After our stroll down the length of the Champs Elysées, we needed a little pick-me-up. Luckily, from Place de la Concorde, it's not so far down the august rue de Rivoli to Angelina, which is, without hyperbole, home to the best hot chocolate on the planet. The fancy fin-de-siècle salon de thé, which is located just opposite the Tuileries, is as pretty and ornate as the hot chocolate is delicious - which is to say, very much so.
Even if you don't like hot chocolate - my mom, for one, never touches the stuff - it's worth a stop to Angelina for l'Africain:
Why the infamous hot chocolate is called "the African," I cannot tell you. What I can tell you is that this is impossibly fantastic stuff: unbelievably rich and smooth, like drinking molten gold, if gold tasted like complex and intensely satisfying homemade brownie batter. The silky smooth mouthfeel is nothing short of divine. And just in case it's not rich enough for you, it's served with a mini bowl piled high with thick, freshly-whipped cream, which, intriguingly, is more salty than sweet and brings an additional layer of flavor. My mom, who, after an unfortunate childhood incident with chocolate ice cream, invariably turns up her nose at any chocolate beverage, was the one who couldn't bear to leave any behind in our pitcher: it was she who had the genius idea to, when the waiters' backs were turned, sneakily pour the excess into an empty plastic water bottle for later that evening. We are nothing if not classy.
It's better hot and fresh and with a dollop of cream, but in plastic water bottle in your hotel room, it's still pretty fantastic. Especially if you're drinking it alongside hot, fresh a Kayser baguette.
Eric Kayser is a chain of boulangeries found across Paris. While I would normally advocate frequenting a neighborhood boulangerie, when you're a tourist looking for consistently good food across the city, Kayser is a sure bet. The baguettes have a perfect crisp crust that crackles and makes a beautiful crumby mess when ripped, and a soft, chewy, fragrant, wheaty crumb. With bread this good, all you want for dinner is a baguette, some fruit, and yogurt. And maybe a bottle of cold Angelina hot chocolate.
Speaking of neighborhood boulangeries, the next morning we got up bright and early to catch the metro for breakfast at one of my favorite haunts from 2008. Du Pain et Des Idées is in the 10th, just a couple of blocks off of the Place de la République, and a paltry five minutes walk from my old host-family's home. From our hotel at Place de la Nation, it was more like a 20 minute trek - well worth it to visit the site of the best baker in Paris of 2008.
Each year, Paris' hundreds and hundreds of bakeries are judged by Gault Millau, who produces a well respected guide to the best eateries across France, in a number of categories including, for example, best croissant, best baguette, and best baker. In 2008, Du Pain et Des Idées was named best baker in Paris - no mean feat in a city where breads and pastries are second to none. It was such a pleasure to revisit the stacks of fresh breads and pastries piled high on thin metal shelves, the murals and mirrors adorning the walls, and the smiling red-headed clerk I remembered so well. I visited a number of times when the boulangerie was in my neck of the woods, and the item that really stole my heart was the chausson à la pomme:
A standard pastry found across France, the chausson aux pommes, or apple slipper, is a flaky pastry dough wrapped around an apple compote. Here, though, the compote is replaced with an intact half-apple:
I have eaten my fair share of chaussons aux pommes, and this one beats 'em all, by a long shot. The pastry is perfectly melt-in-your-mouth flaky, crisp and buttery in the best possible ways. The apple, soft and sweet and fragrant from the oven, practically dissolves on the tongue. Using a single apple, the ratio of apple to pastry is better than when there's just a glop of compote. It's the kind of pastry that makes you sit up and slow down and give thanks for your sense of taste.
My mom went for a pain au chocolat:
The pastry was, again, sheer perfection, in this case wrapped around two bars of rich dark chocolate. Magnifique.
We ate our pastries at the wooden picnic table sitting just outside the boulangerie, then I took my mom on a brief tour of my old neighborhood, down the canal Saint-Martin, past my old FranPrix grocery, down the street I took every day to the metro... it was so comforting to see everything in its same place again, like coming home for a visit after a long time away.
We didn't tarry: we had plans to come back for dinner with my old host family that evening, but in the mean time, there was plenty more to see and do - and of course, to eat. We hopped on the metro and headed back downtown to visit Ile de la Cité again.
Like walking the Champs Elysées, another item I never got around to checking off my list in 2008 was visiting Ste-Chapelle, the "jewel box" church that is shrouded in painted vaulting and endless stained glass windows. We made our way to the church and were encouraged by the lack of a line outside the front door - until a friendly policeman explained the church would not be open today, "à cause de la grève." Because of the strike? What strike? I hadn't seen any strike. But then, this is France, after all, where going on strike is practically the national pastime, so we didn't make too much of it.
Instead, we wandered the banks of the Seine, over the Ponts Neuf and des Arts.
At some point, we decided, on a lark, to walk through the Louvre courtyard. You may imagine my surprise when, in addition to this...
...we also stumbled across this:
There was a whole large assembly of military, police, and firefighters in rank. A martial band played a tune, and a few drills were performed, and many commemorative photos were taken. I asked a nearby young man in uniform what was going on, but his response was quick enough - and quiet enough - that I couldn't understand him.
And here's something you don't see every day: just like the perfectly square trees on the Champs du Mars need to be trimmed, so too do the Louvre's glass pyramids need to be washed:
Leaving the Louvre, and heading back towards - where else? - the Marais, we poked our heads into the Palais Royal:
It seems to be under some renovation, but a pair of small boys kindly demonstrated the functionality of the Daniel Buren column installation as an obstacle course:
From there, we ambled through the galerie Vero-Dodat and past la Bourse and les Halles, into the park around St-Eustache:
The church must have been cleaned in the last two years; the stone is much lighter and brighter than I remember.
From the park, we made a quick detour past the Centre Pompidou, and then, finding rue des Rosiers again, made our way to l'As du Fallafel for the best falafel on offer in Paris:
I had my very first falafel there in 2008; when standing in the street near the shop window and debating on what to have for lunch, I was approached by a man who asked me if I was having a falafel, and how could I refuse? But in addition to their lively, boisterous, perhaps preemptive roadside service, there's also a large dining room inside, too. There's also a menu with more things on offer than just falafel, but why break with tradition? The crisp, cool cabbage slaw is a fantastic accompaniment to the warm balls of falafel, crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Every bit as fantastic and finger-lickin' good as I remember it.
(When I was planning my trip and deciding which cities I wanted to visit, I spent a lot of time reading about traditional regional foods. When I looked into Paris (which I knew would be a stop on the trip, because how could I visit France without stopping in to see my old haunts?), I read that there aren't really any specifically Parisian dishes, but that in Paris you can find good examples of most of the regional cuisines from around France - and you can find the best food from around the world. So, when in Alsace, eat Alsatian; when in Basque country, eat Basquaise; and when in Paris, eat falafel.)
After lunch, Mom headed back to the hotel room to rest, but I wanted to spend some time wandering the streets of my old neighborhood. Walking North on rue de Turenne, toward my old gallery and, eventually, my old host family's home, I had such a rush of nostalgia for my former life. It was a sad moment for me. Over the last two years I had relived so much of my time in Paris in my mind, and now, really being there, walking the same streets, eating in the same restaurants, everything was the same, as if it was just waiting for me... and yet, it was different, too. I didn't live there any more; I was just a visitor, passing through for a few days; life had, as it always does, gone on without me. New students took my place at my host family's home; presumably, new interns took my place at the gallery. It was a strange disconnect to be in a place at once so familiar and comfortable, and yet feel like an intruder into what was now someone else's life.
Luckily, just around the corner were 100,000 people who had assembled just to help me see the city in a new light.
Coming soon: an ever-so-enjoyable forty minutes spent trapped in the middle of a crowd of thousands and thousands and thousands of people.