I've been eating like a poor, fat (happy) kid since I got to Paris.Lots of low-priced brasserie food; a croque monsieur here, a Nutella-banana crepe there.
My favorite "meal" may have been on the Ile Saint-Louis; I'd originally planned to have dinner at Le Tastevin, which a coworker had recommended. But it was my second day in France, and I still wasn't quite on board with the fact that dinner service doesn't start at most real restaurants until 7 p.m. (Also known as 19h; French signs always, always, always make me feel like an idiot — I much prefer 7h le soir; work with me, Paris.) So when I walked in, famished, at 5:30 and asked for a table, I was laughed back out the door and je vous en prie'd to come back in two hours. Right. Not happening. Excuse me, I'm a fat American and need food now. So I took a deep, brave breath and plunged into the fromagerie I'd passed walking down the Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile. Glass cases lined with cheeses I'd never heard of, all of which I was dying to try. And I was totally incapable of communicating it. I left with a massive wedge of brie (3,50 €) then wandered down the street and bought a baguette (less than 1,50 €), biting the top corner off the loaf — with conviction! — as I walked out of the shop. Christ, I'm so French. And that baguette was so good.
I took my new acquisitions — sans assiette, sans serviette, sans souci — and sat on the curb at the edge of the bridge leading back to the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. I listened to the jazz band in residence on the bridge and ate myself toute bête. Washed down with a coupe de champagne from a nearby brasserie overlooking the Seine (yes, now I'm just showing off), I was about as satisfied as I could have been at that moment.
Il Vino But now I have seen that there is more to French dining than these bargain-basement delights. And having seen this more, there is less to my bank account. Much less. When we left our heroine, she was in another blog entry, fleeing Pierre-Olivier eastward on the Champs-Élysées. But my growling stomach was propelling me as much as anything: I was on a mission for haute cuisine at a restaurant in Les Invalides called Il Vino, which a Yelper with a highly refined palate had recommended when he found out I'd be in Paris.
I circled the restaurant's spot on my map and wrote the address directly in my guide book, determined not to get lost as I have so many other times. I wasn't about to eat at — oh, shit, is that Petrossian?! — if I couldn't find Il Vino. Well, I found it. And as I turned onto the Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg, it started to rain. It was pouring by the time I reached Il Vino, but when I peered through the meticulously Windexed windows, I thought the restaurant might be closed. No one inside but a well-dressed man absentmindedly fingering the edges of a napkin on one of the beautifully clothed tables. But a sign outside said "déjeuner 7/7 midi at 14h30." That means OPEN! So I pulled on the door. And pulled. Remember that scene in Beauty and the Beast when Lumière and Cogsworth rouse the rusty, grouchy kitchen staff to make Belle a glorious feast when she arrives at the chateau? Same thing. "WEHAVEAGUEST?!"
And so it began. Silk napkin in lap, still water poured, champagne ordered and brought to the table. After a short glance at the menu, I spotted what I'd planned to order all along in the top corner, dégustation à l'aveugle (blind man's tasting menu). The general idea: I agreed to give them money. They looked at me and decided what I should eat and drink. No safe bets here; I was hungry putty in the chef's hands. Soit gentil. The server, who was essentially my date for the afternoon and whose halting English made the experience even more enjoyable, brought a warm amuse bouche to start, a perfect warm-up after getting caught in that unexpected rain shower. It was…before I started taking notes (Yelper) but I remember there being carrots involved. I wanted to get a big mug of it to go (American). While my bouche was occupée, I amused the rest of myself just taking in my surroundings: A Diana Krall concert recording was looping on the stereo, and the room was absolutely stunning. And calm. A curving bar backed with alternating glass shelves of clear and black steamware, deep violet velvet banquettes, white tablecloths, mahogany-stained wood, single black calla lilies in shallow, wide-mouthed vases. I could have stayed all afternoon. But that boisterous candlestick and those singing, dancing plates demanded my attention. My first course, paired with a wonderful white wine from Argentina, was a white fish tartare with pink peppercorns and roasted chestnuts from Piemonte, Italy. (Let me note how wonderful it was not to hear anyone going on about "local" this or "organic" that. They don't care here; it's more impressive to fly ingredients in. How glorious.) Garnished with a citron caviar (there's my 70 € worth) and an apple gelée, that graceful start had me delirious with anticipation. My next wine came in a black glass, because apparently it's a game to guess what kind of wine you're getting next — because apparently people who actually know wine go to Il Vino — and find out how close you were when they come back to present the bottle. Well, I got as far as "red" and was pretty proud to be correct. This red wine, a Burgundy, went with a duck breast served with a red wine reduction. I don't eat duck. Well, I haven't really eaten duck. But this was so wonderful: tender, flavorful, perfectly suited to the wine. (But that's the idea, right?) It came with some sort of red cabbage that I wasn't wild about, but…well, I ate it. And then there was dessert. Starting with a sparkling muscat — WHICH I GUESSED; WHAT'S MY PRIZE?! — that tasted like the airiest angel food cake. Followed by a delicate cannoli, lightly scented with orange and served on a little pillow of diced mango and papaya. Good god. Is it greedy seeming or rude to clean one's plate when dining in Paris? If so, I am beyond gauche. I was this close to licking the dishes. Sheer gluttony. When my poor server returned to my table, I was pretty blissed out and…also completely drunk. I'm pretty sure he only inferred the latter. I blame the language barrier. I told him that muscat had been "the best ever" (implied OMG: out, out, damn sorority spot!) then tried to play it cool, languorously sipping my espresso and finishing the article I'd started reading when I came in. Visa paid my bill and I floated out the door (pull) into the steady rainfall, along the Seine and back through the Place de la Concorde to my hotel. No longer caring that my hair was a mess, ignoring the fact that the dress of my dreams was getting soaked. Dancing to my Fall Out Boy as I traversed the nearly empty square next to the golden obelisk. This is what amazing food does to me. Actually, it does this to me anywhere (and, truthfully, the food doesn't have to be exquisite), but in Paris? Meals like this are what I'd dreamed for this trip.