Friday, August 17, 2007

Joie De Vivre: Remembering Julia on her Birthday, a Secret Bistro in Paris (and a Little Peek at Me Too!)

I was catching up on my blog reading this afternoon while I waited for over twenty full size blueprints of my project in Sun Valley to plot and stumbled upon two posts that brought tears to my eyes for exactly the same reason; they both made me think of Paris, Julia Child, the best mother/daughter trip I ever took, and my favourite hidden bistro in Paris.

First, there was this post my really dear and good friend, Sara of I Like to Cook wrote for Champaign Taste's 2nd annual celebration of Julia Child's Birthday. In her post, Sara talked about how, like so many of us, she came to love cooking by watching Julia on TV, owning MTAoFC, and most of all, allowing a little of Julia's "It doesn't matter if you make a mistake as long as you can still eat it" attitude to come into her cooking. Afterall, this is the ultimate when life hands you lemons you make lemonade sentiment. Like Sara, I too had read My Life in France. Julia lived a true "joie de vivre" and reading about her coming to France to live with Paul was some the funniest and most beautiful writing I had ever read. My favourite story from the book was about the first meal she had in France upon their arrival. Paul and she had just docked at La Havre and were driving in a rainstorm with a car whose windshield wipers did not work. They pulled into a little country bistro for lunch and Julia ordered Oeufs ala Mayonnaise. The description of her lunch is what good food in France (and any place else for that matter) is all about; the perfection of the eggs, the creamy texture of the mayonnaise, the crisp salad and baguette served and the taste of the wine. Reading about that meal made me run out to the kitchen to boil eggs the way Julia taught one to boil eggs and sit down with some fresh homemade bread and mayonnaise. (Note: To boil eggs ala Julia Child: bring cold water to boil, place the eggs in the boiling water, cover and take the pan off the heat, wait 14 minutes and you will have perfect hard boiled eggs.)

Next, I wandered over to Mimi's French Kitchen in America to discover a picture of my favourite gem of a Paris restaurant in a wonderful post about finding hidden places and taking time to visit. Not only did she find this tiny place on her last trip to Paris but she took a picture of my table. Yes, I have a table in a Paris bistro.

I stumbled upon my secret lunch spot about three years ago. I was alone in Paris for the weekend between a business trip in London and one in Berlin. It was early September and I had a room on the Left Bank that was on the top floor of the hotel and overlooked the rooftops of the 6th Arrondissement. It was the perfect place to call home for the weekend. After settling into my room, I decided to walk to Norte Dame and wander about the alleys behind the cathedral. It was cool but sunny. About 1pm, after visiting the cathedral and popping in and out of several shops, I was hungry, a bit tired and really wanted to find a place to have a glass of wine, something to eat, and to watch the world go by. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants around Norte Dame definitely cater to the tourists both in quality and price. Disappointed, I decided to walk back to my hotel and eat in one of the neighbourhood bistros I had seen on my way to Norte Dame. Walking back down the quay, I somehow got myself turned around and ended up on the back side of the Isle de la Citie, facing the Right Bank. Turning down an alley, I saw a little tiny bistro. It was tucked into the corner, almost behind a stairway up the quay and between the alley and a knicky-knacky tourist shop. The name of the bistro was La Reserve de Quasimodo.

I almost didn't go in because frankly I figured a bistro in the shadow of Norte Dame with the word "Quasimodo" in its name had to be the proverbial tourist trap but I was hungry and ready to sit for a bit. I wandered in and was shown to a table directly under the chalkboards with the menu written on them. Looking up, I saw a prix fixe lunch of smoked salmon quiche, salad, dessert and a carafe of house wine for about sixteen Euros. After my wine and a glass of water was brought, I settled back and observed that I was the only tourist in the place. There was a group of friends who must have met in the bistro at the same time every day. They were lively discussing politics and other local events while they drank bottles of wine and chain smoked Marlboros. The only other customers were a pair of elderly ladies, friends of long standing I surmised, who were leisurely sharing a late lunch and from the pieces of conversation I could overhear, delicious gossip. My salad came and the waitress opened the door to let some fresh air in and told me how much she hated that group of smokers. We shared a few quick comments, me with my poor French, she with half French/half English, and then she scurried away to get "la Addition" for the smoking friends. When she brought my quiche, she sat down and asked me about where I was from, what I was doing in Paris, and helped me with my French. As the two elderly friends and I were her only customers, we chatted for about 20 minutes. She even brought me another carafe of wine and poured herself a glass. She told me where to go have dinner that night and the trick to getting into the Louve bright and early on Sunday so I could see the Mona Lisa before the bus loads of tourists descended upon that wing of the museum. Then she brought me my dessert (creme brulee), my bill, and wished me a joyous stay in Paris. When I returned to the bistro a few months later on another business trip, she remembered me and greeted me warmly and sat me at the same table as before. I came back for lunch three times during that trip and sat at the same table. The waitress and I shared a glass of wine each time and caught up on the events of the day.

Last spring, I took my mother to Paris for our annual mother/daughter trip. The very first day we were there, I took her to La Reserve De Quasimodo for lunch. I hadn't been back for over six months but as soon as I walked in the waitress rushed over, kissed both my cheeks and started (in rapid fire French) to ask how I was, where I had been, how was America, how long was I staying, oohing and aahing over my mother and then immediately sat us at "my table". She didn't have to ask what I would have and told my mother that she was happy to have "her American friend" back home in Paris. Mom and I went back for lunch the last day of our stay. It was the waitress's day off but the cook behind the counter told the young girl who was working the tables, "She knows where to sit and she will have a carafe of red". I had become a regular it seemed.

I did a touristy thing that day. Sitting at the table next to us was another mother/daughter having lunch and they asked me to take their picture. I said "Sure, as long as you take ours".

It is nice to come home to a glass of wine, good food, good conversation and most of all to share these things with loved ones.