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Friday, July 31, 2009

Eating Out in Oslo - Norwegian Food (Nei!)

Another excursion to Scandinavia, this time to Oslo, Norway, to check out the culinary delights of King Olav’s realm. First, the obvious clichés: (1) blondes, blondes, blondes! and (2) salmon, salmon, salmon! Yes, I confirm, there is some truth to most clichés. Only in these cases, “some” can be defined by 90% and above. Empirical support attesting to the proliferation of blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian women in, well, Scandinavia, was evident from the start. Only an hour after my arrival, I received a strong endorsement by a young, blonde, blue-eyed girl for a nearby restaurant, only to be greeted by a young, blonde, blue-eyed hostess who was, chillingly, a dead ringer for the recommender. Bear in mind, I’m not complaining, only making an observation. At first I thought this was some weird sort of chicanery to get an unsuspecting visitor into an Olso restaurant, where one look at the prices on the menu is likely to prove alarming enough. However, I was so hungry by this point—no small thanks to Scandinavian Airlines and their “no pay, no food” on-board policy—that I wrote off the coincidental dead ringer effect to jet lag, assuming that one can actually get jet lagged from a 2-hour late afternoon flight. As for cliché number 2, we’ll get to that in due course.

Before describing the restaurant (see my next blog post) with the hostess with the lovely blonde hair and blue eyes, and for all I know, dragon tattoo, let me first convey my frustration at not having had the opportunity to dine at three highly-touted restaurants in the capital. The first, Statholdergaarden (Radhusgata 11) is apparently considered one of the best Michelin-starred restaurants in Oslo, with prices to prove it. The restaurant is housed in a 16th C. mansion not far from the National Gallery. As I have still—can you believe it—not yet received corporate sponsorship to travel in search of the world’s great restaurants with a huge expense account, on my dime I decided to eat at the Stat’s less formal “kro” in the cellar, which is rumored to have prices that are easier on the wallet. But no such luck. When I arrived at the door unannounced for dinner, it was readily apparent that there would be no Statholdergaarden experience for me during this trip—the restaurant was shut up like a petulant clam. A cryptic note was taped to the door and, although written in Norwegian, I had a sinking suspicion that what it said was, “We are currently renovating and are temporarily closed for business. Go find someplace else to eat.” And so, with furrowed brow and bowed head, I trudged back to my hotel in the rain to partake of their 245 kroner (~ 28€) dinner buffet. As hotel dinner buffets go, this one was pretty standard, albeit with a nice predilection towards fresh seafood and interesting selection of breads. I pawned my spanking new diamond encrusted Patek Philippe and sprung for a couple glasses of red wine to wash down my shrimp and smoked shark.

The second no-go was another restaurant in the vicinity of the National Gallery, Engebret Café (Bankplassen 1), which unfortunately was booked until a time at which my visit to Oslo promised to be a faded memory. Engebret is reportedly Oslo’s oldest restaurant, dating back to the 1700s, a period which I had long assumed was associated with a “kill your own” approach to dining out. I bet you didn’t know that noted Norwegian celebrities Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen had their own tables at the Eng.

The third no-go, or shall I say, piece de resistance, had to be my aborted excursion to Lille Herbern, a restaurant (see photo) on the tiny island of Herbern in the Oslo Fjord not far from the peninsula of Bygdøy. I had heard of this spot from some German friends who gave it high praises, which were validated online. This too professes to be one of the oldest restaurants in the Oslo area. Will the real oldest restaurant in Oslo please stand up? I had no idea if I’d ever find the place, as the directions were a bit complicated and involved boats, so I didn’t try to reserve in advance. Had I done so, I would have spared myself a rather unpleasant experience, which began in the rain (again) with a 15-minute ferry ride to the tip of the peninsula at Bygdøynes. Starting at the Kon-Tiki Museum, a short walk from the ferry drop, one must trek about half a kilometre, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll find a short path leading to a small dock (see photo) from which one can enjoy the shortest ferry ride in Norway to Herbern island.

As I stood alone on the dock, I was approached by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who informed me that she worked at the restaurant and yes, the restaurant is open and, no, you can’t eat there because there is a wedding today and so unless you are a member of the wedding party, you will not be served. For a split second, of course, I pondered the likelihood of my passing off as a Norwegian wedding party invitee and quickly decided that this would probably be more trouble than it was worth. I diligently turned around and walked back in the direction of the Kon-Tiki Museum. It just wasn’t to be. Next installment: I actually find some places to eat.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Le Pré Verre - Left Bank Spice of Life

Another dinner out with Moose, before his annual summer emigration back to British Columbia. Since this was one of his last nights in the capital, I invited Moose to offer some suggestions, and when his first pick was Le Pré Verre, I happily acceded. This is a venue I had on my list for a while, but never got around to trying. Sometimes great minds think alike, what can I say?

This popular Latin Quarter mainstay is just around the corner from the Sorbonne, so it's not surprising that the clientele is oh so Latin Quarter. The atmosphere is rather relaxed and convival, but that also means you're not going to expect any intimate conversations. In fact, I think the word I used most during our dinner was 'Whaaaat???' But, hey, I can shout with the best of them, so there you have it. I know this is kind of lazy, but it's summer and the living is easy, and what Fromer's says about Le Pré is exactly, to a word, what I was going to write. So in a nutshell:

Even if this is not an earth-shattering gastronomic experience, it is solid and reliable, with good cooking and market-fresh ingredients. The Delacourcelle brothers are firmly based in the French tradition, but they have added innovative modern twists by giving extra spicing to the food, many of the flavorings inspired by Asia.

The restaurant is owned by the Delacourcelle brothers (interestingly, there are several Parisian establishments run by brother teams) - Marc is the wine specialist who leaves the cooking to Philippe, the chef. A well-chosen, unpretentious wine list includes bottles of red (the only wine that matters) ranging from a 19€ table wine (dubbed "vin de petanque"! 2008 Domaine Mas de Libian) to an 85€ Château la bessane 2001 Château Margaux. And even better, a blackboard special bottle from the Loire, a Chinon Une soif de loup 2007 Loup - the thirsty wolf, which happens to be my second nickname after Mortstiff. At 19€, it perfectly complemented our dishes and facilitated our shouting match vis-a-vis the American menage a trois at one of the tables adjoining ours.

If you're not already aware, Le Pré Verre translates as 'the green meadow,'which has nothing to do with the restaurant's urban location or decor. So I assume, barring whatever story the Delacourcelles' can offer you to better explain the name, it is meant to refer to the freshness of the food, whose preparation is to the left of the traditional French fare, leaning in the direction of French fusion. Moose and I both opted for the 28.50 euro three-course menu. What we ordered: I started with one of my favorites, slightly cooked tuna - Mi-cuit de thon, rémoulade de céleri au sésame - four slices of slightly cooked tuna (despite the three you see in the image) surrounding a mound of celery in mayonnaise. I've tried tuna prepared this way far and wide, from Hawaii to Finland, and I have to admit this was somewhat disappointing. The celery was too rich for my taste and the tuna was nothing special. Moose fared much better, having ordered Hure de cochon grillée, chutney de betteraves. If you eat pig, this is the way to go. I have to say it again, year of the beet. This grilled pig was accompanied by chutney and the aforementioned beet. It really looked good even from my non-pig-eating perspective, and Moose lapped it up. For the main plate, we both ended up ordering the roasted skate dish, Filet de rascasse rôtie, risotto au citron confit, and we both agreed that this was excellent, accompanied as it was by the risotto and a couple small pyramids of lime confit. I think it was about midway through my fish that a knife came flying from the American table, nearly impaling my left thigh, the girl apparently having a bit too much of the vin de petanque!. The desserts put a nice cooling cap on the evening, with me going dark chocolate (Truffade de chocolat noir, glace mélasse) and Moose doing white (Compotée de rhubarbe et chocolat blanc au sumac). A couple cups of espresso rounded out the meal, which came to 78.50€.

Our waiter, a young guy who looked like he easily could have been a Sorbonne student was beyond unobtrusive. Imagine, in the US, we would have been greeted with 'hello, I am Luc, my specialty is Italian Renaissance art, and I will be your waiter for the evening.' At Le Pré, the only utterance from our server that I can remember of note was, 'oui'. At any rate, this is a good Left Bank address to include on your list, especially if you are seeking above average food preparation, an interesting mix of spices, and a fantastic price/quality ratio. My only gripe is that the menu doesn't seem to change that frequently, but it's not like we're going back every week. Minor quibble.

8, rue Thenard 75005 PARIS
tel. 01 43 54 59 47
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