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My First Lie in Paris OR The Couple Next to Me Were Having an Affair

April 11, 2012

Becky and I stopped in at the University Bookstore after lunch (we were working on a Saturday a few weeks back in the U-District, it doesn’t get better than that, right?), when I saw a 2009 Michelin Guide for Germany for a $1. I got excited. Because if Germany was on discount, there was a good chance that the Paris or France version was too — For those who don’t know, the Michelin guide is the guide for restaurants (if you want to read more, there is a fantastic New Yorker article on the subject. In fact Michelin is so important in the restaurant world that a chef committed suicide on the rumor that his restaurant was going to be downgraded from three stars to two stars).

Sure enough, after a few minutes of pawing through all of the unwanted books, I found the 2009 Paris guide. At home I flipped to the section about the Marais (the neighborhood I stayed in my first leg in Paris) and started googling all of the restaurants.

But I was immediately drawn to one restaurant in the guide. Benoit. It was on the same street as my hotel. It was reasonably priced (compared to a 500€ pre-fixe menu I saw that during my research). The guide called it a timeless classic and a throwback to a Paris long ago. The internets rumored that it is the only brasserie in Paris with a Michelin star. I was sold — I went online and made a reservation for my birthday.

When I arrived at Benoit, I knew I was going to have to lie. And lie in English. And hope that they understood me. See they didn’t take reservations online for ‘un.’ On the reservation form I said it was for two. I lied to the host and said, “My partner is sick,” while putting my two hands together and doing the international sign for sleeping. He translated to the hostess who seated me and I heard something like, “La mademoiselle est malade.” She removed the extra place setting and pulled my table out so I could squeeze into the seat.

I had spent a couple of hours in Seattle translating the menu. There were some items that were obvious — even with my non existent French language skills — Escargots. Filet de Bœuf. Foie Gras.

I was seated next to another table of two. A man sat to my diagonal and a woman to my immediate right. He was British and when speaking to the wait staff he spoke in exaggerated, but not over the top, French. The woman, named Tara, had a huge rock on her finger. She was from California. And for the life of me, I could not figure out their relationship. After I placed my order, I came to the only logical conclusion — that they were having an affair in Paris.

Anyway, when I was seated, I was handed a tome of French wines. And had this been given to me two years ago instead of today, I would have been overwhelmed, confused, and would have no idea on how to interpret the wine list. I narrowed it down to two Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s. And went with the older one — a 2006 Andre Brunel “Les Cailloux.” It was quite simply an amazing wine.

For dinner I ordered the Foie Gras and the Cassoulet. But I ended up with the Pot of Vegetables and the Cassoulet. The Second in Command Host/Order Taker (see below) took my order, walked about three feet, turned back at me and said something in French and I realized that he had immediately forgot my order. I said, “Cassoulet.” That bit in French that I didn’t understand — I would later realize it was him confirming my pot of vegetables. I am guessing that this interplay was only realized by the Brit next to me.

The first course was three little gougères – cheese pastries. These were placed on my Benoit fine china. Yeah, Benoit has their own dishes and the silverware is made with actual silver. All of the silverware and plates were cleared and another set of silverware and plates appeared with the second course — a beef, carrot, and vermicelli soup.

Now, I want to take a minute to describe all of the people serving me that evening:

  • Main Host — Greeted me; Explained to the rest of the team that the ‘mademoiselle was sick.’
  • Second in Command Host/Order Taker — Took pity on my sick partner and offered me a French newspaper (I declined his offer). After a couple of glasses of wine I was in a quite happy place and needed no additional entertainment.
  • Wine Steward — She showed, opened, and poured my wine and assisted in all wine related matters. She also took a little sip of my CDP before she poured it to me. Which she was either impressed with my wine ordering that she took a little for herself, or had a hard day a needed a little nip to get by, or most likely, she was tasting to see if there were flaws.
  • Waitress — She knew English, brought me my dishes, and was very friendly.

Why I deduced the couple next to me was having an affair, it seemed like they were catching up on things — important things. Tara, had just gotten done being in a wedding. A wedding where the hotel did not have their reservations for either the hotel rooms or the banquet rooms — note to self, always confirm the hotel rooms, (regarding my eavesdropping, remember the tables were very close together and I was alone, that is why I remember every detail of their conversation). So the question is, why was she at the wedding and not him? He also told her a story that happened to him recently. How come they don’t know these details already if they are together? They were also very acted very romantic to each and that ruled out the friend zone for me.

Anyway, the next course was the pot of vegetables. And it was perfectly fine that I got vegetables instead. Carrot, celery, potato, artichoke, pear (I know it is not a vegetable, but there was a braised pear in there — and it was good), and some lentils, all in this delicate broth — which I sopped up with some bread.

There are two things I like in a nice restaurant. One, I love a slow and paced meal. Two, I love it when it is dark. Like, really dark. So dark that Boomers/my parent’s generation have to use their cellphone to read the menu. At Benoit, the pacing was perfect, impeccable in fact. But it was as bright as day. Literally, day. Like you could get tanned if you stayed there long enough. And my dinner in Chablis, a few nights later, the exact same way. Must be a European thing. Or maybe in the U.S. we like to gorge ourselves in the shadows and between flickers of candlelight in order to not reveal our greed to others.

Now the Cassoulet at Cafe Campagne in Seattle is a great challenge to finish. And it is one of my favorites anywhere. Throughout the night I had observed these petite silver pots being brought to various tables. I figured that it was the Cassoulet. And it looked manageable. But when my waitress brought out a pot, about the size of my grandmothers 5 quart cast iron pan, I almost fainted. It was huge. The waitress simply smiled and said, “You have to finish it.” She removed the lid. Delicately spooned out a plate’s worth — being sure to fish out pieces of duck, sausage, and pork — and said, “bon appetit.”

Benoit Cassoulet

I ate heroically for as long as I could. I didn’t finish.

Meanwhile, Tara couldn’t finish her Foie Gras. She spoke more about the wedding she went to and all of the bad speeches. She spoke how the father of the bride had unexpectedly passed away a few months prior and one of the sons gave a speech based on what he thought the deceased father might say on the occasion. It was not well received. The Brit, laughed with delight.

I needed water. And tap water is not encouraged at these nicer places in France. They want you to drink (or rather, people prefer to drink) mineral or sparkling water. I ordered a ‘petit’ bottle of sparkling water and a glass of 2009 Château Haut-Bergeron Sauternes (dessert wine from Bordeaux). Along with my dessert wine, I was offered a menagerie of baked/candied treats with my coffee and one final course consisting of a baked lemon cake.

Dessert

The Brit offered Tara a rough plan on how they would handle their speeches. And that is when it hit me. They are engaged. And they are getting married. I almost dropped my coffee cup on the floor as the pieces of their dinner conversation illuminated in new light. On my way out, I asked them if they were getting married. And Tara said yes. The Brit chimed in and said in October. Tara asked me if I was in Paris for a special occasion. I said tonight is my 30th Birthday. The waitress, listening to our conversation was crushed. She would have given anything to have known that piece of information before that moment.

I walked out and Tara and the Brit followed me. They smiled at me and walked arm-in-arm as we parted in different directions. The night was clear. The air was crisp. And the moon was out. The lights of Paris sparkled in a way I had never seen before. I straightened my jacket and I stepped forward into my second act.

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