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Archive for October, 2006

Jon and I went to the London Wine Show yesterday. Despite the steep admission price (£17.50 per person), we couldn’t stay away. Even though we’re not wine experts by any stretch of the imagination, the event takes place at a convention center around the corner from our flat, the Business Design Centre (such a unique and inspiring name), so it seemed lame not to go.

London Wine ShowLast year, Jon and I went to the first London Wine Show, ever, and we enjoyed having the chance to meet owners of small, family-run vineyards (from France, mostly). But other than talking to and tasting the wines of these small producers, the wine show last year was mostly a big corporate extravaganza – hundreds of square feet of space taken up by Odd Bins (the dominant wine store chain in the UK), Jacob’s Creek, Fetzer, etc.

This year, Odd Bins et al. were still out in full force, joined by something entertaining called the “French Wines Experience,” and the small family-run producers seemed fewer in number than last year. On the upside, there were a lot more wine tastings and presentations from food and wine personalities. Check out my photo with Oz Clarke! (Total sidenote – when I looked up Oz Clarke on wikipedia thinking the blurb would be a helpful link, I learned that he played “Hood No. 4″ in the original Photo with Oz Clarke1978 Superman movie. So apparently if Hollywood doesn’t work out, you can find a successful second career as a respected wine critic).

As for the “French Wines Experience,” you may wonder why the French feel they need to make the marketing effort, but there’s an increasing amount of press these days about the Brit and American preference for New World wines. The “Experience” was a series of rooms representing different situations when you might drink French wines (e.g., dinner parties, celebrations, quiet night in), and as you walked from room to room, sales reps would offer you tastings of French wines selling for £10 or less a bottle.

Jon and I tried a few of the recommended “dinner party” wines and they were watery and not tasty at all. I mean, I don’t think these wines would hold their own against any dish bolder than a mac’n’cheese. But the whole experience was a very slick set-up, so good luck to the Frenchies. I’ll bet France never thought they’d have to worry about competition from Australia or South America.

Highlights of our afternoon at the wine show included a tasting of Australian wines led by Matt Skinner, who’s the ubiquitous Naked Chef‘s sommelier at Fifteen. I’d never heard of him before the tastin, so I guess it’s good publicity for him to be at this wine show. The tasting was an hour long and featured four Australian wines. I enjoyed the hour because the wines showed off grapes other than shiraz, and one of the vineyard owners was there to be interviewed by Matt Skinner. Our favorite of the four was, surprisingly, a chardonnay – by Evans & Tate, branded X&Y. Not exactly a small family-run deal, but nice to break out of the Australia = shiraz rut.

The other highlight was being talked into buying a couple bottles of a tasty 2000 brunello di montalcino by Podere Brizio. It was probably not the smartest purchase of the day, but we had such a fun time tasting different wines from Montalcino and chatting with the British guy who was “helping” his neighbor in Montalcino break into the UK wine market. We were 100% sucked in when we tasted the Podere Brizio brunello with hunks of tangy, salty, creamy pecorino. Perfect together. Of course we wheedled the name of the pecorino producer from the wine guy – Caseificio Sassetti. I know where we’re going on our next visit to Italy . . . the Sassetti “cheese factory.”

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Tonight, Jon and I made tacos at home. It’s impossible to find small corn tortillas here, but even when we have to use the 9” diameter El Paso flour tortillas, our food tastes a lot better than what we had this past Saturday at the Taqueria in Notting Hill (139-143 Westbourne Grove).

El Paso, by the way, is the dominant (often the only) brand for what few Tex-Mex ingredients you can find at the supermarket here. Think about how sad this fact is. And I’ll bet the only people buying this El Paso crap are Americans because I’ve yet to hear a Brit say “I’m really craving a fajita/taco.”

Anyway, to you folks back home, feel grateful for your dozens of salsa varieties and RickBayless-backed Frontera Grill goodies.The Taqueria opened about a year ago to great fanfare. Time Out, usually pretty much with the program on ethnic restaurants, raves about the Taqueria. So Jon and I checked it out about a year ago, and the tacos were pretty good, but small and expensive. An order of tacos there means you get two tacos and it costs you £6-8. (Anyone reading this last sentence who has been to Mexico to eat tacos should be particularly outraged.)

Well, this past Saturday, we were in Notting Hill for a goodbye drinks outing, and we ducked out of the party so we could get food in our stomachs (“eating is cheating,” as some of our Brit friends say, but I need dinner before downing the drinks).

The Taqueria was close by, so we decided to give it another try.  Looking back on our meal there, the only positive was David Cameron and wife and kidsour spotting David Cameron, eating at the Taqueria with his wife and another couple. I don’t follow British politics very closely, but I do know who David Cameron is, which should indicate his level of fame in the UK. He’s the leader of the Conservative Party, which is the “Opposition” right now, which you can think of as the minority party equivalent. His fave soundbite is to advocate for “compassionate conservatism.” Sound familiar?

All I can wonder is: did David Cameron get served better tacos than Jon and I did?

It was a really bad sign that our order of four different taco dishes arrived at our table less than 60 seconds after we’d ordered them. Nobody puts together that many fresh tacos in less than a minute . . . unless, of course, the tacos aren’t fresh and have just been sitting in an oven, drying out.

Eight different tacos we’d ordered, and not one of them tasted the slightest bit fresh. The corn tortillas were stale, oily and lukewarm. And the fillings were not much better – the chicken mole taco was drowning in a gloppy, sweet, chocolate-heavy mole; the fish taco could have been made of breaded-and-fried anything. And coming in at around £9 for the two tacos, the fish taco was also the biggest waste of money.

I generally manage to get on with my life despite the killer pound-dollar exchange rate, but take a moment to think about the good-enough fish tacos you buy even at a chain like Baja Fresh that come three for $7, and then think about our two sub-par fish tacos in London selling for $9 per taco.

So we ate what we could and thought about how much better the Green and Red in Shoreditch is. The carnitas tacos at the Green and Red could hold their own against the good stuff in, say, Oaxaca.

After paying our bill (£45 for tacos, dammit), we hurried over to the nearby Prince Bonaparte, where we rejoined our friends and drowned our sorrows. We ended the night at Harlem, whose decor didn’t seem very Dutch or above-105th-Street, so I’m not sure what the deal with the name was. But it was cozy and fun. A good recovery from our taco trauma of the evening.

Adios for now.

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Scallops at L’Astrance

Foodwise, my last day in Paris was a mix of high-end and low, though all delicious.  After all the rave reviews I’d read of Pascal Barbot’s Astrance restaurant (really, just try googling it), I kicked myself for not having made reservations in advance. The restaurant seats 26, total. Still, at 11 a.m. the day I wanted to eat there, I called to see if peut etre there were any open tables for lunch, and voila – there was an available reservation at 12:30.

I decided to try Astrance instead of Pierre “Mr. Seafood” Gagnaire’s Gaya because Pascal Barbot used to be the number two man to Alain Passard at Arpege, which was Jon and my first brush with 3-Michelin-star dining. Nostalgia always trumps, however loose the connection, you see.  So that’s where Cathy, Lauren and I headed for lunch.

We were seated upstairs in a small lofted area with two tables. This worked well for Lauren, who gets antsy (wouldn’t you if you were 18 months old and not planning to eat the food?) and was able to run around a little and toss crayon bits without bothering anyone.

Seating at L’Astrance

The room is all contempo gray with lemon-yellow leather banquettes and dining chairs providing splashes of color. I liked the clean look, though I see Cathy’s point about the style being a little cold.

Most of the other diners were men in suits. I wondered: were they at L’Astrance for business lunches? If so, that is a really freaking long business lunch. L’Astrance has two Michelin stars, which in my mind means multi-course and multi-hours. [Update: The 2007 Michelin guide has added a third star to L'Astrance.]

The first thing I noticed is that L’Astrance uses a host/guest system of menus. Cathy got the host menu, meaning her menu showed prices and mine didn’t. Not a huge deal, but I find this ritual archaic and pointless, and I figure there’s bound to be a mistake if you have, say, a woman who’s paying but who ends up with the guest menu.

It’s 70 euros for the regular lunch menu, and there are much pricier tasting menu options from there. Also be aware that you don’t get any details at all about what you’re going to eat, because everything is supposed to be a surprise at L’Astrance. So the menu is just a price list, telling you info like: “Lunch Menu: 70 euros.”

Cutting to the chow, below is what we ate, along with a few brief tasting notes. All credit to Cathy for the food photography:

  • Amuse-bouche: Espresso spoon serving a drop of parmesan gelee, accompanied by mini buttered brioches shaped like toast. The tiny drop of parmesan gelee was eggy, creamy and cheesy and packed a big punch.
  • Amuse-bouche: ‘Shotglass’ of creamed corn topped with a citrus foam. Using another small spoon, you scoop the creamed corn so it mixes with the citrus foam, creating a seemingly impossible dense-but-fluffy texture and sweet-and-sour flavor. The cleverest course, I thought, and where an El Bulli influence shone through the most.
  • First plate: Sea scallops with a hollandaise-type sauce and beets (see photo at top). The scallops were almost raw and deliciously sweet. The sauce and beets mixed to create bold colours and a creamy, citrus-y flavor that brought out more of the sweetness of the scallops. This course was my favorite of the meal. Citrus was a theme of the day.Trout at L’Astrance
  • Second plate: Sauteed lake trout served with porcini and a garlic-herb puree. The lake trout was cooked so that the meat was flaky and juicy; the porcini added more earthy meatiness; and the garlic-herb puree added a nice saltiness and flavor kick.

Veal at L’Astrance

  • Third plate: Veal and baby leeks with soy-based sauce and olive tapenade. The veal was so juicy and pink that I was sure I was eating pork because I usually encounter veal in its dark-colored form. The leeks and sauce added salt and savouriness to an otherwise simply-prepared cut of fresh, quality meat. The most Asian-influenced course of the meal, with the olive tapenade as a surprise twist.

Chili-and-Lemongrass sorbet at L’Astrance

  • Palate cleanser (photo above): Chilli and lemongrass sorbet. Spicy, yet cool and refreshing thanks to the sorbet and lemongrass. In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought of chilli as a refreshing ingredient, but it works.
    • Desserts:
      • Molasses mousse floating island in crème anglais – my least favorite part of lunch. The molasses was very sharp and acidic, and even though the sweet creaminess of the crème anglais should have balanced out the molasses, there was an aftertaste that made me feel as if I were suffocating from the oppressive smell of fake air freshener in a bad taxi. Molasses and me, not perfect together.
      • Chocolate mousse-type layers divided by ultra-thin layers of “cake,” served with peach marmelade. Delicious, but I need to find out what the thin layers of crunchiness were – they had the fine. slightly-gritty texture of ground coffee, but tasted chocolatey and nutty.
      • Mango sorbet vacherin. Apparently, vacherin is not only a cheese, but also it’s a meringue-ringed dessert like the one we had today. The mango sorbet was pure concentrated mango sweetness, and the meringue “skin” added a light crunch.

      Jasmine eggnog and petits fours

  • Petits fours: Jasmine-infused “eggnog” and assorted fruits and madeleines. I was surprised we were served fresh fruit at a fancy place like this, but everything was delicious (except the grapes, which were bruised and not fresh) and it was a perfect way to end a long, filling meal. The madeleines were forgettable, but the jasmine-infused eggnog was genius – a flowery scent brought down to earth by the sweetness of the egg and cream.

Overall, a very good lunch, and the fact that Lauren didn’t have a meltdown during the time it took to serve all those courses was icing on the cake.Eiffel Tower walk

After lunch, we walked along the Seine and crossed the bridge towards the Eiffel Tower. It was nice walking by the tower this way instead of making it a destination of the day. I felt like it was “just” another beautiful thing about Paris.

We rounded out the afternoon with some window shopping in St. Germain-des-Pres. (I’m sure Sartre shopped all the time at the Bon Marche.)You’d think that after a big lunch, we wouldn’t eat the rest of the day, but it turns out that Cathy is a pho fanatic. So for dinner, we ended up back in “Chinatown,” which I put in quotes because the area should really be called Vietnam-town. Not as catchy, I guess.

Pho 14, Paris

We ended up at Pho Banh Cuon 14, 129, avenue de Choisy, 01 45 83 61 15 (M: Tolbiac). It’s impossible to miss this place, because it’s lit up in neon lights and is surrounded by crowds of people waiting around to get in for some slurping of soup.

Beef pho at Pho 14

I ordered the “raw beef” pho, which included rice noodles just past al dente, a rich, meaty broth, and paper-thin slices of uncooked beef that the broth cooks to perfection while you eat. Chili peppers, crunchy bean sprouts and sawtooth herbs are served separately so you can keep the crunch by adding them to your soup at the rate that you want.Cathy also introduced me to the joys of the “Vietnamese ravioli,” which was delicious. The ravioli skin is thin rice noodle paper (like the kind you wrap summer rolls in), and the filling is minced pork and shitake mushrooms, I think.

The first server we had was not a happy camper and kept mumbling angrily to himself whenever we asked if we could order. Est-ce qu’il y a un probleme? It turned out he was mad that we’d taken an extra stool to put our bags and coats on, so we returned the stool, ate with our coats and bags on our lap, and ended up with a marginally-friendlier waiter.

This place is 100% dive, but the food is good and cheap, as you’d expect at a quality dive. So join the crowds and check it out when next you’re in Paris.

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Pierre Herme macaroons

Taking a break from the pattern of long French meals yesterday, Cathy and I enjoyed a day of eating little “snacks” of things like macaroons, falafel and banh mi.Cathy dropped by Pierre Herme yesterday to pick up a 100g box of assorted macaroons – a box which included salt caramel, chocolate-and-passionfruit, olive-oil-and-vanilla, and my usual favorite, pistachio. Sadly, there was none of the usual fabulousness (aka Pierre Herme’s rose-and-lychee flavored macaroon, the ispahan), but I guess we all have our crosses to bear.

Of course we had macaroons in the morning: meringue and butter-based filling – the breakfast of champions.We spent yesterday afternoon at the Louvre – I lurve the Louvre. The main pyramid entrance is so spectacular – just to stare at the perfect symmetry of the I.M. Pei pyramids and of the grand Renaissance buildings is to see a work of art.I did have to laugh out loud when I was waiting on line to pay 5 euros for what you must now specify is the “regular” audiotour, because what’s heavily advertised at the Louvre now is the 10-euro “DaVinci Code in the Louvre” audiotour. The French failed to resist American commercial opps yet again.Winged Victory

Despite our goal of trying to see galleries we’d never visited before, we still ended up passing all the “big” attractions like the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Venus de Milo. So I can only conclude that the Louvre has placed these items at such key traffic points that even if you’re not trying to find them, it’s impossible to “skip” them and their attendant crowds.The Winged Victory, to be fair, is a pretty majestic statue. How interesting that something missing a body part as expressively important as the head can still convey so much power. I guess good posture is key. Personally, I love the folds of her clothing – they’re so sexy and dramatic, and I am amazed at how sculptors conveyed wet sheerness in stone.Napoleon 3 apartments

I enjoyed the Napoleon III apartments because I get to think about how someone could believe he should live in a place so covered in gold and big “N” symbols. The decor is blinding and blatant. Where does a person get an ego like that? (Clearly I love making these comments because then I can convince myself that I’m such a down-to-earth person). Did Napoleon III do much besides be born a relation to the “original” Napoleon?

At around 4 p.m., we were starving, so we hopped on an east-bound bus to the Marais, where of course we had the delicious falafels served at the famous L’As du Falafel, 34, rue des Rosiers. Large, crunchy-on-the-outside, Falafelmealy-on-the-inside falafels served on a hot pita with all the trimmings (fried eggplant, cucumbers, red and white cabbage and tahini galore) – what’s not to enjoy?

Because it was too early for dinner and too late for lunch, we were thrilled to find the restaurant uncrowded. It gave us time and sightline enough to take in the full camp decor of the place and view the celebrity photos on the walls. There’s one photo of Netanyahu in a leather jacket and jeans, taken at the restaurant. I mean, if the guy visited Paris Me at L’As du Falafelfrom Israel and decided to have a falafel (which are everywhere in Israel) instead of at a million other restaurants in Paris, there’s got to be something legit about the place.

We did some window shopping, and then, despite still feeling full from our L’As du Falafel run, we couldn’t resist the gelato at Amorino on rue Vieille du Temple, so I tried un petit stracciatelle for 3 euros that was so-so. The gelato was kind of watery (i.e., the texture wasn’t thick and fluffy enough), but Cathy loved her banana gelato, so who knows.

Just a few hours after the Amorino snack, Cathy and I ate the banh mi that she’d picked up yesterday at Khai Tri on rue de Tolbiac. I’m sorry I missed her run for the sandwiches because apparently, Khai Tri is a Vietnamese bookstore that happens also to sell banh mi. You can see the obvious connection between books and sub sandwiches.The banh mi were delicious – sweet, spicy meats, refreshing and crunchy slightly-pickled carrots, cucumbers and red hot chili peppers served on a cripsy baguette.

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Le Comptoir exterior

This morning, Cathy, Lauren and I visited the Tuesday market at Place Maubert Mutualite.Kitchen at 60 rue des EcolesThe market was so-so. There was a mix of fresh produce (which of course you don’t get to pick out yourself), weird schlocky jewelry and clothing stands, and then gross tourist stuff (aka polyster tablecloths in “Provencal” colors).

The produce was fresh, though, so I picked up a few girolles (chanterelles) and cepes (fresh porcini) at 15 euros/kg, thinking I could whip up a meal tonight and make use of the apartment’s pretty nice kitchen (see photo at left).

I had lunch by myself today at Le Comptoir du Relais, 5, Carrefour de l’Odeon (01.44.27.07.97), much-reviewed by Chocolate & Zucchini, the New York Times and Chez Pim, among others. It was a five-minute walk down the Rue d’Ecole de Medicine from our flat, so I figured if it turned out to be impossible to get a table, it wasn’t a huge loss of my time.

The restaurant exterior is modern-day bistrot – large awning and small round sidewalk tables and cane chairs. The interior is surprisingly tiny – there are probably no more than ten tables inside.

Just as I arrived, a couple had gotten up from an outdoor table, so that’s where I plonked myself down. I was sitting snugly between a couple who’d brought their baby asleep in a pram and a white-haired couple who spoke Spanish to each other. I was, of course, excited to see what my neighbors were eating, and everything on their plates looked delicious.

The couple with the baby had ordered braised pork shoulder, which looked particularly hearty and tasty (I love that thick layer of fat and skin after a long braise), but I decided to order the crème lentilles soup as a starter, and it sounded heavy duty enough that I decided to go with a “lighter” main course of seared tuna (served bleue).

The soup was indeed very rich, with creme fraiche and slices of foie gras that managed to stay intact long enough for me to fish them out with spoonfuls of meaty lentils and chewy tapioca pearls. The soup alone made a filling and savoury mealcreme lentilles soup.There was a mix-up with my main course, and at first I was served the braised pork shoulder that I’d been admiring at my neighbor’s table. I briefly considered keeping the pork, but having already filled up on (effectively) foie gras soup, I decided to get the waitress’s attention (a challenge because she was the only waitress in the place) and make the correction back to my seared tuna.

The tuna was rare in the center and flavorful, but the roasted vegetables with tapenade sitting on top of the tuna had seen better days. It all tasted good, but I think during the mix-up, my dish was sitting on a warming plate somewhere, so the asparagus and the snow peas had started to wrinkle.

I’d go back – at the very least to check out the desserts or maybe that braised pork shoulder dish. The total for my soup and main course was 30 euros.

I had grand plans to wander around obscure galleries at the Louvre, but of course Louvre Courtyardthe museum is closed on Tuesdays. (I was wondering why the Louvre courtyard looked so empty – I had figured it was 3:30 p.m. and maybe all the tourists had already come and gone in the morning).  No big deal, though, as I still have three more days in Paris to satisfy my need for aimless walking in a big art museum.

I enjoyed watching this (specially-designed, I assume) robot climbing the glass surface of the pyramids to do some cleaning. Pyramid cleaning robotIt’s like a motorized squeegee with rubber suction feet, maybe? I have no idea how it crawls around on the glass so smoothly, but it’s fun to watch.

I walked across the Tuileries again thinking I would, definitely today, see this newly-opened Orangerie museum. Despite the sign claiming that it’s open every day (ouvert tous les jours), the museum was closed! I was baffled, but oh well. I’ll chalk this sort of unreliability up to the handy scapegoat adjective of “Frenchness,” I guess.

Having made a solid effort at cultural activities today, I hopped on a bus running down the Blvd. Saint Germain Bon Marche interiorand spent a few hours marvelling at the goods for sale at the Bon Marche, rumored to be the first department store in the world and still going strong. The name in French means “good deal,” which could be true, I guess, if you think that the French Neiman Marcus is where you should go for good deals.

On the housewares floor, I was glad to see that you can buy sugar cubes that come in the shape of little ducks. I imagined watching little sugar ducks swim around in your coffee or tea, slowly dissolving away. In general, I wish I could disdain these sorts of overpriced bits of silliness, but sometimes the silliness is better described as happiness-inducing charm.

Next door to the Bon Marche (and connected via a skywalk) is the department store’s ginormous gourmet food hall, known as La Grande Epicerie. I didn’t get to spend much time there before heading back to the flat, but I was pleased to pick up some skimmed milk, which has proven hard to Le Grand Epiceriefind in Paris. If it’s edible, you’ll find it a la Grande Epicerie – a comforting thought.

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It was a gorgeous day today in Paris. Sunny, high in the low 70s. Perfect for walking around.This morning, like yesterday morning, I went for a two-lap run along the perimeter of the Luxembourg Gardens nearby. I loved feeling the bright late-autumn sunshine as I ran past the Luxembourg Palace and watched all the kids playing with their toy sailboats in the fountain. Thanks to From Paris to the Moon, seeing the Luxembourg Gardens makes me think of Adam Gopnik and his son, toodling around. It’s a charming, oh-so-Parisian kind of image, I think.Chez Catherine exterior

The highlight of today was our lunch at Chez Catherine, 3, rue Berryer, which is on a small side street that connects the Avenue de Friedland and Rue de Faubourg St. Honore.

The restaurant is sleek, but in warm colors of red and dark orange. I felt like I was at Craft Restaurant in New York. The décor is a far cry from the traditional lace-curtained-bistrot look that I remember from when Jon and I dropped by (in 2001) Chez Catherine’s old location near the Galeries Lafayette department store.

There are three smallish dining rooms. The second dining room you encounter while walking from the front of the restaurant to the back has views of the busy kitchen through a very trendy glass wall. If you go, try to sit in this second room. (We ended up in the third room, farthest back).

Despite appearing to be a magnet for suited business lunchers, the restaurant was extremely accommodating of 18-month-old Lauren. The maitre d’ set up set up a chair with an extra-high cushion for Lauren, and then the waiters gladly hurried up a plate of risotto and spinach that we custom-ordered pour la bebe (and didn’t charge us for it). Lauren and me at Chez CatherineIt was also a tasty lunch – certainly for me, anyway. The rolls were hot with a yeasty crust and airy interior, so I couldn’t resist munching away on two or three of them, even though I wasn’t very hungry and had a two-course lunch ahead of me. Maybe I can partly blame my lack of willpower on the creamy, cheese-like butter that went so well with the rolls.I started with zucchini flower beignets served with a concentrated tomato-and-red-pepper spread, which were light and crispy and managed to preserve the flavor of zucchini. I love when something this delicate stays intact with all this dipping and frying going on.

And my duck with fig sauce was rare and salted the way I love, but balanced by the thick sweetness of the fig sauce and accompanying roast figs. The crispy, salty double-fried frites weren’t a shabby addition, either, and a refreshing glass of a 2005 Domaine des Entrefaux Crozes-Hermitage completed the goodness of my meal.Cathy’s fricassee de girolles (mushrooms) were tasty, but more a testament to the high-quality raw ingredients than anything else, and then her noix de Saint-Jacques d’Erquy (scallops) could’ve been great, but came with a passion fruit sauce that neither of us enjoyed very much. The sauce added sourness that masked (insead of highlighted?) the sweetness of the scallops.The lunch prix fixe was 42 euros for two courses, and the girolles and scallops carried supplement charges.

Our total for two was about 110 euros. I thought the meal was worth every penny, though Cathy agreed on the basis of the attentive, thoughtful service, rather than on the food.  Overall, it was a delicious lunch, but I guess there is very little about it that was uniquely “French.” Once you get into a certain level of gourmet restaurant, your points of comparison are global, rather than country-specific. So in a lot of ways, our lunch at Chez Catherine might as well have been at, well, Craft Restaurant.

We walked off our lunch by heading southeast along the Rue de Faubourg St. Honore, lined with fancy shops – including a branch of Dalloyau, the Dalloyau cakes in the windowfancy pastry-deli-shop. For no articulable reason, I am guessing Dalloyau’s goodies look better than they taste, but the cakes certainly look beautiful.  As we got closer to the Place de la Concorde, we noticed a whole lot of uniformed officers directing street traffic, which I thought was funny. For example, in front of the Place Beauvau (Beauvau Square), there must have been five officers at a four-way intersection. Cathy pointed out that someone important must live in the gated entrance opening out onto the square, so I asked one of the officers, and she confirmed that the Minister of the Interior lives and works in the large palace beyond the gate.

Just a few steps further, we passed an even larger gated entrance – this time to the Elysee Palace, where the President lives and works. I thought it was funny that even after so many visits to Paris, not once have I thought to see the Elysee Palace. It’s like going to DC and not seeing the White House, perhaps. Or maybe this is a commentary on how many other attractions there are in Paris when compared to DC. OK, a more loyal thought is to say that nobody cares anymore about Paris’s political power!

After browsing an enormous Tod’s store just past the Elysee Palace, Cathy took Lauren home for a nap, and I sat Primo Seating in Tuileries Gardensin the Tuilerie Gardens by myself for a few hours, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I grabbed a prime seat by the big octagon fountain and had a straight-ahead view of the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde and of the Arc de Triomphe further afield. The minute I stood up, a hovering guy swooped in on my seat – that’s how prime it was.

I was going to go to check out the Orangerie museum (newly reopened with snazzy Monet paintings), but I had to get home so that Cathy and I could take Lauren out for some quality Vietnamese food in Paris’s “Chinatown,” which is in the 13th arrondissement, near the Place d’Italie.

We hopped on the 27 bus and forty minutes later, we were sad to discover that our destination (the Chez Pim-recommended Le Bambou) is closed on Mondays, so we settled on the restaurant around the corner – Le Vieux Saigon, 104 avenue d’Ivry. It had a promising divey look, but the food was so-so. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Cathy’s pho, my vermicelli and pork, and cha gio totalled 20 euros. At least it was cheap.

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Notre Dame at nightJon and I are in Paris right now. He’s used up more of his 25 vacation days than I have, so I (and my friend Cathy) rented an apartment in Paris for the week in order for me to “catch up,” and Jon decided to come along for 24 hours (he has to go back to London tonight to go to work tomorrow).

The apartment we rented is in a great location – on the Rue des Ecoles and less than a 10-minute walk to Notre Dame. We rented this place from the same people we used when we rented in Provence, and so we’re not surprised the apartment is bright, large, stylish and clean.

We arrived yesterday at Gare du Nord at 5:30ish, and I loved how we just stepped off the train in Paris, bought tickets for the metro, and were at the Rue des Ecoles by 6. (Ahh, there’s so much to love about the Eurostar).

When we arrived at the apartment, Cathy was already here, and the three of us went out to buy groceries. We stopped at a friendly cheese store on our way to the supermarket – Christian Le Lann Fromager Affineur (La Ferme des Arenes), 60, Rue Monge – as well as a wine store called (strangely) Ex Cellar, 25 Rue des Ecoles. The wine store was all paneled light woods – very sleek and warm, and a wine from Seguret in the window caught our eye. We decided to try a bottle (2005 Domaine le Souverain Seguret, 9 euros), and it was good, but mostly we liked that it reminded us of our excellent meal at Le Mesclun. I love when events in my life connect in these small ways.

At the wine store, there was an older American woman in front of us on line, and she was so embarrassingly annoying that I was tempted to leave the store, rather than be associated with her somehow. She had this very whiney-accusatory way of making conversation with the wine store owner. For example, she decided to pay for her wines by check, and when she got to the space where you have to write out the numbers in words (i.e., “fifty-seven euros and no cents”), she said “do I really have to fill this entire thing out?”

The wine store owner, thinking that she just needed some help with her French, said “cinquante-sept euros,” to which the woman replied “Yes, I know how to write it out, but I don’t want to because it’s so boring to do it.” Sorry to hear her life is otherwise so exciting that she can’t be bothered to carry out the method of payment she chose to use – so, I mean, just use a credit card, lady, and let the rest of us get on with our lives, OK?

When we finally arrived at the small Franprix supermarket, Jon and I were amused to find frozen foods made by the great Joel Robuchon. I mean, it makes sense that he does it (big money, lots of other chefs do it), but it’s still funny. Of course I took a photo:Frozen Foods by Joel Robuchon

Back at home, we gobbled down the cheese and wine we’d bought, and then Jon and I had a 10 p.m. reservation at Aux Lyonnais, 32, rue Saint Marc, 01.42.86.65.04 (near Bourse or Richelieu-Drouot metro stations). It’s on the foodie map because it’s Alain Ducasse‘s brasserie.

The restaurant is smaller than I imagined, but it’s very stylish and picturesque. Moldings and high ceilings – even a zinc bar. Aux LyonnaisThe service was good (fast, helpful and relatively friendly) and the food was fine, but it was all just too expensive for what it was. Jon’s oeufs en cocotte with tiny bits of mushrooms, a prawn, and a chard-like vegetable was delicious (the flavours mixed so well together that it became a meaty, creamy topping on toasted brioche), and it was this dish alone that seemed worth the money because it was, at least, something we’d never had before and were unlikely to make on our own.

The other dishes were good, but maybe because we make this kind of food at home, I wasn’t thrilled to pay 25 euros a main course for what we ate.

My braised lamb shoulder was tender and came served in its own Le Creuset casserole (the restaurant promotes Le Creuset cookbooks, etc.), but I don’t have too much to say about my dish other than that it was as elegantly served as a braised meat dish can be. I think the braising sauce had been strained – it was so smooth – and the carrots, leek and potatoes had been cooked separately before being added to the dish, so they still had bite and bright colors. Basically, it was high-fuss braised lamb shoulder.

Jon’s quenelles were good – fluffy and rich, cooked in an intense crayfish broth – but it seemed pretty shabby that this already-simple dish was served with just four crayfish (perfectly cooked, of course). Jon and I agreed that eating quenelles was like eating really good matzoh balls, but who wants to pay 25 euros for matzoh balls?

Overall, it’s a very pretty restaurant, and the dishes we had seemed to be made of high-quality ingredients, but our impression is that it’s a brasserie serving really basic French comfort food at disproportionately high prices. Nothing except that oeuf en cocotte made us say, “wow, this is so delicious” such that we’d happily spend another 100 euros on an appetizer, two mains and a carafe of a Cotes du Rhone.

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