Interview: Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg

I always thought it would be fun to have friends who were celebrities.

I mean, wouldn’t it be fun to just pick up the phone, and have conversations like…

“Hey Uma, wanna head out and get a bite to eat?”

“Gee Mariah, I am just too dead-tired to stay home and watch Glitter again.”

“Babysit again, Katie? But you know how Tom feels about leaving Suri. Can’t you just bring her to the Scientology meeting?”

“Oh…um, hey Star. What’s that? Fired? I’d…um…love to get together….but I’m just swamped…how about, um, I call you next week or so and we can, uh…get togeth…oops, that’s my cell phone, gotta run…”

But wouldn’t that be great to hang out with your (employed) celebrity pals, eating in swank restaurants or hanging out in cocktail bars where someone shows you to your table? So I jumped at the chance to mingle with the well-connected Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, who actually do sit around in restaurants with rich and famous people, and probably only go to bars that have people who seat you, instead of the kind of places I go where you’re lucky if someone looks up from their Le Monde to grunt and point.

Because they get the inside scoop, Karen and Andrew have written a number of books interviewing chefs, restauranteurs, and sommeliers, and the book that left the biggest impression on me was Becoming A Chef, which I practically memorized when I was just embarking on my star-studded culinary career. I was a bit hesitant to meet them, though, since they hob-nob with all these fancy New York-type chefs, and here I was in Paris, writing poems about dishwashing tablets, getting my jollies buying Levi’s and ironing my neck.

(And I’ll bet Mario Batali’s never ironed his neck or Rocco DiSpirito’s never been groped in a tight pair of Levi’s…um, on second thought….)

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So when they came to visit Paris last winter (which is why we’re all bundled up in the photo) we made plans to rendez vous for un chocolat chaud at Christian Constant, I raced to get ready, (and I’ve since learned that it’s a good idea to take off your shirt before you iron it no matter how late you are). I did manage to get there, and just in the nick of time: Karen and Andrew had almost polished off what looked like a pretty formidable array of chocolate cakes and tartes.

But in any case, both Karen and Andrew were truly a delight and I loved meeting them. My only regret was not getting to spend enough time with them, although I did take a few minutes to take them to some of my favorite chocolate shops. Then when I learned they had just finished their new book, What To Drink With What You Eat, I jumped at the chance to chat with them again…

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David: I’ve seen both of you attack a chocolate dessert here in Paris as if it was your last meal ever. If memory serves me correctly, you were hedonistically drinking hot chocolate at the same time. But to me, chocolate seems like challenge to pair wine with? Is there something you’d recommend?

Karen and Andrew: It’s all your fault, David — if you hadn’t taken us on the single best chocolate lover’s tour of Paris imaginable, we NEVER would have embarrassed ourselves so badly. And since our time in your fair city was all too short, it wasn’t so much about pairing on that visit as it was about “sampling.” (Isn’t that a more refined word for it than “wolfing”?)

Many chocolate lovers (like us) would agree that great chocolate can be a peak experience in and of itself. But imagine being able to enhance the pleasure of a great chocolate dessert through pairing it with a beverage that will elevate the pairing into another stratosphere! That is the potential of food and wine pairing — and for chocolate (esp. dark chocolate) desserts, it can happen with Banyuls (a French sweet red wine), tawny port, or PX sherry.

But great pairings are not limited to wine alone!
A chocolate stout or a fruit-flavored lambic beer (with essence of cherry or raspberry, for example) can be shockingly great with a chocolate dessert. And just last week we had one of the best cocktail-and-food pairings of our lives: a Chocolate Decadence Martini (made with Chopin vodka, Godiva chocolate and white chocolate liqueurs, etc.) paired with a banana-chocolate cake. Heaven!

There are also lots of non-alcoholic beverages that can provide great matches for chocolate desserts, with the first and foremost being coffee. The flavors of coffee and chocolate were made for one another. As for teas, the berry notes in African (and especially Kenyan) teas play off chocolate beautifully — and believe it or not, Japanese green tea contrasts really well with chocolate, too. And a Champagne flute filled with a berry-flavored sparkling fruit juice or even a mint-flavored sparkling beverage like snow can be a fun pairing with a chocolate dessert.A As you can see, the possibilities are virtually endless! But our first encounter with chocolate and Banyuls, served to us by sommelier Jean-Luc Le Du at four-star restaurant Daniel in New York City, was one we’ll never, ever forget.

David: Sorry but when I eat chocolate, it’s closer to “wolfing” than “sampling”. It used to freak French people out, but I’ve seen a few of them lately doing the same. I guess I’m a bad influence.
But, speaking of wine, what’s the least amount of money you’ve spent on a bottle of wine?
Karen: Two bucks. Can you guess what it was??

Andrew: When I worked in an Alaskan fishery, the local store would give customers who bought beer a free bottle of Thunderbird, just to get rid of it. Even given our standard 100-hour workweek and its price, it still wasn’t much of a bargain.

David: Alaskan fishery and Thunderbird? Now there’s a story in there, and next time we get together, I want to hear more about that.
So what’s the most amount of money you’ve ever spent on a bottle of wine?

K & A: More than a decade ago, we saved our pennies and once splurged for a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem to serve on New Year’s Eve to an architect friend and his wife who had always hoped to try it. We used to it recreate chef Jeremiah Tower’s “Epitome of Decadence” dinner — d’Yquem paired with aged roast beef — he wrote about in his book Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics, along with precise instructions to chew the beef, take a draft of wine, chew twice, and swallow. He swore that the experience was so intense that the only sound you’d hear was people falling out of their chairs! That sounded like fun to us.

David: There are a few jokes I could make in there, but (uncharacteristically), I’m not.
So why does everyone like California Chardonnay? It’s truly awful stuff; thick and oaky. After I drink a glass, I feel like I need a toothpick. It’s like drinking an oak tree. Why do people keeping buying it?

K & A: As usual, you raise a great point about wine: There are wines that you couldn’t pay us to drink by themselves that can be peak experiences when paired with the right dish.

As for oaked Chardonnays, we’re with you when it comes to drinking one. But a year ago, sommelier Joe Catterson of Alinea (which was just named the #1 restaurant in America in the new issue of Gourmet) served us an extraordinary pairing. By itself, the Slovenian Veliko Bianco was an oak bomb, and was said to have been aged three years in new oak, a year in old oak, and three months in the bottle. We each took a sip — and shuddered. So it was a revelation to taste it again after the Dover Sole with “mostly traditional flavors” (albeit in powdered form) that it accompanied, and to see the combination surprisingly rise to a +2 (our highest rating, on our -2 to +2 point scale).

David: To be honest, after dinner, by the time I’ve hit dessert, I’ve had way to much to drink already and can’t drink any more wine without things getting embarrassingly messy and people talking about me for days afterwards. But I once had Claudia Fleming serve me Belgian fruit-flavored beer with dessert, called Kreik, which was amazing (as were Claudia’s desserts)-surprising and refreshing. What do you think of that pairing?

K & A: We love Belgian fruit-flavored beers, and urge anyone who’s never tried one to do so. The essence of fruit in these beers — whether the flavor of cherry in Kreik, or of raspberry in Framboise — is staggeringly delicious. And they’re great matches not only for chocolate desserts, but also for custard-like desserts, cheesecakes, berry tarts, and even fresh, creamy cheeses such as mascarpone. We both really like the carbonation that beer provides, which helps to cut the richness of a dense dessert or cheese.

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David: It’s funny. In America, people drink coffee with their dessert, but in Europe, that’s a big faux pas. Europeans use coffee like a final, little punctuation mark to a meal. And they never add milk to coffee after a meal. Can you explain your philosophy on coffee after dinner to my guests and readers…so I don’t have to explain it anymore?

K & A: We don’t know that we can explain it.
As we said, chocolate and coffee can be ethereal together, so it just sounds like good common sense to us.

David: Um, thanks for helping me off the hook, guys…but speaking of hot beverages, it seems like tea is a big thing lately. I like tea on occasion, but don’t know anything about it except the kind of people drinking the good stuff scare me when they start going on about it, using all these fancy terms like monkey-picked and first-flush (which never sounds all that appetizing.)
Those tea people freak me out. They’re like pod-people or something, living in a parallel universe of civility and good-taste. I’d love to learn more about tea (so I can become civilized and have good taste too), but I don’t know if I’m ready to be one of “them”. Is there help for me?
Do tea drinkers scare you too?

K & A: We’ve been privileged to have some of the most extraordinary tea tutors in North America — such as America’s first tea sommelier James Labe, Canada’s first tea sommelier Michael Obnowlenny, and Japanese tea ambassador Kai Andersen — so we’ve been spoiled. (Note From David: I’ll say…) They are as cool and passionate about tea as the best of the wine sommeliers are about wine, and they’ve taught us a lot.

Here’s tea and food pairing in a nutshell, using gross generalizations: Think of green and lighter oolong teas like white wine, and black and darker oolong teas like red wine. What would you pair with white wine? White meat, chicken fish.
What would you pair with red wine? Red meat, lamb, game.

When it comes to flavored teas, which can be awesome, think about classic flavor combinations that you already love. Blueberry tea is a revelation with banana pancakes. Maple tea goes great with butternut squash or pumpkin.
From there, you can play around. Tea can be fun, we promise!

David: I’ve never heard of some of those fruity teas. I only know black currant and Earl Grey, scented with bergamot. I must be living in an aspirateur, or vacuum.
On the other end of the spectrum from tea is Champagne. I was at a fancy party where ‘vintage’ Champagne was being served. While the bottles were lovely, the Champagne was quite rich and full-flavored, not the dry, refreshing sparkler I’m used to. The hostess, a prominent and famous cookbook author, told me that I didn’t know how to appreciate good Champagne. Am I a rube?
How should I have responded?

K & A: We think any hosts who take their guests to task are probably in need of the response of a good etiquette book as a thank-you gift (!), unless this one did so with the passion of a gourmet who dearly wanted her guest to share her enthusiasm for a particular beverage. But it sounds like lessons and insights were not forthcoming, which is a shame.

It’s eye-opening to learn about all the delicious varieties of Champagne out there, which can range from brut (dry) to sec (slightly sweet) to demi-sec (sweet) to doux (sweetest). There’s also Blanc de Blancs (made with 100 percent Chardonnay grapes) and Blanc de Noirs (made with 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes). Sounds like you might have been served a Blanc de Noirs, which is richer and more full-flavored than your “standard” Champagne.

Each type of Champagne has its own peak pairings.
You’ll want to serve drier (i.e. brut) Champagne as an aperitif or with foods like oysters, smoked fish, and sushi. And you’ll want to save sweeter Champagnes for desserts and pastries. Regarding the latter, a good rule of thumb for all dessert wines (Champagne included) is to make sure the wine is as sweet or sweeter than the dessert it’s accompanying.

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David: Okay, well I’m glad I decided not to ‘out’ her, since you took her to task. Okay. I’m going to throw out a few of my favorite things to eat, and you can give me beverage pairings:
K & A: Fair enough — hit us!

Frozen Fish Sticks…
K & A: Do frozen fish sticks have any flavor, other than what they’ve absorbed from their cardboard packaging? Yes, we’re kidding again. You want to be guided by whatever you’re dipping that critter into. Are you a ketchup man? If so, you want a slightly sweet wine to play off the ketchup — like a white Zinfandel. (If you’re eating fish sticks, you can’t cop any attitude, so you might as well drink a white Zin.) Is tartar sauce more your thing? Just remember that “tart likes tart,” and pair it with something with some acid. And mayonnaise pairs surprisingly well with a gin martini. If you’re avoiding alcohol, how about sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon? Those bubbles and the lemon will cut through the fattiness of the fish sticks, so you can eat even more!
(Or do you have a stomachache from all those fish sticks?)

Rocky Road Ice Cream…
K & A: After having spent a year waitressing at an ice cream parlor while in high school, Karen is the expert here and suggests water — ice-cold, still water (no bubbles) — which is the ideal palate cleanser for ice cream. Andrew, on the other hand, prefers coffee, which goes so well with the chocolate and nuts.

Pain au chocolat…
K & A: Coffee or espresso.
Preferably sitting outside in a cafe in Paris.
A beret is optional.

Hot Corned Beef on Rye with Spicy Mustard and Half-sour pickles…
K & A: No question: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, which is a celery-flavored soda. Don’t knock it (like we did) until you’ve tried the combination. It’s extraordinary!

(Note From David: I have had it, and I am knocking it. Celery Soda tastes just as bad as it sounds, sorry guys. Though Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda is my fav.)

Tapioca Pudding…
K & A: Since Andrew has a childhood tapioca bruise, he’s passing this one on to Karen, who envisions a nice cup of maple tea — or something like tawny port or Sauternes, if she were in the mood for something a bit stronger.

Oysters and Buttered Rye Bread…
K & A: While oyster fans alternatively recommend Champagne, sake, Sancerre, or vodka with oysters, the buttered rye bread gives vodka the edge here.

Bar-B-Q Ribs; pork or beef, I’m not getting into arguments with any of those bbq people…
K & A: Zinfandel. Or a chilled rosé, if it’s really hot out. Or a nice smoked beer (a little intense on its own, but the combo is great).

Microwave Popcorn…
K & A: Sparkling wine, like Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, or German sekt. Don’t waste a fine Champagne on the combo, because if you like as much butter and salt as we do on our popcorn, its subtleties will be lost.

Rice Krispy Treats…
K & A: A glass of slightly sweet sparkling sake, to enjoy the study of rice.

Caesar Salad (the kind you get in California, not the kind you get in France
with canned corn or other weird stuff on it)…
K & A: Karen seconds the recommendation of the guy who sat next to her in her first class during her first week of her freshman year at Northwestern University. Arneis from Piedmont, because the wine is nutty with good acidity that plays well against the dressing and Parmesan cheese. (What does HE know, you ask? He’s award-winning sommelier Scott Tyree of Tru in Chicago.)

Caramel Corn…
K & A: You’ll have to understand that caramel corn is a sacred ritual to us.
There are few things more delicious on this planet than the Caramel Crisp at Garrett’s Popcorn on Chicago, served hot and buttery and loaded with caramel coating. It deserves to be eaten on its own.The only worthy accompaniment we’ve found is Garrett’s equally hot, buttery and loaded with cheese Cheese Corn.

Gnocchi with Pesto…
K & A: Here we defer to someone who knows more about Italian wines than almost anyone we’ve ever met (with the possible exception of Joe Bastianich and David Lynch of Babbo), Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Los Angeles. He recommends a regional pairing from Liguria — the home of pesto — such as Albenga, Cinque Terre, or Vermentino.

Comté cheese…
K & A: We include suggested pairings for more than 100 cheeses in What To Drink With What You Eat. If you look up this cheese, you’ll find: “beer, esp. port or stout; Champagne; Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir.”
They all sound pretty good to us!

Mallomars…
Karen: What’s a Mallomar?

(Note: David flips out here…)

Andrew: I’m with you — and with Billy Crystal’s character in “When Harry Met Sally,” who eats them on New Year’s Eve, praising them as the world’s greatest cookie. You can’t go wrong with an ice-cold glass of milk. Or, if I were alone on New Year’s Eve pining over the love of my own life, I might have something a little stronger with it, like the aforementioned Chocolate Decadence Martini (whose recipe is on our Blog (9/28/06) on our own web site, if you’d like it) which I sampled for the first time last week.

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David: Okay, so I couldn’t stump you, but the martini sampling sounds like fun! I’ll check out the recipe.
So one last question: You know all these famous hot-shot chefs and you hob-nob with the superstars. Aside from me, tell us about a really bad experience you had with someone famous, preferably someone on Food Network. You don’t need to give us a name (although perhaps if 50 readers commit to buying your book you’ll reveal who it is) tell us the worst, most atrocious, meanest, rudest, horrible famous chef behavior you’ve ever witnessed. Feel free to use names, objects thrown, or anything else to embellish the story and brings you slightly closer to litigation.

K & A: As not all of your many readers will have had the pleasure of meeting you in person, you have to let us testify that you are as knowledgeable and passionate and fun in person as you are on your award-winning Blog!

We’re very fond of several of the TV cooking show stars we’ve met and interviewed for our books, including chefs Mario Batali and Rocco DiSpirito. We’ve had great fun over dinner with Tony Bourdain with our mutual friends, and at cocktail parties with the lovely and hilarious Daisy Martinez.

That being said, we once read a West Coast food writer’s column about her shockingly appalling encounter with an East Coast Food Network star with whom we had also had a rather appalling encounter. We had never met the writer, but we called her immediately and left her a sympathetic voicemail saying, “It’s not you — it’s HIM.” We definitely bonded over that!

David: Hmmm, that sounds rather cryptic. I might guess it was me, but since I’m not on the Food Network, so I’m off the hook. (Any guesses, readers? Let’s hear it, put ‘em in the comments.)

Okay, I lied. One more question. When are you coming back to Paris?

K & A: Not soon enough! If you and all your readers manage to help us turn our new book What To Drink With What You Eat into a bestseller, we’d love to come back over Christmas. But whenever it may be, we’ll look forward to sharing more chocolate with you then!

David: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I can’t wait to really read through my copy of your book, which is full of interesting and creative ways to pair food and drinks in ways that people might not have thought of before.

And next time you come back to Paris, would you mind bringing me some Mallomars?

I seem to have a thing for marshmallows and chocolate lately.

Pierre Marcolini’s Chocolate-Covered Marshmallows

The hardest of all foods to photograph, I’ve learned, are chocolate-covered marshmallows.

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The bright, fluffy, vanilla-flecked cubes of sweet, airy marshmallow in contrast to the thin, intensely-flavored coating of bittersweet chocolate certainly presents a challenge.

I futzed around a bit, trying to figure out how to show the lofty-white cubes in juxtaposition to the coating of pure, dark chocolate. They’re such diverse colors and textures that I tried several variations and lighting situations, until I decided that they’d looked best with a piece broked off.

So I took a bite out of one.

Then I took another bite.

And then, I stopped shooting…

…and ate the whole pack.

Sorry.

Pierre Marcolini
89 Rue de Seine
Paris
Tél: 01 44 07 39 07


French Chocolate Indulgence On Rue Tatin

I’ll soon be joining my friend Susan Loomis in her spectacular kitchen in Normandy, one hour from Paris, for a series of cooking classes November 5th-8th, from her home, On Rue Tatin

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We’ll learn cooking tips and techniques from Susan in our hands-on classes and I’ll be leading seminars focusing on all aspects of chocolate during special tastings and hands-on demonstrations: you’ll learn everything from candymaking to making breakfast treats, and other ways to bake with chocolate in every way imaginable!

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Susan is the author of On Rue Tatin, which chronicled her life moving to a village in France, restoring an ancient convent to become her cozy family home. Her other books include The French Farmhouse Cookbook (one of my French cooking bibles), and her latest, Cooking At Home On Rue Tatin.

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You’ll learn the secrets and techniques of French country cooking in Susan’s stunning, professionally-equipped kitchen. Afterwards, we’ll gather to dine by the fireplace with wines chosen from Susan’s antique cave, and have a chance to savor a selection of Normandy cheeses, considered the finest in the world.

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One evening our special guest will be Hervé Lestage, of Feuille de Vigne in Honfleur, who will lead us through a wine tasting, teaching you a new way to taste wine. My first tasting with Hervé changed everything I knew or thought about wine. Hervé is one of the most intriguing people I’ve met in France and we’ll taste amazing wines from his cave which he’ll specially select just for us.

As a grand finale to this culinary adventure, you’ll have the option to spend a day and me and Susan exploring the gastronomic delights of Paris. We’ll begin at an outdoor market, where you’ll find an outstanding selection of Provencal olives, hearth-baked breads, artisan salt, raw-milk cheeses, luscious fruits, and sparkling-fresh seafood.
We’ll dine in one of our most beloved Parisian bistros…but be sure to save room for all the chocolates we’ll sample when we visit my favorite chocolate shops, bakeries and pastry shops in Paris afterwards!

Special Note: For this extra day on November 8th, we’ve made available 3 spaces available for people who aren’t on our tour to join us, so if you live in Paris, or plan to be visiting then, you’re welcome to come along! The price for the full-day gastronomic adventure, including lunch with wine, is just 225€. Contact me to reserve a space, using the email link on left.

You can read more about this Three-Day Chocolate Indulgence and at Susan’s site, On Rue Tatin.


The Final Cut

I’m in the midst of the insanity that every cookbook, author dreads: reviewing the copyedited manuscript of my upcoming book. Writing a cookbook, especially one that needs to be precise like a baking book, is really a task. I started working on this book well over a year ago and it grew and grew to hundreds of recipes before I reined myself it. I just got so excited and I couldn’t stop.

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So this week I’ve locked myself in my apartment, taken the phone off the hook, and quit drinking wine. (Well, two outta three ain’t bad.) One of the hardest parts was getting it actually delivered to me in the first place. It was sent overnight via Fed Ex.

Normally that means ‘overnight’.

In France, it means ‘soon’.

So I patiently waited and waited, until it eventually showed up.

Being a tad insane, but globally conscience, I’ve decided to write the recipes in both cups-and-tablespoons as well as in metrics, which was like writing two books at the same time. So for all you people who complain about American cookbooks not being in metrics, or by weight, if you don’t buy this book, I going to come over, tie you up, and leave an endless loop video of back-to-back episodes of Rachael Ray shows on your television and force you to watch them over and over and over and over and…

So I’ve been working with my editor on-and-off for the past few months and it’s finally down to the wire. I’ve never worked with her before but she’s great and has worked with some of the best cookbook authors out there. We seem to agree on most things, and unlike most author/editor relationships, she listens to me and I listen to her. Rather strange I know, but so far so good and everything has been going along fine.

Well, that was until the frantic 67 emails I sent her yesterday.
(Since then, I haven’t heard anything.)

In these final stages of writing a cookbook, both the editor and a copy editor goes over the book with a fine-toothed comb, looking for errors and making sure things jibe. (I should’ve hired some of my readers, come to think of it.) This is the stage that I generally refer to as ‘hell’. You pore over each and every word and scan every recipe, jumping up to remeasure something in the kitchen, scrolling through the manuscript countless times making sure things are consistent, eat chocolate-coverd marshmallows from Pierre Marcolini, email all your old friends from college that you haven’t seen in twenty-five years that you’ve been meaning to write to but haven’t, checking to see if anyone’s commented on your blog, and finding silly projects around the house to avoid the inevidable final edit on the manuscript…all in a concerted effort to procrastinate further.

But at least I finally got around to digging out an old toothbrush and cleaning all the grimy stuff that’s collected around the buttons on my kitchen scale. I feel much better now.

Ok, so back editing.
Editors help rein-in authors like me, that sometimes have a tendancy to get inspiration from the most unusual places. Beauty pageants, childhood traumas, and naked men hurling coconuts on the sidewalk all made it’s way into this book. As you can imagine, I really have a dislike for boring, dull headnotes, those comments authors make at the beginning of recipes to introduce them.

There’s nothing worse than a headnote that reads like….”These cookies go well with tea in the afternoozzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Who has tea in the afternoon? I think I have, like, maybe once. And I was probably in bed with the flu. I usually eat cookies while waiting for my coffee to brew first thing in the morning. Or I leave cakes on the counter and hack away at them all day with a knife. Or rip pieces off with my hands and lick the icing off with my fingers.
With tea in the afternoon? I am so sure.

And it’s hard writing a single-subject book as I’m doing, without using some of the same words again. For example, everything I put in my books are my favorite recipes. How many times am I allowed to say, “This is one of my favorite recipe for….”?
As mentioned, I generally reach into the deep, dark recesses of my mind to grasp something to write about that’s curious and funny. But sometimes other people think they’re odd or weird.

For example, in a recipe for something with bananas, there was a note from my editor…

“Replace this headnote….Too many bugs, not enough yum.”

Frankly I’m so bleary from editing that last night I wrapped up a roast chicken carcass, which I ate like a crazed savage, to bring down to the trash room before racing out the door to meet Joy (who does not, by the way, have a potty-mouth in real life) for a late night rendez-vous over a bottle of wine in the Bastille. But when I woke up this morning, I realized I forgot to take the wrapped carcass downstairs and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I’ve looked everywhere; the refrigerator, the freezer, in kitchen cabinets, my clothes closet, in the bathroom and the shower. I know I will find it someday. I just hope I do before it ends up looking like one of my fruitcakes.

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As I was racing to meet up, I learned something that I thought I’d share before I get back to work: No matter how pressed you are for time, don’t try to iron a shirt while you’re still wearing it.

Although on second thought, perhaps that will make an interesting headnote…

Better get back to work.

La Brocante

In my previous post, a reader commented on the picture of a restaurant that I used, which obviously wasn’t the restaurant that I visited (which would be both cool, but very Twilight Zone.) Still, you can’t argue with a depiction of a restaurant where every table has a bottle of red wine on it and the parents are blowing cigarette smoke in their kids faces. The picture is called a carte scolaire and they’re used in French classrooms to teach les enfants about life in France. The red wine I guess is there to get ‘em started early and the kids seem oblivious to their parents puffing away.

How could I resist.

When I was on vacation in August, the weather was decidedly not too fabulous. You know that expression, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”…well, we all complained about the heat wave, so something was done about it–August was cold and wet. And to top it off, I was on vacation along with the rest of Paris. So what do you do when the weather stinks and you’re out in the countryside?

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You visit the flea markets.
There’s lots of brocantes in France, but the best bargains are when you find a vide grenier, which literally means ‘empty attic’, and that’s what people do. While they hold them in Paris, the ones in the distant countryside, far from the scavenging Parisian antiquaires, are where you can get some good finds.

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I like the pick through boxes of things, since they can yield unexpected treasures like old gratin dishes and terrines, but unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across any old Charo or Barry Manilow records. Have these people no taste?

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Fotunately there are reassuring signs of the invasion of American pop culture, and this home-version of The Price Is Right caught my eye, but I eventually passed since “David Lebovitz…Come on down!” somehow sounds more fun than “Allez-y, Monsieur Lebovitz!”

Les brocanteurs (and brocanteuses?) here drive a very hard bargain and it’s tough negotiating…especially when they get a whiff of my American accent. So I try to be discreet and just hold up an object nonchalantly, trying not to smile. My rack of gleaming-white American teeth and upbeat enthusiasm are always a dead give-away. Sometimes I try to get my French dude to ask the price, but he always winds up talking to the seller for 20 minutes, and I just want to cut my losses and run, thinking I’m missing out on the elusive Saarinen table basse at the next stand that I’ve been searching for, or some really cool antique chocolate molds that I’ll buy in anticipation of using, but which will eventually get rusty sitting on the shelf, and I’ll eventually sell myself at a future vide grenier.

Curiously if you decide you don’t want something, each and every time you put it back down, the vendor will respond 100% of the time with, “C’est pas cher!”, or “It’s not expensive!” For some reason, it’s difficult for them to fathom the connection between the fact you’re not buying it with the fact that, yes, it is indeed trop cher.

Whenever I vacation in Brittany, I always end up eating way too many buckwheat galettes and crêpes, drinking too many bowls of cider, and eating way, way too many of those buttery Breton pastries (which I plan a round-up of in the near future.) Luckily there was only one sunny day that I had to don the ‘ol Speed-o (thank God…) for a dip in the Atlantic, but I did find a diet book to help me shed those unwanted kilos.

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Aside from all the plastic children’s toys (a hazard of any vide grenier or tag sale), the most appealing things I found were these cartes scolaires, with depictions of of everyday scenarios in French life…

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Here you can see the salt marshes where fleur de sel is harvested from the nearby Guérande…

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.

..while this one shows the cooking tools used in the French kitchen…
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…and if you need to know what a beauty salon is like…
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…or a public pool.

You can find a comprehesive list of all brocantes across France in the monthly magazine Aladin, available at well-stocked newstands across France. The best way to find out when vide greniersand braderies are is to ask the locals or check for signs, which tend to get plastered everywhere about a week before.
And If you see a Knoll coffee table, or say, a Barry Manilow record, would you mind leaving them for me?

Especially if they’re “pas trop cher”.

Le Severo

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There’s lots of good food in Paris, but sometimes you have to travel to the outer neighborhoods to find the gems. And while the 14th arrondissement isn’t all that far, it’s worth the trek for the excellent meal at Le Severo with some other friends at a little petit coin of a restaurant, a schlep from wherever you are in Paris. There’s only 10 or so simple tables and a lone cook in the open kitchen who presides over the dining room. An old zinc bar acts as a catch-all for bottles of water, wine carafes, and a big container of fleur de sel…which was a good omen.

One entire wall of Le Severo is a chalk-written wine list and menu. Notice I said ‘wine list’ first. That’s because three-and-a half lengthy columns are up there, listing all sorts of wine, heavy on the reds. Somewhere in the midst of it all lurks a terse menu, and it’s almost all about beef: steaks, Côte de Boeuf, Lyonnais Sausages, and Foie de Veau. First courses range from a salade Caprese, (a dish you shouldn’t order outside of Italy) and a salad with goat cheese. But the real star here is le meat, so we started with a platter of glistening slices of cured jambon artisanal, which isn’t really beef but I’m too revved up to go back and change that, and it came with a too-huge slab of yellow, ultra-buttery butter (which is the only way I could describe it…it was really, really buttery…I don’t want to change that either) which we slathered on the bread, from the organic bakery, Moisan, then draped our slices with the ham. We then gobbled ‘em down.
Delicious.

The other starter was a Terrine de pot au feu. Pot au feu is the French equivalent of a boiled-beef supper, complete with vegetables and broth. When done right, it’s excellent, and at Le Severo, my hunch paid off. The terrine featured cubed, boiled beef parts, tender and neatly diced, loosely held in place with a light, jellied beef broth.

Since it’s rather warm and humid here in Paris right now, I chose a bottle of Fleurie, which was an overwhelming task considering the size and scope of the wine list. But the prices were gentle enough to encourage experimentation and the list is full of curious wines, so I think whatever you chose would be the right choice. The Fleurie was light, upbeat, and fruity…yet sturdy enough to stand up to a slab of beef.

Anyhow, our steaks arrived flawlessly cooked.
The French love their beef bleu, practically raw. But I like mine rare to medium-rare, or saignant. The chef-jacketed owner William Bernet, who is the singular server, assured me I’d be happy with saignant, and when he brought my faux filet, the rosy, juicy slices were indeed cooked just to the lower edge of my desired point of tenderness. To the side, my steak was accompanied by very, very good house-made French Fries.

My only fault was that the fries could have spent an extra 48 seconds in the deep-fryer to get that deep-golden crust that everyone loves but cooks seem to have trouble attaining around here, a fault I find in too many restos in France. Does anyone really like undercooked French fries? But I didn’t need to reach for that container of fleur de sel at all during dinner; everything was salted just-right. That to me, is the sign of a great cook, and a great restaurant. If you can’t salt food properly, you should find another line of work.

I was able to talk my companions, who just moved here from Rome and were delighted to chow down on good, honest French cooking, into splitting a cushiony-round disk of St. Marcellin cheese, which was roll-you-eyes-back-in-your-head amazing. I had a simple Creme Caramel, which arrived properly ice-cold and floating in a slick of dreamy burnt sugar sauce.

And because they were eating cheese, I didn’t have to share one bite of it (Ha! My strategy worked.) My friends then had a Mousse au Chocolat, which they liked, but they were not as conniving as me and shared a bit, but I felt it could’ve used a wallop of more chocolate flavor, but that’s how I am about chocolate desserts. The espresso served after dinner was quite good, and living in France, I’ve gained a new appreciation for Illy café, which is all but impossible to ruin.

First courses at Le Severo are in the 10€ range, while main courses were priced 15 to 25€. The hefty Côte de Boeuf, which they’ll prepare for 2 or 3 people, is 30€ per person and I’m going to have it on my next visit.

On the métro home after dinner, it suddenly dawned on my that my dining companions were macrobiotic. So if macrobiotic people can enjoy a beef restaurant like Le Severo, you can imagine how happy it makes us carnivores.

Le Severo
8, rue des Plantes
M: Mouton Duvernet
Tél: 01 45 40 40 91

How Uncool Am I

I’m looking at my Pandora playlist this morning, thinking…

…”Anyone who sees this is going to think I’m a complete and total dork.”

Feel free to add stations.

Help me. Obviously I’m in need of an intervention.


Links Du Jour

People are going nuts over Ici ice cream, in Berkeley. Mary Canales rocks. Go eat her ice cream.
Tell her I said hi.

Not to upstage the timely importance of baby Suri, a reader sends me a link to this (a bit too) juicy history of Chez Panisse from Vanity Fair.
Um, thanks for sharing, JT.

Spend a week in Gascony, without leavin’ your laptop.

A chocolatier, looking at the comments to a recent interview, announces to me he’s single…and looking.
David fears making the announcement on his blog will cause his traffic to spike, and cause his server to crash.
(Chocolatier offers to send chocolate bars studded with bacon bits. David accepts.)

Zagat Guide to Paris restaurants for 2006-2007 is released. Big party at George V with lots of free Champagne and mingling with top Paris chefs. Taillevent is still #1.
David wonders why French web sites always have that God-awful music, and waits for invitation to lunch.

Homemade ginger ale wows Paris.

Skype announces that all calls to fixed phone lines in France for SkypeOut users will be free through the end of 2006.

KitchenAid offers blenders for just $39. Also announces ice cream making-attachment for European-model KitchenAid mixers.

Louisa shows how to turn espresso upside-down. Then eat it.

Amazon tell me,“Go build yer own store!

Adam & Family get shafted by the Powers That Be at Le Cirque.
Owner’s son writes a tearful response….which fails to elicit sympathy.