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Archive for November, 2008

Franco Manca pizzeria in Brixton

Franco Manca pizzeria in Brixton

Despite having learned (in college, of course – go liberal arts!) that the failure of utilitarianism is our inability to measure interpersonal utility, I’m still a big believer in cost-benefit analysis.

So on Saturday, when Jon insisted we go to Brixton to have lunch at the much-lauded pizzeria, Franco Manca, I weighed the pros and cons:

Pros: (1) Feed my pizza craving that’s been intensifying the closer we get to going to NY for Christmas; and (2) experience a place serving “perfect pizzas” (according to the 2008 TimeOut Eating and Drinking Awards) and that’s been compared favorably to Florence’s Il Pizzaiolo by the Guardian. Not to mention it’s beloved of many a high-standard food blogger

Cons: (1) Schlepp to Brixton. (2) In the freezing cold (as in, I actually saw snow on Saturday morning. Fellow Londoners, you know what I’m talking about).

Left to my own devices, I would have stayed home. Luckily, Jon weighed the pros and cons differently (see, that interpersonal utility problem in action!), so off we went to Brixton.

The good news is that the pizzeria is about three minutes’ walk from Brixton tube station. The bad news is that we’re not the only ones interested in eating at Franco Manca, and the covered market in which the pizzeria sits is *not* heated.

So we queued for 45 minutes in the cold, just to snag a table that’s also – argh – in the cold.

white pizza with sausage at Franco Manca

white pizza with sausage at Franco Manca

Happily, the pizzas were, in fact, very good. The menu is simple: choose from one of six pizzas (seven if you count the daily special), and a beverage. Everything is inexpensively priced despite the high-quality, pedigreed ingredients.

I opted for a white pizza (no sauce) “with pork,” ricotta and mozzarella. The pork was, of course, casing-free Brindisa chorizo. Spicy and smoky – maybe a tad too tangy as a pizza topping, but well balanced by the nutty, creamy fresh ricotta and gooey mozzarella. And the pizza dough – it’s hot, springy and aromatic like no other pizza crust I’ve enjoyed before. Much more like a naan than a crispy-bottomed NY slice.

Franco Manca's neapolitan pizza

Franco Manca's neopolitan pizza

And for lovers of the salty tang of anchovies, Franco Manca’s neapolitan is the way to go. In this one, the sweet, juicy tomato sauce and the creamy mozzarella mellowed out the anchovies.

Service was fast and efficient, but always friendly. The pizzas take less than a minute to cook in the super-special pizza oven, so we were served within five minutes of sitting down. I don’t want to tell you how quickly we gobbled down our pizzas, but let’s just say we ate fast enough that the cold air didn’t have time to congeal the cheese.

The most expensive pizza on the menu costs £5.60, and glasses of wine are £1.20 a pop. Amazingly, two pizzas, two glasses of wine and a shot of Monmouth Coffee espresso set us back just £16 with service. But I guess they don’t have to pay for heat, so maybe that explains the low prices.

Despite the schlepp, the long wait and the cold, the pizzas were worth it, but barely. I’ll definitely wait for spring before I venture down there again.

Franco Manca, Unit 4, Market Row, SW9 8LD; 0207 738 3021; closest tube station: Brixton. Open only when the market is open (i.e., closed Saturday night and Sundays).
Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

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Le Cassoulet, Croydon

Le Cassoulet, Croydon

Jon and I eat out often with friends, but we try to set aside Friday nights as “date night” to make sure we get some alone time. Continuing with my French kick, last week’s date night destination was Le Cassoulet in South Croydon, and we certainly had lots of bonding time getting there and back.

You’d think that having returned from Paris recently that we’d be French fooded out, but you’d be wrong. Now that darkness comes at 4 pm, a hearty cassoulet is just the thing to make me happy.

In Time Out‘s 2008 Eating and Drinking Awards, Le Cassoulet won the title of Best Local Restaurant, which, now that I’ve been there, seems to mean that the food, decor, service and prices are excellent, but it’s just such a schlepp to get there that it’s not a destination restaurant. It’s a 30-minute train ride from London Bridge station to South Croydon, and then a 5-minute walk to the restaurant, which doesn’t sound bad until you factor in having to look up train times, get to the train station, buy tickets, wait for the train, etc. [Yes, I'm a center-city brat who will never live in the 'burbs if I can help it.]

potted ham at Le Cassoulet

potted ham at Le Cassoulet

We sat down on cushy banquette seats and eyed our neighbors’ dishes. Portions looked big, so we shared a starter – potted ham hock (£6). It didn’t have the creamy pate-style texture I was craving, but the deep-pink ham bits were salty and meaty, so I was happy. The dijon-dressed gherkins and radishes added color, texture and tang. The only thing missing was an extra slice of toast.

the signature dish at Le Cassoulet

signature dish at Le Cassoulet

The cassoulet was super star thanks to the white beans, which were creamy and fork-tender without having turned into mush. And of course they absorbed all the meaty juices from the generous duck confit shreds, garlicky sausage and rich pork-belly pieces. A vegetarian nightmare, but my dream come true on a winter’s night.

Rib eye steak (cote de boeuf) with bearnaise sauce

Rib eye steak (cote de boeuf) with bearnaise sauce

And what self-respecting bistro would fail to offer a steak frites? Le Cassoulet’s rib eye was rare and dripping with meat juice. Well-marbled and no gristly bits. I haven’t had a better steak in London. Certainly not for less for £18.

I had a great time at Le Cassoulet. The food was classic and comforting, and many wines were available by the glass or carafe. Service was attentive and friendly, and tap water was no problem. If Le Cassoulet were in central London, I’d be planning to eat there every day. But because it’s in South Croydon, I’ll probably go there only when seized by a powerful craving for top-notch cassoulet.  Of course if someone has ideas on what else to do in South Croydon, I’m all ears.

Most appetizers were £6-8, and mains were £15-18. Our tab with a carafe of wine and a forgettable side dish came to £70.

Le Cassoulet, 18 Selsdon Road, Croydon, Surrey, CR2 6PA; 020 8633 1818; closest rail station: South Croydon
Le Cassoulet on Urbanspoon

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L'Atelier des Chefs, Marylebon

L'Atelier des Chefs, Marylebone

As usual, I’m late. Those of you who read other London food blogs have probably by now read about the Trusted Places-organized macaron-baking adventures last weekend. Trusted Places, World Foodie Guide and Eggbeater (newly transplanted from the Bay Area to London) have already done a fab job describing our class at L’Atelier des Chefs, but here are my jumbled thoughts anyway:

  1. I really enjoyed meeting a few of my fellow food bloggers in person, including Krista, Helen and Su-Lin, whose blogs I’ve followed for months now. For a blogger, I’m a bit of a luddite, so making the jump from Internet to real life was weird at first. After all, you read someone’s blog and you think you “know” them, and then you’re face-to-face and realize you have to introduce yourself.
  2. Our hosts at L’Atelier were so organized and welcoming that even though Saturday was a freebie for us, I’d be glad to return as a paying customer. The mix of demo and hands-on work was good, and L’Atelier’s facilities are gorgeous and comfortable. Although there are inexpensive, 30-minute classes available, £72 seems to be the going rate for an involved, 3-hour class like our macaron-making one. The price tag’s steep, but I’d love to go back to do a class with friends. I figure an afternoon at L’Atelier is a lot cheaper and more productive than shoe shopping at Selfridge’s around the corner.
  3. Even though I lack a sweet tooth, I love macarons (and not just because I’m a francophile). So when Eat Like a Girl invited me to this ‘do, I was thrilled. Based solely on taste and visuals of Pierre Herme’s macarons, I’ve always been glad to pay 1.40+ euros per crispy-chewy macaron, but now that I’ve learned how much labor goes into making those pretties, I appreciate them even more.
ingredients for rose-raspberry macarons

ingredients for rose-raspberry macarons

Working with Shuna, Mia, Niamh and Niamh’s friend Heather, I helped whip up a few dozen rose-raspberry macarons (just throw in the lychee and it’d be ispahan, no?).

The first thing I noticed was how much slow sifting went into making the almond flour fine enough for the macaron biscuits.

batter for raspberry macaron biscuits

batter for rose-raspberry macaron biscuits

And look how seriously pink the biscuit batter was. Lurid, no?

macaron biscuit batter ready for the oven

dollops of macaron biscuit batter ready for the oven

Using a pastry bag, we tried our best to make the biscuits perfectly round. The key is to keep the bag tip stationary on the cookie tray to let the batter blob out. The other insights of the day wrt the biscuits were (1) once you’ve filled a tray with biscuit batter, you drop the tray onto your counter (with a loud thwap) to get the air bubbles out before baking; and (2) you don’t put these puppies in the oven until they’ve dried out a bit (and feel that way to the touch).

Click here, here, and here to see a few action photos of the day. (Can you tell we were all food bloggers?) 

It was a fun, informative class and I stuffed myself silly with macarons. An ideal afternoon.

L’Atelier des Chefs, 19 Wigmore Street, W1 1PH, 0207 499 6580; closest tube stations: Oxford Circus or Bond Street


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croissant from Eric Kayser boulangerie, 11eme

croissant from Eric Kayser boulangerie, 11eme

I know it sounds trite, but I love Paris. I’ve been enough times that I have habits I can’t break, and I’m still starry-eyed enough that I find something “new” to love every time.

Habits I was glad to indulge were croissants hot out of the oven at Eric Kayser and macarons at Pierre Herme. But the twist is that I went to quiet locations of both this time. Eric Kayser’s uncrowded 11th arrondissement location near the Nation metro was five minutes’ walk from our hotel, and Pierre Herme’s newest location on the Right Bank, close to the Tuileries, was queue-free when I dropped by on a Saturday afternoon. Score.

guestroom at Grand Hotel Francais, 11eme, Paris

guestroom at Grand Hotel Francais, 11eme, Paris

Speaking of our hotel, I was a little skeptical of staying in the 11th, but the Grand Hotel Francais got rave reviews on TripAdvisor for being stylish, steps from metro stations, and a reasonable 130 euros a night. All true, and I give bonus points for being around the corner from food-haven rue Paul Bert; free wi-fi; an antiques market on Boulevard Voltaire (on which the hotel sits); and did I already mention Eric Kayser goodies were a five-minute walk away?

banh mi from Saigon Sandwich, 11eme, Paris

banh mi from Saigon Sandwich, 11eme, Paris

With Clotilde Dusoulier’s Edible Adventures in Paris book in hand, I visited for the first time the Chinatown around Belleville metro, also in the 11th. If you remember the Triplettes de Belleville, you’ll know the area is super hilly. Luckily, the Chinatown bit doesn’t require too much climbing to explore, and unable to decide between banh mi and pho, I chose both. Clotilde’s book recommends Saigon Sandwich, which truly is a hole in the wall. The place would be overwhelmed if more than two people showed up, which is endearing. I loved the crunch and tang of the classique‘s pickled crudite, and the Saigon Sandwich man knows how to balance his mayo and chilies, but honestly, the sandwich was a bit skimpy on slices of pork. Sure, it was only 1.80 euros, but I’m willing to pay more for a sandwich chock-full of the yummy fillings.

pho at Dong Huong Vietnamese restaurant, 11eme, Paris

pho at Dong Huong Vietnamese restaurant, 11eme, Paris

No worries, though. Ten feet away from Saigon Sandwich is Dong Huong Vietnamese restaurant, also highlighted in Clotilde’s book. It’s a warren of a restaurant, and tables turn fast, so there was no problem getting a seat even on the wettest, coldest Saturday afternoon. In no time flat, Jon and I were face down in our bowls of beef pho. The broth was hot, rich and meaty – the kind of soup you slurp straight from the bowl. At about 7 euros a bowl, the pho’s no question a good value.

We of course didn’t leave Paris without first loading up on wines and snacks at la Grand Epicerie, but we also loved waking up earlyish the next morning to toodle around the 7th and 8th arrondissements using les velibs, and then meeting my haven’t-seen-him-in-ages Parisian friend, Jeremy, for lunch at Breizh Cafe in the Marais. Breizh was a tip from both David Lebovitz and Clotilde, so no surprise that the egg-ham-and-cheese-filled buckwheat crepes were simple, but tasty, as were the dessert crepes, which had that nice bit of caramelized sugar to them (as well as a boatload of butter).

Another perfect weekend in Paris. Now if only the Eurostar didn’t cost a small fortune, I’d be in Paris even more often.

Eric Kayser, 309, rue de Faubourg Saint-Antoine, 11th, 01 49 79 01 76; closest metro: Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A); closed Sundays

Pierre Herme, 4, rue Cambon, 1st, 01 58 62 43 17; closest metro: Tuileries (1); closed Sundays and Mondays

Grand Hotel Francais, 223, boulevard Voltaire, 11th, 01 43 71 27 57; closest metro: rue des Boulets (9) or Nation

Saigon Sandwich, 8, rue de la Presentation, 11th; closest metro: Belleville (11); open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm; Sun 10am-2pm

Dong Huong, 14, rue Louis Bonnet, 11th; closest metro: Belleville (11)

Breizh Cafe, 109, rue Vieille du Temple, 4th; closest metro: St. Paul (1); closed Monday and Tuesday

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Restaurant Itineraires, 5 rue de Pontoise, Paris

Restaurant Itineraires, 5 rue de Pontoise, Paris

Dinner last Saturday in Paris was at Restaurant Itineraires, in the 5th. Although Bistrot Paul Bert is classic old-school, and Itineraires is neo-bistro, if you play the restaurant pedigree game, you’ll find they connect. Bistrot Paul Bert sits on rue Paul Bert, a road that’s been a darling of food press in recent years. Sylvain Sendra was the chef at Le Temps en Temps, also on rue Paul Bert, until earlier this year, when he and his wife set up Itineraires.

So of all the thousands of bistros in Paris, Itineraires caught my eye because (1) generally, I love the fresh take you get on classic dishes at neo bistros; (2) John Talbott, the eGullet Paris moderator, called Itineraires “this spring’s l’Epigramme, Afaria, Spring,” and (3) Alexander Lobrano, Gourmet’s Paris correspondent, also sang its praises. My expectations were high, just as they were for Bistrot Paul Bert (which disappointed me).

Well, I’m 50/50 for dinners in Paris this last time around, because Itineraires was outstanding. The interior, service and food were elegant, yet warm and inviting. Nobody except the hostess spoke English, so as a perk, I got to bust out my rusty French with everyone else at the restaurant, and our server thanked me for making her life easier.

cream and cepes (porcini) special at Itineraires

cream and cepes (porcini) special at Itineraires

Just as you’d fine at classic bistros (like Bistrot Paul Bert), the menu was on a chalkboard, and a few specials were recited by our server. On the chalkboard, it was clear that a starter and main were 29 euros, and if you made it to dessert, it’s three courses for 34. Very few items charged a supplement. Pet peeve avoided.

Whereas at Paul Bert, seasonal cepes were featured in an omelet filled with a rustic, generous portion of said mushrooms, at Itineraires, cepes came thinly sliced in a small bowl of creamy, meaty soup. At the bottom of the bowl was a poached egg that burst with hot yolk when I poked it open. Together, all these woodsy, meaty, creamy flavors and textures mixed in a way that made me happy and warm – a perfect example of neo bistro cooking at its best: elegant and refined, but still comforting.

wild boar stew and vegetable tempura

wild boar stew and vegetable tempura

My wild boar stew was hearty, rich and fork tender. Your perfect cold winter’s night dish. The light, crispy vegetable tempura on top of the stew was greaseless and intensified the veg flavors – the courgette tempura was superstar. Overall, the pairing didn’t exactly blend together, but I liked the contrast in textures, and I always love fried goodies.

beef cheeks

beef cheeks

Jon’s beef cheeks (joue de boef) were rich and decadent. I don’t know how he managed to polish them off along with a whopping portion of the creamiest, most buttery pommes purees, ever. There was a spice in the beef cheeks that overwhelmed me (clove?) so I was much happier with my wild boar.

Too full after our two courses, we passed on desserts, and with a perfect-with-food gigondas for 37 euros, our total tab came to 95 euros. Although tip is always compris by law, Jon and I had such a good experience we left extra on top.

When we left at almost midnight, people were still waiting at the bar to get a table. Itineraires deserves its popularity.

For the tourists, comme nous, you have the added perk of going around the block to Quai de la Tournelle and walking off your dinner while admiring the nighttime lights of Notre Dame.

Restaurant Itineraires, 5 rue de Pontoise, 5th, 01-46-33-60-11; closed Sundays and Mondays. Closest metro: Maubert-Mutualite (10).

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cheese offerings at Bistrot Paul Bert

help-yourself cheese board at Bistrot Paul Bert

Self-service, all-you-can-eat cheese board. I must be in Paris.

I’m late to the Bistrot Paul Bert lovefest. Mark Bittman gave it high marks last year in his “Best Steak Frites in Paris” article; Clotilde gives it a shout in her recently-published “Edible Adventures in Paris” book; Gourmet gave it a positive mention in this month’s issue on Paris . . . and that’s just the English-language press. The French press have been on to it for ages.

Despite all the hype, when Jon and I ate there last night, happily, there were no english speakers we could hear. Service was incredibly rushed (but not rude), so overall, it’s not a tourist-friendly place, which is surprising given all the press. (Basically, I’m like every tourist who wants to think they’re going where no tourist has gone before).

The bistro is nothing to look at, but what it lacked in pretty movie-set tiling and pressed-tin-ceilings, it made up for in conviviality. Large-ish groups of French speakers were still pouring in at 11 pm for a bite to eat. It’s the kind of place that made Jon and me wish we had a big group of friends to join.

Paul Bert’s menu has all the classics. You get a giant chalkboard on your table setting out the choices for three courses: an appetizer, main and dessert/cheese for 34 euros. Some of the delicacy-ingredient choices charge a supplement (e.g., 5 euros for foie gras, 10 euros for sweetbreads). For the famous rib-eye steak (which isn’t listed on the menu), you’ll fork out 34 euros per person for the meat alone, because it’s not part of the set three-course menu. You probably wouldn’t have room for anything else anyway after eating the steak.

foie gras at Bistrot Paul Bert

foie gras at Bistrot Paul Bert

My slice of foie gras torchon was a little sad – I’ve had better. I wished the slice had been meatier-tasting, or at least accompanied by something sweeter than the roast fig (maybe some caramelized onions!). Otherwise, in its flavorlessness, it was too obviously a slice of congealed fat. Poor duck – to have died for this.

Jon’s petite omelette aux cepes (porcini mushroom omelet) was spectacular, though. Having grown used to dried porcini, I had no idea that when the mushrooms are fresh, they could be so thick and juicy. I stole a few bites of his creamy, meaty-tasting omelet and had a terrible case of eater’s envy.

roast duck breast (magret de canard roti) at Bistrot Paul Bert

roast duck breast (magret de canard roti) at Bistrot Paul Bert

Main courses were simple, classic and good. Jon had scallops roasted in their shells and served with beurre au kari-gosse (some kind of herb mix). I had roasted duck breast, cooked rare, with a nice sweet-and-sour taste from the duck juices mixing with the roast figs. All very satisfying.

Paris-Brest at Bistrot Paul Bert

Paris-Brest at Bistrot Paul Bert

The cheese course was all French generosity. You get the big tray, you take as much as you want, and then the tray gets passed on. And the desserts were huge. I opted for the Paris-Brest: a ring of pastry filled with a chocolate-praline cream and dusted with toasted almond slices and confectioner’s sugar. As you’d expect, it was crispy, buttery, nutty and chocolatey. A perfect way to end our meal.

Wines weren’t available by the carafe, but there’s an enormous wine list with bottles starting at 20 euros.

Overall, Bistrot Paul Bert served a good, classic meal. Our tab was just over 112 euros with supplements and a so-so bottle of wine. I’d say 112 euros was pricey for a place that’s so studiously clinging to its local-neighborhood-bistro feel. I think I’d go back only with a group of friends – it’s a good times kind of place.

interior of Bistrot Paul Bert

interior of Bistrot Paul Bert

Bistrot Paul Bert, 18, rue Paul Bert, 11eme arr.; +33 1 43 72 24 01; closest metro stops: Faidherbe Chaligny (1), Rue des Boulets (9) and Charonne (9).

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