The Last Supper (in Florida)

I have arrived in D.C. Tomorrow I will post pictures of my amazing kitchen.

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First though, my last week in Florida couldn't have been better. A friend of mine took me out to Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, where I had a 10 oz. delmonico steak that was so tender I could almost have gummed it, had I not had teeth. The menu was more like a short novel and the wine list was the size of a coffee table book. The interior decorations were lush, reminding me somewhat of the room Alisdair Cooke used to sit in when he hosted Masterpiece Theater. They also have a separate dessert room upstairs where I ate bannana chocolate cheese cake, and drank cognac while the piano player amused himself with lounge versions of Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and the cantina song from Star Wars. You really should check out their website, its nothing if not thorough.

I also cooked quite alot during that week. The "last supper," if you will, was coq au vin, and it was fabulous. The recipe was gleaned from It Must've Been Something I Ate, by Jeffrey Steingarten, the Harvard-trained-lawyer-turned-food critic for Vogue. I'm told that Steingarten is often reviled in the food blogosphere, and I suppose I can see why some might not like him. He is, at times, almost laughably elitist. Even the occasional self-deprecating comments come off as staged. That said, the man clearly knows how to turn a phrase, and his passion for food is unmatched by any writer I'm familiar with. The recipes in this book tend to be either astoundingly complex or to include ingredients that are difficult to find outside of, say, a small village in southern France or the Baja peninsula. His hyper-authentic recipe for coq au vin fulfill both categories. First, you have to find a rooster; second, you'd best start 5 days in advance.

I cheated on both accounts. A whole free range, dry-packed chicken plus a bunch of thighs was good enough for me. I did start in advance, but only by three days. The chicken marinated for two days in a combination of pinot noir and cognac, along with onions, celery, and carrots. I won't go through the recipe or all the steps, since there were so many, but suffice to say it involved nearly every piece of cookware I own, and took about 4 hours of vigilance for the final preparation. My favorite step is the placing of the chicken (coated with flour and browned in bacon fat) on top of the vegetables and bacon, whereupon a 1/2 cup of cognac is poured on top and lit. The blue flames lick the sides of the pot and eventually subside, producing a wonderful smell. The final remaining sauce is unbelievably good. I'm actually thinking about making it again this week (a slightly truncated version), then shredding the chicken and stuffing it into raviolis. We'll see.


Paris Part II - Crevettes, Canards, and le Bad Plus

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I recommend watching the sunset from one of the bridges crossing the Seine.

During the first Paris leg of my trip I stayed in a great part of the Latin Quarter, on Rue Mouffetard, which is full of great little shops, markets, bars, and bistros. Here's a picture of one fantastic seafood market. Keep in mind that this is only the shellfish section of it. They had everything you could want and more.

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Speaking of shellfish, there were a number of occasions in both Paris and Montpellier when I ordered something with crevettes, expecting shrimp. I love shrimp. Oh boy do I love shrimp. But more often than not what I got were the little salad shrimps that, in the States at least, are sold in cans. So be aware of this, and when dining in restaurants be prepared to specify what it is you're looking for.

One of the restaurants on Rue Mouffetard looked interesting, and we decided to spend the 16 Euro prix fixe which included an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Bear in mind that on French menus, entree means appetizer, and what we consider an entree will be called un plat.
My two friends both had an awful salmon with dill sauce, not complimented by the side of boiled potatoes. My appetizer was avacado with salad shrimps and a sauce that tasted vaguely like ketchup and mayo. Disappointing. The main course was even worse. Two relatively flavorless lamb chops with an ultra-heavy garlic sauce and a side of overcooked green beans. The creme brulee was good, but by this time I was so disenchanted with the meal that I didn't even bother to write down the name of the place. I wish I had, to warn you away from it.

On top of this, the music was an annoying mix of house music interspersed with Rod Stewart's greatest hits. This leads me to another odd fact about France (after which I'll stop ranting and get back to the good stuff). The French popular taste in music is hard to figure out. I'm told that a law prohibits radio stations from having less than 35 percent of their playlists consist of French music. I felt this law seemed a bit oppressive, ridiculous even, until at three different points during my trip I heard store radios or club DJs playing the theme song from Friends. The law seems quite justified to me now, and I support increasing the restriction.

Enough curmudgeonry, on to the real fine dining. Two of the Paris chow highlights, apart from Sapporo Ramen, were Royal Couscous, and Au Trou Normand. Both are highly satisfying, mid-range restaurants near the Place de République. I would also recommend at this point staying at the nearby Hotel de Nevers. This hotel is not for those requiring luxury, but it is comfortable, affordable (35 euro for a single room, and if you share a room with two friends it will cost you about 22 euro each: less than many of the city's hostels), and the owners are incredibly nice, especially for being Parisian. A husband and wife own the place and work the desk most mornings, and you will often find one of their three grey cats wandering the halls. Very friendly cats too.

In any case, Royal Couscous is, of course, a Moroccan restaurant, located on the Boulevard du Temple. The atmosphere is great; intricate traditional wood paneling and nice lighting. I had an incredible lamb, onion, and olive tagine. Though it was just a tad too salty, it was some of the most succulent lamb I've ever had. Expect to spend about 12 to 16 euro.

Au Trou Normand, located at 9, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud, is a bit more expensive, but if you can judge from just one dish, worth the price. The decor is nonassuming, the staff reasonably friendly, and the menu full of interesting dishes. I went for the canard au miel (duck served with a honey sauce garnished with chives) which was so juicy and delicious that I could have eaten twice the amount. Even the mashed potatoes and vegetables served on the side tasted fresh and perfectly cooked. An appetizer, a plate, and a carafe of wine will set you back about 20 - 25 euro. My mouth waters just remembering it.

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Oh, I should mention too that I found the name of the shop where I bought the sausages. It's "Saveurs d'Antan." Great stuff.

Another great highlight of the trip came toward the end, on a Saturday when we were roaming around north Paris and happened to see a sign listing the various bands that were playing jazz in the Parc des Fleurs, near the Chateau de Vincennes in southeast Paris. That day there happened to be an American jazz trio playing called The Bad Plus.

First of all, the park is astoundingly beautiful, with countless types of flowers, a large pond and an interesting fountain all serving as the backdrop for a large outdoor amphitheatre. The band was incredible. If you haven't heard them, they play mostly their own compositions--jazz ranging from avant garde to straight-ahead and everywhere in between--but pepper the set with great interpretations of songs by artists such as Aphex Twin and Bjork. They played tightly and with a lot of enthusiasm. I suppose its easy to play with enthusiasm when you're in a country where people actually give a damn about jazz.

The weather was beautiful, we drank wine on the banks of the pond and gave pieces of our baguette to two little girls so they could feed the bizarre-looking red-billed ducks. Being surrounded by people who are simply and naturally enjoying the hell out of life is contagious. And I'm moving to Washington D.C. in less than two weeks. Sigh.

That's it for now. If other good stories about the trip spring to mind I'll post them in the coming weeks, but for now its time to get back to some cooking. And packing. Lots of packing.

A bientot mes singes.


Paris Part I - (Mussels, Ramen Part IV, and There's a Place in France Where the...)

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A nice view of the Pantheon as seen from the Jardin du Luxembourg. I think it might be a statue of Dionysus, saying to tourists "Please, drink wine in the park, for we French have no uptight anti-public-consumption-of-alcohol laws such as the Americans have." I was only too happy to take this advice. Several times.

Some friends of mine recommended a great Belgian brasserie on Rue Soufflot, which runs right between Luxembourg and the Pantheon. It's called La Gueuze, and for about 8 Euro they serve giant dishes of moules marinere, which, for the uninitiated, is simply mussels steamed in wine, butter, shallots, and herbs. You can also order it with creme added. Delicious. For a few euro more you can get a plate of fries on the side, a combo that is quite common in France and often seen on menus as "moules frites." La Gueuze also serves large glasses of various beers, the best of which is a Belgian ale called "Lucifer." Very strong and very delicious.

One interesting part of the meal was our extremely close proximity to a large and very boorish Russian man, who was unable to speak without bellowing. For over a half hour he dominated the conversation at the next table and occasionally overpowered ours, as he stuffed mussles and fries into his festering gob, mussel juice running down his chin and his hands, his face growing redder as he drank more and more ale. Finally, when the waiter cleared the table and asked if anyone wanted dessert, this same Russian pounded on his chest with one fist and grunted "creme brulee!" I should mention that his companions, also Russian, were quite well behaved. Wouldn't want to perpetuate any stereotypes, would we?

From a Slavic bear we move to French sparrows. A few breadcrumbs in any park in Paris will instantly make you a hit with the fat and ubiquitous pigeons. Perhaps to compete with these greedy oafs the sparrows have shed any fear of humans they might have and are perfectly willing to eat straight out of your hand--if you like that sort of thing. My two companions stripped the chocolate from a number of Malteasers, crumbled the malted candy within, and soon had a swarm of sparrows perching on their fingers and pecking crumbs from their palms. The two of them were delighted. As the swarm grew in numbers, all I could think of was Hitchcock.

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And now for the ramen. If you've read Kitchen Monkey for any amount of time, you're probably aware of my obsession with great ramen. From my first pitiful attempt, to a pilgrimage to Minca Ramen Factory in NYC, to a subsequent and much better attempt, I have sought out great ramen restaurants and recipes for the better part of a year now. In this vein, I present to you Sapporo - Restaurant Japonais, which can be found in easy walking distance from the Tuileries at 276 Rue St. Honoré. They even have fiberglass or plastic models of each of their ramen dishes in the window so you can see what your options are (don't be put off by these, since none of them look very appetizing).

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As far as ramen restaurants go, it's always a good sign when you see a lot of Japanese people eating there, and such was the case with Sapporo. The chashu ramen was so good I ate there twice, ordering the same dish both times. Its fun to hear French spoken with a Japanese accent, but greet the already friendly hostess with a "konichiwa" and say "arigato" when she brings your meal and she'll be even nicer. This hospitality can be refreshing after eating in a series of Parisian French restaurants.

Sadly, I did not get a picture of the ramen itself this time, but to tell the truth it was not as picturesque as the Minca ramen. The taste, however, was every bit as good. The only ingredients apart from the taro, the broth, and the noodles were some shitake mushrooms, a bit of spinach, and five heavenly slices of slow-braised pork butt. If you go for lunch you can get an order of gyoza and a bowl of ramen for about 10 euro; a pint of Asahi Superdry beer will cost you another five but will be well worth it.

Since I was sitting at the bar, right in front of the main kitchen area, I got to watch the chefs at work, and given the transcendence of the broth I was determined to get a picture when no one was looking. The dim lighting left it a bit blurry, but I'll be damned if I don't see two apples floating in the huge stock pot that contains the broth. Apples! It never would have occured to me, but next time I make stock for Japanese dishes I'll definitely throw in a couple.

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I feel compelled to mention one other event. As my friend Liz and I were walking through the park toward an obligatory rendez-vous with the Eiffel Tower (which at that point bore a large neon sign reading "Paris 2012!") we passed by a curious sight. A very well dressed man was kneeling in the grass before a very beautiful woman, who was wearing a stunning peach-colored dress. He held in his hands the edges of the bottom of her dress, as what appeared to be a professional photographer focused a lens on the couple. Then, as quick as lightning the man lifted the dress up past the woman's waist to reveal her derriere, in all its stark, bare-assed nakedness. The camera flashed, and just as quickly as it began, it was over. As we passed beneath the steel spiderweb of the Eiffel tower, I thought to myself, "ahhh, Paris!"

Tomorrow we resume our time in The City of Lights with a great Morroccan restaurant as well as some cuisine from Normandy. Not to mention a great fishmarket and some sweet jazz!


Chenonceaux - Of Mistresses, Old-School Graffiti, and Wild Boar Sausages

Chenonceaux. It is the name of both the chateau and the small village nearby. It is a great place to spend a day, whether you love history, good wine, good food, beautiful nature, or like me, all of the above.

Chenonceaux is an hour or so southwest of Paris (if you take the TGV). As you can see from the pictures above and below, the major part of the chateau is built over the Cher river.

Here is a view of the Cher from the chateau's library:

Desperate Castlewives: Chenonceaux was a focal point for the dramatic soap opera between Henri II, his queen, Catherine de Medici, and his mistress (20 years his senior, the grand dame of all cougars) Diane de Poitiers. All three of them lived in the chateau at the same time, an arrangement that caused Catherine some distress. I can't imagine why.

At one point the jealous queen had a hole drilled between her room and Henri's so she could see what the randy king was up to. Voyeurism? Emotional masochism? Who can say--maybe both. In any case, Henri II died in a fairly stupid jousting accident, after which Catherine booted Diane out, taking over Chenonceaux and ruling France from its tranquil surroundings for many years.

At one point Mary Stuart visited from England. As she worshiped in the chapel that forms the east wing of the chateau, her guards carved, in renaissance English, a bit of graffiti in the chapel walls which you can still see today--graffiti of a religious nature. If you're going to tag God's house (or even God's personal wing of someone else's house) it had better be about God.

Catherine de Medici died at the (then) ripe old age of 70. Chenonceaux then went to her son, Henri III, who was quite gay, in both the 16th century and modern senses of the word. His wife was nonetheless so devoted to him that when he was murdered (kings of France tended to have bad luck) she vowed only to dress in white, and, being by now a queen, became known as "the White Queen." She must have been quite a sight moping around the castle, which was no longer a very gay place to be, in either sense of the word.

La Cuisine: I found all of this very fascinating, but you might easily imagine that my favorite part of the tour was the kitchen.

I unfortunately failed to get a good shot of the massive oven, but I did enjoy the butcher's room, complete with a row of 17th century butcher knives and hooks for hanging rabbit, duck, lamb and other carcasses. One part of the kitchen was actually built into the first two archways that span the Cher, and a dumbwaiter system was constructed next to the window so that boats delivering supplies down the river could simply pull up next to the wall and have crates and boxes hoisted up.

A tour of the grounds will take you to the winery, and you can also tour the vast flower and vegetable garden, but more tangible treats await you in the nearby village of Chenonceaux.

Walk across the railroad tracks from the chateau entrance and immediately you're surrounded by picturesque little cottages with ivy and flowers covering everything. Immediately to the west of the train platform (on the village side of the tracks) walk up Rue de la Roche. Not too far in you'll pass this cottage:

Keep walking north up Rue de la Roche, you'll pass on your left a small patisserie that sells great baguettes and bottles of regional wine. Continue a little further up Rue de la Roche, turn left on Rue du Grand Clos, and you will find an amazing little shop filled with local products. You'll recognize it by the large fake wild boar's head out in front. Stacked majestically on a table, arranged by type, are dozens and dozens of dried sausages (saucissons secs), each about the size of André the Giant's thumb, which, incidentally, grew to its enormous size in the village of Moliens, 150 miles north of Chenonceaux.

Sadly, we only purchased two of these sausages, both of them made from wild boar, mine encrusted with black pepper. They were quite unlike any other sausage I've ever had. They were deliciously full of fat, for starters, and naturally air dried. Apart from that the process of making these little beauties is, to me, a complete mystery.

With our baguettes, our bottle of Touraine that we found to be really really really good (take a moment to admire my facility with describing wine!), and our saucissons secs, we found a cobblestone path that led us between cottages to a small rustic gazebo. We took shelter beneath it, surrounded by flowers and trees, and as we swigged the fruit of the vine from the bottle, and munched on the artisinally crafted flesh of a once carefree porcine animal, it began to rain softly. My primary thought at this point was: "life is good."

So without further ado, for all you meatlovers--and here I'd like to give a special shoutout to Dr. Biggles from Meathenge--I present a lovely if somewhat blurred picture of said saucissons:

You can see larger versions of most of these pictures by clicking on them. Tomorrow, we resume the adventures in Paris with steamed mussels, some underground jazz, and yes, RAMEN!!!!



Backtracking a little, I'd like to say a few words about Montpellier, where I spent two weeks (one of them, as you know, sick as all get out) taking french courses, going to the beach, and eating more baguette and duck liver mousse than is good for one person.

As French cities go, Montpellier is not the most beautiful, nor the most exciting, but that's not to say I regret going. The size of the university there guarantees an enormous population of students and, consequently, a huge number of relatively inexpensive cafes and kebab shacks. I did eat at a couple nice restaurants there, but nothing that blew me away. Some of them were overpriced but had nice atmosphere. On the west side of St. Anne's cathedral is a charming salon de thé (I believe it's called Le pré verre) that serves a wide variety of teas as well as some breakfast and lunch dishes. The outside dining area is very peaceful, falling as does in the shade of the cathedral and a huge tree. Expect to pay for this atmosphere though. However lovely the presentation, 6 Euro was a little much for a cup of tea and what was essentially a glorified pancake.

The real highlights of my time in Montpellier involved perusing the local markets. I lived in a student residence very close to the center of town, and within a very small radius I could walk to a fish market, a butchery, several produce stands, and a number of patisseries, where you can buy a fresh baguette for .60 Euro or a perfectly breakfast-sized quiche lorraine for 2 euro.

The room where I stayed had its own kitchenette, and I had a great time cooking for some of the other students at the Institut Linguistique. One night I made a honey glazed salmon dish, another night I made lamb stew provencal. Much pate, saussicon, and cheese was eaten. Much wine was drunk.
I got a bit of a tan at the beach, Palavas les Flots, but after living in Sarasota for several years you start to demand a lot from your beaches, and crowded beaches with sticky grey sand don't really cut it. For all the natural beauty, I could have been at a beach in New Jersey, except that every once in a while a vendor would walk by selling beignets. On top of this, the only semi-naked people were fat, old, or both. Not that I begrudge them their nudity; I very much look forward to the day when I am too old to care about such nonsense as "dignity".
Still, we did find a nice seaside restaurant that served huge steaming pots of moules mariniere (more about this when we get to Paris).

And because it looks cool, here is a picture of the Roman aqueduct in Montpellier.

Tomorrow, a visit to a beautiful Loire valley chateau, and some wicked good wild boar sausages.


San Sebastian, Spain - Part 2

Kitchen Monkey has returned to the U.S., and now that he's back in the states (with access to english-style keyboards) there will at long last be some posts that do justice to the amazing dining experiences in France and Spain.

Let's start, or resume, with San Sebastian. San Sebastian must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and is certainly one of the greatest meccas for foodies. The above picture is the view from the Monte Urgul, looking toward Monte Igueldo, the two mountains that stand as sentries to the port of San Sebastian (along with the small island you see between them, graced with a light house). From the top of either mountain you can see the city of San Sebastian spread out to the south, and the Bay of Biscay to the north. A hike to the top of Monte Urgul will bring you to Castillo de la Mota, a fortress built by Napoleon's army to guard the city (after they had taken it). Here is Kitchen Monkey checking out one of the original cannons still at the fort.
For those of you who don't know, San Sebastian is in the Basque country, which envelops both southwestern France and northern Spain. The Basque identity is particularly strong in Spain, where a small but very vocal minority of Basques support separation from Spain, and while most of them don't support the terrorist tactics of ETA, there is plentiful evidence of the Basque effort to maintain their identity. The face of one building that bore a large Spanish flag had been splattered with red and yellow paint.

Below is the tapas menu, or pintxos if you're Basque (pronounced "peen-choes,") at La Cuchara de San Telmo, which my friend Liz, who grew up in San Sebastian, swears is the best tapas place in town. Between myself and my two companions, we tried almost everything, and some of the items, especially the lamb paté croquetas, were nothing short of amazing. Also good was the roasted rabbit slices and the duck with pato asado (I don't remember what pato asado means).
Liz had been going on about how good fried fresh anchovies were, but that they weren't currently available because of overfishing (if I remember correctly). However, the next day we found a great restaurant, La Cepa, which had them on the menu. For my first course I had a very creamy crab mousse (pastel de txangurrol) served with a delicious home made mayonnaise. The anchovies (antxoas fritas) were fried in little more than garlic and olive oil, and bore almost no resemblance in flavor to the canned salty affair that occasionally adorns American pizzas. So tasty.

Dessert was an apple bread pudding that was quite good. All of it was accompanied by a bottle of Patxontxo Rioja, which like a lot of wine in northern Spain and France, was both reasonably priced (6 euro for the bottle) and incredibly good.

Finally, on my last night in San Sebastian, Liz's father took us out to dinner at a fantastic restaurant called Aita Mari (which means Father Mari in Basque). We all shared a couple bottles of delicious regional wine, some succulent jamon iberica that far outdid any prosciutto I've ever had, and for the main course I had the angler fish, also very good. But what really excited me about the meal was a complimentary starter, a very small but unbelievably rich and tasty nettle bisque. I've never cooked with nettles before, but I'm determined to locate some and find a recipe so that I can try (and, I assume, fail) to replicate what is really probably the best soup I've ever had.

If you're lucky enough to ever go to San Sebastian, I reccomend all three places, especially La Cuchara. Also, if you eat at Aita Mari, try to get a table with a view of the port. Tomorrow, a bit about Montpellier & Avignon.

La Cuchara de San Telmo
C/31 Abosto, 28 Bajos, (Trasera)
San Sebastian, Spain 20003
Tel: 34-943-420840

Bar La Cepa
31 de Agosto, 7-9, Parte Vieja
San Sebastián-Guipúzcoa, Spain 20003
Tel: 94-342-6394

Aita Mari
C/ Puerto 21-23
San Sebastian, Spain 20003
Tel: 94-343-1359


San Sebastian, Spain

Yesterday I left Montpellier after two weeks of French language classes. Despite being sick for the first week, I made friends with other students, mostly from Germany and the UK. Montpellier has a good deal of South-of-France charm, and more restaurants, kebab stands, cafes and tea rooms than you could possibly imagine. The town isn´t as rich in history as, say, Avignon. Its main attraction is the huge number of students. I spent most of my time there in the Centre Ville, and I would say at least 70% of the people I saw were 35 or under.

The train East to the Bay of Biscay was 6 hours long and railed past some amazing scenery. I especially liked the Pyrenees region of souther France, where the buildings perched on tree-covered hills are broken up intermittently by a castle or a medieval stone wall.

Arriving in Hendaye, France, just across the border from Spain, I met up with a friend, who grew up in San Sebastian but has lived in the States for the past 10 years. Her father has a really nice apartment on the top floor of a building that looks out over a river that leads to the Bay of Biscay, and from his rooftop terrace you can see the ships coming in and out. With another friend from Sarasota, her and I went into the center of San Sebastian for some great Basque food (I had squid in ink sauce) followed by tapas, which in the Basque region is called pintos (don´t know if I´m spelling that correctly). By midnight we were exhausted. Today we´ll take a day trip up to Biarritz, France, then back down to San Sebastian until Tuesday, when we take the train to Paris. Hopefully we´ll see Mont St. Michel. I´d like to post some pictures of San Sebastien and Montpellier, but this computer is having trouble uploading them to Photobucket, so it may have to wait.