12 February 2009

Clams Roulette

Now that the most serious work for this trip done, we've spent the last couple of days exploring parts of the city on foot. One of the most striking things is how there is commerce everywhere. I'm not sure it's possible to live more than 2 blocks away from a vendor of just about any needs-of-life goods. In that regard, the city seems more like a collection of small villages, admittedly with unvillage-sized buildings, than like a big city. The commerce falls into a few noticeable groupings.

The first is the pharmacy. I had read that the French are famously fond of self-medicating, but it was still surpring to see that pharmacies are more abundant here than are Starbucks in Philly. If france ever decides to redesign its flag, I would suggest a green neon cross.

Clothing must be more important here than anywhere I've lived in the US, because clothing stores are abundant. Window prices vary from the extravagant, say, 700 euros for a pair of shoes, to reasonable, say 65 euros for a nice-looking sweater. There's obviously some correlation of style and price with neighborhood (fashion show-worthy along the Champs Elysees to bohemian grunge in Monmartre), but I've been surprised that the places we've walked have supported quite a range within each neighborhood.

I pay most attention to food shops, though. It appears to be illegal for there to be more than 100 m between patissiers, the purveyors of bread and pastries. This is an example of useful government and sensible legislation. In the 1990s, bread connoisseurs lamented a decades-long decline in baguette quality in France in general and Paris in particular. I don't know whether rediscovery of artisan bread similar to that in the US has occurred here, but the average quality of bread we've sampled has been very high. One could, actually, live happily by bread alone in Paris. But that would mean missing out on all of the other goodies made with exquisitely flaky puff pastry and filled or exactingly topped with fruit or chocolate. That you're never more than 100 paces from these delights is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is obvious, the curse being only that sampling them all is virtually impossible.

In close second in terms of density of food shop are butchers. France is not an easy place to be a vegetarian, as substantial pieces of meat are still a major part of normal meals. Butcher shops still start with pieces that are identifiable as animals, and depending on their specialty, sell mostly either naked cuts or pre-tied, stuffed, and seasoned (but not cooked, except for chicken roasting on the spit outside of some establishments) offerings. Calves' liver is ubiquitous in the butcher shops, but I've not yet seen sweetbreads or other offal in display. Cheese shops, fish shops, and produce stands also abound, and many hybrid shops that sell wine, teas, some cheeses, some pastries, etc. I'm not sure the quality or diversity of ingredients here is any better than in Philadelphia; we're blessed there with active farmers' markets, real butchers in the Reading Terminal and Italian markets, and good cheese shops and specialty vendors. But the availability here is notable.

Thus far in our (very limited) Paris dining out experience, I would argue that Philly has higher quality, more innovative, and definitely more diverse eating. The sameness of Parisian restaurants is remarkable. Whether bistro, brasserie, or restaurant, the offerings are nearly identical. And frankly, they're not so interesting that they warrant sampling over and over and over again. Furthermore, the sauces that distinguish the dishes, and presumably the restaurants, are not the extraordinary elixirs you'd expect from the originators of the codified sauce world.

That said, we've had a run of good food in the last 24 h. We had a nice lunch today at a Brasserie local to our apartment, intrigued as we walked past last night by their 4 taps (a relative rarity here-- Monk's or Standard Tap would make the average Parisian's head explode). Roasted milk-pork with frites, and on-tap Abbaye de Leff hit the spot. The waitress was great, food was good-- we'll definitely be there, again. And last night we went to a seafood restaurant in the 14th arrondissement rumored to be among the good quality and value places in Paris. Describing it as a seafood restaurant was more apt than we anticipated, since not only was there no land-based animal on the menu, but there was almost nothing but the fish itself on the plates.

As a complimentary starter, they brought a bowl of tiny clams, sauteed in butter and pepper, like mussels. Since exploring the full extent of my allergies, especially in a foreign country, is like playing Russian Roulette, I don't usually eat shellfish. But since we were only a block away from a hospital, and Karen, who usually shames me out of pushing my luck with shellfish, couldn't wipe the smile off her face while eating them, I gave one of them a shot. It was what seafood should be-- it was like eating the ocean. And that's pretty much how the whole meal went: oven-roasted baby sole, whole and sooooo lightly breaded and seasoned, perfectly crisp on the outside but delicate and moist inside; mullet, firm and moist and a little bitter, with a little sauteed spinach and a spinach sauce, the only sauce or color on any of the plates; and a fillet of sea bass, sweet and decadently succulent. It was like eating real and ripe fruit-- luscious and hedonistic. It seemed when the plain plates showed up that the food could be bland, but I'm not sure I've ever tasted (cooked) fish so clearly before. It was just all about the fish-- perfectly fresh ingredient, perfect cooking. Wow. We'll go back.

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