My First Christmas in Paris

Christmas tree made of lights on Champs Elysees

Since moving here in 2008, we have never spent Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s in Paris, preferring to go back to the U.S. to spend them with family and friends. 

In November, as we were readying to leave for our holiday hajj, we decided, since we’d been “flying” so much lately, let’s take it easy this year, and actually see what Christmas in Paris is all about. So, here we are.

I’ve asked friends who are from Paris or who’ve lived here a while about Christmas.  Interestingly, all say that it’s changed, that it’s become more “commercialized” and my American ex-pat friends also say, it’s become more “Americanized.”  

These are my personal impressions of Christmas in Paris: 

Lights along Rue de la Convention

The streets are quite festive. Usually, starting the end of November, each arrondissements (districts), have different festive lights strung high above the streets. I’ve been told that the merchants all chip in and pay for stringing of the lights etc.  Maybe it’s just me, but I found that in the more affluent neighborhoods such as the 16eme, they didn’t have as many lights as in the more residential working class neighborhoods.  None-the-less, they are a beautiful sight to see.

Trees being sold with log stand

Christmas trees start to go on sale in December. They are extremely expensive. My best friend bought one about 7-feet tall for 75€ about $100. Typically they hollow out a log to fit the bottom stump of the tree, and that log is used as a tree stand.  Unfortunately, because of this, the trees dry out faster.  So, you really have to be careful if the tree gets too dry. And, if you are moving here, bring your tree stand with you, as far as I can tell, they do not sell Christmas tree stands.  Also, Christmas ornaments are sold throughout the city, and they are absolutely beautiful. Some can be extremely expensive.

As you walk along the streets you will notice stores decorated as well with festive lights, Christmas trees, all the usual Christmas decoration trappings we have in the U.S. But being a “foodie”, what impressed me even more are all the different "Bûche de Noël" the bakeries have. They have them in all different sizes, and even have individual servings.  And, some are simply works of art.  "Paris by Mouth" has wonderful photos of these pieces of art.

One of many photos from "Paris by Mouth" of a Bûche de Noël

What they do different than the U.S., in Fance they have the "Marché de Noël" the Christmas Markets. They have them throughout the city; however, they’re pretty much all the same. I actually find them boring and uninspiring. They’re usually filled with tacky “tchotkes,” stands selling hot wine drinks and, of course, the proverbial French scarves. 

Marché de Noël, very quaint looking
Another thing I noticed, there are American/English Christmas carols playing all over the city, especially in the department stores and malls, and even in the small boutiques. I was told that this is a relatively new development influenced by travels and U.S. movies etc., since the French have a very small collection of Christmas carols, I heard less than 10, whereas English carols there are about 50. I have to admit, it does put you in the holiday spirit.

Interestingly, my best friend and I went out to the mall and I was expecting it to be packed as in the U.S. It was pretty empty by American and even French standards. I was told that the Parisians prefer to buy Christmas gifts of e.g., perfumes etc. in the downtown area like "Galeries Lafayette" or  "Printemps" or smaller boutiques, preferring to buy everything else (e.g., clothes) during one of the 2-annual sales, which is January followed later by July, at which time the malls will be packed.

Galeries Lafayette

Karl Lagerfeld (Printemps)
Speaking of the downtown department stores, I have to say, they were quite festive with all the lights, and each department store will have their own window display with special designers, designing each window.  This year Karl Lagerfeld decorated the Printemps windows.  Interesting, to say the least.  And, Galerie Lafayette’s building was displayed with lights all over the building, which they do each year. It was actually quite pretty. It sort of reminded me of Las Vegas, with all the lights. 

And, speaking of lights, I personally do not like the Champs Elysees because I find it too touristy and crowded; however, I made an exception this year and visited it to see the lights. The Champs Elysees had beautiful lights along the boulevard and displays worth seeing, if you can handle crowds and like playing “bumper shoulder” or “chicken” with the cars.  Three new stores opened up this Christmas season on the Champs Elysees: Banana Republic, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Marks and Spencer.  As a result, people were queuing in to get into the stores, which also created pedestrian traffic jams. The streets were so packed; they had to have police to control the traffic as well as the pedestrian sidewalks. It was worth my sore shoulders, but doubt I’ll do it in the future. Once is enough for me.

Champs Elysees

Eerily, Christmas Eve was really quiet in a lot of residential areas of Paris. It appears that many people either left for their country homes, or to their hometowns to spend Christmas with their family. Plus its Christmas break and many have vacation.

Hanukkah this year is December 20-28. In San Francisco where I’m from, they always have a Hanukah lighting ceremony in Union Square.  As I wandered through the city, I did not see many menorahs displayed, except in the old Jewish quarters, "Le Marais".  I had heard last year, they had a huge menorah lighting ceremony at the Eiffel tower, and they also had a free concert. I did not see one this year, but I’m sure they had ceremonies in various parts of the city, I just wasn’t aware of them.

Now onto the Christmas meal. In itself, it was quite an eating marathon.  My best friend Steve hosted a Christmas Eve party. Of course there are some regional differences, but this menu is quite typical:

Appetizers: we had oysters on a half-shell with a vinaigrette dressing. We also had canapés of caviar and salmon atop crème fraiche.  In some households, shellfish such as shrimp or langoustines are also served.  And, of course you have to have champagne.  After this first round of appetizers, then we had foie gras with toasted brioche, and served with a special sweet sauterne.

Oysters on a half shell
 Entrée:  We had “Coquilles St. Jacque” lightly poached in butter, served with a dry white wine e.g., sancere.

Plat: We had Cornish game hens, served on a bed of wild rice and haricot vert. Traditionally, fowl is served, such as capons, goose, and even turkey.

Cornish game hens with wild rice and haricot vert
Our featured wine of the evening

Salad and cheese:  Salad and it can be accompanied by cheeses, or cheeses can be served after the salad. 

Buche de Noël

Dessert:  Of course we had the traditional “Buche de Noel”, and a little bit of Americanawe had a huge selection of cookies baked by Steve.

Then after all is said and done, more champagne followed by a digestif.

My special Parisian family

After all the food and drinks, it was time to head on home. We actually live in walking distance of Steve’s apartment, but I was feeling a bit tipsy, so I took the tram.  FYI,  public transportation runs on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Interestingly, the streets and public transport seemed really deserted.  We live next door to a Church, and I noticed as I got closer to home the only people wandering the streets were people leaving Church after midnight mass.  Although France is a predominantly Catholic country, not many attend midnight mass as in the past.

On Christmas day, Steve and Eric took Eric’s Mom on a visit along the Champs Elysee. Surprisingly, he told me some of the stores were actually open.  How Las Vegas is that?

All-in-all, I’m glad we have good friends to spend the Christmas holiday with. The "City of Lights" truly lived up to its name this holiday season, and it has been a great holiday season; the weather has been unseasonably warm.  I heard last year this time, it was cold and snowing!  I guess we brought the California sunshine and weather with us…

À votre santé. Je vous souhaite une Bonne Année! 

Note: In the U.S. if a holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is typically a holiday as well.  Surprisingly in a country that has more holidays and vacations than Imelda Marcos has shoes, banks, post offices, and most stores are open.


Le Sot l'y Laisse -- Restaurant Review...

Address: 70 rue Alexandre Dumas, 75011
Nearest transport: Alexandre Dumas (2)
Hours: Dinner, Monday-Saturday; lunch, Tuesday-Friday; closed Sunday
Reservations: Book a few days in advance
Telephone: 01 40 09 79 20

Rating Standards: 5-Stars = Extraordinary; 4-Stars = Excellent; 3-Stars = Average; 2-Stars = Fair; 1-Star = Poor
€ = Inexpensive: 30€ and under; €€ = Moderate: 31€-49€; €€€ = Expensive: €50 -75; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than €76 (prices based on plats--main course)
1-Bell = Pleasantly quiet (less than 65 decibels); 2-Bells = Can talk easily (65-70); 3-Bells = Talking normally gets difficult (70-75); 4-Bells = Can talk only in raised voices (75-80); BOMB = Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)

  4 - Stars.............................................€ (pre-fix menu)..............................................2 - Bell

Our friend John of "John Talbott's Paris"  recommended that we try this restaurant in the 11eme.  Our other good friend  Marie Johnston, "The French Market Maven"  joined us as well.  This tiny restaurant with a capacity of maybe 25-seats has gone through several owners in the past couple of years, with Eiji Doihara, a Japanese chef with a classical French resumé holding the current reigns.  It's an extremely simple restaurant, and devoid of almost any decoration, save for the table of bottle wine displayed by the window, and the large billboard where their handwritten menu is hung prominently on one of two large walls. Despite the lack of decor, it's the food we wanted to focus on.

I was expecting French cuisine with a fusion of Japanese flavors, just because. I don't know, maybe wasabe flavored beets or something.  Instead, we got some excellent classical French dishes with incredibly simple and beautiful presentation. The Japanese influences were there, but very subtle.  For one, his Japanese aesthetics were quite evident when it came to his "plating." The balance of colors, textures, and taste was a hit with all of us.  As you will see from some of the photos, they're art onto themselves.

Pre-fix lunch menu

OK, let's start with the menu.  They had a pre-fix lunch: 2-courses for 18€, and 3-courses for 24€. 

We opted not to have the pre-fix lunch and go "a la carte."  Our wait-person, explained to us that ordering from the main menu would take longer.  Hmm, that's a good sign.  In my book anything that takes longer means, maybe they're actually cooking the food, or parts of it versus warming it up and plating.  

After we all made our decisions, two of the items we wanted: Crepinette de pied du porc au vin rouge et foie gras poélé, lentilles vertes (pig's feet), Pigeon ramier d'esossé aux champignons sauvages, sauce au sang (pigeon) were only served for dinner, not for lunch.  We had a discussion how we found it annoying that they don't put a star or asterisks next to the dish to say dinner only, rather then getting our hopes up, but that's the way they do in Paris, oh well. 

Foie gras with balsamic reduction

John and I had the "foie gras poêlé aus figues, réduction de viniagre balsamique" -- Oh my God, not only was it presented beautifully, but was nicely seared on the outside and melt it your mouth tender inside.  He probably was able to accomplish this by slicing the foie gras thin to avoid over and/or undercooking. 

Consommé of oysters and grilled winter vegetables

Jack had the "consommé, aux huîtres chaudes, légumes d'hiver grillés." When I first saw the dish, my first thought was what are those little balls? So, as I tasted it it was like little crackers of some sort.  We asked our wait-person and she said they were "puffed rice." Aha, so here's the Japanese influence, aside from the presentation. The broth was delicious, and the juxtaposition of the different textures came together fabulously. A definite hit. 

Leek terrine

Marie ordered the "terrine de poireaux au vert." Marie loved the dish. It was encased in a gelée to keep it's shape. Again, the presentation was beautiful, we're seeing a trend here. 

Roasted duck breast

For our entrées John and Marie had the "margret de canard rôti aux légumes, croquants de Thiebault, sauce aigre-doux."  John had asked that the duck breast be cooked as the Chef would want it to be eaten, so it was on the rare side. I tasted it, I loved it. It was very juicy. But I am a sucker for anything duck. 

Turbot fish

Jack and I had the "filet de turbot rôti, sauce Noilly Prat, purée de betterave poirée." this to me was the most beautiful dish of all. It had color, texture, and height.  Sounds like I'm talking about interior designing, but I loved the beauty of it.  And, the fish was absolutely mild and perfectly cooked.  The crispy purple potatoes and crispy parsnips brought me back to my childhood when I use to put potato chips in my tuna fish sandwich.  I've come a long way, n'est-ce pas?

Poached persimmons with white wine gelée

And, now for dessert.  The three had the "kaki poché à la gelée de vin blanc, coulis de fruits rouges."  Since I'm trying to cut down on my sugar intake, I had the "assortiment de fromages."  My companions were kind enough to let me taste their desserts.  Oh my God, loved the wine gelée and the poached persimmon was wonderful.  

Comté, chèvre, and brie

The cheese plate had comté, chèvre, and a soft brie.  I forgot to mentioned, we loved the bread that accompanied our meal. And, I especially loved it with the cheese. I swore the bread was from "Poilâne". We asked our wait-person, and she said, no she got it from a bakery in the 11ème.  I did some research and discovered that it was definitely from Poilâne, they have very distinctive breads that cannot be mistaken, but they get it from their neighborhood boulangerie that sell Poilâne bread, voila, my taste-buds have been redeemed!

Summary:  First of all "chapeau" (compliments) to John, excellent choice. If we had ordered from their pre-fix menu our bill would have been much, much less and it really is good deal. However, we went a la carte, so our bill came to almost 66€ for each person which included two bottles of wine, 2-glasses of white wine, and coffee.  it was worth every centime! Definitely go for the food, since decor is lacking.  I would go back in a heartbeat!

Note: The restaurant was filled to capacity, and people were being turned away, so reservations are highly recommended. 

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