Monday, May 02, 2005

We're at it again.

Check it out, y'all. We're headin' to Italy! And in three weeks, no less!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Eating Paris - Taillevent

We took the advice of one of our guidebooks, which states that no matter where you eat in Paris, you must allow yourself a single “break the bank” meal at one of the finer haute cuisine restaurants in the city. After doing a little research, we had decided that this meal was to be at Taillevent in the 8th arrondisement.

Taillevent is widely regarded as a “temple of gastronomy” and is ranked by most sources as either the best restaurant in Paris, or tied for best restaurant with a handful of others. We anticipated this meal to be the culinary high point of our Paris trip. Good or bad, outstanding or not, it will have been an accomplishment to eat there.

First, though, we needed reservations. Understanding that the owner prefers to retain a population of 60% French each evening, and not wanting to stumble our way through the reservation process in our broken language, we asked the owner of the apartment that we were renting, Eric, to make the reservation for us, as he was fluent in French. Without hesitation, he soon emailed us and said that we had reservations at Taillevent for 8pm on Friday, October 22.

This evening, after a taxi ride at breakneck speeds through Paris to the 8th arrondisement, we arrived, more than a little late, at the door to Taillevent. Immediately, the establishment’s reputation for service was apparent. We were greeted at the door, and I noticed that one of the gentlemen had a small sheet in his hand, upon which was written the reservations for that evening. They had been waiting for us.

We were shown to our table and given our menus. Immediately, the owner, Monsieur Vrinat, came over, and recognizing us as Americans, offered to translate the entire menu for us and to answer any questions we may have had. He was extremely patient, going through each item and offering to begin again at the top of the menu. As we often do when we want to try a variety of the kitchen’s offerings, we decided to have the tasting menu. We ordered a bottle of wine, which was decanted at our tableside by candle.

The courses:

- Crème de tourteau rafraichie a la coriander -

- Epeautre du pays de Sault en risotto -

- Rouget barbet poele -

- Agneau roti au piment d’Espelette -

- Chevre frais -

- Saint Honore a l’ananas, glace citronnelle -

- Croquant au chocolat et noisettes grilles -

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I no longer have recollection of each individual dish that was served, other than to say that they were all outstanding. From a food perspective, however, I can honestly say that, while the food at Taillevent was excellent, it is likely matched elsewhere in the city of Paris and for less euro. That being said, I would also submit that Taillevent is unlikely to be surpassed in terms of service and attention to detail.

One would think that, being one of the most highly regarded, historically significant culinary institutions in Paris, the staff at Taillevent would be, to some degree, snobby, stuffy, or overly formal (and arguably, rightfully so). We were very pleased to see that this was not the case at all. From the moment we crossed the threshold into the foyer, our well-being was completely in capable hands. The sommelier, when I had specified how much we had wanted to spend on a bottle of wine, was gracious and accommodating in his suggestion even though our budget precluded the majority of the cellar’s selections. Our bread plates never remained empty for longer than thirty seconds, our napkins were carefully refolded each time one of us would leave the table, and the waitstaff who served us were all personable and appeared to genuinely love what they did.

At the end of the evening, M. Vrinat attended to us and asked us how everything was. We told him that it was one of the best meals we had ever had, and we requested a copy of the menu as a keepsake. Imagine our surprise when M. Vrinat presented my wife not with a copy, but with an actual service menu, which he had personally autographed.

In summary, while there are other places in Paris where you could find food of equal caliber, as far as service is concerned, Taillevent is flawless and definitely recommended for a special occasion (such as being in Paris).

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

You Gotta Have Art

Let me be the first to say this – the Louvre has too much art. Way, way, way too much art. Too much art to really appreciate in a single visit, much less even an entire week’s worth of visits if you were to do that. So, that being said, we ended up viewing a small portion of the museum’s 30,000 exhibits and still had a fun time of it. Disclaimer – I know absolutely nothing about art – didn’t study it in engineering school, didn’t study it in law school. So, in a way, I missed a whole lot when we visited the Louvre, but I wouldn’t know it anyway. Here’s a guy wrestling a lion, there’s a woman missing her arms. Hey, Mona Lisa, I know you! Plus more oil paintings than you can shake a stick at. Shake, shake, shake.

30,000 is a huge number of pieces, and my first impression upon entering the Louvre is that they’ve managed to stuff art EVERYWHERE. Large sculptures sitting in small rooms off of main rooms containing even more sculptures, small sculptures sitting in glass cases by the dozens, big paintings taking up entire walls, and small paintings taking up smaller walls.

It’s enough art to knock you out. Literally.

Additionally, there are non-sculpture, non-painting exhibits, such as the apartments of Napoleon Bonaparte (which I have bastardized as “Napoleon Bonapartment” several times already) which show the opulence of the era. Lots of gold. Lots of velvet couches. Pictures are available, but we’ll save the bandwidth for now, so you’ll just have to wait to see them.

Just as interesting as the artwork is the variety of people that you see in the Louvre. First, you have, of course, the huge tour groups which you just have to spend all of your time maneuvering around – French tours, English tours, Japanese tours. You can spot them by the tour guide with the funny brightly colored stick/umbrella/sign. Then you have the tourists who want to see absolutely everything, and who run (literally run) up to a painting, snap a photo, then run off to the next exhibit. Tires me just to watch them.

Then there are the SERIOUS ART STUDENTS, sitting on the floor with notepads, listening to their teacher talk about the guy wrestling a lion and taking many, many notes.

Oh, did I mention the Louvre spans about a half of a mile? With three floors?

The guidebooks are all correct, though, in that if you don’t want to wait in line to get into the Louvre, it’s best to enter the reception area (which is more like Grand Central Station than a “reception” area) from the underground entrance from the Metro. When we left through the main surface entrance by the Pyramid, there was a huge line waiting to get in. By contrast, we just got off the Metro, walked into the lobby and bought tickets using the ticket machine. No lines, no waiting.

The Louvre and dinner at Au Gourmand de L'Ile.

We managed to get an earlier start today than we did yesterday, when we woke up at 1 pm. Ah, the joys of jet lag.

Today we're going to hit the Louvre, but first we're going to find a web cafe where we might check mail and update the blog. If we're lucky, they'll have WiFi access so we can upload some pictures from the laptop, too.

2:08 p.m.

Yay! We found an internet cafe, and after a little bit of hassle in figuring out how to post pictures to the blog, we got through it.

Then came the one mistake we've made thus far in our Parisian vacation: since neither of us had yet eaten, and since it was nearly noon, we decided to eat crêpes for lunch. The mistake we made was assuming we could each eat a whole crêpe. Needless to say, we were completely wrong, and even now, two hours later, I'm still stuffed.

At this moment I am sitting in the Louvre, having just jostled my way to the front of the crowd to see the Mona Lisa. It was lovely, but the stampede really kind of detracted from it. Or rather, the herd-like atmosphere around the painting made it virtually impossible to fully appreciate it.

The funny thing about visiting the Louvre is that I find myself more taken with the beauty of the architecture here than the paintings and sculptures it houses. It really is a sight to behold.

5:38 p.m

Well, we have "done" the Louvre in as much as two people can "do" this gargantuan museum in the course of four hours. We've seen so much, and yet we've barely seen a fraction of all of the works here. Aside from La Jaconde, we saw Winged Victory, about a million paintings of the French and Italian masters, a good number of which I recognized (although not to the extent that I could tell you who painted them or what they were called), countless sculptures, and the Napoleon Apartments in the northern wing. The Napoleon Apartments were both beautiful and excessively opulent, as you'd expect.

One thing I learned about myself in viewing all of these priceless works of art is that I am definitely more of a sculpture girl rather than a paintings girl. I know that's a terribly facile thing to say, but time and time again I found myself awed by the many sculptures. The paintings were gorgeous, to be sure, and I treasure the little thrill that comes from actually recognizing a piece, but on the whole they just didn't move me as much. I'm sure if I had been an art history major I'd be singing a different tune.

Derek and I are both feeling art-ed out, and just as we left the Louvre the skies opened, so I think we'll head back to the apartment to dry out and rest up before venutring out for dinner. Tonight we'll make our third attempt at eating at Au Gourmand de l'Ile, a bistro that we've read some really great things about. It was closed on Monday and Tuesday, so hopefully tonight we'll get our shot.

11:29 p.m.
Wednesday night dinner: Au Gourmand de L'Ile

Derek had:
- Duck foie gras
- Rabbit roasted with mushrooms
- Pears stewed in red wine

Jennifer had:
- Mussels in a herbed butter sauce
- Seared hallibut served with a pike mousse
- Profiteroles

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Dinner, Tuesday Night

Where: Les Fous d'en Face (The fools across the way).

Derek had:
- Onion soup
- Roasted duck
- Cheese plate

Jennifer had:
- Shirred eggs, which I had never had before. They were sort of like poached eggs, served in a ramekin with a vinegary sauce and toast strips on the side. They were delicious.
- Roasted bass with couscous. Simple, elegant, and really tasty.
- Chocolate torte

The highlight of our meal wasn't our meal though (although it was definitely outstanding). Rather, shortly after we ordered a family of four was seated next to us. It quickly became obvious that they were vacationing from London. They slogged their way through the all-French menu, and while they did a better job than we did without the help of a menu dictionary (which we had), they still had some difficulty. The young daughter offered to go back to the room to get their dictionary, so Derek offered them the use of ours.

We got to chatting, first about the menu, and then about lots of other things. They were a delightful family: Steve and Alice and their two kids, Edward and Amelia, were vacationing in Paris for four days. During the course of our respective meals we talked about so much, from The Office to the differences between the British and American educational systems to our shared disgust with with the leaders of both of our countries. They really were lovely people, and I have to say that their two kids were absolutely charming and extremely well-behaved. I hope the rest of their holiday was terrific.