Another great(er) meal at Le Petite Perigourdine

For King’s Day (who needs an excuse, right?), we wanted to see if Le Petite Perigourdine was as good as we remembered, so we walked down to the corner of rue St. Jacques and des Ecoles for another try.

The restaurant was lively and crowded when we walked in about 8:30, so we were relieved to see we were not the typically conspicuous early eating Americans. As a matter of fact, our ear told us we were the only Americans in the place. That’s generally a good sign.

Here’s the latest review of Perigourdine–it’s even better than before. Do not miss this wonderful little bistro when you visit Paris.

Tableside service–a near-vanished breed–is the norm at Perigourdine. We watched the waiter carve a mammoth steak for the table next to us, after which he performed the show of doling out the mashed potatoes from a copper pot into the plates below, twirling off the last strands with a flourish of his spoon.

Lynn ordered the duck confit with slices of garlic potatoes, and I chose the lamb shank with white beans.

Both were the best of each that we have ever had.

My lamb shank fell off the bone, while the outside was seared to a crusty crisp that held in the juices.  The flavor of the large white beans worked perfectly with the meat. Only once have I ever had a lamb shank to compare to this one, and that was at the late, lamented Martinique Restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans.

Lynn’s duck confit came out much the same, crispy on the skin, juicy in the meat. And her potatoes were redolent with garlic that elevated them to the level of a chosen dish on their own.

Both confit and shanks are typically cooked for a long time to render them tender; lots of places do that quite well. The difference at Perigourdine is the last-minute roasting that gives the meat the crispy exterior that contrasts so well with the juicy, tender meat falling off the bone.

We ordered a pichet of pinot noir, which our waiter praised. And it was indeed quite tasty. The 50 cl pichet is the perfect size for two at dinner. Why American restaurants don’t offer the pichet mystifies me, because they can charge three quarters of the price of a bottle for two thirds of the contents.

After downing the entire meal and pichet–ordering an appetizer verges on gluttony–we could not resist sharing an order of profiteroles for dessert. (Gluttony? Who said that?)  These again were as good as any we have ever had. The ice cream was rich as only the French can make it, the pastry was crusty, and all of it was drowning in a sea of warm, dark chocolate sauce. We ate every morsel. Thankfully they had taken the bread away, or we would have mopped up the very last drop of the sauce too.

On the way out, we introduced ourselves to the chef. Between his halting English and our halting French, we communicated in that universal language of great food. C’est bon!

 

The one church you must see

We have visited a half a dozen churches in Paris and the area. We went to Christmas Eve Mass at Notre Dame, and we have toured St. Chapelle, Chartres, Sacre Coeur, St. Etienne du Mont, our parish church right around the corner and the original church founded to honor St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.

But the one church you absolutely must see is the Basilica of St. Denis.

Located way out in the northern suburbs of Paris, the basilica is the second last stop on the Metro 13 line, just before the University of St. Denis. The neighborhood is definitely not St. Germain or the Latin Quarter. It is gritty, largely immigrant and not at all upscale.

St. Denis is the first Gothic cathedral ever built and is considered the Westminster of France, with more than 70 recumbent statues and tombs. A total of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and 10 great men were buried here. (Calling it Westminster is not quite accurate, as France’s greatest poets, writers and philosophers are interred in the Pantheon behind our apartment.)

The site of the church dates back to the late fifth century when St. Genevieve herself purchased the land to build a church. In 636, Dagobert had the remains of St. Denis, the other patron saint of Paris, moved to the chapel there. (Ironically, St. Denis’s remains were transferred back to St. Etienne du Mont during the Revolution, then returned in 1819 to the church dedicated to him.)

In the 12th century, Abbot Suger began rebuilding and enlarging the original church in the new Gothic style. It became the model for all the others to be built over the next couple of centuries.

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Inside, St. Denis showcases all the quintessential Gothic features–soaring vaulted ceilings, huge stained glass windows (mostly not original anymore) and groupings of slender columns supporting the entire structure. The dozens of recumbent statues representing the kings of France from Clovis I to Louis XVIII are spread all over the ambulatory.

Most of the bodies in the tombs were removed during the Revolution and buried in a mass grave, so very few human remains actually remain in the tombs. Some relics of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were recovered and reportedly re-interred in the church.

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The statuary styles range from medieval simplicity to classical Renaissance splendor. The helpful audio guide walks the visitor through the tombs, essentially relating the history of France from its founding to the Revolution. (The tour through the tombs is a separate, paid entrance but well worth the price.)

St. Denis does not have the high profile of the other famous churches in Paris, but it displays all the best elements of their architecture and history. It is not to be missed.

 

 

A walk through Victor Hugo’s apartment

Place des Vosges is highly recommended to visitors and rightfully so. It is a large square just a few blocks from the Bastille Opera (the new one) in the trendy Marais area of Paris.

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The square is surrounded on all four sides by matching imposing buildings, generally four floors each, with vaulted galleries on the ground containing art galleries and a few coffee shops. Place des Vosges was the first urban planning project in Paris, developed in the very early 17th century by King Henry IV. It was originally known as the Palace Royale, because that’s what the first building was, although no French king or queen actually lived there.

Louis XIII was married there to celebrate the square’s inauguration in 1612, and Cardinal Richelieu commissioned an equestrian statue to be erected to Louis later in the century. The original statue was torn down and melted by the French Revolutionaries about 250 years later, and a new one was erected about 50 years after that. (Is there a lesson here for New Orleans politicians?)

The most significant attraction at Place des Vosges is Victor Hugo’s apartment, where the beloved father of the French Republic and prolific writer lived for 16 years before he was exiled. Hugo’s apartment is a fine example of a house museum. Rather than attempt to simply recreate his living quarters, the apartment is designed to tell the story of his life from his earliest years to his deathbed.

Some of the rooms do faithfully recreate his Place des Vosges apartment, but others showcase his life in exile in Guernsey, then later at the end of his life back in Paris but living at a different location. The final room in the tour replicates Hugo’s bedroom, including the actual bed in which he died. Ironically, a painting of his long-time mistress, Juliette Drouet, just before she died, hangs in the doorway to the entrance of Hugo’s final bedroom.

The current temporary exhibition on the first floor showcases Hugo’s apparent boundless sexual appetites with a collection of 18th and 19th century art and sculpture that can only be considered pornography by even current standards. In some ways, it is reassuring to see that certain practices are timeless.

 

A house museum on steroids

At the suggestion from a friend, we visited Musée Jacquemart-André, built in the late 19th century on prestigious Blvd. Hausemann just a few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. (www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com)

Just one side of the modest marble stairway to the upstairs galleries.
Just one side of the modest marble stairway to the upstairs galleries.

The home was built to house the couple’s art collection, which consisted of innumerable paintings, tapestries, sculptures and furniture they collected all over Europe. Upon their death, they bequeathed the home and contents to the French government to maintain the collection of art and architecture intact.

The audio guide discreetly calls the couple upper middle class. We would use the term filthy rich. Nonetheless, it is an interesting tour, although a bit pricey at 12 euros for admission plus three more each for the audioguide. A bit more pricey for me was the loss of my good scarf in the cloakroom. It just disappeared from my coat.

Saints win!

We ate at home early Sunday evening so we could walk across the street to La Pomme d’Eve, our little underground bar that shows NFL RedZone. We watched football, although very little of the Saints game, since it had no playoff implications, while we enjoyed Havana Club rum on the rocks.

There is just something different about Havana Club. Even the cheapest three-year-old white rum version is smoother and more flavorful than any other popular brand we get at home.

And there is something different about La Pomme d’Eve. Located in a deep underground in a vaulted cavern, it is open only sporadically. We were the only customers in the place the entire time, but a large bouncer/doorman stands at the street entrance to screen patrons as they enter.

Like I said, there is something different about this place. But the Saints won.

In search of the elusive Sunday Bloody Mary

Sunday means Bloody Marys, so on this chilly, rainy Sunday, we headed out on a mission to the source of the tasty beverage–Harry’s New York Bar, where Hemingway hung out and the purported inventor of the Bloody Mary.

But first, we stopped at the Place de la Concorde on the way to see if we could get into the Hotel de la Marine (the Navy Department) for a free visit during its two-day-only opening to the public. This magnificent building houses the largest collection of 18th century furniture in Paris. Most furniture in the great palaces was destroyed in the French Revolution, but somehow the contents of the Hotel de la Marine were spared.

Throngs stand in line to get into the Hotel de la Marine. We are not among them.
Throngs stand in line to get into the Hotel de la Marine. We are not among them.

Unfortunately, half of Paris had the same idea, and the lines snaked around the block. Not willing to stand around for an hour or so in the rain, we scuttled back down the Metro to find Harry’s Bar just a couple of blocks from the Garnier Opera.

Originator of the Bloody Mary, now costing 14 euros.
Originator of the Bloody Mary, now costing 14 euros.

Again we were stymied–Harry’s is closed on Sunday. No great loss. They charge 14 euros for a Bloody Mary. No Bloody Mary can be that good.

So back to St. Germain we went and decided to visit Cafe de Conti down the street from last summer’s hotel, the Dauphine St. Germain, a gem. Conti’s Bloody Mary was pretty good, but I was shocked to be told that they do not accept credit cards for payment. They had just taken my credit card the week before and several times during our visit last summer. This was the first time I had experienced rude treatment in Paris.

You don’t argue in someone else’s language, so I paid the tab and we walked out, never to return to Cafe Conti again. Back in the apartment later in the day, I made sure to share our experience on Trip Advisor and Google.

To cap off a frustrating day, all the regular grocery stores were closed after 1 p.m., and we were dangerously low on wine. I wandered up and down rue Monge, looking for an open store in vain. Finally, I settled for a mini-market that was overpriced for wine, any port in a storm…

Visiting the shrines

Saturday is the day for two old favorites–Sacre Coeur at Montmarte and Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

As we left the Metro atop at Montmarte, I noticed everyone was herding at the elevator to leave the station. I had forgotten that it is 90–yes, 90–steps to the street. Too late to turn around in the crowds. Up the stairs we went.

We gladly invested another train ticket for the funicular up to the basilica, where another stairway awaits.

Up Montmarte on the funicular.
Up Montmarte on the funicular.

As we reached the top of the stairs to Sacre Coeur, the trinket sellers were hustling down the steps, their blankets drawn up, as the local police car patrolled by.

We see these guys everywhere and in all cities. They display their wares on a blanket with loops at each corner so they grab the ropes into a bag in a nano-second when the local authorities approach. They were out in force New Year’s Eve at the Eiffel Tower, and they populate tourist-heavy spots like Sacre Coeur in droves.

As we worked out way into the church embedded in a thick stream of visitors, I thought to myself this was the perfect time to visit a church like Sacre Coeur, since it the middle of Saturday, and Mass will not be an issue.

Wouldn’t you know it–we walked right into the 11:15 a.m. Saturday Mass. Right at the moment of the Consecration.

We shuffled along with the crowds along the side, keeping silent. We sat down to respectfully watch the Communion ceremony, then watched as the officiating priest ended Mass with a remote control that lifted a curtain above the original altar revealing the most spectacular monstrance I had ever seen. This magnificent instrument must stand a good five feet, supported by near life-sized gilded angels. The entire display was dramatically lighted from above. The Catholic Church knows how to make a statement.

Having seen the light, we actually walked down the stairs to catch a train to the other world–Cemetery Pere Lachaise, final resting place of more than a million residents, including scores of the famous.

Pere Lachaise, named for Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, is one of the few historic cemeteries in Paris, since the residents of the oldest ones were disinterred and placed in the catacombs that weave underneath the city. We toured the catacombs last summer; they are worth a spooky visit.

Lynn had had enough walking and does not share my fascination with cemeteries, so she planted herself on a park bench near the entrance to wait on my visit to Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf.

Morrison’s gravesite is covered with flowers, and the tree in front is covered with chewing gum. The cemetery officials have shrouded the bottom six feet of the tree with removable, replaceable bamboo screens to preserve the tree from the ravages of tourist deposits. I don’t remember this from before. What goes through peoples’ minds?

Not far down the lane from Morrison’s repose is a much more recent one–the grave of a 21-year-old woman killed at Bataclan. There were no gawking crowds here, but her resting place stopped me in my tracks. She looked very pretty in her photo.

Edith Piaf’s grave is small, nondescript and all the way up in the far top righthand corner of the cemetery. Her stage name is engraved on the side, as her true family name was Gassion. Her initials, PF, are engraved large on an urn at the top of the black polished sarcophagus for fans to place flowers.

After a small panic attack trying to find Lynn in the cemetery, I was happy to retreat to the bistro across the street for a refreshing beer.

 

New Year’s Lay Day

After rolling in at 2 a.m. New Year’s morning, we did what all thinking mature Americans should do the next day–lay about and watch football.

Well, not exactly watch. You can pick up the ESPN gamecast of football games on your computer/iPad. It’s not exactly like watching, but you don’t have commercial breaks either.

One reason we chose to stay in Paris for nearly a month is so we can enjoy a lay day, rest our legs and not feel like we are squandering precious time. Hardly anyone else was out on the streets either on New Year’s Day.

We did, however, pop down to rue des Ecoles to have a Bloody Mary about 4 p.m. at L’Authre Bistro. Not bad, but not a full glass either.

Except for Le Bombardier, which is a British pub, the standard Parisian Bloody Mary is tomato juice and vodka served with Worstershire, Tabasco and celery salt on the side. Adding the right amounts of all three make a reasonably passable Bloody Mary.

We plan to try the one at Harry’s Bar, where the Bloody Mary was supposedly invented. That will be our mission for our last week in Paris.

 

New Year’s Eve

We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Paris at the heart of the celebration but not in the crowds, so we booked a cruise on the river. Actually, the real center of the Paris New Year’s Eve party is on Champs Elysées, where the Arc de Triomphe displays the annual light show. But after two experiences with the crowds there, Lynn wanted nothing to do with Paris’s most famous boulevard.

Bateau Parisiens offers an overpriced dinner cruise but a reasonable regular cruise that includes a split of Champagne for each passenger and an expansive view of the Eiffel Tower at midnight.

After another tasty osso buco dinner at home, we left for the train station early at 8 p.m. to make sure we could get to the Eiffel Tower and the boat dock in time for the cruise. To our surprise, the RER train station and the train itself were all but empty. And the ride was free–metro authorities open up all the trains on New Year’s Eve to move vehicular traffic off the streets.

Once we arrived at our stop, however, the crowds built rapidly at the Eiffel Tower. Street vendors were everywhere, hawking bottles and glasses of wine, lighted plastic Eiffels, hot mulled wine, the hated selfie sticks, glowing self-launched helicopters, roasted nuts and huge bowls of steaming grilled onions and sausage. Altogether, the scene created a sensory overload of people, languages, smells and a generally festive atmosphere, despite the ever-present threat of terrorism. Police were out in force on the bridges, along the river quays and under the Eiffel Tower itself, which was closed except for the high-end restaurants.

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The crowd was somewhat down-scale, mostly young adults and families, many with toddlers in strollers. What was rally lacking was a place to purchase an adult beverage other than wine on the street. The nearest bistro to the Eiffel Tower area is across the Seine and all the way around the back of the Trocadero, which is a walk of many blocks. The boat company could make a fortune setting up a temporary bar for passengers waiting to board.

After passing through the security line twice, Lynn did not want to leave the ramp again, so we wound up being almost the first passengers on the boat, just behind a couple from Huntsville, AL. He was oh-so-friendly and chatty about their various New Year’s Eve adventures that we silently but firmly made sure to go in the opposite direction when we boarded.

Bateau Parisien presented each of us a small bag containing an ice cold split of Champagne, a plastic flute (mine was cracked, so we had to share), a small bag of madeleines, a noisemaker and a party hat. The Champagne was quite nice; the total of a full bottle lasted exactly the length of the trip.

If you have ever taken the boat trip on the Seine, you appreciate how beautiful Paris is from the water. It was especially so this evening, as the Eiffel Tower was awash in lights that changed to a dazzling, dancing LED display every 15 minutes or so.

At the stroke of midnight, all the cruise boats gathered at the base of the tower to ring in the New Year. Most of the passengers climbed to the top, but we could see just fine from the warmth of the inside. Imagine some 15-20 boats hovering for five to ten minutes using only their thrusters waiting for the light show to begin on the Eiffel Tower. I was more fascinated by the skill of the skippers to keep us all from crashing together.

As soon as it was over, the boat docked, we disembarked, walked back to the train station, once again empty, and took the RER C, once again mostly empty, back to our Latin Quarter, which was–you guessed it–mostly if not completely empty.

We really wanted a bit of a nightcap to finish off the New Year’s celebration, but virtually every bistro was shut down for the evening. However, now that we have lived in our neighborhood for better than two weeks, we knew exactly where the bar doesn’t close–The Bombardier, a British pub across from the Pantheon.

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And The Bombardier was indeed festive and noisy, with American oldies music playing in the background, student-aged partiers drinking heavily and two American oldies who just wanted a glass of wine and a Scotch to end a most celebratory evening. We drank up and walked the eerily quiet streets home to our four flights of stairs. Luckily, we had had the foresight to set up the bed before we left, so all we had to do was fall in. We don’t stay up until 2 a.m. very often.