Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In London

I moved to London by accident. After having spent two months eating out in Paris, I arrived with amazing memories and no money but with an ambition to fulfill a notional obligation to exercise a very different version of George Orwell’s ‘franglo’ experiences of the late 1920s.

However, real life took hold: an insouciance towards l’addition and a rejection of my own kitchen gave way to long shifts in a Soho wine bar, bowls of cereal and a realisation that it would be some time before I could explore London’s restaurants in the same manner.

That was 18 months ago. Now, with a bank of experiences - despite what only really seems like a surface-scratching foray into London's world of food - I again feel compelled to write. A journey which, to date, has taken me from, most memorably, Franco Manca, St John Bread & Wine and Beirut Express to Zucca, The Square and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, even in a blogosphere so saturated with food and restaurant-related experiences, deserves some form of documentation- if at least only to prove to my family and friends that my epicurean lifestyle has a traceable purpose.

My premise remains unchanged: To eat well, avoid eating badly and to help others do the same. Hello, again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

L'Epi Dupin

Readers must forgive my recent lack of posts. I have been away in the south of France after I decided to spend the last week of August with some friends. Throughout August Paris is somewhat deserted. Les grandes vacances or Exodus, as is a more appropriate term means that many of the restaurants are closed and many Parisians are away. In some respects it was the perfect opportunity for me to familiarise myself with the city. Quiet metro stations and available Velibs allowed me to explore untroubled. However, it became increasingly frustrating that the majority of the restaurants I desired to visit wouldn't re-open until September.

So, ten fabulous days lazing in the sun, larking about in swimming pools, cooking big meals and consuming copious amounts of cheap plonk offered me the chance to take stock and contemplate an exciting gourmet month ahead.

And without hesitation, on my first night back in Paris, I made it my purpose to visit a restaurant about which I had heard great things. I needed to suppress my post-holiday blues and remind myself of why I was here.

So not to give myself the chance of bottling it, I picked up the phone and called L'Epi Dupin without much thought and attempted to book a table in my best french. It was a minor success that I managed to get myself a reservation. Presumably it was very busy and the inconspicuous Englishness in my voice prompted the guy on the phone to sign off with, 'Ok Adam, see you at ten-thirty!'

I arrived to find a small, low-lit room with heavy wooden beams and rustic brick walls. It was full and a low murmur of contentment welcomed me as I was cosily positioned between two couples. It was a pleasure to see the chef working the floor ensuring his guests were happy. It also typified the very nature of these wonderfully approachable Bistronomiques which have drawn so much attention: that is the juxtaposition of some classical restaurant conventions with a modern, or to use Michelin jargon, 'a la mode', approach to food.

For example, I was first presented with an amuse bouche - a small ramekin placed before me containing no less than a langoustine velouté with a celery pureé. I love the concept of the amuse bouche and I loved this. It did precisely what it should and immediately excited my palate.

After followed a cold soup of racasse or hog fish (used in bouillabaisse) with a brandade of eglefin - essentially a haddock and potato fish cake hidden beneath. The contrast of the hot and cold worked wonderfully and the surprise when my spoon first met the warm potatoey mass on the bottom of the bowl was as welcome as it was deliciously unctuous.

I couldn't resist ordering the Lapin - rabbit - from the list for the main course; it seemed more an obligation than a choice given my whereabouts. When the seriously capable waiter told me that it was served with pumpkin and lardons, I began to get excited. The only complaint I would have with the dish is that it needed something very simple and clean to balance the sweet richness of the other components. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed a most succulent bunny - the skin and flesh had been separated to allow room for a parsley butter - and with it came a fine jus. The fried pumpkin/bacon combo is one that I have already tried to recreate at home. My effort wasn't a patch on L'Epi Dupin's and it was still nice. The pumpkin caramelises and the bacon crisps so you have a wonderful combination of both texture and flavour.

For dessert, I opted for figs roasted in cassis - posh Ribena - with a white chocolate ice cream. It was the figs that caught my attention, as I love blackcurrant. I was curious about the combination. As for the white chocolate ice cream, I considered it a bonus if I could eat it. Alas! Would you believe it, the figs themselves were fairly tasteless and there was no taste of cassis; it seemed they had cancelled out one another. However, the white chocolate ice cream was smooth, not-too-sweet and in fact very lovely. The figs were edible of course, they just failed to illustrate the expertise of the chef in the way the other dishes had. C'etait domage!

It is without question, L'Epi Dupin is a fantastic restaurant. It is inventive and creative without being pretentious; expertly staffed and competently managed. There was a care to the way everyone behaved. It would be the ideal place to take a loved one. That is not to say, of course, that I love myself. If I were to have a minor grumble it would be that there was insufficient time between courses to savour and reflect. I imagine this would not be the case at a sensible hour, but I was in and out within seventy minutes! Most importantly though, I had more than re-reminded myself why I was in Paris and I was already looking forward, not backward, to my next meal.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thai Vien

Like all of Paris' idiosyncratic quartiers, the area around Avenue de Choisy in the 13th arrondissement offers one the chance to indulge their curiosities. It is defined very much by its Asiatique identity and with that comes an enormous variety of cuisine. Readers may recall my early visit to Pho Bhan Cuon 14 and the Boeuf Special in the same area.

With few tourists venturing south of Place d'Italie, the streets couldn't seem further removed from the camera-wielding masses of Notre Damme or the now pseudo-bohemian chaos of Monmartre. Here, people from such places as China, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan interact in a patchwork of diversity. It is one of the many wonderful things about a metropolitan city.

Rather than gambling on instinct, I was lucky enough to receive a recommendation from two friends of a friend - one a Cambodian and the other from Vietnam. The latter insisting that it was the choice of all her family whenever they went out.

It remains a constant source of frustration and simultaneous sense of delight that these places are the least suspecting looking venues on a street of hundreds of restaurants. Visually, Thai Vien is very basic and seats no more than 30 guests - there are the customary paintings of elephants wearing crowns in fantasy landscapes and the table cloths are made from paper.

It is perhaps why when you are then given such wonderfully satisfying food so quickly for next to nothing that you are both staggered and so quickly enamoured by the understated nature of the place. Add to that the friendliest and most charming service I am yet to receive in Paris and there is little wonder why I would be forgiven for giving it a regular place on my culinary calendar.

I'd been advised to order the trademark Phad Thai. It didn't take long for me to realise why. Sticky noodles, chopped peanuts, beansprouts, king prawns, tofu (shhh) and spring onions formed a delightful medley of flavours - a lovely balance of sweet and savoury - triumphant in its deliverance of umami.

Together with that my friend and I shared a red duck curry which was full of chilli, lemongrass and coconut milk. Everything was seasoned so accurately. Needless to say, I didn't talk very much and only drew resentful tuts from my friend who felt I was taking more than my share of the Phad Thai.

We shared a bowl of rice and washed it down with a couple of bottles of Singah beer and with service handed over less than 15€ each. It is marvellous value and an ever-present, quickly-changing Thai and Vietnamese clientele serve only to confirm what you realise yourself: that on an avenue of choice, this is the place to be.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Continuing as I now was, on the recommendation of a reliable third party, I found myself wandering the myriad streets somewhere near the Gare de Lyon. I was looking for L'Ebauchoir which I'd read did a comparatively creative bistro lunch menu for 13€. I consulted the website to find a series of cool animations which seemed to represent a a fairly light-hearted atmosphere in which to enjoy a serious lunch, at responsible expense.

Given that I was so far from the beaten track I'd assumed it truly French - true in the sense that it would be frequented by either locals or those 'in the know': ie, not feeling it necessary to subscribe to the architypal street-corner act of so many bistros in the city.

I was further encouraged as to its credentials when on entering I was given a fairly frosty reception from two of the members of staff. It was almost certainly due to the heat and the fact that, at 2.30, they were nearing the end of what had been a busy lunch service. But I consoled myself with the thought that they weren't at all tourist-savvy, so to speak - that it was a shock to the system. That was fine, provided of course, they didn't think to spite this stray ros' beef. As at this point, it had become clear that is exactly what I was: I attempted a semi-franglaise/semi-mime, 'table for one?' at which point the waiter pitched, in perfect English, 'Inside, outside; sun, shade?' back at me, albeit in that irritatingly smug international accent.

I settled in the sun outside and ordered from the set menu. To begin, I selected a light, summery sounding raw, pickled herring with potatoes and a balsamic viniagrette. The fish was lovely and delicate, where the potatoes were floury and substantial. Though I found the viniagrette a little too much - too dijony and heavy for the simplicity of all else. I could, however, see a genuine attempt at something a little bit different - a sure deviation from the orthodox bistro formula.

Disapointingly, high hopes quickly turned to anti-climax when my main course arrived - a cold beef salad. Perhaps naively, I was surprised to find that the cut of meat was a cheap one - the kind of which is wonderful in a slow-braised, piping hot stew. This though was a cold salad on a hot day. Parts - the meatier parts - I enjoyed. It had been dressed, rather unusually, with mint and tarragon and was served with some seasoned rice and some crisp, dressed leaves. The problem was there was simply more than a little I didn't want to eat. I may sound like a wuss, but without lean beef, it seemed a bit of a confused parody.

I genuinely didn't want to tar L'Ebauchoir with the bad restaurant brush. I suspected that the dishes were not necessarily to my taste. More, it was so cheap and I had seen, if not in the execution, a potential for a good lunch. At 13€ it was entirely possible a set menu could have shortcomings.

I have since been twice as a result and both myself and my friends have been delighted - save for a bin-end creme caramel (which seemed to comprise three portions) that Gabs coined a 'horribly mediocre blamonge' - with all that we ate: cold courgette soup with mint, chicken with jus and pomme puree, fish and rice patties with diced tomato, braised veal with roast potatoes and good deserts like chocolate fondant and plum tart all delivered.

In nearly all the dishes, which in fairness over the two visits provided a much greater sample size, the restuarant confirmed my suspicion that there was more to be had following the first visit. It represents excellent value in a characterful french place. Saying that, the proprietor's embrace is far from warm, though my regularity has at least drawn half-smiles of familiarity. With time, maybe I'll accrue the status of a local - and they'll at least pretend to be pleased to see me.

43 - 45 rue de Citeaux, 75012 Paris

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My three companions

Pieces of the first week. Michael Booth's brilliant book, sweedish plus-fours and some faux-Birkenstocks

Eating in! It does happen

Sticking with the theme: A lovely Coq au Vin