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25 Nov 2009

Paris 09 - a weekend of passion: Day 1

It is time for me and Paris to meet up again. Does it ever get bored of me? I do not think so, each time the welcome is very warm (this time also temperature wise); chattering people, laughter, shopping bags, shops, bistros, metro rides with its aquarium experience of human variety, are always there to welcome anybody.
This time I visited the city with two good friends (a shopaholic and a witty one, the latter joined us on the second day); goes by itself that it was great fun!
The trip started on a dark Thursday morning; the first train was at 7am when the city is still under the blanket of the starry sky, starting to move from its nocturnal bed. We reached Cologne on time and hopped onto the Thalys on our respective carriages. The voyage prospected to be fairly good and relaxing: no many crying babies on sight. As usual, I popped out of my bag the book I wanted to pretend reading along the cruise (this time it was “Du Fait de Cuisine – Traite de Gastronomie Médiévale de Maitre Chiquart”) and got comfy in my seat while the guy sitting beside me was trying to connect to the WiFi network.

He seemed to have some problems with it and just when he was about to start swearing, a voice from the interphone gladly informed us that the WiFi network was down (go figure…). He was about to close all his gears when I noticed he had a nice Hubble picture as background so I popped the question: “Are you an astrophysicist?” He was, so we spent almost the whole travel to Bruxelles discussing of our research topic (he was more into solar physics and was actually working on how to couple solar variability with climate predictive models, interesting!). Here and there we managed to talk about food and gastronomy too with me trying to convey the reasons behind molecular gastronomy and elucidating a new charming theory on smell proposed by Luca Turin (actually almost 10y ago but the scientific world is fairly inert to changes). From Bruxelles on, it was nap time!
We reached the Gare du Nord in Paris at around 11am and we directly headed toward the labyrinthic network of tunnels and corridors bringing us toward the right metro line. The stop where we were supposed to change line was under maintenance so we ended up walking to our hotel through Boulevard St. Germain. The hotel was again in the Mouffetard quarter; we quite love this region of the city. For those of you who haven’t visited Paris yet, this is a lovely region situated in 5th arrondissement between the botanic garden and the Pantheon. These two points give you the right and left most point of it as well as its lowest and highest one. The Pantheon in effect build over one of the Parisians mountains: the Montaigne St. Genevieve and from up there you have really quite a beautiful view to the skyscrapers rising high behind Montmartre far north (I guess this is one of the positive point of the massive destructive works that took place during the 2nd half of the 19th century that brought to the construction of the city Haussmannian boulevards).
From boulevard St. Germain we had to climb up this mountain (let’s call it hill better) to reach our hotel.
Situated in an inner court on a side street that hosts also the local firefighters’ house, the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles consists of all the low, 2 stories high white buildings surrounding the court. A small paved lane brought you up to the reception where three women were amiably chatting. We got our reservation checked out and got escorted to our room down the paved lane almost near the green wooden gate giving back to the street. Our reaction to the room? I couldn’t contain the chuckles; my friend has been already at this hotel. I felt like being transported into my late grandmother’s bedroom: an 18th style white and ecru wallpaper was encasing the wooden framed beds and the hugest amount of laces I have ever met in a bedroom. It was so charming!

Do you want to know the best part of it? those cute, romantic light fixtures with metal flowers painted in pastel color and shiny like porcelain.
And, oh those curtains! Just a prosecution of the same fabric used for the tapestry depicting the history of the 1st flight on a Montgolfier, gave a bit of structure to the otherwise pristine walls.

The bathroom thankfully was not 18th century style but cozy and modern.
After this jump back in time, we started hearing our stomach rumbling so we decided to go and have lunch. After a little stroll around the block, we got captured by a Korean Grill restaurant called Milal.

The space was tiny, like in many Parisian restaurants, but made quite light and airy by light yellow green walls decorated with various paintings in interesting Korean brass frames. The furniture as well as the floor was dark brown with those funny aerators hanging from the ceiling used for the Korean barbecue.
Quite ingeniously, each table features an alcove at its center where a gas burner is hidden by a steel lid. When you order a barbecue, the stove is lit and a shallow wok is placed on its top, the space-helmet aerator is lowered above it and you are ready to rock your grill! We went for a little menu instead with mixed vegetarians appetizers of caramelized lotus root, steamed broccoli with sesame seeds and kimchi, a miso soup and sweet-spicy crispy chicken wings with pickled peppers (crispy pork was for my friend). To drink I took a Yuzu infusion that completed the overall sweetness of the meal.

Lotus roots are definitely interesting; they have such a peculiar texture crunchy and spongy at the same time. It set the starting point for the 3 appetizers that evolved toward the sour-spiciness of the kimchi passing by the crispy simplicity of the green broccoli.
The chicken wings were pretty good too and freshly prepared so nice and crispy. They are notorious to be a nightmare to eat, even more if you try to use chopsticks, you might have to stuff them whole in your mouth and kinda try to pick all the meat out of the bones; does not it sound like those magicians’ tricks where they make a knot at a string using only their tongue? Well, I used my hands… The Yuzu infusion was pretty interesting. Piping hot when served, it was quite more easily enjoyable after few minutes. A sweet jade green liquid quit some strips of the candied fruits swimming at its bottom that had interesting tones of grapefruits and citrus zests.
The overall meal was pretty sweet for my palate but surely tasty and the atmosphere was just right, with a nice and smiling service and a boozy cat waiting for the facing Irish pub to open.

With our belly filled up we were ready for enjoying the sunny sky and crowdie Parisian streets. We headed toward the Pantheon since I wanted to have a stroll near St. Sulpice and St. Germain de Pres, I wanted just to indulge on my shopaholic friend; worthless to say that she stopped already after 50m from the restaurant. We made our way down the Montaigne St. Genevieve and reached the Jardins du Luxembourg. The weather was just perfect to peep on the Parisians enjoying one of their most beautiful gardens in the lazy sun of a late autumn day. The lanes covered with fallen leaves, protected the base of the now bare trees like those fluffy woolen socks knitted by your loving grandmother protected your feet in the cold wintery nights when you were a kid.

The sky was clear as a mountain lake and while a thoughtful Flora was welcoming the visitors, a modern sculpture was inviting us to break the links of the daily routine and enjoy the central pool over one of the errant chairs.

The life here moves slowly, two demoiselles out of a party at Versailles still waiting for their partners to escort them to dance; showers of orange and yellow marigolds boarded the inner space, with its large pool and green patches of grass.

Like crows in a wheat field, people get together on the side alleys fallen into their chairs harvesting the last rays of sun of the day; but we have to keep going, the unfinished church is calling us in the distance.

Still on our way down the mountain, we reached St. Sulpice with its bulky fountain surprisingly surrounded by modern slender sculptures of stones and metal, part of an ongoing exhibition. We enter the church, I wanted to show my friend the work of Delacroix and share a bit of the atmosphere of this volumes.
The modern sculpture exhibition was showing its last and most charming piece in a side chapel facing the “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” fresco from Delacroix. Suspended on fine metal and acrylic threads, shards of alabaster and volcanic stones were creating a surreal space, defined at the ground by menhirs of sculpted sandstone.

I just love when such beautiful and historic churches are used to showcase modern piece of art. Both definitely shine brighter!

On our way to St. Germain de Pres, along Rue Bonaparte, another surprise was awaiting us. Behind a subdued black wall bejeweled by two small bright showcases shining orange, Pierre Herme’s magic was taking place.
A sliding door let you in a tiny dark room; it divided in two by a low and wide glass showcase. At its right the queuing customers were being served while others helped themselves to some of Pierre’s chocolate creations and little sables.
While waiting for your turn, you have the chance to admire an array of his bright pastries: canary yellow cakes decorated with white and purple pansies flowers, matcha and wild strawberries creations flanked by their tinier single portion versions before giving space to the army of macarons.

Glimmering in the light, ivory white, bright pink, green, copper brown delicate almonds and meringue buttons were waiting to be called to accomplish their mission and deliver you the pleasure that your eyes already anticipated.
At our turn, we picked up 2 boxes of pralines to bring home to our friends and 4 macarons: the white truffle with white ganache and roasted hazelnuts, the rose with buttercream, the pistachio-bitter almonds and the chestnut-matcha one. We waited for the proper moment to taste them; it wasn’t just the right time yet.
Walking through rue Bonaparte my shopping-loving friend started her zig-zag walk between the two sides of the street and its various shops. After some time we managed to reach place St Germain and decided to enjoy a coffee at the historic Café de Flore.

It was almost 7 pm when we decided to start walking toward our designated dining area. We didn’t have a specific restaurant in mind, we wanted just to try one of the three places that Christian Constant had open in rue Saint Dominique. In its almost 2km of length, we hoped to have just taken it from the right end. After 15 minutes of walking along it, it was now clear that the restaurants were just at the other ends: near the tour Eiffel. The walk was quite unusual for a Parisian stroll; big sections of it were occupied by the same buildings or institutions, limiting quite a bit the variety of input. Between the ministry of defense and the Esplanade des Invalides; we got captured by the warmly lit church of St. Dominique.

After almost 1h of walk, we finally reached the 3 restaurants: Le Violon d’Ingres, Les Cocottes and Café Constant. After pondering on the menu and the crowdedness of each of them, we opted for Les Cocottes.
A friendly waitress escorted us to our seats at the counter and after trying to fit our stuff between the shelf under the bar counter, the floor and our feet; we finally started studying the menu that another smiling waitress had just brought us. I opted for the easy solution of letting the Chef choose for me while my friend took the appetizers and entre du jour.
Sipping my Martini Bianco, I started looking around trying to capture the place; the room was a long slender rectangle shape with a glass roof at its last third.

The main colors of the room were a warm light grey reminding of the alpine slate caves, and a bright lime green just were the light hit the walls. The atmosphere was fresh, dynamic and very friendly; a set of three Bayonne hams hung at the window gave a little rustic touch that was perfectly recalling the main idea on the restaurant: the cocottes. Each dish was in effect served on a Staub’s cast iron vessel (cocotte) hold in place over its round wooden socle by a magnet. The only little touch of discomfort was coming by the shelf built under the counter. While being very useful in its wide depth, it was a little bit too low when compared with the height of the seats and our legs were kind of squished under it.
Our appetizers just arrived. My friend got the mi-cuit salmon with crispy greens and for me the chef chose the veloute of champignons with foie gras and black truffle.

Its main aroma was the truffle one, the creaminess of the veloute being a right canvas over which to paint its fine hues over a background of champignons. The foie gras was contained in a candy made of phillo pastry. Biting into it, the crackling of the pastry like noises in the weeds, anticipated the fly of a big flock of wild ducks. Its taste was quite powerful, giving a potent animalic note to the dish; probably a bit too strong.
My martini was just a perfect match to the dish.
The entrees were then served to us: entrecote sauce poivre (pepper sauce) with a gratin of ziti for my friend and a sea-bass fillet with a ragout of white beans and sea-fruits for me.

Again a blast of flavors! The sea bass was cooked to perfection, buttery soft it just melted in your mouth; to use your teeth was just offending it. The rich creamy broth was flavored with white wine and the sea-shells (baby clams and mussels) natural juices; at times you might even be sure to be tasting truffles again. The firm small white beans, created the textural element against which the slight chewiness of the clams and mussels and the soft sea-bass could play their magic.

By now we were quite full but you simply cannot avoid taking the dessert when in such a place; we then chose the chocolate tarte and the fresh fruit salad (today an exotic one). A midnight black, shining like obsidian wedge of tarte was brought to me with a sprinkle of powdery cinnamon and a fluffy cloud of whipped cream.

It was creamy, it was rich, it was sticky; it was not over chocolaty. A crispy, powdery thin crust created the right textural contrast to the rich chocolate cream. The only weak point of the dish was the whipped cream that, I suppose, was a bottled one. Nothing against its consistency but I just do not care much for its vanilly flavoring; I would have loved a plain unsweetened whipped cream with this dish.
The overall experience was extremely fulfilling, a total must try if you are in Paris.
It was time to gladly roll up-hill with our full bellies and fall asleep on our beds.


  1. Thank you for taking me on a little trip in spirit to my favorite place in the world!!!!

  2. Ohhh how I love and miss Paris! Thank you for sharing your day with us. One of these days I might tag along for your culinary adventures ;) Bisous, Aimee.

  3. oh you ate well!! :) i miss Paris. i always have such fun there and put on like 10 stones too. x

  4. What a great time you had. All those little cakes and I'm in heaven!

  5. great post thanks for your help on twitter I am now a follower as you really know cooking, i was just in Paris and this has brought back lovely memories what a place


  6. God, reading it, makes me miss it even more. It was sooo wonderful. We need to go back soon and try out the other Constant restos, no? Thanks for a great time, love ya. Rita

  7. Oh, you make me want to go to Paris. Haven't been for a year or two and am getting withdrawal symptoms!!

  8. Seems like you had an awesome culinary time... Too bad you visited while I was away.