Kotteri Ramen noodles.

Kotteri Ramen noodles.

The air in the narrow restaurant was close. It was a hot and humid mid-September day in Paris, so stepping into this tiny spot did not bring relief. But no matter. We were there for one thing, and no amount of discomfort undid our craving.

Was it a little odd that one of the first meals in the City of Light was going to be a piping hot bowl of ramen? Probably, but we didn’t care. We came to the heart of France to walk, explore, eat and enjoy all facets of the culture. So on this day, the promise of delicious, comforting soup fit our mission.

Kotteri Ramen is a hole-in-the wall in the old Opera House district. Unremarkable from the outside, it’s easy to miss, save for the line of people waiting outside. We arrived well after the lunch rush, and only waited a few minutes before snagging two stools at the counter looking into the kitchen.

Refreshment.

Refreshment.

The other side of the glass.

The other side of the glass.

The small kitchen is open with a tall barrier of Plexiglas providing separation. Next to the front window, stacks of large, flat wooden boxes held nests of fresh ramen noodles portioned for boiling in individual cylinders. The noodle man tended to large pots of water and a digital timer chirped sporadically. Behind the noodle man, the soup guy tended to three huge vats of broth, one with bobbing rolls of pork meat tethered with twine to the side for easy fishing. Beyond them, a gyoza station, where chefs were frying and steaming dumplings in rectangular metal boxes. Everyone in the kitchen was dressed in rubber waders and gum boots.

J and I placed our orders — pork ramen for him and ramen du beurre for me. (We were, after all, in France.) To drink, cold Kirin Ichiban beers in tall cans.

Ramen du beurre.

Ramen du beurre.

Ramen assembly was pure theater: Order up, the noodle keeper would plunge ramen-filled cylinders into the boiling water, punching seconds into the digital timer. Meanwhile, the soup guy arranged bowls on the counter in front of us, on the other side of the Plexiglas. When the timer chirped, noodle guy removed dripping cylinders from the bath. Swinging his arms from shoulder height downward in swift motions toward the floor, he drained noodles, flinging water everywhere. Plop they went into the bowls where the soup guy took over, lading miso or pork broth soup over the heap. He then added thick slices of pork, chopped scallions and bean sprouts. A big square of butter was placed atop the ramen de beurre, melting into the hot noodles and broth, and the two bowls were handed over the Plexiglas divide to us, the recipients.

We slurped. Beautifully concentrated pork broth was long simmered for deep color and flavor. With the chewy fresh ramen noodles and the unctuous richness of the butter, this was some of the best ramen we’ve eaten. I made eye-contact with the noodle guy and expressed appreciation with a nod and smile. He gestured back with a happy thumbs up.

Full, hot and slightly uncomfortable, we ambled out into the Paris sunshine.

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White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

Tucked away in a snug corner within Thai comfort-food restaurant PaaDee lies a hidden gem. Or, rather, it used to be hidden. Lang Baan has enjoyed more exposure recently than Justin Bieber’s recreational pursuits, so while no longer undiscovered, it remains a jewel.

Upon arrival, you are led through PaaDee’s bustling dining room, toward the kitchen and around a corner where a second diminutive dining room is concealed behind a false bookcase. The greeter tells you which lever to pull to re-enter should you leave. The room is rustic and welcoming, with rough wood paneling and a small counter cook space. The staff, possibly the friendliest and most accommodating we’ve encountered in a while, adds to the warmth.

We dined here on a Saturday night in May with friends and fellow food lovers Lauren and Shawn, oohing and ahhing over beautifully crafted Thai dishes served family style.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

The May tasting menu featured dishes from the northern part of the country, and the fireworks started with the first bite-size taste of pork belly, a salty-sweet mix of pineapple and coconut folded in a betel leaf. The second of our 12-course tasting menu featured pork stew scented with roasted coconut and spooned onto crisp crackers fashioned from sticky rice. A soup of quail, wild mushroom, kabocha squash and dill exploded with spice-laced flavor, belying the clear broth’s delicate appearance.

Twelve courses went on like this, culminating with head-on white prawns in lemongrass-scented curry; fork-tender Carlton Farm pork collar; and grilled halibut with a zingy chile dipping sauce. For dessert, Thai red rubies and jackfruit floating in a refreshing chilled coconut jasmine soup, mildly sweet with a focus on silky, chewy textures.

Lang Baan is like an amusement park for the senses, unlike any other Thai cuisine we’ve experienced in Portland. With two seatings a night, Thursday through Saturday, this place is bound to be booked solid as food-loving Portlanders flock to it. But that’s OK: Put our names on the list — we can’t wait to return.

 

Raviolo

Mushroom and cheese raviolo.

A beautiful Saturday in every way: sunny, unseasonably dry, and at the end, a truffle dinner.

Hosted at Tabor Bread on Hawthorne and presented by Chef Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans in conjunction with Roger Konka of Springwater Farm, the Farmer’s Feast was a seven-course meal featuring locally foraged wild truffles  — white and black — and other seasonal ingredients prepared and presented simply and beautifully.

We four — Zandra, James, J and I — are very fortunate to have participated in some unforgettable truffle dinners. Even so, our little section of one of three long communal tables spanning the bakery’s dining room was wowed by the big flavors that Chef Yeomans shared with us. Among them, a marble-sized white truffle warmed in parchment with an addictively delicious jus and served with a toasted piece of Tabor Bread brioche; silky, sweet Tamworth heritage pig liver mousse topped with slivered black truffle alongside a ramekin of maitake mushroom and leek custard and shaved white truffle; a triangle-shaped raviolo filled with creamy cheese and topped with wild mushrooms in an earthy broth; pork saltimbocca and luscious truffled celery root puree. At the end, a pear granita and warm almond cookies.

A beautiful Saturday, and a beautiful meal. Life does not get much better.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

“Daddy, I want a chateau!”

Zandra said aloud, in jest, what the rest of us were thinking as we filed, dumbstruck, through the beautiful Dalmeran castle. (Why not speak up if your father is in earshot? Bob responded with a smile and an arched eyebrow.) Had we stepped into an issue of Architectural Digest? Million-dollar mosaics and paintings by masters — originals! — decorated rooms that exuded elegance but also comfort, a tricky balance. The inclination was to kick off the shoes and drop onto a lavishly pillowed sofa for a nap. But no, we were visitors here, and there were wines to be tasted. So we soldiered on.

Jeff's new best friend.

Jeff’s new best friend.

Earlier that morning, Kelly’s million-dollar connections had secured a private tour of a well-respected winery nearby, Domaine de Trévallon. We briefly met the winemaker, Monsieur Dürrbach, before his daughter gave us a tour of the property and the barrel cave. A jolly yellow lab had joined us, eager to be friends, propping himself heavily against each of us in turn, hoping for a scratch on the ears. We ended with a sampling of wine in the early stages of fermentation, drawn from the huge vats where that process takes place.

We then drove to the beautiful estate Dalmeran where we were treated to the quick chateau tour. We were there for our second degustation of the day, this one to be conducted by Kelly. The tasting room, located in a side building, was a warm den carved out of stone, with arched ceilings, a long stone bench along one wall with cushions for seating, and a central tasting table. Kelly poured and held forth in his spirited, passionate way on the unique qualities of the area’s wines — Châteauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, wines farmed in soil so rocky it looks unsuitable to grow anything, let alone the productive vines it somehow nourishes.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

James, the groundskeeper.

James, the mower.

After the tasting, we strolled through the Dalmeran estate’s garden, admiring the sprawling grounds and perfectly manicured lawn. We pitied whoever was responsible for mowing until the groundskeeper introduced us to him. His name, coincidentally, was James — a squat little four-wheel contraption parked under a shrub. The groundskeeper explained that James mowed the lawn on a schedule, without human interference or instruction, venturing out every couple of days to glide over the expansive green until no blade was left unshorn. Then he would return to his roost under the shrub and connect himself to the charger until duty called again. I imagined what it must be like to own this beautiful place, sitting on the veranda, drinking coffee, looking up over the newspaper to see James dutifully patrolling the premises, back and forth, section by section. Good man, James. A fine servant indeed.

Private chef #1 a La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

Our chateau for three nights.

Our château for three nights.

The Setup: Departing from L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, we drove north toward our destination for the next few nights: La Verrière. We left paved roads near Crestet after dusk and headed deep into what, in the darkness, seemed like wilderness. After a good 20 minutes of bumping along the rugged dirt road, we rounded a corner and saw the lights. Nestled in the hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux, La Verriere is a winery and estate with quarters that can be rented — and we had the place all to ourselves. Seeing the welcoming glow from within the expansive villa, we could only chuckle at our increasingly opulent accommodations. “Eh,” we joked, “this’ll do.”

The sitting room at La Verriere.

The sitting room at La Verriere.

Home dining at its finest.

Home dining at its finest.

A former priory dating to the 9th century, the estate has been beautifully renovated with attention paid to its history and environment. The guest rooms, each with a theme reflective of the area, have beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards, rolling hills and the looming mountain. (Jeff and I stayed in Lavandes — the lavender room). But the living and dining rooms with their arched white stone ceilings and thick stone walls inspired awe. Even more awe-inspiring: Chef Guilhem Sevin from Avignon restaurant Christian Etienne was preparing dinner for us when we arrived.

The Feast: After we settled into our various wings of the estate, oohing and ahhing over each other’s rooms, we gathered in the sitting room, sinking into comfortable chairs and couches. Kelly opened a bottle of wine and the staff served nibbles from the chef: a spoonful of fresh clam in a light mignonette; a luscious little cup of artichoke puree; tender sweetbreads. After the aperitifs, we assembled at the grand table, each setting furnished with two wine glasses that portended the goodness to come.

First course: fish.

First course: fish.

First course: flaky red mullet alongside a tender artichoke heart stuffed with mushrooms, served with a dark bouillabaisse sauce reduced to a thick, deeply rich gravy. Sopping with bread was the natural thing to do, though no one would have questioned motives or etiquette had someone licked his or her plate clean.

Main course: partridge.

Main course: partridge.

The main course brought partridge topped with Spanish jambon Bellota pata negra, the same kind that we encountered our first day, alongside a mushroom terrine and a crouton cradling a little slather of foie gras and a slice of mushroom.

A small bit of cheese served with dandelion greens followed, and finally, for dessert, a nest of angel-hair pasta fried crisp and topped with basil cream and stewed quince. Light, crunchy, bright, green and delicious. Two different glasses of wine per  course allowed us to compare flavors and food pairings.

Most Memorable: Let’s recap: A private chef in our private 9th century abbey-turned-winery. Two wines with each course. The biggest exertion of the evening was to walk upstairs to our separate wings for a restful sleep, breathing in the crisp Provençal air. God, we’re so lucky.

Truffle Hunting in the Var – Richeranches

Fresh black truffle.

Fresh black truffle.

The Setup: A beautifully sunny morning greeted us as we headed out for a pre-lunch truffle hunt. Only slightly reluctant to leave our estate for the day, we piled into our vehicles: James, Zandra, Brett, Amy and Aiden in the Jumpy with Kelly; Jeff, Bob, Dorothy and I with Jack. We started down the hill toward our first appointment, chatting with Jack about how much we’d loved the trip. Having had a large hand in the itinerary, he was pleased that we were enjoying ourselves. When he arranges trips, he said, he strives to orchestrate that “wow” moment, the one a client will remember forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as a perfectly timed sunset dinner; sometimes clients require a grander experience to achieve the moment — he called them “tourgasms.”  To which we responded we’d had multiple.

We drove to the town of Richerenches to meet truffle producer Erich Devontue. He and son Franck offered us coffee in the dining room of their establishment, with its open sunken kitchen and grand stone fireplace. We learned the farmhouse had been converted to an inn and Franck, who had attended cooking school, was in charge of the kitchen.

Ready for the hunt.

Ready for the hunt.

One of many finds.

One of many finds.

We chatted for a few minutes and then left Franck to his cooking. Erich led us to his shop for an abbreviated truffle lesson, similar to the one we received in Périgord. We then crossed the road in the company of Erich’s spirited hound and ventured deep into rocky groves of green and white oak. The dog, a stout wiry-haired mongrel, did all the work. We dutifully followed, careful not to interfere. As soon as the dog pawed the ground, Erich would call him off, dig up the truffle with a pick and place it in his canvas bag. The outing netted a good number of black beauties and after 90 minutes we headed back to the house where Franck was preparing a grand, truffle-laced lunch.

Truffles and chickpeas.

Truffles and chickpeas.

The Feast: We warmed ourselves on the sunny patio and Kelly opened a bottle of crisp Chardonnay to accompany the small bites: a cup of creamy pumpkin soup topped with shaved black truffle; warm chickpeas drizzled with truffle oil and infused with flecks of truffle; and truffled oeufs brouilles, this version a bit more scrambled than Carole’s smooth rendition.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Then we headed indoors and sat around the large square table next to the crackling hearth, where we were served beautiful butter-seared scallops over spinach and dandelion greens in a light vinaigrette, topped with shaved truffle. The main course was comfort food defined: fork-tender pork cheek served with a veal stock reduction and, of course, more shaved truffle. On the side, a terra cotta dish of creamy, cheesy gnocchi atop red onion jam. One bite and Jeff declared that he’d just had a porkgasm. Flushed and dizzy from the earthy flavors, we knew exactly what he meant.

A cheese course followed: warm Camembert with truffles, and a soft truffled Corsican sheep’s cheese on a crouton. Finally, dessert: truffle infused creme brulee with — what else? — shaved truffle on top.

Most Memorable: Decadent. Rich. Delicious. Gracious hosts. A wine and truffle education in one. A tourgasm and a porkgasm, all in one day. This was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.

Private chef #2 at La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

The Setup: Our late, leisurely and rather large lunch at the Devontue farm ended around 4 pm, and as we drove home we realized that dinner was not far away. When we arrived at La Verrière, we had a short time to digest before our second personal chef of the trip arrived to cook us a truffle-themed meal.

Still absolutely stuffed, we mentally prepared ourselves. Day 12 of the gavage was coming to a close, and we were beginning to feel the effects.

Working for our supper.

Working for our supper.

This night was different, however, because chef Pascal Ginoux of nearby Les Bories would involve us in the cooking. While it was a fantastic concept, the idea of preparing of a gourmet truffle meal under the tutelage of a Michelin-star chef, I couldn’t help but feel the cruel beauty of it all. Already bursting with truffles from an earlier feeding, now we were helping prepare the ingredients for our next. Sort of like building your own gallows.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Jeff, Dorothy, Amy and Brett peeled root vegetables. James dismantled a pineapple. Zandra and I were in charge of dredging and breading foie gras croquettes that were to be fried for our first course. But how could there be so many? Were we expected to eat them all? We briefly contemplated staging a croquette “accident.”  A nudge of the tray over the edge of the counter — “oops!” Perfectly innocent. But after careful consideration we decided that standing and moving our hands from flour to egg to breadcrumbs was the only exercise we would have that evening. We told ourselves to suck it up.

Our work done, we retreated to the media room for a final rest before the re-gorging began, coaching ourselves with words of encouragement: We can do this. Sit up straight and take little bites. We’ll be fine.

Three wines per course was now the standard.

Two wines per course was now the standard.

Veal and root vegetables.

Veal and root vegetables.

The Feast: As we tucked into the meal, the delicious flavors and spot-on wine pairings made it all go easier. The first course, our breaded foie gras croquettes, appeared: fat little fingers deep fried to a golden brown, served with celery puree and a truffle olive-oil foam. Gorgeous and light-tasting despite the decadent ingredients. The second course featured tender veal served with roasted vegetables, the very ones so lovingly prepped by our crew. Chef Ginoux  supplied extra veal reduction to augment the rich gravy already on the plate. My bloated belly forgotten, I poured extra sauce and grabbed a piece of bread for sopping. Finally, dessert: a delicate meringue cylinder with deeply caramelized pineapple and a passionfruit puree. Bright, sweet and light. After dinner, the chef sat at the table with us, drank wine and chatted. Kelly translated. We snapped a few photos with our new friend before trudging up to bed for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Most Memorable: An incredible meal prepared by a very talented chef. But the whispered words between Zandra and me still echo in my head: “Are all of these croquettes for us? They can’t be — there are so many!”

Enchiladas Suizas

Enchiladas Suizas with Spanish-style barley.

We are lucky to be prepping for a trip to western and southern France soon, and in doing so we are immersing ourselves in all things French: beautiful wines, delicious cheeses and of course the language. Having had only a year of French classes way back in high school, I’ve been practicing with some nifty software I bought, but I’ll be damned if my Spanish doesn’t keep intruding like a jealous friend I’ve been ignoring.

Le bâtiment, c’est près d’ici?
Sí, está muy cerca. Sólo tres minutos, más o menos.

Bah!

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, while our heads have been in Provence, our Sunday dinner menus have been on a little south-of-the-border tour recently. We should be priming our palates by cooking coq au vin or cassoulet, but instead we’re drawn to delicious frijol con puerco and enchiladas Suizas. (At least Switzerland is next to France.) A recent Saveur magazine — the Mexico issue — is partially to blame; that and we have a soft spot in our hearts for Mexico and its food.

Heating tomatoes and habaneros

Tomatoes and peppers for the magic sauce.

frijol con puerco

Frijoles con puerco, aka pork and beans.

A week ago Sunday we bought a pork shoulder and made the black bean stew, a richly flavorful dish augmented by a zesty puree of tomatoes and onions that tastes very similar to Thomas Keller’s soffritto, except with a snap of habanero that lingers on the tongue. The frijol dish is simple: browned cubes of pork, garlic, onions and black beans, all stewed together. (It’s especially simple since we used canned black beans.) The magical sauce I mentioned is made by blistering a pound of Roma tomatoes and habaneros in a hot pan, then transferring them along with half a cup of white onion and a couple of cloves of garlic to the Vitamix to puree. Afterward, the puree is fried in a quarter-cup of canola oil until slightly reduced. I can’t stress it enough: This is a marvelous sauce that serves as a soffritto would, bringing beautiful flavor and a bit of heat to just about any dish.

Chicken enchiladas in the pan

Delicious enchiladas. A whole pan.

Last Sunday, tempted again by Mexico and by the fact that it’s tomatillo season, we launched into enchiladas Suizas. This too is a simple recipe once you get past the basic prep. The ingredients list calls for three cups of shredded chicken, expedited by the availability of grocery store rotisserie birds. Somewhat labor-intensive is the charring of the tomatillos (husks removed) under the broiler and then, without losing any juices, removing the thin skin to reveal the gelatinous membranes within. (Hint, do this part over the blender, ’cause that’s where they’re going.) There they are joined by two poblano and two serrano peppers (also blackened and peeled), 3/4 cup of sour cream, a cup of boiling water, garlic, cumin and cilantro, then blended until smooth. Mix a cup of the enchilada sauce with the shredded chicken and you’re ready to assemble.

The earthy bitterness of the tomatillos and peppers with that hint of cilantro make for a light-tasting, refreshing sauce, so different from red enchilada sauces prevalent in many restaurants, and definitely more intense than the mild, creamy enchiladas Suizas I’ve encountered. Once the prep work is done, this is an easy-to-assemble meal that would be ideal for make-ahead entertaining.

France, you are a flirtatious distraction for us these days, and we cannot wait for our upcoming date. But deep down, our first love is Mexico. Ahora y siempre.