Filed under: Paris — Tags: — Russell @ 12:20 am  

A couple of weeks ago, Carol suggested that we go to a high end restaurant in Paris.  I’m was interested but the price seemed insane.  So we kept to the reasonable but well reviewed places.  Then my friend Thomas, whose judgment I trust, especially on things Parisian, asked if we were going to one of the top restaurants in town.  He said it was an experience not to be missed and described a dessert that brought tears to his eyes.  So on his recommendation we made a reservation at L’Astrance.  Not only is this rated as the 16th best restaurant in the world, it has a relaxed attitude towards attire.  This is very important when you are travelling with a small wardrobe.

Our reservation was for Sept 30th which was our last full day in Paris.  What a fantastic end to the month.  We arrived a bit early so we strolled along the Seine across from the Eiffel Tower.  At the restaurant the staff was friendly and courteous.  The menu is something of a formality as there are very few choices.  You choose how many courses you want and if you want wine.  We didn’t consider the question of wine a choice and selected the day’s lunch with wine.  At this point you are in the hands of the kitchen staff who are eminently more qualified to make food decisions.

What followed was a ballet of food as plate after plate of exquisite fare swept into view.  The wait staff coordinated their movements so as to maintain symmetry and synchronicity.  Each course was accompanied by an appropriate wine which arrived at the table still swilling around the glass in a tornado of scent.  It was without a doubt the finest meal we had ever eaten.  Afterwards, we tried to recall the elements but it was difficult due to the complexity of creation and presentation.  Briefly, here is what we remember:

Brioche with lemon butter.  Almond crisp with apple with praline in the center.  Shortbread square.

Tomato juice with sesame yogurt.  Very light white wine.

Prawns in veg soup.  Made with the broth of the prawn.  Veg sliced very thin.  Served with Gewürtztraminer

Fish course with tamarind sauce.  Grilled squid rings with Asian chili peppers.  Spinach condiment

Foie Gras fused to the thinest slice of toast as if it has been grown by the duck.  Tender breast of duck.

Indonesian roll (candied outer shell) chili pepper, satay.  The roll delivered a succession of tastes. Licorice condiment and black Japanese garlic.  Wine – Rich pure Cabernet

Chili sorbet with some fruit.

A dessert of fig, almond foam and toasted rice wafer.  Walnut cake with chocolate mousse.  Cardamom and coffee ice cream with butter ginger cookies.  Eggnog in the eggshell.  Wine was Italian, a taste similar to port but not fortified.

Fruit plate.




Can you mime a dry cough?

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 2:51 am  

The pace of our Parisian activities has slackened over the last few day. We started settling down into a more comfortable rhythm and we both caught a bit of a cold. After a couple of days Carol started coughing. So in my quest to win a “best husband of the year” award I agreed to go and buy cough syrup. Normally, this would not be noteworthy but it was not as easy as you might imagine.

The language problem was a bit challenging. I studied French for four years in elementary school but it never really clicked.  My pronunciation is appalling. No matter what I try to say it comes out as: “S’il vous plaît mettez le fromage de chèvre sous le radiateur”. You should see the kind of haircut such a request produces. Luckily, I acknowledge my bad French and left the house armed with a scrap of paper with the words, “sirop pour la toux sèche”.  Thanks Google Translate.

DilutionThere are lots of stores in Paris with a distinctive neon green cross outside. These appear to be pharmacies but appearances can be deceiving. At the nearest green cross I made several attempts to read my 5 word script. This was not successful. Resigned, I just gave her the scrap of paper and she immediately went to the shelf and handed me a package labelled toux sèche. Flush with triumph I also asked for Ebu-profane and was provided with some pain killers.

I arrived back at the apartment and gave Carol the box. She read it for a while and asked where I had bought it. It turns out that these green cross stores sell regular drugs and homoeopathic remedies. Our opinion of homoeopathy is summed up nicely in this xkcd comic.

Carol did try the syrup and is feeling better so this completely confirms the effectiveness of massive dilution on petty curatives.  In my next blog post I’ll reveal a surefire way to make money by investing in lottery tickets.


A Passionate Empiricist

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 8:22 am  

I enjoy Ted talks.  In particular I love the combination of a rational empirical approach with human compassion.  Hans Rosling embodies both and his latest Ted talk is inspiring and informative. 

If you want to see more visualizations of world health data, check out the GapMinder site.


Night Cruise on the Seine

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 3:35 am  

Now that the Museum tour is done we are switching to a more nocturnal schedule.   In comparison to North America, people start socializing quite late.  It is very unusual to have dinner before 8pm.  On Sunday evening we went to the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the Champs-Élysées.  The cafés were full and lots of people were out for a stroll.
On Monday we took a night cruise along the Seine. The trip was very romantic.  In fact a few couples were so swept away in the moment they missed most of the scenery.  The trip started and ended at the Eiffel tower and was timed to see the tower sparkle.


Picnic Perfection

Filed under: Paris — Tags: — Russell @ 5:20 am  

Carol, Emma and I met yesterday at Le Grande Epicerie de Paris.  Our mission, assemble the best picnic lunch ever.  We bought:

  • Fresh Sourdough bread
  • Foie gras with truffles
  • Comté Cheese
  • Cheese puffs
  • Ham/Olive cakes
  • jamón ibérico de bellota (Spanish ham from pigs fed with acorns)
  • Apple/Raspberry juice
  • Mango Juice
  • Melon Juice flavoured with Jasmin

We walked to a nearby park (Jardin du Luxembourg) and sat amid the statues while little French children sailed toy boats in the fountain.  The food was delicious.  The ham was so flavourful is seemed a shame to eat it with anything else.  Afterwards, we strolled around the garden digesting.  We still had one more stop to make this the perfect picnic.

A short distance away we came to Saint-Sulpice.  Across the road was the perceptual line outside of Pierre Hermé‘s bakery.  Emma and Carol picked out three treats.

The vanilla pastry was simple but rich.

The ispahan pastry had a single perfect rose petal on the top with a drop of dew candy.  This is the signature creation.  The rose scent enhances the raspberry and other flavours.  It takes a while to realize all of the components and we were excited to realize the centre was lychee.

And finally a chocolate pastry.

I’ve heard the term sinfully good but this is the first dessert that made me feel I was doing something forbidden.  This pastry may explain why so many men proposition women they don’t know on the street of Paris.  If the woman has just eaten this she will very likely say yes.  In fact several people did approach us as we ate, not to seduce but out of curiosity.  One Parisian woman asked if it was from Herme and gave us a jealous and knowing look.  We probably shouldn’t have put on such a spectacle in front of the church.


Arc de Triomphe and Trocadéro

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 5:50 am  

On the last day of our museum marathon, we started with the Arc de Triomphe.  Climbing to the top affords a tremendous view of the city.  This is not just due to the height but also the fact that many of the major avenues radiate out from the monument.  The monument was built on the orders of Napoleon as a place for his returning troupes to parade.

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Then we went to Trocadéro which overlooks the Eiffel Tower.

There we saw the Marine Museum and finally the magnificent Musée national des Monuments Français.  This museum contains casts of the most beautiful architectural features from all over France.  It was as if some evil villain had stolen the best of the country and spirited them away to his private estate.  If you go to Paris, you must see this.


Musée Rodin

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 3:34 am  

Yesterday, we visited the Rodin Museum.  Originally, this was a school run by nuns but they were evicted when it became illegal for religious orders to teach.  For a while, it was a hotel (Hôtel Biron) but then the state turned it into cheap apartments for artists.  Rodin, already famous at the time, established a home there and later convinced the state to turn it into a permanent exhibit for his work.

Rodin was commissioned by the government to produce many sculptures for public display.  His most famous is “The Thinker” which was on display at the Pantheon before being moved to the Hôtel Biron.  Inspired by the Divine Comedy it is thought to originally represent Dante.  While impressive, it has been so over exposed and lampooned that its power is diminished.

I much prefer “The Gates of Hell” which is an earlier piece that served as inspiration for many subsequent work including the Thinker.  Commissioned as a doorway for the Museum of Decorative Arts, it was never installed.  Only two full sized casts were every created.  One is in Paris and the other in Philadelphia.  It is a massive and complex piece with a large number of small figures representing stories from Dante.  No one would willingly walk through such a door, so it is probably best that the museum for which it was created was never built.

Besides the work of Rodin, the museum also has a room dedicated to his muse, lover and student Camille Claudel.  She is an acclaimed artist in her own right.  Her work The Mature Age is on display at the Musée d’Orsay.  This shows the separation of two lovers as one is led away by death.

The museum is housed on a large property near Les Invalides.  The grounds contain a garden with many Rodin statues including The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais.

After touring the museum we met Emma and had lunch in the garden.  Then we headed to Jim Morrison’s grave.  We got on the bus going the wrong way and were forced to get off at the Eiffel tower.  After a brief stop we went to Père Lachaise Cemetery to see Jim Morrison’s grave.  There were lots of hip artist types hanging around discussing inspiration and the music scene.  The best overheard line, “Someone asked why I paint and I say I felt the spirit of Van Gogh”.  We had intended to visit other famous graves including Oscar Wilde but we ran out of time.  With ancient crypts and towering mausoleums, this is not a good place to be trapped overnight.


A visiting Kiwi

Filed under: Paris — Tags: — Russell @ 3:21 am  

At the Loose Moose school this summer I met a woman from New Zealand named Emma.  Yesterday, she arrived in Paris.  Carol and I did our best to show her the sights of the city.

We met at Pompidou and went up to the top floor.  Our plan had been to have lunch but the restaurant was undergoing some crisis.  We lingered a while, enjoying the view.  The building isn’t that tall by modern city standards but there are very few tall buildings in the centre of Paris due to zoning restrictions.  From the top of Pompidou you can see most of the city.

Hunger finally spurred us to leave the view and we had lunch at Au Duc de Montmorency.  This was definitely not a tourist place.  The cook took us to the stove and described each dish.  Lunch was excellent and we lingered over coffee.

Thus fortified we walked over to Notre Dame.  It was crowded but we were able to get inside and tour the cathedral.  This is our second visit on this trip and each time I’m impressed by the artwork but unimpressed by the tourist who clamber over the worshippers to get a picture.  At the back, two chapels have been set aside for private prayer.  Those praying are out numbered 100 to one by the tourists who ignore the signs and barge in to the chapel.

Leaving Notre Dame we crossed the Seine.  The bridge was lined with art students.  There seem to be a lot of students, sketch pad in hand, practising on the excellent art and architecture.  We bought some ice cream and macaroons and walked along the river.

A few days ago we started shopping at Le Grande Epicerie de Paris.  It is difficult to describe this place but imagine you wake up one morning in heaven.  Feeling a little hungry, you run down the corner store to find it has been stocked by angels.  Each shelf is lovingly filled with the finest food imaginable.  You pass God in the cheese section and discuss wine pairings.

My friend Thomas grew up a short distance from the wonderful store.  His mother did her regular shopping there.  He was surprised to find that not only are most stores not as good, there are in fact no stores anywhere that compare.

Yesterday evening Emma came to dinner and we ate several delicacies from God’s convenience store.  After dinner we walked up the stairs to Sacre Couer and saw Paris laid out below.


Marathon de Musee

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 12:03 pm  

We are three days into a 6 day museum marathon.  Sunday was the Louvre.  Here are some pictures.  I’ll post some more when I catch my breath.

The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804, by Jacques Louis David

Seated Scribe, Egyptian

Pygmalion and Galatea, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson

Carol (clothed) amid the statues

Milon de Crotone

Code of Hammurabi

9000 year old statue


Napoleon’s Tomb

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 3:29 pm  

Everyone gets down in the dumps occasionally.  When you do, it helps to think of a happy time in your life.  Perhaps your fondest memory is of winning a prize.  Maybe you recall seeing something beautiful.  You might have been alone, but more likely you were surrounded by friends and loved ones who shared in your joy.

Countries can also feel a bit low and under-appreciated and, like people, they will look back into their past to relive a cherished moment.  In Canada, when we feel sad, when things aren’t going well, when we struggle to win a gold medal in hockey, we cast our minds back to 1972 when Henderson scored the winning goal in the Canada/Russia series.  Not only did we show the world that we were the top hockey nation, we defeated the great Russian bear at the height of the cold war.

Napoleon in his glory

France is not immune to a little tristesse nationale.  So what do the French recall when they seek inspiration?  In the rich annals of French history the most glorious time was the reign of Napoleon.  At one time, he commanded the largest army in Europe.  He ruled over an empire that covered much of the continent.  When he wasn’t defending or expanding his territory, he established a French legal system and began the changes that led to the modern French state.  He was a great believer in meritocracy.  One of his most successful military strategies was to promote people based on ability rather than family connections.  It turns out an army of competent commoners can beat a bunch of aristocrats any day of the week.

Eventually, Napoleon’s time ended and he was sent into exile.  After his death, his body was buried in an unmarked grave on the island of Helena.  In 1840, his remains were returned to Paris where they are interred under the dome of Les Invalides.

Les Invalides was originally a rest home for wounded soldiers.  That original mandate continues and part of it still houses recovering military personnel.  It also contains a museum and the tomb of Napoleon.  The sarcophagus is carved in stone and lays within a sunken chamber below the main floor of the dome.  It is visible from above, but to reach the main crypt you must descend behind the altar and pass the two guardians at the entrance.

In the main crypt the sarcophagus is encircled by a walkway.  The walls of the walkway are decorated with reliefs showing the various roles that Napoleon played in life.  Dressed in the manner of a Roman Emperor, he sits in judgment.  Other scenes show him taking the earlier code of law and handing the people the Napoleonic code.

The opulence of the tomb and the obvious reverence shows that he is still held in high regard.  So if you want to see a glimpse of past glories, or you are planning your own world domination, visit Les Invalides.