Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Paris Trip 2012 - French Cuisine
Despite their reluctance, I did actually convince my tripmates that we needed to have at least one traditional French meal in France before leaving (we ate two of them, to be exact). On a damp Sunday evening after viewing Impressionist paintings at the Musee d'Orsay, we stopped in for dinner at a place that was mentioned in my sister's guidebook called Au Bougnat (it had also popped up on my foodie radar during pre-visit research). The restaurant was located on a quiet side street on the Ile de la Cite, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral, and appeared by all accounts to be the stereotypical French bistro (only without the unpleasant waitstaff - I have to say that they tolerated us high-maintenance Americans pretty well). The house special was a 3-course meal (appetizer, entree, and dessert) with several options for each course for 29 Euros (about $36), a pretty fair deal in Paris. I chose the sardine tart below for my starter (in France, just to be confusing, the appetizers are called "entrees", and the entrees are called "plats").
This was an amazing dish, consisting of a puff pastry tart topped with chopped tomatoes, fresh greens, and three meaty sardines, then drizzled with olive oil and dusted with lime zest. Simple, yet incredibly flavorful (note to self: need to learn this "less is more" trick in the Commissary). My main dish was a relatively-lean duck breast, served in a small pool of orange sauce and paired with a tumbler containing sauteed peaches with rosemary (not a combination I've encountered before). For dessert, I had to go with the cheese plate (God knows I'd had enough sweets by then) and was given Brie, a type of blue cheese (Roquefort?), and an unidentified third that made me think of Gouda (which is obviously not French). All in all, my meal here reminded me why I enjoy French cuisine so much.
You are now staring at the entree (er, I mean, appetizer) presented before me at our second traditional French dinner, served at another guidebook recommendation named La Boucherie Rouliere (or Rouliere's Butcher Shop, for the French-challenged), just down the street from St. Sulpice Church (of Da Vinci Code fame) in the St. Germain neighborhood. As one might expect from a restaurant run by a family of butchers going back 150 years, meat is the focal point of the cuisine. At the risk of grossing out my travel companions, I had to get the roasted bone marrow, basically consisting of the fatty goodness located inside beef shank bones (you scoop it out with a spoon). I certainly wasn't expecting to receive this gargantuan-sized portion (a real bargain at 8 Euro, if I recall correctly), which tasted heavenly when slathered on grilled baguette slices and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Fulled sated with cholesterol, I went with an appetizer (er, entree) portion of the truffle ravioli for my other course - my sister had this rich, earthy dish on her last visit to the Boucherie and highly recommended it (she was on point). The remainder of our meal was unremarkable, save for me getting momentarily trapped in a dark lavatory (damn those automatic power-saving lights!), then being unable to figure out how to work the sink (there was a discrete foot button recessed into the floor). The French can cook, but their bathroom design leaves a bit to be desired.
I did indulge in a bit of street food, although that's apparently not the city's strong suit (compared to, say, Singapore). Almost immediately after I arrived at our hotel and before my tour with M. Girard, I ran up the street to grab a quick lunch, stopping at one of many creperies scattered throughout the neighborhood. I ordered a gallette (which is a large buckwheat pancake more associated with the Normandy and Brittany regions of northern France) stuffed with onions, tomatoes, and cheese from a take-out window (the proprietor was not a local, maybe Indian?), washed down with an Orangina soda. Rolled up like a burrito and wrapped in thin paper, it was hot to handle, and I hurried to find an outdoor sitting spot (next to the St. Michel Fountain a block away) so I could cool of my hands and start to eat. The galette was good, but a little greasy and sloppy, and eventually ran through my colon like a bullet train (pardon the graphic description), forcing me to make an emergency pit stop (where I grappled with yet another dark toilet) in a random 10th Arrondissement watering hole during my tour. Such encounters with gastrointestinal distress are a constant hazard (even necessary, in some cases) of this hobby of mine.
One last item of note barely qualifies as French food and I'm almost ashamed to bring it up, but feel the need to do so in the interest of full disclosure. Mom, Sis, and I needed a light breakfast after disembarking the train to Versailles and what should stand before us than a McDonald's (if not for their iced tea, my mom would have been rendered inert for long stretches of the trip). As sad as it sounds, I actually like to poke my head in McDonald's when traveling overseas to see how different the menu looks from those at home. For the most part, it's essentially the same; however, there are always some weird burger combinations (many of these I wish we'd see at home), plus various offerings that reflect the local culture (such as the aforementioned macarons). In this case, they had their version of a croque monsier (called the Croque McDo, which would be a terrific band name), a popular hot ham-and-cheese sandwich served at cafes throughout France. I'd had one for breakfast a few days earlier and this one, well, let's just say I don't need to have another anytime soon.
One Paris posting remains. Stay tuned...