Pas de photos s’il vous plait (featuring Falafel with Garlicky White Sauce) Paris, Pt. 1
I had put Paris in a box of experiences I wasn’t grown up enough to have.
It was too expensive, too fancy, too historic for little ol’ me, so I put it on a shelf too high to reach. I’ve spent quality time in Italy, Ireland, England, Germany, and Spain. Heck, I’ve even been to Japan. It wasn’t traveling I was afraid of. It was me. I’d look in the mirror and see someone not worthy of Paris. I lived peacefully with the ‘city of lights’ as a magical destination I would maybe someday deserve.
We were supposed to go to Italy. First, we would go to New York to see my dad’s play, “Fern Hill” in a fabulous Off-Broadway production featuring my stepmother. Then to see my mother’s new apartment in Histon, Cambridge where she had moved from Oxford last year. Then on to Italy.
That had been the plan for months, but when we found an affordable flight my mouse dawdled over the “purchase now” button. My brain told my fingers to click, but something shut my system down. I waited a day. No change. Then another day. Still couldn’t pull the trigger.
“What would you say if I told you I didn’t want to go to Italy?” I timidly asked Francis one night, apprehensive because we had made this plan a while ago, but also because I was declaring something I’d kept to myself. Maybe I was finally worthy of something different. Something more.
“Huh,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me. It’s your birthday.”
Oh yeah, that was another factor. I was about to turn 50. And though I was hexed by this number, I was also experiencing a ‘start living your life’ impulse. None of my feelings about myself were that different—my bank account was still small, my hips too wide, my exhaustion neverending, but an urgency had arrived.
Dancing a little in place, I asked, “What do you think about Paris???”
“Sounds great!” Francis replied, not knowing that I thought of the city as a destination I didn’t qualify to enter. I searched for tickets and found no “Everyone but Alison welcome” warnings. Could this really be happening?
Paris, at last.
Francis and I had just Chunnelled in from London at 165 mph, dropped our bags off at our peculiar AirBnB (nice room, teeny-tiny bathroom down a wicked spiral staircase but more on that later), and were taking in the autumn air of Paris on a Friday night.
The corner could not have looked more Parissy, with red canopies sheltering the tables and chairs spilling onto the sidewalks outside every restaurant. Wine glasses were being refilled, cheeses sliced, cigarettes lit as the laughter of locals and tourists contributed to the city’s din.
“Do you want to get a glass of wine?” I suggested, stopping outside a very cute corner boite. The white lights dangling overhead and heat lamps gently warming the wicker tables out front were calling to me. I don’t drink wine as I’m 11 years sober, but I wasn’t going to say, “Do you want to stop and get a Diet Coke?” That’s not acclimating at all, Alison.
A waiter peered out from the bar and gestured with a flip of his palm that we could sit wherever we like. We staggered with our bulbous bloated vacationer bodies to a small warm table in the middle of the sidewalk room. I sat in shock, admiring Paris in all of her glory. Here I was in my mecca of intimidation, not panicking, just appreciating. I guess it was time.
Eventually, a different waiter came and handed us menus and asked in French if we would like anything to drink. Francis, who had been speaking in French off and on the week before we left Portland, was experiencing the classic challenge of conversation in a language you mastered in school, but haven’t actually spoken in years. It was endearing and I felt closer to him as he fought to find the words to order a glass of wine.
“Very good, sir,” the waiter said. “And your accent is wonderful!” Our waiter looked like a scruffy, aging Phil Collins, with a round head and a lipless smirk that seemed more like a papercut than a mouth. He nodded at Francis and then turned to me, eyebrows raised.
I don’t speak French at all and would be relying solely on my ability to look adorable when flustered to communicate my needs during this trip.
“A Coke Light, please, sir.” I batted my lashes and shrugged. “Oh! And can I have a French onion soup as well?” We had already decided on another restaurant for dinner, but it seemed important to leap right in with a big cheesy bready crock of soup.
He bowed and said in English, “Yes, thank you, madame.”
French waiters were on the top of my list of people in France waiting to judge Americans for being so fucking American. I shouldn’t give a hoot what some dude I’ve never met and will probably never see again thinks of me, but I am also in the service industry constantly passing judgment on people. There are plenty of detrimental things that patrons of restaurants do these days so I know the judgy waiter’s aim is true.
A few days earlier, when Francis and I were visiting my mother in Histon, my cousins and I were having a deep conversation about the epidemic of restaurants closing in London, New York, Portland, and worldwide.
“Certainly, rent increases are the number one factor, but there’s a social media epidemic that’s had a huge impact on restaurant survival,” I explained. “People are obsessed with taking pictures of their food when it arrives at the table.”
“Oooh! I’ve heard about people complaining that their food was cold when it arrived, conveniently forgetting that in the 10 minutes they took their photos and uploaded them onto social media, their food had gotten cold,” one of my cousins chimed in.
“That’s right,” I responded, excited to be talking about this problem while sitting in a busy restaurant, phones abounding. “But the other issue with people uploading photos during their meal is the extra time it takes. Even if the person is just taking a few pictures of each plate, those minutes are impactful on profits. Restaurants make money by turning tables over to new guests and the additional time that “influencers” take snapping pics and uploading them impacts that time greatly. It adds up and restaurants lose money.”
My cousins and I agreed that people were terrible.
That night in Histon, I decided that I would not be that person on this trip. I pledged that I would keep my phone in my pocket for all the Paris dining. My loyal followers would have to experience the food I ate through my writing, not my photos.
And then, on our first night in Paris, our Phil Collinsy waiter delivered my beautiful crusty bowl of French onion soup and, as I squealed with delight, my hand reached down for my phone to take a picture of this cheesy masterpiece. It was automatic. I had to forcefully stop myself. Wow, I realized, I’m just as addicted to this as the people I mock.
The experience of the soup without photo documentation was different. It was better. I trusted my senses more, relied on my tongue to feel the smoothness of the soup, which was a thicker consistency than I was used to. There wasn’t a huge separation from the cheese and soup. Typically, the soup is hot and brothy and the cheese, melted over the baguette crouton is hard. In this soup, the cheese, baguette, and soup all seemed a similar texture and temperature so there was no disconnection between parts of the soup. The cheese is normally gruyere, but this tasted lighter and more melty than the gruyere I’ve tasted—is this just the difference between French cheeses and their American dupes? I think so. Holy hell, was I happy. The soup was also lighter in color than the typical dark beef stock with onions I was used to, meaning that the onions had been cooked with more flour to thicken it. It was incredible.
Here is a picture of my empty bowl:
The next couple of days were spent exploring the city with no itinerary or pressure. I learned quickly that around every corner in Paris is another historical/ architectural/ spectacular landmark. On our third day, we had walked 8 miles and decided our reward would be falafel from the famous (and social media favorite) L’as Du Fallafel, located in the Jewish quarter of the La Marais neighborhood.
“DAMMIT!!!” I shouted loudly (stupid American) with no control over my mouth when I saw the sign. Closed! The restaurant that was number one on everyone’s don’t miss lists for Paris was closed right when we needed it. I pouted and stomped my feet and felt like everything terrible happens to me (an interesting historical rewrite as I had been having the time of my life right up to this moment).
Another falafel joint across the street from L’as Du Fallafel had a long line of customers.
“Should we just go there?” I asked Francis, humbled, hungry, tired, moody.
“Aw honey,” he replied seeing his crestfallen wife flagging. “Yeah, I’m sure this place is good too. We can come back when L’as Du Fallafel is open, but I’m starving right now.”
Though I felt like we were cheating on everyone’s favorite place, we queued up at Mi Va Mi.
40 minutes later, our pita sandwiches were handed to us out the window. The falafel was served amidst a toss of cabbage and a garlicky aioli (this is called toum in Lebanese cooking, but they just called it white sauce), plus a squirt of hot sauce.
It was unreal. While the outside of the falafel was crunchy, the inside was feather-light- so much lighter than I’ve ever gotten falafel to be. It almost disappeared which made every bite of the sandwich perfect. I wasn’t struggling to chew anything in my mouth. Crackling, pillowy, perfectly seasoned balls mixed with a gently sweet garlic sauce, crunchy slaw, and a little spicy chili sauce.
We moaned on the side streets as we walked and ate. I’ve never tasted falafel like this in my life.
Paris, you’ve outdone yourself, I thought.
And no, I didn’t take any pictures of my meal. It was that good.
It was obvious to me that I needed to master this falafel as soon as I returned.
Here’s what I made:
Makes about 30 balls
- 1 cup dried garbanzo beans
- 1/2 red onion
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
- 1/3 cup water from cooking garbanzo beans (see below)
- 1/2 bunch of cilantro
- 1/2 bunch of parsley
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/8 teaspoon chile powder
- Oil for frying (not olive oil, but vegetable oil)
- Soak the garbanzo beans in unsalted water overnight.
- Drain the beans and then place in a pot and fill with water to cover by 1 inch. Cook with lid on medium heat for 30 minutes. Save 1/3 cup cooking water and then drain beans.
- In a food processor, combine the cooked garbanzo beans, onion, garlic, cooking water. Pulse until smooth, pushing down whatever bits crawl up the sides of the processor bowl.
- Add the cilantro, parsley, oil, cumin, salt and pulse another few seconds, pushing down to incorporate as much as possible. Add the flour, lemon juice, and chile powder. Process for about 30 seconds to a minute. You want it to be smooth.
- Heat the oil until it’s 350 degrees. Using a cookie scoop or a tablespoon, drop the falafel balls into the hot oil and fry for about 30 seconds- 1 minute. I’ve found that the first ones fry up really quickly and are perfect. The next ones often either cook too quickly or fall apart. You’ll find your stride, just stick with it.
Enjoy with some toum!
Garlicky White Sauce (toum)
- 1/2 cup of garlic cloves, peeled but kept whole
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 1/2 cups of olive oil
Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend until it’s smooth.
And stay tuned for Paris, Part 2, coming soon!