Seasons by the Sea: Paris Part Deux

Let us begin “Paris Part Deux” with one of the more magnificent and elaborate meals I had the pleasure of indulging in. Chez l’Ami Jean is a restaurant that Tommy and Mike had been sending guests to for years, but had yet to try themselves. Everyone would come back raving about this tiny, bustling, and rustic spot.
    The recommended aperitif was a Spanish cooked wine called txapa. It was a deep pink, slightly sweet, barely chilled, delicious. We decided to go for one of the tasting menus. It began with a bowl of artfully piled small pieces of raw fish. Onto this the waiter poured a piping hot, deep-brick-colored fish soup. The soup slowly cooked the fish bits, which remained slippery and moist while absorbing the flavor of the broth. Somewhere on the bottom were crunchy bits of breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil, giving the soup texture.
    This was followed by squares of cod topped with crispy lardons of bacon and sitting on a bed of julienned sautéed celery. Next came little beef medallions with a salty anchovy sauce, a hint of cardamom and herbs, and an electric green spinach purée, then rabbit that was swathed in an inky-dark foie gras sauce. The portions were small, but at this point I feared I could not keep up with the big boys. Next up, seared rare duck breast accompanied by pork belly, garnished with a ribbon of crisp yet pale cured bacon. All of it sitting atop a potato galette. Uncle!
    The dessert, deceptively simple, was so inspiring that I did my best to duplicate it upon my return. A big bowl of creamy rice pudding was placed in the center of the table and we could serve ourselves as much as we pleased. The accompaniments that made the pudding shine were fresh raspberry sauce, candied sliced almonds, salted caramel whipped cream, an apple bergamot purée, and to follow, a mint sorbet with fresh raspberries. I asked my hosts if requesting a doggy bag was acceptable in Paris. Non! But I couldn’t let my piece of duck go to waste and asked for one anyway. The waiter did not mind a bit, and that piece of duck found its way into a rich cassoulet back at Tommy’s a few nights later.
    In the first of what would be several small world coincidences in Paris, we even ran into some acquaintances from East Hampton at Chez l’Ami Jean.
    One of my favorite wanderings with Tommy was the hardware department in the basement of a department store. Everything looks different, more artfully arranged, from the brass fixtures to the wastebaskets to the electric radiators. Another shop had a window display of corks, all shapes and sizes.
    The Sunday flea market was another revelation. Not so much for the massive amounts of gilded furniture or the distinguished armoires, but for the picnics that each of the vendors was enjoying. It may have appeared that they were working on a Sunday but what I saw were tables laden with red wine, patés, loaves of whole-grain breads, and other round loaves hollowed out into which tea sandwiches had been layered. Nobody seemed to be competing for business; they were enjoying each other’s company, gossiping, smoking, and tossing tidbits to the small dogs that had accompanied them to “work.”
    We ate several dinners at home, prepared by Tommy, a superb chef, in a kitchen the size of a closet. On the few evenings I was permitted into the closet to help, we had to take turns being in the kitchen-closet. One of our at-home meals was simply a salad of Bibb lettuce, arugula, radishes, toasted pumpkin seeds, pistachios, and almonds in a shallot dressing prepared by moi, padded out with some purchased Middle Eastern dips and vegetable dishes such as taramasalata (a salty roe spread), baba ghanoush, tzatziki, and roasted peppers.
    A more elaborate meal at home was a rolled roast lamb prepared by the butcher with sundried tomatoes, herbs, and minced shallots, wrapped in caul fat, a very simple green salad with chervil and parsley, a layered tomato, zucchini, and onion gratin, and a Mont d’Or cheese (similar to Epoisses, which you can get in America). While shopping for this meal we argued vociferously over what to have for dessert. Tommy insisted that a bowl of grapes would suffice after such a rich repast. As a pastry chef, I wanted to buy the pretty square raspberry tart that I’d seen in the window of a shop the day before. I mean, really! Grapes?! Boy, was I wrong. The variety of grapes we bought and served was beyond anything I had tried before. They were the sweetest, most perfumy little things I have ever tasted. Truly, another revelation.
    Before I departed for Paris, I told my son the dates I would be gone. “That’s funny,” he laughed. “Dad’s going to be in Paris at the same time.” Although amicably divorced for 16 years, we have never found a reason to see each other in New York, which would certainly make more sense. But it seemed like a hoot to get together in Paris, merely for the coincidental timing. I also wanted him to get reacquainted with my beautiful niece, Cristina, now 22, whom he hadn’t seen since she was a baby. Coincidence on top of coincidence, she is living and studying in Paris in the same neighborhood where Tommy and Mike live. So we all ended up having a jolly cocktail party with Negronis and red wine, which then turned into an impromptu dinner. Tommy magically turned our leftover lamb and my duck from Chez l’Ami Jean into a quickie cassoulet.
    On another lunch outing (Le Comptoir, brandade de morue, terrine of pot au feu, parmentier of oxtail, panna cotta with strawberries, prune and armagnac glacé . . .), we sat outside next to a couple from Costa Rica. We struck up a conversation and found out that they are friends of my sister-in-law from El Salvador. The coincidences were piling up!
    Here are a few of the snack-meals that we never told Mike about. (Tommy and I broke the no-lunch-before-big-dinner rule every day.) After a morning of walking for miles on no breakfast, we stopped at a touristy-looking place called Le Moliere. With no expectations whatsoever, we ordered the buckwheat crepe with a creamy potato, lardons, and melted Reblechon cheese known as crepe Savoyarde. It was so rich and creamy and salty and smoky, we savored each bite. We left one teaspoonful on the plate so we could say we didn’t finish it.
    The last, and one of the most perfect snacks, was on my final day. Tommy, the most thoughtful of hosts, was taking me on my desired rounds to find gifts to bring home. The Maille mustard shop, La Praluline for chocolates and that crazy pink praline cake, a knife store for an Opinel picnic knife, and so on. We popped into a wine bar called L’Ecluse. We discussed the temptation of simply ordering a slab of foie gras to have with a glass of Sauternes. Too expensive, too extravagant, I protested. But guess what, folks? The cost of a memorable glass of Sauternes in Paris is no more than a glass of mediocre house wine in any restaurant in East Hampton. My flabber has never been so gasted! We ate slowly and sipped slowly, for there is nothing else you can do when faced with such dreamy French creations.
    My last meal in Paris was a special treat. Dinner at Chez Georges, a restaurant so old that Tommy’s parents had also gone there most of their lives. Another houseguest had arrived, adventurous Rosie, who lives and works as a pilot on tiny Harbour Island in the Bahamas. Tommy chose steak with marrow after a salad of frisée with lardons and a poached egg. Mike went for paté and lamb chops with french fries. Rosie went for the escargots and requested her fillet of sole be served whole. I had the frisée salad, a special of the evening, sautéed girolles mushrooms, and the fillet of sole meunierre. All of it was rich and magnificent, but really no better than our impromptu meals at home or the surprise of the crepe Savoyarde.
    There were more meals packed into those six days that I haven’t even described; onion soup, beet and mache salads, apple tarts with creme fraiche, and the discovery of kouign amann, a buttery Breton pastry I haven’t come across in 20 years.
    This story is mostly about food but the experience was not. The culture of France teaches you, or reminds you, to eat well and enjoy life. It can be done on a budget, and can even be done while you are at work selling furniture on a Sunday afternoon. Thanks to Tommy and Mike, this adventure has given me memories, inspiration, and friendships better than foie gras.

Click for Recipes