Tag Archives: #Paris

Restaurant de La Tour: The perfect Parisian meal at the perfect moment

Today, the CD takes a much-needed reset at a small neighborhood restaurant in the City of Light (and City of Culinary Treasures).

If you have visited Paris, you likely walked around the infamous Tour Eiffel in the city’s Left Bank and 15th Arrondissement. If you did so, you likely noticed quite the assortment of tourist-oriented cafes and street vendors. Yet it’s easy to forget that people actually live and work near this iconic landmark. So if those denizens dine out, where do they go?

One such location is Bistrot (also Restaurant) de La Tour, an unassuming restaurant that lacks the coveted corner location of larger establishments but has the good fortune of being located adjacent to a butcher shop. And it’s only a block from unobstructed views of the Eiffel Tower.

Inside, the small restaurant is cozy, yet elegantly decorated with modern minimalism. What it lacks in scale it more than overcomes with a delicious and relatively large menu with many options. I had a tough time choosing my selections for a three-course, fixed price menu, though one also can choose two courses, as well as from a separate, daily a la carte menu. Shockingly, the three course menu was only 34 Euros, which is pretty great for the quality and personal service of this establishment.

For appetizers (entrées), I had to select from perhaps eight choices, three of which, happily I found, contained pâté de foie gras. Others included soups, a terrine of eggplant (aubergine), sautéed mushrooms, and more. I opted for a salad with smoked duck and foie gras. Duck overkill, perhaps, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of two very different preparations of duck. The smoked duck burst with meaty flavor and the saltiness of cured meat. Regrettably for duck welfare, I love foie gras. Which also means I’m particular about its quality. Bad foie gras can remind you from what duck parts exactly it’s made, while good foie gras can deceive you into thinking it defies labels and was just born of itself. The foie gras in this particular salad, however, lacked the saltiness of most pates and instead of calling attention to the flavor of the pâté, it worked against it, making it seem a bit bland. It also had some recognizable bits in it, which I carefully excised from the rest and discarded. If this sounds disgusting, please know that this was the one and only disappointment of the meal. Every other aspect exceeded my expectations – which is, to say, that in Paris, one cannot have a bad meal at a local restaurant.

Course two was the embodiment of the richness of good French cuisine. Chicken breast with a powerful but lean Gorgonzola sauce was accompanied by snow peas and haricots verts, as well as the most exquisite potatoes Dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) I think I have ever eaten. Those potatoes should have their photo included in a Wikipedia entry for potatoes. They were just that perfect. Other menu options included veal risotto, sea bass, lamb chops, and more.

Now, for the pièce de resistance: dessert. Dessert was another difficult choice for me, with options like a molleux de chocolat (usually a warm, molten chocolate cake), orange supremes with Gran Marnier and ice cream, crème brûlée, and more. But I was intrigued to see a Brioche pain perdû (French toast), which I had never eaten outside of breakfast or brunch, listed. So I picked that.

Let the record speak: This French toast could not have been any better. It deserves a perfect “10” score. Thick, buttery Brioche without the metallic taste of too much egg wash (as French toast is prone to take on) but instead accentuated and moistened only slightly by egg. The toast plateau perched atop a moat of caramel – not the thick, additive laden caramel made from condensed milk, but the sexy, burnt sugar sweetness of of pure, caramelized sugar and melted butter. A petite scoop of vanilla glacé (ice cream) topped the toast. It was the simplest of desserts but so perfectly executed I am inspired to recreate it.

Dining is an experience. Part of a great dining experience is usually one’s company. In this case, I dined alone, which is the antithesis of our international archetype of Paris – OK, sorry for the really elitist use of Big Girl words, but sometimes the English language offers precise words that convey a meaning and a tone with some nice alliteration that I just couldn’t bear to simplify for our Twitt-ified, 140 character-happy world). Yet by dining alone, my focus was the food and wine itself, the restaurant’s atmosphere of dignity yet lack of self-importance, the relaxed cameraderie of two sixtysomething men and a woman catching lingering over dessert, the way the lone waitress and chef greeted chatted up a regular customer through his meal.

I had the sense that I wasn’t a tourist marveling at the City of Light(s) as the world appreciates it, but instead that I was witness to the way the Parisians themselves appreciate it. It was my window into Parisian life in that moment. Without fanfare or movie-style romance.

As I walked through the streets of Paris in the rain (to walk off my dinner and a very long week of work), I experienced Paris as I hadn’t before – alone and more attuned to the city itself and not the aura we have from movies, literature, and our own experiences. Paris is in many ways one of many similar, “international” cities that belong more to the world than they embody their national spirit. But for those of us lucky enough to visit as outsiders, it is different. It is Paris, where everything is somehow more elegant, where street graffiti is more refined – and where the food is on point.

I reflected on that meal – and on this moment in my life, where exhausted – truthfully, burned out, I found myself thinking about my past, present, and future. How my life is, in many ways, so far from that little girl’s hopes dreams, somehow a cosmic joke, cautionary tale, and adventurous triumph of womanhood all at once. This meal in Paris embodied all of that wistfulness, but most of all, it gave me hope and inspiration.

Quite honestly, I’d lost the drive and inspiration that spurred this blog in the first place. Yet this little meal reminded me why I started this blog: For these moments in time that offer an experience with food, with wine, and with culture that allow us to transcend ourselves. That allow us to see there is an entire world beyond ourselves and our experiences waiting to be discovered, shared, and discovered again.

I hope you’ll join me for further adventures of The Culinary Diplomat. In a world that seems to be in the midst of a rebellion against inclusion, against sharing and celebration of our different cultures and traditions, I think the world needs more global communities, not less. But that’s just my perspective…

The best plat I ever ate: Parisian seared foie gras ravioletti

It is a rare moment in life when you experience something so spectacular you know you’re going to remember the rest of your life. Whether it’s people, a natural wonder, a concert, a work of art, or food, you typically know soon that the moment will remain with you for years – if not a lifetime. Memories are powerful. They aren’t perfect photographs, but the more important to us an event feels, the more we remember it. When they stand the test of time – when they are all but impossible to replicate, then we know we were on to something.

Several food memories stand out to me clearly. I’ve already talked about the best ice cream I’ve eaten. In honor of the new classic tradition of #tbt (Throwback Thursday for those of you who haven’t quite joined the ’10s. No judgment; I’m sure a 13 year-old would tell me how lame I am for still using the term), I’m sharing my best entree experience around this date a few years ago.

It was Paris. It was March. At the end of a ski trip, a friend and I decided to weekend in Paris. I’d only been to Paris once before at that point, and I’d really looked forward to taking the city by storm. So live it up we did. At the end of a long day packed with food and sightseeing adventures, I didn’t think I had much of an appetite for a late dinner, but I was willing to try. The setting? Scossa, a cafe-restaurant on Place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement.

You know how food tastes better when you’re hungry? In this case, I was the opposite of hungry before I started eating. After snacks, bread, great wine, and escargot, I was even less hungry.

Sidebar: My first experience with escargot was surprisingly good. I liken it to calamari – odd texture but no odd taste. It is somewhat chewy, but it takes on the flavors of its cooking liquid and seasonings – in grand French tradition, typically butter and garlic. My take on escargot is this – why eat something that has no flavor of its own, if it’s already odd or expensive? How is it much different than, say, tofu, in that regard? The answer is the experience.

So, we get to the main course (I can’t say entree without confusing the American – main dish – and French/Continental – appetizer – meanings) or plat in French. One of my friends and I both ordered a seared foie gras over ravioletti. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, and perhaps that was best. It overwhelmingly exceeded expectations. A significantly sized portion of foie gras was delicately seared to a crisp outer coating and firm, yet melt-in-your-mouth interior, with that rich, earthy and meaty flavor of foie gras. It was perched atop a dish of mini ravioli – ravioletti – filled with cheese and coated thickly with a perfect, cheese and parsley-accented cream sauce. Heart attack waiting to happen? Yes.

It was worth it. I definitely had several eyes-rolling-back-in-my-head moments while eating it. I left no bite untouched.

Already uncomfortably full, I still forced room for dessert – a warm, molten chocolate moelleux (before lava cake got old). I still managed to eat all of that too.

The meal was so wonderful that when I returned to Paris a few months later, I went back to the same restaurant to try and have a repeat experience. But that’s the curious thing about ‘best ever’ experiences. They’re all but impossible to replicate. Dishes can be made again, but are they ever truly as good? I find that when I make the perfect cookie, pasta sauce, or steak, it never seems to taste as good as when I nailed it – unexpectedly. Is it really ‘less good?’ That question also is all but impossible to answer, because perception is subjective and expectation gets in the way. If we experience something amazing – part of the ‘amazing’ is because it exceeded expectations. So when we try to experience it again the same way, we’ve set the bar much higher. Maybe the experience comes close to meeting the bar we built up in our memories, but because it didn’t exceed expectations, it doesn’t seem quite as good.

That said, the second experience with this dish was not the same as the first. It was very good, but the pasta wasn’t cooked quite the same; it seemed to not have been fully drained, so the sauce didn’t cling and flavor the ravioletti quite so well. Still, over time, it didn’t dampen the amazing memory of that first time. It didn’t make the dish any less exquisite. It remains – to this day – the best main dish I ever ate.

I’ll still keep seeking that next, elusive best dish I’ve ever eaten. Challenge accepted!

What was the best dish you ever ate?

The best ice cream I ever ate

Who doesn’t like ice cream? If you are lactose intolerant, diabetic, or have a milk allergy, you are not allowed to answer.

We all have our favorite flavors and experiences with frozen dairy desserts. The wide variety of niche and chain ice creameries, gelaterias, frozen yogurt shops in the U.S. alone show us that ice cream is as homogeneous as our population. Travel around the world and witness that some version of ice cream or gelato is a beloved treat even in the coldest of climates.

I certainly have had some fabulous ice cream and gelato. I know, it’s blasphemy to say that the best wasn’t the cliched Italian gelato in Italy. I love Paris’s famous glacier, Berthillon, enough to remember multiple visits clearly – and, I’d like to think, won a certain ice cream/gelato version of the Pepsi Challenge on the Ile de Saint Louis in Paris with that shop (If you’re wondering, it beat out Amorino, an Italian gelato chain). Yet it was a nondescript, touristy Viennese gelato shop not far from the Stephansplatz that gave me my creamiest memory of European frozen dairy confections (cookie dough and my usual favorite, hazelnut). I couldn’t tell you the name or any details; I simply didn’t expect it to stand out relative to the countless other gelato shops nearby.

Five years after the Vienna Experience, another ice cream trumped the others: enter Butter & Cream in Decatur, Georgia. I had an unfulfilled, four-day-old craving for self-serve frozen yogurt and toppings and tried to convince everyone to do frozen yogurt. My brother-in-law had another idea and wandered – with my sister and me in tow – into this local joint. The anticipation of future guilt trips to self for not trying homemade, unique ice cream because of a craving for the omnipresent FroYo made me try a few of Butter & Cream’s flavors.

I can’t describe my reaction without embarrassing myself. It might have been a bit animated compared with everyone else’s (understatement), but I think we all could agree that every flavor – and Butter & Cream – was outstanding – not a bit of iciness and a velvety, dense texture. Their Bourbon toffee flavor was the common denominator. With six flavors between the three of us, this one was the hands-down winner. Bourbon Toffee had just enough bourbon to make it interesting and unmistakably bourbon, and the toffee wasn’t your everyday Heath – it was homemade and delicate, with a very light caramelized flavor that complemented the boubon and cream perfectly. Butterscotch brownie, dulce de leche, and their fruit ice creams all were wonderful. I can’t wait to go straight to Decatur and Butter & Cream the next time I make it to the ATL.

Thus concludes the tale of how Butter & Cream’s bourbon toffee ice cream vaulted into a crowded field to become the best – or at least most memorably unique – ice cream I’ve ever had.