That Paris Effect

Eiffel Tower

The moment I disembark at Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris, something starts to happen. It’s an odd sensation, kind of like that moment when the Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne I’ve been knocking back begins tickling the backside of my eyeballs. At first it’s barely perceptible. Then it begins to bubble up as I watch the people in the airport, on the bus to Place d’Étoile, on the walk to the apartment we rent on Rue Balzac. But it doesn’t hit its effervescent climax until The One and I are sitting in a bistro tucked away somewhere on the Left Bank, watching Parisian life flit by.

The One at Place de L'Étoile
The One admiring the Arc de Triomphe at Place de L’Étoile

I call it That Paris Effect (TPE). Some ill-informed doctors would call it psychosis. As I eye incredibly dressed, impeccably poised Parisians–you can easily tell tourists from locals come July–I begin a mental morphing process. Walking along the rues, boulevards, and quais that first day, I sense my posture improving, my spine elongating, and–pop!–I lose my dowager hump.

By the time we’ve hit the Luxembourg Gardens, I’ve dropped 50 pounds, followed by 50 more at the Place de la Concorde. My thighs, once as large as Parisian chimneys, become as thin as drain pipes; this coincides with an instinctual need to buy a gray sharkskin suit with stovepipe pants and the pointiest shoes I can squeeze my size 13 feet into. (Although for some reason my feet never shrink.)

Luxembourg Gardens
The Luxembourg Palace at the Luxembourg Gardens

By le quatrième heure, the transformation is complete. My spoken French–which, when I’m stateside, is a cobbled-together mess of nothing but present tense verbs, the propositions “de” and “à,” and the phrase “pas de problème“–turns fluent. Chic saleswomen in Saint Germain des Prés wearing Dior and Christian Louboutin marvel at my accent–actually my lack of one–when they discover I’m American. This situation will last only a few more weeks, I think, before the French government gets the intercontinental memo that I’m in the country and bestows upon me the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal plus French citizenship.

The only snag: I can’t look at myself in mirrors, shop windows, chrome fenders, or The One’s sunglasses. Otherwise my true size intrudes, the fantasy crumples, and I’m just another gros Américain. Oh, reality, thy sword is sharp.

Once in utter denial of my clomping American frame, I move leopard-like through the city, cheeks sucked in, eyes half-lidded, on my face an am-I-not-incroyable? look. And it’s only then that I can enjoy all the comestibles a Parisian eats–bloody steaks, bushels of pommes frites, foie gras (yup, I still lap it up), croissants, tartelettes, and chocolates–and never, ever gain a pound. For real Frenchmen don’t get fat. Ever. That’s the best benefit of TPE.

Mini Quiche Lorraine
Mini quiche Lorraine from the Rue Poncelet market

And that’s when The One and I attack our hit list. The first place we always descend upon is the Rue Poncelet market. It’s a short stretch of street lined with fruit and vegetable stores, cheese and fish mongers, chocolate shops that sell only items that are bio (read: organic), charcuterie and rotisserie storefronts, butchers, bistros, patisseries, and just about everything else you could possibly want. We stock up on groceries (about 100 euros for four meals), one of which we had the pleasure of sharing with the charming Jamie Schler as our guest.

Poncelet Market Fare
Tarts of all kinds, Coeur de Boeuf tomatoes, and Comté cheese

Also on our list was a 9 p.m. reservation at Bistro Paul Bert, a tradition for birthdays and anniversaries these past three years. The manager, a tall, strikingly handsome man who just exuded indigenous TPE (which is far stronger that the summoned kind), chided us for being not even 15 minutes late. Unaware of what lurked beneath my oafish American exterior, I shot back my own brew of TPE, and he actually backed off and apologized.

Paul Bert Menu
Paul Bert’s menu

The flat-out old-school bistro was still very good, but not as spectacular as on our anniversary last year. Local friends had advised us in recent weeks to avoid the place during the height of tourist season. We should have listened.

Tartelette de Chocolate Noir
A tartelette de chocolate noir from Paul

Paul, a chain of rather good patisserie-boulangeries, is our fallback for gourmandises and chocolate tarts (which we eat for breakfast, a French faux pas) and for that I have no shame. It’s close, they know us, and they never tire of our questions. But Alisa Morov of Sweet Pea Baking in Paris challenged me on Twitter to visit Gérard Mulot, a superb patisserie in the 7th arrondissement. (Eat at a marvelous pastry shop as a challenge? Please.) I had heard of his place, but never had a chance to delight in his delights, so his tartelette de chocolat noir was in my crosshairs. The One and I have re-added going to his shop to our bucket lists–it was that sensational.

Tartelette de Chocolate Noir from Gerard Mulot
A tartelette de chocolate noir from Gérard Mulot–the clear winner

La Dorie gave us a short list of must-eats, all of which were impossible to get into. Le Pantruche, a tiny place near Pigalle, was one spot she and her husband, Michael, visited twice in but a few days–high praise from the Priestess of the Prés. After calling from the States for two weeks and getting an answering machine with a message in the most machine-gun-fast French I’ve ever heard, we simply showed up for dinner one night. The waiter, Edward, who clearly has a crush on La Dorie (he lit up when I mentioned her) didn’t emit even the merest Geiger-counter hint of TPE, so I toned mine way down. He was gracious and patient as I fumbled with my iPhone and The One with his Blackberry to secure a lunch reservation.

Roast Chicken from Le Pantruche
Roast chicken on top of shredded vegetables and pickled Savoy cabbage at Le Pantruche

The next day we sauntered in only a few minutes late, and Edward excused himself from a table and shook my hand and clapped The One on the back. (He may do that to all his guests, but if he does, I don’t want to know. I felt special.) The meal was deceptively simple, with clean flavors and beautiful presentation. We had a vichyssoise with a dollop of brandade (a creamy, lovely mess of salt cod and mashed potato). For my plat, I had roast chicken over shredded vegetables and pickled Savoy cabbage. The One had a gorgeous fan of seared veal atop a puree of  pea and potato. He stunned me by getting the Grand Mariner soufflé–with a small pitcher of salted caramel sauce, thank you very much–instead of his usual fix of anything chocolate. I ordered the chocolate gelato sitting in a puddle of chilled and thick mint crème anglaise. In the Game of Thrones, Dessert Edition, I won this battle.

Chocolate Gelato in a Mint Crème Anglaise
Chocolate gelato in a mint crème anglaise at Le Pantruche

The rest of our dining was spent either gathered around the tiny coffee table in our living room eating our Rue Poncelet booty or grabbing a quick bite on the go at some not-worth-mentioning brasseries. (Okay, St. Regis on Île Saint-Louis.) Apparently, TPE made me less hungry because I actually–please make sure you’re seated or holding on to a heavy stationary object like a fire hydrant or door frame–skipped two meals. I KNOW! I thought the same thing.

I closed out our week in Paris with a must-do, must-eat, must-gawk Sugar Walk led by Bryan Pirolli and hosted by La Cuisine Paris. Bryan led us through the Marais district, stopping at more than a dozen sweet spots, of which I availed myself most heartily. One surprise I was moved to discover: Comme à Lisbonne. This tiny sliver of a shop serves only pastéis de nata–those amazing custard tarts from Confeitaria de Belém–that are so exciting, they’re considered a sexual aid in Lisbon. And I can safely say, after having eaten these tiny wonders in five countries, these are the best outside of Belém. Period. Go. Now.

Treats from Paris Sugar Walk
Monstrously good sweets from La Cuisine Paris’s Sugar Walk

It seems as if TPE isn’t limited to me. Renee was surprised by her husband, E, who gave her a trip somewhere in the world to celebrate her birthday–and only when she saw the airport gate blinking PARIS CHARLES DE GAULLE did she find out where he was taking her. Four days later, The One and I were boarding the same flight for the 22nd anniversary of my 30th birthday. So Renee and E came to our apartment for drinks before dinner one evening, and she was gorgeous. Slim, petite, with cheekbones one could mistake for plums, Renee is often mistaken for a Parisienne, even without TPE. But that night she was TPE². She had on her pair of Cinderella shoes–so chic, so elegant, so French. I felt my own illusion wobble a bit.

Paris Roofs
The view from our balcony

But I knocked back another glass of Nicolas Feuillatte and asked, “Would you like to see the view from the balcony?” Nothing like a sunset over the roofs of Paris to steady the psyche.

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Comments

  1. Hi David,

    I love your blog! We communicated about the cataplana from Meste Ze in my quest to replicate it! You sent me a recipe for bread from Alentejo, and I must dig it up as I have bought myself a pizza stone.

    I will try these places when I go with my son to Paris for Christmas! Dying to have Pasteis Belem outside of Lisbon….so we will definitely try Comme a Lisbonne! (Sorry, no accents on my netbook keyboard).

    The other places I love in Paris are the Algerian restaurants!

    Counting down the days – 45 days to Christmas!

    Betty

    1. Hello Betty, thank you for your kind thoughts! I wish you and your son a wonderful Christmas season and trip to Paris. Take some photos for us and keep us posted.

  2. You are not alone being misty eyed after reading Sumara’s comment. You can only have one “first time” experience in Paris. And, if it is a good one, it’s magical.

  3. Hi David,

    I read your email a couple of months ago and it stuck in my mind because I always wanted to come to Paris (I am here right now), yay!!! My darling husband asked me casually what would I like for our first wedding anniversary (Sept 2nd)? I said, a trip to Paris. He said, “Not a diamond?” I said, “Mo, an experience of a lifetime, that’s what I want.” I made him read this article. So, he really did surprise me and booked our tickets. After the long journey from Chicago, delayed flights, we finally made it to Paris at midnight on a Saturday. To our astonishment, the international airport was closed until 6 am because everything shuts down here on Sundays. Our hotel is great in Bastille area. Once I had a good day rest, the rest is history.

    This is a beautiful city, the people are nice and friendly (not rude as many Americans believe), the food astounding, the TPE is keeping me afloat. I haven’t walked or eaten as much in my life as I have here in the past six days. The bread is amazing and the butter even more amazing. Berthillon ice creams are delicious. Upon your recommendation, we went to Gerard Mulot for a chocolate noir tart, I loved it. I must send you a picture soon. The two hour walk from Luxembourg garden was worth it, lol.
    My husband hates driving here but loves the atmosphere, the relaxed feeling people have, nobody is rushing to be somewhere. The cafes are always full and lively, people talk to each other, I have not seen one single cellphone.

    After we celebrate our anniversary, our visit is soon coming to an end but the memory will always stay with me. Thanks for your recommendation and the lovely article, it really made it definite for me to be here.

    1. Now that I’ve stopped crying, I can write more clearly. Thank you, Sumara, for allowing me to be even a tiny part of your first anniversary. So many writers and bloggers put their lives and experiences out there, and it’s not often we hear that it’s made a difference in someone’s life. But to know that your trip to Paris, to the Luxembourg Gardens, and to Guy Mulot were partly because of my blog post is the best gift you could give me on your anniversary. And now it’s your job to pay it forward. Renee, our editor-in-chief, was the person who told me that I had to go to the gardens. (Strange because I’ve been to Paris countless times, and I never went.) And it was Alisa Morov of SweetPeaParis who told me about Guy Mulot. Next it will be you telling friends where to go, passing on some of what you got from us and adding some of what you discovered on your own.

      I wish you and your husband a wonderful anniversary. I can’t wait to see what you do next year!

  4. Hi David

    About your accent, or lack thereof, I’ve often wondered why Americans are expected to speak French and other languages with a total lack of American accent (and ridiculed when they do not), but when the French speak English with a French accent it is “charming.”

    I don’t imagine I could stay long in Paris without ruining my health – wouldn’t even eat food, just bread and pastries.

    1. Well, Jean, I only wish my accent was nonexistent, but it’s only a fantasy. I kind of get in the rhythm after a while, but I think my old French teacher from college would blanch.

      Only bread and pastries, Jean? What a lovely path to hell to walk down.

  5. Sounds very grand indeed. so glad you found Gerard Mulot. You can get breakfast of a sort there starting from 6:30 am. Sooo much better than industrial PAUL. Evidently one has to go to Rue Poncelet for quiche Lorraine since I didn’t see any in Nancy…

    1. parisbreakfast, Je suis d’accord. PAUL has fallen to a last-minute, got-to-bring-some-food-on-the-TGV kind of place. It just was the first place we ate it when we started renting the apartment, so it has a special place. But…Guy Mulot is definitely on our list for each and every trip moving forward.

      What is its “breakfast of a sort”?

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