Chapter 1: The Rested Back
I open my eyes slowly, blinking the new morning in after what feels like an endless night of sleep. Above my head, against the ceiling, there is fastened the photo of the Porte Guillaume being viewed by a faceless creature; the photo is bordered with a frilly black frame. My back feels good, surprisingly, considering the stiffness of our bed at home and my body having since gotten used to harder mattresses. The Vertigo Hotel’s mattress feels like an unbroken pad of memory foam; a hard-working memory at that, for how many bodies it has had to learn in its lifetime.
We get ready for the day, trying the all-natural toiletries provided by the hotel: contrasting flavors like lemon zest shampoo with hibiscus flower body wash. I love trying out new soaps in hotels; it feeds my unquenchable obsession with someday discovering my perfect skincare routine, one sample at a time. BBC news, a channel I’ve never watched before, streams from the tv; I look over to it every once in a while as I put on my makeup, thinking to myself how small the world must truly be, that it took traveling to an old city in Burgundy, France, for me to watch a British news channel for the first time in my life.
We leave our room; the bright morning sun shines through a “V”-shaped window in the roof of the elevator shaft, which is also visible through the glass ceiling of our elevator as we ride it down to the lobby.
Out the door, and traveling up the hill, we find an as-yet untravelled path of brass owl markers on the walking trail. This leads us down a thin side road, where C and I find a hidden cafe, “The Biscuiterie”, just as we both mention to one another that we’re hungry. I save the second of only two available tables outside while C goes in to get our coffee and a pastry; The other table is occupied by a young German couple around our age, engaged in small talk (from what I guess).
C reappears outside with a black double espresso for me, and a cappuccino for himself. We sit in contemplative silence, watching the very few that pass through this minute sidestreet: an old man on his morning stroll, a tiny truck with a produce shipment headed to one of the nearby restaurants (perhaps the one we’ll be visiting in a few hours), or a university student on his bike, listening to his earbuds.
A few minutes pass before we’re served a rustic whole wheat croissant for C, and a few small slices of their homemade banana bread for myself. The bread is slightly chilled, but with the perfect balance of moistness and density, so that it holds its shape while still melting on my tongue. I appreciate its lack of sweetness; a European preference that I have now come to share.
After breakfast, we continue along the brass pathway, returning to the same area where we were for dinner at DZ’Envies the night before. I find it extremely charming that on the same small walking road, there stands a historic fromagerie (cheese shop), boulangerie (bakery), and cave à vins (wine shop) standing all in one row, one after the other. At the end of this quaint stretch, we are face to face with a large covered market, the Halles de Dijon.
Chapter 2: The First Ones At So
The market, for all its history and convenience, is practically deserted when we enter at 10am on a Thursday morning. As we pass through the open doors, we see unmanned stands, lights darkened, and a bar area full of life in winter, but right now, a stagnant pond. Some purveyors may sell on the weekends only, or are off for the summer. Other than the glass-paned outer shell of the market, which dates back to the late 1800’s; the teal trimmings and sconces that remind me of an old carousel; and the chittering locals, some old ladies buying groceries for the weekend a day early; there is not so much action in the Halles today. We exit the other end of the structure and continue on with our markers.
At the edge of the old city is a much younger, more modern district that is in full swing as we pass. Cafes, boutiques, and pastry shop windows with meringues the size of your head throw a few more colors onto my paint-by-numbers impression of this city.
Amongst neighbors a fraction of its age, we find the Ministere de Justice, a building that stops us both in our tracks; with a detailed renaissance façade over 500 years old and still continuing strong. It is also still emblazoned with the seal of King Francis 1; it serves as the location of the Court of Appeals.
Across the street from the back door of the Ministere de Justice is Restaurant So, the heartsong of Japanese chef So Takahashi. Featured in the Michelin Guide, I discovered online that it has a three-course lunch menu with the same price as a trip to the sushi counter at Globus—around 30 Euros. Learning this, as well as reading the list of renowned restaurants Takahashi has worked in, I dropped everything and called to make a reservation; which was thankfully for noon on a weekday at the height of off-season.
The doors and windows are all wide open as we approach, in full view of the stone warriors guarding the roof of the Ministere. A chalkboard sign is outside on the sidewalk, listing today’s menu, ingredients for which were gathered fresh from the local market.
The sign reads, simply:
Salad of green beans, apricots, and fresh goat cheese
Fish of the day, green vegetables, fennel salad, fish stock
Vanilla panna cotta, apricot
As understated as it sounds, the sentiment of “show, don’t tell” would be an apt mantra in describing So. My first course, a salad of green beans, apricot and goat cheese (as advertised), tastes as if I had lovingly grown each ingredient all spring in my own garden, plucked them from their tree or bush, and made the salad at home in my own kitchen. The quantity, flavor, and overall attention to detail are nurtured with the hand of an artist truly embodying the technical precision found in both French and Japanese cuisine; however, So also shines where other chefs may not: the respect he shows to the customer, to any customer, through his food is humbling.
The next course is no different in tone, but is yet another unexpected expression of originality. The fish of the day, a white river fish, is basted in a light foam of frothy crab stock, as if hovering in the bubbles just underneath the surface of a seaside lagoon. The crunchy strands of fennel are shaved so finely; they remind me of a pile of fresh ginger on top of the fish, without its robust flavor to overwhelm the delicate sauce. Just four main ingredients occupy the plate. Each dish, even down to the panna cotta, with its fresh mashed apricots currently in peak season, is a labor of love, pure and simple. Every last scrap of every plate set before me is cleaned; I use a piece of whole wheat french country bread to sop everything up, drinking glass after glass of smooth, ice cold, Japanese green tea.
Chapter 3: A Mystery Solved
In the center of town just a short walk away from Restaurant So, stands Dijon’s Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts). It is housed in the Ducal Palace, which casts boatloads of natural light from its hundreds of windows onto the timeless and innumerable articles of human history, many of which have been recently restored for public viewing. As we approach the welcome desk, C with his wallet in his hand, the clerk smiles and hands us a receipt, before waving us on. Puzzled, C asks how much the admission costs. “Free” is the reply.
The halls of the palace are an attraction in and of themselves; even if the rooms were completely empty, there would still be the marble columns, the fresco ceilings, and the waxed alabaster floors. On the grand staircase, the very first thing one sees upon entering the museum in earnest, there is perhaps my favorite piece in the entire collection. A regal marble statue with no placard I could find, of a decorated military official from the times when Dukes lorded over this palace. He stands, sword at his side, on the plateau between flights, the light reflecting off of the floor and casting life into his marble eyes; his hands press into the fabric of his cape, suspending the reality between a man preserved in stone, and the master artist who wields it. Inside another annex, we find busts, each lit by their own spotlight, and each from their own eras in time. Kings, judges, figures of social standing and influencers of their day; all exude beauty, tranquility, but with a hidden mystery known only to themselves and those that portrayed them: pain, worry, regality, pomposity, longing.
Behind glass, there are worn away sheets of metal, restored to a brilliant sheen, that are nearly 2000 years old. They depict Christ, bishops and clerics, and those that suffered on their behalf in times of trial and persecution. I am struck by how dense the collection is; there are also two gold-plated altar pieces behind velvet ropes in one hallway, meticulously molded down to the last flourish: on one, there is the birth of the world, and its original sins by the actions of Adam and Eve, countered with the birth of Christ surrounded by rejoicing angels all around him. On the other, Jesus’s death, and the sorrow of the saints, hands covering eyes; arms outstretched, crying out to the skies in woe. It takes a dense, gorgeous museum in a large city that is not Paris or Berlin or New York to remind one how great the expanse of our species over time has been, and how rife with artistic expression is each passing millennia. All of it, equally, is worth preserving.
We leave the museum in mid-afternoon, leisurely strolling through the lightly populated streets, popping in and out of certain stores to browse and shop. Back through the archway, we walk straight ahead to Darcy Garden, the first public park in Dijon. At the gates of the park, there is a large brass landmark marker with a low number, signifying that it is one of the first spots on the city trail.
We pass through the gates, climbing cascading stairs to arrive at the ornate fountain, which was designed by and dedicated to the hydraulic engineer Henri Darcy, who used his talents to bring fresh, clean water to the city of Dijon. Darcy’s Law is still in effect to this day.
Having finished our short visit to the park and having admired the fountain, we turn back to the gates, first passing the famous Pompon polar bear sculpture, which was designed by the modern French artist François Pompon. The statue overlooks the archway in the near distance through the iron gate, and I stop in my tracks, squeezing C’s hand.
“Oh, whoa,” I say, catching him by surprise.
“What? What is it?”
It’s the animal from our hotel room photo. The one above our bed. I circle the statue to the right side and make a frame with my fingers.
Chapter 4: Two Slices
We have some time to kill before dinner and after sightseeing, so C suggests we grab some tea at the historic tea room, le Maison Millière, a timbered, gothic-style building, which dates back to the 1400s.
Seated on their back patio in the warm shade, we are amongst other locals, including a women’s knitting group and the daughter of one of the attendees, an extremely bored-looking teenager. Every once in a while, the large woman to her right, seemingly the leader of the knitting club, asks a cheery question to the teenager, who responds with only a few despondent words as she looks at her hands, apparently undergoing some sort of punishment, or just not allowed to use her phone in the presence of the yarn. It was actually nice to see, save for the suffering of the teen; the scene reminds me of my own youth at a family function, my mom playing a card game with her sisters that I didn’t know how to play, and I had nothing better to do than to sit and look at my hands or trace the wood grain of the table with my finger. I realize that this is what a summer afternoon should feel like: a boring afternoon with nothing to do.
I order a house concoction called the “angel’s blend”, which is comprised of light, floral white teas and contains just a hint of natural sweetness. From all of our walking, C and I feel slightly hungry, and we ask the waitress if the kitchen has anything at such an odd hour. She replies yes, they have a homemade raspberry tarte, but that it hasn’t set up yet and could potentially be a little runny. We don’t care.
The teas arrive, along with an oozing slice of tarte, brimming with raspberries and speckled with small shards of vibrant, fresh basil from the overflowing patio garden planted beside our table. The crust is flaky and perfect, and the custard is fresh and tart. The basil adds a zing, complimenting the slight sweetness of the cream. It is the essence of simple, traditional French home cooking, perfected. The slice has vanished not two minutes after it is placed on our wrought iron table, and C and I look at each other. When she comes to check on us ten minutes later, we order another slice.
Our final goals of the trip, before our last dinner, is to procure the few souvenirs (other than the mustard) that I wish to bring back with us to Lausanne. For the first, we visit Mulot et Petitjean, one of the top producers of another of Dijon’s most famous creations: gingerbread. We buy a small loaf, but only after the squishy brick leaps out of my hand, bouncing across the floor a few times (inside its plastic packaging) like a rogue football. Crimson, I pay in cash and hurry out of the store. C remains silent, following behind me.
We visit the grand Ducal Square one final time, entering into a medieval French shop, timber bracing married to chalky stone, and browse the casks and shelves for the quintessential spirit of the original Kir Royale: crème de cassis. We buy a small bottle with “Dijon” on the label, and make our way back to the hotel to change.
Chapter 5: La Maison des Cariatides
Night is falling, the shadows of the old city are creeping up the walls. We pass historic homes in the city center, obscured by twisted gates or thick privacy barriers made of concrete or stone. One of the gates we pass is open, revealing a pebbled courtyard; a black Ferrari is parked facing the street, as if waiting to be set free. Some of these homes, despite undergoing numerous renovations, have lasted for as long as Dijon has been standing. They are remnants of royalty, power, great wealth and influence.
At 8pm, we arrive for our dinner reservations at Maison des Cariatides, a medieval home built in 1603 by the architect of the wealthy Pouffier family, who were merchants. The interior, while still retaining a sense of warmth and coziness that would evoke a residence, has since become a fine dining restaurant. As the front door creaks open, we are greeted by the all-female staff working in an open kitchen, directly visible to the dining room; and symbolically and fittingly, a final brass marker inscribed with a tiny cartoon owl is embedded into the wood floor just before the carpeting begins; it is the last marker we have yet to find.
As we take our seats, our sommelier/waitress approaches our table, explaining the wines for the evening as well as offering us the by-the-glass menu, which is written in white on the side of an empty, labelless red wine bottle.
As we look over the menu, a warm, savory choux pastry with thick, crispy skin and a pillowy light, cheesy interior arrives at our table. I could have eaten five. I make a mental note to try and find a bakery in Lausanne who makes them. After we finish our amuse bouche, the waitress returns to collect our plates and take down our orders.
My first course is a beetroot soup, a flamboyant shade of magenta, topped with a beaten fresh cream and sprinkled with a pumpkin seed pesto. This all serves as the swimming pool for a magical-looking piece of burnt (on purpose) wild salmon. Somehow, the burnt fish’s interior has been so delicately cooked, I can still enjoy the sinewy structure of the meat, tracing the tight spiral on its side; and it comes apart little by little, rather than in one amalgamous clump. The wine I drink along with it is called “Vini Viti Vici, Cotes d’Auxerre”. It is 100% Burgundian chardonnay, and pairs with dainty finesse along with my soup and fresh cream.
My second, main course is a seared duck loin with a dijon mustard seed glaze, cassis berries and apple. It’s a brilliant end to a lovely stay in a new city, offering me the last word on its embarrassment of culinary exports in the form of a sumptuous, melt-in-your-mouth dish. It is served alongside a small bowl of the lightest, silkiest mashed potatoes I’ve ever eaten. My main dish’s oenological counterpart is a Cotes de Jura pinot noir, a red grape known for its fruity characteristics, which enhances the punch packed by the cassis.
Finally, it is time to pick a dessert. I am confused by one of the items on the menu, and ask our waitress. It has chocolate in it, which has me automatically intrigued.
“It tastes like…” she thinks, pinching her chin with her thumb and pointer finger, “…like a frozen Snickers bar.”
Out comes a cube of homemade soft serve ice cream with the faint taste of nougat, topped with roasted peanuts, and a decadent chocolate sauce draped over it like a blanket. To pair, the somm suggests a glass of Brumaire dessert wine, made from botrytized grapes (called “noble rot”, a prized culture that grows on grapes left to over-ripen on their vines), that adds, what else, but a yummy caramel drizzle to my Snickers bar.
With the bill, there comes a little homemade marshmallow made with crème de cassis. I look at C, who is just as mystified as I am by the amazing meal.
“How did you find everything?” Asks our waitress, already knowing from our expressions that the answer will definitely be positive.
In my usual flowery fashion, I respond with: “It was like magic.”
The woman’s eyebrows raise, and she goes to tell the staff, who are on a break, backs leaned against the stainless steel prep counters.
The chef looks over to our table. She gives a slight smile, and nods, pleased.