Monday, April 6, 2009

The Taste of Travel: French Cuisine

I stared at the menu, trying to decide if I should go for it.

It was dinnertime on what will probably remain the odd
est Christmas of my life.

The morning had started in Paris with a breakfast of croissants, baguette and comte Noel cheese in my hotel room on Rue Cler with my family. Following that was a trip to the Arc de Triomphe and a walk down the Champs Elyseés, with stops at the only stores open that day - Peugeot and Mercedes dealerships (which were oddly crowded). A trip to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery followed that, and I had just come from the Sacre Coeur church in Montmartre.

I laughed as I thought about how going to the red light district - our next stop for the evening - would somehow fit in with the mix of things we'd done that day.

I wasn't sure, however, what I should do about dinner. I was holding the tourist menu - a set price for a selection of food that isn't always a deal - and deciding what I would have. The main course was easy. I was going to savor a steak au poivre with French fries. I thought ice cream sounded good for dessert, and a carafe of red wine would accompany the meat well.

It was the starter t
hat was holding me up. I didn't really want a crepe, and French onion soup I thought the salad would be good, but it seemed like something I would get at home, and therefore had no appeal to me (something had to make the meal memorable).

I was vaguely aware of the server taking my family's orders, and when he came to me, I ordered the steak, the ice cream and...the escargot.

"Ah, he is the French one!" the server said.

My sister curled her lip, my dad laughed and my mom looked at me with disbelief.

At home, I can be somewhat picky
. I really do hate tomatoes if they aren't mashed into oblivion as part of a pizza sauce or diluted by the broth of minestrone soup, I'm mildly allergic to cantaloupe and I typically stay away from bell peppers, ketchup and mustard.

Part of travel, as far as I'm c
oncerned, is trying the foods of other cultures. When I went to India, I had almost no idea what I was eating most of the time, but I ate it all. On a trip to Italy, I tried tripe (before I saw a rather disgusting video on how cow intestines are processed to make that particular dish). Most recently, in Reims, I'd eaten homemade foie gras - despite that I'd sworn I'd never eat a liver, since it's inherently stupid to eat something that filters out all the bad stuff we ingest.

By the time I was starting to have second thoughts, it was too late. Our server set down a pan full of six snails - sans shells - in a garlic, olive oil and pesto sauce.

"Aren't they usually served in their shells?" I asked.

"Oui, but we have a lot of tourists,
and they don't always know how to use the fork to get the snail out, and it's bad when they get thrown across the room," the server replied.

It seemed sensible, albeit much less fun.

The server left, I picked up my fork and stared at the slimy little things I'd stepped on so many times in my life. I wondered if I could really bring myself to eat them, but knowing my whole family was watching me, I speared one of them on my fork. The skin gave a little resistance, then the fork slid in easily, the same way it feels when stabbing a sausage.

I rolled the little blob around in the sauce, hoping this would be one of those foods that has no real taste except for what it's dipped in, and brought it to my mouth.

Initially, I wanted to gag, but as I pulled it off the fork, I forced myself not to think about what I was eating. It almost worked. The taste was fine - it was the texture that induced the choking sensation I felt as I swallowed.

I looked over at my mom, told her it didn't taste bad and suggested she try one. The rapid head shaking told me that wasn't going to happen, and my sister looked like she wanted to be somewhere else, so I popped another one in my mouth.

When I swallowed my third snail, I offered one of the three remaining to my dad, who decided he'd give it a go. That made one less that I had to eat, and I secretly wished he'd ask for another, but he didn't, so I ate the last two.

I was left with a pot of olive oil, pesto and garlic, which is perfect for dipping bread in, but when I offered my mom a piece of bread with the sauce on it - something she would never turn down at home - she refused because snails had been in the same pot. My sister was in the same boat, so I ended up eating it all.

The steak au poivre was fantastic, the French fries were what you'd expect, and the ice cream was also delicious. In sticking with the odd theme for the day, the power in the restaurant went out three times during our dinner, and the server told us it was a warning because they hadn't paid their bill. I'm not really inclined to believe him, but he said it so seriously that I thought it just might be true.

In any case, he wasn't the stereotypical rude Parisian waiter (I actually haven't found one). His English was excellent, and he enjoyed poking fun at us in a friendly way. When my mom asked if something on the menu was good, he replied, "No, that one we have had on the shelf for three months, and we're hoping someone buys it."

Having worked in restaurants for seven years, I thought that was a fair answer.

The restaurant, Au Pichet du Tertre, was very good, and is just off the main artists' square in Montmartre. Despite its location, prices were decent, with the tourist menu including a starter, main course and dessert for 12 euros. (The address is 10 Rue Norvins).


CODY K said...

So a German car dealership was one of the only stores open on Christmas ... in France? 0_o

Brandon Darnell said...

and for the low price of 185,000 euros, you can get your Mercedes with the AMG package on the Champs Elyseés!

Catherine said...

This steak au poivre with French fries is my favourite specialty. Great picture :)

French course