Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Les Halles

What is it about those places where you just feel at home?

You know, the kind of place that's "comfortable." That feels like you belong. Thomas Keller once wrote:

I felt as if I'd been there already, knew the place in my bones, as if the bistro were already a part of me before I was conscious of it, and that by stepping into one, I simply engaged a part of myself that had always been there but until that moment was dormant.

I couldn't have said it any better.

Because that's how I felt the first time I arrived at Washington D.C.'s Brasserie Les Halles.

Maybe it's the tin ceilings, the dark wood, the tobacco patina on the walls. Maybe it's the ice cubes in the urinals, or the humidor of Paul Garmirian cigars. Maybe it's the denim shirts on the waitstaff or the al fresco dining area. Maybe it's all those things combined with some very tasty food.

Les Halles may sound familiar to some of you, the New York restaurant is the home of now celebrity chef Tony Bourdain and one of the focal points in his bestseller Kitchen Confidential. But that's neither here nor there.

My first experience with Les Halles was back in 2002, just after Peter Gunn had opened the eponymous Adam Leaf & Bean tobacco shop. We were invited to attend a cigar dinner at Les Halles hosted by Paul Garmirian. I had heard about Les Halles and their reputation for pommes frites so when they called with the invitation, it was a no brainer. Dinner and cigars and the same time with steak and french fries? I was in and I didn't need to hear anymore about it.

I don't remember too much about that evening other than the cigars were excellent, the wines were flowing and it was steak frites and then more frites on top of the frites, and a very sharp waitress named Aicha.

Since that time, I've been to Les Halles on a somewhat regular basis. Usually monthly, sometimes weekly and, occasionally, more than once a week. In the beginning it was Steak Frites and some Macaroni and Cheese, then I discovered the Onglet a L'echalote, then the moules, then the cassoulet, then the onion soup, then the merguez, then the steak tartare, then the chocroute, then the steak aux poive, then the escargot, then the pate de campagne - in all, we've probably tried just about every item on Les Halles menu.

The question comes up - is it the "best" food available? Probably not. It's not expensive to eat there. The food is standard French workman's food. There's very little of the haute cuisine you'd find in those fancy French restaurants. The plating isn't wild, just relatively simple food prepared in a simple manner. But gosh is it good.

Sad to say that while I've tried most everything on the menu, I had never tried the Confit de Canard.

By now, I've been to a few other French bistros. Places like the old Aud Pied du Cochon, La Madeleine, Marche, La Chaumiere, Petit Louis and Bouchon, but there's no place like home. There's no place like Les Halles.

Food and Bloating in Las Vegas

Vegas. I used to think it was a weird place that I would never like. It was that odd pit stop on the way to Edmondton after being taken down in the California desert by the BATF and DEA. It was the place I saw Wayne Newton in concert. It was never a place I thought I would find interesting.

My how times change. For the past year I've been exploring Vegas and some of the things it has to offer. I've come up with a triumvirate of must eat places for my trips out there and now I'm sharing them with you.

First off, there's KJ Kitchen on Spring Mountain Road. At first, most people think it's in the megaplex that looks like China's Forbidden City but it's not. It's down the street a ways and it's got to be one of the best damn Chinese seafood joints I've been to in the United States. The patrons are mostly Chinese (and in-the-know Filipinos), the menus are in Chinese and the staff is Chinese. There's a big fish tank filled with live seafood for your choosing. The "don't miss this" dish is the wok fried dungeness crab - don't know what it's really called, we just find a way to communicate with the staff for what we want.

The crab is chopped up and dredged in what must be corn starch with salt pepper, garlic, onion and jalapeno peppers. Whatever it is, it's fucking insanely good. It's the best goddamned crab I've ever had. The flavor pops. It's so good, I DREAM about it.

I've tried a bunch of other dishes and they're always excellent, but it's the crab that does it for me. Set me up with the crab and a bowl of steamed rice and I'm good to go.

The Cho took us to his favorite seafood restaurant in Boston's Chinatown where we ordered the fried crab and it was lifeless in comparison.

Holy crap, there's only one dish that you must have at Firefly on Paradise and it's the Stuffed Dates. Bacon-wrapped with smoked almond, red wine reduction and bleu cheese - oh my God, it's The Bomb. Order four, just in case.

The rest of the menu is top-notch tapas fare but it's the dates that you kill for.

Nestled in a predominantly Korean stip mall shopping center on Sahara not too far from Maryland Parkway is the very non-descript Lotus of Siam. It's a cheap looking place with cheap looking chairs and cheap-looking tables. And while you can dine at The Venetian's Bouchon with expensive surroundings and expensive food, here you get cheap surroundings, Thai servers and some of the most rockin' Thai food I've had outside of Thailand.

I've had nothing less than stellar at Lotus but the one thing you must order is the Plar Laad Prik. Imagine a whole pomplano fish that's been scored, rubbed with seasoning and deep fried until the outside is crispy and the insides are moist and tender. Jesus, it's fucking unbelievable. Now serve that with fresh chilis and a garlic sauce and it's beyond description.

I took my brother Al, his wife Polly, Nessa and The Rod the last time we were in Vegas and we tore that fish up. Nothing was left. It's suck the head and eyeballs good. So good, I'm shaking as I write this, wishing that there was a Thai place in Baltimore that measured up to this.

Other Places
Of course, these aren't the only places to eat in Vegas. In Vegas, you could easily spend over $700 on a meal for two at the posh and famous eateries run by celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, Emeril Lagasse, Alain Ducasse and a host of others. But you needn't go further than the places I mentioned above for some truly soul-enriching meals.

Outside of those, there are a couple of other places in Vegas close to my heart, like the late-night eating at Roberto's Tacos, or the local Hawaiian food at L&L Hawaiian BBQ or Ohana Hawaiian BBQ. Then there's the strange 24/7 old school style Becker's Steakhouse where you can order big rib eyes, mashed potatoes and cabernets at 8am. And of course, there's the cheap eats at Main Street Station and the California Hotel, with their Hawaiian-style Oxtail Soup and 20x Odds craps tables.

Next time you're planning to go to Vegas, call me and get ready for that fried pomplano fish.

Getting Schooled

Every once in a while, each of us succumbs to our own personal desires. To be the Mack Daddy. To be the pimp. To be the hustler. To be the gourmand.

I've spent the last couple of years reading, reviewing and testing recipes from the tomes of Thomas Keller (The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon), Anthony Bourdain (The Les Halles Cookbook) and have successfully completed a number of their recipes, as well as lots of meals on my own, cooked with chef friends and brief stints at institutional size cooking. My delusion doesn't include my knifework (which is atrociously poor) or a depth of knowledge equal to Keller. Just a decent ability to cook just about anything.

To keep myself growing, I've been buying books to read and help expand my knowledge base. After waiting several weeks, the bible of the cooking world finally arrived today: Escoffier's Le Guide de Culinaire in the English translation by Cracknell and Kaufmann. It's what I've been waiting for. The herald to a new level of culinary excellence and understanding. I was excited to pour through the book and get cracking.

I got schooled.

If you're like me, nothing prepares you for this book. Escoffier presumes the reader has a certain level of understanding and experience in order to tackle the thousands of recipes he has to offer. This is serious. This is old school. Things like Poulard Parame, Ecrevisses a la Bordelaise and Merlans en Lorgnette au Gratin. Jesus, I don't know if I'm up for this but I'm gonna try.

Reading The Guide is like swimming - without a firm grasp of swimmings' fundamentals. I'll give it a go but I'll probably end up flailing about and producing results like my first attempt at Pancit Bihon in 1988 (not a pretty picture and a story for another day).

Looks like I'm going swimming tonight...