Saturday, October 28, 2006

Le Pré Catalan

Original readers of this blog may remember in April that I toured Le Pré Catalan, a Lenôtre affiliated two-star restaurant (with attached hotel and reception halls) in the Bois de Boulogne. As part of this week's sous vide class I had the opportunity to eat there, which was lucky seeing as how I would never throw down that kind of money myself. If I had, I would have been disappointed. But since I didn't, I had a fun time in spite of the fact that the food was bizarre. The main dining room itself is about as grand as Versailles, not in size but in decadent gilt-everything luxury, which is certainly not my style and does little to make me feel at ease. However, the service was friendly, although quite involved, and not as fussy or stuffy as one might expect based on first impression. We started with champagne, moved on to Mâcon Milly Lamartine "Clos du Four" 2004, Lafan, and finally Côtes de Provence 2003 "Retour aux Sources," Pierre Mann. Here's a breakdown of the food.

Amuse bouche: what they called a "chaud-froid," a deep bowl with sautéed diced cèpes hidden beneath a foam, with a tiny pitcher of cèpe cream poured over at the table. I couldn't tell you which part was chaud or froid, as the resulting mixture was just warm, although to be fair we waited a few moments before digging in. Due to a childhood obsession with this product, I was immediately and forcefully reminded of Cambell's Cream of Mushroom! It tasted much better than that, to be sure, however it should have just been chaud-chaud.

First course: L'Étrille, preparée en coque, fine gelée de corail et caviar, soupe au parfum de fenouil... This was a small bowl of foamed shellfish soup (which supposedly had fennel, though I didn't detect it) with an accompanying spoonful of caviar whipped cream, and another plate with a small crab shell stuffed with crab salad and glazed with a caviar and coral aspic. The shellfish soup was very good, but the caviar in the cream was chewy and lacked the pop and brine that it should have had. The crab was sweet and tasty, but too mayonnaise-y and heavy for what you would expect, more American-style, I daresay.

Second course: La Saint-Jacques, cuite au plat, jus de pommes à cidre, crème de noix écrasées et torréfiées, fines lamelles juste tièdes, caviar et zestes de citron vert... These were scallops in three preparations: seared with toasted walnut cream and ground walnuts, seared with cider cream and a topping of chives and I think almonds (?), and thin slices forming "ravioli" stuffed with caviar (again) served warm with kaffir lime foam and zest. The walnut one was best, being subtly sweet but still earthy and rich. The cider one was almost as good, but the many chives in the topping were too harsh against the sweetly acidic cider cream. The last preparation was unremarkable. The caviar was imperceptible (though given it's lackluster appearance in the previous course maybe that's a good thing), and the brash, exotic kaffir lime flavor was unharmonius with the rest of the course.

Third course: La Sole, cuite au naturel, glacée d'un jus de soja épicé, poêlée de germes de soja, mangue fraîche légèrement acidulée... This was a piece of sole cooked sous vide with a soy-glaze poured over at the table, with a side of stirfried soy sprouts with caperberries. This was a bizarre concoction... the fish was supple but strangely dense, either from being too compressed under vacuum or perhaps from having been frozen (though I would doubt the latter), and the sauce was very salty and overpowering. There was a familiar taste to it that I couldn't put my finger on, and then I heard the teacher explaining that it had a base of browned butter. That was it, it tasted nutty and carmelised, but this was at odds with the strongly salty, tangy, almost miso-like character. The soy sprouts with caperberries were equally strange, to me an unsuccessful attempt at fusion. And as for the mangue fraîche légèrement acidulée (lightly pickled fresh mango), I think it was MIA.

Third course: Le Lièvre à la Royale, à la façon du "Senateur Couteaux," pâtes au beurre demi-sel... This was very incongruent with the rest of the meal, especially aesthetically. Like every other course, dishes topped with silver domes arrived at the table, and then a million servers flocked around and dramatically removed them in unison. However, this time we were not met with a shimmery foam or a dainty piece of fish. The gleaming domes lifted to reveal an amorphous hunk of meat (braised wild hare) obscured underneath a dark, even murky, blanket of blackish-purple blood sauce (and a micro green stuck on top). If the preceding course had seemed salty, this one put it to shame. And I normally don't have a big prejudice against blood, as I've come to enjoy a well-made boudin noir every once in a while, but this sauce was finely grainy and slightly livery tasting... in other words, not very appealing. In addition, despite the wine philistine that I am, it was clear that our Côtes de Provence didn't have the body to stand up to this dish. A tiny side portion of five (!) tubes of penne pasta completed the course.

Cheese course: This was easily the best part of the meal! A massive trolley was wheeled over (see last photo, above) and everyone in turn told the server their personal cheese preferences. There were at least a good twenty or so varieties. His selection for me consisted of Brin D'Amour, 1/2 a piece what I believe was Cabécou, a very pungent hunk of either Langres or l'Ami du Chambertin, and three other fairly strong soft cheeses. Delicious.

Dessert: Another strange Americanish concept... Tartelette fondante servie tiède au peanut butter [yes, this is what the menu said], chouchou, banane écrasée parfumée au rhum... This was essentially a little tart shell filled with what seemed to be little more than warm mashed banana and peanut butter. A shaving of peanut nougat sat beside it, and a paper cone (the "chouchou") of carmelized hazelnuts in a holder on the side. Weird. I'm not sure what the French at the table thought about it, but our British-American-Korean cluster wasn't impressed. Coffee (decent but not great) and pretty dishes of mignardises followed, with various chocolates, pâte de fruit, marshmallows, candied nuts and tiny tartlettes.

So, there you have it. It was an interesting experience, and this time the price was right. But what does the paying public think? I'm guessing our lunch would have costed at least 150 euros a pop. Do people line up just because there's two stars, or are they really loving it? I think my familiarity with American and Asian flavors perhaps tainted the meal. Although that shouldn't matter, good should taste good despite our personal associations. Or maybe Paris is rubbing off on me and I just can't help but be another party pooper.

All my photos of the meal can be seen here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tai Yien

We found another fairly good Chinese place in Belleville last night, although we had actually been on our way to Wen Zhou (and as an additional side note, tonight I accidentally stopped in the "fake" Wen Zhou a few doors down--I think it's called Weng Zhou Traiteur or something-- for what turned out to be a delicious fresh-steamed sticky rice flour bun stuffed with pork, woodear mushroom and other goodies). Reeled in by the lacquered glory of the barbecue window display, we decided to give Tai Yien a chance. A notch pricier than Wen Zhou and Asia Palace, but still not bad, the crispy pork belly was great (though not as good as Shuang Hur's in Minneapolis!), the hot pot was hot and with good ingredients but in a typically bland, though thankfully not starchy and slick, Cantonese sauce (I knew but somehow couldn't resist), and the dumplings were pretty good but nothing special. Food came lightning fast. I saw a large number of people take whole bbq ducks to go, wrapped in paper tablecloths, as well as some people slurping seriously good-looking noodle soup topped with that duck. I guess this means I'll have to go back!...

Monday, October 23, 2006


The combination of friends being in town and Ryan being so close to leaving has given birth to a feeding frenzy, so to speak, on restaurants lately.
We've (or I've) been to...
Chez Jenny, an Alsatian bistro right on Republique, pretty good and not pricey
Café Milou, little bistro near Montparnasse, good and friendly, with a big charcuterie board starter
Le Tir-Bouchon, right off Montorgeuil in the 2eme, friendly and very good
Asia Palace, next door to Tang Freres in the 13eme, cheap and very tasty dim sum-- but no carts =(
Little Italy, on Montorgeuil, very friendly and busy, inexpensive great pasta

And as already mentioned, there was also L'Atelier, as well as repeat visits to Salon de Thé Wen Zhou and Chartier. We'll probably try to squeeze in a few more before the week is up...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The big rock candy mountain

This week I had a candy class at school, which was very very interesting, in spite of the fact that I don't especially like candy. I realize now that sugar work is actually of much more interest to me than than I had thought... I may never have the occasion (or the desire, for that matter) to make a big crazy sugar showpiece, but the principles and techniques would be quite useful for smaller, simpler finishing touches that add an air of elegance or whimsy. Sugar is a fascinating substance, and if I were less of a science flunky I would try to gain a deeper understanding of it. For example, sugar cooked to a high temperature very quickly may cause more crystals in the finished project... however, the same sugar cooked to the same temperature too slowly may be too soft to work properly... therefore a compromise must be made-- this entails much experience, including awareness of how efficient various heat sources are, the conductive properties of various pans, etc. And then for pulled pieces you must delicately balance how hot or cold the sugar "dough" is so as to maximize shine, extensibility, fixability etc. And as if this all wasn't enough already, working with sugar is inherently dangerous as it exceeds temperatures of 300 degrees fahrenheit. In spite of protective gloves, burns are essentially a guarantee.

The worlds of candy and confiture are other subjects with their own concerns, be it caramel, nougat, jelly, fondant or another tooth-melting goo. For example, I never knew that many candies are made in starch molds-- a rather interesting and somewhat complex process explained rudimentarily here and further illustrated in my fairly extensive photos from this week.

In other sweets-related news, I just purchased Paco Torreblanca's book, which I believe will prove to be a worthwhile investment.

If you had told me five years ago I would be involved with this much sugar and chocolate and cake and ice cream, I never would have believed it. I always crave salty things!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Girls' lunch out at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

I went for lunch Saturday at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon with four of the five other girls from my class, this being the first time I've been to a real "celebrity name" place (albeit unstarred) in Paris... um, or anywhere, actually.
Ridiculous pricing aside (i.e. Astronomical for certain dishes), I had a great time. In particular, service was very very friendly and casual, and the atmosphere made us feel comfortable in being giddy and silly and take a zillion photos. I started with The Most Expensive Ravioli on Earth, otherwise known as La Langoustine en Ravioli Truffé à l'Étuvée de Chou Vert-- langoustine ravioli with foie gras & truffle sauce and braised green cabbage. It was decadent and utterly fantastic, but in my opinion still does not justify the pricetag. Other people's starters included delicious suckling pork chops (cooked sous vide then seared), iberico ham (you can sort of see the whole ham in the picture above) and an eggplant millefeuille. Next I had the glazed foie gras-stuffed quail, accompanied by a teensy herb salad and a dollop of Robuchon's famous Insanity Mashed Potaoes (equal parts butter and potato)-- jazzed up with chives and crowned with white truffle. The quail was quite tasty, but in all honesty reminded me, and my friend who had also ordered it, of Chinese barbeque. Granted, I believe that was the concept, but if I want Chinese barbeque I can walk down to Belleville and feast til I'm sick for probably 15 euros. The potatoes, however, were another story. These were potatoes from the cafeteria of a private school on the top cloud in heaven. As rich in pure truffle flavor as they were in butter, they were incomparable to any other potatoey preparation I've ever had. Other main dishes my friends had, which I did not try, included foie-stuffed cabbage-wrapped pigeon, Rhône valley milk-fed lamb chops and half-smoked salmon with cucumber.
And then of course came dessert. We shared 5 different things, my favorites probably being the tart assortment and the Mara des Bois (both shown above). Of the tarts, my favorite was a rather unusual one which was just a thin pastry crust smeared with a mild, creamy honey and crusted with lots of cinnamon. The Mara des Bois was nothing outrageously special, but the kataifi topping was addictively crisp. I would say none of the desserts blew us away, but the 10 euro price was (amazingly!) reasonable, comparatively speaking, and they were all good.
Despite the sucker punch to my wallet, I had a fun time and I'm glad I went. I daresay I would even like to go back, armed with a better concept of how to order... it was quite clear that certain dishes were much bigger than certain others, and/or cheaper, and/or simply better of course. But then again, there's still so many places I haven't yet been to at all.....

Thursday, October 12, 2006

En cours de construction

Thanks to the essentially idiot-proof template of Blogger Beta, I'm freshening things up and restructuring this site. Hope the new stuff is of interest.

P.S. A few dozen new photos up on Flickr.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Chardenoux and The Head

Sadly, I had forgotten my own camera =(

Well, I can now die knowing I've tried tête de veau (note: the link to the left os NOT for the faint of heart!), that venerable French classic that reminds me of an infinitely gringo-downed version of some crazy Mexican voodoo stew from my (over-active?) imagination. But am I better off for having done so? Well, maybe not particularly, but I can truthfully say it was not as ghastly as you may think (however, if you're veg, it was that ghastly and worse). Tucked away on a sidestreet not far from Bastille, Chardenoux is a very lovely little old school bistro which, in spite of what seems to be lots of press, appeared to me to still be very much a locals-frequented hidden-gem spot.
Although the côte de veau with sautéed girolles (chanterelles) and potatoes almost dissuaded me from the tête, along with the knowledge that Ryan and quite possibly the rest of our party would be mildly terrified, I remained steadfast in my decision. This was guided largely by the fact that I knew I would be having the best and most authentic version possible, which turned out to be true. It just wasn't my cup of tea, er, bowl of head... Baddum-shing!! Sorry, I couldn't resist that one. I will say the sauce gribiche was quite good, it's just that I'd rather eat it with some nice fried fish instead. Aside from the tête (which, again, to be fair, was just as it should have been), everything else we had was great: salade de roquette (arugula salad, pinenuts, 2 rounds of St. Marcellin baked on top of cooked slices of green apple), carpaccio of cured salmon with shaved fennel and herb oil, cœur de rumsteack à l'echalotte, pavé de cabillaud (cod) with cabbage and saucisse de Toulouse, and finally a showstopping crème brûlée infused with jasmine tea. It was one of the best versions I've ever had, and I've probably eaten a bathtub full in my day. So, Chardenoux, I give you both thumbs up, the head included.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Welcome to Chinatown/ Des Petites Conneries

At long, long last we have discovered the good Chinese food, and it's a mere 10 minute walk down the hill! Housemade dumplings and buns of many varieties, at least a couple dozen soups, squid sauteed with celery, baby eels with ginger and garlic... real goddamn Chinese food, not the sickly porc sauce caramel and floppy mystery nêms languishing in hundreds of traiteur windows all across the city. We had fresh, juicy little herb and pork potstickers, ma po tofu as mushy as it should be, and a pretty tasty dish of pork with scallions, pickled mustard greens and sticks of firm tofu. We were crammed between two anglophone expats and a Chinese couple; when we were leaving I realized two Italians were at the end of the table. It almost felt like we could have been back in San Francisco.

I was recently able to entertain a long-held and ridiculous fantasy. It would seem as though being at a decent level of profiency in French has made me into kind of an asshole at times... in Paris I rarely want other anglophones to know that I'm one of them. I don't know why this is, exactly. So when Giuseppe and I somehow ended up in the bar of a hostel at Jaurès two nights ago, it's only natural that my aversion to speaking English was all the more amplified by the almost exclusively American and British student clientele. Which, don't get me wrong, is the crowd to be expected in such a place. Cajoled into begging a cigarette for him, Beppe pointed me to a table nearby, who I in a moment discovered were indeed British. So I asked for the cigarette, to which the first guy tried valiantly to remember how to say "sorry I don't speak French." At this point I was faced with the decision to either be an asshole and allow to the charade to continue, or drop it, thereby dashing my fantasy. Although the couple glasses of wine in me would have surely led to the same decision, it was made for me when the girl at the table (being the quickest on the draw of the three) immediately realized what I wanted and excitedly interrupted her boyfriend with "cigarette! She wants a cigarette!" Let me point out to those who may not know: yes, cigarette is a French word. An unopened pack was produced with a flourish, almost triumphantly. Instead of opening it, I started to pack it, recalling hazily the ritual of being a regular smoker some time ago. I was met with slightly panicked immediate protest-- "No, no, is ok, is ok!" Further melodramatic gesturing bade me to abandon this activity, along with a very loud and well-anunciated apology from the girl, explaining "yes, I always do that too, and he gets annoyed." We shared a sympathizing glance. The boyfriend tried to redeem himself by offering me a light, the word for which came out as a strange cousin to "fuego," which is of course Spanish. "Feu?" I offered, the girl quickly chiming in again with "yes, 'feu' that's it! Feu!" Mission accomplished at last, I went back to our table with the guilty little cigarette.

Yes friends, I, too, can be a jerk with the worst of them. Aw, but come on, it's all in good fun isn't it?