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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Around Town ~ les journees du Patrimoine

It all started innocently enough.  We invited our Upstairs Neighbors down for a little apero.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

Jude and I had plotted and planned a way to keep the boys happy, distracted, and busy.  We picked up a few DVDs from the library and hoped one of them would keep things calm.  I planned to watch the videos with them as another way to keep the peace.

What we couldn't plan for was what would happen should one of les enfants be a Bringer of the Plague, and the timing couldn't have been worse.  Les journees du Patrimoine were coming and I wasn't going to miss it.  Unless I was on my Death Bed, that is.

Each year the third weekend in September is set aside as a very special two day event.  All across France, places of history and importance that are normally off limits to visitors open their doors wide.  Millions of visitors see places they'd not usually see.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

This year our Across the Hall  Neighbor invited Jude and I to his place of work over in the 1eme.  He'd give us a personal tour.

In our conversation group we were strongly encouraged to visit the ambassador's residences of Romania and Poland over in the 7eme.

We would spend Saturday with our Across the Hall Neighbor and Sunday visiting the residences.  Or so we thought.

As the week ground on I became sicker and sicker.  By Saturday I was a mess.  The Little Virus Vectors of our Upstairs Neighbors have delivered a Plague of Apocalyptic Proportions.  Damn them!

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

Come Saturday afternoon I resolved to suck down as many throat lozenges as it took to get through the tour.  We couldn't miss this as our Across the Hall Neighbor is a director of some importance within the French government.  It was an honor to be simply invited.  I girded my loins, packed my lozenges, and we set off.

On the other side of rue de Rivoli from the Louvre sits the Conseil d'Etat.  There is so much history in this one place (as we came to learn) that it's hard to know where to begin.

An all to brief overview goes something like this...  Cardinal Richelieu had his residence built near the king's so the king would have easy access to advice on how to run the state.  The Ducs of Orleans lived here with their family for a short time.  Moliere's first Comedie Francaise was located on the site.  There were several fires and the building was rebuilt each time in a different configuration.  Emperor Napoleon formalized the functions of the Conseil d'Etat soon after he took power.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

The Conseil d'Etat is an interesting institution.  It's only responsibilities relate to government administration and laws pertaining to government.  Nearly everything else (civil order and other non-governmental non-administrative law) is handled by individual Maries and the Prefecture de Police.

The Conseil d'Etat has three primary functions.  It helps craft language for future law that fits within the framework of constitutional and related law.  It oversees the process where law is contested.  It ensures the administration of government complies with French law.

Looking at this from a US point of view, The Conseil d'Etat is an advisor to the law making process and would arbitrate any disputes that might arise.  Alas, there is no real US equivalent.  Could you imagine a process or function that would help write US legislation to make sure it fit the language of the constitution and all related law before Congress, Big and Monied Interests got their hands on it?

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

The Conseil d'Etat has a similar function to the US Supreme Court, but only for things related to the administration of government.  It is the final arbiter in cases where a contest arises.  It seems to act as a Fine Toothed Comb for administrative law.

As our neighbor was explaining how the Conseil d'Etat worked I asked how political influence was managed.  Afterall, in the US all it takes a sufficient money and a sensitive ear for legislation to be written in your favor (business and monied interests love the US process for how easy it is to manipulate).

It turns out, political influence is managed, as you might guess, rather differently here in France.  The President of the Conseil is appointed by the President of France.  It is a life time position.  It is strictly a-political.  How this can be, I have no idea, but our neighbor assures us this is the case.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

We had the opportunity to see the Vice President of the Conseil.  He is a tall man of pleasant continence and seemingly abundant patience.  He seemed to answer every question put to him.  There were a lot of people who had questions, from the looks of things.  I couldn't help but notice the beauty and precision in his use of the French language.

Toward the end of our tour we asked about recruitment policies and how France found the right people for this kind of job.  It turns out recruitment is rather straightforward.  The top five students from Institut d'├ętudes politiques de Paris each are given clerical positions in the Conseil.  Only the very best and very brightest are allowed into this ancient institution.

Conseil d'Etat ~ les journees du Patrimoine

Just as I felt like I could take no more and that the Dreaded Plague was having it's way with me, we thanked our host for the generosity of his time and knowledge, and bid adieu to our Across the Hall Neighbor.  I struggled back to the Metro and then to Home and Hearth.

The Romanian and Polish Ambassador's residences will have to wait another year.  The best I could do was stagger to a pharmacy to beg for relief and to schedule a doctors appointment for Monday.

Tuesday we would leave for Saint-Malo.  Dreaded Plague and all.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Around Town ~ the Passages

Seeings as to how this summer has been cold and wet, I thought it might be time to talk about those wonderful covered passages that certain parts of Paris are filled with.

There are wonderful on-line resources that will list the passages and where they can be found, so I won't go into too many details.  Here's an article from the Guardian.

Jude has a Passage Walk she likes to do.  It's a lot of fun and can keep you away from Mother Nature's more serious dousing.  She'll still have her way with you, though.  The wind can be pretty cold on cool days.

Jump either the #8 or #9 metros to les Grands Boulevards.  Head around the corner to take lunch at le Bouillon Chartier.  It can make for an interesting original 1920's in-expensive bistro style meal.  They'll add up your addition right there on the paper table cloth for you.  You shouldn't miss it, even if the line getting in can be long.

After lunch, continue up rue du Faubourg Montmartre (away from Boulevard Montmartre where the metro stops first deposited you) while keeping your eyes open for Passage Verdeau on your left.  Once inside you can gawk like the rest of us.  The iron frames holding the glass ceiling seem like they shouldn't be able to do what they're doing.

Wandering though Passage Verdeau and out the other side will lead you to spy the entrance just across the street to the Passage Jouffroy.  Art and toy stores can be found here.  Just up the stairs and around the corner will lead you to one of my favorite places in the city.  Skull, antlers and giant walking sticks will mark the spot.  If the elderly gent is in, take a moment to have him demonstrate his canne de marche.  You'll quickly get the point of the visit.

Continuing out the south porte you'll see you've come back to Boulevard Montmartre.  Just across the perhaps surprisingly wide boulevard is Passage des Panoramas.  This leads to a wonderful rabbit warren of passages.  You'll find the Galerie des Variete, and Galerie Feydeau as off-shoots of the main passage.  There are stamps and documents and little places to eat.

Once you've had your fill with the Bunny Warren, head down rue Vivienne.  A couple blocks down the street after you've passed the modern Bourse you'll come to the entrance to Galerie Vivienne on your left.  A wonderful old bookstore is found in the passage.  There used to be a photo gallery too, but I don't remember seeing it that last time we were there.  Recall that Vidocq had an apartment here.  One of the circular staircases leads to his hold haunt (unreachable by Mere Mortals, in who's numbers we count ourselves).

Having taken your time to enjoy as many things as possible you might be once again hungry.  If so, vous avea de la chance.  At the south end of Galerie Vivienne is the wonderful old Bistro Vivienne.  Jude and I had an amazing cote de boeuf pour deux some years ago.  If for nothing else, the patina of age is worth the experience, particularly if you're an Old Paris Romantic.

However, if your wallet is bigger than ours, the Grand Colbert is just around the corner.  It's patina of Old Paris History is buffed and shined even brighter and is a truly lovely looking place to dine.

There are many other passages sprinkled through the area.  If you're smitten, do a little research and you can have further amazing experiences.  There's even a passage that's given over to Indian food, both markets and restaurants.  All pleasantly out of the rain, of course.