Living Large Near the Opera in Paris

A frustrating truth about business travel to beautiful locales like Paris is lack of time during the work week to enjoy what’s around you.  To give myself time to adjust and to sample what a primo city like Paris has to offer, I have often arrived on a weekend, even a couple of days early.  No need to employ such a strategem, of course, if traveling to, say, Toledo, but not to imbibe a little local culture in Paris?  I mean, c’mon!  Whether your first trip or your fiftieth, cities like Paris are never dull.

During a recent trip to Paris, I booked into the Millennium Opera Hotel on Boulevard Haussmann near the ornate opera house.  I arrived on a Saturday and managed to get to Musee d’Orsay to see all the impressionist masters’ works before it closed at 6:00 PM.  Wandering around leisurely, something I have never before had time to do at the d’Orsay, I found an entire room on the ground floor of Toulouse Lautrec (north side off the main floor).  As an admirer of Lautrec’s work, I lingered there. 
Later that evening I enjoyed a memorable dinner at Au Petit Riche on Pelletier just a block away from the hotel. Their housemade fois gras was superb, as was the fillet au poivre. To accompany the good French beef, I ordered a Cote Rotie, one of my favorite Rhone varietals. The particular bottle poured, a 2007 vintage, was disappointing.  The delicious creme brulee, however, helped to make up for the vin tres ordinaire (forgive my terrible French).
Au Petit Riche Restaurant, Paris
After eating well at dinner Saturday night at Au Petit Riche, I kept it simple on Sunday: a light breakfast and a simple fromage crepe (with Gruyere) for lunch.
As it wasn’t a work day, I did a lot of walking, first to the Louvre, where I fought with record-breaking hordes even before noon (I thought they’d be in church on Sunday). Standing in front of the Mona Lisa with my back to her, I took photos of the thousand or so adorers struggling to get an iPhone snap of her famous enigmatic smile (she looks as though she just passed gas to me).
Watching people gawking at the Mona Lisa
Then a leisurely walk along the Seine (a long walk) to the Eiffel Tower where I was surprised the earth didn’t open up under the weight of so much flesh standing beneath the four corners. So many people had gathered, you’d have thought they were dropping barrels of free €50 notes off the tower to folks.
But no, they were just rubber-neckers, come to gawk at Gustav Eiffel’s contraption built for the 1889 World’s Fair. Parisians then loathed the thing, calling it a giant asparagus. One critic famously quipped that he often ate lunch in the tower restaurant because it was the only place in the city he couldn’t see it.
Another divine dinner Sunday night, that one at a well-known, mainly local brasserie called “Le Vaudeville” directly across from the Bourse (stock exchange) on Rue Vivienne, about a 12 min walk from the hotel.  Its reputation as a local favorite not overrun with foreigners seemed right. After all, why not eat like the natives? 
The mainly local haunt, Le Vaudeville
 I wanted to try the Aux Lyonnaise, a bistro only a block away from Vaudeville that specializes in heavenly Lyonnaise cuisine using ancient recipes revived into epicurean delights. Sadly, it was closed that night.
Arriving to Le Vaudeville at 7:45 PM I was seated with no wait. By 8:00 PM it was totally packed, mainly with Parisians out for Sunday dinner. The few foreigners were seated in the front room by the windows. Somehow I rated a table among the locals in the main room in back.
I eyed the wine menu for bargains and found none, though the selection of Rhones included 3 fine old reds at astronomical prices. Knowing one can never go wrong with a nonvintage brut Champagne, I ordered a reasonably-priced Bollinger because I like the Bollinger house “dosage” (the secret mixture of Cognac and flavorings all Champagnehouses add to distinguish their bubblies). It was perfect for enjoying the good fare and watching the passing scene.
Tables were, as usual, placed within millimeters of one another, which pleased me. The closer, the better. Made me feel like part of the aggregate community of French men, women, and children.
Every possible menu selection was ordered and produced at each table nearby, and I enjoyed the passing culinary circus being whisked to hungry patrons: cooked crustaceans of every variety, oysters on the half shell, steak tartar, and many other unidentifiable but appetizing courses. A wonderful experience!
For what the French correctly call an entree (which means “enter” or “entrance”) and we Americans call a starter, I ordered foie gras de canard (duck liver pate). It was very, very good, but not as tasty as the previous night’s housemade wonder at Au Petit Riche. Dessert was a molten chocolate cake with almonds and a small scoop of rich ice cream that was vastly superior to the knock-offs like it in the States.
My main dish was a perfectly-prepared, melt-in-your-mouth tender, to-die-for slab of calf liver (foie de veau) with a superb accompanying sauce and whipped potatoes. I felt guilty eating it because it was so sinfully good.
But then I noticed that half the Parisians around me had ordered the same and were putting the veal down their gullets with gusto. As did I.  I wondered if Vaudeville was famous for its veal and seafood.
Price for dinner, service, and taxes included, was €27–about $36–not including the Champagne. That’s incredibly cheap for a real dinner in Paris.
Before heading back to the hotel, I stopped by for a gander at the very famous and most spectacular restaurant in Paris, Le Grand Vefour, which is only one long block away from Vaudeville. Vefour opened in 1868 and its current chef, Guy Martin, has maintained an amazing 3 Michelin stars…and prices to match.
If only I could afford to dine here!
Their fixed price lunch is €98 ($125) per person, and I have read that one can expect to spend €250-300 (up to about $400) per person for dinner, one of the reasons I didn’t go there (and won’t). Must be good, but I thoroughly enjoyed my meal that night at Vaudeville at one-tenth the price.
All these grand sight and culinary experiences in Paris in a day and a half on the weekend before the work week had even begun!  

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