Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Au Revoir Paris!

Brasserie Lipp has stood on the corner of Boulevard Saint Germain since the late 1800’s. When you enter through the revolving door, you feel the history; the presence of the diners who have savored the warm food in this classic bistro and laughed together. I do not feel alone in my corner table. The white cloth and the red wine set a festive atmosphere for my dinner tonight. I have ordered sole from the frigid waters of northwest France. I munch on my baguette and look forward to my fish. It will be difficult to survive returning to Seattle without a nightly late French feast.
The waiters in Brasserie Lipp are dressed in tuxedos with white shirts and black bow ties. Crisp white aprons are tied at their waists, and starched white towels drape over their arms. I wish I had brought my oils, or at the least my camera. Tonight my words will have to paint the picture. My waiter has nice eyes, and doesn’t mind that I don’t speak French. His long grey hair and chiseled nose makes him look like a friend I knew a long time ago. I can’t control my flirty gaze when I order. He returns the compliment with his eyes and for the rest of the evening; I receive an abundance of attention from the staff.
The dining room is narrow with small square tables lined together and touching. White tablecloths and napkins stand stark against the bankette of dark brown worn leather seats. The silverware is oversized, noting to the diner that food on a large scale will be served soon. I sip my wine and listen to the New York couple two tables down from me. They laugh with a Swiss couple, who speaks in English, and converse about trips throughout the world. I enjoy dining in silence and continue to observe my surroundings.
No paintings decorate the walls here. There is no gold leaf. The room is adorned with painted tiles and mirrors. The frieze along the ceiling is turquoise with white cockatiels and parrots. Between the mirrors, the ceramic tile scenes of exotic flowers and palm trees are framed by dark wood moldings. I sit across from the carved mahogany bar and the door to the kitchen.
The waiters carry finished dinner plates covered with napkins back through the double doors, which swing open to reveal the bustle of activity in the stainless steel kitchen. The stemware gleams on the bar shelves, reflecting the golden glow of light from the antique iron and tulip-shaped glass ceiling fixtures. In a single file parade, the waiters march out of the kitchen at a brisk pace, carrying chin high platters of ham on the bone, bowls of onion soup, and chocolate tarts. My smiling gray-haired waiter brings me a second glass of wine and my dinner.
Dining alone was a terror to me three months ago. Of all the activities that I feared doing alone, eating without a partner was the most difficult. Paris has taught me the pleasure of enjoying a meal. My golden sole lies before me alone on the plate, waiting for my taste. The center of the filet is skinless, the white meat framed by tail and sides. My side dish of French green beans, steams. I start with the thin beans, eating them one at a time. I savor the warm delicate taste that requires no salt or butter, returning my fork to the plate after each bite. This is how I am supposed to eat, slowly and thoughtfully. I sip wine. I wait. I taste the sole. It is flakey and light. I place my fork down and think about the flavors. I sip my wine and look around the room as I smile. The waiters come to me and remark that they know I am enjoying my meal. I am not in a hurry. This dinner, like my others in Paris, will last for several hours. I have learned that my eyes and my nose are as important in learning to dine as my mouth. I wait between bites and admire my fish and beans. I enjoy the wine’s reflection on the white tablecloth. I sip the still water and try to decide what to sample next, the sole or the beans.
The gentleman seated beside me receives a flurry of attention from the staff. Papers are brought to him. Handshakes are exchanged. He greets the Sommelier, the waiter, and the Maitre D’ by name. His order is quickly served to his table. I excuse myself to him in French, and comment that everyone at Brasserie Lipp knows him well. He smiles and tells me that he eats here frequently. I sense that he is someone important. We have been purposefully seated so close that we could touch. He reads his papers while he eats his Jambon.
Now the favorite part of my dinner arrives, the profiteroles. These are the best that I have had in Paris. The hot fudge sauce is nearly as good as I make at home! The three gems sit in their dark chocolate sauce on my plate. I gather all restraint to keep from gobbling them down. I slowly cut through the flakey pastry puff to reveal the ice cream within. It will be difficult to not pick up the plate and lick it clean. The waiters know I am at the peak of my meal. They laugh walking back and forth in front of my table, giving me thumbs-up hand gestures at my pleasure. I will have to order coffee. I need to prolong the meal. I have traveled long way in my culinary journey. I have left behind bagged salad, bottled water, no caffeine, no alcohol, no sugar, and power bars. I have embraced a loaf of bread at each meal. I have added to my dining repertoire, chocolate, desserts of all types, cream, coffee, several glasses of wine, and of course, champagne. With these dinner companions, one is never alone.
I have eaten my way through Paris. I have dined at the fanciest restaurants. I have eaten food that looks more like art than anything edible; displayed with careful intent. While I sip my coffee and think about my trip, I am grateful to have taken advantage of such an important part of Parisian life. The people of Paris enjoy their food. I enjoy their food as well.
Before I leave the Brasserie, I stop at the table of the New Yorker and his companion. I tell them that I have overheard their conversation about Long Island, and that I might be living there in the fall. He graciously gives me his card and tells me too call him if I go to school in Southampton. Perhaps he likes knowing writers. So, I end by writing about my new, New Yorker friend, who was kind and generous to a stranger in Paris. The cab whisks me down the left bank to my neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower.
Tomorrow is my last day in Paris. I will have lunch where Napoleon and Josephine dined. I will shop at the Paris sales for a last purchase to cram into my suitcase before I fly home. It is snowing. My dinner companion for my last evening is trapped in Normandy and cannot get back to Paris. I will have farewell drinks with my girlfriend at two of the fanciest Parisian hotels, and then walk to my local bistro to hug my new waiter friend goodbye. I will miss Paris. I hope to return soon.
Postscript: Went back to Brasserie Lipp tonight. Gerard, the darling gray haired Maitre D’, remembered me and gave me his number….I will be back Gerard…I promise!