Saturday, 28 March 2009


Two weeks in Thailand: restaurants in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Krabi Beach

I had a fantastic two-week vacation in Thailand in February, 2009, and although I am allergic or just detest fresh cilantro, I left without a cilantro scar. My first hotel wrote out a little card for me about my affliction and it was fun to watch the reaction of both restaurant servers and street vendors. In restaurants, this was taken very seriously and my card was invariably brought into the kitchen so as to inform the chef.

I want to mention street food. Delicious!! You get scared about the hygiene and so it is important to choose, but if you find a place that looks good, don't hesitate. I had a wonderful spicy soup, papaya salad and grilled octopus on three different visits. I recommend it.

Although Bangkok is not a pretty city for wandering the streets, it is full of great shopping, luxury hotels, nice boat rides and fantastic restaurants. I loved the Siam Center's several shopping centers and spent a long time roaming the aisles of the fantastic food store at Siam Paragon. You can find EVERYTHING there from every country in the world. I was particularly impressed with the huge variety of Italian olive oils and dried pasta, not to speak of the rice selection. This is a must-see destination for a foodie.

My friend, Sylvain recommended one of the best restaurants in Bangkok: Baan Khanitha. There are several branches and I had a wonderful moderately priced meal at the one at 69 South Sathorn Road. My hotel made the reservation and I asked for the person who had taken the details. He was my waiter, and he was charming and knowledgeable. The food was wonderful: Yam Woon Sen to start (a spicy glass noodle salad with shrimp, squid and minced pork) and for my main course, Chu Chi Khung Nang--deep fried river prawns in red curry and coconut milk. I love spicy food and so I was very happy there. The restaurant was filled with Thai people and it doesn't feel like a tourist trap.

My favorite thing about Thailand is that you can stay in luxury hotels for the price of a basic hotel in London. I was at one of the best: The Shangri-La in Bangkok. I had fantastic service, a large beautiful room with a king size bed, and access to the Chi Spa which is one of the best in the city. I took one of their "voyages", and enjoyed a 2 1/2-hour experience of massage, bath, rub, and cream application to die for. I can't wait to go back. While you are there, you can use their faux-cashmere robes which are so soft and soothing after your shower.

My next stop was Sukhothai, which is the ancient capital of Thailand and full of beautiful ruins. I was at another luxury hotel called the Sukhothai Heritage Resort. As there is absolutely nothing in Sukhothai, this is where I dined. The food was very good and during the two days I stayed there, I sampled both lunch and dinner. The Larb Gai is a spicy chicken salad. Gaeng Ka Ree Gai is a yellow curry again with chicken and red and white rice. That was a winner. I tasted the sweet sausages which I loved, and also tried the Kao Hor Bar Bua which is old fashioned Thai fried rice with lotus flower, shrimp and chili sauce. On the second day, I had the spicy soup: Tom Kha Gai--curry chicken with galangal in coconut milk; and Pad Ka Praow Gai Goong, a dish of stir-fried shrimp with chili and basil leaf. In general, I ate very well in Sukhothai.

Next stop: Chiang Mai, known for shopping and the night market. I stayed in a little basic hotel which was located on the same street as the night market. A friend of mine told me that the Japanese restaurants in Thailand are very good, so for my first dinner, I went to Fuji. I had a spectacular assortment of sashimi and was very happy. Another winner in Chiang Mai is the famous Huen Phen. This place serves traditional northern Thai food. You can choose at the counter and they will serve you your choices at the table. I showed my cilantro card to the waitress and she and I proceeded to choose four delicious dishes for me. Don't miss Khao Soy--a spicy dish of noodles with the meat of your choice--usually chicken leg. You can't go wrong at this restaurant, as it is dirt cheap. I could not wait to go back.

The next day for lunch, I went to a place that was recommended in the Rough Guide: Just Khao Soy. You order your personally tailored dish of khao soy. You can choose the level of spiciness along with your meat: chicken, pork, tofu. I daringly chose spicy
(to the surprise of the waiter) and as it was definitely spicy I thought I was going to lose my lips in the fire. If you like spicy food, I recommend "medium". Once again, the bill was very inexpensive.

That evening, I dined at the Thai restaurant of my hotel: The Royal Princess. The restaurant's offerings were excellent. It is just a shame that there were not more people there to liven up the atmosphere. I had the traditional spicy shrimp soup Tom Yang Goong. Don't leave Thailand without trying their most famous soup. I also had the Pad Thai which is another traditional dish and wonderful. It is served with cilantro, but they wisely left it off mine.

For my last night, I wandered the night market and discovered the Kilari Night Bazaar. As I had reservations at a fancy restaurant, I told myself that I would come back there on another trip as the food looked extremely appetizing. There are many lovely restaurant stands and communal tables in the center of the market. This is an upscale section of the generally lower-class night market.

As recommended by the Rough Guide, I went to Ratchmakan Restaurant at the hotel of the same name--the fanciest restaurant in the city. It was nice to be in an upscale environment, but I was not impressed and would have preferred a meal in the Night Market. I would not recommend this place.

My next stop was the Krabi Beach--West Railay Bay Resort. I dined there most of the time and had wonderful seafood salads and fresh grilled fish. Some nights, I ventured next door for similar fare. One evening, I was part of a group on a snorkelling trip and we shared a wonderful seafood-chicken curry while watching the sunset on the beach. That was truly a high point of the trip.

My last evenings were in Bangkok and I went to one of the most famous restaurants in the city: the Blue Elephant. There is a branch in Paris. I was sorely disappointed by my meal and would have preferred to go back to Baan Khanitha or to try another place. I have been disappointed with Blue Elephant in Paris as well.

The next morning, I went to the food market right near my hotel. It was very interesting but teeming with people and parts of it seemed quite dirty. I took fantastic photos but they don't reflect the level of cleanliness. Personally, I would not feel comfortable buying food there.

For my last luncheon, I went to what is supposed to be the fanciest best hotel in Bangkok: The Oriental. The energy of that hotel turned me off (in comparison to the soft elegant atmosphere of the Shangri-La). But lunch was superb. I had the spectacular buffet: an array of continental dishes, sushi bar, seafood salads, pasta, meat preparations, fruit, beautiful French desserts, etc. Such a beautiful spread with a fancy cocktail came to about $50! And the room is beautiful with a river view. As this is a popular destination, it is important to reserve a few days in advance. What a wonderful close to a terrific trip. On the whole, I enjoyed Thailand for all the beautiful sites I visited and wonderful restaurants. And the people are friendly and honest. It is a very easy country for tourists.I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Dining in London

Power dining in London, including some of the greats: Gordon Ramsay, River Cafe,etc.

I was lucky enough to respond to an offer for a cheap trip to London (not including the meals). London is a quick 2 1/2 hours away from Paris by train and now that the pound has been devalued, it is a reasonable place to go to relax for a few days. The food in the fine restaurants is stellar. They say English food is terrible, and I am sure that is true, but you can spend your time on French, Italian, Indian, and East-Asian cuisine and be very happy.

On arriving, I made it to my reservation at Gordon Ramsay. It was so difficult to obtain one and I was thrilled that I could share the experience with a college friend, Peggy Czyzak. This restaurant has the coveted Michelin three stars and I think it deserves it. The service is lovely and refined, yet friendly, and the food is superb and understated. Peggy and I both started with sauteed foie gras de canard with my favorite sweet breads. And we continued with a turbot served with a variety of wild mushrooms. Simply delectable. We ordered a great white Burgundy: Chassagne Montrachet of Jean Noel Gagnard 2006. When at Ramsay's no need to be frugal! For dessert we were very inventive and opted for the eggplant for two. This was sweet, creamy, and wonderful. Along with that came a lavish array chocolates and petits fours.

Among other things Peggy and I discussed at lunch was the next restaurant I should go to: Tom Aikens. His name sounds British but the restaurant in truly French with French waiters. I started with a superb lobster confit with rabbit filet roasted in a vanilla butter and served with pumpkin gnocchi. What a mouthful to say and even conceive of. It sounds strange but I loved it. My main course was pigeon with a foie gras mousse and pumpkin risotto. I guess this chef likes his pumpkin. I didn't bother to order dessert as Peggy warned me that the coffee and petits fours choices would be enough for me--including five different flavors of just-baked madeleines. There was enough chocolate among the petits fours and madeleines to keep me happy. Were there not so many other wonderful restaurants in London, I would return again and again to both Ramsay and Aiken.

I LOVE THE RIVER CAFE. But that is because I love trattoria food. I'll go back to that place. The menu has so many delicious offerings that I would not get bored if I went once a week for a year. And dining there doesn't break the bank. They do change the menu daily and there are wonderful pasta dishes, fish dishes and meat dishes. Desserts are excellent--especially the fruit torta, the panna cotta and the Chocolate Nemesis. On the evening I went, I had the roasted calamari to start with--a large salad with huge grilled squid bodies and heads, and pasta stuffed with rabbit and pancetta. The pasta was wonderful--everything was wonderful. I could not decide on a dessert until I promised myself that I could go back there within 6 months. So I chose the rich Chocolate Nemesis. That is a chocolate lover's heaven.

Everyone talks about the Ivy. In LA, the Ivy is the place to see and be seen and that is true of the one in London. I went there after theater and although I didn't have a reservation, I was treated very well and given a table at the bar. The food is nothing spectacular. One goes for the experience. Apparently Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had been there the night before. In terms of the meal, I had a fresh Dungeness crab salad that was very good. After that I had the treacle tart à la Oliver Twist. I was told that treacle is only in season for a very short time and I felt lucky. It was quite sweet and served with clotted cream which cut the sweetness.

After this gastronomic weekend, I shudder to think of what the scale will say about those extra kilos I must have gained. I think I will join a health club, because I certainly can't give up eating!!

Restaurants in Paris

Some of my favorite, moderately-priced restaurants in Paris--off the beaten track

Last year, I followed the gastronomic advice of my dentist and went to L'Ordonnance on rue Halle in the 14th. What a find!! After 11 months, this restaurant is in the Guide Michelin, which is quite an honor. Classic French bistrot food, lovely service and absolutely delicious meals are served up here from Monday through Saturday. The veal chop is sensational; the wine list stellar, the prices are right, and the desserts are terrific. For me, who live at the Place de la Bastille, the hike to the 14th is well worth it. The bill for two with a terrific wine came to 100 euros.

I love the Comptoir du Relais at the Place de l'Odeon and so does everyone else. At lunch until about 6 pm, they serve brasserie/bistrot food and it is always crowded. I went at noon and had to wait until 1pm (you are permitted to go on a short excursion and they will remember that you were there at the right time). Meat is a big item but the thon juste saisi is fantastic. I love the desserts. Count on a hearty meal. You can have a lobster salad, a salmon croque monsieur or even tuna fish "my way". Beef cheeks, pigs feet and charcuterie are excellent. The chef is a celebrity as he was the first young chef to go off on his own and serve affordable French fine food. At night there is one menu for a five-course dinner but you must reserve many many months in advance as they reserve tables for the patrons of the hotel next door. Still, I often see that walk-ins luck out, as the restaurant staff never knows how many of the hotel residents with be at their tables. Prices range from high for the lobster dishes to much lower for salads and country meat specials.

Mon Vieil Ami on L'Ile St. Louis has always received excellent reviews, but I was not impressed. I went on an un-busy night and given one of the worst tables although I asked to be seated elsewhere. Too full, they said, but I sat in the restaurant with just two other tables filled. The restaurant revels in its treatment of vegetables and they receive top billing. I thought that the meal was mediocre and will not return. The chef who consults to the restaurant is the great Antoine Westermann of Strasbourg, who recently retired. Perhaps that was what I tasted in the lackluster preparations.

Last year, La Cave Gourmande in the 19th gained praises from the Guide Michelin. So I took the pilgrimage out there with two friends visiting from Massachusetts. Although I would say that the food was not bad, I don't think it was worth the trek. Mme et M Singer were less than cordial and this surprised me. However, my appetizer was terrific: a dish with stuffed seafood that was light and savory. And I also had the dorade with fresh seasonal greens. Desserts were classic (as I like them) and very good. I think I left with less than a good impression mostly due to the lack of welcome and warmth in the service.

I love the Clos des Gourmets on avenue Rapp in the 7th. This also received the same Bib Gourmand from the Guide Michelin as did La Cave Gourmande, but it definitely deserves its accolade. The set menu is quite reasonable in price but there are several choices that cost more than the basic menu. The roast chicken is fantastic and all the fish preparations are wonderful. I can't resist the turbot with girolles which comes with a supplement in price. Appetizers are especially inventive--like the cold white beans or the mussels in a cauliflower gelée, served in a glass like a mousse. This is a definite "must return" restaurant.

Another great place is Le Cameleon. It was a tired bistrot in the 6th arrondissement until Jean-Paul Arabian took it over. His specialty is renovating old restaurants and making them his own and he really succeeded here. He hired a wonderful chef and had the entire restaurant redesigned to reflect today's style--minimalist and colorful at the same time. The food is terrific and affordable. The atmosphere very fun. I had a lobster salad to start and ris de veau meunière as my main course. Perhaps they are not for the faint at heart, but I do like offal. They were perfectly prepared. My companion had a wonderful fish dish. This place is a bit more pricey--reflecting the neighborhood and the fact that it is very "in". However, I can't wait to go back. Everything on the menu appeals to me and all the people I have taken here leave happy and satisfied.

For my last entry in this post, I will talk about Cafe Breizh. This place is perhaps the best crêperie in France--for sure in Paris. Oddly enough, the chefs are all Japanese. That is not surprising as the Japanese are known for their talents in the kitchen. The restaurant (on rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais) is always crowded. There are special complex crêpes, wonderful oysters, and the basic offerings that you would find in any crêperie.All the cheese used is fermier, and all the products are absolutely fresh. The cider list is long with wonderful offerings. Add to that the wonderful welcome, and you have a terrific place for lunch or dinner.