Results tagged coffee from David Lebovitz

Some Thoughts on French Cuisine

France Map

French cuisine is, once again, a popular topic of discussion these days. Actually, anything controversial about France seems to foster a lot of heated debates. On one side are the folks decrying French-bashing, complaining that the French are unfairly picked on. Then there are the others who eat up books about how superior the French are, because they are better at parenting, they miraculously stay thin, they don’t have plastic surgery, everyone enjoys months of vacations, and Paris is a magical place where love, fashion, and fine food, flourish on the cobbled streets of the city. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between and, like any where, there is the great, the ordinary, and a bit of the not-so-good. I want to play the referee but there’s usually a bit of truth in most compliments and criticisms, and the reality is more complicated.

French cuisine gets its share of praise and criticism, some deserved, some not. One truth I’ve learned after living here for over a decade is that people really like to eat. The outdoor markets are crowded, lines snake out the door at bakeries, and cafés and restaurants are packed – even on Tuesday evenings – in spite of la crise (the economic crisis).

But what is French cuisine? Traditionally, cuisine du potager (cooking from the garden) or cuisine du marché (cooking from the daily market) were the foundations of French cuisine. Cuisine du potager was born out of economic and common sense; you cooked and ate what was closest to where you lived. Part of it was out of necessity (there was no Chinese garlic or avocados from Peru way-back-when), but mostly because the food was either free, picked from your own garden, or grown nearby. So you were always eating seasonally and locally. In France, you were cooking and eating local products; fresh cream, butter, and cheeses made in your region, peas from your garden, eggs from the neighbor’s chicken coop, and bread from the village bakery.

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Belleville Brûlerie & Holybelly

Belleville Brulerie

Hoo-boy, do I remember the bunch of flack (to say the least!) for mentioning way-back-when that the coffee in Paris could use a bit of, um, upgrading. I was recently reminiscing about that with my friend Pim, who wrote about it in 2005. People were up in arms, which was a little bizarre since the French often refer to café coffee as jus de chausettes, or “sock juice.”

Belleville Brulerie

If you’ve been to Paris, you know that there are lots of cafés but the quality of the coffee isn’t the focus. However, like all cities, Paris evolves, and in the past few years, a whole battalion of younger folks, some French, and others from elsewhere, have opened shops sprouted up far and wide, at a rate that was so fast, that I couldn’t possibly try them all. (And with all that caffeine surging through my system, I would have lost 6 1/2 years of sleep.) And other people were doing such a good job of cataloging them all, that I just sat back and focused on other things.

Belleville Brulerie

Being from San Francisco, where coffee-culture can be obsessive compulsive – if you didn’t study the micron size of each granule of coffee grinds or have your water analyzed to ensure your coffee was as clear as a sleek Chemex carafe – you, and your coffee, simply weren’t up to snuff. I went to espresso school in Italy, where I watched and learned from the Italian experts how the seemingly simple task of extracting a perfect espresso actually depended on having mastered a few key techniques and having the right grinder and espresso machine.

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A Very Good Steak frites in Paris

Café des Musées

I’m not the only one who is sometimes confounded by the French language. We recently had lunch at Café des Musées and my (French) partner ordered the entrecôte. Which I was eyeing on the menu, as I always do. But since I just finished a holiday food binge of epic proportions (plus a recent trip to San Francisco, where I gorged on tortillas, chow fun, and burritos), I decided to be a little more prudent and order the daily chalkboard special, a game dish that came with a salade de saison.

Café des Musées

Americans have an interesting relationship with steaks and beef: Before ordering, most people want to know what cut they’re going to get. Fair enough, as the French have their own specific cuts, such as bavette, onglet, rumsteack, and faux filet, among others. Much to visitors chagrin, they don’t all necessarily correspond to American or British (or other) cuts of beef that visitors are used to.

And although Americans are used to eating a wider swath of foods than we’re given credit for, most of us want to know exactly what is coming when we order our food: we want to know how it’s going to be cooked, what it’s going to be served with, if there is sauce with it – and often, if we can modify it in some way, and if we can take the rest home if we don’t finish it all.

Beef cuts France

(Since cuts of beef aren’t my area of specialty, I’ve been know to carry around a diagram of a cow with the French beef cuts denoted, showing which cut comes from where, and let them fend for themselves. Yet sometimes the menu or chalkboard descriptions are a little obtuse, like pièce du boucher or morceau de bœuf, which are “selection of the butcher” and “piece of beef”, respectively, which prompts a lot of questions. And for those times, I usually excuse myself to use the restroom and come back after they’ve ordered. Which I hope doesn’t make me a bad friend.)

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Sweet San Francisco

Kouign amann

Since the time I left, San Francisco has become a much sweeter place. I hope that’s just a mere coincidence, but I have been surprised at the spate of new bakeries and sweet stops that have sprung up in the last few years. How nice would it have been to have visited them all? However my euro-jeans are starting to buckle under the weight of all the butter (of course, all the chips and guacamole, and other Mexican food, had absolutely nothing to do with it) and after finding myself unable to power through an entire San Francisco burrito, I realized that I had lost my SF-cred and will likely be escorted back to the plane for my return flight, as I hang my head in shame.

Still, I did manage to sneak in a few places that are newer on the scene. One was 20th Century Café. My friend Heidi* had recommended the knish, which sounded like an unusual recommendation because that’s something you usually get at a savory place, or a specialty address (any old-timers remember The Knish Konnection in San Francisco?) But I had just scored the perfect Christmas present for someone back home (which was 25% off – go USA!) from the Timbuktu store (go San Francisco!), and when the map function on my phone (go T-Mobile prepaid SIM card plan, so I could use my iPhone while traveling!) showed that I was just a few block away, I hoofed it over there.

20th Century Cafe

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The Mill

cinnamon toast

Toast? That’s what a friend told me they served at The Mill. I’ve been passing by The Mill daily on the #24 line bus, and from the façade, it’s hard to tell what’s going on in there. So I wasn’t sure it was worth the bother to hop off the bus to see.

Then, yesterday morning, I got an SMS from a friend who was spending some time at The Mill while some messy home projects were being attended to (involving drywall dust, so I understand completely) and I hustled down there to meet up with her. When I walked in, I was surprised that it was such a huge, cavernous place; from the outside, it just looked like any other store front on Divis.

bread rack at The Mill

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Frenchie To Go, Terroirs d’Avenir and L’Arbre à Café

Pastrami sandwich at Frenchie To Go

I don’t gush all that often, but one of the people in Paris that I really admire is Gregory Marchand. He’d probably be a little irked that I said that (or maybe not), but he’s one of the few chefs in Paris that’s been successful at creating what have become some of the best places to eat in the Paris. His restaurant Frenchie is always complet, and I went to Frenchie wine bar the other night, getting there just before opening time, and there was already a line of folks waiting outside for it to open so they could snag a table. And the food, from cornmeal-crusted “nuggets” of sweetbreads to the pulled pork sandwich, was as good – if not better – than dishes I’ve had in multi-starred restaurants. A friend who I worked with in San Francisco was there as well, and he kept giving me the thumbs-up from across the room.

Gregory took a previously deserted street, set up shop, and now it’s a bustling, charming little rue with a seafood shop where the fish is purchased directed from the fisherman, an excellent butcher, and a vegetable shop that has bins of things that you rarely see in Paris, from gorgeous (and giant) citrons from Corsica to leafy greens like dinosaur kale, and crates of curious root vegetables – parsley roots, tiny celeriac, and something else that I forgot the name of, but went by a Latin name that I never heard of before. (So, of course, I want to try it – whatever it was.) I was tempted to pick up a bag of the bright-yellow, smooth quince that were no larger than tennis balls, until I realized how much peeling would be involved. So I put them back.

Bacon

His other talent, which is perhaps the most profound – and rather challenging, is that he’s great at taking American flavors and using French products, making them appeal to the French palate. This is obvious when you bite into a sandwich at Frenchie To Go, a take-out place with a few stools for those who want to eat & run.

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Café Cortado

Cafe Cortado

I’m not a fancy guy. I don’t insist on expensive clothes, I don’t drive a car, my hair is such a disaster I take the clippers to it once a month just to so I don’t have to deal with the unruly mess, nor do I give a hoot about sitting in a suit in a 3-star restaurant, with a tie closing up my throat while I try to pretend I’m enjoying a fancy meal. To me, one of the great joys in life is simply a good cup of coffee.

Over the years, I’ve whittled my tastes down to espresso, which is the true essence of the bean. While I like café au lait for breakfast, probably because it encourages the lingering that I need in order to gather up the courage to face yet another day. But in Spain, however, no matter what time of day it is, I always order a café cortado. Even though it’d described as a similar riff on the caffè macchiato in Italy, or the café noisette in France, which gets its name from having just a noisette (hazelnut) of foamed milk on top (although another description says that it’s because it turns the coffee the color of hazelnuts), to me, it tastes like a very different drink altogether.

Cafe Cortado

Café cortado – perhaps it has something to do with the name, the alliteration with those two Cs in a row that roll off your tongue, helping it sound so resolutely Spanish. Or the tiny glasses they serve it in, which the vested waiters with black ties set down before you with one hand, and a moment later, the other hand swoops down with a pitcher of steamy milk, to create a frothy, yet strong, coffee drink. And whatever they do to the milk, it’s especially velvety. They just seem to get the foam right. There’s nothing worse than having a coffee drink with a crown of airy foam on top – who wants to dive into that first anticipatory sip of coffee, but instead end up with a mouthful of air? Pas moi. And the café cortado combines the soothing creaminess of steamed milk with a reasonable jolt of a café solo.

I also like the glass. An Italian friend told me never to order espresso in a cup in Italy – to ask for it in a glass – because the porcelain retains some of the flavors of the dishwashing detergent. (Unfortunately my Italian isn’t very good and I always forget the phrase I’ve tried to memorize, to ask for it in a glass.) That may be one reason the café cortado alway tastes so good to me. It’s the glass. Or maybe it’s the sharp waiters with their slicked back hair and dark Spanish features, accompanied by the smell of sugary pastries in the fluorescent-lit showcases? I don’t know, but standing at a stainless-steel counter watching them pour the milk into the darkly extracted coffee in the glass while the milk foams up around it, but making sure it’s not too airy so you can enjoy the coffee that it’s mingling with, is one of the great joys in life. And one of the joys of visiting Spain.

Cafe Cortado

Éclairs in Paris

eclairs july 14 and pecan

I’m often asked about upcoming trends and each time it happens, I am sorely tempted to respond, “If I could see the future, I’d be buying lottery tickets.” I guess it makes good press – but the unfortunate thing about most trends is that they are often temporary. (In many cases, it’s a relief to see them go when their time is up.) Yet other times, a trend brings something to the foreground, allowing us take a fresh look at it.

eclairs

One trend that isn’t necessarily something new in Paris, is l’éclair, a torpedo-like pastry stuffed with a creamy filling then dipped or brushed with glaze. I’ve been eating them ever since I was a child, loving the tender, eggy pastry contrasting with the sugary icing striped down the top. Most bakeries in Paris have them and I pick one up every once in a while since they make a nice snack. They’re not overly rich, nor are they too-filling; they seem just enough to satisfy me without bogging me down. And they’re also easy to handle when navigating sidewalks riddled with walking people diagonally. (Although in spite of my holding on for dear life, I’ve almost lost a few in the fray.)

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