Saturday, September 13, 2003

Roger and I have a lunch date back at the restaurant I had had a wonderful albeit short lunch a few weeks ago. It also happens this Friday is his last day in Paris before returning to Edmonton. I arrive 10 minutes late to find him anxiously anticipating a multi-course lunch featuring game. He tells me he is not feeling 100 percent. Maybe it is the after-effects of yesterday's light dinner which went off-course starting with foie gras. We had intended on a simple meal of fish at the apartment I had just moved into but one course led to another and the next thing we knew we had bought groceries for a small feast.

After last night a salad entree is an appealing idea. We both waffle over the choices: les champignons a la Grecque, celeri remoulade, or la salade Biche (crudites et terrine). Roger decides on the house salad which turns out to be a good call with a bit of each of the mushroom and celery salad plus terrine. I order the mushroom salad which if Greek is just button mushrooms sauteed with tomato sauce served cold. It is good but nothing memorable.

For mains there are two game selections- one on the menu and the day's special, a casserole of some kind. We both take the Scottish grouse listed on the menu with the 3e supplement. It is one of the better game dishes I have had in recent memory. I am not all that knowledgeable about grouse but this one tastes strongly of game which the waiter noted to us when we ordered as well as a hint of bitter. At first the bitter is a bit off-putting but I quite like it by the end. I check with Roger who also detects a bitter note. The breast meat, served medium, is very tender. Even though I normally prefer dark chicken meat I find I do not like the leg as much as the breast meat. What really elevates the dish is the accompaniment of puree de marrons (chestnuts). It is slightly sweet, velvety smooth, and subtly spiced. I think it is cinammon but Roger thinks nutmeg. Maybe it is a bit of both. The brown sauce is as good as a brown sauce can be. I ask if it is made with veal bones but the one server tells me it is grouse. Game maybe but I doubt grouse. I think she either does not understand my question or she does not know what she is talking about but who am I to challenge her, and in French no less?

A mash of potatoes & celery is served with the bird. We both wish more restaurants would serve creamy mash like this. Roger does his "spoon test" which means it should be creamy enough to drop off onto the plate. I do not detect any taste of celery apart from a seemingly lighter-styled mash. Although the mash is very good, I cannot help but think a side with a bit of texture would have provided a nicer complement to the grouse and chestnut puree.

I do a pretty commendable job of polishing off my dish. At around this point Roger tells me he is going to hold back to save room for cheese & dessert. I do not know what he is talking about; short of sucking on the bones and carcass there is not much left on his plate. Obviously, he has recovered from any after-effects of last night's heavy dinner.

We continue to the cheese course which is often one of my favourite courses in a restaurant. There are some 8 or 9 cheeses to choose from which I think have been selected for their mass appeal rather than to excite. I take some Chevre Cendre (rolled in what looks like ashes hence the name), Pont l'Eveque, and Cantal. Roger only takes a bit of Roquefort and says to the waiter he will share mine. I tell him I will make the ultimate sacrifice and taste all of the cheeses first so that he will be able to taste them in the right order. He gives me an unappreciative look but I know his taste buds will be thanking me later. In my estimation the Pont l'Eveque is a bit overripe but otherwise all the cheeses are enjoyable.

We are now down to the grande finale-- dessert. The mousse au chocolat is calling Roger. I try to sell him on the one spiked with Grand Marnier only because I would like to try it but he remains a purist and stands firm on the version "nature". I order the L'Ile Flottante and find a very pretty presentation of a beautifully snow white meringue floating on creme anglaise drizzled with caramelized sugar. The meringue is textbook light but a bit of vanilla bean would have sent the creme anglaise to high heaven. I take a spoon of the chocolate mousse which is a perfect balance of chocolate bitter and just enough sweetness whipped into a deceptively airy mousse.

Solidly good food. Attentive service. Warm atmosphere. It is one of the best four-course lunches and a bargain at 22.30 euros where few bargains are to be had in Paris.

45, ave Ledru-Rollin 75012, tel 01.4343.3438. Open daily for lunch & dinner except Sat & Sun

"When I was a child, my mother said to me, 'if you become a soldier you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll end up as the Pope!' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso."

Picasso's background makes wonderful reading, much more so than Van Gogh which I only found depressing. I probably identify with many sides of Picasso- the non-conformist, the anti-bourgeois mindset, the rebel against Church, against everything really.

We walked to the Picasso museum after lunch which was only a short distance from the restaurant though we could have probably used a long walk to offset the lunch we had just consumed. It was a beautiful sunny day in the mid-20's (that's Celsius). Once at the museum, I was trailing behind Roger in no time as I stopped to read every note pertaining to the paintings and sculptures and the excellent concise descriptions of Picasso's stylistic periods. Roger thought I was a bit over the top having already researched Picasso before our visit but I am treating it as an application of French grammar outside of the classroom. I am not big on modern art but I like Picasso especially Cubism and the periods prior.

Sometime between Cubism and the fringes of Surrealism I found myself nearly falling asleep while walking. From my globe-trotting days I do have a bit of reputation of being able to fall asleep almost anywhere be it a train, plane or automobile, but this was all together a new experience. It was as if I had been given a heavy dose of sleeping pills and as hard as I tried to I could not stay awake. I suppose walking is a form of travel too but I was thinking to myself it is probably a little dangerous to fall asleep suddenly while walking, more so than when I used to from the front seat of Giorgio's Lancia in fifth gear driving through the streets of Milan.

At this point I went looking for Roger to let him know I was going to take a rest in the museum's garden. He smiled when I told him as he was also feeling a bit drowsy from lunch. I found myself a nice cement bench and lied down (although I felt more like I was being laid down). The cold of the cement felt good against my back, my head resting against my notebook. I closed my eyes and could remember listening to all the sounds around me- children playing, faint voices, the occasional hum of a car. I could feel an ever so gentle breeze brush across my face. "If I did not know better I could be in Toronto," I thought to myself. But then I opened my eyes and saw the most magnificent neo-classical building before me. As I had my hands clutching my bag containing our passports I fell asleep. Next thing I knew an attendant was announcing that the garden was closing and I could see Roger seated at the other end of the bench looking at me.

In my semi-conscious state at the time what I was doing seemed perfectly normal, but now I cannot believe I feel asleep at the Picasso museum. On second thought, it is better that I did it in the garden and not inside the museum. But I have to say that it was probably the best sleep I had had in days.

After Musee Picasso, we meandered a bit through the Marais then headed in the direction of Notre Dame ending up in Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. Although it's far from being a secret Paris spot I don't think the hordes ever think to explore Notre Dame apart from viewing the front of her. In any case, we knew better and found ourselves a bench in the square passing several wonderful hours talking about everything and nothing in particular. I have known Roger some 35 years but the time we have spent in Paris is the first time we have really talked even though one of the most rewarding things in life is making those human connections.

At some point during our conversation a guy came up to us and asked Roger if he could explain what "upset" meant. Apparently this poor man had just received a text message, probably from a woman, who had written him that she was upset, presumably at him. He wanted to know if upset meant mad upset or upset upset. Like I said, poor man to have to deal with a woman's wrath.

At dusk Roger and I parted as we were both freezing even with jackets on. He had my DVD copy of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg to take back to Edmonton. Coffee and the best croissant in Edmonton are on the line on this one. He is sure DVDs are standard but I tell him there are different standards as with VHS. Making the bet seemed a bit unfair as someone who would know about these things told me so after I had bought it. But Roger was so insistent I couldn't help myself.

Knowing that I would not be able to take this DVD home I have since watched it probably a dozen times over the summer and have even thrown screenings of it in my apartment. I normally don't get very excited about French films and have seen two absolutely horrid ones in Paris this summer. But if you love Catherine Deneuve and are in the mood for a sad movie go out and rent this one. Just ignore the over-acting. Soak up the opening scene, one of my favourites, with umbrellas against a cobblestone backdrop to the music of Michel LeGrand. Deneuve is beautiful in it. I think this was her break-out role.


Thursday, September 11, 2003

A family friend has just returned to Paris after a ten day tour of Prague and Berlin. Roger has come over to collect a few things he has left with me. He says he is in the mood for a good French meal so I pull out my personal "to try" list of about, oh, a hundred restaurants. I end up selling him on the one that I keep passing on my walk home from the Sorbonne, one that absolutely oozes with charm from the outside looking in. This morning, salivating while peering through the window to read the day's offering, I saw chicken with 40 cloves of garlic on the lunch menu. It was tempting but I didn't go in.

Restaurant Perraudin is a very traditional bistro with red and white checkered tablecloths, too small dark stained bistro chairs, some obligatory bistro posters, and lace lamp shade covers.

We hadn't reserved a table but there were only a handful of diners when we arrived at approximately 730PM. It was equally charming once we were inside. I was almost expecting to find Jacquel Brel alive and well. No Brel but Edith was belting out La Vie en Rose as we were studying the menu. It was almost too canned to be real but it somehow seemed fitting and only enhanced the charm of the place.

We both opted for the three course menu at 26 euros. Roger started with house foie gras and I the Flamiche flamande au maroilles which the menu lists as a special cheese from the north, both starters recommended by our waiter. The foie gras was good, but as I've maintained before I have yet to try foie gras that doesn't please me. It was served with what looked like toasted Poilane bread and apple & prune relish. My starter was interesting. It was a bit of cheese pizza meets focaccia served with a really lovely green salad. The cheese was very flavourful and reminded me somewhat of saganaki.

For the mains we continued with the waiter's recommendations. Roger ordered the beef bourguignon à l'ancienne while I settled on gigot d'agneau et son gratin de pommes de terre. I think it's at this point that Roger tells me hanging out with me has enhanced his Paris experience. I tell him he is going to make me cry. He says he too but only because the food is so good. That's the Roger we all know; every moment is a punch line waiting for a stage entrance. I would later offer my own confession; I have discovered that the most interesting people in life are the ones with the most useless degrees (Roger has a double one in Russian & French literature).

I asked him how the beef bourguignon stacks up against others he's had but he says he hasn't had many. It has always interested me to try to make it but when my friend Jacques tells me I have to do so with a really good red wine I keep thinking why not drink the wine and eat the beef separately?

My leg of lamb is really good as only simple can be when done correctly. The nicely pink slices of lamb were served in their own jus. Both mains were accompanied by generous portions of steamed potatoes for the stew and potato gratin for the lamb. It was a perfectly browned potato gratin served in a single-size casserole. And those steamed potatoes were some of the best I have had. Who would have thought a starch could be so good?

I don't know where we found the room for dessert but we did. Roger took the tarte au sucre, glace vanille et sauce chocolat and I of course chose the tarte tatin et crème fraîche because it was on the menu. My only complaint about my dessert was the somewhat soggy, flakeless, tasteless crust but the apples were perfectly caramelized. At least they got the most important half of the dessert right.

We both left happy. In fact, Roger was so happy I swear he was crying.

157, rue Saint Jacques 75005, tel 01.4633.1575 Open daily 11h45-14h30 & 19h00-23h30


Wednesday, September 10, 2003

I'm googling the net anticipating I'll find a website for Dallayou so that I can add the link onto my last post. What should I find but a near dissertation on the macaroons of Paris' masters: "Macaroons: Creative Changes For a Classic Cookie." It figures she would also be named Sally.

Although it would appear otherwise, I'm not as obsessed by food as it would seem. I do get cranky when I don't eat but it doesn't have to be gourmet every meal. If it's just a cucumber sandwich so be it as long as it's one heck of a cucumber sandwich. In this case, I would go out on a limb and say that a bit of that Fleur de Sel goes a long way ;-)

Yesterday I experienced what I imagined was a typical French school cafeteria, one of several on a list of "Les Restaurants Universitaires dans Paris." The Sorbonne had provided a limited list of such dining options in August owing to annual summer vacations, but as life resumed back to normal in September there were more than 14 dining options throughout Paris. I chose one just around the corner from the apartment to try. It seemed like a good idea seeing as I had been emptying the frigo in anticipation of my move to another apartment this Thursday.

The lunches, and in some cases dinner, are subsidized so for 2.50 euros I had a hungry man’s meal of "sauté du porc aux pruneaux, gratin dauphinoise, et petits pois." This was quite a change from my days as an undergrad; burgers and fries feature highly in my faint memories of both school and university cafeterias. However, I have vivid recollections of "to die for" cinnamon buns at CAB cafeteria but that hardly qualifies as a meal.

Compared to McDo (French for McDonald’s) this was a gourmet lunch but in an institutional sort of way. It was food for the masses whether they were students or faculty. I was somewhat amused by a sign stating that all products were of French origin. If we had the same pre-occupation in our Canadian school cafeterias we probably wouldn’t be eating in the dead of winter. In any case, for a small sum not even enough to buy three small macaroons at Gerard Mulot or Dallayou (it’s my new currency), I covered off most of my food groups but the meal would sit with me for the rest of the day and into the following morning. It was an interesting experience but in this case once was enough. After all, there are only three meals in a day.


If you want me to buy you a LV wallet, send cash first! I am a poor student at the moment...

Sunday, September 07, 2003

After a morning stroll through the Marais and then to Place des Vosgnes I retraced my steps in search of the bakery where I had bought last weekend's divine baguette. It didn't take much retracing; Maison Yhuel at 29 rue Saint Antoine. Although not a very French-sounding name for a bakery it's best to judge by its' bread. Today the queue was long but at least it didn't snake out the door onto the sidewalk as it did last weekend. I bought a demi-baguette only to reassure myself my memory of how good it had been wasn't deceiving me. It wasn't warm out of the oven like last Sunday morning but it was damn good and I'd still cross over to the right bank on a Saturday or Sunday to buy it. Earlier in the week I had bought a demi-baguette from Paul bakery but it couldn't match this one from Maison Yhuel.

After that I ended up wandering into the fromager, P. Trotte, just further up the road almost next to Eglise St. Paul. Pelardon, an AOC cheese from Languedoc Roussillon, was recommended to me when I asked for a chevre. It was wonderfully soft the way I like goat cheese but I would have preferred something a bit stronger. But then I would have been happier with more Camembert except I've decided to wean myself off of a good thing as there are probably over 400 French cheeses I've yet to taste. General de Gaulle is reputed to have asked how could he be expected to rule a country with so many cheeses. No idea but how and when am I going to get through sampling all of them?

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