One of the things I love about traveling is the unabashed adventure, leaving the day-to-day familiarity and not knowing what's going to happen, who you are going to meet, but most importantly: what you're going to eat. Savoring the newness of the moment and the possibility of the unexpected makes me truly come alive. I wake up in a foreign bed excited to see what will unfold and how the day will meet us. Even when in a city not known for its cuisine, I will find out what's uniquely local and set off to discover who makes the best version.
And then there's Paris. It's the creme de la creme. The best bites in the world can be found there. And I am all about best bites. After a dinner party, I ask my friends, "What was your favorite bite?" And we will relive the experience together. Sometimes we even say, "I just had my favorite bite!" during the feast. (Often this exclamation involves the onion souffle.)
I love a Croque Monsieur, and quite frankly who the heck wouldn't. Take lovely rustic bread, slices of exceptional ham, gruyere cheese and béchamel sauce, griddle it together, and...mai oui! When I think Paris, there are a few key things that come to mind and Croque Monsieur is one of them. They are the holy grail of sandwiches. I love them so much that once during a frenzy of trying to master this dish I excitedly invited a half dozen girlfriends over for an impromptu Croque Monsieur tasting party, so they could try my inspired variations. I'm always on the lookout for the amazing Croque Monsieur. Often there is too much béchamel for my taste. Typically I cut the béchamel in half, even though I love it and every single ingredient of the Croque Monsier and its perfectly crunchy yet gooey warm lusciousness.
Having stumbled upon the motherland of Croque Monsieurs with a friend who doesn't like to eat quite as much as we do, I ordered it for a starter and, stunned, he inquired if this wouldn't be too much food...did I mention he's naturally thin? I assured him it would be fine and, well, it was. More than fine. In fact, just looking at it was practically an ecstatic experience, almost as good as taking the first bite. When I laid eyes on it I could feel through every corner of my being how spectacular it was going to be, and it was. Thank god when they serve it they give you two sandwiches, because who would want just one? Needless to say, both were consumed instantly and with no crumbs left. The combination of ingredients is just masterful and the whole is infinitely greater then the sum of its unbelievably delectable parts. I love Buvettes, a tiny magical restaurant in the 9th arrondissement which the owner calls a gastrotheque and Alice Waters considers a favorite spot in Paris. The dozen tables are tiny and feel a bit like doll furniture, yet crowding around the tiniest table in the world with two friends works perfectly in a uniquely Parisian way. Go there, and let me know what your favorite bite was.
There is no one better for the job of finding the perfect chocolate croissants in Paris than me and my daughter Lucy. I'm not saying we don't enjoy the Musee d'Orsay and the Notre Dame, but...we go to Paris for the chocolate croissants. Name one more noble quest. Right, that's what I mean.
Neither can I.
We love the joy of seeking and finding the perfect and most delicious bite, and that of course sums up the pain au chocolate, or chocolate croissant: perfection. Our favorite one was at the bakery Le Grenier a Pain Abbesses. It is a delightful place to go on a Sunday in this quiet French neighborhood. It is everything a person might think of when imagining a residential French neighborhood: so sweet with the cobblestone streets, vendors out with carts of beautiful fruit, a crepe stand, and local street musicians playing for the delight of the passersby.
The tiny bakery with its two counters is loaded with fresh baguettes, spectacular sandwiches, pastries, and pain au chocolate. It's the kind of place locals go daily for bread, to take lunch to go, and for pastries and cookies (how does everyone stay so thin?). It's a place full of Parisians, and no English is spoken at the bakery. Thankfully we have mastered the universal symbol of pointing to what we want. This bakery truly is for locals. It is unbelievably reasonably priced, and their pain au chocolate was the best we found. The three of us stood outside the bakery and devoured it. Inside the evenly golden brown layers of flakiness was the perfect amount of chocolate--not overwhelmingly generous and not disappointingly skimpy. Some croissants can be sort of greasy on the inside; theirs is richly buttery but not at all greasy. Each bite felt like sunshine after a rain, or a mother's love after a long absence. Immediately after it disappeared, we decided we needed a second, just to make sure it was the absolute best. We are diligent researchers, and marched right back in for another. Level of embarrassment: zero.