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A Parisian New Year's

[whitespace] Paris French Taste: A Parisian New Year's translates to wonderful food and stylish surroundings that are surprisingly affordable.

Never before had a year so justified the ultimate holiday indulgence, so I took the plunge and dined in the New Year--in Paris

By Christina Waters

SOMEWHERE the ghost of Maurice Chevalier was crooning "The Night They Invented Champagne" as we joined half a million Parisians in a huge, joyful mob around the Arc de Triomphe. There, at somewhere in the vicinity of midnight, fireworks filled the air with thunderous sparkle and thousands of corks popped out of thousands of bottles. We were there with our trusty bottle of Veuve Clicquot, yelling, sipping and kissing in 1999. More importantly, we were toasting the end of a very long, very difficult 1998. And we were doing it in style.

To all those people who've always told me, "You really can't go to Europe for less than two weeks--it's just not worth it," I say merde du vache! Not only was our one week in Paris--from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4--long enough, it was exactly the right length.

Consider the joys. Air France had a special deal with Delta Airlines. We got a low, low price and were able to fly on the roomy, culinarily friendly Air France, direct from San Francisco to Paris. We needed to bring only a few bags, since we were staying such a short time. And since it wasn't the high season, the City of Lights wouldn't be jammed with tourists.

That was the theory. The reality was that the prices were low--except for hotels, of course--but it was that long holiday period that spans Christmas and New Year's. Paris was full of schoolkids home for the holidays. And yes, mes amis, it was chilly. We hit the ground at around 32 degrees, where it stayed the entire trip. Here's where I gave thanks for my mother's vintage fur chubby that in Paris was not only not politically incorrect, it was downright de rigueur.

Decorated to its mansard rooftops with ribbons, gold glitter and millions of lights--every tree along the considerable length of the Champs Elysées wore a thick dusting of white lights--Paris glowed. Even that venerable phallocentric icon the Eiffel Tower wore a witty millennial countdown clock, creating a billboard of lights 10 feet high across its midsection, on which we would watch the descending days left until the year 2000.

Paris offered lots of reliable attractions. The Musée D'Orsay is still one of the best places to get over that irritating "wah wah" feeling of jet lag. We munched chestnuts roasted on an open fire at the Pont Michel overlooking the Seine and felt like extras in an old movie.

And the food: Omelets and beer, sausages and mustard, long baguette sandwiches filled with Gruyere and jambon--the street food of Paris is still cheap, reliable and delicious.

Bypassing the pricey temples of cuisine, we found we could dine brilliantly in Paris for prices well in line with those here at home. And in surroundings to kill for.

For example, downstairs at the Louvre--which is opulently beautiful if only for the I.M. Pei crystal pyramid crowning Catherine di Medici's cavernous castle--one cafe offered us an oasis of quiet, plus lovely sandwiches of chicken and vegetables paired with tiny green salads.

Halfway to the old Opera House, on very upscale Rue Royale, we lunched one day at the incomparable Ladurée Patisserie and Salon de Thé, founded in 1862. Upstairs in the mirrored and wood-paneled tearoom, seated at tiny black marble tables, we thoroughly expected to see Marcel Proust sipping an espresso across the aisle.

Run by a very purposeful army of waitresses, Ladurée offers pastries so beautiful they should be enshrined, as well as fine daily entrees. I had a salad of lentils in a vinaigrette sauce, with salad and thick, crusty bread. French bread. My companions had salads composed of chicken, ham, golden raisins and impossibly thin haricots verts. A slab of multilayered chocolate cake called Saint-Claude ($4) involving semi-sweet ganache, chocolat pastry and Grand Marnier-spiked bits of orange was impossible for one woman to finish. Even better was the tender pain au chocolat et pistache for a mere $2.

I watched with interest as the impeccably dressed man next to me paid his lunch tab with coupons. They turned out to be RTs, restaurant tickets, which the French government uses as part of its employees' pay packets. The tickets can be used in countless restaurants--from McDonald's to Maxim's--and stimulate a big restaurant trade. What a great idea.

After walking off lunch, we nibbled a light dinner on New Year's Eve and headed for Nôtre Dame. At 11pm on that bracing, moonlit night we kept ourselves going with Berthillon's fabled ice cream--vanilla and honey nougat--plus a pot of mint tea, consumed at the tip of Ile St. Louis--and then hit the Metro.

Everybody else in Paris hit the Metro at the same time we did, and every single one of them exited at the Etoile stop. We moved as a single party animal up to the surface, where the spotlit Arc de Triomphe was busy doing a Gallic impression of Times Square. We sanely walked home that evening--past legions of tour buses and boisterous French teenagers.

MOVING to the Latin Quarter for the last three days, we dined twice at Brasserie Balzar, that quintessential Parisian cafe that was the site of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus' last lunchtime argument. Lined with mirrors and tobacco-burnished wood, Balzar is the real thing. Waiters in black vests and long white aprons deliver their approval or disapproval of your order, and the food has as much attitude as the service.

Easily the finest French fries on the planet were brought to us along with a crispy half roast chicken and a plate of Chateaubriand with Bearnaise sauce. We split a gargantuan mesclun salad dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette, followed by a plate of four cheeses--Pont L'Eveque is rapidly becoming my favorite cheese. This plus a bottle of better-than-decent Côtes du Rhône cost us under $100.

Our last night in Paris we returned to Balzar, where our fellow diners were attempting to gross each other out by feasting on pig's feet--with the bones flawlessly removed at the table by the waiter--and braised skate. We just smiled and enjoyed slices of rare leg of lamb, served with tiny green beans and fat white beans, plus an order of grilled Atlantic salmon with boiled potatoes, a grilled tomato and fresh watercress. Yes, this is zesty, two-fisted food.

In three trips to Paris, Balzar has never let me down. It's friendly and affordable and easy to find between the Sorbonne and the Musée Cluny, at 49 rue des Ecoles. Better, it's open every day until 1am.

Les Bookinistes, at 53 Quai des Grands Augustins, offered us our one night-on-the-town, dressed-all-in-black dinner. The chef at the helm is a protégé of Paris cooking legend Guy Savoy--whose own flagship restaurant is now too pricey for anyone but God--and our meal was terrific from start to finish.

A sensuous Côte du Luberon partnered a grilled shellfish appetizer as well as a red iron pot of wine-braised veal shanks, brussels sprouts and onions--a rich, Burgundy-style wintertime creation. My slices of rare young venison arrived with a chutney of sun-dried cherries, porcinis and mystery spices. It was easily the best game dish I've ever had.

After a course of Camembert and chevre, we finished up with dessert of simmered apples of three varieties, served with green apple cider sorbet. Yes, it was that good. Again, right around the $100 mark and that included the wine, plus our omnipresent eau minerale, Badoit.

If living well is the best revenge, then stop drooling and make your own plans to spend a memorable New Year's in Paris. Bonnes annees!

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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