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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Manna in the Sand

Under the stars in the Algerian Sahara, our guides make bread in the sand.

One kneads dough in a mixing bowl while another prepares the fire. When the cinders are ready, Salah moves them to the side, and creates a saucer-shaped crater in the sand into which goes the flat round of dough. The whole thing is covered with the cinders and left to cook.

Half an hour later, they again move the cinders and lo, the bread.

Curiously, the sand doesn’t really stick – there’s a thickness to the crust that doesn’t allow it to grab and any little bits disappear with a quick rinse of water.

We’re so far from the rest of the world that at night, there’s no light pollution. Warm bread under the stars.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tea in the Sahara with Abdou

How to make tea in the Sahara. Brewing tips and desert wisdom shared by Abdoudaim Zounga, Touareg nomad.

1. The guy who does the tea does the tea. That’s it. He tends to the fire and the tea. Everyone sits in a circle around him.
2. The tea is kept in a leather bag on his left.
3. Put one teacup of tea per person in the pot, plus a little more.
4. Use a little water to rinse off the leaves, fill the pot and set it on the embers. No sugar yet! It’ll caramelize!
5. Once it bubbles over twice, take it off the heat.
6. Pour the foam (not the liquid) into the teacups. The foam is good - imagine you’re under a tree and a wind comes up – the sand stays on the foam!
7. Tea without foam is like a Touareg without a cheche (headscarf).
8. Pour the tea into an empty pot and from there, into a larger glass with lots of sugar, going back and forth between the two to completely mix the sugar into the tea.
9. Pour the tea into teacups from a great height.
10. The best things are done by masters.
11. Refill the original pot (the one with the leaves) with water and put on the embers. Repeat for two more rounds of tea.
12. Everybody runs around all the time. Mom here, dad there, but when you drink tea, you stop. You’re together.

Bonus: Abdou’s Camel Wisdom
- Never have more than one male in a group. Otherwise, it’s a battle to the death.
- When you make camel jerky, sometimes it’s so good, you bite your fingers.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Sardines Over Royalty

I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Bistrot Paul Bert twice in the past month or so. Simon Says’ namesake and I have a fondness for this place to the point where it’s surprising we haven’t bumped into each other.

Truth be told, the last couple of times have been… ok. Perhaps both the chef and I have been a bit too game for game. I had a partridge dish which I liked principally because it had some buckshot in it and lievre à la royale (hare with foie gras and a deep-colored wine sauce) that left me, if we call a spade a spade, with a lot of connective tissue on my plate.

BUT! There have been plenty of reminders why I love this place: particularly a heaping dish of tiny, fried sardines which must have taken advantage of the P-B’s husband and wife team which also runs the neighboring seafood specialist, L’Ecallier du Bistrot. The only way to win with a dish like this is to hit it out of the park; nothing leaves a worse impression than bad fish.

I love a place that’s got the confidence in itself and its customers to serve a ‘low’ fish… which is why I’ll keep going back.

Bistrot Paul Bert - MAP
18, rue Paul Bert
75011 Paris
Noon-2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.-11 p.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Negociating Imperfection

Why do I keep coming back to this place? Beautiful and flawed, Aux Negociants is still one of those places (like Au Reve across the street) that’s the perfect place to come when you get off the plane for a fast dose of Parisian Paris.

One of the most glaring idiosyncrasies is the chef. What’s he doing in the front of the house at suppertime? Shouldn’t he be out back cooking our dinners?

Instead, he seems to have come up with a menu that allows him to spend most of the service time at dinner out at the bar shooting the breeze with his pétanque buddies or time to get mad at me for sending the wine back.

There’s stuffed cabbage, saucisse de Montbeliard, confît de canard - all stuff that you either make ahead of time and/or just heat up… I can’t tell if I’m miffed that he isn’t out back doting on my food or impressed at the preparation that goes into it.

In any case, the food’s good and there’s the friendly crowd, good wine and that funny feeling that I want to come back again.

Aux Negociants MAP
27 rue Lambert

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Sending The Wine Back

One of the most intimidating things to do in a Parisian restaurant is to send back a bottle of wine.

It’s a shaky gamble; unless the thing just stinks like a bottle of wet newspaper, it could just be that you’re tasting a wine that’s just not that great. Your nose could be lying. Who knows?

We ordered a bottle of Anjou the other night at Aux Negociants – which proclaims itself a ‘bistrot a vins.’ “Wine” is their middle name… or something like that.

The chef, who often serves as a waiter, plunked the bottle down and walked away before we could taste it.

Sniff, sniff.

To my nose, it alternates between smelling like a fair-to-middlin’ wine and something worse.

It tastes like fair-to-middlin’ wine and something worse.

‘The chef is going to have a field day with me if I’m wrong,’ I think, followed closely by, ‘I don’t feel like paying 20 euros for this crap.’

“Is this what this should taste like?” I ask chef, trying to be polite while getting my point across.

He grabs the bottle, grunts and walks it back behind the bar where his wife (?) runs the show. She pours a bit in a glass, sniffs, and the only word I catch in her aside to the chef is “bouchonné” (“skunked”) as she dumps it. She dispatches chef with a new bottle and clean glasses that he wordlessly plunks on the table.


Next to the old one, it smells like a bouquet of flowers.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Butter Thief

PARIS – Normally, I’m a salted butter man. The other night, however, I made an exception at a birthday party held at Nono in Belleville. I arrived when dinner was about to be cleared away, but immediately noticed bowls of little wax paper-wrapped butter packets marked with the word ‘cru’ – literally, ‘raw’ or, in this case, unpasteurized.

Without even checking to see if the coast was clear, I grabbed a handful and plunged them into my large coat pocket normally reserved for recently-downed game birds. All in the name of science, of course.

Curiously, I’d been making my way through a set of articles about butter in an old copy Saveur magazine, secure in the idea that though it all sounded good, I’d forever be a devotee to beurre demi-sel – tasty butter with big flecks of salt that go ‘bing!’ in your mouth like Pop Rocks.

At the end of my third piece of toast this morning, the coffee kicked in and the butter – sans sel – let me know what I had been missing. For you, gentle reader, I made more toast.

The butter, still unmelted, starts as cool comfort, curious as it’s exactly freezing in Paris this morning. I feel it melt and coat my tongue and the toast’s heat releases its creamy flavors and promotes a gentle sweetness that lingers so long, a wine would blush with embarrassment.

Note: the picture above is the last butter packet that I haven’t devoured – I just noticed this one is both raw and salted. I might explode.

Nono MAP
43 rue de Tourtille
75020 PARIS
+33 1 43 49 37 79

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Just Leave The Nut Out

PARIS – A restaurant is always doing well if a mother and son dining in their premises feel comfortable enough to have a conversation about French infidelity habits.

This happens to Mom and I at La Table De Claire, a place I’ve been curious about for months, thanks to its obscure location, curious wife, err, I mean chef-swapping habits and deceptively simple-sounding menu.

Hidden away on rue Emile-Lepeu in the 11th, the restaurant has a growing reputation for bringing guest chefs in once a month and giving them carte blanche to do what they will along with giving the sous chef free reign two nights a week (note to struggling restaurant owners: great way to keep local clients interested!).

Product quality is the guide here, yielding short and occasionally cute dish names; La Table’s magic is getting the flavors to marry. “Fish, scales and rocket” uses thin potato ‘scales’ to surround the fish and gently absorb its sea and salty goodness. Beet and walnut risotto is something that would keep you coming back to a lover who cooked it. A rutabaga and foie gras appetizer sounds a bit gimmicky, but the tuber, sliced in rounds and lightly sautéed soaks up everything that’s good about goose liver.

The only problem is the rocket, sitting as a simple salad next to mom’s fish.

“Tastes like every dandelion I’ve ever picked in my life,” says the gardener, voicing a distaste for the greens I haven’t inherited as she nibbles on a frond.

“Damn things…” she mutters.

“More for me,” I say, taking advantage of her distracted state to swap plates with her.
Somewhere in there, we have a bottle of white, Claire’s list augmented by a revolving selection on blackboards with clever red or white frames. Mirroring the dining menu’s gracious restraint, no bottle appears to climb above 30€.

Aided by the latter, I explain to Mom the cinq à sept – the delicately named “five to seven” or post-work time reserved for affairs.

Me: From there, there’s an apéro and after that, dinner.
Mom: And that’s every night?
Me: If they’re doing well

For dessert, mom orders a near-perfect crème brulée with a beautiful chestnut confît bulging above the surface in the center. For reasons I struggle to understand, Mom doesn’t like the nut but loves everything around it.

Me: This is worth coming back for.
Mom: Just leave the nut out.

La Table de Claire – MAP
30, rue Emile-Lepeu
75011 Paris
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Closed Sunday

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stories for Wine Lovers

Good news for wine lovers! A pair of my recent articles about French winemakers is now on

“Is ‘Made in France’ Enough?” mulls the debate of whether France should take the high road on the export market or push out plonk.
“Brands are supported by marketing and other countries spend a lot more on it. Here, with government restrictions on advertising, you can’t concentrate on it much and, abroad, we’re useless. We were passed,” says ‘flying winemaker’ Stephane Derenoncourt. Hidden in his bleak outlook for French wine brands, however, is what many consider to be the solution… READ ON.

Just in time to ring in the new year, “De-vine Intervention” interviews two top guns at Louis Roederer Champagne on the pros and cons of using art and artists – whether you want to or not – to promote a brand…and what to do when it all goes wrong… READ ON.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holding Candles To Cabbage

Paris – I want Stéphane Chevassus to cook all of my vegetables.

This is my first impression when I taste his braised cabbage with butter that held my fish aloft at Au Vieux Chêne. If a chef can knock your socks of with plat du jour cabbage, he’s got my vote. Plus, I Tried It At Home and though it was tasty, I couldn’t hold a candle to Chevassus’ cabbage.

I checked in again recently with mom and everything was up to snuff – a light but creamy pumpkin velouté, fish dishes done just right, little chocolate pastilles (white, milk and dark) served with coffee. Prix fixe lunch for 14€ and cabbage from heaven.

Au Vieux Chêne - MAP
7, rue Dahomey
75011 Paris
Closed Saturday & Sunday

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Friday, December 05, 2008

BCN: 1, Paris: 0

Barcelona—Same story, better end.

Caffé Moro, take note; this is how to create repeat customers…

With my favorite Barcelona café closed for the day and looking for a new place to work, I found the new Sifó Xico in my old neighborhood of Poble Sec.

Instead of giving me lip and a lecture when I asked for a glass of water with my coffee, the bartender poured a glass, looked at it for a second, pitched it in the sink (Barcelona’s tap water can be nasty) and gave me a bottle of water. Free of charge.

I’ll be back.

Sifó Xico MAP
C/Roser 82

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