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Archive for April, 2010

While my parents, brother and sister were here visiting, we all stayed in a spacious and grand Parisian apartment in the 5th arrondissement on the rue Claude Bernard.  We were just steps from rue Mouffetard which was kind of nice, especially since having so many warm bodies on hand, Tadhg or I could sneak out in the evening once Josephine went to sleep.  (It was at the gelato place Amorino on Mouffetard that we tried the nutella flavor for the first time; smitten at first lick, we spent last weekend organizing our Saturday around a visit to Amorino…. They don’t call it “l’inimitable” for nothing.)

We had an amazing dinner at a place called Chez Lena and Mimile on a rainy Friday night.  Due to the precipitation, we weren’t up to trekking too far for a good meal and we sort of happened on Lena and Mimile, which is nestled on a little crest overlooking a square, tucked away on the rue Tournefort.  We were seated immediately by an extremely solicitous host/manager character who had a peculiar way of intoning everything through his nose.  Despite this tic, he was completely focused in all other ways on making sure that we were going to have the best dining experience possible and he led us to great wine, great menu decisions and, indeed, a great time.

I would say that this meal conjured up for me all of the best things about French cooking.  And by this I mean LA SAUCE. Every dish that we ordered was a hymn to sauce; the sauce didn’t just come with a dish, or complement a dish, it essentially defined the dish and tied all of the other elements together.  Most crucially, the sauce was not a tired, thick mass of dubious whitish appearance which made everything soggy.  Rather, the sauce uplifted each dish and allowed the ingredients to achieve their full potential.

Let me provide some examples.  I ordered a version of pasta primavera but it was infinitely jazzed up by a mango pesto sauce.  The mango flavor was subtle and rich, not sweet and obnoxious, melding perfectly with the other pesto elements.  I have ruminated deeply on how to recreate this sauce at home many times since.  Dad had an amazing dish of sautéed squid which was drizzled with a dynamite basil butter sauce.  The rich buttery green sauce melted into the taut squid and melded all of it in your mouth.  My sister had scallops which were celebrated in a simple but sinful buttery foam (her dish also received a nod for the most aesthetically pleasing plate as the scallops came served on the half shell, anchored in piles of white, coarse Kosher salt).  My brother’s steak au poivre took this French classic and did it proud, touching off sparks between the peppery crunch and the creamy smoothness.  The ultra fine, razor thin waffle fries that accompanied his dish found their way into the sauce even though they could have been devoured easily on their own merits.  Tadhg’s filet of bass was good, but his mushroom risotto was divine.  Mom had an excellent roast lamb, jazzed up with a smattering of roasted veggies, including some beets.  (I feel like the inclusion of beets always takes a dish up a notch or two).

I just realized that I didn’t even begin with the entrées, or appetizers.  Suffice to say that Tadhg’s all-encompassing love of foie gras was not disappointed by a felicitous pairing of foie gras on toast points with an accompanying drizzle of red currant sauce. There was also an ingenious take on melted cheese in the form of gooey camembert piled with soft, steamed apple, all wrapped in some sort  of phyllo dough and drizzled with a balsamic reduction.  I could go on but I should get to the desserts.

Still high on my salted caramel discovery, I ordered caramel ice cream which was advertised as caramel à la fleur du sel and I was in seventh heaven.  Jackie indulged in a très rich chocolate mousse.  Tadhg’s dessert was by far the fanciest and it even came christened with its own exotic moniker  — “Le Désiré” — and it involved lemon cream, an almond cookie and some fraises des bois, a highly coveted specie of strawberry found here in Paris.

We were all delightfully satisfied with our dining experience and were pulling on our coats to go back out into the rain when a waitress came over and asked if we would allow the bartender to share a digestif with us. Mais bien sûr ! Shots of hazelnut liqueur were had by all and to all a good night.

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We went to Orléans last weekend to visit the hometown of one of our friends here and we had a très lovely time, taking in the sights and enjoying the first truly warm spring weekend. We toured some châteaux, which dot the Loire Valley like raisins in a pain aux raisins. The first château we tackled was Chambord, which is second only to Versailles in size and opulence, so we’ve gleaned. It has 365 chimneys on its roof and many rooms dedicated to displaying the trophies of the hunt.

My favorite room in the château was the “bureau des enfants” (or office of the children) which came complete with miniature sized chairs, a tiny desk and resplendent red and gold wallpaper.  It makes sense for the royal children to have an office since, as we learned, they begin playing with toys that are fully functioning weapons of warfare, scaled down to a child-friendly size.  So they can learn how to deploy troops, amass land and create flourishing empires, naturally.

Other fun facts about Chambord: Leonardo da Vinci died there and before doing so, he designed this magnificent central staircase. Also, one of Chambord’s main decorative motifs is this adorable salamander, a mythical animal dating from Pliny the Elder and said to have the power to live within fire without being harmed.  The first king of Chambord, François I, chose the salamander as his personal emblem hence its ubiquity throughout, from the rooftops to the grates of the fireplaces.

We went on to Blois and saw the Château royal there, though suffering from château fatigue we merely admired the exterior during an afternoon aperitif.

On Sunday we went to a Gregorian mass at the Benedictine abbey of Saint Benoit-sur-Loire, where Saint Benedict, the founder of the monastic order, is buried.  We also moseyed over to Germigny-des-Prés, which happens to have one of France’s oldest churches, a tiny 9th century building with a stunning Byzantine glass mosaic in the nave.

Not to go too long sans château, we also went to Sully and saw the 11th century château there, which I liked best, with its more medieval-looking exterior, complete with towers, moat and donjon (oui, dungeon).

Josephine seemed to enjoy the greenery that the châteaux had to offer and she used her time wisely to practice her latest obsession, cruising.

If you can’t get enough of the Loire Valley, go here for more pictures.

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She is opposed.

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Josephines

This entry was inspired by an image of the signature of Empress Josephine, which a friend came across through her work with the archives of Martinique. (Thanks for sending it to us Lesley!)  Josephine is still a pretty common name around here and it’s been kind fun to see her name around town in different places, including a totally awesome barge turned into a municipal pool named after Josephine Baker.

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On the last moisiversaire before la Petite Merveille turns one year (I cannot believe that she’s turning one next month!), we’re going to let the pictures do most of the talking.

Jo has gotten really good at "cruising," which means walking while holding onto things, like the couch here.

She is also obsessed with trying to eat apples, and she has to hold them herself.

Her future is exceedingly bright, hence the new shades.

This adorable outfit was a gift from Letia and Mike, owners of Josie's favorite consignment boutique, Little Closets.

And so was this adorable hat. Thanks Letia, Mike & Madeus!

She loves making faces!

Josephine decided that she no longer liked having her legs confined under the windbreaker of her stroller so she engineered some relief.

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Our formula for a wonderful Easter: Chocolate egg first thing in the morning, scrambled eggs for breakfast with a fresh baguette and some Irish rashers and sausage, chocolate Lindt bunny loses his ear, mass at Notre Dame, lunch at Brasserie Balzar (delicious lamb, cooked two different ways, and then chocolate mousse, chocolate profiteroles and moelleux au chocolat), nap for Josephine, more chocolate, stroll in Montsouris, more chocolate…

Happy Easter everyone!

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While Tadhg’s sister, Síle, and her husband, Jim, were here, we tried our best to get out and treat them to some fine Parisian grub. Jim is a grand amateur of stinky cheese and cured meats so he was particularly interested in this mission. One night, Tadhg, Jim, and I set out to try Le Bistrot Paul Bert, which kept popping up on our radar as a place not to be missed.  Being Monday, we were disappointed to find it was closed, but serendipitously we happened upon Le Chardenoux, which is right down the street, at the corner of rue Paul Bert and rue Jean Valles.  The restaurant, which first opened its doors in 1908, is a lovely example of Parisian bistrot dining at its zenith.  The ceilings harbor peaceful, lyrical paintings of a partially cloudy sky; these odes to blues and greys are then framed in gorgeous white molding.  The warm lights in the restaurant highlighted these airy vistas and gave the whole place a light buoyancy.  Jim summed up this feeling, noting that he doesn’t usually like when restaurants are so well-lit at night, but it seemed appropriate here.  The original tin bar was requisitioned for use by the German army during the Occupation, so the one you see today dates from after the war but you would never know.

Even though it was a Monday night, Le Chardenoux was full of neighborhood people who were enjoying their meals, including one couple with a dog curled up at their feet.  We didn’t know anything about the place, but we were already starting to get a good feeling about the meal at hand.  We began with two entrées: a sumptuously thick chestnut velouté and foie gras ravioles (Tadhg is a grand amateur of foie gras and rarely misses a chance to order it…) It was still a little wintry out and the decadent chestnut soup was perfect, lending itself admirably to being smeared on thick slabs of brown bread that tasted a little bit like sourdough.  Onto round two.  I ordered “la belle entrecôte” (the beautiful rib steak), which was very good under its smothering of béarnaise sauce, although I found the cut to be a bit fatty.  It came with its own adorable tiny cast iron casserole of whipped potatoes.  Tadhg got the steak tartare with frites.  This was essentially a huge mound of raw beef, mixed with a delicious, spicy, savory compound of cornichons, peppers, dressing and all sorts of other things I couldn’t begin to guess at.  Everyone enjoyed taking a taste, although I think this is the best way to go when it comes to steak tartare — the serving here was so huge, and so daunting, given its rawness, that Tadhg found it hard to make his way through it.  We all agreed that it would have been perfect if a third of it had been offered as an appetizer.  The frites were definitely good.  Jim ordered the hachis Parmentier with duck.  I would describe this dish, often seen on Parisian menus, as French comfort food; it’s the French version of  shepherd’s pie with a meaty layer of ground meat on the bottom of the casserole dish, with several thick strata of potatoes and cheese on top.  He was not disappointed.

Somehow we found room for dessert, which we found completely, sinfully amazing.  The éclair au beurre caramel salé (eclair with salty, buttery caramel) could not have been better.  The French really know how to mix their sweet and salty and this caramel éclair blew my mind with every bite.  We also ordered some profiteroles which came with their own regal silver pot of melted chocolate and an extra long fork for dipping (although someone was not deterred from sticking her spoon into the silver pot of chocolate once the profiteroles were exhausted).  By the time the waiter came with the bill, I was in a full-on dessert-induced coma. And yet, when someone came by with a cast iron tin of Madeleines, fresh out of the oven, we found a bit more room. All in all, Le Chardenoux was a completely wonderful surprise.

(FYI: After looking for the restaurant online to show some pictures, I gleaned that the chef of Le Chardenoux, Cyril Lignac, is actually quasi-famous and was on a French reality show called “Oui chef.” Who knew?)

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