Part VI: Birthday in Paris

And now for the final installment (I promise a bright citrusy tofu recipe for the next post! And garden updates! And other recipes in the very close future!) of our England-Paris trip–our final day in Paris which, coincidentally, was also my 25th birthday (no really, we didn’t plan it that way, it just worked out, or, rather, I said that I would not spend my birthday on a transatlantic flight so we stayed an extra day in Paris to accommodate me).

Let’s talk a little bit about how mornings went: I’d love to say that I bounced out of bed bright & bushy-tailed every morning and rarin’ to meet the day, but that’s definitely not the case. For a morning person, it’s almost impossible to get me out of bed. And even harder when I’m not sleeping (oh insomnia, how I’ve not missed you!). So most mornings I couldn’t get going until after museums and things had already opened, which, of course, meant longer lines, etc. So, on our last day, when we planned to go to the Louvre first, I knew I had to actually get up and get going so we could get in line before the damn place opened (another side note: I hate lines, and by hate I mean I think I stressed G out a lot with my hate of lines and I was actually making a conscious effort not to talk about my hate of them…). Well, we did make it and we did get in line 30 minutes before it opened. And, yes, even though I rarely drink coffee, I lapped mine up. Bless it. (Especially since it was rather cold and windy…)

Speaking of it being cold and windy, for some god-awful reason, the Louvre decided not to open on time. It thought that opening 30 minutes late would be totally kosher (remember my hate of lines? The hate gets deeper and more vehement when I’m stuck outside in really not-ideal weather). But when we finally did get into the building, we discovered the best consolation prize: free admission! No really, I guess they actually felt bad about making us wait, so they let us in for free. I’ll totally take that.

As far as it goes, the Louvre was pretty cool (though, holy cow, if an engineer can’t figure out the map and how to get around, I don’t know how anyone else can), though not really home to my favorites (I’d been hoping to go the Musee d’Orsay but I misremembered what days it was open and it was closed on Monday), but for free and for almost no crowds, we really got the chance to see it in some of the most favorable conditions. One really awesome surprise was this fresco by Cy Twombly, a really important American painter who is from our part of Virginia (Lexington). The vibrant blues and yellows–it didn’t seem to fit with the Louvre, but at the same time, it complemented it perfectly.

But let’s be honest, the whole time we walked around the Louvre (which was only 2 hours–I know, I know, there are art enthusiasts shaking their fists at me right now for spending so little time there), I was thinking of Angelina’s and its infamous hot chocolate. I mean, it’s my birthday, and all I really care about on my birthday is chocolate. We had tried to go there on Sunday afternoon, but the line was ridiculous to get in (probably would have been several hours), so I don’t recommend trying it then. But on Monday around 11, there was no line and we were in and seated immediately.

The tea room is very posh–gilt everything, lots of mirrors & natural light–and the servers are all wearing black pants and vests and white starched shirts, it’s really enough to make you feel like you’ve been transported to an earlier era (and that you must be filthy rich). And the hot chocolate, worth it? A million times yes. The stuff is a pure bar of cacao melted down and tempered with just a hit of sugar. Thick whipped cream is served on the side for you to spoon in. It’s outrageous. And, if there are two of you, just order one pot–it’s two cups full and, trust me, more than that is chocolate overkill. The chocolate eclair was pretty damn amazing too, if not over the top paired with the hot chocolate. But Angelina’s is all about being over the top, and so is a quarter-century birthday. I’m all good with it.

Afterward we traipsed down the rue to Pierre Herme’s Opera location to buy birthday macaroons from the macaroon god’s store itself (not that I planned on eating them then, sugar coma already induced). Oh my pretty gorgeous things! I’d also never eaten a macaroon, so I figured the best time to start was with the best and, upon reflection, they’re definitely amazing. I have nothing to compare them to, but the four we tried were so blissfully light and, yet, full of flavor–they’re a really surreal experience. Pictured above are Caraquillo (chocolat, cafe, anis), Infiniment Chocolat Porcelana (chocolat Pure Origine Venezuela Porcelana), Huile d’olive a la Mandarine, & Macaron Ispahan (Rose, Letchi, Framboise).

After procuring macaroons, I tucked the package in my bag and we walked down the Champs d’Elysees to the Arc du Triomphe (by that point it was sunny and warm and deliciously spring-like). The Champs d’Elysees was a disappointment (it’s just like an almost trashy mall, ugh), but the Arc was impressive up close. And after that rather long-ish walk, we opted for the metro to take us back to the Eiffel Tower to see if the elevator was fixed. All I wanted was a ride to the top. But no, it wasn’t. So a photo from below had to suffice.

With no Eiffel Tower fix, we decided to get our fill of stairs and heights by going to the Notre Dame Cathedral (which was also conveniently on the way back to the apartment). While I was most stoked about going up to the top for the view, the Cathedral itself was stunningly huge–something I’d definitely studied but had no real concept of. It was less cramped than Westminster, the focus being on art and prayer space rather than on memorials to the dead and the afternoon light made for a really beautiful exploration of the many stained glass windows. Though I’m not religious, it was easy to be inspired and awed in the church, almost impossible to fathom how many generations worked to build it. Nothing in our modern urban landscape compares something like Notre Dame.

After the dark and stained interior of the cathedral, the light outside was almost deafening. We waited our turn to climb to the top of the Cathedral and then started hoofing it up the skinny, steep, circular staircase. I don’t even know how someone like G does it, my feet barely fit on the steps and his were hanging off–so precarious! From the top, Paris spread out before us into the hazy afternoon and it felt so secular in contrast to the interior, so worldly and a celebration of modern space. I’m a fan of differences like that, seems so European, or, at least, un-American.

And if the stairs weren’t tiny enough, how about that doorway to the bell? Definitely more my sized than G sized! Insane to think that someone used to have to climb those stairs and ring the bell however many times a day. I imagine the bell people always had pretty epic legs (and a raging case of tinnitus…)

After walking back to our apartment and resting a bit, it was time for the grand finale, the restaurant I’d booked over a month ago–Verjus. I think I’d first read about it on David Lebovitz’s blog and it seemed like it was the darling of the foodie world, but, really, more than anything, the menu and the approachability drew me in (and the affordability). We didn’t make it early enough to get a glass of wine in the wine cave, but next time I’m in Paris I’ll definitely make time for that. Even though it wasn’t a cave, the dining room was cozy and alternately bright and dark–dim, romantic light, but with white walls and a deep red banquette, the place oozed familiarity and modern warmth.

I’m not much for note-taking while eating, but I couldn’t help myself–the food was so intense, so layered with so many elements that it seemed impossible it work, but then so genius. So here’s my feeble attempt to recreate the meal via my very scribbled moleskine.

Before the meal (in which I chose the Chef’s Menu at 110€ for 6 courses & wine and G chose the Market Menu at 85€ for 4 courses & wine–that way we could try everything but not over do it food-wise), we were given an amuse bouche of russet potato, trout roe, burnt bread crumbs, nigella & poppy seeds, and creme fraiche. The bite was a wonderful pop of warmth, char, and a bit of buttery sweet & salty balance that opened the meal nicely. I’d always wondered how trout roe is, so I really enjoyed the play with that and the very earthy potato, seeds, and rye.

The first course consisted of burrata, watercress, radish, smoked curry, honey cornbread, and capers (along with a little melon–or perhaps a chayote squash, actually–pickled jalapenos, and pesto). It was both rich and light, a play on summery tastes in early spring, and one of my favorite elements of the dish was the capers which were fried and tasted like super buttery popcorn. A southern girl, I was pretty impressed with the cornbread as well–light and very corny. Overall, a fun dish. Nothing super “wow” about it, but the capers and the smoked curry added great little punches to the plate. (It was served with a 2010 Immich Batteriberg, Mosel, C.A.I. Riesling.)

Second course was part of the Chef’s Menu and was, hands down, both of our favorite course of the entire meal. It’s worth getting the Chef’s Menu just for the simple fact that you DO NOT want to miss out on any gems like this dish. Poached Egg, Chorizo, Cranberry Beans, Frisee, Red Chili Sauce, Cotija. And, for the first time in my life, I “got it” regarding a wine pairing–the wine (a 2006 Delta, Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc) paired increibly with the dish. No other wine would have worked like this one did. It was tart and fresh and cut the chile & chorizo perfectly and rounded out the dish. As far as the dish goes, the egg was runny, yellow, just plain gorgeous, and the chorizo warmed the entire mouth and throat from front-sides-back. The chili sauce was smokey, almost like roasted tomatoes, and deep, with the slightly crunch beans nested in it. Sprinkled with chives and cojita (a fresh, salty element), the dish was almost impossible to finish. We just didn’t want it to end.

Third, Skillet Trout from Banka, Shaved Mushrooms, Picholine Olives, Semolina Gnocchetti, Verjus Jelly. Not the most mind-blowing dish, but a delicious plate of seared trout with some adorable ricotta & semolina gnocchi. I especially like the light acidity the olives gave to the dish, and, sprinkled on the fish, was the most amazing dried pepper–pimente espelette, a basque pepper that gave everything a little smoky, warm depth. (Wine pairing was a 2008 Domaine La Soula, Vin des Pay des Cotes Catalanes.)

Fourth was another Chef’s Menu item which I thoroughly enjoyed (and think that the evening would have been incomplete without), Pan Seared Duck Breast, Caramelized Red Onion Raviolis, Rye, Smoked Celeriac, Orange. Let’s talk about duck–it’s a pretty rad meat, no? This was tender and juicy, utterly rich, and the rye seeds added a fun element of surprise–they were slightly bitter but also sweet, kind of like rye flour, I suppose. And the caramelized onion raviolis? I have to make some. Stat. They’re sweet and rich and melt-on-your-tongue. A total revelation into the world of ravioli which, before that night, as mostly relegated to typical meat or cheese preparations. (Served with a 2010 Louis-Antoine Luyt, Huasa de Trequilemu, Carignan.)

Fifth (and final savory course for the night) was Grilled Milk Fed Veal, Glazed Salsify, Miso Labne, Pickled Cauliflower, Nori Crumbs (served with a 2010 Domaine La Cabotte, Massif d’Uchaux, ‘Garance’). This course was the only one where I felt that one too many elements was on the plate. The veal, sourced from the Pyrenees, was tender and seared nicely, an the fermented miso mixed with sheep’s milk was rich and salty. And, another high light–BABY BASIL. Yes! The dish was garnished with a bit of baby basil–basically basil sprouts. Which are so light and sweet and green tasting, they’re other worldly. And I’m going to start growing some stat–be on the lookout for baby basil in my recipes soon! But then the plate digressed a bit–the romanesco was a nice, bright touch, but the salsify was tough and chunky and really detracted from the dish, and I could have done with one less touch of either the kimchi or pepper sauce or the nori. Each was unique and interesting, but all together, I lost the vision, wanted to be guided by a slightly firmer hand.

But that wasn’t the end of the meal! Our first dessert was a Buffalo Milk Ricotta Cake with Grapefruit, Blood Orange, Bergamot, and Tonka Bean Poached Kumquat. So fresh and light, the ricotta cake was lush and the perfect base for the citrus to really shine. But then in the best spirit of Verjus, dried white chocolate added a perfect hint of sweetness and olive powder lent a rich, deep and salty, bitter hint. Everything came together like a perfectly planned quilt–all different flavors and textures, but stitched together to form one cohesive and deliciously surprising dish. (Paired with a–no year given on menu–Chateau Tour Grise, Zero Pointe, Ze Bulle.)

And, finally, the last course–soft oatmeal cookie, milk sorbet, bourbon raisins, hazelnut butter, and roasted grapes (paired with a 2010 Bera Vittorio e Fifle, Moscato d’Asti, “canelli”). A deconstructed take on a cookie, the cookie itself was a soft crumble in the base of the dish, topped with bourbon soaked raisins, chestnut sorbet, and roasted grapes (and all topped with another tiny green, assino cress–can’t find it anywhere online so I know I’m misspelling it, help!–which was a green, licorice-y taste). Almost savory, the cookie crumble was warm and inviting, the chestnut milk sorbet light and nutty, a perfect match for the oats. And then who doesn’t love a little bourboned raisin or, for that matter, a roasted grape, which is really a revelation in what roasting fruit can do–those grapes had such depth and bright, robust flavor, I never knew. Bittersweet that the meal had to end, but what a note to leave on!

Birthdays end and transatlantic flights begin (and seem like they’ll never end, but I’ll never say no to bottomless cups of red wine! Thank you Delta!), but I can’t imagine a more memorable birthday and a better introduction to Europe than this trip. Not only did I get to see bands I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, but I ate better in a two week period than I ever have, met a wonderful friend who I can’t wait to see again, traipsed all over London, Paris, and some random English towns, and got to do it all with the love of my life. No complaints. Only amazing memories, a slightly empty bank account, and a desire to go back soon.

Angelina Tea Room
226 rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris
01 42 96 47 10

Pierre Herme
4 rue Cambon
75001 Paris
33 (0)1 43 54 47 77

47 rue Montpensier
75001 Paris
01 42 97 54 40

3 Responses to “Part VI: Birthday in Paris”
  1. eileen says:

    Yay birthday! Chocolate Parisian birthday is clearly the best kind of birthday. PARTY.

  2. Beth says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading about your trip so much, Jes—a dream trip, for sure. I love the photo at Notre Dame showing the rainbow colors the light splashed on the wall as it streamed through the stained-glass window. Somehow, just looking at that shot, I felt a sense of hushed reverence. Your pictures are really wonderful.

    And, by the way, as I read through your post, I was drinking a cup of Nestle hot chocolate I made from one of those little packets. It tasted fine until I read your description of the hot chocolate at the tea room. Suddenly, my cup of cocoa seemed a little thin and gruel-like. :-)

  3. Renae says:

    I’m glad you had such a memorable birthday! However, you’re making me miss Paris and I haven’t even gotten there yet! I’m never going to have enough time to do everything – ack!

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