Monday, July 16, 2012

A winner, and a farewell.....

We have a grand prize winner!

Mystery Location #6: Where's Karl?

Answer: just outside the greenhouses at the Forum des Halles

Winner:  Anne! With her two correct answers, Anne wins the prize!  Hopefully, it won't melt on its way from Texas.

If you spend time in Paris, at some point, you're likely to pass through the Forum des Halles.  Or Les Halles métro stop.  Or Châtelet-Les Halles RER stop.  Or Châtelet métro stop.  Or all four of these destinations. Who knows?  Unless you are a transit enthusiast,you probably will not be able to tell the difference between any of these destinations, because they form a gigantic underground network-mall without any clear demarcations from one point to the next.  Châtelet-Les Halles, taken as a whole, was once, and may still be (my quick search doesn't yield a definitive answer) the largest subway station in the world.

Ha! Don't let the simple graphic fool you.
On a soppy morning, when you want to go somewhere but it's too nasty outside to bike or walk, and it's after rush hour so the worst of the traffic is past, and you've got no luggage to carry, and you've had a good night's sleep and a really nice espresso shot, Châtelet-Les Halles can be kind of cool from the urban planning angle.  You think, wow, if I had to intersect eight different underground trains in a commercially dense zone whose foundations seethe with a crosshatch of industrial lines and tubes and two thousand-year-old archaeological remains, could I do any better?  (The answer, unless you are an urban planner, is No.)  And so you plunge into the station with a feeling of adventure (will I find my way out by lunch?) overlaid with a doom-y feeling of This Is The Best They Could Do, going in search of your train with the minimum inconvenience of, say, walking through a quarter mile of narrow stinky steeply graded uphill tunnels joined by two football-field-length people movers, twelve flights of stairs, three ticket stop-points (even inside the station, you have to keep producing your ticket from one nexus to the next), and two escalators, with dim lighting (atmosphere!) and a clean, elegant lack of signage (minimalism!).  Imagine the Daedalian labyrinth, with no Minotaur and no ball of string, but a lot of fast food joints, urine, and 750,000 travelers a day.  (Who can blame us for taking a pee?  Do any of us have any hope of getting out?)

Châtelet-Les Halles is as remarkable for its banality as for its inscrutability and complexity.  As is the Forum des Halles, the bleak, piss-smelling mall popular among kids from the banlieues.  The mall is like other malls, except it contains a vinyl library, a swimming pool, and the greenhouse, which is nice in and of itself but contextually bizarre:  it's really cool-looking, and has nothing to do with the rest of the mall, and, most significantly, you can't get in.  Before it was a labyrinth, Châtelet was a morgue.  And a prison.  And a fortress.  And before the Forum des Halles was a reviled architectural abomination of a mall, it was a reviled construction site and hole in the ground (le Trou des Halles), and before that, the central Halles, the gut/belly/stomach of Paris (Zola), the glass-covered wholesale food market whose last days were captured by Robert Doisneau in a series of glorious, heart-rending photographs we saw at Hôtel de Ville.  That expo was, for better or for worse, mounted in conversation with the current construction project at Les Halles, which, by 2016, is intended to transform the bleak, piss-smelling mall popular with kids from the banlieues into an airy, light-filled ritzy mall topped with a leafy park, with yoga studios and recording studios and high-end boutiques.

The obvious question is, what about the kids from the banlieues?  Is the new mall intended to displace and disrupt their community space, to "reclaim" it for "Parisians," whatever that's supposed to mean?  Or is it an attempt to do better by the kids, to give them a community space worth having, with a really gorgeous greenspace instead of consumerism and fast food?  And even if the intention is unreservedly the latter (which, of course, we doubt), whose right is it to determine what attributes (yoga?) make a community space worth having?  (Because, of course, my calling the mall "bleak" betrays my own prejudices; it could also, perhaps, be called vital, fun, familiar, heartening, solidarity-making, or any number of terms that I'd have no cognizance of, because it's not my community space.)  And even if a good answer to that question could be decided, who's to say that, even with the best intentions, the disruption and displacement won't still occur?  Even if barriers of cost, culture, and class weren't raised by the nature of the new project, the four years of projected construction will do their own share of disruption.  The history of gentrification says Uh-uh.

And so, we leave Paris, and our Paris blog, with lots of unresolved questions, and an impending feeling of doom, and return to the U.S., where, in our wanderings through three time zones, we've been experiencing all kinds of different culture shocks (including the Glenn Beck books in the checkout line at the supermarket in San Antonio) (also, the supermarket itself).  (Which is, of course, not to say that right-wing bullshit doesn't happen in Paris.  But this is our right-wing bullshit.)  But to round things out with a kind of narrative closure, which is what passes for optimism around here, we will eventually return to Paris to report on the ongoing progress of the Les Halles project.  And to get lost in Châtelet.  And to broaden our experience with French indoor gardening techniques.  And, maybe, to actually learn some French.  We'll be going back to Paris, OH HELLS YES.  But in the meantime, we've got more of Seattle to see, and Portland, and then home.

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paris?

There's an answer to that, right there in the song.  You can't keep them down on the farm, oh no, oh no.  But,

How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway?
Jazzin' around,
And painting the town?

You can set them loose in New York, instead.  So that's where we'll be, jazzin' around and painting the town.
Thanks for the travel recommendations, the awesome comments, the visits, and just following along with us!  We're Le Prof and La Potiche, over and out.  Or, wait, not.  Because Le Prof says that he might, "possibly," post a real last post of his own.  So, stay tuned, maybe.

Essays on previous contests:

Contest #1: Winner:  Anne:  Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

Contest #2:  We are the winners, because we got to walk along it all the time:  La Promenade Plantée

Contest #3:  Winners:  Libya and Bridget:  le Musée des Arts et Métiers

Contest #4:  Winners:  Daniel and Stephanie:  Opéra Bastille

Contest #5:  Winner:  Bobinou69:  Napoleon III appartements, Louvre

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Au revoir, Food.

Greta Alfaro, In Ictu Oculi: "Bêtes-Off" show, Conciergerie

We are writing from Texas.  Our internet connection is terrible right now, so this will have to go up somewhat unedited.

We gave up our Paris apartment on June 18 and fled to Bretagne, or Brittany, in an attempt to choke back the despair over our imminent departure. We made a circuit of towns along the Breton coast, which was never less than interesting, and often crazy beautiful, and above all, constituted another leg of the A.S. Byatt Heritage Tour, the Baie des Trépassés chapter of Possession (“How can I come if you cannot hear the little thing dancing?”)! O, the blasted heath and crags of Pointe du Raz and the homey, tidal stench of Audierne! And the rose/coral/salmon rocky shoreline of the Île de Bréhat, which is what Mars looked like back when it had water!
A washed-out pic of Bréhat, or Mars--this is the best we can do with the colors.
 The colors of rock, water, and sky were so wacky that they burned out both the red and blue cones in our eyes and temporarily blinded us with awesomeness. Then we crossed the border to Normandie to visit Mont-Saint-Michel, which is famous for having the Very Worst Restaurants in France. (It ought to be famous for bugs: we inhaled swarms of flies and gnats—Le Prof caught a fly in his mustache and almost fell off his bike, which should learn him not to sport moustaches—and on the train back to Paris we were continually brushing ants and baby spiders out of our bras.)
 That, Mont-Saint-Michel that is, brings us from the subject of Despair to that of Food, about which several of you Gentle Readers have requested more information. Where do we start, after five months? First, with La Potiche's inability to edit for continuity on the I's, we's, and they's. Le Prof is a game eater with great knife skills in the kitchen, but nobody has ever accused him of having a palate.

 At dinner in Quimper, Le Prof stunned La Potiche by identifying the citrus segments in our refreshing langoustine tartare as pink grapefruit, and making a neat comparison between the chive-crème fraîche mixture dolloped on top and the Axelrod onion dip that is La Potiche's favorite food back home. Then he reflected, “Langoustine: that's a kind of melon, right?” For what it's worth, Le Prof has been known to refer to grapefruits as “cantaloupes,” all smaller fruits as “apricots,” and basil as “spinach.” (“I never called an apple an apricot!” Le Prof shrieks defensively.)  (In the interests of not being a jerk, I will point out that a langoustine is a kind of shellfish, like a crawdad.)

 Most of our French eating consisted of French food we cooked at home, three meals a day. Thus, we begin with the grocery notes:

  • The bread, cheese, and wine are as good as they say. Great baguettes are, uh, great, though we had a hard time rustling them up outside Paris, except in Avranches, where a baker near the Scriptorial produced a good pain ancien (the name for traditionally made sourdoughs), a good chausson aux pommes (puff pastry stuffed with apples), and a damn good pain aux raisins (puff pastry twisted in a circle with raisins): if your pain aux raisins doesn't contain a swirl of yellow pastry cream to moisten the raisins, find another bakery.  While we were gearing up for our final weeks in France, the best baguette of 2012 was elected!  But sadly, we didn't make it up to Montmartre for a tasting.  Somebody else can let us know if it matched up to 2011 baguette.
    Raw milk Camembert
  • Le Prof's Fromage of the Week tastings turned into a Fromage of the Every Other Day. His favorite: a peppery, moist Saint-Nectaire. La Potiche's favorite: raw milk camembert, lovingly dented by the thumb of your fromagère to make sure it's just ripe enough and tasting like nothing we've ever had at home, for €5.
  • The wine: O, the vins naturels from Le Garde-Robe! O, the cellars of Burgundy! With Profs. K and J we toured the Côte d'Or, and also visited the Patriarche cave at Beaune, where we tasted eighteen wines, ranging from the interesting to the Way-Too-Sublimely-Complicated-For-Us-To-Understand. Some of the flavors we detected: green apple, pepper, rose, litchi, cherry, plum, mulberry, blah blah blah. Also, maple syrup, prosciutto, bananas foster, and haricots verts. Because your vigneron isn't working hard enough, if you can't taste Thanksgiving in New Orleans in every sip!  Even though La Potiche was spitting, she worked up a pleasant little buzz, but she wasn't sick all night, the way she usually is after four sips of wine, because it was an educational experience, not just a gluttonous one.
    Snackie.  Vin naturel.
  • Also delicious were the juicy prunes, roast chickens, honeys, dried sausages, crème fraîche, terrines, and jams (our B&B proprietor in Pontorson made her own superb caramelized rhubarb jam (!), one of the most delicious things we ate in France, but any market carries a rainbow of fruit varieties. “Plum” is not a flavor. “Reine Claude” and “Mirabelle” are flavors). We easily bought almost any ingredient we wanted (exceptions below): chipotles in adobo, cock sauce, sherry vinegar, sesame oil, smoked paprika, peanut butter, fenugreek, quinoa, kimchi, ssamjang. Some of the wonderful produce is unavailable back home, like wild asparagus (which is not actually asparagus but does make your pee smell funny); Charentais melons; mâche, a very ephemeral salad green (which we can get at home, but not in such a pristine condition and not for a couple euros per whopping sack full); Spanish clementines that really do taste like a holiday, because they hadn't been picked too green to travel 3800 miles in a shipping container to go moldy for U.S. Christmas consumption; heirloom apples with winy flavors (prosciutto! tiramisu!) unknown in the U.S. 
    wild asparagus
  • Cauliflower! La Potiche's favorite lunch was half a cauliflower, Greek yogurt with a spoonful of black cherry preserves, and three grapefruits (as Anaïs Nin remarked of June Miller, La Potiche likes oysters and grapefruit and will eat nothing insipid) or their equivalent in summer fruit. (“You are...a Fruit Eater,” Prof. E. observed at lunch once, having watched her consume a quart of cherries, two nectarines, four clementines, and a small melon). Every day after lunch, she'd throw herself on the couch, groaning, “I ate too much cauliflower. Again.” As M.F.K. Fisher remarked in The Gastronomical Me, French cauliflowers are different: they are starchier, sweeter, and give off less water and fewer bad smells while cooking. They also grow into much more compact heads, curling up all fractally, so you get a higher flower-to-stalk ratio than from the cauliflowers back home. And when, after virtuously steaming them, you toss them with pepper, Breton salted hand-churned butter (which costs the same as run-of-the-mill butter at home), and fleur de sel de Guérande (which costs a little more than run-of-the-mill salt but is infinitely more satisfying), they make a lunch that you can't quite seem to stop eating till you need to throw yourself on the couch, thinking about M.F.K. Fisher and how her third husband wrote an essay claiming that, famous gourmand or not, her favorite breakfast was steamed zucchini with butter. She divorced him, but went on eating piles of zucchini, and sometimes peppers and pickles for lunch, and never gave a fig for men's opinion, also like June Miller.
Then there are the sweets. Maybe you're one of those “I'm not a sweets-type person” people, like June Miller, also according to Anaïs Nin. We rather think that if Anaïs had taken June pastry shopping, instead of shoe shopping, June might have, like, widened her horizons (incidentally: you want to know what the women of Paris are wearing? They're wearing jeans cut-offs over black tights, and sneaker-wedge-heels:  stilettos enclosed inside sneakers so you can't actually see the heel. And summer scarves, and leather jackets in 85-degree heat. We have nothing more to say about fashion in Paris.) Le Prof and La Potiche weren't sweets-type people either, before they went to Paris. Then, on two trips to l'Étoile d'or, they blew a hundred euros on candy, which is why they never took their weekend jaunt to Strasbourg. Instead, they instituted Sweetie Time after lunch every day. (Which is when they eat candy and pastry, smear themselves in pitch or black paint or grease or something, and leap about naked in their tree house to the chagrin of their sisters.)

 Even if you're not a sweets-type person, if you like food, you should experience the wonderful, unexpected flavors and textures of really good French pastisserie and confiserie. You mostly don't have to pay a hundred euros; that was just a bacchanal (the Kestener Atlantique--a chocolate-coated, salted-caramel and brown-sugar sablé bar--goes for €6). Most things go for €2 or less. And here's some advice: you can buy items similar to these at any patisserie, and you'll still say, “Wow, that's so much better than the XYZ at home,” if you're lucky enough at all to live in place where XYZ=espresso éclairs. But for the two euros you'll be paying, you might as well seek out the best, the “Wow, I didn't know they made this good on this PLANET.” That is why we are going to help you by telling you what's best (our food peregrinations were informed very heavily by David Lebovitz's blog and Chowhound.  Thanks, people.):
croissant, Blé Sucré
  • The Kayser coconut-chocolate financier, which tasted like the best, moistest, American-style cupcake La Potiche had ever eaten, and La Potiche prides herself on being a cupcake connoisseur. Unfortunately, it appears to be off the menu now, but the plain, chocolate, pistachio, and raspberry are pretty good, too.
  • Vandermeersch's kouglof, a sugar-crunch-topped yeast cake studded with golden raisins, recommended by D. Lebovitz.
  • Blé Sucré's croissant, recommended by D. Lebovitz as the best in Paris. It was, indeed, the best of the 12 or so croissants we tasted, made of the most ridiculous BEST puff pastry ever, all the layers caramelized and standing crisply, meltingly apart. No other croissant even came close. NO OTHER CROISSANT.  Really.  The pain au chocolat was perhaps even more delicious, though, as Prof. D noted, it would have been better with darker chocolate.
  • Pierre Hermé macarons were out of this world. Even the parfums that we thought would be weird (carrot-orange, and jasmine—La Potiche didn't like jasmine-flavored things before) were divine. Don't tell us about Ladurée macarons, because Ladurée's are, frankly, crap. Even supermarket macarons are tasty little figments, but any place that flavors a macaron like Fruity Pebbles and charges you €3.75 for it is CRRRRRRRRRRRRRAP, unless they call it the Fruity Pebble macaron, in which case, that might actually be kind of clever. But that's not how it played out.
  • The rhubarb, pear, and passionfruit pâte de fruits (fruit jelly candy) of Jacques Genin. Each one's only the size of your thumbnail, and it will cost you like €2, but it packs such a flavor wallop it's worth it.
  • Breton salted caramels. On Breton salted caramels days, Sweetie Time consisted of two caramels, and then, once our jaws were deliciously fused together, we had to stop. Also a flavor wallop.
  • Arnaud Delmontel, who is in my opinion the most criminally underrated baker in Paris, makes an apricot-pistachio bear claw and an outrageous bichon au citron: a puff pastry half-moon filled with zesty lemon Bavarian cream. His was the best puff pastry we tasted after Blé Sucré's. (His baguette aux grains, covered with poppyseeds and other seeds, vies with the Kayser baguette and the Top Baguettes for Top Deliciousness.)
  • The immortal Pruneski, however, has vanished from this earth, and we are sorry that none of you will be touched by the pruney angel that touched us.  We will experiment with making them at home.
There are things we miss. Like...
  • Tingly oily Sichuan food, which we'd last eaten in London. We had some better-than-adequate Sichuan on our third-to-last evening in Paris, but it wasn't tingly, since it lacked Sichuan peppercorns, and the flavor would have been richer with dribblings of red chili oil.
  • Milk that doesn't go bad after a single day. We didn't mind grocery shopping every day to stock our tiny fridge with the day's rations, but we did mind throwing away a whole bottle every day. Parmalat was okay till we chanced upon several bottles that had rotted on the shelf, and now we can't abide the cooked-rotten flavor.  Also, we miss grass-fed.
  • French yogurts are delicious, but most stores and markets sell only individual servings in tiny pots, even if they're charming little glass or ceramic pots, but we don't like the waste, so we wound up going to a Greek deli for a bucket of Greek yogurt once a week (which was not a hardship, especially since we were a little bit in love with the proprietor). We'd have made our own yogurt, as we do at home, but then there was the milk situation.
  • $1 sacks of fresh corn tortillas, for those days when life is too awful to bear unless you can whip up a vat of guac, slice up some radishes and Whatever, and throw yourself a personal taco party, at which you devour fifteen or twenty tortillas in a sitting. 
  • The French red-spotted heirloom lettuces are ravishingly still-life-worthy, but La Potiche, who eats about a head a day at home, must admit that she's got a hankering for the American kind of garden lettuce that isn't bitter.  In general, foods have a slightly more bitter profile in France: lettuces, radishes, olive oils, sodas, even candies.  
  • We also miss kale. Ahhh, we love kale, we eat about four bunches a week at home, but there is not a bunch to be found in Paris. If you want a good time, check out the Chowhound France conversations about kale, and whether or not you can buy it in Paris. Belligerent English and American ex-pats argue for days and weeks about whether or not the curly vegetables they've seen at their own, special neighborhood markets are kale. They're not; they are frisée, which is not kale. We've been to twelve or fourteen different street markets, including the own, special ones mentioned on Chowhound, and they have No Kale. And for the record, every foodie in Paris thinks that his own, special neighborhood market is definitively the best in Paris, but the ones that we visited were all awesome for different reasons; there was no objective Best, just the subjective one.
It would be silly to write a food post on Paris without a restaurant report. However, we don't dine out that often, our food budget being confined to the maintenance of our prune-stuffed prune supply. And we generally don't take photos in restaurants.  But we did eat some notable restaurant meals, mostly when we were traveling and couldn't get to our kitchenette, or due to the extreme generosity of family and friends (thanks, Profs. D and H! Thanks, Prof. E and Grad Student N! Thanks, Profs. K and J! Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the anniversary dinner!). And so, notable restaurant food:

  • Couscous. Early in our stay, we watched the marvelous movie The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet, which would lead you to believe that the Secret is le mulet), about a man who loses his job and decides to invest his life's savings in starting a couscous restaurant. We were all, Ick, couscous, guess this movie's going to be a tragedy. That was because we had only eaten couscous at home, where at its best it was a pasty, Play-Doh-tasting blehhh. But, because we are highly suggestible, the movie made us say, “Mmm, couscous,” and go out to the 10th in search of some. Were we surprised! Couscous made correctly is just as delicious as a Pruneski; it is rich, nutty-semolina-tasting, fragrant, bouncy, and rolls delightfully around your astonished tongue; with harissa and an inexpensive stew of carrots, celery, chickpeas, and raisins, it makes a feast! We are going to learn how to steam it properly, because, in Quimper, we ate some take-out couscous that tasted like couscous from home: quel horreur!
  • Corails de coquilles St. Jacques: which is to say, the red-orange bits of the scallop. When you buy whole scallops in the U.S., you are probably not getting the blob of bright scarlet attached to the round white nut. (You are not seeing the eyes, either, which are terrifying.) That scarlet blob is the coral, or roe, or gonads, and when it's sautéed in butter (it curls into a firm comma-shape) and sprinkled with mâche and a little red wine vinegar, that is a salad of scallop gonads, and it tastes a bit like lobster.
  • At various Parisian restaurants, the most memorable dishes were: gouges out of a family-style terrine of pork with cornichons; morel risotto; a perfect poached egg served in a foam of something (memory begins to fail); steak frites; parmentier topped with mashed sweet potato; new potatoes topped with crème fraîche and salmon roe; a bouillon crémeux of spring peas topped with crab meat and a salad of pea shoots, mint, and fenugreek leaves; pork belly; simple white beans cooked with lamb; a mi-cuit, or partially baked molten chocolate and caramel pudding; vanilla madeleines that were, unlike any of the madeleines we'd ever eaten stateside, buttery, light, with only a hint of sweetness. At La Régalade, Le Prof ordered vanilla pots de crème with passionfruit coulis, and to his surprise, was actually served pots: two of them, both containing a serving. They were exquisite. They might even have been better than the rice pudding à la grand-mère that La Potiche ordered: the best kind of rice pudding (vanilla bean, arborio, full cream, and cooked-down milk), served to her in a pint jar. A whole pint for her to dip out of! “C'est tout pour moi?!?” La Potiche cried. “Tout pour vous,” the waitress agreed. It is heaven to be served more rice pudding than you can possibly eat in a sitting.
  • In Normandy, even the candy looks like fruits de mer.
  • In Normandy we dined at modest, homey restaurants serving: a buttery, warm spinach mousse, fish pâté, rabbit terrine, a fine skate wing cooked in cider, verbena-infused crème brulée, duck breast with boysenberries, tarte tatin (upside-down puff pastry-topped apple pie), a really nice assiette de fruits de mer (seafood platter) with scrumptious bulots (sea snails), icy-crisp oysters, and pear-stuffed crêpes with vanilla crème anglaise and caramel sauce. La Potiche isn't mad for crêpes, the same way she isn't mad for, say, breakfast cereal—it's just there, nothing special—but a crêpe filled with homemade vanilla pudding is something else.
  • In the Dordogne, we ate goose gizzard salad, which is to say, goose gizzards sautéed in goose fat and sprinkled with a little mâche and vinegar (notice a salad theme?). Have you ever eaten a slice of bacon whose lean, meaty part had a little myoglobin-y aftertaste of liver? That is what a goose gizzard tastes like, and you dig in the same way that you go to a friend's house for brunch and accidentally eat the whole platter of bacon.
  • We visited Burgogne, Le Prof for both sociable and professional reasons, and La Potiche for sociable reasons—and to complete the first leg of the M.F.K. Fisher Heritage Tour! La Potiche LOVES to order her travels around the travels of women writers who go by their initials. So La Potiche forced Le Prof to scuttle over to Dijon's Halles an hour before breakfast, just like M.F.K. and the women of Dijon in The Gastronomical Me. And then, in the beautiful, rose-festooned hilltop village of Vézelay, right “on the road to Avallon” (although the mill restaurant where M.F.K. ate the truite au bleu is, according to other travelers on the Heritage Tour who've blogged about it, no longer a fine place), La Potiche ordered a lunch that perfectly satisfied her expectations of the “spicy, winy” food M.F.K. felt too surfeited to describe properly: oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in a red wine and mushroom sauce). Pork cheeks served on little toasts of pain d'épices with red wine and cloves. Pain d'épices is Dijonnais spice bread made with rye flour, honey, fennel seed, and ground mustard, and sounds kind of vile, but is actually well balanced and tasty. The slow-cooked meat with the wine and the profusion of spices, not to mention those little trenchers of bread, tasted like exactly how I imagine a dish that the dukes of Burgundy might have ordered back in Le Prof's day. For dessert, La Potiche got a clafoutis aux cerises, made with ground almonds (clafoutis is a batter cake studded with fresh fruit, often cherries--cerises--or pears). La Potiche has had lots of clafoutis, but never thought they were anything to write a blog post about till she tried this one with ground almonds. Prof. J got a crème brulée that was bruléed by brushing it with violet liqueur and setting it afire. Isn't that a GREAT idea? Forget those little torches! We finished up the meal with petits fours: hazelnut meringues, grape (because we were in Burgogne) pâtes de fruits, and something else La Potiche can't remember anymore.
Jan Davidsz de Heem, Nature morte au citron pelé (1650), Louvre
La Potiche will wrap up this post with our hotel restaurant in Paimpol. For the price of an average bistrot meal in Paris, we got the most surprising, elaborate meal either of us had ever eaten. Most of the components were delicious. A few were not. All were very well cooked, and the ones that weren't satisfying to us weren't so because of bad cookery, but just because we weren't always willing to follow the chef on his or her personal voyage to NeverNeverLand. But overall the meals created such a circus-like experience—loud, delicious, completely over-the-top fun, and kind of vulgar—that we will never, ever forget the marvelous time we had eating them. Here is a description, to the best of our ability, although we know that there must be items we've either missed or misidentified.

  We began with an unexpected amuse-bouche: a nugget of foie gras rolled in pistachios and dark chocolate. And tiny pellets of gizzard (?) cooked, coated in chocolate, and served on a round garlic crouton. And a scoop of foie gras ice cream, with flaky sea salt, fine cracker crumbs, and raspberry coulis. Though foie gras was, for obvious reasons, not something we'd meant to eat, our bouches were amused, and pleased: the foie gras ice cream was the kind of thing we knew that people made but had hoped, till that point, that nobody would ever serve us, but it was tasty, and the salt, crumbs, and raspberry were exactly what it wanted (other than, of course, wanting not to have been the liver of a force-fed goose, but I digress).

 Le Prof's starter was the oyster plate. It included: a whole oyster served inside a chilly gelatin made of its own brine; two trimmed oysters served in gelatin rounds made with brine, trimmings, and cream; a baked oyster (no surprises there, but then La Potiche, absorbed in her own starter, declined a taste). When the waitress cleared the plates, she told Le Prof, “You didn't eat your feuille d'huitre.” “Excuse us?” we said, completely unable to understand what she'd said, because so far as we knew, oysters didn't have leaves, but Lo and behold, the oyster leaf (Mertensia Maritima) is the leaf of a seaside plant that tastes exactly like an oyster. When Le Prof popped it into his mouth and expressed his wonderment, the waitress went away and came back with a tiny platter containing one more oyster leaf, for La Potiche.

 La Potiche's starter was the langoustine plate. It contained three langoustines, two langoustine/onion beignets (delish), all bathed in a tasty langoustine broth dotted with corn-kernel-sized crevettes on a plate streaked with an interesting chocolate/langoustine-stock reduction. Also, a raw quail egg yolk in its shell on a cracker piped with stars of violet cream had wandered onto the plate, mistaking itself for a langoustine-flavored starter. La Potiche must admit to not really liking violet-flavored things, though Pierre Hermé could probably turn her around if he made a violet macaron, even a violet-langoustine or violet-foie gras macaron, because he is a genius who could convince her to eat anything so long as he'd piped it onto an almond shell.

 For her plat (main dish), La Potiche had a rouget with potatoes (completely traditional), a fried little zucchini flower, marinated baby artichokes, a negligible artichoke risotto, another chocolate sauce (with balsamic this time), a coffee-flavored sauce (no), and white pepper foam teardrops (yes). There were some powders dusted on her plate, but she was losing her ability to keep track of things and can't tell you what flavors they were. And that's also why she can't really tell you what was on Le Prof's plate, except for cod, cantaloupe balls, a heap of caramelized onion confit, green onion something, mackerel, potato purée, spots of raspberry sauce, several sprigs of cinnamon basil, and a crisped black fish skin forming a St. Louis arch over the whole. He also had two sauces, some baby crevettes, and a bunch of powders, we think.

 For dessert, Le Prof got the crème vanille, and neither of us remembers what was on the plate, except that it wasn't really a crème vanille. La Potiche got the basil macarons. Which translated into three pink-and-green basil-flavored macarons stuffed with what we think was basil-flavored rice pudding and a plastic liquid-delivery system that looked kind of like an IV but delivered basil syrup. Plus a lime-green sugar corkscrew. And a sprig of very sour lemon thyme. And a scoop of raspberry sorbet, some strawberries, some melon balls, and a dusting of homemade sugar pop rocks that fizzled when she ate the sorbet. (Le Prof found his pop rocks first. “Ahhhh,” he said, “Something my mouth. Do YOU have something like that on your sorbet?”)

 But nothing they served us was so interesting as a dish that appeared during lunch, two days later, at the same restaurant, where La Potiche also ate a passionfruit dessert sauce with passion-banana sorbet (YUM). Sharing the plate with her duck breast and two ellipse-shaped pads of purple mashed potato (one of which was stuffed with confit) and homemade black onion Pringle, appeared a round slice of Jell-O salad. Or a macaroni salad? Or, a Jell-O macaroni salad, stuffed with more confit! Jello-O macaroni salad stuffed with duck confit was not what we were expecting to eat in France. But pourquoi pas? France was for exceeding expectations.

Au revoir, France.  Au revoir.  Au revoir......................................

Friday, June 29, 2012

Where's Karl? FINAL CONTEST!!!!!!!!!!

This is not only the very last Mystery Location contest, but also a run-off for the winner!  Only people who've won a previous contest may compete in this final round.

Mystery Location #6: Where's Karl?

Clue #1: This photo was not taken in any of the parks or gardens you may have purposefully visited.  But sooner or later, you will probably have to pass through the location (broadly speaking), whether you want to or not.

1. The final winner will be the semi-finalist who first comments, on the blog, by email, or on Facebook, with a correct identification of the location.
2. You are on your honor not to plug the photo itself into a Google Image search, but you may use Google to work through the clues.

Good luck!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Where's Karl? Contest #5

We have another winner!
Mystery Location #5: Where's Karl?

Answer: the dining room of the Napoleon III apartments at the Louvre

Winner:  Bobinou69.  Bobinou69, who are you?

This picture to the right was taken in the Louvre's Napoleon III apartments, which, not coincidentally, Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I) had fixed up.

It was a big surprise to Le Prof and La Potiche to find these rooms in the Louvre; despite a number of previous visits, we'd had no idea they were here. Maybe we were busy chasing after more important works such as l'Objet plat et circulaire.

left: Tabriz. On table: various Moebius and Ring, by Delvoye
 In 1851, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, as he was known back then, was doing his stint as first titular president of the Republic of France, living at the Palais de l'Élysée, where the French presidents still live.  He invited the architect Louis Tullius Visconti to present some plans for linking the Louvre and Tuileries palaces and generally furbishing up the Louvre.  Later that same year, Louis-Napoléon pulled a coup d'état, and ascended the throne as Emperor Napoleon III--the last monarch of France.

Mughal Jail, Kashan, and Mashed, Delvoye

That was when he gave Visconti the green light to go ahead with renovations.  But Visconti died of apoplexy and was replaced by Hector Martin Lefuel, who, among other things, pulled together the state apartments shown here between 1856 and 1861.  It is probably not a coincidence that Napoleon III wanted them done up in Louis XIV style.  To learn more about the building project, check out this totally fun article on  Because is the kind of web site you need to know about.

Deux Bacchantes (clockwise), Delvoye

After we'd made our eighteenth visit to the Louvre in five months, we were a little Louvred out, though we didn't want to admit it.  We broke things up a little by taking a promenade in a 136-acre postmodern garden, 136-acre postmodern gardens being the kind of thing they build here for kicks.  Plus a trip to Burgundy (thanks, Anna and Eileen!).  Refreshed and sunburnt, we returned for our nineteenth visit, including a second peek at the appartements (having realized that we'd forgotten to take more pictures for our contest), only to find that the Louvre crew had anticipated our mood and decided to SHAKE THINGS UP!!!!!

The Louvre had invited the artist Wim Delvoye to do an installation in the Objets d'art section of the museum, which includes the Napoleon III apartments.  None of the works identified here in the photo captions were present during our first trip through. Why, hello there, corkscrewed bacchantes and piggies!

Twisted Dump Truck, Delvoye

This visit was like a scavenger hunt:  there were monumental works right out in the open, and little ones in casements hidden among the 19th-century bric-a-brac.  Big steel sculptures like twisted versions of marble sculptures in the collection, big cathedral-like sculptures of steel cut like lace, big "tapisdermied" pig sculptures, dainty porcelain things, and new stained glass windows installed in inconspicuous places.

L'Esprit d'escalier, Morellet

Speaking of inconspicuous windows, on our way toward the Renaissance Objets d'art, we walked through a stairwell we'd traversed before, but with an eye, this time, for unexpected interventions. That was when we noticed François Morellet's L'Esprit d'escalier, one part of which you can see here.  In 2010, the Louvre invited Morellet to redo the windows in the Lefuel staircase, and he did, subtly shifting and skewing them.  They are a delight!

It's wonderful to be able to spend enough time in the Louvre to visit and revisit rooms and artworks enough times to get completely familiar with them.  It's also wonderful to get our perspective skewed and refreshed by the contemporary works, the performances, and the other exciting projects the Louvre crew puts together.

Our very first visits to the Louvre, back in February, coincided with the nighttime festival Amour à Mort that juxtaposed musicians, dancers, acrobats, and performance artists with works that inspired/provoked them.  We chased through the museum, night after night, in pursuit of a piano and operatic soprano heard in the Galerie Médicis, or a dude covering Bonnie Tyler while surrounded by Poussin's Les Quatre Saisons, or a scritchety-scratchety babble of vaudeville exhortations accompanying the acrobats leaping onto each other's shoulders in imitation of the sculptures in the Cour Puget, or the silent,
Why, hello, unauthorized swallows' nest!

uncomfortable crowd watching a group of dancers doing really graceful but painful-looking things up and down the hard marble steps of the Cour Marly (interacting more with the architecture than with the sculptures) to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

Every night, as we exit through the courtyards, we hear cellists and countertenors busking, invisibly, under the arches.  And sometimes, we see evidence that other unauthorized individuals are hard at work, making their own little changes to the Louvre, as in the photo to the right.  It all reminds us to look at the old and familiar with a fresh eye, and makes it possible, when wanting to look freshly isn't quite enough to make it happen spontaneously.

Not really a cathedral.  Chapelle, Delvoye

It also makes us wistful (well, completely sick to our stomachs) to think of leaving, because it's not true that we can always come back in the future to finish up, as it were.  We will miss the Louvre's special exhibitions, rooms opening and closing, performances, temporary installations, and works coming in and out on loan.  Even such a big whale of an institution of the Louvre is always in flux.

It goes without saying that we're also in despair about everything we'll be missing at the dozens of other museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces we've enjoyed in Paris, the monuments and churches, and the parks and gardens.  We don't even dare think about the sixty-odd other museums and sights I put on our Must-See list but didn't even get to.

I like to think that we'll be going back to New York with sharpened faculties, to better appreciate our home city.  Art galleries of Manhattan and Brooklyn, get ready to see us every other week again.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, you better dust up the study wing.  Brooklyn Museum, you will have two visitors at your inexplicably deserted Friday night soirees.  Queens....we will learn something about your museums, for once.  Justin Waldstein, you're on our calendar for August.  And all you other art makers and art venues in New York, beware, because we are emboldened and desperate for more!

Our Louvre flickr set, always a-growing.
Jenny Holzer, Xenon for Paris

Contest #1: Winner:  Anne:  Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Contest #2:  We are the winners, because we get to walk along it all the time:  La Promenade Plantée
Contest #3:  Winners:  Libya and Bridget:  le Musée des Arts et Métiers
Contest #4:  Winners:  Daniel and Stephanie:  Opéra Bastille

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Where's Karl? Contest #4

We have a winner!  Or, err, two.

Mystery Location #4: 

Clue #1: À Paris! à Paris, tous les deux! Nous vivrons à Paris!  We mentioned this place in an early blog post.  There!  Have at it!
Clue #2:  Those are song lyrics quoted above.  If you can figure out where they came from, you'll realize that there's only a limited number of venues in Paris where we might have heard it.  Now, have at it!

Winners:  Daniel and Stephanie
Answer: backstage at Opéra Bastille, Opéra National de Paris

We have two winners this week, because Daniel first correctly identified the Opéra National, then Stephanie specified Opéra Bastille as the correct opera house.  And, it occurs to us that perhaps we should have awarded two winners for the last contest, since our first answer (Libya) identified the building, while the second (Bridget) identified the museum to which the building belongs.  Can it be wrong to try to multiply the winners and multiply the joy???

A couple weekends ago, La Potiche got word that Opéra Bastille was putting on a program called "Opera For All," welcoming visitors to a free backstage tour!  There's only one thing La Potiche likes better than opera, and that's getting something for nothing, so we scuttled on over to the opera first thing Saturday morning for a 75-minute tour.  We had a delightful time looking at the sets and the big machines and going down into the bowels of the Opéra, and that's what we photographed.  The text is a little background on the Opéra and information we got on the tour.

set pieces for Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges
This is the history I've been able to glean from the Opéra National's web site and Wikipedia français:  the Académie royale de Musique, also known as l'Académie d’opéra or Opéra, was founded in 1669.  During the Revolution it became the Théâtre des Arts, then the Théâtre impérial de l'Opéra, then l’Opéra de Paris, moving, over the course of two centuries, in and out of thirteen different venues.  In 1858, after Napoleon III survived a bomb attack at one of these venues, Le Peletier, he commissioned a new opera house, Opéra Garnier.  In 1873, Le Peletier caught on fire and burned for two days.  (Cue synthesized organ music!)  Opéra de Paris opened in Opéra Garnier in 1875, joined with the Théâtre national de l’Opéra's Opéra Comique in 1939, to become La Réunion des théâtres lyriques nationaux, and dropped the Opéra Comique in 1978.  Finally, in 1982, François Mitterand decided he wanted a new opera house, moderne et populaire, and started soliciting architectural designs for the Opéra Bastille, which would be coupled with the Garnier as the Opéra national de Paris.  (Theater historians can feel free to correct me--I'm having a little trouble keeping it all straight.)

All this background is to prepare you for the narrative developed for us on the tour, which was that neither revolution, nor empire, nor bombings, nor fire, nor phantoms, was half so dramatic as what happened over the next thirty years with Opéra Bastille.  Six years of construction, changes of government and changes of heart when nobody, not even Mitterand himself, wanted to keep going with the project; strikes and snafus with conductors and the failure to figure out, in advance, how the orchestra of the Opéra Garnier was supposed to be able, under the rubric of the Opéra national, to play simultaneously in two theaters.   There were accidents, spectacular failures of the state-of-the-art stage equipment, and every kind of aesthetic compromise.

set for The Barber of Seville
But this disaster narrative was full of affection:  it is not easy, our tour guide suggested, to maintain the idealism of building a people's opera through the bureaucratic and material failures that accompany any major project--moreover, when your Opéra acts like a cute dog (or sea monster) with unpredictable behavioral problems.  The "democratique" public spaces of the galleries are democratic in the way of claustrophobic airport tunnels where everybody's pushing forward to the seats.  The "democratique" open-access ramps and stairs, intended to allow nosebleed seat-holders to take their seats as quickly and directly as the privileged orchestra-level visitors, turned out, after they'd been built, to violate both fire laws and later standards/notions of security, and were hastily refitted in such a way that, if you're a €5 ticket holder, as Le Prof and I were for Manon, you have to go up and down and up and down and ask three bartenders, a security guard, and a group of other lost, confused opera-goers why on earth your level eight seats are five floors up.  (But still, €5 seats?  Whoa.) Two years after the grand opening, the building began to fall apart; notably, when the exterior tiles began to fly off onto the sidewalk below, the Opéra began waging a sixteen-year lawsuit against the contractor for the replacement of the 36,000 tiles.  And down in the lobby--though the architect had stipulated that no artwork was ever to distract from the minimalism of his design--is the world's least minimalist sculpture, of which nobody on the Internets appears to have a photo. Imagine a steampunk contraption of gears and belts (which, incidentally, don't work) topped with a gigantic rainbow-painted, lumpy plaster statue of a naked Roseanne Barr, and you'll come close.

Architecture, opéra, sculpture....  At Opéra Bastille, all these arts are in a state of flux, being born, shifting, breaking down, and being taken down to the shop and fixed up again.  What better kind of People's Opéra, than an opera that's always a work in progress!

Contest #1: Winner:  Anne, and her correct answer!
Contest #2:  We are the winners, because we get to walk along it all the time.
Contest #3:  Winners:  Libya and Bridget, and the correct answer!
Contest #4:  Winners:  Daniel and Stephanie

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Where's Karl?" Contest #3: Solution

Well!  We never thought it would happen, but...a Gentle Reader has requested another contest! Thanks for reading, Bridget!

Some of you may have thought that Le Prof and La Potiche had eaten too much fromage and untimely expired.  Mais non!  We were busy planning and packing, then running around the city with friends, and finally departing with said friends for central France, the Dordogne and Lot river valleys, for a vacation.  Another vacation away from Paris!  We will show you pictures, once we've finished uploading all 3,000 of them, and sufficiently detoxed on steamed vegetables to be able to think of blog-length things to say about the Wonders of Périgord et Haut Quercy.  So.

Mystery Location #3: 

Clue #1:  It's an apse!  It's a plane!  It's...Karl!

Clue #2:  WYSIWYG.  If you just describe what you're seeing in a web search, you'll probably find the answer on the first page of hits.  Because that is the kind of nice people we are, and that's the kind of nice clue we write.  Have at it!

Answer:  the former priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, now part of le Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Crafts/Trades)
Winner:  Blibby, by a nose!  Blibby, who are you?  Are you somebody we know, posting under a Blogger name?  We had two correct answers this week, but Winnerdom goes to the first!  Thanks to Bridget, though, for providing me with a source to plagiarize for this blog post!

The Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers was founded in 1794 and its museum collection of machines, tools, and documents related to science and industry established in the Priory in 1802.  Under normal circumstances, Le Prof would've been all fired-up about the Priory, built around 1130-1140.  Under normal circumstances, La Potiche would have been all fired-up about Foucault's pendulum, though she has to admit that she remembers nothing about the Eco novel, which she read in 1997, except the resemblance of one scene to a scene in Northanger Abbey, and a feeling of dismay about her complete inability to understand HOW the pendulum demonstrates the rotation of the earth.  She stared and stared at the pendulum and the placard and understood NOTHING.

But it wasn't normal circumstances!  We were touring Paris with friends who were all fired-up about their discovery that the Musée hosts a demonstration of old automata every Wednesday.  Suddenly we, too, were all fired-up about automata, because we want to be like our friends, and we also want to be like the French.  The French have been fired-up about automata since Descartes and Jacques Offenbach.  There is a Musée des Automates in Paris--just automates, all the time!--that we'd visited the day before.  Le Prof had also just come back from a robots conference at Penn State; as a result, he has been going about saying, "I like robots," at every opportunity.  LIKE A ROBOT!  As for La Potiche, when she was little, she had not one, but two clown dolls whose heads spun around, and sometimes she still cries a little about missing Clownie and Clownie.

So we snagged 4 of the 40 available tickets and sat in on the demo and a very rapid, engaging, and somewhat technical 40-minute lecture, along with about twenty extremely quiet and interested children, ranging in age from about 6 to 11, and their attendant grownups.  Only one of them (the children, that is) spoke out of turn, but only because she was excited about the show.  The children were so attentive and intellectually engaged that we would suspect they were automata themselves, programmed to demonstrate the superiority of French yuppie parenting methods, except that none of them had monkey heads or dogs popping out of boxes in their groins.

The demo des automates took a lot out of us.  Or maybe it was the long march in the rain earlier that day to buy a gazillion euros' worth of sweetmeats (gentle readers, I bring bad news:  Pruneski has been discontinued.  Or something.  We couldn't quite grasp the blitz of français that thundered upon our heads when we inquired after the greatest candy in the world, except that the new version, with a slightly bitter raw walnut in it and no date, is nowhere near as good).  Or the fascinating visit to the Musée de la Vie Romantique for a show on 19th century theater, and out to Belleville for a grand couscous, and then back to Arts et Métiers to be BEWILDERED by Foucault's pendulum.

At any rate, after marveling at the airplane in the apse, and marveling at the steam-powered bat plane (above.  Really!  Avion III of Clément Ader, called "Chauve-souris," or "Bat"), and the History of Bicycles bike rack with the wooden bike in it, and the human-sized early model for the Statue of Liberty, we each downed a coffee, and two of us slunk home to do laundry and get ready for the (unbeknownst to us) seven-hour journey to the Dordogne the next day.  But the awesome things we saw that day have convinced us that a second visit to the museum is in order.  It goes without saying that somebody who named both her clown dolls Clownie is never going to understand the pendulum, but maybe she can catch a breeze in the Chauve-souris!

Thanks to our participants!  We'll have another contest ready for you, like, tomorrow or Thursday or something, maybe.
Contest #3:  Winner, Blibby.
Contest #1: Winner, Anne. Link to the answer!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Where's Karl? Contest #2

Here's the answer to the second installment of the Le Prof et La Potiche Blog "Where's Karl?" Contest!

Where Is He?
Clue #1: He's just strolled along a road strongly associated, oddly enough, with the Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris. But what intersection is he overlooking now? And how did he get there?

Clue #2: Our path has led us along the decommissioned Vincennes railway line....

Answer: La Promenade Plantée
Winner: Nobody :(

Here's Karl, on the Promenade Plantée, or Coulée Verte, at the intersection of Rue Jacques Hillairet (Hillairet was author of the Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris), Rue Montgallet, and Rue de Charenton. We're just past the Jardin de Reuilly, walking westward along the Promenade.

The Promenade Plantée is an elevated park in the 12th arrondissement, built on the abandoned Vincennes railway line and opened in 1993. It was the High Line before there was a High Line! And I know that recently, some of you have looked online at an image comparing the two parks from Vahram Muratyan's book, Paris vs. New York: A Tally of Two Cities, because you sent me links to it! The Promenade includes 4.7 km of pedestrian and bike paths, running from the Bois de Vincennes under the Périphérique beltway, over the Viaduc des Arts to Bastille. It is a gorgeous park, and a gorgeous use of what had been decaying urban industrial space, and a wonderful peek into the backs of outer-arrondissement Parisians' apartments.

We took the métro out to Porte Dorée,
then Vélibed through this garden here.

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look.

Then we rode through tunnels.
Wheeeeeeee! The next tunnel contained a prehistoric-looking grotto. A French park is not a French park without a grotto. Prehistoric is also fashionable.

Shortly thereafter, we had to abandon our bikes, because the bike lane ended. Clearly, the park planners knew we'd be so staggered by the prehistoric grotto that we'd no longer be able to balance on wheels.

We entered the Jardin de Reuilly, which advertised the proximity of an old castle that the Merovingian kings (mid-5th century to March, 752) once frequented. Karl was VERY excited! You don't get to see a lot of Merovingian stuff in the U.S. You don't even see a lot of Merovingian stuff in France.

But this was the only sight that even began to resemble a Merovingian castle. They say that people were smaller in those days. But who are "they," anyway?

We approached, and passed through, the Mystery spot. Then we descended to visit the Marché Aligré, the first street market we've visited where the vendors were loudly hawking their wares (strawberries and fish were the big items) in at least two different languages. We bought merguez-frites (which are merguez and french fries stuffed into a baguette) and went back up through a bamboo garden to sit on the Promenade and eat our lunch.

Here, I am marveling over the fact that this thing is nearly three miles long, and absolutely gorgeous, and nobody ever told me on any of my previous Paris visits that I ought to see it!

So. Are the clues not helpful enough? Do we need to be more specific? Or is it just more fun to sit back and wait for the pictures to roll out?

Contest #1: Winner, Anne. Link to the answer!