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.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, how I love Pulpo and Sweetbreads. You have made me so envious!