Travels

Alain Passard’s Garden

Donkey

[Alain Passard's Garden]

The photo set that illustrates this post may be viewed as a slideshow.

I have never dined at Alain Passard’s restaurant. The closest I ever got to it was my lunch at La Végétable, but that doesn’t really count — the proximity of the escalators and the neon lighting cancel out the stars.

It’s not that I don’t want to go, I do, but L’Arpège is one of those restaurants I’ve read so much about — Passard’s love of vegetables, his running a biodynamic garden to provide for the restaurant’s produce needs — that I fear I may be disappointed when I actually go*. So up until now, I have contented myself with the hope and possibility that, some day, I shall make it there.

But when a friend of mine hinted that she might be able to arrange a visit to said vegetable garden, it was all I could do not to pester her with daily emails and twice daily text messages, reminding her that I was absolutely, positively, and superlatively interested, and when when when could we go?

The visit was scheduled for a weekday in mid-June — yes, I’ve been sitting on that story for a little while. Passard’s property is located in the Sarthe area, some 200 kilometers to the south-west of Paris, so my friend, her son, and I met with Julie Coppé — Alain Passard’s right-hand woman — at the Montparnasse train station, from which my dear TGV propelled us to Le Mans in under an hour; a taxi ride took care of the remaining kilometers.

Few things provide as concentrated a dose of happiness as a daytrip to the countryside. This is when the contrast between clamor and quiet, between exhaust fumes and morning mist, is the clearest. When every detail feels like a gift (a swing set! a donkey! fresh mud!), and when you know you had better fill your lungs and eyes and ears now, while you can, because it will all have vanished come nightfall (and don’t lose that slipper again please).

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Brussels Highlights

Moules-frites

Let me start this post by declaring my love for the Northern European high-speed train network: Northern European high-speed train network, I love you.

Really, can anyone think of anything more enthusing than the fact that London‘s Borough Market, Amsterdam‘s rijsttafels, and Strasbourg‘s flammekueche are just a couple of hours away from Paris, and that the trip to get there does not involve taking off your belt, your shoes, and the filling in your left molar, nor tossing out your only bottle of contact lens cleanser? I can’t either.

And to further illustrate that point, Maxence and I have just spent a sunny weekend in Brussels, a city of true gourmands where every other street name has something to do with food — Rue des Bouchers, Rue aux Choux, Rue du Persil… Here are a few highlights.

Moules-frites at La Bonne Humeur

Of course, we had to kick things off with mussels and fries, and we had the good fortune of stumbling upon these posts by Laurent Goffin. He was writing about a modest bistro straight out of the seventies, complete with formica tables and wood-paneled walls, and his review essentially boiled down to: “La Bonne Humeur = best moules-frites in Brussels.” This was all I needed to know.

We headed there on our first night, fresh off the train, and because the restaurant is a little way out of the city center, the walk allowed us to work up a hefty appetite. La Bonne Humeur was easy to spot from afar — see the swarms of eager diners waiting on the sidewalk? that’s where it is — and we got in line with the others.

Our meal was every bit worth the wait, and if I had to wait again I would — twice longer, even. Our moules marinières (i.e. cooked in a broth of onion, celery, and butter; pictured above) appeared in their cast-iron pots, steamingly flavorful and jumbo plump, with a side of pale blond fries, not too crisp but not too soft, which we dipped with abandon in the homemade mayo.

The mussels we were served came from the Zeeland region in Holland, where they are harvested at the bottom of the sea, as opposed to the French moules de bouchot, which are farmed on ropes that spiral around wooden poles — kind of like pole dancing for molluscs.

La Bonne Humeur (literally, “The Good Mood”) / map it!
Chaussée de Louvain, 244 – 1000 Bruxelles
+32 (0)2 230 71 69

We got another fix of moules-frites the next day, this time from a brasserie on the Sablon named Le Grain de Sable: the frites weren’t quite as memorable, but the moules au vin blanc (same as marinières, but with the addition of white wine) were delectable, and the sunshine falling on our table was the perfect condiment.

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Barcelona Favorites

Barcelona Favorites

Our dinner at El Bulli last week was bookended by a few days in Barcelona. This was our first time in the city, and we had a splendid time strolling around, admiring the architecture, dodging pickpockets, and wondering where to eat next.

Our diet over those few days was mostly composed of tapas and pintxos, eaten at casual restaurants. If you are unfamiliar with pintxos (pin-tchos), they are the little morsels of food, plopped on a slice of bread and secured with a toothpick, that you find lined up on the counter at tapas bars. It is originally a Basque concept, but it has spread across other parts of Spain in recent years: you ask for a plate (usually one per party), help yourself to some pintxos, wash them down with a drink, and pay at the end, based on the number of toothpicks you have left on your plate. It is a system based on trust — I wonder how many people walk away with half a dozen toothpicks in the back pocket of their jeans — but it seems to work. As for tapas, they are usually ordered from a menu (or, if there is no menu, with much gesturing and mangling of Catalan and Castillan words), and they are served on small plates that you share with your dining companions. Raçiones are similar to tapas, only they come in larger portions.

One thing you should know if you ever want to visit Barcelona is that you should avoid August if you can: the city is teeming with tourists then (80% of them French), most Barcelonians have understandably fled, and some of the dining destinations that locals favor are closed. Of course, in our case, this time of year wasn’t a personal choice, since the El Bulli reservation was the pivot of our trip; I certainly don’t mean to spit in the proverbial soup, I just thought I would pass on this little piece of advice.

One other thing I strongly recommend is to check the detail of your bill, always: in all restaurants but one, we were charged for more than what we had ordered and eaten. Perhaps this only happens to foreigners, and perhaps this is their way of making up for the disappearing toothpicks, but it was a bit annoying. They never made any difficulty in correcting the mistakes however, so there was no harm done, and we simply got used to the custom.

Without further ado, let me recommend the places we enjoyed the most:

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Dinner at El Bulli

El Bulli

I remember reading about El Bulli four or five years ago in the French newspaper Le Monde. I remember the yearning, and I remember the pang that followed closely: considering the small number of guests that the restaurant could accommodate each season, the dream seemed out of reach. But a few years later, I learned from a well-informed friend that getting a reservation was a bit like playing the lottery: the odds were low, but it didn’t cost much to try (see below).

And so I played, I won, and this is how Maxence and I found ourselves flying to Barcelona last weekend with three of our friends. My state of mind was a mix of excitement and circumspection: few restaurants have gotten as much press as this one, and I knew that the actual experience could fall short of my expectations. Fortunately, there was no need to brace myself for disappointment. The evening that we spent at El Bulli was every bit as extraordinary, surreal, and more important, joyful, as I’d hoped it to be.

We arrived at the restaurant in early evening, after a short curvy ride up and down the mountain road that leads to Cala Montjoi, and offers a striking view out to sea. A tiny parking lot, a small (and a bit scruffy) beach, a handsome tiled-roof house — we walked up the stairs and were greeted by the staff, who gave us a short tour of the kitchen and led us to our table by the window, nicely isolated from the rest of the room: the arrival of each dish offers a bit of a dramatic thrill, so we were happy not to get any spoilers from the other tables.

The tasting menu, which changes slightly every day, unfolds in three acts and thirty-five dishes: small snacks that you eat with your fingers, larger-sized tapas to be eaten with a fork and spoon (no knife, ever), and desserts. It is a fast-paced dining rollercoaster, with explosive flavors and textural surprises that await you at every turn — it is thus a good idea to take a break on the terrace every now and then. Each dish, or group of dishes, is brought to the table by a small squadron of waiters dressed in black, and while you are busy taking pictures of the new UFO that has just landed, the head waiter explains what it is (in our case, in excellent French), and how to eat it: start with this end or that, gobble it up in just one bite, or hurry before it melts.

There were recurring themes within the meal — seaweed, seeds, Parmesan, Thai flavors, clementine, peach, the cotton candy texture, and Adrià’s famous esferificación technique, in which liquids are trapped in a thin alginate casing that bursts open on your tongue. Not everything was successful, and not everything sent shivers of pure pleasure down your spine: some of the flavors were quite strong, and it took stamina to take them all in with fresh taste buds. But every single item managed to amaze and entertain, making the whole experience quite dazzling, both on an intellectual and sensory level.

And now, for your entertainment, let me offer a photographic account of the menu we were served (those with asterisks are the ones I enjoyed the most):

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US Roadtrip Highlights, A Directory

Roadtrip

As a post-scriptum to the notes from my roadtrip across the US, I have put together a list of the restaurants we enjoyed (plus a handful of non food-related stores/services), should you find yourself in the areas we visited.

~Florida~

Miami

Jerry’s Famous Deli
Huge diner-type deli — breakfast served all day.
1450 Collins Avenue – (305) 532-8030

Puerto Sagua
Old Cuban diner in South Beach.
700 Collins Avenue – (305) 673-1115

Versailles
Cuban restaurant-cum-bakery in Little Havana.
3555 SW 8th St – (305) 444-0240

Key Largo

The Crack’d Conch
The seafood shack of your dreams, with an alligator-shaped mailbox — if that doesn’t make you want to go, I don’t know what will.
105045 Overseas Highway – (305) 451-0732

~Alabama~

Mobile

The Brick Pit
Self-titled “The best d*** smoked bar-b-que in the great state of Alabama”. Everything expertly sloooooow-roasted (pulled pork, ribs, chicken), great coleslaw, superb banana pudding.
5456 Old Shell Road – (251) 343-0001

Satori Coffee House
A coffee shop and used record store in what used to be an individual house. Comfy porch, free wi-fi. (Right next door to the Brick Pit.)
5460 Old Shell Road – (251) 344-4575

~Louisiana~

New Orleans (Log on to nomenu.com to see which restaurants have reopened post-Katrina.)

Acme Oyster House
Oyster bar — also serves the usual suspects of Louisiana cuisine (&eacuteltouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, etc).
724 Iberville St – (504) 525-1160

Bon Ton Café
Louisiana dishes — generous crawfish jambalaya, service a bit curt.
401 Magazine Street – (504) 524-3386

Maison Bourbon
Jazz club — “for the preservation of jazz”.
641 Bourbon St – (504) 522-8818

Breaux Bridge

Café des Amis
Cajun cuisine with a sophisticated touch — loved the softshell crab and the stupendous cane syrup cake.
140 E. Bridge Street – (337) 332-5273

Mulate’s
Large bustling restaurant with a cosy bar area. Live Cajun music every night.
325 Mills Avenue – (337) 332-4648

Norbert Leblanc
Swamp tours on Lake Martin — incredible guy, just meeting him and listening to his delicious Cajun-French would be worth the price he charges ($20 per person).
(337) 654-1215

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