Preliminary taste? Yes, because unfortunately this was a whirl wind tour (see photos). We had only two and a half days in each of these wonderful cities which is totally inadequate to really suss out the delicious food and develop an overall sense of the culinary ethos. For that you need at least five days. I mean, obviously I nailed it when I summed up my five days in Tokyo, right? But seriously, you do need more than a few days to get a proper taste of a place and it does help to have a local guide to steer you in the right direction. For a city like Paris which has such a rich history and tradition of delicious food, I think you could spend weeks, if not months or even years exploring and discovering the great eats that the City of Lights has to offer.
Day 1- Paris
We arrived in the afternoon of Christmas day and were a little unsure as to what our food options would be that day in this largely Catholic country. We figured most restaurants would be closed. Sure enough, with the exception of a few brasseries, Asian restaurants and kebab joints most of the eating establishments in the quaint Marais, were shut down. So as we walked to check out some of the sites we hit a kebab joint run by Asian folks (ain’t globalization grand?) and split a sizeable Grec – roasted kebab meat (not sure what kind) served on pretty good bread that came with frîtes, or fries. It was okay, but got the job done in terms of filling us up and fueling us for our walk towards the Champs Elysées. It was only when I got to the famous boulevard that I started to regret our decision to so hastily manger that grec. You see there was a full on Christmas fair with booths selling, I guess the French versions of junky street fair food. But because it’s France, that junky food is on the whole way better than anything you could find at a New York street fair. Well, at least it looked a whole lot better. I say “looked” because I didn’t actually taste anything because that grec avec frîtes was sitting pretty heavy in my stomach and so I took photos of culinary delights without ever sampling them. And now when I look back at these photos I’m filled with melancholy and regret at what could have been. Is this what is is to feel French? Anyway, here are the photos.
The next morning we were determined to check out this market that we saw being set up the night before. We walked down to Rue Montogueil close to Les Halles. It was a cute little open market with fresh seafood and beautiful produce. So we went straight past those stalls and hit the closes boulangerie/ patisserie and fromagerie (bakery/ pastery shop and cheese shop) where we bought our breakfast: croissants and baguettes and cheese. And we got a few apples because you can’t subsist on bread and cheese alone.
So after our delightful breakfast of carbohydrates and fat, we ventured forth to explore the ridiculously quaint Marais district. We ambled past the Place des Vosges and made our way to an open air market at the Bastille, recommended to us by our friends Donna and Anthony who were in Paris over the summer. And once again, owing to the fact that we had just eaten, I don’t have the metabolism a hummingbird, nor do I suffer from bulimia, I was a little too full to sample the delicious items for sale at this market. Also, this was a market and not a fair, so much of the food for sale was the type you bring home to cook as opposed to eating on the run. And Parisian’s must be pretty good cooks and have a real appreciation for quality ingredients because everything looked so good. You have to love a place that takes food so seriously. Here’s what I’m talking about.
After the market we hoofed it to the Louvre where we joined the touristic masses all trying to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa as well as other examples of classical art and antiquities. We then made our way to the Latin Quarter, stopped for a quick crêpe snack,
did more exploring around the Sorbonne, made our way back across the Seine and checked out the Christmas mass at Notre Dame. So, by the time we got home, had a little snack of – you guessed it – bread and cheese, had a brief cat nap (I think I’m part narcoleptic) by the time we got out for dinner, it was about 9:30 pm. Wow, how French we had already become. We decided to head to place recommended by the husband of one of Shef’s friends at work, named An who grew up in Paris (and also cooks at and runs a part time restaurant called Bep in Williamsburg). He recommended a steakhouse called Robert et Louise. Despite the clear Google map instructions, it took us a while to find the place (there’s a difference between Rue du Temple and Rue to Vielle Temple – who knew?). But finally we found it and upon opening the door we were immediately taken with the warm, jovial atmosphere. It was like stepping into some turn of the century (as in 19th century) tavern where everyone congregates to eat slabs of meat served on wooden plates/ chopping boards. At the interior of the restaurant is a big fireplace hearth. The full name of the restaurant is Robert et Louise: Restaurant de Feu (restaurant of fire). The fire place hearth is not just for warmth or ambiance. That’s where a good amount of the cooking takes place – where they grill the meats and roast the potatoes! Unfortunately, because of the crowd, we were seated downstairs in the cellar so I didn’t get to witness the actual hearth cooking but, we got to eat the food cooked on the hearth and it was great. Simple, rustic and delicious The service was fantastic. If this is reflective of a French style steak house, I say “Vive la France!”
Our third day in Paris saw us continuing the tourist circuit: Notre Dame (this time during the day to check out the stained glass), a walk through the Jardin des Tuileries, a visit to the Musée de L’Orangerie to see Monet’s Nympheas, an obligatory sighting of the Eiffel Tower, and jaunt to Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Again, by the end of the day, we were exhausted. We were also determined to eat at a proper Parisian bistro and we had as our guide Saveur Magazine’s list of the top bistros. Our first choice, Le Cochon a L’Oreille, was closed so we headed to nearby Chez Denise (which Anthony Bourdain visited on his show – I only learned this while writing this entry). We started by splitting the foie gras de canard (duck pâte foie gras) for an appetizer.
It was served very rustically as a slab of pâte encased in fat with a dollop of aspic and frisée (the only vegetable the whole meal) as a garnish and came with toasted bread on which to spread the foie gras. It was good. It was so smooth and paired with warm bread it melted in my mouth releasing its savory and rich flavor. Shef, who’s not a big fan of liver or pâte found it a little too rich and strong in flavor, but I devoured my whole slab (probably about 1/4 lb). That was the best part of the meal. Our main dishes were not quite as good They were fine, but they weren’t excellent and so I was a little disappointed. We were in Paris, so I expected to be blown away. But perhaps, I could have done better in choosing my entrée. Granted, they were sold out of a few of the entrées that I was interested in ordering, but I was also a little intimidated by dishes like a calf’s head and veal kidneys. I think part of that because was due to the fact that we started out with the foie gras. I felt that for my main course I didn’t want to go with more organ meat. In retrospect, I probably should have ordered the calf’s head. It probably would have been braised and delicious. But instead, because the garçon (waiter) recommended it I ordered the onglet de boeuf – I think the equivalent of a hangar steak.
It was the thickest hangar steak I have ever seen. It was really juicy and intensely beefy, but somewhat undercooked. I had asked in my busted up French for “entre saignant et moyen” – between rare and medium (medium rare is what I was thinking). The ends were fine but as I got to the middle of the steak the meat, while warm, was almost raw. I had the waiter bring it to the kitchen for a bit more cooking. And to be honest I think I was steaked out by that point (as I’d had steak the night before). Add to that, I’d consumed about a whole slab of pâte de foie gras as an appetizer so I think I might have already maxed out my caloric and cholesterol intake for the day, if not week. By the time the steak came, I ate less out of hunger and more because, hell I was eating steak real life Parisian bistro! Shef got the salmon braised in a mustard sauce which was good and comforting but actually tad bland. In summary, our meal was perfectly adequate. It just wasn’t transcendent. Perhaps I was setting myself up for disappointment. My expectations were so high. I already have pretty high standards for food especially when I’m eating out and in Paris I expected to be blown away. But, that’s not realistic in any city with literally thousands of restaurants even if that city is the capital of a country that has such a storied and rich culinary tradition.
Days 4, 5 and 6 – Amsterdam
To be honest, my expectations for food in Amsterdam were not the highest. I would say that for the most part, those expectations were met. As a result, I also didn’t document our eating as much as I did in Paris. The food was good, but not great. Our first day in Amsterdam we did eat Dutch style pancakes which are these enormous crêpe like pancakes which you can get stuffed with savory or sweet items. These were good, but I imagine they would be totally awesome if you’ve just come from a visit to a nearby coffee shop.
The second night, we ate at an Indonesian restaurant for which I kind of had high expectations given the Dutch colonial history in Indonesian. One of the positives of colonialism is that the colonized often find their way to the country of the colonizer. For example, what would English food be without Indian and Pakistani immigrants? So, I figured there’d be some Indonesian folks cooking up a storm in Amsterdam. Unfortunately I don’t think we hit one their restaurants because the one we ended up at was run by a really gruff Dutch woman who seemed a little put out by the fact that she actually had to serve people. We got the rijsttafel which was basically a sampler of everything on the menu. It was nice to have some vaguely Asian food since we’d been eating distinctly Western European food, but it was by no means the best or most authentic Indonesian food I’ve had. There were no standouts. I would say the real highlight of the food in Amsterdam were the pastries and donuts. Admittedly, fried dough and sugar are hard to mess up, but the Dutch do have a knack for doing it right. Perhaps it’s a winter thing because there were numerous specialty trailers situated throughout the city which sold these delectable donuts, creme puffs and my favorite, the appel beignet – a donut stuffed with tart hot apple slices or puree.
So along with tolerance towards marijuana, legalized prostitution, beautiful canals and supremely well decorated canal houses, add fried dough and pastries to the list of things that the Dutch do particularly well.