The First Café Gourmand in Belgium

One of the mainstays of any restaurant menu in Paris these days is le café gourmand, a sort of feel-good dessert replacement (basically an espresso accompanied by 4-5 little samples of cakes and desserts), which normally sells for between 6 to 8 Euros.

As Olivier explains on his excellent blog, there are all sorts of obscure Parisian rules regulating when you’re allowed to order a café gourmand. But basically it’s what you order when you want dessert but don’t want to be seen by your dining companions having a dessert. It’s still just as fattening, but strangely un café gourmand is thought of as coffee, not dessert, so this makes it socially acceptable to diet-conscious Parisians.

You can now find the café gourmand in many places in France, but this particular symbol of Parisian civilisation doesn’t seem to have spread to Belgium yet. But this may be about to change…

We were in Brussels today for a business meeting, and we went out for a rather nice lunch at Le Quai (a restaurant in a converted railway station in the southern suburbs).  When it came to time to order dessert, one of our companions absently asked for “Un café gourmand, s’il vous plaît“.  The waitress stared back and asked quizzicly “C’est quoi un café gourmand?

Having explained to the waitress what was involved, the chef agreed to make us all café gourmands. I had to immortalise the moment – just in case this turns out to be the moment that the café gourmand crosses the border into Belgium. Here’s the photo:

So if you’re in Brussels later this year, and see café gourmand on the menu… well, I’d like to think that me and my colleagues can take some of the credit.

Polidor

I don’t write much about food here, which seems strange since I live in a city famous for restaurants. However, this week has involved visits to a couple of notable Parisian eateries. So I thought I’d recount our experiences.

Image: Stephen Rees (Creative Commons)

Saturday night I suggested the Polidor, of which I had heard good things. It’s just down the road from me, behind the Odéon. It’s one of the oldest traditional bistrots in Paris, and regular customers included James Joyce, Boris Vian, Rimbaud and Verlaine. Despite its illustrious connections, it is not overrun with tourists and hence offers a menu at suitably reasonable prices.

Having not booked, we thought we’d arrive at the stereotypically Anglo-Saxon hour of 7.30pm – the theory being that we would not have to compete with locals for a seats.  As it was, the place was almost full already, and we got places on a long table in the front room, next to a talkative French couple.  Everyone at the Polidor shares tables, and this is part of the fun.

The place makes the most of its humble bistrot beginnings, and is everything a Paris bistrot should be – mirrored walls, wood panelling and red-and-white checked tablecloths.  It’s noisy and the service is unfussy and rapid: it’s worth remembering that the bistrot was 19th century Paris’ equivalent of McDonalds.

Image: Ed Swierk (Creative Commons)

We all chose the menu fixe at 25EUR. For entrée I had a rather stunning blonde lentil and foie gras soup, which came served in a brown stoneware bowl. In case you’ve never thought of putting foie gras in soup before – trust me, it works, and it’s delicious.

The main course was a rich and satisfying boeuf bourgignon – with chunky carrots. If some of the meat was a tad dry in the middle, the situation was rapidly resolved with application of the oodles of sauce that accompanied it.

For some reason I chose a bottle of Madiran to accompany the meal. It may be the wine with the highest level of antioxidants in the world (one glass makes you cancer-proof for a week), but it was a little heavy-going as a food wine. My theory was that its southwestern origins might have complemented the foie gras soup. However I should have stuck with my first intinct and chosen a Burgundy: more subtle as an accompaniment to the boeuf bourguignon.

Dessert was also simple, understated and divine – a rasberry bavarois in a red berry coulis. Enough said.

Overall: eat fast, eat well. Polidor was excellent value with very good food, good service and an “authentic” bustling atmosphere. For 30EUR a head including wine, you can do a lot worse in Paris.

Polidor
41 Rue Monsieur le Prince
75006 Paris
Menu 25EUR (or à la carte)

Open 7 days

Note – Polidor does not accept credit cards, a policy it has proudly maintained since it opened its doors in 1845.

Tasting Notes

A few cat-sitting gigs here in Montpellier have not filled the wallet, but they have filled the apartment with cat hair, and the whisky cabinet with new bottles, allowing some interesting comparative tastings.  I’m no expert on single malts (as compared to, say Dubber and Clutch), but increasingly I know what I like.

To me, (and I’m going to sound like a complete tosser when I write this), whisky doesn’t taste of things like wine does. Rather, whisky tastes of ideas and images. Short scenarios that shoot out of the glass at you.

I’ve been progressively tweeting descriptions as I open each bottle. Here are those tweet-sized chunks, assembled in one place:

Cragganmore: felt-tipped tulip petals, newly unfurled bracken fronds, and the kitchen door of a Birmingham curry house.

Talisker 10 yr old: charcoal oxygen filters, aluminium window-frames and dodgy 1940s fuseboxes. Like drinking C-3PO. Délicieux.

Oban 14 yr: this is definitely what Maurice Sendak used to clean his paintbrushes while illustrating “Where the Wild Things Are

Dalwhinnie 10: Wednesdays at boarding school. Freshly laundered woollen socks, a locker room full of rugby balls and matron’s stern gaze.

Lagavulin 16 year old: Wow. Salty. Driftwood and neptunes necklace. Spicy treacle and seagull feathers. Mooring ropes at half-tide in a November sea-fog.

Aberlour 10 year old: you remember that class trip to the colonial museum with the old sweet shop, the stuffed elephant and Melissa wetting her pants?

Glenkinchie 12 year old: weekends on your uncle’s farm, amidst Victorian furnishings, mouldy tourist calendars from 1954

Bowmore Islay 12 year old: fossilised kauri gum, barnacles left too long on the mantlepiece and the bilge water from an Arthur Ransome novel.

Five Things I’ll Miss About the UK

Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

I could talk about all the wonderful people I’ve met in England who I’ll miss when I leave, but that wouldn’t be very English, would it? One must control one’s emotions and remain self-deprecating in all social situations, including when blogging.

So here are five of the best THINGS about the UK that have made my time here unique and enjoyable.  Who knows, maybe I’ll miss these things so much that I’ll come back?

BBC Radio 4 – the best English-language spoken word radio station in the world? Some people accuse Radio 4 of being too white, middle-class, and biased towards the Home Counties.  But nowhere else can you hear John Humphries mercilessly grill  Gordon Brown, follow Sandi Toksvig up the Amazon or get advice on which side of the house to plant your camellia bushes.  Oh, and every night at 7pm Tom Archer will be worrying about feeding his cows.

Ale PintBeer – more specifically, ale and bitter, which I learned to love through many visits to venerable Oxford establishments such as The Turf and the Lamb and Flag. People must be truly mad to buy Amstel or Fosters when in Oxford. To drink lager in historic and well-oiled pubs such as these would surely be sacrilege. Bottoms up!

    Comedy – Like beer, comedy makes life in Britain tolerable.   The best British comedy and humour relies on self-deprecation, wit and a dose of surreal silliness, and there is so much of it to enjoy in the UK.  Personal favourites include Peep Show, the ubiquitous Paul Merton, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Private Eye and of course I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

    Choral music – I wrote about the long English tradition of choral singing in a recent post.  Even if most English people don’t realise it, English choirs are the envy of the world. Whether you believe the theology behind it or not, sung Evensong must be one of the greatest pieces of English art ever devised.

    Sandwich shops – Nowhere else in the world has sandwich shops quite like Britain. I’m not talking about Subway, Greggs or Pret. I mean the little independent shops squeezed into alleyways off high streets, where a husband and wife team (or their Polish assistant) will customise your favourite tuna and sweetcorn sandwich while you wait. Personal favourites include A Patch of Blue in Calne, Wiltshire and the Oxford Sandwich Co in the Covered Markets.

    Etnobofin’s Oxford Pub Guide

    Alongside Radio 4 and Simon Amstell, a weekend afternoon ale (or cider) with mates at a pub is one of the great delights of living in this country. Pubs form such an important part of British life and you can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid them.

    Somebody told me that Oxford boasts something like 100 pubs inside the ring road.  It’s amazing how many of them you can manage to visit over a couple of years without really trying.  So the pubs listed below are just the ones I like, or they’re at least notorious enough to merit their own wikipedia entries…

    The Eagle and Child : (aka “The Bird and Baby” or “The Fowl and Foetus”) on St Giles. This is where C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkein used to hang out. Not my favourite, but the snugs by the front door are the perfect venue for a friendly argument on a winter evening.

    The Bear: Serving beer to thirsty students since 1242, the Bear is notable mostly for its age (old even by Oxford standards), a framed collection of 5000 ties and its inconceivably small size.

    The Hollybush Inn: situated on Osney Island, this unpretentious local pub is where Radiohead (and the Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band) played their first gig.

    The Head of the River: at Folly Bridge, by the Isis in the centre of town. Chow down on a good solid pub lunch while watching tourists fall out of their punts.

    The Hobgoblin: one of the only pubs I can remember on Cowley Road (after an evening on Cowley Road many people don’t remember much). Sponsored by Oxfordshire’s Wychwood Brewery, it’s one of the few places in the city you can rely on getting a pint of Hobgoblin. Yum.

    The Jolly Boatman: another waterside pub on the Oxford Canal near Kidlington. Good but not outstanding food and a reasonable beer selection. The real attraction of this pub is that it’s an easy 7 mile cycle trip up the canal path from the city – the perfect activity on a cool summer’s day.

    The Trout Inn: a nice 30min walk up the Isis to Godstow brings you to rightly famous Trout Inn (mentioned in Brideshead Revisited). Popular, and hard to get a table. In summer, the Aspalls Organic Suffolk Cyder is highly recommended. In winter, try their venison hotpot.

    The White Hart: A good alternative to the Trout, in the nearby village of Wytham. Fantastic menu. In summer, you can play the traditional Oxfordshire pub game “Aunt Sally

    Jude the Obscure: A late contender for best pub in Jericho, without the chi-chi atmosphere of some of the other Jericho bars. Revolving selection of ales.

    The Turf Tavern: Nestled down an alley between Hertford College and New College, the Turf is impossible to find for Oxford n00bs, but worth the effort. It’s good fun elbowing your way past the crowds of undergrads to access the bar and its exceptional rotating menu of real ales.

    The Lamb and Flag: owned by St John’s College, but don’t let that stop you. It’s cosy and unpretentious, and empty out of term. Try the Lamb and Flag special ale if it’s in season.

    The Kings Arms: at the far end of the Broad, this pub is all-student, all the time, and most of the leading politicians, lawyers, writers and scientists of the realm have propped up its bar at some point.  It’s old, uncomplicated and most of the really serious work of the university takes place here.

    The Wheatsheaf: Wheatsheaf Passage, just off the High near Carfax. Lots of bands, good jazz nights on Thursdays with rotating UK/international artists. Go for the music, not the beer.

    The Jericho Tavern: Walton Street, Jericho. Local bands play here, and it’s where Radiohead and Supergrass first gained a following in the early 90’s. Ridiculously popular on Friday nights. Unless you’re a Jericho resident, you’re likely to only ever come here if you want to hear the music.

    Which are the best of these? Well, if you had just one day in Oxford, I’d definitely take you to the Turf. Unless you were a favourite aunt or a parent, in which case I’d reserve a table at The Trout or the White Hart for dinner.  For a quiet everyday pint away from the tourists and students, Jude the Obscure ticks most boxes in terms of atmosphere and drinks selection.

    Remind me again, why the heck am I leaving Oxford?

    *This blog supports responsible drinking. Respect alcohol, respect yourself. Enjoy local pubs in moderation.

    On Tea

    This is Seb Clarke – …and a blue bottle and a candlestick
    From Rover: Sons Ltd [Buy]

    Tea Plant

    If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.” – William Gladstone

    Tea is a punctuation mark in the day. The first cup in the morning through half-closed eyes and unbrushed hair. The brief pause between phone calls or project reviews. The sharing of stories and time together. A secular sacrament. In the middle of a chaotic swirl of activity, tea provides that clear moment of repose or refreshment, before plunging back into the maelstrom.

    For those who remain doubtful about how to make a good cup of tea, George Orwell (for it was he) provides an indispensable guide, first published in the Evening Standard in 1946.

    I pretty much concur with Orwell’s recipe, (especially his thoughts about sugar) although I would add a few new rules for the 21st Century:

      1. Never, ever buy a cup of tea at a restaurant/coffeehouse/café/railway kiosk. It will be disgusting, weak and taste of bleach. Railway kiosks are why God invented coffee and hot chocolate.

      2. If you do like tea, and can afford it, it is worth spending a little extra for good quality leaf or teabags. I’m currently working my way through a box of Nilgiri, which is definitely not up to par with the Assam I was guzzling last week.

      3. Tea on aeroplanes will always disappoint you, especially on Lufthansa. On British Airways, the tea may taste fantastic, but this is a sure sign that you will hit turbulence and spill it everywhere

    Tea (along with expensive train tickets and resentment of the weather) is a key pillar of British* civilisation. When our beloved American cousins started throwing tea into the harbour 200 years ago, it was a clear sign that our ways were destined to part. The Americans also decided that civilisation was spelt with an “z”, not a “s”, and that tea should be thrown into a “harbor”, which pretty much spelled the end to any chance of North America could be saved from bottomless cups of filter Arabica.

    And NO, America, Starbucks does NOT redress the balance – it may be a nice dry place to get wireless access, but I have yet to find a Starbucks that does good coffee. Visit a café in Wellington or Melbourne and you will never darken the doorway of a Starbucks ever again.

    Sorry, I got distracted by coffee. Tea. Whether you’re in a tent beside some roadworks in the pouring rain, or taking elevenses with and Ango-Irish duchess in the drawing room, tea is the one drink that never fails to elicit a little mantra when the steaming elixir is poured:

    “Ooooh, lovely.”

    Tea

    Cartoon from Natalie Dee

    *Yeah OK, so I was born in Christchurch. But my British passport is available for inspection when necessary.