Fast food in Paris is on the street sold from an umbrella-covered cart or a street front counter with big windows “up” and crepes (very thin cakes) cooked right before your very eyes. The preferred flavor is Grand Marnier (orange flavored liqueur) with powdered sugar sprinkled all over. Otherwise, the haute cuisine of great renown is definitely SLOW FOOD. You can’t get sorry restaurant food in France. The preparation and presentation are accomplished with careful attention; fresh ingredients, and seasoning refined to an art. All brought to fruition by a cook who takes pride in his/her work, and is revered if not esteemed by a public steeped in the culinary arts. This makes for good food, not sorry food, and the diners are expected to savor this high art form with enjoyment in virtual slow motion compared to American-style swallowing whole and gulping down with alacrity.
My friends and companions on this trip to Paris are sisters; the Treppendahls out of Woodville, MS. They know when some food is finger lickin’ good and when it’s not. We availed ourselves of the good cuisine offered at our neighborhood café’, Commerce Café’, near our apartment which we rented for 2 weeks in the 15th Arrondisement section of Paris. We learned that pizza and burgers were very popular food in Paris, at least in our neighborhood. The Commerce Café’ sported a real brick oven located near the dining tables to bake the pizzas. Another specialty was crème brulee, to die for. But the most consistent and satisfying gastronomic treat was croissants, flaky buttery twinkle-in-you-mouth, made-fresh-every-day French rolls like none other. There were almond ones (my personal favorite), chocolate chip ones, raspberry filling ones, and plain ones to each with Nutella spread on.
Fish is ubiquitous and sea bass and John Dory (a flaky white fish) comes to your table with a light crumb coating. It was baked, tender and moist; eyes, head, tail, fins, and all. One of my most enjoyable meals consisted of Foie Veau (calf’s liver) and courgettes au Gratin (baked zucchini) with raspberry tiramisu for dessert. Strong coffee in tiny cups and a small wrapped piece of dark chocolate on the saucer after a meal is de rigueur. One of my friends, Jamsie, was determined to have escargot (snails in garlic butter) and she was not disappointed when she finally had a chance to order it. Her sister Liz and I were elsewhere when this took place so we took her word for it. We three enjoyed soufflés at a tiny little restaurant named La Soufflé, a place not far from the Louvre off of Rue de Rivoli. It has been in operation for years and word spreads even across the ocean to help keep its good name. It doesn’t delve into haute cuisine, but the food served is delicious and unique. When in the U.S. have you been served an in-house soufflé? It’s a lot of hot air and froth but so good. This restaurant offers sweet and savory ones, such as asparagus and spinach filling the bill for main course and Grand Marnier served for dessert. Champagne and cassis (black current liqueur) comes in a tall pilsner flute and is a lovely strawberry color (that’s with the dessert soufflé). Beef is not so great in Europe ~ generally not enough prime grazing grounds like we have. But people still order burgers and fries and they are served up to delight the French just like the Americans.
Cheese shops abound and our neighborhood shop though small offered a wide array of cheeses; bricks, rounds, and wedges all on display for careful perusal. Fresh produce shops have open bins on the sidewalk with stacks of oranges, mangos, apples; boxes of strawberries, sheaves of asparagus, green and blanched and shiny, ruby red currents from Holland. Still another specialty shop is that of the handmade chocolate purveyor. These chocolates are made fresh every day and cost a pretty penny. The waiters and waitresses in Paris are very dedicated to their jobs and often work as a team to see that all the customers’ needs are met readily. You don’t need to call out or whistle; just make eye contact and you will be attended to. In the old movies, you hear customers refer to the staff as Garcon, but that is no longer used in France. The courteous title for a waiter is Monsieur or Mademoiselle. You know the French had a revolution to be sure everyone, rich or poor was treated with respect.
My friends know a Parisian resident who had lived in New Orleans at one time, and she explained to us that the check you are given for your meal and service automatically includes a gratuity. A tip is something that is not given in addition to the gratuity generally by natives. Only American tourists leave extra tips. If a customer sees a need to show special appreciation for the service or if he or she is a big roller, a tip would/should be given.
The chalkboards are prevalent in cafes and brasseries but difficult to read since it’s someone’s handwriting in chalk and in French, of course. When I saw a chalkboard list Taganelletti and some other French word, I guessed it was pasta accented with fish or ham so I took a chance and ordered it. When my dish arrived, sure enough, it was pasta with small whitish rings of something looking like rubber bands or plastic circles on top. My friend Liz told me it was likely calamari, which I didn’t like anyway. So I summoned up my courage and called Monsieur over and begged for a substitute. He reluctantly complied and brought me pasta and jambon (ham). Upon receiving our separate checks, Liz said to me, “You better give him a tip on top of that gratuity”. -which I did willingly.
One of the bastions of French cookware for sale is a big barn of a store, E. Dehillerin. The ceilings are two stories high and there is barely room to walk around through the aisles which warren around the vast room. Shelves to the ceiling hold every manner of pots, pans, and dishes. Some pieces are hung on leather straps off the side of the shelves. Roasters and ovenware are stacked on top of each other in a hodge-podge but it’s fun and interesting to see. The building has been there forever. Even Julia Child was a customer when she lived in Paris and owned a battery of copper pots purchased there. I bought a cookie cutter made in the shape of the Eiffel Tower for $14.00.
To wrap up the assessment of French food, the pronouncement is “If it tastes good, it is good.” And I’d walk a mile to taste it. Next time, Spectacles, the kind you ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhhh’ over.