We’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last few days thinking about food. Our vacation rental has a kitchen – an absolute necessity for long term travel with children, but we are still learning where the grocery stores are, and when the markets are open, and where the best and most cost-effective place to buy produce is. Grocery shopping in a new city is a lot of trial and error, although if we’re being honest, in Paris it’s much more “trial” than “error.”
Our neighborhood is also full of tiny, adorable cafes, classic boulangeries, and tempting patisseries. We’ve succumbed more than once in the last week to a glass display case of pastries and croissants. We’ve resisted, however, patronizing any of the cafes near our apartment, partly because everything inside looks so – well, breakable. Elegant wine carafes, white napkins, and checkerboard table tops don’t exactly scream, “Bring us your toddlers!” Most of all, though, we are still traumatized by our culinary experience during last summer’s trip to Colmar, in eastern France.
Colmar is a fairy tale city. Half-timber houses with pastel walls perch above flower-lined canals. Winding streets give way to cobblestone squares. The city’s architecture reflects eleven hundred years of French and German influence, with the gothic Saint-Martin towering over the old town.
We visited Colmar on a Sunday, which was our first mistake. Though a comparatively large town, and the capital of the Alsace wine route, it was very quiet on a Sunday morning. We strolled happily through the historic district, admiring the canals, visiting the church, and wandering along ancient roads. At noon, already thirty minutes past our toddler’s regular lunch hour, we were struggling to find open restaurants.
Good friends of ours, who we’ve since forgiven for the incident that follows, had recommended Maison des Têtes, a historic mansion in the heart of the old town. Dating from 1609, Maison des Têtes, or House of Heads, is named for the 106 grotesque masks that decorate the building’s facade. It’s home to a boutique hotel and two restaurants, a brasserie and a Michelin-starred dining room.
Not realizing that the brasserie was closed on Sundays – or that there even were two restaurant options – we called ahead. Would you like to make a reservation? Uh, sure. Four adults, an infant, and a toddler. The receptionist paused. Let me check with the chef. That should have been our first indication that all was not going to be well. But we were hungry, and hot, and had been walking all day, so we trudged over.
We entered through a shady, cobblestone courtyard surrounded by the stone walls and stained glass windows of the hotel. We gave our name at reception. Right this way, Mr Dowd. The host was impeccably dressed in a tuxedo. Now is a good time to mention that we were wearing classic American sightseeing attire: jeans and t-shirts. He led us into an elegant dining room, complete with chic gray and white decor, white linens on each of the eight tables, and elaborate flower arrangements. It was then that we realized we may have made a mistake.
The next few minutes proceeded predictably. There was a wine list, an incredibly expensive menu. Napkins were placed in our laps. Other patrons began arriving, wearing cocktail dresses and suits. We tried to disappear. We briefly discussed abandoning the ship, but our toddler’s rapidly declining mood and impending hunger meltdown kept us in our chairs. We split an entree in order to continue saving for his college. We ordered a bottle of wine because some things you have to drink during in order to survive.
And then, at long last, our food began arriving in a series of tiny, adorable, bite-sized courses, each less child-friendly than the last: salmon and seared tuna sashimi, liver paté, a cilantro mousse. Connor happily ate bread, and happily poured his apple juice out on the white table cloth. We finished the wine and ordered another, wondering if we should just give them all our money, write a letter of apology, and leave before the main course arrived. We didn’t though, out of hunger and resignation.
The main course was soon delivered to our table – probably the most succulent, flavorful chicken ever consumed by anyone in the history of poultry. I don’t like this chicken, Connor announced to the table. Just try it, we implored. It’s amazing. It’s the best chicken you’ll probably eat in your life. This is Michelin-starred chicken, friends.
I DON’T LIKE THIS CHICKEN, Connor informed the restaurant, and probably anyone passing by outside. I WANT TO PLAY OUTSIDE. He roamed the courtyard while we tried to eat the never-ending parade of courses – not usually a problem – as quickly as possible. Avery, who had been mercifully asleep for most of the meal, woke up and industriously began pulling everything within reach onto the floor. Empty plates, Connor’s juice cup, some bread, a fork, all of it found its way into her little fists and, seconds later, under the table. Check, please.
Maybe in a few weeks, once we’re more comfortable in Paris, and our French has improved, and our children have recovered from jet-lag, we’ll brave another French dining experience. But until then, we’re keeping the chaos confined to our own dining room, and our own wine collection.