I need to borrow 30c from some Canadian backpacker girls when I arrived at the Gare du Nord because the metro ticket machines wouldn’t accept my credit card, and don’t take notes. The wad of euros I’d conscientiously converted at the bureau de change before I left sat limp and impotent in my wallet, with not a tabac in sight to get some change.
After catching the first metro in the wrong direction for 10 minutes I eventually realise my mistake and switch lines. Excuse moi and pardon will become my most frequently used pieces of French vocabulary for the next few days.
It’s Saturday night in Paris. I arrive at my hostel Le Montclair Montmartre at 10pm. I sit in the foyer of the hostel while two German guys berate the night attendant for help at having “misplaced” their car. Turns out they’d parked it illegally for the better part of 3 days while they were on a drunken Parisian bender. I listened enviously as the attendant switched between French, German, and English while trying to understand what the hell these guys are on about.
I’ve been charged for last night because I was supposed to be there then and didn’t call to say I wouldn’t be, and my booking has actually been canceled. Luckily they still have room and can un-cancel the rest of the booking. I even manage to get an upgrade to a single room, not really willing to endure the boarding school-esque communal dorm situation after the day I’ve had.
I finally get my key and check in. The room is tiny but perfect. It has possibly the worlds smallest double bed and an ensuite bathroom. It’s heaven to a weary traveler. I take a shower, leaning back on the patented hostel push button hot water system to keep the flow of water going just long enough to make me feel human again.
Finally relaxed, the hunger pangs that I’ve been ignoring all day in the face of unspeakably horrible train / ferry food have risen to the surface. After a brief consultation of Clotilde’s lovely book I find a couple of likely restaurants in the area and settle on L’Homme Tranquille. Stepping past a couple of guys smoking out the front I wander in an empty but open restaurant, and stand around for a few minutes waiting to see if someone is going to appear. Shortly thereafter the guy smoking outside comes back inside, and it turns out he’s the owner, Antoine, and that unfortunately it’s been a quiet night so they’ve closed a bit earlier. However if I want some dinner he’s happy to recommend his friend around the corner at Le Kokolion, who will be open til much later.
So I wander around the corner, admiring the sights and sounds and smells of Monmartre, the cobbled streets, the flickering neon lights, the array of people of all kinds both strange and enticing. Casually lounging in bars and cafes, making me wish I’d taken up smoking.
Le Kokolion looks like somewhere out of a dream I’d had once. A cliche of a French bistro trapped in a time gone past, but perfect in it’s simplicity. Painted in faded red with gold lettering, it felt like the right place for a first meal.
I entered and was greeted by the manager with a matter of fact “Bonjour Monsieur”. To which I stuttering replied “Bonjour. Une table pour un s’il vous plait”. Suddenly the reality of communicating in a foreign language became apparent and all my careful study went to crap as I realised I really had no clue what to do if the conversation didn’t follow the painfully basic routines I’d practiced.
Fortunately though my attempts were met with polite acceptance and a guiding arm led me through to a dimly lit enclave with candle lit tables and old movie posters on the wall. A menu was presented and then some space given so I could peruse in peace. My “menu French” finally having a moment to become useful I scanned for something I’d want to eat. Settling on the terrine du canard for entree, the onglet de boeuf for main, and a creme brulee for dessert.
The waiter returned and I dutifully gave him my order in as good a French accent as I could muster, pointing at the same time to make sure I didn’t leave any room for confusion. “Une carafe de vin rouge, s’il vous plait” was also met with understanding, and I soon had a small carafe of wine sitting in front of me like it was always meant to be there.
I pour a glass and sip casually, looking around in the dim light at tables filled with friends a lovers, talking close and laughing loud. Another table sports a single diner, carefully working his way through a bottle of wine, putting me at ease. My terrine arrives, a thick wedge of duck pate with other bits of liver and duck. It’s served with toast and a small salad. I take big slices of it and smear it over the toast, it’s rich and gamey and tastes like everything I’d imagined it should.
The beef came next. I’d ordered it ‘saignant’ and it was cooked to perfection. An onglet cut is basically a skirt or flank steak. A cheaper cut that can often be tough, but cooked rare this was beautifully tender. Served along with haricots verte and pommes frites it was the simple meal I wanted. The beans were presented in a neat little stack and crowned with a knob of butter that coated them in deliciousness.
The frites were actually thick pillows of potato deep fried to crunchy perfection. Giving both texture and flavour.
I looked up halfway through the course, realising I’d totally lost myself in it. The length of the day had faded away and the ordeal I’d had to go through to get here seemed so insignificant. The restaurant was now half full of people. I check my phone for the time, 12:00am. The table next to me had just arrived and ordered a bottle of wine and 3 courses. Unheard of in Perth at such an hour. I could get used to this very quickly I mused.
Finally the creme brulee arrived. The waiter pouring some alcohol (which may have been calvados) on top and setting it alight, and interesting take on the flame throwing technique of caramelsing the sugar on top. He looked at me wistfully as he placed it before me, still aflame, and said something that I can only assume meant “Wait til it goes out before you start eating or you’ll burn your face off”. I smiled knowingly at my translation of what he said and dutifully waited for the light blue flames to die down and the thin layer of caramelised sugar on top to fully form.
I then cracked through to the creamy goodness of the brulee. I melted a little as the first taste hit my tongue, smooth and rich and luscious, coating my mouth with caramel and taking my level of satisfaction to ludicrous levels that can only be attributed to a virgin Parisian dining experience.
After a casual “l’addition s’il vous plait” I was presented with the bill. My attempts to convey just how much I appreciated the meal probably got lost in translation, so it was with a simple “Merci, Au revoir” that I left and wandered into the Paris night, sublimely satisfied at a great first meal.
I took a long way home, photographing every in sight. Walking up and over the hill around the Sacre Coeur and then back down the other side. Arriving back at my hostel at 2am, walking past a grocery store that was still open and selling wine, I knew this was somewhere I’d grow to love.