Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


Detroit REVELations (Noel Night)

Here’s a tip about a great place to kick off the Christmas holiday revels:  my new favorite city, Detroit. My brother, David, had been telling me about Noel Night for years. I found a cheap flight and spent a long weekend in the city.

Noel Night is Detroit’s 39 year old tradition, held on the first Saturday of December. It’s a customizable experience where Midtown is the star, providing entertainment at tiny, mid-sized, and mega-venues. Midtown cultural powerhouses — Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright African-American Museum — also host multiple performances throughout the evening.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I’m going to share the revelations I had about Detroit before I took part in Noel Night revels.

Almost as soon as I hit town, I walked over to Socratea Teahouse and Gallery in Midtown. It is a lovely, creatively curated space. It’s not only my kind of place, it’s my muse as well. I’ve spent hours writing there, while drinking pot after pot of tea or a smoothie. Socratea does tea up proper, steeping it according to type. I spent so much time there in September, that the owner, Meg Provenzino, recognized me on this visit. That’s actually kind of cool, considering I live in Maryland.

My first revelation:  Socratea is my “happy place” in Detroit.

David’s “happy place” is at the bar of a good restaurant. We checked out two new ones over the weekend. The first was Selden Standard. Not unusual of renovated buildings in Detroit, this restaurant abuts a former vagrant hangout, now a fenced-off vacant lot. At the bar, we talked with a native Detroiter, who had relocated from NYC. Our conversation flowed from Hurricane Sandy to local politics to the food industry and then to our new friend’s take on the Detroit water bill situation.

Speaking of water…did you know that 21% of the world’s fresh water flows through the City of Detroit? The city has been described as the Saudi Arabia of water!

My second revelation: Great food, great atmosphere, and great company – that’s my recipe for a great evening, and it is easy to find that in Detroit. There is a lot of civic pride, and the people are the heart of the city.  Give it up for the Midwest and its accessible and friendly people, even in a hardcore city!

Conversations with random people continued the next day. We started at Astro Coffee on Michigan Avenue in Corktown. It’s in an isolated commercial block in a transitional area. The very successful Slows Bar-B-Q probably started the transition, and is located at one end of the block.

We walked to the other end of the block and saw this signage:  “Pawnshop” and “Gold Cash Gold.” Instead of a pawnshop, though, the interior was fitted out as a restaurant. We were curious; and the door was unlocked, so we went in. The owner, Ronald Cooley, met us inside; gave us a tour; explained all the recycled materials used in the decor; and confirmed that the building was formerly a pawnshop. So, he figured, what the hey – keep the sign and call the restaurant Gold Cash Gold! The grand opening was later that night. It turns out the Cooley family owns both Slows and Gold Cash Gold, and their restaurants anchor the block.

My third revelation:  I saw an area in transition and a single block transformed by small businesses. This block in Corktown is Exhibit A for reclaiming an area for fun and entertainment one building and one block at a time.

Later that day, we went to a wine shop — Fine Wine Source — in Livonia, a Detroit suburb. I asked David why we were driving so far for a wine shop. As it happened, that little wine store run was worth it.

Fine Wine Source is located in a small strip mall not far from the freeway.  It’s an unpretentious family-owned business. The mother, father, and daughter provided personal and superb customer service. They acknowledge and appreciate returning customers, which, of course, keeps them coming back, even if they live miles away. The owner’s knowledge of wine and wine storage goes deep, and he’s happy to make his customers a little smarter about wine.

The bonus was the Saturday wine tasting and meeting Proprietor and Winemaker, Lorenzo Gatteschia. We tasted four wines from his Tuscan estate and winery, Podere Ciona. The wines were very nice and we bought a couple of bottles. Even though we were trying to beat it back to Midtown before the Noel Night crowds descended, it was great spending a little time in this shop to sip and learn.

My fourth revelation:  I had a very good experience with customer service at Detroit businesses. Look, people in the Detroit metro area are not going to let poor customer service be their trademark; the city has been maligned enough. No, I think the award for poor customer service might go to – ahem! – Washington, DC. 

So, now for the weekend’s signature event:  Noel Night. We had a loose plan for the venues and artists we would see that night. We started at Socratea, which offered free tea samples, cookies, and 10-minute massages to its first 500 customers. We moved on to the Museum of Contemporary Art -Detroit (MOCAD). From there, to Flo Boutique to hear a singer, who was scheduled to perform in the shop window. (We missed his set, but I bought a cute hat.) We stopped through an art gallery on our way to a small pizza shop to hear an up-and-coming vocalist.

The performance by the youth choir, Mosaic Singers, at the Charles H. Wright African-American Museum was one of the highlights of our Noel Night. It was standing room only, but we didn’t stand for long. We slipped into two seats in the middle of the back row as soon as they were vacated, without applying our elbows. (It pays to be quick and civilized!)

We connected with two friends, who were at the Detroit Institute of Art cafe getting some grub. They joined us at the Unitarian Universalist Church for our Noel Night grand finale: Thornetta Davis. She’s a Detroit original, an R&B vocalist, with a huge, gorgeous mid-range voice. Her guitarist and keyboardist are world-class musicians. Thornetta set the tone for the Christmas season with rousing, joyous carols. Her rendition of “Silent Night” — one of the best I’ve ever heard — evoked pure wonder at the long-awaited birth.

If you go to Detroit for Noel Night, anticipate the harshest weather and pack the right layers of clothing so you’re comfortable walking outdoors from venue to venue. Detroiters aren’t weather wimps.  Nothing stops them from reveling on Noel Night to get their Christmas spirit on.

Campus Martius - Christmas tree

Campus Martius – Christmas tree


They Call Me A Picky Eater, But …

I’m really a Mindful Eater.

My friends respect my diet choices, even if they think they’re a little quirky. They know I’ve changed my diet for the sake of better health. When I’m invited to dinner, the hosts ask what are my “restrictions.” My  mama taught us to eat anything our host offers, but… quite honestly, the situation requires some finesse. I always ask my hosts not to go out of their way to accommodate me. I contribute a dish or two, if that’s appropriate, and try to downplay my food preferences. (I’ll survive a meal with non-organic greens!)

That said, I do pay attention to what I put in my body.  Not every food I’ve loved has loved me back, and my body has let me know in some noxious ways.  If I’m lucky, I will only get bloated.

So be it — call me “picky.”

When my friends and I go out, I suggest restaurants I think will work for everyone. And, if someone else makes a suggestion, I take a quick look at the menu to see if there is at least one thing I can eat. Food brings people together and I don’t want my food preferences to make me a social repellent. I do draw the line, however, at most fast food places.

Here’s how I maintain my food “quirks” and social life. When my Maryland USTA tennis team was in Newport News, Virginia for a tournament, some teammates wanted to hit a deli for lunch. Well, the typical deli doesn’t work for me because I’m gluten-free and don’t eat processed meats. I suggested Taste, which is in both Newport News and Norfolk.  (I’d gone there with other teammates last year and remembered it as a healthier type of deli. The good folk at Taste label the gluten-free food and you can customize your salad order.) This time around, I ordered an arugula and spinach salad with sliced almonds, hard-boiled egg, goat cheese, cucumber, and onion, topped with a generous scoop of blackened tuna salad. It was huge and good and had plenty of protein.  My teammates happily ordered what they wanted and we all shared a bottle of Bitch red wine.

See…not really so picky after all!  Everybody was happy and ready to kick butt in the next match!

photo