Thursday, January 31, 2008

Living with Lychees

A little reading and a little refreshment in Paris.

Yesterday during my shopping, I picked up 0.180Kg of lychees for 0,45euro. I somehow doubt they're locally grown, but this is the Global Economy and I'm doing my share. Besides, I love lychees.

When I was young, Lychees were a special treat. Something my parents would let us have on rare occasion - straight out of the can. Other times, it would be in that Filipino fruit salad served at parties. I would stand there, picking out the lychees from amongst the canned cherries, canned peaches and whatever else was floating in that syrupy liquid. Every blue moon,they would land some frozen fresh lychees that we would keep in the freezer, peel and eat the icy cold sweet meat. It was heavenly.

Later in life, I moved to Hawaii and met a girl who lived in Wahiawa whose family owned a lychee (as in "lie-chee" and not the "lee-chee" pronunciation I had always used). The lychee tree bears fruit every two years, and every other year she would give me paper grocery bags full of fresh lychee fruit.

As I sit here in my Paris flat (read:hotelroom) on this cold, rainy night eating fresh lychees imported from who-knows-where, it dawns on me that maybe I don't really like eating fresh lychees...

First of all, you have to peel them. That takes patience, dexterity and time. Wedge off the top nub that was, at one time, connected to the branch, then work a fingernail under the skin and start peeling. A few tears here and there, and then maybe you can work half the shell off. Pop it in the mouth and the flavor ranges from sweet to medium. It's rewarding, but then it might not be.

Then you have to deal with the thick underskin that layers between the sweet pulpy meat that you want and the big seed that you don't want. That underskin takes all the fun away and you have to work around it. Slowly, you lightly chew and suck and chew and suck some more - always being careful not to break through and have the tannins and the bitters come through from the seed.

As you work, your fingers are getting wet and sticky, then you have to wash your hands and keep paper towels handy. It's really quite a pain. Really.

I've realized that canned lychees have fresh lychees beat, hands down.

Somewhere, out there, perhaps in Southeast Asia, or in China, a group of low paid workers have diligently picked, skinned and shucked the lychees for you - by the millions. Then these people doing God's Work can that lychee fruit in a sweet syrup and ship those cans to your neighborhood market so that, one day, you can just pull it off the shelf and go to town.

Open that can and you've got lychees galore. No mess. No fuss. No muss. Lychee Martini? Toss a fruit in the glass. Make it dirty? Pour some of the syrup in too. Add the syrup to just about anything. Boil it down for a reduction. Blend it all with some ice for a refreshing shake. Mash it down and add water for a refresco. The possibilities are endless.

But my favorite way is straight outta the can. Just take the whole can and put it in the freezer for an hour or two. It's okay, there's enough sugar in there to prevent it from freezing solid. Once the lychee is icy cold, take it out, open it up and start eating.

First that icy cold fruit hits the mouth, numbing it slightly. Chew, let it come up in temperature and you'll taste the flavor as it develops. Ahhhh, refreshing. Especially on a hot, humid summer day.

I'm sure someone in Paris has a can for sale somewhere...

Robert et Louise

A la carte et Robert et Louise.

Not too far from Soluna Cafes is Robert et Louise, a recommendation by Juan Miguel, who says he goes there "with my friends every time I was in Paris." Juan Miguel knows good food, so I decide to give it a try.

It's cold in Paris but now it's getting windy. Ugh. I've got a long-sleeve zippered turtleneck Patagonia Capilene undershirt, a cotton Polo t-shirt, a Columbia Titanuim jacket and a Marmot fleece vest and I'm still cold. Not freezing, but cold. Comfortable - until the wind gusts. And it's gusting something fierce.

I make my way up rue Vielle du Temple and find Robert et Louise to occupy a small and very old space. Wood frontage, wood timbers support the floor above, the old wood bar is rustic and features old granite work surfaces behind the bar, old photos line the walls and the place is jam-packed full of hungry eaters.

They really are cooking in that fireplace.

From the outside, the place looks old, almost unremarkable. But once I stepped in and spied the gay couple sharing a wood-fired Cote du Beouf, I knew that Juan Manuel had steered me in the right direction.

The food here just looked hearty. And meaty. And delicious. Everywhere you turned, there were people jammed in just looking absolutely delighted with their meal. Happy faces. Fulfilled faces. Amazing.

The place can seat maybe twenty-five people comfortably. There were about thirty when I walked in and was offered a seat at the end of the bar, which would become my little outpost in what was to become an extremely crowded tiny restaurant.

Fresh Sausages from the fire.

One of the most amazing things for me was the real, old world fireplace where they were actually cooking the food over a live wood fire. Immense! I was totally stoked. You just don't see that kind of cooking in America. Not in a wood fireplace older than America itself, at least. Big wow factor there and not something I can just buy from JB Prince.

I decided to start with the Saucisse Fraiche for six euros. Long and thin, these were cooked and charred over the fire. The flavor was spectacular. Just the right texture, spice and slightly salty. Paired with the bread and the two struck the perfect balance. I could have eaten two orders.

In fact, I should have ordered it twice!

Confit de Canard Maison et pommes sautees et salade.

There are times when you just know that you should have chosen something else. Those times when you know that you have chosen poorly. The fire, the other customers' dishes, the signs were clear: this is the place for beef.

Even Juan Miguel in a text message later wrote:

"The confit is good. I've ordered the rib steak and it was only for me...I say go for it and order the massive meat. Let them look at you like you're crazy...they did when I ordered it. Plus you get to eat it on a cutting board."

The menu said it all: Cote du Beouf for two: E40. For Three: E60.

Juan Manuel is a smaller man than me. Comparatively speaking, he's downright petit. It's one thing for a petit man to order the rib steak than it is for a man such as myself to order the same. I didn't want to seem starving, so I decided to go with the Confit de Canard which, seemed to be an "appropriate" dish to order for myself.

Except that duck does not have the soul-satisfying power that beef possesses. Nothing can touch it. Except steamed white rice. But that only intensifies its' power.

No "and", "if" or "but" about it: on this night, I had chosen poorly.

Preparing espresso and preparing my bill.

That's not to say that the duck confit was not good. It most certainly was excellent. Just the beautifully soft and silky texture I would expect to find in a French-made confit. But it wasn't the beef and that choice would dog me throughout.

Of course, I rationaled it by thinking that I would stop by Chez Pierrot later to try his blanquette du veau, but it wasn't enough.

The confit was lovely. Just the right texture and everything was falling off the bone. Add a little sea salt and it was delicious and looked just beautiful. Paired with the sauteed potatoes and just delicious. The only thing I wanted to change was the texture of the skin. I prefer my confit skin to be crisped. The skin at Robert et Louise was just flimsy and oily. If it was crisped, it would have been perfect in my book.

I was full, but my mouth and tastebuds still yearned for the wood-fired beef.

The Bill.

I'm finding this whole dining in Paris thing to be quite expensive. I've been eating out every night and I'm still programmed into a "dollar" way of thinking. I see "28,00" and I think "twenty eight dollars," not "twenty eight euros." Back home, a nice meal for twenty-eight dollars is not too bad. But a meal for forty-one dollars is starting to push it. I can't go out eating every night spending that and more.

And God knows how much L'Arpege is really going to cost me.

The other side of this is that "forty-one dollars" means "forty-one dollars" - everything is included. No need to sit around thinking about tip or service charge. No more calculating. No more trying to evaluate the service and tip accordingly. No more nonsense. It's just, "here's the bill and this is how much you pay."

I like this system much better.

Amor de Lejos, Amor de Pendejos

Back on the streets of 7th Arrondissement, I decide that now is the time to make my move on that cute girl I saw working at the grocery store last night. On the way to Chez l'Ami Jean, I saw that she was working again and now is my chance.

But first, I need a reason to be in the store. Need to make it look like a spontaneous and serendipitous moment, plus the line is kinda long. The hard part is to find some items that seem sensible for me to buy, or items that make me seem normal, but interesting. This means the Savon de Douche would send the wrong message.

It's pretty tought to find some good items. Maybe I should just grab a Twix bar and be done with it, but that's not classy enough. How about some absinthe? No, alcoholism might be the wrong signal too. Shelf-stable lasagna? No. Yogurt? Maybe. Champagne, fruits and honey? Hmmm, now we're giving the right signals. And toss in a box of Michel Cluziel chocolate for good measure.

With my loot in tow, I make my way to the line. It's still kinda long (these French take grocery shopping pretty darn seriously - even at 2:15 in the afternoon) and I'm practicing my opening lines in French:

Bonjour. Ah, tou me fais penser a quelqu'un que jais connais. C'est beau, non? J'aimerais bien voir un film. Tu voudrais aller? D'accord! Je viendrai te chercher a sept heures. Tu as un beaux yeux. Tu veux entrer un instant? D'accord.

Which means:

Hello. Ah, you look like someone I know. (pointing at whatever is handy) That's beautiful, isn't it? I feel like going to a movie. Would you like to go? Great! I'll pick you up at seven. You have beautiful eyes. Would you like to come inside for a while? Excellent."

Happily, the line is shorter now, but then disaster strikes. The line is shorter but the girl at the register is different! Bloody hell! My girl has gone on break and I didn't even know it. I could have intercepted her somewhere else. I don't see her around anywhere. Now I have to dump all this stuff. Crap.

So much for the honey and champagne.

A cup of the Kenya Gethwimbini at Soluna Cafes.

I'm really doing not much of anything during this trip to Paris. I've found a local tackle shop selling Laguiole pocket knives with a corkscrew. They range from 58 to 79 euros and I'm slowly convincing myself that I need one. Everyday, on the way to the Tour de Maubourg Metro, I spy through the plate glass window inspecting the wares. Maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I'm back to wandering the streets and it's almost three o'clock. I suck at being a normal tourist hellbent on seeing everything that must be seen. For me, the "must see" things on this trip are: food and women. Unfortunately, I'm doing a lot of the former and none of the latter.

Already, I'm starting to develop patterns. Into the Metro to the Concorde station, switch to the 8 line and to St. Paul Station and the hear of Marais. I wander around again and ponder the need to purchase Absinthe. It's illegal in the United States and that fact alone makes it worthwhile. Absinthe has the reputation of driving men to insanity and death - but I'm not scared, I've been eating commercial beef and poultry most of my life. And that's worse.

The Samiac roaster at Soluna.

Once again I find myself at Soluna Cafes where Victor and Cristina are discussing potential items for a potential new menu. It's nice to be in a foreign city and having a place to call home. That's what Soluna Cafes has become in just a short period of time.

Cristina is the cute Guatemalan daughter of the owners, studying at The Sorbonne and trying to decide if they should add salads and plat du jours to their lineup. Victor knows I've got The Spro back home and they want to know what I think.

It's tricky offering advice in these kinds of situations. Coffee is one business. Food is adding a whole realm of logistics that most coffee operators just aren't ready for. Soluna Cafes is a serious coffee shop and after going through a series of questions, I drill it down to the most basic of them all: if you sell the amount of servings that you realistically think you will sell, will it be worth it? Only they can answer that question.

I'm thinking that I'll stop by Soluna for a coffee and then head to Montmartre to see Amelie's hangouts and then to Pigalle to see the seedy side of Paris. Maybe take in a peep show or two. Buy a little love for an hour.

But as with any time that I don't have a solid schedule to adhere to, I get diverted. What was going to be a brief visit at Soluna, turned into an entire evening of hanging out with Victor talking coffee, talking shop, talking gossip and waxing poetic on The Nature of Love.

It was Victor who told me the old Mexican saying: Amor de lejos, Amor de pendejos - the long distance love is the love of idiots.

How poignant indeed.

Chez l'Ami Jean

Getting molecular with the Creme de Lentille du Puy.

I got out of bed a bit earlier today and left the room around 12:45pm. I think the chambermaid is getting used to my schedule.

Strange as it may sound, finding a bistro to eat in Paris is a bit difficult. Sure, there are tons of them on every block and around the corner, but finding the great ones amongst the average is the hard part.

I heard about Chez l'Ami Jean on the Internet. I know it's risky taking advice from bloggers (go figure) whom you are not familiar with, but Ami Jean was just a couple of blocks away and the guy raved how he's been going there for years, and it's Basque, and the chef takes a molecular approach - so, I thought I'd give it a try.

Here comes the actual soup part.

It seems that Parisians don't really eat until after 1pm, so I was able to get a table pretty quickly, but half an hour later, the place was packed. The menu here changes daily and it's all in French, so it took me a little while to decipher it all. The Lentil Soup and Roasted Duck Breast seemed to be good choices, although the skate and rabbit sounded pretty tasty as well.

The lentil soup comes in two parts: first, the big, white bowl with the "croutons," ciboulettes et lards. It's all prettily arranged on the plate but since the server didn't tell me anything about the course, how am I supposed to know what's going on? So I start eating.

He then comes up and tells me in an exasperated French that I need to wait for the soup!

Finally, the soup comes in a pitcher and he pours it over the stuff and we're off to the races. The pitcher stays at the table and I refill the bowl as necessary. The soup is good, tasty and seasoned just right. I don't need anything else for it because it's on the money. The only problem is that it's on the runny side. I wish it were more viscous. It's so thin that I wish I could pour it into a mug and slug it down.

Magret de Canard Gras Travaille en 2 Cuissons, Roti Sur la Peau et Tranche.

The restaurant itself is old French. Wood walls, old floors, old ceilings, old bar, old tables - this place is straight out of Hemingway and it looks like it was built before Hemingway. I state this because the food is in stark contrast to this place. Sure, these dishes are classic French, but the presentation is quite modern and very "small plate" in style.

When it arrives, the uninitiated might mistake the meat on my plate for beef. It's brown on the outside and seriously (almost violently) red on the inside: a perfect medium-rare. But this is duck breast, my friend. Not too fatty, but with a slightly tough texture and a bit of flavor that's helped along by a liberal dosing of salt to make it pop. The duck is really wonderful. You'd almost think you were eating beef. It may look like beef, cut like beef and bleed like beef, but it quacks like a duck.

The duck is topped with two very thin slices of bacon and some roasted potatoes. Alongside the duck is a carrot puree with dried, paper-thin sausage and a side of very buttery mashed potatoes. They're both a lovely accompaniment to the duck and the carrot flavor really stands out. It's bright and delightfully sweet.

The accompanying mashed potatoes and carrots.

I've decided to pass on dessert and my waiter can't believe it. Maybe the French always have dessert, but not this American. I've had too much to eat already. Disappointed, he drops off the check and I'm out the door scouting the Parisian landscape.

Chez l'Ami Jean
27, rue Malar
75007 Paris
01 47 05 86 89

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Before I left for Europe, I asked Spike what places I should hit in Paris. L'Arpege was on the short list. It's a good thing that the list was short because L'Arpege is crazy expensive. And red meat free...

I shot a series of images during my three hour dinner here, so I'll be back later with the images and full report. But for now, here's the menu for the evening:

Cuisine choisie 420E

Oeuf a la coque
quatre epices

Nacre de coquillage a la truffle noire

Couleur, saveur, parfum et dessin du jardin
cueillette ephemere

Foie Gras de canard de la Madeleine de Nonancourt
pays d'Avre et d'Iton

Robes de champs multicolores "Arlequin"
salsifis, carotte white satin, navet atlantic, betterave tonda di chioggia

Aiguillettes de homard de Chausey a la truffle noire

Authentique volaille de nos regions
terr de l'Hiver

Comte millesime "Grande Garde" Automne 2003
truffle noire

Desert de l'Hiver

3 macarons du jardin

Arpege - Maison de Cuisine
84, rue de Varenne
75007 Paris
01 47 05 09 06

Paris, Day Two

Ham and Cheese Croissant on the way to the Postal.

It seems that I cannot get out of my flat (read:hotel) before noon. Some people on vacances like to set out early because there's a ton of things to do and see in this city. Me? I could care less.

One thing I'm determined to do is enjoy a holiday much like I had at the end of 2004 in Hawaii. Stuck on O'ahu the week between Christmas and New Year's with none of my vendors really wanting to do business, Jay's Shave Ice shut down for Christmas break and no way to do any real work, left me sitting around The Porn King's house for a week with, literally, nothing to do. It was one of the finest weeks of my life.

With that in mind, I'm determined not to leave or get out of bed or do anything of any urgency this week while in Paris. The lady wants to service the room? Well, she better service me as well or come back later.

An afternoon snack from La Tarte Tropenzienne.

I finally hit the streets just after 1pm. The Little Black Book of Paris, my trusted companion so far, has finally earned my ire. At its' suggestion, I decided not to change my dollars into euros at Charles DeGaulle Airport because the exchange would be better in the city.

It's an absolute Pain In The Ass to exchange money in the city.

At the suggestion of my hotel people, I walked several blocks to the post office and waited in line for half an hour (after a quick ham and cheese breakfast croissant) only to be told that their rate pretty much sucks. For my US$400, they would only give me E235. A quick iPhone reference showed that the exchange should be E270. I might try the Air France office by Metro Invalides on the other side of the Plaza de Invalides. I hike all the way there through the rain and cold. The rain wasn't bad because I visioned myself the honest romantic, crossing endless terrain, great fjords and torrential rains to rescue my "true love."

Of course, I'm just trying to get money with the hope of buying hookers. And booze.

I arrive at the Air France office only to be told that they don't do that there and that I can find exchange places on the rue Saint Dominique. That's the street I've been shopping on and I haven't seen any kind of money exchange place, but I forge ahead thinking that maybe I missed something.

I haven't and end up at the sister hotel: Best Wester Eiffel Park and ask the guy there. "There's a money exchange a couple doors down," he tells me. That's not a money exchange, that's a bank, guey! Stumped. He doesn't know either but suggests that there might be something along the Seine.

While I'm all for strolling along the Seine, imagining myself to be some sort of suave James Bond, I'm not going to continue this hike in the cold rain. It's time to do what I've been trying to avoid doing all afternoon: head to Tuileries.

The table setting at Angelina.

Tuileries is the Metro stop on the other side of the Seine. It's not far, but it's not close either. Inconvenient since I don't want to leave my neighborhood. The Little Black Book recommends a place there called MultiChange. I call them up, check the rate and head on over.

The Tuileries metro stop places you right on the rue de Rivoli, which evidently is "tourist central" in Paris. It fronts The Lourve and it's lined with fancy hotels, fancy shops and overpriced everything designed for the tourist market. It's the kind of place that gives me the Heebie-Jeebies and I want to get outta there fast.

Directly across from The Metro is a money exchange. Looks kinda shady to me and when they tell me that my US$400 will get me E232, I know they're shady and I'm off to find MultiChange a couple blocks away on the rue de Castiglione.

On the way there, I spot Angelina - a popular dessert place that Coco recommended I visit. I make a note to go back and check it out right away, since I don't ever want to come back to this place again.

The problem with being from America in today's world is that our dollar sucks. Once upon a time, it was power to carry dollars. Now, we're getting hammered. Should have done more traveling when I was younger. Based on my experience at the Post Office and the other exchange, I'm going to be pissed if these guys offer about the same. I could have stayed home and used the Postal. MultiChange is giving me an exchange of E262 for my US$400. Victory at last! And now I have some pocket money to play with.

Le Mont Blanc at Angelina.

Angelina is an old school kind of place known for their hot chocolate and their Mont Blanc. They have a take out counter and table seating. The Mont Blanc is E4,50 at the counter and E6,70 at the table. I decide to go for the full experience and sit next to the fancy dressed dark haired women wearing plush furs, designer sunglasses (in the rain) and supple leather boots over their tightly clad legs.

The decor is that European Continental style: ornate everything. The staff is nicely dressed, everything is presented on China and it's straight out of James Bond. I just wish they took the time to polish the stemmed water glasses...

The hot chocolate is known as Le Chocolat a l'ancienne dis "l'Africain", French style for E6,80. It's rich, dark, bitter and generally pretty good. But is this truly remarkable hot chocolate that I will dream about and plot a return trip for another? Or sit around trying to figure out just what makes it "l'Africain"? I can't say that it is. It is good. Very good. And I like how they serve it in a small porcelain pot that you pour into the cup and then add as much unsweetened whipped cream as you desire. The key: don't put a lot of cream. Otherwise, it brings the temperature of the beverage down too much and it's not as enjoyable. I know.

Entrecote In A Bag.

The Mont Blanc is very sweet. There's a baked meringue bottom inside a cupcake wrapper that's filled with whipped cream and liberally covered with piped sweet chestnut cream. The description: meringue, chantilly legere, Vermicelles de creme de Marron sounds excellent, but I found it too sweet to pair with the hot chocolate. Too much sweetness competing with each other and never complimenting one another.

The ideal choice would have been a black tea. A counterpoint to the heavy sweetness that is the Mont Blanc. I can't say I enjoyed it tremendously because all I wanted to do was swig on the water to wash it all down and prevent sweetness overload.

Back on The Metro and back home to Invalides where it's time to do a little shopping. My dinner tonight at L'Arpege isn't until 8pm, maybe a quick snack of Ficelle and croissants from Le Moulin de la Vierge on rue Saint Dominique and then over to the G5 grocery store for some fresh lychees, toothpaste, bottle of water and a bottle of Coke.

Does this really say "Horse Meat"???

Whenever I visit other places, I'm fascinated by their markets. Just what wonderous things lie on their shelves? What can I bring home? What can I put in my mouth? Their meat packaging is quite interesting with pictures of the beef rather than the beef itself. I kinda like it. Unless, of course, the meat inside is black. That's not ideal.

I spot a package of meat labeled "Viande de Cheval Fraiche" which, I think means "Fresh Horse Meat." I'm fascinated. I'm horrified. They do this in France? Sacre bleu!

But really, I want to try it. I mean, it's only E3.80. That's horse puckey! I make a mental note to go back to the hotel and see if I can commandeer whatever kitchen they have available. Maybe I can make some horse steaks while here.

I can't help but wonder if I'll need some A-1...

Packaged food a la America.

Meandering through the aisles, I see something that both warms my heart and makes it colder still: processed foods. It's the bane of America and I see that it's coming here too. It's heart-warming to know that yes, even the French suck at cooking to the point they'll buy microwaveable foods, but heart wrenching because the craft of cooking is a dying art - even in France.

I want to shed a tear.

Milk and Eggs.

Still, there are vestiges of civilization that we have yet to embrace in America. Like our penchant for refrigerating everything, including eggs. Good to see the French still know how to store their eggs. Of course, their UHT milk leaves a lot to be desired (but there is fresh milk available in the refrigerated cases).

Next door to the grocery store is a foie gras place. I love this place. They've got canned foie gras, canned cassoulet, canned duck confit - heck, they've got everything you want to eat in a can and I need to shop there before I leave. I'm spying the foie gras confit in the glass jars.

On the way back to the flat, I pass another grocery store and notice the very cute half asian girl at the register. I want to go in and make American small talk and invite her for a stroll along the Seine, but she's lazily working the very long line of customers, so I make a mental note to stop by again tomorrow and see if I still have that "old magic."

Ficelle and Mini Croissants. Just a bit of butter and all is well.

Otherwise, it's back to the flat to drop off my purchases, relax awhile, change and get ready for what's sure to be a crazy dinner at L'Arpege.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Chez Pierrot

The surprise of the evening, the Egg "Meurette".

I lay the blame squarely on Spike Gjerde's shoulders for this debauchery. And while I should take responsibility for my own actions, I feel as though I'm being driven by a calling. A calling to sample as much as possible in the short time I have in this city of love. Unfortunately, I'm not talking about women, I'm talking about food. It's been several hours since my last meal and since Spike and I set the bar at three meals per night in New York City, I think two meals should be do-able.

Since last night, I've been walking past this little bistro here on rue Amelie. It's a cute and comfortable looking place that's run by a husband and wife team that must be what every chef dreams of - a small bistro where they can cook to their hearts' content. If I'm going to make a serious push for other restaurants later this week, then I'd better sample Chez Pierrot while I still can.

Like I said, I had been staring at their menu both last night and this morning. I decided to start off with Eggs "Meurette" for 7.80 euros, and then move onto the Celestine Chicken (a Lyonnaise specialty) for 15.30 euros.

Of course, I had no idea what a "Meurette" was all about, and since I knew what French Onion Soup and Smoked Salmon were all about, I decided to go with the unknown. The "Meurette" is basically a poached egg (with runny yolk), served in a beef and mushroom broth with toasted baguette rounds. Kinda like onion soup meets Fogghorn Legghorn. Bake that under a salamander until everything gets hot and serve.

It's tasty. The broth is rich of beef and red wine and just a tad salty. Mushrooms and beef chunks are floating in their and show up in spoonfuls. The egg white is well cooked and once you reach the yolk and it starts to "bleed" into the brown sauce, you can't help but to get excited and start digging in - hoping to spoon up the yolk and see how the flavors meld together (lovely).

Celestine Chicken - a bit overcooked.

Once finished, the chicken arrives. When I first sat down, the lady of the house recommended the beef - as that is their specialty. But I had beef earlier and wanted to try the chicken since it sounded so good, so I went for that instead. I should have gone for the beef.

Not that the chicken was bad. It was just, well, disappointing. I was expecting something revelatory. I got something that seemed more Italian. Deboned chicken breast and wing that was overcooked because it was pretty tough to cut into, layered over fettuccine noodles with a tomato, mushroom and bay leaf sauce. Nothing spectacular, and it was overcooked. Maybe it really is a Lyonnaise classic, but I was in the mood for something other than "Italian" tomato sauce based food.

Too much "chantilly" and too much chocolate sauce - can't believe I just wrote that.

Initially, I was going to hold off on dessert, but that resolve withered away and ordered the Coupe Chocolat Liegeois - Chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce with chantilly. In other words, a chocolate sundae without the cherry.

It was okay. Too much whipped cream and too much sauce, not enough ice cream. I mean, look at the size of that thing. There should be more ice cream in that sucker. A simple plate with the ice cream, a drizzle of sauce and a dollop of chantilly would have been enough. I think I left half the volume afterwards.

Overall, Chez Pierrot was okay. Decent food. Nice setting. Very nice people. You want to go back. Problem is, I didn't find the food that compelling. I mean, it was just myself and one other person and the chicken was overdone. I really want to like Chez Pierrot because I love to support small restaurants just like this, but I can't write that it was amazing and that's disappointing. Because I really wanted it to be amazing. I'm hoping it was just an off-night because the veal white sauce a la ancienne makes me want to try it one more time.

Chez Pierrot
9 rue Amelie
75007 Paris
0145 51 50 08

La Brasserie de l'Ile St-Louis

The Rosette de Lyon.

Strolling across the bridge onto the Isle St-Louis is wonderous sight to behold. The cathedral of Notre Dame in the distance and the revolving beacon from the Eiffel Tower crossing the skyline. How majestic. How nice of these French to build this all for my enjoyment.Merci.

After my visit with Victor at Soluna Cafes, I was feeling a bit over-caffeinated and quite hungry - having not eaten anything since this mornings' baguette and jamon iberico, so I made my way to La Brasserie de l'Ile St-Louis, as recommended by my guidebook: The Little Black Book of Paris.

I've never been one to put too much reliance on travel books but it finally dawned on my why we do. As with anything else, it's not always about finding "the best", it's about avoiding "the worst." With a guidebook recommendation, at least you know that someone else has been there and it must not have been that bad. And with a bewildering array of places to eat, like here in Paris, it really helps to have something help you cut through the noise.

Prior to Soluna Cafes, I came across a restaurant/bar called La Perla that served Mexican fare. Seems that I can always go for some Mexican (and I did need an afternoon snack), and their Enchiladas de Mole sounded tasty, but they weren't serving food until 7pm so that was that.

Pave de faux filet du limousin au poive vert

La Brasserie de l'Ile St-Louis is everything you expect when you think of "classic French brasserie." They've got the old floors, the old tables, the old tin ceilings with years and years of paint, the old everything - even a very huge, antique espresso machine like the one you see in the Tolouse Lautrec paintings. The waiters are old French guys who have been doing this for years and are truly "pros."

The special of the day is the Pave de faux filet du limousin au poive vert with pommes frites maison for twenty euros. I'll take that and and order of the Rosette de Lyon sausage for six euros to start.

I was expecting links, instead I got something that looked like salami. Not that it was bad. It just wasn't what I was expecting. Of course, it did state "Lyon Sausage" and if I actually knew what that meant, I would have known what to expect. Chalk that up to "Jay-Ignorance." Like salami, it was thinly sliced with a sheen of natural oils and a lightly salty flavor. Paired with the sourdough bread and the fiery moutard(mustard), and it was darn good eating - though the cornichon was soft and not crispy the way I prefer.

As the steak was coming, I decided to order a Coke as well. While most civilized people would prefer a wine, after a weekend in Moscow where it was non-stop drinking, I'm shying away from the alcohol this week. Just as well, because I really like Coke. There's something about that fizzy-ness and the sizzle of the phosphoric acid that just clears away fattiness. Coke cuts through most everything and as long as it doesn't have HFCS (like in America) then there's no aftertaste or heaviness on the tongue and coating your mouth. Bring it on, monsieur.

I had read through Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook that French beef and their cutting methodology was different than how we do it in America. I'm starting to see that. The meat was flavorful and tasty but lacked the marble that we see in most American beef. Of course, that could also be the hallmark of this particular cut and I'm waxing with more "Jay-Ignorance," but I did say that I am also a charlatan. Flavorful and beautifully cooked to a delightful medium, it was red throughout. The green pepper sauce was tasty and I started to see how our American "French Fries and Gravy" developed. Any sauce that was left was sopped up with the fries.

Speaking of which, unlike last nights' fries, these were quite good. And real. Real potatoes, blanched and then fried. They even got a bit soggy as they got colder - just the way nature intended.

The Brasserie so you can find your way.

I thought briefly about dessert, but then I had also read that the best ice cream in Paris was just a block away. Overall, the food was good. I'm starting to see what French food is all about. Last night was a pretty poor representation, but tonights' meal was definitely much better. Maybe it is time to start planning for at least one fancy meal here. It would be a shame not to, oui?

La Brasserie de l'Ile St-Louis
55 quai de Bourbon
4th Arrondissement Paris

Soluna Cafes

A cup of Guatemala and the FB-80.

After dilly-dallying all morning and most of the afternoon, I finally set off in search of Parisian Adventure around 4pm. One of the problems of being in the coffee business is that you can no longer drink just any old swill. I never liked coffee before I got into the business, so I learned coffee by drinking some of the best that the world has to offer. As such, I don't have an addiction to the stuff and only want to press my lips to the finest the world has to offer (and not just with coffee).

At the recommendation of some friends, I made my way across this big city to a little, tiny shop called Soluna Cafes, a stone's throw away from the river Seine. Ah, Paris!

At first glance, the front of the place shockingly reminds me of the Stumptown Annex in Portland, Oregon. There's a wall of coffees to the left, a center island counter and what looks to be a two kilo roaster made by Samiac on the right wall. The Samiac is interesting because there's no exhaust flue. The exhaust runs out of the roaster, into a large stainless box beneath it and then up to a stainless filter box - and that's it. No venting to the outside of the building - just fully self-contained. Impressive and I need to see it work.

Pass through the front room and into the back where the coffee-making magic happens. They've got a Rancilio espresso grinder and a new La Marzocco FB-80 espresso machine. For the espresso enthusiasts of the group, this usually means good news.

There's only one barista working the entire shop this afternoon. Victor, a Mexico City-born Chilean who's lived in Paris for seven years studying and making films has been a barista here for three months. He's enthusiastic, good-natured and energetically bouncing around serving me drinks, serving other people drinks, hosting a coffee tasting class and bagging whole bean coffees for more customers in the front room.

As I arrive, he's making fresh hibiscus tea and offers me a glass. It's cooled down a bit but the strong acidic character is there, although the rose (as in roh-zay) color is dramatically different than the blood red color I'm used to from Mexican hibiscus. Victor wants to know if I speak Spanish since it's his native tongue and it's easier than English. Unfortunately, I'm just another ignorant American in disguise and cannot accommodate his request.

Victor (on the right), holding a private coffee sensory class.

Evidently, the only brewing method here is espresso and they have a unique style that's very different than what I'm used to. He offers to let me behind the bar and pull shots but it's not my house and I hate doing things like that, so I decline. The coffee comes out fast and runs way into the blonde. The coffee (a Guatemala) is somewhat pleasant with some strong bitter notes. A later pull of India Monsoon Malabar is also on the harsh side.

Tastings like these make me wonder if perhaps this relatively new barista just hasn't completed the training, or if this is representative of their style. Still, it's the most promising coffee in Paris, everyone is friendly and enthusiastic - which counts for a tremendous amount in my book.

It's fun hanging out in a coffee shop that takes interest in pride in what they do. They source, roast and brew their own beans. They hold private coffee seminars for consumers - gosh, that's a great thing. Meanwhile, Victor is working with a couple who have come in as part of a tasting program that takes them to various boutiques across the city tasting and smelling a wide variety of specialties to develop their palate. He's got the Le Nez du Cafe aromatic kit out and then he's having them smell and identify the coffees and taste them as well.

When he's not doing that, he's talking to other customers about the different coffees they offer this week. How they're best prepared and what characteristics they should expect. He bags them up and they're out the door.

I think I've found a place to hang out this week.

Soluna Cafes
52, rue de l'Hotel de Ville
75004 Paris
33(1) 53 01 83 84

Oui Paris!

The Eiffel Tower from rue Saint-Dominique.

After a brush with certain bankruptcy, I've made my way to Paris and none too soon, I might add.

For my Parisian Fantasy, I've secured myself a flat (read: hotel room) on the rue Amelie (read: Best Western Eiffel Park) in the Invalides. I really didn't know what to expect from Paris since I've never been here before but my midnight walk around the neighborhood left me plenty excited. The Eiffel Tower is, literally, just a couple blocks away. You can see it on the street (I'm on the 2nd floor so all I can see is the couple across the street making love, but that's another story), you can see it just about wherever you walk in this area.

I don't know how the rest of Paris is but part of me can't envision myself leaving my neighborhood. Within a two block walk we've got everything from several boulangeries to a couple patisseries, an assortment of restaurants ranging from cheap Chinese to Japanese to Irish to bistro and even a Korean joint across the street. A supermarket is just across from the bakery and next door to the bakery is a place selling Iberico Ham from Spain. Not to mention a couple confectioners, a few laundromats, bars, shopping and even a Starbucks and Pizza Hut (with delivery).

One gets the feeling that he could camp out in this four block by four block area and have a great time.

Cutting Jamon Iberico at Bellota-Bellota.

It's tempting, but I do have a list of places to visit while here:

- Arpege
- Pierre Gagniere
- L'ouillad
- Pierre Herme
- Angelina
- Le Pichet

I spent my morning doing nothing in particular. Walked over to the laverie to wash my clothes (six euros) but couldn't figure out how to use the detergent dispenser. Hopefully I didn't sweat too much in Moscow. Walked to the boulangerie to pick up a baguette, went across the street to the supermarket for some butter, across the street again to Bellota-Bellota for a little Iberico Ham (10.24 euros - or 265 euros per kilo), back to the laundromat to dry the clothes, wait and then back to the room to lounge and eat a little something something.

Can you see the air space in that baguette? Tasty.

Not too long ago, I was asking some friends where I could get some really good baguettes in Baltimore. No one could recommend an authentic baguette. I thought I'd had good baguettes in America, but now I know better. The baguette here is tantalizing, amazing, light, airy and crisp. It's filled with air and what's not air is delightfully chewy goodness encased in a crusty, crispy crust. Slathered with butter and a slice of Iberico and "ah, magnifique!" I've never had a baguette until today.

Maybe I'll just stay put and lounge with my baguette and jamon.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Pungent and Fierce

Skirt steak and Frites.

Paris: The Grand Adventure in food.

It's my first night and first meal in Paris and I'm excited. I've eaten on the flights from Moscow but there's something about airplane food and flying that just throws everything helter skelter, so I'm back on the streets looking for some chow.

It's just past eleven p.m. and most places have just closed but the corner brasserie is still open for drinks and dining. I walk in, choose a table and the man sets me up with a table cloth and place settings - nice! The menu is simple brasserie food, just the way I like it. I fancy myself a man of French food so the Bavette d'Aloyau or skirt steak and french fries, is just up my alley. It's 200 grams of beef goodness coming my way and I can't wait.

This brasserie is a sports pub and after several minutes watching girls' wrestling and girls' karate championships (and who can't like cute girls wrestling with each other or beating each other silly?), my food arrives.

Suddenly, an unusual aroma hits my nose: the smell of livestock.

It's an unexpected odor. It's pungent and fierce. This beef smells like it came from the cattle pen. It's also thin, scraggily-looking and hard charred with grill marks. It's so thin, it's curling.

If this is the epitome of French Food then we might as well kill ourselves now.

But I'm a trooper and I'm determined to eat real, French brasserie food - just like the Parisians do. With Coke in hand, I get to work. The cutting is tough going and the meat is lifeless - no matter how much onion sauce I pour on. Even with a very generous hand of salt, the meat is still lame. And tough. Chew, chew, chew - it doesn't end. 200 grams suddenly seems like 2,000 pounds. I wanted to pass on the meat, but that's why I was here so I keep chew, chew, chewing.

At least the girls fighting each other on tv look pretty enticing. I start to wonder if there's co-ed wrestling and how I might join a class...

Then there are the fries. Again, if these were the definition of "Frites"<, I might as well kill myself by flinging my crying body into the Seine River and dying a ghastly, but romantic, death.

The fries are fucking frozen.

How do I know this? I know battered fries when they enter my mouth. They're crispy. Too crispy for fries of this color. They're crispy even as they cool. They're crispy when cold. Real Frites don't do that. Battered, frozen fries...

Paris is Burning.

It's not a total loss though (okay, maybe it is), the redeeming factor for this place is their fanaticism for rugby. Memorabilia is everywhere. A nod to the All Blacks, even a South Africa ball (boo, hiss) and lots of jerseys. It's something you don't see often in America.

At least I know where I can watch the Six Nations tournament this weekend...

Le Recrutement Cafe
36 rue de la Tour Maubourg
75007 Paris
01 47 05 46 85

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Privyet Moscow

I'm in Moscow this weekend attending the birthday celebration of my dear old friend Sukhathai. It's turning out to be a crazy weekend - although not too crazy in the single man sense since our group has plenty of wives and girlfriends in tow from around the world (not to mention that the prices for women here are astronomical).

It's a weekend of vodka (lots, lots and fucking lots of it), caviar (3 kilos), food and friendship with a film producer, the Governor of Siberia and 11 security agents.

I'll report back when I have time!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

per se

I know it's been well over a month since I ate here, but I had to have time to properly collect my thoughts and arrange the photographs. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and eat here for yourself.

Behind these doors lies something special.

This one has been a long-time coming.

per se.


Friends and readers of this blog know that I've been a fan of Thomas Keller for many years now. His philosophy and his approach resonate with me in ways that I don't fully comprehend. A thoughtful approach. That's something I can appreciate. It's something I desire to pursue.

After lots of talk, thwarted plans and just wasting time, I finally got around to securing a reservation at Keller's outpost in New York City, per se. I won't go into it here, but if you're interested in the history of per se and Keller, there have been many words crafted by writers better than myself who will serve you better.

The lounge. Jackets required.

As you may know, getting a reservation is tough business involving seemingly endless waits listening to telephone Muzak while the plastic of the cell phone causes your ear to sweat and the transmission slowly fries your brain. Obtaining a reservation requires commitment. To a sanitarium.

When I finally got through, I was informed that tables for two were sold out for the rest of the year but tables for four were available. I'll take one. When would you like to dine with us? I told the lady that I am open to any day and that I would only be coming to New York City to dine at per se, so everything hinged on their availability but during the week would be ideal.

The date was set: Monday, December 10, 2007 at 10pm.

I knew that Spike was up for it. Monday nights are typically "safe" nights for chefs to get out and about, so all we needed was two more people. Two more people for one of the worlds' most difficult reservations - shouldn't be too hard.

Boy, was I wrong about that one.

Those were two hardest seats I've ever tried to fill. By the time December 10th came around, the two I had lined up got stuck elsewhere in the world and Spike's restaurant was so slamming that he couldn't get away that night. With a hundred dollar deposit per seat, I was screwed.

Happily, the hostess rescheduled my reservation for Thursday, December 13th at 9:30pm and lowered the reservation to three - making my job filling those seats much easier. Old friend Tony said he would dine and we ended up dragging Kathleen, who was literally getting ready for bed, along with us. It was slightly stressful, but we had three.

The view of Columbus Circle from our table.

You hear different things about per se. Some people laud it, others talk about how it's located in a "mall" - the Time Warner Center. I guess it's true. It is in a mall - there's shopping downstairs but upstairs is filled with some of America's top restaurants.

The week prior to leaving, I read Pheobe Damrosch's chronicle of her life as a per se captain: Service Included. It was a good read and filled with little details about the restaurant and their approach. I made a mental note to ask our crew the square footage of Central Park, and to remember to let the staff know when I was going to the bathroom so my food didn't get cold.

I've toured The French Laundry and per se is hardly anything like TFL. It's sleek. It's modern. It's very different yet tasteful and comfortable. Compared to the dining room at TFL, per se seems cavernous - especially since there are only fifteen tables.

Upon arrival, we were invited to relax in the lounge. It's comfy as far as lounges go but I wasn't sure if they were prepping our table or us cooling our jets was part of the decompression from the "real world." When the moment of truth came, we were escorted to our table by the large window with a commanding view of Columbus Circle and 59th Street. From our warm environs, civilization below seemed, well, less civilized.

After setting us up with some water, we were presented with the Chef's Tasting Menu, the Tasting of Vegetables and Wine Menu. I really don't need to see the former, I can do with out the second and I'm pretty much inept with the latter, so I took a quick glance and let our captain know that there was nothing I wasn't willing to consume and the Tasting Menu would be fine, as well as some wine recommendations.

The tasting menu is standardized at $250 per person but you can easily surpass this with the "supplemental courses" and your choice of libations. For our menu, there were two supplements: a white truffle risotto for an additional $150 and a foie gras course for an additional $45 - I will take them both, thank you very much. Kathleen decided to go with the truffles while Tony decided to add the foie.

Gruyere cheese amuse bouche.

As I alluded to earlier, I'm really quite hapless when it comes to wine. Once upon a time, I used to fancy myself a wine-lover, but I've come to realize these past couple of years that I know next to nothing about wine and have come to rely on others to choose wisely. Our sommelier came out, realized that perhaps people of our financial means are not the ideal candidates for the 1951 Chateau La Tour and recommended alternatives.

We would start out with a round of champagne to compliment the first course "Oysters and Pearls" and from there branch out with the 2005 Lucia Chardonnay and then on to the 2002 Sequiom Cabernet Napa Valley, both would turn out to be wonderful choices filled with flavor and complexity.

Prior to coming to per se, I always thought that staff in restaurants of this caliber would maintain a certain level of decorum. A stiffness perhaps. Maybe a bit of stuffiness and heavy formality. I certainly wasn't prepared for the somewhat casual and nearly flippant demeanor of Michael, our captain.

I can't remember precisely what happened that caused me to think this but I must have stated or asked something and his response to me seemed almost flippant. Considering that the most I expected staff at per se to say was "yes, sir" or "no, sir", I was shocked. I thought about saying something but thought better of it. I decided to see how things played out.

Salmon Cornets amuse bouche.

As the evening wore on, I realized that this was his style. It wasn't flippant but rather comfortable. There was no arrogance or pretense, he was just tailoring his approach to our tables' demeanor. I don't know why I let the head trash of expected service get the better of me.

We were the casual table of the evening. Just some friends out on the town not trying to impress anyone. It was our casual and relaxed attitude he was responding to and it fit brilliantly as we found our groove and talked about ourselves, business and Pheobe's book. There was even a moment of celebrity thrill when it came out that Michael was featured in the book. He was the Michael who wrangled Keller out of the kitchen when it was on fire and he was the same Michael who wrangled Pheobe into his backserver for Frank Bruni's first visit. If I had my copy of the book, I would have asked him to autograph it.

Within the USBC (that's United States Barista Championship), there's always tales of "five star" or "fine dining" service. The USBC promotes a stodgy, stiff and boring level of service that is just ghastly. Here I was, at one of the top restaurants in the world and the service was friendly and affable. Something is amiss somewhere and it ain't at per se.

"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar.

The Tasting Menu lists ten separate courses, but in reality, it's more than that. Much, much more.

We started off with an amuse bouche of fried gruyere. Just a small bite to season the palate and whet the appetite.

Next came the fabled Salmon Cornets, little ice cream-looking balls of salmon in a cone filled with creme fraiche. I had read about these and seen pictures and it was cool to finally have one for myself. It was done in two bites.

Our first listed course came next, "Oysters and Pearls" perfectly matched to our champagne - the tapioca and caviar dancing in my mouth, just lovely.

A Hamachi round.

Suddenly, another complimentary round appeared of yellowtail tuna. If there's one thing I never seem to tire of, it's Hamachi tuna. This one was buttery perfect and sublime.

By this point, things are really rolling along. Kathleen is starting to really get into the place. At first, she didn't want to come along and was, literally, getting ready for bed in her pajamas. Evidently, she likes to sleep around 9:30pm but it seems like she's enjoying the dinner so far.

The one thing about dining fine is that one must wear a jacket. I'm decked out in my only dark suit with shirt and tie. I have a general rule about restaurants and jackets: don't do it. In fact, it's the main reason why I never go to the restaurant that's a half-mile from my house. I hate to be told what to wear when I'm paying for dinner.

But per se is nothing like the restaurant down the street so I'm almost happy to wear a suit. Better get used to it anyway since I think a suit should be my standard dress for the 2008 Coffee Project. Not to mention it warmed my heart to watch the receptionist invite the two walk-ins wearing jeans to come back after they have changed their attire.


Bread. It's such a tough cookie. Some places have great bread. Some places have merely okay bread. I'm happy to say that the mini-baguette at per se is on the great side. It was damn good. I wish I had more. They say wearing a jacket makes one a bit more civilized. I don't know about that but I didn't tear into the bread like I wanted to.

Butter is another hotly contested table item. To salt or not salt? Spike offers only unsalted butter at Woodberry. To me, it's slightly frustrating because it adds another step. On the other hand, that other step of adding salt gives me greater control over flavor, makes me vision myself as slightly more refined - and that can't be a bad thing.

Ever the diplomat, per se offers both kinds of butters to prevent table fights, friends becoming enemies and business deals falling apart over something as trivial as salt in your butter. God bless those salty cows.

Salted and unsalted butter.

Not long after the bread and butter, comes the Man With The Ellie Bleu Box. It's an exquisite example of French cabinetry with it's lacquered finish and mesmerizing construction. I'm familiar with Elie Bleu because of my days pursuing the finer pleasures of cigars where the Elie Bleu humidor is a coveted and treasured gift.

But this is a man on a different mission. As he arrives and announces himself, he pulls the top back on the hinges with the reverence of the Ark of the Covenant itself, to reveal several fist-sized knockers of white truffles from Alba, Italy. To the uninitiated, they look gnarly. Kind of weird. Kind of like big chunks of tan-colored turd. Steeped in dried carnaroli risotto, the man pulls a knob out of the box and carefully brushes away any stray rice bits.

Shaving the white truffle from Alba with reckless abandon.

As if by magic, our plates of cooked carnaroli risotto in castelmagno cheese arrives and The Man whips out his shaver and begins shaving the truffle.

He starts slowly, just taking his time to make sure the thickness is correct. Once he's assured that the truffles are coming out just right, a crescendo starts to build. He's shaving. And shaving. And shaving some more. Most restaurants would be content with a drizzle of "truffle infused oil" or maybe just a couple of shavings for color. Not per se. The Man is going to town on that truffle.

Shaved white truffles from Alba and Castelmagno cheese.

Soon, truffle shavings are flying out of the shaver, cascading onto the plate below. Truffles are wildly expensive and this man is shaving with reckless abandon. He's sweating for God's Sake. I've never seen anything like this. I'm shocked. It's snowing truffles and no one seems to care. I'm waiting for a manager, the chef or Thomas Keller himself to come bursting into the dining room to stop this insanity. The Man shaves the knob until the knob is no more. He's expended the entire truffle on my plate and I'm delighted.

No wonder this supplement costs $150.

But it's good. Luscious. I've had a few encounters with something truffle in my past but nothing like this. The dish is laden with white truffles and I'm truly tasting truffle for the first time. It's light, delicate and almost non-descript. Paired with the dish however, and it's one of the most exquisite dishes I've ever tasted. The risotto is cooked perfectly. It's the most perfectly cooked risotto I've ever had in my life. Paired with the cheese, I wonder if I could possibly recreate this at home.

I wipe the plate clean. I would love to have more. I must have more. After all, it's only an extra hundred fifty.


Meanwhile, Tony passed on the risotto and went with the regular menu item: "Veloute" of Sugar Pie-Pumpkin - Brussels Sprouts, Chestnuts and "Marmelade de Pruneaux D'Agen" with Black Winter Truffles. I had a taste of it. It's good, but the white truffle risotto beats the pumpkin hands-down.

Kathleen's got a bit of a shellfish allergy so whenever a course has a shellfish component, the kitchen sends her something different. While we were dining on the sole, Kathleen had a John Dory course.

A course that she demanded we try and thank her we did because that was some of the best prepared John Dory I've ever had. Light with a crisp skin. I shuddered eating it. It was better than our sole.

Braised cardoons, globe artichokes and Greenmarket Carrots with Barigoule Emulsion.

Not that the sole was bad. It was very good. It's just the John Dory was superior. As with any multi-course tasting menu, there are items that stand out above all others and there are other dishes, that are very good in their own right, but kinda fall to the wayside in the context of the whole. The sole was good. It just didn't have the staying power as I write this nearly a month later.

- with Leeks and Pearl Onions.

Marinated Heirloom Radishes, Miso Glazed Eggplant and Pea Tendrils with "Mousseline Gingembre"

For the next course, I didn't try Kathleen's rockfish, but it looked pretty tasty. I was too busy focusing on my lobster course. If I'm not mistaken, this is similar to the lobster preparation in The French Laundry Cookbook. Originally, they poached the lobster in a buerre blanc, but recently they changed the preparation to sous vide with butter in the vacpak pouch. I was eager to sample the sous vide method.

The lobster was good. Buttery smooth and cooked beautifully. But here's the caveat: maybe I just don't know any better, but I find it hard to cook a lobster poorly. Lobster tends to be readily adaptable to cooking and eating. Just add some butter (and maybe a little salt) and lobster just tastes great. This one did too and I finished in about two bites.


The problem I'm finding with these long, multi-course tasting menus with accompanying wines is the ability to stay sober, cognizant and presentable after numerous courses and at least an equal number of glasses. Sure, you feel happier and easier to coax but maybe you feel so comfortable that you fall asleep in the toilet, kiss one of the runners or flop your head into the soup. Not that any of that happened to me - I'm just fearful that it might.

It was right around this time that something odd happened. As i watched one of the runners place a course in front of Kathleen, I couldn't help but think that I knew here from somewhere. Gosh, she looked familiar. I must know her from somewhere.

Then it hit me. I do know her.

"Excuse me, but didn't you work at Alinea?"

Yes, she did. And after a few choice questions and comments, she was my captain at Alinea the night that the snowstorms prevented Bronwen and the others from flying into Chicago and making it to dinner that night.

Amazing. The world keeps getting smaller by the minute.

Turns out she moved to New York a few months ago to work at per se and before she can become a captain, she has to work her way up through the ranks. Olivia - suddenly, we had another in with the crew here. Just amazing.

Smoked Onion Puree, Spiced Tokyo Turnips and Field Mizuna with "Jus de Gibier"

Next up was our Foie Gras course. I'm a big fan of foie and order it wherever I can. This one was amazing. Beautiful. Succulent. Sauteed just right. I tore into it. I wish I had more. I even took pictures of the half-eaten dish. That was ridiculous.

"Ris de Veau," Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Parsnips and Rainbow Swiss Chard with Veal Sauce

Next up, even more luxury. A veal ribeye. Amazing. The flavor and texture were just beautiful, delicate, smooth. I stared at the odd, round shape of the ribeye for quite some time. Does the ribeye in a veal come shaped like that? Perhaps they used Activa but whatever the case, I loved it. A definite highlight of the meal and one of the dishes I most remember from that night.

Two Types of Bread for "Prima Donna"

German Butterball Potato Salad and Petite Mache with Whole Grain Mustard Aioli

The next course was fun. Two different kinds of bread for the Prima Donna cheese and some potato salad. Kinda fun, kinda whimsical. Something light after two powerhouse courses before we start heading towards dessert.

Macadamia Nut "Nougatine," Coconut Cream, Guava Jam and Compressed Pineapple

Banana "Financier," Vanilla Fritters and Golden Raisins with "Pain de Mie" Ice Cream

Valrhona Chocolate "Biscuit," Pomegranate Ganache, White Chocolate Foam and Date Coulis with Bittersweet Ice Cream

Tony eyes the biscuits.

Dessert was like this: simply crazy. We had it all. Just look at the pictures. Immense. And that wasn't all. There was more. Creme brulee, panna cotta and lots of candies. Cocoa-covered almonds and a silver tree of sweets. Not to mention the shortbread cookies and the eat-all-you-want tray of chocolates. Good God, I wanted to stuff my pockets. In fact, I did take a bunch of the wrapped sweets. I couldn't help myself. I'm eating at one of the finest restaurants in the world and I should be acting civilized.

Did I feel shame for lining my pockets? No. Okay, well, maybe a little. But I couldn't help it. The Media made me do it...

Cappuccino Semi-Freddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts

While Tony and Kathleen had the chocolate and banana listed on our menu, I was served the famous "Coffee and a Doughnut." I had spied another table being served that dessert about an hour earlier and was envious that it wasn't on our menu. Maybe it was just coincidence or maybe they knew I would like that because I'm in the coffee business or maybe because they labeled me a "V.I.P." (but, of course...), but I was stoked to be served the dish.

Stoked because this was the dessert that led to the development of the "Spro Shake" I served for the 2005 United States Barista Championship and the further refinement of that into "Coffee and a Cigarette" that I used for the 2006 USBC. So, "Coffee and a Doughnut" is very close to my hear indeed and I was thrilled to sample it first-hand.

The semi-frozen cappuccino was lovely. Strong milk flavor with eggs and a light coffee tone. The doughnut was cute and decent but nothing that blew my mind. A wonderful dessert overall and a personal thrill to taste.

Creme Brulee

Blackberry Panna Cotta

A cup of the Panama Esmeralda Special

By this time, the conversation between us and our crew was flowing smoothly. Perhaps it was the camaraderie, perhaps it was the wine. Whatever the case, we were having a good time and being well taken care of. While they brought us their house pressed coffee, knowing that I am in the coffee business, they wanted me to try their Panama Esmeralda and see what I thought.

In case you're not familiar, the Panama Esmeralda has made a splash in the coffee scene over the past few years because of its' unique cup qualities. Floral aromatics and black tea notes are amongst the most notable characteristics of this coffee - a coffee that recently fetched $130 per pound green at the 2007 Best of Panama auction and is one of the world's most expensive coffees.

I should note that the auction lot Esmeralda is smaller and different than the standard and contract lots of Esmeralda. From my understanding, the auction lot was hand-picked for defects and is representative of the absolute best the farm has to offer. The contract and standard lots is the same coffee, just not picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

Many places have started to say they have the "Esmeralda" giving the impression that they have the auction lot when they have the standard lots. Considering there's a limited number of pounds that were sold to a limited number of roasters, it seems that there may actually be more on the market than was actually produced.

Cocoa covered almonds and more goodies

That is not to say that per se is misrepresenting the coffee, just something to be aware about. I've had both the auction and contract lot Esmeralda and both are wonderful coffees - the auction lot is just a bit more refined.

The Esmeralda I was served was quite nice. However, I thought it was bit on the heavy side for the Esmeralda. A bit over-roasted perhaps? Tony immediately noted (without prompting or suggestion from me) the heavy black tea notes of his cup. So perhaps I'm not tasting correctly because of the wine or maybe I've got a predisposition (prejudice) about what I'm expecting. I can't tell for certain. The cup, while not the best Esmeralda I've ever tasted, was good.

Perhaps if I hadn't eaten such a regal meal I would have been able to savor it more. Right now, I was more concerned with remaining conscious and not succumbing to bloat.

Olivia makes an offering

Our barista, Mamud, was a genuinely interested fellow who is, I think, a bit hampered by the restaurants' commitment to Illy pods. He's been there since the opening. He was friendly and enthusiastic and seems to love what he is doing. My wish for him is that Keller breaks away from these chains that bind him and allow Mamud to take his place as a craftsman amongst the craftsmen of per se. Get a proper espresso machine, some grinders and let the man sing. With a little love and attention, Mamud could soon be making espresso drinks on par with the rest of the cuisine.

Heck, I'd be happy to consult and train him myself 'cause I want to see restaurants offer coffee as serious as their cuisine.

The selection of chocolates

More goodies for the table (and my pocket)

Includes tax and service

At long last (it was about 1:55am), The Bill arrived at our table. While the food was immense, so was the bill. The total for three of us was just over One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars. Holy crap. Outrageous (the meal and the price) but completely and utterly worth it in the end.

I'm glad I didn't bring a date...

By now, I've been to some truly wonderful restaurants across America. And I've paid some crazy money for those meals. While I thought about it in the middle of service, now that I have the perspective of being several weeks later, I have to say that this was one of, if not "the", best fine-dining restaurant meal I've had yet. I would do it again tomorrow. Already, I've started planning and conniving my way back to per se (or The French Laundry). The flavors were lush and delicious. But, more importantly, they filled the soul.

Michael, our captain, Mamud, our barista, Olivia, our runner, myself, Kathleen and Tony basking in the glory of Five Stars.

It's a topic that I was able to discuss with Olivia after service. Our meal at per se was delicious and I found it to be "soul satisfying", meaning that it filled a greater need than to be satiated and stimulated. It comforted. I know it's odd to say that about a tasting menu, but I think it's true.

Only Olivia could understand what I was talking about since she was my captain at Alinea. While Alinea was an amazing and intellectually stimulating experience, I never felt the need to go back. Like I wrote in March (reflecting on my meals at Charlie Trotter's and Alinea):

"...the meals were phenomenal, but there's something missing for me. Desire. Desire is what's missing. I reflect back on my Trotter and Alinea experience and find myself satiated that I tried them. I'm not plotting a return trip to Chicago. I'm not devising ways to raise a thousand bucks so I can eat there again. I'm not dreaming of the food."

While the food at Alinea was amazing and some of the most forward-thinking stuff in North America, it lacked the ability to satisfy the soul. One could (and has) stare for hours at the photos of the meal at Alinea, but that soul was missing. And it's that soul that drives me to go back to per se. An experience like Alinea is a "must have", but perhaps once every two or three years, just to see what's new and happening. But halfway through the meal at per se and we were already talking about coming back. Kathleen's birthday is in March, then would be a good time for her. Tomorrow would be a fine time for me.

There's something about Keller's approach that does more than stimulate through the plate. And it's that "comfort" which calls for a quick return - even with the considerable price tag.

Our evening concluded with a tour of the kitchen (my favorite part of any meal). Michael had previously been a cook at The French Laundry so he was a great guide and explained everything for us. In a word, the kitchen is gorgeous. White tile and custom Bonnet suite and custom refrigeration. Lovely. Maybe one day they'll let me hang out and observe how they work. Please.

By the time we left, it was 2:30am. A relatively quiet time in the city that never sleeps. We had been in per se for over four hours. For many, the 9:30pm reservation would have been too late, but for me, it was just right. I prefer a later seating since they're not going to turn the table again, unless they are going to have a 2am seating (yes, please), so everyone can take their time and you can indulge a little more. The only problem: it's late and you're gonna pay for it in the morning.

But, oh so worth it. I've already started conniving and plottting my return...