For our last full meal in Paris, we met up with my brother and sister-in-law one last time for an outing to l’Européen, an impressively large an busy brasserie located directly across the street from Gare de Lyon, one of Paris’ most busy train stations. It also has a reputation for good service, classic French bistro fare, and good seafood. Going inside, Brasserie l’Européen definitely has the brasserie look down pat: the place is filled with shiny fixtures, neatly-made tables with crisp, white tableclothes, and waitstaff darting about in equally crisp, white aprons, delivering food and wine bottles to tables. Also out front is a rather large and impressive seafood counter, with a member of the staff preparing various fruits de mer. We were promptly welcomed, and escorted to a nice corner table by the front window where we could enjoy some people watching as people were entering and leaving the train station across the street.
After a rather pleasant tour of the Palais Garnier (also known as the Paris Opera House), we were ready for some lunch. I always rather enjoy a good phở, and due to their colonial past in Southeast Asia Paris is blessed with more than a few phở joints. We ended up settling on Au Bon Pho tucked down a quiet little road in the 3e arrondissement. But before I get too far into the review, we should talk a bit about “Vietnamese” cuisine. If you are from the US, like I am, chances are your “Vietnamese” food is distinctly “Southern Vietnamese”, because the vast majority of Vietnamese immigrants to the United States came during and immediate after the Vietnam War (hence the preponderance of places named after Saigon, or named with a number, which is often the year the founder came to the US), but there’s actually a rather wide variety of styles of both Vietnamese food in general, and phở in particularly, especially if you also add in influences from nearby Cambodia and Laos. So when I travel outside the US, it’s often interesting to try out other “Vietnamese” places for phở, since often they are drawing from a wider set of culinary influences.
When we were staying in Paris, our hotel was in Le Quai Voltaire in the 6e arrondissement of Paris, a rather pleasant part of the city just across the river from the Louvre. It’s also got rather a large assortment of attraction for the food-minded traveler, such as a noticeably higher concentration of chocolate shops, boulangeries, and even a nice rum bar (La Rhumerie). For actual restuarants, however, most of the choices are basically bistros. But my brother was aware of one particularly good Moroccan place, so after enjoying a few Belgian beers at nearby La Gueze, we headed over to Le Mechoui du Prince for some Moroccan fare.
After an 11 hour flight, we arrived back in Paris. We took this as an opportunity to explore more of Paris, this time with my brother and sister-in-law joining us from London (I still think the Channel Tunnel is a rather cool invention). Despite the somewhat drizzly weather, we decided to do a walk around Montmartre, enjoying this fairly hilly part of the city, included a tour of Sacre Coeur (my first since Junior High) and looking over the city from the terrace. But it was also time for lunch, and we settled on a fairly nice café near the metro station, Café Le Saint-Jean, where I had another chance to indulge in one of my simple pleasures: a basic steak frites. Like uncountably many cafés around Paris, this one has the basic Parisien Café look pretty much nailed: tiny round tables, wooden chairs, black-and-while tile, and robed waiters dashing about with trays of food, coffee, wine, and beer. We quickly found ourselves seated by the window, and after a short perusal of the menu, I decided that their bavette avec frites was the way to go.
The next morning was, unfortunately, our very last morning on the island of Réunion. After a splendid breakfast at La Matilona, it was time for us to pack up for one last time and head back to St-Denis and the airport. But since our flight didn’t leave until 4pm, this did give us some time to check out Saint-Benoit (which had a wonderful farmers market), and do a bit of driving, this time going back to Belouve, where we had hiked over a week earlier. While it was somewhat bizarre to just simply drive to someplace that had been one heck of a grueling hike, we did get some awesome views. And then it was time to head back. Passing through La Plaine-Des-Palmistes one last time, we noted that since it was Sunday, the various vendors of “poulet bitume” were still out in force, and one place in particular, Chez Will Grillados, jumped out at us, so we felt compelled to stop off and have one more meal on Réunion.
I may have mentioned previously that the people of Reunion love their “pique niques” and driving around, so on weekends, particularly on Sunday mornings, the tradition is to drive around, get some food, and take it to your picnic spot. One of the preferred foods for picnicking is grilled chicken, which even has a unique name for the island: “poulet bitume” (literally, “asphalt chicken” or “roadway chicken”). On a weekend with good weather, the result is an almost uncountable number of places setting up a grill and selling fresh-grilled chicken at the side of the road. It’s not just restaurants, either, but houses, shacks, stores, and the like all set up with their grill selling fresh-grilled chicken and assorted sides. It’s quite the sight, and one that we had missed on our first weekend on the island (since we were far from the nearest road, up at the Gîte de la Caverne Dufour). But on our second weekend on the island, as we were driving along the southern coast by Saint-Philippe, we came across the beautifully-situated La Mer Casée right around lunch time, and decided to check it out for our grilled chicken.
I mentioned a few times that I didn’t stay in a lot of “hotels” in Réunion during our visit, since a substantial fraction of the lodging on the island is distinctly less formal than a typical hotel, ranging from our mountain gîtes, to a handful of Chambres d’hôtes (basically, B&Bs), and other alternative lodging arrangments. After our hike up Piton de la Fournaise, we came across one of the more memorable gîtes, Matilona in the quiet village of Ste-Rose on the northeastern coast of the Island. Matilona is a rather funky place. It doesn’t really have any one place you can stand and take it all in, so I didn’t really get a picture, but Matilona is built out of a sprawl of several little buildings, Matilona was originally a supermarket, but it’s been turned into a guest house with quite a few rooms (ranging from simple, compact rooms for 1 or 2 people, to large multi-bedroom suites, to the multi-floor suite we stayed in on one end of the complex). A surprisingly large common area, two common kitchens, and a large outdoor common space are all there for guests, as was a very nicely maintained swimming pool. The owner also maintains a collection of local plants, and keeps chickens in the back of the property. The overall vibe that the owner is trying for (with more than a little success) is that you’re staying in a quirky friend’s house.
Like I had mentioned in my review of Gite de la Caverne Dufour, the island of Réunion has several classic hikes recommended to visitors, like watching sunrise from the Piton des Neiges. Another of these classic hikes is to visit the other volcano on the island, the Piton de la Fournaise (“Furnace Peak”). It’s rather a different hike, since this volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting on average once every nine months, and much more frequently recently (6 weeks before our visit, 2 weeks after, and yet again just last week), so you are hiking across lava plains instead of hiking up tall peaks. But the basic approach is still the same: most people stay at a local Gite the night before, and then hike to the inner caldera in the relative cool of the morning. In this case, it means staying at the rather nicely appointed Gite du Volcan, located at Pass de Bellcombe on the north rim of the volcano’s outer calder (facing the coastline, not the interior).
After the great laundromat kerfuffle, the next day went a lot more smoothly. We first visited the Saga du Rhum, a most excellent museum about rum, distillation, and Réunion’s history… with a most excellent tasting room allowing you to get free samples of most of the island’s many different rhums. After finishing at the Saga du Rhum, it was time for lunch. We headed back into Saint-Pierre, and settled into Kaz à Léa (Creole for “Lea’s House”) for lunch, right as noon prayer was sounding (Saint-Pierre has a sizeable Islamic population, and we were about a block away from the major mosque). And hey, how can I resist… it has “Kaz” in the name!
One of the pieces of advice we got from the few people I was able to talk to that had been to the island was to tour a coffee plantation. And I discovered that this was a bit harder to set up… most of the plantations are very small family farms, and you have to set up the reservation via phone, often with a member of the farmer’s family who speaks no English and doesn’t understand my French. But it’s worth doing: the plantations all focus on a single variety of coffee: the Bourbon Pointu coffee bean. Bourbon Pointu was grown long ago on the island (back when it was Ile Bourbon), and was a highly-prized variety, and thought lost when the island shifted to a sugarcane economy. But starting at the turn of the last century, an enterprising agricultural engineer discovered small plantings of the plant that had been maintained in a Japanese horticultural greenhouse, and was able to successfully reintroduce the plant to the island. The result is a small but growing industry of coffee producers on Reunion producing one of the world’s best-regarded, and most expensive, coffees. So we set out one rainy day in search of La Maison du Laurina, a small coffee grower on Le Grand Coude on the Southeastern corner of the island