Monday, April 14, 2014

As Some Locals Do: Paris

Baguette shopping in the 16th
 Is there anything better than a weekend in Paris?  Mais oui! How about a weekend in Paris staying with dear friends in their très chic flat in the 16th arrondissement?  In our case, said flat and hospitable friends came complete with two smart and charming teenage children, a well stocked wine cave, and one fluffy, excitable Tibetan terrier named Bandit.  (If I could have taken home one souvenir in my suitcase, it would have been him.)

Perhaps staying beneath the mansard roofs in the lofty confines of the 16th, adjacent to the spectacular Haussmann commissioned park, Bois de Boulogne, is not every Parisian’s experience of home.  But for our friends, this has been their world for the last ten years and we were more than happy to tag along for their typical weekend affairs.

If you really want to rub elbows with the locals, the Saturday market is the way to go.  We grabbed a pushcart (we are told it is standard practice for tout le monde to bring your own reusable shopping bags and carts) and headed to the nearest out-door market to help our friends stock up on food for the week.

The crêperie

As John and I were on vacation, and it was his birthday weekend, calories were of no concern as we saddled up to the crêperie and ordered two with ham, cheese, and a cracked egg.  Our friends explained that the young couple behind the griddle had just recently purchased the stand from another older couple that had hung up their aprons to move into retirement.  This was surely hard work, setting up a moving restaurant each morning in a new market site, but if their early efforts at crêpe-making were any indication of what the future will bring, I expect they will find much success.

Making Lebanese "pancakes"
Our next stop was the Lebanese pancake stand for a stack of stuffed flatbreads that their kids would reheat like pizza throughout the week.  On the way we passed a long line at a vegetable seller.   Our friend told us the line was for kale. Kale?  You mean the lowly vegetable that has been in fashion on New York salad plates for years?  Yes, that vegetable.  Thanks to an enterprising expat who started pushing farmers to grow the plant as part of The Kale Project, the curly variety has slowly grown a following in Paris to the point where lines form on Saturday mornings just to get a coveted bunch.

But the weekend was not all shopping and home-cooking.  We were in Paris, after all, birthplace of haute cuisine, steak frites, and the practice of eating cheese for dessert.  A couple of meals out were in order.

Paris-Brest at Paul Bert
First up was a return to a classic I had visited a year earlier, Bistrot Paul Bert.  At a time when as many as 70% of French restaurants are buying food from large industrial kitchens instead of cooking from scratch, Bistrot Paul Bert may be the last of a dying breed of what we outsiders consider the “classic” French bistro. 

The cheese course
My entrée of braised beef cheeks came in an adorable cocotte, the lid removed by the waiter and hung off the side, I was enveloped in the aromas of slow cooked meat in red wine with winter vegetables.  Someone must order the steak frites, and that task landed with the birthday boy, who declared it one of the best he’d ever had.  A bottle of Anne Gros Richebourg 2009 chosen by our hosts was as sublime as a Burghound like me would expect.  Even though fine wine here is served in tiny glasses perhaps better suited to juice as opposed to a more appropriate goblet, the effect just added to the restaurant’s charm. 

It is nearly impossible to not order dessert or cheese at Paul Bert, as with the prix fixe menu it amounts to a single euro more than you would be spending ordering and appetizer and entrée à la carte. Then, we hardly needed persuading watching plates with Paris-Brest the size of tracker-trailer wheels whisk past, bound for other tables.  Then there was the cheese course, which here is served as the entire board of fromage and an eat-what-you-will policy.  I’m sure Parisians generally take respectable slivers.  Confronted with such a magnificent display it was hard not to carve off pie-sized slices for myself of the pungent Camembert, Morbier, and Tomme de Chevre.

Sole meunière at Le Relais du Bois

Sunday evening, generally our favorite night for going out to dinner in New York, is a challenge in Paris.  The French take their days of rest seriously judging by how few restaurants are open Sundays.  However on this particular night, one place in the 16th was not only open for business, it was packed to the point of a wait outside.

Cassoulet as it should be
Le Relais du Bois is the sort of dimly lit, old-fashioned, health department-be-damned type restaurant that I dream of.  The sole meunière came perfectly crisp and adorned with a few boiled potatoes and a single lemon wedge.  The cassoulet was bursting with nine kinds of meat and a breadcrumb crust crisp enough to rival the crack of a crème brulée. The crème fraîche to accompany the tarte tatin was served in a giant urn with a spoon to scoop as much as you please.  And if it was possible to feel more relaxed and homey here, dogs even have a place at the table, at least under the table and assuming they behave as well as Bandit did that evening. 

During our weekend the Paris of postcards was never far away- the Eiffel Tower looming on the skyline behind the outdoor market, the drive past Notre Dame on the way to dinner.  But to have such iconic views while still tagging along for the everyday routines of a few who live there we felt almost, for a weekend at least, like locals.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell


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