Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ledoyen, A Paris Meal to Remember

See more photos at the end of the post.

To celebrate my birthday and the end of our stay in Paris, JR and I booked a table for lunch at Ledoyen, one of world's great restaurants. As far as I'm concerned, there's no better way to soften the passage of time and the nostalgia of leaving Paris for another year. 

Founded in 1792, Ledoyen has been in its current location in the gardens of the Champs-Élysées since 1860. The chef, Christian Le Squer, is a soft-spoken Breton with a magic touch when it comes to food. Le Squer describes his fare as cuisine du marché with pure and simple flavors.  It's what he does with the fresh market fare, however, that makes a meal at LeDoyen something you will never forget. Ledoyen is one of only 25 restaurants in France with three stars in the Michelin Guide, France's oldest and best-known French hotel and restaurant guide. 

We've been going to Michelin starred restaurants since we first came to France more than 30 years ago. Back then, it was an extravagance for us, but food is, after all, one of France's great treasures. Also, many of the great restaurants offer set-price menus. At Ledoyen, there is a lunch menu for 94 euros (see below for a photo of our menu).  

It took years to work our way up to three stars, the highest rank the guide gives to a restaurant with such exceptional cuisine that it is worth a special journey. We've taken planes, trains, taxis and the metro. On a journey in Burgundy, we even arrived on bicycles. Another time at the end of a blazing hot day of tourism in Provence, we washed in a river, donned our fancy clothes and drove to the restaurant in our old, battered French car.  

Our journey to Ledoyen was a leisurely 30-minute walk. It took us across Paris, past the Louvre Museum, through the Tuileries Gardens and up the Champs-Élysées to Ledoyen's daffodil-yellow, neoclassic pavillion that is classified as an historic monument. The doors were opened for us, just as they were in years past for Monet, Degas, Manet, Cézanne, Zola and Flaubert, all of whom often dined at the restaurant. Our coats were taken and we were conducted up the carpeted staircase to the light-filled, elegant Second Empire dining room. The spacious room seats 45 people at tables that are placed a discreet distance from one another, ensuring that conversations - business, government or otherwise - remain private.

As soon as we were seated, the director of the restaurant, Patrick Simiand, came over to say hello. During the years we've been coming to Ledoyen, we've talked with him about food, of course, but also about politics, our children, summer vacations, music, language, and customs. He's warm and friendly and very good at his job. When he found out my birthday was upcoming, he sent over champagne. "No candles on your dessert," he said. In France, celebrating your birthday ahead of time can bring bad luck, but I was willing to take the risk since this year my birthday fell on a Sunday, a day when Ledoyen is closed.

The next three hours were a birthday girl's dream: a romantic setting with my favorite dinner companion; champagne; gleaming crystal and silver; exotic flowers; an attentive staff in the dining room; and, of course, all that incredible food prepared behind the scenes under the direction of one of the world's best chefs.  (To see a short video of the kitchen, click here.)

By the time we finished our coffee, all the other diners had left - presumably off to the important business of the world. Nonetheless, Mr. Simiand offered us a second coffee, which we accepted with pleasure. We had the whole dining room to ourselves and felt not at all rushed. Finally, we said our goodbyes, but not before one of our smiling servers took a photo of us on the grand staircase.

I took (discreetly, I hope) some photos, which you will find below, of our meal and our menu (to see more photos presented by the restaurant, click here). The menu does not list the sumptuous mise en bouche - a transparent "bubble" that bursts in your mouth, releasing the flavor of ginger and campari; a puff pastry of comté cheese and ceps (my favorite); a tart with truffle butter; and a crispy, creamy ball topped with black truffle. There were also paper-thin squid ink wafers, a fabulous selection of breads, a pre-appetizer of langoustine cru and after the official desserts, kouign-amann, a pastry that is a nod to the chef's Breton roots. Chocolates, caramels and mignardises accompanied the espresso. For the main course, JR and I both chose the pigeon, accompanied by wine, a Moulin à Vent 2008 from Domaine Dubost, selected by the sommelier Vincent Javaux,. For the wine connoisseurs among you, click here to get a tour of Ledoyen's wine cellar.

Pavillon Ledoyen
1 Avenue Dutuit
75008 Paris
Telephone: 01 53 05 10 01

Click to enlarge

Langoustine cru, sauce verte

Bulots façon Duglére à la mayonnaise chaude                 Velouté d'oignons des Cévennes au chorizo

Pigeon/Dattes/Citron aux senteurs Orientales

Glacé de Caramel, lait fumé

Ananas en soufflé Passion

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate in Paris

Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

Some years ago, in one of my very first Travel Oyster postings, I promised to write about chocolate in Paris. Chocolate shops can be found all over Paris and just about every corner cafe advertises hot chocolate a la ancienne - in spite of the fact that most of them use an instant mix. I quickly saw, therefore, that finding the really good chocolate in Paris would require not only in-depth research, but also extensive field work. So when Marcelle, my good friend and fellow researcher, called the other day to ask if I wanted to go to the Chocolate Museum, I, of course, said yes.

Although we started as simple amateurs, there is now a professional aspect to our work since Marcelle's son Vincent has recently gone into the chocolate business. He and his partner have opened Marou Chocolates, the first artisan chocolate maker based in Vietnam. (To read the fascinating history of cocoa in Vietnam and how Vincent's vacation turned into a new career in a faraway country, click here to go to the Marou web site. There, you'll also be kept up to date on when Marou chocolate might appear in a fine store near you.)

The Paris museum, officially known as Choco-Story, le musée gourmand du chocolat, opened in the spring of 2010 in a bright, well-laid out, three-story building in the Grand Boulevard area of the city. It has almost 1,000 antique objects related to chocolate, old posters and other collectibles, and 80 text panels clearly explaining, in French, Spanish and English, the history of chocolate. 

Chocolate is made from the bean of the cocoa tree, which grows in the understory of evergreen tropical rain forests. The tree is native to the Americas, but now almost 70 percent of the world's crop is grown in West Africa. 

Until recently, the Mayans and Aztecs were credited with being the earliest cultivators of cocoa, with records going back to about 500b.c. Recent archeological findings in Honduras, however, have pushed that history back at least 500 years to the Olmecs, the first major civilization in what is now present-day Mexico. The Olmecs liked their cocoa fermented, perhaps something like cocoa beer. The Mayans preferred it hot with lots of foam on top. Their special frothing tools can be seen in the museum. The Aztecs added peppers, hot spices and honey to the drink. Cocoa was considered a food of the gods (which is the meaning of its scientific name, Theobroma) and was reserved for royalty.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to taste cocoa in 1502, but, apparently, it did not appeal to him since it was the Spanish conquerer of the Aztecs, Hernando Cortés, who first brought cocoa beans to Europe for commercial use in 1527. (Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 with only 600 men, 13 muskets and some unwieldy cannon. More advantageous were his horses and his ability to manipulate the Aztecs' beliefs to make them regard him as more powerful than he was. Within two years, he had won a complete victory over this enormous empire of approximately 15 million people.)

Like the Aztecs, Spain reserved its cocoa for royalty and it wasn't until the 17th century that cocoa made its way into France and the other countries of Europe, but it remained a beverage of the elite. The masses got their first taste of chocolate as an additive used by pharmacists to soften the taste of bitter medicines. By the end of the 18th century, hot chocolate sweetened with sugar was a universal drink and cocoa sellers, carrying their machines on their backs, began to appear in the streets of Paris. Chocolate bars made their debut in the 1830s, and the pain au chocolat, that French, croissant-like pastry stuffed with rich, dark chocolate, came on the scene only toward the end of the 19th century.

Taking in all this information whets your appetite for a nice, steaming cup of hot chocolate. Fortunately at the end of your visit to the museum, just after the chocolate-making demonstration, that's just what you get. You can drink it in the gift shop while you choose your Aztec frothing stick or some other interesting  book or souvenir related to chocolate. Marcelle and I shared one traditional hot chocolate and one made with hot pepper in the manner of the Aztecs. They were both good, but our research continues.

In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for great chocolate in Paris as well as JR's recipe, which you can make at home.

Chocolate (in boxes and bars)
35 rue Rambuteau
75004 Paris
François Pralus and Patrick Roger (see next entry) are both recipients of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvier de France award. At Pralus, I highly recommend the Pyramide des Tropiques, a stack of luscious 75% dark chocolate bars made from the grand crus of chocolate of 10 different countries.

Patrick Roger
108 boulevard Stain-Germain
75006 Paris
For other locations in Paris, click here.

Patrick Roger's chocolate bar, in its tasteful aquamarine wrapper, comes in a variety of flavors and makes a wonderful gift to take home to fellow chocolate lovers. You can also make up a box of mixed chocolates or just buy a 100 grams to savor as you window shop in the haute couture shops that line the boulevard.

Hot Chocolate

La Petite Maison dans la Cour
9 rue Saint-Paul
75004 Paris

This is a tiny place in the Village St. Paul, an enclave of antique shops in the Marais.  The owner, Cathy Abt, uses 60 grams of dark chocolate and fresh milk to make a wonderful cup of thick, rich hot creamy chocolate. Unless you are an extreme chocoholic, one order is more than enough for two.

Bouillon Racine
3 rue Racine
75006 Paris

Sonia Rykiel, the French fashion doyenne once said that sipping chocolate tête à tête is sumptuous. I agree and there is no better place to sip tête à tête with your love than in the bar at the beautiful Bouillon Racine, First opened in 1906, Bouillon Racine was completely renovated in 1996 to its original Art Nouveau splendor. The chocolate served here is lighter, and delicately flavored with star anise. Tucked away on a small street in the sixth arrondissement, the restaurant of the Bouillon Racine is filled to capacity each night, but in mid-afternoon, it's a quiet and romantic spot away from the bustle of the city.

226 rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris

In business since 1903 at its location on the rue de Rivoli, Angelina is an French institution and no secret to chocolate lovers (approximately 500 hot chocolates are served there every day). A place where in another time, Proust might tip his hat to Coco Chanel, it is still a favorite of fashion designers and their well-dressed clients. There is wonderful people watching here and the chocolate is excellent. If you are feeling especially decadent, you can order it with heaps of fresh whipped cream.

JR's Chocolate

If I didn't love the ritual of cafes, I'd never venture out of the apartment because that's really where I can find the best hot chocolate in Paris (it even comes with a crepe). Since JR hasn't yet opened a shop, here is his recipe for hot chocolate for you to make wherever you are.

2 tablespoons 100% unsweetened cocoa
4 teaspoons sugar
milk (see instructions below)

Remarks:  Buy the best cocoa you can find.  For the chocolate pictured here, JR used Van Houten.  As he says: "Better is better."

1. Place cocoa and sugar in a small pot on top of stove. Begin adding milk a few drops at a time, stirring until absorbed.  Continue in this manner, adding a few drops of milk and stirring, until you have added just enough milk to produce a smooth dark paste.  Be sure to follow this step carefully or instead of a smooth paste, you will wind up with globs of powder floating on milk.  

2.  At this point, turn the burner on to low and add additional milk while stirring until it is just a bit thinner than the desired consistency since heating will thicken the mixture.  JR's cocoa is quite thick and dark as you can see in the photo.

Makes two small demi-tasse servings.

For more photos, click here.

Bon appetit,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Friday, February 3, 2012

Chinese New Year in Paris

                                                                        Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

It's New Year's again - this time Chinese New Year. Also known as the Spring Feast, this two-week long holiday is the most important family festivity for Chinese communities around the world. This year, 2012, is the Year of the Dragon, the mythical creature who has long been a symbol of the emperors of China. There are numerous celebrations to mark the occasion here in Paris, with its estimated 600,000 people of Chinese origin. The exact number of French-Chinese is difficult to find since an 1872 law passed by the French republic prohibits census takers from making any distinction between its citizens as to race or religion.

The first appreciable number of Chinese to arrive in France came in the early 1900s under the sponsorship of the Franco-Chinese Education Society, which lasted until 1921. About 3,000 young Chinese men and women came to France to participate in this work-study program, which was designed to teach them Western ways of thinking and working.  Among them were Deng Ziaoping (in the photo at left) and Zhou Enlai, two young men from Sichuan, who shared an apartment near the Place d'Italie in Paris.  There they read Marx for the first time and became fervent opponents of capitalism. Deng Ziaoping went on to become the secretary-general of the Communist Party in China and Zhou Enlai was China's Prime Minister from 1949 to 1976.

During World War I, about 150,000 Chinese workers were recruited to work in France to replace French workers mobilized in the war. Most of those who survived  harsh working conditions, the war and the flu epidemic at the end of the world conflict were sent back to China when the fighting ended, but about 5,000 workers stayed in France. These immigrants set up shop in the neighborhood north of our apartment. It is their descendants who now run the mostly wholesale businesses selling leather goods, jewelry, garments, buttons and other sundries.

Official Chinese immigration began in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s and lasted until after the Second World War. This group settled mostly in the 13th Arrondissement in an area now known as the Choisy Triangle. They were joined by a  second group of Chinese immigrants, who came to France from former French Indochina between 1954 and 1975. Recent immigrants, mainly from rural Northern China, are leaving China for economic rather than political reasons. They are moving into the Belleville area of Paris in the 11th, 19th and 20th Arrondissements. (To read more about Chinese immigration in France, click here and here.)

Each area has its own parade. Ours begins at 2:30 p.m. at the Hotel de Ville, the city hall of Paris, and winds its way up the rue du Temple, right near our apartment. We've been to the parade several times, but it's always fun and, this year, we had friends visiting from Italy who were eager to join in the festivities. To set the mood, we decided to begin with lunch in a Chinese restaurant, and I invited our good friend Adrian Leeds to join us. Adrian's longtime favorite Chinese restaurant in Paris is Lao Siam, 49 rue de Belleville in the 19th arrondissement. (You can find it and 99 other great restaurants in Adrian Leeds Top 100 Cheap Insider Paris Restaurants, which was on Travel Oyster's Great Books III listing or you order it by clicking here.)

Just before noon, we met up with Adrian and realized we were not far from Minh Chau. It's Vietnamese, not Chinese, but the food is great and the prices are very reasonable. Its only drawback is that it is minuscule, so we changed plans and decided to do takeout. We walked back to our apartment, opened a bottle of wine, and popped an enormous number of cartons into the oven. When we set everything out on the table, we found that we had also heated the salad - which turned out to be surprisingly good served hot. It looked like enough food for an army, but at the end of the meal, there was not a scrap left.  

We lingered over the table a little too long and by the time we got to rue du Temple, the parade had already passed through our neighborhood. Up the street, however, we could see the gyrating tail of the parade dragon and rushed to catch up.

Chinese merchants, whose stores line the rue du Temple, had set up tables offering New Year's treats to the passing celebrants. Shouts of Happy New Year in Chinese and French filled the streets. Fortified with some Chinese candy, we eventually caught up to the parade. The atmosphere was warm and happy with bands, costumed participants and, of course, the enormous dragon held aloft by a dozen or so men in bright yellow outfits. This year, unfortunately, Paris rained on our parade or, perhaps, it was the work of the dragon, who in Chinese mythology, is associated with water and rain.

After walking along for several blocks in the now-steadily falling rain, we decided that it was time to find a cafe and toast the Chinese New Year with some good French hot chocolate.

So, Bonne Annee or as they say in Chinese: 新年快


For more photos, click here.
Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor