Octopuscarwash's Gourmet Adventures

I live to eat. Yes, I am an Asian Jew. My favorite meal is breakfast (oatmeal in particular). I'm only in high school, so I am a complete amateur. Some of my favorite cuisines are Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Japanese and Korean. I eat so much Chinese food that it's hard to say whether I like it or not... all I know is that I don't like what most of America seems to think of as Chinese food, Panda Express. I'm a pescetarian and love coming up with my own healthy fusion food.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Paris adventures

So here's what happened in Paris:

let's put it bluntly.

The food sucked.

I know... how big a disappointment is that? But I didn't go for the food, right? I went there to learn perfect my French and meet new people.

pause.

[but of course I went for the food! Food occupies an unaturally large portion of my cerveau. But unfortunately, I was staying in a dorm.]

Breakfast and dinner were free in the cafeteria, while we had to fend for ourselves at lunch. I hope this isn't libel, but according to my program's website, "Students enjoy a buffet-style breakfast and dinner in the residence cafeteria. Breakfast is continental-style with choices such as cereal, fruit, yogurt, cheese, and bread. On the weekends, special items such as croissants and pains au chocolat are served. Dinner in France includes several entree options, including a vegetarian option, fruit and vegetables, fresh baguettes, a cheese course, and dessert."

NOT. I am my hungriest in the morning, but I know others aren't, so I wasn't expecting much for breakfast... but here's what there was. Cornflakes. Occasionally Coco Crispies. Milk. Sometimes yogurt. Stale bread. And some fruit on occasion. I ended up buying myself muesli and grotesque amounts of bananas, apples, and nectarines. I also ended up drinking bad instant coffee every day, something I still can't wrap my mind around, since I never drink coffee at home.

Dinner was generally pretty bad, but what with all the running every morning in the Luxembourg Gardens and walking miles in the city every day, I was usually so hungry that my judgement was impaired. Most of my friends were eating crepes and pastries between meals, so they didn't feel the need to eat a lot at dinner, but I live for regular, balanced meals and an occasional dessert (old lady at heart). So I would devour this cafeteria food, of which I mainly subsided on cantaloupe, salad, "sauteed" pasta that was so greasy it was probably boiled in oil instead of water, vegetables (either boiled or covered in some kind of creamy sauce) and either quiche or fish. I don't think I need to bore you with how disgusting some of the food was, but they did sometimes feel the need to make us "feel at home" with a good ol' American dinner of 1/2 inch thick hamburgers (cheese on a bun for the vegetarians), french fries, and coke. I don't remember what I had that night... Oh yeah, cantaloupe. The picture on the left is one of the better meals.
I realized I couldn't afford to just not eat in the cafeteria at all, but I also knew it was worth looking into some better options. Here are some of my successes. I'm dividing them into 3 sections: ethnic food, indulgences, and cooking lessons/ photos of specialty food stores that were included in my Culture and Cuisine class.

ETHNIC FOOD
  • Falafel-- as you may know, Paris has a very large North African/ Middle Eastern population, as well as a Jewish (and gay) neighboorhood in the Marais, which just happens to be my favorite area. Like every other area in Paris, there are cafes, teahouses and chocolate shops, but when you reach Rue des Rosiers, that's when, as a falafel fan (and how can you not be), you raise your eyes to heaven. Actually, there were a bunch of people on the program who had never tried falafel... It was much harder than I realized to explain. How do you do it justice? "Chickpeas, parsley and spices, deep fried and served in pita bread" sounds great to me, but I also enjoy wheat germ in my yogurt. Either way, the falafel I had in Paris was some of the best I'd ever had in my life, including my trip to Israel last year. I mainly got my falafel from 2 delicious places: one in the Marais called L'as Du Falafel, and one at St. Michel near me, a chain called Maoz Vegetarian.

L'as Du Falafel-- On Rue des Rosiers, by all the Jewish bakeries with poppyseed cakes, challah, you reach a strip of falafel places. Some have sit- down areas with plastic tables and little jars of hot pepper condiments, while some are little holes-in-the-wall (or is it hole-in-the-walls?) with men outside saying "falafel, falafel? You want a falafel?" to all the tourists passing by. L'as Du Falafel is both-- the first time I ate standing, like the majority of the clientelle. Unfortunately, I was rushing and had to eat it on my way to the Metro and couldn't really savor it as well. The second time, I made sure to sit down (i think it costs something like 2 more euros, but whatever) in the restaurant. The exchange with the waiter was funny.

me: Bonjour, deux personnes, s'il vous plait.

him: oui, et avec moi, c'est trois?

Anyways, we ordered. There isn't much choice other than falafel, unless you decide to get schwarma (and why bother?). It arrives right away, a toasty pita moon stuffed to the brim with fried eggplant cubes, cucumber slices, tomato, 3 kinds of shredded cabbage, falafel (duh), and drizzled with tahini yogurt sauce. They claimed there was hummus at the bottom, but sadly, I couldn't taste it either visit (my only complaint).
Other than the hummus, this was probably the best falafel I've ever had. The falafel itself was perfectly spiced and just crispy enough-- the requisite crunch before biting into the spicy, mealy inside without becoming a hard shell. The raw vegetables only added to this crunch, while the eggplant made it more substantial and added yet another level of complexity to the textures in this sandwich. The pita was actually the best part-- hot and chewy, and just thick enough to absorb the sauce, which tasted of creamy, sour yogurt, bitter tahini and herbs. So my friend and and I sat there that second time, our jaws working up and down on that heavenly pocket with all its chew, crunch, and spice. It was a blistering hot day out, but that didn't stop me from dousing mine with additional hot sauce.

Maoz Vegetarian-- It's hard to compare these two falafel joints, because Maoz is great in its own right. While L'as Du Falafel has a reputation as being the best falafel joint in a falafel neighborhood, Maoz is the best in the Latin Quarter, which is full of slummy tourist joints, and whose other falafel / gyros places drip grease down their rotating spirals of pinkish gray meat.

When I first went to Maoz, I was convinced that there was some kind of code to figure out how to order (L'as just has "special falafel")-- they have different sizes, "falafel hummus, eggplant, royale," plus deals where you get no pita, fries, or also have access to the salad bar. The first time I got a falafel I stuffed it so full that I could barely pick it up. I was laughed at and rejected upon asking for a fork, whereas when I actually got a salad in a container the next time, I got a fork no problem.

What I like about the place is that once you get the gist of the options, you can get EXACTLY what you want, and then you can help yourself to the salad bar and put on whatever the hell you want. I learned that "royale" means a pita stuffed with falafel, thick, juicy eggplant slices, and dollops of creamy, almost sandy hummus. The salad bar includes olives, beetcubes, sauteed carrots, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, pickled peppers and cauliflower, and a good 4 kinds of sauces. This is my fault, but the problem is that I get overexcited and overwhelm my falafel with sauce that hides the subtlety of the hummus. Must control myself. Overall, the falafel is probably of lesser quality than over in the Marais, but what do you expect at a chain (They have one in Philadelphia!)? If I had this place in where I lived, I would be a very, very lucky girl. Yum.

  • Markets and delicious stalls-- If my first few visits to Paris consisted mainly of visits to monuments and museums, this visit was dominated by wandering the city-- through quirky little quartiers and best of all, street vendors and ethnic markets. What is it about the US that seems to lack these? Of course, farmer's markets are great, but other than in California, those aren't generally year round. This visit to Paris, I went to chaotic markets that doubled as flea markets (Le Marche d'Aligre), as well as slightly more subdued places where you can go for produce or specialty products, or you can just go to eat. My favorite market like this was the Marche des Enfants Rouges, also (surprise surprise!) in the Marais.
The market is relatively small and has entrances on two different streets. It's at its busiest at weekends, but every day at lunch time the place is full of locals deciding that they're in the mood for Moroccan, Italian, Creole, Japanese, Middle Eastern, or health food. Every time I come here, I'm mesmerized by what I see: tagines exhibiting suculent stews of vegetables, dried fruit, meat or no meat, and couscous, Rice cookers as wide as tree trunks being emptied to serve as beds for donburi, vats of seafood antipasti, mounds of different kind of cheeses and galleries of jams in obscure flavors like eggplant and banana... it's like a museum, it really is, only everything is in motion. Better yet, you can eat what's on display.
Now, I know Paris is known for Moroccan food (and I'll get to that), but at this market, I was immediately drawn towards the Japanese stall. The menu was displayed on a blackboard in French and Japanese (no English means it's even more likely to be good) and consisted of weekly specials, traditional specialties, sushi, and dessert (tea and green tea cakes). I was tempted by almost everything, but decided to try the traditional special of mackerel in a "korean sauce." It took ages to get a seat, but eventually I found myself seated at a tiny wooden communal bench with only French speakers, and I sat there, taking in my surroundings until the food arrived.
I must admit, I was wondering why the specials were so much more expensive than anything else, but the minute I got my plate, I knew why: mackerel was not the only food item I would have for lunch. Oh, no. In addition to the mackerel, which was slathered in a thick, red sauce full of chili paste, there was green salad, salmon sashimi, a salmon maki with spinach, marinated cucumber, pickled cabbage and ginger, and a bowl of rice. I savored every bite. I relished the contrast of the hot, spicy, chewy, mackerel against the cool and slippery salmon. Even the rice was perfect-- a little sticky, as Japanese rice is. It felt so good to be holding chopsticks again, disregarding the fact that Japanese chopsticks are pointier than Chinese ones. It was this meal that stuck with me throughout my whole trip-- the meal that made me think that even though Japanese food isn't the most obvious ethnic cuisine in France, you would never, EVER find a place like this in the US-- a casual, homestyle eatery that is the opposite of a swank sushi bar swamped by businessmen. Sadly, when I brought my friend here, I found that it had closed for summer. And I could never have it again.

  • Moroccan food-- There are whole areas in Paris known for couscous, tagines and pastilla, but last time in France I had such a delicious meal in a little restaurant in Montmartre that the memory of it seems almost like a drugless acid trip-- my friend and i were wandering and found the restaurant, which was decorated with exotic fabric, mirrors, and china plates, and full of spiraly, wire chairs. We both ordered vegetable tagines, and they were unlike anything I had ever had before-- besides the usually suspects of zucchini, carrots, potatoes and chickpeas, there were green olives, an entire half a preserved lemon, raisins, figs, dates, prunes, and dried apricots. The couscous was light as a cloud, to use a cliched expression, because it really was so fluffy that it seemed to melt on your tongue. We drank overly sweet but delicious mint tea in little glass cups with gold patterns on them and sat there in this splendor. I wanted to go back to this place so badly. I had the good fortune to find it again! The problem was that nobody else had the same desire... they would all rather go out for crepes or pizza, or something like that. I ended up going with a guy from the program I had never spoken to in my life, but what we had in common was a love of Moroccan food, so we went. Of course the visit lacked the magic it had had before, but that was bound to happen-- it wasn't dark yet, the restaurant was empty, and we hadn't stumbled upon it by chance, but the tagine was just as I remembered it. He ordered kefta tagine with cilantro and hard-boiled eggs, which also looked good. The service was a little spotty, but I didn't care. I must learn how to replicate that vegetable tagine.. I've tried using all the same ingredients, but somehow I've never been able to do it. The restaurant is called Le Trefle, on Rue Lepic.
  • Vietnamese Food-- another typical Parisian suspect. I had actually been to the restaurant, Le Palanquin, before, when all I ate were steak frites. I did not appreciate it. This time was oh so different. My friend and I ordered pineapple and shrimp salad, vegetable nem, sauteed vegetables, and gamba skewers. There were very few non-seafood options for pescetarians other than shrimp, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it didn't pose a lot of variety for us. Either way, the food was delicious-- the nem were wonderfully chewy and slippery with shitaake and egg, and were dipped in the typical sauce of fish sauce and sugar. The salad was actually served in a pineapple-- there were red pepper shrips, cilantro, carrot slices, ginger, mint, cucumber, and perfectly juicy shrimp. It seemed to be dressed with more sugar and more fish sauce. Vegetables were average-- stirfried almost Chinese-style, but sweeter. There were broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, tree ear (I'm translating directly from Chinese... is there an English word for that?), bamboo shoots, bok choy, and sugar snap peas. The shrimp we ordered were meant to be taken off the skewers and wrapped in lettuce along with rice noodles, mint, and the same sauce. We also had perfectly chewy sticky rice. The textures and flavors of all the dishes were good, but as we didn't order a variety of dishes and EVERYTHING was drenched in fish sauce and sugar (my hands were super sticky afterwards). This was still considered an oasis and a reprieve from cafeteria food (and I enjoyed it a lot), but for some reason it lacked the magic of the other foods I've mentioned so far. I'm not exactly sure why.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Sam said...

"Why bother" with shwarma? I could wax as lyrical about shwarma as you do about falafel... (not that I don't love falafel, of course).

August 2, 2008 at 6:56 PM  
Blogger Lida said...

Alright, Sam, I see your point. But for those who don't eat meat, falafel is a godsend.

August 4, 2008 at 10:39 AM  
Anonymous ShiraT said...

Lida!
You write with a bongastronomie worthy of Ruth Reichl. Have you read her??

Your prandial postings are phat, girl!!
(no pun intended).

BTW, as a meat eater I'm with Sam on the Shwarma thing.

August 4, 2008 at 3:38 PM  

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