The Search for the Perfect French Restaurant (3 of 3)

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Travelling "First Class" on the TGV

The gripping finale to a tale of adventure, intrigue and gluttony.

Part 3 of 3

Chapitre Trois - in which our adventurers head to Paris, encountering on the way trains en grève and the angry gods of Eyjafjallajökull in far away Iceland rain down a cloud of ash upon Europe, leaving our gourmands-errant stranded in Paris and unable to return to England.

We left Avignon with four “First Class” tickets to Paris on the superfast Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGV). A train which has clocked speeds of upwards of 574 km/h and in whose first class cabins we were expecting, to quote from the Rail Europe website “drop-down tables suitable for laptops”, “powerpoints” and “extra legroom and larger seats equipped with power recline”.

Arriving in the cathedral-like Avignon Gare TGV we found a ourselves amidst some form of popular unrest. The CGT and SUD-Rail workers had stopped work in protest over planned redundancies. We could forget about “extra legroom” - we were given new tickets on a train at a different time and everyone was bundled together, sitting on the steps, sitting on our suitcases in the aisles, in fact if you were sitting at all you were lucky. The French word complet doesn’t seem to me to sufficiently convey how packed it was. Thus for two and a half hours, whizzing by at 200km/h we sat in the aisles and on the steps of the train. Sporadically, from my standing position on the train steps I was able to lean over some seated passengers and armpit over their heads shove my camera against the window. I have some photos of the countryside we would have enjoyed.

On our last evening before flying back to London, we found that we still hadn’t found le repas parfait, only had some tantalising glimpses of existence, a nice tagine at Au 35 Rue Jacob, outstanding chocolates, croissants, viennoiseries, cafés aux laits - but the perfect meal? Not yet. We had one meal left, we thought we’d try Le Pré Aux Clercs in St. Germain des Prés.

Le Pré Aux Clercs is a nice restaurant in a nice part of Paris, bookstores are open till midnight and there are cool looking Jazz clubs on every street corner. The restaurant was bustling, a good sign and the service was good notwithstanding being a group of noisy Anglophones, something which doesn’t always predispose one to receiving excellent service in France. But there was something missing, the food and wine were both very nice - but the place lacked the je ne sais quoi necessary to make le repas parfait. So, happily we walked home on a full stomach and contented, but I still felt a tinge of sadness that we had never found le repas parfait.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Admiring Le Louvre
The next morning we packed our bags and readied ourselves to leave. My aunt and Esther’s mum went to a cafe to have one last café au lait as only the Parisians can make them and Esther and I crossed the Seine to Le Louvre to have one last look at my favourite building in the Universe. As we were admiring Renaissance architecture at its finest Esther received a call from her mum: apparently there had been a volcano in Iceland and flights were being grounded. Esther and I laughed together in the Paris sunshine of the Tuileries as we returned circuitously to our hotel

“Imagine if our flight was cancelled from this volcano. First strikes and then a volcano.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be funny.”

Well, I suppose it was a bit funny, in retrospect. Rumbling away in far off Iceland an angry Eyjafjallajökull had spewed forth an ash cloud through fire and ice that had grounded flights all over northern Europe. It would seem that Hephaestus the old god of artisans had sought revenge on the fact that human industry no longer made sacrifices to him and thus sent a cloud of ash to ground the European aviation industry.

Returning to the hotel we found out that our flight was delayed, indefinitely. We were in fact fortunate that my aunt’s sister (also my aunt) had warned her about the volcano because I’m sure it would have been chaos had we found out about it upon arriving at the airport. So there we were stranded in Paris. When we went to the nearest Air France office the staff there were less than useless, more or less directing us to a local SNCF office. The SNCF offices in turn were already full of angry Frenchmen whose train tickets had been cancelled due to the strikes. Hearing rumours that Calais was fast filling up with stranded Englishmen, we instead bought tickets to Dieppe, hoping to be able to procure passage on the Dieppe to Newhaven ferry.

It was in fact a pleasant and mostly uneventful journey to Dieppe, past Normandy meadows filled with cows and occasionally sheep. Arriving at the train station in Dieppe, LD Lines had organised representatives to be present at the train station to organise a bus to take us from our hotels to the ferry at five o’clock the next morning. This self-same representative dropped us off herself at our hotel, Mercure Hotel La Présidence. So we strolled along the waterfront at Dieppe admiring the ancient castle, and we headed into the market area and bought some cheese and butter to take back with us to our house in England. After a long day we retired to our hotels defeated and resigned ourselves to the hotel restaurant - having no energy to hunt out the perfect jolie brasserie for our stay.

Finally, where we least expected it, on a circuitous detour to a town we never would have visited were it not for the intervention of an angry Icelandic volcano, we found ourselves seated at a round table enjoying le repas parfait. Sitting by the sea, enjoying a bon vin, although I didn’t care to take note of the name, discussing and laughing about the crazy circumstances that led to our arrival in this town and happy in the knowledge that we were safely on track to arrive home, we finally realised the most important components of le repas parfait as the waiters brought beautifully dressed plates to our tables with vegetables sliced thin as paper, sauce drizzled around the plate and tender pieces of beef, duck and chicken on our respective meals. I don’t recall the names of the meals, because the perfect meal is not about filet de boeuf à l’ecorce d’orange or vermicelles dores aux baies roses, le repas parfait is about company, comfort and not having a care in the world.

Chateau de Dieppe (France)Image via Wikipedia
Dieppe Castle
To be sure, the restaurant La Présidence is a Michelin-recommended restaurant, run by head chef David Limare formerly of La Cote Saint-Jacques (3 Michelin stars) and the Responsable de la Restauration is Patrick Pollet member of the Disciples Escoffier. These details do help a little.

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