France 2017

We recently spent a week in France. Well, mostly — we spent five days in Paris, and took a few side trips to Reims in Champagne and Liège in Belgium. Usually what happens when I get back from a big trip is I write a quick, factual summary of what happened — where we went, what we ate, things we saw, etc. This time I wanted to do something a little different, so: here’s everything we did, ranked.

Top (All) 5 Hotels

  1. Les Crayères (Reims) can barely even be described as a hotel. It’s a chateau, an estate, a getaway, an experience, a splurge. It’s class and luxury, top to bottom. With rooms.
  2. Le Grand Pigalle (Paris 9e) was a pleasant surprise — a cool, fun hotel in the neon chaos that is Pigalle.
  3. Hotel Caron (Paris 4e) was a win because of its simplicity: no restaurants, no grand lobby, no frills…just a nice Parisian hotel room, a friendly front-desk employee, and a great location.
  4. Hotel Mademoiselle (Paris 10e) was a stopover as we transitioned from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l’Est. Big room, but weird style. Cute breakfast area though.
  5. The Street Lodge (Liège) was one we picked because of proximity to Liege’s train station, and island park. Not terribly fancy or stylish, but functional and roomy.

The view from our first Paris hotel

Top 5 Breakfasts

  1. Les Crayères wasn’t just the best breakfast of the trip. It might have been the best breakfast I’ve ever had, and it was basically a continental breakfast. No meat, no eggs, no veg. Just pastries, yogurts, honeys, jams, fancy nutella, fruit, cheese, juice, and coffee, but all of it absolutely outstanding. All in a gorgeous room which houses their Michelin-starred restaurant. Will probably be on my top meals of the year. Oh, and we’re like 65% sure Jeff Bezos was there.
  2. The Street Lodge Liège BnB breakfast was a surprise. Our host Sabine made wonderful eggs to go with the usual French breakfast (ham, fruit, pastries, jams, etc.)
  3. La Terrasse Saint Catherine was a lucky find. We were up early and stumbled in since it was near our hotel, and fell into a simple but delicious breakfast: I had scrambled eggs with bacon inside the eggs; Lindsay had a meat & cheese plate and a croissant. It was simple, but perfect. The fact we were a little hungover probably had something to do with how delicious we found it.
  4. La Grand Pigalle was our first real French breakfast: fruit, yogurt, pastries, etc. Excellent coffee drinks, but marked down for the truffled ham. Ugh.
  5. Hotel Mademoiselle had a cute spot in which to eat breakfast, but it wasn’t really noteworthy.

Le Parc, where we ate breakfast at Les Crayères

Top 5 Lunches

  1. Les Enfants Perdus came up in a quick Google search during our train ride back from Liège, and it turned out a champ. We shared an outstanding burrata, and had dorado (Dan) and toulouse sausage (Lindsay) for mains (paired with a terrific bottle of Burgundy). I had a trio — vanilla, pistachio, and praline — of crème brûlée (Dan) for dessert, but for the life of me can’t remember what Lindsay had.
  2. Mamagoto happened to be right next door to Hotel Mademoiselle, otherwise we’d have never known about it. I forgot to write down what we ate, but it was Japanese/French fusion, so…yeah. Top stuff.
  3. Le Relais Gascon was a place in the 18e recommended by our friend Genna for their giant salads. I had the salade du béarnais; Lindsay had the salade roquefort. We drank a bottle of rosé, chatted with the couple next to us who turned out to also be from Toronto, and almost got a sunburn. In October.
  4. Tavern Aigle d’Or was the most promising beer place in Liège, and we spent a whole afternoon there. First we stuffed ourselves stupid on boulets (giant fried balls of seasons pork + beef) and then drank bottles of La Trappe, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Rulle Brun, and Cuvée De Ranke. It wasn’t always easy either — this was the only place we encountered where they spoke zero English.
  5. Les BS Bistro & KB Coffee Roasters were our first stops after getting off the plane. Nothing terribly remarkable on the bistro front — just a simple brunch — but my espresso from KB was pretty tasty. And much-needed.
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Our first meal in Paris

Top 5 Dinners

  1. Buvette was the first dinner we ate in France, and I remember telling Lindsay that I wasn’t sure we’d beat it during the whole week. It wasn’t recommended; it just happened to be around the corner from our first hotel. It was a tiny place, and dimly lit, and so full we had to sit at the bar — classic Paris, in other words. And the food was stellar: chevre covered in honey and hazelnuts, beets covered in crème fraîche, a huge pile of smoked trout and lentils, steak tartare, a lovely bottle of cab franc, and a piece of brillat-savarin cheese with a glass of Graves. Incroyable.
  2. Le Jardin Brasserie was the second, non-Michelin starred restaurant at Les Crayères, but it was still spectacular. We shared a bottle of Champagne from a small local producer to go with our starters (lobster salad, a “cappuccino” of Ardennes mushrooms + ham), and with our mains (lamb and veal) we took a bottle of Bordeaux. We had a quick cheese course, then two desserts: a hazelnut “island” floating in custard, and some kind of compote if memory serves. Actually, I guess we had three desserts: our server gave us an unexpected crème brûlée! I’m not sure how we made it back up the hill to the main building.
  3. Our most anticipated dinner was Friday night, at a place in Saint Germain called Le Germain. It was another recommendation from Genna, who’d earned our trust thus far by recommending Le Relais Gascon and the baguette at Le Grenier A Pain and for, you know, being a Paris-trained pastry chef. Anyway, we got there, and we knew right away something was up. It just felt…weird in there. Like, clubby. I mean, it turns into a full-on club at 11pm, but even at 8pm it felt off. The service was poor. The apps were poor. There was none of the life-changing butter we were told lived there. We really didn’t want to stay, so we resolved to leave after the apps and find a new restaurant. I pulled up my old Paris custom map and realized one of my very favourite restaurants from my visit 8 years ago — Fish La Boissonnerie — was just seconds away. We loved it there immediately — so much more the vibe we were looking for than Le Germain. We shared this amazing soup; I had a delicious bit of pork, while Lindsay had pasta, and we shared a killer bottle of Burgundy. So glad we bailed out.
  4. We weren’t sure what to do for our last meal in Paris until the last moment, when we opted to visit the Palais de Tokyo at 10pm on Saturday. We ate a quick but impressive dinner at the bar at Les Grandes Verres: coquilles St-Jacques, a shared dish where you made pork belly tacos out of pancakes, and cocktails. If we’d been in less of a rush I would have raided the wine list, where they had several people curate personalized lists & pages.
  5. Since we have their poster on our wall, I suggested we have a late dinner at Willi’s Wine Bar after visiting the Louvre. We shared prawns and both got the steak frites, and drank a shockingly good bottle of Pomerol.

Honourable mention: L’Antidote in Liège.

Top 5 Bottles of Wine

  1. Chateau Bellegrave 2008 Pomerol, at Willi’s Wine Bar. I’m not normally much of a Pomerol fan, but this went so brilliantly with our steak frites that I might just change my mind about Merlot.
  2. Leclaire-Thiefaine Sainte Apolline Champagne, at Les Crayères’ Le Jardin Brasserie. We asked for a bottle of blanc de blancs from a small producer, and this one was perfect.
  3. Simon Bize & Fils 2014 Aloxe-Corton “Le Suchot”, at Fish La Boissonerie. The staff held this one in such reverence that when a clumsy stranger knocked my mostly-empty glass off the table to be smashed on the floor, our server yelled “Oh no, Le Suchot!”
  4. Domaine Joseph Roty 2014 Gevrey-Chambertin, at Les Enfants Perdus. This might have been a rather fancy bottle for lunch, but it was our favourite lunch of the whole trip, so.
  5. Amirault St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil 2014 “Les Quarterons”, at Buvette. We asked for a versatile bottle to go with four different dishes. Luckily for me they fired this cab franc our way.

Honourable mention: the Château Toumalin Canon-Fronsac 2010 “L’Aurea” we had with our mains at Le Jardin.

Top 5 Art Experiences

  1. In my two previous visits to Paris I’d never been to the Centre Pompidou. It’s not only a stunning collection of modern and contemporary art, it’s also an intriguing building. The view from the top floor must be one of the best in Paris. But the real jewel is the collection. We spent nearly six hours there over two visits, and still only saw 1.5 floors.
  2. Similarly, I’d not been to the Musée de l’Orangerie, but it was a heavy hitter in terms of name-recognition of the artists inside. Even leaving aside Monet’s water lilies (probably the main draw) the collection downstairs — Cezanne, Picasso, Derain, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir, Sisley — is something to see.
  3. One of the main reasons we were in France and Belgium was to see the work on Nicolas Schöffer, and my favourite was the cybernetic tower which still stands, more than 50 years later, in Liège. It’s beautiful on its own, but also reacts to the external environment and would even change colour when I asked it to on Twitter. We stood on the footbridge to the island in the Meuse and interacted with this tower for half an hour after dinner. It was beautiful.
  4. I’d never even heard of the Palais de Tokyo in my previous visits to Paris, but of course Lindsay knew about it. When we were there the exhibition was Days Are Dogs by Camille Henrot, which we didn’t have time to fully see, but which blew us both away.
  5. We weren’t expecting much from La Bovarie, next door to the cybernetic tower in Liège, but both the temporary Young Artists exhibition and the permanent collection were pretty great. Our plan to stroll through the gardens after was thwarted when we got trapped in a terrace outside the museum with no one to let us back in, so we had to ninja our way out of the garden by walking on top of a wall and jumping back down, but that aside, it was a solid visit.

Honourable mention: slightly new experiences at The Louvre and the Musée Rodin, and a visit to a certain special atelier.

Paris seen from the Centre Pompidou

Top 5 Ways To Get Around

  1. I’m telling you, I could take the TGV from Paris to Reims and back every day and probably not mind. 150km in 40 minutes, hitting 300 km/h along the way, was pretty sweet.
  2. It’s touristy, but I stand by the fact that the Batobus is a pretty good way to get around and see the major sites of Paris. We sailed past the Eiffel Tower, the Musée D’Orsay, Notre Dame and more, eventually jumping off at the Louvre.
  3. We must’ve taken 20 Uber trips. At this point Uber probably thinks I’ve moved to Paris.
  4. The train to Liège wasn’t quite as slick as the TGV to Reims (and the Gare du Nord is not as nice as the Gare de l’Est) but it did pass through beautiful countryside, and passed within a few kilometeres of both Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy.
  5. We only used the Paris Metro a couple of times, but we got to share a laugh with the locals about these really aggressive tourists who were literally crawling into seats before the previous occupants had even fully left them.

The Seine at sunset, seen from the Batobus

Top 5 Other Things We Saw

  1. The tour and tasting at Taittinger in Reims was, happily, a little different than my tour at Moët et Chandon years ago. It’s a less fancy house, but the caves were more impressive. There were beautiful carvings, remnants of the old basilica which stood on the site before the revolution, and even ancient Roman crayères — chalk pits from the 4th century where the Romans had extracted limestone for building. A beautiful space, and a nice tasting. We bought two bottles: the 2012 Millésimé and the Prélude Grand Crus.
  2. We didn’t expect much from it, but the whole city of Liège was a pleasant surprise. From the time we arrived to see the stunning train station, to the island park, to the walk along the Meuse river, to the old historic area, it was really a pleasant find.
  3. The Tuileries Garden. Always the Tuileries Garden.
  4. I’d never seen the Place Vendôme, the Opera, or the Montmartre Cemetery before, and we did them all (and then some) in one day.
  5. I also hadn’t really spent any time in the Place de la Concorde, and for whatever reason we walked or drove into it several times on this trip. It’s the kind of huge public square that just exemplifies Paris.

The train station in Liège

Top 5 Things I Watched On The Plane

  1. The Big Sick
  2. The first three episodes of Fargo (the TV series, not the movie, obviously)
  3. Baby Driver
  4. Zodiac (which I’ve seen a million times but will always watch because David Fincher is a damn genius)
  5. The Social Network (see above)

There were a hundred little moments not captured here, but all of which went into this being one of my all-time favourite trips. At some point Lindsay may weigh in with bonus commentary too, so stay tuned. Until then: a la prochâine, Paris.

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