"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Back to Reality

I haven't posted since we left Paris (final day report: baguettes with butter and jam from the less stellar bakery in the neighborhood, but still: Parisian Baguette! and lunch at attractive outdoor cafe in the Jardin du Palais Royal, which had a bit of a Moroccan theme: had soft drinks, a salad with hams and air-dried beef and a Moroccan tomato salad, and then sadly we were off). 

But it's been mostly back to reality -- take-out, simple meals (I made my standby white bean soup with red pepper-garlic swirl and we ate that for a few days). Today, though, is the first real rainy Saturday we've had in a while, and the first one of fall, so I've hauled out the Crock Pot and have just put up a brisket with slightly sweet, tangy sauce with plenty of onions. We'll have that with smashed red potatoes and broccoli. I also have the supplies to make giant chewy molasses-ginger cookies later with the kids. I may get ambitious and do mini brown sugar-apple cakes for Rosh Hashanah, but then again I may just lie on the couch and watch Battlestar Galactica.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Crossing the museum threshhold

Mr. Gateau is a cultured guy, but he has his limits, and until yesterday, that limit was one museum per day. However, they say travel is broadening, and by the end of the day he was suggesting that we fit in an extra museum.

We started the day, after our usual breakfast, with a bike ride to the Musee Rodin, which was a major hangout of mine when I was doing my semester abroad and studying Rodin and Claudel. If anything, the museum and its gardens are even more beautiful, with late-season roses still in bloom. It seems to be field trip season in Paris, with throngs of students ranging from middle school to high school to art college descending in groups on major landmarks and museums. It's always amusing to see how kids behave like all other kids, regardless of nationality.

After a leisurely visit to the museum, we took a nice stroll around the St. Germain area, peeking in shop windows and settling into a cafe across from St. Sulpice. We had a simple cafe lunch -- a couple of beers and a sandwich jambon-fromage for Mr. Gateau, and a croque monsieur on pain Poilaine for me. After lunch we continued our stroll, dodging art students and their giant pads in front of St. Sulpice drawing the sculpture, and made our way around into St. Michel, where I resisted buying endless blank notebooks. That was where we decided to tackle another museum, this time the Musee Cluny, or the national museum of the Middle Ages. I have always been entranced with medieval art, but it wasn't a huge fascination of Mr. Gateau's, until this visit. The Cluny probably has one of the best medieval art collections in the world, and we were both taken with the carvings, the tapestries, and the rich paintings.

We left the museum thinking we'd take a short Metro ride back to our neighborhood and have tea, but that plan was foiled when all the local Metro stations were closed, and barricades set up, to contain the crowds gathering to see the Pope, who is in town for two days. So we walked, with part of our route down along the edge of the Seine, which was lovely. We had our tea and shared a pain au chocolat and the last of the day's baguette, with jam, and had a bit of a nap.

For dinner, we'd made a reservation at a small restaurant in the 1st Arrondisement, on the Place du Marche St. Honore, called the Point Bar. It had good reviews, touting the simple menu and very fresh ingredients. It was a lovely place, on a square ringed with small, lively restaurants, and we enjoyed sitting outside and eavesdropping on a couple of American businesspeople who were clearly having some kind of doomed affair. Mr. Gateau had a foie gras terrine with pain Poilaine, and I had a plate of nice sauccisson sec with little cornichons, to start, along with a bottle of bordeaux. For the main course he had the plat du jour, roasted loup de mer with very nice baked zucchini shells with a red pepper sauce, and I had delicious, rare duck breast in a sweet, slightly tangy, honey sauce, served with olive oil potatoes. For dessert we shared a plate of ripe Camembert, finished our wine, and had a coffee.

It was still a bit early to turn in, so we took a stroll around the square, then walked back over to Willi's Wine Bar to sit at the bar and have a glass of port. After lingering over that, it was finally time to call it a day, but not before talking to the boys at home, and having a good chuckle over their funny expressions.

Just a bit of a day left, before we head for home!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Paris Day 5

Thursday we forced ourselves back to reality. OK, not our real reality -- after all, we were still in Paris, still pretending to be people of leisure, still sleeping past 10am and then lingering over the newspaper and baguette for a couple of hours before heading out to explore the little streets again. We found a radio station featuring jazz, standards, and blues, and that has become the backdrop/soundtrack for our visit.

Also, the weather has been spectacular. With the small exception of a couple hours of rain on Thursday evening and afternoon, sticking an umbrella in my purse seems to have done the trick -- it's been warm, breezy, and sunny, with big puffy clouds. As a result, we've only set foot once in the Metro, and have spent the rest of the time on foot and on bikes, hopefully burning off the insane number of calories we have been consuming.

Day 5 started off as usual, with a sleep-in, crusty bread, and tea in the apartment. Then we decided to visit the Marais and the Musee Picasso by bike. When we got to the museum, though, we found it was closed for a month of renovations, so we sat in its little park drinking a bottle of water and then decided to see the Musee Carnavalet, which houses a collection on the history of Paris. We were both taken in particular with the exhibit of items from the revolutionary period and the last days of the royal family.

After the musuem we strolled along the rue des Rosiers, the old Jewish section of town, mostly so I could check an item off my must-eat list -- the best felafel in the world. I've never eaten it in Israel, but compared to anything you get in the States, this is as good as it gets. A generous helping of felafel balls are stuffed into a pita, alternating with various eggplant, cucumber, cabbage, and tomato salads, then finished off with tahini sauce and, if you request it, hot sauce. We took these over to the Place des Vosges, where we ate them on a park bench. After that, we decamped for a cafe across the street and I had a glass of rose while Mr. Gateau had a beer.

Then back to walking -- we explored the Bastille area by foot and then walked around the Ile St. Louis until we found the world-famous ice cream parlor, Bertillon. Naturally, we needed to sample the wares. I was disappointed they were not offering salted caramel that day, but was very content with my nougat au miel, which had a strong honey flavor and lots of crunchy chewy bits of nougat. Mr. Gateau's bitter chocolate was incredibly rich and flavorful. Unlike the gelato places, they don't splash the ice cream around, so one scoop really is one scoop, which is probably just as well.

We then continued strolling, and set off in search of a couple of wine bars we'd read about, but one wasn't open until later, and one was closed for vacation, so after a bit of a rest on a park bench while we consulted our guide books (I have not mentioned that we brought a library's worth of books, and also found tons at the apartment), we decided to bike back to our place and regroup. My bike was in lousy shape, and didn't want to stay in gear, so the trip home was a little hair-raising. Since bikes share lanes with buses, I kept worrying that I wouldn't be able to accelerate out of the way, but we all survived just fine. Just as we got back, it started to rain, so that was a good call.

We decided to try Willi's Wine Bar for dinner, a highly regarded wine bar in our neighborhood that is British-run. It's a tiny place, and at first we were only able to be seated at the bar, which suited us fine. But then a table became available just as we were ordering, so we had a really perfect evening sampling the generous 34 euro menu. To start, I had marinated white anchovies with dilled cream, a little polenta cake, and tomato coulis. Mr. Gateau had grilled baby artichokes with foie gras, all of which we shared, along with a basket of Pain Poilane and a couple glasses of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. For our next course, he had a spectacular crispy-skinned guinea hen with wild mushrooms, while I had lamb tagine with apricots and vegetables. We also had a carafe of St. Joseph. For dessert we ordered the plate of 4 cheeses and swooned over each one, plus a slice of probably the best chocolate terrine either of us has ever had, in a vanilla sauce. And of course a glass of port each. There were probably more people speaking English (American and British versions) around us than French, but it's a truly wonderful little place, and it's good to remember if you're ever feeling a little homesick in Paris.

Then to bed with the jazz radio station playing in the background.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A meal to write home about

Day 4 in Paris was also the day of our very special-planned ahead-celebrate the 40th birthdays in style-meal. I had been able to get a lunch reservation at L'Astrance, even though calling 2 months in advance won't guarantee you a spot at dinner. It didn't matter, because L'Astrance showed us an amazing time in the middle of the day, and at least this way we were awake enough to enjoy it.

The restaurant is very small, on two levels on the rue Beethoven in the 16th. The walls are a deep slate gray, the ceiling and upholstery are soft gold. Each table has a small cube of lava rock into which a bouquet of orchids is set, and the chargers are multicolored platters of venetian glass. It's an elegant but playful interior, perfect for the food. The waiters are all young men in suits who swoop over your table and leave behind the most beautiful dishes, but not without engaging in a friendly (and comic) way -- more on this later.

The menus simply list the available seasonal ingredients, not actual dishes, and you can choose from a variety of tasting menus and wine pairings. In fine French dining style, only Mr. Gateau's menu listed the prices. We went with the "Dejeuner d'Ete" menu with paired wines and put ourselves in their hands. And what hands.

Amuse: a tiny square of shortbread decorated with a thyme flower, served on a spoon, which rested on a slate alongside a green grape, a raw hazelnut, and an amber raisin. We also had our bread service of simple bread with butter, no fancy baskets or anything.


To prepare the palate: a small parfait of ginger yogurt, orange melon puree, and cassis foam. Beautiful clean flavors and lovely summer colors.


Seafood: Grilled langoustines served with beautiful paper-thin slices of translucent summer vegetables (pepper, zucchini, carrot, squash), a dollop of spiced peanut butter, and the plate decorated with the yellow and pink petals of flowers. This was served with a white wine from the north Rhone, but of course I forgot to write it down.


Fish: Succulent sea bream, served with a leaf of young bok choi, a baby leek, a small marinated red onion, a circle of red pepper, and finely diced parsnip that looked like rice, in a light, slightly sweet sauce. Alongside was served a bowl of mussels and abalone in daishi. Same white wine.


Meat: The tenderest, pale pink baby lamb, with a beautiful layer of fat, served with an assortment of the season's first wild mushrooms in thin slices, along with a smoked eggplant puree. With this we had a chateaneuf de pape. These were perfect early fall flavors, getting your mouth ready to be reintroduced to rich sauces, mushrooms, game, red wine, and smoke.


Cheese: In front of us was placed a dish of some creamy mousse with what looked like ice cream. The waiter insisted he had no idea what it was, as it was his first day and didn't know the recipes yet. We tasted. It was delicious -- some kind of fresh white cheese mousse with pure vanilla ice cream and maybe a few thyme blossoms. We said we couldn't quite put our finger on the flavor. The waiter returned with a bowl of just the mousse and said he wouldn't bring us the rest of the meal until we identfied it. I dipped my spoon, and nailed it. The most light creamy whipped mashed potatoes you have ever eaten, with the fromage blanc. I have a sneaking suspicion that our "novice" waiter has been around for a long time, and possibly even owns the restaurant.


Dessert: More like 4 desserts. Out comes a giant tray of 8 pink and red items, 4 for each of us. As the plates are being laid out, I gasped. Without a word, the waiters started removing my dishes, until I begged for them to return. The waiter said "If you really think you can...." and I did. We were told to eat from right to left. First, a chili and lemongrass sorbet that was perfectly balanced, mostly citrusy refreshment, with a little chili kick. I wish Ciao Bella sold it in pints. Next was a sabayon with red fruits and -- my hand to god -- Super Sugar Crisp for garnish. Next up was a sponge cake with red fruit coulis, and then a beautiful tart with a mosque-like pointed dome of raspberry mousse decorated with petals. With this we were served an Austrian dessert wine from near the Hungarian border, made from dried cabernet sauvignon grapes.


Coffee: Having completed the gorgeous flower-strewn meal, our coffee and tea were served with a stunning spread of little bites and fruit. The fruit dish was a rectangular platter of tiny translucent green grapes, little golden plums, and orange and red heirloom cherry tomatoes. It looked like it could have walked out of Cezanne's studio. There was a tiny basket of madeleines made with tree honey, and set on a green glass tray were two brown eggshells containing jasmine eggnog. Just as the lamb dish evoked early fall, so did the sepia-toned palette of these last nibbles. The jasmine eggnog was incredible -- perfumed and ethereal.


Of course we vowed we'd never eat again.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Eiffel Tower, past my uncle's place on the Quai Branly and the new Musee du Quai Branly with it's fascinating glass-walled grounds, and along the Seine. We ended up at our apartment for a cup of tea, then decided to have a light dinner at the local cafe -- Mr. Gateau had sausage and frites, I had a salade composee with ham, potatoes, and string beans. Following that, we decided to check out a laid-back bar with live music in what is left of Chinatown, and we enjoyed a couple of beers there on a warm night, then checked out a noisier club near Les Halles for another beer. We got home around midnight, and got to speak to our two little cupcakes at home, who seem to have learned to pepper their conversation with "Bonjour!" and "Au Revoir!" in our absence.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paris, Day the Third

We've developed a bit of a routine, now. We go out until about midnight, then sleep late. Mr. Gateau goes out in the morning to get the International Herald Tribune, a baguette (and anything else that tempts him), and a mocha, while I rest a bit more. Then we have breakfast and read the paper, and figure out what to do in the afternoon. So we're not out and about all morning, but we're enjoying the quiet relaxing time, too.

Yesterday we took advantage of Paris's wonderful municipal bicycle program. All over the city are racks of sturdy gray 3-speed bikes, attached to a computer system. You buy an access card (a day pass costs 1 Euro) which allows you to take a bike. You are then charged a nominal fee by the time you use it (first 1/2 hour free, next couple of hours is 1 Euro, etc.) and you can return it to any rack, where it is checked back in. In addition, the city has made a significant commitment to creating bike lanes, and everywhere you go you see people commuting and getting around by bike. We rode ours down past the Tuileries to the Place de la Concorde, then across the river and back over to the Musee D'Orsay. A little indirect, but fun by bike.

At the museum, we were both extremely taken by the extensive collection of Art Nouveau decorative objects. We even battled the crowds that always seem to surround any Impressionist or post-Impressionist exhibit. We also checked out some of my old friends, the Rodin sculptures. We had lunch in the pretty museum restaurant -- Mr. Gateau had a creamy ravioli with truffle sauce and a Limonade; I had a salad of arugula, pecorino, prosciutto, and sun dried tomatoes, with a glass of rose and coffee.

After the museum, it was drizzling lightly, but we walked anyway, heading to St. Germain to the outpost of the venerable salon de the and bakery Laduree, famous for its gorgeous and vibrant macarons, packed into beautiful pistachio-and-gilt boxes. Mr. Gateau was quite taken with these delicate little items, and ordered an extra box of assorted flavors. We took them back to our apartment and each had two (he had chocolate and lemon, I had caramel and raspberry) with Earl Grey tea. Then we read a little and napped.

For dinner, we went to Le Caveau du Palais, a small restaurant on the Ile de la Cite, that is an apparent favorite of the lawyers and judges who work at the nearby Palais de Justice (there is also a store selling law books right down the block). Each table begins with a basket of bread and a hunk of the country pate that sits in a large terrine in the front of the restaurant. We shared a bottle of nice red wine and ate some actual vegetables -- grilled vegetables with shaved Parmesan and basil-infused olive oil for Mr. Gateau, tomato tartare with marinated anchovies and pesto for me. For main courses he had entrecote au poivre, and I had a saute of veal with vegetables that tasted like the best pot roast you've ever had.

After my coffee (and Mr. Gateau eating his share of the little chocolates and cookies that always come wrapped along with a coffee), we took a stroll along the Seine, stopping to view Notre Dame by night, and around the Marais. We stopped for a last beer at a bar on a quiet corner near my apartment from student days, and then called it a night.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Paris, Day Deux

Well, Day 2 was all about getting blisters on my blisters. We've been walking everywhere, and haven't set foot in a Metro so far. I even had to buy (poor me) a new pair of comfortable and cute leather sneakers at Camper.

We started the day with baguette, butter, and jam in the coziness of our own little eat-in kitchen. Mr. Gateau went out to the Boulangerie (and Starbucks, for his mocha) while I slept the sleep of the righteous dead. We then headed out to the Centre Pompidou to see a large chunk of the permanent collection of modern art. We had lunch in the beautiful rooftop restaurant. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the views were spectacular. I had a nice cheese and mushroom omelette, and Mr. Gateau had a sliced chicken dish with a rich curry sauce, chutney, and rice, and we shared a half bottle of rose. My coffee came with little squares of dark chocolate, so Mr. Gateau was content.

After lunch, more museum, and the sneaker shopping, we took a nap at the apartment. I had a bath to soak my aching muscles and feet, and then we decamped to a very nice cafe on the corner near our apartment. I started with tea, but we both ended up with beers as we sat and watched workers at the Ministry of Culture building come and go, stopping for after-work drinks. From there we walked over to Les Halles, where we bought postcards and souvenirs for the kids, then sat in the plaza outside of St. Eustache.

We had dinner reservations at the venerable Chez Denise, where we sat with a couple of pretentious middle-aged Americans (one married to a Parisienne) to one side, and a pair of delightful young French men who work in hotels to our left. At Chez Denise you share tables and bread baskets with others, and the portions are huge and ungarnished. This is not a place for being delicate, and the cheek-by-jowl setting makes it very festive. I'd eaten there with my parents 20 years ago, and I was looking forward to seeing how it held up. Answer: very well. We started with a platter of assorted charcuterie: rillettes, pate de campagne, head cheese, various salamis, saucisson sec, and ham. This was served with a basket of country bread, hot mustard, and a crock of cornichons with wooden tongs for table. There are several house wines served by the bottle, but you only pay for the amount you consume (an eminently reasonable system). With that we had a frisee salad with croutons and hard boiled egg. Just for a little green, you know. We did respectably with the starters, even though they were huge. Next, we shared one order of hanger steak, which was served medium-rare and came with piping hot pommes frites, plus a dish of grayish sea salt. We managed to eat about half the steak -- astonishing when you realize that the French patrons were ordering one steak or cote de boeuf (with marrow bones) per person and polishing it off themselves. Never believe in the myth of the delicate eating, slim Parisienne. These ladies can pack away their steak like any Texan.

After dinner we decided to stroll across the river. It was a beautiful moonlit night, so we walked through the Ile de la Cite and made a reservation for the following night at a lovely place we found in Zagat. From there we headed back into the Latin Quarter, and magically found we could manage some ice cream, so we got gelato (bitter chocolate and hazelnut for Mr. Gateau; pistachio and creme caramel for moi). We strolled along eating those, taking in the sights of the various cheap ethnic and student restaurants and bars, until we came to a bar we just had to stop in: the Great Canadian, though there wasn't much Canadian about it. Indeed, we each got a beer and remained transfixed to two screen showing events taking place in Forest Hills -- the Sunday night Mets game against the Phillies, and the men's finals of the U.S. Open. From there we headed back to the apartment, to crash once again.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Greetings from Paris

After the most hideous possible travel experience (cancelled flight on Friday night, piss-poor communication by the airline, hours of line-ups, turbulence, stinky feet in the next row of seats, etc.) Mr. Gateau and I arrived in Paris very early Sunday morning. All the travel rottenness was quickly forgiven, and we settled into our lovely apartment just steps from the Louvre, right in the middle of the bullseye of Paris.

Naturally, or shall I say naturellement, we went out to eat almost immediately.

The Parisians seem to have adopted the concept of Sunday brunch, which fits well with their habit of lingering for hours over coffee and cigarettes. We walked over to the Galerie Vivienne, one of those beautiful interior passages with high ceilings, skylights, and carved stone and wood doorways that make sort of the proto-shopping malls of Paris. There, we ate at A Priori The, a lovely tea room. I had the "SHANGRILA" salad, a deep bowl of greens, shredded cucumber, fresh cilantro, marinated crispy sesame chicken breast, and soy dressing, with a pot of Moroccan mint tea. Mr. Gateau had the tart of the day, which was tomato and Gruyere, with green salad and a chai tea. We could see people around us ordering the 30 Euro brunch, which was an insane amount of food -- wine or cocktail, coffee or tea, pastry basket, fromage blanc with berries, choice of entree (these were huge themselves; I didn't even finish mine), salad, and dessert.

After lunch we began exploring the neighborhood, immediately noting the bakery recommended by our landlady, a gelato shop, and various nice-looking cafes. We listened to a chamber group perform on the plaza right outside the Comedie Francaise, then walked up to the Opera and around Les Halles, past the apartment on the Rue des Halles I'd lived in when a student here in 1988. Across the street we found an open little market, the equivalent of the bodegas in NYC, only these carry wine and a small selection of hard liquor, and got some basics (milk, butter, jam, coffee) -- our plan is to make our own breakfasts of croissants and baguettes. We spent the afternoon and early evening walking through the courtyard of the Louvre and wandering around St. Germain and St. Michel/Quartier Latin, where we found a touristy but pleasant place to sit and have a beer and people-watch.

Dinner we attempted to handle in an impromtu manner, ignoring everyone's reminders that reservations (even day-of) are recommended. The first place we wanted to try (a well-regarded bistro) seems to have disappeared, and we could not be seated at L'Ardoise until 10pm. We decided to take our chances at Pinxo, the Alain Dutournier tapas-like place in a chic hotel, even though (a) we didn't have a reservation and (b) we were wearing jeans. Something about us must have touched the heart of the maitre d'hotel, because he said "peut-etre" he could seat us, and then quickly found a choice of a table or seats at the bar facing the open kitchen. We chose to watch the kitchen at work and had a fantastic meal.

For starters we shared sauteed baby squid on little skewers with roasted peppers and shards of crispy artichoke and garlic chips, and a "cold fondue of tomato and peppers." This is not usually my favorite kind of dish, but this was a knockout -- ovals of tomato-sweet pepper terrine or aspic, inside of which was embedded a still-runny poached egg. This was served on top of a tomato-pepper jam and little toast and topped with a perfect basil leaf. Alongside was a pickled hot pepper and crispy Spanish ham. The whole taste profile was of concentrated fresh tomato flavor, basil, and the hits of salt, spice, and brine from the pepper and ham, with a smooth, cool, and velvety texture.

Next we had very nice beef carpaccio, with capers, lemon, parmesan, and artichoke, and tournedos of lotte (monkfish) with fava beans and onion marmalade. With all of this we had a nice carafe of white wine. I accidentally got an extra glass of wine when a server began to pour another customer's bottle into my glass. I'm not sure how they made up to that customer, but it was nice for me! Mr. Gateau could not resist dessert -- he chose spicy warm chocolate cakes, three tiny ones per platter, with orange marmalade sauce and sheep's milk ice cream, and I had coffee (served with nice biscotti) and half a little cake. Warm chocolate cake has become a bit of a cliche, but there is a reason -- it is delicious.

Day One came to a fine end. We have blisters and tired legs, but we have lots to see and eat.