You're invited to lunch...

I'm a young 20-something from Australia, who has just started a new life living in Paris. If there were but one thing that I did not forget to pack, that would be my appetite for fine food.

A full-fledged 'foodie' through and through, I can think of no better way to document my gastronomical experiences.

The menu? Since the purpose of this blog is food, each entry is based upon a meal, which is usually lunch. Of course, every meal is accompanied with an experience. So I guess you could say that with my food blog comes a range of 'side dishes', which include dating, love, friendship, fun, travel, work, and whatever else I come across along the way!

So if you want to read about...

Cheap bistros, fine restaurants, baguettes, wine, picnics, seafood, champagne, chacuterie, museums, friends, parks, wine (worth mentioning twice), fromage, useful tourist info, cocktail parties, dating, supermarkets, coffee, week-end trips, work, bars, foie gras, home-cooking, chocolate, monuments, glaces (ice-cream), live music, macaroons... and everything else in-between

...then come to lunch with me!

Nicola xx

Monday, 10 May 2010

Faire Une Gaffe

Faire une gaffe is a French expression, and the best translation is "to put one's foot in it."

So I'll take you back about one week, to last Wednesday, to explain exactly how "j'ai fait une gaffe!".

The man from the Tour Auto cocktail party had arranged to take me out on a date. His name, by the way, is François (so French!). The only information he gave me was as follows: 9pm, Métro Louvre-Palais Royale, call me when you arrive.

With such little information, I could only assume that we were going for a drink, and perhaps a bite to eat. So I dressed accordingly: Jeans, boots, a white tee and a navy blazer.

When I arrived at Palais Royale, he was waiting for me at the top of the métro stairs... in a suit. And a very formal dinner suit at that. My first thought? When am I ever going to get this clothing thing right?!

We started walking through the Palais Royale which, by the way, is absolutely beautiful. After having covered the weather, the hassles of catching the métro and various other tidbits best classified as 'small chat', we were at a bit of a stand still. Mostly to fill this void, and also because I was dying to know, I decided to ask where we were going.

"A cocktail party" he replied, followed by "that's why I'm wearing a suit."
Great! So this is a cocktail party where we're meant to dress-up, and my silky little black number from last week is hanging up at home.

"Oh, you could have told me" I replied, smiling. But it was one of those restrained smiles. One of those 'I'm really annoyed with you right now, but I don't know you well enough to tell you that, so I'll just smile' kinds of smiles.

We continued walking through the pillared archways. To my right, a selection of very chic and expensive boutiques. To my left, a spectacular garden, lit with fairy lights and scattered with statues and water fountains.

These are the pillared archways.

Then I saw it... the cocktail party. About a hundred or so EXTREMELY well dressed people mingling in this very picturesque garden that lies within the Palais Royale. Even the waiters were wearing penguin suits. Rather than lamenting this wardrobe malfunction, I embraced it and became the token young, under-dressed foreigner.

Let me set you the (gastronomic) scene of this function. At one end of the garden was a very well-equipped bar, this time serving Moet & Chandon, as opposed to Verve, and an extensive variety of red and white wine. I opted for the red, as opposed to the champagne, and not necessarily without reason. Out of the corner of my eye I spied the cheese platter. Sipping on a nice red was good preparation for the cheese banquet which lay ahead. And I kid you not, this cheese platter could have definitely been classified as a banquet. It must have measured about 2 meters squared. Without doubt the largest cheese platter that I have ever encountered in my 23 years of existence.

General Charles De Gaulle famously once asked “how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” And the figure doesn’t stop there. Many have since claimed that there are in fact 365 varieties of cheese in France, one for each day of the year. I have even read articles which suggest that France currently produces over 400 varieties of cheese.

Camembert, Brie, Livarot, Pont l'Evêque, comté, Roquefort, chévre, Tome de Savoie, Bleu d'Auvergne, Epoisse, Fourme d'Ambert, Cantal, Vieux Lille, Chaource, Neufchâtel, Maroilles, Munster, Mont d'Or, Saint Nectaire, Reblochon… and the list goes on.

Whether there are 246, 365, or over 400 varieties… I would say that on the evening of the cocktail party, at least a third of all French cheese was sitting on that cheese platter.

A word of warning - you can't simply dive into the cheese platter at the beginning of the evening, or the soirée. The cheese comes last... And if you forget that, a Frenchman will be sure to remind you. I was personally reminded of ‘cheese etiquette 101’ by my date who, as I started to approach the cheese, suggested that it would be better to wait until later. And it wasn’t really a suggestion at all, so much as an order.

So whilst I waited, I enjoyed some petite servings of pea and prosciutto risotto, a piece of quiche and some foie gras on mini-toasts.

Actually it was whilst I was enjoying a bit of foie gras, that something a little bit strange happened.

I had already noticed that François only seemed to know two people at the party. Two men, to be precise. One quite old, the other quite young. The latter was apparently a test driver for Posche, yet when I started to discuss motor sports with him, he didn't really seem to know anything about cars. The older one was just all-together strange, and only seemed to want to discuss Uluru with me (because I'm Australian, and so that's obviously the sort of conversation that I enjoy).

A very elegant-looking lady standing in a nearby cluster of people overheard that I’m English-speaking, and wanted to come over to ‘test-run’ her language skills. She’d recently done course in London. And that’s about as far into the conversation as we got. Before I knew it, Françcois had his arm around my back and was literally pushing me away from the lady, whose name I never even had the chance to hear.
And then something clicked. He didn’t want me talking to any of the other guests at the party. I suppose I didn’t really mind at the time, because he ushered me from the English conversation straight to the cheese platter. Ah ha! It seems that Frenchmen do let you have the cheese at the beginning of the evening – at least, they do when they have an ulterior motive.

As I smeared a big slice of crumbly Roquefort onto a chunk of baguette, I had two simultaneous, yet unrelated thoughts. The first thought came from my stomach, not my brain. The cocktail party in the garden was connected to a restaurant, Restaurant du Palais Royale. It was the kitchen of this restaurant which had provided the evenings’ canapés and cheese. And so my stomach thought, “I really should come back here to sample the menu.” If my stomach wants to sample the menu, then I’m sure yours would too. The address is 110, galerie de Valois 75001 Paris, and the closest Métro Palais Royal - Musée du Louvre, if you’re ever interested.

The restaurant that catered for the function.

As for the second thought? Well that one came from my brain, and it went something along the lines of “I wonder how legitimate François is?” He didn’t want me talking to any of the other guests at the party, and he himself didn’t really seem to know anyone. I will never know this for sure, but I do suspect that he and his two friends gate-crashed that cocktail party. If that’s the case, then I am also (inadvertently) a gate-crasher.

All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, François informed me that we were leaving. “Of course you want to leave, you gatecrasher” I thought. But because I had already consumed more than enough cheese and wine, I was ready to go in any case, and so this didn’t really bother me.

We walked back through the other side of the Palais, pass the likes of Marc Jacobs and Corto Moltedo. He pulled me over to the window of an expensive and modern furniture shop, and pointed out a lamp. “What do you think?” he asked. The lamp was nothing special. A little strange and eccentric looking, it was entirely silver with some erratic curves here and there.

“Well…” I said, “there is NO way that I would ever spend 2000 euro on a lamp that looks like that! I can’t understand how anyone would want to spend that much money to have THAT sitting in their home.

Since he didn’t say anything, and since any silence is an awkward silence on a first date, I felt the need to continue talking…

“What’s it even made of? Really, what do you think makes it worth 2000 euro. I guess each to his own… I’m just not really into extremely modern furniture like that.”
Sill he said nothing, and so we kept walking.

He escorted me to the metro. I asked him several times during the walk what he did for a living, and where he lived. Both questions he repeatedly ignored, overtly changing the topic every time.

The next day he sent me a text message. No hello. No how are you. Just an email address. Intrigued, I looked it up. It was his website. As the page finished downloading I realized that he’s a designer. To be more specific, he’s a lamp designer!

Low and behold, as I scrolled through the images of his various designs, I came across the exact same lamp that I had spent a good 5 minutes criticizing the night before.

Needless to say, that relationship never took off! But at least I discovered a good restaurant, and indulged an exorbitant amount of cheese.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fast Cars, Flowing Veuve & A Prostitute

Warmer nights and longer days... A sure sign that Spring has sprung, and that Summer is fast approaching. What better way to celebrate the coming of a new season, than with a cocktail party at the foot of the Musée du Louvre?

I had been invited only one week prior to the Tour Auto Launch Party in the Tuileries gardens, and of course, I had accepted.

My new roomie, Eva, and I sipped on red wine and pondered the all important decision of what to wear.

I was adamant, "It's a cocktail party... So I should wear a cocktail dress"

"Yes, but it's a cocktail party in Paris, and it's a Monday night... You can't wear a cocktail dress." Eva replied.

"Well I can't wear pants, and the only other alternative is a cocktail dress."

The discussion continued back and forth like this for another 10 minutes or so, before Eva went to her wardrobe and pulled out a black silk dress. Very elegant, yet very simple. Knee length and loose. No plunging neck line, and no sparkling beads or over-the-top embroidery.

It was a little dressy, yes. But I had more or less decided to say...

"Screw you Paris!"...

It was, after all, a cocktail party, and I wanted to look at least half decent.

I matched the dress with some red kitten heels, black tights and a jacket. A simple, plain, conservative outfit. Very 'cocktail party on a Monday night in Paris' worthy. Or so I thought.

The Tuileries Gardens (I didn't take this on the night... But it gives you the idea)

As the cab pulled up beside the Tuileries Gardens, I caught a glimpse of the sea of denim jeans, flat shoes, and after-work attire which lay beyond the wrought iron gate. Despite the fact that it was a very balmy evening, I buttoned up my jacket to conceal the rather 'dressy' silk dress beneath, and muttered under my breath, "congratulations Nicola - Yet again, you are over-dressed!"

I walked all of two steps before I was bombarded with waiters offering everything from petits fours, to champagne flutes of bubbling Veuve.

Would I like a chocolate mousse? Why not.

And a mini crème brûlée? Of course.

Champagne? Don't ask, just pour!

Juggling two desserts and one champagne, I set off walking past an array of different tents and a selection of amazing cars - some new, some old, and some vintage.

I was alone for a good half-hour before I found the tent I was looking for. During that half hour I soaked up the atmosphere of what it is to be at a Parisian cocktail party. The food was definitely one of the most striking aspects of this event. Indeed, I thought that the food on offer was just as striking as cars on display. And that's a big call, considering the total value of the cars would have well exceed the hundred million dollar mark.

As I replaced my empty mousse and brûlée dishes with a mini strawberry tart, and topped up my champagne glass, I wondered how an event of equivalent importance might have been held in Sydney. Firstly, the Veuve would not have been Veuve at all, but rather, some sort of sparkling wine. And the food... well the food would most definitely not compare to this. In Sydney, I would have probably been nibbling on those little pre-prepared pastry cups, filled with either caramelized onion or a dollop of ricotta cheese. By the same token, the women at the cocktail party in Sydney would be wearing black silk dresses and heels, unlike the women at the Parisian party, who were wearing jeans, nice flats and holding expensive handbags.

I eventually found the tent. Before entering I disposed of, what had become, my stained and crummy serviette and my empty champagne glass. I didn't want to give away how many petits fours I had eaten, or how many glasses of Veuve I had drunk.

Inside the tent there were 30 to 40 people, more barmen serving Veuve, several expensive cars on display and, wait for it, a towering croque en bouche in the corner of the room. Only in France!

Most people seemed clustered in small groups, either around the cars or beside the croque en bouche, sipping on Veuve and making small talk. All of a sudden, the fact that I didn't know anyone became painfully obvious. I think I may have even noticed a few people staring at me. Well, to be honest, they could have been staring at one of two things: The fact that I was the only one standing alone, or the fact that I was overdresse.! Either way, I felt the need to attach myself to one of these 'small clusters', and I felt the need to do it fast.

To my right was a group of about 6, slightly drunk and very jovial men. I walked up to them, and said "bonsoir!" It was perhaps the Veuve speaking, but they were all very chatty and friendly. One, in fact, was so friendly he gave me his phone number, and offered to take me 'out on the town' later that week. I accepted, and we did go out later that week... but I'm saving that story for next time.

At about 11pm I started to head home to my new, beautiful apartment. I was walking along Avenue Kleber, a street which runs from the Arc de Triomph to Trocadero. This part of Paris is filled with foreign embassies, expensive restaurants and ritzy apartments. The area is very chic, as are the people who live there. And to be honest, on this particular night, I myself looked rather chic.

When I was only a block from home, a car pulled up beside me and put down the window. Earphones in and music blaring, I didn't hear what he said. Assuming he wanted directions, I paused the music and approached the car.

"Tu travailles?" he asked. The translation - "Are you working?"

It took me a moment to register what he was asking...

And then I realized.

A PROSTITUTE?! This man thinks I'm a prostitute, walking the streets trying to earn some money!

I was furious. No one, in all my life, has ever, ever mistaken me for a prostitute! Unfortunately, because everything happened so quickly, and also because it was fairly late at night, all I could manage in French was a feeble "Non".

Let's just say the man got off lightly. My French simply isn't advanced enough so say what needs to be said in that kind of situation.

Excuse the vulgarity, but there is a moral to the story...

If and when you decide to say "screw you Paris," Paris will promptly put you back in your place, and try to "screw you" in return!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Coffee & Clogs

As the title suggests, this post is not located in France, but rather, in Holland.

You are probably asking yourself; "How could she have possibly exhausted all of her Parisian dining options in one week?" The answer? I hadn't.

The truth is that after a week in Paris I was still technically homeless. There I was, shacked up in a short-term rental apartment at the heart of Gare de l'Est, an area which can be best likened to the Redfern of Sydney or the Bronx of New York. I was paying an exorbitant sum of money to live in a dodgy apartment, with an even dodgier flatmate. Grim, right?

On the up side, I had found a beautiful apartment, with a really nice flatmate, in a very chic area. The lease was set to commence in one week. 7 days. 168 hours. 10080 minutes. 604800 seconds. The only problem being that the prospect of spending another 604800 seconds with my creepy flatmate was just too much to handle.

A phone call from Grace (an Australian friend currently living in the Hague), a spur of the moment decision and a 4 hour train ride, led me to the land of clogs, bicycles and windmills. After having spent nearly a week in Holland, I can now say that it is actually the land of clogs, bicycles, windmills AND coffee!

For all of their gastronomical bravado (most of which is justified), coffee is definitely not one of France's strong points. Indeed, in terms of coffee, their skill is somewhat lacking. Generally a latté or a cappuccino comes out in two very distinct parts - the bottom layer is a flat, milky portion of coffee, very watery in consistency. The top layer is a mound of airy and bubbly froth, which towers high above the rim of the actual cup. And if that's not reason enough to avoid ordering one, any coffee with milk generally costs between 5 to 7 euros. Of course there is always the option of an espresso or a macchiato (noisette in French), which is significantly cheaper and less tarnished by poorly frothed milk. But even then, the actual coffee beans don't seem to possess that rich, full-bodied flavour to which I am accustomed (not to sound arrogant, but Australia is, in my opinion, home to some of the world's best barristas).

Enter Holland - the land of delicious, inexpensive coffee.

Holland puts on quite a show at springtime since every patch of grass is covered in colourful tulips. Or at least that's what I'm told... Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to explore the fields of tulips. I was too busy drinking coffee, in the name of research, OF COURSE!

During the week I spent there, I averaged about 5 coffees a day. Grace was working, and I so buried myself in a good book, and a variety of different coffee shops. From that selection of coffee shops, I have narrowed down a very modest 'top 3' list. To be honest, I could have easily created a 'top 10' list... but less is often more, or so they say.

O.k, so here they are...

1. La Mano Maestra (Noordeinde 138b, Centrum, Den Haag.)

Imagine this: A 10 page, leather-bound menu. 1 page dedicated to food, and the remaining 9 pages, dedicated to coffee. In fact, the word 'menu' doesn't really do this piece of literature any justice. It's more of a Bible, a coffee Bible. Since I am a devout follower, I promptly took my place at one of the tables and started studying this coffee Bible.

The reason the coffee menu is so extensive is because La Mano Maestra sells coffee beans from all four corners of the earth. Ethiopia, Colombia, Brazil, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Kenya, Yemen, Mexico... You name it, and they are most likely to sell it. What's more, the menu goes to great lengths to explain the origins of the beans, which beans are best suited to the various types of coffee, and what aromas or flavours you can expect to taste.

I ordered a latté made with the Ethiopian bean.

There is only one barrista, and since he was outside having a cigarette, I did have to wait a little while. Yet, in the Hague, time seems to almost stand still. Or at the very least, time doesn't really seem to matter. Everything and everyone moves at a slower pace such that after a few days, you too, start to slow down. Because of this, a lengthy wait for a cup of coffee didn't bother me in the slightest.

At last the waiter appeared bearing a shiny silver platter. On the platter there was the latté, a creamer filled with extra creamy frothed milk, and a ramequin of Belgian chocolate-covered coffee beans. The coffee was delicious, rich, and left a coco aftertaste in the mouth. The chocolate-coated beans were a yummy accompaniment (so yummy, in fact, that I bought a bag to take home.)

As for the price? 2.40 euro!

To top everything off, La Mano Maestra plays the Gipsy Kings in the background, and provides an abundant amount of newspapers and magazines (both in Dutch and English) for patrons. All in all, this is really just a wonderful coffee shop, a 'must-do' when in the Hague.

2. Restaurant Caprese (Spuistraat 261, Amsterdam)

I found this place the day that I visited Amsterdam. It was sunny, but extraordinarily windy and cold. Not really equipped for the weather (wearing some Australian designer's idea of a winter coat), I desperately sought out a warm place to have a coffee.

Caprese is located on the corner of Spuistraat and Raamsteeg. It has a yellow and white striped awning, and seems to catch all of the afternoon sunlight (which I'm sure would make one of the tables on the sidewalk an enticing place to sit in the warmer months).

It's not necessarily what you expect of a coffee shop in Amsterdam. The interior is quite bright, the furniture quite modern, and I'd say there's a slim-to-none chance that you'll be served a plate of hash cookies with your coffee!

But I never told you this was going to be a list of the top 3 'typically Dutch' coffee shops. And clearly, with a name like Caprese, this place was never going to feel very Dutch. However what is most important is the quality of their coffee, which was excellent.

Another creamy latté. The milk, not too hot. The beans, aromatic and rich. And this time, in lieu of chocolate-covered beans, a ramequin filled with thick shards of dark chocolate and roasted hazelnuts.

The price? 2.50 euro.

3. Hotel Corona (Buitenhof 39-42, Centrum, Den Haag)

This one is not a 'hole in the wall' cafe. It is, as it's name suggests, a hotel. It's located in a busy square, which has a constant stream of people, bikes and trams. Within this square lies the Hotel Corona. There are several large wooden dining tables, most of which are sheltered from the sun by 4 or 5 very grand, bright red, outdoor umbrellas. In front of these tables there is a line of wooden sun-lounges, all of which face outwards towards the square.

I took a seat on one of the sun-lounges. Each one has it's own cushion, two very generous arm rests and a foot stool. They are bathed in sunlight for most of the day, and when you lay back and close your eyes you could be anywhere from the French Riviera to the Amalfi Coast.

Again... the coffee was exceptional. This time there were no chocolate-coated coffee beans, nor were there chocolate pieces with hazelnuts. Instead, the latté came with two sweet, buttery cookies which crumbled into a thousand yummy pieces as soon as they hit my mouth.

It would be easy to spend hours here. You can watch the passing parade of life, soak up some sunlight, and at 2.30 euro a coffee, you can definitely afford to spend hours here too.

So there you have it... Perhaps a little unexpected from a blog entitled 'Lunch in Paris,' but hopefully it was interesting nonetheless.

Until next time...

Nicola xx