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.

Paris Dispatch

Well, I’ve arrived in Paris, and am coping with a 10 degree difference in daytime temperature (17C in Paris, 27C in Montpellier). Grey skies and rain are things that I really haven’t seen for 9 months. But overall, it’s going well, even if I haven’t been north of the Seine yet.

It’s good to know that reasonable price food and veg is still available, even here in Paris. I ran down to the marché Villemain (Wednesdays and Sundays on rue d’Alésia in the 14th arrondissement) and picked up the following for EUR4.70:

Red and green peppers, courgettes, muscat grapes, onions and mushrooms, all origine française according to the blackboards. The market can’t compete with the Marché des Arceaux in Montpellier, where you can buy direct from the producers, and one gets the impression that Parisian markets are a little more insulated from seasonality, but at least the marchands were all friendly. I just wish there had been a cheese stall – I could have done with a nice slice of cantal for sandwiches and dessert.

I’m also discovering some unique joys of apartment-hunting in Paris. This afternoon I arrived a little early at a property I was looking at. Hanging around outside, I noticed every few minutes a tourist would come past and take a photo of a rather run-down and graffiti-covered building across the street.

Eventually, the estate agent zoomed up on his scooter (it’s Paris, you really think he’d arrive by car?) and parked on the pavement. He pointed across the road at the colourful wall. “See that place? Don’t worry monsieur, it’s not a squat. It’s just Serge Gainsbourg’s house.”

Bienvenue à Paris.

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.

Frogs’ Legs

Last night at dinner in Mauguio, the aperitif included ravioli réunionnaises, and frogs’ legs:

Although anglo-saxon stereotypes would hold that French people eat cuisses de grenouille (and equally slimy escargots) all the time, this simply isn’t true. A particular speciality of the lyonnais, frogs legs aren’t something that appears on the table very often. However it was inevitable that they would cross my plate at some point while I am living in France.

The verdict – sautéed in oil with herbs and vegetables and possibly some gros sel, frogs legs taste of very little at all. The texture of the flesh is very similar to scallops, and they’re full of little thighbones.  They aren’t unpleasant, but I’m not going to rush out and buy some myself to cook for lunch…

Etnobofin’s Guide to Eating in Oxford

If you avoid the 16 licensed kebab vans that appear nightly in the centre of town, there are some really good places to eat out in Oxford. Before I move to another city and forget them all, here’s a list of favoruite Oxford restaurants, mostly for my future reference, but it may be useful to any readers who visit sometime:

Al- Shami: an unusual location for a Lebanese restaurant – opposite the synagogue, in a residential street in Jericho. Great food, reasonable prices, lots of vegetarian options, always full.

Aziz: Beside Folly Bridge. Upper range dishes from the subcontinent, with a terrace overlooking the Isis

Chiang Mai Kitchen: Kemp Hall Passage, off the High. If you think that eating Thai food in 16th century Elizabethan townhouse is too bizarre, you’ll be won over by the food. Book to ensure a table!

Chutneys: Cnr New Inn Hall Street and St Michael’s Street. Good Indian place with great vegetarian options, although it often seems overrun by students from St Peters and Brasenose Annexe.

Edamame: Of all Oxford’s secret corners, Edamame is one worth discovering! By far the best Japanese restaurant in the city, Edamame also has the strangest opening hours. So count yourself lucky if you manage to arrive when it’s open and when there’s a table free.  Go on Thursdays out of term for sushi night – delicious!

Jamie’s Italian: George Street. Jamie Oliver’s new Italian restaurant. Excellent Italian food at very good prices. No reservations – turn up and queue. The perfect venue for a thirtieth birthday party!

Qumins: St Clements. Hands down the best Indian place in town, a short walk south of Magdalen Bridge. Great place to burn the tongues off American visitors.

The Gardener’s Arms: Plantation Road in Jericho. Down-to-earth pub that also happens to be Oxford’s best vegetarian restaurant, but long waits for service on Sunday afternoons.

GBK: George Street. A little slice of Aotearoa. They serve Mac’s Gold and burgers, kiwis-style. This is all you need to know.

Mortons: Great takeaway sandwiches. They have three outlets in town, in the Covered Markets, on New Inn Hall Street and on the Broad opposite Trinity College

Noodle Bar: Gloucester Green. Cheapest good eating in town. Fast service, and always full of everybody.

Anchor Inn:  unpretentious pub restaurant at the north end of Jericho, at the end of a nice evening walk up the canal – very popular and good food.

Next post: The Pub Guide

Update 13.9.2008: Added Edamame after Mari pointed out that I had missed it out!

Wellington

Wellington

Of the all cities in New Zealand, I think Wellington is the one that has “got it together”. I’ve never been fortunate enough to live there, but every visit is enjoyable. It’s home to some great bands (not least among them OdESSA and Fat Freddy’s Drop), has public transport that actually works, and the downtown area is compact and walkable.

Lyall Bay

Indeed, the city is small enough that even visitors like me randomly bump into people that they know on the street. This time, it was outside Te Papa that I ran into Paddy, the first keyboard player in one million dollars. He seems to be doing well for himself these days.

Breakfast

You can eat very well in Wellington. There’s some great restaurants and cafes, all within walking distance. This time I only had 24 hours in town, but I managed dinner at Chow and a big cooked breakfast with Ben at Maranui Surf Club in Lyall Bay.

Luckily, the Wellingtonians don’t seem to suffer from this surfeit of super food. The city is full of hills, so everyone can keep fit. Like San Francisco or Hong Kong, some streets are so steep that they have been turned into flights of steps. Even the cats have to stop halfway up to catch their breath and admire the view.

Cat

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.