A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sept. 13.

Rotterdam - When the overnight train to Nice proved to be a waking nightmare, we decided to scrap our itinerary and make some adjustments. One such adjustment was to add a day in Rotterdam before making our eventual way to Amsterdam, thus easing us into the Netherlands' rowdier capital. When Vince and I arrived at the central station and walked through the small Chinatown, I couldn't help but notice the wild buildings, the city's defining characteristic. Namely, it looked like there'd been an architecture contest and the judges couldn't pick a winner so they just decided to build everyone's entry.

Checking into our hostel, we spent most of the day walking around and taking in the notable sights, among them Erasmusburg, Rottermdam's most famous and accomplished bridge. Along the way, we passed many "coffee shops," which all distinctively smelled like my second year college apartment. Afterward, it was time for lunch. I walked around a few blocks, all of which had ten to twenty letters in their names, and stumbled upon a shop that claimed to sell Belgian Javanese and Surinamese broodjes, or sandwiches. It was called King Foeng, and I was immedately intrigued by the comination of Asian, African and European influences. Walking in blindly, I stepped up to the counter and ordered a dynamite, which consisted of hot sauce and pork, and garnalen, or shrimp. Both were completely phenomenal, with a crunchy bread reminiscent of bahn mi and a filling that outshone a lot of great Thai food. I felt shocked that not only had I never tried such a delicious sandwich, but that I had never even heard of it. In fact, it was so good that I ha no chance but to return to King Foeng, even after I discovered that many other places in Rotterdam also offered the same mix of Dutch-ruled nationalities. This time, I tried the kouseband garnalen, or shrimp and string beans, and the steak broodje. Again, both were fantastic although ultimately, my favorite was the exquite plain garnalen with its waves of heat. And while Rotterdam didn't entice me as much as it would an architecture student, the multicultural broodjes alone were well worth the detour.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Sept. 12.

Paris, Part Five - It was my last day in Paris, but it was also a perfect one. The morning started with a last visit to Champion, where I bought a jar of traffic cone-orange roe dip and split a truly excellent black walnut bread. The bread's darkness and its nutty crunch contrasted vividly with the smooth lightness of the fish eggs. From there, I went strolling through Montmartre and tracked down a copy of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. Verses in hand, I walked down to the Tuileries, Paris's most famous and stunning jardins. Kids were steering toy boats on the water, families of ducks were waddling by, the sun seemed to bless the benches with haloes. I started to translate the first poem, "Au Lecteur," grappling with the fluid argot. The more lines I trudged through, the more enchanting the process became. Coupled with the grandeur of the Tuileries' sculptures and the serenity of the scenery, the moment felt ideal.

Continuing my downward trajectory, I headed south over the Seine and back into Montparnasse. My goal this time was to visit the Café de Flores, a spot on Boulevard Saint-Germain all the Left Bank intelligentsia used to haunt. Camus and Picasso for example made frequent appearances, but most meaningfully to me, Sartre penned Being and Nothingness among the same walls too. As soon as I walked in, I knew my environment had drastically changed, the crowd more Michelin three-star than unwashed backpacker. Still, a bowtied waiter with slicked back hair welcomed me warmly as I took a seat against the wall to study the businessman thumbing through Le Monde or the elderly regular in the beautifully tailored suit who every waiter chatted with when they saw him. I ordered an eclair and a cappuccino and broke out the Baudelaire again. For the next few hours, I sipped my coffee and nibbled at the pastry, untangling tenses or scribbling in my notebook. The experience brought on another onslaught of euphoria, even after my waiter produced the sixteen-euro check.

Finally, at eight, I reconvened with Vince for dinner. After so many days of saving at supermarkets, we were going to have our first splurge meal of the trip. The place I'd picked was Dix Vins, which L'Express picked as the best bistro under thirty euros. Located on rue Falguière, it felt like a quintessential Parisian bistro with dim lighting, simple but inviting decor, and a prix-fixe menu filled with familiar but thoughtful classics. Called the Divine Formule, it offered three courses, an appetizer, a meat course and cheese or dessert, for twenty-four euros. I started, as the restaurant's name aptly suggested, with a glass of wine. I chose a Corbières, and turned my focus to all of the prix-fixe's delectable options.

I inaugurated the dinner with the pâte du campagne maison, or pâte of the country house. Nutty and firm, it threatened to revise everything I thought I knew about pâte, managing somehow to taste both novel and traditional. Next, I proceeded to the entrecôte, or steak, which came at a two-euro supplement. I was more than happy to pay when I took the first bite of the meat. This dish needed no ingenuity, just quality beef cooked with deep, masterful flavor. Since it was French, l'entrecôte was also slasher-flick bloody but it worked well here.

With my wine running low, the waitress-owner brought over dessert. I had picked the tarte citron, or lemon tart, which was at least as tart as it was lemon. The triangular sliver was a cleansing if slightly too simple end to a terrific meal in a very soothing ambiance. For me, the dinner proved well worth the splurge and even better, Dix Vins gave a perfect city, the city of cities, the close it deserved.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sept. 11.

Paris, Part Four - All along, I had been saving myself like a Catholic waiting for his honeymoon. Sure, I had those splendid pastries in Madrid and the formidable tarte aux abricots in Nice, but I looked at those as mere foreplay, some clumsy under-the-sweater action that shouldn´t really count. This morning, I was ready for the real thing however, and so, bravely I marched up to a nearby Montmartre patisserie and joined the line scaling out the door. The odors of dough and cremes were more intoxicating than a spice market´s and the lineup of cakes, croissants and confections posed quite the choice.

I decided to go with the millefeuille, a classic dessert of flaky puff pastry interspersed with vanilla cream. It literally means a thousand leaves, in reference to its many layers. I then added the almandine, an almond-based pastry that tasted reminiscent of marzipan, and the tartelette pomme, or small apple tart. The result? Surprisingly underwhelming, to be honest. They were good to be sure, but they each had their faults. Trying the millefeuille, I realized it was the same thing as the Napoleon, Russia´s name for its version. That immediately pitted it against my aunt´s and grandmother´s creations, a battle it would inevitably lose. For me, the millefeuille´s undoing was its vanilla, which was too sweet and cloying. The almandine on the other hand was too dry and by the end, boring. The tartelette had no such evident flaws but it also failed to stun. All in all, it was a tough, faith-shaking turn of events.

Luckily, I had a surer bet to save the day. In this vein, Vince and I headed to the Ile St. Louis, a picturesque Paris island where Marie Curie used to live. After making a necessary stop at the Cathedrale Notre Dame, it was onward to Berthillon for ice cream. On my guidebook´s advice, I had ventured out to the oak-paneled glacerie seven years ago when I was last here and since then, I still periodically dream of those perfect scoops of pamplemousse and noisette. My new guidebook concurred, calling it the best ice cream in Paris but also the city´s ˝worst kept secret.˝ Even Augustin´s family loved it, chattering excitedly when we mentioned we´d be visiting the famed shop.

It was starting to mist as we approached, but neither that nor the long, curling line outside was going to stop me. More daunting was again making a choice between all the flavors. My first time up I went with a scoop of peche de vigne, or peach of the vine, and agnaise, also known as prune armagnac. The red peach boule had a rich, ecstatic depth to it, somehow more peach than peach. The prune armagnac, which I previously tried at Il Laboratorio in gelato form, was equally wonderful, with a nice balance of liqueur and fruit. Barely finishing my ice cream, I got back on line and this time, went with the cacao extra bitter and mirabelle, a small yellow plum. Again, the results were incredible, with the fruit flavors ultimately being my favorites. I was also so glad that after so long, this iconic eatery was still at the top of its form.

I was reluctant to leave Berthillon but we were also expected at Augustin´s for dinner. Then I realized we could unite the two pleasures by bringing his family a package of the shop´s beautiful macaroons. Walking from the Ile back toward the Champs Elysees, I took in all of the impressive sights we were passing. Then reaching the Rue de Bassano, towering Augustin greeted us again at the door and I struggled to relate our day´s adventures to him in a still-freshman level French. Again, we were welcomed to the cheerful family´s table and again, they produced a simple but heartwarming meal. Tonight, in addition to the croquettes and the meat plate, the main dish was an olive-topped pizza. I thought it was delicious but Vince seemed to love it even more. We laughed and joked, I tried to make a French pun, Constance told us about a tennis game she lost that day. I felt even less a guest and more like family. To round out the night, the Mom brought out the plate of the macaroons we had given them. They came in chocolate, vanilla and almond, and sure enough, they were all terrific. By the end, I felt almost spoiled by all the wonders I was experiencing and all the joy I was feeling.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sept. 10.

Paris, Part Three - Bakeries in Paris are painful to pass. The displays behind the glass can be so staggering that I freeze like an indecisive turtle. The tarts practically glisten. The breads pose proudly. Only the faint clank of Euros in my pocket starts me walking again, reminding me that I don't have money to spare. But this morning, I ignored those dissonant coins and my at-risk cholesterol level and walked into a particularly fragrant boulangerie. My choice obvious, I reemerged with a Quiche Lorraine in hand. Already, it was turning the white bag a greasy grey in spots, but I didn't give it long to last. And of course, it proved delicious, decadently creamy and effortlessly buoyant.

From here, it was onto the Georges Pompidou museum, which Matt had declared "awesome" the previous day. It was beyond awesome, perhaps even managing to outshine the Orsay. The building itself was a feat, with the structure of it turned inside out, with pipes and the internal bric-a-brac moved to the exterior. Inside, the permanent collection, entitled the Big Bang, was just as challenging and confrontional. Instead of being organized chronologically, the contemporary art was built around themes, such as Destruction, Guerre, Sexe and Subversion, and subthemes such as Voyeurisme, Nazisme, Chaos and Ironie. Not everything in the collection worked for me, but it felt so exciting to see so many disparate works colliding with and commenting on each other. More than a dialogue, it was a dialectic of chaos and inspiration. I could´ve easily spent the whole day there, in the crosshairs of the works, but Vince and I had to race to get to my friend Augustin's house.

I met Augustin a month ago on my plane ride to start this trip. We were both flying from DC to Amsterdam (where I'd then connect to Barcelona) and we were sitting next to each other. For the next seven hours, we talked about everything, from his life as a Parisian teenager to my former life as a New York law lackey. He told me about his family and friends in France and marveled at how much fatter the people were and how bigger the cars were in America. We barely paused in our sprawling conversation, alternating between questions, cultural differences, linguistic differences, ponderings. By the time the plane landed, we were sadly exchanging e-mails and addresses, and Augustin invited me to call him when I arrived in Paris. That´s exactly what I did.

Because he lived a few blocks from the Champs Elysees, we agreed to rendezous at the Arc du Triomphe. A military band was playing in full costume and the well-dressed urbanites were parading up the crowded avenue. Augustin, already well over six feet tall at sixteen, guided Vince and me around, telling us stories and trivia about Paris's most iconic street. Then we headed to his three-bedroom apartment on the Rue du Bassano, where his perfect family was waiting. I can't begin to explain how cute his father, mother and sister were, but they put the Cosbys and the Cleavers to shame. They welcomed us like relatives from a war-torn country and implored us to take seats at the dinner table. As we passed around the plates, the meal proved simple but such a pleasure, replete with potato croquettes, salad, steak and a plate of luncheon meats. The father made puns in German and English and exclaimed "I am so hilarious!," slapping the table comically. I talked with the mother in my rudimentary French, as she didn't speak English, which mostly meant pointing at foods and saying they were good. In between, Augustin and his sister, Constance, acted as intermediaries and told us anecdotes.

After the appetizers and meat, the sweet, ruddy-cheeked Mom brought out a cheese plate. ˝Les fromages sont bonnes!˝ I said. After we passed around the cheese and drained our wines, we turned to the dessert of fruits and ice cream. Again, it was nothing fancy but a great closer to a terrific night. And after being on our own for so long, it was such a relief to be around a family, especially one this generous. To make matters even better, they nearly begged us to come back, which we happily agreed to. ˝Unless you get to your home and change your mind,˝ the father said, ˝because you are on the toilet and you go...˝ He imitated the sound of a volcano erupting and we all laughed again.

Leaving their house, Vince and I were both overjoyed and gratified. Retracing our steps, we revisited the Arc du Triomphe after dark and then watched the Eiffel Tower burst into its frenetic light show at nine o´clock. The throng of people assembled let out a collective gasp of excitement at the overpowering display, but between the bakeries, the Pompidou, and dinner at Augustin´s, to me, it just felt like an exactly appropriate finale to the night.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Sept. 9.

Paris, Part Two - Paris is overwhelming, with temptations large and small. A walk down the street can yield the scent of a profound gruyere. A walk down another street can put you at the foot of the dazzling opulence of the Opera House. At some point, it becomes easier to seek out the unappealing streets than the majestic ones, when nearly all of the city's channels seem swelled with magic.

Our morning started at the Basilica Saint-Coeur, the lovely, tourist-teeming house of worship quite close to our hotel. At the top of a hill, it overlooked the vast miles of metropolis below, just as its residents were starting to go about their days. From there, we hit up the Champion supermarket, where I stocked up on a cheap pre-packaged Brie, a wheat bread with walnuts and raisins, and two Royal Gala apples. I generally don't like apples plain but I love pairing them with Brie. Besides, something about those red- and yellow-dappled orbs proved irresistible. So the breakfast, though basic and quick, turned out pretty wonderful, with every component managing to impress.

Vince and I walked south afterward toward the 7th arrondisement, where all the major attractions awaited. Down by the placid Seine, we forewent the Louvre (I'd already paid homage to the coy Mona Lisa and amputated Venus on my last trip) and the Eiffel Tower in favor of l'Orsay. A museum dedicated to art from 1840 to 1914, it wowed me so much previously that I just had to return. I had to see the grandeur of the former train station, which houses the stunning and wide-reaching collection of Impressionism, Post-impressionism and Art Nouveau. Just like I expected, I was awed and inspired all over again by the constant waves of beauty.

After the museum, we headed down to Montparnasse, Paris's arty southern area. We were going to check out Ti Jos, which the ever-wise Anonymous recommended to me in my comments section. A creperie known for its ciders, it sounded like a delicious and very French dinner. Unfortunately, it didn't open until seven so Vince and I sat along the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet to wait. I memorized a few French verbs (most prominently, le cidre) and read a chapter of Tropic of Cancer. Then I looked up and bizarrely, saw my former East Village roommate Matt crossing the street. I called out to him and after the bewilderment wore off, I learned that he'd moved to Paris to study art. I had no idea he had left New York and he had no idea I'd left either, but here we were all the same on a random street in the city of lights. We agreed to reconvene after dinner and catch up.

But first, there was dinner. Ever since my previous visit to Paris, where I practically subsisted on street crepes, I longed for more of the thin, flat batter-skins. The ones I tried in New York (the Crooked Tree Creperie) were fine but didn't really compare. Now, after trying Ti Jos, I know how little even Paris's streets crepes compare to the real article. One sight of the woman cooking in the back, with her eerie resemblance to Whistler's Mother, should have given it away. We started by splitting a galette, a close cousin of the crepe, filled with ham, cheese and mushrooms. It had a great light texture coupled with a wonderfullz rich flavor. The warmth of the filling upped the ante even further. Next, I had a Great Marnier crepe, which came flambée. Our jovial waitress brought over the dish as the dancing flames engulfed it. Everyone in the restaturant, all locals incidentally, turned to watch. The woman at the next table put down her menu and informed her husband she'd order the same thing. It was a smart move as the Grand Marnier crepe was even better, with a sweet, alcohol-spiked heat radiating through the lightly charred perimeter. To make the whole meal better, I of course also had un verre du cidre de maison. It was so much better than the weak American ciders I'`ve tried. This was closer to a beer, with enough apple flavor to make it pleasant but enough heartiness to savor. My one reservations about Ti Jos, or creperies more generallz, is that they end up being somewhat expensive for the amount of food you eat. Still, the price of about sixteen euros for a truly terrific meal was still well worth it.

True to my word, I called up Matt and we met back on Boulevard Edgar-Quinet. He told me about his few weeks in Paris and about his art classes. I rhapsodized about the city and how it had such an intrinsic culture of beauty. Not knowing French, he still seemed unsettled and lonely. We talked about homesickness and being a foreigner. After wandering for a half hour, we found a bar that looked cheap. We both ordered pints of wheat beer and looked at each other with surprise when the glasses came. They were much bigger than we were expecting and the price had risen accordingly to match: nine euros per person. He was a poor student and I was a poor traveler, so we did what we had to. He looked left, I looked right, I gathered up my notebook, and we took off running. Later, he called up his friend Meg, another American studying art here. She supposedly lived a block away from Jacques Chirac on the Rue de Babylone, so we took the Metro down there. Meg, her roommate, Matt and I sat around and drank Kir Royale out of yogurt jars and talked and laughed, carefree and happy.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sept. 8.

Paris, Part One - "It is no accident that propels people like us to Paris. Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict. Of itself Paris initiates no dramas. They are begun elsewhere. Paris is simply an obstetrical instrument that tears the living embryo from the womb and puts it back in the incubator. Paris is the cradle of artificial births. Rocking here in the cradle each one slips back into his soil: one dreams back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk. Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris. Everything is raised to apotheosis. The cradle gives up its babes and new ones take their places. You can read here on the walls where Zola lived and Balzac and Dante and Strindberg and everybody else who was ever anything. Everyone has lived here some time or other. Nobody dies here." - Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer.

I don't believe in love at first sight. I mock the concept of soulmates. And yet when we arrived in Paris at dusk, I instantly felt an undeniable attraction to the city, a pull, a lure. I'd only been here for three days before, at age seventeen, but that hadn't stopped me from dreaming up its allures and mythologizing them. Now, with the city unfurling before me, against the twinkle of early stars and the streetlamps' citric auras, the packed rues' raucous energy, the songs spilling out of brasseries, the apartments' exquisite slopes and frets, I felt a little shocked. Paris seemed even more beautiful and exciting than the ideal I'd conjured up for it.

Our hotel, a bare one-star in the northern reaches of the dixieme arrondisement of Montmartre, added to the appeal. The room was a lonely white and only had a bidet. Both the toilette and the douche were down the dark-lit hall, with access to the shower restricted to a few hours at morning and night. Staying there, I felt more like an artist, just a poisonous bottle of scotch and an antique typewriter short of the fantasy. The location fit too, as Montmartre used to be the domain of intellectuals, writers and painters, like Picasso and Stein. Today, it maintains its interesting identity as a center for immigrants, most notably Arab and African, and students.

Eager to explore the area, Vince and I set out walking. About two hours in, I was pretty hungry so we surveyed the options still open. The kind of Asian traiteur I had tried in Nice was all over Montmartre, seemingly one or two to a street. They all had the same dumplings and noodles arranged by their entrances. The other omnipresent choice was again doner kebab, which I was more in the mood for. I went with the cutely monikered Paristanbul, where I ordered what they called un sandwich Grec avec frites. The fries were fat and rectangular like steak frites and were pretty good. The so-called Greek sandwich was also pretty good with its lively hot sauce and generous helping of veal, or "small beef" as the owner explained it. It was better than the doner in Barcelona but didn't match the exemplary ones in Granada. Still, I figured from now on I would leave doner for Berlin, where they had truly mastered it. In the meantime, I' d be better off concentrating on the manifold miracles of French cuisine in the heart of its temple.