A free man in Paris

I had one night, one dinner. Next day I'd be on the train/ferry/train from Paris to London, where I knew the food would be many rungs down. So what possessed me to walk into a Moroccan restaurant for my first and one and only Parisian meal? I had even called a Parisian sophisticate, an expat Cuban writer, for suggestions, and all I managed was to follow his advice on a neighborhood where I'd find a good restaurant. I was very young and very inexperienced, so I just popped into the first establishment I walked by that looked inviting and that establishment was Moroccan.

I had my first couscous. It was quite good, though looking back I think, gee, I blew my one shot at the fabled French cuisine and I didn't even try anything French.

I went back a decade later. I knew a little more about food, not much. My French had not improved either . But this time I was hosted by a Parisian grand dame, my girlfriend's grandmother, in whose gorgeous Beaux Arts apartment we were staying  One day she took us to a Vietnamese restaurant that I later learned was considered the best in the world. The dishes were so light and airy that I was convinced there were heavenly beings in the kitchen. Another day at a different but equally luxurious restaurant we had steaks, very thick and very rare. When someone like that is hosting, you let them order, never mind that I was embarrassed to show my faulty French. Still, steak and Vietnamese. Where was la cuisine française?

My girlfriend and I borrowed a car and we motored up to Rouen. Her friends took us out to dinner. Ah, la cuisine normande, all butter and cream and apples. They called around to the legendary restaurants and, hélas!, they were all booked. The only place with a table for our party was an American-style steakhouse. After that huge bleeding chunk of, admittedly delicious, faux filet, I feared OD'ing on steak, but again I was a guest, so nothing to be done. 

It was faux American. The Bloody Mary was just tomato juice with vodka. The baked potato (in the land of frites!) was indifferent. The t-bone was nothing compared with my Parisian steak. On the other hand, I drank enough wine that my French improved significantly and my fellow diners, a convivial lot, drank enough that they seemed to understand me. Still, the food . . .

I would eventually find la cuisine francaise, at a charming place in Les Halles where the charm was all about the wonderful tripes à la mode de Caen and not about the stereotypical Parisian rudeness -- I had stumbled into an insiders' spot and I was obviously not one. But now I think my first encounter with Middle Eastern food and later Vietnamese were harbingers of the complicated multiculturalism that would stir up France as well as much of Europe.

On that first innocent trip when I went looking for France and found Morocco I eventually dined in a proper French restaurant that was also quite friendly to strangers who spoke little French. In London.