Saturday, May 25, 2013

Restaurant Balm: A "must visit" destination for epicureans near the Louvre

One of the most frequent requests that I receive from friends, and even friends of friends, who are planning a trip to Paris is for a restaurant recommendation near the Louvre. Everyone, it seems, wants some insider's advice about where to dine after they've survived the crowds at the world's most visited museum. As my answer that I rarely eat in that part of town always proves to be a disappointment, Sara and I decided to check out a recently opened restaurant creating a quiet buzz among my foodie friends.

Located on a peaceful side street only a couple of steps away from the Palais Royal, Restaurant Balm is a haven of peace that combines natural elements, such as water trickling down a glass partition near the entrance and roughly hewn rocks enclosed in wire cages behind the bar, with oversized photographs by Marc Lagrange. The exposed limestone walls provide a harmonious backdrop to the curved tables nestled together like puzzle pieces for groups or separated for more intimate dining. Fluffy sheepskin rugs and cowhides tinted a mossy shade of green are scattered over the oak floor. Gazing around the spacious interior, Sara and I agreed to indulge in a three-course lunch so that we could linger for as long as possible.

After days of eating traditional French food while in Normandy, the more tantalizing modern options on the menu made it difficult to make a selection. Deliberating between the layered grilled vegetables, espuma burrata and tomarillo sorbet and the wild sea bream carpaccio with yuzu citrus and purple shiso, I was thankful when Sara said that she would take the carpaccio and offered to let me have a taste. While the subtle flavors of the starters were a delight, it was the Aberdeen Angus sirloin accompanied by potatoes with a garlic confit and nori puree that convinced me that I've found my restaurant near the Louvre. Normally, I only eat about half of my meat before passing the rest to Stéphane, but this was the most flavorful steak that I've eaten in France. I savored every single bite and even felt a pang of disappointment when I swallowed the last mouthful.

Feeling rather full after polishing off my steak, I wasn't sure that I would have a dessert until I spied two words on the menu that sealed the deal. "Calamansi sorbet". Incredulous that this citrus fruit that I hadn't tasted since we lived in the Philippines had made its way to a Parisian restaurant, I questioned the wife of owner-restaurateur Pierrick Mathon if the sorbet was made with real calamansi juice. When Kanya, who is from Thailand, graciously assured me that all of their sorbets are made from fresh ingredients, I knew that I had to try it. As the first spoonful of Calamansi sorbet melted in my mouth, memories of our expat posting in the Philippines flooded back into my mind. The unique citrusy flavor of Calamansi, which tastes something like a sour orange or a slightly sweeter lime, and grand cru chocolate was the perfect fusion of East and West.

With music playing softly in the background, floor to ceiling glass windows perfect for people watching and a welcoming vibe, Sara and I could have easily spent the entire afternoon at Restaurant Balm. If you would like to linger, be sure to sit at one of the higher tables because they're more comfortable than the lower tables with the couches and "wok" shaped chairs in front of the bar.

As an interesting historical side note, Restaurant Balm's name is an acronym that pays homage to the restaurant, "Bœuf à la Mode", that originally occupied the building from 1792 until 1936. With its elegant interior, refreshingly creative menu options and warm hospitality, I have every expectation that Restaurant Balm will experience the same longevity.

Prices range from 12-23 euros for starters, 24-35 euros for main courses and 12-16 euros for desserts. There are also tasting menus for 48 and 78 euros. A wide selection of wines is available and may be ordered by the glass or by the bottle.

Lunch is served from 12:00-3:00 pm Monday to Friday and dinner is served from 7:00 pm to midnight Monday to Saturday. Reservations are recommended.

Restaurant Balm, 6, rue de Valois, 75001. Tel : 01 42 60 38 81

What are other people saying about Restaurant Balm? Please click here to read the reviews on Trip Advisor.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Banishing our woes at Étretat

It has been a weird week. No, that's an understatement, a misrepresentation of the facts. 2013 is turning out to be one of the strangest years that our family has ever experienced.

To celebrate Sara's successful surgery last Wednesday and the news that she doesn't need a third operation, we left for an impromptu mother-daughter trip to Normandy on Sunday. Stéphane, who didn't want to miss out on the fun, decided to join us for the first night. When it was time for him to return to Paris on Monday morning, we hugged goodbye in the pouring rain and I lovingly whispered in his ear, "Stop picking at the ingrown hair on your neck. It's starting to get inflamed!" It's tender moments like these that have kept our love alive for so many years.

Fast forward to Tuesday when I received a text message from Stéphane. Rather than continuing on to Italy from Geneva as planned, he informed me that he had booked a return flight to Paris for later that evening. He had also scheduled an appointment with the dermatologist for the following day because the bump on his neck had grown to the size of a prune. Suspecting that he was exaggerating ever so slightly when he said that he looked like a pelican with a throat pouch full of fish, I asked him to send a photo. As soon as I opened the file, I realized that his description was spot on. My husband appeared to have goiter.

Amused by Stéphane's altered appearance, I chuckled and passed the phone to Sara so that she could see the photo of her father. Why, we wondered, hadn't he left his ingrown hair alone. While I would like to say that I had the foresight to tell Stéphane to go straight to the emergency room as soon as he landed in Paris, it took me approximately five hours to reach the conclusion that the bump was actually more serious than funny. Nonetheless, I'm relieved that Stéphane, for once, followed my advice because his next text message was sent from the American Hospital, where they had admitted him for the night so that they could pump antibiotics into his bloodstream to combat the bacteriological infection.

Certain that Stéphane would be released from the hospital the following day, Sara and I continued on our way to Étretat, the coastal town known for its cliffs made famous by the Impressionists. It was while driving around a roundabout and listening to Stéphane's voice on the speakerphone that I learned that the doctors wanted to keep him a couple more nights. What? All because of an ingrown hair! The news came as such a surprise that I almost missed the exit for the beach.

And as if Stéphane's lump wasn't enough, I discovered shortly after we arrived in Étretat  that my personal email account had been hacked and that all of my contacts had received emails with a suspicious link. It's a testimony to the timeless beauty of the rugged cliffs that our problems momentarily receded like the waves as Sara and I walked along the windswept beach.

If all goes according to schedule, Stéphane should be released from the hospital tomorrow afternoon.

Please click here to see more photos of Étretat.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sunday's picture and a song on Monday:" La Pluie" in Normandy

Sun Bar Beach

In honor of all the rain that's falling during our visit to Normandy, I decided to recycle one of my favorite French songs, "La Pluie" ("The Rain") from last year. Enjoy!

The rainswept beach at Deauville.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Choices, choices, choices...selecting a 17th century dress for the Journée Grand Siècle at Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

Today's post about about our trip to Belgium has been preempted by some breaking news. It's only twelve more days until the Journée Grand Siècle at Château de Vaux le Vicomte!

Worried that our options would be limited if we waited until the last minute to select our dresses, Sara convinced me that we should go to the costume store this afternoon. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the front room, I was momentarily surprised to see a man in a shirt with ruffled sleeves and breeches trying on a pleated coat. We were definitely in the right place. The 17th century! After enquiring about our budget and giving us several dresses to try, the salesman escorted us to a large fitting room where there was a woman from the early 1900s admiring herself in the mirror.

Next came the hard part, figuring out how to dress ourselves. Believe me, it's not as easy as it sounds. First, there were the side hoops or paniers, which meant that we required three times as much space as normal. Next, there were all kinds of hooks, laces and loops to fasten. After dealing with those complicated thingamajigs, it's not surprising that I put the first dress on backwards and didn't even realize it until I had an epiphany while helping Sara fasten the ribbons on the bodice of her dress. As we quickly discovered, there are definite advantages to wearing jeans!

One of the dresses that Sara tried on (left) and what I mistakenly thought was the back of my dress (right)

After 90 minutes of trying on dresses reminiscent of those worn by Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette, we moved on to selecting our wigs. Again, it wasn't easy as it sounds. When the salesman presented me with the first wig, one with two points that resembled horns, I laughed out loud and asked if he was serious. He was. I decided to go with a less-fashionable model, a powdered one with an updo and three curls dangling down the back.

If you would like to stroll back in time to the 17th century and picnic on the lawns of the Château de Vaux le Vicomte, mark your calendar for Sunday, May 26. While it isn't necessary to wear a costume, there will be ones for rent at the château. Please click here for additional information about the Journée Grand Siècle. Perhaps I'll see you there. I'll be the one with my dress on backwards!

Sara and I rented our costumes at Sommier Costumier, 3 Passage Brady, 75010 Paris between 20 and 22 Blvd de Strasbourg and 43 rue du Faubourg St. Martin. Tel: 01 42 08 27 01.

Update: Due to inclement weather, the Journée Grand Siècle has been postponed until June 16, 2013.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Last minute change of plans from Burgundy to Belgium and from wine to beer... (Part I)

"I just spoke with someone at Le Boat. They had to cancel our reservation because the water level in the Nivernais Canal is too high. Can you find somewhere else for us to go?"

My heart sank when Stéphane called last Monday to tell me that our much anticipated boating trip in Burgundy with our daughter had been cancelled. Gone were visions of the three of us cycling to quaint villages for lunch and leisurely sipping red wine on the deck in the evening. Instead, I was charged with the task of finding an affordable last minute alternative during one of the busiest travel weeks in Europe. Even after hours spent scouring the internet, Sara and I couldn't find a getaway that cost less than 1,790 euros per person. In desperation, I called Stéphane and told him that we were going to have to get creative, to think outside the box. "How about driving to Belgium?" I proposed.

The idea of traveling north instead of south must not have been as wildly imaginative as I thought because Sara and I spent most of Tuesday trying to find accommodations. As it proved to be impossible to book more than one night in any of the hotels, we wandered from city to city like nomads for the next for five days. It turned out to be a marvelous experience. Here are a few of the highlights:


Larger than London and second only to Paris in size, Ghent was one of the most important cities in Europe from 1000 until 1550. With one of the largest car-free areas in Europe, it's currently a pedestrian's delight. Historical buildings line the canals, while the impressive medieval Castle of the Counts dominates the center of town. Wander down one of the picturesque cobblestoned streets and you're sure to discover yet another cozy café or enticing restaurant. The multitude of interesting culinary options has made Ghent one of the top destinations for foodies in Belgium.

Bed and Breakfast: Angels on the Water, an idyllic spot for a relaxing getaway
Lunch: Vintage for a delicious two-course lunch with coffee for 17 euros
Stores: Tierenteyn-Verlent for mustard and Home Linen at Korenlei 3 for a large collection of handmade Belgian linen.
Reasons for me to return: To see "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb". According to art historian Noah Charney, "The Mystic Lamb is without a doubt the world's most besieged and coveted artwork. In Paris it would easily knock the Mona Lisa off the throne."

I also want to try a Mastellen, a local speciality made from a bun topped with cinnamon and sugar before being heated with an iron. After an entertaining talk with the enterprising young owner of Mastelle and Co., I regret being overly full to try one of these local specialities. I'll definitely sample one the next time I'm in Ghent!


As the global hub of the diamond trade, Antwerp has an impressive train station that was named the fourth most beautiful station in the world by Newsweek. It spans four levels and is known as the the "Railway Cathedral" because of its stunning architectural features. After marveling at the vaulted ceiling, we left the station to do some window shopping in the thriving diamond quarter. Once the exclusive domain of Jewish families, the diamond trade is now a melting pot of diverse cultures that includes Indians, Africans, Armenians and Lebanese. The neighborhood is a great spot to have a spicy curry or traditional Jewish kosher specialities.

Not knowing very much about Antwerp prior to our visit, it was interesting to learn that the city was ruled by the French from 1794 until 1814. In addition to ordering the construction of Antwerp's first lock and dock, Napoleon Bonaparte made the Palace on the Meir into his personal residence during the French occupation. Napoleon's former kitchen is now the domain of Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone, who makes innovative creations such as caramelized onion, bacon and cannabis truffles. A chocolate bust of Napoleon oversees the sale of chocolate lipstick, pills and other confections in the the opulent salon.

Hotel: 'T Sandt Hotel is in a beautifully transformed neo rococo mansion conveniently located near the historic center of town.
Reasons for me to return: The waffles at Wafelhuis Van Hecke and "Bonaparte at the Scheldt" at the MAS. Using paintings, prints, maps, model ships and archive records, the temporary exhibition examines how 20 years of French rule altered the appearance of Antwerp. Best of all, Antwerp is only two hours by train from Paris!

(Stay tuned for the highlights of Ypres and Bruges in Part II of this post.)

Still not convinced that Belgium is a great destination? Please click here to read Sara's 10 Reasons to visit Flanders, Belgium.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Keeping African American History Alive in Paris - My Interview with Julia Browne of Walking the Spirit Tours

In previous posts, I've written that it's impossible for two people to have exactly the same Parisian experience. My observations are going to differ considerably from those of a French person, a tourist or even another American expat, which explains why Julia Browne, the founder of Walking the Spirit Tours, captured my attention during her recent talk at the American Library. After recounting stories about Ada "Bricktop" Smith, the singer for whom Cole Porter wrote "Miss Otis Regrets", and the World War I jazz-playing Harlem Hellfighters, who are credited with introducing American jazz to France, Browne invited the audience to experience the city in a completely different way by taking a "Black Heritage Paris" tour. Curious about Julia's own impressions of France, I asked if we could meet for an interview.

What brought you to Paris, Julia?

Looking back, I've always been a Francophile. At the age of 15, I told my parents that I was going to marry a Frenchman. Since I knew I wanted to travel, I went into the tourism industry, moved to Montreal to improve my French and eventually got a job as a flight attendant. After four years with Air Canada, I took a sabbatical to do a year abroad program in Aix-en-Provence. That's where I met my husband. We spent five years together in Montreal, where I started working in the film industry, before moving to Paris in 1990.

During your talk at the American Library, you mentioned that African Americans, like Josephine Baker and author Richard Wright, felt truly free in Paris for the first time in their lives because there wasn't racial segregation. How did you feel when you arrived?

I thought it was different for me because I had never lived in the United States. I was born in England and moved to Toronto when I was eight but I experienced discrimination in both places. Once you're out of your country, you notice things differently. I began to realize we all had developed the same feelings of defensiveness. What did strike me pretty early on was that as soon as I opened my mouth and French people heard my accent, it was being Canadian/American that made people curious and chatty. People spontaneously started talking about Josephine Baker, as if I were a distant cousin of hers. I also noticed that as North American blacks, we were treated with higher regard than other Diaspora members.

What prompted you to create Walking the Spirit Tours, the first company to focus on African American history in Paris? 

When I moved to France, I carried over my film promo and production work from Montreal. It was while working as a researcher and production assistant on PBS's documentary Richard Wright: Black Boy that I was able to see film archives about the author's life. I also took classes on folklore and black literature with Professor Michel Fabre, founder of the Centre For African American Studies at the Sorbonne. He had written a book called A Street Guide to African Americans in Paris that I carried around with me. One day, I discovered that Langston Hughes used to live in a building in my neighborhood, one that I walked past all the time. This made such a big impression on me that I started telling my friends about what I had learned. They asked me to show them around and it gradually grew into a business in 1994. Now all kinds of people, from families to university groups, take our tours.

Even though I love to educate people, giving tours is not something I ever dreamed of doing. But sharing what I know makes me feel as if I'm continuing the work of the people who came before me. By telling their stories, it validates their experiences and helps keep them alive. It's my way of bringing these African Americans back into the limelight. For the most part, there aren't any plaques or other signs on the buildings where they used to live.

If you had to select just one African American, whose story would you want to tell?

That's like trying to pick between my children. I can't do it! But if I had to choose, it would be the African American women artists. Many of them came of age while they were in Paris. It was a real turning point for them. They were able to find their voices here. Then they carried that strength back to the United States and built on it.

Speaking of your children, please tell me about your two daughters.

I joke with my daughters and tell them that I gave them the greatest gift of all -- they were born in Paris, France. Weird as it sounds, I wanted to have French children and am pleased that they developed French sensibilities, an early appreciation of the finer things in life.With so many museums at their fingertips, they've had access to art and beauty in every day things from an early age and even the food they were served in pre-school was inventive and good.

What's the best part of your job?

It's when I see visitors integrate the stories that I tell them into ideas about their own possibilities. The stories present evidence that there are other ways of living. It's also a question of pride, of knowing that your culture influenced so many others, like the African American jazz musicians who inspired Picasso and Matisse. 

Julia Browne, a certified Destination France Agent, offers full trip travel planning services, and organizes and escorts excursions that blend Black history and culture with the delights of French towns and villages. Please click here to visit the Walking the Spirit Tours website.

Along with two other tour companies, Walking the Spirit Tours was recently featured in the CNN article, African-Americans in Paris: 'It's always been about freedom for us'.

Julia has also recently partnered with award-winning documentarian Joanne Burke and writer/cameraman David Burke to create "When African Americans Came to Paris". The set of DVDs offer a fascinating look at black Americans in Paris in the early 20th century.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday's Picture and a Song: "Au Parc Monceau" by Yves Duteil

Have a wonderful Sunday, everyone! It's picnic in the park weather in Paris.

With thanks to Catherine Rosalia B for introducing me to "Au Parc Monceau" after I posted the above photo on "Out and About's" Facebook page.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Archipelago of Floating Gardens on the Banks of the Seine

Crédits : JC Choblet - APUR

"Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, n'est–ce pas?", announced the driver of bus number 62 as he eased to a stop behind the rush hour traffic on Pont Mirabeau. Pointing towards the Eiffel Tower in the distance, he let out a long sigh that was clearly audible over the public announcement system. Like a group of jet-lagged tourists visiting Paris for the first time, all of the passengers automatically swiveled their heads in unison to admire the sweeping view of their city. It is stunning. I can't fault Parisians for being so proud. And thanks to Mayor Delanoë's plan to "reclaim one of the most beautiful urban and river landscapes in the world", the cityscape is about to become even more remarkable.

As part of the transformation, there will be a 1.4 mile (2.3 km) pedestrian walkway along the bank of the Seine between the Musée d’Orsay and the Pont de L’Alma. Five floating islets on specially constructed barges moored to the shore will boast an array of 55 trees, 220 shrubs, tall ornamental grasses and semi-aquatic plants. Each of the interconnected islets will have a different theme:
  • Central Island will be the main entry point for the archipelago. It will include a large open space for people to relax while watching the river traffic.
  • Meadow Island will be generously planted with grass. There will be a net suspended over the center of the meadow that will be large enough to accommodate 140 people.
  • Bird Island will be the most densely planted islet with a large open bird cage.
  • Orchard Island will feature an apple orchard and a wooden deck.
  • Mist Island, the most mysterious of the islets, will be equipped with aqua misters that operate in sequence to produce fog. As the easternmost islet of the archipelago, Mist Island will have a splendid view of Pont des Invalides and the Grand Palais.

Crédits : JC Choblet - APUR

In addition to the archipelago, a restaurant and a space dedicated to cultural performances will be created under the Pont Alexandre III.

With the conclusion of the redevelopment project scheduled for the summer of 2013, anticipation is running high. Visiting the construction sight was the one thing that Stéphane wanted to do during his day off yesterday. We'll keep tracking the progress of the islands and let you know as soon as they're finished.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"A Monster in Paris", "Deserter" and "Romeo and Juliet" in French

It's the 1st of May? Already?! What happened to April?

With my trip to the USA, the horrific bombings in Boston, visitors from out of town and a slew of doctors' appointments prior to my daughter's upcoming (and hopefully last) surgery, April passed in a blur.

Here are just a few of the things that I had intended to share with you last month:

A Monster in Paris - I'll forever remember this whimsical animated film for providing some much-needed stress relief during a harrowing flight from Boston to Atlanta. As the plane bounced up and down like a carnival ride, my attention was completely diverted by the antics of a wacky inventor, his camera-crazy best friend and a madcap monkey. Set in Paris during the flood of 1910, the song and dance numbers of doe-eyed chanteuse Lucille (Vanessa Paradis) and Francoeur (Sean Lennon), a giant flea with a big heart, had me tapping my toes along with the music. The superbly choreographed dance sequences are captivating, the music is delightful and the vibrant story line is packed with unforgettable characters. Most remarkably, the only time that my mind strayed was during the overly long chase scene featuring an egotistical police commissioner who's determined to catch Francoeur and become the next mayor of Paris.

If you would like to be transported to the cobblestoned streets of Paris during your family's next movie night, Shout! Factory, in collaboration with EuropaCorp, recently released A Monster in Paris on DVD and on two-disc Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack in the United States.

Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War - Growing up, I frequently heard tales of relatives or family friends who fought gallantly in World War II. When we visited the beaches in Normandy, our guide recounted tales of soldiers who displayed incredible heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. It was only when I attended a recent author event at the American Library in Paris that I learned that nearly 100,000 British and 50,000 American soldiers deserted the ranks during the Second World War. In Deserter, historian and veteran reporter Charles Glass addresses what has been, up until now, a taboo subject. By following three soldiers into battle and examining the conditions that prompted them to flee, Glass shows that desertion was a natural human response to the extreme psychological stress of war.

The American Library hosts more than 60 author events per year. Thanks to ongoing support by the Annenberg Foundation, all but a few of these programs are free and open to the general public. Please visit the library's website for information about upcoming events.

Romeo and Juliet in French? While I've got to admit that I was a bit skeptical about watching this masterpiece in anything but Shakespearean English, I was completely captivated by the performance of the theatrical troupe, Les Milles Chandelles last Saturday evening. Set in la Tour Vagabond, an itinerant theatre modeled after the Globe, the actors use all three levels of the stage to their advantage. When a verbal confrontation quickly escalates into a sword fight at the beginning of the first scene, the actors exchange blows while dangling from ropes over the upturned heads of the audience on the ground floor. Given the intimate nature of the space, it was easy to lose myself in the action on stage. I felt as if I was among the guests at the masked ball when Juliet first meets Romeo and by the side of the star-crossed lovers at the end of their short lives.

Les Milles Chandelles will perform Romeo and Juliet at la Tour Vagabond until June 20, 2013. As seating is open, be sure to arrive early to get a spot with an unobstructed view.