October 28, 2010

Les Philosophes in Paris: Remembering and Re-Remembering

My name is Kitt, and I have a problem. I love to share my favorite things with the people I love. This seems nice, and even a little cheesy, but it's really a terrible failing.

Let me give you a for instance. As I've mentioned before, my favorite movie is The Last Waltz, a Martin Scorsese film about The Band's farewell concert in 1976.

I've made more or less everyone I love (and even some people I just like) watch The Last Waltz. But here's the problem: I love The Last Waltz so much and have learned so much about it that I want to stop it every five minutes to tell a back story or point out how cool it is that Robbie Robertson just takes over with a guitar solo for Eric Clapton when Clapton's guitar strap breaks mid-performance. And when I do that, I want whoever is being subject to my insanity to confirm for me, each time I stop to rant about some feature of the film, just how wonderful or cool or interesting it is.

Transfer this problem to every favorite restaurant of mine, and to every favorite book, song, and dish I've ever enjoyed, and you see the issue. Unfortunately for poor T, I love him the most, and, therefore, want to share my favorite things with him the most. He's reading Lord of the Flies right now, for example, and I'm pretty sure my English teacher obsession with it is ruining it for him. He refuses to see the whole good versus evil, Simon = Jesus trope in the book.

With the exception of The Office and Modern Family, T's tendency is towards not finding the things I obsess about as AWESOME!!!!!! as I do. It's frustrating, but it's also honest, and when he says he likes something I love, I know it means he really likes it. 

Now when it comes to one restaurant in particular, I got lucky. I first ate at Les Philosophes in Paris when I was eleven, on a trip there with my father. I don't remember it or what I ate there very well, but that's because I was eleven, and my memory of that trip consists of a French woman commenting on how pretty my blonde hair was, my friend losing her CDs (including LaBouche...BLAST FROM THE PAST!) in a Paris taxi, and spilling hot chocolate all over our family friends' white rug.

I do remember returning to Les Philosophes with my father when we went again during my senior year of high school. We got a little light-headed on a bottle of wine, and, again, I have no idea what I ate, but I remember loving it. I think I also really enjoyed being able to smoke openly in front of my father (I know, I know...it was a phase...it was high school), which I distinctly remember doing during our lunch there.

I returned to Les Philosophes twice more during my junior year in college abroad in Toulouse: once with friends, and once with T. When I went in the fall with some friends, they loved it as much as I did. I think we all ordered the steak au poivre, served with sautéed potatoes and green beans that I actually enjoyed (I'm a green bean hater unless they come from Granny's house, where they are served drowning in butter). I think we also really enjoyed the chance to take some red wine to the face before rejoining our study abroad group in order to sit on the world's most uncomfortable seats during a production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

When I brought T to Les Philosophes in the spring of the same year, I was pleased by how much he loved it. We ordered almost identical meals: tomato tarte tatin as an appetizer, steak au poivre as an entrée, and then tarte tatin for me and crème brûlée for T as dessert. It was one of those quintessential French bistro meals, where the food and wine are delicious and the atmosphere is so thick and satisfying that you feel you're consuming it, too. By this point, Les Philosophes had been categorized in my mind as a "must visit" on every trip to Paris, because I had come to associate it with Paris itself.

We went again during our honeymoon, though, and it just wasn't quite right. My tomato tarte tatin and his soupe à l'oignon were both quite tasty, but the steak au poivre was...different. The cut of meat was full of gristle and quite fatty, and it was overwhelmingly large and totally out of proportion with the rest of the plate (sautéed potatoes and green beans, again). It felt like a Frenchman had plated the side dishes, and then handed the plate over to the Golden Corral to supply the steak.

Seemingly silly factors like time of day and temperature may also have played into our disappointment. We went in the late afternoon, well after the lunch hour was over and well before dinner would begin. As a result, Les Philosophes was quite empty, and the softly lit atmosphere I remembered from my previous trips was harsh and bright instead. I'd also always visited Paris during extreme cold, and therefore relished being able to step into Les Philosophes, take off my scarf and coat, and be surrounded by warmth and the smells of French food. Instead, we arrived in a very warm Paris way overdressed, and kind of staggered inside, sweating. Not exactly the comforting entrance to which I had grown accustomed.

This whole rant probably says a lot more about me than it does about this restaurant. I'm a bit crazy, and I like conditions to be the same each time so that I can perfectly reproduce the experience I treasure so much. Because I first watched The Last Waltz on a cold and drizzly day in Maine, for example, I find it best when watched from the comfort of a cozy blanket when it's cold outside.

Either way, I think we take comfort in knowing that, when we return to a place we've visited before, that great little gem of a restaurant or coffee shop or bookstore will be exactly the same, as though its existence has been suspended from the moment we left until the moment we walk in again. And when it's different, it alters our perception of the entire town or city itself. But that's OK. That's what memories are for in the first place.


  1. She's not exaggerating about stopping the movie every 2 minutes.

  2. Then penultimate paragraph is also very true.