Saturday, May 13, 2017

Springtime in Paris

Trip date: May 2017

Anytime is a great time to go to Paris, but there's something special about springtime. I'm just home from the city of lights, and even though it was chilly with bouts of rain, clouds, and sunshine, the trees were blooming, the air smelt fresh, and people were friendly almost to the point of smiling!

I had taken advantage of a Cyber Monday sale after Thanksgiving and bought a round-trip coach ticket for $675. That is a crazy good steal from Seattle!

Forest and I had been talking about going down to the Loire Valley for the last couple of years so this was the perfect opportunity. I would come and stay with her and Thibault in their apartment in the 15th for four days, then she and I would drive to the Loire for four days. More on the Loire later.

I didn't upgrade to Delta's Comfort Plus as I really wanted this deal to stand on its own, but I got lucky and had a 2-seat row to myself both ways! My last four long-haul flights, in almost as many months, have been in First Class so to say I have been getting spoiled is an understatement. And although I missed my lay-flat bed and fancy multi-course meal, the food in coach was honestly impressive. Kale, cashew, cranberry, cous cous, and chicken salad along with fruit, cheese, and a chocolate brownie were surprisingly good. Breakfast was Noosa yogurt, a mini bagel with cream cheese, and Tillamook cheese. On the way home I had a nice chicken "cobb" salad and later in the flight a snackbox filled with herbed cheese spread, caramel salt popcorn, and a dark chocolate square. Again, all good.

When I landed at CdG there was a crazy 1 1/2+ hour queue to get through passport control. I talked myself into the Priority line and then caught the RER into town. 10E and less than an hour later I was at the apartment.

It was May Day and as I walked vendors sold little sprigs of Lily of the Valley on the street corners. It's customary to buy one for someone you love, so many people were walking around with them.
Forest had the day off for the holiday so we chose a corner cafe in her 'hood for a quick lunch. Escargot and white wine, hello France! After that it was a much needed nap for me!

When I mentioned to my brother that I would be in Paris in early May he told me he was going to be in London. In a super cool big brother gesture, he changed his plans and we made a date for drinks and dinner Paris.

Forest, Thibault, and I met Mark at Danico for cocktails. This is an absolutely gorgeous place in the Passage Vivienne. Opened by the guys from Mace in New York, it is just the right amount of swank, with really interesting and fun cocktails. And in a nod to the bar being in the old Jean Paul Gaultier atelier, the bartenders and servers all wear navy striped shirts. I loved this bar for a lot of reasons and highly recommend checking it out.

I had chosen an old school restaurant for dinner which was just a short walk away. Chez Georges, in the 2nd, opened in 1964 and was reportedly Julia Child's favorite. They offer a menu of classic dishes and serve a few things in the communal style that I adore. The dish of rillettes for our table was refilled and placed on another when we had moved to our mains, and the prunes in Armagnac that I requested with our cheese plate came in a beautiful tureen which we helped ourselves to before it was taken away for the next diners to enjoy. You are never going to get this experience in the States!

Mark and I left T & Forest and headed off to have a few nightcaps at Night Flight. The bar is located in the Hotel Bachaumont and was opened last year by the ECC folks. It's a good bar but there's nothing truly unique about it. I'd go if you are looking for cocktails on a Sunday/Monday/Holiday when most other places are closed.

The next morning I met my brother at the newly reopened Picasso Museum. The last time I was there was in 2000 with my mom! They closed shortly after that for a long renovation while the collection went on the road. It's a good museum but I can't help but think it was better laid out before. There were quite a few things that we didn't see on display that I was interested in, I'm assuming they are still reorganizing as their floor plan brochures had not even arrived yet. But it's still an amazing collection. We didn't book in advance but the set up of velvet rope suggests that in busier times you might want to. 12E for the permanent and special exhibit which right now is a look into his first wife Olga's life.

We ended up at the Cafe des Musees for a really good meal of housemade terrine, steak tartare, and fried white asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Springtime in Paris means asparagus blanc and I was out to have it as often as I could!

We made our way through Place Vosges and on to bar Maria Loco in the 4th. I was meeting Forest for a seminar on Novo Fogo cachaca given by my friend from Seattle, Dragos Axinte, who was launching his spirits in Paris. Small world and good timing. We had a great time tasting a variety of his cachaca expressions, sipping on cocktails, and learning about the distillery in Brazil thanks to a live video feed with his Master Distiller.

Afterwards, over another cocktail, I sat with Dragos at the bar, trying some different cachacas neither of us had tasted before and learned more about the different flavor profiles of these spirits.

It was time for some food so Forest and I made our way to L'Avant Comptoir, an offshoot of one of my favorite restaurants Le Comptoir. You enter the charming stand-up wine bar through thick slatted plastic strips, reminiscent of a cold storage room. We chose glasses of wine as well as a few small plates from the menu of photos hanging from the ceiling. Delicious food, especially the waffle with artichoke hearts and prosciutto, lovely well-priced wine, and a slab of butter on the counter the size of a soccer ball!

We ordered another wine, a bottle this time, and another small plate and then decided to hit next door- L'Avant de la mer. The small plates here are seafood focused and we were able to bring our wine over. Another hit for Chef Yves Camdeborde. I'd suggest going to both as they are so sweet and fun!

Before heading home we decided on cocktails at Castor Club, one of the very few decent cocktail bars on the Left Bank. I felt like the bar looks like you're inside a barrel, even when you are outside the front door. We had really great drinks and lovely service. I'd absolutely recommend this hidden gem if you are in the 6th.

I was back at the Le Comptoir du Relais the next day, this time for a proper lunch with my brother. Unfortunately for Mark I had woken up at some god-awful early time, accidentally turned off my alarm, and then re-awoken at 12:30pm. 30 minutes past the time I'd told him to meet me, and him without a data plan for text/calls/or emails. After some frantic moments, Thibault was able to call the restaurant and they found him. He was already one course in and just thought I had changed my mind on meeting for lunch. We are obviously still getting to know each other! LOL!

They were so sweet when I arrived, the kind of sweet that means the city hasn't been overrun with tourists yet, the birds are chirping, and everyone is excited to put on lighter clothes. Paris in the springtime-kind-of-sweet.

When I sat down Mark asked me to taste what he thought might be a cheese on his charcuterie plate that he wasn't familiar with. When I tasted it and told him it was their butter we both laughed! Who cares, eat this stuff with a knife and fork! I had to show him the mounds of it on the counters at the wine bars next door.

His beef cheeks and my roasted suckling pork both had incredible sauces which is just one of the many things I feel this restaurant does so well. And we decided to splurge on calories and got an over-the-top decadent dark and bitter chocolate dessert. This place has my heart for a reason.

I needed to do a bit of shopping so Mark came with me and we headed to the little twisty streets off of Boulevard Saint Germain. Boucherie Polmard for some crazy high-end beef sausage (if you have a kitchen they sell hamburger patties layered with slices of foie gras), then to Henri le Roux for what many regard as the best caramels in the city, and finally to La Dernière Goutte for a bottle of wine, as Forest had invited me to her wine tasting meeting that night.

I said goodbye to my brother, jumped on the metro (luckily with my shopping bags wearing a rain coat since it had started raining), and got back to the apartment to help Forest set up for the wine tasting.

We walked down the street and made stops at the bakery for baguette, fromagerie for cheese, wine shop for... well I think you can figure that out! The most eye opening stop was at her fishmonger where she ordered 2 dozen fresh oysters and asked if they could shuck them while we ran our other errands. No problem was their reply and when we returned we found this lovely presentation of half shell oysters, on ice and on a disposable tray, all wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon tied around. For 28 Euro!!!

Wine night was great fun, four of us each bringing a white from the Languedoc and tasting blind, comparing notes and guessing on the cepage. As a majority we decided this region doesn't have our go-to whites but it was great to taste an assortment, learn more, and catch up with the ladies!

The next morning I took the metro to Madeleine and did a little shopping for my absolute favorite tea at Fauchon. It was beautiful outside so I decided to walk to Concorde with its over-the-top pretty Ferris wheel, obelisk, fountains, distant views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. I visited this area on my very first trip ever to Paris, as well as spent a New Year's Eve here, and I love to get back to it whenever I can.

I continued to take advantage of the weather and strolled from here east, along the Right Bank of the Seine, past the numerous bridges, the houseboats, the Musee d'Orsay, the tourist cruises, the Louvre, until I got to Pont des Arts.

This bridge use to be known for the "love locks" that completely covered it to the point of weighing down the iron and damaging it. I was very happy to see that the bridge has been completely rid of these locks, repaired, and covered with clear plexi so that they can't be reattached.

I crossed over to the Left Bank and continued wandering, passing a whole area of interesting art galleries, and then making my way towards Montparnasse Tower. I was meeting Forest and Nic for lunch but as I was a little early, I stopped at a sidewalk cafe and sat outside with some tea.

We had decided on an old-school lunch on Boulevard Montparnasse, a street still cluttered with these types of grande old institutions. La Coupole is massive inside, I actually can't image how many it seats. As per the name, there is a large dome in the center painted with women in various stages of dancing and drinking.

The room is wood paneled and has bars set up along each wall. It's very Art Deco and I could only imagine the din from so many people back in its heyday, all drinking, eating, and having conversations. La Coupole was the place to be seen by the artists, authors, and socialites. We read that they still host Sunday tea dances in the downstairs ballroom which would be a riot to see!

We were the youngest diners that day and ordered classics like Coquilles St Jacques and pot au feu, seated snuggly between the blue and grey haired set. There is a menu of updated takes on the classics as well. Many bottles of wine were had over our 4-hour lunch. It was the perfect girly Paris afternoon and we were pretty much the last to leave.

From here we walked down the street to another old gem, La Closerie des Lilas, around since 1847. Surrounded by flowers in bloom, we ordered more wine and sat on the sunny terrace until a rain shower chased us into the bar.

The tables inside are marked with gold name plates announcing famous regulars from the past; Modigliani, Hemingway, Henry Miller, etc. A piano player started and the bar filled up. We had a great time here for another 3-hours!

Back to Forest's where we could continue our sing along party and have a sleepover. Girls just want to have fun!

The next morning the three of us made our way to Gare Montparnasse so that Forest and I could pick up our rental car. But before we left for the Loire we found a random cafe and Nic joined us in a champagne breakfast complete with croissants, omelets, and French fries.

Upon arriving back in Paris after our long weekend in the Loire Valley, Forest, Thibault, and our friend Matthieu met for one last dinner at the newly opened Rural by Marc Veyrat. Well known for his Michelin starred restaurant in the countryside near Annecy, this is his first restaurant in Paris. It's a big 200+ seat place meant to look like a mountain retreat. There are log walls, and furniture covered in sheepskin, as well as waiters dressed in plaid.

The menu is small; there is a terrine/salad station you go to to be served, a dessert buffet, and an enormous center display of cheese and charcuterie.

I started with the eggs which came complete with syringe which I was told to shoot the contents of into each of my eggs, this is a dish he is quite famous for. And three of us had his version of tartiflette which came in a large Staub pot, with the potatoes diced small instead of sliced and no crunchy rind. Neither were standouts for me but the place is fun and we were excited to see the man himself in the house.

Our Uber home took us past the Arc de Triomphe where France's new President elect had been earlier in the day laying a wreath with the current President, and then past the Eiffel Tower all lit up. So pretty.

Packing back at the apartment, a nightcap or two, and then up early for the RER back out to CDG where I had time to do a little Duty Free shopping. All in all an absolute great trip in one of my favorite cities.

Paris photos here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Seafood All Around San Sebastian

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 8

We started our second day in San Sebastian with a stand-up breakfast at the Santana Cafe before taking a nice walk through the city's market, Mercado de la Bretxa. 

I love browsing market stalls and had not been in this one before. We all split up so that we could do things at our own pace and planned to meet back up at a designated time. There are always so many things, especially different species of fish, that I've never seen when I'm in the markets of Europe. Being that this one is also in one of the gastronomic centers of Spain there were specialty items like monkfish liver, hake roe,  various pork pieces, etc. 
We left the market and strolled through old town so the folks who hadn't joined us the night before could take a peek. 

I love this church which seems to be built right into the hill behind it. When we were done our driver Antonio who took us to a small port where we boarded an even smaller boat and crossed over to an adorable and colorful fishing village, Pasajes San Juan. 
What a fantastic side trip this was, I didn't know anything about it! The houses are all from the 16th and 17th century and the inhabitants are fiercely Basque. 

Besides wandering the narrow streets and taking in the views, we visited a restaurant where they have a basket of live lobsters held in the sea below. The owner showed us how they pull it up when someone orders one, well she had George demonstrate for us!
Although we had lunch plans, it had been a while since breakfast so we stopped at the Plaza de Santiago and ordered some wine and delicious roasted prawns from the Yola cafe. It was quite a spectacle, all of us sucking on these prawn heads! One of our hosts Gerry managed to get prawn/butter juice all over his shirt and pants, luckily he knew of a special powder spray that the Spanish use to treat such stains and asked one of the waitresses to spray him down. That was also quite a spectacle!

This town was adorable, I'd absolutely suggest making the short trip over should you be in San Sebastian!

Back on the other side, Antonio drove us to Getaria where we would be having lunch at Kaia- Kaipe. This restaurant is owned by the same family who has the very well-reviewed Elkano, which was unfortunately closed for vacation. Although our lunch was so superb that I'm not sure we missed much by not getting there. 

Both restaurants are known for their grilled whole turbot. While ours cooked we enjoyed some incredible tuna, a decadent lobster salad, hake cheeks, and roasted spider crab. Each course was served with a different wine, of course! The main course of turbot, while not particularly pretty to look at, was spectacular! The 1947 Viña Bosconia was a stand out as well. Now I should mention that this wasn't really included in our package but John was kind enough to order it and share it with the table. Officially the oldest wine I have drunk!

We had such a fantastic time at lunch, our table of 9 overlooking the harbor, eating absolutely delicious seafood, and drinking some stunning wines. There was a table of about 6 older gentlemen, regulars for sure, who were also having a fun, long wine-filled lunch. That's just the kind of place this is!

Besides a nice dessert, we finished our meal with Judy and my new favorite liqueur, pacharan. Seeing how happy it made Judy the restaurant even sent her off with a bottle of it!

It was dark when we returned to San Sebastian, and Antonio pulled over at a great viewpoint to take in the lit-up La Concha before heading back to the hotel.

We were having dinner at the 3-starred Akelaré and even though I was hardly hungry after our lunch, I was really looking forward to it. I love that kind of dining experience! I got ready and headed out on my own back to the Museo de Whiskey for a gintonic and some me-time. 
At Akelaré, Chef Pedro Subijana greeted Gerry and our table. He was very nice and seemed genuinley happy that we were dining there. The courses started to come, there would be eight in all, and it became apparent that although these dishes were quite beautiful and creative to look at, they felt a little passé. 
There wasn't either the amazing flavors that accompany many seemingly simple dishes, like we had that day at lunch or at Asador Etxebarri, nor the elaborate over-the-top experiences I've had at other 3-stars. 

But fear not, we still had a good time and really the service here was excellent. And restaurants are all a matter of personal taste so YMMV.
Gerry, John, Beth, and I decided to go have nightcaps afterwards at Dickens, supposedly the origin of the gintonic as it is made throughout Spain today. And in case you think that I am just too lazy to write gin AND tonic, I will inform you that in Spain gintonic is the proper name of the drink!
The owner himself was in the house and made our cocktails. They were ridiculously priced and no better than the ones at Museo de Whiskey; in fact I preferred the drinks and the space over there. So we were 0 for 2 for the night! But the day more than made up for that.

Day 9

The next morning was our last in San Sebastian. I headed out on my own for a bit, my first stop being our fantastic neighborhood spot Bar Gorriti, where we had started with vermouth just two days before. It was 10am and I was the only non-local in the place and the only one without a beer or a wine to have with breakfast pinxtos. 

From here I walked down to La Concha to soak up some sun and take in the beautiful beach. I'm not gonna lie, going back to someplace that holds such past, dear memories is bittersweet, as it was on this visit. I was happy that I was with such a fun group and having some new experiences and memories.
Before heading back to the hotel and boarding the bus, I stopped back in at Bar Gorriti and rectified that wine situation with a pour of Txacoli. And then we were off to the Navarra region!
All photos from the Basque country here.

Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias
Beef and Basque

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Beef and Basque

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 6

We arrived in Bilbao after dark and checked into the Hotel Ercilla. Although the hotel had a great location, it felt like an anonymous business hotel, lacking the charm or ambiance some of our other hotels on this trip had. It did have a bar, and while I waited for the others to get ready for dinner I enjoyed a nicely poured gintonic.

A few of our tour mates decided to pass on dinner, so a smaller group headed to La Gabarra, a casual steak house near by. Their massive ribeyes, or chuletone as the cut is called in Spain, were perfectly cooked and delicious. The sides were no slouches either; simple white asparagus with mayo, some of the best croquetas, and a lovely tortilla Espanola. Dinner was followed by custard and honey and Pacharan, a delicious liqueur made from sloe berries. 
Day 7:

The next morning we walked to the Guggenheim Museum and wandered the galleries. Unfortunately, the 3rd floor was closed which is where the gorgeous Rothkos are that I love. It had been 11 years since I was last in this part of Spain but I still remember standing in front of those and being incredibly drawn to the saturated colors. 

We did, however, get to see the famous Jeff Koons Puppy, which happily sits in front of the museum, being planted which only happens a few times a year one of the "groomers" told me. 
It was time for lunch! We were all super excited to make the 40-minute drive to the 2-starred Michelin and #6 of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, Asador Etxebarri in the beautiful little town of Axpe.
This goes up there on my list of most memorable and favorite lunches of all time. It's a good list including standouts such as Paris' l'Astrance and Passage 53 , Vienna's Steirereck im Staadparkand of course most recently Copenhagen's Noma

We were seated in a semi-private room and welcomed with a cup of house-brewed beer. Our tasting menu consisted of 15 small to medium sized courses, various wines mainly from the region, and an order of the biggest percebes I have ever seen!

Everything was delicious and the service was over-the-top spot on! Standouts for me included buffalo milk cheese with honey, house salted anchovy on toast, prawns roasted in their shell, artichokes with wild mushrooms, and the steak. Oh lord the steak!

It sounds silly to say that Etxebarri is both known for their masterful grilling and for using the best, fresh ingredients, but it's true. You can taste the depth of flavor in Chef Arguinzoniz's dishes; superb to say the least. If you are in this region it would be a terrible shame to miss a meal here. 
photo credit DocSconz LLC
Our 4-hour lunch came to a close and we boarded our van, trusty and patient Antonio driving us on to San Sebastian during sunset.
We were staying at the Pension Casa Nicolasa right in the middle of San Sebastian. Our room had a cute little balcony and decor with just the right amount of hipster modern. I really liked this place!

I was so excited to be back in San Sebastian! I remember it being incredibly beautiful, small and easy to navigate, and having the most delicious pintxos (the Basque word for tapas). We started our first evening by trying a selection of Spanish vermouths at Gorriti Taberna, located in the square across from our hotel.

From here we walked through town and down to the stunning Concha Beach; one of my favorite sites.
After well-made gintonics at the Museo de Whiskey of all places, we started our pintxo crawl. San Sebastian in particular is well-known for their food. Although almost everything is always good everywhere, each bar has an item they specialize in and locals know that you get that and maybe one other thing and then move on to the next bar. And that's just what we were doing!

First up was La Cepa, an institution and one I remember from my last visit. Txakoli wine was poured and a few plates were had, including some lovely padron peppers.

We continued down the street to Cuchara Telmo whose dishes, while still small, are quite substantial. Telmo is best known for their seared foie gras with apples dish and it did not disappoint!
Last on our stop was Ganbara where our hosts John and Gerry knew the owners. We had delicious gildas, wild mushrooms with raw egg yolk, and the star of the show- artichoke hearts with seared foie gras. Swoon!
I really loved this last spot!
It was 11:30pm on a very delicious food-and-wine-packed Wednesday and so we headed back to the hotel to sleep. More Basque fun was coming up tomorrow!
All Basque photos here.

Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias