Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gimme Shelter ... any day of the week

In what must surely qualify as the worst movie ever made, Kevin Costner’s baseball flick “Field of Dreams” is based on the premise “if you build it, they will come”.
In the case of Kevin, it had something to do with the ghosts of long-dead baseball greats gathering together in some stadium he built in the middle of a cornfield to play one last glorious game of ball. I don’t remember all the details of the film, I was too busy curled up in agony in the corner of the living room, tormented by the thought I was wasting a precious hour and a half of my life watching the damned thing.
And while the film annoyed me, it’s tag line stayed with me. “If you build it, they will come”. It’s a tag line that obviously spoke to the Club Med creative minds behind Paris’ newest hip hotel in Paris – Mama Shelter.
The place is so modern, so new, so oddly located, so shiny and so deeply design-daahling, it’s the antithesis of your prototypical Paris hotel.
Stuck out on the fringes of Paris, not far from the péripherique in the down-at-heel (but gradually gentrifying) 20th arrondissement, Mama Shelter is a neighbourhood anomaly. Interior designed by Philippe Starck, it has all the hallmarks you’d expect of the ubiquitous designer. Polished concrete walls, low lighting, oversized lamp shades and lots of black.
I recently treated the Missus and myself to an overnight getaway at the hotel. I know, it sounds odd to take a mini-break in the city in which you live, but when you have a 16-month-old otherwise taking up your every waking moment, five uninterrupted minutes with your spouse huddled under a freeway overpass would be a luxury.
We stayed in the suite (don’t look so shocked – the hotel distinguishes itself for offering modern, comfortable, designer rooms at very reasonable prices), and enjoyed a super comfy bed, a small but perfectly formed living area and a terrace. The view from the terrace across the high-rise, low-rent apartment blocks and Ibis Hotels lining the peripherique is hardly the most inspiring – and it should be said that if you are coming to Paris for the first time or want to look out your hotel window onto a typically Parisian vista, this ain’t the place for you.
Rather smartly, the folk behind the hotel have turned Mama Shelter into a self-contained destination. The downstairs bar and restaurant area is huge and open plan. By night, the u-shaped bar, the full-size ‘babyfoot’ table and the top notch DJs keep a sleek crowd suitably lubricated and entertained. By day, the restaurant does good modern French at reasonable prices. We tucked into a couple of faux filets and a bottle of Crozes Hermitages over lunch on the restaurant terrace – giving as it does over a disused railway line – and could not have been happier. The rhum baba and moelleux au carambar for dessert didn’t hurt, either.
But it is probably the Sunday brunch that deserves the biggest wrap. In a city where a thimble full of scrambled egg and mini-pancake with fruit salad is considered “un brunch” – and will set you back 25 euros – Mama Shelter’s 39 euro, all you can eat Sunday brunch is a revelation. The food was truly excellent. Inventive, fresh and plentiful. I can’t remember the last time I encountered such good service in Paris. The house policy in Mama Shelter seems to be “let them sit and linger” rather than “quickly turn the table”. And the ambience created as a result was just about the warmest and most welcoming I have encountered in a long while.
It’s not the most obvious place to stay if you are headed to Paris for a once-in-a-lifetime visit, but if you’re popping over for a mini-break, or like me, treating yourself to a little holiday in your home town (weird, I know, but that’s the way I roll), then you would go a long way to find a better destination than Mama Shelter.
Two thumbs up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ten Tips On How Not To Look Like A Tourist In Paris This Summer

It’s August in Paris. And the way I can tell is because the city is almost completely devoid of Parisians and packed to overflowing with tourists.
The tourists you can spot a mile off. They dress differently, behave differently and comport themselves differently.
And while I would never argue that people should be anything other than what they are, sometimes (especially in Paris) it helps if you are able to blend in with the locals.
Not only will you be afforded marginally better service in the three cafés and restaurants that are open in the city in August (well, maybe not, but you’ll at least be given the benefit of the doubt fractionally longer by recalcitrant wait staff), you’ll also make yourself less of a target for the shysters who lie in wait to harass, rip-off or otherwise cunningly relieve you of your hard-earned travel dollars.
So, in the interests of ensuring you get as much out of your Paris experience as possible, I humbly present a list of ten tips on how to not to look like a tourist in Paris.

1. Don’t wear white sneakers

I know they’re the most comfortable shoes you own and I realise you will be doing a lot of walking while here in Pareee, but nothing screams “tourist!” more than a pair of bright white Nikes or Reeboks. When was the last time you saw Christian Dior send white sneakers down the catwalk? Try to find a comfortable walk shoe in leather – or go with a sandal. White sneakers are a particular no-no for ladies. The only time any self-respecting French woman would don a white sneaker would be to play tennis or go to the gym (which is about once in a blue moon).

2. Don’t wear TEVA sandals
(or any variation thereof).
Yes, I know I suggested a sandal above as an alternative to a white sneaker. But there are sandals and then there are TEVAS. The latter are fine if you are at a beach or backpacking through the Greek Isles, but they will only betray you as a tourist on the otherwise elegant streets of Paris.

3. Don’t wear hiking boots
See my comment above in the white sneaker entry about sacrificing comfort for style. You’re visiting The Louvre, not scaling Everest. The most testing terrain you will encounter in Paris is the white gravel surface of the Tuileries. Do you really need carbon-fibre soled, waterproof clodhoppers to conquer the rues of Paree? I think not.

4. Don’t wear sun visors or baseball caps
I know they’re practical because you can shove one in your backpack at the start of the day, but I’d say two things here:
1. the sun in Paris is really not that strong. You want full-force furnace UV rays? Visit Australia. A simple sun-screen should serve you perfectly well.
2. it’s going to ruin your hair – and no Parisian would ever step out in public without a carefully coiffed do. Even Parisian men who sport the scruffy, voluminous hair look spend hours in front of the mirror.

5. Don’t wear your camera around your neck
Wear a camera around your neck and you might as well accompany it with a large sign that reads: “I also have a large wad of euros in my wallet”. Either invest in a compact digital camera or get yourself an elegant shoulder bag to keep your camera in.

6. Invest in a pair of designer sunglasses
Sporting a pair of sunglasses that really only belong on a ski slope will betray you as a tourist faster than you can say “sacré bleu” (which, by the way, no French person ever says…). Sporty sunglasses of the multi-coloured, reflective and wrap-around variety will only draw unwanted attention to you.

7. Try to avoid wearing a backpack
It’s tough, I know, when you are going to be out all day, trudging about the city, taking in sites, to not have a carry-all on your person. But backpacks that feature water canteens hanging off them or elaborate clip and elastic systems will mark you as a tourist. You want to blend in? Get yourself a nice leather carry-all – or, if you’re a lady, one of those bottomless pit handbags.

8. Don’t wear a fanny pack
People don these monstrosities under the perverse belief that their wallets and passports are safe if carried within them. They might as well paint a bullseye on them while they’re at it. Nothing screams “steal me!” like a fanny pack.

9. Don’t carry a guide book
By all means take a guide book with you on your wanderings, but don’t walk down the street with it in your hand.

10. Keep your voice down
You’re not in Kansas any more (and lest my friends in the great state of Kansas take offense to this, let me point out I am using this phrase in its metaphorical sense rather than its literal sense). The French are a quiet, relatively understated people. They don’t feel the need to shout when they are in conversation with a neighbour. They don’t yell across Metro carriages or scream at one another in a bus. I know the experience of being a foreign city can sometimes be disorienting, unsettling or even exciting, but try to keep the voice down when you are talking to one another. You’ll make more friends among the Parisians and attract far less attention.

Oh – and number eleven (and this is probably the most important one) try to at least learn a phrase in French. Even if the only thing you learn is “Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas francais” you will be amazed at the difference with which Parisians will treat you. It’s a beautiful language with a noble heritage. The French are very proud of their language and feel like it’s under seige. At least do them the courtesy of acknowledging they have their own language by using even a sentence of it. Imagine how unimpressed you’d be if a French person bowled up to you in your home town and started spouting French at you, arrogantly assuming you would understand them. Besides, you will be amazed at how quickly a Parisian will warm to you if you at least make an effort with their tongue. Give and take, people. Give and take.

Now get out there and enjoy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review: La Société: The Costes-ification of Paris food continues..

The latest salvo in the Costes brothers campaign to flood the French capital with uber-stylish yet ultimately disappointing eateries comes in the form of La Société. Housed in a former jazz club next to Café Flore and across the rue from l’eglise St Germain, it’s a spectacularly beautiful looking restaurant. Clearly no expense has been spared on the interior design and furnishings. I was there the other night with a group of friends. It was all muted lighting and white leather banquettes and honey-brown lacquered walls and marble accents. It practically screams “money”! What a shame then that no attention has been paid to the menu. I’m all for sticking to a winning formula, but just once I would like to visit one of the Costes family’s ubiquitous Paris properties and not be forced to choose between a salad of haricot verts (shoot me now), mandarina crispy duck (always more crisp than actual duck) and a club sandwich (which at 20 euros is frankly ridiculous). Two of our party had carpaccio for entrée, which looked like it might have been okay had it not been smothered in a kind of salad cream. I opted for “le thon facon nicoise” – which was essentially a fancy nicoise salad, with admittedly well-cooked and very fresh tuna steak. But at 32 euros for a bit of salad and fish, you can’t help but wonder what they’re spending the money on. Then you notice the wait-staff and it all becomes clear. An exquisite example of French womanhood, to a person, they seem to have floated direct from a catwalk to a Costes near you. And while their waiting skills are apalling, one suspects they haven’t been hired to provide a running commentary on the provenance of a steak or the suitability of a wine. And while it’s true that man cannot live on bread alone, a little less style and perhaps a tad more substance would make La Société a wholly more satisyfing eating experience. But then, taking a look around at the bling-and-cosmetic-surgery obsessed crowd of fellow diners, you get the distinct impression that people are here to be seen, not fed.