Parisian Restaurants

Finding good restaurants in the French capital is like in any other big city in the world.  There are tourist traps as well as real finds in every district.  To get a start uncovering places we enjoy, we proceed like when we’re at home: we check out Chowhound and other online discussion boards about food.  A new one to us, called appropriately La Fourchette (“the fork”), gives recommendations and allows you to reserve on its site.  Afterwards, you are asked for an honest evaluation of the restaurant.  A longtime favorite of ours is a book entitled Le Guide du Routard which classifies different eating establishments—and hotels as well—from the very cheapest to the most expensive by arrondissement.  We usually find that choosing one level up from the cheapest suits us best.  Over all, we have eaten pretty well near home by consulting and comparing these different sources.

A typical bistro a short walk away from here is Le Petit Baigneur.  Charming with its red and white checkered tablecloths and its nostalgic posters and signs filling the walls, this restaurant serves classic French appetizers like herring or terrine.  Its main dishes include rabbit, quail, bœuf bourguignon, and hachis parmentier (“shepherd’s pie),” which are usually accompanied by mashed potatoes and a bit of salad.  Nothing fancy, mind you, just good solid food at very reasonable prices.

Another favorite of ours, which we’ve visited three times since January, is called La Table de Bezout—Bezout being its street named for a mathematician.  The touch of Asian fusion from the two chefs, sisters from Hong Kong, adds interest to traditional bistro offerings.  The steak frites, for example, comes with a soy sauce/green onion mixture on the side.  Likewise, a tuna tartare appetizer was served with toasts and a lemony Asian dipping sauce–just fantastic.  Their desserts, too, are French with a twist.  The delicious crème brûlée comes in a variety of ways, depending on the day, including with pistachio ice cream on the side.

In my opinion, the best all-around restaurant we’ve been to was Le Cornichon just last week.  I’m not alone in my judgment: I just read that last year it received the Prix Lebey for best bistro in Paris.  Since “pickle” is its name, the modern décor contains several paintings, photographs, and drawings of pickles!  No pickles in the food, though, to my knowledge.  The amuse-bouche when we were there was an accras de morue.  Hard to explain but it’s kind of a hushpuppy made of salt cod.  Trust me on this one: it was really good!  The soup that night was also different; it was made of nettles and escargots.  I can hear you saying: “What in the world are those people eating over there?”  Again, believe me, it was terrific.  The waiter and I agreed, though, that we didn’t know nettles were edible.  Husband tried the eggplant/frogs leg appetizer, which was also quite good.  Our main dishes were bacon and pork jowls for one of us (guess who?) and rabbit in a delicate lemon sauce for the other.  Desserts were very good: a brownie (of all things!) with ice cream and cognac and a whipped cream with fresh strawberries and candy-coated nuts.  Quite a bargain for such a creative meal at 34 euros apiece.

We'll be home in a couple of weeks and plan on doing much more "restaurant research"for readers of this blog, of course!

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Monet's Giverny

Ask nearly anyone who has spent this winter and spring in France and they will tell you that it’s been unusually cold.  In fact, now in mid-May—even if we have abandoned our winter coats—we’re still putting on several layers of clothes before going out.  If there is a plus side to the cool temperatures, it’s that nearly all the spring flowers have bloomed at once.  Not so good for allergy sufferers, granted.  But on a recent trip to Claude Monet’s home at Giverny northwest of Paris we were able to admire the garden as we’ve never seen it before.

Art lovers are probably aware that four years after Monet’s wife Camille died, the Impressionist artist noticed a peaceable area in Normandy from a train window.  Just outside of the town of Vernon, he found and eventually purchased a property containing a two-story house and two acres of land.  Monet lived in Giverny for the rest of his life, taking joy in painting, planting, and tending to his flowers, including the famous water lilies.  Now under the control of the Claude Monet Foundation, the house and garden attract nearly a million visitors each year.  Since last Sunday’s weather was supposed to be sunny with highs in the 60s, we decided to take the forty-five minute train ride to Vernon from the Gare Saint-Lazare.  It turned out to be a very good decision.

While waiting at the entrance, we were already snapping pictures of flowers.  We had no idea that inside we would be bowled over by the quantity and variety of blooming plants in front of Monet’s house and in the water garden.  Fragrant lavender wisteria draped down from the Japanese bridge; red and white blooms were on the chestnut trees; sweet-smelling white and pink blossoms covered Japanese apple trees; rhododendrons, azaleas, and peonies were ablaze with color; irises and pansies added to the beauty.  Even though the daffodils were past their prime and the roses weren’t quite out, the tulips made up for them.  I’ve never seen so many different kinds and colors: red, pink, mauve, orange, yellow, peach, purple, you name it!  One variety seemed to have a green leaf surrounding each petal, but it was actually part of the flower itself.  Magnifique!

As part of the tour, visitors can see the inside of the artist’s home.  The large, bright house is filled with Japanese prints. The yellow-painted dining room is stunning, as is the blue and white kitchen with a long line of copper cookware displayed on one wall.  After relishing all that there was to see, we spent time sitting on a bench in the garden enjoying the beautiful views.  Put it on your list of "must-sees" in the Paris area.


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La Cucina siciliana

We had often read about the delights of Sicilian cooking and our trip there last month confirmed it for us.  Naturally, panini sandwiches and pizza are widely available and we tried them a few times.  Previous trips to Italy had introduced us to gelato, that luscious Italian ice cream, and we did our best to get a cone every day we were in Palermo!  All kinds of flavors from creamy pistachio and hazelnut to fruity sorbets are found on just about every street of the city.  After paying the prices in Paris, we thought the cost of all of our meals and snacks was quite reasonable, too.  Many treats are indigenous to Sicily and we took advantage to try as many as we could.

You can well imagine that fish is big in island cuisine.  Walking through the many outdoor markets, we saw all kinds of squid, octopus, mussels, and, interestingly, fish displayed with their tails tied up with string; we figured it was to indicate the freshness of the fish appearing to jump out of the water onto the display.  Some of the best dishes we tried had seafood at their base.  For lunch one day, my husband tried an octopus salad which was very good.  A little restaurant called Trattoria al Cancelletto—that we went to twice because we liked it so much—had several appealing offerings.  Mussel soup, which didn’t have much liquid in it, was an appetizer piled high with mussels covered in a tasty tomato broth.  Their grilled fish was simple, but fresh and flavorful.  Our second night there we had pasta with shrimp and arugula, a dish that I’ve tied to recreate back here.  Again, it was simply prepared with just olive oil and shallots.  At a fancier place one night we tried the salt cod with goat cheese appetizer, even though the waitress seemed to want to talk us out of it.  Glad we didn’t listen to her; it was just great.  On the negative side, I wasn’t too crazy about my main dish there, another regional dish: pasta with sardines.

There's a wide variety of specialties in Sicily.  As we found in Corsica, dried salted meats are popular.  I had a huge appetizer of bresaola with shaved parmesan.  The waitress explained that it is like prosciutto only made with beef instead of ham.  Very good.  Another interesting dish we tried for lunch is called arancini.  Not terribly appealing to look at, they are big rice balls that came with either cheese or meat in the place we tried itPane con milza is, believe it or not, a spleen sandwich whicheven harder to believemy husband tried!  To mixed reviews...   It’s the specialty of Antica Focacceria di San Francesco, a restaurant which has been in operation for 174 years, despite threats by the Mafia of overtaking it.
 All in all, our culinary experiences in Sicily were terrific, adding to a wonderful, if short, vacation there.

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Sicily is a land of contrasts: Catholic churches and the Mafia, delicious smelling food and piles of garbage, peaceful natural beauty and honking, swirling cars and motorcycles, dilapidated neighborhoods and luxury villas.  An ancient island with history dating back to prehistoric times, Sicily has been ruled over by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and Normans, to name but a few.  Because of the richness of cultures which have passed through it, the island is also filled with beautiful art and architecture.  Although we only had a brief stay in the northwestern part of the island, we were able to enjoy some of the best the region has to offer.

On our first full day in the capital city of Palermo we decided to visit the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Norman Palace.  Wouldn’t you know it, we arrived at the ticket booth at the same time as a class of high school students, making the wait in the hot sun to buy tickets long and rather uncomfortable.  Only the Cappella Palantina was available for viewing that day.  Even waiting outside the chapel, there were mosaics depicting saints and Biblical scenes decorating the walls.  Little did we know that inside we were to discover a real gem.  Luckily for us, the young people in line were not too interested in the chapel and cleared out within minutes, leaving us practically alone to examine its extraordinary beauty.  Many of the mosaics, especially on the right side as you face the altar, have been around since the chapel was created in 1132. Multicolored and shining with gold, mosaics cover the entire surface of the chapel walls.  Old and New Testament stories are represented: the creation of Adam and Eve and Noah loading his ark with animals, as well as the four Evangelists, prophets, and Jesus surrounded by angels blessing the people.  An Australian couple pointed out that even the decoration under each arch was unique.  A carved twelfth-century marble column stands near the pulpit.  The sculpted wooden ceiling dates from the Arab occupation of the city.  Seeing the Cappella Palantina was definitely worth a long wait in the sun.

The following day we rented a car—quite an anxiety-producing venture for both of us, given the state of traffic in the city.  A half-hour after leaving the hotel though, with GPS on board, we were safely out of Palermo, off to explore other parts.  Another highlight of our trip to Sicily was a visit to Segesta.   Located southwest of the capital near the port town of Trapani, this mountaintop spot was settled by the Trojans five centuries before the Common Era.  Somehow the ancient theater and even older temple have survived through the ages.  The well-preserved temple has thirty-six Doric columns and is really reminiscent of the Acropolis in Athens; it is believed that this temple was never completed due to wars of the period.  Its setting allows for beautiful views of it from nearby areas.  We missed the sign that mentions the possibility of buying a ticket for the bus ride from the parking lot to the theater and ended up trudging uphill for the better part of an hour in the sun.  The backdrop for the theater is the sight of the Mediterranean in the distance.  Really lovely as well, though I think riding the bus would have made it nicer!

More next time on Sicilian cuisine.

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