Recently I ate at one of those small neighborhood restaurants whose fame spreads beyond the quartier and people come from other neighborhoods, as well as from other countries, to eat at because it is très reputé.
Le Repaire de Cartouche (99 rue Amelot) is one of those restaurants in Paris. It’s known for very good food and an especially compelling wine list. The prices aren’t too high (although not too low, either) and you can eat very well without spending the equivalent of a three-star restaurant.
Almost immediately after we sat done, something seemed up. Within moments of handing us our menus, the waiter asked if we were ready to order. I was with Maria Helm Sinskey, a well-regarded chef from the Bay Area and co-owner of a vineyard, with her husband. I’d chosen the restaurant because they’re known for excellent game dishes and I figured it was something she couldn’t easily get back in the states.
As she pondered the wine list, the waiter told us we had to order our meal before we could order wine. When we said we needed a moment to scan the interesting wine list, he quickly turned and scampered away in a huff.
After we ordered our meal and the wine, he came back later with the bottle of Anjou we ordered, a bit tepid, which we drank with our excellent persillade of grouse and lentils with a lively herb salad.
(On the plus side, when they brought us the wine, they poured it for her to taste, since she was the one who ordered it…so at least they’re not sexiste.)
My main course was a line-up of four quick-seared scallops teetering on a thin rectangle of chewy polenta with sautéed trompettes de la mort (black trumpets of death mushrooms) strewn all over the plate. It was outstanding, and each mouthful was pretty much as close to perfect as good food can get.
When our waiter came to take our dessert order, he told us the prune clafoutis would take 25 minutes to prepare. The idea of a hot-from-the oven custard coming forth was just too irresistible not to order one, so we told them we’d be fine waiting.
One-and-a-half minutes later, they brought out the dessert, which was, not surprisingly, at room temperature. At this point, I was dying of thirst because the three requests I put in for a sip of water went unheeded and we finally left so I could straggle home and get re-hydrated.
Having worked in restaurants most of my life, it’s sad to see the dining room staff not take pride in the food they were offering, and not do even a halfway-decent job serving it*. It’s especially unfortunate when the kitchen is working so hard to make such great food. And for all the flak the French get about customer service, even in simple cafés, the waiters are invariably quite professional and mindful of the customers. I can forgive incompetent service or waiters who get busy or forget something, but can’t forgive them if they’re purposefully disagreeable and act like children.
The next day I felt a bit discombobulated and was recounting to Romain what happened, including the part about a Frenchman walking out, yelling at the waiters that he was going to write to the guide Michelin about his experience, showing him Maria’s excellent book, The Vineyard Kitchen, and landed on Apple Spice Cake.
I had some wonderful apples I picked up at the market and thought the gentle blend of apple cubes and spices in a buttery batter might be just the ticket to shake that feeling left from the previous evening.
I added a few dates to her recipe because I couldn’t resist them when I was at the market and the Algerian vendor offered me a huge bag at a price that such a bargain, that this sweet windfall was too good to pass up. Thankfully, I took advantage of his offer and the dates were delicious. You can omit them or swap out another diced dried fruit, such as prunes or apricots, or whole raisins. Or leave them out if you want. And try to use tart, firm apples; once baked it the cake, you’ll appreciate their bold flavor.
This generous, but delicately-spiced cake is extremely moist and Maria says it improves after it sits a few days. It was pretty great fresh, and I can’t imagine it getting any better.
As for the restaurant, I’m not holding my breath.
Spiced Apple Cake
12-16 generous portions
The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helm Sinskey
Maria’s instructions call for a 12-cup (3l) bundt pan. Mine is only a 10-cup and when I saw the batter rise to the top as it baked, I panicked a bit, but it didn’t overflow. Still, I do recommend following her advice. If you only have a 10-cup (2.5l) bundt pan, you could also scoop some of the batter into a smaller cake pan and have a little mini cake (which will cook for a shorter amount of time) as a snack or to gift someone.
You could also spread the batter in an rectangular cake pan with a 12-cup (3l) capacity, baking it until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
This cake is not very sweet so I dusted the it with powdered sugar. But it would be equally good with a glaze or rich cream cheese frosting, especially for those with a sweet tooth.
2 tablespoons (30 g) butter, salted or unsalted
4 tart, firm medium-size baking apples, peeled, cored and cut into 3/4-inch (2 cm) cubes
2 tablespoons (30 g) sugar
- 12 tablespoons (6 ounces, 170g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups (350 g) sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup (110 g) pitted, chopped dates: optional
- 3 cups (420 g) flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 cup (240 g) buttermilk or plain yogurt (regular or low-fat)
1. Melt the 2 tablespoons (30 g) of butter in a large skillet and sauté the apples over medium-high heat until the turn golden brown, stirring them as little as possible as they cook.
2. Once cooked through, add the 2 tablespoons (30 g) of sugar and cook until the apples cubes are nicely glazed. (Maria mentioned to cook them until all the liquid had evaporated, but mine had no liquid. So it depends on your apples.) Transfer apples to a plate and cool to room temperature.
3. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C) and butter and flour a 12-cup (3l) bundt pan, tapping out any excess flour.
4. In a stand mixer, or by hand, beat the 12 tablespoons (170 g) of butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla, stopping the mixer between additions to scrape the batter down on the sides, as necessary.
5. In a small bowl, toss the dates, if using, with about a tablespoon of the flour to separate them.
6. In a medium bowl, sift together the remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
7. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the creamed butter mixture, then mix in the buttermilk or yogurt. Then stir in the remaining dry ingredients until just almost mixed in completely, but do not overmix. Visible wisps of flour are normal.
8. Fold in the cooked apples, and dates (if using). Scrape the batter into the prepare bundt pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
9. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a cooling rack. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar, or glaze, if you wish.
Related Posts and Links
Sinskey Vineyard Kitchens (More recipes from Maria)
Service Alert (Hungry for Paris)
Glaze Recipes (Food Blog Search)
Le Repaire de Cartouche (Serve It Forth)
Pain d’épices (French spice bread)
*Also, as of July 2009, the French government lowered the TVA tax that restaurants charge for food, down from 19.6% to 5.5%, to make restaurants more affordable and keep them running. So for example, when the main course runs €30 ($45), if the TVA doesn’t get reduced, the restaurant is making €4.5 ($7) more per main course.