Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Fish in Paris

Three very different but wonderful restaurants specializing in fish preparations

Here are three quick recommendations for different fish restaurants in Paris. The first is Sushi Marché. I went there with my trusty sushi friends, Alex and Mary. Not only is it good, reasonably priced, and comfortable to sit in, but the staff is very pleasant (unlike other more expensive sushi places we have tried in Paris).

We all ordered from the dinner menu which gave us our main dinner choice, two appetizers and dessert. Alex had his favorite Chirashi Royale, I had Mixte Royale and Mary had Sashimi Royale. Royale means a much better and more varied selection of fish than the basic assortment. Mixte means that there are sashimi, sushi, maki and one hand roll on the tray. The Chirashi Royale is particularly inventive with different types of fish and seaweed flavoring the rice. We were all very satisfied with the quality, freshness and variety of the fish. I would recommend this place to anyone including a Japanese person.

My sister-in-law and nephew were in Paris and they took me to Les Fables de la Fontaine--a restaurant I have tried and enjoyed before. There is one meat dish on the menu and the rest of the choices are fish. Every preparation we ordered was delicious including croustillants de langoustines (something like a modern version of langoustine tempura but rather wrapped in a paper thin and crispy dough), a salmon preparation on a fresh blini with an avocado-cilantro sauce (not for me however!).

We chose three different main courses so that we could share many things. The dorade, mulot and cabillaud were all prepared in different ways with lovely sauces and garnishes that accentuated the flavor of the fish. Each dish was excellent. These are simple basic white fish but were relegated to royalty by the preparations. Jeremy chose a roasted cabillaud (cod) with bacon, crusty polenta and cuttlefish sautéed in a parsley-garlic sauce. Catherine had simply grilled hake with green asparagus, in a lovely sauce flavored with chicken broth, parmesan and chanterelles. I had the poached bass with a purée of sweet peas, a tuna cream sauce and grilled baby artichokes. By the time we ate everything, we could not think of dessert but did decide to share one thing: a poached apricot with apricot sorbet; almond cream and a warm butter biscuit. With our meal, we ordered a Petit Chablis which was very good. The Michelin awarded this restaurant one star and it deserves it.

Today, Mary and I went out to her favorite seafood place: Au Chien Qui Fume. It is a very old restaurant in Les Halles. In the old days, it was right in the bustling market but now it is next to the garden of the Halles and on a street that has no traffic. Mary told me that she likes to find places that have outdoor seating that is not in traffic. Neither of us can understand what the French see in dining outside in the midst of honking cars. Another plus for this restaurant is that the staff is very pleasant and especially helpful to women dining alone.

I had a plateau de fruits de mer which took the entire lunch period to finish. I chose my favorite speciales (meaty oysters), pink shrimp and bulots (winkles). Everything was fresh and delicious. Mary had a more classic meal starting with foie gras and continuing with a half roasted lobster served with a sauté of foie de lotte(fish liver). It was very good. We both had light desserts of fruit with sorbet. To arroser the meal (as the French say) we ordered a 1/2 bottle of Sancerre.

The South of France

Six days in the South of France: a hole in the wall in Nice, a starred restaurant near Monaco, other special Nice restaurants and a visit to a tiny town near Avignon.

My six day vacation prior to foot surgery was in Nice and in Provence. My friend, Simona, lives in Nice and we met the first afternoon to dine at La Zucca Magica. This is a lovely vegetarian restaurant at the port. There are no choices: you are served a five-course meal. This is what we had: court bouillion de legumes with a ricotta flan flavored with safran and zestes de citron--lovely; courgettes de pays farcis de pesto et fromage: sandwich d'aubergine, parfumé de vinaigre balsamique; cannelloni of red peppers, olives, smoked scamorza, shallots and tomatoes; and a lovely tarte aux fraises. It was a copious, delightful meal. Although this restaurant is not in the Guide Michelin, it was written up in the New York Times several months ago. It is very famous and quite popular among the Nicois.

The night before, I had chosen to go to a one-star restaurant run by a Japanese chef. The name of the place is Keisuke Matsushima (name of the chef). Everyone who works there is Japanese and so I spoke to them in Japanese, of course. They have a 35 euro menu but everything you would want to order comes with a supplement so I chose the 60 euro omakase (chef's choice). I started with a parmesan macaron served with summer truffles. The first course was a soupe de courgettes with trompettes de la mort (a wild mushroom). Next was a risotto de courgettes, morilles, and Iberian ham--this was a terrific dish. I go crazy for morilles. The fish course was rouget with a purée of chic peas and a sauté of three different colored sweet peppers. And the main course was gigot d'agneau with basil, lardons and baby vegetables. With each dish came a wine to bring out the flavor of both. At the end, I was so full that I chose a salade de fruits exotiques. With the coffee came pine-nut financiers(small almond cakes). I had a very good meal at this restaurant.

Perhaps one of the most famous places in Nice is Merenda. Of all things, the restaurant has no phone. It is small so that reservations are required. You can either pass by and reserve or write a letter. They do honor your reservation either way. The kitchen is in the diningroom and there are only low stools at small tables. The food is delicious, provençale, seasonal, and cheap. I started with beignets of fleurs de courgette, and then a wonderful dish of saucisses aux lentils. With a half-bottle of a simple Côtes de Provence, I was in heaven. The dinner came to 35 euros.

The next day, I took a taxi up into the hills near Monaco. We drove on the Moyenne Corniche until we arrived at La Turbie and the Hostellerie de Jérôme. This place had been recommended to me by a Japanese foodie and I have always wanted to go there. It is a beautiful little restaurant with a pretty terrace surrounded by flowers. I had a lovely dinner there: classic cuisine but perfectly prepared and served with delicious wines. As they say, I would return in a heartbeat. True to form, the people outside of Paris treat their dinner guests like royalty but are friendly at the same time. At this hostellerie, the maître d'hôtel was very warm but also pleasantly formal. One of the amuse-bouches was also one of the best things I tasted that evening: a chausson de canard aux mousserons (wild mushrooms)served with a cream sauce of mousserons. It is like a braised duck envelope and the pastry dough and meat are both succulent and wonderfully flavorful. It is a grande classique de la maison house specialty).

My appetizer was a beautiful steamed 1/2 lobster served just warm with apricots--a very light dish. I think I would have preferred more of a substantial sauce. This was really very light. However, it was just the thing to introduce my rich main course: ris de veau croustillés, green asparagus, truffles, comté and large cèpes. (See the photo.) This dish was served with a creamy mashed potato dish that only the French can transform into a dish for a king. I marked in my book that this dish was FAB!!!! with several hearts. It is rare that I don't order sweetbreads when they are on the menu, and this preparation was particularly memorable.

After this wonderful meal, the dessert followed in style. I had a tarte aux pêches that were roasted with verbena served with a delicious verbena ice cream. This modern pairing of peach with verbena has become a grand classic in French cuisine and is also a favorite of mine. I was so impressed by the restaurant that I sent my friend who recommended it a thank you card. The ride back to Nice was very pleasant and I was ready to have a nice sleep after such a delicious repast.

For my last evening, I wandered down to the port and dined at a fish restaurant called Aux Pecheurs. I found it in the Guide Michelin and it was quite good. I had another lobster salad to start and frankly, I preferred this one. It was served with an acacia honey sauce which made for an interesting flavorful combination. After that,I had a whole grilled daurade served with ratatouille. Dessert was a wonderful panna cotta with passion fruit coulis.

I left Nice the next day and took the train to Avignon, from where I drove to Venasque in a rented car. Venasque is a very picturesque tiny village in the Mount Ventoux area. The village is so small that there is only one restaurant and no ATM machines! For the time that I was there, the few galleries that do exist were closed. As a result I drove to the next town (St. Didier) which had a bustling food market, one ATM machine, and three restaurants. This is an area from which to explore the beautiful provençale villages. I stayed in a chambre d'hôte--that is, in the home of a couple that opens up its rooms to travelers. They serve breakfast and dinner on their terrace and you admire the stunning view while you are eating basic but good French cuisine and drinking local wines. The first evening, I ate in the restaurant next door and had an excellent dish of ravioli with an interesting pesto cream sauce, a daube de poulpe (octopus stew) and a wonderful crème brulée à la lavande. The next evening, at the chambre d'hôte, we were served a fried quail egg and pancetta to start, a refreshing gazpacho, and finally a confit de canard with home-made ratatouille. I enjoyed both meals quite a bit.

It was good to get home to the crowds and noise and ATMs of Paris. I am really a city girl at heart and although it is nice to do nothing from time to time, I am always happy to get back to my life.

Six Days in London

A variety of restaurants in a gastronomic capital including a power dining locale, an ubiquitous London chain for Asian food, a fusion place that has a branch in New York, a Gordon Ramsay creation and one of my favorite Italian restaurants: The River Cafe

I spent six delicious and glorious days in London at the end of May. The weather was so good that people were saying it was scary!! No rain for all that time--just warm, clear, sunny days. Coincidentally, my friend Mary (a die-hard foodie) was there at the same time so we went to many restaurants together.

Recommended by my friend, the food critic, Maureen, I went to Pearl the first evening. The restaurant food style is nouveau French with a Japanese chef. First of all, the amuse-bouches were indeed very amusing and flavorful. There were many of them, but I remember the watermelon gazpacho with pine nuts and goat cheese, and a delicious Roscoff potato filled with braised veal. There was also a bit of mushroom risotto with cèpes (porcini in Italian).

I started my meal with a beautiful and delicious rabbit dish. The rabbit was made into a lasagna layered with langoustines and garnished with fresh peas and morels. A sheer delight. For my main course, I chose a roast halibut with chorizo, caramelized squid, chic peas and squid ink. Very inventive, original and very delicious.

For the pre-dessert, I was served a terrific crumble with English strawberries and vanilla foam. And I chose a hazelnut chocolate parfait with a sponge cake. The meal was quite copious and not cheap but I think that it was worth it for the level of pleasure and creativity.

The next day, I went to the most popular restaurant in London: Wagamama. It is a big chain with a restaurant or two in every neighborhood. I would call it a Pan-Asian cafeteria-type place although you are served at table. All of the Wagamamas are in big spaces with blond butcher block communal tables. The atmosphere is youthful. The service is quick and the food is very hardy and delicious. You can get several Japanese soups as well as Japanese gyoza; Thai-spiced combination dishes (no cilantro for me, thank you); and a variety of interesting Asian style salads. It is not very expensive and is a perfect place for a fun lunch.

That evening, Mary and I met at Asia de Cuba. The food is very good. The atmosphere is noisy and the service is quite nice. I started with calamari salad with hearts of palm, banana, cashews, and a sesame-orange dressing. To die for were the Asian pesto grilled prawns served with lotus root chips and wok-charred tropical fruit: an excellent combination of sweet and savory, succulent and crunchy. For my main course, I had a wonderful coconut-mustard Chilean sea bass with crab-corn flan and chimichurri greens served with a jalapeno-plum coulis. Sensational! The drinks are also very good at this restaurant and so we ordered those rather than choosing wine.

Maze is Mary's absolute favorite place. It is a Gordon Ramsay restaurant run by Jason Atherton. Basically, you are served a variety of dishes in tapas portions. I think that three or four tapas and one dessert is a good amount to order. And with each dish, the French sommelier, Laure, can choose something appropriate for you. I started with a lovely chilled I that had pieces of lobster. The BLT is terrific: served in a martini glass. No bread. Tomato I, pieces of bacon, lettuce I and onion rings. It is very amusing and very delicious. I also had a wonderful cèpe risotto that had a quail egg hidden in its center. The slow-cooked quail, braised leg and wood sorrel was also an excellent choice.

You can't leave London without having lemon curd and that is what I chose for dessert: a sort of baked Alaska with lemon meringue, citrus curd, lemon sorbet and basil sorbet. Very refreshing and flavorful.

I have already written about the River Cafe. I go there every time I am in London. This time, the weather was so warm that I chose to dine outside. The tables were set up on the lawn next to the Thames. I had a very unique meal: taglierini con ortichi(nettles) which were fine green noodles with the spicy green nettles, sage, and butter: excellent! And for my main course was piccione al forno stuffed with romarino. It was in a Chianti-pancetta sauce and was served with vignole which is a seasonal dish of vegetables (artichokes, broad beans, peas). My friend, Maureen served this to me in Rome several years ago. It is very rare to find it on a menu as the season is so short. This dish gets an A+.

I had an apricot crostata for dessert as I had had the signature chocolate nemesis the last time. This was a lovely warm pastry served warm and filled with fresh apricots and garnished with double cream.

Before leaving for the train station, I met Mary at the restaurant of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. We dined on the terrace and had a lovely lunch of crab cake served with a lobster claw and fresh provençale vegetables; and shortcake with strawberries, sorbet and whipped cream. Mary ordered a beautiful and luscious panna cotta with raspberries and raspberry coulis. Our waiter was from Chicago so it was fun to converse with someone who did not have a British accent. I left London with a happy stomach and many fond memories.