Saturday, December 31, 2011 12/28/11 - the decline of french cuisine

From Dan Willingham.  I dunno, the food scene seems pretty alive and well to me.  Imagining Paris with six times as many cares is like imagining the US with six times as many Starbucks.  There are still two on most corners.  Yes, we have both a McD and a Starbucks near our place, but they are pretty easy to ignore.  The cafes are all full. 12/28/11 - the decline of french cuisine

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Big Groups

For the first time we have the pleasure of visiting here with family.  It's a pleasure, of course, having the opportunity to share everything we love here, but one new wrinkle has been visiting restaurants in groups of nine or ten.  Parisian restaurants aren't particularly set up for it, and the French formality about dining precludes the kind of "just pull a couple of tables together" attitude that we expect at home, except in very high end restaurants.  Plus we are inevitably a diverse group, from fifteen year olds on up, some of us speak French and others don't, there are varying levels of pickiness vs. try-anything attitudes, somewhat different budgets, the whole range.

I have found that for better or worse, showing up in a big group intensifies the inevitable tension between French and American attitudes.  At best, it has gone perfectly:  last night we ate at a favorite of ours called Josephine, "Chez Dumonet".  This place is at least medium sized, so it can accommodate a group, and it does quite a bit of tourist business, so people there are pretty accustomed to dealing with Americans.  The style is a little less formal than other places, in a way that reminds me of a fairly fancy steak place in New York.  They are serious about their food, but the waiters are jovial and jokey, making fun of our French, bringing the kids wine.  They do, though, have an edge:  the last time we were here with just the family, they were slow brining the water, so I kept asking, and apparently I was asking the wrong guy, who just under no circumstances was going to bring us water.  Finally, trying to joke, I said, s'il vous plait, monsieur, could you bring us some water and he bristled visibly.  Last night some Americans came into the restaurant, speaking near perfect French, but stood around their table socializing for a bit, getting in the way of the waiter, who eventually snapped at them.  In good French style they snapped right back and there was a little altercation, but it eventually settled down and they ate.  Anyway, the waiters were great with our group, hobnobbing about wine with our official wine-picker who speaks no French, figuring out some complicated portion sharing, joking with the kids and generally staying cheerful.  And the food as always was great, hearty and fun.  They have old-fashioned beef bourgignon, huge portions of foie gras.  Carol had veal liver, cut in an inch-thick slice and grilled crispy on the outside, still rare within.  Eden had chateaubriand, an inch and a half thick, cooked seignant (bloody) with what for right now I will call the best roast potatoes I have ever eaten.  They were sliced and roasted crispy in what I think was duck fat, so the good thing is that they were also healthy.  I had beef tartare, probably a half a pound of freshly ground filet mignon that the waiter brought out first and prepared next to the table, with a raw egg, white and green onion, tobasco and worcestishire, capers and mustard.  Then they brought out three Grand Marnier souffles with little glasses of Grand Marnier to pour over them, and three Napoleans (mille feuilles) that were the best mille feuilles I have ever eaten.  I am still full, some twenty hours later.

Things didn't go so well at another favorite of ours, L'Antre Amis.  This is a beautiful restaurant in the fifteenth, where Carol ate the last time we were here by ourselves.  One of the attractions is that they have a very reasonable prix fixe menu, for I think 32 euros.  But it comes with no choice for the first course, that night they were serving foie gras (surprise!) and one of the group doesn't like foie gras.  So, we asked, can he be brought something else, and our waitress said no, but we could be assured that other things come on the plate.  So, we asked, could they give him a few additional of the extra things, and once again, no.  She explained, dead serious, that the chef wouldn't think that the plat looked "correct" if it didn't have the goie gras on it.  Now I understand that a set menu is a set menu, and they are not in the business of making a lot of substitutions that would undermine the whole concept.  But all the waitress had to do was say, sure, we will give you a little extra whatever, put a freaking wedge of cheese on the plate, and everyone is happy.  But no, so we wind up with a PO'd family member and generally bad vibes.  To me, what it made clear is that they had the foie plates premade in the kitchen, and didn't have anyone to screw around with a custom plate.  And magic-wise, once something like that happens it is hard for the evening to recover.

So the message is, if you are traveling in France with family or colleagues, be aware that big groups heighten the difficulties of negotiating the two cultures.  When things go well it's a party, a happy convivial evening.  But the French don't understand our manners when we are in a big group, and without meaning to we stretch them to the limits of their physical and cultural resources.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ethnic Food in Paris

I am thinking about this because we had pizza last night, at Golfe de Napoli, right off St. Germain in the 6th.  I like Parisian pizza places, but they share a quality with most ethnic food in Paris, which is that they are all exactly the same.  All wood-fired ovens, which is a good thing, the crust on the pizzas at Golfe de Napoli is beyond anything I ever get in all but the very best American pizza places.  All the same style, medium thick puffy crust, all the same ingredients, low grade ham, quattro formaggtio, eggplant, and egg, which is what I love and somewhat weirded out the kids.  Most pizzas come with a single egg cooked sunnyside, baked right with the ingredients into the crust.  Always perfectly soft and runny in the French style.  I love it.  

But anyway they are all the same, in this case pretty good, not cheap but cheaper than regular restaurants.  Likewise, Chinese restaurants are all the same, they even have the same sign outside, let's see if I can find a picture.  Here it is, the Lido, which is nearby and actually gets some good reviews.

It's the red sign in the upper left.  I've eaten there and it's OK, typical of Parisan Chinese food, at least in-town: OK but bland.  And they all have the same menu, the same choices.  Even worse are the take-out places that have replaced many of the old charcuteries in the city.   They are kind of mysterious because there are a zillion of them, and you never see many people actually in them, certainly not many chinese people.  They have a selection of stirfries and eggroll-type dumplings in the glass case, and they microwave them when you order one.  (I read that you can find good Chinese food out in the banlieus where the immigrants live.  Someday.)

It's the same for Indian food and Thai food, which must be really disappointing when blandified for French tastes.  Then there are Lebanese places (all with a Cedar of Lebanon on the sign), Turkish places, couscous joints, etcetera.  They each have a formula, and there doesn't seem to be the same pressure there is in New York to be the one Turkish place that is either the most authentic or the cheapest.  

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No More Snapshots

I'm a crummy photographer and have never taken much pleasure in travel snapshots.  For a while digital photography helped because it was novel and relieved me of the whole film development hassle, and for a while after that the kids took pictures, but by now the entire family is pretty much hopeless.  It's too bad, because most of our pictures of our kids are from when they were seven, but ifor documenting travel, who needs it?  It has been foggy pretty much non-stop since we got here, but it really settled in today, thick low clouds a hundred feet overhead.  The Eiffel Tower is completely socked in, it looks like one of those old pictures you see from when it was half finished.  When I walked back from across the river today, I kept trying to orient by finding the tower but I couldn't find it, and eventually realized it was lost in the fog.  The view out our window is weird, as though the tower had just been erased-- the church tower is right where it always is on the left, and then nothing but white sky on the right.  So it would be nice to take a picture, but what the hell?  Just Google Eiffel Tower Fog and you get....

That just about covers it.  The only pictures worth taking, unless you feel like you can actually express yuurself with a camera, are the pictures with people in them.  The old-fashioned, and here is the Notre Dame Cathedral shot, the one that proves you were there, is pointless today.

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So now we are on the train back from Strasbourg.  Commuting would be a good way to actually get blogging done.

We spent some lovely time in Strasbourg with the French family of our nephew who is traveling with us.  They invited us to their home, which is of course always the best way to travel.  We crowded into their living room and ate Christmas cookies and drank tea.  Our nephew's great-grandmother is alive and well at 91, and hadn't seen her great grandson in ten years, so it was all very sweet and sentimental.  Plus our nephew doesn't speak much French, and his family doesn't speak much English, so he sat on the couch with and got his cheek pinched while they stammered back and forth in one language or the other.  As we were leaving this morning everyone showed up at the train station to send us off.  Among other things it was good French practice for me, it isn't all that often I see French people whose English isn't markedly better than my French.

Food interlude.... in Strasbourg the first night we ate at La Gavroche  and had the best meal we have had so far in France.  It is modern style Bistro, sleek and dark, grey walls and carpeting.  It is owned by a couple in their thirties,the wife runs the front and the husband does the cooking.  She greeted us when we walked in, shook everyone's hand, sat us at two tables, one for adults plus Eden, one for the rest of the kids.  There were two choices for entree and main on the prix fixe menu.  Starters were foie gras (surprise) on a bed of buttered shredded cabbage with toasted pine nuts and a scallop ceviche pressed into a little disk with a layer of caviar on top.  The main courses were duck breast with  an asian flavored crust and a dark reduced sauce that was almost a barbecue sauce, or lieu (pollack) wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed with julienned vegetables and ginger.

I had the cheese platter for dessert, and it was spectacular.  It came on a square slate plate, with 12 little slices of cheese arranged in a grid.  The waiter gave a complete tour, explainiing the order in which they should be eaten, from lower right, across and up.  The first row was all goat cheese, the second local muenster and a few other cheeses, the top row stronger cow's milk cheeses, with the last a blue.  The chef/husband came out at the end to shake hands and thank us, it was a very special night.  It left me thinking about how there is a little bit of luck and magic in good food.  Our first meal, which I don't think I wrote about, wasn't nearly as much fun, at a restaurant where CAM and I have had some absolutely perfect evenings.  A bunch of things just went wrong:  we kind of got stuck at a table in a corner, there were complications about who wanted to eat what on the menu, possibly because we were in the back corner the service wasn't all that great.  It is a little like a concert, the music can be fine, but if you aren't in quite the right mood the evening can seem flat and ordinary.  A musician friend has said that part of performing every night is learning to create the illusion that every night is the best party anyone has ever been to, disgusing the repetitiveness of playinng every day.  Lecturing is the same way, actually.  Mostly you say the same things every year, but the trick is to say them as though they were fresh, and ironically if you manage it, they become actually fresh.

The next morning we headed to the train station to rent cars, which is always a bit of a hassle in Europe, because the rituals are just different enough to make things a little uncomfortable, plus if you are doing it in a city you are usually crammed into some little space on the side of a parking garage facing some crazy maneuver of a van (in our case) through little winding streets, always within risk of denting the thing.

Turckheim next.  The Cathedral in Strasbourg is awe-inspriing.  I love cathedrals, I just can't think of anything to say about them.

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