Don't rain on my café
Part 13 of a 2006 Alsace/Paris travelogue
by Thor Iverson
2 April 2006 – Paris, France
Despite many visits to this city, I’ve never been to the Musée d’Orsay. Today, with the rain whipping sideways and Paris’ magical views clouded and even grayer than usual, seems like a good day to correct that oversight. But as we approach the entrance, the rain stops and the sun emerges. So what now? Well, it’s April in Paris, and it’s a beautiful day. Who wants to spend it inside, looking at paintings?
La Flamme Café (6, avenue Wagram) – Near Étoile, where we’ve ended up after a few hours’ strolling, the dining options are pretty much limited to overpriced touristy and le fast food. But we have to eat soon or skip lunch entirely, given the shape of the rest of our day. So we resign ourselves to the former and settle in at this garishly-decorated establishment for a quick plate or two. The waiter is concerned when I order steak tartare (“vous connaissez?” he asks, with furrowed brow), which is nice of him, but the result is actually fairly creditable. The companion frites are fine, as well, with a big tub of mayonnaise alongside. It’s all more expensive than it should be (partially due to the location, but mostly thanks to our joke currency), but it satisfies a quick need.
anonymous Brouilly (Beaujolais) – Not the sort of Brouilly that geeks get excited about, but rather the simple kind poured by the pichet in restaurants all over France. It’s lurid violet and grapey, with fresh berries and more of those violets on the finish. And it most certainly has its place.
Champs-Élysées – On my very first day in Paris, I ascended the Arc de Triomphe to take in the view, then strolled down the length of this most famous of avenues. I remember the people, the chintzy foreign borrowings, and the over-the-top commerciality, but I also remember being somewhat swept away by the experience.
Well, I have no idea what I was thinking. Some memories are best left as memories, and I quickly come to resent each remembered step. What, exactly, is the appeal of the upper half of this boulevard? Except to business owners, I mean. Only as the street descends to the FDR Métro stop and commerce gives way to gardens does it become worthwhile. In fact, the stretch from there to the Place de la Concorde (my favorite “great space” in Europe) is quite striking. But my advice? If you’ve good memories of the Champs-Élysées, never, ever return. For these days, it’s little more than an avenue of regrets.
Le Fumoir – We meet an old friend from rural Lorraine near the Louvre Pyramid, and he walks us to this, his favorite hipster hangout. I admit that it’s somewhat depressing to see Parisian cafés littered with colas and laptops, but I suppose such things are inevitable. This is New Paris, all darkly striking urban tones, and yet its classicism is Old Paris as well. It’s no bargain, but then that’s not why one comes to such places; my pastis is watery-sweet and grossly expensive, but I just can’t face the overwhelming list of artful cocktails. Our friend regales us with a somewhat dubious tale of his conquest of an attractive Australian tourist that began between these very walls, even showing us a picture; it all seems a little superficial and vain. Somewhat like this establishment.
anonymous café – After more wandering, we head into the lively Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, pushing past throngs of students (and still-youthful hangers-on to that lifestyle) to our friend’s favorite café, the name of which I never quite get. The barristas work at a dizzying speed, everyone here seems to know everyone else, and as we stand at the bar and quaff a few thoroughly decent espressos, we recapture the authenticity we’ve been missing all day.
les éditeurs – …and then we lose it again at this stiff, luxe establishment. We sit outside, taking in the frenetic street scene, and the coffee’s probably the best of the afternoon. But there’s just no life here; it’s all façade. On the other hand, it’s only late afternoon, so we’re probably about six hours early for prime time at a place like this.
Le Danton (103, blvd St-Germain) – Not wanting to float away on a caffeinated buzz, we switch beverages at this bustling brasserie. I order what is, to me, a completely normal-sized glass of Leffe; our not exactly diminutive French friend complains that the beer is “American-sized,” and doesn’t even come close to finishing it. Even after some teasing and largely ineffectual translations of the phrase “to man up” – it’s only 10 ounces or so – he remains firm in his sober convictions. Oh, well.
Le Réminet – On a tiny, completely peaceful micro-street just across the river from Notre Dame, this narrow restaurant’s chief appeal – especially to the tourist – is that it’s a quality restaurant that’s open on Sunday and Monday. And indeed, it’s loaded to the gills with Americans when we arrive.
On a whim, our friend decides to join us, which greatly displeases the hostess. But it’s the restaurant’s only misstep of the night. Perhaps it’s a linguistic issue; most tables don’t appear to even be attempting to speak French, and our service improves throughout the night as we do, our principal server (apparently, the proprietor) gaining enthusiasm with each visit. Even the hostess turns warm and friendly by the end of the evening.
The food is solid, not groundbreaking…but then, that’s not why one comes to Paris. There’s a livery duck terrine, with the traditional accompaniment of cornichons cleverly rendered as a mousse. A fine loin of rabbit in a simple cream sauce is next. The wine list has an interesting selection of older vintages, but mostly not from my preferred regions, and so I’m eventually moved to do something I almost never do: order a white Burgundy.
Champy 1999 Meursault (Burgundy) – Shy. Mild hazelnut and chanterelle laced with minor oak aromas. The structure is proportionally reticent. Soft and far too restrained, nor does food help it. Very, very bland.
Dessert is a bracing round of pastis ice cream with a fennel tuile and mint sauce; the vivacity of the flavors is absolutely exciting. The proprietor returns for a conversation about digestifs in which, to my surprise, I’m able to participate without once having to lapse into English, and he seems so appreciative of my efforts that he takes the menu from me and leads me to a back room, where he offers me a much wider selection than that on the menu. I think he undercharges me, as well. Not that I’m going to complain.
Grouet 1964 Bas-Armagnac (Southwest France) – Incredibly rich with mixed nuts and well-aged stone fruit. Yet somehow, it retains a vivid youthfulness. Maybe the best way to describe it is strong-willed. Truly excellent.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.