Thursday, February 26, 2009

Le Chateaubriand: Fabulous sans Frills

I'd all but given up on this Republique-area find. I walked by a couple times and could find no sign of the well-recommended restaurant. I decided it had closed and (sadly) went on my way. However, a couple days later, as I was going somewhere else, I happened to walk by during business hours (which are quite strict) and discovered it still exists!

Walking into this bustling, no-frills restaurant, I was acutely aware of the wonderful aromas emerging from the kitchen, as well as the very local crowd-- always a good sign. This is not a tourist destination, due mostly to its location away from the major tourist sites, but should be on the list of anyone in the area. The lunch menu is a just 19 euros for which you receive either an entree and main course or main course and dessert (being a lover of desserts, I chose the latter). While there is only one main course served daily, they have a variety of wines, and the house carafe was a bit young though not bad. The main course on our visit was "deconstructed" lamb in a bouillon with a mixture of vegetables and spices. Truly exceptional. The desserts were as beautifully simple as the main course was complex and included pot chocolate and apple crumble, both of which I would recommend.

The dinner menu is a bit steeper at 45 euros per person, but includes 5 courses of delicious foods. Note that you only choose your dessert (the rest is pre-set), so you have to be open to new foods, but they've never led me astray. The wine list at dinner was lovely-- with many very affordable wines. Also note that the flavors of the meals tend to be complex, so I recommend asking your server for wine suggestions.

The hours are 12-2 and 7:30-?p. During our lunch, the chef emerged from the kitchen promptly at 2p and went outside even though there was a line out the front of the restaurant and around the corner. Needless to say, arrive early because at the end of the meal, they close up shop and you'd never know there is a great restaurant hiding behind the closed facade.

Note: Due to the break-neck pace at which the waitstaff functions and the lack of choice for meals, I would recommend leaving the kids with a babysitter.

UPDATE: This restaurant is now listed in the top 50 restaurants in the world (it is also the Breakthrough Restaurant of the Year)! Due to that designation, as well as significant press as of late, I highly recommend securing a reservation in advance.

Le Chateaubriand
Address: 129 Avenue Parmentier, 11th arrondisement
Metro: Parmentier

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stimulating Conversation

As a whole, the French tend to be a fairly philosophical people. Long ago, once the traditional past time of drinking wine in the afternoon was replaced with drinking coffee, there was apparently a national awakening of sorts. Take away a mild sedative, replace it with a stimulant and- voila!- The Enlightenment! Coffee has now been an integral part of French culture for nearly 350 years. Having spent a great deal of time indulging in some of the world's best coffees, and having spent significant time in many of the country's best cafes, however, I have to believe there's more to The Enlightenment than a hot, new beverage.

Whenever you see someone alone in public here, they are almost always reading (vs. listening to their iPod or talking on the phone). Whether they are in a cafe, on the metro, or a park bench, they nearly always have their noses in something interesting. It is something I've observed frequently, but only after I recently saw a homeless man dig the daily paper out of the trash and begin to read, was I struck by how fundamental it must be to the French people.

The French seem to have a voracious appetite for reading. The news stands on nearly every corner carry all 14 French daily newspapers, along with the eight weekly French newspapers, and more than 325 French magazines. In addition, note that many of the magazines here-- Elle, Vogue, etc., are weekly publications (instead of monthlies or- gasp!- quarterlies). It's an unbelievable amount of reading material-- and we haven't even broached the subject of French literature!

With so much information floating around, it isn't difficult to see why the French seem so well-versed on a wide variety of topics-- including American politics and international affairs, topics that sometimes seem out-of-reach to the average American.

Whether The Englightenment was caused by a literal "sobering up" of the French people or if the amount of reading material was suddenly prevalent enough for the average man to begin pulling knowledge from a variety of disciplines, I sometimes think our world is very much in need of The Enlightenment- Part 2. Anyone for a couple hours on the Internet and a dose of Red Bull?

Monday, February 02, 2009

The CineAqua: Something for Everyone

As everyone who has traveled with kids knows, one of the greatest challenges is finding activities to keep everyone happy. While a 10-16 year old may be interested in a tour of the sewers (yes, they exist!), all the 2-6 year olds want is space to run and play-- leaving the parents to pacify the toddlers at one stop and the teen at the next.

The first time I walked into the CineAqua in Paris, I was stunned. The steep entrance fee of nearly 20 euros per adult (15 per child), leaves a family of four out $90 before you walk in the door-- quite a bit more expensive than a trip up the iconic Eiffel Tower or the world-famous Louvre. I've been back to CineAqua a couple times since, however, and discovered that the true beauty of this gorgeous destination is its ability to make everyone happy (it's also worth noting that the price is about the same as aquariums in the U.S.).

Half aquarium, half "Movieum," the CineAqua combines two very different museums into a single stop. With nearly 500 species of fish and invertebrates, 3 full-size cinema screens, a petting pond and shark tank, this odd combination of attractions is not only open to all ages, but actually has something to keep everyone engaged.

People of all ages, and especially young children, will enjoy watching the wide variety of sealife swim by in beautiful blue and green tanks. Interspersed throughout are large cinema screens showing movies like "West Side Story" or the latest Bollywood hit-- something the teens/adults will enjoy for more than a few minutes. There are also areas dedicated to explaining how studios create special effects, build and film models, and, the last time I was there, a make-up artist demonstrating how to make grotesque wounds on your hand with a take-home kit.

As if that wasn't enough, the CineAqua has one of the best locations in Paris. It is located directly across from the Eiffel Tower on the steps of the Palais Chaillot (note: look carefully for signs-- it is easy to miss). In the winter, it is a great place to warm up from the cold, and in the heat of July, it is comfortably cool. They have a full, Japanese restaurant and separate cafe for snacks. The bottom line is that this is the best attraction I've found for families exploring the city, and one of the only ones where everyone wins.

Address: 2, Avenue des Nation Unies, 16th arrondisement
Metro: Troacadero


Jardin vs. Jardin d'Acclimation: Worth every pretty euro

I visited the famous Jardin d'Acclimation with the kids on Sunday. It is listed in every guide book, every website, every blog that explores things to do with kids in Paris. I've long wanted to go, yet never had the opportunity until some friends suggested it last Sunday.

Remember it is January-- and nothing is beautiful in January-- but this park has the makings of something out of a storybook. Relatively small and quaint, the attractions include a small science museum, carnival rides, a zoo and a train. It has everything kids could want... in an amusement park. I say that specifically because while the park was lovely (if not more than a bit cold), it wasn't really a park at all. I've read umpteen reviews of Paris attractions and, yet, I somehow always missed that this is really an amusement park at its core (think Disneyland or Parc Asterix). The Bois de Bologne is a park. The Jardin du Luxembourg is a park. The Jardin d'Acclimation is not.

The distinction is important for a couple reasons. First of all, although the entrance fee is only 2.50 euros, you pay for everything else separately (45 euros for 30 ride tickets, 5 euros pp for the science museum, 90 euros for brunch or 25 euros for an outdoor lunch). Secondly, if people visiting Paris want to visit a park, I would more readily recommend one of the major parks in the city which are conveniently located near other major attractions and offer special activities for children such as sailing boats, playing on playgrounds, or jumping on trampolines. These parks include the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Tuileries or the Parc Monceau.

When all is said and done, it was a lovely afternoon spent in a beautiful space that will almost certainly become even better in a few months time. Given all my negativity due to the differences between a jardin and the Jardin d'Acclimation, I still have to say it was worth every euro-- every pretty euro.

Jardin d'Acclimation

Address: Bois de Bologne
Metro: Les Sablons or Porte Maillot (a train will take you directly to the entrance from Porte Maillot)

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Sold(es) on Shopping in Paris

There aren't many reasons to visit Paris in January-- even February and March can be overcast and rainy-- but January can be quite cold, actually. There is only one reason I can think of to visit this outdoor city during the indoor season: the sales!!

Americans are generally well-versed in the Black Friday sales and the steep discounts the day after Christmas, but the French save it up for one HUGE sale during the month of January. In short, everything goes on sale-- clothes, shoes, handbags, haircuts, wine... everything (in French the word "soldes" means sale). During the course of the month, the discounts get bigger and bigger until they are about 70% off retail price. Then, February 1, the stores open with their new collections and the "soldes" signs are gone until next season (July).

One of the easiest ways to take advantage is to visit the large department stores near the Opera Garnier. Most of the significant shops in Paris have space in the large department stores-- everything from Gap and Zara to Sonya Rykiel and Ralph Lauren.

My favorite department store here is the Galeries Lafayette. The variety of collections are generally astounding (and cover a variety of sizes and price ranges) and the domed, Belle Epoque building itself is no less dramatic.

If you go, be sure to spend all your money at once. After you're done, you may visit the "detaxe" downstairs to get back the tax from your purchases. This can be a long process depending on the line, but it can also save a significant amount of money depending on what you spent. They will give you a form to take to the "detaxe" center at the airport upon your departure. A refund will then be sent to you.

Shopping in Paris is not only fun, but also a very cultural activity. Regardless of when you visit, I encourage you to spend some time exploring the shops and boutiques. Afterwards, I'm sure you, too, will be "soldes" on Paris!