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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Hungry for Paris

It was two days before my trip to Paris for a food-oriented visit. I had my hotel booked, I had my train tickets, but no restaurant reservations, and other than the memory of a street in Paris 10 years ago, no idea as to where to go. I went over to the Kindle store, typed "Paris" into the search box, and it came up with 2 results. A Rick Steve's guide (which I turned up my nose at), and Hungry for Paris (Kindle edition), which I bought (though not without some interesting complications which I'll write about later).

Normally, I try to write a review only after I've read a book cover to cover. But restaurant guides aren't intended to be used that way, so I'll cover how we used it.
Parisian Restuarant Trip

Lunch on Friday: we had lunch at a random Brasserie chosen by one of Lisa's co-workers. It had a decent chicken dish (with rice), but the Creme Brulee wasn't up to par. In any case, we didn't use the book for this selection, so it's irrelevant to this review.

Dinner: Au Pied de Fouet @ 3 Rue Saint Benoit. This is where having the Kindle version of the book shines. I searched for "Confit du Canard" and this was one of the restaurants that turned up. Reading the description, I was glad to find that it was a hole in the wall, which is the kind of restaurant I like the most. (I didn't bring a suit and tie, and refuse to dine in restaurants that require that I dress up --- I'm the customer, not the restaurant) We followed the recommendations of the book, and they were excellent. For starters we had the lentil salad and the soup of the day. Then, I had the Duck Confit (just to show how spoiled I am --- good as this was, I don't think it's as good as Cafe 5IVE at the Google Mountain View campus), Lisa had the Sauteed Chicken Livers, and both were quite good. Then I had the Creme Caramel, while Lisa had a fascinating cake that was also excellent. The cost: 32 Euros. What made our day was that the place being such a hole in the wall, we were seated at the same 4 person table as a French mother-son pair who were out to dinner, and the conversation was fun --- they let us sample some of their food, and even taught us French words and helped us translate --- this is not the kind of experience you will have at any old restaurant. Highly recommended. The staff also provided incredible service. We walked back to our hotel in euphoria, impressed with the entire experience.

Saturday Lunch: Lisa wanted to go to the Musee D'Orsay. And after a whole morning of culture, I knew I had to get some decent food. We went to L'Ami Jean, 27 Rue Malar at 1:00pm for a late lunch and this was the best meal of the entire trip! For starters, we ordered some sardines with salad, and it was excellent --- very delicate, but very flavorful. For lunch, I ordered the book-recommended Pentocles in a clay-pot. OK, the portion size was small, but the flavor was just outstanding --- I could not believe how good it tasted --- the sauce was intense, and I mopped it all up with bread. Lisa had an excellent Sea-Bass with the best crispy bacon I'd ever seen --- so thin you could see almost right through it! Cost: 70 Euros, and worth every penny. Heck, order more food and spend more and you won't regret it.

Dinner: Lisa loves crepes, so we looked in the book and found Breizh Cafe, 109 Rue Vieille du Temple. The savory crepes were excellent, with the Buckwheat done just right and the dry cider that came with it put the taste right into perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dessert, a chocolate crepe with chocolate ice cream, was delightful. The staff was also extremely friendly, and our waitress (a charming young lady) spent a lot of time trying to persuade us to visit her home in Brittany. Cost: 42 Euros.

Sunday Brunch: Lisa wanted to see Chinatown, and I had found Le Bambou at 70 Rue Baudricourt. We ordered Vietnamese crepe, some Dim Sum (called Vietnamese Ravioli in the book) and Pho. This was quite disappointing, and the only miss we found in the book. Lesson: don't trust recommendations of white guys for Asian food, even a white guy who's lived in Paris. Cost: 45 Euros.

Sunday Dinner: Le Petite Pontoise. I hadn't had Foie Gras yet, so I had to take this opportunity to order it. It was excellent. I had the Poulet Roti (Rotisserie Chicken) while Lisa had the Salt-Encrusted fish. The mashed potatoes that came with my dish was wonderful, and the chicken was well above average. Lisa didn't think much of her fish. The Creme Brulee, however, blew us away. (Yes, better than Google food --- which makes it outstanding) Cost: 70 Euros.

As you can see, 5 outings, 4 hits and 1 miss. And the costs weren't completely out of line either. In fact, the dining experience Lobrano recommends are really outstanding, and I doubt if we could have found them by ourselves. You can read the regular guidebooks and find all the expensive restaurants, but anyone can eat well for a lot of money. Eating well on the cheap is very difficult, and if all you have is a few days in Paris, this book is well worth the $8 Kindle price, or even the $16 dead tree edition. Highly recommended.

One more thing: the book also comes with lots of interesting essays about eating in France, and the author's experience dining in various places. So it's good entertaining reading, but seriously, I don't buy restaurant guides for entertaining reading, so even without this, it would have been worth the money. The fact that the author is actually a good writer who can tell a great story is a bonus.

Addendum: Note that there are few vegetarian and vegan options in the book. Look, if you're going to Europe to eat the local food, neither option is really part of the traditional cuisine, so don't bother trying to go vegetarian. So if you want good vegan/vegetarian food, go to China, Japan, and India. The Shaolin theory of vegetarianism still applies, five years after I first coined it on my first tandem tour of Europe.

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