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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.