Travel is, as often as not, best in the anticipation and the remembering. While you're at it, it's frequently about sore feet, lost luggage or that museum you wanted to get to all your life that has just closed for renovation. But travel is also about eating, and the great thing about eating in Paris is that it's also good while you're doing it.
Food is everywhere in Paris: piles of ripe peaches at the markets in the Rue Cler or the Rue Mouffetard; crunchy country loaves at Poila ne; cheeses on marble counters at Barthe'le'my; the gilded apricot tartes at Fauchon or the tins of pearly caviar at Petrossian, the legendary caviar dealers.
I have just come back from Paris, where I ate some of the best meals of my life. Until this trip, I had either eaten out in Paris on a budget, which has its limitations, or as a travel and food writer, which meant that eating was a large part of the point of being there. But recently I was in Paris for several months working on a movie, and eating was a sideline rather than the main event. As such, it was a whole new experience. Restaurants were chosen sometimes by design, more often at random. If some of the meals were about the food, others were about the company, the sociology, the ritual of eating out, and they tasted variously of expectation and serendipity. Mostly, they just tasted wonderful.
Some meals come back as a single flavor, as short takes: ravioli filled with fresh goat cheese in a pale gold bouillon at Michel Rostang, a spicy fricasse of chicken and the heavy red vin de Cahors at Lous Lande s or the succulent little scallops with "ma che," that incredibly tender French lettuce, at the wonderful Guy Savoy.
But then there was l'Ami Louis.
Paris is jammed with Americans these days, because the rise of the dollar means it's never been so cheap. What's more, Americans are canny eaters, everyone perusing guidebooks like racing forms (How many stars? How many toques?), which makes the famous restaurants hard to get into. Take l'Ami Louis, for instance.
L'Ami Louis is a legendary Paris bistro located in the backwaters of the Right Bank, about as unfashionable a part of town as you can find. There, everyone said, you could still get authentic old-fashioned food. But, said everyone, who knows how long it will last? After all, the patron is already in his eighties. It seemed as if everyone wanted to go -- and there was never a table to be had. Getting one became a kind of quest. Then the answer presented itself: You could get a table for lunch.
We arrived at 1. My companion, a film director, ordered foie gras, big, unctuous, silken slabs of it. I opted for asparagus, a pile of pure white asparagus wrapped in a pristine towel.
"Here comes the beast," said our waiter as we worked our way through the good house Burgundy. A whole saddle of lamb, its skin was so crisp it slid from the meat. The "Pommes Bearnaise" were a crunchy potato cake. We ate. We eyed our neighbors greedily. Had we missed something? Those snails redolent with garlic? Those chickens roasted in the pot? I had a pang. I'd heard the french fries were the best on earth, and I would never taste them.
Minutes later, a platter of golden matchsticks that Tiffany could sell by the carat arrived from the kitchen followed by fraises des bois, ruby-pink nuggets of wild strawberries with a crock of pale yellow cre me frai che. It was 4:30 when we left.
Not every meal, however, consisted of the culinary joys of L'Ami Louis. Others I remember had more to do with atmosphere than eating. One lunch consisted of an unmemorable ham sandwich at a film studio canteen in Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris. But just opposite, smoking a cigar, was Alain Delon in the flesh. That was a lunch that tasted of pure glamor. At dinner one night, at Jacques Cagna, an exquisite 17th-century town house flushed with candlelight, the food was marvelous. What I recall, however, was M. Cagna, one of the superstars of the nouvelle cuisine, regaling us with tales of his hour on "The Merv Griffin Show."
But most of all, there was the food. A new Paris favorite is Duquesnoy, one of those rare restaurants that serves world-class cuisine but is unpretentious, inviting and friendly. Pretty and pink, with lithos by Erte, the cool but cozy room is overseen by Mme. Duquesnoy, whose husband produces the inventive and wonderful food.
There were fresh ravioli tied with green ribbons of steamed scallion filled with lobster, a salad of rare roast pigeon and a pale pink escalope of salmon in a red-pepper pure'e. There was very good blue cheese -- Fourme d'Ambert from Auvergne. And cassis sorbet and tuiles, those thin, crisp almond cookies.
"Mais c'est tres BOF," said my French friend Georges, looking at the fashionable crowd in Le Voltaire. I had had good meals there, in the rather elegant restaurant near the Seine. I had had salads of green beans and foie gras, of beetroot and apples in luxuriant walnut oil. This night, however, the steak was stringy, the kidneys tough. But mostly, Georges, who is one of the best cooks in Paris and passionate for politics besides, disapproved of the clientele.
What, I asked, is BOF?
A synonym for nouveau riche, Georges explained, that comes from beurre, oeufs and fromages (butter, eggs and cheese), a reference to the folk who made fortunes on the black market during the war. Always food.
And always yet another place to eat. Le Dauphin in the Hotel Sofitel Bourbon had the perfect cheese, the crumbly Roquefort, the perfectly ripe Camembert served by Prosper, the cheese waiter, a man from West Africa who loved his work and whose name suited him precisely. Le Champ de Mars, a family-run restaurant with rustic decor, had tasty cold lamb salad. Of La Closerie des Lilas, I remember not so much the food but the shaded garden that hot summer Sunday and the ghosts of Trotsky and Hemingway, who ate there.
One evening, Georges led the way to Le Ma connais, a real neighborhood restaurant where the platters of ham and sausage from the Ma con region were good and spicy and the lotte, that firm-fleshed fish, was perfectly cooked. But the highlight was a red kir, a regional speciality, an aperitif made from red wine and creme de cassis.
There were visits to obscure bistros and famous brasseries, as well, among them Lipp on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, where nothing much has changed in 50 years. This is where the literary and the literate go for Sunday brunch. Herring, cassoulet, choucroute -- are all eaten at Lipp, accompanied by watching for celebs. If you have been seated downstairs, you've passed the test. The maitre d' has judged you suitably -- literary? literate? At La Coupole in Montparnasse you imagine that any second Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir might arrive. I once saw Sartre there, eating the biggest ice-cream sundae I've ever seen.
My last day approached -- my last meal in Paris. And so, on the hottest day of summer, we arrived at Taillevent. Some reckon this is the best restaurant in Paris, maybe in France. The period mansion off the Champs E'lyse'es has chandeliers that glitter, crystal that gleams and waiters with an ancient sense of ritual.
The first course was cervelas de fruits de mer aux truffes et aux pistaches, an incredible sausage made of pike, lobster and crayfish, studded with truffles and served in a fragrant beurre blanc sauce. My friend had langoustine next -- fat fresh shrimp served with multi-colored pasta -- and I a poularde de bresse -- the fattest, tenderest, whitest chicken in a sauce made of watercress. There was cheese. There was fine Bordeaux. And then there was the last course, a marquise au chocolat.
It was a dense black sweet, somewhere between a brownie and a mousse, served in a pale green pond of cre me anglaise flavored with ground pistachio nuts. Later, as we emerged into the hot Paris sunlight and I surreptitiously unbuttoned my skirt, I realized Taillevent had passed the real test of a very great meal: All I could think about was when I could get back to start it all over again.