Dearest reader, how was your weekend? Mine was pretty damn delicious. It also didn’t really end until yesterday. This week is inexplicably “Winter Break” at our university, so I have the week off. And by “the week off,” what I actually mean is: “I didn’t have to go to work on Monday and half of Tuesday like I usually do.” Would it make you feel any better that most of the rest of my time is spent reading dead peoples’ letters about their gonorrhea symptoms and fighting off an overwhelming sense of career-related dread? No? No. I didn’t think so.
I’ve been thinking about blogging a lot lately. Everybody seems to have an opinion about what I could do to get a few more people here. B thinks that a name change is in order. I agree, in theory. But thinking about changing the name to something like “Tasty Paris!” or “A Cupcake Rides in France” immediately causes the barf to rise to the back of my throat. And I really like “Keeping the Bear-Garden in the Background,” though I’ll readily admit that it’s not very Google-friendly. Another friend suggested that my site become “more lifestyle oriented.” She was an advertising and marketing major, surprise, surprise. I think that this is code for “more posts about shit that other people can buy.” There are several problems with this plan, not the least of which being that I myself don’t have a lot of money to buy things and purchasing things in general makes me feel terribly guilty. After years of hiding shopping bags from my mother, I still feel compelled to hide shopping bags from B, despite the fact that he couldn’t care less how I spend my money. The last thing I want to do is announce to the whole Internet how I’m part of the vast system of consumption that is literally bleeding the world dry. So I don’t think any posts entitled “What I’m Coveting This Season!” are going to be making it here anytime soon. Also who is coveting the entire hardbound Cambridge edition of D. H. Lawrence’s correspondence anyway? Nobody, that’s who.
Many other people have suggested that I need to publicize my blog more in other internet forums, which I don’t really know how to do and makes me feel squeamish. I did, however, figure out how to add a “share” button to the bottom of each entry. It includes such useful applications as “print,” just in case you, like my mother, are compiling a binder of hard copies of each and every thing I write. On the off chance that, uh, the Internet ceases to exist. No wonder I have such an exaggerated sense of apocalyptic thinking. All of that was my longwinded way of saying that there is now a share button at the bottom of each entry, added as part of a reluctant and half-hearted attempt to increase traffic on this site. I say half-hearted, because who needs other people, right? We’re just fine on our own, all eight of us. That’s right, there are eight of us now! Practically a small army. Anyway, now you can now Digg or Share on Facebook or Tweet about me, if you want. No pressure.
Gah, I feel gross. Let’s talk about food.
This weekend was particularly awesome because it was a veritable SOVIET INVASION in Paris, what with M’s husband AC and their (our?!) friend R sweeping into town simultaneously. AC and R are the best kind of visitors because they both have been to Paris a million times before, so we can basically do the normal things that we are planning on doing and they are perfectly happy. Case in point: I’ve been craving dim sum for about two years now and had read everywhere that La Chine Masséna (13 Place Vénétie, 75013 Paris, Métro Porte de Choisy) was the place to go in Paris. I suggested it for Friday night, fully expecting to be shot down in favor of a stuffy French bistro. To my delight, everybody rallied and schlepped all the way down to Porte de Choisy, all in humoring my desire to eat steamed dumplings off of carts.
La Chine Masséna is pretty great if you want to go somewhere that feels nothing like a stereotypical Parisian restaurant. It’s huge, seating over eight hundred people in a dining room with an enormous, neon-lit dance floor, gaudy red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and more flat-screen televisions than at your local Best Buy. Along one side of the dining room are a dozen giant fishtanks, holding everything from lobsters, crabs, and sea snails to sole and enormous, beady-eyed carp. We were seated directly next to the tanks, which meant that every time someone ordered fresh seafood, we would get to watch the waiters come and fish out dinner. I got splashed several times in the process, which was half-awesome and half-grody. The tanks don’t smell excellent, to be honest, so if you are sensitive towards that kind of thing you might want to request a table on the other side of the room. I was happy to watch the lobsters swim around and gleefully heckled the waiters when the slippery sole evaded their nets. But B, who was still recovering from the übervirus, confessed later that the whole thing made him totally nauseous. So, caveat emptor.
As you might expect, the menu is absolutely enormous, with everything from modest bowls of noodle soup to two hundred euro seafood towers fit for a king. We made a beeline for the dim sum, because Clarence hadn’t stopped talking about it for forty-eight hours and nobody fucks with Clarence when he’s got something stuck in his craw. I’m no dim sum expert, but I really like the format of pointing at what you want to eat on a moving cart.
I think a lot of this comes from suburban Denver high school nostalgia. A boy I had a crush on for most of high school took me to my very first dim sum restaurant on what I hoped was a date (it wasn’t) when I was fifteen. It was in a part of town I never spent any time in and the whole affair seemed incredibly exotic. He drove us there in a tricked-out hearse and nonchalantly ordered plum wine for both of us. I barely remember what we ate, or if I even enjoyed it, but I do remember thinking that the whole thing made me exponentially cooler that I was earlier that afternoon. I do remember him taking the lid off of the pork buns and saying something like “Now these are the best.” I still think pork buns are the best, and I’m not sure if it isn’t because my high school crush declared them so. Later, I bragged about my glamorous non-date to my best friend, who subsequently started dating the guy the following weekend. He thanked me later for laying the groundwork with my much-hotter friend. I thanked him for introducing me to dim sum.
We ordered a pretty standard array of dim sum at La Chine Masséna, including pork and shrimp dumplings, shrimp ravioli, crab and bamboo shoot ravioli, mushroom dumplings, chicken feet in spicy black bean sauce, pork spare ribs, deep-fried spiny lobster croquettes, and of course my beloved pork buns. While the restaurant has an extensive wine and Chinese liquor list, we stuck with several rounds of cold Tsing-Tao.
M revealed her deep love of chicken feet and treated us to a story from her childhood about her mother making chicken feet soup. We all enjoyed sucking the succulent flesh and fatty skin off of the tiny bones. From the first second he saw them AC was deeply suspicious of the pork buns. After spending a good long time poking at them with his chopsticks, he declared that he was having none of that. I guess you need a good-looking teenage boy to break you in to the idea of porc laqué au brioche early on in life.
The dim sum wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was totally delightful by the standards of other Parisian Chinese food I’ve eaten. And the ambiance of the place makes it a fun place to go with a big group of people. Did I mention that the music is a non-stop hit fest of Brian Adams and Richard Marx? I think that my childhood orthodontist had the exact same lite rock soundtrack. Amazing! La Chine Masséna is actually a pretty fancy restaurant, and most of the Chinese people dining there were dressed up in suits and evening dresses. I suspect that this was in anticipation of karaoke and dancing, which we didn’t stay late enough to enjoy. But we’ll certainly be back. I do a mean “Lady in Red,” especially with a few Tsing-Taos and pork buns under my belt.
In my looooong absence (sorry ‘bout that!), I managed to make a pretty serious dent in The List, my to-do list for final five months and change in Paris. It’s a pretty idiosyncratic affair, but nevertheless it goes a long way in justifying indulgences. We have to eat at this incredibly expensive restaurant! We have to buy this stupid print! It’s on THE LIST! Best of all, it’s not even me that has to do the justifying. M and B are my own private little enablers, both deeply concerned that I won’t finish in time. The List ties in pleasantly to M’s preemptive nostalgia for leaving Paris months before she has even left. She has begun, rather annoyingly, I might add, declaring that everything we do might very well be for the last time. “This might be the very last time the three of us eat pizza at La Briciola.” Uh, highly unlikely. “This might very well be the last time we all window shop on rue Sainte Anne!” Well, maybe, but have we ever done it before today? She’s even begun keeping a journal in which she chronicles all of her “last things” in Paris. I’ve been giving her a hard time about it because I don’t want this to become a moody, end-times kind of period. I also don’t really want to think about the fact that I’m not going to live in Paris by the end of this year, and that I won’t live in the same city as M. Sometimes you can only just trace the periphery of something sad, because you know that if you actually dive in, it will be too much to bear. So that’s what The List is, limning the contours of something that throbs.
Lest you get sappy too, dear reader, let me say that I’m not too worried about the blog. I fully intend on seducing the shit out of you, so long after I have no Paris restaurants to tell you about you still want to come here. Come autumn we will be visiting Amish farms and learning to make our own kimchee and planning a barbecue tour of the American South. I’m playing the long game for your affections. Consider yourself on notice.
So back to The List, let’s see what I’ve accomplished lately, shall we?
- See the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris before January 30th
That one was a bit trickier than I had anticipated, as every time we were over in that part of town, there was a line down the block to get in to the exhibition. But a teeny-tiny bit of advance planning meant we were able to buy tickets online, and gloatingly skip past a line of impatient tourists. Suck it, short-timers. The show itself was pretty great, but I won’t bore you with my art history 101 analysis, as it has closed already, so if you were going to see it, you saw it.
- See the Arman show at the Centre Pompidou before January 10th
Now this was seriously awesome. I only really knew Arman as “the trash guy,” but the retrospective at Centre Pompidou was exquisite. It’s pretty rare to encounter aesthetic objects that completely shift the way that you think about a given piece of material, but that is exactly how I felt about Arman’s work in burned furniture, resin, and cut household objects. As someone who used to work on the exhibition end of the art industry, I am always thinking about the sheer labor that goes into the hanging of large-scale artworks.
An exploded car hung vertically, entitled “White Orchid,” drove home what an accomplishment the installation of this enormous show. Perhaps our favorite part of the exhibition was in the collection of paper ephemera. A notice, issued by the Black Panthers of America, encouraged people to bring in “any and everything” to be cut in half by “artist Arman’s amazing saws.” The halved objects would then be signed and sold back to the owner for a fee, which Arman was then charitably donating to the Black Panthers. Did this fundraising event actually transpire? Where are the photos? Internets, you let me down!
- See The Gospel According to Matthew and Oedipus Rex at Accattone, working towards the project of seeing all of Pasolini’s films on the big screen
Yes, I’ve started taking pictures inside of movie theatres. Sue me. To be fair, most of the movies I see have pretty small audiences. It’s usually me, B, M, and a creepy-looking guy that is slumped down unconscious in the back row. So I’m not too worried about the etiquette. I don’t use a flash, either, Miss Manners. We’ve still got Porcile, Accattone!, and Medea to go. I’m starting to get worried about this one. While Accattone! is on regular screenings, I haven’t seen Porcile or Medea in my Pariscope, like, ever. If you are playing along at home, let me know if you see either of those playing in Paris. I’ll buy your ticket and a beer.
- Obtain an oyster knife and oyster shucking glove, learn to shuck oysters, and do so for my friends on New Year’s Eve
Done and done. Except instead of a shucking glove, we decided on this amazing device known as the Clic’ huitres. It’s sort of a rubber stabilizer that makes it easy to get leverage on your oyster. On New Year’s Eve we bought two dozen bivalves, an assortment of excellent cheeses, some beautiful foie gras, and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Only Prairie Wolf showed up to our last-minute gathering (more oysters and foie gras for everyone!), but the three of us had a pretty lovely time. We only sustained one oyster-related injury (Prairie Wolf cut his thumb), but he was so drunk by the time it happened that he barely noticed. B proved himself to be a dyed-in-the-wool shucking demon, expertly prying apart shells without so much as a drop of liquer going to waste or a shard of shell ending up in the meaty bits. That’s right, people. Not only can my boyfriend explain to you why the bits of mortar you are looking at in this heap of rocks are actually from the late Roman Empire and not the early part (silly rabbit!), he can also shuck the shit out of a pile of oysters. Don’t you wish I hadn’t gotten here first?
- Eat a Pierre Hermé foie gras and chocolate macaron (if possible)
As we weren’t in town for the holidays, I was worried that we would miss the limited window of time where Pierre Hermé’s foie gras macrons are available. When we finally got our lazy asses to the store on January 6th or so, we discovered that the only way the foie gras macarons were available was in boxes of sixteen. Fifty euros for a box of cookies?! But it’s on THE LIST! We bit the bullet, bought the box, and had an impromptu macaron-tasting party that evening. We sampled both the classic dark chocolate and foie gras as well as the wild rose, fig, and foie gras variety.
The verdict? Well, they aren’t like anything you’ve ever eaten before. There is a strange harmony between the fatty richness of the liver and the sweetness of chocolate. But, to me, the sweetness of the macaron somehow accentuated the meaty quality of the foie too much. It was really overpowering to me. Sometimes macarons are too rich for my palate, and these were the worst offenders yet. But B and our new friend L really loved them, so who am I to judge? Should you want to drop the bones, I’d definitely encourage you to try them next December. I’ll be sticking with my classic lemon and rose. Unless a white truffle or green tea with red bean makes it into my life again.
- Eat at La Gazzetta
For my (gulp) 28th birthday celebration, B had tried to snag reservations at Spring sometime in early October. They laughed at the audacity of a young man who wanted not only to eat at Spring in December, but on a Friday night as well. They offered him a Thursday night in early January, and he delightedly accepted, realizing that it was just a few days after M’s birthday. So for my birthday, we ate at the (also much-hyped) La Gazzetta (29 rue de Cotte, 75012 Paris, Métro Ledru-Rollin). Let me just say that I can certainly see what all the fuss is about. Swedish chef Petter Nilsson offers a fixed-price, five or seven course dinner that changes on a weekly, if not daily, basis (five plates 39€, seven plates 52€). Everything was totally inventive, unexpected, and exquisitely executed. On the evening of my birthday, we started the evening with an aperitif of aged Amontillado sherry from 1922. Seriously! Bring on the Edgar Allen Poe jokes from a group of literature graduate students! It was surreal it was so perfect. Dinner was Saint Jacques scallops served in a shrimp and bacon broth; red chard and cauliflower served with an egg yolk confit, giant capers, and crunchy almonds; an aromatic dish of white beans and cod; Breton lobster in a light celery broth with fresh hazelnuts; a Pierre Duplantier chicken cooked with cedar, peppers, and pickled pink onions; mandarin oranges soaked in espresso served alongside chocolate and bread sorbet; and finally, an almond and yougurt daquoise paired with fresh lychees and mint. The ambiance of the restaurant is comfortable and cool without feeling fussy. I’d actually go so far as to say that it is a bargain for the kind of meal you are getting. We’re excited to go back and see what the bounty of spring brings to this innovative restaurant.
- Eat at Spring
Even before arriving in Paris, I’d heard of Daniel Rose’s much-celebrated Spring (6 Rue Bailleul, 75001 Paris, Métro Louvre-Rivoli, but don’t even think about trying to walk in without a reservation unless you are Brad Pitt). An American chef cooking something that all the Parisians are twitterpated about? This must be a thing to behold. Spring was closed for renovations during our first year here, which somehow managed to only increase the buzz that surrounded this restaurant and this chef. As I said earlier, it was next-to impossible to get reservations. Poor B must have called for three weeks without ever getting through to a real live human being, only to be scoffed at when he asked for a reservation in December. Still, we got a pretty amazing table for dinner on January 6th, which ended up timing perfectly with M’s return to Paris after traveling with her husband for her birthday a few days earlier.
The renovations were well worth the wait – the space is quite fantastic if you are interested in watching expert chefs yield their knives. Like La Gazzetta and many of the best new restaurants in Paris run by young chefs, the menu changes on a daily basis and reflects the incredible diversity of seasonal ingredients available here in France. Our meal in January began with champagne and a single perfect oyster dressed with a fresh herb and soy vinaigrette. I expected the vinaigrette to overpower the oyster, but it instead brought out some of the green, salty notes that I might not have otherwise picked up on. That is to say I could have shot those bad boys all night long and been one happy camper. But instead we had to move on to a course of foie gras, served with house-pickled vegetables and a quince chutney. Then on to another noix de Saint Jacques (sea scallops) dish, this time in a chestnut and bacon foam, with both roasted chestnuts and crispy deep-fried chestnut slivers. As an unexpected pop of flavor, the dish was spiked with red cipolline onions. Heaven.
Next up was a whole battered and fried merlán truffle butter, Meyer lemon wedges, and a frisée salad dressed with a lemon curd vinaigrette. Yes, we are the type of table who fights over who gets the fish head.
The meat course was a perfectly cooked piece of venison served with both roasted brussel sprouts and tart, flash-fried brussel sprout leaves. Somehow M translated chevreuil as baby goat, so we ate this course assuming that was what we were eating. B kept insisting that his father’s venison tasted JUST LIKE this baby goat flesh and wasn’t that STRANGE? Then we went home and looked up what chevreuil actually means. It’s venison, fyi. And at Spring, it’s like buttah.
Then, we added a cheese plate, because hey, if you are only going to get to eat at Spring once in every six lifetimes or so, well, you probably should add a cheese plate. We’ve been debating for the past half hour or so what all was on it. Brillat-Savarin and Roquefort Papillon, for sure. The other two are up for debate. This is why one ought not to try and write about meals they ate a month and a half ago.
Finally we made it to a two-part dessert. First up was a piece of pineapple soaked in Japanese whiskey served with vanilla gelato and some kind of crushed cookie and lime zest…
…followed by a pistachio ganache and chocolate mousse served with a smoky black tea wafer. I could happily spread that pistachio ganache over toast for the rest of my life.
It was pretty cool, all in all, to have an opportunity to eat at a place like Spring, though I didn’t particularly love the staid, stuffy crowd that we dined alongside. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is I like in a restaurant, and I find that the Michelin-star experience is one that generally leaves me cold, even if the food is something to change your life over. I’ll take every time a more casual and innovative restaurant, one where their might be misses in individual dishes but where the overall experience makes you want to spend the evening relaxing with friends, perhaps talking and laughing a bit too loud. I’m so lucky to have such great peeps for such a very purpose.
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.
So it will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I was pretty psyched for oyster season to begin here in Paris. I’ll ‘fess up that I didn’t really know there was such thing as an oyster season until last year. Before moving to Paris, I was the dirtiest kind of unclean eater, one that fed largely on bargain beasts at (still great!) Jax Fish House in Denver and Boulder during highly inappropriate summer spawning months. How clueless I was! Now I know that you should only eat oysters in months with the letter “r” in them. I’m too lazy to figure out if that applies to the French names for months as well, but you get the point. Unless you want a mouthful of bivalve spooge, you might want to wait until autumn to commence your own private oyster holocaust.
During our long summer of boozing at Le Baron Rouge (1 rue Theophile Roussel, 75011 Paris, Métro Ledru-Rollin), we often heard murmurs about a fabled oyster truck that the Baron hosts on weekend days during the winter. My best girl MT’s arrival in Paris for a short weekend jaunt (my, aren’t we fancy these days!) seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the much-hyped oyster truck a shot. We arrived to find a throng of eager unclean eaters gathered outside the restaurant, happily slurping down oysters off plates balanced on the hoods of cars and bicycle seats. MT and I pushed our way through the heaving restaurant to order four glasses of Sancerre, while the boys waited in line for our delicious bivalves. I was relieved to see our regular bartender in all the madness, a graduate student in medieval literature who likely recognized me as “the girl whose boyfriend always talks to me about the book I’m trying to read” and plucked my order out of the boisterous crowd. The guys splurged and ordered the 13€ a dozen fine de claires, but the 9€ bargain ones looked also quite lovely. All the shucking is done on temporary tables on the sidewalk, and this truck moves through a serious amount of oysters in the course of a morning. After only a little wait, we had secured 4 dozen oysters served with lemon wedges and mignonette sauce and some baskets of brown bread. I had (quite cunningly, I think) saved a windowsill for our unclean eating, which we managed to balance our treats on quite nicely:
The best part was perhaps watching a five or six year old girl eagerly await the oysters her father carefully prepared for her. She slurped them down with delightful ease and clapped her hands in anticipation as her dad loosened yet another oyster from its shell for her to devour. She ate a dozen by herself, and provided some consolation to the American stereotype of children that only eat grilled cheese sandwiches and buttered pasta. I know it’s easy enough to say “my future child will be an oyster-eater” when you don’t have a child, but I’ll go ahead and indulge this fantasy. My future child will be a brilliant, witty, hyper-articulate, oyster-eating prodigy. Nobody better mess with her.
* * *
The other oyster revelation came in the form of La Cabane à Huîtres (4 rue Antoine-Bourdelle, 75015 Paris, Métro Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, tel. 01.45.49.47.27). We’d read glowing reviews of this Montparnasse oyster shack everywhere, and so a few weeks ago B, M, and I trekked southward in the rain.
We were silly enough to not make reservations and by the time we arrived the tiny, wood-panel lined restaurant was packed to the gills (it only seats 20). The woman working behind the counter, Ségolène, shook her head, but her father, proprietor Francis Dubourg, beckoned us in and asked for the entire restaurant to move around to accommodate a new table. Everyone cheerfully scooted around and made room for us, some even passing chairs over their heads mid-meal. This same thing happened again when we returned this week for another pair of stragglers, but I would recommend making a reservation for one of these coveted tables.
Francis Dubourg is one of the last old-school oyster farmers in the Arcachon basin, an area of coastline about an hour outside of Bordeaux that is my new obsessive point of travel research. He is a fifth-generation oyster farmer, and his son now runs the farming and harvesting end of this family business. Several times weekly, super-fresh crates of Dubourg’s unusually shaped, amazingly flavored oysters arrive in Paris, where they are greedily gobbled up by his many fans. Dubourg and his family are some of the only remaining farmers that actually raise the oysters in the mud (instead of in bags placed on metal harvesting beds), making their care and harvest a far more involved process. The result: these labor-intensive beasts taste more pungently of the sea, and the earth, and of the unique ecosystem that produced them (the French call this environmentally-imbued taste profile terroir).
Whatever you want to call it, oh man, are they good. Compared with the commercially produced oysters we often see in the US, they look like a whole different animal. Irregularly shaped and covered in barnacles, these bivalves occasionally have a tiny red worm or two hanging out on the outside of their shells. Never fear – these little guys are only an indicator of the extreme freshness of these oysters (the oysters themselves, which are shucked fresh to order, are as healthy and delicious as can be). Part of the fun of the cramped space of La Cabane is that you often end up handing big plastic trays of oysters over to the other patrons. This, along with perfectly-paired communal bottles of wine, makes the whole experience extremely convivial.
The other part of the fun? Well, a dozen oysters is only one part of the meal. The menu also includes your choice of a sizeable slice of foie gras or a heap of magret de canard.
These are followed by a lovely cheese course of Tomme:
Finally your meal ends with a perfectly carmelized canelé, a special kind of custardy cake cooked to sepia perfection in molds made of leather. Paired with a stiff pour of Armagnac, it’s the perfect way to end an amazing meal.
And the bill? Well, I can’t seem to get an exact beat on how these things are tabulated, but it seems that we usually spend about thirty dollars a person. Given that our most recent meal included four dozen oysters, two plates of foie gras, two plates of magret de canard, four cheese plates, four desserts, three bottles of wine, four Armagnacs, and four espressos, I’d say we did pretty well.
La Cabane is just about the loveliest place you can imagine, run by one of the friendliest and food-devoted families in France. Please go there if you have a chance.
Now that I’ve etched the list in stone, so to speak, I’m thinking of all sorts of things that should be on there but aren’t. One thing that perhaps should have been on the list was “find a great banh mi sandwich in Paris.” I’ve had banh mi on the brain ever since arriving on these fair shores, probably because all the important of the equation were here. Vietnamese people? Check! Amazing, fresh, crusty baguettes? Check! A cultural appreciation for spreadable meats? Check! It seemed that banh mi would be a no-brainer in Paris.
And there are, let’s say, many Vietnamese sandwiches in town. Following bread crumbs left by West Coast commentors on Mark Bittman’s New York Times blog entry that asked where a New Yorker might find a good banh mi, I headed to the 13th arrondissement and to Belleville (mumbling under my breath to no one in particular that Los Angelenos know a hell of a lot more about banh mi than New Yorkers ever will). Some sandwiches were quite passable, like the ones that you can get outside of the Tang Frères Asian supermarket, if somewhat mild for my taste. But I hadn’t found anything to get religious about, nothing to change your day over. Moreover, if I’m going to schlep all the way down to the 13th on a cold winter day, I’m going to eat pho or something amazing at Rouammit.
And yet, like any diligent 21st century foodie, I kept googling. And what showed up more and more were reviews of a little place called, quite portentously, Banh Mi (7 rue Volta, Paris 75003, Métro Temple). Yesterday, which was rainy and filled with errands, seemed like the perfect day to drop in for lunch. The first piece of excellent news is that it is an easy walk from our apartment to 7 rue Volta, probably taking only about 10 minutes if you are really hungry and it’s raining really hard.
The shop itself is tiny, with nowhere but tiny folding stools to sit. The vast majority of the space given over to the proprietor’s (Angela’s) kitchen. This is a banh mi shop, and so you have only one easy choice to make when you walk through the door: chicken, pork, or beef? There was a tempting pork pâté on the menu, but Angela informed us that she hadn’t made it today. And it quickly became clear that everything was made fresh and by hand daily, and that this was a woman who took the quality of her vegetables, bread, and meat very seriously. We ordered two pork sandwiches, which she disapproved of because she wanted us to try the different preparations of the meats. So I asked what she would recommend I order, and she said the chicken. One chicken and one pork, coming right up.
I could watch this lady make sandwiches all day. First she starts with beautiful baguettes, which she warms to crusty-perfection over a conventional toaster. Then she adds the meat, which has been slow-cooked in a special sauce. The chicken is rotisserie tender and cooked with chilies and lemongrass, the pork is cooked in a caramelized tamarind sauce, and the beef is apparently sucré/salé, meaning sweet/salty (next time). Next she adds various chiles based on your desired level of heat. We requested très piquant, and we rewarded for that comparative adjective. Angela piled on perfectly crunchy slices of red bird tongue chiles, followed by crisp long spears of cucumber, piles of pickled carrots and daikon, and heaps of fresh cilantro. A few more special sauces followed (the only one I recognized was mayo on the chicken) and the hot sandwiches were handed over the counter. We noticed an intriguing Tsingtao stout (huh?) and decided to split one. We squatted on stools and got to work.
Oh my lord these sandwiches are good. I mean, really, really great. They are everything you want a banh mi to be – spicy, sweet, crunchy, fatty, and umami. We shared the two, and I couldn’t tell you which I liked better. Paired with the surprisingly dimensional dark beer, it was a perfect lunch. Throughout our meal, Angela provided pleasant company, explaining that her tiny shop was only a year or so old and that business was steadily growing by word of mouth, especially from American ex-pats. We asked what time she usually closed and she said that she would close when she ran out of food, which was usually around 6 or 7 p.m. But she takes phoned-in orders, so you can call ahead and she will have your sandwiches ready for take out when you arrive. I suspect we now have a go-to solution for harried weekday evenings after teaching.
There is some chatter from the Chowhound folks (corroborated by a few comments made by the proprietor herself) that at 5 euro this is an expensive Vietnamese sandwich. Huh? Given that three blocks away from this is the aristocratic wonderland of rue de Bretagne, where you can easily spend 10 euros on a small beer or 4 euros on a shot of espresso, Banh Mi’s fresh, handmade, 5 euro sandwich seems like a bargain. And, as Angela emphasized repeatedly, quality is very important to her. She is buying the freshest vegetables and the best quality meats, which is often not the case at the bigger banh mi stands in Paris. Anyway, we’ll be back as soon as we can, and I hope you go to if you are in the neighborhood. This American wants to make sure that Banh Mi stays in business for as long as possible.
Details: Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 until she runs out of food. No seating, but an excellent place for a takeaway lunch or dinner.