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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Le Relais Guillaume De Normandy - Somethin' on the Dock of the Baie

As the sun ominously dipped behind La Baie de Somme, I stood outside the gates of the chosen restaurant for the evening, Le Relais Guillaume de Normandy, a chill emanating off the dark waters as night descended. I think it was at that point that I nervously intoned, ‘Uh, Co., I hate to say this, but I think we took a wrong turn in Eu and have ended up at the house of the Addams Family. . . da da da da, snap snap.’ A child neither of 1930s New Yorker cartoons nor 1960s schlock American TV, my French companion could only gaze wonderingly at this madman before her. It was that kind of week. Instead of visiting the Ferdinand Brasserie on the canal of Aarhus, Denmark as I had planned—the plans having been dashed by an Icelandic volcanic cloud of ash that served to ground my plane and 100s of others—I instead found myself spending a weekend vacation along the Normandy coast with Co. visiting a gothic seaside restaurant/hotel, among other assorted and asundry attractions. Well, I guess it could have been worse: to wit, I could have been awaiting another airport meal.

Despite the uncanny similarity to aforementioned macabre Addams house, a glance around the restaurant revealed a distinctly uncharacteristically Addams waitstaff and clientele. Although perhaps if one of our waitresses had been a bit more like Morticia and a lot less like Lurch, I probably would have enjoyed the dinner experience a bit more.

Contrary to expectations, the interior of Relais—widely rated online as a top restaurant in Saint-Valery-Sur-Somme (but definitely not a top hotel)—was sunnier than I expected, reminiscent of a decent Cape Cod seafood restaurant, but lo and behold, it offered no view of the bay as we had hoped (at least not from our vantage point in the restaurant’s main dining room).

The extensive carte offered four different menus—not including the ‘menu enfants—ranging from the 3-course 18€ ‘menu tradition’ to the 5-course 43€ ‘menu Baie de Somme.’ As fate would have it, we were tempted by the middle two four-course menus, with Co. enchanted by the 33€ ‘menu decouverte’ and me bewitched by the 26€ ‘menu terroir.’ To make a long story short, the choices comprising these two menus are reproduced below from the Relais’s website.

I started with the salad de mache, which came with two creamy circles of shrimp butter and mackerel spread and four thin slices of grilled country bread. This was a pretty simple and unimposing dish, but it suited me fine, especially as washed down with our slightly bitter choice of wine, a 2005 Victoria II Haut-Medoc (21.50€). Co. meanwhile was impressed with her langoustine and pork foot-filled pastry. The idea of anything edible coming out of a pork foot is so anathema to me that I nearly resisted tasting her dish, but Co. was diplomatic enough to have eliminated the porcine aspects of the two heaping forkfuls that she graciously set in the direction of my mouth and I’m glad she did. Moving on to the main dish, despite a disappointing mango embellished portion of barbue, a river fish on Co’s side, my filet de plie (plaice fish) in a sauce comprised of bouchot mussels and coques proved to be the highlight of the meal. This was a light and sumptuous fish, one of the tastiest I’ve had in a long time. It didn’t hurt that I followed this dish up with a circle of roasted chevre with honey and pignons on a small square of toast, which also beat Co’s choice of three cheeses and salad hands down. My gratin de pomme flambé with calvados also had the edge over Co’s choice of a strawberry dessert, which came enveloped within a crepe. What can I say? When you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll, and that 26€ menu turns out to be a clear winner when stacked up against its 33€ competition. Go figure. All told, skipping coffee, our evening racked up a more than reasonable sum of 80.50€. Try finding two 4-course meals with wine in Paris for that price, I challenge you.

Overall, this was a satisfying enough dinner, and if you happen to be cruising along the Normandy coast sometime, volcano ash cloud notwithstanding, the Relais certainly warrants a detour. In and of itself, it wouldn’t justify a 2 to 2-1/2 hour drive from Paris, but I guess that goes without saying. Although our trip was a short one, my research revealed a few additional hidden gems in the Baie de Sommes environs. Our mussels/frites/ salad lunch at the Restaurant Les Canotiers (on the port) in Le Crotoy was typical and satisfying, despite my failure to locate the recommended La Grignotine (5, porte de Pont) for the same. On the road in Picardie, we took a little spin to check out the carte at Le Cle Des Champs in Favieres and it is one I’ll definitely keep on my list – good potential there. Back in Le Crotoy I was tempted by L’Auberge de la Marine, whose hotel sounds like a real Addams Family nightmare, but whose food merits a lot of praise online and in the guidebooks. In Amiens, Les Marissons (68 Rue des Marissons) caused some real trepidation – elegantly situated on the town’s central canal – Co. yin-ed, having read some strong positive reviews, while I yang-ed, having read a number of terrible critiques online before our trip. If you’ve been there, please solve the mystery. We passed this time.

Qaui du Romerel
80230 Saint-Valery-sur-Somme
tel: 03 22 60 82 36

Note: The hotel choices in the Baie de Sommes region leave a lot to be desired, but we fared more than comfortably at a B&B in Eu, a traditional manor hideaway where we reserved a 3rd floor suite for a mere 60 euros, the Manoir de Beaumont (route de Beaumont, email: catherine@demarquet.eu). Not exactly bristling with amenities (croissant breakfast, map, bathroom), no wifi, no TV, no radio. But at that price, who can complain?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Down and Dirty With the Sarkos at Big Ben’s

It is already old news, the Sarkos’ recent visit to the US to slum it in Obama-ville, but my once reliable and speedy DC contacts aren’t what they used to be.
Nonetheless, I can’t resist the opportunity to give equal discursion to the culinary predilections on US shores of the increasingly indigestable, hyperactive Napoleonic wanabee (give the man some Ritalin!) after giving coverage to the widely-beloved (well, more or less) O-man when he and Michelle visited Paris (see last June’s post).

For those who have followed the trajectory of Sarko’s career, you are already aware that his relationship with living beef and farmers (we’ll get to the cover girl models soon enough) has not been a smooth one. Back in February 2008, there was that nasty incident at the annual Paris Agriculture Show—one of the yearly highlights of the French political scene—Nicky lost his temper when a farmer refused to dirty his hand by shaking Sarko’s, throwing fuel on the fire that Sarko cannot connect with rural France. (It didn’t help matters that his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, would spend countless hours of his presidency schmoozing with cows and tasting produce on the farm.) Okay, he may have told the ‘stupid asshole’ to ‘fuck off’, but once cooler heads prevailed, Sarko was pushing hard for French cuisine to be listed by the UN agency Unesco, as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

All this is simply pedantic background leading up to the recent US visit. Ever eager to create a good impression with anyone other than farmers, we might well have expected the Sarkos to make a pit stop for Le Big Mac at a DC McDonald’s, just to make clear, ‘yo, Americans, no hard feelings over that freedom fries imbroglio.’ But where the Sarkos go, the Sarkos go in style, so forget the McDo idea, and say ‘bonjour’ to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington landmark since 1958, a claim boldly displayed on the restaurant’s façade. Leading up to a black tie dinner at the White House, the Sarkos chowed down for lunch at the shabby U Street venue with Ben’s specialties, chili dogs and half-smokes (hotdogs with a somewhat spicy, cholesterol laden sausage center).

Ben’s may have a storied history (see the restaurant’s website), but let’s face it, a fast-food joint is a fast-food joint, and I can’t find evidence of anyone waxing euphoric over Ben’s burgers and dogs. This assessment from Richard Adams’ blog at guardian.co.uk, is hardly flattering, but probably pretty accurate:

Sadly, the only problem with Ben's Chili Bowl is that while the atmosphere is great, the food is mediocre, even by fast food
standards. The signature "chili" is oily and very salty, and is itself mild but
served at a ferociously hot temperature. Le Monde's Washington correspondent summed it up pretty well: "une institution devenue assez touristique où l'on mange des hot-dogs".

I realize, you are about to pass out from all the suspense, but now it is time to get down to everybody’s favorite question, ‘Just who is boning Carla on the side?’ Kidding! And no, for the last time, it was not me who set off those nasty rumors about extramarital sexual shenanigans emanating from the Elysée Palace. No, I am sure the question on everyone’s minds is, “So what the hell did they eat at Ben’s already, mon dieu?!” A simple question, I grant you, but as always seems to be the case in Washington, things are never what they seem, where there are at least three sides to every story. In this case, those sides appear to be fries, chips, and soda.

An initial report from TMZ claimed that Sarko ordered a chili dog, fries, and a Coke, while his favorite off the runway French pop singer opted for a turkey burger, which she apparently didn’t eat. As a nice embellishment to this unconfirmed report, TMZ had the prez leaving a $100 tip. Au contraire, according to the Washington Post, which asserted that both Sarko and his third lady had a “chili burger and a half-smoke,” while one of Sarko’s offspring from a previous marriage ordered a burger. Then there was the New York Times’ The Caucus,” which boasted of learning directly from Ben’s manager Doris Pollard, who served the French visitors: “The Sarkozys, accompanied by Mr. Sarkozy’s two sons by a previous marriage, had — get this — two half smokes each.” Flash!! Ex-Model, Svelt Yeh-Yeh Girl Gorges on Two, That’s Right Two, Half Dogs. Ooh la la. And didn’t the Huffington Post report that there was only one son, 12-year-old petit Louie, who lives with model #1 Cecilia Attias in New York, who was joined not by his brother, but by a friend? Details, details. Let’s face it, whatever they ate, and whoever was with them, it was greasy and not too healthy, and the preponderance of evidence suggests Carla had more than her fare share, as in ‘seconds.’ (Every time I tried to reach her personal number, she hung up on me. I say it again, I did not start those rumors!). According to Ms. Pollard, the former model “looked wonderful, in gray slacks and a black top. She’s so tall and stately and pretty.” (Is beauty in the eyes of the beholder or what?) But keep eating those double half smokes, my dear, and we’ll see what happens to that figure.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, Nickie’s American counterpart had a healthier lunch, what exactly I cannot say because I am not at liberty to disclose state secrets. When informed of the Sarko’s jaunt to Ben’s, Obama seemed impressed. Rather than ho hum the visit with a “been there, done that” (see accompanying photo of BO wolfing one down at Ben's), the svelt President commended the Sarkozys on their "discriminating palate."

If you are the French president accompanied by svelt wife numero trois, and you “drop all pretense” to visit a famous hotdog spot for lunch, isn’t that pretty pretentious after all? But let’s face it, it’s a far cry from old St. Nicolas’ favorite haunt in the French capital, the Michelin 3-star Hotel Bristol, where Elysée’s most admired chef, Eric Fréchon, holds court.

1213 U Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
tel. 202-667-0909

Friday, April 2, 2010

Pramil - Achtung! Let's Fall in Love?

Latest excursion to Paris 3, not far from Republique and a short stroll from the Temple metro stop. Highly anticipated, Pramil was on some 'go to' lists and given this endorsement by Fooding 2010: 'charming decor, serious wine, sincere cooking...We say: "Let's do it, let's fall in love..." If that wasn't enough to pique my taste buds, here's another rave from an online forum (http://www.eat-out.net): We dined at pramil on our last night in paris, the atmosphere very intimate, service perfect, presentation perfect, farm fresh produce excellent, good wine list and menu variety well balanced, loved it !!

Now, let me be honest - honest Mort is what they used to call me on the streets of Baltimore - I don't necessarily disagree with these assessments, but unlike aforementioned citations, I did not fall in love with Pramil and ended up the evening with an indecisive yet decidedly south of positive reaction of 'eh'. Or as Co. phrased it, 'it was good but nothing to rave (sic) home about.'

Is sincerity enough anymore? Not in my book. If I'm going to spend 100 euros and up for a meal, I expect more than sincerity - I expect something pretty damn special, with a mise en bouche and some little patisseries thrown in with the cafe to boot. None of which were forthcoming from Pramil. The evening began with me and Co. being overtaken on Vertbois by a verbose contingent of Germans who, lo and behold, were headed to the same destination. They were already through the door and admitting they had not reserved when we made our grand entrance, me trying to project an expression that 'no way am I with them.' As they disappointingly filed back out through the door, the leader of the pack mentioned to the hostess, 'well, tomorrow night then', whereupon the hostess threw back that sort of expression that reeked of, 'don't count on it.' Let me understand - you visit a restaurant on a Friday night only to be told that it is filled. So you expect a different outcome on Saturday night? Wouldn't you at least ask if it were possible to book a table for tomorrow night? But then, what do I know, as I sometimes ask myself. Who can account for the affairs of men and state and, oh lord, unthinking tourists.

We were seated in the little room in the back - way back - with sun roof through which no sun was evident - this is Paris afterall. Pleasant hostess takes our order but wimped out when it came to recommendations. When I say I am hesitating between (a)Cake aux choux fleur avec confiture de piment and (b) salade de lentilles et calamars and wanted to know which was the more creative dish, I was basically informed that one's taste is personal. So French, so I opted for the one I didn't know (a). Co., also opting for the 30 euro formule, chose the asparagus soup with creme of fois gras. My cakes were probably difficult to make, but nothing spectacular. Nonetheless, the small dollop accompaniment of piment jelly really elevated this dish from the hohum. Too bad that dollop was so small. In discussing with the chef (M. Alain Pramil?) later, I was informed that 'it is so spicy, a little bit goes a long way,' not aware that yours truly drinks bottles of tabasco sauce for breakfast. In true love, who wants to settle for only one nice little bite? Co. seemed to have enjoyed her cream of asparagus, to the point that I was afraid she was going to lick the bowl, but in retrospect she dubbed it merely as 'good, no more.'

Moving on to the main dishes, I quickly downed the eight coquilles saint-jacques in a garlic cream sauce while Co. slowly worked her way through a plat du jour, a lamb salee, with fenouil and feve (green beans not unlike Japanese endamame). My sauce was quite good as the go-with the scallops and Co. described her lamb thusly: 'tender, tasty, and perfumed' (or TTP in restaurant blogging circles). Her myrtille (bilberry) and my homemade nougat glace desserts provided a solid but non-spectacular finish to a solid but non-spectacular meal. Co. preferred something light for drinking purposes, so I went with the Irancy Benoit Cantin 2006 super legere Bourgogne at 28 euros. Nice selection of wines, well thought-out choices with some unexpected surprises.

What can I say - this all probably sounds pretty good on paper and I would have to agree that it was all pretty good on paper (in fact the bill remained south of the century mark (91 euros for two 3-course meals and wine). Just nothing to rave home about. When it comes to love, who wants to settle for 'eh'?

tel: 01 42 72 03 60
no web site
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