Dining and Restaurants / Food and Cooking

How an American food critic saw the culinary light in Paris

Paris 2004 002 By John Lehndorff
(This feature was published in 2004 in the Rocky Mountain News where I was the Dining Critic. Reading it 11 years later I’m struck by the desire to edit myself and by the accelerating parade of years. My son Hans is now 21 and ready to graduate from college in May. The Rocky Mountain News no longer exists, I’m not married and I’m a freelance writer again. Enjoy this hunger-inducing flashback.) 
PARIS, 2004 – The pleasant glow in my brain started when I sampled the delicate, crisply-coated, soft-boiled hen egg with matchsticks of black truffle. It grew brighter with a smidgen of sensuous duck foie gras graced with yellow plums from Lorraine. The glow became a full blown spotlight during an entree of seared cod with lobster sauce and tiny squid. I achieved fromage bliss when the cart with 25 types of cheese presented a perfectly ripe guided tour of France. I’ve never tasted better brie.
After seven enlightening courses from chef Michel Roth, including a benchmark chocolate souffle, I finally saw the light. Like a pilgrim at a shrine, this American dining critic had a life-changing religious experience as he sat wide-eyed amid the plush elegance of L’Espadon, the restaurant at the historic Paris Ritz hotel.
This was where the legendary chef Escoffier defined modern cuisine and fancy dining as we know it after the Ritz opened in 1898. Kings and queens ate here. When the Allies entered Paris in 1945, this was the first building “liberated” by Ernest Hemingway. Personal history was why my wife Betsy, son Hans, and I ate lunch at the Ritz during an October family vacation in Paris. Betsy had a memorable meal there with her dad, Dr. Edgar Kahn, when she was an impressionable teenager.
You’d have to call the surroundings at L’Espadon “ritzy.” The sky-painted ceiling oversaw a dining room decked out in silk curtains, heavy silverware, linen napkins, gold leaf and old mirrors. Within those gilded walls, a perfectly choreographed group of gifted waiters did a remarkable job of making everyone feel at home, even three yokels from Colorado.
From the amuse bouche of foie gras terrine with bacon and roasted chestnuts to the slice of chocolate dauphinois that sided the coffee and the final, final bite a sliver of ambrosial honeycomb from Provence — it was one of the finest dining experiences of my life. It was also, at 443 euros, the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for myself. We were dining on our savings, not on my dining critic expense account, and the exchange rate was $1.33 per euro. But we figured: what’s the going rate for historic family moments and transcendent gastronomic epiphanies?
Tucked away in a small room in a modest hotel a few miles from the Eiffel Tower, we found ways to economize and still taste the delights of one of the world’s great cities. That would explain how we found ourselves at our neighborhood McDonald’s near the Charles-Michel Metro stop. The Big Mac tasted like a Big Mac, but I became quite fond of the Croque McDo: two bread circles filled with sliced ham and melted Emmenthaler cheese. It’s a very tasty variation on the classic croque monsieur, a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I had it with French fries and the aioli-like pommes frites sauce.
We were also “forced” to settle for outstanding baguettes, fragrant raw milk cheese, affordable foie gras, cold cuts and fruit that we ate in our hotel room. And we sipped the good cheap wine you can buy almost everywhere from supermarkets to mom-and-pop grocers.
We made regular treks to the local Monoprix store that was a supermarket on the first floor and a department store on the second. It also included a bakery, florist, big wine section, cheese and fish counters, 20 varieties of yogurt, and prepared food, including 12 terrines and confits.
Some of the stock items were familiar, such as Kellogg’s Miel Pops (Sugar Pops), individually wrapped sliced burger cheese, Texas Barbecue Pringles, Smirnoff Ice, Buitoni canned ravioli, and Snickers Ice Cream Bars. And we found a small jar of peanut butter for about $5 in the “exotic foods” section.
Our other great, money-saving joy was buying food the Parisian way by stopping at little family-run neighborhood shops on the way home from the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. We discovered Monsieur Laurent Dubois less than a mile from our hotel. The tiny fromagerie stocks up to 250 kinds of cheese, plus exquisite yogurt, eggs and butter. This is where French milk goes after it dies to become Petit Pave Cendre, Buchette du Quercy, Couronne Blesnoise, Pont Leveque, and St. Marcellin Affine.
Within a couple of blocks of the cheese shop on rue de Lourmel we found a charcuterie (similar to a deli), a wine store, a fish store offering oysters from Utah Beach, a chocolatier, a place dishing only rotisserie-cooked meats, a Moroccan bakery, and my fave: a patisserie and boulangerie selling bread, fabulous pastries and ready-made meat-and- cheese sandwiches. A fruit and vegetable shop offered figs, blond pomegranates, fresh dates, and even fresh pistachio nuts.
Occasionally, the family splurged on dessert and coffee. One afternoon we visited one of the world’s most famous pastry shops, Patisserie Pierre Herme at 72 rue Bonaparte. Chef Herme considers himself a culinary designer, so he introduces both a spring and fall dessert collection. Each gold leaf-garnished, architecturally interesting dessert is arrayed under glass like diamond jewelry. Going out for coffee is a professional sport in Paris and we played hard. In the French capital, coffee is “cafe,” which means espresso. It costs you a couple of bucks to buy a tiny squirt of great java that you nurse for 30 minutes or more. Free refills and coffee-to-go were as impossible to find as escalators in the Metro stations.
The real purpose of coffee was to sit al fresco in tiny chairs that always face out from Paris’ streetside cafes, whether they are near Notre Dame or a nondescript neighborhood. You sip and watch the parade of well-dressed Parisians wearing scarves, hauling baguettes, and walking their little dogs.
There is no French dietary paradox, even though the citizens do eat a lot of cheese, chocolate and bread. Cars, gas and parking are ludicrously expensive, so they walk everywhere.
In my limited visit, it appeared food is much less of a big deal for the French than I expected. They expect to eat well, but don’t ooh and aah over cuisine the way we do. This is, after all, the city where the first restaurant that was called by that name opened in 1765. Dining and drinking coffee, wine, beer and cognac are just excuses to get together and talk. It’s seldom an end in itself. Given how tiny most Paris apartments are, bistros serve as the neighborhood living and dining room.
Sampling the classics I enjoyed getting to eat at the bistros and brasseries of Paris because I was finally able to sample the classic dishes that have filled Denver restaurant menus in recent years. At Cafe de la Mairie in Place St. Sulpice I enjoyed a perfect ham and Gruyere omelette. Another day we waited out the beeping rush- hour traffic at Le Carousel bistro, nibbling on a quintessential croque madame sandwich crowned with a fried egg. At the 80-year-old Bistrot Linois, we enjoyed real onion soup with a heady broth. It had a small cheese crouton but it wasn’t smothered under a mass of molten cheese. We also sampled a super half-cooked (mi-cuit) steak tartare with frites that tasted like they were fried in beef fat.
Stopping for a bite and a sip were an absolute necessity during kilometerslong forced marches through diverse museums and huge buildings named after old dead guys. After viewing van Gogh’s electrifying self-portrait and other profound impressionist classics by Gauguin, Matisse and Monet, we snacked on pizza-like toast (tartine tomatoes mozzarella au pistou) in the cafe at the Musee D’Orsay. We lolled for two perfect hours under fig trees in the ornately decorated patio of La Mosquee de Paris near Paris’ botanic gardens sipping sweet mint tea and nibbling honey and almond pastries.
After watching mobs stampede toward the Mona Lisa while ignoring 500 years of other incredible art around
them, I calmed myself with a Caesar salad with poached chicken at Le Ragneau, a bistro near the Louvre Museum.
As a noted American pie expert, I had to visit La Maison des Tartes as soon as I read about it. This 18-seat house of pies is tucked in a tiny storefront on a narrow winding street. Virtually all it offers are savory and sweet tarts. You can get a wedge of dinner tart, a slice of sweet tart and a beverage for 8.40 euros. As The Beatles’ Michelle played in the background, we nibbled on buttery tart au boeuf au curry and a chocolate tart with sliced banana.
Opened in 1896, Restaurant Chartier is a historic monument that seats hundreds and dishes big, affordable portions of brasserie fare, including grilled sardines, veal tongue, and boeuf bourguignonne. The food arrives quickly. Our waiter, a 30-year Chartier veteran, told us we had to add up our bill on the white paper tablecloth and tell him the total.
 This two-week excursion provided my son with an opportunity to expand his already wide culinary horizons. He took the opportunity to order escargot every time he could. He also appreciated the French way with hot dogs. On the second level of the Eiffel Tower, we watched as the snack bar guy stabbed a baguette on a wide round spike, squirted mustard in the hole, slipped in two hot dogs and heated it with a coating of gruyere. Hans also developed a severe craving for Nutella, the silky milk chocolate and hazelnut spread that is layered on bread and warm crepes at streetside windows. We finally had to cut him off.
All this culinary adventure didn’t mean that every bite was exquisite. We had a horrible lunch with terrible service at Le Club Versailles, a tourist trap across from the train stop at Versailles outside of Paris. Lal Qila is an exceptionally pretty Paris restaurant serving thoroughly mediocre Indian food. And we sampled less-than-yummy pizza twice as well as perfectly ordinary Chinese and Lebanese fare.
Other irritations included the 15 percent tip most eateries added to the bill. Even if the meal was a dog, you still had to tip. Speaking of dogs, they are allowed in even quite nice restaurants and  they are prone to yip and yap. It also seems like everybody smokes in Paris, especially in eating establishments, no matter how small or closed in.
On the whole, the restaurant service was decent in Paris in large part because the waiters are professional. Never once did I hear one of them say “Bonjour. My name is Francois and I’ll be your waiter tonight.” They simply took the order.
This is where my encyclopedic knowledge of French culinary language came in handy. I knew right away what was in an “omelette” and a “creme brulee.” Actually, if you try to speak a little French, they will try to speak a little English and meet you in the middle.
The night before we left Paris we did one final load of laundry at the neighborhood lavagerie. We picked up a snack at a nearby Lebanese eatery, including some stellar baba ganoush. I decided it would be unwise to eat lambs’ brains in tomato sauce before our nine-hour flight to Atlanta.
It’s a joy to be home where I can get endless coffee refills and ice in my Diet Coke. I won’t miss the gender-specific nouns, the itty bitty accommodations, and the lack of water pressure in Paris. On the other hand, I’d go back to Europe in a heartbeat. Even now the memory lingers of the roasted chestnuts we ate in line at the Musee D’Orsay. I’ll never look at restaurants in quite the same way again.
No matter what I’m obliged to eat in the line of duty, I’ll always have Paris.
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