Thursday, March 27, 2008

Too stuffed to type?

It's amazing how easy it is to fall behind on one's food blogging. I mean, I'm not trying to catalogue EVERY meal I'm eating here, just the memorable ones. But, what can I say, most of my meals have been pretty memorable. Faced with the ridiculously self-imposed responsibility to write about all of them, I've instead written about none. So now I play catch up.

Monday night we (K, V, Bear, and Truffle Boy) made our 2 mile walk over to 6 Rue Jacquard, home of Ave Maria. It's an Afro-Brazilian-French fusion restaurant and it's worth paying a visit for the décor alone. Vines descend from the ceiling. Barbie dolls dressed like Mexican images of saints and mounted in frames on the walls. Kitsch posters abound. There is a dish I love here. Its tongue-and-cheek title stretches across 3 or 4 lines in the menu. But I've had it nearly every year I've come so it was time to bravely march forward and try something new. So I opted for one with the shortest title, the Kirikou (sp?). Inspired by one of the national dishes of Togo (or so they say), it offered beef and massive carrots stewed in "African spices," sharing the bowl with tomatoes, rice, onions, cucumbers, mint, oranges, and parsley. The beef was tough for my taste but the stewing juices were definitely worth soaking up with bread. Sometimes one should stick with the known and just make sure that one's dining companions will let one nibble on the unknown. Said dining companions also make it possible to order dessert when one knows one is far too full. We ordered their award-winning "Death by Chocolate," accompanied by a digestif made of rum with macerated ginger and infused with cinnamon. As Bear pointed out, in America, the "Death by Chocolate" would likely be too rich to be savored and, after all, shouldn't one's mort chocolat be savored? To extend the analogy further, I'd say that ordering such a dish in America is like a chocolate cyanide capsule: one bite and your finished. Ave Maria's version, though, is like, I don't know, drowning because you've fallen asleep in the world's most comfortable bath. And the little ginger shot was just what I needed to revive me from my chocolate languor.

V departed Tuesday in the late afternoon, though the departure proved a little more traumatic than we might have hoped as we scrambled from station to station trying to find a metro with an open ticket window (for some inexplicable reason the ticketing machines in Paris do not take American credit cards though everywhere else seems to!). Bear and I walked over to a poetry reading at the Village Voice bookstore and then managed to sneak into a grocery store right before it closed. Once we got to the house, Bear served up a gorgeous and tasty antipasto plate with some fromage, white asparagus, caviar, and sausage while I started work on the seared lamb with a (2 euro!) Cabernet Sauvignon & fig reduction. We had cleverly purchased a jar of marinated eggplants which I dolloped onto some couscous for a tasty side. The main course here was actually the world's largest head of cauliflower. With individual florets the size of my fist, it could have served 8 but we three managed to put away nearly all of it. I'm so proud of us.

Yesterday (Wednesday), Bear and I had some crossed wires and didn't end up meeting up as planned at the overpriced and rude Deux Magots. Bear lunched solo and was charged 15 euros for a small ham sandwich and a café au lait and they wouldn't let her charge it on credit card (16 euro minimum they said)! Meanwhile, I failed to eat anything whatsoever save a few candies Bear bought from a street vendor. That's okay, because at 9:30pm I more than made up for it by gorging myself (and actually being out-gorged by the normally restrained K) at La Cave du L'Os a Moelle (Rue Lourmel), the communal table restaurant that we've made a point of visiting each time we've come to Paris. Here's the set-up. They have sittings at 7:30 and 9:30 and you make your reservation accordingly. You arrive and pick a bottle of vin that pleases you off the wall (they range in price from 10 euros to well over 100, but they are all take-away prices) and take a seat at your table. Since they had lost our reservation, the only community at our communal table that night was comprised of the 3 of us…which was certainly fine with me. On the table when you sit down is a jar of cornichons, a delicious whole-grain mustard, a tray of crudités, a bowl of world's tiniest shrimp (to be eaten whole I discovered!), a blood sausage terrine and another country terrine, and some rather delicious marinated grated vegetables (beets, carrots, and celery root, I think). Bear had reasonably assumed that said dishes were the entire meal and stocked up accordingly only to discover moments later that there were also 5 other courses awaiting us. You go over to a counter and serve yourself (NOTE: the following courses change nightly and depend upon the season and the caprice of the chef) a spicy & creamy fish soup, a stewed pork breast, and a dish of Brussels sprouts and carrots. Follow that up with a cheese course and round out the night with a bowl of fruit salad or one (or two or three or all) of the other 10 desserts they offer. Aside from the wine, the 23 euro price-tag is all inclusive and we really stretched the definition of the word "all" (and our stomachs!). I can imagine few things as delightfully appetizing as the marinated vegetables (as in, they literally prime our appetite for the later courses) and the giant slabs of pork (the fat melting—literally: rendering--in your mouth) were the perfect salve for a frustrating rainy day. I'm still thinking about the Brussels sprout dish—we think it's probably only seasoned with butter, salt, and pepper, but I'd be lying if I said I'd ever had a better vegetable dish. I don't know what the secret flowery syrup in the fruit salad was, but I do know that it had perfectly ripe mangoes, oranges, pineapples, currants, raspberries, and apples in it. I also know that it was easily the best fruit salad I've had in my life (sorry dad!). Bear had 3 servings. Or rather, I served Bear 3 bowls of it (I had the end seat and played waiter and busboy). The people who work there are adorable, kind, and at least tri-lingual and as you and your fellow diners get high on wine and French comfort food, a boisterous conviviality fills the air. I so wish I could have this experience in my native tongue, but somehow I feel like the whole atmosphere would be lost in translation.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


It being Easter and all here in a Catholic city, much of the town closes down...except, of course, the Jewish quarter! After spending some time with the devout in Notre Dame (with our fingers still sticky from the Berthillon ice cream we, lunatics, that we are, picked up in the wintry weather today. I had the always delicious Caramel with Salted Butter flavor, K had the otherworldly Cassis, and V sampled the very nutty Pistachio), where we lucked into an "audition" (literally: hearing) of the massive organ (which seems only capable of producing the soundtrack to all of the 1920s and 1930s classic monster movies!), we headed over to Rue du Rossiers to make our semi-annual pilgrimage to L'as du Falafel. A man on the street takes your order (and your order is "Falafel Special"...5 euros--no bargain by NYC East Village standards but a steal in this city) and gives you a ticket. You wait on line. You cross your fingers and hope that the deep-fried balls of chick-pea treasure will just be emerging from their hot oil bath as you reach the head of the line. You reach the head of the line. Two aproned schwarma surgeons take your ticket, figure out what language you speak, and then tease you in said language. They play catch with your falafel which bounce and roll all over the many toppings with which your pita will soon be stuffed. White cabbage. Red Cabbage. Grilled seasoned eggplant (apparently a bribe of a euro buys you extra!). Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Tahini. And, if you say "Picante" at just the right time: hot sauce. Stick a fork in it and it's done. You can either eat it right there (which is probably the smart thing to do), or you can empirically discover the cooling time of falafel by trekking back to your apartment three blocks away. Here's the thing, though: even though it was cold, the falafel kept its crunch while all of the other toppings merge into TomaCabbaCucuPlantIni...and that's a very good thing!

Jean Bart Is No More, But Its Boutique Remains

So, promising great moules frites at ridiculously cheap prices I dragged our little truffle trio (which will momentarily become a quartet tomorrow and then reshape to form a new trio the next day) east toward Bastille to Le Jean Bart (86 Rue St. Antoine).

Though my French was not good enough to make out the various signs affixed all over the closed glass doors, it appears that the marvelously atmospheric dive bistro has suffered both a crippling fire and a pretty dire financial crisis. Though I'm not sure how the chronology played out, the proprietor ended up staging a sit-in to try to save the restaurant. Alas, the place seems to be closed indefinitely.

Strangely enough, right next door is Jean Bart's Boutique, offering the same menu, the same prices, and its own petit share of atmosphere. 8 euros buys you one of their 8 preparations of mussels accompanied by french fries. If you opt for their moules marinieres, you can get that, the frites, beer, and a cafe for under 10 euros. V, K, and I each chose our own bowl of moules and shared a demi of a Bourdeaux Blanc Sauvignon. I went for the Moules du Gallo (sp?), a tasty concoction of oil, garlic, white wine, onions, and snail butter. Though I did enjoy the dish, I'd be lying if I said that the distinct flavor of the snail butter was easily discernible and transformed this rustic dish into a masterpiece. Kinda tasted like butter, perhaps a bit snailier...? As V pointed out, though, the best part of any moules experience is soaking your baguette in the steaming jus at the bottom of the bowl. Based on that taste test alone, this was definitely one of the better moules dishes I've had, but it really is a shame that you can't get the moules themselves more immersed in those flavors. I used to serve moules in a great big ugly clear plastic party bowl that I presume was intended for chips & dip. Advantage: you can ladle a good heaping of the jus right into the middle and dip the moules in with each bite.

At any rate: the Boutique is definitely worth paying the visit but I don't think it's a must-eat...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Back in Paris, Back in Blogland

Ah faithful readers, your lovable truffle boy has returned. Apparently it takes a trip out of the country for me to squeeze time from my schedule, under-ripe lime though it often seems to be. Well, I'm back in Paris with K and another traveling companion I'll call V. Actually, I should probably give a quick run down of the 36-hours we spent in Amsterdam en route to France.

It was the third time K and I made an extended Amsterdam stopover and we know exactly what we want to eat, see, and do while we're in town for a few hours. Apparently, there is very little in the way of Dutch "national" food as many Netherlanders will proudly declare Indonesian to be their native cuisine. So, each time we visit we hit up Indrapura, a tasty little spot in Rembrandtplein that serves up rijsttafel, a fixed-menu meal featuring a variety of Indonesia tapas. Here's how the restaurant's website explains the the meal:
The origin of the concept 'rijsttafel' is difficult to trace. According to one legend it referes to the actual table used by the Dutch settlers during the colonial days in Indonesia. A traditional Indonesian meal is always based on white rice, not only because it is noutricious, but also for its calming and soothing effect in combination with spicy dishes. One fish or meat dish accompanied the rice seasoned with 'sambal' or chilipeper. In colonial days a simple meal like this symply did not satisfy the appetite of the Dutch planters, so a greater variety of dishes, from all over the islands, was added. It is this large amount of tasty dishes that as a whole forms the elaborate 'rijsttafel' of today.
It is tasty. Very. We chose the Purnama for 29 euros a person. White rice, fried rice, tempeh, peanuts, cucumber salad, spicy mango salad, various skewered meats (lamb, beef, pork) in satay-like sauces, various slow-cooked meats in peanut sauce and soy souce, shrimp crackers, a cabbage dish, and at least 3 other dishes I can't remember. Good deal. None of the individual entrees is, itself, more than casually appetizing, but altogether as a spread it is filling and offers a really diverse tasting. K mentioned that about half the dishes seem to offer very Thai flavors while the others rely more on Indian spices.

Another don't miss in Amsterdam is the Pancake Bakery. If you're like us and chose your digs in the Reguliersgracht/Rembrandtplein area, then you might want to take bikes to visit this adorable and cozy pancake specialist. Be forewarned though: this place does not serve breakfast and they do not even open until noon. Or rather, much of what they serve can be deemed breakfast but you cannot dare to deem it so until after noon. At any rate, Dutch pancakes are like French crepes but a little bit thicker. And Dutch syrup, stroop, is super-thick as well, smokier (can you use that for sweets?) and richer (but less sweet) than maple or, deity-of-your-choice forbid, Aunt Jemima. All three of us went for savory options. V ordered the very delicious Greek pancake (lamb, feta, onions, tzatziki), K went for my favorite, the Swedish (coriander and thyme marinated reindeer, onions, carrots, cabbage, poached pears, and cranberry sauce), and I tried something new with the Canadian (with crispy bacon, onions, mushrooms, ham, cheese, and curry sauce). We ripped off some "untouched" pieces of our pancakes and covered them with stroop to save money on dessert. Stingy? Yes. Tasty? Yes.

And right before you hop the tram to the train station, make sure to stop at the northwest corner of Rembrandtplein for Vlaamse Frites. While you'll only rarely catch me touching the white nastiness we call mayonaise in these United States of ours, Euronaise is a whole different creature. A delicious creature that pairs perfectly with deep fried potatoes. Do it. Smother them. Pack lots of napkins and tell your arteries to be quiet!

Okay...on to Paris:

The Paris apartment this time around is on Rue du Temple, just two blocks west of the Seine and just a few blocks north of many of our favorite Marais haunts. We had a bit of a nightmare getting into the apartment the first night and, homeless at 12:30 in the am, ended up crashing into Belle Hortense with all of our luggage because it felt "safe." Who goes to a French literary wine bar in the middle of a crisis? Truffle boy does. While K and V tried to figure out where we were going to sleep that night, I got the menu from the nearby restaurant Les Philosophes (along with Le Petit Fer A Cheval, all three share an owner) and ordered "delivery" to the wine bar, where I was "safely" ensconced with my Sancerre. I got Steak Tartare for myself (how else does one know one has arrived in Paris?) and picked up salads for the ladies. K's was one of those delightful French creations topped with smoked duck breast, prosciutto, avocado, beets, and hot goat cheese on little toasts.

The apartment has a clean and reasonably well-appointed kitchen. Slick electric range & a nuker, but no oven and the cutlery might better befit a Fisher Price Kitchenette. No matter: V and I have already been cooking up a storm. Last night I braised some chicken quarters (doused in a little cumin, garlic powder, basil, salt, pepper, and flour--the only pantry items in the apartment!) in Riesling with carrots, leeks, and onions. Tonight, V and I shared kitchen duties. I picked up some goodness from Hedonisme (6 Rue du Mezieres), a lovely little organic/artisinal shop. Left with organic gnocchi, organic truffle butter (which, of course, is composed entirely of TRUFFLES and BUTTER!), and a bagful of pretty veggies. V prepared a lovely salad with a lemon-shallot dressing (as I said, we have nothing in our pantry) and I made the inset gnocchi with sauteed mushrooms & shallots, basil and garlic powder, and a few spoons full of truffle butter (oh, dear readers: may my veins run thick with the stuff when they cut me open on judgment day!).

Au Revoir! More soon...