Tony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

Les Halles CookbookShortly before I left for France I ordered Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking. Now that I'm back and desperately craving all things French, I've dug into it, and wow! It's great! Not that I've made anything from it yet, but it's so readable (especially if you're a fan of his writing) and also so authentic.

My eating adventures last month in Paris really broadened my French culinary horizons — and vocabulary — and I found I recognized so many of the dishes that fill the book. Plus, he's just so frank, I find it refreshing, especially when it comes to discussing French food, which tends to receive some stuffy (or worse, insulting) treatment in the wrong hands. The back has a glossary to help clear up any confusion the reader may have about unknown terms. My favorite definition? That for my old friend foie gras:

FOIE GRAS: The fattened liver of a goose or duck. Unfortunately, an endangered menu item with the advent of angry, twisted, humorless anticruelty activists who've never had any kind of good sex or laughed heartily at a joke in their whole miserable lives and who are currently threatening and terrorizing chefs and their families to get the stuff banned. Likely to disappear from tables outside of France in our lifetimes.

Also spot-on:

CREME FRAICHE: Expensive French sour cream.

I'm heading back to New York City later this week and I'm going to eat at Les Halles. Not only has the cookbook piqued my interest, but also my apartment in Paris was right at Les Halles, the old central marketplace of Paris turned horrid underground shopping mall. It seems only fitting that I make a visit, and partake of the glories of the French table once again.

Photos from Paris

I've been posting my photos from my month in Paris to my April in Paris 2005 photoset over at Flickr. Some are from my camera phone, others from my Nikon D70. None are cropped, enhanced, or in any way manipulated. I hope to go back through the whole collection and do another more serious album of the best shots at some point. But for now I'm satisfied with what I've got. I was just happy to have Flickr as an outlet to share the photos nearly as quickly as I was taking them.

A very megnut.com birthday

Today is the sixth birthday of this site. Sixth! It's hard to believe it's been going for so long (and by "going" I mean "hanging on by a thread for weeks on end when I barely bother to update"). I've — really I'm not lying — been working on a redesign for the past two weeks, and I'd hoped to launch it today for a birthday present. But as these things go, it's not done, and I now actually don't like the design anymore. But I do have changes planned, and will probably roll things out gradually. For now, let's just all sing "Happy Birthday megnut.com!" and I'll get started baking the cake.

To learn the cheeses, one must eat the cheeses

About mid-way through my month in Paris, I decided I would learn more French cheese. I read my French cheese book, but the choices and varieties were overwhelming! So Jason and I decided one day we would have lunch at a fromagerie that not only sold cheese but offered a variety of cheese tasting menus.

We each ordered the five cheese assiette after confirming with the waiter we wouldn't be given the same cheeses (mai non!). It came with a nice green salad and bread, and we also had a carafe of wine to accompany it.

The cheeses arrived in a circle from weakest to strongest, and we were told to eat them accordingly. And each had a little flag indicating its name.

My plate contained: Clacbitou, Comté, Reblochon, Bleu des Causses, and Hansi. Jason's contained: Ste. Maure, Cremeaux du Puy, Brie aux Noix, Pont L'Eveque, and Dauphin.

Aside from the Hansi and Dauhpin — the two strongest cheeses — we liked them all. The biggest surprise was the Pont L'Eveque. I'd purchased Pont L'Eveque from Murray's Cheese in NYC about eighteen months ago, and when we unwrapped it and served it to our guests, we were convinced there was something wrong with it. Wrong as in: "Holy Crap, did some liquid cooling agent from the fridge spill on this cheese and get absorbed by it ten days ago and then just ferment in there?!?!"

We couldn't eat it, and the next day I took it back to Murray's, only to be told it was fine, that's the way it's supposed to be! So when the platter arrived and we saw the Pont L'Eveque, we were very scared. But it was decicious. I asked the young cheeseman about it after, explaining how gross we'd found it before. He said the one we we'd just tried wasn't very old, and that it sounded like the one from Murray's was much older. Apparently Pont L'Eveque can get pretty strong as it ages. He then told us more about the current state of cheese, how the more you like cheese the more you get into strong cheeses, etc. etc.

It was a lovely lunch, and I recommend it for anyone looking to expand their cheese horizons while in Paris. Lunch for two was ~35&Euro;, with 50cl of red wine. Note: closed on Mondays

La Fromagerie 31

64, rue de Seine

75006 Paris

Also, if eating a lot of cheese causes you some digestion problems and "backups", I recommend Naturalia, a natural food chain store in various locations around Paris. They sell several herbal teas to help set things in proper motion again. It's also the place to buy soy milk, soy yogurt, and those sort of American dietary things you wouldn't expect to find in France.

Naturalia

11/13, rue Montorguiel

75001 Paris

When a party of one isn’t alone

I've gotten used to traveling alone over the past few years, and have found it's something I quite enjoy most of the time. One thing I still find difficult though is eating alone in foreign restaurants, especially during prime dining hours, such as a Saturday night. And yet, that's the position I found myself in last night, wanting to enjoy a final Parisian meal of oysters. I headed to a spot close to my house called Au Chien Qui Fume, a restaurant that's bustling and fun — not haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination.

The weather was beautiful and warm and I wanted to eat outside. But, to my dismay, when I arrived around 8:15 it looked as if the terrace were already full. And worse, everyone was eating with someone else, and all of a sudden I got a kind of lonely and sad feeling, and felt lame for being alone. But I wanted my oysters, so I enquired of the maître d', "Would it be possible for one on the terrace?"

He looked a bit dismayed and said, "It is quite full, but for you I will find a place!"

Relieved, I waited and he quickly returned and asked me to follow him. He pulled out a table that was quite snug in next to another couple. This couple was using one of the chairs of my table to store their things, and as the maître d' pulled out out my chair, the gentleman began to remove his belongings. I told him it wasn't necessary.

"You are alone?" He asked me.

"Yes," I said. And then the maître d' jumped in.

"No! You are not alone! Now you are here, dining with us!" he said, smiling, and with a gesture of his hand indicated the restaurant.

It was perhaps one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. I settled into my seat and watched the families and couples enjoy their dinner while I slurped the last briny oysters of my visit. And the feeling of being alone was forgotten.

The consequences of visitors

One of the consequences of having so many visitors while I've been here in Paris is that I haven't written nearly as much on this site as I'd intended. Indeed my little notebook is filled with post topics going back to the day after my arrival that have yet to be written. I'll try to get some down when I return, but it's not the same.

I don't know where all the time went, it seems like I just arrived here, and now I find it's nearly May, the flowers that were blooming upon my arrival are all passed, and even the lilac on my terrace is browning now. My French is improved but not where I'd like it to be. I've seen more of the city but not nearly all I wanted to visit. And somehow there remains a list of restaurants to visit, photos to take, and sites to scale. No matter how many visits I make, it's never enough.

Tonight I think I'll enjoy one last plate of oysters — my new favorite thing to eat as much as possible while in Paris — and a nice coupe de Champagne. Maybe I'll wander the streets one last time and get some final pictures of Parisians strolling in the evening. And perhaps one last ice cream. Tomorrow a final pain au chocolat and un express and a long sad taxi ride to Charles de Gaulle airport and the flight back to the US. I must start planning my return as soon as possible!

Two things to know about France

Here are two tips for you regarding France and things that are not like they are in the United States. First of all, what French people consider the first floor is what Americans call the second floor. Until you get used to it, you'll be one floor off wherever you go. Second is meat temperature. French waiters will tell you that à point means "medium" and that saignant plus is "medium rare." In their minds, this may be true.

But just as the first floor starts on the second, so the meats are one off from their American counterparts. If you like "medium rare" in the US, order à point, no matter what anyone tells you. It means roughly "the point" and is easy remember with this handy phrase: "If I don't order my meat à point, it will not have gotten to the point that could be considered cooked."

When friends visit you in Paris

Over the course of the past three weeks, I've had a variety of friends come to visit me here in Paris. They can be categorized in the following three groups:

Some who speak no French at all
They do things like: drink from the wine carafe rather than their glass; they walk up to the window of an ice cream shop and say, Au Revior!; or they bump against a woman's breast on the dance floor and when she slaps them, they respond with Merci!

Some who speak a little French
They successfully buy telephone cards for the pay phone and figure out how to call my American mobile. They order beers at bars and buy bottles of wine at the corner store. They order their dinner in French and get what they expect.

Some who are fluent in French and studied it for 15 years
They walk into the tabac and ask the Madame behind the counter for les tampons. She regretfully responds that she does not sell them. The friend exits, confused, only to realize on the street that he's asked for tampons and not les timbres, or what he actually wanted: stamps.

Rediscovering Brasserie Balzar

a photo of the Balzar's signI'm not sure how it was that I first decided to go to the Brasserie Balzar in Paris, but I remember it clearly. It was October, 1996 and I'd spent the week with my mom at an apartment she'd rented. To thank her, I took her out to dinner at Balzar. It was the first time we ever ordered a bottle of wine at dinner together, and we imagined ourselves quite French when we finished our meals with digestifs of Armagnac and Cognac. Though our French was minimal at best, the waiters were friendly and helpful and it was a magical evening I remember fondly.

I returned a few days later with my parents and had my first plate of escargots, and at the end of the meal as we left, I stopped to tell the maitre d' — in my really bad French — that his restaurant was my favorite restaurant in the whole world. He gave me a little postcard picture (in B&W) of the restaurant with all the waiters out front from what looked like a long time ago. I thanked him and smiled a lot, and I still have that card.

Fast forward to many returns to Paris, each with a requisite visit to Balzar. And each time, good, but somehow fading. Reading Paris to the Moon a few years ago reminded me of my love for Balzar and heightened my expectations upon return visits, but the Balzar never seemed *as* good as it had during previous trips.

Last week I met a colleague for lunch at Balzar and left deflated, and a little sad. The meal itself wasn't bad, it just wasn't great and the magic, it seemed, was gone. Perhaps, given all my culinary experiences in the past nine years, I had outgrown Balzar. I'd told Jason this sad state of affiars when he'd arrived, and so the other night while walking in the neighborhood, we decided we'd give it another try, for old times sake.

"Was it possible to take two for dinner without a reservation?" I asked the mustachoed gentleman in a black suit at the door.

"But of course!" he replied happily, and he lead us to a little table in the corner. I ordered my aperitif (kir vin blanc) and we began to discuss the menu when Jason asked what andouillete was. Before I could really answer, the waiter appeared at our table.

(The following dialogue occurred in French, yay!)

"Have you had andouillete before?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Then you cannot have it! It is not for those that have never had it before. It is a specialty, but a specialty 95% of people do not like. I am sorry."

Since we had no intention of ordering it, I wasn't upset to hear this. And of course, our waiter went on in detail to explain just why we couldn't have it: its smell and, using his stomach, explained where it came from. Too many people, it seems, order the andouillete and then are quite unhappy when it arrives. He was very nice about it, said he wouldn't eat it either, just too strong for him. And he pointed out other specialties on the menu.

It was reminded me of my first trip to Balzar, when the waiter, upon hearing my mother and I both order Cognac, asked whether we knew Armagnac. When he found out we didn't, he said we must have one Cognac and one Armagnac. At Balzar I find this behavior by waiters to be very considerate, almost paternal. They are concerned that you have a good experience while dining, whether experience means trying something new, or avoiding something new because it might be too much.

Throughout the meal, the waiter continued to impress. He was very sweet, continuing to speak with me in French (he helped me correct my pronunciation of raie and told me it was la when I asked), and was happy to bring two forks when we ordered the tarte aux fraises for dessert. My warm feelings for Balzar returned as we ate. And by the time our meal was over and the check paid, I felt happy again in my favorite restaurant in the world. I headed to the bathroom and Jason waited for me at the door. We said good night to the maitre d' and as we exited, I asked if he'd said good bye to our waiter, since I hadn't seen him.

"No, I didn't. I didn't see him." he told me.

"Drat!" I thought. I had wanted to say good bye.

We walked down the street, past the front of the restaurant, and I looked in through the windows, towards where our table had been. Then I caught site of our waiter! He was in the back by the kitchen, looking across the room towards our table and seemed to notice we'd left. I waved good bye from outside. He saw me and smiled a big smile and then waved back. My heart warmed; I loved our waiter. I loved our dinner. I loved Balzar once again.

Brasserie Balzar
49, rue des Ecoles
75005 Paris