Monday, September 29, 2014

Q&A Time ~ Topic Number One

... reaching deep into our mail bag to see who might have a good question to ask us, your Long Suffering But Very Dedicated Editors... um... hum... here's something interesting.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Question:  "How do you find good places to eat that won't dent the wallet, yet deliver excellent food that France used to be known for?"

Now there, indeed, is a fine question.

France is long known for it's amazing cuisine.  Yet, in the past few decades the kind of food we oftened dreamed of in our youth seldom materialized once we were On The Ground and In-Country.  Why? you might ask.

Jude has a pretty straightforward explanation.  I'll paraphrase and remove all the swearing by saying simply that it's tourists and changes in French business practices.

Tourists visit Paris by the tens of millions each year.  75 million tourists come this way, in fact.  Restaurants know they have a captive audience and can charge whatever they like for the microwaved Rungis pre-prepared food they slap down on the tables.  Think "TV Dinners" French-style and you'll understand.  It is very rare these days to find a decent resto that has a fully operational, fully staffed kitchen.  Don't believe me?  Take a close look the next time you're in town.  You'll be shocked.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Add to this Sad State of Affairs two important things and you'll have a sense of just how bad things have become.  First, French business is trying to keep up with the Anglo-Saxons.  What this means is that instead of spending a leisurely two or three hours over lunch during the work-week, many people can be seen grabbing un sandwich and eating, nearly literally, on the run back to the office.  Second, since the Locals aren't spending much time over lunch, a great many restos have closed.  A little research using The Force (Google) quickly reveals how dire the situation has become.

Between tourists who are in no position to demand quality and business folks eating on the run, what's a retired person to do? The easy answer is to cook at home.  Jude is an amazing cook.  Her recipe list is broad and deep.  Yet, when traveling or simply wanting a Night Off there has to be a Better Way.  Which leads to the harder answer, which is to do Boots On The Ground Personal Research to uncover the Last Jewels in the Civilized World.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

You can find good food anywhere you go by following a few simple tips.
  • Read the carte posted by the front door.
  • If they offer more than hamburger and steak-frites, closer observation may be in order.
  • Stake the place out and watch.  This may take time, so bring a stool so you can sit.
  • Observe the comings and goings.
  • Are the people Locals? or tourists?  You'll want a place where the Locals are.
  • If promising, dites bonjour! au barman and enter the kitchen.
  • Before they drive you off, quickly check for a micro-onde and confirm the staff is French.
  • If they have a micro-onde, walk out.
  • If, however, they swear at you in perfect French, it might be worth sticking around.
  • Leave the kitchen (if not already thrown out) and observe the wait-staff (from the sidewalk if necessary).
  • If the wait-staff is friendly to the Locals (even as they are being efficient and quick with the service), you may have found a good place to eat.
  • Look to see where they are in the Michelin ratings.  Two or three forks and no stars means you might eat well.  Add a star and you may gold.
Hmmm... OK... so it's not so simple and they'll never let you into the kitchen without killing and dressing you first.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Perhaps it would be best to use the only Proven Method I know:  Bring Jude along.  My wife has the nose of a Bloodhound and the food-sense of a Master.

Using our Proven Method we have scored some amazing meals for very reasonable prices.

For example, we recently visited Saint-Malo (see prior post about contracting the Dreaded Plague).  It was lunch time and we were hungry.  But we wanted desperately to avoid Tourist Traps that offered endless Gallettes and Cidre.  We wanted Real Food and happened to be walking through the center of the Intra-Muros.  We stopped from time to time to look at a menu and to see who was showing up for lunch.

After a half dozen places, Jude stopped and looked carefully at one particular menu.  The prices were "right" (around 30Euro a plate).  The Locals were eating there.  The smells coming from the kitchen were "right" as well.  The problem was sorting out exactly what was on the menu that Jude could eat.  So we walked on to see if anything else turned up.  We went as far as the main gate and the Galette/Cidre Row and decided to ask a few questions back at the place Jude had spent time with the menu.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Thus began one of our Top Five Meals ever.  Each dish had a To Die For flavor, subtly, and texture.  This is what we came to France for.  This was The Place to spend a few hours enjoying a meal and conversation.  Le Chalut, it turns out, has a Michelin star.  Well deserved we feel.  Our meal exceeded our Wildest Expectations.

In another example of Jude's Amazing Abilities came during a side-trip to Dinan.  We heard it was a lovely old town and were to be there over lunch.  So, quick as a bunny, Jude looked on TripAdvisor for the top restos in Dinan.  Two came up as potential candidates and would need to be confirmed by showing up and Checking Things Out.

The first place on Jude's list was noted as being difficult to get into and that reservations were strongly advised.  Still, we had to take a look for ourselves.  Meat was on the menu and wood smoke hung heavily in the air.  Real Honest to God Grilling was taking place here.  We asked if they had room to accommodate us and were surprisingly quickly shown to a table by the window.  No reservations required in late-September, apparently.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Jude's Amazing Ability had found us yet another great place to eat.  La Viande was cooked perfectly.  Yes, the side of veggies was a Little Suspect (boiled! of all things), but we were there for the meat... and desert... and coffee... all of which were exactly what we'd hoped they'd be.  Le Cantorbery is well worth a visit.  We walked away with our clothing smelling heavily of wood smoke.  Heaven.

Now before I get too Frothing At The Mouth, it must be noted that Jude's Amazing Abilities are not in the ex cathedra sense completely and utterly infallible.

The night we arrived in Saint Malo found us sitting down to a meal at the Relais d'Alsace.  I had the special... and boy... it was sure special.  Fish wrapped in pasty-dough and deep fried.  Sitting on top of a slice of andouiette sausage.  If you know anything about andouiette you know it's best when tasting a little like the Ass End of the pig it came from.  A friend nearly died trying to eat andouiette sausage when we were in Lyon last May.  It was disgusting. What a terrible way of destroying a perfectly good fish.  Can French cuisine be this bad?  Maybe it's the German influence.

We should've known that a German-style eatery in the middle of Brittany would be a Bad Sign.  Yes, I know that Alsace is currently found on the French side of the line.  Still, the food was heavy and, well, heavily suspect.

Saint Malo ~ Taking the Cure

Other than that, there you go.  To eat well in France, just bring Jude along.  She can (most of the time) sniff out great places to eat.

Thanks for your question, dear reader.  I hope this answers your concerns.

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