Falling in Love with Paris: One Bistro at a Time

J’adore Paris.     
I adore the way her old, cobblestoned streets form a labyrinth that require a pedestrian to possess sturdy shoes, a stout constitution, and a reliable map. I adore the charming wrought iron balconies found on many of her buildings, the art deco Metro signs in her Latin Quarter, and the old world lampposts that circle her many gardens. I love the way the yeasty scent of freshly baked bread hangs in the air from early morning until late afternoon; the street performers who fill the Metro stations with their haunting violin music; the self-impressed locals who genuinely believe they are superior to all other people in the world simply because they were born in Paris. I love her museums, gardens, theaters, and stores.  I adore her hustle and bustle, her glitz and glamour. More than anything, though, I adore her bistros.
I adore Paris for her magnificence, opulence, and sophistication, but I adore her bistros for their simplicity and lack of pretention. The china found in a Paris bistro is not fancy, or hand-painted from a Lenox workroom. It is plain and white. The chairs are practical but comfortable. The food is as casual as the atmosphere (no fois gras, string quartet, or pompous maître d’ here). Common fare at a bistro includes: salad Nicoise with tuna, grilled steak with béarnaise sauce and sautéed potatoes, apple tart with crème anglaise, and my favorite, the croque monsieur.

I read once that the word "bistro" is actually Russian for "quick." Russian soldiers occupying France after the Napoleonic Wars, would bang on the tables at restaurants yelling, “Bystro! Bystro!” Bistro soon became synonymous with fast, fresh food. For me, bistro means a place to indulge one’s appetite for good food and people watching.

After a long day of maneuvering my way through crowded museums or congested boulevards, I like to park my bottom in a well-worn bistro chair, order a glass of wine and a croque monsieur, and watch the panoply of Parisians parade past the windows. I invent stories for each person that passes. He’s on his way to the TGV to catch a train to the south of France where he operates his family’s vineyard. She’s about to rendezvous with a new lover. That couple is on their way to the opera but they are nervous because they just left their children with a new au pair. She’s a multi-lingual student from Bayonne who is studying law at the University of Paris.

I was in Paris this past December. I sipped spiced wine and purchased a ridiculously over-priced, but much-coveted cashmere hat at the Christmas Market on the Champs Elysees, said my prayers and lit my candles at the Cathedral Notre Dame, stood wide-eyed and in wonder in front of the opulently decorated windows at the Gallerie Lafayette, and listened to a cellist play Silent Night on the Pont Alexandre.

On my third night in Paris, laden with colorful memories and bags crammed with holiday gifts, I made my way to Le Pré Verre, (http://www.lepreverre.com/) a bistro that I had heard offers spicy jazz and exotic dishes. I stepped into the corner bistro decorated with terracotta painted walls and funky, ethnic artwork and was immediately seduced by the sexy scent of pan sautéed beef hanging in the air and sultry notes of a jazz tune playing softly in the background. Unfortunately, the restaurant was crowded and there was not a seat to be found. I took one last glance at the menu, nearly weeping at my lost opportunity to sample the suckling pig poached in spicy sauce and chocolate truffle and molasses ice cream, before heading back out, a weary pilgrim in search of Parisian sustenance. Many blocks, a twisted ankle, and two more over-crowded bistros later, I found Café des Musees on 49 rue de Turenne. Conveniently located near Place des Vosges and Musee Carnavalet, this bistro offers classic French fare like boeuf bourginon and French onion soup.

On this bitterly cold evening, I sat near the window, gazed at the twinkling blue icicle lights and glass bulbs hanging from the awning, and inhaled deeply of the culinary bouquet of scents filling the air. The aroma of yeasty bread and molten, bubbling cheese. The whiff of spicy, roasted meat and tangy onions. I took in the sights and sounds and scents and I fell a little deeper in love with Paris.


Jenifleur-de-lis said...

What a lovely post! It would be magical to be in Paris during the holidays. And you are right, there's nothing better than people watching from a bistro chair!

ParisMaddy said...

Love your Metro sign picture.

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