A very interesting point about Paris: it doesn’t need you. It has history and Camembert cheese to fall back on. It doesn’t try too hard: not to be charming, chic or friendly. It doesn’t need to.
Many of the best restaurants in Paris are closed on the weekends. (What?!) I read about L’epi Dupin, an ever-changing restaurant with inventive food; naturally, it’s closed Saturday thru Monday. Clos Des Gourmets was also closed when I tried to visit it on a Monday, which was pretty disappointing because I’d heard about their lavender crème brulee. I can only assume that such spots are so good that they just don’t need your business that badly.
They know they have the goods and don't bend over backwards to show them. This is pretty much the ultimate life lesson. And after finally coming to grips with this important French philosophy, I had my 2 best meals of the trip:
1) On the cement floor of the balcony of the Hotel Des Arts in Montmartre. "Le snack" aroused the curiosity of the hotel's neighbors, who came out to stare at me as I ate. It included:
A bottle of wine that I purchased for less than 3 euros (a house brand from a wine shop that was created soon after Napoleon died; it features wine from the more obscure regions of France). “Les Petites Recoltes” was simple and the best wine I had in France.
A baguette from boulanger-patissier, Rodolphe Landemaine, on the Rue Des Martyrs (please note: around 5 pm there is a mad dash for baguettes on the streets of Montmartre).
A cheese from Fromagerie Beillevaire that I couldn’t possibly remember the name of. Suffice to say it was pungent, soft and fabulous with my rose. Their house-made coconut yogurt served as my dessert course and it was just as satisfying as any of the other sweets I ate in Paris.
2) At Rose Bakery It’s sparsely decorated, mostly painted white except for a colorful mural in the back. It doesn’t need adornment; the countertop when you walk in highlights all of their freshly baked goods. I had their carrot and ginger soup, a cheese tart with sides of roasted vegetables and cabbage and was able to snag a bite of pistachio cake for dessert. Owned by a Brit and a Frenchman, the place was inviting, simple and delicious. Also, most of the servers were dressed in breezy striped shirts. Try to have a bad meal if it's served to you by a French girl wearing a striped shirt. I dare you.
Another fond food memory was finding the Raspail Bio Marche, an organic food market only open on Sundays. I arrived just as they were packing up. I had come to see the spit-roasted organic chicken, but was able to score some fleur de sel just before they put it away for the day.
Some other highlights included:
French onion soup and Camembert paired with a small green salad at La Couple, a Paris institution rumored to have their walls decorated with paintings created by artists unable to pay their bills. Hemingway was said to frequent the dining room and Josephine Baker is said to have danced downstairs.
At La Mascotte I received a lesson in escargot-eating. I heard the Frenchmen sitting at the table next to me repeat the word “escargot” (which they weren’t eating, but I was) amid their worried glances toward my table.
Tired, hungry and slightly out of sorts, I finally leaned over and asked them how to eat the darn things. Turns out, I was holding the snail tong upside-down. “There is an art to eating escargot,” one of the men said. “I’m sure we would eat a hamburger all wrong,” he assured. I'm sure that isn't possible. The French know how to eat.
I really love that they generally take time to eat 3 courses at dinner. My best multi-course meal was at Nemrod, a charming place that fulfilled my neighborhood “French brasserie” craving (ahem, not too far from L'epi Dupin should they be closed). I had the pate de campagne, which was so sublime that I may attempt to recreate it; here is a recipe from Molly Wizenberg (of Orangette). Next came a rabbit confit and lentil dish, followed by a tarte tatin with crème friache for dessert. The food wasn't complicated, but like much of what I ate in Paris, it came with first-rate ingredients and care for constructing them.
The moral of the story?
Don’t try too hard. Keep it simple. And listen to your escargot (or Frenchmen near it) and it will tell you how to eat it.