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