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Much as I enjoy visiting the rest of France, being outside of Paris always feels a little like purgatory, and I find it impossible to set foot on French soil without making at least a brief stopover in the capital. So after my last appointment in Bordeaux, I dropped off my rent-a-car (minus one hubcap—last seen, through the rearview mirror, bouncing down the street following a brief skirmish with a curb) and caught a train bound for Paris and 36 hours of gluttony.
The mere act of rhapsodizing about Paris is a cliché; suffice it to say I'd live there if I could but that it is probably just as well I don't, given the harm I'd surely inflict on my arteries and liver. For me, Paris is primarily a sybaritic pleasure. I worship the city for its beauty and panache, but I mainly love it for the food. Mention Paris, and what leaps to mind for me is not the Louvre, the Etoile, or the Eiffel Tower. No, it is the praline millefeuille at Ladurée, the famed tea salon. Prior to visiting Paris, I spend egregious amounts of time plotting my movable feast—there, a Paris cliché—the aim being to maximize intake while keeping the blood flowing smoothly and everything else flowing in moderation. It is a fine line I walk, and sometimes I cross it.
I get to Paris usually twice a year, which would seem to allow for a generous mix of the old and the new—returning to favorite restaurants, seeking out additional ones. In fact, though, I have no particular interest at this point in expanding my horizons. I know the places I like, they seldom fail me, and I seriously doubt I could improve on my current lineup. I usually only break my routine at the insistence of my wife, an editor at a food magazine, whose job obliges her to keep abreast of what's new and hot. Left up to me, every day in Paris would be Groundhog Day; my aim when there is simply to repeat the tasting pleasures of the past (even if the past was only six months earlier).
The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel observed, "The gastronome is at the same time inquisitive and timid; he explores faint-heartedly. He spends half his time remembering past satisfactions and the other half skeptically calculating future possibilities." That pretty much describes me, and this habit of mind has become all the more deeply ingrained as the quality of French cooking has declined. I think France in general is in freefall, and the decay is especially evident in her kitchens. Good restaurants are becoming harder to find, while the great ones are dwindling in number. I have thus come to think of every trip to Paris as a quality control inspection: Are all the stars in my firmament still shining, or have any fallen since my last visit?
Once in Paris, I immediately got down to business with dinner at Taillevent, a Michelin three-star restaurant that can justly be called the summit of French haute cuisine. Neophilia is the curse of the food world, and there is a tendency in some circles to damn Taillevent with wan praise; to acknowledge the restaurant's greatness but to dismiss the cooking as anachronistic—"unexciting" is the adjective often invoked. True, at Taillevent you will not get flambéed foie gras bathed in coriander-and-kumquat foam and potted in a martini glass dangling from the ceiling; what you do get are brilliantly rendered dishes that display a contemporary sensibility while remaining firmly anchored in the classical idiom. I've never had a meal in New York that comes close to matching the lunches and dinners I have had at Taillevent (under three different chefs). Then there is the service, which is almost telepathic in its perfection but also wonderfully spirited and human. Get the feeling I like the place? I do.
One of the good things about eating alone in an establishment to which you are known is that you never lack for company at the table—the food just keeps coming. Dinner began with a glass of champagne and a plate of gougeres (highly addictive cheese puffs). My friend Jean-Marie Ancher, Taillevent's legendary head captain, had proposed that I have two first courses; in the event, I got three—sautéed artichokes with crayfish gnocchi, langoustine ravioli with a basil and shellfish jus, and a ballotine of foie gras, all accompanied by a half-bottle of a Chassagne-Montrachet. I then had a half-bottle of a red Chassagne with the main course, a turnover filled with foie gras, bacon, and cabbage, served in a black truffle sauce. This was followed by a little cheese—a plate of seven different cheeses, actually—and a trio of desserts: a passion fruit soufflé, chocolate mousse encased in what amounted to a chocolate cigar, and a small selection of sorbets. It was after midnight when I finally emptied my glass of Armagnac, bringing to a close four hours of uninterrupted bliss.
Pythons don't sleep well after swallowing pigs; I slept fitfully after Taillevent, and the next day began slowly. After my standard Parisian breakfast—a slice of mixed berry clafoutis from Gérard Mulot, the great left-bank patisserie—I devoted the morning to wine hunting, visiting Caves Taillevent, an offshoot of the restaurant; Caves Auge, the oldest wine shop in Paris and an essential stop for any oenophile; and Lavinia, a megastore that might well have the best selection of French wines in the world. Suffice it to say, my wallet had shed a few pounds by noon.
Of necessity, I opted for a light lunch at another old standby, Le Dome, the historic art deco seafood brasserie on the Boulevard Montparnasse. I coddled my stomach with a bowl of fish soup, a half-dozen oysters, and a half-bottle of the sublime 2000 Dauvissat Chablis Forest (oh, and an entire bloc of the heavenly salted butter from Brittany). From there, it was off to Marie-Anne Cantin, an elegant cheese shop in the 7th Arrondissement. After 45 minutes of tasting and browsing, I purchased a small selection of cheeses for the flight home and a substantially larger selection with which to console myself once I got there.
Then it was off to the aforementioned Ladurée, this one off the Boulevard St. Germain, to pick up two praline millefeuilles: one for immediate consumption, the other for a late-night snack. I inhaled the first while crossing the Seine for the third time of the day; now, to have a drink with my friend Owen Franken at the indispensable Willi's Wine Bar. Owen is an American photographer based in Paris and one of the funnier people I've ever met. Comedy runs in the family: His brother is Al Franken. Owen had brought his daughter Manui, who buried herself in a book while Daddy kept his compatriot in stitches—with stories of his trip late last year to Baghdad with brother Al (the frères Franken lighting a menorah in one of Saddam's palaces is an indelible image) and with his usual cracks about the Dutch. Owen is married to a Dutch woman, and until I met him, I never realized the Lowlanders were such superb fodder for jokes.
For dinner, I went to a dinner party at my friend Georges' apartment. The company was terrific, but the food was Hungarian and not especially good. I briefly considered ducking out early and heading off for a plate of choucroute, which is my single favorite French dish—it is an Alsatian specialty consisting of sauerkraut, pork chops, and sausages—but ultimately decided to give the metabolism a break. Back at the hotel, however, I did eat that second praline millefeuille.
I flew home the next day, but not before strapping on the feedbag one more time. After the obligatory fillip at Mulot, I went for lunch to Benoit, another of my Parisian pit stops. Nearly a century old now, Benoit is perhaps the greatest classical bistro still in existence in France. The prices are wounding, and some locals seem to dislike it because it is popular with Americans, but the food is sublime and soulful—life-affirming, really. I ordered my usual dishes: smoked salmon marinated in a vinaigrette, followed by boeuf à la mode—braised beef in a red wine sauce. The meal was up to its usual high standards, giving me the reassurance I sought. But my work was not quite done: On the way to the airport, I fortified myself for the long flight with yet another praline millefeuille from Ladurée.
There it is again—the praline millefeuille. What is it, and why did I eat so many of them? It is a napoleon consisting of two tiers of praline cream and a layer of chocolate, and it is without question the finest pastry I have ever had the joy of consuming. Sweet but not cloyingly so, it's also an architectural jewel in that it seems to contain trap doors leading to hidden deposits of still more praline cream and chocolate. I can say, without too much shame, that not a week passes in which I don't at some moment find myself longing for this dessert. To borrow from A.J. Liebling, who knows what Proust might have written had he tasted a praline millefeuille instead of a madeleine?
Ladurée used to be a terrific place for lunch, but a change in management a few years ago led to changes in the kitchen and the menu, and now a meal there is just another overpriced study in mediocrity. The praline millefeuille emerged from the transition unscathed, but I have every expectation that they will eventually screw it up, too. And now, perhaps, you better understand this twice-a-day (sometimes thrice-a-day) habit of mine in Paris.