Monday, July 16, 2007

Paris Round-up: Part 1

K and I have spent nearly two weeks in Paris thus far, literally hopping from cafe to tea house to bar to bistro to ice-cream shop to brasseries to creperie to lounge all day and all night long. There has scarcely been a moment that one of us has not been consuming something, but we haven't had an ounce of bad luck yet and we've been eating and drinking remarkably well. As anyone who's spent some time in Paris will realize when I begin listing our conquests, most of the places we've patronized are within a few doors of each other; K and I haven't really walked too far afield of the the 3 block radius or so of our apartment on the lovely Rue du Bourg Tibourg in the heart of the Marais.

Here are some of the trip's culinary highlights so far:
  • L'as du Falafel (Rue du Rossiers): If you happen to be lucky enough to grab your 4.50 euro falafel special when those creamy crunchy balls of deliciously herbed chickpea puree come sizzling out of the deep fryer, you'll understand why this place deserves all of the hype that's been heaped onto it over the years. Complementing your perfect pita is a great melange of fresh and grilled vegetables and zesty tahini sauce. The schwarma is also superb!
  • Mariage Freres (Rue du Bourg Tibourg): This is hands-down the world's best tea. The combined tea-house/shop's fragrance wafts down the entire block making it an irresistible pit-stop for those of us who are easily tempted by such heavily scents. Inside, the decor is colonial, drawing influences from all the great tea regions of the world, and service is white-suited and as delicate as it comes. You are seated with a 200 page book called The Art of Tea, which serves as both an informative dossier on the experience and a detailed catalogue (with tasting notes) of the hundreds of teas they offer. Although some of my favorite teas there are the Marco Polo, French Blue, Bal Masque, Casablanca, and The des Impressionists, I haven't had a dud yet. And the food is as good as the tea, with brilliant brunch platters and high-class afternoon tea sandwiches. My favorite combo (this week): K and I share the Pondicherry Afternoon Tea (30 euros) which comes with a pot of tea (we choose the Impressionists), a platter of tea sandwiches (featuring fabulous ingredients fois gras and smoked magret and shrimp and smoked salmon!), and a dessert (we always choose the coup du soleil, which is more or less a creme brulee pie with fresh raspberries tucked away inside the custard).
  • La Belle Hortense (Rue Vieille du Temple): This is a combination wine bar/literary cafe/book shop that embodies most of what I love about Paris. Trilingual academic discussions fill the air with the haze of cigarettes and seemingly endless clink of glasses filled with gorgeous (and cheap!) wine. They make some of the best cafe in Paris--by my reckoning at least--and have some unique items like an aperitif made of truffles. If you work up an appetite with all of your yammering, you can order from the menu from Les Philosophes, the bar's sister-restaurant across the street (they have great steak tartar and excellent duck confit with honey, available as the main course in a 3-course fixed price meal available for 26 euros--if you, however, want to sample the most delightfully Gallic restaurant service ever, you should really head over to the restaurant itself and spend the evening attempting to catch the attention of the playfully surly servers!).
  • Creperie Suzette (Rue du Franc Bourgeois): In the past 5 years, K and I have probably spent a weeks-worth of our cumulative vacation time gobbling down this simple but adorable creperie's fine fare. From the simple sugar & butter crepes to savory offerings like the Franc Bourgeois (spinach, emmenthal, tomato coulis, and basil oil) and unique sweet treats like the Creme du Marron (chestnut cream and creme fraiche), this place is always good for a quick to-go fix or for a leisurely lunch or dinner in their air-conditioned interior. Dinner for two can be kept under 22 euros and they offer continuous service throughout the day.
  • Cafe de Medicis (Luxembourg Gardens): K and I visited this cafe (overlooking the stunning Luxembourg Gardens and adjacent to the always-interesting Luxembourg Museum) before taking in the delightful marionette show in the gardens. While I can't really speak for most of the items on the menu, it's always a great place to sit-down with a cafe and they Club Sandwich Fois Gras is really something else: several geese worth of buttery fois gras is arranged, in a deconstructed presentation, with some slices of brioche, grilled pineapple, caramelized onions, and port glaze. I forced so much (albeit delicious and amusingly paired) fois gras down my gullet that I began to feel a little bit like the poor geese they make the stuff with!
  • Le Nemrod (Rue du Cherch Midi): Just a few blocks south of the incomparable boulangerie of the late Lionel Poilane (which is thankfully still baking up his intoxicating sourdough-started loaves) is a great little spot where you can get Paris' best Croque Madame. Nemrod's version features not only the standard fine ham and cheese topped with bechamel and a perfectly fried sunnyside-up egg, but the entire thing is on a slab of Poilane's finest and it makes a tremendous difference. Oh, and they put tomato wedges on the sandwich when they put it through the broiler! It's a little out of way but it is definitely worth the trek...
  • Pont Louis Phillipe (on the Ile St. Louis side): Best picnic location ever. Grab your bottle of wine, your smelly cheese, some baguette, prosciutto, and couscous and enjoy the acoustic strummings of nearby troubadors as you watch the Bateaux Mouche tourboats drive by and light up the City of Lights.
Okay, off to La Belle Hortense.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

40 pounds a day

So, in honor of the overexposed Rachel Ray, K & I tried to do London on 40 pounds a day. One would think, given the exchange rate that $40 a person for 3 meals & tea wouldn't be that hard, but London is such an expensive city that we were much closer to gaining 40 pounds of fat than we were to keeping our wallets in check.

Our Zoom Airlines flight got in roughly 4 hours late (or right on time, as Zoom fully discloses that all of their departure and arrival times are approximate) so we arrived in London proper by noon, a little wary of mass transit given the recent bombings. We hit the streets from Waterloo station after stowing our baggage. I wanted to head right for fish & chips but K hadn't had any breakfast yet and wanted something resembling coffee and a pastry. We tried to find the nearest cafe (avoiding the 2 Starbucks we passed) and settled on the Charles Dickens Cafe because it accepted Euros and we hadn't gone to a cash machine yet. Big mistake. No iced coffee (which was all K really wanted), uninspiring pastries, and I don't know what sort of fuzzy math they used to convert the Euros, but we got a pound back from a 10 euro note after buying an espresso and juice.

More than a little bit frustrated, we moved on to find what we heard was the best fish & chips joint in London, Rock and Sole Plaice. The take-away menu was very reasonable (at least it would have been if those were dollar signs in front of the numbers) but there was a treat tempting us only on the sit-down menu so we decided it was worth the tripled prices. On one of Alton Brown's Good Eats episodes (Flat is Beautiful III: Flounder), whilst shopping for flat fish at a Georgia Whole Foods, the man himself asserted that if one ever has the opportunity to try Dover Sole, often very very expensive, one simply had to. With this declaration in mind, I had no choice other than to order the market priced (gasp!) Dover Sole, fried whole. I doused it in lemon and malt vinegar and began picking away at it. Great crispy and flavorful fried crust, doing exactly what a fried crust should do, keeping the delicate and buttery Dover Sole moist and tender on the inside. Even K, who is the first admit she doesn't have much of a palette for white fish and even less of one for fried foods found the subtle flavors very complex and satisfying. Since I wanted to nibble on an authentic version of a dish I've tried at home, I asked K to order the Cornish Pasty for herself. That was quite something, too, with the root vegetables tasting rooty, moist and flavorful (as opposed to starchy and dry, that is) and the ground beef very well-seasoned. The pasty's texture itself was as flaky as a puff pastry. Overall, a great fattening meal, which, unfortunately, cost nearly as much as the tasting menu I described in my last post about JLOB.

We headed over to the National Gallery and took in its stunning permanent collection and then meandered over to the National Cafe where we took in a Cream Tea service. A pot of tea, a scone, and a dish full of Jersey clotted cream for roughly $8 American. The tea itself was mediocre, certainly no Mariage Freres, but the raisin scone was quite something; I told K it was all of the pleasure of muffin tops without any of that pesky cakey muffin middle! Said scone was even further improved by the decadent Jersey cream (which, neophyte as I am, I mistook for butter as its color is hued more towards the caramel than the milk end of the spectrum) and divine raspberry preserves (the jar of which seemed to be reduced from a 1-ton vat of raspberries and yes that is a very good thing!). I'm not supposed to say anything about this but someone who happened to be sitting at my table (who certainly couldn't be K!) liked the preserves and cream so much that she actually started eating it by the spoonful whenever she could be sure that the waitress wasn't eyeing her. :)

We decided it was highly inappropriate to follow tea immediately with dinner, but we were on a tight schedule with a chunnel ride to Paris awaiting us at 7:43pm. We killed about 90 minutes wandering around the Leicester Square area, trying to squeeze the clotted cream through our by then surely clotted arteries, and then settled on a noodle-house chain called Wagamama. We were little bit concerned about the time, but our host reminded us that it was technically fast food so it shouldn't take too long. I ordered a delightful and refreshing pressed juice blend with cucumber, pomegranate and apple and layered like a parfait. K and I shared an app and an entree, opting for the deep-fried duck and leek gyoza and the seafood ramen. The duck was tasty though I realized that, with the exception of the occasional pork potsticker at Dumping House in NYC, I tend to prefer my dumplings steamed. That said, it was crispy while staying definitively un-greasy! After the day's delicious fried goods and other fatty indulgences, the main course was so clean and light: a very delicate vegetable broth with healthy-tasting ramen noodles (were they whole wheat?) and generous helpings of grilled shrimp, calamari, and dory. One rarely feels cleansed after a giant bowl of soup but this certainly did the trick!

We miraculously caught the Eurostar and, as first class was in this case cheaper than economy, we were treated to a second dinner, though K preferred to sleep through it and I was too stuffed to eat anything besides the 5 steamed shrimp on a skewer. I did help myself to the free wine though!

Okay, more updates in coming days as we eat our way through Paris.