Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bordeauxin’ it, and doin’ it, and doin’ it well…

Naturally, we got sick of such mundane sights almost immediately.

Arriving to Bordeaux just before nightfall, we made our way across the city toward an agreed-upon rendezvous point; the metro train windows mimicked museum art as the train rolled through the city, framing passing buildings and monuments that radiated majesty and beauty. We were staying with Stefan and his girlfriend Marie (Stefan is a friend of Julia's from her time living in Torino), and the plan was to meet him after he finished work to have dinner. Julia and I knew very little about Bordeaux, so we were thrilled to have Stefan as our guide, putting our stomachs in his capable hands.

After a quick stop at the apartment to drop off our things, we set out on foot through the streets of Bordeaux, Stefan pointing out various items of interest as we walked. The city was charming, rife with breathtaking architecture and art that adorned even the most seemingly mundane street corner or storefront. Less than ten minutes walking and I was captivated by my surroundings, enamored with Bordeaux and ready to start shopping for vacation homes.

Stocking the bomb shelters of the 1%.
Dinner was at a small, unassuming restaurant owned and run by a friend of Stefan’s. The first part of the operation, which we passed through on our way to the dining room, was focused on the sale of packaged food items. Julia and I poked each other with excitement as we surveyed the wares: weck jars of dainty marinated mushrooms lined one shelf, tins of foie gras and pate were stacked upon another. Pristine pickled white asparagus stood at attention, carefully arranged in a jar of perfect size and shape. It was a food-lovers dream, French food fit for an altar.

Moving through the retail space and into the restaurant, the immediate impression was how small and personal it felt, almost as if we’d unassumingly walked in on the chef preparing dinner for friends in his home. The kitchen was fully in the same space as the dining room (which consisted of little more than a few four-tops), separated only by a small countertop, and the very epitome of minimalism: a single induction burner, a fridge, and a few countertops. The idea that the chef worked within such constraints was surprising to say the least, but Stefan assured us we had plenty to look forward to.

The menu was a chalkboard, listing the day’s offerings in the forms of tapas, a mere seven in number.  Having just eaten our way through the tapas capital of the world, we had our doubts, but we trusted that Stefan would not lead us astray, further reassured when we considered the shelves full of house-made and otherwise well selected goodies we’d witnessed moments earlier. Adding to our excitement and quelling any last trace of doubt: it was truffle season, and the chef brought us a Tupperware full of Alba truffles to pique our excitement and our appetites.

Gulliver's tapas?
Rather than have us order, he informed us that he would be bringing us two of everything, which sounded just about perfect. He and Stefan conferred over wine, and a bottle of (can you guess?) Bordeaux arrived to the table. Its bouquet alone was enough to give me butterflies; one sip and we were in heaven. The wine rolled about our palates luxuriously, its hints of dark fruit and subtle notes of spice set against a background bold, yet balanced. We sipped gleefully and clinked glasses, reveling in the beauty that can come from nothing but spoiled grapes. It wasn’t long before our tapas arrived, plated playfully in bar glasses and tiny, precious cast-iron pots. We took a moment to appreciate the attractive presentation and various beckoning aromas; then we dove in.

My first taste was a parsnip veloute with crispy crumbs of Serrano ham and chopped pistachios. Each element had its own flavors of sweet, salty, and nutty, and together they united cooperatively to create a delicious chord. Julia worked on the beef tartar, a dish we came to find was ubiquitous in French bistros. This version was pre-mixed and studded with tiny dice of cornichons, their tanginess and crunch an apt foil for the velvety beef. The most creative of the lot was the carrot ‘spaghetti’ with curry and peeled grapes, pops of sweetness and crunch among an earthy, spicy background.

Butternut squash with chestnuts and onion jam elicited festive, holiday feelings, different notes of sweet mashing together in harmony. A pile of dainty, succulent shrimp sat atop buttery, comforting melted leeks: beauty in balanced simplicity. Last, but so not least, were the truffled tapas: one was perfectly scrambled eggs, the other, creamy mashed potatoes. Why complicate things? The slices of truffle that perched atop each dish, with their delicate, pebbled texture, looked almost too pretty to eat… almost. We plunged our spoons into the tiny pots of heaven, the steam trapped below carrying the earthy aroma of truffles to our noses.

Though we did our best to make the meal last, it was over before we knew it. Sensing we weren’t quite full, the chef poured us a bit more wine and brought a wooden board of truffle-studded ham: the subtle sweetness and salty kick of the ham played well against the flavor of the truffles, and I was giddy at how fantastic something so simple could taste. Some thinly sliced sheep cheese with cracked pepper and house-made, last-of-the-season plum jam came next, a superb finish to the meal as we chased the last few drops of wine from our glasses.
My favorite digestif... ham.

The next day, Stefan had to leave the city for a family obligation, giving us a day to explore the city by ourselves… after he equipped us with copious recommendations for neighborhoods, parks, and bistros, of course. We started the day by grabbing a baguette and enjoying a stroll through the city's meandering parks and botanical gardens, stopping here and there to appreciate the ducks and geese or admire the gorgeous history and architecture that seemed to surprise us around every corner. Most of the morning was spent this way, walking to nowhere in particular and munching our baguette, getting to know Bordeaux.

By the time lunch rolled around, we had walked up quite an appetite, and we made our way to L'Autre Petit Bois (translated, as best I can muster, to 'the other kindling') by way of Stefan’s recommendations. As we entered the tiny bistro and our eyes adjusted to the light, we all but fell in love. Decorated in a style I can only describe as Alice in Wonderland-chic, the space was cozy and stylish at the same time. Whimsical teapots adorned the shelves behind the bar, and an oak tree stretched its limbs across the ceiling, dried leaves still adorning very real branches. We settled in to a table and were still taking in our surroundings when menus arrived. I needed only a moment to peruse; Stefan had tipped us off that this place served a Croque Monsieur with foie gras, and there was no way in holy hell I was passing that up. Julia ordered a duck cassoulet with melted Gruyere, and, of course, a couple of glasses of Bordeaux (honestly, why would we order anything else?). The food arrived quickly, and it did not disappoint. While I expected the foie to add heaviness to the sandwich, it did quite opposite: its sweet creaminess complimented the ham and cheese almost like a fruit spread. The flavors swam together dreamily and the textures were even more pleasing: crunchy toast gave way to chewy ham and melty, stringy gruyere, with a rich coating of foie all over every bite.
The salad makes it all okay.

Julia’s cassoulet was no slouch either: the duck melted in your mouth, mingling with pungent cheese and buttery mashed potatoes. It was the acme of comfort food, and every bite sent us straight to heaven. Dessert was a sinfully tasty chocolate cake and a cheesecake that put its American counterpart to shame: rather than the two-ton, dairy-heavy belly bomb I thought I knew, it was light as air and fell apart as you ate it. I wish all cheesecake was that cheesecake. We walked out grinning like idiots, bellies full and eyelids drooping happily. Without a doubt, we had hit ‘le bullseye’ with this place.

Dinner was at Bar Cave, another spot Stefan had recommended. It was a decent walk from the apartment, always a blessing when you eat the way we do. We walked along the river, enjoying the nighttime beauty of Bordeuax and feeling on top of the world. Arriving at our destination, we found our reservation had secured us the last indoor table; cozy and crowded, it smelled like mom’s kitchen, and we knew we were in for another great meal.

Julia was interested in the soup, but we had trouble translating its description on the menu, so she inquired. The one-word response of “veggies” was good enough for her, particularly due to our diets of late having left our bodies craving vegetables like whoa. She ordered the Camembert salad as her entrée, while I beelined for duck breast with orange-honey sauce and frites, happy to continue on the train of iconic French cuisine. The duck was perfectly cooked: crispy, scored skin atop medium rare flesh as plump and pretty as a plus-size lingerie model, a picture-perfect pile of fries alongside. Julia’s salad, however, stole the show.

Jacuzzi for two?
We had pictured, I suppose, its American version: a little puck of cheese atop a mountain of greens. Instead, we were treated to what looked more like fondue: a small green salad beside a bowl containing an entire wheel of Camembert, melted to a completely molten state and giving off aromas that still haunt my dreams. We ripped into hunks of crusty bread and swooped them through the inviting pool of Camembert with abandon. The flavor and aroma were intoxicating, an exquisite balance of sharpness and pungency that drowned our senses in delight. For dessert we decided on pain perdu (the original French Toast) with crème anglaise. The lightly battered slices of baguette invitingly wafted cinnamon to our noses as they soaked up vanilla custard. Thankfully, the portion wasn't too big and we enjoyed every sweet, delectable morsel.

Sunday, we awoke to breakfast in the apartment, courtesy of the lovely Marie. We snacked leisurely on pastries and coffee as the day was planned; we were to meet Stefan in St. Emillion, a town about 30 minutes from Bordeaux by car, that had gone virtually unchanged over the last hundred years. We walked the city for a bit, marveling at the ancient, grayed houses, churches, and cobblestone alleys, feeling like we had wandered into another time. Julia discovered that the town was famous for a very specific kind of macaroon (her favorite cookie), one with a texture so ethereal it melted in your mouth, defeating your ability to hide a smile. She bought a box and we opened it immediately, polishing off half its contents in minutes.

Cheese portions in France are apparently 'huge amount' or 'all of it.'
Knowing man cannot live on macaroons alone, we found a restaurant for lunch. After a bit of explanation on certain French menu items from our hosts, we placed our orders. Julia started with a goat cheese terrine, its texture so moist and rich you could have called it a cheesecake. The rest of us went with onion soup. When it arrived, the interpretation placed before us gave me pause: rather than the bubbly, broiled crock, with its roof of melted, brown-specked cheese, that I had grown accustomed to back home, this was more a DIY version. Each soup was a bowl of onion and beef broth, accompanied by croutons and shredded Gruyere. I dumped both into my soup, watching the cheese slowly melt and swirl as I stirred it around. And though I do prefer my cheese brown and bubbly, this version certainly hit the spot.

Sausage for the people.
For entrees, Stefan ordered the ever-popular beef tartar, while Marie and I went with duck confit and mashed potatoes. Julia ordered the Andouillette, a rustic French sausage filled with pig offals: and I don’t mean ground pork shoulder with some offals mixed in. The casing was filled entirely with offals (no ground pork whatsoever), so that when you cut into the sausage its texture spilled out, rough and chunky, and you could essentially identify the different parts of the pig’s insides. Unfortunately for Julia, it was a bit strong, and she requested we swap. One bite of the Andouillette and I nodded enthusiastic agreement. As a former vegetarian forever trying to make up for lost time, strange and unfamiliar meats appeal to me more than most; and though the flavor was intense, I found that with a little spike of the accompanying whole grain mustard and a morsel of mashed potato, it was pure, piggy heaven. I can offer no other way to describe its flavor than to say it was the most intensely porky food item I have ever tasted. The pungent, chewy bits demanded your attention like a surly, snouted brothel madame, lingering on your tongue and in the corners of your mouth after you swallowed. I enjoyed every bit, particularly with the complement of another terrific bottle of Bordeaux that Marie selected for the table. Once again, we were getting a true taste of France, unadorned and unforgettable.
Sausage for the brave.

As the day neared its end, we made one final journey to Sauternes for a special chateau tour and tasting, something that happened, Stefan explained, only once a year. Sauternes produces sweet wines, so the tasting was a refreshing and delicious change of pace from the big, red Bordeaux blends with which we had (understandably) inundated ourselves since arriving. Though the tour was in French, Stefan translated the interesting parts. We tasted some spectacular wines, and Julia bought a bottle to bring home, actually the only bottle we bought our entire time in the country.

We cooked dinner in the apartment that night, as a thank-you to our gracious hosts. We’d found an absolutely gorgeous beef loin in a nearby butcher shop, impeccably trussed and begging to be bought. A produce market, located conveniently across the street, gave us chunky, oversized porcini mushrooms, vibrant leeks, and the most fragrant celery root we’d ever encountered. What more could two chefs in France ask for?

Stefan had shamefully admitted to having zero kitchen ability (Marie did any and all cooking in the house), so he joined us in the kitchen, picking things up quickly and asking plenty of questions. We made a rub for the roast with roasted garlic, Dijon, and honey, mashed the celery root with a very French amount of butter, and turned the Porcinis and leeks into a beefy, red wine-laden condiment. I’ll let you guess what kind of wine we drank with dinner, clinking glasses and feasting like we’d let them eat cake.

For a little dessert, Stefan happened to have a handful of mini Haagen Daaz in the freezer, all different European flavors. It was here that we were first introduced to Speculoos (spoiler alert: it’s in Julia’s crepe in Paris and it’s sick), a cinnamon-hinted biscuit cookie from Belgium. One of the ice creams was flavored and flecked with Speculoos, and Julia took to it like crack in the 80’s, vowing to eat more as soon as possible.

Sunday was beautiful, albeit chilly, and we hit an open-air market situated, miraculously, beneath a massive, ancient, jaw-dropping cathedral that commanded our attention for the first ten minutes in its presence. While Stefan and Marie did a little grocery shopping among the few but highly specialized stalls (master butcher, oyster bar/sales, to name a couple), Julia and I, naturally, sought sustenance. Our first discovery was crepes, which Julia ordered with goat cheese (not spread, but applied in slabs) and honey: scrumptious, scrumptious, scrumptious. Next was a toasty mushroom empanada, warming our insides but only teasing our appetites; we needed brunch.

Brunch, for Julia, Marie, and Stefan consisted of a pastry, a soft cooked egg, a glass of juice, and a choice of coffee or hot chocolate, which is the standard brunch at the spot where we ate. I needed a bit more comfort to my brunch, so I went odd man out and got a ham and cheese tartine with a bowl of soup (“veggies,” once again) that I could have sworn was my mom’s. As we ate, we chatted and people-watched amidst the stylish, bustling Bordeaux street… but eventually it came time to turn into pumpkins and we headed home to collect our things and start the next leg of our journey. After a ride to the train station from the ever-gracious Stefan, we had a short wait and we were on the train. Au revoir, Bordeaux; Paris, here we come. City of Lights!

City of delicious, delicious lights.

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