Monday, February 28, 2011
Unlikely Discoveries Department: the tea room, restaurant and courtyard terrace of Bonpoint, the chic clothes emporium for kiddies with well-healed parents.
The official name is “Salon de Thé Bonpoint.” The address: 6 Rue de Tournon (Tel: 01 56 24 05 79). That’s in the 6th arrondissement, a 2-minute stroll or roll-by-baby carriage from the Luxembourg Gardens and the French Senate in the Luxembourg Palace.
Alison and I had walked by this toney address a zillion times in recent years, and had wondered what it was all about. Did I suggest entering? No way. Why would a fashion-loathing frump like me with no children breach the portals of this paradise for bourgeois babies and budding bobos?
From the street I could see that the vast salons of the building are encrusted with the kind of neo-baroque decorations and tableaux that make me sneeze: dried flowers and plush toys galore. Racks with pricy kiddie outfits, and a quintessentially Parisian display of accessories for todlers and those in the tantrum stage, had always been enough to cause me to flee.
But last week, after our morning gallop around the Luxembourg, having been informed by an old friend that an unusually fine inner sanctum for food and refreshments lay beyond the accouterments, Alison and I pushed through the forbidding doors and, after a mile-long journey through Puericulture Land, eventually stumbled down into the subterranean tea room.
The hot food turned out to be delicious, the service swift, stylish and friendly – astonishingly friendly for Paris – and the setting a surprising delight: an Aladdin’s Cavern in the cellars of the Bonpoint store. Even more surprising was the stunning outdoor seating area in a quiet, leafy garden behind. This must be one of the capital’s most appealing hidden outdoor venues.
It was too cold to lunch outside, however. So after poking around the garden we took a table inside, under the vaulted ceiling. In our distinctly un-chic jogging outfits we tried to blend into the darkly chic designer décor: black banquets, lots of soft pillows, a black bar and black everything-else, except for the colorful painted kilim on the floor. Pleasant too was the darkish spot-lighting. So many places in Paris are violently overlit these days; the obscurity here was soothing. So too was the classical music, on at a low volume. We were able to converse without going hoarse. Our fellow diners were startlingly quiet, despite the average age of what? Six? Ten? The goodies kept them busy.
Actually, designer moms and dads were seated around us in number, and even some adults without children. That’s probably because the word is out: reportedly, ever since Bonpoint’s tea room was taken over in 2009 by Peggy Hancock and her crew (from A Priori Thé, the lovely tea room-restaurant in the Galerie Vivienne), the food at Bonpoint – especially the desserts – has improved radically.
We had no way of comparing the current regime to what came before it. But I was delighted to see Peggy’s patented scones and muffins on offer, plus the best New York Cheesecake in Paris (that lemon zest in the biscuit crust is to die for), not to mention the famous dark-and-white chocolate brownies, and much else. Much, much else.
My secret plan was to reach the dessert stage with plenty of room left for over-indulgence. But the creamy, smooth, curried chickpea soup we shared as an appetizer soon subverted my diabolical designs; and then came the Tourte Annina, a savory tart made of baby spinach, farmstead chèvre cheese, lots of fresh tender lettuce, and grilled pecans. Alison ordered the Shanghai au chaud, a classic chicken roll with confit of lemon and fresh cilantro, and too many other veggies to list. By the time I’d helped her along, I barely had room for dessert, and only managed to gobble two brownies before Alison threatened legal action against me for gluttony.
It’s said around town that Michelle Obama brought her kids to the Bonpoint tea room when the American Royal Family visited Paris in June, 2009. Reports are that she judged the brownies excellent. Whether this is an apocryphal story or not, I can vouch for the excellence of the product. We’re definitely going to come back as soon as the terrace opens. This time I’ll arrive early – the tea room opens at 11 – and start with coffee and scones. Which brings me in a roundabout way back to our meal: it wound up with a cup of some of the best coffee in town, an Ethiopian Moka Sidamo, from Cafés Verlet, the century-old artisan coffee roaster in Rue St-Honoré.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Confession time: for the last 25+ years I've lived in Paris and traveled the byways of France and Italy, tasting and writing about delicious food and lickerish wines. I've rarely felt gastronomic nostalgia for my native land, though the food and wine of California admittedly aren't bad (this is serious understatement as you all know). But I have an incurable passion for peanuts in all sizes, shapes, and clonal varieties. I also love other spicy nuts, and, the real shocker, brittle. Yes, brittle. Peanut brittle not only hits all the right pleasure buds. It also whisks me back to the happy days of my youth in San Francisco and Berkeley, when "wild" was the operative descriptor.
So when a new friend in Berkeley told me that her son is the maker of some of the world's greatest artisan peanut brittle and other brittle, I was tickled pink and announced that I couldn't wait to try them when we reach California on May 1st on book tour. A few days later, a box from Morning Glory Confections arrived by courier from the company's HQ in Los Angeles. Inside were six samples of brittle, hand-made by chef-confectioner Max Lesser, the company's founder. Max worked as a private chef for several years and noticed that his clients' most frequent requests were for spiced nut mixtures and brittle. A light bulb lit in Max's brain, and the rest is history (which you can read on the company's site).
Without further ado I tore open the package and began an utterly unscientific sampling session. Dizzy from delight, I stopped myself from eating everything, and brought what was left home, to share with my wife, Alison Harris.
Alison is not just a great food, travel and portrait photographer. She is an excellent taster, and about the only effective brake on my excesses, culinary and otherwise. We scientifically tasted our samples this time, and Alison took a still-life photo for me (the other, inferior pics are by yours truly).
We tasted: 1) Cocoa nib coffee bean & pecan; 2) Chai tea & cashew; 3) Indian curry pistachio; 4) Fleur de sel & peanut; 5) New Mexico chili pumpkin seed; 6) Thai curry & peanut. Only later did I check out the Morning Glory website, and read the glowing press reviews.
Here are our impressions: #1, 2 & 4 appeal to those of us who pre-date the sweet-and-spicy generations that have followed. What I mean is, so many people we know in the under-50 category are wowed by punchy, spicy and sweet things. This trio of brittle is subtle, flavorful, satisfying and of course sweet, but not overly so.
#s3, 5 and 6 are definitely winners for adepts of chili and curry. This isn't to suggest that the subtlety and excellence of the first three are entirely lost in this second selection. The spice is never overwhelming. But so intense is the spiciness that only the tiniest bit of brittle is needed to set the throat throbbing.
Since quantity is also important in the enjoyment of brittle, I naturally preferred the first batch. And since I'm basically a purist of the old school, my favorite of all was the simple Fleur de sel peanut brittle. The sea salt makes a perfect match to the peanuts. This is grandma's brittle with bells and whistles. Alison shared my general preferences though, as a lover of tea (and not peanuts), her favorite was the Chai tea brittle.
What all these brittle varieties share is the perfect texture: they're firm and crunchy but don't cling to or injure (brittle long) teeth. The dosing of ingredients shows great skill: this is the best-balanced brittle I've ever tasted. What will French customs think when I return home from book tour in May with a suitcase full of American brittle? I might just blog about that. Stay tuned.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
The highest honor bestowed by the Italian Republic may well be some kind of knighthood --- Cavaliere del Lavoro is one --- or an honorary degree. But for me, recognition from Rome's Emperor of Prosciutto and Cheese, the celebrated Claudio Volpetti of E. Volpetti & C., is the real summit.
Claudio and his brother Emilio, and Emilio's son Alessandro, own and operate what is unquestionably among Rome's best-stocked, best-run, most-appealing and most-irresistible specialty food and wine shops. It is certainly my favorite of them all. My profound respect for the lifelong labors of the Volpettis has developed over a period of 15 years, and during this time our relationship has evolved from the merely professional, to the highly personal. I say this not to boast but as a matter of integrity.
The Volpetti emporium of excellence is filled with extraordinarily delicious things to eat and drink, and is animated by the charm of the family and their many employees: they are seriously over-staffed, in order to ensure perfect service. This comes at a price: Volpetti is the opposite of a hit-and-run supermarket.
The shop is on Via Marmorata, near the Pyramid of Cestius and the so-called Protestant Cemetery, in Testaccio. There are several picture windows on Via Marmorata, all of which beckon to passersby. And guess what Volpetti currently has in one of its prime windows? Can you see the copy of Food Wine Rome standing proudly between the cheeses? That's Claudio himself, clutching multiple copies.
This is what Claudio has to say of the book (he's having trouble putting this review on Amazon.com -- the Internet is not a Volpetti forte):
"Whenever I want to discover something about food, wine or where to eat in Rome, I pick up this book, flip a page and head out into the city. David Downie's Food Wine Rome has become my Bible."
A free-thinking American mutt has written the food-lover's bible to Rome? Truly, I am in some kind of pagan heaven, where the Emperor of Prosciutto and Cheese reigns in gastronomic splendor.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Paris is a city of eternal returns. Today the giant annual agricultural fair -- Le Salon de l'Agriculture -- gets into swing at the Porte de Versailles conference center on the edge of town. It runs until February 27. Prepare yourself for braying, barking, mooing, bellowing, and crooning -- hayseed populism is the watchword.
Former president Jacques Chirac used to love pressing the flesh at the Salon. His successor, fearless leader Nicolas "big money" "glam" Sarkozy, is less adept at smiling as his mitt clamps down on hands that have just served slippery Morteau sausages. The air is scented by the food from hundreds of stands, and 39 restaurants, from dozens of countries.
As always, terroir is one of the themes: authentic and purportedly authentic regional foods from every corner of France (and the world). The air is also scented by burping bovines and other methane-producing creatures. And sausages aren't the only slippery things you're likely to encounter. So if you go, make sure to wear sturdy shoes, the kind you'd take to the countryside for an earthy walk.
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Friday, February 18, 2011
Serendipitous discovery department: a fascinating exhibition of photographs of Paris in the 1860s, taken by Charles Marville, with contemporary shots of the same streets, (presumably) taken by the exhibition's organizer, historian Patrice de Moncan. (If the contemporary shots are not by Moncan, this information is not included in the press release.)
The focus is definitely on Marville's masterful, sepia images. He was the official photographer of the City of Paris under Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III, during the Second Empire remake of the city. Seeing Paris before -- in 1860 -- and after -- today -- gives pause for thought.
I couldn't help thinking the city was infinitely more attractive, mysterious and photogenic before Haussmann ordered the demolition of hundreds of thousands of medieval buildings, the widening of streets, etc... Of course everyone knows "old Paris" was filthy, chaotic, dangerous, disease-ridden, badly lighted and so forth. But the reality is, today's city is not an improvement from the aesthetic standpoint --- unless you like the towering eyesores and asphalt expanses that have appeared in the last century.
The subject is not a new one, but this is a different take and worth the detour to see, as the Michelin guides might put it. The setting alone -- L'Academie d'Architecture at 9 Place des Vosges, a 1607 townhouse -- would be worth the trouble. And the view from the windows! This is the first time the academy has thrown open its doors to the public.
Unfortunately there is no website with further information, opening hours (daily 11am-7pm) and so forth. There is no charge. The catalogue of the show is handsome and weighty, a fine souvenir. And you can purchase copies of all the photos on display. The show is only running until February 24, so make haste.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Dateline: Paris, Boulevard St-Germain
This morning at 10:30am Paris Time several seasoned journalists -- at least one of them a hack and a ham -- were seen entering the escutcheoned, hallowed halls of the Political Sciences faculte' of the University of Paris on the Left Bank's chic Boulevard Saint-Germain. "Sciences Po", as Parisians call it, is a prestigious and authentic French university department. It is not a foreign counterpart or counterfeit of the kind sold at Paris airports. A riveting session of natter, recollection, prognostication, and speculation ensued, lasting until noon.
The "what" "when" "why" "where" and "who" of feature writing -- specifically, writing about Paris -- were the subject. The format: an informal Q&A-cum-talk organized by longtime Paris writer Harriet Welty Rochefort, author of the rib-tickling memoir French Toast (and other bestsellers).
The speakers were yours truly -- the seasoned hack-ham of the trio -- and the outstanding, longtime magazine editor Judith Fayard, currently of France Today.
Bespectacled but benign, Welty Rochefort, dressed in her patented, elegant, businesslike, darkly serious pantsuit, attacked the blackboard with confident strokes. The diminutive but charismatic Fayard discoursed with her usual flair, revealing to the eager assembly the secrets of the trade. These included not only the 5Ws of good journalism, but also the current keys to successful submission in the age of the Internet. (We're talking about the submission of articles written on spec, nothing to do with S&M, editor's note).
Both Welty Rochefort and Fayard offered genial and pithy advice to the dozen or so budding reporters perched around the classroom. Most of them were and are American, and all but one were and remain female. Yours truly punned and blathered about the joys, trials, tribulations and continuing mysteries of how to earn a living with screen and keyboard. (Clearly making a living would be easier with a sword; look at the arms dealers...). Downie had brought several props, including arcane newspaper clippings. He shared his latest books for perusal.
Downie later admitted that he was uncertain whether the students had ever seen a physical book; several students seemed intrigued or baffled by the physicality of the objects on display. Others were seen reaching for their hand-held devices; their intent was unclear. Downie speculated that they were checking the Internet to make sure that the books and their author actually existed.
Revealingly, not a one of the charming, beardless youths had purchased a newspaper that morning. Granted, several inky masses of folded newsprint (including the European edition of the Wall Street Journal) were available gratis to those taking the course.
More perplexing, only 2 or perhaps 3 (Downie is par-blind after all and could barely see the assembled company) of the youngsters raised their manicured hands when asked if they'd read a newspaper that morn. (Admittedly, Downie did not notice whether the sole male student had manicured his hands).
The kicker: no wonder printed periodicals, newspapers, magazines and books are disappearing faster than the macaroons at McDonald's. (Yes, McDonald's in France serves macaroons, made by the same confectioner that supplies at least one of Paris' leading tea salons and pastry shops!).
Post script: next year I might sign up for Harriet's course, and finally learn how to write about Paris. After ten books (who's counting) and umpteen articles, it would be high time. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy inky fingers in the morn, radio news, and hand-held, subversive, printed devices known as books.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Oddments-and-curiosities-of-life department: my wife can live happily without chocolate, yet she knows more about chocolate than most human beings, and she is a remarkable tour guide when we do our Paris chocolate tours. A few years back Alison took the photos for a handsome little book about the pastry shops and chocolate-makers of Paris, and she has lived here most of her life. So she's had the opportunity to try almost every specimen of chocolate fashioned in Paris for the last --- well, several years. She's a child, after all.
While Alison was delighted not to receive a chocolate for Valentine's Day, she very thoughtfully indulged my chocolate addiction by sacrificing her piggy bank at what is unquestionably Paris's oldest and most handsome and most expensive, and also, perhaps, its finest chocolate shop: Debauve & Gallais. Click to view the interior in a 360-degree pan (on their website). It's on the 7th-arrondissement side of the Rue des Saints-Peres, in chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
No one pays me to write this blog and in any case I do not do advertising copy. But I can honestly tell you that the few precious chocs contained in my ruinous Valentine's Day chocolate heart were exquisite -- exquisitely fresh, flavorful, crunchy where crunch was wanted, smooth and velvety and luscious too, not to mention admirably balanced in flavor and texture. I am not a fan of overly sweet or buttery chocolate (sorry, Belgium!). These preternaturally Parisian chocolates achieve a rare result: they please the eye and the palate, pressing all the olfactory and sensory buttons with a remarkably light touch.
Here are few snaps --- of my personal chocolate heart (and those pretty dwarf irises) chez nous, plus the shopfront and several hundred thousand calories' worth of pralines and etc... on display. Happy those who are too far away from Paris to gain ounces or pounds chez Debauve & Gallais!
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Monday, February 14, 2011
My special valentine does not like chocolate. So the hundreds of Paris bakeries, pastry shops, chocolate shops and miscellaneous hawkers of cocoa-based delicacies do not impress her. But she does love plants, and photography, so my Valentine's Day gift was an only-in-Paris dwarf iris -- the mauve packaging is gorgeous -- and a few images. Forgive my shoes: my arms weren't long enough to allow me to take the pic in focus AND hide my feet. The close-up shot is blurred, which is to be expected, given my eyesight (I only realized it was blurred when I saw it on the computer screen). And the cafe window... that's a Paris classic. "Service Continu" (no "e"), and plenty of TLC (perhaps in the form of Saint-Amour, the wonderful vintage Beaujolais Cru?).
Wherever you are, happy V-Day!
Thursday, February 10, 2011
A couple of snapshots of Paris the other night, by yours truly.
Happily the so-called Genie de la Bastille -- the winged sculpture atop the Bastille Column -- drags your eye away from the hulking Bastille Opera House. When I interviewed its architect Carlos Ott about his much-berated pile, he did a snake-dance with his hands and squirmed in his seat. He claimed that he was unfazed by the criticism (does anyone remember that Newsweek dubbed the Bastille Opera "the mothership that spawned the public toilets" in Paris?).
Admittedly, the Place de la Bastille is fairly brutal by day, with its crazed traffic, but becomes almost magical at night, in a meretricious, garish way. The Genie is its most appealing element -- the Genie and the temporary fun fairs that set up on the edges of the square. A long, coiling story hangs from this shaggy dog. Our Paris, Paris Tours clients enjoy hearing it, and they're rarely able to view the Place de la Bastille again without thinking of what's underneath the Column.
The other pic shows a wider, inky sweep of Paris City of Night, with many beloved and some reviled landmarks. Among the popular ones: Notre Dame, the Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower, with its headlight raking the city from a height of over 1,000 feet. The unloved include the Jussieu University skyscraper and the Tour Montparnasse (both eyesores from the 1960s-'70s).
When we take visitors out for our patented "nightwalks" of Paris, we give them a magic lantern show of interiors (a voyeur's dream), and plenty of exteriors, many overlooked or under-appreciated. As I collect more photos I'll post them. The par-blind photographer-blogger!
Interestingly, the antihero of my thriller, Paris City of Night, has some unusual eye problems -- unilateral dyschromatopsia -- that turn out to be a boon. If only reality would follow that particular fiction...
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
How much is the doggy in the window?
These doggies are books -- Food Wine Rome and Food Wine Burgundy!
My wonderful agent, Alice Martell, just sent me this image of the window of The Corner Book Store, at 96th and Madison Avenue, in New York City. Wow, a triumph!
Who knows, we might even do a book event in April at this fabled bookstore. I'll keep you posted.
Monday, February 7, 2011
Sun sun sun in Paris in February! Gorgeous day on the Place des Vosges, one of our favorite places in Paris. We like to take guests here on our Paris Paris Tours, and show them a secret passageway, and several quiet back courts, and plenty of atmospheric spots in the surrounding Marais neighborhood.
My apologies if some of the images are turned on their sides. I'm not only par-blind (no joke), I'm also baffled at times by the software that makes this blog possible
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Sunday, February 6, 2011
From the pen of delightful Raylene Burke:
"Travelling and exploring Paris and its environs with Alison and David is like taking a wonderful walk with your best friend, and visiting the places that only a native would know."—Raylene Burke
We enjoyed Raylene's company enormously, and look forward to visiting her one day in Vancouver.
February is a slow month in Paris -- good news! It means the city is here for the taking!! Short lines (or none at all), tables available in the restaurants you want to discover, great art gallery shows and museum exhibitions -- as good as or better than those in high season. That's why we like to say that in Paris it's always April, even in February (and the weather is often the same!).
Hotel de Beauvais, near us, in the Marais
The view from my office
The cover of our upcoming book
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Friday, February 4, 2011
The famous pastry shop Meert, founded in Lille in 1761, has done what all fancy chocolate and pastry shops now do: they've opened a storefront in the Marais. This one is only 100 yards from the Picasso Museum (closed for restoration -- so not great timing but eventually the location will prove lucrative).
The French press has given the Meert venture a good deal of attention. The shop is handsome, naturally, and the displays are gorgeous. If you love wildly sweet waffle-pastries you'll be delighted. I happily ate two bites of the luscious-looking confection I selected, filled with gooey essence of spice-bread (or gingerbread if you prefer). But I felt dizzy from sugar high before I could finish it.