Le Pacifique

13 08 2011

I’ve always been intrigued by this place on an uphill corner not far from the Belleville Métro stop.  Something about the design of the place has always made me think of Chinese restaurants in L.A. in the forties – or at least the way they’re portrayed in film noir.  The fact that they’re open until 1:30 am only reinforces this perception.

Le Pacifique, Belleville

The effect is certainly more pronounced late at night, when the neon trim is lit up and you can just imagine the Private Eyes rendez-vous-ing inside.  I know this because I’ve walked past here dozens of times, en route to and from Restaurant Raviolis.  I admit that’s where we were headed last Saturday for lunch before doing some banana leaf hunting at Paris Store.  This being August, though, our regular haunt was closed for vacation, and so, on the strength of a recommendation from Sophie, we found ourselves perusing the dim sum menu at Le Pacifique.

You can learn a lot about an unfamiliar restaurant by observing the other diners.  I don’t mean you should be staring, but do check out what’s on their plates, discreetly.  I learned this way that Le Pacifique serves pitchers! of iced! tea!  Of course it was printed on the menu as well, but now I knew to look for it.  And at 4 euros a pitcher, it’s a hell of a bargain, especially when compared to the price of a single glass of iced tea at, say, Le Loir Dans La Théière.  Iced tea seems to be something of a rarity outside the United States, but it’s something I like very much, so it’s always exciting to see it outside my apartment.

Iced tea at Le Pacifique

And it was good, too – not skunky at all, the way iced tea can get when it’s been sitting around too long – flavorful but not overbrewed, nicely chilled and not watered down by the ice.

Enough about the tea, though.  What of the food?

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Noodles on Joinville

20 01 2011

Are Chinese noodles the Next Big Thing in Paris?  Until the last year or so the state of Chinese food in Paris was abysmal.  There were one or two good places, and the rest were cheap, greasy, and bad.  Fortunately for all of us food lovers who live here, Paris seems to be falling mein over bao for Chinese cuisine.

Paris by Mouth notes the Asian trend, citing a number of recent positive reviews for Asian restaurants in the City of Light.  Many of them are located in the 1st and 2nd arrondissements, on the traditionally Japanese (and now Korean) rue St. Anne.  Other well-known centers of cuisine from the East are in the 13th arrondissement – often referred to as Paris’ Chinatown – and in the Belleville neighborhood, which straddles bits of the 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements.  Rue de Joinville is rarely, if ever, cited among these.

Situated on the opposite side of the 19th from Belleville, rue de Joinville is tiny, running about two blocks from the Bassin de La Villette to the Avenue de Flandre.  Small as it may be, it’s a beehive of Chinese culinary activity.  There are no less than four Chinese grocers there, at least three have butchers, and two have fish tanks.  Despite their size, they are amazingly well-stocked, and I can usually find any exotic Eastern ingredient I seek there.

So how is it that I know about this hidden gem?  Well, I used to live only a couple of blocks away, back when I first moved to Paris in 2008 (has it been that long already?).  Since the majority of the neighborhood butchers were either Arab or Muslim, that meant that the only pork available was at the Chinese butchers on rue de Joinville.  It was also a lifesaver for a couple of new expats, who didn’t have to go too far to find peanut butter or chili peppers.  I have also been working in the neighborhood for the last two and a half years.

Until recently, however, the only dining options were traiteurs of dubious quality.  And I’m not just saying that – I’ve tried several.  But on Thanksgiving day, when I was making a market run during my lunch break (and getting turkey necks and gizzards for my stock at one of the butchers) I saw this:

Chinese Noodles!

A brand-new noodle place!  My stomach did a happy dance, and I not-so-secretly hoped that this place would be truly excellent, and that it would give me a reason to live through another grueling holiday season at work.  So perhaps my expectations were a bit high.  Sadly, when I got a chance to try it the next day, I was sorely disappointed.  The noodles were good enough, texture-wise, but the broth in which they swam was completely flavorless.  I had to dump inordinate amounts of soy sauce, black vinegar, and Sriracha into it in order to taste anything at all.  Needless to say, I wasn’t in a hurry to return.

Yesterday, though, I was feeling optimistic, and hoped that maybe a couple of months had helped them iron out the kinks.  I would give them another shot, and be sure to ask for a recommendation from the waitress this time.  Who knows?  Maybe I had just ordered the wrong thing.  I had to make a quick run to the bank to get cash before lunch, and on my way I saw this:

A NEW new noodle place!

A newer noodle place!  This one even has a picture of a guy pulling noodles, so I abandoned my original plan and decided to try out the noodles at Palais de Wenzhou.  I do not regret my decision.

I know this picture sucks, I took it with my phone, in a hurry to eat.

I did ask the waitress for a recommendation, and she asked me if I wanted something spicy.  “Oui,” was my enthusiastic reply.  She suggested the beef noodles, which came out in a flavorful, mildly spicy broth.  The noodles were pleasantly irregular, indicating that perhaps they were indeed hand-pulled.  The chunks of beef were so tender, I could tell they had cooked for hours, but they still had plenty of rich beefy flavor.

Was it better than Les Pâtes Vivantes or Happy Nouilles?  No.  But for a 6-euro lunch next door to work, I’ll be more than happy to eat there regularly.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Yank Sing, San Francisco

29 09 2010

Over a year later, the quest to find soup dumplings in Paris continues with no luck.  As such, it’s one of a short list of foods that Nick and I actively seek out when we’re in the States.  We took a very short trip to San Francisco (sorry we missed each other, Hungry Dog!) and on the agenda was dim sum.

my favorite Chinese food as a child.

Our all-too-willing friend Dave courteously escorted us to Yank Sing, home of some of San Francisco’s best dim sum, or so I’m told.  We sat down to lunch in the crowded dining room and immediately the carts started rolling by.  We picked up fried shrimp, shrimp and asparagus wrapped in bacon,

bacon wrapped?  Yes, please!

and steamed pork buns.

hom bao

Then we remembered why we had come.

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Kitchen Chinese

9 02 2010

A novel about food, family, and finding yourself

I miss Isabelle. 

Let me back up a little.  One of my fellow American expat food bloggers in Paris, Ann Mah, has written a novel.  It’s called Kitchen Chinese, and it’s loosely based on some of her experiences as a Chinese-American woman navigating the quarterlife in Beijing.  And it’s a delight.  From the intriguing and informative quotes on classic Chinese food that begin each chapter, to the mouthwatering descriptions of traditional (and not-so-traditional) Chinese meals, to the immediately lovable characters, the book is both fun and thought-provoking.

Aside from her knowledge about and skill in describing food, Ann’s greatest strength is creating characters.  The protagonist, Isabelle Lee, feels like a friend after only a few pages, which make her disappointments all the more crushing and her triumphs all the more cheer-inspiring for the reader.  Isabelle’s relationships with her family, friends, and coworkers ring true, and the changes those relationships go through feel natural and real, never forced for the sake of plot advancement.

I know I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person to read this book and wind up craving Chinese food.  I tried not to dwell too long on the part about that elusive specialty of Shanghai, xiaolongbao, because my Parisian hunt for them has so far turned up fruitless.  But the moon festival party scene, with its piles of steaming dumplings, sent me almost immediately up the street to the Restaurant Raviolis.

It's not soup dumplings, but it'll do

Where I proceeded to gorge myself, as per usual, with dumplings.  Dumplings floating in flavorful broth, and dumplings pan-fried to a crisp golden brown and dunked in soy sauce and black vinegar.

One of the best dumplings in town.

I am also now in search of a restaurant in Paris that serves Yunnan cuisine, which I never knew about before, but having learned of it, must taste.  Chinese cheese?  Sign me up!

I could definitely relate to Isabelle’s struggles as she finds her way in a new culture – while China and France are obviously very different places, there are certain elements of the expat experience that are universal.  And connecting to a culture by way of its food is one of them.  Dining being the convivial experience that it is, it is one of the best ways to build friendships, which is hugely important when you’ve transplanted yourself thousands of miles from home.  A country’s cuisine can also tell stories about its values and showcase its aesthetics.  Isabelle has the good fortune to get hired as the dining editor for an English-language magazine, which immediately plunges her into the world of Chinese cuisine, from Beijing’s street carts to Hong Kong’s dim sum.  As a result, she is forced to improve her language skills from the titular “kitchen Chinese,” as well as figure out how she fits into a country where she doesn’t look foreign, but feels it.

I feel lucky to have been asked to receive an advance review copy of Kitchen Chinese, but having finished the book, I miss my friend Isabelle.

You can get your own copy through my Amazon store, Ann’s blog, or at one of her upcoming book events.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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