Were the portions so large because she thought we were poor and in need of a sturdy meal? Or is everyone served two hearty slabs of richly meaty hanger steak with piles of panisses, the chickpea fritters of Nice? Does the cervelle de veau always arrive as two fluffy clouds on a vivid heap of polenta? The brains hovered, as buoyant as air, anchored to the plate by polenta so fresh it tasted like biting into an ear of corn.
“Happy?” asked the waitress, picking up our shockingly empty plates. “Oh, yes,” we sighed. She beamed. “Christophe seeks out his own special suppliers—he uses nothing but the best. You know, he used to work with Anne-Sophie Pic.”
That night, at Le Beurre Noisette, a charmingly chic bistro in the 15th, the experience was much the same. We found ourselves in the hands of Thierry Blanqui, a talented young chef who had worked in the finest establishments (La Tour d’Argent, Ledoyen) before opening a modest restaurant of his own. Tired of cooking for rich tourists, these chefs are catering to true food lovers, and their clientele is primarily local. Eating here, you become an honorary Parisian.
I’ve never seen anything quite like Blanqui’s carpaccio of pig’s foot, a mosaic of flavor and texture in which each bite is slightly different, so that you keep eating, fascinated, until it is gone. Fat white asparagus came topped with an evanescent curl of foam, as if a wave had just crashed onto the plate. I took a bite, expecting brine, and experienced pure Parmigiano.
Robust côte de porc was served with a kind of aligot—deeply cheesy potatoes—and roasted lamb shoulder was imbued with the sunny taste of preserved lemon. But it was at the end, with the appearance of a huge, feathery millefeuille of strawberries, that I finally fell in love. A symphony of crunch, cream, and fruit, it was, hands down, the best dessert of the trip.
The bill? With a 14-euro bottle of Cahors, 78 euros for two.
I had become cozy in my little room, and I was sad as I packed my bags the next morning to leave L’Espérance. But I was even sadder when I checked in to my new digs. The lobby was tricked out with fancy furniture, but the room I had rented for 90 euros was dark, dingy, and so small that the only way to open the closet was to balance the suitcase on the flimsy bed. On top of that, the minuscule bathroom was dank, with barely room for the tiny shower. I ran back outside, slamming the door and realizing how little I had appreciated my former fortune.
Disconsolate, I meandered slowly along the Seine, eventually meeting up with Bill. When we reached Lapérouse, I stopped to peer into the ancient restaurant, thinking it might cheer me up. The restaurant is fabulously old-fashioned, almost unchanged since the day it opened in 1766, and I’ve always loved the way it looks. And even though the restaurant’s glory days are past, its Michelin stars long gone, the 35-euro lunch on the menu posted outside—wine included—seemed like a bargain. “How bad can it be?” said Bill, pushing me through the door.
We were dressed in jeans, but the maître d’hôtel welcomed us as if we were wearing black tie. “Would you like a salle privée?” he asked. Remnants of another time, these sexy rooms for two are little jewel boxes that afford total privacy. We settled into the velvet sofa while the very correct captain fussed in and out, eager for our happiness.
“Don’t get too excited,” I said to Bill. “This place is all about ambience. I haven’t heard a word about the food in years.” Indeed, the amuse-bouche, a dreadful thimble filled with purées of red and yellow peppers, confirmed all my fears; it was a clear sign of how far this once proud kitchen had plummeted.
So I was completely unprepared for the seriously wonderful mushroom soup garnished with a foie gras mousse that melted into a sensuous puddle. Asparagus, served in a perfect circle of interlocking green and white spears, was equally refined. Topped with a poached egg, it was gorgeous, elegant, utterly satisfying.
The main courses were even more pleasing. Veal breast arrived wearing a filigreed necklace, an intricate design composed of tiny rounds of crisped purple potatoes and baby romaine leaves. The meat was surrounded by gnocchi so light a passing breeze could have sent them soaring. Maigre, a firm-fleshed fish from Normandy, was delicious, too; the artichokes and tomatoes strewn across the top were an ideal counterpoint to the delicate flavor of the fillet.
Afterward, there was coffee served with plates of mignardises—macarons, caramels, miniature homemade chocolate lollipops. It had been an amazing meal, both leisurely and luxurious, and I felt utterly restored. Emerging, we found that the sun had come out, making the world a much more cheerful place.
Walking away from the river, we followed the sound of birdsong and found ourselves in a small, enchanting garden. It belonged to a charming hotel, and as we took in the flowers around the cobbled walk, I began to feel as if we had conjured up Shangri-la.
It all seemed so magical that I was not surprised when the Hôtel des Grandes Écoles actually had a room available, and I was even less surprised that it was affordable (120 euros). It was so fresh and pretty, with a window opening right into the garden, that I danced all the way back up the street to get my suitcase from that other hotel. Unpacking, I felt nothing but lucky. I grabbed a book, went out into the garden, threw back my head, and basked in the sun.