If Yan Could Cook. . .

Paris!

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I worry a lot about time. A day passes by so quickly, and if you don’t pay attention, so does a week, and a month, and a year, and possibly your entire life, without ever doing anything you want. Things you plan to do someday will probably never materialize. The day when all your affairs are settled and you can afford to relax for a moment will never come. Will you ever be ahead of schedule? Will you ever have the money? Will you ever stop running through the domestic machinations of living?

So we went to Paris.

We did all the tourist things – silly pictures at the Eiffel Tower, blasphemous banter in Notre-Dame, reclining and staring meaningfully into fountains, strolling the Champs-Élysées, a day and a half in the Louvre with the crowd smushed against the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, trespassing the kingdom of the dead in the catacombs, walking kilometers and kilometers, listening to buskers with accordions – but as you might imagine, for me, it was all about the food. All the photos are JP’s.

Le Relais de l’Entrecôte

relais_de_lentrecote

In April of last year, I went to the celebrated L’entrecôte St-Jean in Montreal and was entirely underwhelmed. There is a single set meal: a salad with walnuts, steak frites, and chocolate profiteroles. Even then, a year before Paris, it struck me as a near-miss at best. The upscale old world decor looked worn down and the waitresses were excessively brisk, trying to hurry people in and out. A lifeless salad and a rubbery steak with diner-quality gravy. The profiteroles, at the time, were the best part, largely because I had never had profiteroles before: frozen cream puffs, covered in warm chocolate sauce and slivered almonds.

Le Relais de L’Entrecôte, a small chain in Paris, has the same set menu, in theory, but the similarity stops there. Le Relais is not one of those unusual, memorable gastronomic experiences that you must know just once; if I lived in Paris (and, I suppose, belonged to a higher pay bracket) I would go at least once a week. It is a staple, a neighbourhood favourite, something to crave. The walnut salad arrives in a light but stinging dijon dressing. The rib steak, even cooked to medium, melts perfectly in your mouth. The French, according to our waitress, do not believe in “half and half” – there is simply blue, rare, and medium (as a cook in Canada, I have received bills that said things like “on the medium side of medium-rare” or “medium-medium-rare” or “coolish, but not quite blue”) and I would assume that well-done is a sin.

The gravy is vinegar and oil based, with lots and lots of the outer squishy bits and tallow of beef to flavor it. It’s somehow enjoyable to watch French businessmen in full suits cramming down the perfect, thin fries in bunches between mouthfuls of red wine. The meat and fries are served to you in two servings, and even when you know this ahead of time it still has a pleasing psychological effect. When she arrives to load the other half of your steak and fries onto your plate, a childish voice inside my head cheers, “Hooray! There’s more!”

For full comparison, I ordered the chocolate profiteroles for dessert and they continued to blow L’entrecôte St-Jean out of the water. Rather than being wholly frozen, the outer pastry part was soft and warm, while the inside was still ice cream: a dream. We also shared their creme brulee, which had been freshly caramelized and the taste of burnt sugar permeated through the custard. There was nothing I didn’t like.

We went three times. I am more than a little bit ashamed of that fact.

Chez Marly

Our guidebook mislead us on this one. It said something to the effect of, “Before an afternoon at the Louvre, carb-load on Chez Marly’s pastas.” When we arrived, I said, “Who on earth would apply the phrase ‘carb-load’ to this place?” There was only one pasta dish on the menu.

The outside portion of Chez Marly is situated within the grand courtyard surrounding the Louvre. The grand architecture leaves you open to the air; clear bicarbonate plates between pillars separate you from the birds. After taking one look at us, the host gestured at some battered armchairs near the entrance and said, “Sit there,” hardly able to supress his disgust. It was lovely anyway. Both our seats faces outward, and behind the glass, it seemed as though we were watching tourists in an enormous display at the zoo. Sipping wine, watching the midday light scatter on the glass pyramid of the Louvre, mocking the tourists in berets and toques with “Paris” stitched into them as they strike cheesy poses by the fountains – this is what I imagine real Parisians do.

chez_marly

We shared their one pasta dish, a bland penne in basil tomato sauce with cherry tomatoes (but really, how exciting could it have been?), as well as the risotto with grilled prawns. The risotto, with a thin layer of really intense shaved Parmesan on top and prawn-flesh perfectly flayed with flame, made me wish we had ordered two. The kind of dish you hold in your mouth for a while, bite by bite, letting the creaminess wash over you.

risotto

It was so cold that we had to keep our jackets on and hold hands, but in spite of the guidebook’s vulgarity, it was the way to start an afternoon at the Louvre.

Patisseries

The Lonely Planet guidebook only recommended one patisserie, which we thought was odd. Once we arrived, though, it was obvious that no one needs a guidebook for pastries in Paris; there is a good patisserie on every block. The sample being hardly representative, as our criteria for a patisserie was (a) on our route, (b) when we were hungry, (c) there was enough space between the door and the counter for us to gawk at the display case for a while without being in anyone’s way, the best one was this one:

unknown_patisserie

I still don’t know what the name is. We had a croque monsieur, an apple tart, and a coffee éclair, all spectacular. To be fair, all the pastries we had in Paris were knee-quiveringly good, this place was just the best one we encountered.

The croque monsieur, in particular, I find perplexing. Here in Montreal, a croque monsieur is a split baguettine, covered in ham and cheese and then put in the oven. Perhaps there is tomatoes, or egg, or dijon; I have made many of these while working at pseudo-French cafes. A baguettine in the oven is just toast. A croque monsieur in Paris is crusty with cheese on the outside and creamy (!) on the inside, like bread pudding. The ham, cheese, egg, and bread form some kind of singular unit, rather than just layers on toast. After my first bite, I passed it to JP and then he wouldn’t give it back.

For whatever reason, JP developed a fear of ordering in French about a third of the way through the trip. In pastry shops, he would hover behind me and murmur in my ear what he wanted. He put forth an interesting theory as to why the Japanese appear to be obsessed with French culture: their languages are similarly musical (as opposed to guttural Quebec French). And it certainly was true – in the mouths of young women, both French and Japanese take on a melodic lilt that is almost unbearably adorable.

Le Roi du Pot au Feu

In my (in air quotes, in the loosest sense possible) “classical French” culinary training, I have been no stranger to veal stock. It is the base of everything. Many restaurants have a veal stock factory going on an at all times in the back: veal bones, carrots, and onions roasting, deglazing, and stewing away. I had never, though, heard of “traditional French hot pot”.

pot_au_feu_door

At Le Roi du Pot au Feu (34, rue Vignon), their signature dish is two courses. The first is veal broth, and the second is everything used to make it: root vegetables (cabbage, carrots, potatoes, winter melon), big falling-apart-tender hunks of veal shank, and the center bone. Our waiter helpfully explained (by miming) that we were supposed to dig out the marrow with our knives, spread it on slices of toasted baguette, and sprinkle fleur de sel on top. The marrow is a sickly yellow and the texture of fat; it made me think of human internal organs. On the bread, with the salt, it melted like butter and tasted similar, but better. To most of the world this is no surprise: bone marrow tastes like superior, richer buttered toast. I would never have guessed. Other people in the restaurant were ordering just plates of the bone cross-sections.

pot_au_feu_entreepot_au_feu_main

After five days of heavy food and conveniently located made-to-order crepe windows, the meat, vegetables, and broth felt deeply soothing, well-matched with the light house wine. We finished with their pear sorbet, which was better, in my opinion, than the legendary Berthillon ice cream on Ile Saint-Louis that I had been anticipating the whole trip. While it was impressive to have sherbet saturated with pureed fruit, Berthillon ice cream was nothing to travel halfway across the world for.

Les Deux Magots

Les Deux Magots is supposedly where Satre and Hemingway intersected. We went before seven o’clock, when no one in Paris could conceivably be eating dinner; they were still playing soccer with their children in the streets and drinking espresso. The ability to walk in anywhere – even an upscale bistro – and order just espresso, and then sit for hours and have it not be considered strange may be the most compelling reason to live in Paris. Along with the 35-hour workweek and people making out in public and jogging nonchalantly through astonishing gardens and architecture and I’m going to stop.

Because we were too early for the dinner menu, we ordered from the bar and had beef carpaccio with Parmesan and a millefeuille of chevre, tomatoes, and basil. Tiny, rich, delicious, insubstantial, necessary to eat in small, slow bites so that your heart doesn’t give out halfway through – pretty much what we imagined French food would be, and the chandeliers, bow-tied waiters, gold bars, and mirrors only added to the picture.

chevre_tomato
beef_carpaccio

L’Escargot

On our final night, in his one suit and my one formal dress, we ventured under a golden snail to a place with a ninety-Euro per person menu gourmand that is confident enough to only be open for three hours a day. The head waiter was disappointed with us from the moment he opened the door, whispering disdainfully to the other waiters, “Americains.” Wrong, sir! We are bashful and polite and deferential. Canadiens!

I liked to think of us at the good tourists, though: we spoke softly, demanded little, and spent a lot of money. The Italian family seated beside us was so stunned by the prices that they only ordered appetizers, and the children loudly demanded Coca Cola and asked if the truffles could be taken out of the risotto (the answer, unsurprisingly, was no). When the parents explained to the children that the namesake dishes were, yes, snails, the head waiter laughed so hard he snorted and then ran into the kitchen.

Two types of appetizers were complimentary. First, lightly battered and deep fried snails, served with toothpicks. Secondly, snails in a green fluid that tasted like lemons and fish, and then topped with cream – I did not enjoy this, and could not even venture a guess as to what it was.

We had an additional escargot platter each, with snails in curry, snails in garlic butter, and snails in Roquefort cheese sauce. These were served in shell, and was my first opportunity to use a pair of decorative scissored tongs and a small shellfish fork – tools designed just for eating snails. If they were not prohibitively expensive, these would be a great way to introduce someone to eating snails, as the meatiness and familiar flavours overpowered the sense that of eating fancy slugs.

Next, we shared the two-person roasted duck. The entire duck was brought out and presented, and then carved in front of us. Beautiful to watch, although I have to wonder how much you have to pay a waiter who can carve a duck so well. First we were served the breasts, sliced, perfectly tender, with crispy skin and a sauce that permeated through all the meat. I will say this about the French: they know how to make fat palatable. The side dish was…interesting. If someone said to me, “Hey, let’s layer cabbage, Bearnaise sauce, oranges, and Parmesan,” I would have replied, “What? Why would we want to do that?”

The second course of the duck was just the legs, with more of the cabbage, satisfying in a purely fatty-crisp way.

For dessert, we both had the coffee and chocolate cake, which had – to our mutual discomfort and amusement – gold leaf in the center. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Is that not the biggest fuck-you to poor people?” It’s not like you can taste it. The lightness and thinness and fudginess of the cake was to my liking, as I tend to find chocolate cake oppressive after a while.

As a nice touch, the espresso at the end of the meal was the best one we had had in Paris (and we had a lot of espresso in Paris). It was served with complimentary meringues and something like a potato chip made of dried fruit. They came out on a tiny, lacquered black tray; we weren’t sure if they were even food. JP put the dried fruit matrix in his mouth and I said, “So? What is it?”

“I can’t tell, I’m too nervous,” he whispered, and I burst out laughing.

I overheard another woman pick up the same dried fruit piece and say to her companion, who had one in his mouth, “C’est quoi, ça?” and he just shrugged in an “I don’t know” way – so we weren’t the only ones with this problem.

La Grande Epicerie de Paris

A big grocery store is a big grocery store anywhere you go. On our first day, we visited one that was described breathlessly in our guidebook like a cathedral, a temple to food; it was just a big grocery store. We bought a cheese platter and a baguette and had an exhausted, jetlagged picnic on our hotel bed. JP took a picture, but my worn-out expression and slumped posture and uncharacteristically pink summer dress and the fact that I’m on a bed makes me look like I’m trying to be sexy (in reality, I was trying to stay awake); the end effect is something like a weird, cheese-themed pin-up. Oh yes, come and have some cheese with me, baby.

The half-eaten strong cheese made our minifridge smell unbearable for the entire week – like rotten broccoli.

cheese_picnic

The Häagen-Dazs Fondue that Got Away

In Paris, and I assume many places where I not have been, there are dedicated Häagen-Dazs stores. Lots of them. The first time I saw one I grabbed JP’s arm and gasped. They have a dish that was advertised hugely over the door of the one on the Champs-Élysées: a boat of tiny balls of different flavours of ice cream and a center dish of chocolate fondue to dip them in.

Me, on our last day, passing by: “If we ever come to Paris again, we have to have that.”
JP: “It’ll have to be with lots of friends, then. Or else we’ll always be those two Canadians that ate the whole thing by themselves.”
Me: “So?!”

At the bottom of the advertisement is a warning to exercise regularly.

We brought back from Paris a jar of microwavable chocolate fondue from Cacao et Chocolat, as well as a bag of truffles such that whenever I eat one I say, “We have to go back.”

cacao_chocolat

In light of our failure to have the Häagen-Dazs fondue, last night I bought Neapolitan ice cream and rolled little balls of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream with spoons (it would have been easier with a melon baller, but then I’d own a melon baller I’d never use again) and refroze them for a few hours under plastic wrap. They were then hard enough to be dipped in warm chocolate fondue without melting, and staying cold enough to harden the chocolate.

fondue_all1fondue_fork1

We sat on the floor on JP’s apartment with the fondue and watched Ratatouille, squealing like the stupidly cheeseball tourists we are, trying to evade our hectic real lives for one more night.

JP planned everything with an arsenal of Google maps, and ensured our days were full while still letting us wander into anything that caught our eye and sleep until noon; he stayed nice during a seven-hour layover in Philadelphia when our choices of food were Sbarro, Chick-Fil-A, and the slightly-offensively-named Asian Chao (in what part of Asia do they eat bourbon chicken?). It’s easy to love everyone in Paris. If you can love someone through the voyage home, then he’s truly a keeper.

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Written by skimfu

March 1, 2009 at 1:29 am

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