Finding Paris Perfect is not impossible if you lead with the belief that no one spot is inherently perfect. As in larger life, if you make the most of where you are it can become perfect. Well, you can make it your own kind of perfect. And so I propose Paris.
In November Paris is quiet. The crowds are gone. The restaurants are open with fall cuisine, museums buzzing with new shows, films making their run-up to Christmas. Brisk winds scatter falling leaves, park benches provide a sunny sanctuary, Christmas decorations start to appear, and vin chaud ( hot spiced wine), the cure for over-walked legs, is on the chalk boards.
In my Perfect Paris world you would arrive on a Wednesday, the publication day of Pariscope, that encyclopedic gem of a mini-tabloid with listings of everything playing in Paris for the week. An intimate guide to most events taking place in the specific week or continuing events. Cost: .5 Euros. Approximately 60 cents US Dollar. Purchase at a street newspaper kiosk or in a tabac. Yes, it is in French.
But, it is possible to decipher Pariscope’s listings without a knowledge of French. For example: on page 3 you find listings for events of the week organized by genre with a specific page number to direct you to that particular section of the magazine. It is quite intuitive and once you get the hang of it, and treat it like a puzzle ready to solve, quite fun.
Cinema, (a French word)=films (in English). Arts=Museum showings, special temporary art expositions and other events in the Paris region. L’Agenda= Conferences. Enfants= Children’s programs. Musique=Concerts, dance, opera, jazz and pop-rock festivals. A’ Table=Restaurants. And finally the ubiquitous Paris la Nuit= Paris by night…bars, dinner theatres, clubs and discos, and assorted other pleasures.
Paired with a map of Paris, available in the Metro stations with the subway stops indicated and the bus routes demarcated, the visitor, whether first time or habitual, is set. Adventure awaits. Information is power. Although the cyber world is so very useful, the old ways still work well here.
In my Paris, on the first night after a trans-Atlantic flight, I visit some close-by favorites that place me squarely in Paris. Evocative monuments that reinforce the notion that I am where I mean to be.
Consider Notre Dame, the famous cathedral, illuminated in flood lights.
In my Paris there are two ways to go through the day. Either eat a generous breakfast, a snack mid-afternoon and a full-on dinner meal OR a light breakfast, a culturally appropriate leisurely lunch of the two-hour variety, and a light dinner. Or just eat, eat, eat and walk, walk,walk and squeeze a nap in the middle somewhere.
Dinner in Parisian restaurants begins around 7:30pm. Dining alone intimidates me, so often after a long day of sightseeing I have been known to eat items such as clementines and chocolate and call it dinner. Or an eclair and coffee.
Eventually one tires of this fare.
The plan that works well for me, especially when I am a solo traveller, is to choose a restaurant close by my hotel. I prefer to stay in the 5eme Arrondisement, not too far from the College de France and the Sorbonne. The closest metro is Maubert Mutualite.
Over several stays I have found my home restaurant to be Le Pre Verre. For years I would peer out my hotel window and see people inside Le Pre Verre dining in casual comfort. In nice weather some would be at tables on the narrow sidewalk, tucked close to the building. On colder days and nights they would be snug inside.
Finally I ventured out one evening, just across the tiny rue, and was rewarded with friendship, excellent food and a continuing curiosity about what is going on inside this place.
Le Pre Verre, Open Tuesday-Sunday, at 8 rue Thenard, is an example of the new cuisine of Paris. As another restauranteur later described it to me, “It’s a relaxed atmosphere with new preparations while keeping French traditions. I eat there often!” Currently owned by a thirty-something Mr. Francois Paris ( yes, Mr. Paris!) the restaurant excels in beautiful food, exotically plated to please and surprise the eye.
Chef Bruno Govaere, French, thirty-six, and most recently arrived from Tokyo where he worked for the Le Pre Verre’s locale in the Ginza, was settling into week 2 the night I arrived. “He is continuing signature dishes of the restaurant while experimenting with others,” said Mr. Paris. Indeed.
Govaere is no newcomer to the cuisine, having trained with famous chefs, including Thierry Burlot, in his well-known restaurants in Paris.
“He answered an ad in a trade journal,” said Paris.
“Lucky for us,” I said. Paris nodded in agreement.
With a mere six entrees on the menu each night, I chose l’porc avec choux crunchy, wondering how crunchy would translate. Voila.
It arrived– a slice of roasted pork loin, surrounded by a creme sauce with unfamiliar flavorings, with Napa Cabbage slightly softened. I was amazed and puzzled as to the spices, so I asked my waiter, Sylvan Urwan, the French-Chechnyan with impressive tatouage. “Star Anis,” he said, “with cinnamon, and coconut milk, juice of the pig, and creme. It’s easy to make.”
Later I asked Mr. Paris if Urwan was a cook. He replied emphatically, “No.” But having tried versions of these ingredients on my own I agree with Urwan. It’s worth a try.
The following evening I returned. The next day I requested an interview and arrived at 5 pm through the front door and was directed to the kitchen. It’s a tiny, tidy kitchen, with stainless-steel topped prep counters and ingredients for the evening’s meal laid out. Including a naked pig. I’ve never seen that at home.
The sous chef, known as Tuto Marcel, a famous hip-hop journalist (on the side), was being interviewed by Paris magazine’s One Yard Editor-in-chief Julien Bihan, while a photographer with a real camera snapped photos. I had come fully prepared…with my Samsung phone camera.
Tuto lived in Compton, California in his youth, and his English was most helpful as I shot cooking-related questions towards Bruno in my sometimes close-to-accurate French. The Franglais was flying– words traveling from English to French to English to French to some crazy mixed-up combination of the words to extract meaning. Meanwhile the real photographer kept clicking images and Julien interviewed Tuto about hip-hop. I laughed. We all did. It was one of those extraordinary moments one can not anticipate when boarding a flight for Paris solo.
Govaere and Marcel show off their preparations.
The second and third nights I had more surprising selections. Smoked duck with sweet chutney, cod with smoked mashed potatoes, and an eggplant with roasted watermelon! salad.
After three consecutive evening meals at Le Pre Verre I had to break out of my mold, however delicious, and order an ordinary standard dish down the street on rue des Ecoles, at the also famous Brasserie Le Balzar. I had started dreaming of French onion soup and french fries.
The maitre’d wore his suit smartly and kissed my cheek as I entered the restaurant (although we had never met), the guests to my left were a party from Arkansas, and the black-jacketed waiter prepared steak tartare to order on the sideboard for a guest. It was exemplary old-school french service, decor and cuisine.
It was quite satisfying, with perhaps the best pommes frites I have ever eaten, but I longed to know which six items would have been on Le Pre Verre’s nightly menu. Mon dieu, I guess I was smitten.
In Paris it is possible to make friends, to share a meal, to interact with those around you, whether they be visitor or staff.
It is a testimony to the new openness of France, both through food and culture, that intrigues me time after time. I will remember the men and women of Le Pre Verre until I return. And next time you are in Paris I suggest you look them up. And you might make a reservation, because the secret is out.
Mr Paris (Owner), Ann Bodle-Nash, and Chef Bruno Govaere
The wine steward and young server
Ann, Sylvan and Chef Bruno Govaere