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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Antiques market near Place de la Republique. "I just happened to have these lying around in my house."

Often you hear that there’s nothing like Paris in the springtime.  But actually, I’d say there’s nothing like Paris for the winter sales, which generally run from early January to mid-February.  Wait for the first couple of weeks to pass by.  The crush will have died down in most stores, and many things will be on secondary markdown.  Although price tagging is haphazard at best and some of the fancier stores make you ask which items are on promotion, the bright-colored SOLDES signs everywhere is, to my mind, very festive.

As my opening paragraph suggests, Jon and I were in Paris for the first weekend in February to take advantage of a little sale shopping.  Of course, while there, we had to eat.  (Shoppers among you, if you’re at Le Bon Marche – and why wouldn’t you be? –  my fave place for a quick, cheap and tasty lunch break is at Cuisine de Bar, next to Poilane on Rue Cherche-Midi.  Tartines, hot open-faced sandwiches, is their specialty, and the Saint-Marcellin-and-ham one is stellar.)

And if I haven’t mentioned it before, in general, if you’re looking for a well-edited and up-to-date list of restaurants in Paris, you can’t beat the “Editors’ Pick” feature of Paris by Mouth, a collective effort by well-established food writers and bloggers in Paris.

mackerel in "bread soup" at Rino

rare duck breast at Rino

Our favorite meal this time round in Paris?  Dinner at Rino.  4 courses for 38 euros and 6 courses for 55 euros.  Go for the 6 courses.  You’ll get a nifty offal dish and a cheese course.

The dining room is super casual and lively.  Most diners seemed to be in their 30s and 40s and having a rollicking good time.  A great place to visit with friends.

The food was delicious and creative.  Our dinner started strong:  potato tortellini with a hint of lemon, served in salty smoked fish consomme, with hits of sweetness from onion and bites of octopus.  So many subtle flavors with each bite.  I definitely wasn’t expecting that sort of sophistication given the casual atmosphere.

Fillet of mackerel in a bread soup was firm and meaty, and I loved the addition of sweet cabbage and nutty brussel spourts with tiny breadcrumbs for texture.  Rabbit kidneys were a tad rubbery but visually fun to see them on a skewer with similarly-sized escargot.

Duck course was outrageously bloody but delicious.  Cheeses were well chosen, and our dessert was simple and refreshing:  a bergamot-scented semi freddo-covered fresh fruits, dried fruits and candied nuts.

Service was super attnetive (we must have gone through at least six carafes of tap water).  Bonus points for being within walking distance of the hotel we always stay at, the much-loved Grand Hotel Francais.

Rino, 46 Rue Trousseau, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 48 06 95 85; closest metro stop:  Ledru-Rollin (8).

profiteroles at Bistrot Paul Bert

It may be listed in every english-language guidebook and blogged about repeatedly, but I suspect that because of its location in the 11th arrondissement, Bistrot Paul Bert still feels like a local joint.  Jon and I turned up for Friday lunch without a reservation, and it was pas de probleme to find a table.

As is the case with most places in France, the 3-course prix fixe lunch menu (16.50 euros) was incredibly good value.  Bonus points at lunch for my learning a new word in French:  topinambour.  Jersualem artichoke.

Highlights of our lunch: the rich cream of topinambour soup, perfect for a winter’s day; the roast lamb, served with incredible char and juicy, pink meat; and a heaping huge serving of chocolately profiteroles and cheese.  Simple, classic, well-executed bistro food.

I tried to sneak a side order of their famous frites into our order, but our waiter replied: “je ne vous promets rien” (I promise you nothing), and of course frites never arrived.  Can’t win ‘em all.

Bistrot Paul Bert, 18 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 72 24 01; closest metro stop:  Rue des Boulets (9)

crab avocado (18 euros) at L'Agrume

veal chop (32 euros) at L'Agrume

It’s no exaggeration to say I’d been looking forward to eating at L’Agrume for at least the last 12 months.  Great pedigree; rave reviews.  For a sampling of the hype, read John Talbott’s January 2010 rave review, and of course this April 2010 blurb in the New York Times.

In any case, our dinner there was nice, but not what I was hoping for, which was something more like what we had at Rino – creative fare at good prices.

We weren’t keen on the prix fixe menu (reasonably priced at 35 euros), so we choose from the a la carte menu, which was much pricier, with starters hovering around 15 euros and mains generally in the low 30s.

L’Agrume was generous with luxury ingredients (Jon’s starter was packed with crab meat, and mine with lobster meat), but didn’t seem to do much with them.  And while I did, in fact, devour my veal chop (and Jon the same with his fillet of Dover sole), neither dish was prepared with any sort of twist.  I wish I’d read this Gourmet Traveller June 2010 post before going to L’Agrume, because she’s right on the money to say the food didn’t seem like anything you couldn’t cook at home.

Based on our visit, L’Agrume seems to be a strong choice if you want large portions of tasty, straightforward cooking in a casual setting.  The place was still packed at 10 pm on a Friday night, so the atmosphere is nice and buzzy.   We were especially happy with the wines-by-the-glass options.   But if you go, know that the a la carte gets pricey.

L’Agrume, 15 Rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel 75005 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 31 86 48; closest metro stops:  Saint-Marcel (5) or Les Gobelins (7)

worst loh boh gao (radish cake), ever, at Le Pacifique

Ahh, Sundays in Paris.  I’ve stopped bothering trying to book restaurants.  There are so few good ones open that day, and because most boulangeries and places in Chinatown stay open on Sunday, I find that planning on baked goods and banh mi is a something to look forward to.  On this particular trip, it was the weekend after Chinese New Year, so Jon and I headed to the Right Bank Chinatown around Belleville to rustle up some dim sum (“cuisine a la vapeur” en francais).

We took a recommendation from Clothilde Dusoulier’s “Edible Adventures in Paris” and sought out “Le Pacifique.” And you know what?  It sucked.  Possibly the worst dim sum meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, and you know I’ve eaten a lot of dim sum.

I’ll let the above photo of stodgy, *deep fried* and radish-and-pork-less loh boh gao represent what our dim sum meal was like.  And each steamer still cost 4.50-5 euros, which I’d hesitate to pay even at a Michelin-starred place like Yauatcha or Hakkasan, much less at a greasy-looking spot surrounded by French people ordering nems. Avoid like the plague.  If this is the best Paris has to offer by way of dim sum, then I weep for Parisians.  For your Asian fix in Paris, stick with the Vietnamese food.

On the plus side, we bumped into Chinese New Year dragon dancers on our way down the street to pick up banh mi at the reliably-delicious Dong Tom/Panda Belleville banh mi takeaway shop.

Dragon dancers for Chinese New Year in Belleville

Le Pacifique, 35 Rue Belleville, 75019 Paris, +33 (0)1 42 49 66 80; closest metro stop:  Belleville (11).

Dong Tam (Panda Belleville) banh mi, 16, rue Louis Bonnet, 11th; closest metro:  Belleville (11).

(the seeingly ubiquitous) Henry Moore at the Rodin Museum

Not food related, but just a brief note that Jon and I have started to make trips to Paris to coincide with the First Sunday of the month.  Free museums.   Whereas I wouldn’t pay another 12-15 euros to visit a museum for the third, fourth, fifth time . . . for free, I don’t mind popping in and out to see a few faves and move on.  I love it.

This time around, the weather was sunny, so we revisited the Rodin Museum, which has lovely sculpture gardens, of course, and is a manageable size.  There’s a Henry Moore exhibit going on as well, so in case you haven’t had your fill of those, you can get two big-name sculptors for the price of one if you head now to the Rodin Museum.

Musee Rodin, 79 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris; +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10; closest metro stop:  Varenne (13).

Grand Hotel Francais

Where to stay in Paris:

Everyone has their favorite place to stay in Paris, I know, but I can’t say enough good things about the boutique hotel, Le Grand Hotel Francais.  We’ve been staying here on every trip to Paris since reading positive TripAdvisor reviews about it in 2008 (maybe since 2007, even?).  The rooms are great value for Paris – clean, modern, comfortable.  The hotel owner, Zyad, is incredibly hard working and friendly, and despite the hotel’s recent recognition by TripAdvisor as one of the top 25 hotels in France, Zyad is still at that front desk, working 90 hours a week to make customers feel welcome and cared for.

At this point, I look forward to seeing Zyad every time we’re in Paris, and so in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll share that sometimes, like this time, Zyad upgrades us to higher-floor, larger rooms when they’re available.  But he did that for us the second time we stayed there, long before we were what you’d call “regulars.”  And even when rooms are full and we end up in a ground floor room, I think paying 110-135 euros a night (depending on the time of year) is still good value.

I’m also a huge booster for the 11th arrondissement, in general, especially if you’re a food lover and want to explore a pretty but non-tourist-fied neighborhood in Paris.

Grand Hotel Francais, 223, boulevard Voltaire, 11th; +33 1 43 71 27 57; closest metro: rue des Boulets (9) or Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A)

To read a sampling of other Paris posts I’ve written over the last couple of years:

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charcuterie at sunset in Puligny-Montrachet

 

Although Jon and I were in Burgundy for a week, our dining options were constrained by the fact that (1) someone else chose our hotels for us; and (2) we were traveling by bicycle.  Dinner options were therefore confined to restaurants within the town where our hotel was located, and lunch options couldn’t be too far off our daily route or else we wouldn’t reach our hotel by sunset.

As was the case in the Loire Valley last summer, the Via Michelin website was pretty handy for planning out restaurants based on a driving or cycling itinerary, and my favorite two meals of the trip were of the bib gourmand variety.  Although I agree with the many who argue that the Michelin guide is skewed in favor of French techniques and flavors, that particular flaw is no bad thing when you’re, you know, in France, looking for French food.

At all restaurants we tried in Burgundy, regardless of whether the food was good or bad, the wine lists were huge and markups not too bad.  So even if the kitchen was a bummer, the wines generally saved the meal.

 

outstanding steak tartare at Chez Guy in Gevrey-Chambertin

 

 

cheese course at Chez Guy

Lunch at Chez Guy in Gevrey-Chambertin was my favorite meal of the trip.  The day was sunny and warm, and the restaurant terrace is large and comfortable.  The menu offerings were classic, simple and well-prepared.  My steak tartare, a tender, chopped-up onglet steak, was a thing of beauty despite the humble cut of meat used.  The tangy-sweet seasoning was exactly what I craved and so I forgave the wimpy, limp fries.  Even the cheese course, too often an after-thought at casual places, was attractively presented.  And while epoisses is offered everywhere in Burgundy, at Chez Guy, everything was of good provenance (from fromagerie Gaugry, bien sur).

Chez Guy, 3, Place Mairie , 21220 Gevrey Chambertin, +33 (0)3 80 58 51 51;  open every day; 29.50 euros for starter and main or 26 euros for main and cheese or dessert.

terrine at La Ciboulette in Beaune

 

 

pot au feu at La Ciboulette in Beaune

Second favorite restaurant of our trip:  La Ciboulette in Beaune.  So good we ate here twice:  once at the start of our trip, and once more at the end.  Again, this was a bib gourmand restaurant doing a great job of transforming humble cuts of meat with careful cooking and seasoning.  The duck leg pot au feu was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the broth was both rich-tasting and clear-feeling.  Generally, mains and starters were very good, and desserts less so.  So when faced with the choice of cheese or dessert, go with the cheese.

The restaurant offers 19.50, 26.50 and 32-euro menus, which varied only in the type of main courses offered, and the 32 euro-menu includes both cheese *and* dessert.  Great wine list and efficient, welcoming service.

La Ciboulette, 69, rue de Lorraine, Beaune 21200 (close to Beaune’s triumphal arch); +33 (0)3 80 24 70 72; closed Monday and Tuesday (which means it’s open on Sunday – excellent).

 

Burgundian bar snacks at Le Montrachet in Puligny-Montrachet

 

 

pork loin at Le Montrachet in Puligny-Montrachet

 

Le Montrachet is ambitious.  A former one-Michelin-star place gunning to get that star back.  The food was fine, but for the price (55 euros prix fixe), I expected more deliciousness and originality.  The pleasant surprise of the evening:  an excellent pork loin course.  Otherwise, foie gras foam this; hot-and-cold that.  Fun bar snack renditions of regional classics like jambon persille and gougeres.    I’d recommend going there to try a wide variety of pricey wines by the glass.  17.50 euros for a glass of wine sounds like a lot, but short of hanging with some really generous friends, when else are you going to be able to try a 2004 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault 1er Cru Charmes without having to pay for the whole bottle?  (Sampler, are you reading this?)

 

oeufs en meurette at Restaurant Le Millesime in Chambolle-Musigny

 

 

Oeufs en meurette at Castel de Tres Girard in Morey-Saint-Denis

 

Second restaurant falling in the “pretty good/not bad” category is Restaurant Le Millesime in Chambolle-Musigny.  We’d hoped to eat at bib-rated Restaurant Le Chambolle, also in town, but Le Chambolle is closed on Wednesday and Thursday, which of course were the two nights we were in nearby Morey-Saint-Denis.

In any case, the service at Le Millesime was friendly, and the cooking relatively ambitious, with foie gras plated as if it were a contemporary painting.  Burgundy classic oeufs en meurette (think beef bourgignon, but using poached eggs instead of beef) were standout-silky-smooth and elegant, bathed in a rich wine sauce infused with the sweetness of onions.  (Contrast Le Millesime’s version with that of Castel de Tres Girard (pictured above), which was ham-handed to say the least.  The poaching wine used by Castel de Tres Girard was so far past its prime as to be vinegar).

Restaurant Le Millesime, 1 rue Traversiere, 21220 Chambolle Musigny; +33 (0)3 80 62 80 37;  27 euros for three courses.

 

escargots at Castel de Tres Girard

 

 

boeuf bourgignonne at Castel de Tres Girard

 

Caste de Tres Girard, I’m still traumatized by you.  We asked for water three times and ended up resorting to the @sshole tactic of refusing to order any food or wine until the water finally arrived.  Breads were still frozen in the middle.  A travesty in a nation of excellent boulangeries!  The least expensive menu was 37 euros for a romp through Burgundy classics.  Escargots were lukewarm and I’ll admit that I’m not capable of eating those suckers unless the garlic-parsley butter is hot.  Boeuf bourgignonne was buttery enough to pass as flavorsome, but the braised beef was stringy and tough.  I make a much better one at home.  Skip this place and get yourself over to nearby Chambolle-Musigny instead.

Caste de Tres Girard, 7 rue de Tres Girard, 21220 Morey-Saint-Denis, +33 (0)3 80 34 33 09. 

 

cabillaud at Bistrot des Halles in Dijon

 

The last meal of our trip, at Bistrot des Halles in Dijon, was also a disappointment.  I didn’t do any research at all because Dijon was a last-minute addition to our itinerary, and I figured anything near the covered food market would be alright.  Wrong.  Exhibit A:  what’s with the cones of stale chorizo rudely shoved into the fillet of over-the-hill-starchy-tasting cod fillet?  Don’t get me started on the straight-from-a-jar tomato sauce dumped on top.  At least we sat outdoors and the mains were generally under 15 euros.

Surprisingly, the snack of croque Monsieur with salad we’d had earlier in the day at Agora Cafe for 6.50 euros was much better value.  I say “surprisingly” because Agora Cafe’s outdoor seating is on Dijon’s Place de la Liberation (i.e., tourist central).  So if in search of something basic and good, check out Agora Cafe.

Bistrot des Halles, 10, rue Bannelier, Dijon 21000; +33 (0)3 80 49 94 15

Agora Cafe, 10 Place de la Liberation, Dijon 21000

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Gevrey-Chambertin

After three days of cycling in the Cote Chalonnaise and Cote de Beaune, Jon and I headed north from Beaune to sip the (mostly) reds of the Cote de Nuits for another three days.

First, the low point of the trip:  we stayed two nights at the Castel de Tres Girard in Morey-Saint-Denis, which is best described as style over substance.  It looks lovely enough from the outside, but inside, our room windows opened on to the industrial-sized exhaust vents from the kitchen or boiler room (maybe both).  Why would the hotel even have a room like this?  Oddly, there was also no place to put our clothing – no dresser drawers.  Just a closet already stuffed with extra bed linens.  And forget about free internet, unlike the other hotels of our trip.

  • Service at the hotel was also pretty unhelpful, especially in the hotel restaurant, which has the distinction of serving us the worst  meal of our entire trip (to be summarized in a separate post about Burgundy restaurants we tried).  I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of the burnt, wrinkly, fresh-from-the-freezer croissants that were a centerpiece of the hotel’s breakfasts.  It’s not like we were in a country full of good boulangeries or anything.

On the plus side, we fell in love with the Caveau des Vignerons in Morey-Saint-Denis.  If you go, ask for Catherine, who started out a bit wary of us in our cycling clothes, but in response to our questions, quickly grew warm and chatty, as well as generous with the tastings.  She’s passionate and knowledgeable about all the local wines and winemakers (e.g., who’s just had a baby, who’s been sick).  It was a dose of small-town charm in a region of big-money wine.

At the end of our first visit, we asked Catherine if she’d open (for tasting) a bottle by Alain Jenniard, a local vintner whose wines sounded appealing from the tasting notes (in French) located throughout the shop.  Sure enough, when we dropped by the next day, Catherine was waiting to open one of Jenniard’s bottles for us to try.   (On any given day, “only” five or six bottles are open for tasting).

We also happily tasted and purchased several wines by Domaine Virgile Lignier, and I would love to return to taste more.  The shop stocks a full range of local wines, with plenty of bottles in the 25-35 euro range (a modest sum in Burgundy), along with offerings by big-ticket local vineyards like Clos de Tart.

The furthest north we reached in the Cote de Nuits was  Gevrey-Chambertin, where we ate a simple but very delicious and relaxing lunch at Chez Guy.  More to come on this place in a separate post.

who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Chevaliers du Tastevin?

Not far from where we were staying in Morey-Saint-Denis was Clos de Vougeot, which was a lot more fun than I expected.  For starters, after the 18-euro travesty at Chateau de Pommard, I was delighted that Clos de Vougeot’s ticket price is a humble 3.90 euros.  Even better, the displays and exhibits inside are actually well-written and interesting.

  • Clos de Vougeot’s ancient wine presses were especially impressive for their size, age, and the fact that I suspect it could still be used if needed.  It was easy to picture medieval monks putting their back into it to squeeze out every last drop of precious juice.
getting close to the fields of Romanee Conti

The stretches of Cote de Nuits vineyards that Jon and I cycled through felt less divided-up than in the Cote de Beaune, and we were amused to find carloads of tourists clumped around certain patches of vines.   This is what celebrity looks like in the Cote de Nuits:

Romanee Conti:  surrounded by groupies every time we passed by

At the Romanee Conti field, you’ll find several prominent signs saying, in short:  “don’t even think about coming near these vines,” in French and English.   Personally, I wouldn’t have even considered climbing over the wall into the field but for the sign.

view from the panorama point at Pernand-Vergelesses

Cycling south back to Beaune, we couldn’t resist making a small detour to climb up to a recommended panoramic viewpoint in Pernand-Vergelesses.  Let me tell you – that was one steep motherf*cker.  It wasn’t just steep for cycling.  It was steep for walking.  I’m including in this post the photo I took because I need the world to see that I made it to the top, except I’m sad that it doesn’t look that high up in the photo.  Like most “must-see views,” it was nice, but probably not worth the effort.  It was a good place to break for a picnic lunch, though.

Chateau de Corton Andre in Aloxe-Corton

We knew we were close to Beaune when we passed by Chateau de Corton Andre with its colorful glazed tile roof, typical of Beaune and its surrounds.

Back in Beaune, the highlights were the personal tour of the Hospice led by Sarah, one of the owners of Detours in France, as well as the Saturday town market, which is much livelier than the Wednesday version.  Jon and I couldn’t resist picking up an old champagne bucket from one of the antiques stalls.  For 25 euros, it seemed a steal until we realized that it’s not easy carrying around a champagne bucket back to London.

rue Verrerie in Dijon as viewed from our hotel balcony

We spent our last night in Burgundy seeing the sights in Dijon.  The old town is quite charming, and I learned that in addition to mustard, Dijon prides itself on its gingerbread.  Mulot et Petitjean is the fountainhead of all pain d’epices, apparently.  I can’t tell you firsthand because the portions sold were too enormous for one or two people to share.  The shop had that cluttered “grandma would love this” look.

  • If you’re in town for just one night, I’d recommend staying at the Hotel Le Jacquemart.  The place is bring-your-own-toiletries no-frills (Jon esp. loved dragging our suitcases up four flights of stairs), but it’s clean, shabby-genteel-looking, and incredibly well-located near the old Cathedral.   For 60 euros a night, we couldn’t have asked for more.  Skip the hotel brekkie and walk half a block left down the street to a superb boulangerie.  Also nearby is the old covered market, Les Halles.

And that’s it on everything-but-the-food from our trip in Burgundy.  Next and last post about Burgundy will be on the restos.  A bientot!

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Hotel-Dieu in Beaune

Remembering the success of our cycling trip in the Loire Valley last July, Jon and I spent a week cycling in Burgundy in late August this year.  Because we were too busy this summer to do our own planning (read: Jon spent too much time training to swim the English Channel and I was left holding down the fort at home), we worked with Beaune-based Detours in France, who provide self-guided cycle tours of the region.

In practical terms, a “self guided cycle tour” meant that Detours in France booked our hotels, provided the cycles, moved our luggage from hotel to hotel, and mapped out our daily itinerary.  The only thing Jon and I had to do was show up in Beaune to pick up our bicycles and get ourselves from Point A to Point B every day (i.e., we weren’t with a group following a leader, and we were free to change the day’s itinerary as we liked).

cycling from Chassagne-Montrachet to Santenay

Pluses of working with Detours in France:

  1. Jon and I never got lost, and consequently, never argued.  (The provided maps and turn-by-turn directions are pretty much foolproof).
  2. Our daily routes were optimized for beautiful views, low traffic, and flatness (save for a 4km climb around Gevrey-Chambertin, and another one around Pernand-Vergelesses, thankfully towards the end of the trip, when our fitness had improved).
  3. Sarah and Jerome, the owners of Detours in France, are passionate about what they do and about Burgundy, so we had the sense that if we really needed help, they’d be there for us.
  4. Overall – everything was really easy.  We were supremely lucky to have had sunny, mild weather the entire week, so from the point of view of getting to know the region and the terroir, our trip was an unqualified success.

Minuses of giving up the absolute control we usually exercise via independent travel:

  1. It was difficult to eat at the restaurants we wanted to try.  (Where there’s wine, there’s good food, and Burgundy is studded with Michelin-starred restaurants).  Although dinner wasn’t included in the price we paid to Detours in France, letting someone else choose our hotels meant that in the evening, it was tricky for us to get to specific restaurants (cycling on un-lit local roads being rather difficult, especially if you’re planning a boozy, lengthy, gourmet meal).Most of the towns in Burgundy wine country are small, so effectively, either you’re eating at your hotel restaurant or you’re at the one or two other places in town (assuming they’re open, of course).  In contrast, last year, when we controlled every aspect of our trip in the Loire Valley, we either booked hotels in larger towns (offering numerous dining options) or else we stayed at a hotel specifically so we could eat at a nearby restaurant.
  2. Adding up hotel fees, cycle rentals and luggage transfers, the cost of our week in Burgundy was twice that of our week in the Loire Valley.  On both trips, we stayed at hotels rated 3 stars by whatever agency in France rates such things.  While Burgundy is, in general, a pricier region to visit than the Loire Valley, I attribute most of the cost difference to the effort and expertise of Detours in France.

Santenay's town square

Our six days of cycling took us from the southern stretches of the Cote Chalonnaise, through the golden fields of chardonnay in the Cote de Beaune, and up north through the prized red wine vineyards of the Cote de Nuits.  (To visualize the region, click here for a map).

In general, we cycled 35-40 km a day, with a few days where we hit 50 km because we strayed from the day’s itinerary and got a little lost. This blog post covers the “southern” stretch of our trip, the Cote Chalonnaise and the Cote de Beaune areas.  This coming Friday, I’ll post about the Cote de Nuits, and next week I’ll wrap up with a post on all our restaurant adventures in the region.

Because we knew so little about Burgundy wines before our visit, we relied heavily on the almost too-comprehensive advice of this “Food Wine Burgundy” guide by David Downie, as well as tips from Detours in France and from friendly cavistes (wine shop owners) we met along the way.  Most vineyards either required advance booking or were closed during prime cycling hours (12-3 pm), so Jon and I stopped mostly at wine shops to do our tastings and make our purchases.

In Santenay, our “Food Wine Burgundy” guide highly recommended the Cave Vielles Vignes, which is right on the town square.  The shop offered an impressive inventory of wines, but sadly, the sales woman there was reluctant to offer us a tasting of wines and was generally unhelpful, so we bought two local (Santenay) wines at random there and called it a day.

Much friendlier was the Domaine de la Chappelle up the hill from the town square, which we visited at the recommendation of our Puligny-Montrachet B&B owner.  Its primary appeal:  you can drop in for a tasting without an advance booking.  Unfortunately, neither the 2008 reds nor the whites appealed, and we bought a bottle just to be polite.

Canal du Centre

From Santenay, we cycled south along the gorgeous Canal du Centre to reach the Cote Chalonnaise, where we heard there were bargain Burgundy wines to be found.

Takeaways:

(1) don’t bother stopping at Chateau de Rully, which offers neither tastings nor a tour of the chateau, contrary to the claims of Food Wine Burgundy.  (That’s two strikes against our chosen guidebook, and our edition was published in 2010!);

(2) Of the local wines we tried, we loved the 2007 Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey (about 20 euros), which was strong evidence that there are great deals to be found in the Cote Chalonnaise.  [Note that “local” in Burgundy means either the vineyard is located within the borders of the town you’re tasting in, or at most one or two towns away.]

cycling from Puligny-Montrachet to Meursault (pictured in the distance)

Our favorite of the hotels chosen by Detours in France was La Chouette, a B&B in Puligny-Montrachet.   The rooms were large, comfortable and stylish; the breakfasts were excellent; and Suzanne, the owner, is a wealth of local information.  (Suzanne and her husband also own Le Montrachet, a largeish luxury hotel across the street from La Chouette, and where we had dinner).  The published rack rate was 150 euros a night.

Puligny-Montrachet, where we stayed for two nights, is a one-horse town, and that horse is wine, so don’t expect to find a supermarket or even a fromagerie in town.  Instead, you’ll find lots of wine shops.

We enjoyed the wine tasting and wine chat we had with Julien Wallerand, the owner of Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet.  For 8 euros a person, we tasted four wines from Puligny-Montrachet, and one of my few regrets from the trip was not buying the 2008 villages by Domaine Bzikot (25 euros) we tried.  (For a brief description of how Burgundy wines are classified from Grand Cru and Premier Cru “down to” Villages and Regional, click here).

We skipped the wine pairing extravaganzas for which local giant, Olivier Leflaive, is famous, mostly because the man we spoke with at the hotel was unbearably patronising when we tried to clarify the different pricing options offered at dinner vs lunch.

Chateau de Pommard, not worth the 18 euros (per person!) admission

The town of Pommard, next door to Meursault, was a bummer because we stopped by the Chateau de Pommard.  The price of admission was 18 euros a person, and in case you think that the price includes a tour of the chateau, think again.

What your 18 euros buys  you:

(1) access to a “Picasso exhibit,” which is comprised of limited-edition Picasso prints (copies, really) and a few original ceramics, all for sale;

(2) a tour of the wine cellar, which, sadly, looks much like most other wine cellars.  In fact, if you’re dying to see a Cote de Beaune wine cellar, visit the one at Couvent des Cordeliers in Beaune for free; and

(3) a tasting of three of the Chateau’s wines, all of which contained too many sour notes for me to see their future potential (which our guide kept exhorting us to do).  That the wines were priced upwards of 50 euros a bottle was insult to injury.

From Pommard, it was a quick trip back up to Beaune, and then north through the Cote de Nuit, whose highlights will be in my next blog post.

Looking back, as much as we enjoyed staying at La Chouette, if I could re-do the trip, I’d stay in Santenay and Meursault, which were larger towns than Puligny-Montrachet, and consequently seemed to have more shops and restaurants to choose from.  Or maybe we’d stay next door to Puligny-Montrachet in Chassagne-Montrachet, home to Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Chassagne.

Or maybe next time, I’ll travel by car, and everyone will be spared my bellyaching about not being able to reach gourmet restaurants on bicycle.

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Le Chateaubriand restaurant, still busy at 10 pm on a Friday in late August

En route to Burgundy for a week of cycling and wine tasting, Jon and I decided to spend a weekend in Paris.  Trouble was that our trip fell in late August, when lots of desirable restaurants are still closed, pending la rentree in September (L’Agrume, I’m looking at you).  Of course, Paris is a big city, so of course we didn’t starve.  The executive summary?  Le Chateaubriand and Spring Restaurant are worth visiting even when you have all the choice in the world (i.e., even if it’s not August).  And I won’t be revisiting La Fontaine de Mars and L’Aromatik anytime soon.

Le Chateaubriand has a number of attractions despite its lack of Michelin stars.  For example:

  1. It’s passed muster with familiar and trusted London food bloggers like Gourmet Chick, Gourmet Traveller and Greedy Diva.
  2. It has the distinction of being number 11 on this year’s San Pelligrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (gotta love the chutzpah of claiming to rank every restaurant in the *world*, no?);
  3. It’s in the 11th arrondissement, which, over the last three years, has become my favorite area for exploration.  Between the Vietnamese wonders of Belleville (yes it’s technically in the 20th, but close enough), the presence of several other food-lover hotspots, and the charms of my fave hotel in Paris, the 11th is worthy of many blog posts, which I will spare you for now; and
  4. It’s open in late August.  Bonus points for having a walk-in-only 10 pm seating.  Meaning that if your Eurostar pulls into Gare du Nord a bit later than expected on a Friday night, no worries.  Parfait.

grilled squid at Le Chateaubriand

Le Chateaubriand’s menu is simple:  for your 50 euros, you’re served five courses with a few amuses thrown in.  As you’d expect from a kitchen that changes its menu daily and pushes the creative envelope, there are hits and misses.  For me, the hits were the grilled squid course, served practically raw but somehow still charcoal-smoky, and the rare, tender pigeon, complemented in texture and flavor by blanched almonds.  Dessert, comprised of berries with ice milk made of corn milk, was a miss, tasting mostly like Cap’n Crunch cereal, except not as tasty.  There’s good cheese and bread (Poujauran, bien sur), and a quirky wine list (our server’s recommendation of “La Roumanie Conte” was a hipster’s homage to La Romanee Conti, I suppose).

Definitely a place to return with friends.  Not so much for a quiet night out, though.  In fact, much as I loved Le Chateaubriand’s casual bistro decor and buzzy mood, I wouldn’t bring my parents here.   The vibe was pretty rockstar and even I, in my energetic 30s, felt a bit old and dowdy.  Maybe it’s different if you show up before the 10 pm seating?  And note the restaurant no longer serves lunch, which makes perfect sense considering that when Jon and I left at well after midnight, the place was still packed.

The newly-reopened Spring restaurant in the 1st

lobster roll at Spring, 24 euros (served only during Saturday lunch in August)

Spring is much adored by the Paris food press (click here for a sample of the adoration).  Chef-owner Daniel Rose is American, and the restaurant is located around the corner from the Louvre, so I wasn’t surprised to find a heavy anglophone contingent among diners when we turned up for Saturday lunch.  I reckon the jewel box, zen-chic restaurant would normally close for August, but seeing as how Spring’s snazzy 1st arrondissement location just opened several weeks ago (in July 2010), it’s no surprise they stayed open in August.  Lucky for me.  The trick is that when you book for Saturday lunch in August, you’re agreeing to eat only one thing when you arrive:  lobster rolls.

I’ll admit I felt kind of silly showing up in Paris to eat such a classic American sandwich.  But I was eager to see the new space, and I figured that with a week of eating in Burgundy ahead of me, an early break from “French food” would be no bad thing.

Thumbs up on the lobster roll:  sweet, almost-raw chunks of lobster meat, lightly dressed and carefully arranged on a buttered, toasted roll.  For 24 euros, I thought the portion was a bit meager, but that’s where the 6-euros-a-portion fries come in.  With the restaurant floor-to-ceiling windows thrown open on a sunny afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed and summery.  A good lunch, but I left without a sense of what makes the restaurant so highly regarded.  So I’ll look forward to the inevitable flood of blog posts about dinner there.

escalope of foie gras (30 euros) at La Fontaine de Mars in the 7th

Finding an open restaurant on Sunday is challenging under the best of circumstances in Paris (which means I usually spend Sundays in Belleville for Vietnamese food).  In August, the task seems impossible.  This is when popular-with-anglophone tourist spots prove their value.  They’re always open, it seems.  And so we found ourselves meeting a friend for an early Sunday lunch at La Fontaine de Mars, whose latest claim to fame is last summer’s Obama visit.  The food ranged from mediocre-and-expensive (roast chicken with mashed potatoes for 20 euros) to pretty-good-and-expensive (escalope of foie gras for 30 euros).  All the bistro classics are there, with nods to Burgundy (oeufs en meurette and escargots).

Pet peeve alert:  when we arrived, the servers told us all the outdoor tables were specifically reserved, so we were seated at an indoor table.  And when we left – I kid you not – all the outdoor tables were still empty.  All of them.

Overall, the place could have been worse, but unless you find yourself dying of starvation while visiting the Eiffel Tower, there are plenty of other, similarly-attractive bistros serving the same dishes at half the price.  I will give them this, though:  supremely clean, comfortable loos.  No wonder my countrymen love it so.

L'Aromatik in the 9th

roulade de cabillaud (cod) at L'Aromatik

Exacerbating the “everything’s closed in August” problem was my failure to make restaurant bookings until two days before we arrived in Paris (Rino actually laughed when I rang up on Wednesday looking for a Saturday night table).  So I scoured the blogs of two trusted sources of Paris restaurant intell and came across this post and this post about L’Aromatik in the 9th.  Attractive bistro serving simple, well-prepared dishes on its 35-euro prix fixe menu.  Sounds good, no?

Sadly, while the art deco-tiled space is indeed attractive, the food was pretty mediocre.  Take, for example, Jon’s roulade of cod (pictured above).  There was way too much going on on that plate, and really, I can make bacon-wrapped cod at home.  My supreme de pintadeau Maury et nectarines caramelisees au sechuan wasn’t much better.  The nectarines were crunchy and raw (definitely not caramelised), and I didn’t taste or see any sechuan influence.  So basically, I was served chicken with nectarines on the side. Desserts were of the sort that get served at large catered events.

Our server, perfectly nice, kept trying to steer us away from the prix fixe and towards the much-pricier a la carte, so that was a bummer, too.  On the whole, L’Aromatik struck me as no good.  Not even good as a neighborhood place, really.

Le Chateaubriand, 129 Avenue Parmentier, 11th arrondissement; +33 1 43 57 45 95‎; closest metro:  Goncourt

Spring Restaurant, 6 Rue Bailleul, 1st arrondissement; + 33 1 58 62 44 30; closest metro:  Louvre-Rivoli

La Fontaine de Mars, 129 Rue Saint-Dominique, 7th arrondissement; +33 1 47 05 46 44; closest metro: Ecole Militaire or La Tour-Maubourg

L’Aromatik, 7 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 9th arrondissement; +33 1 48 74 62 27‎; closest metro: Trinite d’Estienne d’Orves, Saint-Georges or Liege

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Jacquemart Andre museum

Love Paris but been there more times than you can count?  Need something to do in between meals besides shop?  Two weekends ago, that’s the enviable position I found myself in.

First stop:  the Petit Palais to see if we could catch the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit.  Alas, it was the last weekend of the exhibition and the queue was too long.  No worries.  From there it was a quick velib ride over to the Jacquemart-Andre Museum, which was wonderfully empty and peaceful (metro:  Miromesnil).  Included in our 10-euro admission fee was an audioguide that was actually pretty good, explaining not just the “what” of everything in the house, but also the “how” and “why.”  It’s a lot like visiting the Frick Collection in New York, giving you a glimpse into the life of a wealthy 19th-century family.  In this case, that of a couple (Edouard Andre and Nelie Jacquemart) who had no kids but instead directed their passion towards art collecting.  The house was beautiful, and the museum’s Rembrandts and Canalettos were just icing on the cake.

courtyard gardens at the Musee Carnavalet

Much as Jon and I love the Marais and the Place des Vosges (take a quick peek at Maison de Victor Hugo in the square’s southeast corner – it’s free), the area can be super crowded on Sunday, mostly because it’s one of the rare neighborhoods with shops and restos that stay open that day.  (By the way, I know the Marais has long been a Jewish nbhd, but has anyone noticed how much Rue des Rosiers is thriving as a Jewish-themed amusement park?  See e.g., the guys eagerly displaying tefillin on card tables and the multiple roving klezmer bands performing the entire Fiddler soundtrack.)

So for a little peace and quiet after, say, a visit to tried-and-true L’As du Falafel, Jon and I like to pop into the quiet courtyard garden of the Musee Carnavalet.  It’s a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, but I think its real attraction lies in the two gorgeous old hotels particuliers that house the museum’s collection.

the gardens at the Hotel de Sully

Speaking of hotels partculiers, the Marais is packed with them.  The trick, though, is that by design, they’re not easy to spot from the outside.  If you’re looking for a shortcut from noisy, busy Rue St. Antoine (aka Rue de Rivoli at its eastern end) into the Place des Vosges, look for the Hotel de Sully.  If you’re like me, you’ll be astounded that it’s one of those gems that’s been right under your nose forever.

outdoor performance pavillion at the Parc Floral

When in Paris, Jon and I like to stay at the stylish, welcoming and affordable Grand Hotel Francais in the 11th, which is not only close to food-lover hotspots like Bistro Paul Bert and Le Chateaubriand, but also it’s just a few metro stops away from the Parc Floral (metro: Chateau de Vincennes). On weekends, the Parc Floral charges 5 euros admission, which enables you to stroll around a gorgeous botanical garden with an outdoor performance space feauturing some great classical and jazz musicians.  Catch a performance on a sunny afternoon and be sure to make time for the impressive collection of lovely bansai trees (I swear I’m not as old as this last sentence is making me sound).

Those with kiddies will appreciate the mini golf course, which sadly doesn’t feature windmills or scary clowns with moving mouths.  Rather, there are serious-looking miniatures of French landmarks.  So French!

Winged Victory - an oldie but a goodie, esp when it's free admission at the Louvre

These days, I skip the “big” sights when I’m in Paris, mostly because I’ve seen them lots already, and they’re expensive and crowded.  But our last trip to Paris fell on the first Sunday of the month.  Which means?  Museums are free!  It seems I’m happy to drop by the Louvre when I don’t have to shell out 9.50 euros.  After all, even the aggressive camera-wielding crowds don’t seem as awful when you’re there for free.

Tuileries

The Tuileries, of course, are always free.  And with a Pierre Herme boutique just off the Rue de Rivoli (4, Rue Cambon), I’m a happy lady if I can snag a coveted metal chair by one of the fountains and savor the latest and greatest macarons by le maitre.

It seems that as much as I enjoy the less-heralded bits of Paris, some things are popular and timeless for good reason.

Dear readers, what are your favorite things to do in Paris?

Pierre Herme - a nice way to end every trip to Paris

For more on Paris, click on this post, “Paris Odds and Ends (May 2009)

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La Grenouillere, Montreuil, France

Poor Pas de Calais.  Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t question its commonly-held reputation as a pass-through to Paris or as a destination for an alcohol run.

Happily, Jon’s rellies invited us to their weekend home in Montreuil-sur-Mer so we could appreciate the charms of a pretty French village located two hours by train and car from London.

Montreuil-sur-Mer has many charms, but the star attraction in my book is Alexandre Gauthier‘s one-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Grenouillere, located just outside the town walls in La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil.

rice flour chips

The restaurant-inn is built around an idyllic courtyard that was perfect for outdoor aperos.  Pretty as the setting was, things got off to a rocky start with the rice flour “chips” that were served while we looked at the menu — they were hot and crispy (plus) but sadly stale-tasting (minus).

Our hosts, who’d been to La Grenouillere before, directed us towards the menu decouverte at 95 euros a person, and we moved inside for dinner.

cucumber, green strawberries and basil

John Dory, artichoke hearts and grilled garlic

Once seated, our dinner started with a series of carefully-constructed courses that would be at home in any 2-Michelin-star restaurant:   creative, attractive and tasty, and I’m giving all of them short shrift because of the three courses that arrived towards the end of the meal.  Three courses that were mind-blowingly good.

roast lobster tail hidden in a burning (Juniper) bush

roast lobster tail revealed

Our server entered the room trailing smoke.  He was carrying a tray of what appeared to be pine-tree branches on fire.  Theatrical to the nth degree.  What saved the course from gimmick was its sheer deliciousness.  This was the best hot lobster dish of my life.  Sweet, intensely smoky, juicy.  I’m drooling just thinking about it.  And to top it all off, we had to eat with our hands.  It turns out that eating lobster tail with your hands is both sexy and fun.  Our table couldn’t help laughing and smiling.

lobster claw soup

Waste not, want not.  Our next course was lobster soup packed with lobster claw meat and perfumed with sharp, stinky cheese foam.  If you understand the appeal of Cheez-Its, you’ll begin to understand what made this soup so irresistible.

flash grilled steak, thinly sliced, served with morels

And as if two memorably delicious courses weren’t enough, our meat course was yet another tour de force:  “ferré, mauvaises herbes,” which I translate as “rails, with weeds.”  Served tableside were thin slices of perfectly-rare steak somehow flash grilled with an intense smoky flavor.  How it looked and tasted so gorgeously grilled while staying silky and juicy is a mystery.

"jam and toast"

Steak course over, we went back to the merely clever, tasty and beautiful.  Jam and toast in haute couture form.

sorrel ice cream in a broken "glass"

“Bulle d’oseille” (bubble sorrel) was a highly amusing and whimsical palate cleanser.  I’d hate to ruin the game, but I will say that it’s worth ducking for cover when this course arrives.

the surprise ending (no spoiler here)

The ultimate surprise was the petit four.  Mum’s the word.

Dinner at La Grenouillere was delicious and fun.  It’s easy to become jaded when you eat out so often, and for a few hours, La Grenouillere brought back the wonder and joy of eating someplace special and new.  So plan a weekend away and see what Monsieur Gauthier is up to in Montreuil.

  • Menu decouverte (includes two lobster courses): 95 euros
  • Menu degustation (without the lobster courses): 75 euros [but really, you’d be missing the point if you skipped the lobster courses]
  • a la carte: 30-euro starters, 45-euro mains

La Grenouillere, La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil 62170 France; +33 (0)21 06 07 22; Eurostar runs several daily trains to Calais (a one-hour ride from St. Pancras) and then it’s a 50-minute drive south; alternatively, it’s a nice stop on the way from Paris to England, 2.5 hours northwest of Paris.

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