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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Beyond Good Taste - Worst Foodie Gift-Giving Ideas

What with Xmas and the New Year just around the corner, time to take a brief hiatus from the restaurant review scene. This is a moment for pigging out at home. And I've begun to do my share, with the traditional (smoked salmon, multi-fish terrines, escargot drenched in persil butter, mini feuilletes of black olive, etc.) and non-traditional (Mortstiff's famous spicy fish chowder, etc.), not to mention the glutinous buches de noel beckoning from the freezer and copious varieties of beverages to wash all this down.

But if you've waited until the last minute for your annual gift-buying spree, there are numerous items of note that are available for the avid food and dining enthusiast, from books (such as Rene Redzepi's Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine) to kitchen appliances, like the inexpensive Capresso frothPRO milk frother I just purchased. The frother works great, although once I translated the customer reviews from the German site from which I ordered it, I'm a bit hesitant to recommend it as a gift - apparently, I can expect a lifespan of about five weeks before the thing goes kaput.

But from my experience, you definitely can't go wrong with the simple gift of a bottle. For example, I would not say no to a 21-years aged PortWood bottle of The Balvenie.

There are also plenty of items out there to avoid at all costs as possible gifts, unless you really, really don't like the person for whom you are buying it. Some amusing examples from Robert Sietsema's Village Voice column Our 10 Worst Foodie Xmas Presents. I've posted below some of the more noteworthy examples - you can check out all 10 at the Sietsema link.

Awful Gift #9: Chocolate Bathroom Scale, uncommongoods.com

This actual bathroom scale bears images of succulent chocolates, which should make your gift recipient really pleased each time that person checks out his or her weight. Worse, instead of pounds or kilos, there is a graduated list of obnoxious phrases like 'I'm so amazing.'

Awful Gift #7: Banana Stand, curiousphotos.blogspot.com

I must admit, if I ever received this luxurious banana holder as a gift, I would be torn as to where to put it - in the kitchen or in a place of prominence in the living room. Can you say trash can?

Awful Gift #4: Funny Chef Outfit, justotc.com

What I would like to know is what is so funny about a stupid chef outfit, and who would you imagine would appreciate receiving one?

Awful Gift #3: Ms. Food Face Plate

There are no doubt many creative cooks who would love to receive something like this, which would make food presentation as simple as connect the dots, some of whom may in fact have a mental age above 4.

Awful Gift #2: Pizza Cutter Fork, curiousphotos.blogspot.com

I'm sure that on paper this 'futter' must have looked like a great idea. My guess is it would end up in the back of one's kitchen drawer within days, assuming it could fit.

Awful Gift #1: Fetus Cookie Cutter, hogmalion.com

I'm sure some expectant parents might find this cookie-cutter shaped like a days-old fetus to be an ideal gift.

Still can't decide? Here's one for honorable mention.

Happy shopping!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Le Chateaubriand - Movin' On Up

That's what I'm talking about - originality, surprise, subtlety, outrageousness. What am I talking about? Last Friday night's dinner at Le Chateaubriand (let's say LC, for short), quite possibly the best meal I've had in Paris all year. LC has been on my radar for some time, but each time I came close to reserving, something held me back. 'You'll either love it or hate it!' 'Noisy and crowded!' And this one from Le Fooding: 'Impossible to get a table. Impossible to get a table: need further explanation?' And also from Le Fooding: 'Gourmet works of art.' There you have it, yin and yang, to go or not to go? Well, when someone tells me 'impossible to get a table' I immediately reach for my phone. Let's face it, if it were truly impossible, how could the restaurant make any business? And sure enough, I was offered a table two Fridays away without difficulty. 'Impossible to get a table' -don't believe it.

LC sits on a busy section of avenue Parmentier in a funky area of the 11th, and that funky atmosphere follows you into LC, an old-style Parisian bistro that once was an old-fashioned grocery, remnants of which appear in their antiquity here and there on the otherwise unadorned walls, save the obligatory chalkboards announcing the available wines by the glass. This is a roomy bistrot that starts feeling more intimate once the room fills, and believe me, it doesn't take long for the place to fill up. Nonetheless, Co. and I were ushered to a cozy corner in the back room, apart from the more hustle-bustle of the larger front room/bar area. And it does get noisy, but in a quasi-bawdy way that adds to the atmosphere, if you get my drift - this is what a Parisian bistrot is supposed to be all about.

But all that noise and crowdedness is for a reason - the evening's 50€ set menu created and prepared by chef Inaki Aizpitarte, who emanates from the French Basque country, and previously held court at La Famille. Alexander Lobrano (Hungry for Paris, Random House) put it very well when he described Aizpitarte as 'a brilliant miniaturist, composing original origami-like compositions of taste that are often potent and pretty.' Our menu for the evening was explained by a young, bearded waiter, slowly, with questions saved for the end. We started off with a set of five amuses bouche, wham bam thank you ma'am, one after the other. First up, a small plate of four gougères - savory little puff pastries, with what may have been subtly embellished by pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. (Photo thanks to the great eye and camera of gourmet traveler.) A low-key start, with hints of the miniaturist concoctions to come. Our empty plate was soon replaced by two small bowls of cheviche with tiny scallops in their liquid, which our spunky waitress informed us should be consumed in a single gulp. Up next came a dish of two grenouille enveloped by a mysterious sauce with bread crumbs. If frog turns you off, never fear, this looked nothing like aforesaid amphibian. The string of amuses bouche continued with a bowl of miso-like bouillon with small cubes of foie gras. And that was followed up by a plate of tiny crevettes grise with berries and pineapple. Bear in mind, this was all to wet our appetite for the set dinner, which hadn't started yet! I suggested to Co. that this wouldn't be a bad time to pay for the wine (an adequate, but rather light, 36€ Bourgueil) and leave, our stomachs filled with the pre-meal tapas selection, but of course, this was solely in jest, as both us really wanted to see what was next.

What was next was a mulet noir, perles du Japon, huitre, cresson dish. My blurry photo will give you some idea, but the photo really doesn't do justice. Next, a cabillaud, pil pil, betteraves dish. Pil pil reflects the Basque origins of this recipe (i.e., the dish was prepared in a special sauce originating in the Basque country), which was highlighted by a delicate, sweet lump of beet, which really brought the steamed cod alive with flavor. Well, it's been two years that the betterave has been showing up in one way or another in finer restaurants around the world (see my Finland reviews), and when this much maligned root is cooked right, it can't be, sorry I can't resist, beat. But I'm starting to get that 'been there, done that' attitude about the beet. With 2011 right around the corner, I say, 'Next trendy vegetable, please!'

At this stage of the festivities, Co. partook of the boeuf, beurre noisette, racines offering, while I was granted an appropriately bloody portion of canard in lieu of the beef. The dish worked well with either meat, and this was just fine. Up next, two desserts, a dish of pommes, butternut, rose, obligatorily consumed before the crunchier chocolat, celeri invention. (You have the option of going with the desserts or the fromages du jour.) And that was that. Each dish reflecting the confidence and skill of the artisan in the kitchen, not a false note during the entire epic meal.

Don't take my word for it, just go. With Rino and LC under the belt this month, I feel like we're movin' on up quality-wise. Yet in both cases, the set menu approach keeps the prices down, with LC topping out at 139€, including one post-meal cafe and the wine, and how many courses, if you include the amuses bouche and two desserts? I count 10. While I also liked Rino very much, if I was stranded on a desert island and could only take one of the two bistrots with me, it would be Le Chateaubriand, hands down.

Note: other than my pitiful photo of the appetizer (Mulet noir), the other food photos from the aforementioned gourmet traveler; others from qype and The New York Times.

129 ave. Parmentier
75011 Paris
tel. 01 43 57 45 95
website: can't find one

P.S. There's another Le Chateaubriand restaurant in Paris, in the 17th. That's not the one I'm talking about.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Today's Italo-French Genius Bistrot - Rino

Out with the old, in with the new. As a follow-up to a string of return visits, Co. and I put on our trendiest clothes and headed out to the new big deal neobistrot in Paris, Rino. Like La Gazzetta, where chef/owner Giovanni Passerini previously shared cooking duties before opening his own venue, Rino boasts an inventive array of dishes a la Italian/French mode.

Outside and in, Rino is minimalistic to the core. Easy to miss from the outside, once past the bar/kitchen area, where a few stand-up tables line the opposite wall, you are ushered into a 20-seater room that looks like someone’s quickly converted garage, retro hanging lamps notwithstanding.

Be forewarned, at Rino there is no choice apart from your selection of the 4- or 6-course tasting menu, the carte held up on a slate tablet by the laid-back waiter. When I asked for the wine carte, I was informed, ‘J’ai un bon rouge vous pouvez essayer’ [I have a nice red you can try.] Apparently there is also a nice white, if that’s your preference. At 28€, the Chateau de Lacroux Gaillac held its own, and who was I to complain? It was nice not to have to fathom a largely incomprehensible wine list for a change.

Despite being recently awarded a Le Fooding palmarè as ‘meiller bistrot d’auteur,’ Co. and I cautiously selected the four-course option, skeptical as we are about anything dubbed ‘best’ by any critic, journalist, politician, or any other so-called expert that might be hanging out a sign. Not that I don’t trust the Fooding guide, but somehow their ‘what would have happened if Petter Nilsson had had a kid with Monica Belluci’ endorsement left me a bit hesitant. Our repas unfolded as such, following a welcoming amuse bouche of pumpkin petit marron: ravioles avec coques, rouget et legumes sec, an agneau dish for Co. replaced at my asking for a substitution with cabillaud et legumes, and a dessert mixture of crème, agrume, nuts, and another ingredient that I can’t read off my notes. The ravioles were very nice, like the room, minimalistically presented without much sauce; the rouget, probably the best preparation I ever have had, and I have tried rouget high and low, left and right; the cabillaud, not as epic but thoroughly satisfying. I enjoyed the dessert as the diet/cholesterol lethal mixture it was, but Co. was decidedly underwhelmed, suggesting it was pretty mundane. With two espressos to round out the evening, the bill came to a remarkably reasonable 109€.

What to conclude about Rino? The reviews are effusive, and the bistrot did win that palmarè, whatever the hell ‘meiller bistrot d’auteur’ is supposed to represent. As one reviewer put it, Passerini’s cuisine is ‘inventive and passionate’ and I would not disagree. Still, I’m not convinced Rino is yet deserving of any ‘best’ nomenclature - it is very good, but not especially spectacular (call me 'jaded'?). I’ll definitely go back, but I’m not ready to run out into the street waving my arms and screaming ‘they’re number one, they’re number one’ quite yet. Still, I have to admit, Rino offers a very appealing price/quality rapport.

Accompanying photos not mine, but glommed off other websites. Pretty representative of our dishes, however.

46, rue Trousseau
75011 Paris
01 48 06 95 85
website: http://www.rino-restaurant.com

Second Helpings

Almost a month since my last installment, so a lot of catching up to do. I'll begin with some repeat visits, three to be exact. Two mainstays (Au Petit Margery and Le Marsangy) and one 'not sure' (Urbane). You'll find expanded reviews, albeit earlier ones, by following the links on the right. But without further adieu, I begin with my second visit to Urbane, this time with Co. in tow. Urbane has notoriously mixed reviews online, with one relatively consistent theme - the food doesn't always work, but when it does it's pretty interesting. That was basically my reaction during my initial visit, that time running solo. One reviewer I came across made an interesting comment about Urbane's gastronomical efforts: 'Maybe if you drink enough, the food will begin to make sense.' Right there in a nutshell could be the reason why my initial review of Urbane was on the right side of positive. Let's just say that I had more than enough to drink that evening, much more than enough, and by the time dessert arrived, the room was dancing while I was trying real hard not to pass out. To this very day, I have no idea whether I ate what I remember to be a rather tasty looking dessert. At any rate, the second, far more sober visit, left me with a decidedly different impression. Everything was pretty good, but rather uninspiring, and I needed no mind-altering substances to figure out the food, although it may have helped me understand the rather distant comportment of the Irish lass owner. Both Co. and I agreed that we could have stayed home and cooked up something at least as satisfying. Of course, at Urbane, you don't have to wash the dishes.

Next up was Au Petit Marguery, which I've reviewed a couple times now. APM is pretty much a Parisian institution, where you're likely to drag visiting family or friends and rest assured they will leave satisfied. But this time Co. & my visit coincided with hunting season and the carte was heavily laden with a rigorous assortment of wild game and birds, many with 10€ supplements added to the 35€ cost of a 3-course menu. I selected what, for me, were pretty out of the ordinary dishes, consisting of an entree of Purée de Grouse et toasts and a plat of perdreau roti avec pommes de terre sautées et sauce aux champignons sauvages. Please believe me when I say I have nothing against the grouse, although like snowflakes, I've never seen two pictures of a grouse that look alike (top image). But I can tell you, pureed grouse is definitely not my cup of tea - chopped liver, very strong chopped liver, if you get my drift. And the toasts consisted of toasted white bread, which if served consistently enough to aforementioned grouse, I am afraid the poor bugger would die of malnourishment. I fared better with the perdreau, although the very tasty mixture of sauteed potatoes and wild mushrooms overwhelmed my interest in wild bird no. 2 (right image). Very disappointing, and for my money, over-priced.

Finally, the Moose and I headed over for libation and grub one late-ish, rainy Wednesday evening to Le Marsangy in the 11th. It's a shame that Marsangy boasts one of the ugliest restaurant facades in Paris, because inside everything is warm and welcoming. The food is far from spectacular, but quite satisfying (I especially appreciated the millefeuille with langoustines and avocado), and it's always impressive to see the complete wine list written by hand on the chalkboard running the length of the restaurant's back wall. The owner looked far less like Lyle Lovett this time, but his down-home attitude was nonetheless appreciated.

URBANE (see above)

9, Boulevard de Port Royal
75013 Paris
tel. 01 43 31 58 59
website: http://petitmarguery.com/fr/index.html

73 ave Parmentier
75011 Paris
tel: 47 00 94 25
no website!
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