Category: booze or lose

Booze or Lose: Where to Drink in Bloomington

So the cat’s out of the bag: most of you know that I’ve spent the last eleven months or so in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University and a relatively high sleeve-to-man ratio compared to the rest of the Hoosier state. We were here so that B could get his ducks in a row, and while I rather dreaded the move from Paris to cornfields, the year been much better than I imagined it could be. Evidence, in fact, for my feel-good theory that I can be happy just about anywhere if some nice folks, yummy food, and a decent library surround me.  Serious cinemas also help, as do convivial bars. While I abandoned our Booze or Lose feature relatively quickly in my Paris coverage—frankly, I ran out of different pithy ways to say “There’s wine! And beer!”—I thought I’d resuscitate Clarence’s alcoholic alter ego and tell you where you should be drinking in Bloomington should you find yourself here.

If you’re like me, or at least enough like me to want to read this here blargh, you probably want to skip the bars that have a decidedly rapey-frat boy vibe. This unfortunately includes most of the beloved IU watering holes, including Kilroy’s (or as I call it, “Kill Me Now”) and Nick’s. Hoosiers will probably argue with me on the latter count, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent some enjoyable evenings at Nick’s in good company. But let’s get real: tradition aside, the place smells weirdly like antiseptic and old chewing gum, and the draft beer selection isn’t the best. B, the old man on the mountain here in B-Town, councils that while the upstairs can get kind of rough on the weekends, the downstairs area is always a great place for a drink if you want to have a real cream and crimson kind of experience. If it was good enough for Dylan Thomas, it’s good enough for him. B also advises that Hoosier-history lovers should make a stop at The Bluebird, where local legend John Cougar Mellencamp got his start.

If you like a bit better craft beer selection and a hipster grad student crowd (it is a university town, after all, and in Bloomington the Wayfarer-wearer is king), there are effectively five bars remaining in town.  I’ll rank them in order from hate to love.

The bar I inexplicably-go-to-sometimes-but-nevertheless-hate-the-most in Bloomington is The Rail, a relative newcomer to the scene. No standing, leather couches, Edison bulbs, small plates of ‘heirloom’ and ‘artisan’ things, and tiny, too-sweet, ten dollar cocktails. You know the drill, dear reader, because places like this have cropped up in every city across the county. Regular readers know how much I generally hate cocktails and cocktail bars. I have a pretty unabashed “learn to drink, loser” attitude towards people who spend their time watering down excellent booze with elderflower soda and key lime foam. The Rail is the kind of place that gets my bile up for precisely that reason: it’s fussy, it’s expensive, and yet it’s lousy. You can’t get out of alive for less than fifty bucks, and yet your wine is the wrong temperature, your cocktail is syrupy, and you’re still hungry after eating six different things. The Rail’s specialty cocktails all involve things like crème de lavande or Saint Germain, as nouveau-cocktail bars often specialize in liqueurs that sound Gallic but that no self-respecting French person would ever be caught drinking. Moreover, for a place that sells itself as a place for seated conversation (they are real sticklers about the no standing at the bar rule), it has quite possibly the worst acoustics in the world. You can barely hear the person sitting next to you, much less have some kind of conversation. All you can do is shout and throw pained glances at your companions when the bill arrives by a waiter in a too-tight leather vest who looked at you blankly when you pointed out that the wine he served was two years younger than advertised. I’d skip the whole affair, if I were you.

The second bar you’ll-hear-about-but-that-I-suggest-you-skip is The Root Cellar in the basement of the overplayed, underwhelming restaurant Farm.  Come to think of it, the name might be F.A.R.M., as these type of places are often clever, undisclosed acronyms. The Root Cellar looks like some place where you may have hung out in the mid-90s, a dingy basement with ratty couches and wobbly benches that will snag whatever you happen to be wearing. The booze is fine enough, I guess, but weirdly overpriced for the vibe of the place. Not to again sound like an old lady here with a hearing problem, but the acoustics are as terrible as the ones at The Rail. Don’t expect to hear anything at The Root Cellar besides somebody else’s sorta-boyfriend’s experimental noise trio. If that’s your bag, I wish you well, but I’m a social drinker myself. I either want to chat or dance, and you can’t seem to do much of either in The Root Cellar.

When B moved to Paris, the only game in town for his ilk was The Vid, a giant bar that manages to attract a wide variety of people on any given night. It’s a pretty good bar if you want to hang out with a big group of people and not spend too much money on pitchers of craft beer. You can also play pool and darts, which I particularly enjoy in a kind of talentless way. The Vid is best on weekday nights, when you can colonize a giant table and wile the evening away. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s louder, but still a generally friendly and unpretentious place to hang out. The bartenders are really nice and there’s usually a great local beer from Upland at a special pitcher price. One caveat: don’t sit next to the punching bag game, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the banging of testosterone-bulging boys all night long.

While B was away in Europe, however, the hipster hoards migrated down the street to Atlas (209 South College, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404), a newish place that is just starting to have that lived-in vibe. If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, read some Foucault and have a masters degree or two, wear horn-rimmed glasses and an inordinate amount of American Apparel, name-drop obscure bourbons, and get excited when New Order comes on the jukebox, Atlas is the place to be. It’s loud, which I obviously don’t like, but it’s a pretty fun place to spend an evening. There’s good DJs on the weekends, and I sloppily danced my birthday away there last winter. The free agents I know report that it is the best place in town to mix and mingle with other single folk. One of the doormen is the crush-object of practically every lady I know. Some of Atlas’ conceits are silly – the oft-broken down photo booth and chalkboard list of songs banned from jukebox come to mind. But it’s a bar that has hit its stride, and I’ve had many good times there.

My favorite part (and this is Clarence talking now) is the fact that The Happy Pig food cart parks outside on the weekends, offering their succulent Notorious P.I.G.G. sandwich:  toast, crispy-gooey Gunthorp pig belly, Indiana maple syrup, and a perfectly fried egg.  Now that’s an undisclosed acronym I can get behind, as the P.I.G.G. is the ultimate in drunk food, and the best game in town at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.

For those of you that are still awake, with four down, we have finally arrived at the best bar in Bloomington. And the winner is…

The Bishop (123 South Walnut Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47401). Hands-down. The bar, which is always without a cover charge, has an amazing rotating selection of regional craft beers on tap for totally reasonable prices. Recently, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the bar added a serious selection of the hard stuff, including one of the most varied and interesting bourbon lists I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the bartenders know their stuff, and given some information can clue you in to things you’ll really like. The crowd is a little older, with a mix of university folk and townies. The Bishop also houses a great small music venue, and all the best bands seem to make The Bishop their one stop in Southern Indiana. I caught Nat Baldwin there, along with an excellent Pogues cover band called the Fauxgues. Local favorites The Vallures made my New Years Eve one of my best ones yet, as I danced to their sweet Motown covers until the early hours of the morning. Finally—and here’s the cranky old lady motif again—while the room with the stage is loud, the bar itself is pretty quiet, making the booths a great place to chat with friends (or, in our case, play over-zealous games of Euchre). I’ll miss The Bishop, and hope you make a stop there should you find yourself in Bloomington.

Sing us out, Tom.

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Object Relations No. 2: Midwestern IPAs

I always tell people that Paris is a city that has everything you could ever want to eat or drink, except for the things it doesn’t. One significant shortcoming of the French capital is beer. While they make lots of things better than anybody else, the French are lousy at making beer. Don’t let them try and tell you any different. They’ll try and claim Belgian beers as part of French culinary culture when pressed, which is pretty hilarious given how they speak about Belgium the rest of the time. But the majority of beer-drinking folks in Paris are currently slurping down a Kronenbourg 1664 (call it a “seize,” should you ever find yourself at a Paris dive bar). 1664 is draught that most American expats quickly realize is somewhere between an MGD and a Tecate in terms of general depressingness. I know, I know, 1664 seemed kind of cool the first time you saw it on a bar menu in Brooklyn (it’s French, after all), but trust me, it’s a lousy beer from a nation of lousy beers.

All this is to say that I spent a lot of time missing the amazing diversity of microbrewed beers we take for granted here in the US. I was especially homesick for India Pale Ales, those glorious hop-heavy beers that really hit the all the right spots on a hot summer day. I know that hop-forward brews aren’t everybody’s bag, but this girl just can’t get enough.  You say Double or Imperial IPA, I say, sign me up.

B, a native Hoosier and self-appointed ambassador (read: unpaid) for the Midwest, had spoken longingly about his favorite breweries in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and his homestate of Indiana. Being a Colorado native and longtime denizen of California, I was a bit skeptical that anywhere could have the kind of diversity of breweries that those two states can offer. But I’ll say I’ve been thoroughly schooled in the very best way in the past year. The Midwest makes some of the best beers I’ve ever encountered, especially as a devoted IPA drinker.

My favorite IPA comes from Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan, close to where B’s parents live.  It’s called Two Hearted Ale, and should you find yourself in Bell’s somewhat limited range of distribution, please go buy yourself a six-pack immediately.  It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. Bell’s also makes a seasonal double IPA called Hopslam.  It’s pricey, 8.98% alcohol, and will cure any hop-related deficiencies you might be suffering from.  Beer Advocate gives it a 94.  Stout drinkers should also try Bell’s licorice-heavy Kalamazoo Stout.

There must be something in the water in Michigan.  That great twofer of a state also houses Short’s Brewing Company of Bellaire, who makes the delightfully named Huma Lupa Licious IPA. Named for the hop plant Humulus lupulus, this malt lives up to it’s moniker. Another otherworldly fountain of beer goodness is Founder’s Brewery of Grand Rapids. Their Centennial IPA finds a regular slot in our refrigerator, and when somebody has been especially well-behaved they just might get rewarded with a four-pack of the seasonal Double-Trouble. Bitter never tasted so good. Should rye strike your fancy, you’ll never be happier than with a Founder’s Red Rye Pale Ale in your hand.

Cheese-heads can certainly boast about Tyranena Brewery of Lake Mills, Wisconsin. In particular, their “Brewers Gone Wild” series is a seasonal delight.  My particular favorite from this cycle is Hop Whore, which is basically just as down and dirty and delicious as the name would suggest. In their regular roster, I love their Scurvy, an IPA brewed with orange peel for a slightly citrusey, slightly peppery punch. It’s excellent with grilled fish and sweaty afternoons.

B’s dad was born and raised in Warrenville, Illinois, as was Two Brother’s Brewing Company. They make both the eminently drinkable Resistance IPA as well as the double Heavy Handed IPA, which I regrettably missed during it’s appearance from September to December. It’s good to have goals for the future.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to our local brewery, the great Upland Brewery of Bloomington, Indiana. I’ll tell you more about their amazing food another day, but for now I’ll just say that their Dragonfly IPA has accompanied many great nights for me in this town and will be sorely missed come this fall.

Bell’s, Short’s, Founder’s, Two Brother’s, and Tyranena are distributed all over the Midwest, so treat yourself if you happen to find yourself in fly-over country. Upland is available all over Indiana, but many of their specialty brews are for B-Town consumption only.

London Calling!

When my mother and I began planning our five-day sojourn to London in May, I immediately began researching restaurants like it was my goddamn job. It was a first time visit for both of us, and I live in some kind of irrational terror about not knowing where to eat in a new location and ending up overpaying for tourist grub. It’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole when it comes to London restaurant reviews – it’s obviously a first-rate foodie town with review ink spilled to match. I read about all kinds of super-bobo things like “gastropubs” and “locavore menus” and something that people were calling “the St. John diaspora,” apparently with a perfectly straight face. Part of me was a bit skeptical about the heavy-duty language that seemed to align itself with a cuisine that I always suspected was bland city. The fact is that no matter how many times I had heard that London was the new culinary center of the world, I just couldn’t believe that a nation that consumed  potatoes in that many different iterations could possibly on the new wave of progressive cooking.But I’m still a restaurant researching fiend, so I did a lot of homework (and made a lot of reservations) before we arrived in London.

Much to my surprise, London really is all that it’s cracked up to be from a culinary point of view. I will seem like the ultimate Paris traitor in saying this, but London really does have the monopoly at this point on beautifully simple, seasonal ingredient-driven cooking that draws on the rich international community who inhabit the city. Libelous as it may seem given my current digs, visiting London was like waking up in an Technicolor dreamscape of exquisite produce and fish and meat. Locally sourcing ingredients has obviously become de rigeur in London, as has providing comprehensive lists of where ingredients originated on menus. London is basically how I imagine West Coast cooking in the US will look in about a decade. And while all of this is obviously the product of a lot of food-obsessed people with a lot more money to put where their mouths are, it has trickled down into even the most basic sorts of fast-food lunch spots around town.  I was flat-out amazed by the quality of the food at places like Prêt à Manger and Eat, chains that are as ubiqutous as Panera in the States or Bonne Journee in Paris, yet manage to be about a hundred times more ethically sourced and delicious than their American and French counterparts.  And I know that as Americans we are always getting pounded sideways by the dollar/pound conversion, but I was geniunely surprised by the reasonable prices on food in the UK.  Even my mother, who, um, was footing the bill pointed out the radical discrepancy between the cost of eating in Paris at a place like Rino and some of the spendier places we dined at in London, namely that you can get a lot more bang for your buck in London. I particularly loved the democratic feel of dining out in London, where suits mixed with totally casual duds, white tablecloths were rare (if not totally absent), servers were almost irrationally friendly, and you can make reservations just about anywhere online. I hate talking on the phone with strangers. I love being able to make reservations online, puzzling over the best time slot for as long as I need to in crafting the perfect eating itinerary. London is this obsessive deliberator’s fantasy city as far as that is concerned.

So where’d we eat, you may ask? In fact, my dearest J and B did ask me recently, as they are visiting cute-as-all-get-out niece and nephew in London this coming month.  So for them, and for all of my other dear readers, here are some highlights, in chronological order:

Electric Brasserie (191 Portobello Road, Subway Ladbroke Grove) was our first stop after taking the Eurostar from Paris and checking in at our quirky, if un-recommendable accomidations in Notting Hill. It’s as hip as they come and attached to an interesting-sounding cinema, balancing a slightly formal dining room with an outdoor patio that is quite popular with locals that camp out for hours on end. As we were feeling a kind of “when in Rome” vibe, we both ordered the fish and chips with mushy peas and homemade tartar sauce. Oh man, did this ruin me for all future versions of this dish.  The cod was perfectly cooked, just the right amount of crispy and greasy on the outside and flaky and moist on the inside.  The mushy peas were super-sweet and tasted of spring. And that tartar sauce was sexy enough to slather all over your lover. The rest of the menu looked dreamy as well, and would pair delightfully with a date-night movie at the Electric Cinema (not that I’m already planning date nights for when I live in London or anything foolish like that.  Ahem).

Dinner on our first night was at the original location of St. John (26 St. John Street, Subway Farringdon), the gastropub that apparently started it all.  I made reservations about a month in advance online, and it was evident by the smirk on the hostesses face when the guy in front of us asked if they had any availability that night that reservations are a must and a half here.  Our server actually continually reminded us of our good fortune to be eating at St. John, not in an ugly way, but in a “well, of course you should order some Welsh rarebit, you’re HERE after all!” kind of way. It was actually quite charming, so we did.

We also ordered the roasted beef bone marrow with parsley, onion, and caper salad served with toast. Mama L was skeptical about spreading marrow on bread, but the look on her face was pure complicit joy at first bite.

Our main courses were roasted lamb and fennel, which was quite possibly one of the most amazingly gamey-while-delicious cuts of meat I’ve ever encountered and pigeon with lentils (slightly bloodier than I usually like my pigeon, but maybe I’m in the wrong on that one). Either way, both were completely amazing, if a total departure from the oft-fussiness of high-end Parisian cuisine.

The next day we spent a lovely morning at the Tate Modern and decided to duck in to their museum restaurant before heading over to the Globe Theatre for an afternoon matinee of Much Ado About Nothing, an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone of either a theatrical, touristical, or human disposition.  The restaurant at the Tate Modern was a totally yummy surprise, with an inventive menu with all-artisinal ingredients (the tomato chutney, the cheese, and the beef on my burger had homey-sounding names) and an excellent booze list. Yes, I drink and go to museums.  Sue me. I got to sample my first-ever Scottish Brew Dog Trashy Blonde beer, which was a welcome change from the beer-desert I live in here in Paris (cue world’s tiniest violin, I know).  Mama L had a vaguely Middle-Eastern platter of roasted vegetables, hummus, and salad, because she felt that we had eaten too much meat the previous evening and needed a reprieve.  Amateur.

Our third night, we followed the “St. John diaspora” (snort) and decided to try Hereford Road (3 Hereford Road, Subway: Notting Hill Gate), a relatively new space from the former chef at St. John Bread and Wine, Tom Pemberton.  I’m going to just go ahead and say it:  we liked it even better than St. John.  The space is beautifully designed with an enormous circular skylight in the main dining area. The staff is thoughtful and articulate about the food and wine. And the food, while simple and unfussy, is gutsy and delicious and traditional while also being totally out-of-the-box.  To start, Mama L had an exquisite spinach, bacon, and seared scallop salad. Don’t you love it when a simple scallop screams “Whoever cooked me is a total artist!”? I sure do:

I began with a Meantime Pilsner (yum!) and the potted crab, a dish which I’ll admit I had never heard of before that night. Consider me schooled: potted crab is just about the most decadent fat-kid concoction you can imagine, pairing fuss-free crab claw meat with drawn butter and toast. I could literally eat this every single day for the rest of my life and live a warm and happy existence:

For our main courses, I tucked in to a serious slab of pork belly served with a sweet broth and some game-changing zucchini. I’m not kidding, this zucchini transformed everything I ever believed about zucchini.

My mama took one bite, and another, and another, until I actually had to bat her fork away from my precious vegetable side dish. It was that good. Mama L had braised rabbit with fennel and a healthy scoop of aioli. She took a bite, closed her eyes, and said “My goodness, London has sure changed my opinion of fennel.” Clarence’s mama WOULD have “an opinion about fennel,” wouldn’t she?

For dessert, we shared an Eton Mess. Like many Americans, I had heard of Eton Mess but didn’t have a clue what it comprised. At Hereford Road it’s a mix of fresh sweet strawberries, candied rhubarb, and bits of meringue cookie smothered in whipped cream. It’s the kind of thing that I imagine might give a schoolboy a serious sugar high.

Our final culinary destination was Ottolenghi (several different locations, but we ate at the restaurant in Islington at 287 Upper Street, Subway Highbury & Islington). I’ll be frank, I am straight-up, fan-girl obsessed with chef Yotam Ottolenghi since “discovering” his genius Guardian column The New Vegetarian. So obsessed, in fact, that I’m seriously contemplating using his amazing sensibility as a framework for revamping my cooking to include more veggie-centric meals. Take the best vegetarian (or, at the restaurant, vegetable-driven) dishes you’ve ever had or imagined you could have, then multiply it by about a thousand. That’s how good this man’s food is.  Mama L went back to the States and promptly ordered his cookbooks. I would die a happy, smug vegetarian if Ottolenghi was my personal chef.

The dinner menu at Ottolenghi is made of two sections:  from the counter and from the kitchen.  Everything is a small plate meant to be shared, and the servers recommend that you order a mix of plates from the counter (usually cold, and served more or less immediately) and from the kitchen (hot dishes that take a little bit longer to arrive). Our server recommended five dishes between two people, which was exactly the perfect amount with dessert.  Our dishes from the counter were barley and farro with asparagus, feta, preserved lemon, green peas, and pink peppercorn (left) and roasted aubergine (eggplant) with apricot and ginger yoghurt, spiced pumpkin seeds, chili and sumac (right), served with the most orgasmic selection of bread I’ve seen in awhile:

Plus a char-grilled courgette (zuchini for you Yanks out there) with Parmesean, chervil, pistachio, and truffle oil, which will have you putting Parmesean and truffle oil on every vegetable that comes out of our kitchen, trust me.

From the kitchen, we ordered a pan-fried sea bass with garlic crisps and a mixed mushroom, seaweed, and truffle oil salad.  While the sea bass was as perfect as can be, the real star of the show was the seaweed salad:  tangy-sweet, tender, and umami to the max. My mom, never before a fan of seaweed salad, declared herself a convert.

Our second dish from the kitchen was smoked lamb cutlets with miso burt aubergine, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, and jalapeño sauce. Again, the lamb was great, but the vegetable accoutrements were the real breakout stars.  I want to take a bath in this bright green jalapeño puree:

For dessert, we split a slice of amazing carrot cake, and on the way out we bought two “granola bars” (let’s just say that these are unlike any granola bars I’ve ever eaten before) for our travels the next day.  Mama L said Heathrow airport looked a hellava lot nicer at five a.m when paired with a hot cup of coffee and an Ottolenghi granola bar.

So the food was great and unpretentious, the museums are mostly free, the people are absurdly friendly, and the public transportation wasn’t nearly as confusing as everyone made it out to be.  Other things I’d totally recommend you do in London (besides the stuff you are already probably going to do) include visiting the Freud Muesum and the Esorick Collection of Modern Italian Art (both fascinating and largely empty) and taking a nice long stroll along the Canal or inside the Hampstead Heath. I’d also recommend, especially in the summer, a classic Pimm’s cup (for the uninitiated, it’s a refreshing combination booze, sparkling lemonade, cucumbers, berries, apples, citrus, and borage or mint). I had mine at the excellent-looking The Bull and Last (168 Highgate Road, Subway Tufnell Park), where among other things, they have a delicious sounding dog snack menu. I’m pretty emphatically sold on London – now all I’ve got to do is convince B that it is an excellent setting for our future adventures.

Speaking of B, I told you a few weeks ago that I had a big announcement to make.  Well, here it is:  I’m leaving France at the end of this month as expected, but instead of heading back to Southern California, I am moving to Indiana for a year (and I don’t mean the Tex-Mex restaurant chain in Paris). B’s got some coursework to finish and a teaching gig there, you see, and I’m in desparate need of a place free of distractions with a university library for my year of fellowship-funded dissertation-writing. I know a lot of you will be taking me off your regularly scheduled blog programming without the “Paris-factor” (and I don’t blame you) but I hope that you’ll still keep stopping by for the crêpes-to-cornfields chapter of my life. We’ve got big plans, you see, including a Bourbon tour of Kentucky, a pulled-pork orgy in Memphis, and lots and lots of home-cooking. I’ve been chomping at the bit to start some smelly home-fermentation projects (can anyone say “homemade kimchee and sauerkraut”) that B has prohibited me from beginning in our tiny Parisian apartment. Moreover we’ve got Amish farms to visit, fruit to pluck, and an entire Larousse Gastronomique to work our way through in a Bloomington kitchen. What I’m saying is that I hope you’ll stick around for the ride. I’ll bribe you with some Best Of Paris entries soon, that is, when I can stop my current cycle of pre-packing, compulsive shopping at Dehillerin, charcuterie-eating, and weeping. I hope you are happy and staying cool this summer, dearest reader.  As always, you’re looking lovely.

Slightly More Rarified Bottom Feeding

Apparently all this time I thought that you wanted to be talking about what I ate for lunch, you actually just wanted to talk about The Bachelor, huh? Thanks for all the nice comments. I am happy to hear that among other things, B’s sister who I hope to charm is as much of a TV addict as I am.

And, for the record, our money’s on Emily for the finale (obviously). I’d put Chantal’s odds at ninety to one.

This has been a bad week for bottom feeders like me.  First, Charlie Sheen unleashed a sound-bite ready storm of interviews that I consumed like a cokehead trying to budget their stash. Just one video and then I’ll get to work! Well, maybe if I just watch all the videos now, then I’ll be able to get some work done. There are more videos!? Gimme my fix! Poor B, who is diligently trying to do some kind of project that involves lots of Latin translation and spreadsheet columns (I had no idea that Medieval Studies involved so much Excel) has been forced to listen to near-hourly updates on the status of Sheen’s dubious sobriety, two live-in girlfriends, and child custody.  I’m relatively certain that B wasn’t even aware that Sheen was still on television, as when I first showed him a video he made a comment about Hot Shots 2, which is digging pretty deep as far as I’m concerned. B is like an old man whose cultural references dropped off somewhere around 1995. Mention any band popular in the past five years or so and you’ll get nothing more than a blank, uncomprehending stare. Play any band popular in the last five years or so and you’ll surely have to listen to the entirety of Peter Gabriel’s So during dinner.

And if Sheen’s rapid televisual disintegration wasn’t enough, the swirling mass of controversy John Galliano’s bar fight and subsequent dismissal from Dior has kept me riveted to all fashion blogs French and American.  Part of my interest in this whole fiasco stems from the fact that La Perle, the bar where the incident took place, is a mere stone’s throw from my apartment and was a frequent setting for boozy evenings during my first year in Paris.  I’ll cop to still kind of liking it in an “ooh, look at all the beautiful people” kind of way, but B and M have made it abundantly clear that they hate La Perle in so many myriad different ways that I can’t suggest that we go there anymore. The two of them even make a point of crossing to the opposite side of the street from the bar when we walk by after eating pizza at our cherished Pink Flamingo on the same street.  If either one of them walked by La Perle without muttering something along the lines of “hipster scum” under their breath, I would die of surprise.

Anyway, we used to hang out there a lot. The booze is ridiculously cheap for the neighborhood, and if you get there early enough you can snag a booth to while away the evening. I live for bargain beers and booths. We never saw John Galliano there, though there was always the possibility that he might be around, as it is the watering hole for all the local designer ateliers. I find the description of La Perle as “a neighborhood bar” in the New York Times rather laughable, as I’ll bet you ninety-six percent of the people that go there don’t live within a twenty-block radius of the place. (Did that sound smug?  I didn’t mean it to.) In fact, I’ve bristled at most of the characterizations of the Marais that have accompanied news coverage of the Galliano event. Yes, of course this neighborhood is filled with gay bars and fancy clothing stores and falafel joints. But it’s not even faintly dangerous, nor soulless, nor hopelessly bourgeois. It’s my wonderful, weird neighborhood, one I feel more attached to than anywhere I’ve lived in recent memory. That is to say, I definitely feel like a Maraisienne these days than anything else, and you better watch what you say about my beloved marsh. Thems fightin’ words.

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I had a lovely week otherwise, the highlight of which was a girly day with M and her lovely friend AR.  The three of us had lunch at Rose Bakery, which I’ve been wanting to do for ages (it’s on the list!) and I can’t wait to tell you about (tomorrow: Clarence Goes to Tea!). Then, we did a bit of window licking in the Marais before heading to the superb “Women in the Orient” exhibition at the Musée Quai Branly. To my dear Parisian readers, I’d definitely recommend you go and see the amazing collection of historical and contemporary garments from Jordan, Syria, and Palestine curated by Christian Lacroix. I’m usually hesitant to recommend things at Quai Branly because it is so goddamn dark in there that people with bad eyesight like yours truly usually spend their whole visit worried that they are about to walk into a poorly-placed glass wall. But this exhibit is worth strapping on your pocket flashlight and venturing in.

* * *

Among a smattering of other smart things that M said while we were window shopping (this girl understands a bias), she made a great observation that A.P.C. basically gets all of their design ideas from Eric Rohmer’s movies. You know, the ones where all the bobos hang out in their beach houses and talk endlessly about their romantic problems and nobody seems to have a job? Well, it hardly seems necessary to spend hundreds of euros on an aesthetic so easily obtained by just by watching the Six Moral Tales, which I intend to start doing this weekend. For your Friday afternoon looking pleasure, here are some sartorial ideas from all six:

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)

Susanne’s Career (1963)

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Claire’s Knee (1967)

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

And, finally, French summer beach style owes everything to 1983’s Pauline at the Beach:

Happy Friday, dear reader.

Galão Galão, or, How to See Lisbon and Porto When You Are Too Sick to Stand

Hello dear reader! I suppose you might be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I returned from the US to Paris, finished out my second-to-last semester of teaching, and went to Portugal with B for a week and a half.  I’ve done most of this while nursing one of the ugliest and clingiest colds on either side of the Atlantic. In a dismal coincidence, I started getting pretty sick right before we left on our trip, and managed to make my first-ever visit to Portugal a veritable death march.  In the final few days of our trip, I developed some kind of crunchy noise in my right lung, which I’ve been delighted to find out is a mean case of bronchitis. So I know I’ve been a really bad internet boyfriend for the past month or so, but trust me, I’ve been pretty lousy company in real life too.

I’ve got loads to tell you about, including two schmancy meals at La Gazzetta and Spring for my and M’s respective birthdays.  As I’m full of phlegm, however, I’m going to leave that for later this weekend and instead give you a little bit of a rundown about our trip.

Honestly, we really didn’t love Portugal. It certainly didn’t help that I was particularly ill most of the time and B got a wicked case of food poisoning in the last leg of our trip. While the weather was sunny and crisp, so I can’t complain about rain, I certainly think that it might be a better summer tourist destination. One of our biggest gripes was with the food. I know these are fighting words to some people, and I want to acknowledge that we don’t speak a lick of Portuguese and were largely beholden to recommendations from our friends and our guidebook (Lonely Planet, though I’m thinking of leaving them for never updating their goddamn listings) and the internets at large. In the past, that kind of research has been more than enough for us to be two happily fed campers, but it felt like we couldn’t score a hit in Portugal, no matter how hard we tried.  We tried all the things we were supposed to at places where they were supposed to be good.  In Lisbon, we ate  bacalhau espiritual (salt-cod soufflé), porco a alentejana (garlicy pork cooked with clams and lots of lard),  spit-roasted frango (chicken) with piri-piri on the side, caldeirada rica (spicy fish stew), pastéis de nata (custard tarts), and lulas recheadas (stuffed squid). We sipped ginjinha (sweet cherry liqueur) at the place where it was invented. In Porto, I sampled sardinhas fritas (battered and deep-fried sardines) and arroz de tomate (tomato risotto) while B dug in to a giant bowl of tripas á moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe), a cassolet-type dish of pigs feet, white beans, tripe, chicken, sausages, and vegetables cooked with lots of cumin.

All this is to say, well, we tried. We found the sweets often verged on cloyingly so, and the reliance upon pork fat for everything (including most desserts) made a lot of things heavier than I might have liked. I obviously don’t have the same palate for salt as the Portuguese, and found most of the soups and rice dishes I sampled to be overwhelmingly salty. I don’t say all this to trash an entire national culinary tradition, which I suspect is varied and interesting and flat-out delectable in the right circumstances. But we had pretty bad luck, and it was disheartening at points. By the end it seemed like all we were consuming was sour drip coffee and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.

Rather than dwell on the negative, however, I want to share with you the best moments of our trip (some food-related!).  This won’t be nearly as comprehensive as our last vacation entries (I don’t think anyone could or should plan a trip to Lisbon and Porto from my recommendations). But if you’re going anyway, here’s what we particularly liked.

In Lisbon, our favorite day was spent seeing the major sites. The , Castelo de São Jorge, and museum at Igreja de São Vicente de Fora are the things that every tourist does in Lisbon for a reason – they are truly amazing.  The views from the Castelo de São Jorge can’t be beat, but my favorite view was from the very top of Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, where we were miraculously alone at sunset.  Despite the occasional miseries we went through on our vacation (just wait until I tell you all the different places B barfed in Porto!), we did see some pretty memorable (and romantic) sunsets in Lisbon.  Another great sunset spot (though hardly the “best kept secret” Lonely Planet described it as) is at Noobai Café (Miradouro de Santa Catarina).  Get there an hour before sunset like we did to snag a table, then watch the Wayfarer-clad Portuguese hipsters give you the evil eye when they arrive too late in the game for the money shot.

We also really dug the Convento do Carmo and the Museu Arqueológico.  With a clear blue sky, the skeletal arches of the nave (which was never fully rebuilt after the Lisbon earthquake) is pretty phenomenal.

For the weirdoes like yours truly out there, the museum has without a doubt the most terrifying mummified bodies I’ve ever seen: two 16th century Peruvian children curled up in little balls. They didn’t allow pictures, but I’m still having nightmares.

We took an afternoon and went to the Oceánario, which I’d also really recommend doing. The second-largest aquarium in Europe and a distinctly conservation-oriented space, the Oceánario is really is an amazing facility.  They grow their own coral reefs there! I suspect that it will be even more amazing when they finish the ear-shatteringly loud renovations they were working on during our visit. Come to think of it, a lot of the bad taste in my mouth about Lisbon comes from the fact that I swear I could hear jackhammers at every single moment. The price of beauty, I guess.

Anyway, the main draw of the aquarium is the central tank, which is staggeringly large and filled with a remarkable diversity of species (remarkable, I suppose, because I can’t believe that nobody gets eaten). Every exhibit returns the visitor to another view of the central tank to reinforce the idea of one ocean (I think), so you’ll have plenty of time to observe the animals for an extended period of time as they move through this enormous space. It’s worth the price of admission alone.

As for eating, we did enjoy the much-hyped pastéis de belém, served warm from the oven at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (you’ll find it, don’t worry).

At 80 cents a pop, they are quite a bargain.  Well, you also have to factor in a 5 euro tram ride to and from Belém into that bargain, but there are touristy things to do in Belém if you feel well enough to do things other than lie immobile on park benches and cough (I didn’t).

We also had a few totally decent meals during our time in Lisbon. Bonjardim (Travessa de Santa Antão 11, Lisboa), purveyor of succulent and flavorful rotisserie chickens and fries really floated our boat, though the piri-piri hygiene thing there is a bit weird. It was probably only because I was deathly ill that this even occurred to me. We also enjoyed a rather schmancy lunch at New York Times-recommended Aqui Há Peixe (Rua da Trindad 18A, Lisboa), where we were able to sample local oysters, salty-spicy fish stew, and grilled squid and red snapper. Was the food pretty good? Yeah. Would a restaurant serving that food and charging 80 euros for lunch last for one week in Paris? Nope.  Maybe the antibiotics are making me more honest than usual.

We particularly enjoyed a dinner at O Barrigas (Travessa da Queimada 31, Lisboa) in the Barrio Alto. Aside from the very Clarence-friendly name of “the bellies,” we especially liked their house specialty, a bacalhau espiritual that combined salted cod, bread, and carrots (and probably a healthy amount of pork fat) into a baked, soufflé-like dish. It was salty and fatty and totally satisfying. Also yummy was a veal stew served with the omnipresent fries of Portugal. We were the only people there the night we ate, which is really too bad, because it is a pretty great little restaurant. So go there, internets, should you find yourself in Portugal.

The biggest plug I want to make is for Pois Café (Rua de São João da Praça 93, Lisboa), quite possibly one of the most darling little joints I’ve been to in a long time. Run by Austrians (all hail the cakes!), this place is somehow everything you really want a great café to be: kitschey, eclectic, and comfy, with great food and coffee. And a liquor license! Seriously, the sandwiches we ate there for lunch might have been the best thing we ate on our trip. No joke.

They have Wifi and encourage people to sit and read. It’s lovely, and I’d be all over it like a fat kid on fried chicken if I lived in Lisbon. Depressingly, I just visited their website, only to discover that it is FOR SALE. The optimist in me hopes that one savvy Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background reader buys the place and keeps it wonderful. The pessimist in me says owner-changes (when the original is a gem) never work out very well, so get there while it’s still hot peeps.

I also loved shopping in Libson.  After scouring a dozen or so sapatarias, we scored B some pretty serious Fernando Silva leather shoes at about the third of the cost of what we would have paid in Paris.  We loved visiting the 80-year-old Conserveira de Lisboa, a veritable canned-fish lover’s dream with the walls lined with beautifully packaged tins of sardines, salted cod, cockles, tuna, and cephalapods in every possible sauce and preparation. They wrap your purchases in printed brown paper and tie it with a string, and while I know that this kind of thing is really for the tourists nowadays, it still feels pretty old-world and special.  It will feel less special, however, when you arrive for your flight leaving Portugal and discover that they will not allow you to carry canned food items on to the plane, meaning that you have to pay an additional 25 euros to check your suitcase, making those six cans of sardines that you purchased the most expensive cans of fish in the history of time.  The EasyJet woman smiled and shook her head when I showed her my neat little package.  “It’s always the sardines,” she said.  It’s always the sardines.

The other place that you should go an do some conspicuous consuming is the gorgeous A Vida Portuguesa stores in both Lisbon and Porto (Rua Anchieta 11 Lisboa).  I had read an article in the New York Times The Moment blog about this amazing place, but this store really does take the idea of a well-edited shop to a whole new level. Everything in the store is manufactured in Portugal, often by small companies that have been making beautiful products for generations.  They have everything from toothpaste to metal polish to cans of olive oil, all in amazing, vintage-looking packages.  They also carry a great selection of children’s’ toys, vintage postcards, and beautiful home textiles.  I died over the handmade Emilio Braga notebooks and the Caldas da Rainha and Faianças Artísticas Bordalo Pinheiro ceramics.

While I showed a fair amount of restraint in the Lisbon store, the discovery that our hotel was next door to the Porto store broke my willpower.  We ended up carting back a big bag of paper products, pencils, two amazing mugs, and the sugar bowl of my dreams, which looks like an oyster.  Depending on how good your Portuguese is (snort), you can shop online for many of their products.

Things were bleak enough by the time we intended to take the train to Porto that we actually shopped for flights directly back to Paris from Lisbon. Note to fellow travellers:  traveling on bargain airlines like EasyJet means that when you call to ask if you can change your ticket, they laugh and hang up on you. It had begun to rain in Lisbon and the gods of the weather internets were saying that it was going to be even worse in Porto.

We were surprised, then, to find Porto to be a sunny, lovely town full of bookshops and bobos and picturesque abandoned buildings.  Look, I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t still sick as a dog and somewhat miserable a lot of the time.  I’m also not going to lie and say that the food was any better in Porto (though we had resigned ourselves to eating more toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, which are actually quite good across Portugal).  But we liked Porto about a thousand times more than Lisbon.  It’s full of young people and quirky shops and lovely parks.  While Lisbon felt to us like a place we would only want to visit, Porto felt like a place we could actually live.

The wheels did fall off the bus a bit when after dining at A Tasquinha (Rua do Carmo 23, Porto), B came down with a pretty vicious case of food poisoning.  He had ordered the tripe, an act that I joking observed his gastrointestinal system probably regarded as cannibalism.

Inspired perhaps by the walking-death impression I’d be doing the whole trip, B put on a brave face and we went sightseeing. I’m a bit of an architecture junkie (as most dilettantes are), so I wanted to see Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música.  Pretty underwhelming in person, and it appears that the main function of this 100 million euro project is as a skate park for the local youth.  Grumble, grumble, where’s my Metamucil?

We went inside to see the interior, and B promptly announced that he had to find a restroom. We found an empty bar, and B rushed into the restroom while I waited on some strangely discordant looking furniture.  An orchestral concert was taking place in the main concert hall and they piped the music through the entire space, so I got to listen to Rossini, as did B while his body attempted to turn itself inside out.  He came out after a half hour, glowing and looking like he had seen God.

I suggested that we go back to the hotel room, but he insisted that we continue on our death march to Serralves, a wonderful contemporary arts space housed in a gorgeous park filled with art installations.

It’s very difficult to access via public transportation, however, as Porto’s slick new metro system does not reach to that part of the city. You can now imagine us walking along a peripheral freeway, me hacking out a lung or two, B green with nausea.  By the time we arrived at the park, we decided it would be best to sit down.  The map directed us to a teahouse in the park, where we discovered that fancy tea in Portugal is Lipton.  It mattered little, as we were really there so B could vomit again.

Discovering that the men’s restroom was far too abject to even barf in, B commandeered the ladies’ room for another round of “that offal was really awful.” When the staff discovered him, he pretended to be French. That’s another point of the US of A right there.  We then attempted to care about two exhibitions, one of political art and one a retrospective of letterist Gil J Wolman’s art.  Well, actually we looked for benches to collapse on and film displays to curl up in the dark.  But it’s a really amazing space, and certainly worth a visit should you find yourself healthy and in Porto.

My favorite day of the trip was when we took the train from Porto to Vila do Conde, a swish beach community with a gorgeous stretch of Atlantic coastline. It was obviously too cold to do much at the beach besides wander around and climb on the rocks, but we did this with great zeal.

A strange churro stand at the beach was pumping out old Fado music on a record player, lending a lilting soundtrack to our exploration.  Best of all, we were virtually alone on the beach, making this perhaps the most romantic moment of what might very well have been one of the least romantic vacations ever (there’s nothing like handing your lover a snot or puke stained kleenex “to hold” to put a damper on things). Actually, we took pretty good care of each other on the trip, and there is nothing quite like knowing that you still really like somebody even when you both feel like crap. So maybe it was kind of romantic after all.

Did I mention the bookstores in Porto?  Check out this beauty:

Meet Livraria Lello, an amazing 1906 Gothic revival bookshop that features this killer staircase. What I didn’t realize at first glance is that most of the “woodwork” is actually trompe l’oeil plaster, and the staircase itself is a solid cement structure (quite an engineering feat in 1906).  Even cooler, perhaps, was the fact that many of Porto’s bookshops put of displays of “revolutionary” literature as things began to escalate in Egypt:

It was kind of frustrating being out of touch with English-speaking news while such amazing things were happening, but it was great to see everyone rallying and getting excited. If you are anything like me, dear reader, I suspect you’ve been weeping to images of the crowds rejoicing in the streets the past two days.

Well, at any rate, that’s about all I’ve got to say about our somewhat disappointing Portuguese foray, friends. I’d like to hear all the things you love about Portugal and all the things I failed to eat that would have turned my spirits around. I can’t help but feel like we missed the boat a little bit, which is somewhat inevitable if you travel enough (and you make the budget-driven decision to travel even when you are sick). I’m sorry to have been such a lousy bloguese as of late. I’ve missed you guys and I promise I’ll see you soon.

 

Hungerdome: Will the Real Mexican Food in Paris Please Stand Up?! Parte Dos

First of all, I want to welcome any new readers that have arrived here thanks to my dear friend D’s (entirely undeserved) praise of my blog.  D, whom my regular readers I’m sure remember as the gracious host who fed me oh-so-well in Berlin, is really one of the best people I’ve ever met and I’m lucky to call her a friend.

One feature that new readers might not be aware of here at Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background is the Hungerdome, where two culinary contestants enter and only one leaves the victor.  The first Hungerdome was held in August and put three Parisian macaron bakeries head-to-head in what became a vaguely nauseating and startlingly mathematical battle.  My regular readers will surely suspect that I have forgotten entirely about the second Hungerdome, where I meant to evaluate the meagre Mexican offerings available in the City of Lights.

Here’s the deal. Even though I did enjoy my evening at Hacienda del Sol, I’ll admit that the experience left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. How bad? Ninety euros bad, people.  In absolutely no universe should that kind of food cost that much money, France or not. Many people had recommended that I visit Anahuacalli and evaluate it in comparison to Hacienda del Sol. A real live Californian even said that he had the best enchiladas verde of his life at Anahuacalli (an admission that makes me question his standards more than anything else). But the idea of spending another hundred bucks or so on a meal that I could probably make better myself left me cold, especially with a visit to the States on the horizon in which I plan to eat Mexican food until I burst at the seams.

Moreover, I don’t want to brag here, but I’ve started to really get cooking Mexican food here in my miniature Parisian kitchen down to a science. The discovery of a basement Portugese section in a Monoprix in the first arrondisement means that our pantry is well-stocked with black beans. B and M together are a ferocious tortilla-making machine. We even discovered an errant batch of fresh jalapeños a little while ago that had somehow mistakenly ended up in a French supermarket, which we purchased in bulk and froze. The result of all this legwork was that few weeks ago we hosted a carne asada taco night, one that was roundly received as one of the yummiest dinner parties on record. I can whip up some pretty killer Mexican food any night of the week here, so any restaurant claiming to do the same better bring their game face and not cost a week’s salary.

Two Parisian newcomers do just that.  The first, El Nopal (3 rue Eugène Varlin, 75010 Paris, Métro Colonel Fabien), is as close to a Mexican taqueria as you are going to get in this town. Run by super-friendly Alejandro from Monterrey and some lovely Ecuadorians (whom B seems to think are Alejandro’s in-laws), El Nopal offers up a limited but tasty menu of tacos and burritos out of a shoebox-sized shop just off Canal St. Martin.  Regrettably, there is practically no space whatsoever to eat inside, but I suspect that El Nopal will be the place to be come summer when eating by the Canal is de rigueur for all of the cool kids.

B, M, and I ventured there on a cold and rainy night, and squeezed in to the tiny space. We quickly made friends with Alejandro, who obviously realizes that it is the Americans who are the bread and butter of any Mexican joint in this town.  We each ordered a basket of three tacos. Alejandro keeps the selection small, and the night we came in all he had available was an Ecuadorian spicy chicken and vegetable and beef and potato taco regional to Monterrey.  Both were quite good, especially when served on the corn tortillas that Alejandro makes to order with an enviable little tortilla press and spread with refried beans.  Best of all, he serves his tacos with a genuinely spicy and flavorful salsa, which we greedily doused ourselves in (and more of which was quickly provided). Washing down our tacos with bargain-priced (for this town) Bohemia beers, we were three happy campers. So happy, in fact, that we commandered the tiny space for another round of tacos and beer and a delightful Ecuadorian coffee-flavored dessert. While we ate, Alejandro shared with us secrets of where to buy spicy chiles in Paris (Asian markets) and how to keep our homemade tortillas from sticking to our remedial press (plastic shopping bags, not cling wrap). We left, aglow with booze and good cheer.

I quickly posted the image above of our tacos from El Nopal on Facebook, so that my Parisian friends of past and present would know that there was now a decent taqueria in town.  The responses were mixed, including several from past inhabitants of this fair city that amounted to “That’s nice for you, and it would have been nice for me a year ago.” Another Paris resident and a loyal reader of this blog (hi L!) suggested that I should also try Rice and Beans (22 rue Greneta Paris, France 75002, Métro Etienne Marcel), a new burrito joint run by Americans that has just opened in the former space of much-lauded Rice and Fish, a sushi shop that has changed locations.  Thus a new Hungerdome was born.

Rice and Beans, from which ate takeout last night, is a bit of a different animal from El Nopal. While both have a kitsch-filled aesthetic, Rice and Beans’ Luchador-centric decor feels a bit affected. The menu is quite extensive, offering a variety of tacos and burritos, as well as tamales and the restaurant’s namesake black beans and spanish rice. We arrived at the restaurant right when it was supposed to open and were told that the kitchen wasn’t running yet and that we should come back in a half hour. We acquiesced and browsed a lousy used bookstore nearby to kill some time. When we arrived back, we ordered a variety of things from the menu, including two chile colorado tamales, a carnitas burrito with all the fixings, and a selection of three tacos (chipotle chicken, fish, and chorizo). The (white) guy behind the counter was obviously an American, and the ever-affable B quickly struck up a conversation. He revealed that he was from Portland, which I regretted knowing, as I can officially say that the second worst Mexican food I’ve ever eaten was in the Pacific Northwest (the titleholder was in Berlin and wins due to the morale-annihilating case of food poisoning that accompanied it). Nevertheless, we tried to make conversation with this guy about the pitfalls of making Mexican food in Paris, having had a rousing conversation with Alejandro of El Nopal to the same effect.  Rather bizzarely, he immediately became suspicious when we described the various places we had successfully located dried red chiles and corn masa for tortillas, and asked in a rather bullying tone if B intended to start his own Mexican restaurant in Paris. B laughed and explained that he was a scholar of medieval literature and would be returning to the states in less than a year, but you could tell that this guy’s guard was up.  When B shared his (in my opinion, amazingly brilliant) idea of opening a taco truck on the gravel pit in front of the Louvre, the guy scoffed with the kind of disdain that one can only muster for a really good idea that one wishes he had thought of first.

Our rather chilly reception aside, I was still excited to get our Rice and Beans food home. I immediately dug into the burrito and was generally quite pleased with the results, as it tasted like a decent (if somewhat bland) burrito from anywhere on the West Coast. I’ll give extra points to anything that involves good guacamole, and this burrito certainly did. The tamales were moist and well-handled, despite the fact that nothing resembling red chile had ever touched their filling.  The beans and rice were fine, in the way that unspectacular black beans and spanish rice are always fine.  But the tacos quickly veered off course. It was entirely unclear what kind of substance was being billed as “chorizo,” but it certainly didn’t resemble any kind of chorizo I’ve eaten on this or any other side of the Atlantic. The deep-fried fish was good, if fishy (these guys did run a sushi shop, after all), but the “chipotle” chicken was as sad of a heap of limp, flavorless, dried-out chicken breast as I’ve ever seen.  The worst offender was the homemade salsa, which was glorified marinara sauce in a tiny plastic cup. It was the culinary equivalent of squirting ketchup on your meal, and we quickly trashed it in favor of our own smuggled-in bottle of Tapatio for flavor and heat. They did have a variety of bottled hot sauces available at the restaurant, so perhaps that is more of the go-to condiment at Rice and Beans than the salsa, which seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

I guess I wouldn’t be so sour about the actual quality of the meal, which was totally decent by Paris standards for Mexican food, if we hadn’t been accused of being spies eager to check out the competition and steal their culinary secrets. To be honest, should B and I ever decide open up our taco truck, we’d give those guys a hell of a run for their money.

So, let’s Hungerdome this beast, shall we?

Round 1:  Food

There’s really no contest.  On one hand, you have a Mexican guy running a genuine taqueria with his family’s recipes.  He understands what salsa is supposed to taste like and that Corona is not the only beer that one can import from Mexico.  On the other hand, you’ve got some American guys running a burrito joint largely modeled on other European burrito joints that are modeled on Chipotle.  While Rice and Beans does have a more extensive menu, El Nopal makes sure their small list of offerings are all perfect. As a fan of quality over quantity every time, this one goes to El Nopal. Lest I sound like the mean girl, however, I do want to say that Rice and Beans makes quite a good burrito, the likes of which you will be unable to find elsewhere in Paris.

Round 2:  Booze

Mexican beers at both El Nopal and Rice and Beans are both a rather steep 4 euros a bottle, but that’s change compared to the cost of those beers anywhere else in Paris (B and I both had a seizure when we realized we were being charged 8 euros a pop for Negro Modelos at Hacienda del Sol). El Nopal serves Bohemia, however, which is my Mexican beer of choice. Thus this round goes to our friend Alejandro, who also knows a thing or two about beer.  We’ll forgive him for regarding Tecate as “a fancy beer,” as apparently it was for him growing up in Monterrey.

Round Three:  Price

A key factor, especially since I’ve already (rather dictatorially) decided that Hacienda del Sol and Anahuacalli are out of the running for the best Mexican food in Paris due to their high price tags.  Tacos are a euro a pop cheaper at El Nopal than at Rice and Beans (two versus three euros), which can really mean something when you are eating in bulk.  Thus, round three goes to again to Alejandro, who knows how much you can actually charge for a taco, in Paris or anywhere else for that matter.

Round Four:  Restaurant Space and Ambiance

El Nopal is delightfully decorated and immaculately clean, but the size of the average American walk-in closet. Rice and Beans wins points for being an actual sit-down restaurant chock-a-block with kitsch, but their hygiene standards left both B and me a bit unsettled. It wasn’t dirty, per se, but it wasn’t exactly clean either. Moreover, El Nopal is a block from the Canal, whereas Rice and Beans calls the (cough) atmospheric area of Reamur-Sebastopol home. Come summertime, Alejandro will be able to call one of the coolest picnic areas in town his dining room.  For this reason, and the general friendliness of the owners, El Nopal also takes this final round.

There you have it, people. Two Parisian Mexican places entered the Hungerdome, and El Nopal emerged victorious. Seriously, people, El Nopal is a brand-new, family-run business trying to make its way in a tough restaurant scene that doesn’t look kindly on anything spicy. If you find yourself on the Canal and hungry, please give it a shot. I want this yummy taqueria to make it through this long winter until next summer, when I anticipate having to fight my way in to get a plate of tacos for a picnic dinner.

The List

There seems to be a rash of “life lists” and “bucket lists” circulating on the ol’ blogosphere lately. And while I don’t have too many “life goals” at this point, I do have an ominous event looming at the end of next summer:  I’ll be leaving Paris. I don’t have a firm departure date just yet, but like all good things, this one will be coming to an end sometime in early August 2011. The mere thought of it makes me sad, and a few days ago I sat in the park in front of the Musée Picasso (closed interminably for restoration) and wept at the thought of having to leave this city. I’ve never been happier in my life than I have been living here. And while I’m excited for the next chapter, it’s still going to be a tough transition come next summer.

It’s easier than you think to become complacent when you live in a place like this for a long time. While I’ve certainly done plenty of amazing cultural activities since my arrival, I’ve also managed to avoid some really important one (like, uh, stepping foot in the Louvre). So I have compiled (along with B) a “to-do list” of sorts so I don’t forget all the things I want to do before I leave. I’ll share it with you, dear reader, and periodically update you on my progress. Some of these things are pretty cliché, so I’ll ask you to promise me that you won’t make fun. Telling you about things has been a great incentive to do things over the past ten months.  Better yet, if you are in Paris (or are planning on being in Paris) and want to join me in any of these activities, let me know!

The List

Muesums and other cultural attractions

  • Buy an annual pass and tour the Louvre from top to bottom (this will take a while, so I’ll list the collections so I can cross them off periodically:  Egyptian antiquities; Near Eastern antiquities; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman collection; Islamic art; sculpture; decorative arts; painting; and prints and drawing).
  • See the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris before January 30th
  • See the Arman show at the Centre Pompidou before January 10th
  • Visit the Musée National Gustave Moreau museum
  • Visit the Musée de l’Orangerie
  • Visit the Musée Carnavalet
  • Tour the Catacombes
  • Take B and M to the Cimitière Montparnasse
  • Visit the Crypte Archéologique in front of Notre Dame
  • Visit the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
  • Visit Fondation Dubuffet
  • Visit Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
  • Visit the Musée du Vin
  • Take B to the Musée du stylo et de l’écriture
  • Visit the Maison Rouge
  • Visit the Musée des arts forains
  • Visit the Musée de la vie romantique
  • Visit the Musée Jacquemart-André
  • Go to the top of the Tour Eiffel 
  • Go to the top of the Tour Montparnasse
  • Go to Versailles
  • Go to Chartres with B
  • Go to Giverny with my mom
  • Suck it up and go with B to Parc Astérix

Green Things

  • Ride bikes to the Bois de Boulogne and have a picnic
  • See the tulips in the Bagatelles in the spring
  • Take my mother to Parc Butte-Chaumont and buy her a drink at Rosa Bonheur
  • Take my dad for a bike ride along the Promenade Plantée to the Bois de Vincenne and rent a boat
  • Return to Fontainebleau with B in the spring and find some morels

Movies and Concerts

  • See Nouvelle Vague at the Casino de Paris on November 30th with M, AC, and B
  • See somebody at the l’Olympia, preferably somebody French and venerable
  • See The Gospel According to Matthew, Oedipus Rex, and Accattone! at Accattone, thus completing the project of seeing all of Pasolini’s films on the big screen
  • See 8 1/2 and La strada, thus completing the project of seeing all of Fellini’s films on the big screen
  • See Les Quatre Cents Coups, À bout de souffle, Pierrot le fou, Les Carabiniers, Masculin, féminin, Week End, Vivre sa vie, and Cléo de 5 à 7 on the big screen

Clarence, King of All Things Good and Plentiful

  • Eat as much charcuterie, foie gras, rillettes, truffles, rabbit, duck, rotisserie chickens, and oysters as possible
  • Try as many French cheeses as possible and keep a record of ones I love
  • Try as many French wines as possible and keep a record of ones I love
  • Learn to shuck oysters and do so for my friends on New Year’s Eve
  • Eat at Spring (B snagged reservations on January 6th , probably didn’t need that kidney anyway)
  • Eat at Yam’Tcha
  • Eat at Frenchie
  • Eat at La Gazetta
  • Eat at Rino
  • Have brunch at Rose Bakery with M
  • Go to Marché des Enfants Rouges as many weekends as possible and take my mom there when she visits
  • Eat a Pierre Hermé white truffle macaron and a foie gras and chocolate macaron (if possible)
  • Throw a proper ex-pat Thanksgiving feast
  • Throw a party for Fête de la Musique and make a thousand paper cranes to dump on the crowds for Raidd Bar’s annual block party

Save Me From What I Want

  • Buy an oyster-shucking knife and an oyster-shucking glove from E. Dehillerin
  • Convince B that the only thing we can afford from E. Dehillerin is an oyster-shucking knife and glove, or, price shipping costs for copper cookware and cast iron pots from E. Dehillerin
  • Buy the rest of Lacan’s seminars in French (four to go!), figure out how to ship books internationally on the cheap
  • Find an amazing set of vintage Laiguole cheese knives, preferably with wood or horn handles
  • Buy the perfect beret
  • Find vintage lithographs of our favorite landmarks in Paris (including the Hôtel de Ville, preferably on fire, Tour St. Jacques, Porte St. Denis, Notre Dame, Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and Sacré-Coeur) at le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen
  • Find a vintage map of the Marais (Saint-Ouen, you’re on notice!)
  • Visit Deyrolle, the famous taxidermy shop.  Resist buying a stuffed bunny.