clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

N.Y. dentist leads visitors on enjoyable tour of Paris

The walls of the riverside Cote Seine restaurant are spangled with photos of movie stars: Tyrone Power, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Boyer, James Dean and dozens more.

That's in the back. In front, there is a photo of Fred Melnick.You know, Fred Melnick, the dentist from New Hempstead, N.Y.

In 11 visits with his wife, Bobbi, the Brooklyn-born Melnick has developed an affinity for Paris. In fact, he has compiled his best experiences as "Melnick's Guide to Paris," free to those who find his invitation on the France and Bonjour Paris message boards of America Online.

Some of the Parisians he has favored with his recommendations have developed an affinity for him as well, and maybe the best example is his photo hanging in the front window of the Cote Seine.

Melnick's guide is never going to be another Michelin or Fodor's, nor does he want it to be. He composed it in a rush of affection for things French.

"I do this strictly for the fun of it," he wrote me, "for the chance to talk about Paris and France, and because I want others to enjoy them as I do."

I met Melnick last March while surfing through the France message board on AOL.

My wife and I had been to Paris four times, but we were always unsure of ourselves there. We spoke no French, shied away from French restaurants in favor of more Americanized ones, and rightfully felt we were missing something.

Before our trip this summer, I asked Melnick to provide a specific four-day itinerary in Paris: exactly what restaurants to try, what hotel to stay at, what sights to see.

Bottom line: award the man five Eiffel Towers!

For four days and three nights, my wife and I dined at the restaurants Melnick recommended, drank the wines he suggested, said "hello" to the people he said to say "hello" to, and had a wonderful time.

With his suggested hotel, we felt we hit some sort of jackpot.

The Mansart Hotel is on rue des Capucines immediately behind the somewhat better-known Ritz. It is elegant and comfortable, although I found the small lobby peculiar. It was eclectically furnished in the period style of French architect Jules Hadouin-Mansart (1646-1708), while the walls were painted with bright, modernistic overhead views of French formal gardens.

Some of the Mansart's rooms - including ours - face the Place Vendome where it meets the rue de la Paix. The rate was less than $200 a night for a double room with shower, bath and toilet, excellent for a Paris hotel so well located and furnished.

The staff, who constantly reminded me to give their regards to "Monsieur Melnique," spoke English. Practically all of Paris was within walking distance, starting with the ATM machine two doors from the hotel entrance where our hometown bank debit cards brought us French francs at that day's rates.

From the hotel, it was an easy walk to the opulent Place Vendome or to the nearby Opera or Madeleine Metro stations. Along the way were a wide choice of cafes to fill our need for coffee and croissants - not to mention Fauchon on Place de la Madeleine, which sells the finest gourmet foods not only over its many counters but at tables as well. (Go downstairs to the cafeteria; it's still pricey, but cheaper than elsewhere in the Fauchon complex.)

Melnick's guide has little to say about the traditional tourist attractions, as that can be found elsewhere. Instead, he guides people to lesser-known places such as the Musee Marmottan: "Beautiful museum in old restored house with many original Monets. Head downstairs to see them - if you like Monet, you'll love this place. 2 rue Louis-Boilly; Metro: La Muette."

But it was the restaurants that most interested us, and Melnick excelled there.

On our first night - with reservations made through our hotel via e-mail before we left the United States, we went to the Cote Seine. Melnick called this Left Bank spot his "absolute, no-holds barred A1 restaurant in all of France. . . . It's a perfect combination of food quality, presentation, French ambiance, service, friendliness, value - a lovely place, always enjoyable."

Of the three restaurants we tried on this trip, the Cote Seine indeed was best. Serge, one of the owners, greeted us at the door. Knowing we had been sent by "Monsieur Melnique," he showed us Fred's photo in front and visited with us several times during the meal.

Both our waiter and Serge spoke English and helped us with our menu. After our delightful fixed-price meal - snails in garlic and butter, roast veal and duck a l'orange, topped off with a chocolate-smothered dessert called Fantasie Cote Seine Meringue - we took Melnick's advice and walked 30 minutes back to our hotel.

The journey, romantically illuminated by a splendid sunset, took us across the Pont des Arts over the Seine - where we paused for a few minutes to watch the gaily lighted Bateaux Mouches cruise beneath our feet - through the courtyard of the Louvre, through the Tuileries Gardens and back to the Place Vendome and our hotel.

For our second night, Melnick recommended dinner at Les Bouchons de Francois Clerc, a seemingly tiny restaurant on the narrow, blocklong rue de l'Hotel Colbert, also on the Left Bank. It wasn't that tiny when you discovered there were two floors to the place.

In this restaurant, we also were greeted by an English-speaking waiter - originally from Lebanon - and an English menu was placed in front of us, merci beaucoup. The meal again was superb (lamb for me, fish for her; of course with all the sauces and garnishments) and unusual in that the waiter insisted we order our dessert at the beginning, as all the desserts were made to order. It was worth the advance order; gobs of chocolate and whipped cream for her, a peach cobbler with amaretto caramel for me. Up the cholesterol!

Afterward, the maitre d' introduced himself to us and spoke of "Monsieur Melnique."

Our guide's third chosen restaurant was La Sourdiere, just a few blocks from our hotel on a street of the same name just off rue St. Honore, and the tiniest of the three. This menu was in French, but the host explained it to us in English.

We dined on lamb and entrecote of beef, and imbibed unknown house wines. I finished off the meal with an apricot tart as pungent as anything I've ever had, while my wife continued her splurge of fanciful ice cream, chocolate and whipped cream.

For lunch the next day, just prior to taking the Chunnel train back to London, Melnick sent us to the Brasserie d'Ile St. Louis on the Seine island of the same name for a meal of cassoulet and Reisling wine. We'd never before eaten cassoulet, a bean-laden stew somewhat similar to a vintage Jewish dish called "cholent" but with sausage, and enjoyed it immensely. It filled us enough to weather the three-hour train ride and then some.

Melnick's Guide to Paris, in addition to food and lodging, is filled with other valuable tips and ideas.

For example:

- "You can use the toilet in any brasserie, cafe or department store, but always have a bunch of one-franc coins to put in the lock on the door or to pay the `guardian' of the toilets. Hey, you're getting a secure, clean restroom. It's certainly worth the quarter." (Some require 2 francs.)

- "No. 1 is the thumb, not the index finger. Make a fist, stick up the thumb, that's 1. To indicate you want two of something, make a fist and stretch out the thumb and index finger. And so on." (If you use just the index finger, you may get two of what you're asking for; the thumb is understood.)

- "The waiter will almost never bring you the check: `l'addition' (lah-dees-yohn), until you ask for it. In France the table is yours for as long as you want it (by law)."

Melnick says he began his guide about five years ago when several friends and patients asked him to write down useful information about his trips to France and Paris. "Then people started calling me who I didn't even know. . . . It just got bigger and bigger. I thought it would be a kick to go on AOL with it and help people out."

And now that I have much less fear of Paris restaurants, I no longer will need to seek out the Burger King at the foot of Montmartre.