Wednesday, 4 January 2012

bonne fĂȘte!

three of the last five christmases have been spent in paris - well, where better for good food, tasteful christmas decorations, a chance to be a flaneur along the boulevards and the opportunity for a good dose of culture in some of the world's greatest museums?

however, after twice opting for self-catering, this time i booked into a cosy hotel. the reason? the previous time, i was in a tiny, drafty one room apartment in sub-zero temperatures, unable to take off my street clothes for five days because there was only a single, one-bar electric fire to 'heat' the place! in fact, i had all the cooker's rings and oven on full blast in a vain attempt to stop myself shivering. at least the gin and tonic didn't need ice...

so, without the chance last month for self-catering - a real pleasure at christmas in paris with the markets over-excelling themselves with irresistible ingredients - i faced a simple challenge: where to eat christmas day lunch? i was determined not to be driven into a soulless tourist trap or be reduced to an omelette in a neighbourhood bar, so undertook a search for a decent restaurant that would be open.

and i got lucky.

a ten minute stroll from my hotel and close to the place des ternes in the 17eme is la maree, a classic seafood restaurant that delivers excellent food in comfort to a largely local clientele. a good spot for business lunches in the week, it's just far enough away from the arc de triumph to be off most tourist's radar and i was clearly the only non-parisian diner there on christmas day.

an e-mail conversation got me a reservation for the last table for the second serving and i turned up to be welcomed by name even before i opened my mouth, led to my table and my aperitif was to hand before i'd even really taken stock of the room. it's quite intimate and comfortable in old school style, but the service is fast and friendly.

i didn't spot on the web site that there was a special lunch but that was no problem and my choices arrived speedily, but without any sense that they wanted me out of the place, even as other tables slowly cleared.

an amuse bouche of brouillade d'oeufs au saumon fume, mouillettes au beurre de baratte was an amusing take on boiled egg and soldiers, with smoked salmon and a runny scrambled egg served in the shell. delicious and perfectly matched with the offered pouilly fume 2010.

next up, a tasting plate of six oysters from the marennes. parisians are always big oysters fans but they go extra crazy during the holiday season and these were an excellent choice, full of big flavour.

the main course of aioli de cabillaud et legumes de saison was a mediterranean classic - a simple filet of roast cod on a bed of boiled vegetables (potatoes and leeks) in a thin broth, with a large smothering of garlicky mayonnaise. i last had it on one of the iles de porquerolles on a sailing holiday some years back and this instant taste of mediterranean sun in cold december paris was magical.

next, a plate of cheeses - cantal, brie (a point, running off the plate) and roquefort, with rocket salad, followed by a noisette (cafe with a dash of milk) and mignardises (little chocolate treats).

in all, it was one of the most pleasant christmas meals i can remember, made even better by the price - just 58 euros! extra bonus: it should have been a bottle of wine between two people, but they gave me the whole thing for no extra charge.

and that evening, all i needed in my room was a bit of fruit and a slice of cheese. sorted!

plus i have a great place to return to on my next trip. recommended:

Monday, 16 August 2010

welcome to the club

one of the delights for me of trips to paris are meals in the classic brasseries. i love the style, the elegance, the old-fashioned decor, the menus stuffed with old favourites and the sheer professionalism of the service.

and one of my regular haunts is wepler, a seafood classic on place de clichy, a traditional magnet for artists but now a little ragged at the edges thanks to the relentless down market pull of porte de clichy a few hundred yards up the road - a working class enclave resolutely resisting gentrification.

but wepler remains a classic and, for sunday lunch, a prime haunt for the monied of the old school - aged parents being treated by young stockbroker children, old couples dressed up for the occasion and so on. and me, of course, installed on the comfortable banquette seating and wondering whether to go all out on a giant shellfish platter or stick to a half dozen oysters followed by skate wing in brown butter and caper sauce. a delicious dilemma!

and then the table opposite me fills up, clearly for one of those french 'let's get well acquainted before we do business' lunches. clearly the head of a french company and his stylish wife who both speak only french, a 40-something female executive and a 60-year old male executive who are both bilingual and a mousy mid-westerner who clearly doesn't possess a single word of french. an analysis of the situation suggests he's been flown over to sign a deal with the french company, accompanied by the male executive who's based in the us and looked after on the trip by the female executive.

what he also clearly does not understand is the importance of the sunday lunch, the french style of business or the significance of the location - one, apparently, of the best 350 restaurants in france.

he's introduced to the french couple, mumbles in english and, before he's even sat down and been handed a menu, says he wants a club sandwich and a diet coke.

you can hear the gasps of disbelief across the whole restaurant. this is not how it works. this is not comme il faut - the french look at each other, eyebrows raised as they try and understand whether this is deliberate rudeness or just american ignorance. it seems they choose the latter explanation and his escort explains quietly about how the lunch is likely to progress. it's sunday lunch - a sacred time and two or three hours for the occasion is normal. this is a restaurant well known for french classics, so let's at least look at the menu.

from that moment on, the american was like a petulant child. you'd think, with two translators at hand, that he'd have tried to engage his host: how old is this place? tell me about the food? i love the style!

but nothing...

eventually he consented to try duck as a starter . the french host did his best for a while to draw him into conversation but merely got grunts in return. most of us, at this point, would have pulled the plug on the meeting but the french are desperately polite and struggled on, whilst our transatlantic hick dragged out his starter for 45 minutes, some 30 minutes after everyone else had finished and were waiting for their main course!

i think the hoped for business relationship is unlikely to happen!

but why would someone be so rude? so insensitive to the very clear dynamics around the table? so uninterested in great food in a historic location?

yeah, some people don't deserve any better than club sandwiches and diet soda...

mind my language

apologies for anyone waiting for updates to this blog - i've been very slack this year...

anyhow, a recent week in paris has re-inspired me, thanks to some great meals. but first, a cautionary tale or two!

it was late afternoon in the 17eme. i was on my way back for the hotel and stopped off at a neighbourhood cafe for a leisurely glass or two of pastis, ideal for plotting my movements later. under the shade of a couple of trees and insulated from traffic by a large triangle of pavement, it was a great spot for reflection plus a few pages of the paper.

then there was talking, in english. two middle-aged american women sat at a nearby table and chattered away. after a discrete pause, the waiter approached. "bonjour, mesdames," he said to them. with no warning, one of the women leapt to her feet, her chair crashing to the ground, screaming to her friend. "oh my god! what did he just say to us?"

i don't know who was more upset - the waiter, completely non-plussed by this outburst, or her friend, who tried to calm her down, explaining the waiter had just said 'hello'...

and at sat open-mouthed at both the insularity and the rudeness of the tourist. i mean, who goes to a foreign country and doesn't even learn the very basics of hello, please, thank you and so on. jeez, we're in paris not ougadougou! we can't all be great at languages but when you see behaviour and ignorance like this, it's a wonder that parisians remain as polite as they are to tourists...

Thursday, 24 December 2009

yes we can!

you have to love the french!

there i was, yesterday, enjoying a pleasant lunch when i overheard the american couple next to me exclaim about the great reviews of the place we were and how good the food was going to be.

in fact, to them paris seemed to be the best place in the world, if not quite worth the effort of learning a single word of the language.

time to order and the only word he recognised on the menu was 'sardines', which the waiter pointed out were served cold. no problem. you could almost sense the taste buds working themselves into overtime...

the sardines arrived, in a solid block and sitting in a pool of oil. at the corner of the table, the waiter casually placed another plate on which was displayed with pride the empty can!

our american gourmet then spent the next 15 minutes trying to explain to his somewhat awestruck companion how special they were.

but nothing detracts from the fact that the french had just sold a 2 euro can of sardines to an american for $15...

and made him think it had been a bargain!

let's get lippy

it's hard to imagine a better christmas eve - unless one involving egyptian cotton sheets, an intelligent woman from bakewell and a large bottle of slip 'n' slide - than enjoying a leisurely lunch at a classic french brasserie, having spent the morning in a museum and with the rest of the afternoon planned to take in at least two of the temples to food for goodies for christmas day.

such was today at brasserie lipp, once a stalwart of alsatian cuisine and now enjoying a renaissance of sorts under the same stable as la coupole, after a few years of (to be kind) less than classic performance.

its location opposite the iconic cafe des deux magots makes it a stop on the tourist trail, but brasserie lipp has always had the solution to that - a ruthless no reservations policy and a pitiless triage of customers into the stylish front of house, the demi-monde of the back room and the outer reaches of the upstairs tables. over the last couple of years, i have gradually been granted tables closer and closer to the front (politeness, speaking french and an interest in the food are all remembered) until today when i was sat in the midst of a french starlet, a bushy-eyedbrowed intellectual and a minor minister...

like every classic brasseries, the food is solid, dependable and good value. a great soupe de poissons, six oysters, a perfectly judged sole meuniere and a good slice of aged cantal made a superb meal, washed down with a kir maison, a very competent white sancerre and a noisette (espresso with a dash of milk).

i left with a smile on the face which, some five hours later, is still solidly there. you can't ask for much more than that from a meal, can you?

oh - the service is exemplary as well. word is that you only join the brigade of waiters on personal recommendation. it's certainly true that they are all consummate professionals that it's a pleasure to watch in action...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

the kids are (not) revolting

i'm one of those grumpy middle-age sods who really have no time at all for kids - they're rude, noisy, intrusive, demanding and completely incapable of intelligent conversation until about the age of 14, at which point they rebel and retreat into sulky silence.

i refuse to enter a discussion about the fact that they need their space, that they represent the future and should be cherished. actually, no. it's only fairly recently in our western history that children were considered anything other than small adults and, in the majority of the families in the world, kids are expected to contribute and work for their supper. i might though draw the line at sending them down the salt mines to earn a crust...

which is why france is such an extra delight to visit. oh, i'm sure there are bad kids, noisy kids, unpleasant kids but, when out eating in restaurants, miraculously they seem to know what is expected of them and they behave. peer pressure helps, of course - i remember my nephew many years ago suddenly realising he was the only child in a restaurant making a noise and retreating into silence and a focus on the food.

which is where it should be.

i was reminded of this today when i popped into a bar/resto for a quick beer before continuing a culture trail around paris. it being lunchtime, the only spare space was a table for two next to a table for eight - three adults and five kids aged between (i guess) eight and 12. needing to sit down for a minute more than i needed peace, i steeled myself for the noise but, to my delight, there was none. they may have been eating child-size portions of the adult's meals (no turkey twizzlers here!) but they only spoke when they were included in the conversation and, when the adults moved on to coffees, asked to be excused and gathered in a quiet group at another table and chatted away, with some pre-teen giggling, of course.

what a refreshing change but standard behaviour in france. treat kids like adults and they'll behave like adults. who'd have thought it?

[photo is by the great robert doisneau and dates from 1956 - les enfants de la place hebert]

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

good food is this simple

for the second year running, i'm spending the christmas week in a self-catering apartment in paris. the theory is simple: loads of culture, decent meals, grazing the markets and cooking for myself. a few decent bottles of wine and total immersion again in the language.


and, for the second year running, friends ask me why? well, i guess if you don't 'get' paris, then there's little i can say to change your mind. but today was a perfect example for me of why i love this place. i lucked into a slightly run down, non touristy traditional bistro and had the simplest but the most delicious meal - six oysters; six snails - all garlicky, but two with saffron, two with roquefort and two with parsley; sole meuniere; plus a decent bottle of sancerre.

nothing outstanding but just what we look for in France for a decent meal! what, rather, we expect to find without searching. good simple food is not difficult to deliver, if you know what you're doing.

and the french still know what they're doing...