In honor of Anthony Bourdain's return to Paris for the 100th episode of No Reservations this week, I'm digging up notes I wrote five years ago, reflecting on my own first visit to Paris during a summer internship in graduate school.
Gliding down the streets of Paris in a Mercedes taxi from Place Vendome to Rue Kleber, I marveled at the extraordinary elegance of that city. The architecture is simply wondrous and yet perhaps a bit delicate looking, but in a sense ultimately substantial in form, not unlike a soufflé. I had woken-up after four hours of sleep and serendipitously put on my only “French” tie, a blue, cashmere Yves St. Laurent number that I had semi-absently packed. Another day was spent with our outside counsel poring over documents that lawyers have the gift for making either nauseating, deathly boring, or often both. The fare during the day was fairly modest (relatively speaking). We were drinking seemingly thimble-sized coffees to stay awake and washing down shrimp and salmon sandwiches, that were heavily-laden with mayonnaise (but of course!), with bottles of sour, Vichy, mineral water—something I’ve never acquired the taste for.
That evening we hit the proverbial brick wall of fatigue and everyone went out to dinner in the colorful quarter of La Marais. Finding a lively little Moroccan restaurant called 404 that came highly recommended, we sat around two large brass trays and drank Algerian wine and some strong mojito-inspired drinks that the barman said was his own specialty from among his repertoire of aperitifs, as magical dishes were brought out. First, we feasted on a plate of off-the-menu merguez sausages, each bite of which was a sublime wave of piquant seasoning and equally fine lamb. This was accompanied by flaky pastila pies of chicken baked with a particularly sweet infusion of cinnamon. Small pots of lentils and lamb soup and sardines farci were next. To this day, my mental image of sardines, like that of most people, is of an unexciting can of rather pathetic, oily globs that imitate fish—sometimes unconvincingly so. Oh, but then, one is reminded that the world need not be just a bleak and unsatisfying place. Slightly crispy, stuffed sardines of a substantial length and mass appeared and I devoured them as slowly as I could, drawing on all the powers of restraint I’ve ever had, if only to savor the different textures in each bite: skin, flesh, and greens, and then finally in an encore of sorts the zesty lemon juice that clung to the crust like the last veneer of morning dew.
Finally, big ceramic pots of chicken, fish, and lamb tanjine were presented. Large mounds of superb cous cous were also at hand. The lamb was tender and artichokes were suitably rich with the flavor of the tanjine broth. Eating can sometimes feel like an endurance sport of sorts. This means that sometimes pacing, some amount of discipline, and always will power are required for excellence. I was in rare form: with a few breaks and enough wine, I polished off most of the pot. I then ate a little of the almost perfumed fish tanjine, which was a real treat: the softness of the stewed fish absorbing some extra notes of mint. As some needed to sit and digest, others stood and danced to the now quite loud Arabic music, puffing on Marlboros, and not at all feeling confined by our cramped seating circumstances.
Glasses of fragrant tea were served and dinner had to be walked off by a leisurely midnight stroll back to the hotels. La Marais was abuzz with street life as restaurants and bars overflowed into the streets that Thursday night. The cool night air and the moonlit buildings added a certain “I don’t know what.” There, my enchantment with Paris was fairly complete.
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