Tuesday, June 30, 2009

paris day four: murder by foie gras

How long will it take me to finish this vacation roundup? Day four dawned far sunnier and warmer than the previous three, a great day to climb some more stairs and see the city from the loveliest vantage point. Well, that photo looks ominously cloudy, but that actually passed quickly. After our obligatory baguette/butter/jam/tiny coffee breakfast at a nearby cafe, we hopped on the metro up to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur.

For once we were met with no line for a tourist attraction, and I realized why that might be so when we were about halfway up the steep, narrow, claustrophobic, slippery stone steps of the basilica. This was the opposite experience of climbing the Eiffel Tower. We had no idea when it would end. The climbing isn't tough, it was really just so narrow in those winding stairwells. Thankfully, portions of the climb went outdoors because I am claustrophobic. There's J-Cat, he was actually filming the whole climb with his little camera. I'd post it, but this is a blog about food and the video makes me want to vomit.

Montmartre itself is a lovely neighborhood to stroll around. The highest point in Paris, the steep streets and numerous stairways felt particularly Parisian to me, probably because this neighborhood is used in so many films to evoke that super Parisian Paris. We sat on the Sacre Coeur steps featured in Amelie and munched on baguette sandwiches (rosetto salami & butter for him, chevre & tomato for me), probably the cheapest thing we ate on the whole trip, but really quite satisfying after being trapped in a tiny stone stairwell for 20 minutes.

This is a sculpture dedicated to the writer Marcel Ayme. Apparently, this is a character from one of Ayme's stories about a man in Montmartre who could walk through walls.

After Montmartre, we made our way down to the Marais, one of the areas known for shopping. Because wtf, we hadn't done any shopping at all. But by this point, the sun was really shining and hot, and I was painfully aware of how much money we had already spent, and it was tough to spend more on clothes that I wasn't really loving. There seemed to be a bit of a hippy bohemian thing going on in most of the shops we came across. Kind of a disappointment. But what wasn't a disappointment was Breizh Cafe, where we had lunch. Second lunch. Ahem. Breizh Cafe, as the name implies, focuses on the food of Brittany, specifically crepes and galettes. This little cafe takes the crepes far above the simple street food to fine, thoughtful, impressive cuisine. We started with some fantastically fresh oysters, listed as huitres rares, special special. We followed this with a galette - a savory buckwheat crepe - filled with chevre and fresh greens. Super thin and delicate with edges that were almost invisibly thin, yet undeniably crispy. And of course we had to have something sweet, so we went with the super simple and classic crepe citron, with sugar and lemon juice. Perfection.

After some more shopping, we walked all the way from the Marais back to St. Germain. J-Cat pooped out at this point and decided to head back for a quick cat nap before dinner, but I still had a little shop in me and made my way around the neighborhood. (I may have possibly returned to Bread & Roses in the process and gotten a bit of an apricot pastry snack. It was a really long day.) Finally, despite eating all day, we were off to our final dinner in Paris, at the highly acclaimed "Josephine" Chez Dumonet.

Of all of the bistros we visited in Paris, Chez Dumonet feels the most classically old-school Paris, bright and cheery, with 1930's fixtures, leather banquettes, white linen tablecloths, and very jovial waiters. So it was only fitting that everything we ate that evening was classic French all the way. In fact, the chef made certain that I got even more than I bargained for. This dinner ended up being both excellent and overwhelming. It started normal enough, with an amuse consisting of a rich seafood soup and a glass of white wine. Then J-cat had a simple endive salad with roquefort, but the hunk of cheese was as big as my head. So much for small French portions. I started with a country terrine - a half portion, that was even bigger than the hunk of cheese. Then it got crazy. After clearing away our starters, the waiter sets down a plate of foie gras - a hunk just as big as the terrine if not bigger. I expressed my confusion and all he would say is that the chef sent it over to me. Was the chef trying to kill me?! I mean, it was really really nice foie gras, but I had just eaten a rich terrine, and my main course was a freakin' duck confit! My heart was going to explode. I managed a small portion of the foie gras, thinking the whole time of the rich duck that was to come. As much as I enjoyed the foie, I'm glad I saved room, though, because the duck was amazing. I'm talking best duck confit ever, anywhere. And to top that off, potatoes fried in duck fat. Oh yeah. J-Cat had an unbelievable boeuf bourguignon, also a half portion that was still too big, served with buttered noodles.

Dessert was totally out of control. I went with their most talked about dessert, the Grand Marnier Souffle, which was the size of a fat baby. J-Cat had a millefeuille, basically a cream napoleon. This thing was epic. So epic, in fact, that a lady two tables away from us spotted it and stated loud enough for half the dining room to hear that she wishes she had gotten it instead of the souffle because it looked amazing. Which it was, but we're talking a two-baby millefeuille here. So after J-Cat and I got through maybe 1/4 of this monster (delicious monster) dessert, it only made sense to pass it down. Why not? And it made it four tables away before it was devoured. At least it didn't go to waste.

So I guess it was fitting that on our last night in Paris, we truly had a dinner to remember, for so many reasons. We were perhaps so full we wanted to die, but boy was it all excellent. And because Chef Dumonet really did appear to want to kill me, he came out at the end of our meal and basically shamed me into downing the shot of Grand Marnier that came with my souffle.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

french food i did not eat in france: moules provencale

In fact, I had no moules of any kind in Paris, though we did have some fantastic oysters. I guess the rule is that you should never eat mussels in months that do not have an "R" (May, June, July, August), although I suppose that rule would also apply to oysters and we had no issue with ignoring it for oysters. I don't know, I just know that we didn't really see many places serving mussels, except some really suspect bistros right near Gare du Nord. Not exactly the part of town you go to seek out food.

Though I usually opt for Moules Mariniere, with some lovely herbs and white wine, Moules Provencale is a good choice if you're not into the wineyness of mariniere, or if you love the tomato action. I found this recipe for Fennel-Steamed Mussels Provencal on Mark Bittman's Bitten blog and was immediately intrigued by the focus on fennel. I could just imagine that the sweetness of the mussels would be so well complemented by the subtle anise-flavor of the fennel.

He really kicks ups that fennel flavor by also calling for fennel seeds, and tarragon, and either anise-flavored liqueur or whole star anise. I used the star anise because it was what I had in the house, and it's just so pretty. Despite my great love of anise flavors in cooking, I'm actually not a fan of anise liqueur so it's not something I would generally have around the house. This recipe did prove a wonderful combination, and the liquid left behind was best soaked up with some good rustic baguette. Bringing a little bit of France back home. Recipe after the jump:

From The New York Times Bitten Blog by Mark Bittman

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 fennel bulb (about 1 pound), trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1/2 cup Pernod or Ricard (or 4 whole star anise)
1 cup chopped tomatoes, if desired (canned are fine, drained first)
1 sprig fresh tarragon, if desired
At least 4 pounds large mussels, well washed

1. Place the oil in a large pot and turn the heat to medium; 1 minute later, add the garlic, fennel, fennel seeds, liqueur, and tomatoes and tarragon if you're using them. Bring to a boil, cook for about 1 minute. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and turn the heat to high.
2. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, 5 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mussels and fennel to a serving bowl, then strain any liquid over them and serve.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

paris day three: the international sign for "i'm so stuffed i want to die"

Day three dawned in beautiful Paris and I realized that I had only had one croissant thus far. This was unacceptable and had to be remedied as soon as possible. So on our walk from the hotel to the Louvre, the natural stop was Laduree, another world famous patisserie. Though Laduree is probably more famous for its macarons and other sweet pastries, I went straight for the classic butter croissant. And there is nothing better, really, than a simple, flaky, perfectly buttery pastry. I realized when we reached the Louvre, however, that I should have gotten two - or five. I would need the energy to deal with the crowds and with getting utterly lost in the gargantuan museum.

After hours of wandering through several amazing collections and hitting the required big three - Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo - we thought we were making our way out but just kept circling around to the Marly Horses. Something like three times. I mean, they're amazing but we were just trying to get out at that point. By the time we finally escaped, we were famished, and did not have the energy to search far and wide for the best lunch. We ended up at a small bistro near the museum called Cafe de la Comedie. I have no doubt that this place was overpriced based on proximity to the museum, but in the end we were fairly satisfied with the food. J-Cat had a perfectly respectable burger, while I had a croque monsieur on Poilane miche. I figure it's pretty hard to screw up croque monsieur, especially when it's on fantastic bread, and I was right.

After lunch, it was time for more art and beauty. We strolled through the Tuileries gardens towards L'Orangerie, the small museum featuring Monet's Water Lillies, as well as other impressionist masterpieces. The circular room with the skylight roof where you stand surrounded on all sides by Monet's breathtaking lillies is an experience like no other.

And then it was time for the Eiffel Tower. We decided to walk all the way over, which took a good long while, but gave us the chance to see some other sights, like Place de la Concorde, Petit Palais, and the Invalides. Towards the end of this walk, I discovered an amazing little product called Compeed blister patches, which I can't believe they don't sell in the US because it saved my feet from certain agony after literally hours of nonstop walking.

We finally arrive at the Eiffel Tower to find a ridiculously long line for the elevators, so I'm especially glad that we found those blister patches because we walked all the way up. I felt pretty bad for some of the people we passed on the way up, they did not look like they should have attempted it.

After the stunning views, we had a little time before our dinner reservation, so we stopped for our now traditional early evening coffee. Look how tiny it is, you can't even see it in J-Cat's hand.

Our day culminated in a fantastic diner at the much-lauded Chez L'Ami Jean, Stephane Jego's invariably packed basque-influenced bistro in the 7th arrondisement. The meal started with an amuse of tinned fromage blanc made from ewe’s milk with piment d’Espelette and chives. This mild cheese curd was spread on rustic bread from Poujauran, a highly regarded boulangerie that supplies many three-star Parisian restaurants. J-Cat then had a perfect mussel risotto, while I had a starter of sardines, mozzarella, and tomato, all freshness come to life. J-Cat's main was a steak (he ate a lot of steak in Paris) with fresh morels. Mine was a guinea hen with asparagus and a giant marrow bone. The guinea hen was perfectly roasted rare, and I was just completely content scooping out the marrow with my little spoon. Dessert is where things got a little out of hand. J-Cat ordered a perfectly normal meringue with raspberries and vanilla creme. But I ordered something from another planet. It was listed as "Grand-mere riz au lait". In my flimsy French, I figured that meant "grandmother's rice pudding". I was right about the rice pudding part, but now I believe "grand-mere" must mean "big-ass". This was the most obscenely large bowl of rice pudding ever set in front of a single person. I mean, seriously, I was already quite stuffed, how is this the portion for one person? But it was amazing, with a ribbon of confiture de lait and served with a bowl full of dried fruits and sugared nuts, and a big wooden spoon to serve yourself. Oh how I wished I could take it all home and pull it out in the middle of the night, it was certainly the best rice pudding I've ever had. But that wasn't the end of our desserts.

At the table next to us, a Japanese couple had apparently ordered some kind of chef's tasting menu, because the waitress just kept piling on dish after dish to the befuddled couple. Not able to speak any French or much English, they didn't seem to know what was ahead of them. The giant platter of caramelized foie gras is the first thing that got my notice. But when the waitress brought them the same rice pudding as mine and told them that it was the first of three desserts, the poor man put his head in his hands and started sweating. I could only imagine that he was telling his wife that he couldn't do it, it was just too insane. She simply laughed and took tiny bites. The next two desserts came simultaneously, and she simply picked them both up off their table, set it on ours, and said in broken English "please, we can't". We laughed and tried to tell them that we were just too stuffed, but she would not have any of that. So we had a bit of passionfruit custard and a supremely rich dark chocolate quenelle. When the waitress returned to collect the dishes, she looked at the half eaten extra desserts on our table and just laughed. There are no language barriers when you're being stuffed with excellent food.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

french food i did not eat in france: cherry clafoutis

I have been terribly neglectful of this blog since I've been back, I know, but I have been busy busy busy shooting a show and cursing the rain and my brain has not been in a place of writing. I have also been somewhat neglectful of my kitchen, what with leftovers coming home with me at the end of many of my days on set. I have been able to do a little culinary dabbling on the weekends, and I find myself trying out recipes for dishes that I should have eaten in Paris but didn't have a chance to. There were only so many hours and so many foods that I could stuff into myself at a time. So here is one classic French dessert that I should have stuffed: clafoutis.

Clafoutis is a baked fresh fruit custard, traditionally featuring fresh sweet cherries. Apparently the original version included whole unpitted cherries, the pits lending a mild almondy flavor when baked. These days, however, most recipes call for pitted cherries, probably because one too many hosts neglected to mention the pits and had an unhappy guest with a chipped tooth. To make up for the missing almond flavor, this recipe includes slivered almonds and a touch of almond extract. Clafoutis is incredibly simple to make, and yet seems like a complicated dish. The result is like a cross between a tart and a custard. Though it all starts out as one batter, the baking process seems to create two distinct textures; an almost cakelike crust along the bottom and sides, with a layer of light custard and fruit floating above it. J-Cat usually doesn't like eggy custards, but he loved this dessert for the almond flavor and the fact that the custard was so delicate and not eggy at all. This is the time for fresh cherries, so I cannot recommend this recipe more. Just be careful pitting those cherries, I'm still cleaning the dark red juice off of my kitchen...

Adapted from Simply Recipes

1 pint fresh sweet cherries, pitted
1/4 cup sliced almonds
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
pinch salt
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp almond extract
2 tsps vanilla extract
powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x13 baking dish. Layer the pitted cherries and almond slivers in the bottom of the dish. Whisk together the eggs, sugars, flour, and salt. Add the milk and extracts and whisk until well combined. Pour slowly into the baking dish. Bake for 40-50 minutes until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. It may still wiggle a bit in the middle but that is fine. Remove and set to cool on a wire rack. This is especially delicious served a bit warm, dusted lightly with powdered sugar.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

paris day two: 10 more coffees please

The dark spot in Parisian cuisine: coffee. Tiny, expensive, and honestly, not very good. Two coffee-loving New Yorkers with jet lag and a lot on the itinerary just need giant 20-ounce coffees to walk around with, you know?

But here's one of the billion bright spots: butter. Lovely French butter. We started our day by walking through the Luxembourg Gardens to grab breakfast at Bread & Roses, a dreamy boulangerie/patisserie on rue de Fleurus. The difficulty of this place is the sheer number of different delicious choices. Savory or sweet, pastry or bread, simple or elaborate. We decided to go classic with an excellent baguette, butter, and jam. This is one of my favorite breakfasts; simple, classic, but when every element is excellent it is breakfast perfection.

This breakfast perfection gave us the needed energy to tackle the Musee d'Orsay, the stunning beaux arts train station transformed into a museum housing the Impressionist masterpieces. Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne; needless to say we spent a good long while wandering. Eventually, however, it was of course time to seek out more foods. We ended up at a Brasserie called Pere et Fils, just across the street from Da Rosa. It was nothing to really write home about, but J-Cat had a solid steak frites, and I had a very respectable steak tartare, and for quite a fair price, too.

From there it was time for Notre Dame, which surely I don't need to say too much about. I don't think J-Cat has ever seen anything quite like that. Both the stunning cathedral and the swarms of tourists. It was late in the day, but there was still a rather ridiculous line waiting to climb the towers, so we decided that ice cream was a higher priority.

Not just any ice cream; this was Berthillon. Just a quick walk through the painfully quaint Ile Saint-Louis, past dozens of cafes advertising that they serve Berthillon, the trick is not to be tricked by those signs and keep walking until you get to the actual place! It's also well worth it to skip waiting in line at the window and instead get a seat at the small cafe. You'll likely make less of a mess of yourself, and you'll get a little glass of water, which you will probably want after some rich rich ice cream. J-Cat - already feeling weighed down by a day and a half of relentlessly rich food - decided on a raspberry and rose sorbet. I apparently have a stomach of steel and went for a rich pistachio with a rich salted butter caramel. Did I say rich? Double rich. Creamy, unbelievably smooth, with incredibly pure flavors. This lived up to the hype.

This little ice cream excursion, however, did not make the line at Notre Dame any shorter, so we decided to head down to Montparnasse a little early for our dinner reservation and wander around a different neighborhood. We were happy to discover that the coffees at cafes in this neighborhood were considerably cheaper, but they weren't any bigger or better and they were served with an attitude that said that we were freaks for drinking coffee at an hour when wine would be much more appropriate.

Dinner was at La Regalade, a bit of an institution in the Neo-Bistro world, opened in the early 90's by superstar Yves Camdeborde. Camdeborde has since moved on, but foodies still flock to La Regalade, and for good reason. An exceedingly affordable prix fixe starts with an amuse of fantastic serve-yourself terrine (I served myself a somewhat obscene slice to top my bread) along with a big crock of gherkins. J-Cat started with a classic salad of haricot verts and beets. I decided to order things that I actually didn't understand. Adventurous perhaps, but I felt like being surprised. So I found out that "macquereax" means mackerel, on top of a tart with caramelized onions. Here's where I felt particularly vindicated for taking chances. It might be a dish I wouldn't have jumped to order had I known what it said, but I was extremely happy that I did. For the main course, J-Cat chose a Paleron de beouf nicoise, perhaps remembering how perfect the paleron was the night before. He actually perferred this preparation's flavors, I was more on the fence. For my main, I found out that "poitrine de cochon" means "giant hunk of pork belly". I did, for the record, know that cochon was pork, but I had no idea what part. And I'm not kidding when I say giant. (I know I should have taken photos, but there was another American couple in the restaurant taking photos of everything and I felt like everyone else in the restaurant was looking at them like they were wierdos so I refrained.) Anyway, this slab of pork belly was cooked until the skin was super crispy, which meant I was again happily surprised by my half-blind ordering.

Dessert for J-Cat was a classic Grand Marnier souffle, with a wonderfully subtle flavor and unbelievably airy texture. I went with a "fraiture" with strawberries and rhubarb, which turned out to be some kind of panna cotta. The tiny wild strawberries blew my mind. Seriously.

Stuffed to the gills our second night in a row, and utterly satisfied, we hopped back on the metro to Ile de la cite to catch an evening cruise on the Seine. Yes, we are giant giant tourists. But watching Paris go by at night is a sight that simply cannot be missed, even if you're constantly mocked by the teenagers getting drunk on the river banks. It's worth it to feel a little foolish when you get to see this:

And I guess that brisk wind and misty air somehow wiped out our indulgent dinner because we totally got a ham and cheese crepe on the way back to the hotel...

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

paris day one: in which we begin our marathon of foods

What can I say about our gastronomic adventures in Paris? My greatest hope for that portion of our trip was that I would not experience even one bad meal, and with the exception of a desperate Quick burger across from Gare du Nord after missing our train to Amsterdam, I can confidently report that my hope was realized. And of course the excellent eating started right away, as we set off first thing on a drizzly morning in search of good bread. That brought us to Poilane, the gorgeous St. Germain boulangerie that is world famous for their sourdough miche. We got a nice hunk, plus a little buttery croissant, plus a box of their irresistible butter cookies. A lovely, simple breakfast after a long overnight flight and some good old-fashioned Paris transit strike excitement. Needless to say, the bread and croissant did not survive long enough for a photograph...

Next stop was another famous name - Pierre Herme. The celebrated patisserie just a few blocks from Poilane is famous for their imaginative macaron flavors. Every other time I walked past this spot over the next few days there was a line out the door, but I guess the key is to go in the morning when few are looking for sweets because we encountered no line at all. Une petite boite of seven different macarons - successfully ordered in flimsy French - including olive oil with vanilla (my favorite), rose, cassis, grapefruit, passionfruit and chocolate, jasmine, and caramel with fleur de sel. Now, both J-Cat and I are not big sweet eaters (shocking based on the amount of baking I do) so macarons are actually a little on the sweet side for us, but the delicacy of these little puffs of air and the creativity of the flavors make them a can't-miss. I only wish we had enough appetite to try many more of their pastries.

At this point, J-Cat was feeling the jet lag and lack of sleep quite a bit more than I was, so of course it was the perfect time for the rain to start. Alas, we could not actually check into our hotel until late afternoon, so we were essentially homeless on the rive gauche with no shelter and no public transit. But food serendipity hit, as we ran right into Da Rosa, and I wasn't even trying to find it. It was on my list of must-tries, however, and I couldn't believe our luck. The perfect spot for a light lunch, Da Rosa is a multi-level epicerie stocked with delicacies from around the world, especially those impeccable Iberico hams from Spain. Lunch was a pair of tartines with different Spanish hams, cheeses and tomato, on what I believe was Poilane miche. Paired with a simple salad, it was the perfect meal after a morning of baked goods, and gave us the push to keep wandering for a couple more hours.

Finally we were let into our hotel room, which I was surprised to find had some actual floor space, and a quick nap reenergized us for what was to become the greatest meal I had in Paris (though J-Cat preferred the next night). Just a few short blocks from our hotel was Les Papilles, an unassuming wine shop and bistro that is quickly becoming a culinary destination. With no more than 20 seats, the 4-course dinner is menu-less and changes daily. You simply choose a bottle of wine, then sit and wait for magic to arrive. We chose a very smooth 2003 Chateau le Puy Bordeaux. It began with a creamy celery soup, served family style in a big tureen. Our bowls had mounds of crispy lardons and a dollop of creme fraiche that melted luxuriously when you ladled the hot soup over it. The flavors were rich and subtle all at the same time, and the absolute perfect way to end the long, drizzly day. The main course, badly photographed below, was a paleron of beef (shoulder cut), that had been braised in red wine "the entire day" as the waiter put it. Supremely tender, it just melted in your mouth, and the smooth, silky sauce was the perfect complement. Crispy snow peas, carrots, onions, and fingerling potatoes accompanied it.

Next up was the cheese course, a small hunk of creamy brie with rustic bread and a lovely pear jam. I am huge huge fan of fruit and cheese together. I could have been more than content to end the meal at this point. But wait, there's more. An impossibly creamy vanilla panna cotta with a wild strawberry sauce. I mean, come on, can this get any better? And finally, the icing on the cake, they recorked our half-empty bottle of wine to take back to the hotel with us. Truly, from beginning to end, this was a perfect meal. We made our way - staggeringly - back to our hotel, our first day in Paris drawing to an immensely satisfying end, and as I stopped to give a scratch to Sputnik - the resident hotel cat - I thought to myself that if every day we have in Paris was half as delicious as this one, we were in for the trip of a lifetime.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

we're back!

And I've been up since 4:30 AM. Go jet lag! I don't have it in me just yet to put together a rundown of the trip (ie. the foods), but as a little taste, here is J-Cat at what turned out to be my favorite dinner in Paris - Les Papilles.

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