Saturday, November 29, 2014

Little Piggies on a Truffle Hunt

Beauties and the beast.

Our first jaunt through the country shaped like a boot was to begin with a short stay in Florence and then a weekend in the minuscule mountaintop village of San Miniato, home to Pepenero, where Julia had worked, and host to the (be still, my beating heart) San Miniato Truffle Festival. Though lesser known than the famous Alba Truffles, San Miniato Truffles are no less delicious, and no less prized among those who know them. The festival draws upwards of 80,000 visitors to the tiny town over its three weekends, and though Julia’s nostalgia was a big part of the pull for our return, I'd be lying if I said that truffles weren't the main draw.

We flew into Florence, landing after dark and hailing a cab to our hotel, which sat outside the city on the banks of the Arno. Tired from a long day of travel, we took advantage of the hotel's spa facilities and decided to stay in for dinner. Despite (or perhaps due to) a minimally populated dining room, we were welcomed warmly and escorted to a table. It didn't take long to scout the menu, our hunger (both literal and metaphorical) for feel-good Italian food dictating our choices. The wine list was another brief perusal as we quickly encountered a reasonably priced bottle of Montepulciano, our favorite Tuscan varietal. Clinking glasses of voluptuous, violet elixir, we toasted our arrival to Italy and settled in.

Perfect for snuggling!
The meal began with crostones (like a crostini but full-size) topped with the simple, yet exquisite, duo of prosciutto crudo and mozzarella di bufala. This was what we had been waiting for: salty, fatty, yet somehow laced with levity, the prosciutto hit our senses first, then faded dreamily to cream as the mozzarella enveloped our every tastebud. The combination was as old and charming as Tuscany itself, and it occurred to me that we could have made a meal out of this and nothing else. I consciously savored every nibble, every chew, every elastic string of cheese and toothsome bite of tender pork, wishing it didn't have to end. And this was only course one.

Pasta courses only raised the bar: Julia's was oversized ravioli filled with eggplant and ricotta, formed with artisinal craft and looking like delicate, pale yellow handkerchiefs draped about their ingredients. My plate was beautifully simple: spaghetti and tomato sauce crowned with precious dollops of mozzarella di bufala. A mere three ingredients, and somehow each nearly outshone the others. The al dente spaghetti was springy and tender, the tomato sauce tangy and herbaceous with a hint of sweetness; and the mozzarella (oh, the mozzarella) was buttery and mellow, belying a bounty of flavor as it melted into the pasta. Our forks moved slowly and deliberately as we ate, and we admired our plates like great works of art, exchanging glances both incredulous and ecstatic. Despite the culinary and sensory heights we had heretofore experienced on our journey, the pleasure of Italian simplicity could not be overstated. Minimal ingredients prepared with abundant love: this is what Italy does.
Take a ride on the chew-chew train...

The Branzino we enjoyed next was superb, bearing an Italian soul: oregano flecked its delicate filets and the plate was sprinkled with a handful of capers and gently roasted cherry tomatoes. Though Italy tends to serve a fish like Branzino whole, in all its glory, the filets were a welcome surprise for me (I'm admittedly not so good with pin-bones), and their clean flavor and simple accents nourished our souls along with our bellies. Who knew a piece of fish, uncomplicated and minimally embellished, could make a person so happy? Tiramisu closed the meal, its cookies and mascarpone cream prepared traditionally and served in a bar glass. Everything about the dessert was delightful, from its intoxicating amaretto flavor, to the attractive cross-section of lady-fingers and custard carved out by our spoons.

A shuttle took us into the city the next morning. We were in Florence for but a day, with much to accomplish: Julia was on a mission for a pair of boots and a purse for her sister, I needed a new wallet, and we had plans to meet friends for lunch. Not to mention the most important mission of all: finding the sandwich that first introduced Julia to the wondrous, magnificent, more-perfect-than-heaven creation known as porchetta (see my first post on this glorious food if you're unfamiliar). Though breakfast at the hotel had been ample, this infamous porchetta sandwich was the absolute highlight of Florence as far as we were concerned, and it would make a perfect second breakfast (to borrow a hobbit's term), nestled between (first) breakfast and lunch.

Julia remembered that the sandwich lay within a large indoor market beside Florence's leather district, a perfect location in light of our aforementioned errands. Thanks to her ever-impressive sense of memory-based direction (it had been over five years since her last visit), my wife lead us through the city, instinctively weaving her way through its tangle of streets, until we found ourselves facing a long, tapered path between innumerable stalls stocking all things leather. Doing our best to play it cool among the vendors that thrust their goods in our faces, we walked among the stalls until I spotted a wallet that suited my tastes; a few moments and some minor haggling, and it was mine. After a quick transfer of credit cards and other assorted contents, I tossed its predecessor in a nearby trash bin. It was time for porchetta.

The market was right where Julia had remembered it, and we climbed its steps excitedly. Upon entering, it became clear that we'd need to take at least one lap to survey and admire its myriad booths, stalls, and counters, a veritable foodie heaven. There was nothing one might want to cook or eat that couldn't be found in this market: staples like bread, meat, and produce were displayed from corner to corner in all their fresh, vibrant glory, baskets and bins comprised of every variety and varietal Italy could offer. But beyond the standard market items the average shopper might hope to procure were harder-to-come-by specialties that got me as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Most unexpected and awesome was the "Triperia," a booth selling nothing but offals and only the oddest animal parts. I stood in front of the captivating landscape of creature features for several minutes, taking it all in: pig and chicken feet, liver and kidneys from all walks of life, stomachs, ears, testicles, and other items unidentifiable. It was a chef's playground, and I only wished we had a few days and a kitchen at our disposal: the fun we would have had!

Snap, crackle, pork!
Battling further digression, we made our way through the market. As we turned a corner, I caught sight of a massive, gorgeous log bearing the unmistakable amber hue of porchetta. A few steps more, and the aroma of pork, herbs, and garlic took hold of my olfactory sense; I could focus on nothing else. As a puddle of drool collected at my feet, Julia ordered, making sure to ask for an extra helping of crispy skin. The Italian cleric behind the counter grabbed a soft, white roll and split it open, slathering golden porchetta juices on both sides, then began shaving thin slices of meat from the behemoth mass. He finished by cracking off several pieces of honey-brown, stained-glass skin, breaking it up on his cutting board before topping off our sandwich. Every single bite was like a visit to church: silence, awe, prayer, and worship intermingling with gratitude and joy. We ate as slowly as possible; mouth-filling richness demanded it. The texture and flavor of the sandwich were equally moving: crispy skin clacked between our teeth, giving way to tender, juicy meat, and soft, yielding bread, our taste-buds all but overwhelmed by the different forms of salty, savory pork. I now understood how this sandwich had made its mark on Julia, and why she'd insisted we come here.

We walked around Florence a bit more, scouring storefronts and window displays for the remaining items on Julia's purchase agenda, without success as of yet. Eventually it became time to head toward our lunch destination, an out of the way trattoria on the other side of the river that Julia had scouted. It was there we were meeting up with Lindsey, another friend of Julia's from her Torino days, and Lindsey's husband, Albert, plus their new baby. Having gone weeks without conversing in English with anyone but each other, we looked forward to the change of pace, and to the social prospect of a communal meal. When all were present and accounted for and warm salutations had been exchanged, we gathered around a cozy table in the corner and Julia went to work, ordering for us all. Having personally lead the charge through Spain, I was happy to sit shotgun in Italy, letting my better half speak the language and take the lead.

As conversation and house wine flowed around the table, the food began to arrive. Plates and spoons clinked and clattered as they worked their way from hand to hand, orchestrating a noisy, delightfully messy ballet. There was pici (an eggless Tuscan pasta like spaghetti, but thicker) in tomato sauce, piled high and generously punctuated by sizable chunks of garlic. The sensation of slurping the fat, chewy noodles was wholly satisfying, in spite of the unavoidable spatter of tomato sauce that ended up around your nose and lips. Half a chicken, seasoned simply, was pulled apart in true family style, reducing its plate to a sparse pile of bones. Roasted potatoes accompanied the bird, uncomplicated, hearty, and tasty, while separate plates of artichokes, fennel, and arugula with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano were combined into a salad and doused liberally with vibrant, piquant olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Sharing the love.

For a little extra comfort, a bowl Tuscan Ribolita with its pleasantly thick, bready texture and dark, leafy greens, that tasted as homemade as anything I've ever eaten in a restaurant. But for me, the true star of the table was the Trippa alla Fiorentina (tripe, Florence style), another shining example of transcendence achieved through otherwise common ingredients. One would not expect much from cow stomach, a handful of herbs, some chicken broth, and a few vegetables; yet when put together by the right hands, and with the right technique, the result can taste like a bowl full of love. With a texture all its own (think succulent, cooked chicken skin) and flavors that come straight from grandma's kitchen, tripe done right is a beautiful thing. I gobbled up the pile in front of me and shamelessly went back for more until the plate was clean.

After lunch we found some gelato (which is never not delicious), and strolled around the city a bit more, working off our meal and perusing souvenirs to take home to friends and family. When it was time to bid goodbye to our new friends, Julia and I continued the search for her boots, ultimately finding them mere minutes before our shuttle arrived to take us back to the hotel. After a little downtime in the room, we returned to the hotel restaurant for dinner, our sights set on another Tuscan classic: Bistecca Fiorentina, the T-bone steak of jaw-dropping proportions.

T is for 'tasty.'
Surprisingly, we opted to go with a repeat of the night before and begin with the prosciutto and mozzarella crostone. Though menu repeats are a rarity for us, the appeal of this particular gem was too great to pass up, and as our teeth sank into supple mozzarella and meat once again, we knew we’d made the right choice. Aware that our meat course was to be ample, we shared a plate of porcini ravioli next, the artistry and pleasure of the pasta no less glee-inducing than before. When it came time for the main event, our waiter brought the steak out whole, allowing us to marvel at its size and beauty, before slicing portions for us. I whispered an inquiry to Julia, wondering if he would be leaving the bone; to my delight, he placed it on its own plate and set it beside me, suppressing a smile as I eyeballed it ravenously. There’s just something about meat bones that brings out the id in me, perhaps a result of my fifteen years locked in vegetarianism.

The steak was all we’d hoped it would be: flavorful, tender, and just bloody enough. As I look back on the process of eating it, I can’t help but recall John Candy in The Great Outdoors, taking down “The Old 96er.” And while our chop wasn’t quite the monster John’s was, my romantic mind will always think fondly on it as equally sizeable. The grilled vegetables that accompanied did so aptly, the radicchio being particularly memorable: a far cry from the tongue-stinging chicories I have come to expect in the states, it was pleasant, its flavor actually existing beyond simply ‘bitter.’ Better stated, its flavor actually existed.

We passed on dessert, as the steak had been more than enough to leave us full. To our surprise, however, the chef sent out a small plate of biscotti and a glass of Vin Santo into which to dip them. We turned our heads toward the kitchen and saw him smiling; he acknowledged us, watching with obvious pleasure as we enjoyed his gift. On our way out of the restaurant we stopped to thank him, and after a bit of conversation that eventually revealed our profession, he invited us into the kitchen for a look. We marveled at its cleanliness and delighted in poking around an environment familiar, yet foreign, talking shop with the soft spoken but gregarious chef. In our element, we were reminded of the wonderful connections that flourish among cooks and within kitchens, capable of traversing language barriers and international boundaries. Our new friend bid us goodnight and safe travels with classic Italian effusiveness, and we retired for another night of satiated sleep.

The following morning, our excitement was palpable. Julia was feeling butterflies as we prepared to return to San Miniato, a place and time in her life that had affected her deeply, both as a chef, in skill and technique, and as a human, in self-reliance. I was experiencing similar emotions, though my thoughts were focused on one thing and one thing only: truffles. The very idea that we might be able to purchase and cook with white truffles, was almost too incredible to be true. Though I had certainly eaten my share in restaurants, and gotten my hands on plenty while working, I had certainly never called any my own, due to both their rarity and their typically exorbitant cost.

Case in point: I remember one Thanksgiving, shopping at a gourmet grocery store in Maryland that happened to be selling a very limited supply of truffles, at the literally unbelievable price of $10.99 a pound. I could barely contain my excitement: truffles for Thanksgiving, what a treat! “How is it possible,” I asked the clerk, “that they’re so inexpensive?” He looked puzzled for a moment, then realization dawned on him and he started belly-laughing. Apparently, I had misread their price, fabricating a decimal point in my mind out of sheer (and silly) hope. The actual price of the truffles was $1,099 a pound.

Indecent exposure?
As our train pulled in to San Miniato, rain had begun to fall. Once again, we felt undeterred: all the truffle booths promised to be tented (Julia assured me she had observed as much when she’d visited years earlier), and if anything, the rain would thin the crowds at the otherwise crowded festival. As we waited for a taxi in the bar at the base of the mountain, Julia bought us a couple of sandwiches. During the majority of the year, said sandwiches would have been pretty ordinary; but during these special months, in this special place, everything gets a little fairy dusting of truffles, and the sandwiches were no exception. Prosciutto cotto was replaced by truffled prosciutto cotto, and ham and cheese became ham and cheese with truffle mayonnaise. We took little for granted and grinned like idiots as we chomped our sandwiches. I dared not use a napkin, lest I waste the precious delicacy, and instead wiped the mayo from my face with a greedy finger, licking it clean and barely believing the blessed circumstance: this was nothing compared to what was in store.

We arrived to our ‘agriturismo’ a bit distressed, as the rain continued to fall, that its proprietor was nowhere to be found. After a bit of minor fretting, Julia performed some light breaking and entering, found a phone, and eventually procured his arrival. A few hours and a couple of showers later and we were right as rain (yes, pun intended), refreshed and ready for dinner. A short cab ride later, we had arrived at Pepenero.

Everything looked just as we remembered it, and after being seated at our table, we headed to the kitchen to say hello to Gioberto and Salvatore, chef and sous-chef, respectively, and Julia’s former mentors. They embraced us like family, chattering excitedly about our return and the meal to come. I was able to pick up bits and pieces of their colloquial Italian, and Julia filled in the blanks when necessary. As food orders started to come in, they offered more hugs and wished us “Buon Apetito.” It was time to eat.

First up was the amuse bouche: creamy, dreamy leek soup beside a black sesame puff pastry. The soup warmed our insides, obliterating the rain outside from our memories and pressing reset on the day. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful a good soup can make you feel (even an amuse-sized portion), and I wondered if the rain had inspired the chef’s choice, or if it was just fortunate circumstance. Either way, we were content as could be, the stage set for the meal to follow.

Enough is never enough.
Next came our first courses: beef carpaccio for Julia and buffalo mozzarella-stuffed squid for me. When our server set the carpaccio on our table, my jaw literally fell open. There was more shaved truffle on the dish than I had ever seen on one plate; it almost entirely covered the beef, mingling with parmesan like it was no big deal, yet offering aromas that were a very, very big deal. Julia offered me bite after bite, generous soul that she is, and each made my heart flutter. It occurred to me that the menu's description ought to have presented the beef as minimal, nigh inconsequential: the truffles were the dominating star, in quantity and in flavor. I thought to myself: This would never happen in the states.

My calamari was no slouch, oozing liquid mozzarella all over the place that mingled with a delicate broccoli puree. But if I’m being honest, it didn’t hold a candle to Julia’s truffle-laden beef. She admitted to knowing exactly what to order, having worked at Pepenero during the season and remembering the majority of the restaurant’s go-to items. Considering our unspoken restaurant rule against ordering the same dish in any given course, I had a feeling I was in store to feel more jealousy than just my present portion.

"On top of spaghettiiiii…"
I was right. Julia’s next course was about a simple as it gets, and yet it was one of the most delicious plates I have ever encountered. Even now, weeks later, I can see, taste, and smell it as if it were right below my nose: handmade tagliatelli, tossed in butter and covered in (yet again) an obscene quantity of shaved white truffle. Eating it was like briefly dying, glimpsing heaven, and returning to earth once each bite was finished. The texture itself was particularly whimsical: pasta of perfect firmness mingled with impossibly delicate truffles that cracked like dragonfly wings between your teeth. As I pilfered bite after bite from Julia’s plate, I wondered how we got so lucky.

And to think: a pig found these.
This course, my plate stood up to my wife’s with a bit more clout than the last: tortellini packed with parmesan cream in a black truffle sauce and buried under a pile of shaved black truffles. I regressed to a childlike state as I slowly ate the tortellini, gleefully poking each with my fork and watching the molten parmesan begin to flow out before mopping up sauce and popping the succulent morsels in my mouth, biting down to release a proper river of flavor onto my taste-buds. The sensory experience was downright exciting: temperatures and textures wavered, rising and falling in crescendos that made my eyelids quiver with delight. I reflected: little more than flour, water, cheese, and a particular tuber resided on my plate. And yet the technique and vision of a few special people transformed them into something transcendent. God bless Italy.

Doesn't it look like the best candy bar ever?
Our final savory courses centered on pork, though represented in markedly contrasting preparations. Julia’s was truffle braised pork loin, accompanied by an ethereal celery root and potato milleifoillie, and topped with (what else?) shaved white truffle. My plate, as visually striking as it was tasty, was centered around a hearty chunk of roast suckling pig, its scored skin flawlessly crispy with a deep honey hue. After a moment of reverence, I tore the trophy apart, making sure to disperse the riches of crackling skin around my plate in order to lace every bite of juicy pork with that unmistakable, soul-tingling crunch.

Though we had little room for dessert, we knew we weren’t likely to make it back to Pepenero until an essentially diabetic age, so we made a selection that involved mascarpone and amaretto crust. As the plate was set before us, it resembled a cheesecake topped with one precious gooseberry. On bringing first bites to our lips, however, we could think of no better way to describe it than a deconstructed cannoli. Creamy mixed with crumby, sweet with nuances of punchy tang, it disappeared far faster than we expected it to. As we waited for our taxi, we shared a glass of Vin Santo before returning to the kitchen to thank and bid farewell to Gioberto and Salvatore, promising to stop by the following day when we returned to San Miniato for the truffle festival.
Imagine our surprise when a tiny comet landed on our dessert!

Schiacciata: hard to spell, easy to eat.
The next day began with the usual (first) breakfast of pastries, meats and cheeses at the hotel, but initial stop in San Miniato was to be a small, family-run café that we knew to serve an absolutely fantastic schiacciata (say it with me: “skya-CHA-ta”) topped with pancetta, rosemary, Fontina cheese, and potato. Schiacciata, whose name literally means ‘squashed,’ is a classic Tuscan flatbread somewhere between pizza and focaccia. This one in particular had convinced me, all those years ago, that the otherwise counterintuitive (for me at least) combination of starch on starch could, indeed, be delicious. We returned to the café to find that our beloved schiacciata had changed very little, much to our delight. We ordered a couple of slices, and as we sat in the tiny, bustling shop savoring our scrumptious second breakfast, the owner, a portly, jolly man with a bulbous nose and tousled white hair, recognized Julia (she had been a regular while living in San Miniato) and came over to say hello. They chatted for a few moments, laughing and catching up, and before he returned to the kitchen he brought over some tasty gifts: made from rich chocolate and mixed nuts, the sweets were like a cross between fudge and brownies, firm in our hands but melting in our mouths. We thanked him effusively on our way out, the velvety chocolate still clinging to our tongues and lingering inside our cheeks.

I'm calling it 'Tuscan Toothpaste.'
Completely fueled for the day (how many carbohydrates can you count?), we descended on the numerous tents set up around town, Julia guiding me like a wide-eyed, wonder-filled puppy on a leash. Thank goodness for that, as her restraint was all that kept me from emptying my wallet to the myriad vendors we encountered. There were salumerias offering truffled salamis and meats of every shape and size, along with truffled porchetta the size of wine barrels and even, at one stall in particular, a small mountain of truffled lard: the very epitome of decadence. The truffled cheeses we tasted were all over the spectrum, from creamy, tangy gorgonzola to salty, crumbly local sheep cheese, and everything in between. It was, honestly, a bit overwhelming when it came time to decide what we would be bringing home, and we perused as discerningly as we could, tasting every condiment, deeply inhaling each product’s perfume, and poring over the labels that listed ingredients.

Enough truffles to feed an army; a very, very fancy army.
I could wax poetic for days on the further assortment of all things truffled that delighted our every sense as we wandered though each tent’s hallowed halls. Equally lengthy is the list of purchases we considered for gifts to friends and family, as well as dinner that night. By the end of the day, our bags were filled with truffled honey, truffle butter, a truffle condiment for Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, truffled focaccia, sausage with truffles, several bottles of truffle oil, and the crowned jewel: one ping pong ball-sized San Miniato truffle. I held the dirt-flecked, otherwise unassuming gem to my nose and its earthy, nutty aroma seemed to envelop my head; I inhaled deeply, almost frantically, breathing in its magic like an intoxicant as the rest of the world faded into the background. A truffle slicer was the last necessary purchase, and we were at maximum capacity, ready to make use of our bounty. It was safe to say we had taken full advantage of this blessed opportunity.
Just another day at the market...

For the rest of the afternoon, we lazed about our cozy apartment, depleting a magnum of Chianti Riserva (courtesy of Gioberto), and snacking on pickled garlic and meaty Castelvetrano olives. With an arsenal of Q-tips, I painstakingly cleaned every nook and cranny of the truffle, transforming its surface from mottled gray and brown to pristine beige, the hue of bone beside candlelight in a painted still-life. Never in my life had I reveled so in the minutiae of preparing a foodstuff, taking nothing for granted amidst the gift of its experience. It’s not every day you get to clean your very own white truffle.
When clean foods give you dirty thoughts...

In Italy, this is a small serving of pasta.
For dinner, Julia cooked fresh, handmade pasta and tossed it in butter, finishing our bowls with every last bit of the fragrant tuber, sliced impossibly thin, to the point that I thought they might dissolve into the pasta. Every bite was a gift, eliciting incredulous, joyous laughs and eyes shut tight in an effort to better hone our relevant senses. I split open the truffled sausages next, spilling their contents into a waiting pan and adding thinly sliced red onion and chunky, springy Porcini mushrooms. I also threw in some spinach, ever craving a serving of vegetables (which, in a small mountain village approaching winter, were expectedly hard to come by). By the time the food had run its course, we were emptying the last drops of Chianti from the bottle, satiated and glowing from the exceptional meal (splitting a Magnum of wine probably helped our glow as well).

By late morning the following day, we were back at the train station, our suitcases considerably heavier from the spoils of the Truffle Festival. San Miniato had provided an exceptional (and aromatic) stay, one that I would think on fondly for a very long time. But it was time to say goodbye to Tuscany and head south, my mind already swimming with thoughts of gooey, melted cheese pooled inside a char-flecked crust. We were off to Naples, the birthplace of pizza!

It was to be my Graceland.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Falling in Louvre with French Food

Flavors in image may be larger than they appear...
Our train ride to Paris was a bit more cramped than we might have liked; arriving to the city we were in need of a heaping serving of feel-good food. As luck would have it, we spotted a Vietnamese restaurant across the street from our hotel as our cab pulled up. Some might have scoffed at the idea of eating Asian while visiting a culinary capital like Paris; but remembering that Vietnam and France have shared influence (culinary and otherwise) due to their intertwined history of French colonization in the Asian nation, we were secure in our decision to eat there… not to mention the ache in our bellies for comfort food that wasn’t 51% butter. Julia spotted one of our favorite Vietnamese dishes as she scanned the menu: rice crepes with minced shrimp and pork. It was a good sign, further exciting us for the meal ahead.

The other French crepes.
The crepes were chewy and sumptuous, sprinkled with torn mint and crunchy bits of toasted garlic; their familiar flavor and texture spread big grins across our faces. Giant bowls of Pho came next, wafting aromatic steam to our noses enticingly, and our faces instinctively moved closer to appreciate the wealth of broth and beef below. We slurped noodles ravenously, the bowls’ contents warming us, in every sense of the word. Spoonfuls of sambal and fragrant sprigs of cilantro and Thai basil piled into the pot, mingling with tender ribbons of beef and the familiar flavors of Pho. The meal did everything we’d hoped, transforming us from weary, tousled travelers into cozy babies, with bellies full and hearts content.

We hit the streets of Paris the next morning, energized by a good night’s sleep and breakfast at the hotel. While we didn’t have a specific plan for the day, we aimed to avoid touristy restaurants as best we could as we continued the quest for more iconic French food. Macaroons were our first success: Julia spotted a promising display in the window of a sweet shop, entering to discover a beckoning landscape of French pastries and desserts. Nearly overwhelmed by the seemingly endless array of goodies, we managed to show restraint and purchase one macaroon each: Julia’s was sea salt & caramel; mine, Granada dark chocolate. Both were impossibly light and absolutely scrumptious, each bite melting into sweetness on our tongues as we finished them in a matter of seconds.

After visits to the Louvre, Notre Dame, and a few other Parisian monuments that left my mouth agape in awe, our grumbling bellies informed us it was time for lunch. We scanned the streets as we walked and did our best to rely on our instincts, a method that typically serves us well when travelling. The café we eventually decided on looked cozy, its menu belying an ample array of the kind of French cuisine we were looking for. Julia started with Onion Soup, and we were eager to see how this version measured up to our expectations. While it certainly sported the bubbly, broiled roof of cheese we were hoping for, the broth itself had a creaminess about it that wasn’t entirely pleasant, likely the result of being thickened with a slurry. My plate of escargot, on the other hand, was a straight-up bullseye: garlicky, herb-flecked butter spilled from delicate shells as I handled them, the tender, chewy snails hiding within. I savored each bite as I plucked them from their homes with a dainty fork, gluttonously mopping up pools of spilled butter with soft hunks of baguette.
The shells were crunchier than I expected...

Julia’s entrée of steak & "frites" certainly outshined her soup: the beef was cooked a spot-on medium-rare, the fries a successful and satisfying vehicle for soaking up savory steak juices. My entree was a small, but tasty, breaded chicken breast accompanied by a generous mound of carrot puree. And while I could taste the liberal amount of butter that went into the carrots, it was nice to get a serving of vegetables; my body thanked me.

After lunch we walked back to the hotel, looking forward to a nice, long siesta, which meant a bath for Julia and some blogging for me. Only a few steps from arriving, we passed a restaurant that caught our eye; scoping out the menu, we decided it had promise for dinner that night. When mealtime arrived, we did a couple of laps around the surrounding blocks for comparative options, but in the end, returned to the spot situated but a few doors from our hotel.

Julia started with the “Pumpkin Cappuccino,” a tasty, velvety squash soup topped with sweet pumpkin foam. I went with escargot, despite having eaten them for lunch that day; only this time they were out of their shells, mixed with sautéed oyster mushrooms, and swimming among a rich, creamy broth topped with anise foam: absolutely incredible. My favorite part of the dish was the playful similarity in texture between the snails and the mushrooms, nearly indistinguishable at times. It was some of the most enjoyable chewing I’ve ever experienced.

I followed up with scallops over squid ink tagliatelli. Though the flavors were delicious, both the pasta and the scallops could have been better executed: the former lacked its al dente bite, while the latter lacked the beautiful brown at its ends that indicates a proper pan-sear. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable dish. Julia had pheasant, with bacon-braised cabbage and Loganberry compote. The cabbage reminded me of my grandparents’ sauerkraut, salty and juicy, smoky from the bacon; and the zing of the compote accented it well. Dessert was a quince tart for Julia, yielding tasty fruit but a wholly lackluster crust; my molten chocolate cake, on the other hand, excellent: rich as can be, the ganache inside spilled out of the cake at the perfect consistency and temperature as I plunged my spoon into its heart. Fat kid heaven.
Molten chocolate: doesn't burn your tongue like molten lava.

Scraps of happiness!
For lunch the next day, the plan was to head in the direction of the Eiffel Tower for a picnic; but the key was to find a place to buy the food that wasn’t too near the touristy area surrounding the tower. Though it took some time, some patience, and at least one bathroom break (along with a couple of espressos, required to access said bathroom), we eventually came upon a quaint, little Italian storefront, cluttered with kitschy food-related memorabilia. Peering through its windows, it appeared we had found the spot. In addition to four small tables serving Italian food, there was a wall of retail items, a large section of it refrigerated. We carefully examined its wares, and eventually decided on some sliced Parisian ham, a couple of goat cheese medallions, and a jar of marinated mushrooms. We snagged a baguette and a bottle of bubbly at another nearby market, and voila! We enjoyed our picnic with the Eiffel Tower in full view, then sat back to digest and soak it all in.

Dinner that night was as much a mission as it was a meal: Roast Chicken. A regular staple in our household, roast chicken is something we rarely go even a week without eating. It occurred to me only just now: that’s why we must have been craving it so bad. At any rate, we did a bit of homework and found a restaurant not too far away whose menu sported a well-recommended roast chicken and a number of other tasty items that made our bellies growl. Mission accomplished.

As we settled in at a cozy table toward the back of the restaurant, we debated who would get the chicken. As a team, we despise ordering the same dish when eating out, so it was a foregone conclusion that only one of us would be taking ownership of the coveted chicken. Having alluded to something along these lines in my wedding vows (true story), I deferred to Julia, and went with the bouillabase, not at all disappointed with this outcome. Considering our entrée choices, we ordered a bottle of Pouilly Fume, a dazzling white wine from near the Loire: its crisp, bright flavor danced with green apple and grapefruit and promised to complement our food nicely.

First course for Julia was a simple but spectacular bowl of Chanterelles sautéed in butter; I had lamb sweetbreads, over an unlikely salad sprinkled with hazelnuts and dried fruits. Julia’s mushrooms were tasty, tender, comfort in a bowl: there is just something special about French butter. My sweetbreads were cooked beautifully, tender with a little bite, yielding an ocean of flavor that washed over me as I sank my teeth in to their succulent flesh. Their juices ran all over the plate and among the salad, adding a deeper, meaty layer of flavor beneath its sweet dressing. I made sure not a drop was wasted.

Julia’s chicken did the job, satisfying the longing we had felt; benevolently, she shared some with me. Roasted potatoes with crispy edges accompanied the bird, along with a head of roasted garlic: a kit to build yourself bite after perfect, scrumptious bite. My bouillabase was quite the generous portion and no less satisfying. Warming aromas of tomato and fennel wafted from the bowl, as tender pieces of fish lay bathing in thick, luscious broth. I needed only my spoon to break up the pieces, and I savored their delicate flavor as they fell apart on my tongue, the texture complemented by a bite of crusty baguette soaked in the flavorful broth.

We passed on the dessert menu, knowing what awaited us in our hotel room. Another stop at Julia’s sweetshop earlier that day had left us with two serious treats: Julia’s was an oversized raspberry macaroon filled with fresh raspberries, whipped cream, and the surprising addition of lychee. My weapon of choice was a cube of chocolate in many layers: some crispy cocoa wafers, some rich ganache, some even toothsome and solid, like incredibly thin chocolate bars, all iced in a layer of chocolate ganache. Did I mention there was chocolate? We both sat happily in bed, watching French-dubbed Friends, as we destroyed our respective desserts like sugar gremlins.

For our last full day in Paris, lunch was to be completely off the French grid. In the process of planning our trip, we’d taken some recommendations from our friend Andrew, who’d lived and cooked in Paris. Among his list was a falafel spot in the city’s Jewish neighborhood; though a falafel suggestion in Paris had raised our eyebrows initially, we now understood Andrew’s assurance that we’d want at least a small break from French food at some point. Always excited about the prospect of quality ethnic fare, we took off across the city, licking our lips and fantasizing about impending, overstuffed pitas. We knew we’d made our way into the neighborhood when we began spotting Hacidic Jews here and there; a few lefts and rights through its streets and alleys and we had arrived. The line out front made the shop easy to spot, and we fell right in.

All the fork did was get in the way.
Our order was simple: two falafel with everything, and make it spicy. In a matter of minutes, we had hot lunch in our hands, its contents spilling out the top. We found a bench so that, in a sitting position, we could properly focus on eating without spilling. I am proud to say, I spilled only a few pieces of cucumber and the tiniest morsel of falafel, all of which became nourishment for a nearby pigeon who had been eyeballing us since the moment we sat down. We ate almost in silence, savoring the familiar flavors and enjoying the ample sustenance stuffed into soft, warm pita. Crunchy, chewy, spicy, salty, tangy: the crispy falafel and its assortment of condiments hit all the right buttons. The crunch of raw vegetables, in particular, was a welcome sensation, one we had not enjoyed since arriving on the continent.

After lunch, we noticed signs for the Picasso museum and followed them, spending the rest of the afternoon wandering its many floors and rooms. On our way home, we scoured the streets until we found a crepe cart offering Speculoos, and Julia got her fix; I went with dark chocolate spread inside mine. We sat on the stoop of a nearby monument and sighed repeatedly as we chomped into the hot, chewy crepes, their gooey insides peeking out only long enough to get swooped by our fingers. I cannot overstate the revelry in our realization of one final iconic treat: street crepes in Paris.

Our last meal in the city was, without a single, solitary doubt, the absolute best. Dinner was at the Basque restaurant Chez L’Ami Jean, another of Andrew’s recommendations; to our delight, they had been able to squeeze in one last reservation for us. Upon arriving to the restaurant and being led to our table, “squeeze” proved to be quite the appropriate word: the place was bustling, cozy, and full. All of the two tops against one wall were completely pushed together to accommodate maximum occupancy, so that our table actually had to be pulled out of line to allow me to shimmy to my chair. As we settled in, we thanked our stars that we didn’t speak the local language, as it was the only fact providing any amount of privacy. Though as we began to notice the plates coming out of the kitchen, we focused less on privacy and more on not drooling.

The menu was entirely in French, only peppered here and there with words and phrases we recognized, and in the spirit of our last night in Paris, we just went with it. As a starter, “Pulpo” was an easy target: octopus, one of my favorite foods in the world, and a signature Basque dish. It came to the table perfectly cooked and thinly sliced, complimented by avocado mousse and crunchy sea salt. It was not the first octopus we’d eaten on our trip, but it was the most superb; Spanish treatment of the easily marred mollusk tends to be on the rustic side, and this was exquisite, with just the right amount of bite.

Hard to believe this is baby cow...
For entrees, Julia had ordered veal, a pretty safe bet in a Parisian Basque restaurant; and when we saw a spectacular-looking plate of veal cheeks arrive to the table next to ours, it appeared she was in for a treat. The plate the waiter placed in front of her, however, was decidedly not the veal cheeks. Instead, we found ourselves staring, wide-eyed, at the biggest, most beautiful veal chop we’d ever encountered. It glistened in all its glory, releasing smells that would unleash a tidal wave of salivation from anyone who dared inhale. Julia went to work on the mighty hunk of lovingly prepared meat, and it was as tender and juicy as it was a spectacle to behold. It sat atop two large mushroom caps that hinted at maple flavor (almost like enormous candy caps), and came with a small crock of mashed potatoes that were, in classic French form, at least 50% butter. But most awe-inspiring, hands down, was the fat. Oh, the fat.

The tastiest morsel!
Usually when eating steak, I’ll cut a little morsel of fat off here and there, just to add a kick of flavor and mouth-feel when chewed along with the steak itself, as most do. But one tiny nibble of the fat from this veal chop and it became clear we would be finishing it. It tasted of rich nuts, a flavor most likely imparted from the finishing diet of the calf, and its texture was not the gelatinous, squishy state one normally expects from beef fat, but more like actual meat than any other specimen I’ve ever encountered. Beyond satisfied, we agreed it was the best thing we’d eaten on our entire trip thus far.

Pigeon: The Other Foie Gras?
My pigeon entrée had a hard time measuring up to veal-zilla, but I loved it. Though the bird itself was gamey, it came with a side of pigeon foie gras, which turned out to be a true stroke of genius. Not only was the chef making use of the pigeon’s offals (it was certainly my first experience with pigeon foie), he was offsetting a typically tough and gamey meat with something rich and luscious. Together, it was pigeon harmony, each part needing its counterpart to truly sing. Add to the mix some dainty chanterelles and carrots perfectly braised in pigeon jus, and the plate was complete. All that was left at the end of the meal was a discarded pigeon carcass.

I would be remiss not to mention dessert, as we ordered the one for which the restaurant is famous: rice pudding. Apparently, massive serving size is not limited to the veal chop, as the rice pudding arrived in a bowl big enough to feed a table of six. Truly making the effort, we spooned big piles onto our plates, garnishing them with the adjoining accouterments: burnt nut brittle and caramel mousse. Even as satiated as we thought we were, it was tasty enough to bring spoonful after spoonful to our smiling lips, and I have to admit, rice pudding had never tasted so good.

Unable to eat another bite, we plunged back into the brisk Paris night and strolled along the Seines, elated and chattering about the incredible meal behind us. The thirty-minute walk back to the hotel did us good, and we savored our last night in the City of Lights as the clock on the antique, riverfront train station struck midnight. It was officially our day of departure, but we were ready for our next adventures in eating. Julia had been dreaming about the next leg of the trip since we flew out of San Francisco: pasta, pizza, gelato, and so much more…

It was time to go to Italy.