Paris, Je T'aime: My Return Six Years Later
Mere mention of the city Paris, and immediately you conjure up images of romance, the Eiffel Tower, éclairs, and baguettes. But for me, the City of Light holds a certain mystique far deeper than a spring fling or a honeymoon destination.
Between 2009 and 2010, I lived in the 7ème arrondissement, or 7th district, as I alternated between a grueling MBA and a junior consultancy at a nuclear energy company. Like every other Parisian, I commuted by Metro; shopped at Carrefour; consumed stinky cheese; drank tap water; and went to the movies on Sundays.
I learned that there are two lanes on an escalator: the fast left and the idle right. I jaywalked constantly. I discovered flan. And I bought bottles of wine for as little as €2.
By the sixth month of my stay, I was enamored. The inconvenient life of a struggling student was easily outweighed by the gourmet charm of the city, and I remember thinking to myself that I hadn’t started living until I met Paris.
|Mirror mirror on the wall, I must squat, for I'm too tall (Disney Store, Champs Elysées)|
For someone so smitten with the city, I failed it miserably: I let six long years elapse before I visited again. For someone who owes her refined palate to the cultivating power of Paris, I could be labelled an ingrate. But the reality is, and was, I didn’t have the opportunity to return until two weeks ago, and it was a whirlwind three days at that.
So go we went, and the beauty is that nearly nothing has changed. To be fair, security is rampant and thorough, as officers scan your belongings at nearly every shop entrance. And throughout the city, public works are ubiquitous. But apart from that, Paris is still Paris. And the Metro still costs €1.90 per ride.
|Every street is tainted with public works|
We arrived on a caustically chilly Saturday morning and hit the street before any of Paris had woken up. Only Le Bon Marché in the 6ème could greet us, thanks to their more accommodating holiday business hours. The renowned épicerie of Paris, Le Bon Marché stocks its shelves with novelties from around the world, in addition to more than half a dozen stations boasting French cheeses, charcuterie, fish, baked goods, and sandwiches.
Here we discovered real pain d’épices, or spiced bread, which can be consumed plain or spread with foie gras. The authentic stuff is baked with honey and supremely moist, nothing like what you’d buy packaged from the supermarket. What an epiphany!
Next up, a scheduled stop at La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac. Let me let you in on a little secret. Ever since I left Paris, I’ve been avidly keeping tabs on its cuisine scene. In 2011, I penciled in the first entry on my “When in Paris” list: Cyril Lignac. Indeed, this visit had been nesting for five years before finally taking flight.
And it proved to be worth every minute of wait. The flan nature, a traditional custard pie, is speckled with vanilla beans and wafting with aroma. Baba au rhum saturates delicate sponge with the liquid pick-me-up. But it was the croissant that did me in, with its flaky buttery consistency, golden sheen and touch of sea salt. The chocolatine, or pain au chocolat, was delicious but decidedly a runner-up to its plain counterpart.
|The take-out box at La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac is so elegant, it evokes a purse|
|Baba au rhum at La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac|
Tummies tickled, we continued our march due northeast toward Jardin de Luxembourg, the Quartier Latin, and eventually Rue Mouffetard. There I rediscovered Au P’tit Grec, which continues to be manned by the same Turk (bizarrely enough). I opted for a simple Chèvre avec sa petite salade, and it was even more generous than I remember it to be! Don’t you just love it when reality converges with your high expectations and the rosy-tinted glasses of nostalgia?
|Galette sandwich at Au P'tit Grec|
We persisted with the walking despite the bite in the air (5°C is extreme for a Southern Californian turned Beiruti). But those calories weren’t going to burn themselves. After a colossal loop through Place d’Italie, back up Les Gobelins, Guy Lussac, Monsieur Le Prince, Odéon, and Place Saint Germain, we happened upon Les Deux Magots, renowned for its chocolat chaud.
We settled into one of the few available trottoir seats and minutes later, a porcelain teapot filled with molten chocolate was set on our table. I’d only once before known its gustative glory, mere months before my departure from Paris. So on this revisit, it stirred up a flood of memories and emotions in me.
The remainder of the afternoon saw us fasting, naturally. In the evening, we alighted on Montparnasse and Le Plomb du Cantal, hailed for its aligot and truffade. Puréed and mashed potatoes, respectively, accompany your choice of main, which in our instance spelled out duck, both in confit and magret forms. Hefty portions and a fine bottle of Côtes du Rhône ensured a beautiful slumber that night.
The following day we were far more restrained with our nourishment, and in the early evening, on an expedition through Le Marais, we stumbled upon another of my list entries: l’Éclair de Genie. Food art is the best way to describe these dainty batons of extruded puff pastry piped with silky crème patissière. Don’t miss the citron and caramel-beurre salé. And yes, they deserve their €5 price tag -- don’t mull over it.
|The display at l’Éclair de Genie|
Perhaps my most memorable gourmand unearthing was Lafayette Gourmet, two floors dedicated exclusively to food artisanship. On the ground level, you can find dessert displays for l’Éclair de Genie, Maison du Chocolat, and Sadaharu Aoki, a French-trained Japanese pastry mastermind who's making headway in his adopted city. Downstairs, a vast épicerie in the spirit of Le Bon Marché saw me popping by a couple times, as Lafayette Gourmet was only a few blocks from our hotel (totally planned!).
|Zaatar for €90/kg, anyone?|
We had lunch with my former boss and his wife at Brasserie Printemps, a restaurant-café located beneath the majestic stained-glass dome on the 6th floor of the namesake department store along Boulevard Haussmann.
|Lunching beneath this majesty at Brasserie Printemps|
This has become quite a ritual, as my boss invited me here to celebrate the close of my mission at the company, and on a second occasion, to bless my send-off. Seasonal specialties like chestnut soup and Mont Blanc are incontournable.
When we weren’t pampering our taste buds, we were hauling through the city taking in the sights, sounds, and smells (walk by a boulangerie, and o lala! Heaven!). Rain or shine (it was cloudy and drizzling on two of our three days there), we reacquainted ourselves with the Haussmann architecture emblematic of Paris, Montmartre and Sacré Coeur, Trocadero, and Les Champs. We explored art galleries, retail shops, parks, and residential areas on the outskirts of town.
After all was said and done, I came to three conclusions:
1. Paris merits more than 72 hours. Give it 5-10 days, if resources permit.
2. Madeleines are much tastier than I remember them being.
3. Paris remains much more affordable than Beirut.
Oh, and the second edition of “When in Paris” is already underway.
Le Bon Marché
24 Rue de Sèvres, 75007
La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac
2 Rue de Chaillot, 75116
133 Rue de Sèvres, 75007
Au P’tit Grec
68 Rue Mouffetard, 75005
Les Deux Magots
6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006
Le Plomb du Cantal
3 Rue de la Gaité, 75014
l’Éclair de Genie
14 Rue Pavée, 75004
35 Boulevard Haussman, 75009
64 Boulevard Haussmann, 75009