Thursday, May 31, 2007

Loire Valley Round up

I blame the lack of food posts entirely on my friend, with whom I have been having entirely too much fun, raiding castles and pillaging wine. Ok, so not quite but close enough.

The Loire valley was glorious! Blue skies, and an average of two castles a day, punctuated by visits to local food producers (tapped pears anyone?), degustations in vineyards, ending in wonderful restaurants (except for one evening where the meal was so depressing, we ended up eating cookies in bed in a fit of discontent). A perfect mix of my favorite hobbies ... travel, photography, castle-ing (yes, I count it as a hobby) and of course, wining and dining. Throw in shopping in there and I'd be in heaven. As things go, it was pretty much a perfect holiday.

But you're here for the food. Ok, ok, got it.

First night we had a fabulous dinner in Blois, at a great little restaurant called Le Bistrot du Cuisinier, where you were allowed a choice of 2 courses for approximately 23 euros (I forget exactly, I blame the wine). I started with an absolutely delicious "Terrine de canard et pistaches, oeuf de caille poche sur un moelleux de beaufort, sauce moutardee a l'ancienne". It was fabulous. Other interesting starters included and iced cream of coco beans, smoked duck breast and crushed coconut. As you can see, the chef is not afraid of being adventurous.

My main, I regretted the second I saw my neighbors' huge piece of foie gras with chicken breast. I had ordered the tete de veau en sauce ravigote, seeing as it was the specialty of the house. I really shouldn't have as I think the best was probably the one at the Grand Venise. However, this restaurant is highly recommended if you're doing the Loire Valley this summer. Lovely staff, great salmon rillettes to spread on the bread and a great view of the castle.

The second night was in the village of Chenonceau. Surprisingly lacking in charm, the village is very close to the rail tracks, which can be heard rumbling from time to time. Go to the castle then get the hell out of there. We shall never mention our horrific dinner nor the scathing comments cards we left at the horrific Hotel de Roy restaurant ever again. Simply avoid the restaurant, hotel and all.

After picking up the boy, we had dinner in Tours, the biggest city we visited on the journey. We had to go in order to pick up the boy, who was joining us for the second half of the trip. We chose to eat at the Bistrot de la Tranchee, where I had a fabulous meal for the shockingly low sum of 17 euros for 3 courses. The boy and my friend went for the higher priced market meal at 23 euros, which was still a bargain when we saw the carefully prepared and beautifully plated meal. Our amuse gueule was the most visually pleasing, with its white and black "boudin" or blood sausages, on a vibrant beet sauce which was neither cloying nor soapy.

The next day, we were spending the night in "une des plus beaux village de France", in Candes St. Martin. One of the definite favorites of the villages, the restaurant, Auberge de la Route D'Or was fabulous. In the little square in front of the village church, St. Pierre, the food and service was friendly and absolutely delicious throughout. I had the local specialty of eel, which while not beautiful to look at was thoroughly yummy, without the rubberiness that eel sometimes has, but the subtle delicate flavor of a soft fleshed fish. You will understand how much we enjoyed the food when I tell you that over the next two days, we chased down the "Affineur" for more of the cheese in the cheese plate and visited the vineyard to purchase over 30 bottles of the wine which we enjoyed that evening.

The last restaurant of the trip was a bit of a tourist trap. I knew it going in but wanted to taste "foues", hot little breads which were a specialty of the region, and this restaurant apparently had one of the best. Located in Montreuil Bellay (My absolute favorite village of the trip), La Grange a Dime had costumed gentlemen, a set menu of 23 euros including (a standard swill) wine, rillettes, a cassoulet type dish, salad, goat's cheese, strawberries and a chanting of dirty poems. Ok, not quite dirty poems but very suggestive ones using French play on words.

The foues were.... delicious! Prompting the boy to uncharacteristically say "Keep the little breads coming, French dude!". Exhorted to stuff the hot little pockets with "plein de buerre au fleur de sel", we did just that, burning fingers to shove huge slabs of butter in between, to melt into the hot bread. Arguments over whether it was more like pita or naan raged on over the course of the dinner, which was forgettable besides the bread.

While you might all think it was fun and games, let's not forget that I was made to pay for my greediness by lugging a 63 bottles of wine back to our fourth floor walk up. That's not including the other goodies I collected along the way.

Now go eat and be merry.

Le Bistrot du Cuisinier

20 quai Villebois-Mareuil


Tel: 02 54 78 06 70

Bistrot de la Tranchee

103 avenue de la Tranchee

37100 Tours

Tel: 02 47 41 09 08

Auberge de la Route D'Or

Place de L'Eglise

37500 Candes St Martin

Tel: 02 47 95 81 10

Rue du Chateau
49260 Montreuil-Bellay
Tel: 02 41 50 97 24

Monday, May 28, 2007

Update - Cast Iron

By George, I *think* I've got it!

I believe my pan might be seasoned!

I made a simple Asian minced meat dish in it and it browned properly, no sticking and wiped clean.

Does this mean it's actually seasoned?

How can I tell?

Please, please work, ya damn bane of my cooking existence!

Monday, May 21, 2007


Although I am in marketing, I am an absolute SUCKER for marketing ploys. Actually, I think that's why I got into marketing. I love the silly "NEW AND IMPROVED box" type packaging, the many exclamation marks and what gets people to actually buy the goods.

One of the recent ones in Paris is the Spiderman burger from Quick. Besides having a penchant for comic books, it also showed the Spidey burger as having nice stringy cheese. You know, the Asterix and Obelix kind I like. It showed oozey gooey cheese along with a bun imprinted with a web.

"How cool!", thought I, "A web on a bun, imagine that!"

"How lame!", thought the boy, "I better humour her, though, she's scary when denied her vittles"

I was obsessed with trying it but it never seemed like the right time. Either it was right after I had eaten or right before going to a big dinner. Finally the time was right and we went for it.

This was what my Speederman burrrrger (how the French pronounce it) like... a soft, yellowish, briochey bun, which was really light, airy and plain awful, but true to the advert, imprinted with a spider's web.

Then I looked inside ....


it was awful. It besides looking completely off, it was the kind of semi coagulated liquidy-but-not type of cheese with a sad looking patty. It was "stringy" in the sense that it stuck to the bread and pulled away but it was terrible.

The worse part was it TASTED dreadful. The bread was so soft and horrid it fell away when you picked it up and the cheese tasted just as described, melted then coagulated with an oily taste. One bite was about all I could manage.

The boy described Quick to my father and brother as the McDonald's of France, thus igniting a curiosity to do a taste comparison. Listen, you heard it here. It is not worth it. Even McDonald's seems gourmet compared to this.

Now to go onto bigger and better things..... like Flunch!! I know, I know, another cheap crappy restaurant. But the name! Flunch! You can just hear the cogs of the marketing whizzes at work....

"I want a name that represents our 'unique selling proposition' for a lunch for busy executives, something exotic sounding..."

"Hmmm, a fast lunch, you say...."

Till the week after.... I'll be whiling away the days in the Loire Valley this week on a much anticipated roadtrip with a girlfriend... que la vie est dure....

Friday, May 18, 2007

Seaweed not see bread

I was recently in the UK again, this time it was a birthday party for the boy's sister's 30th. It was, as always with the boy's family, a very fun, elaborate affair involving cameras, pirates and the rain. Oh, the last bit was about Wales and not the party. The sun we ordered for the weekend didn't arrive on time.

In any case, upon arriving, we were taken to a pub lunch at what I thought was a pub named Earthlings, but turned out to be Farthings written all fancy and scroll like. It was in a village charmingly named Usk. After saying the name of the village a number of times, much to the annoyance of everyone around me, I finally settled down to read the unpronounceable Welsh menu. I was quite interested to see something I hadn't tried before:

See, doesn't that sound interesting? The boy's father, who is quite adventurous with his food (even though he said durian tasted like custard vomit), said that the shellfish around dere dem parts is mighty fine (well, he didn't say it with a Southern farmer's accent but it sounds funnier, no?).

I'm not sure who they think they are fooling with this "laverbread" stuff but it ain't NOTHING like bread. It's actually seaweed. Why they can't just say seaweed, I have no idea.

This what it looked like:

It tasted quite similar to how it looked as well, with some bacon and slightly slimy seaweed and rubbery cockles, it actually tasted a little bit like one of the soups my mother used to make with seaweed and rubbery dried squid. It was fed to us under the extortion "its good for you" but no one ever liked it.

It was interesting but I don't think I'd try it again. Neither will I try pickled cockles, which I also picked up on this trip, which tasted like little rubbery, slightly vinegary nothings.

I think I'll just have to stick to what the Welsh do best. Lamb... mmmnn, tender meat o' baby lambies....YUM!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Le (TRES) Grande Venise

My cousin, during her visit to Paris, was recommended by a friend for a visit to Le Grand Venise. Having been advised by her friend that this was a particularly popular restaurant, it was booked as soon as she had her flights confirmed, which was two months before the meal was going to happen.

I was well excited that she was going to take the boy and I out as a thank you but this turned quickly to doubt and hesitation as none of the (many) food books I had so much as mentioned this apparently fabulous restaurant. A quick search online found quite a number of reviews which mentioned the poor service but huge portions, which did not sound commendable at all. I never did understand how restaurants can "make up" for the lack of quality with the quantity of food. If I wanted a huge plate of mediocre food, I can stay home because even I can produce mass quantities of crap food. Needless to say for the three of us, expectations were a low but hopes and mood was high so off we went.

We arrived at the restaurant a little late but still the first guests of the evening. We were greeted by the staff and the little Italian woman who made a huge fuss over us. Mamma, as she was known throughout the evening, immediately demanded that our waiter, a young man dressed in a slightly too large a suit, bring over our menus.

Scarcely had we sat down when a huge basket of vegetables put between us, a small plate with olives and salt, two bottles of olive oil, two types of butter, a plate of fresh basil stalks, a slice of mascapone and blue cheese and freshly toasted bread. As we stared in awe and a little bit of confusion, I asked Mamma to help describe what we were to do with it all.

First of all, we were to try her self-made starter made of marscapone cheese, triple cream and blue cheese on the toasted bread. As it had gotten slightly cool, she sent the waiter off to get it re-toasted. Then we were to split open the vine ripened tomatoes, douse them in either the rosemary or chili olive oil, sprinkle on the fleur de sel and top with a basil leaf from her garden and pop the juicy aromatic thing in our mouths whole. Then the salted and sweet butter for the radishes and the olives and other pickles to snack on. While we perused the menu.

As I was reading the menu, I noticed something quite odd. There were no prices in the menu. i started to get quite worried... even though my cousin was picking up the tab, I was starting to wonder what type of place doesn't list prices. I'm too Chinese not to want to know. So I asked my cousin, who also didn't have prices. Then it dawned on me. I asked the boy. Of course HE had the menu with prices! How old fashioned and yet how funny! My cousin was slightly outraged at the sexist assumption. I must admit, I was a little worried... after all, Italian dinners usually go through the whole spectrum of courses and foods and I wasn't all that hungry after eating a few radishes, tomatoes (sublime), some fennel and of course the olives, bread and cheese. Luckily we were saved yet again by Mamma, who came over to introduce the dishes of the day and take our order.
As she introduced her speciality, tete de veau sauce gribiche, I knew that was the dish for me. She told me how Jacques Chirac comes in especially for this dish of stewed veal head bits but I was already sold. She also introduced the seafood lasagna, which the boy choose and the duo of pasta, freshly made tortellini and cannelloni for my cousin.

First to arrive, much to our surprise, was a huge bowl of sugared and candied fruits. Figs, apricots, cherries, in their bright, shiny sugar syrup was laid down on the table, then a plate full of what the boy terms, 'grey wobbly bits' was presented, before a huge bowl of sauce gribiche, made up of mayonnaise with tarragon and chopped pickles, was slathered over the plate and laid down in front of me with the recommendation of eating them with the candied fruits. Which I found strange at first but it did help balance the richness of the dish.

Then, platter by huge, oval platter, descended on the table. There was the fried to a fragrant, chewy crisp onion rings, with eggplant, beautiful big, creamy perfect white beans, smoky chargrilled oily tendrils of red peppers and toothsome, flavorful lentils, for the table to share.

It was a huge quantity of food and while no one was keen to try my veal head, I did manage to try some of my cousin's pasta (yum with paper thin pasta sheets) and the boy's heavenly, heavenly seafood lasagne.

As for my own dish, I very much enjoyed the tongue and while the taste of the brain was a little strong and the texture slightly disconcerting, I was more troubled by the fact that there was so much rich sauce over the top of a very rich dinner. By the end, I had done well enough but could not manage the final two bits of skin and gelatin from the head.
As we sat in our plush seats, hand folded over our distended and abused bellies, the waiter came over to tempt us with dessert but first, he put down a dish of brandy snaps and caramelized nuts. In case we were hungry while deciding. I was done. Very much done and couldn't possibly eat another bite.... after polishing off most of the nuts.
My cousin and the boy heroically soldiered on, ordering their caramel ice cream, said to be their specialty. The gentleman came over with a small plate and a thimble of limoncello for the two of them before setting down a huge pot of cherries, stewed prunes, stewed figs and stewed apricots, the latter three of which were stewed with citrus fruits, cloves and cinnamon sticks, lending them a sweet, spicy aroma. This was all accompanied by the thickest, most decadent and deadly bowl of whipped heaven, cream so thick you could stick a spoon straight up in it and which the boy was seriously worried would kill him. I couldn't eat another bite but trust me, you cannot NOT eat it.

Just when we began to wonder if we had mispronounced the words for caramel ice cream, this came out of the kitchen....

That's right, its a FREAKING GIGANTIC BLOCK OF ICE CREAM COVERED IN CARAMEL! Sorry but I almost shrieked! It was the hugest block of ice cream I had ever seen! It was immense! The waiter patiently carved out chunks for the boy and my cousin, dribbled the caramel over and plated it with some of the thick cream and served it. It was unbelievable.

When we finally staggered out of the restaurant, having had coffees to help us digest (wishful thinking), I didn't know whether to thank my cousin or hit her for having shown us a fabulous but over-indulgent time. I finally mustered up the energy to hug her.
So finally, yes, huge amounts of food but luckily, good food. The final bill came to approximately 80 euros a head with 1 bottle of wine between the three of us.

Le Grand Venise
171 rue de la Convention
75015, Paris
Metro: Convention
Tel: 01 45 32 49 71

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A cold way to shop

There are so many different things I have had to get used to, moving to Paris.

For one is the customer service, or lack thereof. After going every week to the bank to beg for the PIN code for my bank card, I still have yet to receive it. For another is the way the French shop.

Mondays are awful for shopping, which I learnt to my detriment early on when, after the weekend, I left to replenish my cupboards, went to visit three supermarkets within walking distance, to find them resolutely closed.

The French also, despite the bountiful resource of beautiful fresh foods, have succumbed to the lure of frozen foods, for reasons of convenience and short prep time.

One chain which I have been seeing around the city is Picard. A store selling nothing but frozen foods! Which to me is quite unusual. It is odd to see people in Picard, heads down as if in thought but in reality looking into the depths of each of the freezers, trying to think of dishes for the week. The decor is sparse and white to mimic, I imagine, the insides of a freezer.

Sad to say, despite my luxury of time, I too have ventured into the depths of the frozen world, plucked out frozen gaspacho (which the boy adored), little frozen sticks of vegetables, ice creams and of course, one of my all time favorites, frozen raspberries to be eaten straight from the freezer on hot, hot days.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

South of Nowhere

As a farewell dinner to one of the boy's colleagues, she invited us to dine with her at a restaurant just on the other side of Ile St Louis, charmingly, and quite aptly, given the quietness of the neighborhood, Au Sud de Nulle Part (South of Nowhere).

We found that it was a small seafood oriented restaurant, decorated with modern art sculptures, which our waiter told me were on display for a limited time and were for sale by contacting the artist, whose cards were displayed at the front of the restaurant.

We were presented with the menu and a some accras, deep fried dumplings. These were greasy and over-salted and did little to whet our appetites. The menu, however, had some intriguing combinations of flavors, with more than a smattering of Asian ingredients within.

I started with the "Carpaccio de dorade rose, vinaigrette de Yuzu, remoulade de pomme verte", which was very thinly sliced raw pink dorade with a slightly odd green apple/balsamic 'salad' on top, drizzeled in a light vinaigrette. The dorade was delicious and went went well with the tart apple although I couldn't taste the Yuzu, which usually has a suble yet distinctive taste. I liked that nothing overwhelmed the taste of the delicate tasting fish.

The boy wanted the dorade as well but since I ordered it, gallantly choose the Lobster Gaspacho with iced red peppers. It looked very impressive indeed, with a large shelled claw but I felt that the lobster itself could have been fresher while the gaspacho lacked bite.

For my main, I went for the seared tuna with green tea and spices. It came in a large meaty serving with thick cut seared tuna pieces with grilled vegetables accompanied by a small dressing on the side. The tuna was cooked well, only cooked the barest 3mm or so all around, dusted with green tea powder, which was barely noticeable above the chargrilled flavors of the tuna. The vinaigrette was a little strange and consisted mainly of what seemed like sesame oil with a mere touch of soy sauce and perhaps a splash of balsamic in there. It went well but was very oily, perhaps to counteract the slight dryness of the chargrilled tuna.

The boy had the Massale de Saint Pierre fish. We're not sure if it was overcooked or that was the texture of Saint Pierre but it was rather tough and chewy for a fish.

Overall, the food itself was a bit of a let down after the relative excitement over the promissing menu. We had expected the unusual combinations to excite but instead we felt that it had not been used to highlight anything special in the dishes. Although to be fair, this may be only our own expectations.

Although not having had an unpleasant time, we opted to skip dessert in favor of walking over to Berthillon's for ice cream instead.

Entree and main with a bottle of wine between four was approximately 50 euros.

Au Sud de Nulle Part
16 Bd Saint Germain
Paris, 75005
Tel: 01 43 54 59 10

Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's white, green and wild?


Going to the market today, I found something quite unusual (for me). Wild asparagus. They sat there, in precious little bundles, looking for someone to love (eat) them. That someone was me.

It is the season, or so the market would have me believe, for asparagus and there are asparagus aplenty. Big, thick as a thumb white ones with very closed tips, tinged with purple and violet, thinner, longer green ones that look bright and snappy and these delicate, thin, weedy looking ones at the one stall in the market that was selling them.

They were priced at an outrageous 5.95 euros but I couldn't resist. For all I know, I may never see them again! So I had to do it. For all your sakes, I mean.

And since I bought them, it made no sense to have them all by their lonesome, now did it? So I bought its sisters and brothers and did a little taste test.

Snapped off the ends of the green ones, trimmed and lightly peeled the white ones and trimmed the bottom 5mm of the wild ones, I quickly blanched them in quick succession. Dressed simply with a red wine, Dijon, olive oil vinaigrette using a light hand, I started "tasting".

The white ones were by far the juiciest, reminding me of fresh bamboo shoots, of which I am very fond, while the green ones were sweet and lovely tasting. The wild asparagus were delicate and green tasting, with a subtle flavor of asparagus but only slightly. They were a delight to eat, both tender and yet slightly crispy. I don't know that they are worth the almost 6 euros I paid for them, especially as the more substantial ones are on special at the moment, but worth having, at least once.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Do not Trifle with Grandma

I mentioned the Diamond anniversary of the boy's Grandparents a few weeks back. What I didn't mention is the Trifle (this one merits a capital).

Upon arriving upon the Grandparents, we saw them busy at work preparing an absolutely fantastic smelling soup and planning to make Trifle. As it was getting late and we were heading to the boy's Aunt's B&B to prepare for the party, I offered to help make the Trifle.

That was my first mistake. For one thing, I have no idea what is a Trifle. Sure, I laughed along with Friends when Rachel put ground beef in her trifle, but what really is in it? I thought it might be a pudding or something. For another, I said HELP, not MAKE. As everyone knows, baking is NOT my forte. Well, as it turns out, no baking was involved. So I breathed a sigh of relief. Furthermore, Grandma, one of the most charming and lovely grandmothers I have ever met, gave me three packets of Bird's strawberry trifle mix. Turns out, I have to make three trifles.

No problemo, I thought, reading the packet (yes, I think in cheesy little catch phrases, just be thankful I don't say them). Easy. The packet contains all there is, just dribble sherry on the enclosed biscuits, make the jello, pour on top, let set, then mix the custard powder with some milk, pour on top, add the whipped topping powder with some milk, pour on top and finished with the enclosed sprinkles. Great little box containing three sets of powders and some biscuits to make a whole trifle.

That was my second mistake. Assumption is the root of all screw ups.

Grandma proceeded to tell me how exactly to make the trifle. First of all, she opened the box of Bird's handy trifle mix, then told me that I could use the jelly powder, but she doesn't. She then gave me a box of Rowntree's jelly (jell-o to us North Americans). She uses that instead. Ok, no problem, I can substitute.

She then pulled out the custard mix and told me that she doesn't like the mix and prefers fresh custard, so two cartons of custard were handed over. Ok, got it, use fresh custard.

Grandma also showed me the whipped topping mix. Which she doesn't use. A carton of cream is also handed to me.

Then a bag of biscuits, which I should use for the base is also handed to me. In sheer bewilderment at having been handed THREE boxes of Bird's trifle mix, and all the contents pulled out and discarded, I enquired what exactly she uses from the box of trifle mix. To which the dear lady replied that I may use the sprinkles which were included. But she doesn't.

And she will be sure to let me know if she doesn't enjoy her Trifle.

So, following the instructions on the box of Bird's Trifle Mix and throwing out everything in it, I proceeded to make three large TRIFLES with much stress and panic. Everything had gone almost perfectly.

Until the whipped topping.

The jello had set, the custard was layered and guests were arriving, with Grandma and Grandpa due any minute. Cream was poured into bowls when the boy's Aunt announced that she doesn't have a whisk.

In absolute horror, I roped in her beloved grandchildren, the boy, his brother and his sister, knowing they could do no wrong in the eyes of their adored Grandmother. I gave each of them a fork and exhorted them to "Whip, whip, whip as fast as you can!". The kitchen was chaos. Cream spilling onto the floor, forks flying and much whining about arms aching. Finally it all came together.

The Trifle NOT from Bird's Mix was ready.

Silence descended upon the room as Grandma took her first bite.

She announced: "Blecht!" and I almost burst into tears, finger at the ready, prepared to point and blame her beloved grandchildren when I saw the huge smile and twinkle in her eye.

Sadly I am now too scared to ask her for her fabulous soup recipe. Instead I am simply going to go down to the shop, pick up a can of soup and read the ingredients.