Friday, September 26, 2003

Think grapefruit, orange, maybe cinnamon orange. Or picture figs, pomegranates, mangoes, and peaches. On second thought make that Roussillon peaches.

If you are like me you are thinking fruit for eating. But you are not thinking scented body and bath products. I walked into a shop called Savon de Marseilles the other day on my way back from class. It piqued my interest because I had just had a conversation with Caroline about the wonders of Savon de Marseilles as a stain remover. Further reading on the internet noted that this old bar soap was also a superior pot and crystal cleaner, a washing soap, and even baby soap.

I love most body and bath stores because they smell wonderful especially the therapeutic scent of essential oils at an Aveda store or the lavender scents wafting through L'Occitane. But when I walked into Savon de Marseilles I found fruit-scented product lines. Then at Origins, another shop but a little closer to the apartment, there were different but fruit-scented products as well. Even the shower gel at the apartment was fruit-scented but in this case not just of peaches but that of Roussillion peaches no less! When I took a whiff of it, it smelled so much like ripe mouth-watering fruit it was hard to believe it was only for washing.

What I would like to know is when did the chemists who are charged with formulating new scents come up with the notion that women, and maybe to a lesser extent men, want to walk around all day smelling like something out of a fruit basket? I adore lavender scented anything and have a weakness for L'Occitane products. Aveda's rosemary mint shampoo is tingly nice on the scalp. And many years ago when Bonne Bell lip smackers were all the rage I could understand the appeal of someone wanting to kiss a pair of strawberry, raspberry, or watermelon-scented lips. Even Jo Malone's lime basil cologne, although somewhat unusual sounding, smells wonderful especially when combined with another of her fragrance's, Vetyver. But I don't "get" the appeal of smelling like anything that can be found in a fruit orchard. There. I needed to get that out of my system.


...a dining adventure with Maurice to be posted shortly...

17, rue Jacques Ibert Paris 75017, tel call for resv'ns b/w 10h30 à 11h30 & 12h30 à 15h


Thursday, September 25, 2003

Maybe it is an exaggeration to say I have a hundred restaurants in Paris on my “to dine” list but I definitely have a list longer than I have meals remaining here. Carol, who I would normally leave to research the restaurants in the cities we find ourselves in, had left me with the task of choosing a restaurant for her last evening in Paris. Anyone who knows me knows I take such tasks seriously because eating is serious business. But which restaurant would I choose when only one would do? Carol was game for one-star, two-stars, three stars, or no stars. I had thought about seeing if we could reserve a table at Hélène Darroze despite the mixed reviews. Atelier was another consideration since Carol had always liked the kitchen of Joel Robouchon. In the end I did not try booking either but I doubt a table would have been available on short notice (and it would turn out that Atelier doesn't take reservations).

I decided upon L'Avant Goût as I had noted it for “exceptional cuisine.” NOVA stated the cuisine was passionate, inventive, and open-minded. Besides, I thought it would be a nice area for wandering around in before dinner as I had not been to the 13e to La Butte-aux-Cailles. The area takes its' name from the abundance of wild game found here obviously in another time. Michelin's Green Guide notes that the mix of quaint cobblestone roads and pretty simple houses fighting against the imposition of modern buildings offers a surprising yet pleasant contrast. I don't know about that but there is definitely a quaint neighbourhood charm and feel here and it did occur to me that I might try living in this area should I return next February.

It is about 7PM when we reach the metro station Place d'Italie. The setting sun has cast a wonderful rose glow over Paris. As we are walking in the direction of L'Avant Goût a Chinese restaurant offering frogs legs, ginger & garlic catches my attention; I file it away for another meal for another day, but in all likelihood for another trip to Paris. We pass L'Avant Goût and stop to read the menu and peek into the dining room; a small contemporary room but inviting enough with warm accented walls and furnishings. The menu looks interesting. We cross the street and enter the wine shop bearing the same name. I think this is what could be considered "dinner foreplay" or the pre-amuse bouche. We continue with our build-up to dinner. Further along on another street is a little crêperie with a review of the best crêpes in all of Paris posted in the window. Coincidentally, we had stumbled across what we found to be the best buerre sucré crêpe in Paris on the way to the cinéma Le Latina earlier in the day, but our discovery, Crêpes Suzettes, was not on this list. The neighbourhood seems to be a magnet for interesting little restaurants and convivial bars. Besides Chez Paul, another on my infamously long Paris list is an interesting Italian restaurant. On our loop back towards L'Avant Goût we make one final stop to survey the fishmonger’s stall where he is selling mouth-watering langoustines. I think I would buy some to take home if we weren't about to have dinner.

We are the first to arrive. The hostess, possibly proprietor, is a striking woman with red-framed glasses and locks to match. I cannot be sure as I do not wear a watch these days but I do not think we are early for our 730PM reservation yet the front of the house staff is still attending to last minute details before the dinner rush soon to follow.

Carol starts off with a glass of champagne; I decide to pass on an apéritif. I think I eat a lot but I cannot keep up to this friend of mine who is a bit of a metabolic wonder. Take today for example. We had had a three course lunch which meant I was more than fine until dinner but when we passed by Crêpes Suzettes Carol asked if I wouldn't mind to stop for one. Eating is always fine to me but my enjoyment had to come more from watching my friend enjoy her crêpe. Fortunately someone else’s enjoyment can sometimes be as pleasurable as our own.

All of the menu items are part of the 3-course menu for 27 euros except the duck with a 4 euro supplement. Carol starts off with the tartare de dorade et macédoine de légumes and I take the salade de caille confite a l'huile d'olive et pommes de terre au romain. Both are outstanding. The Dorade tartare was delicately spiced with cumin, possibly some fennel, then mixed with diced haricots verts, onions, and carrots. This was served with a rocket salad, shallot vinaigrette, and an Italian parsley purée. The quail confite was almost done to perfection if only the skin had been crisped more. Otherwise, the small half quail was flavourful, tender, and surprisingly meaty. It was accompanied by a phyllo-wrapped roll of warm rosemary potatoes, a refreshing interpretation of scalloped potatoes.

At this point we are drinking a perfectly enjoyable 2001 Saint-Cosme Côtes du Rhône which Carol says she has in her cellar but of a better vintage. There are some things in life I know for sure; with Carol I will never drink bad wine. Then we start discussing wines for a dinner I will cook in SF next month; she would like to serve some Corton-Charlemagne. I don't think there are many good reasons to drink Chardonnay but Corton-Charlemagne would be a very good one. I am now thinking that my recent habit of cooking out of jars just won't do for this dinner. Soon enough we're off on a gastronomic discourse that is interrupted only by the arrival of the main course.

My canard "sauvages" rôti crouistillant de pomme de terre et chutney was nicely executed. The small half duck was served in four pieces with perfectly crisped skin (sorry, but crisped skin matters). The starch accompaniment was a whole phyllo potato roll, the same that had been served with the quail. Carol had opted for several entrées instead of a main course so she followed with the quail confite then green salad to finish. In her instance, the quail was nicely crisped as it should be.

Carol and I share a dessert. Since I am not a chocolate fan apart from dark bitter bar chocolate it was easy to decide after immediately eliminating two of four choices. But I couldn’t have made a better selection. The mi-cuit amandes, ragôut de quetsches is one of those desserts that makes one remember the meal; it was that good. This was cake with a molten almond centre served with a nice tart stew of quetsches (a dark-skinned plum but precisely what it is in English I am unsure). The sugared mint was also a nice touch. In a word: WOW.

L’Avant Goût is incredible value at 27 euros for 3-courses. Even if you choose a lighter 2-course dinner or several entrées as Carol had done, the à la carte pricing is still very reasonable. Their lunch menu at 12 euros (for 2-courses) sounds like a steal for the level of cooking that is coming out of the kitchen. This is not just an entrecôte slapped on a grill served with frites but a kitchen putting out relatively refined food. A 40-seater is small by restaurant standards so it was also nice to see such a good restaurant absolutely full mid-week as it probably needs to be in order to survive. Obviously they are doing something right; more than six years from when they first opened their doors they are still around and seemingly thriving. I can see and taste the many reasons for their success.

Out of curiosity I asked Carol what she would rate the food on a 10-scale to which she almost immediately replied, 8.5 with which I would concur. It's much better than our own cooking at 7.5 but I'd rather pay to eat here and keep to my 7.5 standard at home.

L’Avant Goût, 26 rue Bobillot Paris 75013, tel Open Tues - Fri.

It might have been the subtle hint of orange that turned this sugar crêpe into one a cut above all the others we have tasted in Paris. I think of crêpes as street food but if you are interested in someplace to sit down for a very good buerre sucré crêpe then head to the 3e.

Crêpes Suzettes, 24 rue des Francs Bourgeois Paris 75003


It took me awhile to track down this museum with a section on the history of dining. The book I had first read about it in had out-of-date information including its' phone number. The museum had since moved from the 8e to their factory near the metro station Stade-Denis Porte de Paris. Making an appointment to visit was no longer necessary but of course I didn't know this until I was able to track it down. For all the trouble it took the museum proved to sound more interesting than it actually turned out to be.

Everything was very well-laid out. The receptionist even gave us visit manuals in English and in French with detailed descriptions of selected items in the display cases and exhibits. I couldn't help but think that life is too complicated once we require aspagagus tongs and chestnut warmers. But the exhibit was a reminder that good design is often uncomplicated and has a timeless quality even more than a century later.

...to be continued...

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Sometimes I much prefer eating in to eating out because as my friend Carol so succinctly put it, "our home-cooked dinners always maintain a minimum standard." While roaming through the Marais we were recounting the number of cities we have met in over the years and came up with something like fourteen; we have probably cooked together, or for one another in at least four or five of them. Given that we were in Paris where food markets are endless sources of culinary inspiration and fascination, we set our sights on cooking in my small but well-equipped kitchen. It would also be an opportunity to put the vitro-ceramic stove top to good use as I had been subsisting mostly on salads at dinner last month during France's terrible heat wave.

It was a four-course feast on the first night. The wine, by way of advice from the friendly neighbourhood Nicolas wine merchant, was a 2001 Chateau d'Epire from the Loire to match our main course of fish. It was an "okay" wine which is to say it was rather disappointing. The wine was drier than it was fruity as expected but had no real finish. Its' unpleasant chemical nose threw me off at first; Carol laughed when I told her it smelled like perm solution but probably only because she has never known that repulsive scent having naturally wavy hair. The undesirable top note blew off once the wine opened up in the glass. However, we could have done better for 10 euros and a lot less for a supermarket wine which we would set out to prove the next evening with a Côtes du Rhône from Monoprix for half the price. My batting average at Monoprix has been good between wine knowledge distilled from my friend Jacques and Gault Milau as my guide.

We snacked on a wedge of Coulommiers, big brother to Camembert and kid brother to Brie, along with sesame crackers while dinner was being prepared. The cracker selection at the supermarket was pretty slim; it was either this, WASA, or melba toast. Melba toast would have been an acceptable choice but WASA is good only if one likes the idea of munching on a cardboard box which I don't much fancy.

For the appetizer Carol prepared a beet salad with vinaigrette dressing. It was incredibly simple to assemble using readily available vacuum-packed cooked beets. A main course of filet of Flétan of which neither one of us knew its' English name followed. Of course it would help if we knew what fish we were buying but that is the limitation of a pocket size English-French dictionary. I seasoned and pan-fried it in olive oil and a touch of butter just minutes per side. The fish was perfectly cooked but we both found it to be rather uninteresting which the side of pasta saved. In any case my best cooking comes out of a permutation and combination of jars these days. One jar of Gault Milau tomato and basil sauce dressed with sautéed shallots, sliced provençal olives, and capers in decent olive oil are the makings of an outstanding pasta sauce without spending much time in the kitchen. We finished with a watercress and pistachio salad with blood orange vinaigrette, my salad dressing specialty. Dessert was from Gerard Mulot-- a slice of peach tart sold by the kilo and an individual lemon tart. The peach tart was good as in perfectly glazed ripe peaches on flaky, buttery crust, but alas, it was nothing special. My recollection of their lemon tart was that it was pretty good save for a rather thick crust but this one disappointed. Besides the too thick crust it suffered from an overly sweet lemon filling where a perfect lemon tart strikes the right balance between sweet and what I call "pucker" factor.

On the second night we built dinner around our 5 euro 2001 Domaine la Pierre Plantée Côtes du Rhône from Les Vignerons de St Hilaire d'Ozilhan. The 70/30 Grenache/Merlot blend had pleasing black cherry fruit which went down well with some of the Coulommiers from the day before and the dinner that was to follow. We were going for the full arterial hit with a duck gizzard salad for starters. Much larger and more tender than chicken, the sliced duck gizzards were sautéed in shallots, a bit of balsamic, fresh thyme, some of the blood orange vinaigrette from the previous day, a splash of white wine, then tossed warm with butter lettuce. That was probably a meal in itself but we had planned a main course of shoulder pork chop which Carol marinated in olive oil, thyme, a bit of sugar, balsamic, salt and pepper. The pork was outstanding-- flavourful and extremely tender accompanied by oven roasted baby potatoes and baby yams. Most importantly, all this washed down well with our bottle of cheap but very drinkable plonk. Dessert was also from Gerard Mulot but we had chosen a wedge of their pear tart this time. The pear tart with almond base was by far the best of the three tarts we had sampled the past two evenings.

Apart from the fish the first night which we attribute to the fish and not to our cooking, we give our dinners a 7.5 out of 10 thereby surpassing a plethora of mediocre Paris restaurants. Not bad for amateurs in the kitchen even if we do rate so ourselves.

4 rue Princesse Paris 75006 but will travel to cook upon request. Dinners by invitation only. Limited menu subject to the whims of the chef.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A dear friend arrived Sunday afternoon from San Francisco. I was to arrange a restaurant for Sunday dinner but I must have called close to a dozen establishments before resigning to the fact that all were closed save for those catering to tourists. Unfortunately, the only English I want to hear over dinner these days is that spoken at my table if at all.

In the end I decided to take Carol to Cour St. Emilion where another friend Pierre-Yves had brought me last month. It's a quaint pedestrian shopping area filled with beautiful home boutiques catering to people with too much money, countless dining options, and the most enticing bit, an area trodden by few tourists. The best part about getting there is riding the newest metro line with manless computer-operated trains. This all would have been very nice had the train not broken down by the time we reached Bercy station to transfer onto this new line for the one stop to Cour St. Emilion. We could have easily walked the ten minutes there instead of waiting at Bercy for what was close to 30 minutes, but of course this did not occur to me until after the thirty minute wait.

After having dined more times at Nicolas this summer than any other Paris restaurant, I have concluded it's tremendous value at dinner. At times the service can be uneven but the food has been consistently good even if the menu has not been overly exciting. Having said that we had a most attentive waiter last night even if he was dishing out bad one-liners. I asked him if he wouldn't mind bringing us a glass of the Pinot Noir when he was free to which he replied that he was always free for us. Along with the unimaginative lines dished out by our otherwise charming waiter, Nicolas also serves the most decent espresso I have had in Paris. It beats the one at the Coffee Parisiene in my neighborhood and for half the price. Coffee Parisiene's coffee was so bad, mostly weak and tasteless, it made me change my mind about staying for brunch on Sunday. My thinking is, if the coffee is so bad the food cannot be far behind. If the guy who operates it didn't live in my building I might have said something about the coffee, but in the interests of maintaining good neighbourly relations I paid for my overpriced coffee and left without saying a word. And that is how it often is with dissatisfied, disgruntled customers; they leave without saying a word never to ever return.

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