Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A toast to the City of Lights

Gorge on its feast for the senses and imagination

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I'm sitting on the terrace at Monsieur Bleu, Paris's latest brasserie-chic restaurant, a glass of Piper-Heidsieck champagne in hand, waiting for the clock to strike 10 p.m.

Our al fresco dining spot has, arguably, the city's best view of the Eiffel Tower and after dark, on the hour, for five mesmerizing minutes, the famous landmark explodes in a dazzling display of flickering lights.

The spectacle, which we witness until past midnight -- a total of three times as more champagne and wine arrive to accompany the truffle risotto and tuna mi cuit and berry-filled pavlova -- is both awesome and over-the-top, the glittery icing on the cake of a bacchanalian visit to this ageless city.

The light show has been going strong since 1985; what's new is the hip Joseph Dirand-designed restaurant where you can watch the City of Lights lay claim to its title. Like any great metropolis, even Paris has to renew the wick of glamour to sustain its own myth, and Monsieur Bleu, with decor nodding to the 1920s and food that reinforces the enduring triumph of French cuisine, keeps the legend alive.

After dinner, in our champagne-induced state, anything seems possible on this girls' trip to Paris. I half-expect a streetcar to pull up and whisk us back to the past to party with the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, as it happened to Owen Wilson's character in Woody Allen's 2011 movie Midnight in Paris.

Instead, our party of six piles into a Mercedes and heads to The Bistrologist for bespoke cocktails. Afterward, we'll dance into the wee hours at Le Magnifique and drink far too much champagne, chased by fresh, sensuous strawberries.

When American novelist Ernest Hemingway spoke of Paris as a movable feast, most scholars assume he meant it as a metaphor for memories of the city that stayed with him over time. Paris was where he spent the happy years of his early adulthood, drinking Rum St. James and absinthe and downing wine like water at a revolving roster of welcoming cafés; it's also where he came of age as a writer, penning The Sun Also Rises.

It's been nearly a century since the city became an international sensation and a hotbed for creative expats and their vices, but as we discover, Paris remains a metropolis where every excess -- food, drink, or thing of beauty -- waits just around the corner. Paris is still a feast; the trick is to move between its many sensations, still leaving enough room for the next indulgence.

Here are four ways to live it up like one of those storied bohemian expats in the City of Lights.

The architecture

"It's so beautiful here, it hurts. Aren't you in love with it?" Ernest Hemingway asks his first wife, Hadley, in the 2010 novel The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. I get it. Paris is a place you fall for immediately. The wide boulevards are lined with mature trees and Second Empire-style buildings, and every block has a patina of age that lends it a winsome, if weathered, grandeur.

Paris was built to last, a point driven home by one glimpse of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

We spend a sunny morning touring the city in a vintage blue convertible Citroen with 4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie, a car touring company. The guide drives us past the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Opera Garnier and Notre Dame, finally stopping for a picnic-chic lunch at 58 Tour Eiffel, on the first floor of the city's top attraction.

After lunch, we descend stairs inside the Eiffel Tower's iron lattice to the ground, and I get the impression that even as the tourists climbing up and down have come and gone, the bones of the city's many landmarks remain virtually unchanged.

The cuisine

Our epicurean odyssey begins at Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysees. Its old-school interior, complete with chandeliers and white-cloth-draped tables, is somewhat intimidating, as is the menu for those (moi) not well-versed in French cuisine.

Dinner guest Cecile Bonnefond, CEO of Charles and Piper Heidsieck champagnes, navigates our way through the selections of je ne sais quoi, ordering rich foie gras, creamy tagliatelle with lobster, sole meunière swimming in a buttery mustard sauce, fresh berries for dessert and a bottle of bubbly to accompany each course.

The restaurant fancies itself as a meeting place for the who's who of Parisian society -- Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his presidential election victory here in 2007 -- but it's just as popular among international celebs. In true café style, we eat outdoors on the awning-covered patio, but find out the following day via Instagram that Kanye West had been dining inside the very same night.

The next evening, we have dinner inside our own private hot-air-balloon-shaped arbour on The Terrace at the Saint James Paris, one of the city's staggering eight Relais & Chateaux restaurants. As we savour each course over lively conversation and wine that flows, Hemingway-style, like water, I can't help but think the most important part of any feast is the company you choose to break bread with -- the right people can make even a baguette taste like a king's banquet.

-- The cocktails

Though Paris is credited as the birthplace of mixed-drink marvels such as the Sidecar and the White Lady -- both created inside Harry's New York Bar, a Paris landmark for the alcohol-inclined -- in recent years, the city had fallen into cocktail disrespect, with its denizens consuming way too many shots of ouzo, pints of beer and bad mojitos, laments Pierre Massin, a bartender at the Park Hyatt Paris.

"But cocktail culture is starting to happen again in Paris," he says.

It began in 2006 when The Experimental Cocktail Club opened its doors, and the movement is gaining momentum as the city's top hotels invest in bartender training. Hemingway would be proud. The absinthe fountains and glasses of Pernod popular in the 1920s have been replaced by craft cocktails made with top-shelf spirits and fresh ingredients.

To demonstrate Paris's return to its cocktail pedigree, Massin shakes me up a pisco sour made with pisco, Cointreau, muddled grapes, a house-made chai green-tea syrup and mole bitters for kick. He even serves it in a sherry glass -- très chic.

-- The hotels

Le Royal Monceau -- Raffles Paris first opened in the 1920s, when it was peopled by an ever-changing cast of artists, intellectuals and adventurers. That decade's glamour has been successfully recreated, thanks to a two-year transformation by Philippe Starck that was completed in 2010.

Though the rooms are magnificent and include every extravagance -- a mirrored walk-in closet, a guitar slung casually over a corner chair and a Juliet balcony with a view of the Arc de Triomphe -- it's the public spaces that make me want to linger.

At the Long Bar, I sit across from patrons instead of the bartender so I can chat up other travellers while enjoying the signature Singapore Sling. The bar opens onto the Terrace Garden, an open, tranquil courtyard lounge and eating spot that seems de rigueur in Paris.

We spend our final night at the Hotel Costes, a property that's known as a "den of opulence." The dark mahogany and Napoleonic maroon-velvet accents lend it a certain bordello-chic style, as do the narrow hallways that smell of musky perfume. My cosy, aromatic room is the perfect place to drift back to reality after drinking champagne long past midnight in Paris.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 A1

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