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Seductress on the Seine

Of course it’s clichéd to say that people fall in love in Paris—with food and wine, with fashion, with the people they will marry. It’s clichéd, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Paris Eiffel Tower

My first trip to Paris was anything but glamorous. I was traveling with the lowest, least desirable company a 15-year-old boy can imagine for himself—his parents. My budget-conscious father had booked us on one of those package trips that combined London and Paris for a price that sounded too good to be true, as indeed it proved to be. The less said about the damp, foul-smelling hotel on the outskirts of London, the better. The hotel in Paris was also run-down and odoriferous, but the blue Art Deco tiles in the small lobby hinted at a grander past, and from the window of my parents’ room we had a view of the Place Pigalle and the rooftops of the 18th arrondissement.

Now the haunts of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Johnny Depp, Pigalle at that time was best known for prostitutes and petty crime, and despite its proximity to Sacré-Coeur, the place horrified my parents. But thanks to my reading, I had a nascent case of nostalgie de la boue, and the seediness of the area was redolent of bohemian romance. My parents’ mortification and my fascination converged at the moment I was accosted by a prostitute in the Place Pigalle. She grabbed my arm as I was walking toward the hotel. There ensued a brief tug-of-war, my mother pulling one arm and the prostitute pulling the other. It must have been one of the more traumatic events of my mom’s life, but I saw it as a seminal moment in the development of my sensibilities. I couldn’t help being beguiled by my near brush with Eros.

More predictably, perhaps, I also discovered wine and food in Paris, although not at a restaurant; the few experiences I remember of dining out there were awkward and embarrassing. This was a time when Parisian waiters delighted in torturing tourists. I had assured my parents that I spoke passable French, but my attempts to communicate elicited blank stares or sneers. Our one experience with a Michelin-starred restaurant was a disaster. We ended up ordering the few items we recognized, grateful as Dickensian orphans for the favor of being served, and fled as soon as we were able. Partly because of that experience and partly because of my father’s thrift, we decided on our second full day to buy lunch at a little grocery and eat in the hotel. The simple snack of bread, cheese, and red wine was one of the best meals I’d ever eaten. The cheese was something like Comté, the bread was crusty and soft within, and the wine, which cost three or four francs, might have been a Beaujolais or a Côtes du Rhône—it was robust and dry and perfect with the cheese. Paris became, in my mind, inextricably associated with sensual pleasures, although I harbored a vestigial fear of “fancy” Parisian restaurants.

It would take me more than a decade to return to Paris, but I returned on a triumphal note, for the publication of my first novel. This time I stayed on the Left Bank, at the ancient Hôtel de l’Abbaye. I discovered foie gras, in its cold-terrine form, on my first night and ate it at every subsequent meal in a series of bistros. On the last night of my visit, as a reward for my promotional work, my publisher sent me to the three-star Lucas Carton. Facing the prospect with some trepidation, I invited a pretty journalist who had interviewed me to come along and discovered that foie gras was also wonderful in its hot, sautéed form. I wish I could remember all the dishes we ate. It was certainly the most exciting meal I’d ever had, and the bottle of ’79 Gruaud-Larose cast a rosy glow on the whole evening. The service was efficient and helpful, almost obsequious. The room was beautiful. I felt lucky. My first three-star experience was magical, thanks in part to my dinner partner, who did nothing to change my perception of Paris as a city of erotic intrigue. We walked back to my hotel via the Eiffel Tower, which is much more romantic at night.

On subsequent trips to Paris, I overcompensated for my former fear of the haute cuisine experience by dining at many of the city’s three-star restaurants. I went to stalwart Taillevent and to Pierre Gagnaire, where the traditional haute cuisine collided with the wildly experimental sensibility of the eponymous chef. I believed I’d found my culinary grail when I visited Alain Ducasse’s restaurant shortly after he opened in the space formerly occupied by Joël Robuchon. Ducasse marshaled technical virtuosity in the service of a kind of sublime simplicity. The roasted Bresse chicken was one of the great dishes of my life. Of course, it was studded with black truffles beneath the skin and enhanced with a splash of sublime suprême de volaille cream sauce. I also discovered classics like Allard and L’Ami Louis, as well as the new generation of no-star gems like La Régalade and L’Os à Moelle, some of them opened by two- and three-star chefs who wanted to let their hair down.

Every time I returned to Paris, I seemed to fall in love, quite literally. I dated two Parisians in the latter part of the ’90s, which required ever more frequent visits. The second woman spent her days toiling in the fashion world and preferred simple pleasures in her leisure hours. Under her influence, I rediscovered the virtues of a baguette and a wedge of cheese en plein air, an experience that, however fraught with cliché, is somehow infinitely more romantic in Paris, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, for instance—and not just because the bread is so good and the girl so stylish, though these count for a great deal.

Some cities might be spoiled by the memories of previous love affairs, but Paris is too sophisticated to hold your past against you. When, two years ago, I was looking for the perfect place to propose to my now wife, I thought immediately of Paris. We had visited together the previous fall, staying at the Ritz, dining at Ducasse and Le Violon d’Ingres. We’d had a tour of Versailles and checked out the brand-new Musée du Quai Branly, the latest addition to Paris’s rich cultural heritage. Much as I love New York City, which is where the two of us first met and fell in love, I felt compelled to bring her to Paris to propose. I claimed I had work there and asked if she would join me.

My favorite three-star restaurant, Alain Ducasse, now located in the Plaza Athénée hotel, seemed like the obvious setting. The ring arrived tucked into puff pastry. After I had my answer, my fiancée and I ate, among many other dishes, the Bresse chicken with suprême de volaille sauce, and it had never tasted better, nor had Paris ever looked more beautiful than it did that June night from the window of our room, the Eiffel Tower hovering against the night sky across the Seine.