Monday 30 September 2013

Sunday in Paris - dinner at Au Petit Marguery

Tonight's restaurant was one of my choices, having done quite a bit of research on a place that would be most likely to have game on the menu *and* be in walking distance of our hotel. This was one of our rare forays outside of our trusty Clotilde, but one that came recommended from a few of the Paris foodie blogs I follow. So with some confidence we arrived almost spot on time for our 7:30 reservation and the dining room was still mostly empty. This meant that the service, at least at the start of our meal, was attentive and prompt.

Aperatifs ordered (kir royale for me, an "americano" for Stephen) we settled down to review the menu - which was enormous for a prix fixe. At least 15 different options for mains, a good dozen for starters and around 10 desserts. I have no idea how the kitchen manages. But! I was pleased to see several different offerings of game, both of the bird (grouse, partridge) and beast (wild boar) varieties. Naturally, I chose the boar in the form of ribs (though with a good chunk of belly meat also attached) with roasted girolles (remembering the ones I spotted in the market the day before) in a fig-pomegranate-red wine reduction. Yum! if slightly overcooked for what I expected. The girlies were the star of the meal however, deep rich, intensely flavoured with just a little bit of caramelisation. I was super glad that I had them both with my main and with my starter of artichoke hearts (which tasted rather like it had come out of a generic tin - disappointing) and radiccio.

Stephen opted not to have a starter, still being a little full from lunch, and was quite pleased with his main of duck breast with mashed potatoes (truffled, I believe) although he said it could have done with another veg on the side. Again his meat was slightly over done and just a little on the tough side. For a restaurant of this caliber it was rather odd. We wondered if it had something to do with the very large American and British clientele (we were one of the only tables in our corner of the dining room speaking French) who generally prefer their meat cooked rather more thoroughly than the French typically do.  

The other star of our meal was a brilliant half bottle of Saint Emillion (2008 Chateau Robin des Moines). I was very sad when Stephen poured out the last drops into my glass. If I had to drink no other wine for the rest of my life, this one would be an excellent candidate for that spot.

The desserts came a little bit late, the dining room by now being completely full, but they were worth the wait. Stephen had a dish of poached pears with almond milk ice cream and I had a crumble of Reine Claude plums with classic vanilla ice cream. 

Unfortunately, with our very early train the next morning (and the increasingly slow service) we opted not to have coffee or tea and instead got our bill and headed off into the damp (it having rained while we were at diner) Parisian evening.

Overall, It was still a very good value for money and certainly an excellent meal, but not quite as well executed as the dinner we had the evening before. Still I'd say it is worth a visit if you're in the area, but perhaps not worth making a detour for. 

Saturday in Paris - dinner at L'Avant Gout

So after resting and Stephen's adventure to go find a functioning iron and ironing board at the hotel, we got ready and headed out into the mild Parisian evening for dinner.

We almost always try and choose restaurants which are both interesting or slightly unusual and within walking distance of whatever hotel we've chosen, the former because we like a good meal and interesting cooking and the latter because we find that a walk after such a dinner is almost always a good plan.

Having only had an ice-cream in the 8 hours since lunch, we were properly hungry by the time we arrived for our reservation. Fortunately, we were seated almost right away in a smallish dining room. We ordered the aperitif a la maison to start - a blend of vouvray, cointreu and a dash of homemade bitters. Stunning and set us right up for our meal. Naturally, we chose from their "menu du mois" (almost always a good plan).

Stephen had: 

  • a terrine of chicken and snails with a balsamic reduction and greens paired with a glass of Muscadet
  • Red mullet with zucchini & eggplant in a turmeric tomato root vegetable sauce paired with a glass of Fitou
  • baked fig stuffed with crispy vermicelli in a custard with vanilla-mint (spearmint) ice cream followed by an espresso

I had: 

  • razor clams in a white wine broth with diced root vegetables paired with a glass of plain vouvray (the same that made up our aperitif)
  • veal onglet in a pistou with carrots, snap peas and fennel, crispy dauphinoise potatoes paired with a glass of the same Fitou
  • the same dessert as Stephen followed by a cup of very nice Earl Grey tea - one of the only times in Paris that I've found a restaurant serving good whole leaf tea. 

I was extremely pleased with my meal - the flavours were all fresh and beautifully paired with a wonderful eye toward complimentary textures as well. A thoroughly delightful meal with very gracious staff (although I did run out of words in French with the sommelier trying to explain which glass of wine I wanted with which course - fortunately Stephen came to my rescue but not without the grumpy sommelier being rather put out by the exchange). We were quite surprised to hear plenty of other languages being spoken in the dining room with the staff coping at various levels of graciousness. That corresponds overall to our impressions of the 13th - much more diverse than what we had seen to date. We were probably slightly overdressed than was necessary (when we arrived many of the patrons were in jeans - unusual in our experience of Parisian dining), but it didn't seem to make any difference. 

So very pleased we made the walk back to our hotel, arriving back just before the thunderstorm broke. A wonderful end to another delightful day in Paris

Sunday 29 September 2013

Sunday in Paris

After the thunderstorms over night, we awoke on Sunday to a very fresh aired, if rather cloudy, Paris. Knowing that even fewer things would be open on a Sunday morning, we took our time getting ready and out the door.

Again we decided to take advantage of our location and walk over to the Bibliotheque Nationale. It was quite controversial when it first opened and we were keen to see the space for ourselves. The first surprise was how open the plaza was - the enormous four towers dominated, of course (shaped like open books), but they were at least several hundred meters apart and built up from the river, it almost made you feel like you were floating slightly above Paris.

Unfortunately, most of the non-reader areas were closed on Sunday, so after some poking around we headed over to the footpath on the edge of the Seine for a bit of a meander back towards the centre of Paris. We passed through a funky artist/restaurant/club district all housed on barges, none of which were open for lunch (despite signage to the contrary). So we walked on. The trendy artists colony rather quickly gave way to a somewhat less salubrious area, which fortunately for us was just as dead on a Sunday morning as the rest of Paris. 

After passing a rather bizarre pod advertising "space for new design" which we couldn't determine if that meant it was a museum or some kind of sponsored "creative" business park. Being neon green it was rather conspicuous and had the air of being some bureaucrat's idea of "trendy". 

From there we passed into the Musée de Sculpture en Plein Air which was rather neat although the sculpture was rather overshadowed by the graffiti, which was kind of a shame. Still it was landscaped well and some thought had been given to the contrast/complimentary effects of the landscaping with the art work. It was obviously also much used by locals for outdoor sports.

By this point, we were rather hungry and were nearing the more well trodden areas of Paris. So after a quick consult with our copy of Clotilde, we set off for the Latin Quarter to give Da Rosa a try. It was rather more pricy than we anticipated, and much more of the space was given over to the cafe portion than for the epicerie than perhaps the book was written, but the food was very good indeed. I had a gorgeous burrata salad paired with perfectly quffable rose and Stephen chose a series of "tapas" plates: olives, fermented capers, focacia and chorizo as well as helping me devour the too good to be left burrata. The waiter recommended a Portuguese red to go with Stephen's meal, and he enjoyed it so much he had a second glass while I finished my meal off with a delightful cup of tea. I must say that the quality of tea generally available in Paris seems to have improved rather significantly over the past year. Something for which I am extremely grateful. 

After such an indulgent lunch, we started casting around for our afternoon amusements and realised that the carmelier shop that we enjoyed so much on our last visit was quite literally around the corner, so of course that was a required stop to s stock up on sweet treats. For me a selection of caramels and fruit pastilles and for Stephen some chocolates with rather delightful and creative ganache fillings. And then a quick stop into Le Dernier Goute wine shop for a hello (quickly becoming one of our favourite parisian wine shops) and an impromptu wine purchase. 

Stowing our treats, we decided to take the long route back to our hotel through the Jardin de Luxembourg, and got about half way there, when I detoured us over to a church that I thought looked interesting (after all, it's not a trip to Paris without stopping into at least one church, right?). The church turned out to be none other than St. Sulpice! And for an added bonus, it was about 10 minutes to an organ concert. Win! Especially as we had missed the concert at Notre Dame the evening before*.

The organist was one Kalevi Kiiniemi, a Finnish organist who we gathered from the programme was a regular soloist at St. Sulpice. In theory, he had chosen works he thought particularly suitable to their organ - I'm not sure that Stephen and I would entirely agree (in our totally unprofessional opinion), but we enjoyed the sound of the instrument very much (excellent clarity even at the lower registers and very sweet toned reeds). I particularly enjoyed the Lizt Etude du concert No. 3 (I had no idea that Lizt could be so delicate particularly on such a large instrument) and the 2 works by a certain Charles-Marie Widor, a composer before which I was completely unfamiliar. 

With that music still reverberating  through our minds, it was time that we took a much more direct route back to our hotel to get ready for dinner and so left the Jardins de Luxembourg for another day.

*regular readers will know that one of our favourite activities in Paris are the organ concerts which used to be on Sunday afternoons at 4pm. Unfortunately sometime in the last year they've been rescheduled for Saturday evenings at 8pm. Rather less convenient since it would either require us to have dinner reservations much too early (6pm) or much too late (9:30pm) for our digestive comfort. 



Saturday 28 September 2013

Saturday in Paris

The train journey on Saturday night was uneventful and we arrived at our hotel before 11pm. All in good time and we pretty much went straight to bed. . .

Then slept until we woke up on Saturday morning. One of the beautiful things about Paris is that there is not a whole lot of reason to be up and around before, oh say, 10am. So by the time we were up and around and out the door at 10:30 it was perfect timing. We grabbed a pastry and coffee from a little nearby place (nothing to write home about, merely good enough) and then headed over to the rue Moufftard. 

Our guidebook described it as one of the oldest open air markets in Paris. I have no idea if this is remotely true, but a delightful open air market it was. More types of plums than I had ever truly appreciated as well as a selection of mushrooms and seafood that kind of made me wish we had a place to cook (not necessarily in the same dish, mind). We also ran into another jazz ensemble playing to the crowds that reminded us of another random jazz group, if not in style than in the same method of discovery.

It also seemed to be the the savoyard district, with more fondue/raclette restaurants than you could shake a stick at. There was also a very intriguing Iranian-Armenian restaurant, unfortunately closed, but which went on "the list" of places worth trying.

Along the rue, we grabbed a quick lunch of gallettes (buckwheat crepes) and a soda before walking over to the Jardins des Plantes for the afternoon. We wandered through the cabinet d'histoire before having a meander through the gardens themselves. The mineral exhibit was unfortunately closed (and if not closed, then with an entrance that was not obvious)  so we spent the rest of our time exploring the gardens, including a surprising "exhibit" of dahlias, all the while playing spot the bee. We also took the time to sample some of the iced treats available - I had a lemon-basil sorbet (stunning in its freshness and intensity) and Stephen had an almond milk ice cream (marzipan ice cream, he declared it).

All in all a really delightful, if not particularly story filled afternoon.

After the gardens, we still had a few hours to kill and so decided to head over to the honey shop mentioned in Clotilde's guide. Seeing as we were in the same arrondissement, it seemed a shame not to take advantage. On the way, we passed by the restaurant (L'avant gout) where we would be having dinner and had a bit of an ogle of the menu. 

Then we walked through the delightful Rue de la Butte aux Cailles. One of the things I love about Paris is you can be in a neighbourhood one minute, which looks a bit dull (shops closed for the weekend, chain supermarkets) and then you turn a corner to find a quartier filled with life - sidewalk cafes doing a brisk business, local florists calling their wares to the passing public, cute little shops all open for business. 

Les Abeilles (literally The Bees) is on one of these streets and the proprietors were as unique as their surroundings. The shop in part sells honey (and all things derivative of honey) and in part also sells whatever you might need to keep bees yourself. But it was the honey that we were mostly interested in and they had more kinds than I ever knew existed. Most of it was from various places in France, but some was from as far afield as Tasmania, Chile, and China. We tasted several different kinds and after coming to terms with being unable to bring it all home with us, settled on one from Vienne, just south of Lyons (mostly sourced from buckwheat flowers, it is a dark chestnut colour that crystallises almost golden), and two from the south of France sourced from "lavande maritime" or lavender near the sea and the "garrigue". We chose the garrigue honey not only because it was very tasty, but also because one of our favourite French wines also comes from that region.

Throughly satisfied, we headed out of the shop and looking left we saw the little local square filled to the brim with people and with signs declaring "Viva La Commune!", so naturally we had to check it out. Turns out it was the "Fete de la Commune 1871" complete with wood organ, accordion and appropriately stereotypical frenchmen singing communist ballads to the crowd. "Let's also not forget the communards had political views" the main singer announced before getting started. They also had literature, t-shirts, bandanas and other appropriately populist movement accoutrements on sale. Unfortunately they didn't have a t-shirt anywhere near my size, but Stephen may have found one he liked. . .

After spending a bit singing along and watching the crowds, we headed back to one of the little sidewalk cafes further up the street for a glass of something tasty (vin aux noix for me and something chosen at random for Stephen) to rest our feet and reflect on the day. Not sure that the day had any particular themes that we could draw out, but we felt quite satisfied with ourselves and had a pretty good set of memories we felt gathered for the day.

So with that we headed back to our hotel for a wee nap before getting ready for dinner.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Next trip: Paris! (yes, again)

Despite not quite catching you guys up on our mini-trips over the summer, I thought you might like to go back to the old format of "blogging as we go" at least briefly. Teach me to get behind and try to do it after the fact!

And anyway, our next little foray is to one of my favourite places on the planet. . .Paris!


We haven't been as often this year as we have in years past, in fact this is just our second trip and about time. In fact it's just in time, because the excuse we're using to go is that Monday is my birthday and where better to celebrate than the city of light? Ok, so we'll actually be coming back to London on Monday itself, but still, its a good enough reason, right?


This time we will be staying on the rive gauche a first for us, and one of the few times that the majority of the planning has been done by Stephen. I'm looking forward very much to seeing where he has us lodged and what delightful and tasty things are in the works. Since we're staying on Sunday night it means that we get not one but TWO goes at French dinners. I have managed to sneak in my own preference and have Stephen book us in to a restaurant specialising in game. Should be an amazing treat. 

Even better, it looks like the organ concerts are back on at Notre Dame! We missed those very much on our last visit. Other than that and some vague collections of different possible routines, we don't have any firm plans. You shall just have to stay tuned to see what it is we get up to. 




Saturday 7 September 2013

Guilty pleasures, or, excuses to visit friends

Everybody has a guilty pleasure - that one thing that is perhaps a little incongruous with their character otherwise, and perhaps just a little bit embarrassing or silly, but they indulge in anyway.

For me, one of those things is Eurovision. I stumbled upon it rather by accident way back in 2002 on my study abroad in St. Petersburg and then rediscovered it after moving back to London in 2004. It's really impossible to explain rationally, but really it's an excuse for each country in Europe (plus some) to put on unabashedly cheesy pop tunes staged with ridiculous back-up dancers and excessive pyrotechnics. Then via a rather complicated voting system, a winner is chosen who then hosts the next year's contest.

Did I mention cheesy? Sometimes cheesy doesn't quite cover it and as far as I can tell the point isn't really to take it seriously, but for each country to compete in a state of self-conscious ridiculousness. Don't believe me? Do a search on youtube for Eurovision and you'll see what I mean.

So, yes it's grand fun and since the advent of twitter the European twitter verse lights up like a Christmas tree for the event. In 2012, Sweden won the contest with actually a pretty cool song and I had quite a lot of fun tweeting back and forth with my fellow US expat friend Shazzer in Sweden on the night.

Then a few months later the Swedes announced that Malmö, not Stockholm, would be the host city for 2013.

Malmö is where Shazzer lives.

Eurovision is usually at the end of May. 

There was a 95% chance that Stephen would have exams at the end of May.


So I booked a cheap flight to Copenhagen (right across the bay and less than an hour's train ride from Malmö). And so off to Eurovision I went! Granted, we didn't manage tickets to the event itself, but I figured it would be fun to enjoy the atmosphere in one of Europe's coolest and lesser known cities and with a good friend who enjoyed the show as much as I would. And grand fun it was!

On that Saturday, the weather dawned sunny, bright and beautiful. The perfect atmosphere for a festival and Malmö had gone all out to make everyone welcome and foster an atmosphere of friendly competition.
Eurovision Collage
After a brief rest and quick sushi supper, we, Shazzer, her lovely wife Dr. Darling and a few local friends, settled in to watch the Grand Final with Shazzer and I live tweeting the event side by side. At which point I learned the hard way that apparently twitter has a daily limit on the number of tweets you can send. . . which I kind of managed to hit with three songs left to go. Oops. 

Despite my personal technological challenges (and suitable warned for next year) we had a wonderfully fun time. Neither of our favourites won, but the winning song takes the contest literally just across the bridge to Copenhagen. Probably the shortest distance between two successive host countries ever. 

Huge thanks to Shazzer for hosting me and letting me tweet alongside her for the evening! And thanks also to Dr. Darling for putting up with our craziness late into the night. Maybe next year?

(As always, the above are only a selection of the photos from the day. You can see the rest over on flickr. Thanks to Shazzer for taking the last picture of me in the square! Not often you guys get photos of me in front of the camera)