Sunday, July 14, 2019

Paris when it sizzles

Modes of transport along the Seine

I know lots of Francophiles, folks who rent apartments in the outer arrondisements of Paris, practice their French and try to become locals. As if. One couple has toyed with moving to the City of Light but decided to move to California’s Central Coast instead. They are perpetual grass is greeners who have lived on Saint Croix, owned a small vineyard in Napa and have spent the last dozen years in Santa Fe. Their new wine country spread between San Luis Obisbo and Paso Robles will suit them fine but they’ll always yearn for the Paris of their minds.

Belle Epoque on Rue de Rennes

We are frequent travelers to the south of La Belle France but have spent little time in Paris. We have fond memories of our long ago stay near the Sorbonne and just off Boulevard Saint Germain. This time we found the Saint Germain neighborhood cloyingly touristy and infested by brasseries with trite, overpriced menus served by disinterested lifers. And while our postage stamp hotel room was a real downer, we had to leave our room to change our minds, we came to prefer Montparnasse’s mixed population to the giant tourist trap by the Seine. And crowds, don’t get me started. Now I know why my intrepid friends visit Paris in the off season. July is a fashion faux pas of the lowest order. It won't happen thrice. Then again July is sales month in Paris and just about every store from high fashion to the Gap had a giant Soldes sign in the window. So, there is a silver lining to Paris when it sizzles.

We were so jet lagged from our flights from Denver to Frankfurt and on to Paris that we were a low functioning old people the whole stay. We were resolutely unwilling to reserve tickets at the Louvre, for example, so when we arrived at the museum in early afternoon they weren’t selling any more tickets and we settled for a wander through the Tuileries and a three circuits on the Ferris wheel that looms above the gardens. For Peggy it was frightening. I took a nap.

Meanwhile back at the Musee D’Orsay we were operating on the same no plan plan, arriving when the museum was an hour from closing. That’s not exactly the set-up for the full tour. You could say it was more of an obligatory visit than one born of real desire to be trapped with 10,000 of our closest friends. It was a steamy 85 degrees as we joined the queue. I must have looked like a heat stroke victim in the making. About five minutes into our wait, a line Nazi pointed at me and said, “Monsieur, venez par ici.” She waved us toward a short line with a hefty woman pushing a stroller and using a cane. I’m all about cutting line but I’ll cheat on my own terms, thank you very much. Peggy tried to tell me that it was because the official thought I was somebody special, but I knew it was because I had special needs. It was the episode that proved I’m not the youthful rake that I see in my mind’s eye. That’s a revelation that could have waited till never.

Montparnasse was a study in cultures, the obviously French with Gallic noses, hijab wearing women and tall North Africans striding along the Rue de Rennes. Over dinner we pondered the mix of races and how it seemed that all were equals and cultural and class divisions were not apparent. The divisions may, indeed, have been there but we didn’t feel it as we do in our homeland. It made me think about the jazz musicians of the forties who left our shores to find acceptance and freedom. Parisiennes are tall, by the way. There were more elegant six-foot tall women than I’ve ever seen in one place. And it seemed like all the North African men were 6’-7”.

It was in Montparnasse near the junction of Boulevard Montparnasse and Rue de Renne that we ate at our first Boullion, the 90 year old Bouillon Chartier. I had read about these old school restaurants in the NY Times several months ago and found the idea of throwback establishments serving traditional French fare at reasonable prices appealing. We dragged ourselves to the art deco Chartier at 9:00pm after 36 sleepless hours. It was not the perfect bouillion but enough for us to recognize the potential of the form. The restaurant filled as soon as we were seated and our harried waiter, Jean Paul, attended to our needs with quintessential French brusqueness. It was not really rudeness though it can seem that way but a by-product of one waiter serving eight tables in a cramped dining room. That's what we called, "In the weeds." in my gone but not forgotten restaurant days. The food, mine a butt steak according the menu was serviceable but shy of good. I had to ask for steak knife to cut the thing. A chain saw would have been better. The steak scored high on the flavor scale and very low on tenderness. We fell into a conversation with two young men at the adjoining table and the discussion turned to bouillons. They, one an aspiring journalist from Lyon and the other a high-tech entrepreneur from a Paris suburb, did not appreciate the perfunctory service and advised us to dine at the highly rated Bouillon Pigalle. But since that was a long cab ride away we demurred and found an alternative of a very different kind nearby.

Anima on Rue Cherche Midi, Montparnasse

Beautifully blistered Margarita pizza at Anima

By this time and just two days into our stay we were tapped out on tourist trap brasseries and brown salad greens. Peggy told me, “I’ll eat anywhere but a tourist dump.” I concurred so we employed the age- old technique of finding a good restaurant. You choose it by the way it looks. It’s worked for me for fifty years and almost always strikes gold. We had also concluded that in Paris the best local restaurants are a block or so off the main drag. With those parameters in mind we walked two blocks south on Rue de Rennes, turned left and strolled another two blocks to the promising corner of Rue Cherche Midi. We looked in both directions till we saw a modern looking pizzeria with a young crowd. We made a beeline for Anima and scored the last two seats at the counter overlooking the street. The service was strained but willing. Once we were seated, I had to ask for menus and to have or our orders taken. The overwhelmed but apologetic waiter took our order for a burrata and tomato salad and a Capriciotta pizza which arrived almost instantly. That was one hot hearth. The pizza was beautifully blistered from the 1000 degree woodfired oven. The thin crust was still chewy despite the heat and wonderfully flavorful due to the high gluten flour and olive oil dough. You can add Anima’s pizza to the pantheon of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. I might be the best. Till I find one better.

The next post will be from the sunlit shores of Brittany, Bretagne or Breton.Take your pick.


John Ellsworth said...

As the writer and publisher of 30-some novels and the reader of tens of thousands more, I can honestly say there is no one whose writing I like more than yours. Your eye--the artist's eye--works well with photography, I can attest, and with words I am oftentimes jealous I didn't see that first. Just love it, old muchacho. Keep 'em coming!

Steve Immel said...

Thanks, mi amigo. Thanks for the encouragement and kind words. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. Let's be sure we see each other this winter, Tucson or elsewhere. Are you in Spokane now? S

John Ellsworth said...

In Spokane and I would love to see you and catch up. I also have an artist wife (encaustic) who adores your wife's work.

Blacks Crossing said...

Brittany and Normandy seem to be such a good fit for you, we fear northern New Mexico might lose you and Peggy to their guiles. But, in the mean time, we can enjoy great photographs of the beaches, the soft color of Anima, and the mouthful of margherita pizza. We are thrilled you have an additional trip in the works for next year. By the way, John Ellsworth is spot on about your writing. No doubt you have not only whet our appetites but your other followers for more stories and photographs from abroad. Enjoy your many travels, new friends, as well as assorted discoveries!