Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Emigrant At Table

So before I forget utterly what I ate in Montpellier, and so that you can grab some good grub next time you're down there, the obligatory post on food.

I got in real late, which was a shame, because restaurants close at about 10 down there, but I was lucky because the hotel offers light meals (with a surcharge if they're ordered after 10, of course), and the desk-clerk whipped me up a sautée of calamari and slices of Spanish chorizo deglazed with red wine. Not bad for ten euros -- plus 1.50 lateness charge.

The next day was spent running hither and yon, and I grabbed a sandwich from a place on lower St. Guilhelm called, believe it or not, Oh La La!!! (the three exclamation points were part of the name). I'd had great luck with chicken sandwiches -- had a great one from Crobag, of all places, in the Frankfurt train station -- and there was one that looked real good here. But only one, which the guy ahead of me claimed. The only remaining sandwich was tuna, which didn't excite me. But I'd forgotten I was in France: it wasn't the dry canned tuna, lettuce, and cucumber you'd get in Germany, stuffed into a gummy baguette. This was enlivened by real (ie, non-sweetened) mayonnaise, ripe juicy tomatoes and crisp lettuce. And this from a seedy sandwich stand with a silly name.

Dinner that night was at La Tomate, which I'd wanted to try last time. Andy recommended the fish soup, and it was sublime. This dish pulverizes the fish so small you really don't know what's in it, but I could tell a darkly smoky roux from my years of making gumbo, and as for the rest of it...who knows? An amazing balance of flavors, crisp croutons, and a peppery rouille made this the best version of this dish I've ever had. Too bad the rest of the meal sucked; the place is certainly affordable enough. But the steak was tough, the fries were frozen, and the green beans were cooked in beef broth -- a good idea -- for too long -- not such a good idea.

Wednesday's lunch was a salad on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. One great thing about summertime dining in France is the concept of the salade composée, which is a salad with, um, a whole lot of stuff in it. Perfect hot-weather food -- and it was hot. But you know, it's about ingredients. The thing sounded good when I ordered it, but...who knew saucisse chaud meant, not "warm sausage," but "hot dog"? And who wants bits of cold hot dogs in their salad? Or tiny cubes of tasteless cheese? Or that bane of German salads, canned corn? There are several places with big outdoor eating areas on the Esplanade, but because I set about forgetting this one as soon as I paid my bill, I can't warn you away from it. Sorry.

Dinner that night was at my old favorite, Bistrot d'Alco, behind the Préfecture, which is usually my first dinner stop. You can get a starter, a main course, and a half-bottle of well-chosen local wine (just look for the day's special) for €20, and although the hulk of the backside of the Préfecture isn't the most scenic thing to look at during dinner, you won't notice. This time I had a half Camembert with slices of apple laid on it, warmed up, on a bed of salad as a starter, and their great seiches avec persillade as a main course, along with a spicy, crackling Languedoc rosé. I love seiches, little cuttlefish with nearly spherical bodies, and cannot wait to start cooking with them.

Thursday lunch was business, and the food was undistinguished. Forget the name of the place, too, although I could take you right there. That night's dinner was another Andy recommendation, Le Vieux Four, over on the funky side of the hill. On the plus side, it's great to find a place that grills over a wood fire, and the meat is top-notch. On the down side, there really is an "old oven" in there and when it's still close to 90 outdoors, you don't want to eat indoors. I had no choice and it was hot. Also the hearts-and-flowers decor (not to mention the relentless hyping of mojitos -- dudes, that's been over around here for years) is a little too much.

Friday I was determined to get nothing but good stuff for my last day. I definitely wanted a salad for lunch again, so I the Vert Anglais. Yup, the same bar where I hung out with the expats during the early evening. I remembered my trip a few summers ago, and getting a very good pasta salad there, and I figured that a) they could use the custom and b) it couldn't be any worse than on the Esplanade. Wrong on a) because of b): it was vastly superior to the other place. I got a good-sized glass of gazpacho set in the center of a gargantuan salad of mixed greens, dark, smoky strips of ham, and parmesan shavings -- all for a Euro less than the other place!

The roll continued at dinner. I'd heard about l'Escalier from Bart, Andy, and Bart's girlfriend Chris, who wasn't in town all week, and was determined to try it. Good call: a great salad to start, and a magnificent magret de canard with a sauce combining cassis and honey, accompanied by more green beans cooked in beef broth -- but done right -- and some undistinguished carrots, plus a real good red, all for €23. A great end to the trip.

La Tomate, 6, rue Four des Flammes, tel 04 67 60 49 38
Bistrot d'Alco, 4, rue Bonnier d'Alco, tel 04 67 63 12 89
Bar Vert Anglais, 3, place Castellane, tel 04 67 66 03 03
Restaurant L'Escalier 6, rue Jules Latreilhe, tel 04 67 60 51 86


Anonymous said...

Mmm, magret de canard au cassis et au miel. Sounds great! Do you know the Périgord, Ed? It's the epicenter of the French culinary earthquake and they are big on canard, as it happens.

Olaf said...

Ed, one of these days you damned well better write a book on food. Every time you give a report, I end up making lists and then raiding the refrigerator. Not good for the waistline. But thanks for the good writing.

Ed Ward said...

Olivier, I have a friend in New York who spends summers in the Périgord at his wife's strawberry farm. I'm hoping to get moved in time to be able to pay them a visit. Around dinnertime...

Olaf, thanks. I guess a book is the only way I'll get published: food writing is a very closed circle in the U.S., and I haven't come close to being able to break into it. Maybe someday. But I first have to get out of the land were the word "to cook" and "to boil" are the same...

Anonymous said...

Wow Ed, that's it, you've left Berlin. The end of an era eh? Do you think you'll have cause to visit there much?

Ed Ward said...

Nope, haven't left yet. I consider myself "leaving," but I have to return to score a place.