Today, the CD takes a much-needed reset at a small neighborhood restaurant in the City of Light (and City of Culinary Treasures).
If you have visited Paris, you likely walked around the infamous Tour Eiffel in the city’s Left Bank and 15th Arrondissement. If you did so, you likely noticed quite the assortment of tourist-oriented cafes and street vendors. Yet it’s easy to forget that people actually live and work near this iconic landmark. So if those denizens dine out, where do they go?
One such location is Bistrot (also Restaurant) de La Tour, an unassuming restaurant that lacks the coveted corner location of larger establishments but has the good fortune of being located adjacent to a butcher shop. And it’s only a block from unobstructed views of the Eiffel Tower.
Inside, the small restaurant is cozy, yet elegantly decorated with modern minimalism. What it lacks in scale it more than overcomes with a delicious and relatively large menu with many options. I had a tough time choosing my selections for a three-course, fixed price menu, though one also can choose two courses, as well as from a separate, daily a la carte menu. Shockingly, the three course menu was only 34 Euros, which is pretty great for the quality and personal service of this establishment.
For appetizers (entrées), I had to select from perhaps eight choices, three of which, happily I found, contained pâté de foie gras. Others included soups, a terrine of eggplant (aubergine), sautéed mushrooms, and more. I opted for a salad with smoked duck and foie gras. Duck overkill, perhaps, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of two very different preparations of duck. The smoked duck burst with meaty flavor and the saltiness of cured meat. Regrettably for duck welfare, I love foie gras. Which also means I’m particular about its quality. Bad foie gras can remind you from what duck parts exactly it’s made, while good foie gras can deceive you into thinking it defies labels and was just born of itself. The foie gras in this particular salad, however, lacked the saltiness of most pates and instead of calling attention to the flavor of the pâté, it worked against it, making it seem a bit bland. It also had some recognizable bits in it, which I carefully excised from the rest and discarded. If this sounds disgusting, please know that this was the one and only disappointment of the meal. Every other aspect exceeded my expectations – which is, to say, that in Paris, one cannot have a bad meal at a local restaurant.
Course two was the embodiment of the richness of good French cuisine. Chicken breast with a powerful but lean Gorgonzola sauce was accompanied by snow peas and haricots verts, as well as the most exquisite potatoes Dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) I think I have ever eaten. Those potatoes should have their photo included in a Wikipedia entry for potatoes. They were just that perfect. Other menu options included veal risotto, sea bass, lamb chops, and more.
Now, for the pièce de resistance: dessert. Dessert was another difficult choice for me, with options like a molleux de chocolat (usually a warm, molten chocolate cake), orange supremes with Gran Marnier and ice cream, crème brûlée, and more. But I was intrigued to see a Brioche pain perdû (French toast), which I had never eaten outside of breakfast or brunch, listed. So I picked that.
Let the record speak: This French toast could not have been any better. It deserves a perfect “10” score. Thick, buttery Brioche without the metallic taste of too much egg wash (as French toast is prone to take on) but instead accentuated and moistened only slightly by egg. The toast plateau perched atop a moat of caramel – not the thick, additive laden caramel made from condensed milk, but the sexy, burnt sugar sweetness of of pure, caramelized sugar and melted butter. A petite scoop of vanilla glacé (ice cream) topped the toast. It was the simplest of desserts but so perfectly executed I am inspired to recreate it.
Dining is an experience. Part of a great dining experience is usually one’s company. In this case, I dined alone, which is the antithesis of our international archetype of Paris – OK, sorry for the really elitist use of Big Girl words, but sometimes the English language offers precise words that convey a meaning and a tone with some nice alliteration that I just couldn’t bear to simplify for our Twitt-ified, 140 character-happy world). Yet by dining alone, my focus was the food and wine itself, the restaurant’s atmosphere of dignity yet lack of self-importance, the relaxed cameraderie of two sixtysomething men and a woman catching lingering over dessert, the way the lone waitress and chef greeted chatted up a regular customer through his meal.
I had the sense that I wasn’t a tourist marveling at the City of Light(s) as the world appreciates it, but instead that I was witness to the way the Parisians themselves appreciate it. It was my window into Parisian life in that moment. Without fanfare or movie-style romance.
As I walked through the streets of Paris in the rain (to walk off my dinner and a very long week of work), I experienced Paris as I hadn’t before – alone and more attuned to the city itself and not the aura we have from movies, literature, and our own experiences. Paris is in many ways one of many similar, “international” cities that belong more to the world than they embody their national spirit. But for those of us lucky enough to visit as outsiders, it is different. It is Paris, where everything is somehow more elegant, where street graffiti is more refined – and where the food is on point.
I reflected on that meal – and on this moment in my life, where exhausted – truthfully, burned out, I found myself thinking about my past, present, and future. How my life is, in many ways, so far from that little girl’s hopes dreams, somehow a cosmic joke, cautionary tale, and adventurous triumph of womanhood all at once. This meal in Paris embodied all of that wistfulness, but most of all, it gave me hope and inspiration.
Quite honestly, I’d lost the drive and inspiration that spurred this blog in the first place. Yet this little meal reminded me why I started this blog: For these moments in time that offer an experience with food, with wine, and with culture that allow us to transcend ourselves. That allow us to see there is an entire world beyond ourselves and our experiences waiting to be discovered, shared, and discovered again.
I hope you’ll join me for further adventures of The Culinary Diplomat. In a world that seems to be in the midst of a rebellion against inclusion, against sharing and celebration of our different cultures and traditions, I think the world needs more global communities, not less. But that’s just my perspective…