August 18, 2008

Memories from France II: l'embarras du choix

Picture this:
You've been strolling 'round Paris and taking in the sights all day long. Tired and hungry, you decide to grab a meal on your way back to the hotel. You look around and the first thing that catches your eye is... Italian pizzeria? A Greek deli? An Asian restaurant?

If you guessed any of the above, then you're right. Despite being this Paris-we're-the-center-of-the-world-and-French-food-is-the-best-Paris, the city abounds with foreign eateries. And boy are those places TEMPTING. But, remember, you're in France. Therefore the only places you should be eating at are sidewalk-lining cafés and neighbourhood bistro(t)s. Nothing else will do---unless you can afford lobster bisque soufflé and foie gras terrine at some haute cuisine restaurant. Only then it is acceptable.

(The Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower: more than we can afford. Pic from here.)

I personally found that cafés in Paris came in clumps---you walk pass a few dozens of them when you're not hungry, whereas not a single comfy-looking one can be found when your stomach starts growling. But finding THE right place to eat---somewhere with the right kind of food, setting and service, can be tricky in such a big city. Those in search of great brunching (bah, who wants to get up for breakfast when on vacation?), lunching and dining experiences would do well to heed these following tips:

1. As a general rule of thumb, the closest a café is to a famous attraction, the blander and more overpriced is the food. I only had two truly unremarkable meals during my stay in Paris, and both were in places right next to the Eiffel Tower. I would have loved to take the metro back to Montmartre and go our usual eatery there, but hey, you can't always know when the hunger attacks and your legs collapse.

(Bland chicken salad from Le Champs-de-Mars. Sure it looks great, but taste-wise, it greatly disappoints.)

The other one was Café Le Castel, which had exorbitantly priced Americanized croque-monsieur's and really yucky bathrooms.

2. Here are some well-known Parisien fares that you should try when in town, because they don't make 'em like this anywhere else: French onion soup, croque-monsieur (add a poached egg on top and you have croque-madame), fois gras and escargots. Also make sure to taste the many meat-based main dishes available, such as blanquette de veau and coq au vin. Try all of their salads, particularly salade niçoise and something with goat cheese. Finally, for dessert---everything! But especially macarons, crêpes, pain au chocolat (chocolatine) and croissant aux amandes (almond croissants). And of course, the infamous French baguette!

(My jumbo-sized chocolate coffee macaron from Fauchon. It was so good!)

3. Be patient with the service. Oh, the horror stories you hear about the customer service in Paris: short-tempered waiters who never smile, abrupt and uncaring service, which sometimes includes being abandoned for dozens of minutes without seeing trace of your food or your waiter. Personally though, while I certainly ran into some very blunt service, the majority of times I was served by a cordial and capable waitress (sorry men, but the ladies are nicer!).There was even a waitress at Coquelicot who deducted a few dollars from our bill because we waited unusually long, even by Parisian standeards, for our food to come. But certainly, it can help to: be a girl, speak French with a mock-Parisian accent, and smile a lot at the male waiters.

Also, remember that the prices listed on menus already include taxes and a 15% tip for the waiter/waitress. So while it's not necessary to leave any tip, you can add an Euro or two for waiters that you especially liked.

4. When ordering coffee, always specify that you want café au lait or café crème, or else they will bring you espresso. Just don't try ordering any coffee after 7pm, because the waiter will then glance at you suspiciously and try to give you wine instead. And in terms of price, remember that wine is cheaper then coffee which is cheaper than Coke. A little glass bottle of imported coke can easily set you back four Euros, while a nice bottle of rosé can go as low as two Euros.

(Espresso...not the coffee I had in mind!)

5. The anatomy of menu vocabularies: Even French-speakers might have trouble getting understood in Paris. To assist, here are some terms the French seem oh-so-fond of using:
- A Coke is not a Coke; it is a COCA (no doubt short for Coca-Cola).
- When ordering ice cream, do not say "crème glacée"; the French say GLACE. And there are not "saveurs" (flavours), but rather PARFUMS.
- If you want water, specify if you want EAU PLATE (uncarbonated mineral water) or the kind of sparkling water you desire (Perrier, Pellegrino...the list goes on).
- They are not breadsticks "bâtonnets", but STICKS (said with a heavy Parisian accent).

Other useful terms for non-French speakers: l'addition (the bill), les salles de bain (the French are not so fond of saying les toilettes), ticket instead of billet for...well, a ticket. If they don't understand you, try another variation of the word, such as croissant aux amandes and amandine. Or you could just speak English.

6. Finally, some money-saving tips:
- I repeat myself, but eat far, far away from famous attactions and particularly the Eiffel Tower (unless the place is on the Tower itself...then it's another story).
- Table d'hôte's are a great way of saving money. You will most likely get to choose une entrée, un plat principal and un dessert for around 15 Euros. (The café/bistrot/restaurant Au Pied de Montmartre where we often ate supper had a great one starting at 11.90 Euros.)
- If you're not too hungry, skip the main dish and order two entrées instead, like a soup and a salad. Actually, even if you're hungry, with those two dishes and the free refillable basket of baguette, you will probably be full afterwards.
- Skip the café altogether for meals and go buy your own food at the nearest supermarket (G20 and Carrefour are good, cheap ones). Just be careful, most usually close at 6pm and sometimes aren't even open on Sundays at all.

Basically, food and other living amenities are very, very expensive in France, particularly in Paris. There is not really many ways of getting around that, especially when you set out to get a taste of its infamous eating experience. Quite often though, it is not only the highly flavourful food that makes the meal worthwhile, but the setting as well. Sitting in a little café in Montmartre having croissant and café au lait by the sidewalk, listening to children play on the nearby merry-go-round while an old man plays acordeon in the background and tasting the warm, buttery texture of the pastry melt in your mouth as the sent of bread fills up the air...truly no price can be put on that.

Up next: Un joli coquelicot mesdames...

August 14, 2008

Memories from France

I am back! And what a trip!
(Actually I came back a week ago...there's just been so much to do that I haven't had time to properly write an entry for this. Sorry?)

Paris wasn't exactly what I had expected. I was thinking of a big city full of lights, sweep-you-off-your-feet romance and genteel, well-dressed people. Instead, I got a sweeping metropolis with no grass, square trees and hordes of tourists. The Seine is probably a romantic destination for couples; just not when it's raining and 18 degrees Celsius outside. I had seen so many pictures of infamous Parisian buildings and monuments: the Louvre, Versailles, Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower. In real life, they look smaller and somewhat less imposing, but they certainly don't disappoint!

(This is Notre-Dame de Paris...but where is Quasimodo?)

(Look, it's the Mona Lisa!)

(The ubiquitous Eiffel Tower, lit up as an European Union flag.)

In Paris, everything is small and narrow. The streets, the cars, the buildings. The notable exception is the food. The plates are positively huge! Their salads are the biggest that I've seen anywhere--and those are only appetizers! They also aren't a big fan of chopping their lettuce, something I found quite amusing. We ate mostly at cafés for brunch (breakfast? No one gets up that early!) and dinner, as well as grabbing the occasional late-night snack from a food stand. I found the food stands to be quite interesting. Their usual fare consists of crepes, paninis, hot dogs, waffles and ice cream (glaces, in France). Their lines move at the speed of a snail---because they make everything fresh right in front of your eyes, from the crepe to the toppings. Ah, the French idea of fast food! Oh, and their hot dogs use baguettes as buns, which you then slather in dijon mustard. Weak stomachs need no apply.

Flavours certainly run strong in that part of the world. Whether it's a slice of grapefruit-pear-blueberry pie or a hot escalope milanaise right out the oven, the foods taste like they should. In other words, you can smell each of the fruits in the pie, and the escalope's sauce tastes like every single one of its ingredients. The bread, of course, is sans reproche here. Who knew that I could eat so much baguette in one day? And if you're in France, then certainly you must try their famous onion soup! Made with chunks of bread and grated cheese heated in a flavourful onion broth, it's a wonderful way to warm up a chilly afternoon.

(French onion soup. It smells so inviting, mmmm.)

(This pictures was taken inside a McCafé. Even McDonalds in France sell macarons and tiramisu, how amazing!)

In the upcoming days, I'll do a few posts of specific eateries that stood out for me, and to which I repeatedly went back. After all, why mess around with a good thing? The one big drawback of eating out in Paris is that it is exceedingly expensive. An onion soup will usually set you back about 7 Euros (or 11 Canadian dollars), whereas a slice of cake will at least be 3.50 Euros (5.50 CAD). The good thing is that tip and taxes are already included in the listed prices, so you don't get any extra surprises when the bill comes. You can still tip them one or two extra Euros, but it's really not necessary.

Next post: Finding somewhere to eat in Paris...decisions, decisions, decisions!