Gay Paree in NYC

We are an ideal urban hiking quartet—L and C, the Chef and me. The men stroll ahead discussing arcane details of history and architecture whereas L and I trail behind, talking writing projects and books, ducking into shops as the men walk on, oblivious. The men not only take the lead in strides but in planning hike “themes,” inevitably historical and sometimes maddeningly obscure. C has planned walks on Christian Science in New York, Ethiopian Harlem and one in which the theme revealed itself as we walked—five buildings owned by Jared Kushner.  The Chef led us on his famous “clipboard walk” in which we carried clipboards of maps tracing the palimpsest of centuries’ old city streets embedded within the grid.

This time, we women were in charge, and we settled on the theme of “Paris in New York” to allow us to get our priorities straight: pastries, coffee and shopping, plus L was still under the spell of Paris, where she and C had just been. The idea appealed to me because, when we think of eating ethnic or eating on the cheap in New York City, we inevitably think of sampling food off the latest Chinese Bing carts or eating from steam trays frequented by Pakistani taxi drivers. We never think of European venues as “ethnic,” or possible purveyors of cheap eats. While we both Googled assiduously, L took the lead, and we came up with what turned out to be a 12-mile stroll from Morningside Heights to the Lower East Side. Here are the “Points Forts” of Paris in NYC:

*The Conservatory Garden – Sitting in the formal French section of the garden within view of the magnificent wrought iron Vanderbilt gate on 5th Ave., which was made in Paris in 1894, we had a selection of “casse-crôute” L and I had brought: cornichon, hard boiled eggs, tuna salad, pork liver mousse, rounds of bread, creamy French brie, and homemade French flags to wave.

*La Libraries Des Enfants –  This charming library, bookshop, and venue for French puppet shows seems in danger of closing down. The manager bemoaned our president’s new antagonistic trade policies for keeping pallets of books in limbo and many of the shelves empty. Still, pop in when you’re in the neighborhood; if you have kids learning French, their wide selection of graphic novels might be the perfect motivators.

*The Albertine - An arm of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy,  this is the only bookstore and reading room in New York devoted only to books in French and English. If you wend your way behind a replica of Michelangelo’s Young Archer, in the historic Italian Renaissance style Payne Whitney Mansion, you will find the Albertine, a truly hidden gem of our city. We especially admired the hand-painted celestial ceiling of the reading room, an ultramarine mural of the solar system; the interiors were created by French designer Jacques Garcia.

* Église Française du Saint Esprit – L threw this church in for C, who likes things ecclesiastical. The name and history are more grand, alas, than the narrow, grey brick church, where we peered through the windows at its austere interior which featured, nevertheless, some pleasing stained glass. Its origins go back to the original settlement of New Amsterdam by Huegenots and Walloons!

*Le Petit Parisien (Midtown)– Oh, where to indulge our Parisian palates?? Le Petit Parisen on E. 53rd was as plain as the Albertine was lavishly decorated.  White paint with red and blue trim, a few blue and white checked cloths thrown over tables in the recessed outdoor dining section. A simple, but authentic menu. You can have the “Parisien” ($9.00), bone-in ham and butter on a baguette, but the Chef and I shared the “Edith Piaf,” ($11.50) duck rilettes and cornichons while C had the “Napoléon,” saucison sec, cornichons. The menu takes a detour through Greece; L ordered, and the Chef and I shared, a very rich, eggy avogolemno chicken/lemon soup ($7.00). Tres bon, this neat, sweet tricolored slice of Paris in drab midtown!

*L’Appartement Sézane –  Now L and I are hardly the target for designer clothiers, but we could not resist the siren call of this French boutique, which says, on its website “Paris in New York City!” What we didn’t realize is that we were not alone. We arrived at the Elizabeth Street store after walking miles through the desert of Second Avenue to find a line down the block, all women clamoring to get into Sézane. The well-appointed store was almost empty, so it was clearly a move to create artificial “buzz.” We felt a little cynical. “Should we do this?” Suddenly a man came out handing out stylish tote bags, each filled with smaller cosmetic bags. L and I clapped in glee as she reached in her bag and pulled out a chic tiny zippered pouch with diagonal red and white stripes. Give a gal a designer tote bag, and she is yours for life. Tip: The sweaters in Sézane are gorgeous and they cost less than Eileen Fisher’s or Garnet Hill’s: $120-$150. I can’t knit a sweater as lovely as theirs for that price, and here’s another tip: Mlle. Sophie offers “mindful knitting” workshops for $30, and the shop hosts nighttime calligraphy workshops, too!

*Ceci Cela Patisserie– Ceci Cela means “This and That,” which I think is a little coyly dismissive of the Parisian patisserie perfection on its shelves. Of all the stops on our walk, this one felt the most authentically French, reminding me of our Paris trip in 2017 where I marveled that every block seemed to have a patisserie where I stood agog at the wonders within. Ceci Cela offers a true French café experience serving croissants ($3.00), pain au chocolat, chausson aux pommes, pain aux raisins, and all manner of classic French breakfast pastries called “Viennoiserie,” baked by master chef Laurent Dupal. L treated us to a bowl of airy chouquettes, weightless dough balls dotted with pearl sugar ($.60/ea). I had a spongy pistachio Madeleine ($2.00) and noted for the future: simple French sandwiches like those at Le Petit Parisien are only $5.75!

*The French Cheese Board – This store multitasks as French cheese and cheese accoutrements store, cheese “idea lab” (huh?) and center for events like wine and cheese pairings and  classes on “the Cheeses of Normandy” or “Fromages 101.” In fact, according to Yelpers the tastings and classes are the thing; we felt the store was strong on concept and design but light on actual cheese. We bought an orange rinded wedge of chaumes, a light, nutty cow’s milk cheese from Saint-Antoine-de-Breuilh in the Périgord (just writing that makes me feel French!).