Georges- Toulouse, France

If you visit Toulouse, the ville rose, you don’t want to miss the breathtaking sunset view across the Garonne river.  The panoramic splash of colors across the expansive sky and its perfect reflection on the glassy water surface change almost every minute as the sun sets beyond the Pont St. Pierre and Pont des Catalans bridges.  After watching this romantic and magnificent sunset, we took a lazy stroll around the cobblestone backstreets of Place Saint-Pierre and sniffed our way to rue Blanchers.  Rue Blanchers is a small restaurant row of sorts with numerous cafés and restaurants offering international and local cuisine. 

Restaurant Georges was one of the first places we came upon and we knew immediately that it was the right place to dine.  We didn’t have to walk down the remaining stretch of rue Blanchers to check out our other options- the menu sounded tempting and the place was brimming with locals.  Georges’ menu represented Southwestern French regional cuisine with a modern twist, at reasonable prices.  Here you can order a Formule for 21 Euros (entrée + plat, plat + dessert, or 2 entrées + 1 dessert), or a Menu for 26 Euros (entrée + plat + dessert).

The atmosphere at Georges was friendly and casual, and happy diners filled the numerous tables that were tucked into every crevice of the small restaurant space.  Old paintings and antique photos adorned the brick exposed walls, and small stained glass lamps added to the rustic feel of the restaurant.   There was a tight narrow staircase that led to the downstairs cave and mini dining area that was stocked full of French wines.

Charlotte de Saint Jacques au coulis de crustacés – Molded shellfish coulis prepared in a cream sauce.  This dish was a modern twist on the traditional French dish of coquilles Saint Jacques, which is made with scallops in a white wine and mushroom cream sauce served on a coquille, or shell.  The soft and warm soufflé of delicious shellfish essence that stood proudly on a porcelain  scallop shell dish was just as good as any seared scallop I’ve ever had.

Forestière d’escargots en cassolette et son feuilleté à l’ail confit – Warm cassolette of escargots in a mushroom cream sauce accompanied by a delicious flaky slice of bread with garlic confit.   The cassolette was full of succulent meaty pieces of escargot that were even more delicious on top of the garlic bread, and the intense woodsy aroma of mushrooms filled the air.

Tartiflette au magret fumé- a hearty gratin of potatoes, cheese and smoked duck.  A tartiflette is a warm winter dish that originated in the Savoie region of the French Alps, and is particularly  popular in keeping skiiers warm at ski resorts.  Although a true tartiflette should be made with Reblochon cheese and smoky bacon, modern versions can be made with any type of melty cheese and other hearty meats.   Indeed, this tartiflette was very hearty and had enough power to keep a whole family warm during any winter chill.

Emincé de boeuf au coulis de foie gras – Beef sirloin tips served with a foie gras sauce.  These cuts of meat were slightly tough, though the rich savory foie gras sauce almost made up for it.

Tartare de saumon a la crème d’herbes fraîches – Salmon tartare tossed with herbs and cream, was quite delicious.  The minced cuts of salmon were fatty and marvelous, perfectly enhanced by the zing of fresh parsley and chives.

Le Régal des Capitouls: foie gras de canard mi-cuit, magrets sec et fumé, gesiers confits, saucisse au pot, mesclun de salade, confiture de figues, marrons, noix et sel guerande - this was a classic Toulouse dish that showcased all of the beautiful duck delicacies of the region.  Toulouse is particularly famous for its foie gras and sausages.  Cuts of foie gras mi-cuit, slices of smoked duck breast, gizzard confit and cuts of smoked sausages were served with preserved figs, chestnuts and walnuts.  I loved every tender and flavorful morself of duck on this amazing plate, especially the smoked gizzards that had more texture than the other cuts.  The more I chewed on the gizzards, the more these smokey flavors permeated my taste buds.

Fondant au chocolat - chocolate cake with a somewhat molten center was decadent. The exterior was ever so slightly flaky, adding a textural contrast to the silken interior.

Crème brûlée aux framboises fraîches - crème brûlée with whole raspberries inside was quite flavorful, and the four of us finished it very quickly.

Our dinner at Georges was a fantastic experience, and it was a perfect treat to succeed the amazing sunset that we saw over the Garonne river.  Gratifying rustic French cuisine served by honest caring hosts at Georges is an experience not be missed on your next trip to Toulouse.  Michel Sarran, with 2 Michelin stars, is perhaps the most famous restaurant in Toulouse, but I also recommend Georges if you and your wallet want to take a break and keep it casual and homey.

Georges

4 rue des Blanchers

31000 Toulouse, France

+33 05 34 44 95 92

Open 7 days a week

Lunch 12 to 2pm, Dinner 8-11:30pm

Random trivia:  Did you know that the scallop shell is regarded as a symbol of fertility?  That’s why many paintings of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility, also depict a scallop shell.  Botticelli’s famous painting in Firenze’s Uffizi gallery, The Birth of Venus, shows a beautiful and serene Venus emerging from the sea on a scallop shell.

File:La nascita di Venere (Botticelli).jpg

Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus' copied from Wikipedia

Opinionated About Dining- Best Meal of 2009 survey

I received an e-mail from Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining a few weeks ago while I was traveling through India.  He was surveying various people in the food industry, and asking them all the same two questions:

1.  What was your best meal of 2009?

2.  Name the chef that showed the most potential in 2009?

Unfortunately, when I received the initial e-mail I was deathly sick from some unidentified virus and in the midst of receiving my painful initiation into Indian travel.  Yes, I know that everybody who goes to India gets sick at least once, but after surviving 7 healthy months in the deep African bush, I didn’t think that it would happen to me.  In any case, being asked such important heavy-weighted culinary questions during a 5-day vomiting marathon was pretty tough.  I take these questions seriously, and I wanted to give him my best answers.

I had many fantastic meals this year, but in the end it was L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, France.  There’s a reason why he’s been named ‘Chef of the Century’ and continues to expand his global empire.  His food is fantastic and flawless.  Nobody can argue with that.  Every dish was executed with perfection and grace, and there wasn’t a single dish that disappointed.  Egg cocotte with morel cream sauce was a divine masterpiece, grilled ribeye was dripping with flavorful juices and roasted beef marrow never tasted so luscious.  It was a magical evening of excellent food and wine in the trendy neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés.  The evening ended with a crazy impromptu night tour through the deserted streets of Paris with a friendly taxi driver named Michel.  Gazing up at the enormous steel structure of the Tour Eiffel at 2AM, still drunk on Savigny-les-Beaune reds and high on the succulent veal liver with crispy onion rings, it now remains a happy memory that will always make me smile.

Egg cocotte with morel cream

As for chef showing the most potential?  I chose local celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre, as his 2 successful LudoBites events have created quite a sensation here in LA.   Unlike traditional restaurants, LudoBites is a temporary pop-up event held in other restaurants that are normally only open for breakfast and lunch.  It’s a new style of dining that completely breaks free from the traditional and stuffy molds of restaurant bureaucracy.  During the limited engagement events at both the Breadbar and Royal/T, I saw a very energetic and happy Ludo shine in an environment where he could be free to express himself and his creativity without being bound by any chains.  In true Ludo style, his food was bursting with radical flavors and concepts.  The rich and smoky chorizo soup, topped with a dollop of tangy cornichon sorbet and tempered by the sweetness of the juicy cantaloupe cubes, was epic.  Black foie gras croque monsieur, grill pressed to a perfect crispy exterior to contrast the buttery foie gras treasure inside, was inspirational with the cherry amaretto sauce.  Escargots got a break from their standard corkscrew coffins to bathe in a warm bowl of aromatic yellow ginger curry.  I really feel that these limited time pop-up restaurants are the next wave of the future.  It’s a fresh new way for chefs to express their ideas and inspirations, and it’s an exciting avenue for diners to experience novel flavors and menu concepts.  Chef Ludo, you have potentially started an incredible culinary trend- and for that, I named you for this survey.

Chorizo soup with cantaloupe and cornichon sorbet

Check out the interesting OAD Best Meal of the Year 2009 survey, and see what the other 75 participants, which include Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller and Jay Rayner, named in the survey.  This wonderful website is also a great reference for any of you gourmands looking for exceptional eats all over the world.

What was your best meal of 2009?

La Cour des Lys – Meximieux, France

IMG_7433After a wonderful afternoon spent in Pérouges, we stopped by the neighboring town of Meximieux for dinner at La Cour des Lys.  The ground floor restaurant inside the hotel, which used to be a coaching inn,  has a lot of old world charm.  Flowery wallpaper, antique wooden cabinets and tables, and large wooden embroidered chairs with hefty arm rests inside the dimly lit dining room seemed almost a bit too stuffy for the creative food that came out of the kitchen.

The kitchen is now run by Chef Frédéric Navez, who used to work at the famous patisserie Troisgros.  Although you can order à la carte, there are a variety of set menu options here.  We all ordered the 38 Euro menu called “La Promenade des Plaisirs” with 1 appetizer, 1 main course, and delicacies from the cheese and dessert carts.  Indeed, our new adventure of pleasures was about to commence with a wonderful warm escargot cassoulet.

The first appetizer choice was my favorite dish of the evening.  The foie gras pâté with fig compote was just divine.  It was one of the best foie gras dishes I’ve ever had, and although I didn’t order this dish for my ‘pleasure menu’, I kept stealing some from my friend.  The incredibly flavorful, rich and smooth foie gras fumigated my whole mouth with its deep essence.

I ordered the Mosaïque de legumes, de lapin et de ris de veau parfumé au liseron d’eau, jus froid moutardé, a terrine of vegetables, rabbit meat and veal sweetbreads wrapped in water spinach with mustard sauce.  Despite its colorful and light appearance, the sweetbreads imparted a very hearty and robust taste to this dish.  It was a beautiful feast for the eyes and palate.

One of the main course choices was a filet of dorade.  Interestingly, this fish dish came with a cute little accessory- a live goldfish!

IMG_7496

As you can imagine, this goldfish became the main conversation piece of the evening.  We passed it around the table and each of us played with the little fellow.  Although my friend Gregory terrorized it with his fork, most of us played nice and even gave it a pet name.  I wonder what it thought of the big dorade filet sitting on the plate in front of it.  Gulp….

Most of us ordered the Volaille de Bresse (Chapon Bresson) et Royale de lard, sous une cloche de fumée, pomme purée soufflée a l’huile de truffes blanche. One of my previous blog entries about my trip to Burgundy featured the famous poultry from Bresse.  This dish used castrated Bresse chicken, served with an assorted mushroom sauce and presented in a very dramatic way under a cloak of smoke.  See the slideshow below for this theatrical presentation.

The chicken dish was accompanied with a foie gras, smoked bacon and egg purée inside an egg shell.  We had to sip this warm savory pudding through a straw.  I really enjoyed this side dish.  I mean, it’s sippable foie gras and bacon!  Very cool indeed.  Greedy Gregory smashed the perfectly trimmed eggshell to finish off the pudding.

The potato purée with white truffle oil was amazing.  I actually enjoyed the 2 side dishes more than the chicken itself, which was quite gamey and robust.

Les délices de la Bergerie:  we enjoyed numerous ‘delights’ from the cheese cart.  There were many that I had never tasted before, let alone even seen before.  The assortment of cheeses included all types made from sheep, cow and goat milk.

La découverte des Plaisirs Sucrés: My jaw dropped and my pupils dilated when I saw this alluring dessert cart.  As the title indicates, I was ready to discover these sweet pleasures.  My friend timidly asked the server, ‘How many desserts can we choose from?’.  To our joy, the reply was ‘As many as you want’.  Greedy Gregory asked ‘So we can try all of them if we wanted to?’.  The answer was still yes.  Marvelous.

So many to choose from, and so little stomach space left…

We each made our own little dessert plate.  Mine featured a mini baba au rhum, pistachio mousse, marinated pinapple in syrup, a bottle of rosemary and rose essence water, and a side of kiwi purée playfully painted in a treble clef.

Others had chocolate mousse, chocolate mint mousse, marinated prunes, fruit and custard tart, praline tart, macaroons, and creme brulée.  Their plates were garnished with rasperry and passion fruit purées.

We enjoyed our playful and creative meal with a wonderful bottle of 2007 Le Caveau Bugiste Bugey Manicle, a local white wine.  I never imagined that we would encounter such an inventive meal at this small historic restaurant.  From the goldfish to the smoke presentation, the dainty egg shell custard to the decadent dessert cart, this dining experience is one that I still talk about often.

La Cour des Lys

17 Rue De Lyon
Meximieux, Rhône-Alpes 01800
France

Tel: 0474610678

http://www.la-cour-des-lys.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that a pregnant goldfish is called a ‘twit’?

Café des Fédérations – Lyon, France

IMG_6983

On my recent trip to France, I went to Lyon to visit my friend Guillaume, a fellow doctor, cook and gourmand.  It was my first time in Lyon and I was looking forward to the culinary adventures that he would take me on.  For our first dinner in Lyon, he chose Café des Fédérations, a most fitting and appropriate introduction to the gastronomic capital of France.

Café des Fédérations is one of, if not the most famous bouchon in Lyon.  A bouchon is a type of restaurant in Lyon that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine which is heavy on offals, sausages, pâtés and all things oozing with animal essence.  There’s an emphasis on hearty meat dishes, and it’s certainly not a place for vegetarians or the faint hearted (or the cholesterol plaque-hearted).

IMG_7037With sawdust on the floor, red and white checkered tablecloths and sausages hanging from the ceiling, this famous bouchon that has been in business for more than 80 years is casual, lively and festive.  Bouchons were born in the 17th and 18th centuries from the traditional inns that silk merchants stayed at while traveling through Lyon.  There are around 20 officially certified authentic bouchons in Lyon according to Les Authentiques Bouchons Lyonnais. All others are imitations and wanna-bes.  Meals in a real bouchon are cheap, the meals are hearty, and the people are loud, obtrusive and garish  (but they’ve got a heart of gold and are always wanting to share a laugh with you).  Our server’s tie says it all.

IMG_7011The 36 Euro prix fixe menu comes with tons of appetizers, cheese and desserts, as well as bottles of Macon and Côtes du Rhône wine, and about 8 choices of entrées.  Along for the ride at the adjacent table was Bill Buford, amateur chef and author of Heat, who was being filmed for a BBC documentary.  I was impressed that my travel partner Shirley recognized him right away.

We knew that we were in for a hearty experience when they placed a basket of freshly fried pork skins on our table with a bottle of Macon.  Pork cracklins and white wine…the proper way to start a bouchon meal.

IMG_6992

A large plate of the most beautiful and succulent saucisson de Lyon with cornichons came with a huge bowl of lentil salad, or caviar de la croix rousse.  It’s a lentil salad in a cream sauce that is named after a region in Lyon called La Croix Rousse, a hilltop neighborhood that was once populated by silk workers. As the name suggests, it’s a ‘poor man’s caviar’, although they use high quality French green lentils, or lentilles du Puy.

IMG_6995IMG_6997

Oeufs en meurette, a classic Burgundy dish, is poached egg in dark and concentrated red wine sauce.  The brown sauce was very rich and had the salty intense flavor of a broth that had been cooking on the stove for days.  The egg was perfectly poached, and its thick yellow yolk carefully enveloped the full-bodied sauce.

IMG_6993

Frisée aux croûtons et lardons, or salade Lyonnaise, is a classic Lyonnaise salad with frisée, bacon, croutons and eggs in a Dijon vinaigrette.  Little did I know that this was the only fresh vegetable dish we were going to get before a full-on meat fest bonanza.

IMG_6999

The terrine du chef that day was a terrine de canard, a wonderfully rich duck liver terrine that we lapped up very quickly with our bread.

IMG_7004

Poulet au vinaigre, or chicken cooked in vinegar sauce, couldn’t be more Lyonnaise.  Farm raised chicken braised in a vinegar, wine and tomato sauce that was really flavorful and nice.

IMG_7020

The joues de porc bourguignonnes , or pork jowl with red wine sauce, was a no-nonsense simple dish of meat, potatoes and gravy- nothing less, nothing more.  The sauce had a really basic robust pork-y flavor to it that I almost couldn’t handle.

IMG_7025Tête de veau with sauce ravigote was my favorite.  The braised calf’s head was extremely tender and luscious, and the tantalizing richness of the soft collagenous exterior was enhanced by the acidity and tartness of the ravigote sauce.  Ravigote is made with white wine vinegar, mustard, shallots, capers and herbs.  The word ravigoté means ‘reinvigorated’ or ‘freshened up’, and this sauce did just that.  In true bouchon style, this calf’s head came with small fine black facial hairs on the skin.

IMG_7027

Quenelle de brochet sauce nantua et ses écrevisses, pike quenelle with creamy crawfish sauce, is also a typical Lyonnaise dish.  Quenelles are made by combining panade (milk, butter, egg and flour mixture) with diced pike fish fillets, eggs and butter which is then molded into its characteristic torpedo shape and poached to a light fluff.

IMG_7024

Andouillette sauce moutarde is perhaps the most unique and intimidating of all Lyonnaise dishes.  You will either love it or hate it.  I’m not even sure if it’s an acquired taste, something that one can actually learn to love.  It’s pig tripe rolled up into a sausage shape, served with a grainy mustard sauce which isn’t powerful enough to mask the shockingly putrid smell of pig shit.  I am a huge fan and lover of offals (organ meats), and nicely fried or braised tripe is in my top 10 favorite foods of all time, but even I couldn’t stomach the tripe (ha ha).  It tasted and smelled like a dirty urinal, and I couldn’t handle more than a nibble.  As somebody who prides herself in being able to eat any part of an animal, this andouillette put me to shame.  My friend Gregory, on the other hand,  was loving every bite.

IMG_7028

Tarte aux pralines roses is a pink praline tart, much different from dark chocolate pralines that we are used to here in the US.  You can see pink praline desserts everywhere in Lyon, as I did in a praline stand in Les Halles.

IMG_7044

Gateau au chocolat with creamy custard sauce was rich and decadent.

IMG_7042

Raisin ice cream with berry sauce was delicious.

IMG_7043

We were also presented with a humongous cheese assortment, as if we could eat anymore after our carnivorous banquet.  The cheese plate included St. Marcellin, a beautiful creamy soft cheese, and cervelle de canut, a soft cheese paste of sorts with fromage blanc, white wine, garlic and herbs that literally translates to ‘silkworker’s brain’.  I think they should also be serving cheese crusted with aspirin and Lipitor.

My Lyonnaise bouchon experience at the lively Café des Fédérations was incredibly fun and memorable.  Although a lot of the meat dishes were a bit too heavy and hardcore for me, I loved the concept of no-nonsense country cooking that warms you to the bones.  The staff were all so friendly, I almost felt like they were family by the end of the night.  It’s not a graceful, dainty or upscale restaurant where you can find white linen tableclothes, let alone even a menu, but they’ll still treat you like royalty and make it an unforgettable evening.

With large full bellies bursting at the seams, we laughed and skipped our way back home along the beautiful Saône river.

IMG_7052

http://www.lesfedeslyon.com/

10, Rue du Major Martin
69001 Lyon, France
+33 4 78 28 26 00

Closed on Sundays, last seating for dinner at 9:30pm

Random trivia:  Did you know that the optical ‘lens’ is named after the food ‘lentil‘ because it has the same shape?

Patrick Roger – Paris

Paris, France.  City of IMG_5457lights, city of romance, city of croissants, cheese, baguettes, wine and all things nice.  And of course, city of chocolates.  With a city full of chocolateries, how does one go about choosing his or her favorite?  La Maison du Chocolat will never steer you wrong, and Pierre Hermé will please you with both chocolates and macaroons.  Michel Cluizel is fortunately available in the US, and Christian Constant‘s hot chocolates will make you faint with delight.  I fell in love with Patrick Roger’s beautiful chocolaterie in St. Germain des Près on my recent trip to Paris.  Patrick Roger, who won the title of Best French Artisan in 2000, showcases his artistry and creativity in this modern St. Germain store.

IMG_5460 Although he is famous for his delicate chocolates, he is also known for his amazing store window displays.  Think back to that scene in ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ where the oompa loompas frolick about the flowery marshmallow meadows, and ornate gingerbread houses line the everflowing milk chocolate river.  Patrick Roger creates a similar wacky display in his store using  chocolate and confectionaries, only the oompa loompas have become baseball sized vegetable-themed creatures standing in front of a 4 foot tall chocolate house with an intricate roof made of thousands of round chocolate tiles.   A chocolate rooster stands atop the tall steeple, looking down at the chocolate nibs road below.  Foot ball sized cacao nuts made entirely of chocolate decorate a corner of the showcase, and other fun and colorful edible adornments liven up the space to create a culinary Grimm’s fairy tale fantasy world.

IMG_5462

Except for the gasps and sighs that will inevitably flow out of your mouth, the boutique is a quiet and peaceful space.  The courteous staff will allow you to silently peruse the beautiful store as you lose track of time in this chocolate dimension.  On one wall you can find shelves of prepackaged truffles, noisettes (chocolate and caramel covered hazelnuts) and amandes (chocolate dusted almonds).  On the back wall there are infinite stacks of flat rectangular chocolate bars, each labelled with the name of the country from which the cacao beans were harvested from, and the cacao percentage number.  I was surprised to find the amazing variety of chocolate bars-  Peru, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, Trinidad and Sao Tomé just to name a few. 

IMG_5461

In the center island are rows of golden tin trays filled with Roger’s breathtaking creations that the staff with delicately collect for you.  He is a master of blending exotic flavors and spices with his chocolates, finding that perfect balance between the 2 such that one does not overwhelm the other.  I tried the lemon basil, the passion fruit, the ginger, and the sesame flavored chocolate squares, and they were all sublime.

IMG_5468

Other flavors that I would love to try on my next visit to Patrick Roger are the jasmine flower, Szechuan peppercorns and anise.  They also sell a variety of chocolate assortments that are pre-packaged in their beautiful signature turquoise green boxes.  The sight of Tiffany’s robin’s egg blue colored boxes used to make my heart flutter.  Now it’s Patrick Roger’s mesmerizing sea green packaging that gets me panting with joy.

IMG_5471

Chocolaterie Patrick Roger

108 boulevard Saint Germain, 75006 Paris

http://www.patrickroger.com/

Random chocolate quotes:

‘Nine out of ten people like chocolate.  The tenth person always lies…’                  –John Q. Tullius

‘If one swallows a cup of chocolate only three hours after a copious lunch, everything will be perfectly digested and there will still be room for dinner. ‘
–Brillat-Savarin (famed French gastronomer)

‘Las cosas claras y el chocolate espeso.  (Ideas should be clear and chocolate thick.) ‘
–Spanish proverb

‘I have this theory that chocolate slows down the aging process.  It may not be true, but do I dare take the chance?’   — Anonymous

‘Man cannot live on chocolate alone, but woman sure can’   –Author unknown

‘If you get melted chocolate all over your hands, you’re eating it too slowly’   –Author unknown

‘Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana.  The researchers also discovered other similarities between the two but can’t remember what they are ‘   — Matt Lauer

The Hidden Kitchen – Paris

Through a twist of fate and good luck, my last dinner in Paris turned out to be an exclusive and memorable experience.  The Hidden Kitchen is a secret IMG_5968underground supper club held on weekends in a lovely apartment in the posh 1st arrondissement.  The gracious hosts who live in the apartment are a lovely young American couple who moved from Seattle to Paris a few years ago.  Braden Perkins, the chef, and his girlfriend Laura Adrian cook a 7 course meal with wine pairings for 16 guests who are lucky enough not only to know about this club, but also to make it onto the list.  Although my friend e-mailed a dinner request several weeks before our Paris trip, it was only the day before that we got confirmation that we were in.

I remember the moment we received the confirmation.  I told my friend excitedly “Yes yes!  Hurry and call them back before we lose our spot!”  It was tIMG_5991oo good to be true- the trouble of securing reservations at this special dinner in itself heightens the whole experience.  Then we got information on the secret location.  I will only tell you that it’s in a lovely part of Paris, oh about a 10 minute walk from the Louvre.  As we entered the building that evening and took the tiny elevator up to the designated floor, I remember feeling a bit nervous.  What is the meal going to be like?  What are the other guests going to be like?  Are we dressed appropriately?  The hallway was quiet and we didn’t hear a sound.  Were we even in the right place?  We knocked on the door, and the moment those large doors swung open, we were greeted by the sounds of laughter and rolling conversation, the smell of food wafting from the kitchen, a friendly handshake from Laura, and a glass of Gratien and Meyer mimosa.

IMG_5984

The apartment was beautiful.  Pristine wooden floors, crown moldings, ceiling to floor window drapes framing the beautiful view of the city, a marble fireplace, a perfectly set long table for 16 under a shimmering chandelier, and warm glowing candlelight everywhere.  The icing on the cake was their adorable Boston terrier Tattie who shared his love with every guest.

The guests were mostly American, and we also had a fun group of 4 Aussies and Kiwis.  Amazingly no French, even though we were in the middle of Paris.  It was strange to be in this lovely Parisian apartment speaking only English and talking about American culture and news.

IMG_5997

As we settled into our seats and perused the neatly presented dinner menu, Braden gave us a warm welcome and explained the amuse bouche- pickled onions and queso fresco on a squid ink cracker.  Braden came out before each course to introduce and describe the dish that he prepared in the tiny kitchen.

The first course was a fava bean ravioli with sweet peas in a green garlic spring onion sauce, garnished with dehydrated carrots, parsley and toasted crostini.  A nourishing ravioli dish with nice added crisp textures from the carrots and crostini.  This was paired with a Sancerre 2005 from Domaine de L’Estang Ligers, a light white that left a lingering sweetness on my tongue.

IMG_6021

The second course was a poached egg served with a chilled white asparagus marinated in white truffle oil and lemon, with a parmigiano mornay sauce and garnished with a hat of marinated leeks.  Contrary to its hearty appearance, this dish was a bit on the bland side and could have used a little more acidity.  Although the asparagus was a tad undercooked, it was nice to be eating fresh seasonal foods.  This was paired with a beautiful 2007 Chateau La Bertrande Bordeaux which was my one of my favorite wines of the evening.  It had a fine interplay of dry and sweet flavors.

IMG_6035

The third course was seared Atlantic salmon seasoned with salt and white pepper in a rhubarb bay leaf sauce, served with kohlrabi lime and nigella seed coleslaw, and a flaxseed cracker.  The salmon was perfectly cooked and went beautifully with the delicate rhubarb sauce.  It was paired with a 2005 Chateau de L’Aulée from Touraine Azay Le Rideau of the Loire valley, which had a sweet caramel flavor.

IMG_6037

The next course was a pan fried mackerel battered in buckwheat flour, served with chive feta, a poppyseed cracker, cucumbers and a red pepper sauce.  The crispy texture and light flavor of the cucumber complemented the superb mackerel that was incredibly fresh and delicious.  I wasn’t a fan of the red pepper sauce which tasted like Chinese sweet and sour sauce.  The dish was paired with an Aquilon 2007 Grenache-Syrah blend from Roussillon, which is close to the Spanish border.  I loved this wine which was deep and rich, and not too sweet for a rosé.

IMG_6041

The palate cleanser was a playful take on an American classic.  Called ‘The Derby’, it was a bourbon jello with lime sorbet and mint garnish.  The jello had a nice strong bourbon kick and the lime sorbet was refreshing.  This would be perfect for a balmy summer evening.  A simple, lovely and revitalizing culinary delight.

IMG_6045

The meat dish was a lemon zest and garlic stuffed pork roulade with a brown sugar crust.  It was served with white bean, fennel and frisée salad on a bed of basil pesto, an asparagus spear, a deep fried artichoke heart and lemon aioli dot.  Although I initially felt like the dish was too busy with so many different flavors and components, it all worked well and I really enjoyed it.  The overall balance of flavors was refreshing, although the meat was on the dry side.  It was paired with a Côtes du Rhone 2006 from Domaine La Millière.

IMG_6048

I loved the beautiful and unique presentation of the beet salad.  Wild arugula speared through a tart cherry looked like a miniature beet, though the real beet in this dish was a rectangular piece of tender roasted beet flavored with balsamic vinegar and a dollop of goat cheese on tart cherry purée.  A simple but well thought-out dish with strong bold flavors.  This was paired with a Mas Du Notaire 2007 Costieres de Nimes from Rhone Valley which was tart and still young.

IMG_6054

For dessert we had rhubarb mint sorbet with shortbread cake and macerated strawberries.  The strawberries were sweet and delicious and the sorbet was light and refreshing.  The shortbread cake was a bit of a disappointment- it was rock hard, unbreakable and inedible.

IMG_6059

The petits fours prepared by Laura from the top going clockwise: honey salted peanut caramel, rice krispy treat, blueberry pâte de fruit and tonka bean dark chocolate truffle.  I didn’t taste any since I’m not a petits fours type of person, but everybody else seemed to enjoy them.

IMG_6069

It’s truly amazing that Chef Braden whipped out a beautiful 7 course meal for 16 people all by himself from a tiny closet sized kitchen, all the while maintaining a perfect flow of service and also managing to come out to chat with everybody before presenting each dish.  IMG_6011Laura was a perfect and professional hostess, never ceasing to smile and always staying cool and calm as she effortlessly functioned as sommelier and server to a table of 16.  Even though we were all tourists in this beautiful city of lights, for those few magical hours that night it felt like we were hanging out with close friends back home.  It’s a special feeling to be welcomed into somebody’s home, to be invited into their sacred space as guests of honor, to be fed with food cooked from the heart and straight from the oven, and to be able to say goodbye to new friends with a warm hug and a ‘let’s keep in touch!’ at the end of the night.  This exclusive experience was worth every 80 Euros, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The Hidden Kitchen

Random trivia:  Did you know that in Islam, the nigella seed is regarded as one of the greatest forms of healing medicine available?   The prophet Muhammad once said that the black seed can heal every disease—except death.

Afaria – Paris

IMG_5878Afaria, a small French bistro tucked away on a tiny street in the 15th arrondissement, is a relative newcomer to the Paris culinary scene.  We became interested in dining at Afaria after reading an alluring review on a travel magazine.  Young and handsome 27 year old chef Julien Duboué worked with fellow Basque Alain Dutournier at Michelin starred Le Carré des Feuillants, then at George V, and Daniel Boulud in New York.  When he decided to open his own place, it wasn’t so easy.  He was turned down by 9 banks before finding funding for the restaurant.  Now it’s become an important landmark for locals and a go-to place for foodie tourists in the know.

Duboué’s food combines classic French techniques with bold Basque flavors, served in a casual and friendly environment.  Simple wooden chairs and tables fill the small dining room, flanked by distressed mirrors enscribed with an extensive wine list.  The space is quaint, unpretentious and relaxing- the friendly staff made us feel immediately at home. They have French and English menus, and most of the staff spoke English, although we were the only non-locals that evening.  IMG_5793There was an elderly gentleman celebrating his birthday that night with about 10 friends and family.  A few couples were holding hands and looking longingly into each other’s eyes.  Next to us was a party of 8 young beautiful women, giggling and toasting to a girl’s night out.  After-work Parisians were sitting around the tall communal table by the entrance, nibbling on tapas and laughing out their hard day’s work over glasses of wine.  This is a warm place of gathering, where people from all walks of life come together to enjoy life, drinks and good food.

We started with Boudin noir aux pommes en croûte de moutarde, black pudding with apples in a mustard crust.  For those of you who don’t know, black pudding is made from pig’s blood which gives it a distinct savory depth with an irony finish.  The pudding was light and fluffy in consistency, and due to the thick layer of rich apple flavor it didn’t taste gamey at all.  It was lovely with the tart acidic salad greens.

IMG_5790We really wanted to get the magret de canard rôti grilled duck fillet over a bed of grapevines, which is one of the house specialties, but a large party of 8 next to our table snagged the last of it.  For what it’s worth, it looked and smelled amazing!

Couteaux et moules cuisinés a la basque, Basque style shellfish of mussels and razor clams was delicious.  This dish truly represents rustic Basque cuisine- hearty tomato broth with bold chorizo flavors, earthy spices, crisp flavors of fresh parsley and herbs, and an abundance of garlic, onions and smokey dried red peppers.  The fresh razor clams had a beautiful plump texture, and the sauce was addictive.  We kept ordering more bread to soak up the wonderful juices.  It also went wonderfully with our carafe of white sangria which had ginger, lemon and pineapple.

IMG_5785Mignon de porc ibaiona grillé, grilled pork fillet with spring vegetables in a basil sauce, with pommes gaufrettes homemade chips. The pork was moist and tender, and the basil sauce was an incredibly refreshing complement to the fresh and sweet vegetables and mozzarella cubes.  It went well with the light and dry Elian Da Ros 2007 Côtes-du-marmandais red wine from Cocumont France.

IMG_5797The escabèche of chicken Landaise with artichokes and summer truffles was a surprise, as we ordered it thinking it was a hot dish.  It felt a bit strange to eat a cold chicken dish, and the chicken was a bit on the dry side.  The summer black truffle aroma was disappointingly absent, and the dish lacked depth and flavor.

IMG_5796IMG_5852Afaria came back strong with a fascinating and heavenly dessert dish- the Baked Alaska with cognac flambée.  The torched cognac was poured onto the dessert at the table, making for an exciting and mesmerizing experience.  Hidden under the flambéed white meringue layer was a wonderfully rich vanilla bean ice cream.  By the time we reached the bottom crust layer, it was nicely soaked in cognac and had an intoxicating rich flavor.  This was one of my favorite desserts on this Europe trip.

IMG_5859We followed the dessert with shots of raspberry-spiked Armagnac, a recipe said to have come from the chef’s Basque grandmother.  A most ideal digestif to eIMG_5861nd the meal with.  By the time we finished dinner at around 1 am the restaurant had closed and we were the last customers there.  The friendly staff and Chef Julien invited us over to the bar area to share a lovely bottle of 1995 vintage Billecart-Salmon champagne with them.  It’s always such an extraordinary and memorable experience to get to know the people who create the food- especially over drinks and laughs (and some dancing!).

If you get tired of stuffy and expensive restaurants while visiting Paris, go to Afaria to relax and kick back.  You can leave your worries at the door and get pampered with comfort food and friendly service.

Afaria
15 Rue Desnouettes, 15th Arr.
Paris, France
33-1-48-56-15-36
Closed Sunday and lunchtime Mondays
Random trivia:   Did you know that the Basque language is unrelated structurally or historically to any language now spoken anywhere on the planet, or to any known to have ever existed?