Paris, I’m hungry.
That’s how I felt the four days I spent in the city last month while on my honeymoon. I had high hopes for our trip to Paris. What could be more romantic than five luxurious nights in the culinary capital of the world? Feasting on wine, cheese, bread, seafood, and everything in between. It was supposed to be amazing, surreal, incredible, unattainable, out of this world, satisfying… or maybe it was just supposed to be good. Decent, tolerable, not bad, even edible, would work also. Instead, from a foodie’s perspective, my trip to Paris ended up being heartbreakingly disappointing. Admittedly, my hopes were high, very high, perhaps too high. I factored that in.
After the fourth night in Paris and only one decent meal under my belt, I seriously began to wonder if I hadn’t set the bar too high.
Here’s something you may not know about me (and I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt the same way), I hate over paying for food. I find it utterly unbearable. I know, big surprise. But worse yet is overpaying for bad food. I know what you’re thinking; it’s not possible that I had such a poor culinary experience in Paris. I must have done something wrong. And I thought about that. I kept wondering if it wasn’t just me (and my husband). Maybe it was that I didn’t go to many of the places my friends recommended. Or, maybe it’s because I didn’t plan the entire trip around where we would eat. But look, when you’re traveling for weeks on end and walking so far each day you can actually start to feel your shin bones splintering through your jeans, and you aren’t sure where your shoe ends and the sidewalk begins, the last thing you want to do is haul it across town, changing metro lines five times and checking the address in your travel guide every fifteen seconds, only to end up wondering around in circles before you actually find the place and then you can’t get in because you didn’t make a reservation (and yes, you need to make reservations these days!). How I wish I had done it this way.
So, because you are too tired to take another step, you plop down in a local brasserie, not directly on the tourist beaten path of course, hoping to find something decent to eat. But no. In the words of many a Frenchmen, ce n’est pas possible! Maybe it’s because it’s virtually impossible to actually get off that tourist beaten path. Or, as I’m sure many of you will decry, I didn’t go to recommended restos. My response is this is PARIS- a city known for cuisine, culinary adventure, decadence and deliciousness in the simplest of ingredients-bread, cheese, wine and all that. It’s a city where you can stop in at nearly any cozy, corner café and find something tasty to eat. Or so I thought. This was clearly not the case for us. Nearly everything we ate (with the exception of the restaurants mentioned in my first Paris post) was objectively subpar.
The food ranged from the relatively benign to the egregious. On one miserably rainy night in the St. Germain de Pres area, we walked for blocks before finding a promising place with a luring display of gorgeous seafood out front. My husband and I ordered the mussels that arrived shriveled and overly salted. Afterward, I overheard my server helpfully describe the mussels as “small and salty” to another patron, which ignited my irritation with our meal and food experiences thus far. On the first day in Paris, I had a supremely bland “herbed omelet.” On another occasion, we managed to order the most lackluster and uninspired salmon tartar known to man. However, the worst, and perhaps the most offensive was the lobster ravioli.
I knew it would be tricky finding restaurants that catered to my vegetarian/pescetarian diet, but I never imagined it could be so bad. I can honestly say I gave it the old college try and failed miserably. Imagine, I’m sitting there salivating in anticipation of my lobster ravioli. What kind of cream sauce would it have? How would it be plated? At the same time, I’m trying to temper my excitement because, so far, my meals have been mostly disappointing. But it’s hard to not to get worked up at the thought of rich and tender lobster ravioli when you’re starving. And, how bad could it be? It’s lobster freaking ravioli. It’s not, say, pizza for which it’s perfectly acceptable and practically expected to range from being something comparable to soggy cardboard to being blow-your-mind tasty. I mean, people don’t just dabble in lobster ravioli…right?! You either do it well or you don’t do it at all. At least, that’s what I thought. As I’m sure you could’ve guessed by the way this rant is going, I was supremely crushed when the ravioli was set before me. It wasn’t actually ravioli at all, but over-cooked, rubbery lobster stuffed into a glue-like wonton pocket swimming in some sort of bland yet salty semi-Asian sauce. It was foul and I was heartbroken. I felt like the butt of a cruel culinary joke. And the worst part was that the waiter looked at me like it was my fault! As if there was something wrong with me! Like, “What, you did not like zis?” I was mad, spitting mad and I wanted to ask him if he’d even bothered to taste the slop. And then smash the plate on the ground. Of course, I didn’t. My husband doesn’t like confrontation and I don’t particularly like being taken to jail. So, I paid the 30 euros for the dish and slunk, defeated, red-faced, and humiliated, out of the restaurant. I was still hungry.
I had to reassess. I had to ask myself whether it was me, whether I was being persnickety and difficult. Surely all these places couldn’t really be that bad. I asked my husband for his opinion and he agreed it wasn’t just me. He hadn’t been enjoying the food either. The thing is, I am no American tourist with a toddler’s palette, demanding chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches. I like trying new things and love French food. I have eaten good food all over the world. Last fall, my husband and I traveled to London and Dublin and ate very well. Heck, we ate better pub food in London than we managed to find in far more expensive Parisian restaurants. Not so long ago, I traveled to Kenya and Beijing where I managed to find loads of food I enjoyed. I used to live in France! And I remember loving much of what I ate. So, why did I have such a horrible experience in Paris? I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with resting on laurels (or exploiting tourists). In my humble opinion, I shouldn’t need a recommendation to find a decent meal in the culinary capital of the world. I’ll say it right now: I’ve had better lobster ravioli at the French restaurant I worked at in college in Knoxville, TN. That’s right, Knoxville. Now I’m depressed.
Or maybe I just wasn’t ordering the right dishes? Yeah, I thought about that too. But at the end of the day, if you can’t cook an omelet worth a damn, I doubt your cassoulet is any good either. If the simplest dishes aren’t done right, I don’t see you wowing me with something more complex. And let’s talk for a moment about the Euro. Never mind that the Euro is in crisis, but somehow manages to outrank the dollar, the prices in Paris are outrageous. Just to give you an idea, most places charged around five euro for a coffee, at an exchange rate of nearly a dollar and a half to one euro. Yep, that’s about seven bucks for a cup of coffee. This was made more painful by the fact that we didn’t seem to get much for our money. Our best meal cost around 70 euro and, while I don’t mind plunking down some serious cash for a good meal, I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t have to shell out that kind of money to ensure a good dining experience. That said, I’d pay vast sums of money to never again experience the horror of the nefarious Versailles crepe stand.
In a city that was once full of crepe stands where the cook whipped up a cheap and delicious crepe right before your eyes, we were hard pressed to find good crepes. And many of the cute free-standing creperies, with a single hot plate and big jars of Nutella in the window, seemed to have been replaced by ready-made crepe stands. As in, the crepes are pre-made and have been sitting around for an indeterminate amount of time. While at Versailles, my husband and I stopped at an adorable crepe shop on the grounds thinking it would be lovely to order one to go and enjoy it while strolling along the topiaries, fountains, and manicured lawns. I went to the counter, placed my order, paid the pile of euros and heard a distinct “ding!” There was no placard (hot plate) or crepe batter or Nutella, just a loud “ding!” And I suddenly realized it was the sound of a microwave. My crepe had just been microwaved and was now being handed to me across a dirty counter, on a flimsy paper plate, and drizzled not with the chocolate I ordered, but a runny version of Hershey’s syrup. I’m. Not. Kidding. I could have cried. And, yes, I understand that such tourist attractions are not known for good food, but this is France and I ordered a crepe. Sadly, I think I’d have done better at Six Flags. And this makes me very sad.
In case I haven’t made it explicitly clear how upsetting this whole experience was, I dug up an entry I pecked out during the trip;
As I sit here, embittered by dull hunger pangs, typing feverishly, I’m going to declare that the peanut butter Lance crackers I’ve turned to in my desperation for sustenance are better than most the food I’ve eaten thus far in Paris. My culinary spirit is absolutely shattered and I don’t think I’ll be eager to return to Paris to be brutalized by the food scene again anytime soon. You simply cannot sustain a reputation as the food capital of the world ,with cuisine that is imitated all over the globe, yet offer nothing more than over priced, underwhelming meals. Paris, I expected so much more.”
So, you’re planning a trip to Paris you say? And this entry has you wishing you could make a last minute switch to somewhere, anywhere else? Despite all my bitter ranting, I offer words of hope! You can have a great time and eat well in Paris. The trick is to stick to recommended restaurants (check out the Paris Gourmand and the places mentioned in my first Paris post), avoid dining in touristy areas, make dinner reservations, and plan your days around where you intend to eat. Parisian restaurants seem to be extremely hit or miss so don’t be tempted to just plop down in any old brasserie, unless your planning to order a coffee or glass of wine. Also, if you plan to travel to Versailles, pack a picnic lunch to eat on the grounds and do not buy crepes from the kiosks on site. Good luck!
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