Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


Balancing Travel – Part 4 – Valencia

Hola, Valencia!

I arrived in Valencia by train from Alicante. I spent five days there — the longest at any destination during my two weeks in Spain. I stayed at Valencia Mindfulness Retreat, a bed and breakfast in the historic heart of the city. The B&B itself was a highlight with its charm, architectural details, style, and friendly hosts.  As a solo traveler, I liked the daily family-style breakfasts with diverse guests — Dutch, Italian, and British (while I was there). I loved being the only American guest!  Valencia Mindfulness Retreat is in easy walking or cycling distance of most sights. Yoga and meditation were available; I did both. My days in Valencia were a balance of leisure and exploration.

I visited popular sites in Valencia, like:

  • Basilica of Our Lady of the Forsaken – The Basilica flanked Plaza de Virgen, where people hung out, strolled around, or rode through on bikes.
  • Mercat Central – This market was almost overwhelming. Hams were hung like clothes on a rack; and there was a massive variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish for sale. You could also order paella and other food-to-go. I noticed that in Spanish markets the meat might have an anatomical attachment that you won’t see in the typical U.S. supermarket –  like a head, hoof, or feet…or, maybe only the head will be in the meat case… or, you might see the entire defrocked animal.  All options are there!
  • La Lonja de la Seda – This UNESCO World Heritage Site housed the Silk Exchange in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s a magnificent structure near Mercat Central. I put my camera on zoom to see the building’s architectural detail, and saw freaky gargoyles. I did a double-take, like…is that what I think it is? (By the way, gargoyles have a purpose other than warding off bad spirits, such as diverting water from a building – like a gutter. Well, that’s certainly one explanation for that appendage!)
  • City of Arts and Sciences – The science complex was architecturally fabulous — designed by Santiago Calatrava — and includes an Oceanografico (aquarium) and IMAX cinema. The interactive exhibits at the Principe Felipe Museum of Science were just so-so, but it’s probably a good museum for families and children.
  • Jardins del Turia (Turia Gardens) – This extensive park has athletic fields, bike and walking paths, and gardens. Turia Gardens is an awesome place to be active and outdoors in the city. This was the original site of the Turia River. The river flooded Valencia in the 1950s; so, like a biblical punishment, the city diverted the river; and converted the dry riverbed into a recreational park. (Poor river! I never did see where it was banished.)
  • Beach – It was a nice, long bike ride to the beach, which was very broad with smooth sand for days, and framed by mountains. It was mid-May and early in the season, and warm enough to bask on the beach awhile without the crowds. Loved it!

I found less touristy spots, like:

  • Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia.  The star here was not the art, dominated by Madonnas and cherubim. The real star was the elegant museum cafe where I was seated outdoors in the courtyard. I had a wonderful salt-encrusted dorade (a Mediterranean fish) with roasted vegetables. The meal and wine were served with all the flair of a fine dining establishment for less than 25 euros. When the server brought the fish out, I thought there was no way I could eat the entire fish. But, when he gently pounded the salt casing to release the succulent flesh, and filleted it and arrayed it on the plate, the portion looked very manageable. It was literally head and tail above any other museum cafe food I’ve ever had.
  • Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM) – I loved this museum where I discovered Valencian artist, Miquel Navarro. IVAM has a permanent collection of his sculptures and watercolors. The museum pamphlet describes his work as “a true symbiosis between body and architecture. Warriors, phallic symbols and totems transform their selves into bridges and fountains. Buildings, as well as cities, have organic similarities with the human body.” It was fascinating and I certainly couldn’t miss the phallic symbols; they were everywhere in his collection.
  • Museu d’Historia de Valencia – The museum used to be a water supply station. The art and Valencian history were creatively displayed.
  • L’Almoina Valencia – There, I viewed Roman and Arab archaeological excavations through a glass floor. It was unusual to see the history of Valencia in this way. Very cool!

I did other things, too, like:

  • Explored the historic quarter on foot, and helped a guy cook paella on the street.
  • Rented a bike.
  • Hung out at outdoor cafes with gelato, tea, or a glass of wine.
  • Photographed murals and graffiti that were everywhere — on construction barriers, shop doors, garage doors…. It was here that I fell in love with graffiti and street art, and now have hundreds of photos.

Another highlight was “The OMG! Meal” I had at an organic / local food restaurant I found called Kiaora Biocucina. Chef Yelel Canas graciously prepared my fish selection on the prix fixe menu, gluten-free. I had the kind of attentive service and multiple courses that I didn’t expect there. Kiaora was an unpretentious little spot, whose decor featured a large mural of a green mountain and a speck view of the chef’s family farm. Chef Canas is proud of his food philosophy, and local cuisine, and is happy to talk with patrons about his culinary creations. Amazing and delicious! (Update:  Chef Canas has left Valencia and will be opening a restaurant in Barcelona in Spring 2015. I will find him again. Bet on it!)

Valencia was all good. I had my poorest showing in communicating with people here because the people favored the local language, Valencian (a Catalan dialect), over Spanish. It wasn’t that much of an obstacle at restaurants or getting around, though. I’d return in a heartbeat and stay at the same place.  There is more of the city to  explore — my only regret is that I missed the Sunday flea market.  Next time!

Logo bigger final

Next:  Balancing Travel  – Part 5 – Alicante