hen I told my friends I was going to Paris, they all said the same thing. “Oh, you are so lucky, the food is amazing! You will eat so well.”
“You must go to Le Coude Fou. The cream of mussel soup is to die for… and the duck livers in balsamic vinegar. I dream about them!”
Eating well was the plan, but I must tell you, I’ve never been so hungry.
I went to see my friend Jean-Louis, an actor. He shares a flat with a friend near the Gare du Nord. On my first morning he told me to help myself to anything in the fridge. But when I opened the door and found a stick of butter, a jar of jam and one round of Camembert, things didn’t bode well.
I suggested we go out.
“Jean-Louis,” I told him, “what I really would like is a pain au chocolat. My friends all told me I must eat one for them.”
“Okay. There’s a place close by.”
So we hit the Parisian streets and headed toward the local boulangerie where the window was filled with pastries shaped like hats and tiny pies. Behind the counter stood sentinels of bread.
I turned to Jean-Louis. “Do you want something?”
“No, I’m fine,” he said. So I proceeded to test my French with the woman behind the counter.
“S’il vous plaît Madam, Je voudrais un pain de chocolat.”
It worked! The lady took a delicate tissue, reached into the glass case and pulled out a perfectly golden chocolate croissant. I took a bite and “mmm’d”with delight.
Jean Louis looked at me with big eyes. “May I taste?”
“Sure,” I replied.
So he took the croissant, wrapped his mouth around it and bit it —in half. “Wow, this is a good one,” he said, handing it back. I looked at what was left… barely three nibbles. “Maybe we should have gotten two.”
“No, that’s enough for me,” he said. “I just wanted a taste.”
I slowly finished and savored the bits of flakey pastry and vowed to hit the next bakery for another.
“This way,” he said, “I want to take you to the Pompidou Center.”
We begin walking down Rue Beaubourg in the Marais passing rows and rows of cream clad and grey-roofed buildings. The heavy sky and early spring chill cast a medieval feel over the city. When we arrived at Pompidou, the pipes of the building stood out to please a plumber. But what I noticed most was a pushcart selling crepes. I made a beeline.
“I’m hungry. I’m going to get a Nutella crepe,” I told Jean-Louis. “Do you want one?”
“Are you sure?” I insisted.
“No. I’m fine,” he replied.
I was secretly happy. This one I’d have all to myself.
“S’il vous plaît, Monsieur. Un Nutella Crepe.”
The man nodded and swirled the batter around on the grill. I watched as the crepe quickly browned and he spread the surface with chocolate and hazelnut. He folded it in quarters and handed it to me. It looked delicious. I took a bite.
“Yum! This is great!”
Jean-Louis looked over and… agreed. “May I try it?” he asked.
I was dismayed. There he goes again. He’s going to take another huge bite. I’ll never get anything to eat.
Jean-Louis turned the crepe on its side and angled it into his mouth. It was the same old bite. I was left with a small third. When I got it back I ate it as fast as I could, ensuring I’d swallowed it all before he had a chance to ask for another bite.
As we walked off together, I felt silly. This was no way to enjoy the great French food I came to experience. So I had an idea.
“Jean-Louis,” I said. “I’d like to go to a typical French place for lunch where we can sit down and have a real meal. I’d like to treat you. Do you have anything in mind?”
“There’s a place close by that’s very popular and there’s always a line,” he replied. “It’s very typical Parisian.”
“Great. Let’s go.”
When we arrived, the red awning and the line out front sold me instantly. Inside, mirrored walls reflected chattering couples and white-globed lights hanging from the ceiling. The intense smell of food was in the air and thankfully the line moved fast. I ordered steak au poivre and Jean-Louis settled on the stomach of a grazing animal, a sheep, I think. Those around us devoured their food. I finally felt the Parisian cuisine experience close at hand.
When the plates arrived, I smiled broadly. My steak looked perfectly cooked with a rich lake of sauce. The pommes frittes were crisp and brown. Happily it was on my plate. My own plate.
Better yet, Jean-Louis had his own meal, on his own plate.
And as I cut my steak and put the first bite into my mouth, I was in heaven. The flavor was rich and the peppery sauce provided a perfect balance.
I was so happy to finally be eating that when I saw Jean Louis pushing a piece of bread on my plate to dip into my sauce, I just sat back and smiled.
Perhaps this is just Paris.
“C’est la vie,” I thought.
“Oui. C’est la vie.”