Even Paris Isn't Perfect; But When It Is...
Well, I’ve been in Paris for several days now. Been working long days, leaving before sun up and finishing work about eight each night. Precious little time has been left to properly explore the culinary mecca that Paris is, but I have been able to enjoy a nice dinner each night.
I’ve found the area I am staying in — Chapelle, near Gare du Nord– is not necessarily a food hot spot, but there some gems hidden in the haystack.
Most bistros have more or less the same menu: escargot, French onion soup, steak frites, mussels, and the like. There is a small wine list of mostly French wines, and an even smaller list of cordials and beers, but they are nice. They feel comfortable, like a great neighborhood restaurant should. They all overlook the street, they all have a patio, and the service is unpretentious and relaxed.
Now, that is true of most, but I have also had really bad, and exquisitely good.
First, the bad. Last night my travel companions and I were tired, and were not up for exploring for the perfect spot, so we made the mistake of settling for what seemed familiar, a clean, bright, chain-looking French steakhouse. That should have been my first warning; a chain is a chain, whether in America or in Paris. I’ll be honest, it was so bad I don’t even remember the name of the godawful place. I must have blocked it out of my memory.
Let me set the scene: you walk in to the sound of 1960s country music, it looks like a pilot version of Chili’s inside, and the person who greeted us was not smiling. Our waiter, however, was wearing a handkerchief and an empty gun holster.
As we sat down, I noticed that the placemats were actually our menus, and after scanning for a moment, I decided to turn it over, in hopes that there would be an English version on the back. No such luck, but I did find a wonderful coloring page with mazes and little puzzles. Blecch.
Well, I was there, so order i did. I ordered a burger and fries, but not just any burger and fries, mind you. I ordered a French Beef Steak burger with pommes frites and aioli.
Some time later, our food arrived and against my better judgement, I ate it. It tasted terrible. The bun was hard and stale, the meat had a texture like tuna fish, but tasted bland and old. The fries were unseasoned and cold. The mayonnaise was warm. Not a good sign.
As if the food wasn’t bad enough, the service was worse. I think we saw our waiter twice: once to take our order, and once to drop the check. Eager to leave, we dropped a credit card in anticipation of putting this night out of its misery.
Thirty minutes later the waiter took the card, returning 15 minutes to drop it off. We were all fuming by the time we left. Not that I would have bothered, but we never saw a manager to complain to.
Tonight more than made up for it. We passed a restaurant that looked nice, it was full of well-dressed patrons, and I couldn’t find Budweiser on the menu anywhere. At the front of the restaurant, nearest the street, right as you walk in, stood a staunch looking frenchman, deftly shucking fresh oysters and clams. All around him were baskets of steamed crabs, langoustines, lobsters, and prawns. I knew right away that this was the right place for me.
We were promptly seated at a very nice table, clothed in fine linen. There was a charger at each place setting and a single flower in the center of each table. Oh yeah, the name of this fine establishment is Terminus Nord, I remember this one. The menus arrived and my heart skipped a beat as a separate wine list followed shortly behind. I can’t read French, but I do know how to navigate a wine list, no matter what the language. Besides, I already knew what I wanted, a nice Rose.
The dinner menu was as beautiful a menu as I’ve seen. Serene, proud, and seemingly filled with honor and tradition. It took me forever to order, there were so many great choices. I take that back, I assume there were many great choices, I could only understand about half of the menu, but the half I understood, was right up my alley. First, of course, were oysters on the half shell, served by the half dozen. Then there were seafood platters, pate, scallops, escargot, chestnut soup, just to name a few. Entrees included duck, lamb, beef, and sea bass.I ordered a seafood platter for two and a plate of foie gras de canard. When the seafood platter arrived, I feasted first with my eyes, taking in a whole steamed stone crab, split in two, giant langoustines, prawns, clams, snails, and of course, several dozen beautiful glistening oysters in the half shell. This, is what dining should be about. It was delicious, but I was eager to see if the foie gras would be as good; it was and more. It was cooked a perfect medium, served on a bed of sugared pears, with a red wine jus and sea salt. It had the perfect balance of rich, sweet, and savory.
Then there was dessert. I chose a chocolate ice cream, with cacao nibs, topped with a warm dark chocolate sauce, then heaped with fresh whipped cream. There was cocoa and crushed walnuts sprinkled over the top. Yeah, it was good, real good.The service was impeccable, the best I think I have ever seen. I really wasn’t ever sure who our waiter was, all the staff wore fine suits, and several worked often at our table. A different person took our order, delivered our food, refilled our wine glasses, resilvered the table in between courses, dropped our check, and thanked us for coming. But it all happened as if our meal, the exact we had tonight, had been rehearsed by the whole team many times before. I left with a smile on my face and a very full belly.
The price of food here, so far, seems comparable to what I would expect in Oklahoma City. For example, my dinner portion of foie gras (about 4 ounces) was 23 euros. If I’m doing the math right, that’s about $38.
The main difference I have seen, is that the tip is included in the price of the meal. I assume that means that wait staff here are paid a nice hourly wage. I can’t help it though, I tip anyway, except for that one place, of which the name now and forever escapes me. Shudder.