One day, a few weeks before my 40th birthday, my husband told me that he had a gift for me, a surprise. It involves a plane trip, your passport, and food. I’ve already checked with your mother; she’ll babysit for the week.
Well, I hate surprises and emphatically said that I would not go anywhere if I didn’t know where, arguing that I would find out once at the airport, so it might as well be at home. My mother said I was being a baby. My boss told me that I wasn’t being adventurous. My husband finally gave in: he had made reservations on my birthday at Le Café Jules Verne, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Eiffel Tower.
We arrived in Paris the day before my birthday and started to plot out our week. Several museums were on our list — The Louvre, Musée Rodin, Musée Picasso, the d’Orsay. We knew that we wanted to go to Giverny to see Monet’s gardens and tried to figure out the best day to go. We went to the Jules Verne and enjoyed a lovely lunch overlooking Paris. It was fun to do something so extravagant — lunch at an expensive restaurant in Paris to celebrate a birthday — but I don’t remember much about the experience other than we had good food and an enjoyable time, although the restaurant seemed a bit touristy.
The next day we were moving at too leisurely a pace to get to the train station on time to catch the train to Giverny, so we changed our plans, thinking that we wouldn’t make it to the gardens this trip. But, the next day, a bright sunny day without a cloud in the sky, we decided spur-of-the-moment to see if we could catch the morning train. We made it to Gare St Lazare with just enough time to spare and settled into the 45 minutes trip through the countryside.
To say that the gardens are magnificent is an understatement bordering on redundancy. Even for the viewer who doesn’t like Impressionistic art, Monet’s paintings depict a gloriously lush vegetation, full of color, light, and texture. It isn’t hard to imagine what the gardens might be like. But, on a beautiful Spring day, they are even better than that! The house itself isn’t much, but it is the same structure where Monet lived. If you visit hoping to see Impressionist Masterpieces, you will be disappointed. Monet’s works are in museums and collections throughout the world, but his home in Giverny is only decorated with reproductions. And, even at the dawn of this century a large portion of the house was devoted to the requisite tourist gift shop.
After we maneuvered our way through the house and past shoppers in the gift shop (zee big spendurhs as a French tour guide was overheard saying), we spent a few hours in the gardens. Unlike the house, the gardens are a delight to stroll through. Paths that lead through rose gardens. Paths that lead to ponds. Row after row of a colorful, scented sensory assault. And, of course, there is the famous Japanese bridge and waterlilies.
When we were finished with our walk, we could have rushed back via taxi to the train station, or we could have waited a few hours to catch the bus. We opted to stay and wander through Giverny, hoping to find a little restaurant to have a bite to eat. What we found, instead, was a beautiful French country house with a wonderful restaurant. Le Jardin de Giverny was only a five-minute stroll from the Monet house. We had taken the other fork in the road, wanting a meandering route back to the main road where we were told we would find a café. So, you might say that it was serendipity that we saw a path that lead to a garden and then noticed a car park and a restaurant sign. We continued down the drive to Le Jardin de Giverny.
I don’t remember the specific things we had for each of the courses, except for the fois gros appetizers and the truly exquisite chocolates for dessert. But, I do remember that we had a four-course meal with champagne. The restaurant was charming, and with only two or three other tables seated, it seemed that our little table in front of the large window was our own private dining room. The wait staff spoke little English, but they were as attentive as possible. With my scarce-remembered high-school French we figured out how to communicate our menu selections. We looked out over the rose garden and the dappled ginkgo trees and enjoyed wonderful food and a peaceful afternoon.
More than 10 years later, both my husband and I would quickly list this among our best meals ever. I think it says something about my dining priorities that I don’t remember the entrée. I’m not sure that I have that sort of sense-memory for food tastes. For me, dining is much more than the food: it is the presentation, the surroundings, a friendly and informed wait staff, a chef who prepares not a meal, but an experience. Fine dining doesn’t have to be a Michelin rated restaurant, or prepared using the latest culinary technique, but an opportunity to remember a point in time: where you were, who you were with, what you felt.
Sadly, based on an internet search, it doesn’t appear that this restaurant still exists and even if it does, I’m not sure that I’d make a trip to Giverny just to dine there. But, if I’m ever in the French countryside again, I hope that I’ll stumble upon another out-of-the-way restaurant, a place that is fine dining not because of the food prep or the view or the decor are prized by a guide book, but because it provides an amiable, pleasant, complete experience to accompany the food. Fine dining is memorable dining.
This is my submission for Ailsa’s weekly travel theme. This week’s theme? You guessed it: food.
I don’t have any photos of the restaurant, but I do have some of Monet’s gardens. Most of these were taken by my husband.