Thursday, June 22, 2006

Time to leave

Austen came home yesterday with the stomach flu. Yesterday late evening he started calling for us and we found that he had covered 75% of the available surface of his bedroom with what moments before had been the contents of his stomach.

It turns out that the overall reach of a projectile vomit is exponentially increased when launched from a height of 6 feet. This is one of those things that you don't stop to consider when you put your children in bunk beds.

Yvonne asked, "how will we ever get rid of that smell?"

"Easy," I answered, "we move back to San Francisco."

- chris


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Tale of Two Restaurants: Le Grand Vefour and Baccarat Cristal Room

As we wind down our time in Paris, we decided to make June our blow-out culinary month. Over the last week, we had lunch at two Michelin-rated restaurants we had been eying: the Cristal Room at Bacarat (Michelin 1 star, exquisite dining, indifferent service, excruciating prices) and Le Grand Vefour (Michelin 3 star, mediocre food, great service, reasonable prices).

Today's dining extravaganze was held at Le Grand Vefour (rated 3 stars in Michelin). This is a restaurant located in the beautiful Palais Royale, which was the playground of nobility in times gone by. Le Grand Vefour’s place in history was assured when it became the site of Napoleon and Josephine’s first date (kind of hard to imagine that – Napoleon as a shy bachelor?)

The main part of the restaurant is a small room (seats ~24 people) ornately but beautifully painted with various food & women related scenes (reflecting no doubt the two commanding passions of French men).

The great news is that service was exquisite throughout – all the waiters wore tuxedos and went out of their way to be charming and create a memorable experience. This included taking “say cheese” photos for any table that had remembered to bring a camera (we didn’t).

The not so great news is that the appetizers and entrees were distinctly mediocre, leading us to wonder what those stars were for. Having said this, it was an extraordinary dining experience, and if the food quality was well below San Francisco standards, the setting and service blew away anything the US can offer.

Wines: we started with Taittinger Rose champagne, fitting because the restaurant is owned by the same family that owns Taittinger. For the meal, we got an outstanding half bottle of Merseult ‘0 Domaine Dormat (their selection of Burgundy whites was exceptional, mostly around a 120€ price point, but then again, their selection of all French was exceptional). I was sorely tempted to order a full bottle, but I was worried if we showed up sloshed to pick up our kids from school that might.

Food: we took the fixed price menu, which was a reasonable 78€ each. The amuse bouche starter was the best thing we ate – mackerel three ways: fried with ginger, sushi and broiled. My appetizer was an uninspired fois gras terrine with an unidentified green sauce drizzled around it, while Yvonne had a more successful steamed vegetable dish.

The entrees were similarly mixed – I had a very nicely cooked cabillaud (a white snapper-like fish), while Yvonne had a grey and flavorless pork dish which showed signs of doing long duty under the heat lamp. The presentation was nice but her dish was pretty much a sad little inedible lump sitting in the middle of the world’s finest dining room.

The cheese course was extraordinary and was probably more responsible than any other part of the meal for the feeling I have three hours after the meal that I have the equivalent of 4 sticks of butter dragging around in my gut. The flavor winner was a sheep’s milk blue cheese from the pyranees, followed closely by a stinky, melt-in-your-mouth epoisse.

Desert was where the restaurant suddenly roared into overdrive. Yvonne had a chocolate medley that must have been 2000 calories by itself, including a coffee ice cream, a to-die-for mousse au chocolate and a heart-stopping chocolate cake tart thing that still leaves me sputtering for superlatives. I had a refreshing mango/fruit medley with coconut ice cream.

But the desert crew was just getting started. While we were laboring our way through the “regular” desert, they also brought out fabulous pates de fruits (think a much earlier and much better forerunner of the jujube), little macarons, delicious chocolate tartelettes and a kind of a strawberry drink thing. After that there was a tray of chocolates. After that, there was a bowl of caramels, noughats and home-made marshmallows. After that, we just surrendered and started wondering whether this was the meal that was going to push us into a diabetic clinic.

Was the food great? No. Was the experience worth it? Yes! Lunch is definitely the way to go, as the bill for the dinner meal would have been considerably higher (for example I probably would have given in and ordered a full bottle of wine). Contact info: +33 (0)1 42 96 56 27,, 17 rue de Beaujolais, 75001 Paris, Metro Palais Royale

Now if you’ve made it this far, you’re either dying for this post to end or dying for me to compare this to the Cristal Room of Baccarat.

The short description of the Cristal Room that it offers exquisite dining with indifferent service and excruciating prices. The small dining room is perfectly decorated by Philipe Starck and all the glassware is of course Baccarat, which makes up in heft what it lacks in practicality.

We went here for lunch, which is nice as the pace is much more leisurely and the food is just as good as for the more see-and-be-seen dinner events. Even more importantly, you are much more likely to get a private table as opposed to one of those “fit you in with a shoehorn” side-by-side tables.

We had the chef’s sampler menu 106€ and a bottle of champagne. The wine list was outstanding and had a number of reasonably priced options. The service started out quite chilly but warmed up over the course of the meal. For these prices they should start out treating you like royalty!


Monday, June 12, 2006

France gets the important things right

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the US and France is the ease with which they can excoriate each countries’ political situation. As easy as it is to complain about all the things wrong with French politics, they still rock at that joie de vie thing.

The best memories I will have of this year in Paris will be my weekly shopping excursions along rue de l’annonciation and prowling the aisles of the Marché Passy. When you think of all the things that have to go right to get this kind of quality food delivered to my neighborhood every week, it is clear that France still gets many important things right.

Outside of being here, there is no way to adequately convey the full experience of having the world’s best food, sold by the world’s most knowledgeable shopkeepers, simply laid at your feet each week.

On returning from my weekly shopping expedition last week, I had the inspiration to take a picture of that week’s treasures.

The picture includes a number of extraordinary items from our favorite butcher at the Marche Passy. Here you can find minor miracles like pintade farci (lower left of picture), veau milanese (the breadcrumb-covered patties) and brochette d'agneau (lamb shish kabobs). Pintade farci is a pheasant which has been de-boned, stuffed with minced and seasoned ham and wrapped with thin slices of bacon. Here is a picture of my butcher, who once grossed out my kids by waving a skinned rabbit in front of them, all buck-toothed and eyes a-dangling.

From the fromager we have aged goat cheese, rosettes of tête du moin (monk’s head) and incredible yogurt from Burgundy made with raw milk. Even the organic eggs blow doors on any eggs I experienced in the US - flavorful, with firm yolks and bright yellow color.

From the vegetable shop on rue de l’annonciation where the hawkers yell all day long about the freshness of their strawberries and the low, low price (the prices aren't really that low, but we all play along with the pitch anyway). Figs, apricots, melons, those incredible french radishes that you don't get anywhere else, green beans from Kenya (which always strikes me as very exotic).

Every week the best food in the world is available mere minutes from my doorstep, whisked there through some collective magic of the French national will. Tell me that's not getting the important things right!


Monday, June 05, 2006

One hand clapping

I finished my first (but hopefully not last) MBA class last week.

The four weeks and eight sessions went by in a blur of alternating terror and exhilaration. In keeping with the best teaching traditions, I was exactly one session ahead of the class in preparing my lessons.

Some lessons just went along on auto-pilot, reaching the end of the 90 minute session having worked through less than half of my slides. Some lessons I would look out at a sea of dazed faces about half-way through the lecture and realize that I was not even close to being prepared enough to convey what I wanted to say.

Just before I graduated from college and just after I had announced that I wanted to go into the world of business I was the subject of a family intervention. My doctor father, artist mother and caring sister sat me down and said that the cruel world of business was no place for an amiable and somewhat absent-minded computer geek.

The objective of the intervention was to channel my career interests away from the shark eat dog world of business and towards the back-stabbing but more genteel world of academia. But I, flush with the enthusiasm of seeing Steve Jobs launch the Apple Lisa with extraordinary panache, chose the macho, over-achiever world of entrepreneurship.

The class gave me a standing ovation at the conclusion of the course. I did what any macho over-achieving entrepreneur would do when faced with a situation like that. I cried.