A Culinary Pilgrimage From Paris To The San Francisco Bay


No, the dinner on our Air France flight from Paris was not remarkable. The good news started in Washington, DC. Friends took us to a reconverted firehouse in a formerly edgy neighborhood on Massachusetts Avenue where by magic succulent fresh scallops the size of saucers appeared. The venue: Sixth Engine. Very cool.

Too cool for the sidewalk tables, we colonized a booth inside, where the firemen once chowed. Or was it where the engines parked? The wait staff didn’t know. They did know how to bring water and wine and micro-brewery beer and food swiftly-and how to smile. We were dazed. After Paris, smiles take the breath away.

But my breath was snatched foremost by the monster scallops, perfectly sautéed with white wine: simplicity. The roasted pork belly, giant burgers, hand-cut fries and fried catfish sounded wonderful. No. We had to have the scallops.

Why? Scallops are the symbol of Saint James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Here we were on tour in America to promote my new adventure travel book, the one about trekking 750 miles across France over the Pyrenees into Spain. I’d carried a secular scallop shell with me en route, a skeptic pilgrim open to serendipitous encounters and adventures while traveling in time and place-and on dinner plates.

Clearly the DC scallops were a sign sent by Saint James.So began a month-long gastronomic troll that took a toll on my formerly trim waistline. On the surface our US book tour was about telling the tale of a physical pilgrimage across France: walking, meditating, slimming down, seeking illumination or spirituality or noting the lack of it. Yet our coast-to-coast jaunt morphed into an illuminating culinary rediscovery.

Dare I say it? Everywhere we went the food was great, even fabulous. Though overpriced the coffee and wine were outstanding; the service seemed humane and efficient, and the prices? About one third lower than in my adopted home, the City of Light.

In Manhattan: Gramercy Tavern. Some publishers have excellent taste. We celebrated astonishing news: “Paris to the Pyrenees” had sold through its first print run in two weeks. Stunned, we couldn’t resist the tasting menu-matched by a fine Burgundy red. This was real deal Franco-American cooperation. Lush, supple but mineral-rich the Givry from Michel Sarrazin reminded me why I love French wine.

It seemed to have been squeezed and fermented and aged especially to exalt the exquisite roasted duck breast with quinoa, celery root, hazelnuts and earthy morel mushrooms. Smooth service, without obsequiousness; an accommodating attitude to special needs; and a price tag that would’ve been astronomical for a similar feast in my beloved Paris-but wasn’t.

I was beginning to feel jittery. Between the lunches and dinners, delicious treats and coffee tempted us, coffee that made the burning, acidic tar of Paris seem criminally bad. Give me a Paris café any day for atmosphere and sit-down service (subtract the smoke blowing in from the terrace, please). But France needs friends to hammer coffee suppliers until they bring back the quality brews of old.

Before winging west we had a bang-up literary lunch at a “French” restaurant, La Boite en Bois. The quotation marks are because, though the fab food is traditional French-salade niçoise, boeuf bourguignon, etc…-the chef-owner of this cozy grotto near Lincoln Center is Italian. Irrepressible enthusiasm! Some on staff claimed authentic French citizenship but I had to wonder. They were disarmingly friendly. Maybe they’d gone native.

Seattle might boast nearly as many cafés as Paris. Luckily the beans they roast are better than French: premium Arabica. The result: more than felicitous. The best local brew we tried came from hip Café Fonté, which had waiters and proper service. Strong, rich, silky, it recalled Roman coffee, or the best Paris coffee those many decades ago, before Cafés Richard took over the supply chain.
Salmon and halibut and black cod and other flipping-fresh fish waved fins at us from the fabulous Pike Street Market. Over a century old, it was new to me and boy, do I wish we had it (sans the souvenir stands) in Paris. The farm-grown produce was real, the bulk goods and farmstead cheese too, and the fish! Smoked salmon, lox, fresh, wild salmon: we went salmon wild, buying pounds of near-live, salmon-pink flesh and cooking it up in our short-term rental apartment.

Seattle’s most memorable meal: fish, naturally, at Seatown, the casual bar & rotisserie run by the ubiquitous Tom Douglas, a Seattle hero. His bigger, more expensive restaurant Etta’s, next door, was packed to the gills. Happily, the oysters on the half shell, local crab, smoked black cod, Alaskan halibut and wild salmon were perfectly perfect. Gone the days of sauce-smothered, overcooked fish! A sprightly white from Washington State washed it all down like nobody’s business. Again: flawless service with spontaneous laughter, jokes, smiles and a lightweight bill.

Portland? Give me a lifetime to describe the delights (and delightful people). A local whisked us to trendy Bluehour in the Pearl District. The designers had worked overtime: we might’ve been at one of the Coste Brothers’ postmodern cafés in Paris. Except that, how to put it, there was no attitude, the food was exquisite, and again, the prices reasonable. Oysters! Cod! Saint James’ scallops reappeared right in time for our event at Powell’s Books! As I devoured a second mound of fresh hand-cut fries I wept. They were as exquisite as those from my cult Marais bistro, Café des Musées.
What paradisiacal tortures lay ahead? Postmodern Vietnamese at The Slanted Door in the Ferry Building in San Francisco (after an event at Book Passage). Okay, everyone knows the Slanted Door is fabulous. Not news. If only they could cut the noise. The food? Astonishing! Barbecued Willis Ranch pork spareribs, some of the best ribs ever, anywhere. And fish-whole sea bass braised in a banana leaf with cilantro and lime-to die for. The view: the Bay Bridge sparkling like-like the Eiffel Tower lying on a long, wavy couch.

After the best traditional Indian food I have ever eaten-at Ajanta, in Berkeley-I fell into a funk. How had this happened? What would I eat in Paris? Why was I going home?

I stuffed my suitcase with beans from Peet’s Coffee and flew to the City of Light full of dread. We arrived in time to lunch at Le Gorille Blanc, my number-one favorite, friendly family-run micro bistro. Micro is the key word. Settling into our tiny table, the one novelist Georges Simenon liked; admiring the hewn stone walls from the 1500s; and savoring the startlingly sumptuous puddle of sorrel soup with sweet potatoes and coconut milk, I knew all would be well. The miniscule fresh roasted cod with mustard sauce was outstanding, the wine not bad, perhaps excellent, and the tablespoon of coffee Italian-thank god. Feeling like I’d already started to lose weight, I shook hands with the slender, amiable owners. Franco-American friendship was alive and well.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com.
Photo: courtesy Bluehour