Traveling to a new city is not just about concentrating on the famous sights. To really get the beat and feel of a city’s pulse, it’s important to experience a vital neighborhood. The Latin Quarter gets its name from the language used here when it was an exclusive medieval university district. Lying between the Luxembourg Gardens and the Seine, activity centers on the Sorbonne University (established in the 13th century) and boulevards St. Germain and St. Michel, the habitués of renowned philosophers and poets. In modern times, this area has transformed into café central.
This riverside quarter is the heart of the Left Bank: I fall in love with the neighborhood’s French and North African eateries, secondhand bookshops, experimental cinemas, and boutiques all rooting for space amongst the maze of narrow cobbled streets and pre-Revolution architecture. The area practically grooves to its own artsy, bohemian vibe.
The restaurants here have more personality, I feel. Several of them are offering stunning showcases of <I>fruits de mer</I>, literally, “fruits of the sea” – a seafood platter of shellfish and crustaceans. Piked onto skewers, the seafood look almost like edible artwork, a painting eaten piece by piece. They’re beautiful, and I attempt to take photos that justify their beauty without it succumbing to the glare of the glass from which they hide behind.
Outdoor menus announce and entice: French <I>oignon soupe</I>, raclette, fondue of all sorts, <I>croque monsieur, boeuf bourguignon</I>… ay-yay-yay! I want to try them all. What we do try today are the <B>gyros</B>. Whether it’s pronounced JEER-oh, GUY-roh, or GY- (soft ‘g,’) ros, is a debate I’m not willing to get into. What’s a no-brainer however, is how unspeakably delicious they are.
Several of these gyro restaurants dot the landscape of the Latin Quarter. Towers of meat are looked at by the curious, gaping eyes of those who pass by. Minced lamb and veal are molded around a spit and vertically roasted. It’s phenomenal in both size and appearance. French fries make a carpet below the meat, like flowers scattered carelessly on the ground. But they are crisp, having just been fried and ready to go into the next gyro.
Here, the meat is shaved off with what looks like an electric iron that makes a muffled buzzing sound with each shave. Fresh tomato slices and onion rings are then packed with the meat onto a thick pita, stuffed with French fries until kingdom come and then the entire bursting behemoth is handed to each of us. Tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt) sauce or a garlic-yogurt sauce are then slopped on and bottles of sea salt are at each table for further seasoning. It’s juicy, smoky, incredible. I have to open my mouth as wide as I can, tear off a mouthful and surrender to the unbelievable girth of this sandwich I’m holding. “I can’t finish all of this, I can’t finish all of this,” I mutter as I make my way through it. Unbelievably or perhaps predictably so, I have no trouble finishing the gyro. But my Bin has to roll me out of the restaurant in a wheelbarrow.
After walking along for about an hour, we pass by St. Severin, where my sister says, “…you can get the best crêpes.” She explains that they make it on the spot here unlike other crêperies that fill orders throughout the day from the stockpile near the flat griddle. While there are a thousand crêpe varieties we can have, Charley and I never deviate from the variety we grew up with: banana and Nutella, that luscious chocolate-hazelnut spread that’s good on everything, even fingers.
We watch as the designated crêpe man ladles some batter onto the hot, round surface. He uses a wooden turner that looks like an inverted “T” to spread the batter so that it’s equally thin all around. Wait a while, wait a while, and then a tiny peek underneath to check if it’s done. Then in one fell swoop, the man flips the crêpe over onto its other side, its center now a coffee-stain brown lessening in color to a tawny yellow as it reaches the edges. Once the crêpe is cooked, it’s folded in half, the perfect palette for splotches then streaks of Nutella. I’m watching all of this action unfold through my camera lens; with every click, my mouth waters more. Onto the crepê’s sleek coat of Nutella do slices of banana slide. A flourish of vanilla ice cream (we’re having this one <I>a la mode</I>), the ends are then folded in like a giant paper napkin, and <I>voila!</I> crêpe majesty.
I notice that vanilla ice cream here in France is buff in color, and not immaculate white like the commercial vanilla I’m used to. There are also specks of black – real vanilla bean; its intense flavor is jolting, this is the real stuff.
The three of us share this one large crêpe pausing between bites to people-watch. This, for me, is the best part about traveling. Taking the time to sit still amidst the rush of a new place and literally watch the world go by – with food in hand of course.
On another day, we roam around the Marais, a neighborhood, still filled with pre-Revolutionary lanes and buildings. It’s more characteristic than touristy, unlike the Latin Quarter, and touristy is no bad thing, I tell you. The Marais is medieval Paris, a thriving, trendy, real community, a joy to explore. I’m like a flâneur, an aimless stroller compelled to explore the streets, scouting the passages, exploring my geography. It’s thrilling.
Wending our way through the little streets, my sister Charley, my Bin, and I find ourselves in the Jewish Quarter, it’s lined with colorful shops, kosher restaurants, and falafel joints. I’m psyched when Charley takes me to a Jewish bakery complete with a menorah and loaves of golden challahs in the front window. The Jewish are known for their baking prowess; several of the pastries I like are Jewish: babka (yeast cakes), apple cake, and cinnamon schnecken. The Jewish baker inside, wearing a yarmulke, graciously allows me to snap some photos. Wow, a real Jewish bakery!
When in the Marais, eating falafel is imperative. There are plenty of these emporter (to go) falafel places ranging from the average to the divine. We stop at one that proudly touts a “best falafel in the world” sign outside. And after eating a meal there, we believe it wholeheartedly.
Falafels are a Middle Eastern specialty: meatballs made of highly spiced, finely ground chickpeas (garbanzos) are molded into a double-scooped contraption (think double scooped melon baller) and then deep-fried. Fragrant with cumin, they’re crunchy and so meaty that I almost can’t believe they’re meat free. The falafel comes with a plate of fillings to go with or into the pita: shredded cabbage (red and white), carrots, fried eggplant rounds (love these!), tomato sauce, and the smoothest hummus. My Bin, Charley, and I take turns filling our respective pitas with the assorted mix-ins alternating with forkfuls of the stuff. What a treat this is! Charley tells me that while taking a falafel sandwich to go is appealing, it’s messy to eat and the juices from the vegetables tend to make a soggy mess at the bottom of the pita. “It’s much better to sit and eat,” she tells me with a smile, forking in the last of her falafel.
Gelato shops abound in Paris, but the best one, at least in terms of uniqueness has got to be the one here in the Marais. Thanks to Charley, we relish the gelato at Amorino, a gelateria that serves their gelato on a cone, with the ice cream shaped like flower petals. To see is to believe. Once a flavor has been picked from their massive selection, the girls behind the counter use extra thin scoopers; slowly, slowly, they scoop out thin layers of gelato and arrange them artfully on the cone. In less than a minute, an edible gelato flower!
I choose two flavors that are part of their autumn line: balsamic vinegar and mascarpone. But when I get my ice cream flower, I see that it would’ve been more aesthetically pleasing if I’d gotten two flavors that were starker in contrast. Still, never the mind. It’s beautiful! And the best part is, I can eat it.