the windows" as the French call window-shopping.

Yes, the falafel is drool-worthy, but, oh, so are the clothes -- in the season's tones of amethyst, ruby, burnt umber, charcoal and, of course, black. Even the store window mannequins here are intimidatingly chic in layered sweater dresses with low-slung belts, effortlessly draped scarves and riding boots and hobo bags.

I make myself think of those clothes, as I pass Sacha Finkelstzajan's deli and patisserie. The rich, dense cheesecake in the window looks like one my mother used to make.

Just at the end of this lovely rose-less street, I almost completely overlook the unobtrusive, adorably named salon de the, Le Loir dans la Theiere, (The Dormouse in the Teapot). With a name like that, I must to stop in.

Unlike other tearooms in Paris, which tend to be spare and Zen or gilded and baroque, this one is agreeably cluttered and cozy. People, appear to be in no rush as they nurse cups of coffee or tea in silver pots while crowded around little tables and in the corners of comfy leather couches. A chalkboard menu once filled with lunch specials, has been progressively erased until there are just two choices: a green salad with hot goat cheese and an omelet. I opt for a pot of tea.

And then I see it. The dessert I have been waiting for all my life. A tarte au citron, but not just any tarte, this, but a feat of culinary engineering. The thin, thin, tarte with its yellow custard filling, is topped by a billowing pile of light airy meringue ten inches, yes, 10 INCHES thick. The mother of all meringues. So light and fluffy it should stuff a pillow -- and oh what sweet slumber that would be.

And I weep at the knowledge that I am just too full to eat it.

Perhaps next time. For that meringue and I were meant to be.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Missing Paris, Part Deux

Last spring, misty for Paris, I wrote down this list of favorite Parisian things on my blog "The House Where the Black Cat Lives" and , in the process, talked myself into spending Christmas in Paris.

Now I have a whole new list.

The jolly red-faced accordion player belting out Jingle Bells on the Pont Marie bridge -- and somehow working "Merci, Madame" into the lyrics when I toss a euro into his cup.

Decorating the mantle in my very own Paris apartment with boughs of holly and Pere Noel tealights from Monoprix.

Bouche de Noel -- in all sizes, colors and flavors, but always the same familiar log shape.

The blue doors of Paris -- cerculean, azure, marine -- especially lovely when set off against red. See my attempts to recreate this effect at home.

The perfect croque monsieur topped with browned cheese and bechamel at a run of the mill cafe.

Restaurants with house cats (and dogs).

Being recognized by the proprietor of the neighborhood wine store.

Sipping champagne, nibbling on a wedge of Roquefort while watching the ballet "Neige Blanche" (Snow White) in French on TV and talking to my sister on the telephone in English.

Enchanting toy shops with music boxes.

Tiny hole in the wall grocers that sell cantal cheese, bayonne ham, fresh clementines, elephant garlic but NO sliced white bread.

Lighting a candle for my mother in St. Louis en Ile church on Christmas knowing how much she would have enjoyed this gorgeous place.

Slipping over to Charolotte d'Isle for my daily fix of chocolat chaud -- this trip's guilty pleasure.

Creme caramel at Cafe des Musees. Oh, I just can't say those words enough.

Standing at the counter at Hermes while the oh-so-French-sales lady pulls lovely silk squares from the case and swirls them about on the glass for my approval. Finally, "Oui, c'est ca!" It's like being a kid in a (very expensive) candy store.

Stationery stores with lovely, heavy writing paper, embossers, sealing wax, fine-tipped pen nibs and pots of colored ink. Oh, how I wish I'd listened more to the nuns and practiced my handwriting more.

Watching the frazzled restaurant owner enjoy a moment to kiss his little boy good night before he scampers off to await Pere Noel . I am completely charmed. It brought back memories of my childhood with a father in the restaurant business.

Buying chicken from the butcher, cheese from the fromagerie, vegetables from the market, bread from the boulangerie and cake from the patisserie to improvise the perfect dinner.

Stepping through the gate into the cobblestoned courtyard of my (rented) apartment building and climbing those creaky windy stairs, knowing that for 10 days any way, Je suis une Parisienne.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Eating in Paris: Chartier

I'll give it to you straight. You won't come here for the food. Chances are you won't even remember what you ate later. You will, however, remember almost everything else about this fabulous Belle-Epoque eatery: the line outside (which moves very quickly), the time capsulish décor, the bustling wait staff, and the extensive, if unremarkable, menu of correctly done -- and cheap -- French classics.

The crowd is eclectic, the noise level high and the wait staff can be grouchy or hilariously funny. They are all very competent, whether bearing huge heavy laden trays up stairs, juggling customers or adding up long columns of figures in pencil on the tablecloth.

After we were seated at a small table by the kitchen entrance, much to our disappointment, the waiter sidled over and, in French, said two of his out of town regulars who always sat at this table, wanted to know if we would trade places. Pas de problem! After much smiling and nodding, shaking of hands and raised wine glasses across a crowded room, the table swap was made much to everyone's satisfaction, especially the waiter, who as a reward for our cooperation turned into the Most Charming and Attentive Waiter Ever.

I left there humming. Like Amelie, I just love making people happy. While the food isn't the best in Paris -- the shrimp were a little rubbery, the hamburger steak bland --the duck confit and the accompanying potatoes were quite tasty. And it's hard to beat that atmosphere.

Oh, and did I mention this restaurant is featured briefly in a scene in one of my very favorite French movies, "A Very Long Engagement?" (click here for film trailer) Look for it about midway through in one of Jodie Foster's scenes. Even though it's set during World War I, this is still one of those movies you'll want to see before going to Paris.

7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre75009 Paris, France