Sunday, 29 May 2011: CJ and Margaret
Written 30 May 2011
We expected CJ and Margaret to arrive in Paris at 12:15 p.m. on the EuroStar from London and to take a taxi to the hotel, so we knew we needed to be back at the hotel by 12:30 p.m. to rendezvous. That meant an early lunch, sometimes problematic in French restaurants, but David had noticed that the Café Centrale advertised brunch at 19 euros a head. Perfect. So we slept in till 8 a.m., then went to Tribeca for café au lait (actually café crême; I begin to wonder whether real café au lait is dying out) and pain au chocolat. At a nearby table, these hypercute Yorkshire terriers waited while their mistress ate breakfast. They were very well behaved but ever hopefully on the alert for the offer of a treat. We saw a lot of small dogs on leashes, and yorkies were definitely in the plurality if not the absolute majority. Across the street was this player of a wonderful antique, what?, grinding organ? Anyway, he was a real organ grinder (no monkey). The music sounded just like an accordion, but he generated it by loading one of an assortment of heavy paper/light cardboard strips (I counted 16 of them in the wooden box at his feet) into it and then rapidly turning a small crank with his right hand. That motion both moved the paper strip (punched to code the tune) through the mechanism and provided whatever air pressure was needed to produce the sound. You can see the paper neatly fan-folding itself onto a little shelf at the left-hand side as it emerges from the instrument. He sang some of the numbers, and passers by sometimes stopped to sing aong (as did I!)
Behind the yorkies, you can see a vendor setting up a table draped in blue. Here's what he was preparing to sell. Each one is a cylindrical wooden Camembert box in the bottom of which he has installed the works of a clock, which takes up maybe 2/3 of the space inside. An antique Camembert label (or more probably a modern copy of one; and, yes, Mickey Mouse apparently did once grace a Camembert label) was then installed to form the face of the clock, and a sheet of glass closed the top. Because it was Mother's Day, many vendors of such such gifty things were out to tempt last-minute buyers. The florists' shops were overlflowing with roses and, especially, peonies, and the bakeries were full of heart-shaped cakes and pastries. The bakery across the street displayed this large heart-shaped bread. I would guess it was intended for a large family dinner—once the outer rim was breached, each diner could then pull off dinner rolls as desired. To the left of it are quarter-folded crêpes, no doubt filled with something, and in the foreground are heartshaped custard tarts with fresh grapes baked into them.
The rue Cler is a wonderful pedestrian market street all week long, but Sunday is apparently one of its "big" market days, as all the merchants were outdoing themselves. Particularly prominent were gorgeous strawberries, raspberries, and cherries, but other choices included rotisserie chickens and other ready-cooked meats (hams large and small, roast pork, legs and shoulders of lamb); hot or cold roasted tomatoes stuffed with meatloaf mixture; raw meats and poultry (chickens of several varieties, quail, guinea fowl, duck); sweet and savory baked goods, and any amount of other prepared food for take-out.
Here, for example are a three-foot platter of cold, jellied pot roast of beef, garlished with cold cooked carrots and dressed with vinaigrette (for sale by the kilo) and a display of three kinds of asparagus: white (farthest away), green (in the middle, with red and white wrappers), and "wild" (nearest the camera, next to the watermelon slices). I'm pretty sure that last isn't actually in the genus Asparagus, and it doesn't taste especially asparagussy, but it is tasty in its own right and popular with restaurant chefs. Behind are kiwi fruit, Haas avocados, and Charentais melons. Just beyond the standing white asparagus are little paper "barquettes" of chanterelle mushrooms. We saw many tourists, but the majority of passers by were locals doing their shopping. As my friend Françoise has pointed out to me, the quintessential French shopper is not the guy walking by with a baguette under his arm but the one with the baguette under his arm off which he has already bitten the end. It's true, 90% of baguette purchasers were chewing on them as they walked.
After walking both sides of the market, then exploring the neighborhood for a while, we walked over to the École Militaire to see whether the annual antique fair was in progress—on our taxi ride, we had spotted one at Bastille and seen ads for at least two others—but it wasn't. I'm pretty sure it was over for the year, and its usual site was under street contruction. We didn't make it far enough to check out Sunday market on the avenue Saxe before time to turn back toward our brunch, but we did notice a pair of very nice art deco caryatids and, outside a bank, a lovely miniature rock garden with Sedum in bloom.
The menu at the Café Centrale gave no clue what you got for your 19 euros, but the response to our query was very encouraging, and the brunch itself was beautiful as well as tasty. It started with decaf café crême for David and Earl Grey for me, accompanied by excellent freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juices and probably the best croissants we've ever had: crispy, tender, buttery, melting—yum. Next came this tray of little dishes containing vinaigrette-dressed cherry tomatoes, fruit salad (apple, pineapple, kiwi, and seeded half grapes, perfumed with a little orange-flower water), fromage blanc with chives, and soft scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. In the back corner are a slice of toasted "pain briochée" (i.e., bread enriched with butter and egg but not as rich as brioche) and a slice of delicious soft, creamy French toast, sweetened so that it didn't need syrup. Wow.
The timing was perfect. We got back to hotel ca. 12:15 p.m., and CJ and Margaret arrived less than 30 minutes later. We stashed their luggage in our room, hailed a taxi, and headed for the Musée d'Orsay, where we presented the advance tickets I had mail-ordered, at entrance C as instructed, and waited only a few minutes to get in. As it happened, we need not have rushed—the museum was open an hour later than expected, and a third of it was closed for renovation; drat— so we had plenty of time to see everything we wanted to that was available. Unfortunately, many favorities were not on view. The entire top floor was closed, so an impromptu café was operating on the main floor, and the impressionists had been moved down to level 2, displacing a lot of other stuff. "Whistler's Mother" was there, but the big Bougoureau "Birth of Venus" was unaccountably missing from the Salle des Fêtes (not displaced by anything else; just missing), my favorite Millet was nowhere to be found, and neither was Degas's famous painting of floor scrapers, which both David and CJ especially wanted to see again. Most of the monumental "pompier" school stuff was hidden away. And, annoyingly, the musuem has changed its policy and now no longer allows even nonflash photography. Still, much remained, and Margaret had never been there, so it's not as though we didn't have a great time anyway.
When our feet couldn't take any more standing, we walked a few blocks inland from the river and settled in a café on the Boulevard Saint Michel for a drink— Evian for me, espresso for CJ, pastis for David, milk for Margaret— very typical—before walking back to the hotel to take an hour's break before dinner.
At the appointed hour, we strolled a few blocks to Dar Lyakout, a moroccan restaurant with a view of the Invalides.
The food was good but not as highly seasoned than we've encountered in the past. While we studied the menus, we were brought this amuse-bouche of spicy marinated olives, beet cubes dressed with vinaigrette and shredded basil, and crunchy corn nuts.
Margaret started with briouate of goat cheese, CJ and I had "briks à l'oeuf," and David had a "prawn brik"—all consisted of stuff wrapped in tissue-thin Moroccan pastry and baked until crispy, then served with lemon wedges on a bed of escarole. All three briks included cooked potato, which we haven't seen in the past. Unfortunately, we ate them before I remembered to photograph them!
Next, we ordered four main courses and shared them around: tajine of chicken with golden raisins (just what it sounds like—chicken spiced and stewed to tenderness on a bed of about a pound of golden raises), couscous of merguez (spicy finger-thick lamb sausages colored with pomegranate juice), couscous of chicken, and couscous of braised lamb. The meats of the three couscouses were brought on separate plates, and we were then brought a large platter of couscous grains and a huge tureen of broth with large chunks of cooked vegetables (carrot, zhcchini, fennel, leeks, and excellent sweet turnip), all to share. On the side was this triple dish of additional plumped golden raisins, chick peas, and in the center, ferociously hot harissa sauce, to be added to taste by each diner.
As is usual in couscous restaurants we couldn't eat everything, though we gave it the old college try. We forwent dessert in favor of a stroll to the École Militaire to sight down the Champ de Mars toward the Eiffel Tower, which obligingly went into its hourly sparkle cycle while we watched before settling back into its usual golden nocturnal glow.
Here are CJ on the left, Margaret on the right, and David in the middle for scale.
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