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In Paris, go beyond the Left Bank and Right Bank

I've always been one of those girls. A die-hard Francophile. An American helpless in the face of Parisian charms and pleasures. A New Yorker who could never seem to shake the City of Light. I went for a college semester, I went with boyfriends, I went to eat chocolate. And finally, for a two-year period beginning in 2009, I went to live my dream.

Now that I'm back home in the States, my vision of Paris has been altered. What was once mysterious is now intimately understood. What was once mythical is now more real (although, admittedly, still magical).

Weaned as I was on A Moveable Feast and Memoirs of Montparnasse, when I moved to Paris, I saw it clearly divided between the artsy Left Bank and the buttoned-up Right Bank. The Left Bank was for thinkers and dreamers, artists and musicians, students and stargazers who famously sought inspiration — and, peut-etre, absinthe. It's where Josephine Baker shimmied, where Hemingway feasted and where Sartre and de Beauvoir had endless philosophical debates.

The Right Bank was for bankers at the Bourse and flaneurs on the grand boulevards. It was where manicured gardens, symmetrical squares and majestic monuments reigned supreme, a melange of foreign embassies, tony boutiques and chichi cafes, all steps from where King Louis XVI and thousands of others were guillotined at the Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution.

I made my home in the center of the Right Bank, off the Rue Montorgueil. On an amazing market street filled with patisseries, fromageries and boucheries, nothing made me happier, or feel more Parisienne, than meandering up and down the pedestrian blocks, inhaling the irresistible smells of roasting chickens, stinky cheeses and warm, yeasty baguettes.

As my circle of exploration expanded from the city center, I started seeing Paris itself growing in new ways. Cashmere emporiums and Costes brothers cafes were infiltrating the Left Bank, nudging it away from "bohemian" into the realm of "haute bourgeois," while neighborhoods like Belleville and the Haut Marais, with their emerging artists and galleries, infused the Right Bank with creative juice. Apparently, my staunch division of Paris based on riverbanks wasn't so black and white. And by the time my two-year stint was up, two other sides to Paris were luring me: the east and the west.

The edgy east

I was first introduced to Canal St.-Martin on Paris' east side by a friend who lived there and took me on a bike ride, guiding me past the waterway's peaked iron bridges and enchanting locks to the flat and sprawling Parc de la Villette just north of the neighborhood. The boomerang-shaped canal was once Napoleon's conduit for supplying fresh water to Paris. Later, the surrounding area became home to the working classes. But since the millennium, as my friend pointed out — and I couldn't help but notice as we wended our way through picnicking Parisians flaunting Ray-Bans, iPhones and flashy baskets (sneakers) — the quartier has attracted more and more artists and writers, young couples and hipsters.

The more time I spent in this gentrified quarter, the more I realized how fitting it was that a New York writer had made her home there with her Parisian boyfriend (now husband). Like the Mission in San Francisco or the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Canal St.-Martin is gritty with dirt and makeshift tarp shelters. But it's also alive with creative energy. At Chez Prune, perhaps the neighborhood's most popular cafe, with a lively terrace, I started making a game of counting the scruffy bearded men with fabulously disheveled coifs — the way only French men can wear their hair. They always seemed to be engaged in nicotine- and wine-fueled debates over their latest film or art projects before they hopped onto their Vespas, mobile phones cleverly tucked inside their helmets. It seemed like the epicenter of artsy intellectualism — the way I imagined Café Select on the Left Bank might have been in the '60s.

This buoyant energy was everywhere I went in the east. Following a hairpin turn behind the stellar wine bar Le Verre Volé — where I'd devoured sauteed squid with oranges and green olives and a delicious bottle of Cotes du Rhone, with help from a friend — I discovered La Galerie Végétale, an airy, industrial space selling black-and-white photography and an impressive variety of potted succulents. Peering into the steamed-up windows of Voy Alimento, a beatnik-y cafe next door, I made a mental note to go there if I needed exotic herbs and organic teas by the gram.

As I became familiar with the neighborhood anchors, there was one address I knew I needed to conquer: Le Chateaubriand. Since Fred Peneau opened the bistro with the chef Inaki Aizpitarte in 2007, it has earned a reputation as Paris' pinnacle of "bistronomy." As tough as reservations are to come by, it also accepts walk-ins. So by 9 every night, there's a train of fashionable foodies pressed against the zinc bar eyeing the diners already gorging on the five-course, 50-euro (about $68) menu.

Sure enough, the night of my reservation, the fashionable crowd gathering at the bar added to the evening's excitement. As my dishes got more complex — moving from a dollop of mozzarella dusted with black pepper and vanilla to a deliciously juicy duck breast to pear crumble served with buckwheat ice cream and grapefruit compote — the din from the crowd flooding the entrance grew louder, until the whole interior seemed to vibrate. When I ventured a few weeks later to Le Dauphin, the modern all-marble wine bar opened by the Chateaubriand team, I saw the same cool kids snacking on tapas like oyster tapioca with blood sausage and dried duck meat.

As I was happily sinking my teeth into the district's dining scene, other new ventures were infiltrating. Art was creeping up from the not-too-distant Haut Marais, including Galerie Chantal Crousel's second Parisian exhibition space on the Rue Leon Jouhaux. And as a sign that the bobos might soon be ceding their territory to tourists — already appearing on boat tours of the canal — Le Citizen, the neighborhood's first boutique hotel, made its debut.

The refined west

Paris is a city filled with five-star hotels, each with its own history and style. The newly refurbished Royal Monceau is one of the artiest, having attracted guests from Maurice Chevalier to Ray Charles to Madonna since opening in 1928. In 2008, it was shuttered for a much-ballyhooed redesign by Philippe Starck. Then one autumn day in 2010, voila, the scaffolding came down, and a coterie of suited doormen appeared, flanking a plush ruby carpet that extended from the hotel's interior onto the sidewalk. Inside, the vast salon was filled with guests lounging in intimate groups of saddle-stitched leather chairs, nibbling club sandwiches and leafing through international newspapers.

As I couldn't afford one of the 139 rooms or suites that start at 730 euros a night, I figured I'd do the next best thing: Splurge on lunch. I had two gorgeous options: Il Carpaccio, the upscale Italian restaurant tucked in the back corner under a vaulted ceiling, and La Cuisine, where Laurent Andre and Gabriel Grapin serve elevated classics according to the season. When in Rome, I told myself, and went directly to the French side.

Inspired by my Royal Monceau experience, I embraced this new code of western luxury. I knew my time in Paris would soon draw to a close and was all too happy to see the city in a different light. Just as the edgy east had drawn me in throughout my first year, as autumn turned to winter during my second year, I eagerly soaked up its more sophisticated side.

I went to see the giant green and orange neon Cy Twombly canvases that were fetching millions of dollars at Larry Gagosian's new gallery. At the nearby contemporary auction house, Artcurial, I was entertained by the modelesque black-suited servers at the cafe as they trotted down the restaurant's central artery to deliver burrata salads and salmon tartares to the well-coiffed, middle-aged patrons in their camel-colored cashmere.

My edible explorations in the west came to an exquisite finale at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. To the dismay of epicures worldwide, Robuchon shuttered his gastronomic mecca, La Table, in November 2010 but then quietly popped up the next month in the brand-new shiny red and black basement of Publicis Drugstore at the head of the Champs-Élysées. With my Parisian tour drawing to a close — pourquoi pas? — I made a reservation.

Having never been to any of Robuchon's restaurants, I commanded a feast. I started with a basic salad, which was anything but: The endive, walnut, Stilton and apple combination was light and effervescent, beautifully refined. As were the procession of other small plates: John Dory with coriander, lime and a tomato compote; delicate black cod with daikon; and brochettes of creamy Parmesan-covered salsifis — a root vegetable (salsify to the English-speaking) that I had never heard of but something I'll now forever seek on menus.

When I finally left the opulent den, parting with repeated handshakes, smiles and "enchantees," I was beyond sated, beyond charmed. But I couldn't help but feel a tinge of melancholy: If only I could pack up this moment and a hundred others — biking across the Pont Alexandre III, admiring the rosebuds in the wintery Palais Royal gardens — and place them alongside the boxes of macarons and photos of Alain in the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Then I stepped out onto the Champs-Élysées, into the buoyant heart of Paris, and the wistfulness vanished, just like that.

In Paris, go beyond the Left Bank and Right Bank 04/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 4:30am]
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