Thursday, February 25, 2010

Café, Bordeux, Aperitifs, oh my!

Much fuss has been made about French food and the cultural differences between how Parisians approach their food versus their American counterparts. For one, Parisians are said to approach their meals as an experience, one to be savored, while sitting, not grabbed on the go and shoved down ones trap en route to a meeting. There is something to be said for this, as taking a bit of time to enjoy a meal, no matter what it happens to be (a warm soup, a crisp turkey sandwich, or just 15 minutes of peace on a park bench eating leftovers), is good for your stomach and your sanity.

However, I noticed on this trip that the Parisian practice of having a dining "experience" every time they sit down at the table has almost as much to do with the drinks as it does with the food.

I saw that most people usually only ordered one course, not two. Yet what drew out the entire meal was the fact that everyone first ordered an aperitif, which was usually coffee or else a sparkling water, champagne, kir, kir royale, or some other cocktail. All of these drinks are drunk only before the meal, never during, as the ensuing bubbles or palate crushing taste of coffee and/or liquor supposedly dulls the taste of the actual food.

Speaking of taste, French coffee makes regular "American coffee" taste like cat pee. Well, perhaps that is too strong a statement, but the look you would get if you ask for American coffee in a cafe is just about the look you would got if you ordered said urine de feline (just ask the two folks sitting next to us one day that did just this). And to be fair, I am inclined to agree. "Café," either au liat or noir, is so rich and delicious that I am going to be hard pressed to ever enjoy traditional drip coffee again, seeing as I never really enjoyed it all that much to begin with and make my own French-pressed coffee each morning like the dork that I am.

And so, if you are dragging a bit due to jet lag or a bit pooped from a day of art gazing, a lovely café before your quiche or crepe will be just the thing. If you simply need to rehydrate, Pierre or Badoit (which seems to be what most Parisians prefer) are great alternatives and a favorite of Vronsky's. Otherwise, the best aperitif to celebrate your days on the banks of the Seine is a champagne or kir.

Champagne is pretty straightforward, and lord knows I have had my fair share of glasses, both cheap and more sophisticated. But I will say that kir royales are a lovely alternative. A "kir" is traditionally made with white wine a creme de cassis (a black currant liqueur) but spif it up a bit with champagne instead of white wine (preferably dry) and you have the tasty, refreshing kir royale. Both kirs and kir royales have been popular aperitifs in France since the 1800's, and Vronsky and I enjoyed them prior to dinner each night, and sometimes prior to lunch too.

And of course, no meal is worth lingering over without a bottle of fabulous wine. V and I are both red fans, and while I have traditionally been a fan of "New World" wines, especially ones from Argentina, Bordeaux might have me changing my tune.

I am no wine expert, but feel I've at least drunk enough to at least discern differences between a Pinot Noir and a Malbec. I personally prefer spicy, earthy wines. Not heavy, mind you, but still with an almost pepper-y richness. Argentine, Chilean, Malbecs, even Rioja wines will do this for me. Pinot Noir tastes too watery to me--almost like church wine. Too light.

But back to Bordeaux. The Bordeaux region is seven times larger than Nappa Valley and it's primary grapes are Merlot, Cabernet Sauivnon, and Cabernet Franc, with Malbec, Carmenére and Petit Verdot rounding out the lot. The Bordeaux wines we drank during our trip tended to be a blend of two of these aforementioned grapes, and there was a "drinkability" and refinement to the wine that I had never appreciated before, while still retaining the bold flavor that I enjoy so much.

In fact, I appreciated it so much that we would have bottles of it with each meal and not think anything of it.

So what is the lesson here, kids? If you want to dine like a Parisian, neglect not the liquid portion of your meal!

Monday, February 22, 2010

You, sir, are a pack of matches! Paris Part I

Ah, it is lovely to be back in the good ol' U.S.A. Well, sort of. First off, I've realized that there is a complete dearth of charming waiters here who say things like, "ah, monsieur, it is a classic blunder," in response to a poor ordering choice, like say, the Andouille AAAAA sausages featured on many French brasserie menu (pictured at left).

This is not a standard sausage in the America sense but rather a loosely encased collection of intestines that actually spill out you cut it open. I am not usually squeamish (I like sweetbreads and have even eaten chicken feet), but even this was a bit much. It was WAY to much for poor Vronsky, whom I still can't even get to try beets. Luckily, the waiter's charm and the amazing accompanying pomme frites made up for this aforementioned classic blunder. If you had made such a classic blunder here in New York, your waiter would most likely a) laugh in your face b) tell the rest of the staff, and c) laugh some more. Perhaps this fellow did indeed laugh behind our backs, but at least we didn't see it.

Another thing lacking here in NYC? The easy availability of bread so delicious that the thought of marring it's perfect taste with something like butter is ungodly. Yes, there is some pretty awesome bread here in NYC, but you have to actively seek it out. In Paris, every piece of bread, from the littlest cafe to Michelin starred restaurants, provide perfect baguette slices and other starchy wonders.

Bordeaux wine is about an eighth of the price, and by golly, even the bums on the street sound more charming when speaking French.

However, I will say this: At least in NYC there are not gypsies hanging around every corner of the Lourve or the Museé d'Orsay trying to rob you/con you with this weird ring trick they have (more on this later). Also, the French seem to have an abnormally high tolerance for drunks in their restaurants. One loon in particular took extreme offense to my sweet Vronsky, who, although able to speak excellent French, certainly does not look French, being over six feet with curly reddish brown hair. Your classic WASP if you will. I sometimes joke that he stepped right out of Horse and Hound, and while he looks quite urbane most days when he puts on his suit, this little funny of mine is not necessarily far from the truth.

But at least he doesn't look like gypsy bait. Being small, wide-eyed with Parisian glee, wearing a bright orange coat and beret clearly means that you are easy prey for a little pick pocketing. Luckily my time in Russia has made me quite savvy to these tricks and I shooed them all away. But based on appearances alone? Hell, I'd try to rob me too.

Anyway, here we are at the Cafe de Beaux Arts, and this drunk guy next to us has clearly been irritating everyone the entire night, especially the poor girl who was the waitress. Yet no one ever asked him to leave, even though he is smashing the wall with his fists and slurping and smearing his creme bruleé all over his face like a four year old. He takes one look at us as we sit down, and immediately starts to antagonize Vronsky to no end, glaring at him and making weird comments. We tried to ignore him at first, but finally, V lit into him in very fast, extremely irate, French, and told him, among other things, to go F*** himself. I was so impressed! All he needed was a leather glove and the duel would have been ON, baby.

Anyway, after this verbal joust, the drunk was still undeterred, and was now circling around our table and the entire restaurant is watching and waiting with baited breath. The drunk leers over and says, "Ooohh, you, sir, are a macho Englishman." To which Vronsky consummately replies, "And you, sir, are a pack of matches."

Well, he actually meant to say crazy. Crazy in French = Fou. Yet it came out "feu" which literally means a pack of matches.

It must have cut this guy to the core though, as he left right away! We could then enjoy the remainder of our meal in peace, heroes of the bistro, with a complementary glass of champagne and some dessert to boot!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Au revoir and bon voyage!

A happy belated Valentines day and Chinese New Year to all. I hope no one cleaned their home yesterday, as Chinese tradition (superstition?) has it that if you clean on the new year, you run the risk of sweeping out all the good luck. But wouldn't you also sweep out the bad luck in the process, and thus you should scrub like hell? Ah, no no, my po-po says. Bad luck will always be there no matter what you do (aka, shit happens), so best not to take your chances by accidentally sweeping out whatever good luck might come your way that year.

Wise words, especially coming from an otherwise extremely neat and tidy person! I actually think that this whole tradition is just a ruse some woman came up with centuries ago to actually get some peace and take a damn break from cleaning up after her no-doubt filthy and squalor loving husband and children.

And now to what is really important: I am going to PARIS tomorrow! I am beyond excited and have been irritatingly dropping silly and cliched French sayings into every day speech. Not only am I going to be a walking stereotype and drink lots of red wine and delicious coffee and stuff myself with crepes while going to the ballet and all the lovely museums and play chess in the park--I am going to take it one step further and wear this silly little beret that I bought.

But couldn't you do that all right here in NYC? Yes, I probably could, but Paris just has a romance and an inescapable allure that I cannot resist. As Adam Gopnik cites in his wonderful Paris to the Moon, it is true what Oscar Wilde said: When they die, all good American's go to Paris.

Vronsky, who fancies himself quite a Francophile (he had a French minor back in college), has already arranged for us to stay in Saint Germain at L'Hotel, where Oscar Wilde uttered his famous last words: "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do!" The hotel was kind of a dump back then, but it is beautiful now!

Stay tuned next week for a series of posts about my lovely visit. Bonne journée!!

Friday, February 12, 2010

V is for Veritas....Vronsky's new fav

Veritas is very good. See how I try and use alliteration?

Actually, it is better than very good. It is great. Fabulous. We can't wait to return. The only thing I am upset about is that I have been living within two blocks of this marvelous place for almost three years now and have missed out on so many months of gastronomical delights.

Vertias is located right across from Gramercy Tavern on E. 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Ave. While Gramercy is big and showy, with a majestic facade, Veritas seems almost discreet by comparison and the sleek minimalist decor matches the relatively unobtrusive exterior.

Do not be fooled, though. The food inside is anything but. In fact, what finally spurred me to make a reservation and go was Anthony Bourdain's fawning raves over Vertias when it was headed up by Scott Bryan in Kitchen Confidential. I would venture to say it is his favorite restaurant to eat at when he's not on duty. The head chef at Veritas is now Grégory Pugin, formerly of the Four Seasons, and he seems to have assumed the mantel of his predecessor quite easily.

Adam Platt at New York Magazine touts Veritas at the city's original "wine geek club" and their wine list indeed feels like the telephone directory, except much cooler. And yet the staff at Veritas is equally at home discussing the wine selection with true connoisseurs who have a lot of money to spend, to the mildly wine savvy, to people like Vronsky and me, who, while we enjoy wine and have a loose idea of our likes and dislikes, are essentially wine yokels. They were neither condescending nor did they try and "sell up" when we asked them which of 3 possible wines they recommended. We went with a nice Chianti, Hannibal Lecter style.

Pet peeve: Vronsky and I were at the 21 Club for a work-related dinner, and when V asked the sommelier which of 2 wines he recommended, the sommelier immediately dismissed the two choices and pointed him towards a bottle that was easily twice as much. I highly doubt either of those two bottles V had in mind were crappy (nor were they cheap), and to blatantly up-sell like that, when we are clearly entertaining someone and already going to be dropping a fat wad, is consummately annoying, not to mention a bit insulting and rude. End rant.

This did not happen at Veritas, a HUGE signifier of their class and sensitivity to a wide range of palates and wallets. A big thing to consider these days.

Already impressed by the service, the only real thing we had to decide after that was whether we wanted the pre-fix, 3, 5, or 9 course tasting menu. (A la carté is available only at the bar) And to be perfectly frank, when I am at a place as incredible as this, I prefer to just bite the bullet and do the tasting menu, since that is what will most likely match and pair together the best and you get to see the full range of the chef's vision. V and I weren't there to save money, so the 5 course tasting menu it was.

It was absolutely divine, each course better than the next, and the portion size was perfect--you are not dreading dessert because you are worried are going to pop if you take one more bite. I won't rehash what we ate, because the tasting menus change with some frequency, and more importantly, I want you to go out and try it yourself! If you want to take me, I promise I won't embarrass you as I try and lick your plate just so I can savor every last drop of their delicious sauces.

See for more details and reservation information.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Feasting on Life

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you already know the premise on which I based it–M.F.K Fisher's collection of essays entitled The Gastronomical Me. If you are new to the blog, then hello there! And welcome to an exercise in fostering an obsession.

I am not the only one to be infatuated with M.F.K.'s style, grace, and intelligence when it comes to food, life and way with the written word. Joan Acocella, New Yorker critic and all around mighty mind when it comes to culture, put together a wonderful collection of her essays entitled Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, which covers exactly what it says. Aritists range from dancers and choreographers, writers, composers, musicians, to two saints: Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene. She covers dance regularly for the New Yorker, and so many of the essays skew in that vein, which is a-ok with me, since I have become increasingly fascinated with ballet ever since reading Julie Kavanagh's incredible biography of Rudolph Nureyev. I have always thought Barishnikov is possibly one of the sexiest men alive, and like Patrick Stewart, he's only got better with age. Yum. And my wonderment when it comes to Vaslav Nijinsky, possibly The Greatest Dancer of All Time, is to the point where I would love to commission a book on it if only material on him, outside of scant photographs and an incredibly sad medical history is available (he was overcome with schizophrenia very young and he spent the remainder of his life scared, paranoid, and locked away under heartbreaking conditions in an asylum).

Acocella also includes an essay on M.F.K., written in response to the publication of a collection of her letters in 1998. Fisher's published writings are already so intensely personal, that to read her letters, a part of me almost felt voyeuristic, peering into the few parts of her left she had chosen to leave private. Nevertheless, I was not able to "look" away, and neither are countless others.

Much "fuss" has already been made over the moral beauty of Fisher's writing, and much more still has been made by the fact that most believe her to be the first to truly link food with the sensual and make it one and the same with other "pleasure's of the flesh." In her forward to The Gastronomical Me, she addresses the frequent question people posed towards her in those days–why a food writer? "Why didn't she write about the struggle for power and security and love, and about love, the way others do."

Her answer was: "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write about hunger I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one."

Wise words, and while Fisher herself is so much more than these shamanesque sayings, and as seen by the experiences of her own sad life, food, security and love were not all one. Food was easier to get.

Fisher married a man named Al Fisher right out of college and moved with him to Paris in 1929. There is no doubt in my mind that she loved him, as there are instances in Gastronomical Me about Al that are extremely touching. Nevertheless, theirs was a love without passion. Al was a good man, a kind man, but something was missing, and Fisher left him after five years after falling in love with a friend, the painter Dillwyn Parrish, whom she refers to in her writings as Chexbres.

Theirs was one of those "great loves," and reading about it is enough to break your heart. It is what I believe everyone is searching for--that one person with whom you have a shared passion, but with whom you can also just be. To be in each other's company was as joyous as more heady romantic fare, which is what makes what happens next all the more wretched.

Dillwyn suffered an embolism in his leg after a year and had to have it amputated, but the pain did not go away. Soon he was diagnosed with Buerger's disease, a fatal circulatory disorder where your body basically "dies off" bit by bit as your circulatory fails, and it is excrutiatingly painful. Fisher knew she and Dillwyn did not have much time left, and so every moment, from ship trips to and from Switzerland, where he was seeking treatment, to evenings gazing out at the forest, she relished every moment where they could just be.

They would stay up nights laughing and talking, sipping cognac and red wine and savoring every bit of food, every concert they heard, having no choice but to live in the now. As his condition deteriorated, Dillwyn could not even walk unless she held him upright, so great was his pain.

I have this image of them, sitting in front of a fire on a trans-Atlantic voyage back to Switzerland, enjoying eachothers' company and talking, yet never talking about the future. That to me is the most poignant thing of all, as I personally derive so much pleasure from talking with Vronsky about all the weird trips we want to take, what we want to do next weekend, when are we going to plan a trip out west to see X, what new restaurants we want to try, the pair of impossible shoes I covet for spring. Most of it is silly and nonsensical, but to be without it is something I cannot imagine. Sure, we could all be blown away tomorrow, but for us there is always hope. Fisher and Dillwyn have no hope in these last months. They have no choice but to enjoy that croissant just as it is, like Brenin, with no expectations for what tomorrow might or might not bring.

One day, unable to bear the torment any longer, Dillwyn took his own life. Fisher, reeling from grief and unable to write, paced through the house they shared and dictated her famous "How To Cook A Wolf," which is one of Acocella's favorites, and mine. She certainly had her own "wolf" to cook, a wolf a lesser person might have never faced head on. After loosing Dillwyn, that ever present hunger for food, security and love now seemed harder to satisfy than ever. Yet she lived to the ripe old age of 84, and according to Acocella, was a fine, grouchy old lady, who never failed to tell it like it is and is how I too hope to age. Feisty and determined to "feast on life" until the end, creating, sharing and enjoying food, living in Nappa and Sonoma, writing and cooking wondrous meals for her friends and family. She relates in her final letters that she is very tired, and while she doesn't neccessarily feel any smarter ("I don't feel very wise"), she she certainly feels less alone. And so too, do we.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

DBGB's: for those who aren't afraid of sausage jokes

Sausage fest. Sausage Stuffer. You name it, sausages are funny. Just try and say the word three times without smiling--sausage, sausage, sausage! Beside being funny, sausages are also tasty. So tasty, in fact, that the great Daniel Boulud, he of the famed Daniel's restaurant on the UES and numerous other haute cuisine restaurants up town, has finally deigned to conquer us plebians below 14th street, and opened up what can only be termed a "gastro pub" on 1st and Bowery, called DBGB's, in an obvious play on the infamous CBGB punk club.

And the highlight of DBGB's? It's sausages. Believe you me when I say there is scant greenery to be found. You know how most restaurants have "small plates" for sharing? Well, DBGB's offers up the same thing, except nearly every plate is some sort of sausage.

They are divine. Links, bangers, "saucisses," every one to be savored. Come hungry and ready for some protein. Vronsky is obsessed with the "DBGB dog." He ordered 3 in a row. I quite enjoyed the Berliner and the Espagnole, and the Toscane. Wash one down with one of their many artisan beers to complete the true "gastro pub" experience.

But don't worry...if the thought of feasting on a wide array of phallic-looking foods alarms you, you can always get your fix via one of DBGB's three burger selections, of of which includes a burger patty TOPPED with pork, called "the Piggie." I can feel my heart straining from here, and it's worth it.

The decor is sleek but can get a bit cacophonous at times, as every loud talker's conversation echos off the mirrored walls and nouveau-steel furniture. However, there are these nifty little private enclaves for parties of six or more that look quite enjoyable should occasion arise. The kitchen is also in plain sight, which always fascinates me, watching the cooks in action, sausage makers churning a mile a minute. Heh.

But seriously, there is a convivial atmosphere at DBGB's that no doubt arises from the relatively unpretentious food and underlying humor of ordering 7 different sausages for the table. There are some great places to buy your own sausage in NYC, including Trader Joes, the market in Grand Central oddly enough, Hallo Berlin (wrusts galore!) and of course, Esposito's.

And now, for a good sausage joke:

There once was a nice man who owned a sausage factory, and he was showing his arrogant preppy son around his factory. Yet try as he might to impress his snobbish son, his son would just sneer.

As they approached the heart of the factory, where the father thought, "This should impress him!" He showed his son a machine and said "Son, this is the heart of the factory. With this machine here we can put in a pig, and out come sausages.

The prudish son, unimpressed, said "Yes, but do you have a machine where you can put in a sausage and out comes a pig?"

The father, furious, thought and said, "Yes son, we call it your mother."

Tell me your favorite sausage joke below!