Archive for the ‘Dining’ Category

Dining Out – Léo le Lion, Paris VII

July 12, 2012

Léo le Leon on the rue Duvivier in the 7th arrondissement. Will the Lion roar after a fantastic meal, or whimper over dashed expectations?

The Experienced Travelers have passed Léo le Lion in the rue Duvivier many times over the years.  The online reviews were positive, so it was time to try this neighborhood restaurant. This was Barbara and Chris’ first dinner out in Paris, and we wanted it to be grand.

Barbara and Julie consult with a local over Léo le Lion’s menu.

Barbara and I joined another lady reviewing the menu.  When I asked if she had eaten here, she said no and immediately started pointing up the street toward Le Florimond.  Once I assured her we had reservations at Le Florimond the following week, we debated the finer points of the menu and she agreed that we should carry on.  Was this a premonition?  Would we spend the evening chez Léo wishing we were down the street chez Laurent?

Preparing to dine; Julie, Nurse, Christine and Barbara pose for our loquacious waiter

So in we went to a cozy room done in dark red and pink –  hues that will flatter every girl’s complexion.  The tables were a tad snug even for Paris, and those of us in straight-backed chairs wriggled and shifted our way through the meal. But the meal was what we were there for, and so, dear Readership let’s dig in.

Nurse’s Gambas rôties décortiquées et leur rizotto au basilique. Beautiful and bountiful.

Nurse had shrimp with a risotto that she’s still talking about.  Our waiter explained that the arborio rice was cooked in chicken broth with fresh basil, a touch of garlic, salt and pepper.  Simplicity at it’s best.  I don’t recall that she shared her shrimp, which tells me all I need to know.

My Filet de bar au four à la crème de lentille. Two things I wouldn’t have put together that heretofore shall always be together!

My filet de bar was similar to sea bass and the lentil cream was a wonderful surprise.  I had to make choices here, and decided to leave the broccoli behind in favor of the fish, sauce and mashed potatoes.  Altogether, it was a wise strategy.

Magret de canard aux deux pommes, sauce au cidre for Christine

The duck in cider sauce arrived looking like it had been passed over a match, so Chris took the risk and ask for it to be cooked a little longer.  This is a Parisian restaurant so we took cover and expected a tirade of abuse from the waiter, or worse, the chef.  What a relief when her dinner returned, cooked the way she wanted it, accompanied by nothing more than a smile.  What they said about us back in the kitchen is a mystery and it shall remain thus.

Fresh scallops in a delicate cream sauce make a luscious presentation

Barbara’s scallops were perfectly done and brought a smile of delight. They must have gone well with the chardonnay.  I don’t know why we had chardonnay since Barbara doesn’t like it, but maybe the scallops made her forget.  Better than needing the chardonnay to forget the scallops.

The food was satisfying and inventive. And it was a great meal for Barbara and Christine to inaugurate their dining experience in Paris.  Our meal came to 118 euros for four plats and the bottle of wine.  We thought the entrées were a bit expensive and decided to forgo them.

Was it the chairs?

So why did we decide to finish our wine and get dessert elsewhere?  We think the room felt too cramped, even though it wasn’t full. Maybe it was those straight chairs.  Maybe it was the waiter who pronounced “no kiss for you” when we opted not to have dessert.

It’s not that we don’t recommend Léo le Lion.  We appreciated the quality and care that went into our meals, but there was something we can’t define that made us ready to move on after dinner.  So tell us about your experience at Léo le Lion and help the ETs bring closure to our questions!

They are not yellow. They’re a very chic shade of green and we stand by that!

Addendum:  A Word About The Coats

I know you’re going to ask.  Barbara and I independently brought new bright green raincoats.  I can’t tell you how many people waited for us to raise closed umbrellas and lead a tour group back to the bus.  I decided to break with the typical Parisian black coat and “go green” knowing I would be easy to find in any Paris crowd.  So there.

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Dinner and a Show: Chez La Mère Catherine in Montmartre

March 18, 2012

The place du Tertre on a warm Friday evening

The ETs willingly succumb to the charm of Montmartre , despite the wild throngs of tourists in search of Utrillo and other starving artists from it”s golden years.  Hoping to get a sense of neighborhood life on the butte, Melinda and I made the climb one evening, after the tour busses departed.

We wandered around looking in shops and admiring village architecture masked by windows hawking teeshirts and Monet-themed umbrellas. It wasn’t long before we were hungry, with nothing to guide us but posted menus and the apparent satisfaction of patrons on the terraces.

Dining in Montmartre can be a hit-or-miss proposition.  On past visits, I avoided the central place du Tertre which is overrun by the aforementioned crowds.  But we were hungry, and somehow the crazy circus of passers-by fit our mood, so we decided to give it a try.

A Montmartre tradition

We found an outdoor table at Chez La Mère Catherine on the perimeter of the action, and got to work immediately by ordering our first bottle.  Wine is welcome at any meal in Paris, but mandatory for an evening in Montmartre.

A table for two was all we needed

It turns out that we made a fine choice.  Chez La Mère Catherine has been dishing up frogs legs, pork confit and crêpes suzette since 1793.  Opening a restaurant in the midst of the revolutionary Reign of Terror demonstrates a commendable optimism on the part of Mère Catherine.  And it was optimism well placed.  Her restaurant has outlasted two French Republics, the Paris Commune, the Second Empire, the Siege of Paris, the Nazis and the introduction of the Euro.

It is said that during the Battle of Paris in 1814, some invading Cossacks slipped off to Montmartre for a taste of Paris nightlife and made their way to La Mère Catherine.  Out on the town without the knowledge of their senior officers, the soldiers had alot to do in a short time. Between rounds, they yelled “Bistro! Bistro!” (Hurry! Hurry!) and coined the term.   The ETs feel justified when they can learn history while dining out in Paris, and here we find that Mère Catherine was right in the midst of it all!

Relaxed and dishevelled with toasts all round. The magic of La Mère Catherine transported the ETs

Once our attentive waiter advised us on dinner, we settled back to watch the show unfold.  Before us went groups of kids out for a Friday night, befuddled tourists swept along by the crowd and hungry portrait artists in search of paying subjects. This was better than the Lido, and cheaper too.  I don’t mind the Montmartre crowds when I am a drinking spectator with dinner on the horizon.

Tasty marinated pork isn't terribly photogenic

At last our meal was served.  Melinda chose tender pork marinated in cider with potatoes lyonnaise that were fine.  I had the ever-popular beef bourguignon with pasta and a grilled tomato that was adequate and filling.  Our satisfaction rose with the arrival of a gâteau au chocolat with crème anglaise  and raspberry coulis.

Fit for a Cossack - beef bourguignon and some puzzling pasta

Mère Catherine is a purveyor of standard cuisine and on that count, she delivers.  This wasn’t a Michelin meal.  But dear Readership, consider the balmy evening breeze, the checkered tablecloth, the warbling chanteuse accompanied by a rickety old piano, the entertainment in the place du Tertre and the warm goodwill engendered by the wine.  Clearly, you can have a delightful night out in Montmartre.

Popular lore claims that it was here that the revolutionary Danton wrote “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die”.  That was far more likely in Paris of 1793 if you were a fleeing aristocrat with the family jewels sewn into your seams.  Yet the ETs agree we could fare worse than to make our final stop at Chez La Mère Catherine to enjoy the ambiance over a leisurely, satisfying meal before the guillotine falls.

What might Danton have made of the raspberry coulis? Vive la France!

Back to Balzar

November 10, 2011

A votre service. Our waiter at the Brasserie Balzar

The Experienced Travelers will try most anything once — and some things twice.  When Melinda and I visited Paris this past April, I knew I had to revisit the Brasserie Balzar near the Sorbonne.  Fans of Balzar are numerous and steadfast.  But after my lackluster visit in 2009,  I was mystified as to why Balzar commanded such fierce fidelity.  (Read about my 2009 visit here)

Is it the homespun ambiance of Balzar that makes true believers?

Online reviews cite Balzar as “the best brasserie in Paris offering hearty traditional cuisine” and  “THE single meal a first-timer in Paris should experience”.   So, dear Readership, what did I miss?  Are Balzar believers entranced by the potted palms and mirrored walls behind the banquettes?  Are they loyal to a favourite waiter who knows their preferences by heart?  Or is it the homey decor that utilizes spare surfaces for storing cutlery, straws, cheeses, bread knives, petit-fours, salad bowls and spare linens.

We prepare to embark on a careful ET scientific experiment

Melinda was  the perfect unbiased dining companion with whom to unravel the mystery of Balzar.  We ordered a light lunch and inaugurated our exploration with a chilled rosé and a basket of french bread which was, I must say,  just superlative.  Perhaps my star and Balzar’s were about to have a happy collision at last.

Is this onion soup the best in Paris?

Melinda’s soupe gratinée à loignon Balzar was the subject of an ET controlled comparison to see how it stood up to the onion soup from Au Pied de Cochon, which we devoured earlier in the trip.  Well, dear Readership, Balzar’s soup was hearty and gooey with cheese,  but it wasn’t as flavorful as its competitor across the Seine.

And just to be perfectly clear – there was no bias based on our consumption of rosé .  We were very careful to drink just as much at Balzar as we enjoyed at Au Pied de Cochon.  The ETs are completely scientific in our methods.

This salad could make me a Balzar believer

My salade gourmande au foie gras de canard et magret fumé, figues séchées was actually spectacular, with generous slices of smoked duck, plenty of foie gras, a light dressing and lovely dried figs.  I began to warm toward Balzar over this salad and hoped it would elevate me to the brasserie’s holy anointed.

Our meal was satisfactory – actually better than my 2009 excursion – but not truly memorable, or inexpensive by ET standards (about 40 euro for two of us).  Again, I am left wondering what makes this brasserie so dear to so many.

I clearly have a secret desire – nay, an obsession –  to belong to the select group of  Balzar fanatics.  But it is not to be.   The ETs must find their own Alsatian hideaway – a Parisian brasserie that inspires loyalty and devotion.  It could take years to accomplish, which is all the better for the Readership who so loves to read about food!

J’ai Faim! Le Bistrot d’Henri

August 15, 2011

Le Bistrot d'Henri

Ohhh, j’ai faim. The Experienced Travelers pledge fidelity to our food-mad Readership with a restaurant report on Le Bistrot d’Henri in the 6th, near the Place St. Germain at 16 rue Princesse.  How apropos that Melinda and I dined like “les princesses” at the Bistrot. (Hopefully like princesses that kept their heads after 1789.)  And what could be better for a girl’s frame of mind than a great meal with a flirtatious Frenchman at the next table.

We found Henri through the Adrian Leeds Top 100 Cheap Restaurants guide. Cheap was a relative term for our weak US dollar, but Adrian steered us right. This was an excellent use for the Found Money I saved by resisting the  Hermès scarf ring.

A flash in the pan promises excellence on a plate at Le Bistrot d'Henri

We settled into the deep banquette and immediately began research on a bottle of Côtes de Provence. Dancing flames and culinary gymnastics from the open kitchen sent us straight to the menu.  Here I exercised caution, because the French disguise liver with sonorous phrases that trick me every time. I once ordered three courses that were all liver and Nurse has never let me forget it.

Be upstanding and welcome this terrine into the ET Culinary Hall of Fame

Melinda and I opened the proceedings with terrine de fois de volaille de maison,  a chicken terrine that rightfully rests in the ET Culinary Hall of Fame.

Melinda practices her terrine spreading technique

Dear Readership, Henri’s terrine is a 7-euro meal in itself. During Proustian “involuntary memory” moments, it all comes back to me; textured goodness heaped on a round of baguette, going down with a satisfaction that is uniquely French.  Forget what I said about liver. I was wrong.  Henri has reformed me.

Free-range Bresse chicken with mushrooms was top-notch

We poured more wine to prepare our pallets for the plats; Melinda’s ravioli in cream sauce and my poulet fermier a la crème aux champignons, which was safely not liver, but free-range Bresse chicken in white sauce with mushrooms.  We were delighted to share an order of potatoes gratin dauphinois and dined as the restaurant filled to capacity, and the din of convivial chatter rose.

Pear clafouti with a shy creme caramel just behind

The table next to ours was occupied by two couples. The man next to us took an immediate interest in what we were eating and where we were from. He mesmerized us with a Gallic style that held us in thrall. His wife rolled her eyes to the other couple while Monsieur Charm ably pointed out the merits of our crème caramel and pear clafouti.

When done well, French flirtation is an experience that ranks with the Louvre and a ride on the Seine as necessary Parisian events.  And now I know it can be practiced in the presence of one’s wife, purely for sport and spirited repartee.

French dining offers ample opportunities for a sporting flirtation

Fortunately, all French men flirt, so there’s plenty to go around.  A first-rate engagement strategy is in play when he admires your stunning command of the French language.  I only know 15 minutes of French – all in the present-tense —   so this is a gratuitous compliment that works every time.  Flirting is harmless and character-building, and recounting it will amuse your friends once you get home.

Melinda and I said our goodbyes to Monsieur Charm (who told us it was a French custom that you don’t leave your dinner until the table next to you has finished…) and walked to the Café Flore for the ritual nightcap.

Our dinner at Le Bistrot d’Henri in the rue Princesse did leave us feeling like royalty – comfortably full of excellent food and well attended by hovering staff and our neighboring Frenchman.  Vive la France and all who dwell in her.

To check out online reviews for Le Bistrot d’Henri and get directions click here

Outdoors at the Cafe Flore - the perfect nightcap on the Blvd St.-Germain

From the archives: Turning fifty at Le Florimond

July 16, 2011

Revisiting a 50th birthday meal at Le Florimond

(As many of you know, Nurse is in the hospital dealing with an infection after a knee surgery. She is doing well and appreciates your good wishes.  While I focus my attention on hospital runs,  I dipped into the archives for this latest post.)

When the Experienced Travelers found photos celebrating a past meal at  Le Florimond,  we thought you wouldn’t mind another visit.  Don your napkins, sharpen your knives and prepare to enjoy the feast that marked my 50th birthday.

I managed to make phone reservations for 7pm. (the Anglo-Saxon dinner hour;  Gauls dine at 8:30)  We arrived promptly only to be told “Mesdames, you are expected at 7pm.”  After extensive Franglais, arm waving and pointing, we grasped a single phrase –   Daylight Savings Time.  It had ended *three days earlier*.  Alors! 

That explained the chilly stares when Nurse bought our morning croissants (an hour early) and why the salon was closed when we arrived for a haircut (an hour early), yet the stylist never apologized for being late.  We thought les gens were being French.  It was les Americaines being clueless. 

These soothing lobster ravioli eased the shock of turning 50

An hour later, we were greeted with smiles and warm welcomes.  Turning 50 was not a happy event for this Birthday ET.  Le Florimond’s Laurent carefully chose a menu guranteed to bring the me back from the brink.  We made a genteel toast to my next 50 years and awaited the first course. 

We started with the house speciality lobster ravioli in a light satisfying sauce of tomato and cream. This dish has occupied our dreams since our first visit in 1998 (when the Birthday ET was a mere lad-ette of 40…) And a fresh baguette insured that not a drop of  sauce remained in the dish.  The wine flowed; Nurse proposed a hearty toast to the lobsters that made it possible.

Divine Alsatian sausage strengthened Nurse for the dishes to come

After just one course, I was reviving.  The chatter in the dining room modulated from English to French as the Parisian dinner hour approached.  It was the perfect atmosphere for another house specialty, the Saucisse d’Alsace-Lorraine,  served with sauteed spinach and firm gnocchi.  More wine and a heartfelt toast to the good citizens of Alsace-Lorraine followed.

Salmon inspired the Birthday-ET to face the future with confidence

The salmon with pureed turnip and a sort of pierogi was a youth-inducing dish.  My spirits were climbing.  I was able to say “fifty”.  The magic of the Florimond kitchen was working.  We had to toast the cheese ladies, the boulanger and all the good people of Paris!

The Birthday ET and Laurent

By now the overall mood at the celebrating ET table was much improved.  Surely, if I had to turn 50, doing so under the watchful eyes of Laurent and Nurse was the only way. 

Bonne Anniversaire!

The crowning glory of the evening was dessert and the birthday serenade from Laurent and our server.  The wine.  The lobster ravioli.  The baguette. The salmon.  Nurse’s saucisse.  And now, the dessert. 

The crowning glory rivals the nearby Eiffel Tower

A perfect poached pear with ladyfingers, a vanilla coupe de glace, whipped cream and a lovely pear sauce.  Since the dish contained an actual pear, it was a healthy dessert.  One plate and two forks meant Nurse had to assist, so we obeyed Laurent and made fast work of this perfect treat. 

This called for multiple toasts to the forty Immortels of  L’Académie française who protect the sanctity of French language and culture.

At last, over a petit cafe, I came to terms.  I was full, content, a little drunk, and in Paris.  So how bad was it to turn 50?  Not bad at all.

The best place to turn 50

Best of Bruges II

June 2, 2011

 

Bruges Markt Square - behind these lovely facades lay retail opportunities

(Miss a post?  Read the Best of Bruges Part I first!)

The ETs thoroughly enjoyed Belgian hospitality in the medieval city of Bruges.  In spite of a light rain and a disappointing hotel, we saw, we ate, we conquered.  As we mentioned in our last post, Bruges was a city of surprises which, except for the hotel, were exceedingly good.

Our second day was sunny and perfect for a canal tour by boat.  It’s very close quarters and potentially lethal for tall people every time a bridge approaches, but we had a fine time afloat and highly recommend it. 

Basilica of the Holy Blood off Burg Square. The ETs were surprised to be present for the veneration.

Our next stop was the Basilica of the Holy Blood on Burg Square.  It was a complete surprise to learn that a vial of the Blood of Christ would be on view during our visit!

The Holy Blood relic that we so much want you to see (Photo by Matt Hopkins, Wiki Commons)

Timing is everything, and the ETs lined up to venerate.  The relic is encased in a rock crystal vial, inside a glass tube with gold crown-shaped ends. The rock crystal is cut in a manner typical of 12th century Constantinople, which supports the story that it was given to Count of Flanders Diederik van de Elzas after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204.  That gives the ETs just one degree of separation from a crusader siege. 

Bisquick and a waffle iron doth not a Belgian waffle make

After the visit to the Basilica and our adventures on the high seas of Bruge canals, we deserved a treat.  The ETs vowed not to cross the border without tasting an authentic Belgian waffle.  The Verdi Tea Room was the perfect venue for our cross-cultural plans.  Although the room was decorated with tiny busts of Viennese composers, the food was purely local. 

The ETs formally attest that Belgian waffles bear no resemblence to the thick, doughy “syrup conveyances” served in diners throughout the US.  The real thing is thin and crunchy with a soft, fragrant interior.  Unsalted butter and a dusting of powdered sugar is all that’s needed.  Bruges really is full of surprises.

Pheasant “sans glass” was just perfect

And while we’re on the sacred subject of food, I must mention that we gleefully returned to Bierbrasserie Cambrinus so Nurse could have the croquettes again. This time I surprised myself and tried pheasant, which was excellent.  Of course we ordered more beers and  impressed our hosts by reciting the legislative powers of the Belgian Federal Parliament.

Windowshopping for Belgian chocolate is another "must do" in Bruges

 After saying a heartfelt goodbye to our new best friends at the bierbrasserie, we needed air.    The storefronts that aren’t selling lace or more beer belong to chocolate.  We chose the Maison du Chocolat which excelled at everything from the basic chocolate square to truffles and marzipan.

Walking-shopping in Bruges is a delight

The final surprise in Bruges was an Italian wine product called Fernet Branca.  We both loved the hillarious book Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson.  So when we saw it on a cafe menu in Bruges, it was destiny. 

Fernet Branca. The eagle is dropping the deadly spirit into the glasses of unsuspecting ETs (Morten Oddvik, WikiCommons)

Our waiter pleaded with us to try anything else on the menu, and only agreed to serve the mysterious Fernet-B.  if he brought us a “sample” first.  Belgians are a proud and caring people, and he stayed at our side while we took our first sips.  The ETs survived, thanks to the ministrations of that waiter, and now they bring this message to the world; Fernet Branca can kill.  If you want to swallow tongues of  fire that taste like paint thinner, then Fernet-B is for you. 

The Provincial Hoff in Markt Square, flying the flags to mark our unprecedented consumption of beer.

We are ready to return to Bruges as soon as we’re allowed to go back.  It is a remarkable and beautiful city that is, indeed, full of surprises.  If you get there before we do, please tell the folks at the Bierbrasserie that The ETs miss them, and stop by to admire the Fernet-B waiter’s Cross of Valor.

C’est Frommage: Cantin

May 11, 2011

Say Cheese!

The Experienced Travelers promised our faithful Food-eurs and Food-ettes a taste of Paris, and it’s time we delivered.  Uncork  your favourite vintage and keep an aged wedge near at hand, because you’ll need both by the end of this post.

As many of you know, Nurse and I often rent an apartment off the rue de Champs de Mars.  This gives us the thrill of food shopping in the rue Cler and the deep satisfaction of Nurse’s talents in our kitchen – compounded by the Found Money from “eating in” that we can fritter away later.

Naturally we visited the cheese  store on the corner, lured by the dazzling window display of wedges and rounds.  Who knew that our corner shop was the world-renown Marie-Anne Cantin fromager de tradition Affineur.

Cantin on the rue de Champs de Mars: through these doors lies perfection

Cantin supplies the best Paris hotels and aristocratic tables.  When the Sarkozys entertain at the Élysée Palace, Carla rings up Cantin.  Surely this tenuous thread is the closest the ETs have come to the ermine cloak of power.  Can la Légion d’ honneur be far behind?

Calling all citoyens - slice a baguette and dive in

Mme. Cantin’s father opened the shop in 1950 and it is from him that she learned the art of cheese-making.  She ages her own delicacies in one of her seven caves, and sources others from small farms.  Mme.’s website advises that the process begins with the hay or grass that a happy cow, goat or ewe grazes, and finishes in caves, aging from a few weeks to two years for a beaufort or comté. (We may have cheeses aging that long in the fridge. Does that count?)

Hungry yet? Mme. Cantin's cheeses are cause for celebration

The inviting shop features chèvre, brie, camembert, comté, roquefort and cantal.   Even the uncompromising liverot – the colonel of cheese – stands at attention.  If you’re inclined to raw milk cheeses, Mme. can fulfill your order with the authentic item.  There is also rich butter and exquisite crème fraîche doled out from a large bowl.

The ETs were welcomed by the helpul staff at Cantin

Last month I brought Melinda to worship at this  Shrine of Cheese.  She went directly for the hard cheese while I favored the chevres.  We floated on the sweet pungent scents, admiring the selection and fingering the Found Money in our pockets.  The staff graciously explained the bounty before us, while I shamefully wished for a Triscuit and a knife.  My friend Stephen swears that the smelly, runny varieties are most satisfying.  He would be delighted with Cantin.

On an earlier trip, this delectable Cantin epoisses raised the standard of our vin ordinaire

Rest assured the ETs are dedicated to further exploration of Marie-Anne Cantin’s excellent craft whenever they are in the rue de Champs de Mars.  And when we win the lottery, we’ll have Mme. Cantin on speed-dial, just like Carla Bruni and the Comte de Paris.

The “No Wine Left Behind” Tour – Part Deux

April 30, 2011

Toutes directions! The Experienced Travelers follow the signs to more Parisian delights

The Experienced Travelers’ Parisian Saga of Joy continues.  If you missed the first part, read it here!  Nurse’s daughter Melinda was an energetic explorer who politely tolerated my obscure references to Proust’s grandmother.  (Melinda texts Nurse:  is Proust a friend of Julie’s?) 

You will not be surprised to learn that we slept soundly after 14 glasses of wine that first day.  So with strict “vin consumption” rules in effect, our exploits over the next four days took us into the heart, soul and stomach of Paris.  Nurse was on board from Command Central texting advice (go w/the sancerre) 

Circumnavigating the rue Mouffetard looking for the market.

We covered the Marais, the rue Mouffetard to the Sorbonne, the Luxembourg gardens, the islands, the Odeon-St Germain neighborhood, the Champs Elyseesand much more.  I did revisit the Brasserie Balzar as promised, and will report on that and other meals in future posts.   And this time I didn’t ask where St. Joan of Arc was buried, which restored my teetering credibility with the French. (Nurse: pls say u didnt ask about Joan again)

As attentive ETs, we absorbed the meaningful lessons that travel offers us:

ET Melinda got us to our destinations with her Texas know-how on the metro

Never change lines at Chatalet.  Melinda is now a metro wiz and learned that you’ll walk underground to the English Channel to make your correspondence at the Chatalet station.  She navigated while we wandered the tunnels chanting “Direction Boulogne-change at Motte Picquet-Direction Etoile to the sound of a busker’s accordion.

A fine snack awaits ETs who climb

The official ET cardiovascular strength-building activity is taking metro stairs to offset the cheese and foie gras.  We believe it’s a win-win for all body parts!  For a complete workout bypass the elevator at  Abbesses or Cité stations and earn  a four-course meal once you reach the top (well, after they administer the oxygen).

Croque Monsieur must mean "divine" in French. This one was - in any language.

French comfort food.  Melinda approached her first croque-monsieur like Napoleon’s army at Austerlitz and declared it “the perfect hangover dish”.  Fresh white bread, parisian ham and hot gruyere over oozing bearnaise bolsters the spirit and satisfies any hunger.  (Nurse: def take the stairs after that)

Hold on with both hands.  In an effort to develop transatlantic sensibilities, I tried ambidextrous eating, with the fork in my left hand and knife in my right. Practice makes perfect and steak-frites is the recommended final exam. (Nurse: yes more stairs)

Macarons are delicate cargo - it must be the ganache

Necessity is la mere d’invention.  Who knew that the reliable single-macaron transport container is an empty band-aid box.  I brought macarons back for Nurse to taste-test and this method worked. (Nurse: don’t come home w/out choc, pistachio and lemon)  I now have a ready supply of French band-aids in case I cut myself on a baguette crust.

Beware the grab-n-run.  We got sage advice from a friendly Parisian couple at the Cafe Flore.  Enterprising thieves will perform a pirouette à la seconde and grab valuables from cafe tables at the front row of the terrace.   In fact, he spotted someone casing tables while we chatted. So the first thing we did was move the macarons to safety.

All Hail St. Genvieve the Patron Saint of Paris.  The night before our departure, I got a midnight call telling me our flight home was canceled.  Voila – an extra day in Paris and 60 euros of Found Money because we didn’t have to traipse to the airport to find out.  Was it because we visited the tomb of St Genvieve, who knows how to crash a fuel truck into a jet? (which did happen and could only be a miracle)

So it’s clear to us that the way to acquire knowledge, raise your metabolism and experience miracles is to spend a few days in Paris.   Your efforts will bring wisdom, virtue and gastronomic excellence.

These streets are made for Walkin' ETs!



The Legendary Brasserie Balzar

February 26, 2011

Tout seule. Solo-traveling ETs are challenged to get into the picture.

Occasionally,  ETs  make solo trips to Paris under the guise of attending a conference.  I did this two years ago and despite Nurse’s suspicions, the conference was real and I actually did attend.  I dutifully reported in on a regular basis so she could advise on itinerary and meals.  Nurse was a very good sport about this trip.  And trust me, she has cashed in on her generosity ever since.

The Legendary Brasserie Balzar just happened to be nearby….

I did some early ET research at the Brasserie Balzar on the Rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne.  Since 1886, this Paris institution has sustained neighborhood academics with mainstay dishes like steak au poivre, poulet roti, and potatoes dauphinois.  Leagues of devoted locals swear that the Balzar alone embodies the true egalitarian spirit of dining that forms the foundation of the modern French state.  People are very, very serious about Brasserie Balzar. 

Paris to the Moon, a collection of New Yorker columns by Adam Gopnick sent me to Balzar

I was inspired by Adam Gopnik’s “The Balzar Wars” in his book Paris to the Moon*.  In the mid-1990s, the mega-corporation Flo Group bought the Brasserie  Balzar.  In true French style, the brasserie’s habitués organized a secret résistance to preserve their beloved Balzar from corporate evils like brief 90-minute meals and prepared food.

Gopnick reported the whole story.  In a gourmand expression of taking to the barricades they organized a “dine-in’ — sort of  a 1990s version of a flash mob.  All the regulars reserved for the same Thursday night and “occupied” the restaurant. They used “slow eating” strategies to ensure the tables didn’t turn over, like ordering foie gras because it took time to spread on toast.  Once everyone arrived, their spokesman gravely rose and delivered a challenge to the new management:

“We are here to demonstrate our sympathy with the waiters, clients and traditions of the Balzar.  Is this merely a place to eat, or is it something more?  And if it is something more, what is it?  We are here… to defend the spirit and staff of a place that we believe offers a respite from time itself.” (Gopnick pp. 234-235)

Drawing on the revolutionary fervor of their ancestors, they won the day and the Balzar continues. I recalled this inspiring story as I wandered the Maubert neighborhood, thinking of a lovely, perfect steak.  By mysterious coincidence, I found myself on Rue des Ecoles.

It all looked so inviting, even though it was late afternoon when jetlagged Americans get hungry.

Fortunately the Balzar serves all day, because it was an off-hour when I arrived. The ambiance was unassuming and comfortable with the requisite banquettes, mirrors, potted palms and desert trolleys.  In true ET fashion, I relied on a glass of house wine to bring clarity to the menu.

Steak frites with herb butter

I ordered the steak-frites.  It was passable, but not memorable.  The presentation was uninspired and the service was just adequate.  I was devastated.   Why didn’t I experience the magic of the Balzar that captivated generations of Parisians, and made its regulars call to arms to protect its traditions?

Is the Balzar fairy dust kept at this waiters workstation? The ET wants some!

For two years, I’ve analyzed everything about my Balzar experience.  Where did I go wrong?   I want the joy and the contentment; the thoughtful service and excellent traditional cuisine; the feeling that I am part of an historically significant experience.  I want to be willing to take to the streets in defense of Brasserie Balzar!  Dear Readership,  there just one solution to my dilemma. The ETs must return to the Balzar. 

I did get one of my favourite pictures at Balzar. The ETs *will* return.

* Gopnick, Adam.  Paris To The Moon.  Random House, 2000.

Entre nous: An affordable feast at Le Felteu

January 26, 2011

Welcome to Le Felteu. The ETs were surprised at what they found behind this rough facade. Photo: Panifers.blogspot.com

The Experienced Travelers take heart that Parisian dining isn’t all “oh la la” and chi-chi.  Casual, affordable meals abound.  You just need a knowledgable friend to whisper a coveted address, and your evening will be made. Thanks to a friend of Nurse’s, we got insider access to Le Felteu in the Marais.  Two years later, the memory is fresh and we’re still full.  Judging from recent online reviews, the secret is out.

The ETs were unprepared for what they found;   A neighborhood bar and grill serving excellent food under the direction of a French Harley-guy named Jerry.  The dining room décor of faded wallpaper and decorative plates was more “early VFW post” than Parisian bistro.  But we sensed a happy camaraderie among the banquettes and everything smelled awfully good.

In record time, the blackboard arrived listing the day’s menu. I ordered the house specialty – lamb – and Nurse seized the opportunity to have strange parts and organs in sauce.  The dining room buzzed with animated discussion while waiters effortlessly moved between crowded tables with corkscrews, bottles and plates.  Le Felteu was looking like a good bet.

After the heightening effects of the house red wine, we greeted our neighbors – a friendly young man from New Jersey living in Paris, who brought his visiting mother for an authentic meal.  Mother insisted she wasn’t going to drink. While the ETs speculated about a strange New Jersey code of behavior that forbade French wine, NJ Guy forsook his homeland and ordered a pichet.  The ETs glanced around the wine-infused room and quietly bet dessert on how long Mother would last.

Alors, cityoens! Maman's baguette slicer will deter unrest in the dining room

Over the din we heard a series of repetitive thuds.  (In France, “chop-chop” can be cause for concern. Fortunately the ETs are solidly middle class.) We turned to watch Jerry’s maman deftly apply a revolutionary-era guillotine to a stack of unlucky baguettes. It was understood that maman would be unquestionably obeyed.

The splendid salad with chevre --- before... Photo: pannifers.blogspot.com

While we enjoyed the fruits of maman’s labor, a gargantuan salad with warmed chevre on toasted croutons and a stunning plate of smoked salmon arrived.  These were serious man-sized dishes of hearty food.  The ETs practice Strategic Eating, but our efforts didn’t dent the portions.  The only sensible tactic was to spread the wealth to NJ Guy and Mother. 

Bottoms Up! Mother reconsiders

It was then that we noticed her glass of wine, and planned to leave room for dessert.

Despite our best efforts, this is as much damage as we could inflict without straying from the Strategic Eating guidelines.

We were still dizzy with joy from the entrees when our plats arrived. 

"How can I possibly eat all this!"

 My lamb chops were beautiful – and plentiful. 

Nurse's dish of stuff and parts in a fragrant sauce

Nurse’s large dish of kidneys and vegetables swam in their sauce. 

The crowning glory: Potatoes Gratin that we fondly recall 2 years later

But the coup de grace was an entire casserole of potatoes gratin that was perfectly browned on top and running with rich cheese just below the surface.  There are times when only a man will do – and this was one of  them.  The ETs fed half their dinners to NJ Guy.  He got one of my lamb chops, a heaping helping of the potatoes and some of Nurse’s parts.  It was gratifying to watch this slender young man devour his meal and ours too.

By now, it was clear that the Strategic Eating guidelines ruled out dessert.  Which was a pity, because the huge bowls of crème broulee that passed our table looked perfect.  The miracle of Le Felteu is that we enjoyed this for just €27 each and we wouldn’t need to eat the entire next day, resulting in approximately €85 in Found Money to spend on perfume. 

And before the evening was over, we got another insider recommendation from NJ Guy who told us that Restaurant Paul Bert served the best steak-frites in town.  That, dear Readership, is how it’s done in Paris.

 Le Felteu 15 rue Pecquay Paris 04 Tel: 01.42.72.14.51. Email: le-felteu.jerry@wannadoo.fr  M. Rambuteau Don’t think of going without reservations

Special thanks to http://pannifers.blogspot.com/2008/04/le-felteu.html for letting me use a couple of photos.  Follow the link to read their review of Le Felteu!

"Oui, maman!"

More lunch with Gordon: the food!

October 24, 2010

Little beehives of sweet and salted butter. Every detail was exquisite.

Go slip into your best bib!  The Experienced Travellers are taking you on a culinary pilgrimage as they revisit their Gordon Ramsay lunch at the Trianon Palace Hotel.  By popular mandate, here are the complete, unabridged  food pictures.  Consider yourself warned.

(If you haven’t read the first post on this topic, start here  and follow with this entry!)

Gordon's idea of a perfect afternoon

This  journey required a roadmap, and it was thoughtfully provided by the maitre’d.  Armed with flutes of fine champagne, we strategized over the menu to plot our meal. The ETs were focused, confident – and hungry.  We knew we could go the distance. 

A different take on caesar salad

The amuse bouche was a caesar salad. On top is bufala mozzarella, with a little something extra.  The fork pierces the cheese and “whoosh” – it’s stuffed with a delicate salmon mousse!  Underneath is shredded lettuce, anchovy and a crouton.  We never found out what the black disc was, but who cares!  The champagne flowed, and all was well.

Very high-end chips and dip

These are perfect paper-thin potato chips (not the wavy kind), and crisp sesame bread with two dips – one eggplant and the other with caviar.  My standard for chips and dip has been raised forever.

An artful lobster tortellini

The first course on the menu arrived.  Lobster tortellini with squid carpaccio in a consomme broth.  It was lovely to look at, and spectacular to eat. 

By now,  Nurse progressed from the champagne to a Fitou Cuvee Cadette 2007 from Domaine les Milles Vignes.  I had a Riesling.  A mild light-headedness and all-around goodwill was setting in.

One plat - John Dory

We rested between courses, while our attentive waiters watched over us.  Up came the second course.   For me,  John Dory – with a cepes and chanterelles mushrooms fricassee in a basil vinaigrette (and a little smiley of sliced radishes for good measure). 

The Pigeon. This dish changed the way we looked at pigeons for the rest of the trip.

Nurse chose the  pigeon.   The taste and texture suggested that this Bresse pigeon could be a relative to the famous chickens of the same area.  This was served on potatoes and artichoke terrine, Muscat grapes and almonds.   The memory of this dish threatened every plump pigeon we saw in the Luxembourg Garden.

There were waiters whirling all round us, clearing dishes and using those little crumb brushes.  The room felt smaller and more expansive at the same time.  We were beginning to feel… so very full. 

The pre-dessert. Custard with raspberry chutney

While waiting for dessert, we were served a pre-dessert.  Maybe it was meant to get us warmed up for the actual event.  This custard with raspberry chutney was light and wonderful. 

At this point, we’re an hour and fifteen minutes into it, and the ETs are deeply aware of the importance of pacing.  We slumped slightly in our chairs.  Eyelids were drooped.  Heads bobbed from side-to-side.  How do the real food-iacs do this? 

Strawberry cheesecake in a puff of smoke

Now the real dessert arrived – floating on a gossamer mist.  Heaven-sent strawberry cheesecake.  Fresh, chopped strawberries with lovely crusty bits and a sabayon.  To demonstrate the educational value of this meal, I can now say and spell sabayon (a whipped sauce  – this one flavored with kirsch).

C'est frommage - the cheese course

As we wearily rested our spoons from the cheesecake, we heard the rumbling of a cart.  And there appeared before us, an abundance of cheeses.  All the will, and all the strength of the French nation was on that cart;  slices and rounds;  blocks and wedges.  We chose a bleu, a hard yellow cheese, a brie and — the shining star – an Époisses de Bourgogne.

Delectable bread

Cheese of this magnitude deserves a remarkable conveyance.  The artisan bread filled with hazelnuts and golden raisins was perfect.  

The ETs marshalled our diminishing strength to give the cheeses the attention and praise they deserved.  We quietly called upon the Immortals of France to lead us through.  This was the last course on the menu.  Surely, we could persevere and conclude this exquisite meal with honor.  

Truffles. The final movement.

But there was more.  Yes, more!  The final course is perfect ice cream truffles asea in a bowl of dry ice, smoking like holy incense at a sacred feast.  The truffles transported the weary ETs to a final phase of dining that passeth all understanding. 

Only a visit from Gordon himself could bring the ETs to rise from their chairs.  He didn’t appear, but the ETs did slowly stumble out of the restaurant,  awed by the experience.  I have a vague, wine-infused memory of paying the bill which I did without a qualm.

It was a magnificent, memorable meal. 

A reflection of perfection.

Versailles – the town

October 20, 2010

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Experienced Travellers are flexible.  Our free airline ticket was immediate “found money”, but it meant we arrived in Paris two days before the apartment was available.
We needed someplace to stay, and Versailles was a perfect choice. Staying in town gave us the flexibility to visit the Chateau after the tour busses depart for Chartres.  ETs are all about crowd avoidance.

Hotel Trianon Palace, Versailles. Our "found money" deal thanks to Amex points.

So how did budget-mided ETs end up at the 5-star Trianon Palace ?  Amex Membership Rewards points!  Now, if I had to pay for a hotel, I would have budgeted 130-euros per night.  So two nights on Amex points at the luxurious Trianon Palace **saved** 260 euros – which went into the “found money” account.  You’re getting the hang of it now, aren’t you?

The handicapped bathroom in our room. You shower in the bathroom (on the left). Don't blowdry your hair afterward or you risk electrocution from the water on the floor.

Even without the room charge, staying at the Trianon is astronomically expensive.  The ETs paled at the 30-euro continental breakfast and promptly found a nearby cafe.  Our fantasies of aristocractic living in Versailles were short-lived.  (Though that didn’t deter us from having our Gordon Ramsay lunch in his restaurant in the hotel.)

Look up when you walk in the Rue de la Pariosse

bThe town of Versailles held much promise for ETs,  and we spent time around the Marche de Notre Dame.  There’s plenty of 17-18th century architecture to admire, and an abundance of small shops and food stalls.

Like typical Versailles courtiers, we break for lunch at 1pm

ETs enter into the spirit of their surroundings, so when the French stop for lunch, we do too.  After a scholarly examination of  posted menus, we chose the Bistrot du Boucher. 

Nurse opened the proceedings with a Kir

paWe squeezed into a crowded banquette and looked forward to our lunch. The waiters were very accomodating and found a spot to park Nurse’s hotwheels.  Our neighbors were friendly and chatty.  The wine was good.  Everything pointed toward a pleasant afternoon spent in a buzz of full tummies and slight alcoholic daze.  

Our first pate of the trip met expectations

Nurse chose pate and tete de veau.  I more prudently selected steak-frites. Good, basic food to sustain us for the shopping that lay ahead.

Yes, I tried the tete de veau and yes, it was very good.

And since we’re on the topic of food in Versailles, I will bow to popular demand and do a second post on the Gordon Ramsay Lunch that features food photos.  The readership is clamoring for pictures, and so you shall have them.   As a student of history, I cannot ignore the will of the people.  I’ve learned from the 18c. residents of Versailles — for whom “chop-chop” isn’t the sound of mincing vegetables.  Vive la revolution!

Rue Toulouse in Versailles – la vie ancienne

  

 
 

 

Feet on the street – Part 2

October 11, 2010

La Fontaine St. Michel

I left off with that dreamy omlette, so I’ll resume my tale and take you through the 6th, past Les Invalides and add an addendum on our dinner.

The 6th arrondissement is perfect for ETs

There is an abundance of strolling, shopping and old things in this area.  Benjamin Franklin thought so too.  Cafe Procope was his hangout, so it’s only fitting that I should honor his legacy with a cafe express.  This cafe was the first to serve coffee in 1686.  The Founding Fathers all organized business trips to Paris – and often left their wives at home.  I wonder if they had French nieces too….

Robespierre, Danton and Marat also found it a convivial place where-from to run a Revolution.  I wonder who paid the check? (and I bet Citizen Robespierre didn’t have to wait 20 minutes to get it)
Rue de Buccci – the market street of the 6th

Experienced Travellers know not to travel the Rue de Bucci hungry.  I was still luminous from the omlette, so it was a permissable route.  This is the local marche, lined with cafes, epiceries, produce stands and shops.  My hero Janet Flanner lived nearby on the Rue Jacob and it was a favourite area for The Lost Generation.

Take-away salads on the Rue de Bucci

A popular spot for lunch and some mid-day flirting

I made my way down the Blvd. St. Germain and over the Rue de Grennelle, which takes me through Embassy Row.  Hmm. Lots of police , the road closed to traffic and absolutely NO SOUND except footsteps on the pavement.  Oh dear.  Even ETs can’t plan for every turn of events. 

I kept my head down and walked.  Very fast.  I’ve been reading too much Alan Furst. This must be what the streets were like at night during the Nazi occupation.  Alan’s heros duck into a doorway and press against the wall if a car approaches.  Especially if they’re  using forged papers and carrying microfilm.   Fortunately, I had no need of doorways or false alibis.

Les Invalides - army museum and military hospital

I emerged a little out of breath and regained my wits on a bench at the Invalides.  Les Invalides was established as a military hospital by Louis XIV – and his appetite for war consigned many of his troops to it’s care.  It is still used as a hospital today, and houses the Army Museum and the very grand tomb of Emperor Napoleon. 

The gold dome is beautiful at night when it’s lit.  The French are very very good at lighting monuments.  They’re also very good at integrating contemporary art with ancient or historical buildings.  I admired this installation in the Invalides garden.

Garden art at Les Invalides

Thank goodness it was time for dinner, and we had reservations at a wine bar called Number 7.  

The obligatory swirl

My knowledgable friend Terese encouraged me to order the St. Emillion, and I always follow her advice.  Now, I want to know if St. Emillion can be my new patron saint.

Nurse is a thurifer in our Church of St. Emillion

Nurse, resplendent after a day of rest, ordered a crab and zucchini terrine topped with chopped lime that was so refreshing.  The plates were sprinkled with a very interesting paprika.  So now we have to scour the market to find a small bottle for the suitcase.

Crab zucchini terrine. I had enough wine to wonder how they got the zuchinni to stick together.

This is where we learned that not all mashed potatos need to be mashed – some can be chunks! We finished the meal with a pear clafoutis and a cafe noir.

Pear clafoutis - the walk home will do us good

Thank goodness I walked all day.  I have a caloric theory that you can excercise ahead of time to offset the evening meal.  This operates on the same principle as “found money” and is equally sound.

The longer I spend in Paris, the more my theories are borne out. 

Lunch with Gordon

October 1, 2010

Cheese selections and a knowledgable guide

See the complete food photos here

Gordon Ramsay’s restarant at the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles.  I expected fast, mediocre and expensive.  I was only right on one count.

The three-course lunch menu was actually eight unbelievable courses, wine and champagne.   The 15-table restaurant was comfortably full.  Nurse noticed lots of generous businessmen taking their nieces out for a leisurely lunch….

Our table looked out over a community of contented goats and sheep, presumably from Marie Antoinette’s Petite Trianon.  It might be a point of conscience that lamb was not on the menu.

It took two and a half hours to eat and four waiters to serve.  Paper thin croutons and potato crisps with two spreads – eggplant and goat cheese with caviar.  Caesar salad and mozzarella stuffed with salmon mousse.  Pate de fois gras.  Lobster ravioli.  Roast pigeon.  John Dory.  Custard with raspberry coulis. Strawberries with creme freche and a crumbled crust.  Five kinds of cheese (the cheese that the French don’t export.)  Desert truffles served on dry ice.  Complete exhaustion.

I immediately underwent a psychic exorcism to forget how much it cost, so don’t bother asking.  I was repeatedly amazed by the delicate, interesting flavors and textures.  It’s good to experience this kind of dining  just once.  I have to hand it to Gordon.

See the complete food photos here


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