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Category: Travel

A Lunch at L’Etoile du Nord (Paris)

Quelle Mauvaise Idée !

Anyone passing through Gare du Nord shouldn’t miss L’Etoile du Nord, if only as a testament to how Thierry Marx’s molecular ambitions went the way of the Dodo, a sad compromise between what some call bistronomy and what any educated palate will call, the French way, “malbouffe”. Supposed to be “inspired” by the North of French cuisine, as mandatory in a place with trains to not only London, but Brussels and obscure places like Lille and Amiens, the place hailed itself as a revisited “Buffet de la Gare”, only with a fussy maitre d’, clueless waiters, vaguely George V-inspired sparce floral decoration, malfunctionning lightning in the toilets, cafeteria furnishing and, last but not he least, bland food. In a way, it’s a smashing success in recreating the impatience, the atmosphere and the poor value for quality of such places, but one doubts it was the initial intention.

Let’s focus on the food, should we? First was an oeuf mayonnaise, a bistro food staple which for some industrial reasons has been reduced to pulp by much lesser chefs. The eggs were too cold, the mayonnaise a shade of what it should have been and yes, there was tons of cheap aneth on top to cover for the rest. And it was only one starter.

The other one was a poireaux vinaigrette, which came with the consensual agrume dressing which the casual eater has been forced to associate with modernity. Bland, at best, and that kind of dressing is neither here nor there.

Main dishes were, first, a decent suprême de volaille appropriately cooked, served with a potato purée which should never be the highlight of a meal if you’re not Robuchon but yet was, instead of a discreet companion.

Second, quite a terrible fish & chips consisting of a big chunk of cod haphazardely fried, one side heavy on the stomach and the other still bathing in flour, served in a debatable version of the thing, without vinegar or salt and pepper to add some gustative substance to the generic fries coming in a fancy cornet.

To conclude with this embarassing interlude, dessert was an oversweet, cubic oeuf à la neige which must have been made early in the morning and bathing since in an over-vanillaed custard. Since the whole concoction was not sweet enough, there was some mollified pink pralines in the mix for your dentist surgeon’s downpayment on his next vacation to the Maldives.

Staff is in training before your very eyes. There is a waiting line even though a vast first floor remains closed. For anyone who went through the ordeal of landing at CDG and taking the RER train to Gare du Nord, this is a mandatory pit stop in the “I Hate Paris” circuit. Count roughly 30€ per head, then regret it.

With our Food correspondant Victoire V.

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A Kaiseki At Gion Karyo, Kyoto

Hannibal Season Three

To put things plainly, kaiseki is a traditional Japanese diner composed of fourteen servings with an assortment of dishes prepared using different cooking methods and presented in a specific order in various, usually pricey pots and dishes, . Fine ingredients like fugu can be included and the price of such a meal can reach stratospheric level, especially in popular destinations like Kyoto. Fortunately, there are some affordable alternatives on offer, like at Gion Karyo, situated in the main street of the “geisha quarter”. Their set diner menu is only ten dishes and does not end by the traditionnal bowl of rice, brought to the guests as a humble courtesy in case they would still be hungry after such a feast. This enough qualifies as heresy for the purist; it has the advantage of reducing the length of the experience by a good hour. Now that your appetite is whipped, shall we go Hannibal?

1/ Sakizuke
The night one dined there, the appetizer was a nicely balanced crab salad dressed with persimon vinegar, including Shimeji mushroom, Indian spinach, taro, beans and ginger. There was a piece of herring involved too, maybe to the detriment of the crab, but said fish was so good it was hard to consider it a flaw.

2/ Wanmono
The soup was a tile fish bullion flavoured with yuzu, with steamed wax gourd and turnip. Steaming vegetables is not the best way to enhance their flavour, but when in the land of Umami, do like the Umamites do.

3/ Mukozuke
The fresh sashimi of the day was composed of superior tuna, delicious shrimp and squid, which was well, Umami.

4/ Oshinogi
The sushi was mackerel filet and roe dressed with vinegared ginger; the discovery came from the addition of gingko beans, which one never suspected having such a refined taste.

5/ Yakimono
Everything yaki is grilled and has to be done so to perfection: this dish was marrying barracuda, sea urchin and sweet potato, the three of them scrumptious.

 

6/ Hassun
A tour de force of a dish, this one was aligning seven bite-size hors d’oeuvres including Matsukaze (steamed chicken paste), smoked saury, salmon roe dressed with radish, grape and oyster mushroom dressed with tofu sauce, fried pike conger bone and sweet potato, fried octopus and taro with pumpkin sauce. One’s two favourites were a boiled chestnut and a steamed conger with rice, proving that simple is best. Duly noted by a skeptic: tofu makes a great sauce!

7/ Konabe
This must have been the best hot pot ever, smoky flavoured with the blessed pairing of Wagyu beef and Mizuna (herb mustard). An there were leeks, too. Heaven.

8/ Shiizakana
It was rather difficult to follow up on the Konabe so this side dish was a bit of a letdown, based on abalone, eggplant, mackerel and ginger, even though a citrus jelly was welcomingly crashing the party.

9/ Gohan
Gohan is a hearth-cooked rice accompanied with pickles and a miso soup. There were five options and one’s afraid one’s guest didn’t pick up the best one, as it has to shared.

10/ Dessert
Kind of an uncharted territory when not based on azuki or sesame, the Karyo dessert got one right with a sweet potato cake and another very wrong with apple sherbet.

The place is small and neatly laid out, with an open kitchen offering the fascinating spectacle of Japanese cooks plying their trade with impeccable precision in a welcoming atmosphere. Waitresses are a bit shy towards gaijins at first but basic Japanese politeness help them relax (start by taking off your shoes!). All in all, a successful modern take on kaiseki, worth every cent of the 100€ per head price (without drinks). That’s the price of love.

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A Diner at Rue d’Or, Osaka, Japan

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Rue d’Or J’Adore

The French gastronomic brasserie of the St Regis hotel Osaka, named after the Golden Street where it is situated, is helmed by Vincent Gadaud, a young chef from Tulle who has a no nonsense approach to traditions. He knows that they are never so interesting than when they are twisted with the inventiveness of culinary talent. He has to deal with the specifics of cooking French in Japan, some of them obvious, like the language barrier, others more treacherous, like the price of butter. He speaks about his cuisine with heart and a great sense of humour: he was happy to speak French with guests and spend a good deal of time at our table, commenting on the dishes and listening to our comments. It was a great diner, even though a couple of things might have been improved, but they were details, really.

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After an amuse-bouche which was rather too sweet to whip up the appetite, we rejoiced at the arrival of hefty slices of good bread, astuciously matched with a red wine salted butter. Now we were talking, and the conversation begun. The first dish, a browned lobster tail with fresh corn, zucchini and vanilla butter was perfectly satisfying and brought some nostalgic memories of the same pairing at Sanderens. With a glass of an honest Orvieto it was a successful debut.

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Followed a smoked haddock fish cake with creamed leeks, a tad too salty, even though haddock was sweetened with the inspired introduction of salmon. Leeks in a Béchamel are always welcome as far as one is concerned. Quickly followed a green pea velouté with crispy lard, that one forgot to photograph, first because it was a bowl of soup, then because it happened to be a tad repetitive on the gustative range. That dish would have fared better after the next one.

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The real treats started with a glazed octopus with green tea tempura, served with a cream of Jerusalem artichokes and chips of sea vegetables. Apart from a couple of carrot slices, bringing color in but adding nothing, the dish was very balanced, including citrus bubbles. Molecular cuisine, used with discretion, enhances very nicely a classic dish.

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The meat dish was the best: a honey roasted duck breast with caramelised endives and cèpes was announced, but it cames… with pork. We joked with the chef about the Alain Passard’s Frankenchicken (reviewed earlier here) but the idea of serving two different types of meat in the same plate was actually great, the duck courting his garniture of spinach and mushrooms and the pork very much in love with endives cooked in orange juice. A glass of a very nice claret and it was heaven.

Another treat was to follow: since dessert was a chocolate fondant, which is nothing to write about, Chef Dannaud made us taste a new dish from the à la carte menu (pictured on top): a pork gently cooked for 13 hours, splendid with green peas, mustard and onion rings. For unorthodox it was a dessert, it made us leave reluctantly. There was a flight the following morning, but as a last supper it must have been better than the one in the Bible.

Obviously service was impeccable and the atmosphere of the brasserie rather comforting, with old French songs played at low volume. Congratulations to Chef Gadaud !

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Feria de Sao Joaquin, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil

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A Feast For The Eye

Markets all around the world are a great place to capture the spirit of a country, because of the local products or handicrafts which are on display but most of all because of all the human interaction taking place there. Latin American markets are among the most vibrant and couloured of all, especially in Brazil. And in Brazil, no place is more vividly textured than Salvador de Bahia. One of the most ancient cities of the country, Bahia has kept alive his long, sometimes rough history. Better than everywhere else in Brazil you can feel African roots meets the Amazonian heritage.

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Situated a unexpensive cab ride off the city center, Sao Joaquin was recommended by the guest house host as the real thing. She also mentioned that the place was safe for foreigners, something that can’t be said for other parts of the city. The best time to go in obviously in the morning when the place is buzzing with activity and the heat is still bareable under the vast sheets of plastic filtering sunlight.

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The market, selling everything edible and some simple, everyday handicraft, including pottery you would for look in vain in the gentified center, is a maze for all senses. Piles of mangos and many other fruits you see for the first time, fishes you never heard about, the sweetness of Brazilian portuguese, the play of light and shadows on colour block walls. Sao Joaquin is the place to experience to pleasure to get lost, trusting only your eye and your camera.

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Yet, it’s far from being a lonely experience. People at the market are welcoming and friendly. They ask you where you come from, legitimately proud of who they are, what they do and that you took the trouble to come from afar to pay them a visit. No one presses you to buy anything. Some of them, seeing your camera, strike poses that could be featured in a fashion magazine and flash a fantastic smile just at the right moment. They love the attention, and you love them in return. You depart reluctantly, feeling happy, invigorated, a better person and a better photograph.

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With our resident photographer Wenpeng Lu, © Pculiar

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Lunch in Paris: La Bulle

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Call Me Bubble, Everyone Does

We slowly find our way regarding food here at Modern Monsters, and it helps a lot that we now have a food correspondant, tracking the best (mostly lunch) options in beautiful Paris, the place where everyone wanna go, or has been intending to return, having in mind not to end up in some ugly brasserie or café, eating an overpriced lukewarm croque-monsieur, with equally half-backed service to boot. Michelin stars are just too easy to find in the world’s first touristic destination, so we will focus, as we did in Florence or Lisbon, and soon a couple of Japanese cities, on yummy. Just know that it is a hit-and-miss endeavour, and that we have an educated palate. So this week we have one good place and an easily forgotten one, whatever other websites try to sell them for.

It would be an understatement to say that La Bulle is off the beaten track, close to the Louis Blanc metro station, on a quiet street corner. The place bas been there for 8 years but the chef has recently changed and he has quite a pedigree, which comes as evident in the plates, based on fresh quality products. The good thing about the street corner is that you can sit outside when weather allows, which was the case on our visit, and benefit from the attention of a casual and sweet staff. Lunch of the day there is 24€ for a three course service, and every cent is in your plate. Let’s detail quickly.

Starter was a crispy bean salad, well seasoned with some good ham and a lot (maybe too much) of hazelnut bringing a nice, crunchy feeling to a humble, dow to earth dish: it is always good to feel like you are eating someone’s cuisine, free from the hurdles of French tradition: you add some foie gras to this dish and it works, but it becomes predictable in the process. They say you never have the opportunity to make a first impression twice: Victoire’s appetite was whipped after this ultra-simple dish.

Main course was either a well cooked beef with a fresh ginger and parsley sauce, including a wonderful beefsteak tomato and cabbage leaf chips, or a sea trout with a celery purée and a julienne of garden peas. The meat dish was, once again, simple but heartily delivered. One could have done without the grapefruit slices blurring the taste of the celery which worked very well in combination with the trout. If there was one more reservation to express, dressing was a bit messy, but who cares in this price – and quality – range? La Bulle sends hefty plates, anchored in a true attention to product, let the balsamic dots to the pretentious restaurants where they belong.

Dessert was a strawberry and lemon vacherin, the nicest dressed dish by much, and it delivered the goods. Throughout lunch, service was consistently attentive but never overbearing. Since the wine one ordered was unavailable, Plan B was not on the check, a nice gesture which sums up La Bulle: in spite of the dated, 80s decor, there is some serious cooking taking place there, and it’s worth giving it a try if you wanna sample what a simple, serious corner restaurant has to offer in gazillion-starred Paris.

Food correspondent: Victoire V.

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