Eat Your Way Through Paris
You could say that my friendship with Betty Hallock was forged in New York over Japanese rice balls and passion fruit doughnuts. When she moved to California, I accompanied her to JFK, where we ordered dirty martinis at an airport bar and cried at the gate. A decade later, our friendship is a testament to the fact that long-distance relationships can work, especially when they involve rendezvousing for meals. We've traveled to Catalonia for a 36-course lunch at El Bulli; hit a fishing village in Nayarit, Mexico, for street tacos; and met up in Chicago for Polish sausage at Hot Doug's. So to celebrate Betty's recent landmark birthday, I suggested we go big—in Paris—with the idea that everything we put in our mouths be the most delicious thing ever. To temper our foie gras intake, we invite our longtime friend and a vegetarian, Erin Shockey, to join us.
Two weeks later, after cashing in all my hotel points, we reunite at the towering Pullman Paris Montparnasse, where we delight over not one, but two bathrooms in our 11th-floor suite (pullmanhotels.com/parismontparnasse, rooms from $218). Without wasting a second, Erin and I exuberantly shout, "Betty, it's your birthday! What do you want to eat?"
Now the deputy food editor of the Los Angeles Times, Betty tells us we'll want to explore bistronomique, a Parisian trend where the principles of fine dining (great chef, great ingredients) are applied to downscale bistro spaces with equally modest checks. We walk to the acclaimed Le Comptoir du Relais, where she says she once had a sublime culinary experience involving a pig's foot. We're not surprised to find they're fully booked. But the maître d' directs us to their annex, L'Avant Comptoir (9 carrefour de l'Odéon, 6th arr., 011-33/8-26-10-10-87, crepe $7). The place represents an even newer trend of bistros opening wine bars with affordable companion menus. The standing-room-only space employs a front-of-house crepe maker, and during the time it takes him to oblige us, two charming Frenchmen offer to share their hors d'oeuvres. We accept the snacks but turn down anything more. We've already got our dates for the week.
Wiping our hands clean, we trek across the Seine to Spring—for our second dinner—bypassing the main dining room for the wine bar downstairs. We make our way through rolls smeared with a rich, seaweed-flecked butter, duck-stuffed apricots, and a selection of cheeses with figs (6 rue Bailleul, 1st arr., springparis.blogspot.com, abricot farcis $11). Afterward, we take advantage of the ubiquitous Velib public bicycle rentals and pedal through the cool, quiet darkness like E.T.'s bike gang floating in the sky (velib.paris.fr, from $1.25 per day).
I've been to Paris with my family, roommates, soon-to-be lovers, and even by myself—sleeping on the floor of friends' apartments and once in a quilted, pink guest room fit for Marie Antoinette. All those trips ultimately annoyed or exhausted me somehow. But not this one. There were no competing agendas—just pleasure, and lots of it. I never felt the glow of the city as I did with Betty and Erin, sybarites and independent women whom I not only adore but also admire.
At the end of our trip, we snag a banquette at the classic bistro La Rôtisserie du Beaujolais (19 quai de la Tournelle, 5th arr., 011-33/43-54-17-47). The waiter delivers a platter of spit-roasted chicken aux pommes to the four American ladies seated next to us, and they erupt into laughter and applause. We discover that they've been friends since their freshman year at a women's college. Even though they've traveled as a group with their families for the past 40 years, this is their first time doing so with only each other.
And from the looks of it, this won't be their last.