What better way to begin Paris than with a kiss? After touring the beautiful oak forests of the Loire and the chilled vineyards of Burgundy, I had two days to visit with old friends and new chefs in the art capital of the world: Paris. As a young lad of 20 I lived in Paris for a year and made some excellent acquaintances that fate and fortune have kept me aligned with since. A dear friend of mine from the early days, Dr. Sean Matthews, professor of D.H. Lawrence studies in Nottingham, and his beloved lady, Meike Kuhlmann, announced they were expecting. I was with the deservedly well known film translator, Simon John, another top bloke from the early days, and we were both flabbergasted, but happy for our friend. What else do you expect from Paris?
Before the kiss and news of babies, however, there was a sweet lunch at Le Train Bleu above the Gare de Lyon. An amazing Belle Epoque dining room above a train station struck me as an anomaly, too, but it was fantastic. We arrived without a booking and were politely shown a comfy study used as a waiting lounge full of soft leather couches and women in knee high leather boots, studious eyeglasses, and intellectual eyes looking as if they had just written the first sentence of their first novel. Surprisingly, they actually found us and took us to a nice big table in the center of all the action. Simon and I had a long, boozy lunch there, with a 2000 Duhart Milon leading the way after multiple glasses of Pol Roger and a bottle of Menetou-Salon from Henri Pelle. As the sun went down thru the half moon windows we sunk into the first of the many cheese plates I would encounter that weekend.
After that meal we found our way to a classic Irish bar in the Latin Quarter near Rue Mouffetard (5e) called Connolly’s Corner on 12 Rue de Mirbel (Metro Censier Daubenton). For superb Guinness and a great family environment in the old world sense (meaning they look after their own), you can do no better. A pub run by three Irish brothers who speak better French than me and have become rock solid in the ‘hood; on any night you’ll witness their camaraderie and the closeness of their crew (meaning themselves and their clients). A wonderful place to sip whisky and the tastiest Guinness in Paris. Connolly’s draft Guinness goes down like a liquid glass of fresh bread right out of the oven.
The best meal in Paris was Arpege, a must visit for any culinary freak like me. I settled into an intense lunch tasting menu of 12 courses (maybe more) after determining in my head (using chisombop) that I would be able to still make it to Hong Kong after the 500 euro lunch there. But it was worth every penny. Chef Alain Passard’s fresh vegetables were presented in wow way more times than once. Black truffles sliced with fresh scallops with herbs from the chef’s garden (heard that before at Bouley), or an awesome lobster tail wrapped in radishes, from the garden of guess who, and drizzled with honey. If it wasn’t so dear I’d eat there all the time. Arpege is located kitty corner from the entrance to the Musee Rodin which might stimulate you to become a member of the museum afterwards, since you’ve just supported one of France’s great living culinary artists. Chef Passard came into the dining room after lunch, talked with guests, had a coffee with a sexy French girl, winked at me more than once, and was “really” there, soaking up the vibe of his restaurant, unlike some other superstar chefs whom shall remain nameless.
The funnest meals, however, were at L’Avant Gout in the 13e and Le Repaire de Cartouche in the 11e. Sitting with Sean, Simon, and Meike and enjoying good food at cozy bistro L’Avant Gout drinking 2001 Cornas from Thierry Allemand was priceless. Rufine, the maitre d and suspicious, but fun hostess allowed us a late table which we sat at for a long time. It was there perhaps that the cheese stole the show: a runny, amazingly fresh St. Marcellin was ordered twice.
Le Repaire de Cartouche was a bigger place with a great wine list not overly priced. We ordered two magnums for our group of 8, one 2005 St Veran and one 1998 Baux de Provence. The chef, Rodolphe Paquin, who’s from the Calvados region in Normandy famous for apple brandy, came out at the end of the meal, and many times during, and showed us all his differnet Calvados. Of course, we were obliged to taste.
After all this eating, drinking, and, yes, much later, singing, there was a great walk around the center of wintry Paris for hours. Up the Champs-Elysees and under the champagne flute light decorations on the London Plane trees, it felt like I had never left. The city decked out for Xmas: hundreds of restaurants warmly lit from the inside, groups of people congregating around food and wine. A wander thru the Gustave Courbet exhibit at the Grand Palais was the icing on the cake. How did I get back here? How wonderful. Am I on the upswing again?
Was Hong Kong ready to esteem me as soulfully as Paris had?