Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Au Revoir, Paris

A melange of images from around the 'hood. Oh, how I'll miss it. Maybe instead of goodbye, I should just say "a bientot!"

Shopping in Paris: Marche aux Puces Porte de Vanves

On my last Saturday in Paris, I decided to return to the Porte de Vanves flea market. Smaller and, for the most part, more affordable than the sprawling markets at Cligancourt, I discovered this market last October.

Despite it being the day after Christmas, a lot of vendors have turned out. As usual, the merchandise runs the gamut from junk to haute. I eyeball the gorgeous light fixtures and furniture, but I'm just dreaming. Even if I could afford them, I can't handle the shipping. I consider a scarf that shows a map of Croatia in French. I walk away to think about it for a moment. When I pass by to take a second look, it's gone. That's how it goes at flea markets. The print seller who sold 3-euro antique prints, maps and book engravings last fall isn't around today. I pick up a silver whatnot container with a hand-painted mother of pearl lid from the 5 euro table and a handful of keys for my chatelaine chain for 2 euros each.

By noon everyone is packing up, and I catch the metro back to city center in search of a inexpensive lunch to go with my cheap finds.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Gettin' Cultcha: The Rodin Museum

Shopping in Paris: Fragonard

Fragonard, the noted French perfumer, uses flowers and herbs grown in Provence for their signature scents (I'm partial to their orange blossom eau de toilette). You can learn all about how they make their perfumes at their perfume museums a couple of blocks apart at city center. Admission is free, but the tours are offered in French. You also can browse in their gift shops for well priced souvenirs (a box of assorted sachets of famous Fragonard fragrances is only 5 euros). No matter how small your purchase, the accommodating staff will wrap your purchases and even throw free perfume samples into your bag.

If you get a chance, head up to their boutique in the Marais District (next door to Antoine & Lili). In addition to the fragrances, they have a full line of unique and reasonably priced Paris-themed gifts/souvenirs. Embroidered pillows run 18-45 euros. They also have embroidered bags for holding cosmetics, shoes and lingerie.

I love this place. It's a must-see (and shop) for any girly-girl.

Eating in Paris: La Tour d'Argent

OK. I'm cheating a little. I didn't really eat here. Lunch alone will set you back 60 euros. But I thought you'd like to see one of the oldest (and most expensive) restaurants in Paris.

Eating in Paris: Relais d'Entrecote

There's only one thing on the menu at this famous St. Germain eatery: entrecote (rib) steak in a wonderful secret sauce, accompanied by a simple salad with walnuts and mustard vinaigrette, and piles of pommes frites. They don't take reservations, but the line moves quickly especially if you are a small party.

I had eaten the same menu at the Relais de Venise, the original restaurant established by the owner's father, now run by her sister, two years ago. Although they use the same recipes, I found the dinner at the older eatery better. Maybe it was just me. It was a little overheated in the restaurant tonight, and I couldn't give the food my whole attention.

Make no mistake about it, it is delicious and the portions are generous. The servers in their cute classic black and white uniforms come around twice. While you don't get a choice as to your main meal, they do have an extensive dessert menu. I'm partial to the profiteroles.

Some people pooh-pooh this place as a tourist trap. Yes, you'll hear mostly English and Italian at the St. Germain location; the other location is favored by locals. The long lines don't lie. It's worth the trip.

Eating in Paris: La Charlotte d'Isle

One good thing about visiting Paris when it's cold and wet is that you get to spend a lot of time drinking hot chocolate or chocolat chaud as they say here. Forget about those little powdered packets of hydrogenated whatever from Nestle or Swiss Miss that we call hot chocolate in the States. They should not even be mentioned in the same breath as this heavenly nectar.

Here, hot chocolate, as with all with food, is treated with reverence. And the results are amazing -- and all so different. I can see why the French aristocrats tried to hog it all for themselves. Probably the real reason for the Revolution as opposed to that "let 'em cake" stuff. The French peasants probably wouldn't have minded the cake so much if they had a cup of this to wash it down.

So I made it my mission this Christmas visit to scope out the best chocolat chaud in Paris.

The gold standard for me is Laduree. Their chocolat ancien is served in little silver pitchers, and it's like drinking a chocolate bar. After that incredible first sip, you definitely need a swig of water -- and a moment to compose yourself. Yeah, it's that good. Even better, to me than, Angelina's, which is considered by most to be Paris' best.

The best hot chocolate I had this trip was right in the neighborhood on Ile St. Louis. The salon de the La Charlotte d'Isle, pictured here, is always packed, especially with British tourists (the owner is a Brit) and resembles your aunt's crowded parlor. In addition to the amazing hot chocolate, the store sells all kinds of wonderful hand-dipped and molded chocolates. The chocolate dipped candied orange peel is my favorite.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Gettin' Cultcha: The Jacquemart-Andre Museum

As you might imagine, not a lot is open on Christmas Day. But this lovely museum, located in city center, near the Champs Elysees is. This was once a private residence and collection. Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Best of all it has its own tearoom, and a particularly nice one at that. Sitting in this exquisite room, surrounded by Hermes scarves, mink coats and the scents of Chanel, sipping a cup of vanilla tea and nibbling a chocolate millefeuille is destined to become one of my finer memories.

If you come here, be sure to have lunch, or just tea. A pot of tea or a cup of coffee and a pastry will set you back about 9 euros, and it is so worth it.

Joyeux Noel and Bonnes Fetes, Y'all

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Eating in Paris: Patisseries

Pastry-making is an art-form in Paris, and one that is celebrated --and indulged in -- everywhere. When I dream of Paris, I don't think of just the lovely buildings and monuments, but the trays and trays of beautiful, decadent pastries like these.

Featured here are two specialities of the holiday season: buches de noel, mousse-filled sponge cake, a popular Christmas dessert, and gallettes des rois. We call them "king cakes" in this part of the world.

Shopping in Paris: L'Argenterie

I have to admit to having a fondness for sparkly silver. Although I always keep a hopeful eye on the stalls at the marches aux puces (flea markets), I usually wind up in the Marais district at this lovely little shop on Rue de Varennes.

Yes, it can be pricey, but so pretty and you can get fairly well-priced souvenirs here like silver bangles fashioned from antique forks and spoons. The helpful staff will gift-wrap.

To celebrate your purchase, or a particularly good find, you might want to walk further down the street for lunch or dinner at Cafe des Musees, open seven days a week.

Eating in Paris: Patrick Roger Chocolates

There is a chocolate shop on every street corner in Paris. And they're all good. Two of the best apparently (judging by the lines coming out the doors Christmas Eve) are La Maison du Chocolat and Patrick Roger. The latter's window's included displays of these chocolate fir trees and a giant choclate mountain. Heaven.

Shopping in Paris: Hermes

To tell the truth, there's not much I can afford at the designers' boutiques. But that doesn't stop me from looking. I made the pilgrimage to the Hermes flagship store, home of the Kelly bag, the Birkin bag and those famous scarves. I did not leave empty-handed.

It's an intimidating little field trip to be sure. The sales help are all extremely chic, the clientele mostly monied, but you put on your best outfit, roll out your best textbook French and walk out of there with your little orange bag like you own the place. Because at that point you do own a small piece of it.

I have to say it's my favorite souvenir.

Eating in Paris: L'Auberge de la Reine Blanche

For Christmas Eve, decided to stay close and chose this tiny, cozy little bistro (The Inn of the White Queen in English) down the street from the apartment. The sign on the door said it was Zagat rated, and it had a positive (if yellowed) review from The Times Picayune of all places taped to their window.

The lighting was dim, the soundtrack was Piaf and the tiny place was soon filled to its picturesque 17th century beams with laughter and table chatter -- in English. American English to be precise. Rut roh. Can you say le trap touriste?

Shame on me for thinking that.

My daily special, leg of lamb roasted in honey with nice side of cheesy garlic souffled potatoes, was incredible as was the creme brulee. The tiny kitchen also turned out cast-iron cocottes which, when their lids were lifted, filled the air with the heady scent of boeuf bourguignon and lamb stew. There were lots of oohs and aahs and inadequate attempts in very bad French to express just how tres bon all of it really was. I would definitely eat here again, especially at the fixed formule prices.

Ambiance: Picturesque and romantic on the enchanting Ile St. Louis
Prices: Reasonable
Food: Very good traditional French dishes.
Hours: Open every day.

Gettin' Cultcha: L'Opera Garnier

Anybody who has ever seen Andrew Lloyd Weber's "The Phantom of the Opera" puts a tour of the Palais Garnier building at the very top of their Paris "must do" list. And you should do it, even if you haven't seen the show, as most Parisians haven't. Get this: This musical has played all over the world, but it has never come to Paris.

The guide is quick to point out that the musical, all four movie versions and the book on which they are all based is pure fiction. The opera house is not haunted. There is no lake under the building (although there is a water reservoir which architect Charles Garnier included in case his creation ever met the same fiery fate as its 12 predecessors did in those pre-electricity days). And, sadly, the chandelier -- which is extremely impressive-- never fell. It did once have some mechanical problems and started moving, but it dropped not so much as a crystal.

So much for the myth, but in a city of impressive buildings, the opera house, a monument to the opulence of the Second Empire and the massive ego of its architect, is still really something you have to see. Tours are offered in English several days a week. At a hour and a half in length, it is well worth the 12 euro ticket price. You can take a 9 euro unguided tour as I did two years ago, but you really don't get all the details. Nor do you get to see all the insider spots like the library or the costume museum.
I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but I do want to pass on my favorite anecdote from the tour. In those days of high society, the opera house, and its boxes, were designed for an audience that was more interested in seeing and being seen than watching the production. The two most prestigious boxes were those flanking the stage: one for the Emperor of France, the other for his special guests. Both were bordered by massive golden nymph statues. The statues bordering the emperor's box were clothed, the ones bordering the box on the opposite side were nude. Garnier did this on purpose so that if the Emperor got bored watching the production, he would have something appealing to look at. The irony is that by the time the building was finished, France had become a Republic for good. So no emperor ever sat in the box.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lesson Learned: Paris Visite Passes

The metro is the best way to zip around Paris. If you're going to be in town any length of time at all, your best bet is to purchase a Paris Visite pass which offers unlimited travel for the time specified on the pass in Zones 1-3. It's good for the metro, bus and RER trains. It will save you time standing in line at the ticket machines and digging around your pockets for loose change.

I've never had a problem with these before, but for some reason on this trip, my 5-day pass stopped working after a day and a half. Every time it would fail to let me through, I had to go to the travel agent with my tale of woe. The first few times they swiped it and it worked -- for the next time, but not any time after that.

Finally, I just asked them to tear up the old card and issue me a new one. Worked like a champ.

Gettin' Cultcha: The Pompidou Center

The Pompidou Center has to be one of the ugliest buildings in Paris. But it houses some pretty amazing art by Picasso and Matisse and photography by Man Ray just to name a few of the artists represented here. And the museum's observation decks offer some of the most incredible panoramic views of Paris available anywhere in the city. From here you can see almost all the monuments from Sacre Couer, l'Arc de Triomphe, le Tour Eiffel, and Notre Dame to name a few.

For all that, I can stand a little ugly on the outside.

Eating in Paris: Aux Anysetiers du Roy

This pretty little place just down the street from the apartment attracted me with its sparkly blue lights. ButI must admit, I was really drawn in by their handsome maitre d', a strapping orange fellow with a big pink nose and full set of white whiskers like those on my Henry. He had a bit of Monsieur Henri's attitude as well. After strolling by and allowing me to pull his tail twice, he retired upstairs with the missus, a sweet and shy Siamese. And just when I was in need of some kitty love (I was really missing my babies by day 4). Eh bien.

Now for the food. The beef filet was tender. The mushroom gravy was a little too thick (and dare I say "canned" tasting without starting an international incident) but it was redeemed by the dessert, a fudgy square of pave au chocolat dusted with gold leaf and swimming in a pool of creme anglaise.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Shopping in Paris: The Christmas Markets

Christmas villages with their chalet-type stalls are all over the city this time of year. I hit the ones in the Latin Quarter, St. Germain and the Champs Elysees, but do my best shopping at the grand-daddy of them all at La Defense. The merchandise ranges from the artsy to the kitschy to the ethnic. If it slices, dices or chops and has a patent pending, chances are you can get one here.

Lots of vendors from Russia (people here are nuts for anything Russian right now) and the Near East. Scarves, of course, Wool Lap hats, gloves and booties. Handmade toys. Hand-carved Nativity scenes and santons (figurines of saints and country folk). And, of course food, glorious food: pain d'epice (sort of like a chewy gingerbread or spice cake depending on how it's made), jars of every type of honey imaginable, ditto for mustards, huge sausages and wheels of cheese. Then there's the food to eat on site: huge bowls of sausage with sauerkraut, potatoes tossed with a big wooden oar into cream sauce and ham (see photo). Ham and brie panini. Foie gras. The Tex-Mex stand has a huge crowd although, to me at least, it looks/smells neither Tex nor Mex. I give it a wide berth.

Although it's well before noon, everyone is sipping on a big cup of spiced wine to cut the chill. I must say it goes down well.

Shopping In Paris: Monoprix

Target is my "happy place" in the States, and Monoprix is my favorite shopping destination in Paris. In fact it reminds me a lot of Target, but smaller.

Great children's department with mix and match collections for your petite fashonistas. The grown-up section isn't bad either -- you'll find fashion forward sweaters, scarves, leather gloves, silk camisoles pretty cheaply. I got a big candy-apple red patent tote here last year.
Their cosmetics section carries the Bourjois line. It's really Chanel but with a lower-priced packaging.

The food department downstairs is not for the casual browser during peak shopping hours. The French love to linger over their meals, but not grocery shopping. They can get quite aggressive as they whip their carts through the narrow aisles.

But if you avoid high-traffic times, you'll find all kinds of wonderful French-made products -- olive oils, canned chestnuts, spices, cookies, candies and more at great prices. Browse at some of the high-priced food boutique epiceries, but buy here. They also have a nice selection of charcouterie, pastries, breads and cheeses for impromptu picnics.

There are locations throughout Paris, but I found the best selection at the Champs Elysees store.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Eating in Paris: Cafe des Musees

Maybe I should subtitle this post "The NOT-cracker." My friend and I stood in line for what seemed like forever at the Bastille box office to get tickets to Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" only to find out they had been sold out for weeks. Lesson learned: Disregard the guidebooks that tell you to go to the box office the day of for half-price tickets. If you really want to see something, reserve well in advance online. The French don't do lines well.

Quel dommage. But no biggie. I've only seen this ballet about six times, and it is at the Bastille Opera House not the legendary Opera Garnier which I've been jonesing to see.

So on this cold, wet night we wander along Rue de Varenne in Le Marais and find Cafe des Musees which I've heard is quite good. No reservation, but no problem. It's still early on a Monday night, and the jovial and accommodating staff finds room for us.

Situated on a corner near the Pompidou Center and the Picasso Museum, the cafe is your classic neighborhood place with tiled floors, lots of windows, scratched tables and hooks on the wall by your table on which to hang your coat. And they serve some of the most amazing food I've ever eaten.

I order the special formule fixe: potage aux choufleur (cauliflower soup), cottes d'agneau aux chevriers (tender slices of lamb stewed with carrots, onions and whole cloves of garlics over beans which absorb all these flavors) and, for dessert, creme caramel. Don't you love the way the syllables of this dessert just slide over your tongue? The actual creme and caramel go down just as silkily. Must learn how to make this stuff.

This restaurant has been written up in a lot of guide books, so the crowd is extremely eclectic. Besides us, on this night the early dinner crowd includes several French regulars, a British family of four, some Asian tourists who apparently know the chef, a handsome gay couple from the neighborhood and a modishly turned out Japanese lady dining solo. Despite her flawless appearance, she is no fragile flower when it comes to food. She rips into a platter of raw oysters and a huge entrecote steak with a plate of frites with gusto. She lovingly captures each course with her camera. She is examining the dessert menu when we leave. I'm with you, sister.

I walk out into the raw night full of good food and bursting with bon vivance. If you ever find yourself in Paris on a cold, wet night, come here. You won't be disappointed. I promise.

Verdict: Ambiance is no more than your average Paris bistro. Prices are reasonable. Food is stellar. My best meal in Paris this trip.

Shopping Destination: Artisanat Monastique

One of my favorite places for one-stop shopping is Artisant Monastique in the 14th. Located in a medieval - and still functioning - monastery, this heavenly boutique carries handcrafted goods -- specialty foods and liquers, bath products, household cleaning products, beeswax candles, textiles, ceramics, toys and more from 250 monasteries and convents all over France. The saleswomen are volunteers. They are very friendly and helpful, but this being outside of tourism central, very few speak English fluently, although like many Parisians they understand more than they speak. Just bring your good attitude, your best high school French and a language guide book with you for good measure and you'll do fine.

Antique linen and lace junkie that I am, I just head straight down to the basement where they keep the real reason I keep coming back -- scads of hand-embroidered table and bed linens, lace veils, handkerchiefs, blouses and gloves, all in near-mint condition. The story behind this treasure trove is as lovely as the goods themselves.

Everything here was once part of the handmade trousseaux of young nuns who entered France's convents in bygone eras. As brides of Christ, they surrendered their worldly goods, when they took their vows. After their deaths, their families gave the convents permission to sell the contents of their trousseaux.

This is a good source for purchasing a little shower gift or "something old" for brides -- wrapped with a bar of scented soap from the boutique.

This boutique is not in the heart of Paris so you're not likely to just stumble across it. But if you have a little time it's well worth the effort. Just take the Port Royal RER. As you exit the station walk, straight down the avenue Denfert Rochereau. Since my last visit two years ago, they've upgraded their sign so it's not so easy to miss. It's right across from the St. Vincent de Paul hospital complex.

Artisanat Monastique, 68 bis avenue Denfert-Rochereau (RER Port Royal).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Eating in Paris: Cafe Med

Parisians love to eat out and love to eat late. I like to eat out, but prefer eating early, especially while suffering from jet lag. With it's pinkish-red walls, this whimsical little cafe just down the street from the apartment reminded me a lot of one of my favorite bistros in New Orleans, Lilette's. Unfortunately, their duck confit was not as good.as Lilette's However, the salad with Roquefort cheese (and, oh is the cheese good in Paris) and Bayonne ham was delicious as was my crepe St. Louis for dessert (lots of gooey dark chocolate, toasted almonds and fresh whipped cream).

On this cold December night, it was almost like eating in my own private restaurant. The proprietor is the quintessential Frenchwoman of a certain age, self-possessed and elegant with the moxie -- and figure -- to carry off a tousled silver do, red lips and perfectly tailored leather pants. Damn, these women have style.

Window Displays at Les Grand Magasins

When I was a little girl, one of the things to do in New Orleans was head down to Canal Street to look at the lovely, inventive Christmas window decorations at D. H. Holmes, one of the city's premier department stores.

In Paris, the crowds flock to Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Le Bon Marche for the same reason. People come here to have their pictures taken in front of the windows' elaborate and flamboyant displays.

At Printemps, there is a definite Russian theme. The whole city seems to have gone a la Russe. Must have something to do the Ballet Russe which is performing at the nearby Opera Garnier. I tried to get tickets but they are sold out for the season.
At least, I'll always have Printemps' dancing matriochka figures.