Don’t bother going to France if you’re not interested in food. Period. The French don’t respect people who deny themselves pleasure (especially of the edible kind) and despite what they might tell the world, they take food even more seriously than sex (or so I’ve read). For the French, a meal is an artistic and sensual delight, something to be savored and enjoyed with finesse. They even have a beautiful word for it: <I><B>gourmandize</B></I> — a healthily sensual desire for the taste and texture of food.
And just in case you’re wondering, French women do get fat; I see quite a few. But the French get fat more slowly because they just aren’t interested in eating processed junk all the time. They’ve got too much selection. A lunch in France takes 2 hours, and coffee alone takes 20 minutes. Ah, to live to eat. I think when I die, I’d like to come back as a French woman.
Anyway. My eating in Paris isn’t all about little tastings here, and take away snacks there. I actually have a few meals in a sit-down café where I stay for a few hours and soak in the atmosphere, as well as plenty of secondhand smoke. Yup, the French smoke everywhere, and there is no such thing as an espace non-fumeur (no smoking section). I just grin and bear it, then run home to shampoo my hair.
A trip to Paris is not a trip to Paris unless I eat at Léon. Known for their les moules (mussels), these come in individual crockpots, similar to those of Le Creuset or Emile Henry. Cooked in white wine and broth, the mussels add their juices to this glorious brew aromatic with whiffs of parsley, thyme, and sea. Appropriately enough, a black mussel-shaped plastic bowl is set on our table, a receptacle for the shells. An endless supply of frites (fries) serves as a refresher, and stale but edible slices of baguette are there for dunking. As we settle down to eat, we become quiet, the only sound is the clinking of the mussels shells as they’re dropped onto the plate: eat, slurp, drop, slurp goes the melody. Delicieux!
locations all over France
This neighborhood fixture along Rue Cler emanates warm wood tones and an earthy, jazzy beat care of piped in music. Lots of people stop by here for a drink or to eat big meals with a boisterous group. There’s beer on tap and plenty of wine. Rue Cler is a market street where my sister Charley lived when she first moved to Paris, so she knows the area well. It’s a charming, cobbled pedestrian street lined with all the necessary shops (cheese, chocolate, bread, etc.). This is also where I find the largest concentration of expats, particularly Americans – the UN Building is a few blocks away and so is the American University in Paris.
At 7:30 in the evening, we’re lucky to nab a table, and even luckier that Charley is a regular here. The waiter greets her warmly and they converse pleasantly in French. He brings out the English menu for us, all written up freehand on a blackboard. My Bin and I give it a cursory glance, since Charley will be doing the ordering for us.
First up is the salade Normande with a toasted, oozy wedge of Camembert, honey, bacon, apples, and long strips of Parma ham. Salads in France are unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. They hardly boast of any dressing save for a tasty vinaigrette of quality olive oil, vinegar, and a spritz of lemon. But that makes all the difference, as well as the sheer wealth of ingredients at their peak of freshness that go into a salad. Nutritionists say that the more colorful a salad, the healthier it is. With that in mind, this is the motherlode of vitality right here!
French onion soup is something that my Bin has an inherent weakness for. If my Paris trip is all about hot chocolate , his is all about finding the quintessential onion soup. At Café Roussillon, he revels in this soup perfumed with beefy essence and the stickiness of caramelized onions. A sharp cheese has been melted atop the baguette floating on the soup’s surface. When pierced, it exhales an ambrosial cloud of pungent vapor. It’s divine. My Bin eats it in a semi-trance, every spoonful a potion that mesmerizes.
A specialty of Café Roussillon is the <B>1.2 kilo rib of beef with a trio of sauces and sautéed potatoes</B>. Served on a wooden board, its juices threaten to spill over the edges. A large knife glinting in its sharpness and size ensure thick, clean cuts. The French will always cook meat a degree less than what is asked for, thus we ask for ours to be cooked to medium well (we, or more correctly, I, often eat medium rare). My Bin, who prefers his meat well-done, a euphemism for “cooked to death” I assert, gingerly appropriates the meat’s edges. It’s terribly juicy and gushing with bovine glory. While I’m not a big fan of sauces because I prefer to taste what I’m eating, everything went well together. The crowning touch are the sautéed potatoes, little cutie wedges of floury potatoes that retain their crunch but are waxy-good on the inside.
It’s overkill, but we’ve ordered a leg of lamb that comes reposing on a bed of thyme-garlic sauce and more of those potatoes. The meat is soft, and the sauce is a welcome change from the way I eat lamb, usually smothered in mint jelly.
A dessert table had greeted us when we walked into the restaurant, its contents laid bare for everyone to see and touch. Even in the dim light, I could see the tarte au chocolat and the tarte tatin waving at me: “Don’t forget us, Lori!” They seemed to say. Now that it’s time for dessert, ordinary mortals would be writhing on the floor complaining about imminent immobility, the after effects of a gluttonous meal such as the one we’ve just consumed. But my Bin and my sister Charley are built of the same intestinal fortitude as I am so we’re all ready to bring on the dessert.
The chocolate tarte is a dense soufflé: its crackly top revealing a treasure chest of molten chocolate goo that teeters between pudding and a thick, thick sauce. It coats the tongue, emitting a smoky topnote then leveling off with a woodsy, fruity aftertaste. Served with a scoop of that wondrous French vanilla ice cream made with real vanilla beans, it’s the black and white of cold and hot.
In France, the apples in tarte tatins are cooked til they’re just a breath away from mush. This extended cooking coaxes the apples’ juices out slowly, rendering the fruit’s sugars to caramelize. This caramelization coupled with the flaky pastry is a delicate balance between subtlety and sweet. This is an apple pie all grown up.
We pay for our meal with a credit card. Unlike other countries where I worry about the waiter disappearing into the stock room and emailing my credit card details to a crime syndicate, here in France there’s a little credit card machine that the waiter carries to the table. A few digits are pressed and voila, out pops the slip of paper to be signed. Neat, no?
186 Rue de Grenelle
Tel: 01 45 51 47 53
While the rest of the world has celebrity chefs, the French have celebrity food, one of which is the croque monsieur. Simply a grilled or pan-fried ham and cheese sandwich, it’s sometimes covered in a Mornay or bechamel sauce, and if it’s topped with a fried egg, then it becomes a croque madame. Bizu is the only place in Manila I know of that serves this French specialty.
While these sandwiches can be found at any café, it’s a certain Café Cambronne that Charley takes me and my Bin to. It’s a nondescript little place, with nary an indication on their outdoor blackboard that they serve the best croques in Paris.
But they do serve the best, and here’s why. First, the chewy, substantial bread they use comes from Poilâne, the bakery of artisan breadmaker, Lionel Poilâne. His bread is made with stone-ground flour, and is allowed to ferment naturally and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s bread made the natural, no-shortcuts way before the advent of active dry yeast and electric ovens. Poilâne bread is prized by those who consider rusticity of paramount virtue.
cross section of croque madame
My Bin and Charley order the croque monsieur while egg-lover me orders the croque madame: An elongated oval, the bread is a canvas upon which three kinds of cheeses have been melted into submission and ceremoniously garnished with a perky fried egg. Each bite is welcomed with a resounding crunch then tang of the sourdough bread. A gush of cheeses follow, their various tastes a concordance of similar flavors, with the goat cheese resounding the loudest. The saltiness of the ham contributes to the rhythm without losing a beat, and finally, barely, I taste the golden goodness of the egg yolk anointing everything with its richness. Simple, good food.
Our happy trio shares a bowl of onion soup while we dig into our respective croques. The simplicity and perfection of this meal, presented in the most unexpected of surroundings (Café Cambronne is a bar) makes all of us giddy with satisfaction. When eating a meal so good it’s almost transporting, it becomes more than just pleasure, it’s about listening to my body, tasting new tastes, and storing the memory of them so that I can taste them again in my dreams.
5, Place Cambronne
Tel: 01 47 34 48 13
Last installment: Meeting Robyn.