October in Paris, Part I

One specialty shop sold nothing but amusing cakes made of brioche dough into which crushed hot pink pralined almonds have been folded and baked.
One specialty shop sold nothing but amusing cakes made of brioche dough into which crushed hot pink pralined almonds have been folded and baked. Laura Donnelly

    Green mustard, pink-flecked cakes, squid-inky-black quenelles, and oysters and crabs and scallops overflowing from sidewalk vendors. These are just a few of the sights and tastes that thrill a gourmand’s heart.
    I had the great good fortune of spending last week in Paris as the guest of my fellow foodie and dear friend Tommy. Upon arrival in late morning we were greeted by his partner, Mike, with a staggering platter of croissants, whole grain breads, apple tarts, slices of ham and cheese and butter and jams. “No, no,” insisted Tommy. “If we’re going out for lunch we shouldn’t eat now.” I grabbed the apple tart and skulked away with it, nibbling away at the flakiest, sweetest little pastry I had ever tried. I may also have nicked a slice of ham and a dainty wedge of cheese but I don’t recall. I was jet-lagged.
    Lunch was at Chez Janou and began with tiny fried fish called éperlans, a type of smelt. I virtuously moved on to a simple salad with baked slices of goat cheese. Mike enjoyed the rouget (red mullet) over a bed of saffron-infused julienned vegetables, and Tommy tucked into a smoked duck salad. As we all agreed that dessert was completely unnecessary, a large bowl of chocolate mousse passed by our table. “Just a taste,” we told our waitress. Well, that’s not the way it works in France. When it comes to dishes like celeri remoulade or rice pudding or the aforementioned chocolate mousse, it is most likely to be placed on your table, the entire bowl, and left for you to scoop out as much as you desire. It’s kind of an honor system that would never work in America, much less get by any health department inspector in the U.S.
    We briefly mapped out our priorities for the upcoming days. As Mike lives and works in the Marais, he had no other obligations than to enjoy my scintillating company and witty repartee. Tommy, a designer, was on a mission to find dining chairs from the flea market for a client in San Francisco, visit some hardware stores, and be my partner in food crimes. My mission was to taste as much as I could of what Paris has to offer without breaking the bank, and find inspiration as pastry chef and food writer. Neither the Louvre nor d’Orsay nor a double-decker bus tour nor bateau mouche down the Seine were on my list.
    We tried hard to establish rules: Only one major piglet fest would be allowed per day, for both monetary and digestive reasons. If a nap seemed a possibility, then a little daytime drinking was permitted. As Tommy is a superb cook, we also planned out a few meals to have in the apartment.
    The biggest thrill of being in Paris is walking everywhere. The subway system is also efficient, as is the rental of a public bicycle to get around swiftly and deposit somewhere else in the city for the next person who needs it. What astounded me most were the specialized shops. Yes, there are still butcher shops and pastry shops and bakeries and candy stores and cheese mongers. But there was one store that sold nothing but quenelles, savory little oval mounds of pike and veal and squid ink or vegetables, sweet quenelles of apple and vanilla and pistachios. To accompany them, you could choose from an array of appropriate accompanying sauces. Imagine that, a store that specializes in a side dish!
    Quenelles are a French version of German dumplings, basically a ground mixture of fish or meat or whatever, bound with a bit of breadcrumbs and egg, then poached.
    Another specialty shop sold nothing but tremendously amusing cakes made of brioche dough into which crushed hot pink pralined almonds have been folded and baked. “Think Sara Lee coffee cake,” suggested Tommy before my first bite. Indeed, it was reminiscent of those rich, nutty, buttery breakfast cakes of my youth. My first Proustian moment in Paris!
    One store specialized in honey, another in mustards. One store, looking like a sleek medical laboratory, sold nothing but frozen foods. I was assured that the quality was surprisingly good, but we passed on purchasing anything.
    One of my goals was to try food from the lowest end of the culinary spectrum of Paris (our McDonald’s, natch) to the highest, perhaps Taillevent. Was it true that the Paris McDonald’s is superior? That Gruyere cheese was used on le grand mac instead of American? Non! It was exactly the same except for a nice little curry sauce instead of ranch or barbecue. Taillevent was deemed too expensive and time-consuming, even for lunch, so we “settled” for some less expensive establishments.
    One of the highlights of exploring food in Paris was the diversity of choices. One lunch was at a tiny, popular Vietnamese restaurant. Spring rolls, lacquered duck, sticky rice, pork belly, and a zesty salad of julienned carrots, vermicelli noodles, crushed peanuts, and cilantro, all washed down with beer. Uh, that was one of our “no lunch because we’re having a rich dinner” days. (The Vietnamese have been migrating to France since the early 20th century due to France’s colonization of Vietnam. By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, there had been a massive influx of refugees.)
    There are also many Middle Eastern restaurants and food stalls throughout Paris, serving tagines with couscous and fiery harissa. We paused just long enough at one to enjoy a pastilla stuffed with pigeon, almonds, and raisins, along with a few links of spicy merguez lamb sausage to fortify us. We stopped for another snack at a Chinese restaurant and had chunks of crispy fried chicken, topped with chopped onions and served with a spicy ketchup.
    For over 20 years, a friend has been sending me seeds from a plant shop named Vilmorin. No offense to the folks at Burpee, but these seeds grow tastier mache, mesclun, and arugula than any others I have tried. We made a pilgrimage to Vilmorin and I spent more euros on seeds than I did on my smashing new scarf! I can already imagine next summer’s salads, born in France, raised on Long Island, dotted with chervil, lightly dressed with mustard from Maille. Perhaps followed by my own attempts at that kooky, candy-colored Proustian pink cake!
    Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon, where we break baguette with ex-husband (!), run into friends from East Hampton (!!), and get serious about the best and most affordable ways to eat in Paris.
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