We’re now back in Daglan after a two-day, one-night trip to the City of Light to see Toronto friends Michael and Anna — Michael having just finished a bicycle tour that shadowed the Tour de France through the Alps (and yes, he climbed both the Col du Galibier and the Alpe d’Huez), and Anna having finished a trip to London. It was a whirlwind trip for us, but even a little time in Paris is a lot better than no time in Paris. Here are some observations and impressions:
The 8th. If you’re looking for the big money among Paris’s 20 arrondissements or districts, you’d be hard pressed to beat the busy, posh 8th. Among other things, it’s home to the Place de la Concorde, the Avenue des Champs-Élysée, and a host of expensive shops and fashion houses, including those along the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Of the 10 Paris restaurants that have received three stars from Michelin (the most possible), four are in the 8th. Of the 16 restaurants with two Michelin stars, six are in the 8th. And the 8th arrondissement is where we stayed — at Hotel Le A, at 4, rue d’Artois. Just up the street from us, at No. 20, is the double-starred Apicius (more on it later).
The hotel. Our usual hotel-of-choice in Paris is Le Tourville, in the 7th (home to such little known attractions as the Eiffel Tower). But this time we stayed at Hotel Le A in the 8th, because that’s where Michael and Anna had booked. The hotel is small and stylish and comfortable. Among its comforts are three things rarely found in Paris hotels: (1) a bathroom not designed for leprechauns; (2) good lighting; and (3) air conditioning that is easy to operate and actually works. I’d recommend it. So does the 2011 edition of Michelin’s red Guide.
Shopping majesty. We weren’t far from the Champs-Élysées, and this beautiful avenue really is a wonder. This past Sunday, the Tour de France finished there, and the avenue is featured in most tourists’ photo gallery. It’s beautiful and majestic, and a shining example of the power of retail shopping. For starters, here we are approaching the Arc de Triomphe, which anchors one end of the avenue (okay, we weren’t walking in the street — I got off the sidewalk just to take this photo).
The power of luxury goods. The world’s economy may not be in the rosiest shape, but the luxury goods business hasn’t dried up. And there are tons of luxury goods on offer along the avenue, or on its side streets — many of which are pretty grand in their own right. Here’s a look at the massive Louis Vuitton flagship store, for example:
The bucks of Starbucks. Here’s one sight that amused me: It’s the entrance to the Arcades des Champs Élysées, which evidently contains 40 shops. Now look at the Starbucks sign that gets the top billing. Wonder how much they paid for that positioning?
Our favourite kind of shopping. Off the Champs-Élysée, at 13, rue Washington, we came across a small but very well-stocked wine store, a part of the Nicolas chain, and were able to find a bottle of Aperol, the wonderful Italian apéritif that makes a lovely cocktail called the Aperol Spritz when mixed with Prosecco. (For more on this great summer cocktail, see my post on May 11 called “The place for Italian food — in Prague.”) Here’s the shop:
The restaurants. With six two-star restaurants in the 8th arrondissement from which to choose, we ate at one, and stayed near another. Where we had dinner on Tuesday night with Michael and Anna was Taillevent — a Parisian classic. Here’s the entrance:
It was an excellent experience, by and large. Our dinner lasted more than four hours; we were well treated; we had a well-placed table; and the staff had been made aware of my wife’s gluten allergy, so they could alter the menu a bit to avoid wheat flour in her dishes. Each of us chose the tasting menu — the Menu Saveurs et Découverte — which provides multiple courses, including cheese, and doesn’t quite hit the 200-euro mark per person. (I know — yikes!) Despite all this, I was a touch disappointed, primarily because the food didn’t seem sufficiently inventive or unusual to be worthy of a two-star place. (By contrast, I find that the food at Sarlat’s one-star Le Grand Bleu makes much more of a “Wow!” impact.) Among our favourite dishes was the amuse bouche, which consisted of a small bowl of mushroom-based foam that literally disappeared in our mouths; more than “melting,” it seemed to vanish, leaving only a lovely taste. Best of all for Anna, Michael and me was the Épeautre du Pays de Sault en risotto, a rustic grain like hard wheat or spelt made into a risotto and served with small mushrooms on top — it was incredibly rich and flavourful. But the other dishes, including the main course of roast veal as well as the desserts, were only very good — not memorable. Note that this isn’t a question of the chef having “a bad night,” because in fact all the dishes were perfectly prepared. It’s an opinion — that for large wads of euros, I am looking to be a bit more excited than I was. There were a few gaps, as well. For instance, the hors d’oeuvres served with our apéritifs were gougères, or cheese puffs, and there was no gluten-free substitute offered to my wife. Instead of the grain risotto (containing gluten), my wife was served a lovely fish dish. Sounds fine — except that in our tasting menu, the following dish was also a fish course, so my wife had two fish dishes in succession. (These may seem like minor quibbles, but at other starred restaurants my wife has been served absolutely delicious gluten-free bread without asking, and has been offered many different gluten-free treats as substitute dishes.) Bottom line? I’m glad we went to Taillevent, but I don’t feel any pull to return. We’ll keep on experimenting.
One place we may try in future was just up the street from our hotel at 20, rue d’Artois. It’s the beautiful Relais & Châteaux restaurant, Apicius. Like Taillevent, it’s been awarded two stars by Michelin. Like Taillevent, it’s elegant and grand. (We tried to order a drink on the terrace, but they were closing after the lunch service. Instead, we took a brief tour of the dining rooms.) Here’s a view of the entrance:
In the circular lawn in front of the building lies this amazing statue — what appears to be the head of a Greek god:
Speaking of statues. If you look at the top of most large statues, you’re certain to find one or more pigeons. Within a stone’s throw of the restaurant Taillevent, there’s a statue of the great French author Honoré de Balzac, located on rue Balzac. Here it is, with one lonely bird on its head:
Getting there and back. Usually, we make the Paris-Daglan trip by train. To reach Paris, we board at Gourdon or Brive, and head straight north. On the return, we do the reverse. But lately, there’s been a lot of work being done on the French rail system, improving the rail beds and installing new rails. So entire lines are shut down, and trains are re-routed. To return to Daglan yesterday, we took the TGV (the fast train) from Gare Montparnasse in Paris southwest all the way to Bordeaux, and then back east to Agen. There we changed to a regional train and travelled north to Belves, where one of our neighbours met us and drove us home. The trip on Tuesday morning was even more exceptional in one sense. When we arrived at the Gourdon station, we had our ticket to take a regional train north to Brive, where we would change to an express train to Paris. Except that our train had been cancelled — despite the fact that we had a printed ticket. So guess what? The station master ordered an express train to stop at Gourdon — and two passengers went aboard. You guessed it.