Friday, October 17, 2014

Last Sunday, we had dinner at Volt's Table 21 in Frederick, to celebrate Heather's weekend home for her University of Maryland Medical School interview.  It was amazing.  The experience itself is not quite as special as Minibar -- the seating doesn't give you as good a view of the kitchen preparation; there is much less interaction with the chefs (at Volt, you're served from your side of the counter by a waiter; at Minibar, you're served from the kitchen side of the counter by the chefs).  So you don't feel quite as much like a VIP.  But the food is just spectacular.  I loved everything except the calamari bolognese (which was just sort of OK).  The smoked eggplant that came with the lamb was not especially good, which was OK for me but disappointing for my vegetarian brother, for whom it was the main part of the plate.  (The vegetarian version of the meal was mostly very good, but in some cases it was just "the meat dish, plus more side dish, minus meat," which was often not quite on target.)

I didn't take pictures of everything, but this should give you the idea.  We also had the wine pairing and I tried to remember where they matched the wine pours with the courses.

AVIATION creme de violette, maraschino, gin
A cocktail in the form of a sorbet.  A little strong for me -- I don't care for gin much.

DEVILED EGG osetra caviar, whitmore farm hen egg, celeriac
Yum yum yum yum yum!!  I love deviled eggs and this was like the ultimate deviled egg ever.

OYSTER yuzu, lemon cucumber

SCALLOP roasted pawpaw vinaigrette, habanero, spaghetti squash

RICE CRISP aged cheddar, our bay spice

SMOKED BEET yellowfin tuna, egg yolk, tonnato

HUCKLEBERRY rose wine, fresh cheese
pierre paillard, grand cru, bouzy, champagne, france, m.v.

LOBSTER MUSHROOM tosaka seaweed, pickled ramps, sea beans

FOIE GRAS arugula, pickled sour cherry
tegernseerhof, zweigelt, rose, mittelbach, wachau, austria, 2012

WHITE ASPARAGUS sea urchin, dashi, hickory smoke
This was so delicious I forgot to take a picture until I had finished it...

MUSTARD GREEN SOUP mussels, radish, brioche croutons
lucien crochet, sauvignon blanc, sancerre, france, 2012
This was maybe the most luscious texture of the evening.

SWEET CORN filet bean, pea miso, corn smut
This was my favorite dish -- I love sweet corn, and this dish just had a perfect balance of flavors.  I could have eaten a giant bowl of this and been happy.  It was maybe the only dish where I genuinely regretted that there wasn't a lot more of it.  (With 21 courses, you seriously have to pace yourself...)

CALAMARI BOLOGNESE squid ink cavatelli, pepperoni, parmesan
r. lopez de heredia, viura/malvasia, vina gravonia, rioja, spain, 2004
Like I said.  Meh.  Just sort of dense and heavy, and nothing special about the flavors.

OPEN BOOK FARMS CHICKEN sprouted quinoa, hen of the woods mushrooms, cipollini onion
Phenomenally tender chicken, perfectly cooked, perfect accompaniments.

SWEETBREADS mole, pickled butternut squash, masa
keller estate, pinot noir, la cruz vineyard, sonoma coast, california, 2009

LAMB summer beans, smoked eggplant, meyer lemon

WAGYU BEEF salsify, malt, charred leeks
catena alta, malbec, historic rows, mendoza, argentina, 2010

PLEASANT RIDGE carrot, sourdough, golden raisin

GOLDEN GINGER APPLE walnut, sesame seed, bay leaf
chateau pajzos, tokaji, aszu, hungary, 2006
Surprisingly, this was the best dessert -- normally, I would go for the chocolate option every time, but the sesame with the chocolate didn't quite work for me.

CHOCOLATE sesame, caramel



Saturday, October 11, 2014

Day 6.0: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

Wow.  Hard to believe -- it was finally time to go back home, after five amazing weeks in Paris.

I had pretty much packed everything up the night before, so finishing up and heading out was pretty quick -- just one last check to be sure I hadn't left anything behind, and I was off.  Boy, was my suitcase heavy!  Getting down those spiral stairs was quite a trick -- I just lowered the suitcase down one step at a time and took it nice and slo-o-o-o-ow.

After dropping off the apartment key at the security office, I went back to my neighborhood quick-stop bakery for one last French breakfast (speculoos cappuccino and pain au chocolat).

Then I was off to the airport.  Pretty awkward with the 60-pound suitcase (about which more later), but I managed OK, with the kind help of a young French man who carried my suitcase up the longest of the staircases I had to navigate.  I had a bit of a panic moment at the RER station when it wouldn't take my credit card, and there was nobody on duty at the ticket window, but luckily I had saved just enough French cash to buy the one-way ticket to the airport.

The United checkin at CDG airport is just obscenely long.  They have no kiosks; they don't have enough clerks; and they are unbelievably slow.  It took me just under an hour to get through the line to check my bag and get a boarding pass.  Then another hour or so to get through the whole passport / walk / security maze.  I am very glad that I got to the airport super-early because I wasn't stressed out at all, knowing that I had plenty of time.  (By contrast, the people just behind me in line were on an earlier flight, and they were totally panicked the entire time.)

The one snafu (and it is relevant for the My Life in Food blog) is that CDG is divided up into little departure pods, with 8-10 gates after the security checkpoint.  So there aren't many services in each pod, and there was just one little cafe near the gate.  Remember how I told you I had just enough cash to buy my RER ticket?  Yeah, so when the cafe's credit card machine broke just before I got to the front of the line, I realized that I had no way to get any food (no ATM, no time to go back out to buy something else).  I really wished I had bought something outside, but how could I have known?  Luckily there was a convenience store that took credit cards even for small purchases, so I bought a soda, bag of chips, and package of cookies, and that tided me over until the flight.

The flight was pretty much uneventful.  Mediocre airplane food, of course.  Thank goodness for the on-demand entertainment system -- I watched three movies on the way home, and got a little bit of work and an even littler bit of napping done in between.

The passport line in the US was un-frickin'-believable.  It was just insanely, insanely long, snaking back and forth, and just as you thought maybe you were getting to the front, you realized that the line then wound over to another side area where you were channeled through a whole new maze of zigzagging rows.  Incredibly frustrating and a truly crappy way to re-enter the country.  We really ought to be able to do better than this.  The dumbest part is that when you get to the front, they ask you what you're bringing back to the country with you.  In passport control.  And then you have to go pick up your bags, and go through customs, another long (but not quite as long) line, where they ask you the same freaking questions as the passport control guy!!  So irritating.

Finally, finally, finally I made it through and got to an area with a cell phone signal, and called John, who came to pick me up -- and then I was officially home.

I'm writing this almost a week later, and I still feel a little discombobulated (waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning; wondering why people aren't speaking French; missing my early evening kir; and feeling a bit overwhelmed at times by having an entire walk-in closet full of clothes to choose from).  I am so grateful that I had the opportunity for this once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'll never forget.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's incredible celebratory meal (for Heather's brief homecoming for her UMd med school interview), at a location to be disclosed soon.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Day 5.7: My Father's Diamond Birthday

I couldn't have had a better last day in Paris.

I got up early and went to the Musee d'Orsay before they opened -- it is the first Sunday of the month, so all of the major museums in Paris are free.  When I arrived at 9:10am (20 minutes before opening), there were already more than 100 people inline.  Today was the first raw, chilly, windy day that I've had in Paris -- the only day that I was really glad to have my jacket (it was maybe 55 or 60 Fahrenheit, with a chilly, damp wind).  I spent a few hours at the museum, mostly in the Impressionist galleries but also enjoying the decorative arts galleries. I'm always amazed by how stunningly beautiful the building itself is.  It's hard to imagine that if things had gone differently, the Orsay could just be a big commercial mall or something -- looking at it now, it seems so inevitable that it was always meant to be a museum, but of course that's not the case.

My original plan was to pick up a sandwich and have lunch in the garden at the Rodin Museum, but given how chilly it was, I was too tempted by the menu at the Restaurant de la Musee d'Orsay and ate there instead.  The restaurant is in one of the gorgeous, classical spaces, with gold filigree, high windows, and painted ceilings.  And the food is extremely good.  I started with the chilled pea soup with smoked salmon:

and then had the fish and chips, which was light and crispy, with a really tasty, fresh tartar sauce.

Naturally, I had to end with the cafe gourmand, with a chocolate macaron, mango(?) jelly, and some other kind of yummy gelatin-like dessert.

Afterwards, I took the Metro back to my neighborhood and stopped at Gerard Mulot (a really awesome patisserie) to pick up macarons and chocolats to bring back home.

Then I went back to finish packing (NO WAY will my suitcase be under 50 pounds, but I have an collapsible carry-on duffel that I can hopefully offload enough to avoid the surcharge).

My dad and Flora stopped by just before 6 to see my apartment and walk over to our celebratory dinner for my dad's 75th birthday, at Joel Robuchon.  We had the tasting menu with wine pairing, and wow was it good!  There are few things in life that are more wonderful than having a world-class meal with the people who mean the most to you.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The first amuse-bouche was king crab with daikon, which was just light and refreshing and delicious.  The second was "half-cooked salmon" (seared on the outside, basically raw on the inside) with caviar and other garnishes.  Wow.  At this point, it was clear we were in for an amazing meal.

Next a perfectly cooked scallop, with lardon (bacon) foam and other delicious garnishes.

Then we had a chestnut soup with crême fraiche.  It is impossible to describe how unctuous, luxurious, and simply wonderful this soup was.  It is one of the best things I have ever eaten.

The foie gras was absolutely perfectly cooked -- seared on the outside, meltingly sensual on the inside, served with -- well, it's hard to explain, but it's basically the world's most perfect fruit roll-up: apple strips marinated in hibiscus.  Again, one of the most absolutely memorable dishes I have ever had.

Then chicken gyoza (which I sadly was too busy lusciously enjoying to photograph) and John Dory with salsify:

We had a choice of three main courses, but luckily there were three of us, so we got to try all three -- lamb chops with essence of thyme, quail with foie gras and truffled potato puree, and steak with shallot confit and black cardamom.  All very good, but the quail was just remarkably tender, and the sauce it was served in was so intensely reduced, it was like pure wonderful flavor.  (And I was too busy eating to take pictures, especially since at this point we were on the third glass of our wine pairing, and I'd started with a kir royale...)

Then two desserts -- lime-coconut cream with rum granita and "chocolate temptation," just chocolate amazingness with mousse, cocoa nibs, and I don't even know what else.

Finally, decaf espresso (which of course came with a tiny madeleine and a petite caramel):

What a wonderful, unforgettable celebratory dinner, and what a perfect last night in Paris.

Now it is time to finish packing, go to bed, and try to get some sleep before tomorrow's departure.  It's just so hard to believe that this amazing adventure is over.  I will never forget this experience.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Days 5.5-5.6: Lots of Lasts

It's hard to believe that I'm in my last few days of this epic trip.

Yesterday, I had a speculoos cappuccino (so yum!) and brioche au chocolat at the counter-service bakery I'd eaten at the day before.  Work was great -- lots of good ideas being exchanged, and hopefully the projects will keep going after I return home.

Last night, I went to Café Louise, just across the street and had a kir mûre (blackberry) and a crôque monsieur -- I'd had one at another cafe that wasn't very good, so I thought I should have one more before leaving Paris.  Definitely better, but oh so rich!  (I couldn't finish it.)

Afterwards, I went to see Daniel Radcliffe's new movie, Horns, which is actually pretty funny and sort of intriguing (though I don't think Daniel Radcliffe is a particularly great actor).

Today, I went back to L'Enfance du Lard for lunch -- it was one of the first places I'd eaten at, so very nice to revisit just before leaving.  I had their terrine du chef (which was good but sort of odd -- mushrooms and chicken pieces in a mold) and onglet du veau avec sauce roquefort, which was really delicious -- super-tender and very tasty.

After lunch, I went up to the Montmartre area and met my friend Jérôme for a stroll and a coffee, then came back to the apartment for a while to pack and get organized.  For dinner, I went to Côté Bergamote, a restaurant that I'd seen my very first night but took a while to relocate because I was so turned around that night, so I hadn't been there yet.  It was really good and I'm sorry I hadn't been there before.  I started with the house special cocktail -- a kir bergamote.  Yum!

For an entrée, I had the fois gras, flavored with vanilla and tarragon -- it was pretty good but had a little bit of a bitter undertaste that I couldn't quite make up my mind about.  Paired with the bit of fruit jam and pain d'épices, though, it balanced out.

Since I had such a heavy lunch, I stuck with a salad for the main course -- but it was a huge salad, the salade Côté Sud, with ham, melon, parmesan, roasted peppers, and gooseberries.

I wasn't sure about dessert, but then I spotted the café gourmand, and I thought, crap, how is it that I've been in France for five friggin' weeks and I haven't ordered a café gourmand (which is coffee with several mini-desserts).  I feel that I have wasted my time here!  This one was extra-yummy -- a strawberry macaron, a mini crême brulée, and a super-rich gâteau chocolat.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Days 5.3-5.4: The Long March

Yesterday (Wednesday), I met a former student (Amy) at Le Mâchon d'Henri for lunch.  The food and the company were both awesome!  I had the roast chicken in orange sauce with mashed potatoes and a cheese plate (which was way more of three kinds of cheese than two people could eat -- all yummy, though!)

Later in the afternoon, I went over to Paris Dauphine to meet with their president.  That was an especially interesting conversation, because Paris Dauphine is really unique among French universities in that it is selective like the "grands écoles" but also a research university.  How they "got there from here" was the main focus of our conversation.  The president (Laurent Batsch) actually wrote a book about it ("Paris-Dauphine: Quand l'Université fait École") and gave me a signed copy, which I am looking forward to reading, although it will fully stretch my French abilities!

Afterwards, I decided to walk to the Arc de Triomphe, since it didn't seem that far.  Actually it was farther than it seemed, but once I had made it there, I decided I really should walk down the Champs-Élysées, which I hadn't done yet -- and that is always farther than one thinks it will be.  Still, after I had gotten to the far end, I thought, well, I may as well just continue through the Tuileries to the Louvre -- and that was much farther than I remembered it to be!  In the end, though, I walked nearly 4 miles from Paris Dauphine to my apartment.  Whew!  It was a lovely night for it, though, and I'm very glad that I had that adventure.  

I ended up eating at a cafe very close to my apartment, but in a direction I hadn't walked before (east).  I sat outside and had escargots and pizza, thoug there was either something wrong with the waiter's hearing or the walk had somehow made my French speaking muscles tired.  First he apparently interpreted "six escargots" as "Caesar salad" and brought me a salad instead of snails.  (I could not possibly have eaten it in any case -- it had a gargantuan "American-sized" quantity of dressing on it, nearly as much dressing as lettuce!)  He was very polite about the mistake, though, and eventually brought me the snails (which were delicious, garlic-parsley-buttery, and served with crusty bread, as snails should be).  I decided not to bother correcting the second error, which is that he brought me the entirely wrong pizza.  I ordered "pizza quatre fromages" (which is really not that hard to say, so I don't think I said it wrong), and this is what I got:

Ham, onions, arugula, and balsamic.  One cheese, as far as I could tell.  It was yummy, though.  I do feel that I must again remark that when I talk about American eating habits with French people, they all comment on how large our serving sizes are -- but whenever I eat at a French restaurant, a meal for one is the size of this pizza.  Still can't figure out how that works for them -- you definitely do not see an awful lot of heavy French people (though they do exist!)

Today I went to a "counter bakery" restaurant nearby and had a simple formule express - espresso and a pain au chocolat.  Yum, and much cheaper than the bistros I've been having breakfast at.  

I lingered there for a while, working a little and reading a little, then walked down to Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie, where I gave a talk in their seminar series.  Very enjoyable -- attentive audience, good conversations afterwards.  On the way back, I stopped at a store near campus where I was finally able to buy some gifts to bring back home, then went to a nearby counter-service Turkish place and had a gyro-style sandwich (though I think the meat was a mix of lamb and turkey) with the best fries I've had in Paris.

Afterwards I found the shop where Shakespeare & Co. buys books, and tried to sell back some of my books.  In retrospect, I wish I had just turned down their offer and left the books in some public place for an American tourist to maybe find -- of the six books I brought, he was only willing to pay for four (though said he'd take the other two and put them on the free table), and only offered me 1 euro each for those books.  Three of the books were brand new, and had all been on the NYT top-ten book lists in the last year -- these aren't some junky old books.  And one of the books was not brand new, but I had just bought it from them for 5 euros, so surely they should have been willing to give me half of that?  (Though he didn't look inside the book to see that it had been bought from them.)  Anyway, I really didn't feel like carrying them home, and didn't have a better plan ready, so I took the four crummy euros and felt a bit ripped off.  Oh, well.  At least I don't have to carry them or find a way to abandon them where they might find a home.

Later in the afternoon, I went back over to Paris Dauphine, where Alexis had offered to introduce me to a friend/colleague (same general research area) who is the Rector (effectively equivalent to an American or French university president) at Istanbul Bilgi University.  That was a very interesting conversation, because his path into the presidency was completely different from anybody else I've talked to.

When I got back (via Metro) to my neighborhood, I went back to Sushi House where I'd eaten a few weeks ago and had a bento box (soup, salad, sashimi, sushi, maki, and gyoza) -- a nice "sampler platter" and just what I was in the mood for.  Then I went to Amorino (yes, again!!) and this time was completely free to choose what I would -- which was mango, speculoos, and (surprisingly) orzo.  It's hard to describe the orzo flavor -- the closest I can come is the barley tea that is often served at Korean restaurant.  It's sort of a nutty, grainy flavor -- but of course sweetened to become an ice cream.  It sounds weird but is surprisingly mellow and satisfying.

Days 5.1-5.2: Last week in Paris!

On Monday, I had a cafe and croissant at Le Pré aux Clercs, then ended up working through lunch.  So I thought I would have an early dinner, and decided to try Le Relais de l'Entrecôte, which a friend had told me had the best steak frites in Paris.  But my "early dinner" plans were somewhat foiled when I found that they didn't open until 7:00 (early by Paris standards, but not mine).  So I went to Cafe Flore, just up the street, for a kir (and a danged expensive one -- at 9,50E, twice what they charge at most cafes.  But it did come with some spiffy seasoned potato chips as a snacklet, so that tided me over until dinner).

Not wanting to be gauchely early, I decided to walk down to the Seine and come back to the restaurant around 7:15.  But when I walked past around 6:50, I saw there were already about 25-30 people in two rather disorganized lines, waiting for it to open.  So I decided I'd better get in line, even though I couldn't figure out which end to join.  (Turned out they both kind of came in in parallel, and the other one was shorter, but oh well.  I managed to snag the last outside table.  I waited for a while, eventually had a waitress (note that this is the only restaurant I've been to in Paris with an entirely female waitstaff, all in kitschy little black-and-white short-skirt outfits) come by to take the extra glasses (table was set for two).  When she came back again, I thought she'd bring a menu, but non.  There is no menu.  There is one menu (fixed-price dinner):  green salad, steak, and frites.  Well, then, I guess I'll have that!

The salad was just so-so (very heavily dressed, very strong horseradish flavor in the vinaigrette).

But the fries were the best I've had in Paris (hot and crispy) and the steak was very good -- tender and perfectly cooked, with the "house sauce" (basically garlic-parsley butter sauce).

My only complaint would have been that the serving of steak wasn't very large -- but then, as I was finishing up, they brought more fries (a ridiculous amount of more fries) and more steak.

I chose to pass on dessert, and instead went to Amorino for the final chapter in my grand challenge:  I finally had the banana (which was OK for banana, given that I don't really like banana-flavored things), and then repeated the L'Inimitabile (chocolate hazelnut) and pistachio.  Ta-da!  I have now eaten all of the flavors of Amorino gelato!  Success is mine!

Today (Tuesday), I just had yogurt for breakfast and then met Pavlos to walk to the main building of the university to meet with the president.  First of all, his offices are in a very old part of the main building -- the room we waited in was a gorgeous classically French style drawing room, with 30' ceilings, and his office was not much less spectacular.  We had a really interesting conversation, ranging from recent changes of French universities to become slightly more autonomous, to managing a staff and faculty that consists entirely of public servants (== lifetime tenure), to innovation in the classroom, to the transition from the research laboratory/classroom into an administrative position.

Afterwards, I walked back, worked for a while, met with Bruno and then had lunch with him and some other faculty at the university cafeteria (followed by a café on their fabulous 7th-floor terrace that looks out over the entire city).  After lunch, I was reviewing the slides for my 3pm talk when the fire alarms started blaring -- apparently they have fire drills every few months, and I got lucky with the timing.  They evacuated the entire building (none too quickly; it's a huge building with only a few entrances) and then we all waited outside until shortly after 3, when they let us back in.  We went straight to the presentation room (luckily I'd brought my computer and VGA connector with me), gave people a few minutes to show up and settle in, and then I went straight into the talk.  It went pretty well -- there were about 30 attendees, mostly students, and they were very attentive and engaged.  (Considering that I'll give the talk at least four more times here and at home, it was a good investment of time to prepare it!)  Afterwards, I met with Pavlos for a while, then came back to the apartment to crash and cool off a bit.  (All those trips up and down 8 flights of stairs did me in!)

For dinner, I went back to Chalet Grégoire, where I'd had fondue the first week here.  I was planning to try their raclette, but that seemed too heavy, so I ended up ordering the crême brûlée foie gras (yes, just what it sounds like -- a sort of creamy mousse with foie gras, brûléed like a dessert), veal scallop with mushroom cream sauce, and fondant au chocolat (which turned out to be basically a really outrageously rich and delicious chocolate lava cake, with vanilla ice cream).  So much for not heavy, but it was all very good!  (Well, actually, the crême brulée dish was a bit on the bland side, but the texture made up for it.)