Tuesday, May 27, 2014

ParisDejaVu Has Moved!

The blog has a new home...finally! 

Come check it out (it's better over there.)

A bientot, j'espere,

xx Paige

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Paris Blooms on rue Cler

Despite a rainy week in Paris, the city is in bloom. And since no one can resist a peonie, I thought I'd share a few shots that capture the Spring-like mood here, rain or shine. These were snapped on rue Cler, a pedestrian market street frequented by expats, visitors and locals in the 7th arrondissement not far from the Eiffel Tower. Go on a Sunday morning, grab a seat at one of the many cafes and watch the world go by...

Bon dimanche!

Friday, May 23, 2014

How to Avoid a Bad Meal in Paris

It's easy to find a great meal in Paris. It's also easy to eat a bad one. Surprised? So was I. But after one too many soggy croque monsieurs and stomach turning plates of confit de canard (a personal favorite when it's done right), I started to get suspicious. What was going on in those well-hidden kitchens? Was French cuisine not all I had imagined it to be?
                                                                       What's going on back in the kitchen?
You see, I'd long nursed a fantasy about French food. The ingredients were always fresh and seasonal, the chefs well-trained and meticulous in their methods. Alas, non. There's a dirty little secret hiding in many Paris cuisines: the food often isn't prepared fresh by a trained chef at all. It can be pre-made en masse then frozen and delivered in bags to restaurants and cafes all over the city. That tough-as-cardboard blanquette de veau? Most likely defrosted and slid onto your plate. How about that dry pave de saumon au beurre blanc? Boiled in a bag, I can almost guarantee it. Concerns about restaurant quality have even sparked a movement to publicly identify restaurants where meals are indeed prepared on site. But until that leads to a foodie revolution (or at least some helpful signs in restaurant windows), here are a few tips to help you avoid a bad meal in Paris.

                                                                  Keeping it simple: scrambled eggs & salad.

Check the menu. A restaurant's menu offers your best clue whether your meal was cooked by an actual live chef. If it's long (like multiple laminated pages) and looks like it's been around since the Mitterrand era, be wary. If it looks like the same menu you saw at the cafe down the street, it probably is (and that supreme de volaille has been supplied by the very same mass vendor.) Yuck.

                                                                             Crispy confit, done just right.  
English spoken here. Or German. Or Dutch. You get the idea. Any resto that offers pre-printed menus in multiple languages is to be viewed with suspicion. Ditto, international flags out front (or on the menu or stickered on the windows). Worse yet, a friendly "greeter" who stands outside and invites you in to dine. You know this, right? Of course you do. But still, it bears repeating. These places can be tempting after a day of sightseeing. (Oh, he seems so friendly! And he's smiling!) But just don't do it. These restaurants may look "charming" or even seem authentically French. They're not. They're just tourist traps and the food will be awful. Trust me, you can do better.

Service continue. This is a tough one. Visitors are often surprised (and deeply frustrated) by the limited dining hours in French restaurants. Lunch is usually served from 12 noon until about three o'clock at the latest. After that, there can be precious little to be found (if you're looking for a real meal) until restaurants begin dinner service at 7:30pm. Hence, the popularity of the boulangerie sandwich or sidewalk crepe. Increasingly, however, you will find restaurants that offer "service continue." Unfortunately, the food is often lacking. The reasons are obvious. If there's a trained chef working the kitchen, he or she needs a break after lunch to eat, rest and prepare for dinner. If it just needs to be thawed and plated, why anyone can do that! Opt for a crepe to tide you over and eat like the locals do at 8:30 or 9 o'clock.
                                                Salad with foie gras and artichoke hearts. Yum.

Look for a chalkboard. A chalkboard menu says two things: 1) The menu changes often and seasonally, reflecting what was fresh at the market that day, and 2) Someone took the time to develop the offerings and will likely present them to you with care. Now, not all chalkboard menus are created equal. I'm not talking here about the enormous printed chalkboards you find tented on sidewalks outside cafes. I'm referring to the little ones (that are often barely legible) propped up on your table by a server who knows their stuff. Brevity is your friend here. I always trust a menu with just a few items. Maybe three entree, plat and dessert selections each. The longer the menu, the more suspicious I get. A chalkboard menu won't guarantee you a great meal, but it does increase your chances.

Famous sights and excellent food don't mix. If there's one thing you should almost never, ever do, it's eat in a restaurant adjacent to a world-famous monument. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule (Le Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower being the most obvious) but generally speaking, it's a bad idea. Seek out your dining experiences in the lesser known parts of the city. Young, exciting chefs in Paris are opening restaurants away from the sky-high rents in the most visited areas. Get off the beaten path and try a little neighborhood gem. And if you must eat as you gaze at Notre Dame Cathedral, opt for dessert. After all, even mediocre mousse au chocolat is still pretty delicious.

                                                       Fondant au chocolat...with warm, oozing center. Divine!

Friday, February 22, 2013

My "Best Of" Paris: Ten Fab French Bistros

I recently asked Greg what he loves most about living in Paris. "The food," he replied, without hesitation. No big surprise there. Because he also lived here as a child, he's especially fond of places that recall the Paris of his youth -- aging bistros, the ancient cobbler's shop with a wall of French celeb photos from the 70's, the knife sharpener who still plies his trade from an old cart he wheels through the streets. (He rings a bell to bring neighbors out bearing their dull knives).

Most of our favorite Paris bistros have also been around for a while. (Or at least feel like they have.) These are frequented more by locals than Michelin star-seekers (of course we love those, too), and won't let you down next time you're seeking classic French food in Paris. So, in no particular order, here goes...

Le Taxi Jaune, 3ème: When Greg and I lived in the Marais, Le Taxi Jaune was our neighborhood go-to. With its vintage bar and cracked tile floors, it still feels slightly under the radar despite its location in the ever popular 3ème. The food is authentic French with a twist that keeps it fresh; the vibe is Paris bourgeois-boheme. Reserve ahead. 

La Laiterie Saint Clotilde, 7ème: This is our new neighborhood favorite (new to us, that is). Run by a mother and son duo, the menu is happily limited and everything is delicious. At a recent dinner with friends, I had a memorable curried veg soup and way-better-than-average magret de canard. (Can you tell I like duck?) Greg devoured his meal so fast, I didn't even get to sample it. Always a good sign. 
Au Pied de Fouet, 7ème: The perfect neighborhood spot for lunch where the welcome is convivial (the owner treats everyone like his personal guest) and the food has a home-cooked appeal. It's not refined cuisine but a great, budget-friendly choice between visits to bigger name restos. The confit de canard is solid and there's usually a nice fresh fish option. Take your post-meal coffee (or digestif) at the bar and enjoy the bustle of this lively spot. Sitting cheek to jowl with neighboring diners keeps things toasty. Go for fun, not romance. 

Le Casse Noix (15ème): When a foodie friend came to town for a night, he delivered strict instructions for our meal: "Think great food and he's paying."(I replied that this is always how I think... ;). After remembering it was fashion week and discovering all the "it" tables were impossible (Le Frenchie, Septime, Chateaubriand), we decided on Le Casse Noix for a meal that put food way ahead of fashion. Greg swears it's the best boudin noir he's ever had (On principle alone, I can't eat the stuff but my fresh cèpes in butter thing-y was to die). Fans of the creamy, whipped egg white dessert, ile flottante, will also be rewarded. A good choice for lunch if you're visiting the Eiffel Tower. Book ahead.

L'Ourcine (13ème): You can read my full review of this terrific bistro on the HiP Paris blog. It's off the beaten path in the 13eme and well worth the trip for a fab meal and to wander the village-like streets of les Buttes aux Cailles neighborhood.

Cafe des Musees (3ème): Always well-reviewed and popular for its reliably good food and great Marais location. I love this one for an unhurried lunch when visiting the boutiques and museums in the neighborhood. It's open daily and filled with locals and a smattering of visitors. Fun and yummy, a good combination.

Le Chemise (11ème): I loved this bistro because it brings together two favorite things: updated classic French cooking in a sleekly designed but cozy space. The service was attentive and cool crowd was what you'd expect for the location between Oberkampf and Republique. Helmed by a young chef who trained at La Tour d'Argent, this is a fun find that's on my "must return" list. (And yes, it's Le Chemise, not "La...", my French grammarian friends.)

Josephine "Chez Dumonet" (6ème): A favorite haunt of French icon Gerard Depardieu, this classic Parisian bistro offers superb service and an excellent meal in a timelessly lovely, art-nouveau setting. I went recently to celebrate a friend's birthday and we were treated to complimentary glasses of wine and a gateau (to share) large enough for a group twice our size. We ate like queens (and were treated like them, too). All this loveliness comes at a price so plan to splurge. Located on one of my favorite Left Bank shopping streets, rue Cherche-Midi. 

Le Bistro Paul Bert (11ème): Everyone knows that the Paris food scene is focused in the 11ème. Drawn by affordable rents, a central location and hip vibe, young chefs are opening new restos here seemingly daily. Bistro Paul Bert isn't new (the new Le 6 Paul Bert is just down the street) but it's truly a classic (and not in a stuffy, un-fun way). We had a late dinner there recently and were pleased to find it bustling with a cool clientele of all ages. The food was delicious and the service attentive but unhurried. Go, you'll be happy you did.

Le Comptoir du Relais (6ème): And last but not least, my still-reigning favorite. The beloved outpost of star chef Yves Camdeborde has never failed me. We go (early) for dinner with the kids, bring visiting friends, and enjoy lunches a deux. The key is to go right as they open (12 noon for lunch or before 7pm for dinner) to avoid the inevitable queue out front. The people watching and the food are both consistently superb. 

As I wrap up this list, I realize I could go on and on. Any favorites you'd care to share? Stay tuned for more recommendations to come. A bientot!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Getting Schooled in France: Part Deux

In my last post, I wrote about proposed changes to French education. What I didn't say is that we've also been considering some changes for our kids, including the possibility of a private bilingual school for next year. So earlier this week, at the time appointed for the incoming first graders' evaluation "group play date," we went and visited one. Here's how it went...
- - -
"Adele Frost?" calls a friendly looking teacher. Adele shuffles behind my leg and chews on the sleeve of her blouse. "Est-ce qu'il y a une petite Adele?"

"Oui! Here she is!" I call out cheerfully, hoping my upbeat tone will ease Adele's sudden attack of nerves. I nudge Adele gently forward as all eyes turn in our direction. A line of mostly-smiling five-year-olds has formed in front of the teacher, sporting sweet French dresses, Jacadi sweaters and polished leather shoes.

"Viens ici, Adele," the teacher says encouragingly, giving her a patient and indulgent smile. Adele's face crumples into a frown and thick tears well in her eyes.

"Noooooooo!" she howls, employing much of the power of her well-developed lungs. "She looks mechante, Mommy! You said they would be nice." Other mothers avert their eyes, silently grateful that at that moment, they're not me.

I kneel down and pull Adele onto my lap, cooing softly but firmly in her ear while trying (under watchful eyes) to deploy the right parenting approach. "But the teachers are nice, sweetie. And look how happy all the kids look. You're just going to go play for a little while and see if you like it. Mommy will be waiting here when you come out," I say, straining for a calm, nonchalant tone.

"But I don't like it! I don't want to go to this school! None of my friends are heeeeere," Adele replies, as juicy tears streak down her reddened cheeks and tiny pools puddle beneath her nose.

I quickly assess my options:

a. Respect Adele's discomfort and honor her stated desire not to attend this admittedly intimidating play session, thereby tanking her shot at admission and the possibility of bilingual schooling for another year. In short, we bail.

b. Acknowledge her feelings but insist that she'll be fine and once she actually gets in the room, she will enjoy herself. (This, I know, is what will happen, and is therefore what I believe to be the right course. This assumes, however, that I stay in full control of my own emotions and handle this with great skill. Ahem. If I push too hard, she'll balk. She's a kid who needs to think things are her idea.)

And then there's option c. where I head straight to last-resort parenting: bribing, threatening and generally losing my cool. I hear myself say things like,"Okay Adele, if you don't go in, that's your choice, but we're going straight home and we're not going to do anything fun." And, gathering myself a bit, "Now honey, I know this feels a little scary, but has Mommy ever left you someplace bad?"

Adele considers this. "Yes! You have, Mommy! Remember that time you took me to the Centre de Loisirs and the teachers were so meeeean."

Mmm. Okay, she had me there. (Guilt, guilt...think, Paige, think!) By now, the group is shuffling toward the classroom, ready to draw pictures of les bonnehommes, show off their pre-reading skills and generally dazzle their future teachers.

Adele doesn't budge.

Precious minutes tick away. I feel my throat constrict as I pull the last trick out of my (desperate parenting) hat. "Adele," I whisper in her ear, "If you go in, Mommy will let you have chocolate after." She pauses, considering my offer, no doubt sensing my desperation. Finally, she shakes her head and begins pulling me toward the door.

Okay, forget it, I think. This isn't the end of the world. We're happy with the kids' school and love our neighborhood. No need to improve on an already good thing, right?

And then, out of the blue, appears a sweet smiling woman who kneels in front of Adele and recites (in flawless English) all the fun they're going to have. "We'll listen to a story! And draw pictures and sing a song! Won't you come with me Adele?" she asks, her hand outstretched.

And then, as if by magic, Adele's face shifts and she offers the teacher one of her most-winning smiles. "Okay!" she says brightly, releasing me from her grasp. She takes the teacher's hand and heads happily toward the classroom. The teacher turns and gives me a reassuring nod. As I watch them saunter away down the hall, Adele turns back to wave, "Bye, Mommy!" she calls as they disappear into the room.

I take a deep breath and try to gather myself, scanning the now empty room for any witnesses to this surprising turn of events. With an hour to kill before pick-up time, Cole (who has played the role of star big brother in this little drama) and I head to a nearby cafe and treat ourselves to two steaming mugs of chocolate chaud. As we review the events that have just transpired, we both just shake our heads. When it comes to five-year-olds, you just never know.

An hour later, we return to pick up Adele and find her smiling broadly in the arms of one of the teachers. She bounds toward me, with all her characteristic vigor. "It was SO FUN, MOMMY! I loooove it here!" she says.

And despite it all, I know she means every word.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Looking Back on Paris; Looking Ahead at French Education

It's hard to believe we've just celebrated two years of living in Paris. We've all really grown and changed -- both as a family and individuals -- especially the kids, who were just three and five when we landed and began our adventure. Here they are at the airport when we left Boston. Little did they know about the new world they were about to discover.
As I've watched them adapt to life in Paris, I've been struck many times by the resilience of children and how much we adults could learn from their example. As I've written about before, neither Cole or Adele spoke French when we arrived so learning the language was perhaps their first and greatest challenge. And yet they managed to make it look easy. Unlike adults, they seemed to learn French almost by osmosis, absorbing the new words and sounds alongside new words in English. They never had a moment of explicit instruction, just loads of play and total immersion. In fact, learning to speak was almost a Darwinian matter of survival. Unless they adapted to this foreign tongue, they would remain outside the experiences of their peers and unable to partake of the joys they saw around them. It wasn't always easy, but I have never regretted the choice to put them directly into French school.

Now, as you may have heard, there are changes on the horizon in the French schools. For more than a century, French schools have followed an unusual four-day week with no classes held on Wednesdays. Initially, this was structured as a compromise with the Catholic church (that had, until then, directed French education) and was designed to allow for religious studies on Wednesday. Needless to say, this model has become outmoded and the new government of President Francois Hollande is committed to making some (and in my view, much-needed) reforms.

But like any sweeping (or even sometimes modest) proposed social changes in France, these have met with strong resistance. There have been two teachers' strikes that have shut down the schools and manifestations that have drawn thousands of teachers and parents. Petitions have been circulated; meetings have been held.

The International Herald Tribune did a great story that spells out all the details. As for how I feel, I'm mixed. I agree that kids should attend school five days a week. It's better for their rhythm of learning and I'd prefer five shorter days to the current four really long days. But there's something pretty great about having a day "off" with the kids in the middle of the week. Their day is busy with classes and activities and it gives me some quality time with them like what we used to have when they were toddlers. I am aware, however, that this system is quite burdensome for many parents and is simply not sustainable. What do you think? If your kids are in French schools, do you support the proposed changes?

And so we'll see what the future holds. As I'm often reminded, in life there is only one constant: change. And speaking of changes, they're still in the works for my blog. In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me and for visiting my little corner of Paris. A bientot.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Changes in the Works!

I know, I know. It looks different around here (and not necessarily in a good way...) But it's going to look better, I promise.

A redesign of this humble blog is under way. I'll be making some final tweaks over the next couple of days before I unveil a new site. I have big plans for my little corner of Paris here and I hope you'll stick with me as I work out the kinks.

In the meantime, here's fun picture of some street art I spotted on the rue Babylone. (Just in time for Valentine's Day.) A bientot!