Archive | September, 2011

The opposite of a typical French dinner – no choices…

19 Sep

I find myself continuing to apologize for one thing or another – this time, it’s for posting our meals ‘out of order’ – I’m going through our pictures and trying to reconstruct the experience so that I can blog about it in chronological order, but to no avail – I’m just not as organized as I think I am.

This post is about our last dinner in Paris before heading out to French wine country.  As you get by now, French meals – especially dinner, are composed of a banyan tree of decision branches to navigate…what to drink, what to start with, what you want for a main course, the wine list…..on and on and on.

This post is about the opposite of all of that – we chose to visit Le Relais de Venise as our last dinner in Paris before heading to Champagne the next morning.  For those of you who enjoy the famous Gene & Judes hot dogs in River Grove, IL – you’ll see the similarity.  Just as Gene & Judes has been serving hot dogs and only hot dogs since the late 50’s, Le Relais de Venise has only one thing available – they don’t have a menu and don’t have a wine list.  They just serve steak frites – and that’s your only option to eat.  They do ask you a couple things when you sit down, they ask you what you’d like to drink and how you’d like your steak.

So – quite the departure from your typical French dinner at your typical French restaurant.  Also, you all get my penchant for classic things.  This is as classically French as you can get.  Steak Frites.

You can get Steak frites at almost any restaurant or brasserie in Paris of course.  They are probably all pretty darned good.  But in order for a restaurant to serve ONLY steak frites and to give you no other choices – they had better do it well.  Also – one of my litmus tests as to whether I made the right choice to eat there, are there locals in the place?  I really hate eating at place where ‘only’ tourists go.  I love going to places where the locals frequent – and here at Le Relais de Venise, there’s plenty of locals waiting in line to come in to the small restaurant to sit down to what I consider some of the best steak frites in Paris.

The first time I came here was over 10 years ago – again, with the CME when we first began to integrate with the GL-API in the early days of GLOBEX.  Bill Jenks was the CIO at the time, and he took me here.  I couldn’t recall the name of the restaurant, and had to reach out to him for a reminder – thank Bill.  Turns out that there are now multiple locations – and happily, there’s one in New York and London.  So – if you can’t get to Paris – you can probably get to New York soon and check it out for yourself until you get to the original location in Paris.

They take no reservations, so there’s actually a line outside the restaurant.  The waitresses are surly and scream outside the door asking “who’s got a party of 3 or 4?” – and of course, they only scream in French – so brush up on your French before you head here.  The weather was perfect, so we had a nice time waiting for the line to dwindle down before we were seated.  (The line moves pretty quickly – unlike other French restaurants – they sit you down, they feed you, and they give you your check to get the next party seated)

Once seated – you’ll be asked what you’d like to drink – I point to a small bottle of St. Emillion Bordeaux – and in English – ask for our steaks to be done medium-rare.  The waitress, who could work as easily her or at Ed Debevic’s highly suggests ‘rare’ instead of medium – so we take her advice and order our steaks rare.  Take comfort in that ‘rare’ here is not really rare, but rather more medium or medium rare – so don’t worry.

Your meal comes pretty quickly – and here’s the twist: it is really only 1/2 of your meal.  That’s because your steak is pretty big – and the portion of frites that get piled onto your plate is even bigger.  And the frites are sooooooooooooo good.  I notice other people in the place, and they are all devouring every bit of their servings – even the petite, beautiful ladies that look like all they endure on is salads and a glass of Perrier.  So – off we go, diving into our steak frites – the sauce on the steak is a ‘secret’ and is something the owner of the restaurant claims is the secret of their success.  You swirl your frites into the steak sauce and the salty, pesto-like goodness that is created – is just ridiculously good.  Quickly, the steak & frites are gone – so onto the wine…

Before we know it, the other 1/2 of our steak & even more frites appears on our plate.  It’s really two meals of the exact proportion served twice within 30 minutes and it’s just as good the second time around.  Again – a great French experience of a great French traditional dish.

Dessert – here, you do get to make a choice – again, I ask the waitress what she recommends – and she suggests the profiteroles – another French classic.  Great choice again.

Summary – when you want a classic dish at a Paris institution where you don’t have to make any choices to speak of – check this place out – well worth the effort finding it on the Paris Metro…

Champagne Region – Epernay and Reims

19 Sep

Ok – I know – I’m so sorry.  I really could not keep up with the posts.  You would think it would be easy to sit down for 30 minutes and upload some pictures and talk about what we ate – but no…..

Since having spoken to some folks, I’m going to begin to include some specific information here – so you can actually use it as a reference for your own trip to these regions.  The most important bit of advice – if you are going to attempt to drive in Europe, in this case, France – the best $100 you’ll spend is the Europe card that goes into your GPS.  BRING YOUR GPS!!!  If you rent one, it’ll cost more than just buying one, and if you do some research and planning, you can pre-program the GPS with all your routes and cities prior to leaving home.  Having taken my own advice, I went to my local Avis rental place in Paris to go pick up our car to begin our driving portion of this journey.  The car rental office actually went pretty well – don’t forget that almost every car in Europe is a stick shift.  I picked up the car and drove back to our hotel in order to load it all up and head out of Paris.  The 20 minutes it took to get out of Paris was worth the price of the GPS data card.  Then, programmed in Epernay to get to the Champagne region – off we go!

Having never been to Champagne – we purchased the usual suspect tour books from Fodors, etc.  I also went online quite a bit to check out reviews to restaurants to help us decide where to eat.  Basically, we will get a 1-time-shot to eat well and if we choose poorly, it’ll be a bad memory for the rest of the trip – and as you’ll see in my future posts, we did in fact make some bad dining choices, which hopefully will server as a warning to you so that you can make better choices.

There are 2 cities in Champagne to choose from – Epernay & Reims.  They are both famous Champagne cities, so we chose to drive to Reims first, then drive to Epernay and spend the night.  Now – to choose where to have lunch in Reims.  Those of you that know me – know that I would much rather go to a classic place than a ‘new’ place.  So naturally we tended to go to institutions to dine.  In Reims, we chose the Brasserie du Boulingrin.  Loosely translated, means the bowling green of a cricket field (I think).

Gotta say, this was one of our favorite lunch places in all of France.  It’s exactly what you think of when you think of Brasserie in France.  The lunch began of course with Champagne – then Donna began with a salad & I chose a terrine of pate along with cornichons.  Great started dishes for a lunch – light, delicious and so French.

We both chose fish for our main course – Donna had a fish that was prepared in a foil pack and I chose the plat du jour – Sardines.  I will almost always choose the plate of the day because again, it’s usually something classic and fresh.  I was very happy with my choice, but Donna’s fish was, wow, just terrific.

For dessert – we chose what we thought would be lame dishes, but the waitress really recommended the ice cream & grapes.  Seems weird right?  There was really just ice cream on top of some grapes, but the ‘juice’ in the bottom of the glass made the dessert a perfect ending to the meal.  I think we both had some house white wine to go with our meals.  I’ll include a picture of the wine carte on the table.

All in all, if you head toward Champagne region and are looking for a great, typical, classic institution to eat at – please check out Brasserie du Boulingrin in Reims.  Enjoy the pictures – more posts will be coming shortly – now that I have time to do this.

Le Etage – Lyon

10 Sep

Lyon – kind of looks like Paris, and is ‘edgy’ and young like Dijon but with more class & atmosphere.  Apparently, French style cooking originated here.  There are Brasseries, Bouchons, Bistros, Restaurants, Bar/Cafes… and hundreds of each of those.  Eating is an olympic sport in Lyon.

As foodies, you can see our dilemma: decisions, decisions, decisions.  We rolled into Lyon around lunchtime (strategic planning).  Parked the car and immediately went to the area of Lyon famous for brasseries & bouchons.  We picked one of the most famous and old Bouchons – Chez Hugon.  We were very happy to see only locals in the place.  Exactly 7 tables there – the restaurant is tiny and the kitchen even smaller.  We really don’t know how they earn a living with that small of a restaurant.

There was no English menu, no English spoken, and no help on the menu given other than a verbal explanation of the menu in French!  Ok – so we had to rely on things like: Jambon, Boudin, Agneau, etc.  Bottom line: If you’re going to go to these little authentic places that do not cater to tourists, you better learn your French food terms so you know what you’re about to order.  I ended up with herring & potatoes while Donna ended up with jambon alright, but it was a terrine of jambon – and Donna doesn’t particularly like terrines.  Still not bad for the 1st course.

Then came the plat – Donna order a Boudin – which we couldn’t remember if it was veal or some other white meat sausage – this was my fault – turned out to be blood sausage.  Looked a lot like the Argentinian morcio (sp?).  So Donna didn’t eat too much of it and I ate about half of it – actually, pretty good.

My main course – I put myself at the mercy of the restaurant owner and told me to bring whatever she thought would be good.  She brought out some soft, white meatloaf type of dish with potatoes and a cream sauce.  Very, very good – still I can’t tell you what animal it came from and more ominous, what part of the animal.  The service was so slow even with 7 tables that we skipped dessert and coffee and went right out to explore the city while enjoying a gelato along the way.

So  – with lunch ending up so uneven, we had to get dinner right.  Again, decisions, decisions, decisions.  We opted for a restaurant called Le Etage – actually away from all the bistros and outdoor restaurants and right in the middle of a huge square with gorgeous sculptures – see Facebook pictures for Lyon.

1st challenge – actually finding it.  We had the exact address at which was only a ‘residential’ looking door with doorbells on it.  There were other restaurants on the square, just not Le Etage.  We had to ask the shopkeepers on either side of this single door to help us find it.  Rang the bell and the we were buzzed in.  (oops – gotta go to Aix-en-Provence and we’re running late – I’ll finish this later).  Bye.

My 2nd Favorite Place in Paris

9 Sep

Dinner @ Le Coupe Chou

Le Coupe Chou is probably my 2nd favorite place to eat in Paris, for the same reasons Willi’s Wine Bar is my favorite.  I’m sure if you tried, you could find ‘better’ food in Paris, or better ‘ambiance’ or better prices.  But I’m talking about the ‘Paris experience’.  The whole package.   First of all, I really enjoy dining where locals enjoy dining.  That said, once a place like Willi’s Wine Bar or Le Coup Chou get over 1,000 Facebook ‘Likes’, it becomes pretty hard not to run into someone from New Jersey or Chicago or Milwaukee.  But the fact that locals certainly keep going there, helps me feel like i’m eating where locals want to eat.  Obviously, Parisians can chose from literally thousands of restaurants to eat at, so when they choose someplace to eat and continue to frequent it, I would argue that it’s pretty good and it’s the longevity to make it an institution in Paris.  And if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere…

So now, Le Coup Chou, I first went there back in the 90’s while I was traveling to Paris on business with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group.  We were connecting the Chicago & Paris exchanges and it was my job to help with the technology side of that.  My friend Benoit introduced me to the place.  For many years, i couldn’t even remember the name of it in order to go back, but something knocked my memory loose and I finally remember it.

In order to find it, if you feel like you’re walking down a dark alley and don’t know if you’re going in the right direction, or feel like you’re going to get mugged, you’re going in the right direction.  It’s perfectly safe in St. Germain (my very favorite neighborhood in Paris).  So don’t frett .

The food is ALWAYS great – not that I’ve been ther so many times, but the food is always great.  It’s a type of place you ‘imagine’ when you think of dining in Paris in a typical French place that is so old, it probably pre-dates the USA.

It’s late, so I’m going to leave you with pictures from the meal and promise to try to get the rest of our great (and not-so-great) meals on there.  Enjoy.

Wow!

All ducks go to heaven…

5 Sep

I was going to title this post: “I don’t care what they do to those little ducks!”

Then I thought – “All ducks go to heaven…” was a little more appropriate.  I know, I’m late posting these things – you would think I would have plenty of time to do this, but it’s really hard to find 30 minutes to post stuff.  Two nights ago we really did the Donna’s 50th Birthday Celebration dinner at a restaurant that I’ve wanted to go to for over 10 years and is really legendary, a Paris tradition and simply, over-the-top.  We took a taxi to the restaurant because it was raining and Donna and I were both dressed up as it was “Jackets Required” at La Tour D’Argent.

The taxi pulled up and immediately, a man was trying to open the door.  I thought it was a Parisian trying to get out of the rain, but instead it was the doorman to the restaurant, trying to help Donna out of the cab.  Then I realized it wasn’t the doorman, it was the ‘Taxi Door Opener Guy”.  The doorman opened the door to the restaurant where we were met by the ‘manager’ who welcomed us, then by the person who takes our name, then by the coat check lady, all within 60 seconds of exiting the taxi.  So all in, we have already been greeted by 5 La Tour D’Argent employees and have not yet even made it into the restaurant itself, but were just in the lobby which was at street level!  This is a small clue that you have better saved some pretty pennies for this evening.

The next person we meet will be the elevator operator – who’s job it is to take us up the restaurant level and make us feel at ease by asking if it’s our 1st time coming to the restaurant.  Of course, that only makes us more nervous.  I made the reservations for 9:00 PM which is ‘normal’ for Paris restaurants hoping that we’d get out of there ‘early’ or before 1:00 AM, so I didn’t expect the restaurant to be full, or at least as full.  We walked out of the elevator to one of the most elegant, decadent and very ‘French’ restaurants I’ve ever seen.  It was fairly crowded, so I immediately was afraid that we wouldn’t be getting a ‘prime’ table.  But since I had made the reservation pretty long ago and I kept emailing the restaurant to ensure we would have a window table, sure enough, we were escorted through almost the entire restaurant to a window table near the very corner of the restaurant overlooking Notre Dame cathedral and the Seine river, which at night, look just beautiful all lit up.

At a French restaurant (at least the ones where you have ‘multiple’ people waiting on you), they almost invariably ask you “would you like an aperitif?”.  I read a Wine Spectator magazine article about fine dining in France which recommended that the answer is always, “yes” and almost always, “Champagne”.  So we followed French protocol and opted for the French Champagne.  Of course at a restaurant like this, that is just not the end of it.  Now came to the questions: “Would you like blanc de blanc, Rose or something from the Carte du Vin?”  Blanc de Blanc Champage is made from Chardonnay grapes which is usually great, but I know that Rose Champagne is made from Pinot Noir grapes and is usually a slightly more special wine, so I was beginning to lean towards the Rose.  The sommelier was beginning to get excited that we were going down this path.  He immediately asked Donna what she would like and she asked for a Blanc de Blanc.  So I switched and went for that as well.

Usually, a glass of champagne is brought to you on a tray at most places.  Here, they bring you a custom labelled bottle which they let you inspect, then pour your champagne right in front of  you to ensure that you are in fact getting the wine you ordered.  Ok, this could go long, so I’m going to cut to the chase and then just post lots of pictures of the food.

There is a small hand-blown duck sitting on every table at the restaurant.  It’s clear that this place is the place to come for duck in Paris or maybe even in all of France.  There is a dish on the menu called (in English) – Tour D’Argent Duck.  After doing some research, it turns out that duck prepared in this traditional French style is almost not offered anywhere because of the amount of time and effort it takes to make.  They in effect, take a duck and press it so that all of the juices are extracted and then make the most rich, thick, almost mole-like sauce to put on their duck.  I’ve been looking forward to this duck for years, so of course I had intended on ordering it, but then realized that it was a menu item “for two”,  Donna being a great sport, opted to order the duck as well so that I could have it.

We began with the very best foie gras Donna and I have ever tasted.  Truly something to savor.  The brought out ceramic ice cream looking tubs and scooped out 2 healthy scoops of the very best food item I’ve ever tasted onto our plates.  Then, something I’ve never experienced: 1 scoop of Sauternes jelly and 1 scoop of of Port jelly right next to our scoops of foie gras.  The only thing that made this heavenly dish even better was the Sauternes that Donna ordered and the Muscat wine I order to accompany our appetizer.  Wow!  If this is all we experienced, I would say that if you’re ever in Paris, you must make your way to this place and sample the foie gras – hence the “I don’t care what they do to the little ducks” comment.

Then came the 1st duck course which was the breast.  Since of course this would not be enough for this place, the next duck course was the thigh of our own personal duck as duck confit.

The pictures should help give you a little better image of the dinner we experienced.  Then came the post card with the duck’s number on it as a present to the both of us.  Apparently, this place has kept track of each duck that is destined to be served in this traditional style and has been documenting the ducks for many, many years.  Our particular duck was number: 1,102,095.  So over 1,000,000 ducks have been herded toward this place over so many years just to give people like me & Donna one of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had.  Hence the: “All ducks go to heaven” post.

Please enjoy the photos…

Paris – Day 2…not much and then…the big Kahuna!!

3 Sep

Well, today began by us sleeping in until 9:00 AM.  Wow – had to catch up on some sleep.  So we didn’t do much for breakfast except run down and grab a croissant & pain-du-chocolate from the local bakery while running across the street to the bar to get some cafe-au-lait to go.

For lunch – we really went ‘bad tourist’ and ate some bad omelets & crepes at the restaurant in the gardens of Versailles.  While beautiful, the food really disappointed.  It was our own fault, as the timing really didn’t work out for us to get there and then leave the grounds to grab some good food (see oversleeping).

But wait folks, there is redemption here!!  For tonight is the night when Donna and I will actually celebrate her 50th birthday by going to one of the best & most legendary restaurants in the world: La Tour D’Argent, near the Notre Dame Cathedral.  The menu is ridiculous in both food & prices:  http://www.latourdargent.com/restaurant/la-carte/entrees

I have been wanting to go to La Tour D’Argent for years and have never been able to come up with a reason good enough to go.  Both Donna & I turning 50 this year was the appropriate reason for us to really splurge and head over there.  The reservations must be confirmed 24-hours in advance.  A coat & tie is required (something I have not done for a long time).  I’ve requested a table by the window so that maybe I can bring you some spectacular pictures from our table tomorrow.

I will also ask for a tour of the wine cellar – we’ll see how charming my lame French can be.  So – please check out the menu and make your fantasy-feastball bets.  Tomorrow I’ll let you know what we decided on for our food as well as what wonderful, one-of-a-kind wine selection we choose to celebrate Donna’s 50th birthday.  Wish us well!

Paris – Day 1

3 Sep

You would think that there’s all kinds of time to update this.  It’s 8:53 on Saturday morning and I have to ‘hurry’ to get this out there, or I fear that I’ll already be 2 days behind!  As usual, nothing goes perfectly.  The plan was to sleep on the airplane, land in Paris @ 9:00 AM and take the train into Paris for a late breakfast croissant or pain du chocolate & a cafe o-lait.  That didn’t happen.  We ended up checking in to our room at 1:00 PM and rushing out the door to grab the nearest cafe on Rue Cler.

Cafe Central was our pick based on the pure ‘touristy’ factors of sitting outside watching people with the ‘most French’ looking menu.  I know – but we were hungry and tired and thirsty.  In the end, it was just what the Dr. ordered.  Typical French Cafe fare:

We skipped dinner & breakfast on the plane so we were very hungry and ordered too much food.  Meat plate, cheese plate, bread, butter, water & an entire bottle of Viognier wine from the south of France.


I’ll write more about the food – just wanted to get out some pictures and what we ordered.

Cheese plate of course – amazing cheese, more later.  Meat plate – wow – the mortadella was from Italy, but was great!  Then we gorged on the best butter on the planet on the best bread on the planet until our food came.

Best Mortadella ever!

We went ‘typical French cafe’ again:  I had a Croq Madame – which is the best toasted ham & cheese sandwich with an egg on top, Donna had a classic ceasar salad and also, we split an order of fries.  No we didn’t finish all of it – but yes, tried all of it.  The fries were just ‘pretty good’ – I really expected crisper fries, but still great flavor.  The wine – just perfect for a hot sunny day in Paris – cold, crisp & fruity.

Not just - toasted ham & cheese with an egg on top!

 

We did NOT order dessert as we obviously ordered too much food – so we had a coffee for me & cafe creme for Donna.  Then off to explore Paris by walking to the Eiffel Tower & taking a boat cruise up the Seine – pictures on FaceBook: www.facebook.com/manny.montejano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then – dinner, 1st night in Paris @ Willi’s Wine Bar – http://www.williswinebar.com/ my favorite place to eat in Paris, not because it’s got the best food ever, but because it’s got it all.  Great food, great staff, poster art that you can buy and bring home (I have 6 of their posters at home) and the food and wine is great – and the staff know something about every bottle on the wine list.

 

My favorite place to eat in Paris!

 

Ok – gotta go quickly now.

We both started with champagne & the fois gras – an extra 3 Euro supplement – but so well worth it!  (For those of you who are against eating fois gras – I understand, but I will continue to eat this rich, tasty, like-butter, decandant stuff until I can’t afford it.

Donna had the lamb, I order the beef & had a crazy good bottle of Cornas wine from the south of France.  We ran into some wine industry people who obviously could afford any bottle on the menu, but chose to drink the same Cornas – I highly recommend it.

Here are some pictures – I have to run now – finished with a great cheese plate & Donna had pralines that were out of this world.

More tonight!! Gottta go grab a croissant & pain du chocolate!

 

Donna's Lamb @ Willi's Wine Bar

 

Cornas @ Willi's Wine Bar

Dessert @ Willi's Wine Bar

Beef @ Willi's Wine Bar