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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The $80 Omelette, Bird Stomach Salad and Other True Tales about Eating in Paris

The $80 Omelette, Bird Stomach Salad and Other True Tales about Eating in Paris

C'est Tres Cher (It's very expensive)

If you've been to New York City, or know someone who has, you know how expensive everything, including food, can be. The $12 hot dog, the $25 hamburger... Outrageous, right? Well, Paris is much like NYC. With an attitude. And an accent. What's more, dragging around 2 small children in the City of Light makes dining more challenging... to your patience and your wallet.

My dad's wife, Kathe, has 3 Paris guidebooks, all dog-eared and bookmarked, filled with suggestions about where to enjoy French food without blowing up your credit card (unless you want to, and in that case, at least you've been forewarned before eating at someplace like La Tour d'Argent, which translates to the Silver Tower). We're staying at an apartment near grocery chain Carrefour, so we have easy means re-stock our kitchen and eat cheaply. But dining out (which The Unofficial Guide to Paris says Parisians do a lot, spending more money per capita on food away from home than residents of most other European cities), is both an experience gastronomique and an education in French culture. In reality, my dad does most of the heavy check lifting when the kids and I and our nanny, Chelsea, dine out together. Usually, the meals are simple lunches. Or should be. But even a dejeuner for 4 adults and 2 kids can set you back $70...or more. Mon Dieu (My God...er, gosh...)

C'est Tres, Tres Cher (It's Very, Very Expensive)

That's where the $80 omelette slides onto our plates. Our second day in Paris, after touring the Eiffel Tower, we decided to walk the 2 miles back to our apartment (yes, with the kids; What were we thinking?). While not punishing exercise for most adults, Fiona and Finley starting complaining after the first half-mile: "My legs hurt;" "Why did you make me walk down the stairs at the Tower? I didn't like that!" (Fiona). "When are we gonna eat?" "I'm HUNNN-gry..." (Finley). "Hang on, guys...we'll find someplace to sit and have dinner," I said. I had no guidebook, no tourists' bible of food (Deliver us from mediocrity, and lead us not into carb-ation...) We did have blocks and blocks of nothing (food-wise) stretching before us. It was nearly 8 p.m., and we hadn't eaten since 2. The "crabbies" were crawling out of their holes and soaking us in their whining.

After another half-mile, cafes started appearing on the Boulevard St. Germain. I chose a place called Le Soleferino, where a young crowd appeared to be having a good time, and prices ranged between $11 for a kids' menu, and $25-$28 for fancier fare like steak tartare. Surely we could have a couple sandwiches, maybe an omelette, without breaking the bank. Ha. Here's what we had and what we spent:
-one glass of Limonade (like Sprite) $13
-2 chocolate milks (which, even to the kids, tasted horrible. I had to dump a packet of fake sugar brought from home into their glasses and ask the waiter to heat the drinks) $17
-Glass of white wine: $5.50 (the best beverage value here is, not surprisingly, wine,which is why I feel duty-bound to drink it with nearly every meal, except breakfast)
-Smoked salmon sandwich: $17
-Omelette with salad: $15
-Kids' menu: plain small hamburger, fries, drink and ¼ cup ice cream: $13
Grand Total: $80, including 25% tax and tip

Kids are hungry, Mom wants an omelette, and next thing you know, you're handing Jerome (think JHER-ohm) your debit card to siphon $80 from your checking account. We dragged the kids the last half-mile back to the apartment, at which point Finley said, "I'm hungry. Can I have a snack?"

The Tourist Joints

It's easy (too easy) to find a sidewalk cafe in Paris with menus translated into English bearing the British flag. Food at these places has been hit-and-miss. Overall, I've been astounded at portion size. We ordered a hot dog for the kids to split at a cafe near the Eiffel Tower. It was about a foot long, coated in cheese and resting in a thick baguette. It was accompanied by its best friends, French fries (which are actually a Belgian invention, and are called "frites" here, not "frites Francais." I prefer salads and have enjoyed digging into troughs of lettuce festooned with grapefruit, shredded carrots, chopped eggs and fortified with salmon, chicken or even warm goat cheese. Lunch service has, in most cases, been speedy ("Wow, how did they do that?" we'd ask ourselves as a server delivered our meals within 10 minutes of ordering). Baskets of crusty baguettes are nearly always placed before us and replenished, and servers do not cast strange looks if you ask for a carafe of tap water. Forget about ordering coffee with cream, because tiny pitchers of milk or cream aren't the norm. Better to ask for a cafe americain (a tall, weak cup of coffee) or a noisette (tiny coffee with a dollop of milk). I've resigned myself to black coffee with sugar after meals (the French drink their cafe au lait normally only at breakfast time). I've also given up on my salad-dressing-on-the-side fetish. I've relinquished control partly because special orders are not customary, and thanks to an encounter with aviary inards. More about bird guts later...First:

The Good

The weather was sunny and 70 degrees. It was time to take our hunger outside. The other night, we picnicked on the grass at the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre. We found a rolling grocery sack and stuffed it with bread, cheese, smoked ham, water and small plastic bottles of cheap white wine. We bought a small, poppy seed covered baguette at the park, and ate in view of the Eiffel Tower, which we could see jutting above the hedge maze of the Tuileries. Fiona and Finley met a French toddler who delighted in kicking a ball with them while Chelsea and I continued our meal. Our dinner was satisfying, casual and cost less than $10 to assemble, including wine.

The Excellent

One of the most enjoyable restaurant meals I've had in Paris took place in a small cafe in the 5th arrondissement called Le Caramelle. We met someone I'd once showed around Spokane for work, a Frenchman named Herve. His sister had suggested the restaurant in a non-touristy area because it's family-run, has reasonably-priced, good-quality food, and games for children. Our group of 7 was seated in the (very warm) 2nd floor loft. We had a choice of 3 kinds of quiche (tomato, goat cheese or mushroom) or lasagne. Of course, we also shared a carafe of red wine. The service was prompt, the food excellent, and I even tried a plum crumble for dessert that was mervielleux (marvelous)! What made the meal special was meeting up with Herve and hearing his perspective on working near Paris and living outside the city (he commutes 1 hour each way to work). "We don't visit Paris often," he said. "It's expensive, and the traffic's horrible." Herve and his wife, Fabienne, had been so smitten with Spokane when they visited in early 2008 that even now, Herve has pictures of the Davenport Hotel, Riverfront Park and other Spokane landmarks on his computer. He said he bought little American flags to give to his friends for a moving-to-America party, but alas, the assignment never happened.

La Tourelle

One of Kathe's guidebooks listed a restaurant called La Tourelle, in the Latin Quarter (which is across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral). Located off the beaten path on a tiny street, it had a prix fixe menu (fixed price) of 24 Euros (about $31) which included an appetizer (entree) and main course (plat). The menu was in French only, which was reassuring in its authenticity, but did not help someone like me who speaks only basic food in American restaurants, let alone the language of gourmands in French establishments. I was leaning towards the ris de veau, figuring I like rice and veal, so how could I go wrong? Thankfully, the server set me straight: "Eetz sweet-brehdz." ("It's sweetbreads," he said. a.k.a., internal organs of a calf). I was looking for "riz" which is rice. Instead, I ordered scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques), with white rice, which was quite tasty. The warm goat cheese (chevre) salad was so appealing, even Fiona looked up from her iPod movie to gobble several pieces of baguette with chevre. Both kids watched movies during our entire hour and-a-half meal. While not the height of manners, the electronic entertainment provided a respite for Dad, Kathe, Chelsea and me, affording us the longest stretch of uninterrupted communication we'd had during our trip so far.

Be Still my Beating Stomachs

We visited the famous Marche aux Puces (flea market) just north of the Paris city limits in St. Ouen. We left behind comfortable, clean surroundings of the 6th arrondisement for an area chock-a-block with overflowing trash bins and gangsta rap blasting from vendors' stalls. We decided, after a half-hour of perusing cheap clothing, bags and hats, we needed lunch. We stopped at a cafe called Le Voltaire with a prix fixe special that included oeuf dur avec mayonnaise (hard-boiled egg with mayonnaise); tomate crevettes (shrimp and tomato) and something called salade gesiers. "C'est quoi, ca?" (What is that?) I asked our server. "L'estomac des ouiseaux," she replied (bird stomach). "Interessant," (interesting) I told her, dismissing the ides of sinking bird guts into my own gullet.
Gesier translates into gizzards, which freedictionary.com defines this way:
"A modified muscular pouch behind the stomach in the alimentary canal of birds, having a thick lining and often containing ingested grit that aids in the breakdown of seeds before digestion.

After our server left, I rethought my rejection of the gesiers. I hadn't tried anything terribly exotic here. Maybe it was time. I got the gizzards. Within minutes, the server delivered them: warm, red and smooth, sitting on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by tomatoes. I pictured Paris's ubiquitous plump pigeons being guillotined for the occasion, although I'm sure (fairly sure) no pigeons were harmed in the making of my salad.

"Go ahead, Fiona. Try this. You'll love it." I said. Let the 6-year-old be the guinea pigeon, er pig... Fiona asked, "What is it?" "It's meat," we told her. I speared a quarter-sized gizzard and gave it to Fi. She bit without hesitation, chewed, swallowed, and seemed to genuinely enjoy her bird gut. "You like it?" we asked. "Yeah, it's good. Can I have another?" Fiona said. She ate about 4 of the muscular pouches. I ate most of the dozen-or-so gesiers. They tasted like...like what you'd expect of an internal organ. The texture was smooth, the meat a bit rich. A sprinkle of salt, dollop of salad sauce, and you're in business. Would I order them again? Maybe. But eating that salad and following it with a rich Osso Buco (veal) reaffirmed my preference for chicken and fish.

About the Kids...

Based on my limited knowledge of eating out in Paris with children, I offer these tips. They're free, and you get what you pay for, so, here goes:

-Get your kids used to the idea they'll drink mostly tap water. Nothing runs up a tab faster than juice and chocolate milk
-Have them split an adult sandwich or omelette. These are usually huge, and kids' menus are sparse.
-BYOC: bring your own crayons, or other means of entertainment. Don't expect anything to entertain your kids, unless maybe it's the salt or pepper shakers.
-If you want dessert, wait and buy ice cream from a street vendor later. You'll pay half the cost of a restaurant dessert.
-Movies on a small electronic device are an excellent way for you and your kids to enjoy a 3-course meal.
-Eat early (early here is 7 p.m.; many restaurants won't serve dinner before then)
-Get your kids to try the gizzards, or intestines, or whatever (that's a joke...kind of)

Time to leave. I think I hear chocolate croissant, or baguette or rhubarb tart calling from the bakery down the street. Or maybe it's time for another bird stomach salad...

Au revoir, mes amis, et Bon Appetit!

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