Paris brasseries have entered a sad period. Once delightful places like La Coupole, Vaudeville, Bofinger, Balzar, Flo have been purchased by giant restaurant chain-conglomerates and now roll out industrialized food. Glittering decor and fresh oysters can still be relied upon. But, that’s it. The old time hip, lively and happy atmosphere has disappeared. Only Le Stella in the 16th keeps the old traditions. Its carte is a virtual parade of traditional dishes: Tete de veau; steak tartare; sole meuniere; choucroute; Iceland herring; steak frites; ile flottante, etc. The affluent residents of the 16th have impeccable manners but restraint is cast off when they confront Stella’s vast plateau de fruits de mer. In Reims, the Brasserie du Boulingrin maintains the old brasserie spirit. Art deco interior. Smoked glass and mirrors. Red leatherette banquettes. Young, smiling waitpersons. Dinner conversations are animated but the noise level is kept at a civilized pitch (This seems characteristic of French restaurants in contrast to their noisy American counterparts). On a second visit, HG sipped a cold, dry Muscadet, while devouring a dozen big, briny oysters. This was followed by very generous servings of sole meuniere. Two large fish were deboned deftly by the young woman serving HG/BSk. The filets were gilded by spoonfuls of buttery lemon cooking juices. Served with bowls of buttered boiled potatoes dusted with parsley. Dessert was, in keeping with Boulingrin’s generosity, dinner plate-sized creme brûlées. HG sipped an after dinner glass of cold Mirabelle and reflected upon the good fortune of having a splendid wife, a loving family and an appetite geared to the delights of old fashioned brasserie dining. HG interrupted this happy contemplation with a bout of severe envy as he watched a choucroute garnie presented to a young man at an adjoining table. The platter of kraut, sausages and pork was kept warm under a glass dome. This single portion seemed large enough to feed a platoon of Prussian Hussars. HG vowed to sample it if HG ever makes it back to Reims and Boulingrin.
One of the sillier American traditions is the Presidential “pardon” of a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. President Obama acknowledged the goofiness but continued the ceremony this week. There were no pardoned turkeys for the assembled HG/BSK family in Reims as there was no roast turkey for the big bout of gluttony. The family decided there was no way to get a big, juicy American-style turkey in Europe. An unhappy memory still lurked: Some years ago, Profesore Massimo R.’s American students at the University of Bologna arranged a Thanksgiving turkey feast at a favorite Bologna pizzeria. The proud pizzeria proprietor presented a glistening brown bird with an Italian flourish. However, one taste banished dreams of a Norman Rockwell-type farmhouse feast. This wasn’t a turkey. A buzzard? Vulture? Sea gull that had lost its way? Inedible. With this experience in mind, a loin of pork (roasted in milk atop the oven from a favorite recipe by Marcella Hazan) was the main dish at Thanksgiving dinner for eight (HG/BSK; daughter Lesley R.; son-in-law Massimo R.; granddaughters Arianna and Sofia; plus two beautiful young women, Sofia’s fellow students at Reims’s Sciences Po; one young woman from Brazil and the other from Chile). Side dishes were traditional: brussels sprouts with bacon; creamed spinach, dressing, mashed potatoes. Lavish amounts of gravy. Preceded by a big array of terrines and pates. Dessert was apple tart and sour cherry tart. Since we were in champagne country, the meal started with bubbly and then proceeded to Fleurie, Moulin a Vent and Brouilly. Thankful for family, fun and food.
Another superb meal in Reims. This time it was for lunch at Anna-S, a stylish little restaurant which serves classic dishes prepared in a creative, colorful manner. The amuse geules were little pots of spicy, pureed sweet potato topped with tiny biscuits. HG followed with nine “Petite Pots d’ Escargots.” The snails, instead of being served in their shells, were served in individual earthenware pots enclosed by tiny rounds of toast. Special spoons were provided enabling the diner to enjoy every bit of the tender snails, the robust, herbaceous garlic and butter sauce plus the toast round. A joy. HG followed this with a juicy filet of John Dory nested on a puree of parsnips and Tonka beans. Lush. Dessert was a gratin of figs (much like a fig flavored creme brûlée) plus a scoop of fig ice cream. Imaginative and delicious. Excellent coffee and a light meringue climaxed the meal. Others at the table has extraordinary starters of beet carpaccio served with whipped goat cheese and goat cheese ice cream; monkfish filets; farm chicken and racks of lamb. All quite marvelous. Equally delightful was the bill: $220 for six diners including two bottles of wine (Chablis and Beaujolais) and tip. This was an extraordinary price/quality ration. Anna-S is another can’t miss Reims experience.
Simply put: Le Bocal in Reims (close to the central market), is a great discovery. It is the best seafood restaurant HG has ever encountered. Small (It can seat 20-22 diners), comfortable, brightly decorated with amusing posters. Service is provided by a smiling, deft young man. There’s a fish store in front. Restaurant is in back.This is what HG ate. Nine oysters (3 Gillardeau #2; 3 Boudeuses; 3 Fines # 3). Best oysters in HG’s extensive oyster tasting experience. Briny. Chilled. Perfectly shucked. Served with good black bread and a composed butter. This was followed by a tartare of albacore tuna. Visually, the herb infused tartare on a base of fragrant olive oil was a work of art. The fresh taste was sublime. This was followed by a brandade of haddock and a colorful green salad. The brandade was lushly creamy but maintained the texture of the salt fish and potatoes. The ultimate brandade. Finale was a board of local cheese. Reflecting the generosity of Le Bocal, the board was left on the table in order to consume as much as one wished. Wines were Muscadet with the oysters and tartare; Cote du Rhone with the brandade and cheese. Others at the HG/BSK family table of six had oyster varieties, cod tartare and grilled sardines with seaweed salads. Enthusiastic approval. Le Bocal is a unique and gratifying experience. It should not be missed in any tour of France’s champagne region.
Spent the morning at the majestic Notre-Dame de Reims, the Reims cathedral. This superb work of French Gothic art and architecture is celebrating its 804th anniversary. It is built on the site of a former church. Clovis, the first king of France, was baptized in that church in 496 A.D. The dimensions of Notre-Dame de Reims are vast. The interior is 455 feet long and 125 feet high at its loftiest point. The three great doorways of the cathedral are adorned with hundreds of statues and statuettes. Many outstanding figures of Catholic iconography. For HG, the most memorable aspect of the cathedral is its stained glass windows. Yes, there are many beautiful old windows, but it is the Church’s modern windows that impressed HG. There are abstract art windows in blue-grey-green tones by Brigitte Simon-Marq inspired by the light on a river. Imi Knoebel, the German artist, designed another series of abstract windows, employing brilliant colors. Marc Chagall, the French-Russian painter, bridged the ancient with the modern by using traditional colors in depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. HG/BSK and granddaughter Arianna R. left the cathedral to walk to the lively center of Reims, avenues filled with high fashion as well as casual eateries. Clusters of alert and armed security personnel walked along the street, testament to France’s current security concerns. When HG/BSK and Arianna visited the Galeries Lafayette department store they found only one entrance open. It was guarded by a sturdy young man who peered into the handbags of the women and made HG unzip his jacket for a body search before allowing entry to the store. It gave shopping a grim overtone. Traditional French exuberance was on display at Brasserie Gauloise where the two women ate some vast salads and HG dove into the bargain (8 euro) plat du jour, a copious pot de feu. Tender boiled beef, a big marrow bone, carrots, cabbage, onions, etc, swimming in a flavorful broth. Coarse salt, sharp mustard, and sour gherkins on the side. A carafe of rough red wine. Down home cuisine. The cooking was more refined at dinner at Brasserie Flo. Lovely interior with art deco touches. Round table for seven: HG/BSK; daughter Lesley R. and son-in-law Massimo R.; granddaughters Arianna R and Sofia R. plus Sofia’s friend and fellow student, Will, a personable young man. Oysters, roast duck, casserole of kidneys and mushrooms, rare rump steak were some of the dishes consumed. HG had a dessert of baba au rhum drenched in very good rum and accompanied by whipped crew. Others were made joyous by thin apple tarts and ice cream and chocolate soufflés. Champagne and Sancerre red wine. Hunger was appeased in stylish fashion.
A pleasant Sunday with rare flashes of sunlight. Perfect for a day in champagne country. The HG/BSK/Riva family (six folks in all) piled into an auto and drove through hills filled with vineyards. Beautiful vistas (plus some grim reminders of World War One battles). First stop was the charming town of Epernay where the group visited a Gothic revival cathedral, inspected the exterior of a centuries old Romanesque church and then left spiritual musings behind in a charcuterie shop. More than a score of lush terrines and pates displayed. Three were chosen for a late night snack: Pork, rabbit and an unusual terrine that combined chicken, egg and mushrooms. Three bottles of wine. Tavel, rose, Beaujolais. Appetites nicely honed to a sharp edge, the group stopped for lunch at La Madelon restaurant in Mancy. Nice interiors decorated with World War One memorabilia. The downstairs room was filled with jolly, celebrating people (birthday? wedding?). Upstairs were multi-generational family groups enjoying traditional Sunday luncheons. The HG/BSK/Riva group settled in for a long feast. Amuse geules of shrimp and crab in a tarragon sauce. Escargot and mushroom fricassee in cream sauce. Crab and avocado salad. Mains of rare duck with honeyed potatoes and veal chops in a robust sauce with smashed potatoes. Brie de Meaux with salad. Traditional desserts: Creme brûlée and Ile Flottante. Champagne, of course, plus a robust Cotes de Rhone. After luncheon Calvados for HG. Drowsy HG had an alcohol fueled nap upon arriving back in Reims. Awoke to watch gallant Federer lose to inexorable Djikovic on the living room TV. Pre-bedtime snack of terrines, cheese, Comice pear and Tavel. The climax of a happy day.
HG/BSK are in the historic city of Reims. The renowned cathedral lives up to expectations. Glorious. And, HG/BSK haven’t been inside yet. Have only seen it at night. Nicely illuminated. The sleepless quintet (HG/BSK; daughter Lesley R. and son-in-law Massimo R.; granddaughter Arianna R.) had a happy reunion with granddaughter Sofia who is studying international relations at a Reims university (It’s part of a four-year program. Two years in Reims and then two years at Columbia University in New York. A lucky, gifted young woman.). The group lunched at a rough and ready bistro that caters to neighborhood regulars and students. The food wasn’t memorable but the atmosphere was lifted out of a late 1930’s French movie. Red leatherette banquettes. Bright lighting. Old guys playing cards. Weathered women. Dreamy youngsters. Big difference. No cigarette smoke. Patrons have to smoke on the terrace. The bistro is Sans Souci. It creates instant happiness. (Forget the food. Order a cheap bottle of wine. A bottle of Beaujolais is 12 euros). The visiting group is staying in a spacious 3-bedroom dwelling. Dining room. Big, modern kitchen. Garden. And, an oddity for France, a shower that hits the bather with high pressure hot water from three directions. Surprising. France may lead in cuisine and style but usually lags behind in plumbing. After naps and a happy encounter with the shower, the group was ready for a major league feast at Brasserie Boulingrin. This is a traditional place with the classic brasserie virtues: Lively ambience. Traditional dishes. And, an abundance of fresh oysters, fish and crustaceans. The group demolished a vast plateau de fruits de mer. Some of the best, biggest, briniest oysters. Large pink shrimp. Clams. Bulots. Tiny grey shrimp. Much sharing and lusty eating. Salmon on a bed of spinach. Sole meuniere. Skate with a shower of capers. Cod. And, one rare steak with sauce béarnaise. Side dishes were gratins of potatoes and zucchini plus boiled and buttered spuds. The fruits de mer platter was accompanied by champagne (Reims is in the heart of France’s champagne district). Then, there was very good, fruity Beaujolais Nouveau. Giant portions of creme brûlée for dessert. The euro is having a weak spell so this lavish array of food and wine for six persons cost about $220 US.
Air travel has become more of a cattle drive than anything else these days and HG/BSK suffered mightily on route to Providence (and then to Paris). Un-explainable delays, arbitrary security issues and airports, like airliners, that usually represent the lower depths of cuisine. A delightful exception is Vino Volo wine bar which has locations in many US terminals. Delayed overnight in Baltimore, HG/BSK had a lovely casual meal at Vino Volo while awaiting a plane to Providence (and then to Paris). Had a flight of reds (Argentine Malbec, Spanish Tempranillo, Washington State Barbera) with a charcuterie/cheese/nuts/ dried fruit platter and a surpassing good bowl of cavatelli with a Mascarpone sauce and prosciutto. The Barbera was so good that it merited some full glasses. A Charles Smith product, HG will seek it in wine shops.
HG/BSK finally arrived at the welcoming Riverside, R.I. home of daughter Lesley R. and her husband, Massimo. All of the travel annoyances vanished as HG/BSK (and L and M) entered O Dinis for dinner. O Dinis is a homey, family run Portuguese restaurant in East Providence. Quirky decor highlighted by animal heads, cooking utensils and antique radios. Brisk waitpersons. Happy groups dealing with big platters of food. For HG, it brought back memories of the cheap, garlic fragrant eateries of HG’s young manhood in New York. O Dinis is a throwback, or as the late Yogi Berra put it:”Deja vu all over again.” Giant portions. Pungent sauces laden with loads of garlic. Very cheap. The quartet ordered two appetizers and two main dishes. A bottle of Vinho Verde. A bottle of Portuguese red. Four dishes. More than enough. These were the dishes: Big pot of steamed littleneck clams in sauce (garlic, parsley, clam broth); grilled Seppie in another fragrant garlic sauce; plump grilled sardines with boiled potatoes and salad; traditional Portuguese dish of clams, pork and potatoes. One dessert (a flan for HG). The cost for this feast (with wine and tip) was less than 25 bucks a person. An affordable fun feast.
The culinary redemption came to an abrupt halt upon entering the Air France airplane. Food was the usual glop. Not for the first time, HG wondered why airlines can’t serve cheese, fruit and crackers instead of mushy pasta or sad chicken. European carriers, whether French, German, English or Italian, share a common tradition: Disgusting food.
Cold November evening. Crescent moon in the sky. HG/BSK plus their neighbor/pal Karen K., the Dessert Queen, dined at the beautiful home of neighbor/pals Polly B. and David F. A night of joy. The Polly/David living room-dining room-kitchen is the universal dream of New Mexico history and design. The centerpiece is a big room warming Kiva fireplace which David keeps filled with blazing piñon logs. There are beautiful paintings, tiles, lights, sconces, sculpture, crafts to delight the eyes. Comfortable seating. Chilled vodka (for HG and David) and wine for the women accompanied smoked salmon nibbles. Dinner was local lamb (barbecued to the right degree of rareness by David), crisp asparagus spears and a surprise–acorn squash enhanced by a splash of New Hampshire maple syrup. Went beautifully with the crusty rare lamb. Many glasses of pinot noir. A cheese-fruit-salad course with excellent bread. HG’s recent birthday was celebrated with a Karen K. chocolate cake (lush nut icing). Fabulous. The Dessert Queen continues to reign. Her loyal subjects accompanied the cake with salted caramel gelato. The Paris tragedy was discussed but, as painter/ F. Scott Fitzgerald friend Gerald Murphy said: “Living well is the best revenge.” The joys of friendship, family, creativity, food, wine, the natural environment, art, music, intellectual stimulation—yes, those joys are the proper response to those who would want us to live in darkness and fear
Frank Lloyd Wright believed the hearth was the heart of a home and made sure his domestic designs had big fireplaces. His flat roofs might have leaked but folks could always find comfort seated by welcoming flames. Modern life patterns have made the kitchen the true heart of the home. HG/BSK are fortunate. The HG/BSK homes in New Mexico and Prince Edward Island have very big hearts. That is, kitchen-dining room-living room, and fireplace, are in one big room. In New Mexico, the big room is bordered by a wall of bookshelves and an old Mexican chest containing a flat screen television. In PEI, one wall is composed of more than 40 feet of windows facing the ever changing sea and sun. In New Mexico, the fireplace is big and efficient, Heat pours out through some ingenious vents in the adobe, warming much of the house. In PEI, the fire source is a Danish Rais wood burning stove. The flames are visible through the glass front. Somehow, a wood fire is the perfect dining companion. And, after a vigorous pre-dinner swim, exercise and shower, an icy vodka tastes particularly invigorating and refreshing. The combination, on a cool night, of warm flames and ice cold alcohol is (at least for HG) irresistible. In New Mexico, there’s a sculptural adobe Kiva fireplace in the HG/BSK bedroom. It is there that HG nestles, book in hand, happy in a lounge chair and ottoman with a camel hair throw warming HG’s shoulders. Makes winter a happy season as the fragrance of burning Pinon logs envelops the room.