Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The search for non-existent Italian restaurants in Paris

Before I start on my anecdote of our difficulty in finding a restaurant in Paris, I have to mention something about my blog traffic in the last few days.

This is a modest little blog which I hope will grow in popularity over time, but it is sort of schizophrenic. It is my literary blog where I will opine my thoughts regarding the craft of writing and the business of publishing and marketing, as well as nitpicky thoughts I have on the Harry Potter series, and discussing my progress on a series of novels based on the legends of Charlemagne.

I noticed yesterday that my blog traffic had increased tenfold what it normally generates. It also does not appear that there was any one blog that I can credit for linking to me or highlighting one of my posts.

Nope, it appears that for some reason there are a lot of people Googling the phrase "conjured a white handkerchief from the end of his wand." Somehow or another I've risen to being the second link for that cluster of words.

Hey, whatever.

I do a lot of Googling and I am sure that if the NSA reviewed my search history they would be scratching their heads trying to follow all of my disparate interests and/or researching arcane trivia.

So for those who are new to this blog and are interested in my L.O.O.N.ish thoughts on Harry Potter, go right ahead and read them in the archives. Please note that the acronym of L.O.O.N. contains both "obsessive" and "nitpickers" in the title and realize that it accurately describes my thoughts on the Potterverse.

Now, back to reconstructing my trip to France. This is as much as a mental exercise for myself to serve as diary of sorts as well as potentially serving as recommendations for others who might wish to follow my footsteps and know what to expect.

I spent countless hours in the months before we left trying to determine exactly how to make the most of my time in Paris. I knew what days the various museums were closed as well as their hours. I also tried to consolidate our steps and group the various landmarks together whenever possible.

We still walked so much that our legs ached.

A few months before our trip we started taking walks at a local park trying to get in shape for what we knew would be steep climbs in mountainous areas. I did not expect that just the sheer distance in Paris would be more challenging than trekking up mountain top villages.

After the long day of sightseeing on Tuesday, I was exhausted and hungry. One thing that I did not plan within an inch of its life was where to eat. We had gotten some recommendations from friends, and had brought several guide books with us, but I knew that any of those sources could quickly be rendered out-of-date if restaurants changed owners or went out of business.

Before we left California, my husband and I had lunch with the parents of one of my son's schoolmates. Her parents had lived outside of Paris before moving to our town a few years ago. Jacques and Jodi shared with us many insights about France, and at one point in the discussion my husband asked about Italian restaurants in Paris.

Jacques dismissed it entirely and said that there were not any.

I did not fully appreciate Jacques's dry sense of humor until after we were in Paris and saw several Italian restaurants. Every time we saw one, Scott and I would say, "there's another non-existent Italian restaurant."

Given the long history between Italy and France, starting with Rome's conquest of Gaul and the Roman occupation for centuries to the more recent defeat of France at the hands of Italy in the FIFA World Cup - I can understand that there might be some residual resentment by Frenchmen against Italians.

Tuesday night I thought it would be nice to have my husband choose where to have dinner. I
asked Scott if during our walks in the day if he had seen any restaurants he liked.

He did. He saw an Italian restaurant on the Ile Saint Louis. He sounded confident because thought he knew exactly where it was.

We crossed over the bridge from the Isle de la Cité onto the neighboring island. During this walk we passed two different men trying to garner money by their musical talents. These were scary dudes who sang loudly and had no observable talent. One man had a guitar, the other was surrounded by multiple instruments, none of which made any melodious sounds.

I was grateful that they were on the other side of the street and we made a mental note to retrace our steps and remain on the same side when we returned to our hotel.

Ile Saint Louis is a small island with a single road bisecting its length, a road circling its perimeter, and small streets that cut across its width. It does not take long to walk the entire length of the island.

We walked down the center and passed by one Italian restaurant. It was not the one Scott had in mind.

Once we reached the end of the island, I started to doubt his confidence in knowing where this restaurant was.

We started to go down the various side streets, to no avail.

I was getting hungry. I was also getting a tad cranky.

I needed to eat. What I did not need was to spend another hour walking around Paris in the dark searching for a restaurant he thought he had seen earlier in the day. We had covered a lot of real estate that day and at that point, I was ready to eat just about anywhere.

Scott then said that I since I was angry I should choose a restaurant. I was not angry with him, I was just tired and hungry and needed to eat something.

We walked back down the center of the island and after reading a few menus I saw one that did not look too expensive. I recognized some of the items and knew there were a few I would enjoy. It had a fixed price of 30 Euros for soup, salad, appetizers, a main course, dessert, and wine.

I thought that was a good deal and so we walked inside blissfully ignorant that it was a landmark restaurant with a colorful history.

We ate at Le Sergent Recruteur .

The waiter greeted us at the door and asked if we would wish to sit at the front, middle, or back of the restaurant. Once again the vacant stare in my eyes gave me away immediately as being a tourist and he asked his question again, this time in English.

I felt terrible that I could not even handle that simple of a question. We tried whenever possible to use whatever words we knew in French, so we ordered our meals in French hoping that our pronunciations sounded good and not horrible on our waiter's ear.

His smile seemed to indicate that he appreciated our attempts.

We sat in the back of the sparsely populated restaurant and from that vantage point we were able to engage in full scale people watching.

Our waiter recommended that we go with the Prix Fixe menu rather than order things individually. We did not really know what to expect, but agreed.

We were presented with a tureen of soup, a dish of pat
é, a basket of fresh vegetables and salad dressing.

Literally the basket was filled with heads of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, as well as hard boiled eggs.

Two more baskets were brought, one with various breads and another with sausages. There was also a knife and a cutting board.

Basically we were to create our own salads, carve off slices of meat and bread. Anything we left in the baskets would be taken back to the kitchen and its contents replenished for the next customer.

That would not go over well in the States. At least not with the health departments.

I remember years ago of a famous restaurant near my hometown that was cited for reserving food. They had "family style" chicken dinners where not only did the chicken come out to the tables served on platters to be passed around, but side dishes of potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and sauerkraut. I knew that if someone did not touch one of the side dishes that there was a good likelihood that once it returned to the kitchen that it might be served again.

One other thing that restaurant did was sell "come back" chicken to the town locals. Literally they sold chicken out of the back of the restaurant that had "come back" from the table.

Like I said, the health department in Michigan did not care for that practice of reserving food. I cannot see that baskets of sausage being reused would go over any better here in the States.


For the main meal I had duck confit and Scott had boeuf bourguignon. The meals were not fabulous, but they were tasty. At that point, all I wanted was a good meal that would not be too expensive. It filled both requirements. I was too tired to properly enjoy a gourmet meal.

Along with those infamous baskets of food came wine. As we finished our bottle of wine the waiter playfully made sounds of an alarm bell going off and promptly brought us a second bottle.

We actually finished that second bottle of wine, but we timed it so that we would not test whether or not our waiter would bring us a third bottle.

We felt guilty at first for having consumed that much wine, but we then watched as a nearby table of two women ordered their dinner. They had different choices in wine, so each were presented with their own bottle.

Later we read up on the restaurant and discovered that the free flowing wine was part of their history and served as the "recruiting" portion of the name. They would get young men drunk and sign them up for military service.

Scott and I worried that the next morning we would be hung over, but surprisingly enough we weren't. We also did not feel as if we had really drank two bottles worth of wine. That is because I am sure that the alcohol content was not that high in their house wines. At least, not the same amount of percent alcohol that we have grown accustomed to with our love of good California Zinfandel.

Then the waiter brought out a platter of cheeses before we chose our desserts.

One thing that struck me was that there was only one waiter in the entire restaurant. He was hopping the entire night. The owner delivered our main course, but otherwise he stood with his arms folded in the background and watched the waiter try to keep everyone satisfied.

I waited tables back in my college days, so I am sensitive to these things and it appeared to me that many times in France that there simply were not enough staff in restaurants to comfortably serve all the customers.

Once we left the restaurant, Scott began describing the area he thought the mythical Italian restaurant had been. It was a small park lined with quaint little restaurants. He had read one of the menus in the window and thought we should come back there later. He even mentioned me petting a dog in the area.

Then I knew where he was talking about.

The previous day when we came back after visiting the Tuileries, we crossed over Pont Neuf to the
Isle de la Cité and came to a small park at its western point.

We both thought it was a peaceful area that seemed removed from traffic. I thought to myself at the time that it would be nice to come back and eat at one of the restaurants. However, I wanted to defer to Scott to chose our first real dinner in Paris since I had determined everything that we saw during the day.

He simply could not remember the details of where this park was. He mixed up when he saw it as well as which island it was on. No wonder we could not find in on the Ile Saint Louis.

The joy of being jet lagged and having sight seeing fatigue. You forget what you have seen and where it was.

Oh, and as it turned out...the restaurant he was interested in did not serve Italian food after all.

Just one more thing for us to remember and laugh about in the years to come.

Next post will be about our walking tour of Paris, the walls, the Cluny, and the crypt.


Anonymous said...

silly, it's because that quote "conjured a white handkerchief from the end of his wand and" was in the nytimes, but they did not finish it.

Lea said...

What a delight to immerse myself in your travels, I can smell that pain o'chocolate... and café... wonderful pictures, I may not have to post I can just come here!!! Thank you so!

L.C.McCabe said...


Oh please don't let my posts stop you from sharing your own thoughts of your travels. I'd love to learn from others as well.

I did have my share of pain du chocolat. How could I not?

But my favorite pastry in France were the almond croissants. I have been trying to find something close to how luscious they were there and I finally found something that approximates it.

Big John's Market in Healdsburg. Lucscious!