The Real Thing

Anna's Pancakes with bacon (big british version) and eggs. Look at that dripping syrup! Tasty.

On Tuesday I went to see one of my favorite plays, The Real Thing.  Then I woke up and went out for my favorite meal, breakfast.  A wonderful 24 hours.

And now the defense of that not very cultured or foodiesque bold statement that breakfast is my favorite meal.  Going out for breakfast encapsulates all of the best reasons to go out: it is extravagant, leisurely, intimate, acceptable gluttony.  You wake up just to spend extended time eating.  You have coffee and get dressed just to go have more coffee and food at a time that you might have just as well eaten in Pajamas (Two asides here–first, at Grumps in Annapolis the staff actually does wear pajamas to work on the weekends, making the entire experience deliciously lazy in a way I think should be implemented elsewhere, and second, I fully support wearing perhaps not pajamas but certainly last nights party clothes to this morning’s recovery feast.  It’s just the classy thing to do, especially if dining with those who partook in the rumpus, and outfit, of the night before).  Back to the list of the wonders of breakfast…. Breakfast out involves the same things you know how to cook but made with more sugar and butter and beautiful precision then you could ever bring yourself to allow into your own kitchen at 9AM or earlier.

I am not so blind in love that I can’t admit that breakfast can also be all the worst things about eating out.  Brunch, especially, can be overpriced, overhyped, scene-y surroundings serving boring ‘classics’ that are just average omelets and muffins.  That is why it is fun and challenging to find a really good breakfast place! Scrambled eggs are not just one color of yellow, they are a whole rainbow of potential textures, cream ratios, herb additions, and smoked fish toppings. And any Vermonter can tell you, pancakes are nothing without the syrup from a maple root terroir carefully chosen to balance their cakeyness, fruitneyness, or nuttyness.  I haven’t even gone into Texan butter syrups or hollandaise varieties but never fear, I have some sense of boundaries even in the fervent passions of my obsession! It is easy to pass off breakfast as uninventive but that would be like writing off pizza and pasta as simple, childish, crowd pleaser meals.

In Stoppard’s The Real Thing the leading man, Henry, famously “loves love” and pop music.  He is unable to be converted to classical music and defends his taste to his wife, saying, “Actually, I’ve got a better ear than you. You can’t tell the difference between the Everly Brothers and the Andrews Sisters.”  I don’t know why but I feel similarly defensive of breakfast.  Maybe because it is the first meal to get the cut when people are in a rush.  Or because, unlike most meals one would have for dinner, it’s perfectly acceptable to market breakfast in large boxes decorated with cartoons of captains and tigers.  Breakfast is for kids! Somehow people aren’t taking breakfast seriously.  And when it comes to scene chasing brunch, breakfast is a lucrative and massively popular marketplace, not a carefully prepared meal.  Like the worst kind of pop music.

Luckily J-A cafe is the ‘real thing.’  It’s worth being able to tell the difference between one hit wonders. At the cafe they respect breakfast.  They give it a good atmosphere, sun and flowers in a lovely courtyard for eating outside, a big homey chalkboard with baking specials, and well spaced tables so Anna and I could enjoy a personal conversation in the sunlight.  And they give breakfast a good balance between lovable standards and what you would never bother to make alone, at home.  My soda bread was squishy with egg cream and butter and, as everyone can see (exciting!) Anna’s bacon was dripping a pearl of syrup.

In the play version, rather than the breakfast version, of ‘The Real Thing’ Henry explains another thing that is commonplace and sometimes abandoned to casual or dismissive treatment: language.   Words, in his opinion, need respect because they are commonplace, because they can create an idea that “travels.” An idea that translates, appeals to, and affects the audience and leaves the theatre with with them; language that “nudges the world.”  Words are, “innocent, neutral, precise…if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos.” (167).  Eggs and bread and butter, and coffee (!),  all of these things build bridges across incomprehension. I’m not always a fan of Henry, he’s childish and in my opinion he’s often dead wrong and hypocritical about love but he’s right about the importance of precision and perfection in everyday, popular, common moments.  Pop music, words, breakfast… no matter what the cultured snazzy people say.

http://jandacafe.com/

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Ode to a Nutella Crepe.


This picture is strangely gross and delicious. Nutellicios Paradox.

When people tell you things close early on Sunday in France they are NOT kidding.  After spontaneously deciding to stop for a crepe mid-journey back into Paris from Dijon, because it occurred to us–not without considerable horror–that I still hadn’t tasted Margot’s favorite French food, we wondered for an hour on the hunt for the elusive gooey pancake!  I know, I know, there’s so much more in the wide world of French food but this had to be done.  It was our strange way of honoring the end of the trip, a hunt for something usually prevalent, suddenly made rare.  Soon it will be any day of the week that requires a elaborate process to procure a crepe.  We’re going away from the land of wondrous delicious, beautiful detail and sunshine.   The first days in France it seemed we had all of our lives to eat crepes and Sunday we had only hours.  My crepe lasted only seconds on the plate but the taste is congealed in my memory, always.  Oh France, think not that I have forgotten you so quickly now I reside in Oxford.

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Back in Oxford. Eating Sushi. Obviously.

Salmon, Tune, Roe and Avocado Gunkanzushi

It’s been almost a year since I first said “this Thursday I’m going for saki and sushi at Edamame.” I never went. I kept not going.  The whole thing was a huge hole in my integrity. Eventually, a paper or a party, or a whatever is just not a good excuse.

Edamame is small and mysterious. No joke.  You have to check the website for its weekly opening times (www.edamame.freereserve.co.uk/), and then stand in a line that reaches down the street.  Inside the toy box restaurant there there are just a few smaller tables pushed away into corners and three very long tables where multiple different dinner parties are squeezed together around big communal pots of creamy wasabi.  On Thursday nights you can be sure that from 5-8.30 they are serving their select but satisfying sushi menu–just one type of tuna, squid, shrimp, roe, or sweet omelet and veggies.  A few nice but equally purist specials are posted on the wall, variations of spicy and california rolls.  There are only two types of saki to choose from so you really can’t go wrong, or feel like an idiot. The more difficult choice is after ordering Saki when the server brings a whole basket of assorted mismatched, ceramic saki-bowls.  The whole concept has a humble elegance with its few choices of fresh food and a few still loud and boisterous tables.

Loll and I waited in line for 30 minutes after arriving around 5.30 (yeah, I know really early!) and then spent an hour and a half on the stools at our corner of the communal table.  We ordered once from the menu and then decided to order again, this time from the specials.  The transformation from awkward perches on the stools and our necks bent stiffly away from eye contact with the neighboring diners was quick.  Soon we were loosing deep secrets into the din of constant conversations in the little room.  The eclectic cups and the eclectic groups at tables give everything in the seemingly plain restaurant a vibrant buzz like the one lurking in its wasabi bowls. And luckily, you don’t need a lot of elbow space to eat sushi.  Maybe my new battle with integrity will involve the statement:  “sometime this week, not Thursday, I’ll be eating the not-sushi-night menu at Edamame.”  I have the sinking sense this trip will take even a little longer to realize but maybe the surprise opening hours will work in coincidence with my schedule sometime soon.

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Margot’s Margaux

“Barren” is the only word that describes the conditions of our arrival for tasting (of wine), and eating in the village of Margaux.  Barren of coffee, barren of people, barren of sun, even barren of suggestive leafy growth; the grapes are still just emerging.  We arrived in Catanac, the town just before Margaux, at exactly 9:00AM.  We woke up at 6:00AM in order to catch the bus, which only leaves from Bordeaux once every two hours.  The coffee disparity was–I cannot stress enough–a massive problem.  The bus driver thought we were absolutely crazy, flagging her down with energetic arm signaling we were told was necessary by the Maison du Vin, who warned, “don’t miss the bus or you will miss the tasting appointment.” What she should have said was, “If you miss the bus you’ll have woken up at 6:00 AM and there will be no wine to ease your pain.” That’s some motivation.

The Bus timetable was, in short, not ideal.  Neither was our understanding of Catanac.  We wandered for a while into a few even more deserted areas of the village, imagining the discovery of a Boulangerie and getting damn close to a coffee-deprived mirage.  Margot kept opening her eyes wide and exclaiming, “but where do they get coffee and bread?”  They live on wine; on the little miniscule bits of wine that last on their tongue, collecting after thousands of tastes-and-spits in one day. Yes, not very probable.  But ‘reason’ seems a distant concept when a rooster is actually just now crowing (that happened), and you’ve been up for two hours with only a tiny shot of “cafe” pretending to be coffee because you were too sleepy to remember to say the full two words “Cafe American.”

The day could only go upwards.  Indeed, I must say that we were already having one of those literally hopeless good times.  A desperate hunt for coffee in a ghost town and  Roosters ushering you to a wine tasting are nothing other than hilarious.  Now the important question that keeps the entire day from being farce: why all the hassle?  Margot’s parents bought cases of Margaux when she was born, in her honor. The village and label remained a sort of mascot for her life and, for example, she has a painting of the Chateau in her room. The famed Chateau Margaux is impossible to visit without months of planning and some hefty name dropping or euro dropping, but there was no way we were going to be a few miles from the village and not at least try some nearby wines and eat a delicious lunch.

Chateaux Pierre-Lycee was the 10 AM stop.  They gave an impressive tour, not the best we’d tasted in the region, but generally nice, so Margot bought her mother a bottle of wine for Mother’s Day.  Notice the red bag in the photos below…we carted that wine 40 minutes down the road to our lunch reservation.  We also carted it to all over France until her mother arrived.  That is anther story.  

I guess we could have hitchhiked. Maybe next time.

For lunch we really splurged. We sat outside in a covered garden at Le Savoie and had the Menu Degustation, with wine pairings:

Duo de Foi Gras de Canard paired with a glass of Sauternes

Two types of Duck Foi Gras, one seared and one pate, with sweet raison and balsamic, olive oil and tomatoes.

Meddallion de Homard a L’ Americaine and a glass of Pessac Leognan

Lobster in a cream sauce and what seemed to be a sort of Lobster Souffle

Filet de Boeuf facon tournedos Sauce et Macarons au Truffes with a glass of Margaux (!)

Steak with veggies, wrapped in bacon, topped with a truffle macaroon. WOW!

Fromage and a glass of Margaux

Cheese!

Croustellant Praline Chocolate, Mousse Mandarin

Praline bars with orange whipped cream.

The four hours of eating was, to say the least, intensely delicious.  We did great justice to Margot’s pre-natal agathodemon.  Yes, that is a word, I just learned it from Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and it means good spirit.  After a lot of time spent digesting we made a final approach to the actual Chateaux.  I can’t officially speak for Margot but that’s never stopped me before… so … we felt, in a word, content.

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Oh my God it’s a Cave. Of Cheese!

It’s been a long time since I was last near my computer and able to blog. Sorry!  I really should get a more portable laptop–or a stronger back! The reward for patient readers is: cheese.

Cheese in Bordeaux at Baud et Millet

Bordeaux is packed with “caves.”  Every time we walk past a sign that reads “Le Cave” I point and repeat “LE CAVE (!),” like I’m some sort of two year old and just learned to read a new favorite word.  I can’t help my excitement.  I imagine wide, bowl-like glasses of meaty red wine served on fading, round French tasting tables that are flung out from the wall as you walk in and set under sloping ceilings framing heavy chandelier-stalactites. Margot made a futile attempt to ruin my fantasy, pointing out that “cave” signs just mean a certain product is stored on the premise—they exist for cigars, beer, wine, and, yes, for cheese.  Let that be a hint.

Margot and I successfully booked a wine tasting trip for our second afternoon, thinking that would be our foray into some serious caving in Bordeaux.  To kill time until dinner we accomplished some chocolate related wandering…

The chunks of chocolate and some very bright perfumed macaroons were an excellent appetizer and we decided immediately upon reading the description, “a wine and cheese lover’s paradise,” to eat dinner at Baud et Millet (19 Rue Hugerie).  It wasn’t titled “cave,” but I was wiling to compromise for cheese.

We were the first people to walk into the tiny restaurant, indeed, I’m not sure it was actually open when we arrived.  The lounging chef and waiter looked up and took pity on our hunger at such an uncivilized early hour, (7pm) so they buzzed us into a walkway lined by cases of wine.  This was looking good… or maybe bad, I thought, as I remembered that we hadn’t actually tasted wine yet; how would we pick one of these local bottles to order?  The waiter spoke shy English when he handed us menus and explained that we should pick any bottle of wine from any case and he would come back for our food order.  We thought it would be sensible to pick food first.  Suddenly we were faced with another divine sort of problem, like too many choices of wine, there were too many choices of cheese. The entire menu, all eight choices on the tiny card, is comprised of different ways to cook with French cheese.  At the very top of the menu was a little boxed option, “cheese buffet.” We looked around, where was the buffet? Our American understanding of “buffet” was certainly not evident in the tiny space of the restaurant, so when the waiter came back we asked about what we assumed was a miss-translation.  Could we please share a “cheese buffet?” (We really only wanted to spend half it’s 24 euro price tag).  He looked at us, understandably, like we couldn’t read our own language but then backed up politely and said he would ask.  The chef walked over, all ten steps from the back of the restaurant to the front table before the wine crates, she said, “it is a buffet.” But, she said, it would be possible for us to go to the “buffet”—wherever it was—and select what we wanted.  Then, she would inspect our choice plate and just make up a price. We thought that sounded great. How much stuff could there really be on the invisible buffet?  We proceeded with the process of picking a bottle of wine.

Baud et Millet wine-wall selection

The wine we chose--sediment and all! Really, it was just one of the least expensive bottles we picked up. It's a little scary to dig, (that's what you have to do) through wines that cost up to 300 euros.

The waiter came back to the table, clearly still thinking we were a little nuts, and began to open the bottle while gesturing to a set of stairs diagonal from our table.  Oh yes, this must be the way to the buffet…down the cool dark staircase… very sketchy.  What lurked at the bottom of the staircase was jaw dropping. A CAVE OF CHEESE! Open sesame and hello riches of dairy.  Margot and I looked at each other, looked at the treasure, and went back of the stairs we she smiled to the chef and said, “Sorry, actually we’ll each do the buffet.”  She raised her eyes, looked us up and down with new approval. That would be fine, she said.

The staircase lined by cheese goofy cheese cases. Maybe we should have suspected what was down there...

Slowly more people rang the doorbell and shuffled through the wall of wine and into the tiny restaurant.  We finished our first basket of bread, asked for another, made two more trips to the cave, and finally made our way to the last sips of our wine, deliciously tinged with a touch of stubborn earthy sediments.  I have no idea which types of cheese I ate, I just ate them all.  I don’t think I left a single one untried.  That seems like an impressive feat, or a lie, considering that there was a variety of something close to 30 types spread around the refrigerated shelves of the cave, but trust me, it’s just impossible to resist. We both exclaimed that this was the first thing we had done in all of France that was worth a special trip just for repetition.  Seriously, let me know if you are headed to Bordeaux. That staircase is actually sketchy and shouldn’t be attempted alone—really, it’s not trouble, I’ll just come along.

Baud et Millet, 19 Rue Hugerie, Bordeaux FRANCE

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Aimer c’ est du desordre … alors aimons! Wine at Monuments Part 2

aimer c’est du desordre… alors aimons! "Love is disorder... so love!"

Voted the "Best Baguette 2010."

The winner of the Best Baguette 2010 was Djibril Bodian (Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses).  Margot’s favorite spot in Paris is the view from Sacre-Coeur, which conveniently is very close to Abbesses.  I used my very subtle wit to convince her that we needed to make a very specific stop for our late lunch. I said, “Margot, what do you think ‘best’ tastes like?”  She didn’t find the concept as intriguing as I though she would, however, she is used to my food hunts and review reading addictions.

Margot is gently skeptical of my love for guidebook/blog research.  She refers to my Rough Guide to France like it’s another human traveling with us, “Frank.”  Indeed, there is some truth to her joke that, had she not come soon enough to keep me company, I might have begun speaking to “Frank,” and my camera, “Cameron,” as though they were my travel friends.  I take the comfort and involvement of my inanimate travel companions very seriously.

Twenty minutes after my suggestion of the lunch plan Margot was looking distinctly less tolerant of my food tourism.  A I turned the map upside down and squinted at Rue names she stared longingly across the street at perfectly edible looking baguettes.

How ironic that, when we finally found the holy grail of baguettes (it was, actually, very good!), we enjoyed that oh so specific lunch in a park dedicated to the value of chaos. Take a look at the photo above; that is an entire wall of lovers who have signed their support to the idea that love is chaos and… yet/so/because of that/despite that … we all love” That’s Margot’s translation. Google loosely agrees.

So what does “best” taste like?  Well… really good… I’m no expert baguette-eater and I can’t use a criteria in this category like the highly scientific beauty contest for patisseries.  This baguette was better than others I’ve eaten but I cannot definitively say I will never, ever, try a better one.  I don’t just mean the  2011 winner.  The wall-ode to chaotic love and love of chaos sat grinning down on our lunch-ode to rationality and plans.  We were eating the elite, expert approved baguette, at a monument to all things unexpectedly lovely.  Traveling has taught us to believe in the unexpectedly lovely.  It has also taught us to read up and plan.

Unable to handle the irony and my confusing allegories any more, we went and bought a 4-euro bottle of wine to drink–and like good tourists, had it on the slopes of Sacre-Couer.  Uncomplicated. Predictable. Lovely. Best? For that moment.

Find the Best Baguette:  38 rue des Abbesses, 75018.

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These hamburgers are for dolls! Wine in public: part 1.

Margot contemplates her chocolate tart and surveys the surroundings of the Louvre. Is this, or is this not, actually heaven?

Margot descended on Paris! She just arrived back from journeys to the south of France, visiting an old school friend who is now teaching English in Pao.  In just two days of Margot-time my knowledge of Paris has improved exponentially.  For example, I now know that it is perfectly legal to drink wine outside, even on the grounds of national treasures.  You can picnic with rosé at the Eiffel Tower, walk through Jardin Luxembourg with champagne, or, as I know first hand, sip a bottle of red wine in the reclining garden chairs of the Tulleries outside the Louvre.  If that seems surreal, don’t worry, it is.

In other miraculous news from Paris: it is possible to buy wine for less than it costs to buy a Café au Lait and a croissant. Yes, that too is surreal. (I may be stretching the strict definitions of surreal here). You can buy pretty tasty wine for 4 Euros! It’s pressed wine, wrung from the dredges of really good wine—the grape skins and nasty stuff naturally removed from the barrels when its time for the 60 euro bottles to age to drinking maturity—but I think these table wines still have a lingering taste of the grapes that went into their fancy cousins. I can dream.

For all that Margot is able to accomplish for 4 Euros, I’ll just say I have some skills too.  I handle the bread-cheese-chocolate needs.  I’m not great at finding bargains, but I can find some darn perfect macaroons and tarts.  And now, I can even I pronounce pistache and framboise properly.  Chocolate was always easy to say.

I may have exaggerated about my skills.  All they amount to is my determination to look in the window of every shop that sports the label “boulangier,” “cremerie,” or “patissier.” I will cross streets, brave motorcycles, and bump into gorgeous French children in order to check out the display.  For some reason I’m very positive that looks will tell me a good French pastry when I see them.  Usually, don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, a perfect looking pastry is probably a perfect French pastry.  Example: the French macaroon.   This is a fundamentally ridiculous food; it looks like a diet hamburger for a pastel loving china doll! The macaroon, let’s face it, popular mainly for its adorableness first and deliciousness second is a food that is eaten because you can.  It is a beautiful frivolity.  It is my ‘perfect’ model for understanding le desert.

Oh yum.

I found the day’s Patisserie, Gosselin, in a pretty obvious spot for beauty and frivolity: Rude de St. Hon0re.  I already admitted that I’m not a bargain hunter.  Margot got a chocolate tart and I ordered a massive pistache framboise macaroon. No, not because those are the only two ingredients I can ask for! By the way, there’s no shame in learning your favorites first.  I got it because this macaroon was a ridiculous puffy pastel hamburger made human size. Yes.

What a lovely cocktail hour… once I finally realized that we truly were allowed to have a bottle of wine in public.  Something about it feels so devious. Oh those French! They take the coolest deviance and convert rebellion to nothing but a nonchalant evening.  Margot kept laughing at me while my eyes darted around looking at all of the joggers and families.  They were so close! And we were just out in the open! Sipping from a bottle of wine!

Apparently, this country is paradise.

Gosselin Patisserie

St. Honore and just off Rue de Louvre

(to your left when approaching the Louvre on Rue de Louvre).

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