Around Paris: 14th: La Cantine du Troquet

1 10 2011

La Cantine du Troquet

Christian Etchebest is one of Paris’ most beloved bistrotiers (is that a word?  Like a restaurateur, but for a bistro?).  His original Troquet is much-loved, though rumor has it he’s sold the mothership in order to focus on a new project.  In the meantime, though, he’s still running the convivial, no-reservations offshoot, La Cantine du Troquet.

Nick and I met some food-loving friends there a couple of Thursdays ago.  We had misread their opening hours (they open at 7pm, not 8 as we had thought) and as a result, had to wait out on the sidewalk for a table to open up.  It was a balmy evening, though, and was not at all an unpleasant wait, with a platter of Basque chorizo balanced on the wine barrel out front for all to share, and ordering bottles or carafes of wine to drink while standing on the corner is not only sanctioned, but encouraged.

Over our wine (poured from a liter carafe of totally drinkable – and totally affordable at 18 euros – Bandol red), we studied the chalkboard menu posted outside, our mouths watering over the beef cheeks and the lomo dish.  Of course, by the time we got seated, both had been stricken from the real-time-updated indoor chalkboard.  Not to be deterred that easily, I asked the waitress about the beef cheeks.  She said they were out, but they had a pork cheek dish to replace it.  I, and two of my three companions, said “yes, please.”

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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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Around Paris: 9th: Rose Bakery

18 11 2010

They’re lucky the food’s good.

Rose Bakery, Paris 9th

I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly, when I went to Rose Bakery for brunch a few Sundays ago.  Other than visions of sticky toffee puddings and Neal’s Yard cheeses, neither of which featured on the brunch menu, I guess I thought it would be an English tea room of the cozy, quaint sort.  I was wrong.

The front of the shop features a bakery case, a small refrigerated case with cheeses (no Stichelton, though, sniff) and English beers, a few English pantry items, and crates of organic vegetables piled up around the perimeter.  There’s a rather disorganized line of people, some waiting to make purchases, some paying for their meals, and some (like us) waiting for a table.  Fortunately, as a party of two, Nick and I didn’t have to wait long.

We were seated in the back dining room, a room whose decor left me puzzled.  Concrete floors, a bright orange Smeg refrigerator, flourescent lights hanging vertically on the walls… it was certainly more post-modern/poor man’s Dan Flavin than I had imagined.  The menu was equally minimal.  Bacon and eggs, salmon and eggs, savory tart of the day, coffee, tea.  And on the expensive side.  I have a hard time justifying paying 15 euros for simple, easy-for-me-to-make-at-home breakfast dishes like these, or 4.50 for a cup of tea, even if it is really good tea.  Nick and I both ended up ordering the cheese scone with scrambled eggs and braised endives, because they were out of the savory tart, and I wanted something I couldn’t whip up myself in five minutes.  Nick also ordered a coffee, and I splurged on a tea.

Coffee at Rose Bakery

The coffee was served in a homey-yet-modern ceramic mug, and came with a cute little shortbread cookie.  I eyed it hungrily and a bit jealously, as my tea had yet to arrive.  Nick said that the coffee was good.

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Around Paris: 20th: Le Bistrot des Soupirs

6 11 2010


I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not a sigh of resignation.  Nor is it a sigh of fatigue, or one of exasperation.  No, this is a blissed-out sigh.  A sigh of contentment.  A slightly sleepy sigh, of the sort that only comes after one has dined very well.

Le Bistrot des Soupirs has been on my to-try list for at least six months, but tucked away on a quiet street near Place Gambetta, it hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of my mental restaurant guide.

Le BIstrot des Soupirs

But from now on, it will be.

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1 11 2010

Chartres is one of those places, if you’ve studied French for a long time, that you’ve heard about over and over.  It’s home to the best-preserved cathedral in Europe, which is also one of the purest examples of Gothic architecture, built relatively quickly between 1206 and 1260.  And it’s only about an hour from Paris. But I had yet to visit, until last weekend.

The catalyst that finally got me to hop on the train was an invite to a salon from Domaine La Beille.  A small winery run by a couple (he’s Australian, she’s French) in the Languedoc, not far from Perpignan and the Spanish border.  They make some nice wines, and I especially like the way they buck traditions to make single varietal wines in a country where blends are the norm.

Since the train tickets were a little spendy (14 euros each way), Nick and I figured we’d make a day out of it.  I researched some places to eat and made phone calls from the train.  I got a reservation at the first place I called, the Brasserie La Cour at the hotel Le Grand Monarque.

Table setting at Braaserie La Cour

After a short but cold walk from the train station, we walked into the elegant lobby of Le Grand Monarque.  Straight ahead was the airy dining room of the Brasserie La Cour.  Thus named because it is actually situated in the courtyard of the building, the space is very light.  It almost felt like we were dining outside, save for the fact that it was warm and we weren’t getting rained on.  So, better.  I was immediately charmed by the mini-baguettes that were part of the place settings at each table.  I was also a big fan of the little butter crocks, which contained perfectly softened butter.  (It’s a pet peeve of mine when restaurants serve ice-cold, rock-hard butter.)

Butter crock

Of course I had found out the local specialties before we headed to Chartres, and topping the list is a special pâté.  Pâté de Chartres is a rustic, meaty pâté with a hunk of foie gras in the center.  It’s wrapped in pastry and baked, then any space is filled with aspic.

Pâté de Chartres

Here it was served with a salad and a few pickled cherries on the side.  I liked the way the tangy cherries played off the richness of the pâté, but Nick wasn’t a fan.  (Of the cherries.  He definitely liked the pâté, and he also lucked out and got the piece with the big chunk of foie gras.)

Given the gray, rainy weather, for my main course I opted for the “Cocotte du jour,” which happened to be pot au feu – a French classic that consists of slow-cooked beef and vegetables in a rich broth.

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Around Paris: 5th: Boca Mexa

24 10 2010

Friday night I met up with Katia and Kyliemac, Paris’ most famous expat podcasters.  We started off with a few happy hour margaritas at La Perla in the marais, but before long we were hungry for something more substantial than guacamole and chips.  I’ve eaten at La Perla before, and have found their food to be hit-and-miss.  Mexican sounded pretty good, though.

The Great Wall of Hot Sauce

Fortunately, my companions had recently heard tell of a new Mexican place on rue Mouffetard.  Preliminary reviews were of the raving variety, so we decided to go on a little adventure.  Walking down one of the Left Bank’s liveliest streets, we discussed how none of us came over here very much, and whether the area was more touristy or if it was the habitual convergence of foreign students that makes it what it is.  Which is generally, pretty fun, although there may be one too many English pubs catering to study-abroad types.

At any rate, thanks to the internet and smartphones, we quickly found the address we were seeking, and lo and behold, it was indeed a Mexican place.

Boca Mexa, rue Mouffetard

It was getting close to closing time, but the friendly staff patiently waited for us to make up our minds and quickly prepared our burrito, tacos, and quesadilla once we had.  They said we could take our time, so we settled in across from the Hot Sauce Wall (pictured above).

Burrito bite

I got a beef burrito, which featured a weirdly Indian-esque spice blend.  Katia, Kyliemac, and Nick assured me that their chicken-filled items were much better, so I’ll be sure to keep that in mind for next time.

Corn tacos

Tacos are available in either corn (three) or flour (two) tortillas.  The tortilla chips on the side were industrially made and unremarkable, but the salsas were pretty good, especially the hot one (not really all that hot for true spice lovers) and the tomatillo one, which was tangy and fresh-tasting.

The most exciting thing about Boca Mexa, however, may just be the small selection of Mexican products they have for sale near the cash register.  Cans of chipotle chilis in adobo seem a little expensive at 3 euros, but I haven’t seen them for sale anywhere else in Paris in almost three years of living here, and believe me, I’ve looked.  Bags of masa – essential if you want to make your own corn tortillas at home – cost 8 euros, which is half of what Nick paid for the Last Bag of Masa in Paris a little over a year ago.  Now we don’t have to hoard it anymore!  And perhaps best of all, the hot sauces.  Southern Californians will be excited to see the wooden-topped bottles of Cholula, and I think Nick actually got a tear in his eye upon seeing his beloved Valentina’s.

So we’ll definitely be back to stock up on Mexican ingredients, and while we’re there, we might just have to have a quick, cheap bite.  I’ll be sure to get the chicken.

On this day in 2008: Chicken’s in the Microwave, Beer’s in the Freezer

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Provence or Southern California?

6 09 2010

chandeliers and exposed beams

In concept, dining at a restaurant on an organic lavender farm sounds very much like something one would do while vacationing in the South of France.  My vacation was not in Provence this year, but I spent part of it in Southern California.  My mom, inspired by my lavender-mint chip ice cream, thought it would be fun to have dinner one night at the Grand Oak Steakhouse, which just happens to be situated on an organic farm in Cherry Valley, California.  She was right.  Every summer they host a lavender festival, and she had been blown away by the lavender crème brûlée the restaurant served for the occasion.

Dining room at the Grand Oak

So my parents, Nick, and I found ourselves in the grand dining room at sunset.  The view, looking out over blooming lavender fields with a spectacular salmon-colored sky, was delightful.  I liked the décor inside, too.  The mosaic of paintings, the high ceilings with exposed beams, and the old-timey farm gear artfully displayed combined to create a space that was comfortably luxurious.  The menu changes seasonally, and features vegetables, herbs, and meats grown or raised right there on the farm.

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Around Paris: 13th: Le Bambou

17 08 2010

Since moving to France, Nick and I have been having lots of fun with language.  We blatantly use and abuse franglais, translating and mistranslating with abandon.  One such misuse, which gets more play than one might expect, is bambooing.  (You see, because the French word for shampoo is shampooing, any word that ends in -oo now gets an -ooing.  It’s fun!  Ok, we’re huge dorks.  I don’t even know why I’m explaining this.  Now I’ve gone and started off with a huge digression.  It’s probably only going downhill from here.)

Le Bambou(ing) at night

So we headed down to the 13th for some Asian grub last weekend.  We really wanted to try Sukhothai, but alas, it was closed for congé annuel.  Fortunately, I had a backup, which I had telephoned in advance: Le Bambou.  Or as it immediately became known to Nick and me, Le Bambooing.  It’s a well-known and well-reviewed spot for casual Vietnamese cuisine.  When we arrived (following a rain-soaked Vélib’ ride from the Place d’Italie), there appeared to be a line out the door, but poking my head in the door and inquiring whether they had room for two proved to be beneficial – we were seated right away.

Of course, moments later we were unceremoniously asked to move, in order to make room for a four-top.  The French woman seated next to me asked if it was our first time there.  When I replied in the affirmative, she told me with a smile, “On vient pour ça, aussi.” (You come here for that, too.)  Which is to say, at Le Bambou, you are treated like family, in the most casual sense.  They don’t hesitate to make you switch seats or hustle you off your table to make room for more customers.  Elegant and refined it is not.  What it is, though, is speedy and tasty.

Plateau frit at Le Bambou

We started off with the fried assortment: four nems, four fried shrimp, and four wonton-like objects.  It was probably too much for two, but we were hungry, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.  My favorite were the fried shrimp, which will come as no surprise to my parents, who eventually had to stop ordering them when we went for Chinese food when I was a kid so I would eat something else.  Nick thought the nems were something special, and I agree that they were quite good, though I’m not sure they’re any better than those at Dong Huong, over in our neck of the woods.

Bo Bun at Le Bambou

Despite the rainy, pho-appropriate weather, I had to try the bo bun.  The classic Vietnamese dish of saucy beef with crunchy peanuts and vegetables over thin rice noodles has become one of my favorite foods.  And Le Bambou’s version was excellent.  The beef was bite-sized and tender, the noodles were abundant, and the vinegary sauce brought it all together beautifully.  Nearly every bite had a different taste sensation, depending on which elements made it into my chopsticks.  It was so flavorful that I wished I hadn’t made such a pig of myself on the appetizers, because in the end I couldn’t finish it.  (Luckily, the quick service has no qualms about taking food away.)

Beef and brisket pho at Le Bambou

Nick chose a bowl of pho with well-done beef and brisket (it was the brisket that got him) from the long list of soup options.  The broth was delicious, but the meat left something to be desired.  The pieces of beef and brisket were indistinguishable from each other (if , in fact, there were even two different cuts), and many had large, unappetizing hunks of fat attached.  Some people dig that, but I’m not one of them.

We had some trouble with the wine, as well.  We ordered a bottle of rosé along with our meal, but when our appetizer plate was half-eaten and we still hadn’t received it, we got worried.  We managed to flag down a waiter and reminded him about the wine.  Still nothing.  Thirsty, and concerned that we would be forced to chug the last of our wine if we finished eating before the bottle was done, we were trying to cancel it and ask for some water when yet another waiter insisted he would bring it.  They did apologize for the confusion, which frankly, surprised me a little.  But the good news was that the restaurant seemed to be clearing out, the door no longer filled with hungry potential diners eyeing tables.  So we got to linger over the last of our wine.

While I definitely enjoyed my meal at Le Bambou (Bambooing! Bambooing!), I am unconvinced that it was worth traveling all the way across town.  If you’re on the Left Bank and looking for Vietnamese, by all means go there, but if you’re closer to Belleville, don’t fret.  The Vietnamese up there is just as good.

 On this day in 2009: Tea for Two Tarts, the Second (one of the more stunning desserts I’ve made at home)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Around Paris: 19th: Zoe Bouillon

20 07 2010

Zoe Bouillon on a sunny afternoon

It’s too bad they’re closing next week for summer vacation, because Zoe Bouillon is serving up an ideal summer lunch.  I’ve walked past the cute canteen on rue Rébéval many times, but today was the first time I’d eaten there.  I doubt it will be the last.

A soup joint might not seem like the best place to eat on a warm July afternoon, but Zoe is cooking up (or mixing, rather) some delicious chilled soups, perfect for summer.  I met my friend Celine there for lunch on Monday, and we were delighted with the fresh, seasonal offerings.  The soups and salads are available à la carte or as part of a formule: from 9 euros for soup and a sandwich, salad, or slices of savory cake, to 11 euros for soup, sandwich or salad, cake and dessert.  We went with the simplest menu, though both of the freshly baked cakes looked so good, we both had to ask for a slice of each.

savory cakes at Zoe Bouillon

There was the mozzarella and herb, green with fresh herbs, and the goat cheese with eggplant and zucchini, which was still slightly warm from the oven.  Both cakes were incredibly moist with a pleasantly browned crust.

Gazpacho andalou with oeufs mimosa

For the soup, I chose the chilled gazpacho andalou, a refreshing and savory blend of tomatoes and herbs.  It was served with a sprinkling of crumbled oeufs mimosa (hard boiled eggs), which provided a satisfying dose of protein.

Chilled cucumber-mint soup at Zoe Bouillon

Celine opted for the chilled cucumber-mint soup, which was incredibly cooling.

The service here is pretty much non-existent, though the staff are friendly and accommodating.  The soups are served in plastic cups and the cakes  on paper plates.  Spoons, forks, knives, and napkins are disposable, too.  (A little surprising to see so much waste at an establishment that otherwise seems to respect food and nature.)  Orders are taken at the counter, and you bring your meal to your table on a brightly colored tray.  When you’re finished, you bus your own table.  It’s bare bones, but it probably helps to keep the prices low.

A restaurant with seasonal fare and reasonable prices in one of my very favorite Parisian neighborhoods?  I only wish I could swing by for lunch more often.

On this day in 2009: Le Rouennais (Another lovely lunch.)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Les Flots – La Rochelle

27 05 2010

What's that guy on the left doing?

Last weekend was the last of the May holidays in France.  (Usually, there are four long weekends in May.  This year, we got the short end of the stick, with two of those holidays falling on Saturdays.  Still, France in May is a sweet place to be.)  Nick and I took advantage of the long weekend to visit La Rochelle, a port city on the western coast of France, just south of Brittany and just north of Bordeaux.  We spent Saturday evening on the nearby Ile de Ré, eating crêpes and mussels and watching the soccer match with some friends.  Alec Lobrano describes the Ile de Ré as a French Nantucket, and while I’ve never been to Nantucket, the comparison seems apt.  Sunday we took a drive into the surrounding countryside, stopping at an archeological site and an abbey before lunching in Cognac.  Afterward, we took an interesting tour of the Otard distillery, housed in the castle where François 1er was born.  Sadly, the cognac tasting at the end of the tour was a bit of a let-down.  Fortunately, we had the anticipation of dinner at Les Flots, back in La Rochelle, to boost our sagging spirits (pun intended).

Oooh, shiny.

Les Flots (meaning: the deep, or the sea) is helmed by Grégory Coutanceau, a chef whose father and brother run La Rochelle’s most highly-regarded seafood restaurants, the eponymously named Coutanceau.  He’s got the restaurant business in his blood, and it shows.  After taking a leisurely apéritif on the lively rue de la Chaîne, Nick and I made our way to the restaurant to meet with two friends for dinner.

beautiful seeded bread

I was immediately impressed by the casual elegance of the dining area, including the outdoor patio, where we were seated.  With the medieval Tour de la Chaîne in the background, I admired the modern silvery-edged chargers and beachy hurricane lanterns on the table.  Even the bread was artfully presented in its basket, and the butter was served at spreading temperature.  (There are few things that irk me more than ice-cold, rock-hard butter in a restaurant, because there’s really no excuse.  If I were a Michelin reviewer, any place that served cold butter would lose a star immediately.)

Savory cake, herbed crème fraîche

In addition to the bread, a small plate with four tiny slices of sun-dried tomato-anchovy bread and a cup of herbed crème fraîche was placed on the table for us to nibble while making our menu and wine list decisions.  Which took a while, because that wine list is a tome.  We decided on the 39 euro Menu du Marché, and I chose a bottle of white Burgundy, which turned out to be astoundingly good for the price – only 32 euros!
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