Saturday, August 16, 2003

Once in awhile I come across a restaurant I want to like so badly. It probably comes from knowing first hand how difficult it can be in the restaurant business, so this urge may come from a particularly sympathetic proprietor who makes me feel immediately welcome, extremely attentive or knowledgeable staff who go that extra mile, or an inviting dining room that exudes "love" upon entering. L'A.O.C. is all of these things.

It was July and I'd made a trip specifically to the Sorbonne to obtain registration details. With my luck I arrived at the administrative offices just minutes after they had closed for their standard two hour lunch break. At the time I didn't know the area at all so I headed back in the direction from which I had come where earlier I had passed this charming little restaurant. I had even stopped in to inquire about the menu and whether reservations were necessary as if I knew I'd need a lunch spot shortly. The gentleman at the door greeted me warmly and patiently answered all my questions. Normally not one to fall for establishments whose entrances are plastered with qualifying stickers, I did note them all-- Saveur, Guide to Best Restaurants, Bistros in Paris 2003, NOVA, Lebey, Le Petit Lebey, and Le Pudlo France to name but a few. There was also a copy of a favourable review in Le Monde, but it was in French and given that I was here to brush up on my rusty French I wouldn't put too much stock in this last comment of mine.

The menu was a la carte with some daily specials noted on a chalk board brought to my table. I started with Tarte fine aux Sardines confites at 9e followed by the proprietor's recommendation, L'assiette du rotisseur at 15e. I had specifically asked about the house speciality and advised to sample the rotisseur. The presentation of the entree showed great promise; a pretty dish composed of a puff pastry base filled with a diced celery salad topped with marinated sardine fillets. Even the idea of puff pastry and the texture of the diced celery salad suggested a promising backdrop for the sardines. But it was not to be the case. The puff pastry was over baked and the result a little tough. The celery salad was very nice and refreshing but it could have used a bit of salt and this is coming from someone who rarely adds it at the table. As to the sardines, they were very fleshy and so strongly flavoured they almost had a bite to them. Normally I love sardines but I found these overpowering. No quantity of water or bread washed away the taste that all I could do was hope for the main course to do the job.

The main was a huge American-size portion of roasted meat on roasted potatoes and garlic served with a light jus. This would have been a great choice if one was on the Atkins diet- chicken breast, wing and leg in addition to perfectly roasted and sliced pork tenderloin. The dish was simply seasoned with just parsley, black pepper and laurel. It was really very good though not particularly inventive or anything to rave on about. But it did do the job of washing away the sardines.

After a rest I went the full nine yards and ordered dessert. After all, I did have two hours to kill before the Sorbonne would re-open. If ever Tarte Tatin is on the menu there's a good chance I'll choose that over all other desserts at least in France. At 6e50 it was as good as any I'd ever had. Perfectly caramelized fruit served with an equally perfect dollop of heavy cream. The crust was a bit soggy but I've never understood how to retain the crisp crust once the dessert has been inverted following the classic recipe. As sad as it was to let good dessert go to waste I couldn't finish what was a very generous serving.

For a restaurant which seemed to hold so much promise the overall food experience was disappointing to average. At over 30e for a 3-course lunch (without wine) one expects and should find better. I inquired about dinner and was told the menu was the same as at lunch giving no compelling reason to try dinner.

Post notes: I happened across Patricia Wells' review of same since my visit to l'A.O.C. Not that I always share her opinion of restaurants but she also found her experience disappointing. I wanted so badly to love this place; even the toilets were lovingly decorated! In France this can be rare in even some of the best restaurants. I remember thinking the toilet facilities at the then 3-star Tour d'Argent felt more like a fancy outhouse.

14, rue des Fosses St Bernard 75005, tel 01.4354.2252. Closed Sun & Mon


Nicolas is a chain of wine stores found throughout England, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and France. It's not Berry Brothers & Rudd in London but then that's not where most of us go to buy everyday or even occasional drinking wine. Nicolas is an average wine store selling decent vines. Some of their stores have a wine bar and restaurant attached to them. The menu is the same whether at lunch or dinner with about a dozen or so selections priced around 10e or less. I'm told the menu changes monthly. The one in the 12th is particularly pleasant located in a small outside pedestrian shopping area (M: Cour St Emilion, line 14). There's also one near where I'm staying in the 6th.

Over two visits I've tried a few dishes on their current menu. One evening during the height of the canicule, a friend and I shared an assorted cold plate to start. It even came with a side of salad and was about all I had the appetite to eat given the heat. But we both followed this with chicken in a morel cream sauce served on rice. It was very good; my appetite would have appreciated it even more had it not been so hot that Sunday evening. We both agreed we'd had better Chablis than the bottle he had ordered. At Nicolas I think one can do just as well ordering whatever is available by the glass at a couple or few euros a pop.

The other night I returned for dinner with a classmate but at the Nicolas around the corner from me. No entree this time but my sliced smoked dust breast and duck confit on a bed of lentils left me very happy at about 10e. My friend had the gratin of vollaile, a baked dish in a cream base. I'm told vollaile is not necessarily chicken but that it could be any type of poultry. In any case she enjoyed it. Then I convinced her to have Tarte Tatin which she had never tried before. It was around 6e but a pretty poor version of one. I wish I would have known better and had skipped dessert altogether; to me no dessert is always better than a bad dessert. But all in all Nicolas is decent food at a decent price. You can get away with a single course lunch at 10-15e with either a glass of wine or a beverage. With table service that's a bon marche at lunch. It's even an acceptable place for dinner but the problem there is that there are so many more interesting restaurants to try in Paris but only so many meals in a day.

Coordinates: No reservations. Check for a Nicolas near you.
Chai 24 Cour St Emilion 75012 tel 01.4340.1211. Mo-Su 10-22h
rue Clement local 34/35 75006 tel 01.4326.2844


Friday was a statutory holiday in France but a friend called me at 9 AM while I was still deep in REM sleep to see if I wanted to go out. We met up for lunch at the Arab Institute seeing as he is vegetarian he'd at least have an option beyond some uninteresting boiled vegetables. Service at the cafe was nearly as bad as my last visit. After lunch we took in a view of Paris from the 9th fl of the Arab Institute with an especially interesting view of Notre Dame's back side, a comment your average girl wouldn't particularly appreciate. The Georges Pompidou was an urban blight in an otherwise pleasant vista. Overall, it wasn't quite as stunning as from Notre Dame, but the consolation was that the view was free.

We had one of those days with no particular itinerary in mind. We walked from lunch to nearby Jardin des Plantes which I concluded was my least favourite Paris garden. Jardin de Luxembourg is much closer to my heart-- beautiful yet approachable, expansive yet intimate, and all just a few minutes walk away. I shared these sentiments with Anshuman who countered, "yes, but have you been to Bois de Bologne?" I had not but I knew well enough that that is a little like sharing champagne with a friend only for him to say, but La Grande Dame or Kristal is much better. Seizing the opportunity I suggested we go to Bois de Bologne; but unfortunately, it was already late afternoon. We thought about a plan B and decided on Montmatre and Sacre Coeur. I hadn't been back in nearly 10 years. It seemed different than the first time with my sister Selena-- less mystical, more "tourist-y", more littered; overall, less captivating than I remembered. Or maybe the intervening years of travel had spoiled me.

One thing mesmerized me though. In a plethora of mediocre artists who will do your charcoal portrait for 50 euros, there was one very talented Chinese man. I stood and watched him sketch a stunning and accurate portrayal of his subject, a rather ordinary-looking young woman. It was all in the way he drew the eyes; they seemed so real they possessed life on paper. I would have loved for an opportunity to talk with him as I'm sure he had an interesting story to relate about his passage from China to France or about his formation as an artist. At the same time I could stun him with my paltry Mandarin. But another subject was eagerly awaiting her turn, and for him, another 50 euros. Maybe I'll go back to look for him another day.

On Thursday I received the results of the last dictee exam: 5.5 out of 10. It was cause for a micro celebration given that my two previous scores had been "1" as in the single digit number after "0", followed by a much improved "3.5". Even though my test scores were progressing in the right direction this was still discouraging to someone with higher academic standards than just getting by. I wasn't alone in my sentiments. A classmate lamented that she had expected and achieved no less than "80" through med school yet here she was flunking through French. We commiserated over glasses of wine at my place then dinner at Nicolas.

While scanning headlines during a typical weekend morning ritual, UPI reported how proud Prince Charles was with Harry's Grade B in art and a Grade D in geography. It's been a few years since I graduated from high school but I'm pretty certain a "D" is still a failing grade however you interpret it whether you're of the bourgeois class or of royal pedigree. What I do know is if I'd have ever brought home a "D" at Harry's age my mom would have berated me in a way far more painful than any imagined lashing, whipping, or belting. So I may not be achieving my own standards at the Sorbonne, but I could take small comfort I was exceeding royal ones.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Occasionally I ask myself this usually after a particularly mind-numbing class of what I call pronominal gymnastics, or after receiving yet another failing test score, or during the midst of the insufferable and unrelenting heat and humidity the French call "la canicule". At a certain temperature the brain goes on standby until more favourable conditions prevail.

Despite the less than ideal weather I have had some exciting breakthroughs in French. I am just starting to appreciate the nuances, beauty, and rhythm of French. It is truly exciting, but more importantly, encouraging. We read a poem from Victor Hugo's Les Contemplations, Demain, des l'aubes; heart-moving and gut-wrenching. Some writing cannot be translated into another language while maintaining its original essence, intention, and meaning. And of the fortunate works which can be nothing compares to experiencing the written word in its original form despite the best translations.

Learning another language well enough is like a photographer being able to step forward or back to get another vantage point. Sometimes the step is oh, so tiny, but it completely changes the field of vision.

Temperatures reached well into the 100's Fahrenheit. So many people died during "la canicule" that the morgue started running out of room to hold all the corpses. Imagine all this in a city where AC and bathing are rare.

After class one day a tourist passed out across from us on the other side of the pedestrian light most likely from dehydration. The cafe terraces, one of Paris' great pastimes, were empty. On TV one night a man demonstrated how hot it was by frying an egg on the sidewalk. Possibly it was, but who would eat that egg, so what was the point of his demo? I continually craved olives or anything salty and sprinkled Fleur de Sel on nearly everything I ate.

Canicule post note: The mounting deaths from the canicule have created a political crisis in France. The total is now a staggering 10,000 or so from what I understand.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

No matter how you cut it Versailles is a full day excursion. We started out from the 6th near my apartment to take the metro and then RER. Fortunately we had confirmed the how-to's of getting there at the metro station and learned that we would have to re-route through Javel instead of St. Michel to the RER. The journey took about an hour by the time we reached the gates of Chateau Versailles including a short 10 min walk from the RER station.

I've visited many places so enormous that the magnitude of its' conception, execution, and completion renders them incomprehensible. Chateau Versailles is such a place. The Russian friend accompanying me said if she didn't know any better she would have thought she was at the Hermitage in St. Petersberg. But the difference being the Hermitage is Versailles and the Louvre rolled into one, something which I would find "incroyable." In the handful of visits I've made to the Louvre over the years, I still remain overwhelmed navigating my way around. Last Sunday a friend took me on a pre-dinner stroll through the Egyptian antiquities wing but that was barely a dent in the Louvre. It's safe to assume I'm still nowhere close to having covered the entire museum even after a handful of visits over the years.

But getting back to Versailles...The visit wouldn't have felt so daunting if the place had been better organized. Although line-ups are expected on a Saturday, there is no reason why there has to be so much confusion as to which line and for what. Naturally, we lined up in the longest one which snaked a good block or two only to discover it was not the one we wanted! It's a little like entering a full restaurant on the assumption that everyone already seated knows that the food is good.

Versailles took three kings to complete with each one outdoing the work of the prior. It became the official residence of the Court of France in 1682 supplanting the Louvre and Chateau St. Germain-en-Laye. Versailles is basically the Chateau, the Trianon & Petit Trianon, and massive gardens. There is even a proper order for viewing the gardens which was almost decreed by the King, but I don’t think it really matters how you decide to tackle it. It’s still a sight to behold at every turn. After a seven hour day at Versailles, I can't say it warrants subsequent visits (unlike the Louvre) but a picnic lunch on the grounds would be nice or a stroll about on a lazy afternoon. But my one beef, why don't they just raise the ticket prices by 40 centiemes and eliminate the cost of using the toilet? With separate entrance fees for every part of Versailles, it nearly adds up to the price of dinner in a nice brasserie. Another few cents to cover the toilets wouldn't make any difference.

By the way, St. Germain-en-Laye, a "hoity-toity" suburb about 30 minutes west of Paris is a nice day or half-day trip. It offers lovely shops for browsing and offers some decent dining options. On Sunday there is a farmer’s market which even operates in the deader than dead month of August when nearly everything else in Paris is closed. And of course, if you’re into chateaux, there is the one at St. Germain-en-Laye, Versailles’ predecessor, which offers a lovely vista of Paris at the same time.

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