Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Yvette owns a small cafe/bar/restaurant on a quiet street in an even quieter arrondisement (district) in Paris. When I met Yvette, I immediately liked her. She is friendly, sincere, talkative, inquisitive, and she feels like family. In fact, she could be my french aunt! We instantly had something in common. She comes from Pau, where we were married six years ago. I think that touched us both, equally.

On my first visit, I walked in the door, and a man was standing at le zinc bar sipping a beer by himself, reading the newspaper. Nobody else was around. It was about 4pm. Yvette then appeared out of nowhere and we met for the first time. I started explaining why I was there - that I was searching for a small café or restaurant to potentially buy. I was a little relieved when the man left so that I could talk more privately with Yvette. Immediately, however, a lady walked in with a small dog in her arm. The lady's name is Paule. She gave kisses to Yvette & sat down in what appeared to be "her" seat. Her miniature dog took the opposite seat, and turned himself around in the chair to face the street, eager not to miss any of the activities. From that point forward, it was a conversation including three of us. No privacy here! But that's OK. Paule and Yvette were obviously good friends. They seemed to be about the same age: mid-sixties, give or take. I eventually learned that this was the case with most of her other customers as well (being good friends, I mean, although being in the same age bracket is probably true as well).

Yvette has been running this particular place for the last 18 years. It's an old place. Still untouched from decades ago, or more. Maybe a half century. It would need lots of TLC, but oh what potential! It feels like a well worn-in shoe. Behind the bar are all the small glasses and barware, but there is also the presence of one giant espresso machine. I'm practically sold on that machine alone! Such a serious looking machine. The seating area is small, and feels just right for what I'm looking for - it has 16 seats. She gave me a short tour of the place. When she showed me les toilettes (bathroom), I let out an uncontrollable "ohmygod". She said, "oui, un toilet turque" (yes, a turkish toilet). I couldn't believe I was still seeing one of these things. My first encounter with one was actually in Turkey about ten years ago. Let me just say that I preferred not going to the bathroom on that particular pit stop than to try such a crazy toilet! It was the most backward, foreign thing I had ever seen in my life! (For those not having the pleasure of seeing or using a turkish toilet, let me explain: it's basically a porcelain base set in the floor of a stall, or "bathroom" and it has a drainage hole. That's it. Sometimes, there are little feet positions outlined in the porcelain to give you a clue. Arguably, these are more sanitary than the standard pot toilet. And to the person who said this, I replied, rather sarcastically, "Right". )

Back to the tour. Next stop was to the cave (basement room). Two of them in fact. I felt awkward going down the stone stairecase. It is old, narrow, somewhat steep, and has a rope for holding onto instead of a hand rail. I could hardly keep up with Yvette! The basement is dry - a good sign. The floor is all dirt. Just like they all used to be. Her first cave is filled with her treasures -- her wine collection. Gevrey-Chambertins, Pouilly-fuissés, and of course, others such as Madirans and Jurancons from the soutwest region. I was dying to check out some of her old dusty bottles that must've been there for 18 years....but we couldn't get anywhere close to them with all the stuff in between. The other cave was used for soft drinks & beer. She stocks Leffe on tap and Duvel in bottle. A good sign. Back up the stairs, she is leap years ahead of me!

On to the kitchen. Another "ohmygod". Long and narrow and full of "potential". And sorely in need of a commis (assistant). She's a one-woman show and I don't quite know how she can do it. I couldn't. She pours the wine or makes the coffee at the bar, she seats the customers at the table, she takes the order, she prepares the meal, she clears, she cleans up and settles up the tab. She's basically open from 7am until closing (around midnight), 6 days a week. Did I already mention she's easily in her mid-60's?!

Eric came with me on the second visit to Yvette's place. We learned a bit more about each other. It turns out that Yvette arrived in Paris in 1958 to start working in a café, with three kids in tow. Maybe that puts her closer to 70? We had dinner there. It was a slow night for dining, but there were several men having un verre de vin (a glass of wine). Her customer base is almost 100% locals. Not many tourists crossing this particular street.

How to describe this cafe? Yvette is from the southwest, so her menu has magret de canard, foie gras, and other traditional fare. The lighting is harsh just like it used to be - it serves a function rather than providing ambiance. The wine is exceptionally good and ridiculously affordable just like it used to be. The food is hearty and enriching. But above all, the experience is rich. Not so much because of what we ate or drank (although good), but because of what Yvette did: she welcomed us into her home and treated us like family.

I love this old place. Need to make a few more visits to see if it fits my concept.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Start of my Search

For the past month or so, I began to consider the possibility of starting up my own business in a professional space outside our home kitchen. I'm thinking of a small café kind of spot that would offer lunch (perhaps to go or dine in), and that would also offer private events at night a couple times a week (private dinners or parties, wine tasting, cook book review, private cooking lessons, demo of product/equipment/technique, etc, etc) . If this sounds a little like Le Yumming....or La Salon Saint Michel (two small concept projects I've been involved with this past year), well, at least I'm being consistent! I continue to migrate towards these thoughts, and this tells me something.

Searching for a restaurant or local (commercial space) for sale in Paris has been a really interesting journey. My search started out small & quiet (right around the corner), and then it expanded quickly to most of Paris. I have a few criteria: the kitchen must be adequate to handle the things I want to make (sweet & savory), it must have extraction au norm (ventilation to code) to allow me to cook properly or should I say legally, the seating capacity must be small (less than 20-25) so that it's manageable, and ideally, it will also allow me to have some sort of a personal life (I might be dreaming a little here....) And with all of this, it must have location, location, location & be at the right price...good luck!

I've seen some interesting places and some really scary places on the market. All of them have one thing in common: each of the owners is a character. So, in my next few posts, I'm going to write about some of the characters I've encountered on this little journey.

I'm happy to say that it feels like I'm going down the right path. We'll see later on if this really turns out to be true, but for the moment, I'm enjoying the ride. A bientôt. Until next time.

A sign of spring seen yesterday while crossing town, going from one appointment to the next, just after a light rainfall, and just before the temperature dropped back to winter!


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Here are some green macarons. (Pistachio to be exact.) Just in time for St. Patrick's day!

I would love to share the recipe with you for these pistachio cookies, but I asked my favorite macaron maker, Pierre Hermé, if I could post it on my little blog. And his office (not him, really) said no.

Haven't I learned my lesson yet? The one that goes "it's better to ask forgiveness than permission"? I'm really only kidding....when it comes to copyright laws, I'll stay close to the line. It's just too bad they didn't say yes.

In case you're interested, the verdict on the pistachio vs caramel au beurre salé is in: I don't think anything can knock the caramel off its pedestal (for me). Don't get me wrong; the pistachio is "pas mal" as the french like to say (meaning 'not bad'...in fact, this actually means it's good instead of its literal translation!).

Getting back to the 17th of March...instead of seeing the Chicago River turn green, or having a green beer (which might have been the case back in the states), here's a french way to celebrate the day: with a shamrock macacron!
Happy St. Paddy's Day!


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Comfort Food & Real Estate

When you're trying to go down a new path, and you don't know if the road you're taking is the right road....or if you'll ever get to your destination, for that matter, it can feel a little unsettling. Trust me on that. It's how I've been feeling lately.

Today I did something to see if I should "be turning right", instead of left, so to speak. The last road I took wasn't working out like I had hoped. That's been the unsettling part, seeing as I had invested a lot of my time trying to go down that road.

"Turning right", to continue my little analogy, is to re-consider if I should work for myself after all....but this time in a professional kitchen outside our home. This line of thinking is what brought me to the office of a commercial real estate agent who specializes in "locaux" (spaces for rent).

Here's what I learned: it's pretty difficult to actually buy a property outright in Paris (called "les murs", or walls). I was told by the realtor that very few go on the market and it's a waste of time to even look for such a thing. What you buy instead is called a "fond de commerce" (business), and you own it, but then you also pay a monthly rent...to the person who actually does own "les murs". I initially struggled a bit with this concept, partly due to the french, but also because it's just a bit foreign. And I can't tell you how funny this conversation played out in french with the realtor (a true Laurel & Hardy "who'se on first" kind of moment, I kid you not). Eventually, he understood my confusion, saying, "yes, we are more a latin country. We don't do it like the anglo-saxons do". And then I stopped getting hung up on the word "vendre" (to sell), in the "normal" context of what I'm accustomed to. As the agent further explained, "that's OK, this is the system. And when you go to sell it to the next person, it all works out".

I am pretty much a novice at this - it's the first time I'm looking to buy a business in a major European city. (Or any major city for that matter.) And it's only the 2nd business we've looked into buying - the other was in Staunton, Virginia a long, long time ago. Anyway, the realtor gave me two local addresses. One was just off of Place Saint Michel and it was so miniscule & such a tourist trap that I discounted it on the spot. The other one is just down the street from us. This one looks like a possibility. Now it's time to ponder it all, and to do my "due diligence". Is this the road I should be taking? Good question. Where is that magic-8 ball when you need it?

Meanwhile, I made some brownies to help me think this over. A little American comfort food never hurt anyone!

Deep dish brownies with peanut butter swirl & walnuts
(every bit as rich & chocolaty as they look)


Monday, March 9, 2009

Cocktail d'agrumes, crevettes, et avocat

This can be roughly translated as "Shrimp & Citrus Cocktail with Avocado". It's something that Chef Laurent Chareau presented at the Deauville Omnivore Food Festival last month (see photo at bottom of post). As he was preparing it, my mouth was salivating....honestly, it was uncontrollable. I mean, these are the tastes & flavors that I absolutely adore! I couldn't wait to try this one at home. He didn't present a specific recipe as much as simply throwing together the dish. The concept is very simple, as you'll see. Here's my interpretation:

Shrimp & Citrus Salad with Purée of Avocado
(inspired by Chef Chareau; interpreted by me)
4 servings

Salade Part
2 grapefruit
1 navel orange
1 blood orange
1 lemon
16 decent sized shrimp
1/4 small red onion, diced finely
fresh herbs (flat parsley, cilantro or mint) - chopped

Section the citrus so you have no skin or pith. (Resist the urge at this point to eat all of your hard work....the oranges & grapefruit sections will look and smell sooo good.) Leave the orange & grapefruit sections whole, but dice the lemon. Peel & de-vein the shrimp. Cook the shrimp if raw (BBQ anyone?). We are BBQ-deprived here, so we buy them already cooked at the local outdoor market. They are super fresh & very good. Put the citrus sections & shrimp in a bowl. Reserve the extra juice, or just drink it while nobody's looking! Add the red onion & fresh herb. (I'm especially partial to the mint....) Add vinaigrette just before serving - enough to generously coat all the fruit & shrimp.

olive oil
vinegar (balsamic) or lime juice
ginger, lemongrass, garlic clove (optional)
soy sauce (optional)

Put your preferred acidic liquid in bowl (vinegar or lime/lemon juice/citrus juice). Add salt. Add chunk of peeled ginger, lemongrass & garlic clove to infuse. Wisk in olive oil (use 3-4 times more olive oil to the quantity of vinegar you have.) Filter solids before using. Make sure it's got a good acidic tone. Throw in some soy sauce if you like. (I did.) Vinaigrette should be a somewhat thick consistency.

Avocado Purée part
3 medium avocados
lemon juice
cumin, tabasco sauce, salt & pepper (piment d'espelette preferably) - to taste

Remove pits & pulp from avocados. Squeeze lemon juice over the avocado to help prevent it from darkening in color. Use a hand blender & mix until the consistency is smooth. Season as you like with tabasco sauce, cumin & salt/pepper. (Careful with the cumin....not too much otherwise it can overpower all the other flavors, in my opinion). Resist the urge to eat spoonfuls of the guacamole....it's so tempting, but you're almost there. Only the assembly left!

  1. In a martini glass or other glass - put layer of shrimp/citrus salad on the bottom. Season. Add layer of avocado purée. Sprinkle with piment d'esplette or spicy/smoked paprika.

  2. Decorate the avocado purée with anything crispy. I used fried carrots in the "martini glass" and then I tried roasted hazelnuts. Chef Chareau used rice crispies fried in saffron butter and he also used roughly chopped roasted cashews (two different dishes). I would love to try the rice crispies...doesn't that sound kind of funny?

  3. Instead of a martini glass, you can use a regular plate (shown here with hazelnut topping):

This is every bit as good as it sounded. In fact, Eric & I each had one as an entrée (first course) last night, and then proceeded to immediately assemble a 2nd one instead of refrigerating the left-overs! One was plenty-enough.....we just couldn't help ourselves. This is a wonderfully, light-tasting first course. The acidity from the citrus mixed with the sweetness of the shrimp mixed with the richness of the ever-so-slightly seasoned avocado....is a great blending of flavors. I will make this again and again....with pleasure. Thanks Chef for sharing this great idea with us.

OFF4 - 2009 Chef Chareau Demo

Chef Chareau's Cocktail d'agrumes, crevettes & Avocat


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Michel Roth said he liked my poched egg!

I got a phone call late last week asking if I'd be interested in doing a breakfast. It would be for about 12 people. A sit-down. I said yes. We settled on a simple menu. A day later, the twelve people turned into six who would "trickle in" instead of dining together. And then a 2nd cuisinier (cook) was added to help do coffee and such. So my motivation went from OK to low in the course of a few days that this thing evolved. Finally, the day of the event....it turned out to be a very slow trickle....of just 3 people. However, one of the three was Michel Roth! Suddenly, all the mise-en-place became somehow worthwhile.

Michel Roth is the chef at L'Espadon, the restaurant gastronomique of the l'Hôtel Ritz, and with Monday's release of the 2009 Michelin Guide, his two-star status was officially announced. I still hold a high regard for those who have achieved the Michelin mark, despite some of the controversy that surrounds the Guide. I was pleased to meet Chef Roth (as brief as it was) and even more pleased to prepare something for him to taste. He arrived around 10:30am, much too late for breakfast, and yet he still kindly sampled my "oeuf poché façon Bragance, mediterannée" (poched egg in a half-tomato with a ratatouille). Me simply bringing it out to him with a "voila" might have had something to do with this! Guess what. He said he liked it! It pleased me to hear such words from a two-star chef. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, and that's probably all it is, but still, it's not everyday that a chef etoilée samples your food. Pretty cool.

Somebody please remind me next time to take a picture of the chef! Even if the encounter is brief. I'll have to get some advice from Ulla on how to do this better...