Paris: Food gifts that are light on everything but calories
When it comes time to buy food presents for the people back home, the City of Light can turn any suitcase heavy. But years of transatlantic gifting have taught me how to scale down both the size and the cost of these purchases. Here are some ideas that I found while shopping for a recent trip from Paris to New York. They brought great smiles without breaking either my back or my budget.
Fauchon. The hot-pink diva of gourmandise, Fauchon is filled with pricey food treats. Looking for caviar, foie gras, or your very own truffle? You'll find them here, and they'll sometimes be more expensive than your hotel room. I like to come to this den of luxury for something decidedly more modest—the pretty little pots of confit de lait. This milk jam is very French, very delicious when spread on toast with salted butter, and very cheap—just over €2 ($2.50). Fauchon also sells its products at Charles de Gaulle airport if you want to leave your shopping until the very last minute. 30 place Madeleine, 8th arrondissement
Epicerie de Bruno. Around this corner from the market-heavy rue Montorgueil, this independent shop makes choosing a gift easy by stocking only a small selection of superb food treats. Bruno’s family has been in the business for three generations, and he'll be happy to impress you with his knowledge of spices, chocolate, and the English language. One of the things I picked up was a bar of chocolate made with cardamom, but that never made it out of Paris. A few doors down at #58 is G.Detou, a well-known foodie wonder-store. From here I scored some prestige vanilla en poudre, a pure powder of crushed vanilla pods that’s highly prized but hard to find in America. It costs less than €5 ($6.40) for 50 grams. I also loaded up on Valhrona chocolate, the premium (and practically only) French chocolate brand. Bars of the dark, rich stuff (70% cacao) were €2.50 ($3.25) 30 rue Tiquetonne, 2nd arrondissement
Monoprix (more than 50 stores acros the city). Selling clothes, cosmetics, and food, Monoprix is the closest thing to Target that you'll find in France. Walk ten minutes in any direction and you're bound to see their red neon sign, or else head to 140 rue de Rennes (6th arrondissement) for a particularly good-sized store. My go-to gift at Monoprix is always fleur de sel. This superior salt is sold in cute cork-topped cylinders for €3.40 ($4.30)—that's half the price charged at many American gourmet stores. On a recent visit I also picked up a box with three tubes of crème de marron (chestnut cream) for €2.78 ($3.57). I'm a sucker for the haute Nutella taste and pretty packaging. In the wine aisle I grabbed a few bottles of moelleux for €8 ($10.25). The sweet wine (serve it with with dessert, foie gras, or cheese) comes in skinny bottles, making it easier to carry than your average Bordeaux. To top it all off, I bought a dried sausage for €4.29 ($5.50). Well-wrapped in plastic, it managed to make my editors very happy without making my suitcase smell like cured pork.
If you'd like to bring some fromage from Paris, consider this: the United States prohibits unpasteurized (lait cru) cheese that has been aged for less than 90 days. Honest travelers buy pasteurized versions of their favorite cheese to carry in their checked luggage. Lawbreakers favor the premium raw milk cheese from the Androuet case in a food shop at Charles de Gaulle airport. Buying your cheese in duty free helps it to stay colder longer, and packages are vacuum sealed for stinkless transport. At least that’s what we hear…
This weekend: Flower power in Providence
A $17 ticket buys you the world this weekend—well, a tour of the world's gardens, at least. The 16th annual Rhode Island Flower and Garden Show, kicking off Thursday in Providence, represents all the regions of the world in 30 unique gardens. Explore landscapes with plants typical of Mexico, France, and Egypt, and also see an Australian Outback display and a huge New England woodland exhibit. In addition to the displays, there are lectures and demos by gardening and landscaping experts, many of them covering organic products and techniques. Roger Swain, host of PBS's Victory Garden, will make the case for a federal "fruit and vegetable czar." For those of you with small spaces, there's a demo that will teach you how to have your own tiny organic herb garden. And for fans of British gardens, Paul Miskovsky shares his experiences working at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. (By the way, check out our related Real Deal). You can save a little money by visiting the show after 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The date night promotion will get you tickets for $14 each ($3 off tickets at the door) and 20 percent off food at local restaurants. And if you're thinking of of staying, the Radisson Hotel Providence Harbor has a package that includes admission. Thursday through Sunday, beginning at 10 a.m. Rhode Island Convention Center, One Sabin Street. Tickets are $17 at the door. PREVIOUSLY Experts pick their favorite gardens
Paris: Romance without the masses
Valentine's Day may be gone for another year, but Paris is always a good place for romance. The city is filled with the sort of places that make hearts pound and hands hold. A few spots, however, are so over-the-top romantic that they draw millions of couples from all over. Unless overcrowding really turns you on, it’s best to approach these famous sites with a few BT tricks up your sleeve. The Eiffel Tower The "Old Lady" has been putting people in the mood for more than 120 years. But because of the number of visitors at her base (some 6.5 million per year) she is arguably best seen from afar. My favorite vantage spot is way back on the Champ de Mars, where it's all twinkle and no tour buses. The grassy lawn and wooden benches invite you to spread out with your picnic basket and crack open a bottle of wine. At night, the grande dame goes glittery at the top of every hour, sparkling brightly for the first ten minutes. The Café Constant (139 rue St. Dominique, 7th arrondissement, 01-33/9-75-82-08-07) is a sweet and traditional place to share a drink or a meal nearby. Sacre Coeur The panoramic view over the city has inspired many a movie scene and many a marriage proposal. Skip the lines to enter the church and instead hop the knee-high fence that protects the front lawn. You’ll see plenty of other couples doing what you'll be doing—cozying up just out of earshot from the crowds to watch the sun set over the city. Café Burq is a nearby dinner destination (6 rue Burq, 18th arrondissement, 01-33/1-42-52-81-27). This neighborhood bistro has sexy low lighting and a menu that oozes amour—and that goes double for the roasted Camembert with honey. Prices are similarly seductive: it’s €23 ($30) for two courses, and the wines are well-priced. The Seine The fly boats (bateaux mouches) are a great way to see Paris, but the number of videocam-toting tourists also make them less than romantic. For a more intimate appreciation of the river's charms, follow the amorous locals strolling along the north bank of the Seine. A long walking path runs between the Pont de la Concorde (near the Louvre) to the Pont Notre Dame. The latter bridge connects to the Ile Saint-Louis, which offers a heart-pounding view of the backside of Notre Dame. For a truly melting experience, you can pick up one of the city’s best ice cream cones at Berthillon (31 rue St.-Louis-en-l'Ile, 4th arrondissement), then dangle your feet over the island’s western edge while watching the sun set over Notre Dame.
Living vicariously: Oscar-inspired travel deals
Round these parts, we love movies, especially travel-inspiring ones, and I know where I'll be Feb. 22: watching the Oscars. It's overblown, self-congratulatory, but just so fun—the dresses! The speeches! The awkward reaction shots from the losers! If the nominees for this year's Best Picture have got you thinking about visiting their locations, Expedia Deals Watch is here to help. The Reader, also known as "that Kate Winslet Holocaust movie," is earning more buzz than industry insiders expected. Modern-day Berlin, where parts of the movie were filmed, is also earning attention—we recently named it one of our 10 Destinations to Watch in '09. Expedia suggests the Melia Berlin hotel, starting at $127 per room per night; that's about 35 percent off the price I got when booking through the hotel's website. (For a DIY bus tour through Berlin's coolest neighborhoods, check out our story). For the biopic Milk, filmmakers had to convert modern-day San Francisco into a replica of its polyester-and-mustaches '70s self. If you're looking for a place to stay for your own visit, Expedia suggests a stay in the Hilton San Francisco, off of Union Square. You can book a room starting at $99 per night with Expedia; when I tried booking through the hotel's site, the lowest I could get was $129. One of our 2008 Movie Quest picks, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, grabbed a nomination for Penelope Cruz's performance. I'm planning a trip to Barcelona myself, so I've been checking out two of my favorite sites: hotels.com and EuroCheapo. The latter has a few properties with rates starting at €55 ($71) per night. (By the way, we've blogged before about hotel.com's decent rewards program.)
Paris: Eating haute for not a lot
Bistro cooking—simple, homey, and affordable—is one of my favorite things in Paris. However, it's not really the type of cooking for which the city is renowned. Haute cuisine, the kind that's prepared by an army of toque-wearing chefs, is what many imagine French food to be. In reality, it's something that very few tourists (and even fewer locals) can afford. If you've been dreaming about this sort of experience but can't imagine spending €500 on a meal, there's a solution—go for lunch. Some of the best restaurants in the city serve daytime menus for less than €100. That's still expensive, but it does put it more in line with a Broadway show than a transatlantic flight. For savvy gastronomes, going for lunch is a no-brainer. In addition to the cheaper menus, one usually spends a lot less on wine. Penny watchers can order a single glass or simply a bottle of sparkling water, and dessert seems less of an obligation. If you're curious and ready to take the plunge, consider these options, and be sure to reserve in advance. Guy Savoy One of the tasting menus at this incredible three-star restaurant is priced at €480 ($618).That's way out of reach for, well, almost everyone, but the little-known lunch special here is more accessible. Available only to those who book online, it allows you to choose a half appetizer, one main dish, and a half-dessert for €100 ($128). Wines by the glass start at €10. Although it's certainly at the high end of the price range, Guy Savoy is a good address for special occasions. 18 rue Troyon, 17th arrondissement, 011-33/8-26-10-13-07 L'Atelier and La Table de Joël Robuchon One of the country's most famous chefs came out of retirement a few years ago to open the left-bank L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (5 rue de Montalembert, 7th arrondissement, 011-33/8-26-10-12-19) and the right-bank La Table de Joël Robuchon (16 avenue Bugeaud, 16th arrondissement, 011-33/1-56-28-16-16). Neither is strictly haute, but both are undoubtedly hot. L'Atelier draws most of the attention, thanks to edgy design and open kitchen theatrics. La Table, however, boasts one of the best deals in town. You'll find many of the same dishes as at l'Atelier but for half the price at lunch. The €55 ($70) menu includes a glass of wine, hors d'œuvres and a main dish, plus cheese, dessert, coffee, and mignardises. As an added (and rare) bonus, both places are open every day of the year. Les Magnolias My best-ever Paris meal wasn't exactly in Paris, it was in a quiet suburb just outside of town. Locals all know that crossing the périphérique (freeways) will cut any dining bill in half, but travel guides rarely print recommendations for anything outside of central Paris. There's a reason for this: We don't want you getting lost. However, if you can handle taking a 20-minute train (RER-C) from Gare du Nord and then walking for 5 minutes, you'll be richly rewarded at les Magnolias. Chef Jean Chauvel offers a lunch menu for &eucro;58 ($75) that's composed of three playful, poetic, and extremely yummy courses. Two courses are even cheaper at €41 ($53). Choose only an appetizer and main dish, and you'll still be rewarded with plenty of sweet mignardises during coffee. It's a delightful experience and a great value for those who can negotiate a little public transport. 48 avenue de Bry, le Perreux-Sur-Marne, 011-33/1-48-72-47-43