travel notes: paris

At the end of August, I took an impromptu trip to Paris, Geneva and Franche-Comté. I couldn't be more grateful for this francophile trip, and I've been eager to share my new finds - from a zany barbie artist in the Parisian puces, to an old-timey Besançon patisserie that serves up one hell of a chocolate/meringue bomb. First things first? Paris.

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EAT Comme à Lisbonne: A tiny boutique specializing in Portugeuse pastels de nata. I first tried these flaky, flan-filled tarts in their hometown (Belem, Lisbon - near the breathtaking Jeronimos Monastery) and was delighted by the Parisian reproduction. Moreover, the accompanying espresso was top-notch, a true find in the notoriously coffee-challenged city of lights.

Chez Jeanette: A very hip, low-key bistro with impeccably fresh cuisine. The saumon en cocotte blew me away, and I also loved their just-rich-enough nutella tiramisu.

Neva: Neva may be in one of the less-traveled neighborhoods of Paris, but it merits the detour. It was my "splurge" this trip, but the prices were more than reasonable, considering the exquisitely balanced flavors and textures of each carefully crafted dish. I was especially impressed with the ris de veau (veal sweetbreads) and the meringue-topped lemon tart, but every dish was outstanding.

Les Petits PlatsThis unassuming, lovely bistro is a favorite among locals, and it's easy to see why. With charming service, vibrant flavors and beautiful presentation, it's a close contender for my favorite lunch spot in the city.

DRINK Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis: A strip of bars where patrons spill onto the sidewalks, drinks in hand. It was a bit of a gritty scene, with lanky, attractive bobo boys abreast seedier sorts. I loved the relaxed, pro-mingling vibe, and the bars themselves were actually somewhat charming, should you prefer to drink indoors.

BarbershopA French interpretation of a "Brooklyn bar"...which looks a lot like a Brooklynite's version of a Parisian bar. Clustered seating, a solid wine list and decent cocktails. Basically, it a was a hipster hangout and became a victim of its own trendiness as the night went on. (The solitary bartender served both diners and late-night drinkers, which meant by 11pm, you were literally waiting a half hour to get a drink.)

Grazie: An open, industrial pizza joint/cocktail bar. The kitchen closes late-nights, but I did enjoy an earthy, walnut-infused negroni.

VISIT Puces de Vanves: I had previously biked through this noteworthy flea market, but never really stopped to look. Among the piles of curiosities, I fell upon the aforementioned "zany Barbie artist" (apparently, the president of the market). He doesn't sell his imaginative works for profit, but rather, hopes they attract further visitors to the market. I applaud his efforts and urge you to go, if only to check out his sculptures for yourself.

Chez Chartier: A self-consciously touristy spot, this restaurant is far from the best in Paris. That said, the historic interior merits a look, and the crème chantilly (whipped cream) at Chartier is utterly addictive, so I'd recommend stopping in for dessert.

Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor: I discovered this footbridge by accident, as a study abroad student, and did not revisit it until this last trip. For the most exciting views, enter on the lower level from the Tuileries. Then climb to the upper arch, where you will find far more "love locks" than on the nearby (and better known) Pont des Arts.

Saint Sulpice: This has always been among my favorite churches in Paris, but for the first time, I got to see its facade fully restored. Enjoy the lovely plaza, then head inside - not for the Delacroix paintings, but to see the gorgeous, undulating statue of Mary in the chapel behind the main altar.

For more of my favorite spots in Paris, click here.

seen & heard: buika

It's funny how often my favorite concerts have been those I've attended by accident. Last fall, I wrote about my love affair with Rockwood Music Hall, and how it led me to discover the eerie eloquence of singer/songwriter Freddie Stevenson. Yet before I discovered the NYC trick of frequenting well-curated venues, I was rambling through the musically confusing landscape of Paris, where truly great gigs were less easy to find.

There is one day, however, in France when music quite literally lines the streets: the annual Fête de la Musique. This day-long, free music festival coincides with the summer solstice (June 21) and,  since its inception in 1982, has become an international celebration. (Make Music NY is one of the more recent iterations of the festival.) In Paris, the fête is so extensive that you can simply follow the sound of music through the cobbled streets of the city.

I was in town for the Fête in 2010, and spent most of the morning rambling around Les Halles, hopping from one ubiquitous pan flute to another django-esque guitarist. Eventually, I met up with my friend Gina, who suggested we head to the Palais Royal. (The first time Gina and I had gone to a concert, it was to see Manu Chao at the Fête de l'Humanité, a communist festival which quickly turned into a mosh-pit nightmare. Needless to say, my expectations were low.)

The Palais' program was to celebrate female performers, none of whose names we had ever heard. After head-bobbing to singer/songwriter Madjo's pop-y tunes, we snuck off for some snacks. The historic park was pleasantly buzzing when we left, but upon our return, it had swollen with anticipation. We wove our way back to the front, just as the crowd began to roar. There she was, a regal, afro'ed vixen in red: the Mallorcan "Flamenco Queen", Buika.

For two hours under the dark, open skies and uniquely Parisian box-cut trees, we swayed - squished but mesmerized -beside a group of overzealous Italians screaming "che bella!" (when not singing along in broken Spanish). Though I didn't understand a word of the lyrics, I couldn't take my eyes off the slim, vivacious siren. Buika's musicality and rhythm were exceptional, laced with a feisty humor and passion that transcended linguistic boundaries. To this day, I vividly recall her heartfelt performance of "Volveras".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WkXzrI6m6o

For months after that concert, I downloaded Buika's various albums, singing along in my 5th floor mezzanine bedroom, attempting to repossess some of the magic of that night. But her records, while still admirable, held only the slightest glimmer of the singer's commanding stage presence. If it is disappointing when a band sounds worse in concert than they do on the radio, it is even more frustrating to discover an exceptional live artist whose albums are comparably unremarkable.

Two years later - almost to the day  - I learned Buika was coming to New York City. I immediately snatched up tickets, raving to friends about "one of the best concerts of my life". But as the day drew closer, I wondered if my second, intentional evening with Buika could ever live up to that accidental night in Paris.

The set-up at the Highline Ballroom was sparse - a single guitar and a percussionist on cajón. Buika glided on stage with a sleek, long hairstyle and a red, bustled dress. She was as quirky and elegant as ever, blessing the stage with her drink and excusing herself for her broken English. The Spanish speakers in the crowd began a dialogue with her almost instantaneously, echoing the zany energy of my Italian neighbors from the Palais Royal. And then, almost casually, she began to sing.

Some artists impress us with their musical skill - a unique sense of pitch or meter. Buika has both. But what struck me that night - as it did in Paris - was the emotion in her breath and her uncanny reverence for the present moment. Between songs, unabashedly personal banter eloquently revealed the source of her authentic performance style  - "I think to sing is easy. It's about sincerity." - and witty insight into her lyrics - "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, lies hurt my heart. But at 3 in the morning...lies are nice." On stage, she is both a real-life Carmen -approaching the microphone like a confident toreador - and the most convincingly heartbroken woman in the world.

If the Highline Ballroom was less romantic than a historic Parisian public garden, you wouldn't have known it that night. Part of Buika's enduring appeal is the sense that every concert is the most special performance of her life. In the end, there is only one word to describe her elusive aura : "gratitude". It is this emotion which she so uniquely inhabits and exponentially inspires in us, her admiring crowd.

eater's digest: sandwiches of nyc

It might sound sacrilegious, but I'm not the type of girl who gets excited about a sandwich. In fact, before I lived in Paris, I wasn't really "into bread." Since then, I've learned to love a good loaf, but the crusty heritage grain or sourdough boules I crave are more suited to sopping up sauces than stacking up cold cuts.

The average ol' American sandwich doesn't celebrate bread; it renders it a mere vehicle for debatably exciting fillers. And those who do try to use exquisite loaves often botch the crust-to-inside balance of the ideal bite. (*For the record, I exclude open-faced tartines. They are an entirely different animal from the sandwich, given their sit-down/fork & knife style.)

Yet everyone once in a while, I fall upon an inventive sub or panini that revives my faith in the the future of portable lunch. After two years in New York - and countless meals on-the-go - there are three sandwiches I still swoon over, even if I've the time for a proper seated siesta.

1) Num Pang - Pulled Pork or Catfish w/ Pickled Carrots, Cilantro & Cucumber

When the bahn mi craze hit, I wasn't the biggest fan. After living in Paris, stateside baguettes tend to leave me less-than-impressed. In the case of most BM shops, their stale impressions of this seminal French bread remain impossibly dry, no matter the highly-curated contents. So when my sister and mother started raving about a "Cambodian sandwich shop", I anticipated an equally desiccated sub. To my surprise, the semolina num pang rolls are a softer, subtler sibling to the bahn mi baguette. Here, filling is king, and boy is it delicious. Savory, spicy, acidic and crunchy - it is sustenance and refreshment in one. To boot, NP's grilled chili-coconut corn is beyond addictive.

2) No. 7 Sub - Broccoli, Riccota Salata, Lychee Pickles & Toasted Pine Nuts

I'm all for wacky, rare ingredients, so I was pretty intrigued when I got wind of the latest Flatiron food addiction. I've tried a few different sandwiches at No. 7, but the broccoli is by far my favorite. I usually hate syrupy-sweet lychees, but pickled, they are genius. Riccota salata and toasted pine nuts are enough to win over any good Italian girl, and I pity people who hate broccoli. Depending on who makes your sub, the bread here can tend a little towards the aforementioned Bahn Mi dryness, but on a good day it's just so damn delicious.

3) Porchetta - Namesake Sandwich

The first NYC sandwich to ever win my heart, the Porchetta classic will go down in East Village history. Can you ever have enough cracklin'? I think not. In fact, I've asked for extra and the pig-loving meat carvers are sometimes lovely enough to indulge me. The pork itself is slow-cooked and stuffed with rosemary, sage, garlic, salt and - the hot spice of 2011 - wild fennel pollen. By the way, the similarly seasoned potatoes with cracklin' are also sinfully good...