Friday, January 14, 2011

Not all that glitters is a Michelin star

This appears in the December-January issue of Travelife Magazine. Get your copy of our latest issue in the bookstore today.

Two years ago, when the global stock markets were at a high and we were all much more carefree, my husband and I planned a trip to Paris with Jojo and Fides, good friends we’d both known a very long time. Jojo had once been my husband’s work colleague, while Fides and I were at school together. It was a happy coincidence that we four eventually became good friends. Since then, we've traveled to various places together, including to France and Japan. Fides and I also visited Turkey together last November, and had a wonderful time.

My favorite trips to Paris

I’ve been to Paris so many times but my favorite trips have been the two times we four ventured to Paris for food and wine. For our first trip, I’d taken an apartment along the Avenue George V with a wraparound balcony boasting a view of the Tour Eiffel, a kitchen fronting the Four Seasons George V Hotel, and the wonderful food store Hediard literally across the street. On our second visit four months later – we had such a great time on our first trip that we planned part two almost immediately after -- I leased a beautiful four-bedroom apartment two blocks away from Elysee Palace with a gorgeous living room that opened up to a private garden – an almost unheard-of luxury in the heart of Paris, and perfect for our restaurant forays.

When Jojo and Fides arrived, they took about ten minutes to settle in and then Jojo said, in his typical finance world fashion, “Let’s cut to the chase and eat at the Tour D’Argent.”

Wine as the main course

The Tour D’Argent isn’t exactly known as gourmet paradise so I was far from enthusiastic. It once had a stellar reputation but it subsequently lost its stars and its gourmet allure as it became more of a tourist attraction than a temple of dining. But it has the best wine cellar in Europe so we were really going for liquid nourishment. Fortunately, I didn’t put up a fight and steer everyone towards L’Espadon at the Ritz, which would’ve been my choice just because I’ve always enjoyed it there.

That first meal together at the Tour D’Argent was perfect in every way, and just thinking about it now makes me smile. We had excellent food (so good that we returned one more time on that visit to have that meal all over again) and superb wine -- chosen by Jojo from a wine list as thick as two encyclopedias (the non-digital kind), and straight out of an ancient cellar deep underneath Paris. But it’s really true that the company makes the meal. We talked and laughed for hours; afterwards, we crossed the Seine River and the Ile de la Cite towards the Marais for coffee and a bit of puttering around the shops. Nothing extremely glamorous, but so wonderful all the same.

Choucroute on a whim

For the other days, we took turns choosing restaurants, trying to achieve a good balance of Michelin-starred establishments and spur-of-the-moment brasseries. Later on we took votes as to which of the other fancy restaurants we liked best. Jojo liked our meal at the Carre des Feuillantes, a two-star Michelin right off the Place Vendome, where our wine friends Peter and Elisabeth took us. The restaurant staff, who knew of Peter's reputation as a wine authority, treated us majestically; and afterwards we met the famous chef behind the kitchen counter, Alan Dutornier. My husband says his favorite is the fine dining restaurant of the Hotel Bristol, where we formed a table of six Filipinos from Manila and enjoyed a very long and good meal. Meanwhile, I think Fides and I both liked the first time we ate at the Pre Catelan, a beautiful restaurant set in a park-like surroundings. We enjoyed our meal there so much that right then and there we decided to return for another meal the following evening. Interestingly, our second time around was not as good as the first.

Spur-of-the-moment choice

But the casual dining choices were just as fun. For instance, Fides and I consider our inspired decision to enter a typical brasserie in the 14th arrondissement as one of our best lunches in two weeks together in Paris. We’d ordered choucroute because everyone else seemed to be having it; then just as we were finishing up, the old lady at the next table was served the largest ice cream sundae we had ever seen, made with our favorite Berthillon ice cream, and topped with a mountain of cream. It took us all of three seconds to decide to have one each.

But the truly enjoyable meals were the ones we cooked at home, on those few evenings we didn’t feel like venturing out, made from fresh produce from Paris’ wonderful open-air food markets. One Sunday dinner, for example, we steamed and buttered large white asparagus, pan-fried fillets of sole, and stuck a chicken smothered in garlic and herbs in the oven. Then we opened a very nice bottle of white wine and just chilled, discussing travel, life, good food and wine.

How breakfast became dinner

Another evening, we hosted a party for 15 friends in Paris and visitors who had joined us for a portion of our holiday from places as diverse as Palo Alto, Oxfordshire, Vancouver, and Singapore. It was such fun to buy produce at the markets and create dishes from inspiration. I still remember looking at a large fruit basket on the breakfast table one morning and suddenly having the idea to cover a large cut of pork loin in grapes, oranges and apples and slow-roasting this in the oven. Pork and fruit do go together in traditional dishes, after all.

The result was an incredibly tasty dish. When I first took it out of the oven all covered in blackened fruits, however, Elisabeth, one of our Parisian guests who had trained at Rome’s top restaurant, had quickly offered to help out, probably thinking I had burned dinner. I hadn’t, but dinner was most certainly cooked.

All’s well that ends well, said the Bard -- maybe because he missed the global financial crisis. I had the mixed fortunes (as I think everyone did) of enduring it, as the crisis began just as this enjoyable episode ended. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy exactly as we were checking in at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for the flight back to Asia. Through it all, I remember thinking how apt Rick’s words were in the movie Casablanca: We’ll always have Paris.

To reserve a limited seat,
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