Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two favourite restaurants in one day.

   At the beginning, a fortnight in Paris sounded like a lavish amount of time. Now, as we get ready to take the train south, we think it's not enough.
   Not that it was a "tick off the boxes" sort of thing, but we woke up yesterday to realize that, shock horror, we hadn't yet been to two of the restaurants we always eat at.
   I only took a few photos at both (and most of them were really bad for whatever reason--er, maybe the red wine) but I've posted about them before if you're curious. First, we had lunch at Le Reminet on the left bank, just across the Seine from the rear end of Notre Dame, up a little side street. Their three-course menu has crept up to...all of 14.50 euros since we were here in June. It's got to be one of the biggest bargains in Paris.
    Three courses, two choices in each. We both picked lentils with marinated salmon to start. The salmon is cru--raw--and its rich, fleshy texture works well with the mineral notes in the lentils, the sharpness of the vinaigrette and the pungency of the salad greens. A keeper. Peter had braised lamb with white beans to follow. I went for the daurade (bream), a good-sized fillet, perfectly cooked with a little timbale of buttery carrots and courgettes on the side. Cheese to finish, or fromage blanc with fruits rouges--black currants, blackberries and raspberries (should have been "fruits noirs").
    All sneaking looks at each other in the gilt-framed mirrors, Parisians crammed the tiny room, making the most of their two-hour lunch "hour," all of us having a marvellous time as we watched the umbrella-bearing less fortunate race by outside. When we left, the rain had stopped so we walked and walked, to start to build up the appetite we'd need for dinner.
    Robert et Louise is another one that's always on the list.

You go there for the steak, a great raw primal bloody hunk pulled out of the cooler just across from your table, flung on to the grill over the open wood fire and served, in my case, saignant. With it comes roasted potatoes and salad. With it you drink red wine. A bottle of Chateau Lastours Gaillac this time (and the last time we were there). Got seats at the communal table too!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Superbe moments in Paris....

      When I'm old and grey and full of sleep and sitting there, clutching a glass of red wine, these are the moment that I will flashback to in the brain file labelled "Paris, October 2011." In no particular order, no, I lie, the first one is definitely number one.
      1. Browsing through the second-hand books outside Shakespeare & Company and, as three American women walked past, hearing one of them say to the others as she looked up at the sign...oh joy, you couldn't make this up.... "So, is this is, like, where Shakespeare...wuz?"
     2. Ambling around the Marais on the last morning and suddenly finding myself in Place des Vosges. What an incredible place to live, I thought. How nice to have a little pied à terre here. Don't hold your breath. Apartments start at about one million euros--and that's for something quite modest.

   3. Discovering the extraordinary joy of window-shopping in Paris ("licking the windows" is what we say in French). I don't mean the undeniable pleasure of seeing famous names like Chanel, Hermès and basically everyone else who runs double-page ads in French Vogue, but the sheer shock value of what's in one window--and the next.
A bath with integral book-shelves. How clever is that?

 A shop selling reproductions of exquisite antique board games.
 A florist's. You just want to buy armloads of flowers here.
Feather-covered skulls. An exhibition, I think.

   4. The sheer, unbelievable cheekiness of Parisian parking. Given its dimensions, we reckoned that this tiny Smart car earned multiple points for simultaneously blocking two zebra crossings AND the wheelchair-accessible ramp to the sidewalk. Now that took skill.

Pre-Sunday lunch...

   "We'll bring dessert." Friends visiting from overseas had invited us to their rented apartment for Sunday lunch. Amazing as one of them had done the dreaded Vancouver to Paris flight the day before.
    Patisseries are everywhere in Paris but we wanted something special so, as one does, I Googled and found this article.  Blé Sucré was only three metro stops away so that's where we went.
    It was a gorgeous sunny day, just right for wandering into a little tree-filled square with a park and bandstand in the middle--and buying sweet things to eat. Word has got around about patissier Fabrice Le Bourdat and the queue for the pastries and bread stretched out on to the pavement.
     Here are two of the four we bought:
Tarte Tatin for one. Don't you just love that wee dot of gold leaf on the end of the apple's "stem"?

   Another single serving classic. This screamingly rich little treat is a miniature Mont Blanc,  completely covered in fine noodles of chestnut purée and adorned with a gold-dusted square of chocolate.
On the topic of chocolate, we left with our four little pastries, beautifully boxed, and a paper bag holding two supremely flaky and buttery pains au chocolat, which we ate at the corner café across from this one. A crossroads with cafés on three of its four corners, could it get any better? Well, yes, because, just down the street is one of the city's best street markets. On this bright Sunday morning, it was jammed solid with Parisians buying heirloom tomatoes, chanterelles...

   ....and any one of these three pork roasts. The mille feuille appears to be layered with cheese and ham, the prune version (which I'm definitely going to try) is self-explanatory. A la diable? Mustard is spread on the pork and then it's wrapped in caul fat.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Three bottles of olive oil, three variations on salt and "where do you think they keep the non-stick spatula?"....

     Renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel has lots and lots of advantages. If you've walked your feet off, you don't have to go out to dinner. If you've had an enormous three-hour lunch, same thing. If you find yourself sighing whenever you pass a market, you can go in and buy that hunk of duck pâté, or gloriously mature cheese, then pop in the next boulangerie you see for a fresh baguette, and take it all to your temporary home. So far, so good but more complicated if you want something other than takeout. You may have to stock up on the basics before you can start cooking--or even making a simple vinaigrette. Obviously, everyone who has stayed in the apartment we're in now has mixed their own salad dressing. Including the one we brought with us, we can choose from three different olive oils. For salt, there's sel de Guerande, sel de Camargue and the sel de mer you see everywhere in the blue container with the whale on it. We have three sources of pepper.
    In rented apartments, cooking is always an adventure as you discover what your kitchen is equipped with. Or not. Lateral thinking becomes the norm. No water pitcher? Use the thermos jug. No carafe for the coffee machine? Balance filter-lined funnel on the top of the thermos jug. And so on.
    A typical Parisian kitchen is so tiny that you can basically stand in one spot and reach fridge, sink and stove without moving. When I say stove, I mean two electric hot-plates and a microwave (the microwave, in our case, is outside the kitchen area, beside the piano). Where we're staying now is typical. The cooktop segues seamlessly into the draining board, and the only other work surface is the top of the waist-high fridge. But, while I wouldn't scream with joy at having to cook a traditional Christmas dinner here, I can produce a decent four-course lunch, as we proved today.
   Minuscule kitchens and tiny fridges mean that Parisians eat out a lot, and shop more often too. One lemon, not a bag of four. Six eggs not a dozen. Back and forth they trundle, towing their purchases in shopping bags on wheels. There's one here in the apartment but I left it behind this morning believing, foolishly, that a carrybag would be enough. Which is how I came back balancing one bulging carrybag, a bag holding a rotisserie chicken, another bag containing a big bunch of parsley, and two baguettes.
   Most of it was bought just up the street at the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Quite small and packed with unutterably tempting foods, it's the city's oldest market, built in 1615. To put it in perspective, this place had already been going for well over a century when the French revolution took place.
Off with their heads, or rather the ends of their stalks. Prep work in process. Here's a look at the main, what am I saying? the only work surface.
 Lardons crisped and draining (those little thingies at bottom right). Mushrooms, onions and garlic cooking in much too much butter.
  A dish towel doubles as table cloth. Parsley instead of flowers... Are we chic or what?

   The finished plate. The warm mushroom mixture piled on two slices of toasted baguette. A little salad on the side.
    And then we had the roasted chicken, accompanied by basmati rice and ratatouille. Impressed? I've got to be honest here. Both were frozen and came from an incredible French store called Picard that's so highly respected that the BBC recently devoted an entire half-hour Food Programme to it. There's one three streets away. I'd never been in Picard before so I had a quick look round there yesterday and was amazed, amazed, by the choice. (If you can read French, have a roam around ). Enough to say that Picard saved the day when we got to the main course.
    From then on it was easy-cheesy. A lovely, ripe, heart-shaped raw milk Neufchatel, followed by sections of pomegranate and "wife cookies," both of which I picked up yesterday at Tang Frères.

A mixed day--in the best sense of the word: Part 2

    What I really want to blog about is some of the other stuff we've been up to but (favourite French expression alert) tant pis, I've written myself into a corner by titling the previous post "Part 1."
    Refueled on Vietnamese sandwiches, Peter and I set off in different directions, him to sketch, me to visit the Musée de Carnavalet and to swing by the Petit Bateau store to replace the Petit Bateau black T-shirt that has vanished into some other dimension. P.S. I didn't buy one after all, as I know that damn T-shirt's somewhere back in Léran.

    Long shadows, back-lit hair...the low, mid-afternoon light turned every narrow street into something visually wonderful. Invariably slim, everyone out on the streets looked like a model. Speaking of which, the fashion buzzwords right now are black, jeans, boots, anything oatmeal-coloured, a scarf of course, and flashes of scarlet or orange.

  Glad I'd worn my jeans and black jacket for the umpteenth time, I sped over to the Musée de Carnavalet which, on my list of Paris museums, is definitely in the top three. For a start, it's free. It also feels friendlier than most museums. I'm thinking of the attendant who, seeing me preparing to take a photo through a partially opened window, opened it all the way. 
     Mind you, the views are delightful even when the windows are closed. Don't you love those pale gum-drop colours in the glass? What also makes this museum special is that its collection is housed in a couple of magnificent mansions linked by very formal gardens.

     Grand staircases, over-the-top murals, wrought iron banisters... I'd be happy to wander around here for hours because you really do get a feel for what like must have been like for the French aristocracy in past centuries. I especially like the patterned wood floors. You can imagine all kinds of naughtinesses in the night being betrayed by a sudden squeak.
   Think how these old shop signs must have looked when they hung out over the narrow streets of Paris.

    What's on display is a real mix. Models of Paris, detailed room settings, paintings, add this one to your list the next time you're in Paris.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A mixed day--in the best sense of the word: Part 1

   Feet killing me, hair needs a wash and we have a rendezvous with a friend at a bistro at 8 p.m. which means leaving here a half hour before. I know, I KNOW, it's only a couple of stops on the Metro but we do keep leaving by the wrong sortie, and not knowing which way to turn when we do emerge, mole-like, at ground level. One side of a boulevard looks very much like the other when you're on new ground.
   Anyway, today. I wanted to visit a certain shop over near the Halles so set off ten-ish with the understanding that I'd be back around 1:30 p.m., bearing lunch.
   Even dreary weather can't spoil being in Paris but it was rather wonderful to go out on the street and see blue skies.
 Don't know if you're familiar with the modern Halles--the godawful Forum des Halles shopping complex that moved into the area where the original, famous food market once stood. A massive reno is underway, and I can't work out if they're destroying the old one or building a new one. Maybe both.
   Old and new can live together happily. Here's proof just along the street where the late 16th/early 17th century church of St. Eustache is the backdrop to this modern sculpture.
   From there, I headed south to the Metro station that was the start of my journey to Porte d'Ivry in southern Paris. Who knew that that pink Metro line split up at some point and went in two different directions. I had a 50 percent chance of being right, but wasn't, so off I jumped, backtracked, eventually reached the correct station and emerged to find myself staring at modern Paris.

      I'd come here because this quartier is home to a huge Asian supermarket called Tang Frères. Stocked with rice wrappers, hoi sin sauce and other necessities that are hard to find in our part of France, I joined the queue at a little Vietnamese sandwich shop, and left with a warm bag that, as I rode home on the Metro, emitted petite gusts of spice and savouriness.
     And that was only the morning.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dinner at BAM

    Set down a tiny side street between Rue de Rivoli and the Seine, BAM stands for "bar à manger"-- "a bar that you eat at" would be the literal translation, although this is about as far from "bar" food as you can get. Dinner here a couple of nights back was one of the most intriguing and imaginative meals we've had in Paris at this price level. BAM can definitely hold its head up and boast that it's a "proper" restaurant.
    Diners can't. Hold their heads up, I mean. We turned down the offer of the table right under the bar (where those two chaps are sitting), climbed the narrow, steep, spiral stairs to the mezzanine and found ourselves a better table. To call the ceiling "low"....let's just say that anyone approaching six feet has to assume a Quasimodo-like crouch to avoid smashing their head.
   The service was super-friendly but scattered. Our two menus somehow ended up as a shared entrée and plat (but separate desserts!!)  with the rectagonal platters positioned so we could each start at one end and meet in the middle. We didn't leave hungry either.
    "Cube de queue de boeuf confite, pissenlit, carottes croquantes, vinaigrette carotte," it says on the menu. You could cut those cubes of confited oxtail with a fork and the Jackson Pollock-esque splashes of carrot vinaigrette had just the right kick. Another entrée I'd like to play around with at home is the soupe glacée de petits pois à la menthe, sorbet pamplemousse rose, mikado à la coppa. Fresh peas, mint, grapefruit and something bacon-y? Sounds okay by me.

   "Magret de canard au piment d’espelette, aubergines rôties à l’ail & basilic, oignons rouges confits au porto"
   We eat so much duck at home that I rarely order it when we're outside the deep south. But this dish sounded startlingly different--in a good way. I couldn't really taste the espelette pepper on the grilled duck but there was enough going on on anyway in hte flavour department. Halved eggplants roasted so long that they'd collapsed on themselves, glorious red onions sweet from their bath of port and the surprise of a basil leaf of garnish. Might try this one at home too.

    Dessert porn. Think of the traditional banoffee pie. Now destructure it and arrange all the elements separately.

  Roasted figs, cream, etc. etc. A half-litre of a sturdy Rioja. Coffees. Out, smiling, into the night.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thinking of roof-tops in Paris...

...I suddenly remembered the ending of that heart-rending mid-1950s film, The Red Balloon. Briefly, a little boy living in Paris has a red balloon that accompanies him everywhere until the day when a bunch of evil boys shoot it down. As le petit garcon mourns his lost friend, here's what happens (have the box of mouchoirs handy).

Street food in Montmartre

     Held each October, the Fête des Vendanges in Montmartre celebrates the very small amount of wine actually produced right here in Paris. The harvest, of course, is just another excuse for a helluva street party. Much of it happens around the base of Sacré Coeur, the white onion-domed church that's one of the city's best-known landmarks. The view from the top is staggering, and so are you after ascending hundreds of stone steps. Rather than climbing on foot (or probably on knees by the time we'd made it there) to the base of Sacré Coeur, we queued with dozens of other party-goers and took the funiculaire, a cable car that, for the price of a metro ticket, whisks you from base camp to summit in about a minute.
    Wine, wine, wine, champagne, champagne, champagne. Sample it, buy it by the glass or by the bottle and ask for it to be opened and supplied with a few plastic glasses. Then go find a convenient spot to enjoy.
Then stack your empties alongside all the others.
      It's not all drinking of course. There's also food, food, food. This year's theme is France's various tropical islands. Spicy smells met us as we climbed towards the main exhibition area.

This stall sold sandwiches filled with foie gras--and your choice of fig chutney of confit of onions--or goose rillettes.
     Bad mistiming. It was too late for lunch, and too early for dinner, so we ruined our appetites about 6 p.m. with a barquette of potatoes and cepes, then funiculaire-d back to ground level, metro-d back to the Marais and, a couple of hours later, still found ourselves too stuffed for anything more than a bowl of Vietnamese noodles.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I love Paris every moment...

   You can keep London or New York. Nowhere beats Paris, and I go into a total fizz of delight the moment we climb off the train. We arrived here yesterday after a sleepy race through the French countryside: sleepy because, as usual, we'd left tons of stuff to do till the last minute and consequently had little sleep; a race because we took the TGV, which rampages across the country at hundreds of kilometres an hour.
   Two weeks equals two different apartments, both in Le Marais. The first is on the sixth floor of an ancient building. The smallest elevator in the world takes us as far as the fifth floor so we only have to climb one flight of wide, polished stairs. If I can find the tape measure that I may, or may not, have packed, I'll measure the elevator next time we use it. Small? Let's just say that if you stand facing the door, your shoulders touch the walls on both sides. Two people and two suitcases were out of the question, so we rode up in shifts.
    Large by Paris standards (about 40 square metres) this little apartment has sloping ceilings and four oval windows, which make you feel as though you're coming in to land....  
 Here's the apartment I'd buy if we won the Euro lottery. 

No prizes for guessing that it's the one with all the geraniums. That pipe-covered building in the distance is the Pompidou Centre.

    When we were here in June, we stayed just down the street so we came to know the quartier fairly well. One block over is a little street crammed with Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, which is where we ate last night. Nems, squid, chicken with cashew nuts, and a couple of grande Tsing Taos to wash it all down...we can eat French food anytime but we do occasionally crave Asian flavours. 

Excuses, excuses...and a look at salades composées.

   Over a month of blog-silence needs explaining so here goes. First, I twisted my ankle. Okay, I don't write with my foot but it slowed me down so that everything took longer and blogging took longer. Then, a head cold. Same reason. Then family and friends staying with us, which was all huge fun but, in the midst of all the days out, lengthy and wonderful dinners, and many, many bottles of wine, something had to give--and that was blogging time.
   Now, we're in Paris for a couple of weeks and, before I get into the heart-stopping delights of being here, I'm determined to finish off a number of partially written posts and write on a few topics that have been kicking around at the back of my  brain.
    Have I ever written about French salads? At length? A simple salade verte is just that, often just lettuce (by the way, lettuce here is called "salade"). Once you get into salade composée country, anything goes. A "composed salade"-- literal translation--sounds like a prim and proper dish, something out of the French equivalent of Jane Austen. Au contraire, these are often lusty Rabelaisian assemblages that fling together vegetables, meats, and even fruits.
   We often order them if we go out for lunch. The usual basket of bread, a jug of water, a pichet of rosé, and a big healthy-looking plateful of salad. What else do you want when the temperature is in the high twenties?
   At home, especially in the summer, we eat the following at least once a month:
   1) Salade Lyonnaise. Salad greens, preferably frisée, sometimes dandelion greens from the garden, crisped warm lardons, tomato wedges, chopped onion, chopped chives sometimes, a mustard-y dressing and, added at the last moment, to sit shakily on top, ready to burst and lavish its warm yolk over everything else, a just-poached egg. God, the poetry. I mustn't forget to tell you that I also ring the salad bowls with croutons and warm cooked cubes of potato to turn it into a meal.
   2) Salade Niçoise, and you know what goes into that. Tuna, hard-boiled egg criss-crossed with anchovies and decorated with a blob of mayonnaise, black olives, scarlet rings of red pepper, cold potatoes, haricots verts, wedges of tomato, sliced green or red onion, all on a bed of whatever lettuce takes your fancy.

For the life of me, I can't remember what this particular salad was called. Place: a little outdoor restaurant in Minerve. Accompaniment: a pizza garnished with chorizo, anchovies, peppers... But to return to the salad. Talk about an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. What you see here are only some of the components. What the menu described as "lardons" were in fact entire slices of bacon (or smoked pork belly as it's known here). A hard-boiled egg, tomato wedges, lettuce, so far, so normale...Black olives, marinated green and red we were moving into uncharted seas. In there too was a little savoury dollop of onion confit and and entire fruit section consisting of grapes, a cantaloupe slice, and a few slices of kiwi fruit.

A slice of creamy, funky goat cheese on a slice of baguette, popped in the oven long enough for the cheese to soften, warm and take on a golden crust.  Elsewhere, you can see a slice of mountain ham, garnet-coloured and chewy, and a heap of lardons.

Lardons, cubes of Roquefort, walnuts, hard-boiled egg, tomato and lettuce. 

No unrecognizable ingredients here apart from those deep pink thingies at three o'clock.  They're called gésiers, which is French for "gizzards," either chicken or, more likely in this part of the world, duck. Don't knock them till you've tried them. Utterly delicious, as is anything confit-ed in duck fat. I buy confited gésiers in tins from SuperU or Intermarché.