As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans. (From A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's recollections of his years as a young man in Paris in the 1920's)
I traveled to the City of Light in August, ready to blog about everything I ate, but I didn't write a word (here is a link to an article I wish I'd written). In Paris, as in Brookline, I was just a mom trying to get through the day — the trip was essentially about parenting, but in better surroundings. I certainly had expected our journey to be food-driven: I downloaded A Moveable Feast onto my iPhone as soon as I booked my seats. I spent hours, days, weeks, researching restaurants. I yellow-highlighted foodie destinations in Zagats and Alexander Lobrano's Hungry for Paris. I ripped pages from the travel section of the NYTimes and the market edition of Saveur. I bookmarked a half dozen Paris food blogs on my laptop. I went into a full-blown panic when I realized that some, possibly many, restaurants would be closed in August and started a flurry of international calls and online reservations. I told my daughter and our traveling companions that, for me, Paris was only about the food. Sure, they could shop and see some art and stuff, but I would spend the week consumed, as it were, with what we'd eat. And so I left for eight days, hungry and excited, ready to walk in the footsteps of Julia Child, Dorie Greenspan, and even David Sedaris. I left dreaming of Hemingway's wine and oysters.
Paris was Paris. It doesn't disappoint. But, I didn't even go to a single restaurant on my list — except for one, L'As du Falafel. And, while we were there, munching on the crispy chickpeas; cool tomato, cucumber, and cabbage; creamy tahini and yogurt; and melt-in-your-mouth fried eggplant, my daughter had some sort of crazed teenage hormone fit. Between bites she regaled us (and most of the restaurant) with a list of the top 10 characteristics she hates about me. It's a testament to L'As du Falafal that the meal still rocked and we went back more than once. I soon realized that just because I was in Paris, it didn't mean I was in heaven or immune to all of the forces that, for better or for worse, run my life back at home.
Other moments of horror: long interludes at Adidas and Sephora on the Champs de Elysées when I kept having to run outside to remember I wasn't in Copley Square, and umpteen stops at souvenir shops to look at yet another metal pink Eiffel Tower and I Heart Paris underpants. As well as various interludes of arguments between the kids or the tensions of being in a foreign city. ("Mom, do we have to have French food again tonight?" Or, "Do you think we could find Grey's Anatomy on this TV?")
But, there were many more moments of joy than agony: coming face-to-face with gargoyles and rooftops at the top of Notre Dame; lounging topless, engulfed in steam and tiles, deep in the heart of a left bank Turkish bath; and overcoming my terror of heights to ride to the very top of the Eiffel Tower (touristy, I know). I was so impressed with myself that once I recovered from the elevator ride I bought a 10 euro glass of champagne selected by Alain Ducasse — the closest I would get to him or any of his restaurants. We had picnics by the Seine, once even with paella we came across at a market on our way to the river.
We were so busy during the day — soaking up the energy of the streets and stones and bridges and paintings — that by the time we were ready for dinner it was 9 or 10 p.m. and I couldn't ask two 14-year-old girls to hop back on the métro to go to L'Atelier de Jöel Rubicon or Cafe Burq. They didn't care that every other post in Paris By Mouth was about the opening of Daniel Rose's Spring. Spring was in the 1st arrondissement and we were in the 4th, and they just wanted to eat, which was unexpectedly fine with me. The only meals the girls really cherished, with the exception of an occasional cheese plate, were a daily Nutella crêpe in the afternoon and gelato just before midnight, when our local gelateria closed.
In the end our greatest joy was our neighborhood. It trumped every second of my wasted restaurant research.
Once we settled into our apartment in the Marais, it was clear that it really wasn't necessary to go anywhere else. So, essentially every day for eight days — with the exception of a dinner party with a friend and one trip to the left bank for fondue — I sat down at one of the many bistros within spitting distance of our apartment, flirted with an endless stream of cute waiters, and ordered steak frites and a bottle of bordeaux. Pretty much without fail.
Okay, once I had moule frites. but that was it.
And I didn't have a single oyster. Or even a glass of white wine. Which, clearly, just means that I have to go back.
Yummy Falafal (even on a bad day)
adapted from The Flexitarian Table by Peter Berley
1/2 c chopped cilantro (or parsley if you're one of those annoying people who insists that cilantro tastes like soap, even though it's really parsley that tastes like soap. You know who you are.)
3/4 c dried chickpeas soaked and drained
1 1/2 t lemon juice
3 T chopped red onion
1 garlic clove chopped
1 t cumin
3/4 t salt
1/2 t ground coriander
1/2 t baking soda
1/8 t cayenne pepper
4 grinds black pepper
4 - 6 c canola oil for frying
In a food processor pulse the cilantro/parsley until finely chopped. Add chickpeas until finely ground (cracker crumb consistency). Add the lemon juice, onion, garlic, cumin, salt, coriander, baking soda, cayenne, and black pepper and pulse to combine. The mixture should hold its shape when squeezed. If it doesn't, process for a few seconds more. Transfer to a large bowl and toss well.
Fill a medium heavy sauce pan or Dutch oven with at least 3 inches of oil, attach a deep-frying thermometer to the side of the pot, and heat the oil to 360 degrees (don't let it drop below 350 after the falafal is added). Line a platter w paper towels.
Moisten your hands and divide the falafel mixture into 12 equal portions (about 2 scant T each). Form each into an oval about 2 inches long and 1/2 and inch thick, moistening your hands as needed while you work.
Fry the falafal a few at a time, turning halfway through until well-browned, about 4 minutes per batch. Transfer to the paper-towel-lined platter to drain. Return the oil to 360 degrees between each batch. Serve warm on pita bread with: tomato, cucumber, yogurt, tahini, red onion, pickles, etc....