Travels with a Gourmet

a food lover's travels, memorable meals, culinary trials and gastronomic experiences

Early on our last day, my mom arrived from Manila and met us at the hotel. We had a room service breakfast then got ready for our lunch at Le Grand Colbert. I had been to the restaurant once before in 1997 but never since and T celebrated her 40th birthday dinner there in 2002. My mom had never been and after seeing the 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give, she wanted to see the favorite Paris restaurant of Erica Barry (Diane Keaton’s character).

I booked a table for noon and we arrived at the rue Vivienne just before the lunch rush and were led to a banquette table. Aperitifs were served while we looked through the menus and waited for another friend, Rosemary Rodriguez, to join us. Rosemary used to be the creative director and protegee of Paco Rabanne and recently designed the premier Spring 2008 collection for Nicholai by Nicky Hilton.

The restaurant, located just by the Palais Royal, is a former hôtel particulier where Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a celebrated minister under Louis XIV, resided. It opened it’s doors to the public in 1900 and has remained a restaurant since. Classed as a historical monument, the interiors boast of high ceilings, original mouldings and an intricate multi-coloured mosaic floor. Frequented by artists from the nearby theatres and businessmen from the bourse (stock exchange), Le Grand Colbert is often packed for both lunch and dinner. The menu is extensive and has a section on seafood with the traditional plateau de fruits de mer and oysters as well a selection of brasserie classics.

My mom chose the half-dozen escargots bourguignonne and the poulet-rôti, T had the foie gras with Sauternes aspic and the scallops with mashed sweet potatoes while I opted for a simple salade verte followed by a steak-frites, haricots verts and sauce bearnaise. The food came quickly – the escargots were garlicky-good and the foie gras was smooth and tasty. My salad was perfectly dressed with the typical mustardey French vinaigrette. Service was fine or as the French say “tres correct” meaning good but not impressive.

Rosemary joined us mid-meal and ordered a sole meuniere right away to catch up with us. Our main courses arrived soon after and that’s when it started to go downhill. My steak was bland and the meat was not tasty, my mom’s roast chicken was o.k. and T‘s scallops were fine but again nothing to write home about. Rosemary took one whiff of her sole, tasted a bit and didn’t like it all and returned it an that’s when the trouble started. The waiter took it back but started to argue with her that the fish was perfect and that he didn’t find anything wrong with it which so upset Rosemary that she decided not to have lunch at all. We finished the unimpressive dishes and ordered two cheesecakes to share for dessert. These were fine but again not particularly tasty or special.

The unpleasant surprise took place when we asked for the bill and T decided to treat everyone to lunch. The 37€ sole was still on the bill and when we asked for it to be removed since it as returned uneaten, the maitre d’ said that there was nothing wrong with it and so it had to be billed. In the service industry and especially in restaurants, the goal is to let the diner leave happy and in this case, none of us left satisfied with either the food or the service. Now that the Grand Colbert has become a tourist magnet since the movie came out, even displaying a poster of the film at the entrance and on top of the bar, the quality of the food has gone down as well. Pity as it’s one of the few remaining authentic brasseries in Paris.

To walk off our frustration after our lackluster meal, we headed to the Palais Royal and window-shopped in the arcade lining the gardens. Here, a few boutiques and art galleries stand side by side including Marc Jacobs and the famous Parisian vintage store – Didier Ludot. In the windows were iconic vintage haute-couture creations from several fashion designers. Here is also where you can go if you are aching to have an Hermes Kelly or Birkin and don’t have the patience or clout to get on the waiting list. Through the arcade is the main square with the recently-completed modern installation of black and white striped pedestals offset by the classical facade of the buildings surrounding the square.

A bit further up the road we went to the Rue St. Honoré, the main shopping street in the Right Bank. Rosemary led us to two of her favorite places which were both discoveries for us. The first was a little coffee place called Verlet. This place has been roasting beans and selling them from this shop since 1880. They also carry a range of specialty teas. The ground floor is crowded with sacks of freshly-roasted coffee beans, a few simple wooden tables and a glass case with homemade cakes. We climbed up the uneven wooden stairs to the second floor which has a spacious seating area. We ordered espressos and some green tea and enjoyed the homey atmosphere. Here is the antithesis of Starbucks and all those other modern coffee shops. Café Verlet is a coffee mecca with character.

The second discovery is a boutique just across the street from the café and is a ceramic store – Astier de Villatte. Here all-white ceramic plates, platters, teapots, vases, bowls etc. are displayed on rickety wooden shelves in a showroom made to look like someones home. The plates are simple in design but have an antique feel to them. They also carry glasses, cutlery, paper items and even a few furniture pieces. It’s a traditional home accessories store with one-of-a-kind items and another worthy stop. Here, we said goodbye to Rosemary and made our way back to the left bank and our hotel for a rest.

That evening, we had a dinner reservation at L’Epi Dupin which I had been to in January with my husband and was eager to try again with my mom. We took a nap though and ended up cancelling our booking and staying in for the night making our last evening in Paris a quiet one at the hotel.

The next morning after a simple breakfast, we walked to the corner café, Le Nemrod, for a simple lunch of salad and omelet before checking out and leaving for the airport. As always, however many days I spend in Paris, it’s never enough and I always count the days until my next visit. A bientôt….

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