Casa Roman Table

Lunch at Casa Roman on a pleasantly sunny afternoon under a bright blue sky.

 

The first leg of our adventure behind us, we left Madrid on a brisk, sunny morning via high-speed train, southbound for Sevilla.

After a 2 1/2-hour journey through a tawny landscape stippled with olive trees, we detrained, collected our bags and met Sebastian, who along with Dorothy had orchestrated our trip. He led us out of the cavernous station into glaring sunlight, where we boarded Sevilla’s version of the Weismobile and headed to the hotel. The stunning Corral del Rey occupies a restored 17th-century casa palacio in the city’s old quarter. After checking in, we tried to orient ourselves. Sebastian’s advice: Drop a pin on your phone’s map to find your way through the city’s ancient labyrinthine passageways. Modern-day breadcrumbs.

Jamon hanging

Jamon Iberico curing over the bar inside Casa Roman.

After a short respite, we strolled to la Plaza Venerables for lunch. At Casa Roman, waiters arranged a long table on the square in the shadow of the imposing Hospital de los Venerables. Once a home to priests, today the building houses a research center devoted to the work of famed Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.

Pitchers of ruby-red Sangria appeared, along with a couple of bottles of fresh, fruity Albariño. Soon the table was laden with salty cheese, fried cuttlefish, crispy dogfish croquetas, earthy artichoke hearts, tangy Salmorejo and, of course, thin slices of jamón Ibérico with its distinctive ribboning of rich fat.

Inside the restaurant, sweating lobes of Ibérico hung curing above the bar, a familiar scene in our travels. In Toledo, we had asked Gerry why jamón was so ubiquitous. He explained that in medieval times, pork was plentiful and easy to preserve, but it also served an important cultural function. If a Christian found himself needing to prove his religious affiliation, he would eat pork, which is forbidden to pious Muslims and Jews. “See? I am a ham eater!”

Jamón Ibérico appears on nearly every menu as a standalone snack or appetizer. At Casa Roman, it’s incorporated into practically every other dish, too. It was clear: In Spain, jamón is royalty. And during our lunch at Casa Roman, the refrain never rang truer: “We are ham eaters!”  

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Smoked eel

Smoked eel, red rocoto, white-coconut ice, and creamy coconut broth

El Club Allard was the first Michelin-star restaurant on our itinerary, and we were brimming with anticipation.

If only we could get in.

Blame it on jet lag, but it took us longer than necessary to enter the building. A sign affixed to the wrought-iron gate on the corner said, “Use other door.” The other door appeared to be locked. It was dark. Our cabs had departed. The street was not deserted or decrepit, but at the moment there was no one around to ask for help.

We checked our phones. A couple of us set off on an expedition toward the other end of the block – perhaps there was another door? Wrong night? Wrong time? We shrugged. One of us was dialing the restaurant when an amiable couple waiting inside the foyer apparently lost patience with our Keystone Cops routine and let us in. Saved!

Then, not a moment before 9pm, the ornate door at the top of the foyer’s marble staircase opened and the staff welcomed us inside.

El Club Allard exuded classic elegance. Comfy-looking upholstered chairs surrounded well-spaced, linen-topped tables. Glowing chandeliers reflected to infinity in mirrors on opposing muted gray walls trimmed in creamy white.

Amuse-bouche

Amuse-bouche at El Club Allard: an edible card with flavorful aioli.

We were seated in a room of our own, with a view through French doors into the general dining area. As we settled around the large, square table for eight, waiters drizzled bubbling Cava into flutes. Propped before us were place cards embossed with the restaurant’s logo.

A waiter placed small bowls of creamy spread on the table and explained: “Tonight you will find that our chef likes to have a little fun, and this amuse-bouche reflects that. The cards in front of you are edible. You are invited dip your card in the seasoned aioli and eat it. Enjoy.”

Well, why not? The potato-starch cards themselves were unremarkable, but they were made delicious by the aioli. We were undeniably amused.

After the Cava the waiters poured Naia Verdejo. Throughout the evening they ensured we rarely saw the bottoms of our glasses.

Servers glided in and out as the plates of our 10-course meal began to arrive. The first was a shallow bowl arranged with three triangular bites of smoked eel, crowned by red flower petals and accented with red rocoto peppers and tiny balls of coconut ice. Servers finished the dish with a creamy coconut broth, making a beautifully cool, composed soup.

Butterfish ale

Butterfish “ale” with Japanese salmon-egg crostini

Course two brought liquid comfort – a shot glass of “amber ale” alongside a crostini jeweled with Japanese salmon eggs. The ale was actually a warm butterfish broth beneath a white asparagus foam — a warming umami treat, craveable on a chilly, windy night. The staff promised without hesitation to package an order of the broth for Bob, who was under the weather and resting in the hotel. We couldn’t imagine anything more therapeutic.

Next came heavy stone bowls containing a single tiny pea ravioli and a light broth of Iberian dewlap, also poured at the table. (Dewlap, we found out later, is part of the pig’s neck. Who knew?)

Quail egg and truffle mushroom

Quail egg and truffle mushroom: the cupcake that made everyone cry

Everything was delicious, but the fourth course generated an unexpected reaction. Servers brought in chunky porcelain pedestals shaped like cross-cut logs standing on end. Atop each stood a mini-cupcake frosted electric green and studded with small crisps resembling Lucky Charms cereal.The scent of truffle engulfed the table. It was campy, a little gaudy, and slightly psychedelic.

“Here you have a quail egg and truffle mushroom, best eaten in one bite,” our waiter said.

We popped the morsels into our mouths and the table fell silent. Then came a chorus: “Mmmm,” “ahhh,” “ohmygod.” The cupcake, made of yucca, featured a moist canelé-like texture that transitioned to a soft interior, where the quail egg resided. The frosting was airy truffled custard. A bite of heaven. Sniffles came from the head of the table.

“Mom, are you crying!?” Kati said.

Her eyes brimming, Dorothy laughed and said, “I really needed that.” One charming bite had justified the effort of trip preparation, and perhaps released some of the stress she felt for her ailing husband. Soon nearly everyone teared up. Roxanne, sniffling and laughing, said, “This will be remembered as The Dinner With the Cupcake That Made Everyone Cry!”

Calamar "risotto"

Calamar “risotto”

Next, another gastronomical slight of hand: What appeared to be herbed risotto was really calamar cut to resemble rice. Alongside were green seashells that glistened like jellies, but were actually crisped rice. The flavors and textures were the definition of balance.

Orube Rioja began to flow as we moved to heartier flavors. The next dish was a beautiful plate of flaky black cod resting in a blue-tomato-infused broth, garnished with tiny scallions and a single purple flower.

Black cod

Black cod with blue-tomato infused broth

Following that: collagen-rich confit of suckling pig that melted on the tongue, accompanied by sweet-savory onion compote. Would it be bad form to lick our plates?

Desserts began with a refreshing, palate-restoring pisco-sour ice in a hibiscus flower cup – a nod to the chef’s Latin American roots.  The second dessert, understatedly billed as “chocolate clusters,” was a playful presentation of color and flavor: chocolate “rocks,” green minty “sponges,” olive toast, and pepper ice cream. Finally, a whimsical slate of petit fours – marzipan shaped like chalk, erasers, and refrigerator magnets.

Kati, Chef Marte, Dorothy

Kati, Chef Maria Marte, and Dorothy

Our meal complete, we asked if we could meet the artist behind the flavors. Chef Maria Marte obliged with a stop at our table, where she humbly accepted our praise. Dominican Chef Marte’s story is remarkable. Ten years ago, she was a dishwasher at El Club Allard, piecing together a living, working mad hours, trying to get ahead. Today she is the head chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain’s capital, a testament to her drive, determination, and talent.

Of all of our meals in Spain, this one would stand out for the elegance and gracious service; Chef Marte’s whimsy, creativity and humble kindness; the colors, flavors, and balance; and, of course, the cupcake that made everyone cry.

 

 

Spain 2015: Del Corazón

February 29, 2016

SoupJamon

Jamon Iberico is central to Spanish cuisine and was at the heart of nearly every meal we enjoyed.

Paris was a disappointment.

We’ve spent many happy days in the French capital, most of them unforgettable in fact. But this day was a letdown. Why? Because this day we expected to be not in Paris but in Madrid. This day we hoped to be touring the Prado, awakening our travel-weary senses to the delights of Velázquez and Goya, lunching on olives and croquetas, enjoying our first day in Spain with our friends the Weises. Not slumped on a bench in Charles De Gaulle Terminal 2F, unable to sleep.

Six of us had departed from Portland. But a faulty aircraft component had delayed our flight to Amsterdam, where we missed our connection to Madrid. Hence, the rebooking of four of our party through Paris and two through Barcelona. And a five-hour wait.

***

In 2012, Jeff and I were fortunate to have been invited along on a Weis family vacation to France. Dorothy engaged Trufflepig Travel to help organize that tour, which went down in family history as The Trip of a Lifetime.

Three years later, she re-enlisted Trufflepig to plan a 10-day adventure in Iberia over the Thanksgiving holiday. Sebastian Lapostol, an American living in Jerez whose interest in Flamenco guitar brought him to Spain, is Trufflepig’s expert. He helped craft an itinerary that would include Madrid and Toledo, Sevilla and Jerez, Barcelona and the Costa Brava.

LaFamiliaWeis

On the plaza in front of the Royal Palace

We were a cast of nine, comprising Weis family members primarily: Bob, Dorothy and their daughter, Kati; Zandra and James; Kyle and Roxanne; Jeff and I.

Our 120-page Piglet guide outlined our itinerary in detail. Much of the focus would be food and wine, but there also would be splendid hotels, opulent palaces, breathtaking vistas and knowledgeable people — aficionados — to guide our way.

Reflecting now, the cuisine features prominently, of course. But the greatest impression I carry is of the people we met and the passion they exuded — for their culture, tradition, food, music, art, architecture. For their country. It was clearly del corazón — from the heart.

We arrive, finally

StaircaseDay1Hotel

AC Palacio del Retiro’s enchanting spiral staircase

Bob, Dorothy and Kati landed on schedule and enjoyed the first day’s activities, which included the Prado and lunch. Those of us coming from Portland, not so much. But by evening we and our belongings had arrived — most of them, anyway. Kyle and Roxanne’s luggage was a no-show.

We late-comers checked in at our hotel, the AC Palacio del Retiro, formerly part of the Spanish Royalty’s secondary palace complex. Then we all met at the foot of the building’s elegant winding staircase for dinner.

The travel delay had blown our restaurant booking. Complicating a last-minute reservation for nine was the horde of soccer fans who had flocked to the city for a weekend match between rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Though reluctant to recommend it, the hotel concierge directed us to a nearby Italian restaurant. “You won’t have trouble getting a table,” he said.

True enough. Fortunately, Trattoria Sant Arcangelo served precisely what was needed after a too-long travel day: translucent beef carpaccio, rich tagliatelle Bolognese, risotto fragrant with truffle, pizza al prosciutto e funghi, and silky gnocchi Gorgonzola. It wasn’t Spanish, but no one complained. That long-ago trip to France was a memory and our recent detour through Paris was over, thankfully. After several bottles of wine and a brisk stroll back to the hotel, we were ready for sleep, ready to recharge.

Our current Trip of a Lifetime was under way.

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The next morning we assembled in the lobby and met our guide, Gerardo (“Please call me Gerry”) Rappazzo. We shook hands all around, filed into our minibus and
departed for the Royal Palace of Madrid.

MeetingGerryDay1

“Please call me Gerry.”

Gerry switched on the mic and went into tour mode, his voice booming. “The road we are on, it’s called the Ronda,” he said. “Ronda means circle in Spanish, and this Ronda follows the footprint of Madrid’s ancient wall.” Looking north, we saw the narrow, ancient streets of old Madrid. To the south, wider, newer streets radiated into the distance. “Maybe you noticed the arch near your hotel; it’s called Puerta de Alcala, and was one of the original gates to the city.” He was clearly enjoying himself, but, as we would learn, he was just getting warmed up.

At the Royal Palace, Gerry ushered us past lines of tourists awaiting entry, over the vast parade ground and into the 3,000-room palace, whose design was inspired by drawings made for construction of the Louvre. Inside, we marveled at the grand staircase and gilded moldings, the painted vault ceilings and intricate, symbol-rich wall coverings, the assemblage of clocks.

Gerry was in his element, an unstanchable font of history, art appreciation, commentary, and trivia.

Did we know that in the 18th Century the king was dressed and undressed in public? That an audience watched him eat? That a royal marriage was consummated in view of the court? But of course, according to Gerry, it had to be so.

BigNoseDay1

King Charles III  (AKA Big Nose)

“You might ask me,” he said, one of his signature phrases, “Gerry, why is each room in the palace smaller than the previous?” And he would answer his own question: “Because the audiences witnessing the royal activities were smaller as the activities became more and more personal.”

Onward: The priceless Stradivarius collection; the Golden Fleece, symbol of the Monarchy; the magnificent velvet-walled throne room with its fresco ceiling; the near-ubiquitous presence, in stone, on canvas and in spirit, of 18th Century reformer King Charles III, known as Big Nose. All of which Gerry described in loving detail. Would we like to glimpse the king’s commode?

Bystanders would hear Gerry’s discourse and attach themselves to our group. Some asked questions. Gerry would gently disinvite them.

We learned much that day, but lesson No. 1 was this: A self-directed tour is generally a feeble substitute for one led by a knowledgeable guide who loves his or her subject.

Guernica

Case in point: Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s renowned anti-war statement housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, to which we paid a short visit after the palace tour.

Gerry, who has a background in art history, enlivened the painting with his interpretation. He described the political landscape that led to the German air bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica and its market, recounting how most of the village’s men were away at work or fighting the Nationalists when the attack occurred. Victims were predominantly women and children. He noted the symbolism of the bull, the aggressor (the Nazis or fascism in general), and that of the horse (the people of Guernica), screaming in pain; how the harsh angularity of the painting’s lines echoed the anguish of the human figures; the broken dove; the flower, a tiny emblem of hope. Though Jeff and I viewed the painting in 2011, we didn’t truly experience it until that day.

We wished for more time in the museum, but our mission was focused and we had a lunch reservation. So it was into the bus and off to Iroco.

Lunch

FoieIroco

Foie terrine with tangy mango chutney

Located in the posh Salamanca neighborhood, Iroco boasts a bright interior and crisp white tablecloths. The leafy terrace would have been first choice for seating, but the chill sealed our decision to eat inside. We took a large banquette table near the French doors to the terrace and ordered a couple of bottles of Albariño while we perused the Italianesque menu.

To start: sirloin carpaccio, sliced so thin it practically melted on your knife; chilled foie gras terrine, served with a mango chutney to cut the fatty richness; golden, crispy croquetas of Iberian ham and mushroom; and soft pillows of burrata alongside sweet tomato confit.

Entrées included cannelloni stuffed with meltingly tender veal cheek, gratineed with a punch of Gorgonzola; lightly sautéed baby squid punctuated by tangy citrus dressing; cod confit, artfully arranged with creamy white garlic sauce and a dotted arc of black garlic sauce. Mindful that dinner would be upon us soon, most of us leaned toward the lighter side, like a special of layered pato (duck) and vegetable lasagna; cubes of corvina ceviche with sautéed vegetables and cauliflower puree; and a green salad topped with crispy fried chicken and pomegranate seeds. After a morning of touring, lunch was restorative.

We departed into the brisk afternoon, strolling to the hotel through the northern margin of sun-dappled Parque del Buen Retiro. Dorothy and Kati then went in search of gifts for our next-day visit to Toledo. Still awaiting luggage, Kyle and Roxanne shopped for clothes. James, Zandra, Jeff and I resisted the urge to nap and walked to Plaza Mayor and the Mercado de San Miguel where, in the din of the crowded market, we enjoyed wine and a plate of jámon Ibérico.

We then set course for the hotel, keeping an eye out for a pub where we could stop in and watch the soccer match. Unfortunately, every establishment with a television was overflowing. As we heard later, it was not Real Madrid’s night. Barcelona won 4-0.

It was just as well that we couldn’t find seats. Watching the match would have involved more food and drink. We were just as happy to preserve our appetites for what would turn out to be a highlight of the trip: dinner that evening at El Club Allard.

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.

Four Nights in New Orleans

January 26, 2014

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

Oysters and caviar at Bourbon House.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There you have it, from a master indulger: Happiness is a raw oyster and a bracing white wine. Lucky for us, then, that almost a year to the day after the commencement of the Grand Gavage, we pilgrims of the palate found ourselves reunited around a table, sipping, slurping and smiling deliriously amid the fray of Bourbon Street.

Our time would be short, our mission focused: venture out into beautiful, historic New Orleans in search of edible bivalves and other delectables. Our base was the quaint St. James Hotel on Magazine Street, far enough away from Bourbon to comfortably decompress, but near enough when the spirits moved us to quickly get back in the game.

Day 1 — The Arrival

J and I arrived in New Orleans around 8pm, checked in and met up briefly with our accomplices. Bob and Dorothy had enjoyed an early dinner with James and Zandra and were ready to tuck in. So after a quick reunion in their suite, the four of us bid them goodnight and set off for Bourbon Street in search of oysters. Our first stop: bright, bustling Bourbon House, one of several Dickie Brennan-owned establishments in the French Quarter. We took seats at the curved bar and fell into conversation with the gold-toothed oyster wrangler behind the counter. He was making short work of the iced pile in front of him. “Stick it in and wiggle,” he said with a smile, holding up his knife.

Two dozen to start: one dozen plain, the other topped with two kinds of caviar — catfish and choupique — which lent the oysters a salty richness and a textural pop. Next, alligator boudin served with a piquant chipotle aioli; and shrimp and crab gratin, a creamy, cheesy goop irresistible on crostini. A second dozen oysters with caviar appeared, apparently a mistake by the kitchen. We slurped those down too and ambled out into the night.

Lucky Dog

Lucky Dog, happy man.

We detoured for a drink in the dimness of the famed Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop before heading to Frenchman’s Street, where the sound of music enticed us into raucous Cafe Negril. The room was gyrating under the supervision of a tight blues band and its priestly looking frontman. After a set or two, and one or two beverages, we started back along Bourbon toward Poydras Street. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous Lucky Dogs carts for a couple of juicy franks on steamed buns, a tasty introduction to the late-night options available. Found-beads around our necks, bellies full and happily weary, we made our way back to the hotel.

Day 2 — Exploring

Canal Street streetcar.

Canal Street streetcar.

Wednesday. A quiet knock at our door announced the arrival of coffee, orange juice and croissants — a delicious start to the morning. The six of us met in the lobby and headed out for the day. We walked up to St. Charles Avenue and caught one of the vintage streetcars bound for the Garden District for lunch and a walkabout.

At one of the stops along St. Charles, the driver shut off the engine, shouldered her purse, exited the car and trotted across the street into a Wendy’s. We and the dozen other passengers looked at each other, puzzled. We chatted. Mostly tourists, folks from Illinois, folks from Iowa. We waited.

Sitting in the rear of the car, one of the few locals aboard began flirting through the window, shamelessly, in a fetching Cajun accent, with a pretty, exceedingly polite brunette waiting for the streetcar going the other direction. “You quite something,” the man said. “Thank you so much,” the girl answered. We learned from her reluctant responses that she was Canadian. “Is cold in Canada, yeah?” the man said. “I’ll keep you warm.” The girl laughed self-consciously. She was finally rescued by the arrival of her car.

In our car, it began to get stuffy. Our resident Casanova rose and sauntered to the front and switched on the engine, activating ventilation. Smirking, he dropped languidly onto a bench. When our driver reappeared — it seemed like 20 minutes but was probably closer to 10 — he welcomed her with a slow clap, to which she responded: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t wear no diapers to work!” And off we went.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Shrimp and grits at Coquette.

Fried chicken sandwich.

Fried chicken sandwich.

At Washington Avenue we got off and strolled a bit before lunch. Our initial destination, Commander’s Palace, turned us away — a couple of us were wearing shorts — but offered a recommendation for nearby Coquette, a sweet corner bistro with a smoker billowing on the curb. At our sidewalk table for six, we started with wine and a tangy pickle plate (okra, cucumbers, shallots, green beans) with fresh potato chips and ranch dressing. Entrees included a spicy mushroom gumbo, crisp Russian kale salad, shrimp and grits, tomato sandwiches on toasted white bread and, for James, a massive fried-chicken sandwich with fries, the table favorite. Dessert was, for most of us, chocolate beignets and mini banana milkshakes.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Lafayette Cemetery.

Sated (stuffed, really), we started our tour of the Garden District, beginning in Lafayette Cemetery, with its crumbling, time-stained vaults and distinct air of the supernatural. Our guide proved to be a font of information about the city, seasoning his stories with references to long-dead Confederate officers, Louis Armstrong, Katrina, Anne Rice, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Mr. and Mrs. Angelina Jolie, the Manning boys, and on and on. Out into the neighborhood we wended amid the twisting, towering live oaks and the enormous wrought-iron-frilled mansions. Once again, we were the beneficiaries of Dorothy’s knack for finding interesting people, places and things to do.

Spicy, sticky duck wings.

Emeril’s spicy duck wings.

That evening, we had reservations at Emeril’s, a large lively space with a small army of waiters for each  of the white-linen-topped tables. For openers, sticky-spicy duck wings, one of our favorite dishes of the evening, and of the trip. Among the refined clientele, we felt a little out of place sucking sauce from our fingers, but it couldn’t be helped. Hot wet towels appeared, restoring decorum.

Entrees included baseball-size filets for James and Zandra; a mountain of crisp fried chicken and sweet-potato fries for Dorothy; buttery sea scallops served in a steaming oversize escargot plate for J; and for me, squid-ink fettuccine Nero laden with shrimp, mussels and cheese. The dinner was memorable, but the highlight was the shared desserts: fluffy chocolate soufflé, and a delectable wedge of banana cream pie. The pie stood 6 inches tall and featured thick-sliced fruit suspended in custard.

We waddled down the street for a nightcap at W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute New Orleans), a newish-concept wine bar with vending machines that dispense tasting-size (or glass-size) pours of dozens of wines from around the world. There we toasted the close of our first full day in New Orleans.

Day 3 — Halloween

Bob and Dorothy steppin' out on Bourbon Street.

Bob and Dorothy steppin’ out on Bourbon Street.

Halloween started blustery and overcast. We headed out on foot toward the river, where an enormous tanker glided gulfward. We browsed through the French Market — Cafe du Monde overflowed with patrons — and in and out of several art galleries on our way back to Bourbon Street. As the costumed crowds and street performers started to converge, our appetites prompted us into Royal House Oyster Bar for sustenance. Our waitress, a very friendly witch, brought us the day’s first installment of oysters: two dozen on the half-shell, one dozen Rockefeller, a half-dozen grilled and a half-dozen Royale. These, a couple of redfish beignets, a cup of seafood gumbo and two bottles of white wine, and we were content. Onward.

Next, Pat O’Brien’s, where we took seats in the dim, cavernous piano bar. Despite the small crowd (it was early), the drinks and song requests were flowing. Naturally, Hurricanes were in order — they lubricate the singalong muscles, don’t you know.

Improvised costumes

Who dat?

We hummed our way back to Bourbon Street and into My Bar@635, lured by more live music. After a couple of cocktails and a dance or two — one of the regulars took Dorothy and me for a turn around the floor, to the amusement of the crowd — we realized we were out of place without costumes. Luckily we didn’t have to venture far to find glittery masks, sequin hats and other wacky adornments in the Carnival capital of the United States.

Dozen raw at Acme Oyster House.

A dozen raw under the neon at Acme Oyster House.

After a short respite at Musical Legends Park it was time for an early dinner. Fortunately, the queue for Acme Oyster House was less than half a block long, and we were seated relatively quickly. Our order eerily resembled lunch: two dozen raw oysters, two dozen grilled and a couple of oyster po’boys to share. And, Lord help us, drinks all around.

By dinner’s end, Dorothy and Bob were spent. We pointed them in the direction of the hotel and off they toddled, soon swallowed by the crowd. The remaining four of us bumped along with the masses, dazzled by the noise, the spectacle, the alcohol and the astonishing number of bustiers. Over the next few hours, we patronized several drinking establishments, watched a Halloween parade materialize on Decatur Street — beads rained from truck windows and from the beds of floats — and wound our way back to Cafe Negril on Frenchman’s, where we briefly escaped the onset of rain. By the time we stepped out of the bar, it was pouring — though certainly nothing four Portlanders couldn’t manage.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

Rainy Halloween on Bourbon Street.

We slogged onward, stopping again at My Bar to watch the Bourbon Street party from under an umbrella on the balcony. Throngs of costumed partiers meandered along the street, unfazed by the downpour: A bubbly pair dressed as Jeannie and Major Tony Nelson from “I Dream of Jeannie” and a school of ephemeral jellyfish under clear bubble umbrellas, cleverly lighted from within, won our votes for best getups.

Having survived upright until the respectable hour of 11, we needed something to buffer the effects of the alcohol. Burgers, of course. Bourbon House had a table but no beef, so the sympathetic waiter recommended Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill on St. Peter Street.

Yo Mama's classic.

Yo Mama’s classic.

We walked the five blocks in a light shower, slid into a booth and ordered massive half-pounders: blue cheese burger for James; mushroom burger for Zandra; the bullfighter, piled with cheddar, salsa, avocado and jalapeños for J; and the classic Yo Mama’s burger for me. Despite its obvious restorative properties, the peanut butter burger with bacon tempted no one. Surprisingly, Yo Mama’s doesn’t serve fries — sides comprise baked potato, potato salad or green salad. Most of us opted for potato salad, with J going all in with a baked potato.

Stuffed after a second but wholly necessary dinner, we plodded back to the hotel and dropped into bed.

Day 4 — Winding Down

Amazingly, we awakened little worse for the wear and set out for breakfast. Friends had recommended Mother’s, a popular cafeteria-style operation nearby where you line up and order your meal at the counter before claiming a table in one of the cavernous dining areas. I had anticipated the famed Ferdi sandwich (ham, roast beef, debris — the bits that fall off the roast when carving — and gravy) but it was not on the breakfast menu. So we all ordered eggs in some form, dense, flaky biscuits, ham or sausage, and grits. Turns out, grits are not beloved by the Weises or the Waltons. Still, the meal was filling.

Thick, rich gumbo.

Thick, rich gumbo.

The rest of the morning was spent touring the massive, impressive WWII museum — a must-see for history buffs like Bob. We then headed back to the French Quarter for lunch, landing a table at Tableau, which with its sturdy dark-wood furnishings and contrasting thick white plaster walls exuded a stately Southern charm. The menu featured classic French Creole cooking, and we ordered a variety: Salade Lyonnaise with perfectly oozing egg; fried oyster salad; rich duck and andouille gumbo.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

Marinated, truffled crab claws.

The most memorable dish of the day, and for me, of the trip, was the truffled crab fingers — peeled crab claws marinated and chilled in a white-truffle vinaigrette. I could have eaten these all day long with crusty bread to sop the sauce.

After lunch, we walked through the cathedral and Jackson Square, then made a shopping stop or two on Decatur Street before returning to the hotel for a nap. That evening, lacking dinner reservations and competing with a horde of American Dental Association conventioneers for a table, we ended up at Desire Bistro and Oyster House — a large, lively spot with closely spaced tables, a retro tin ceiling and black-and-white tiles underfoot. It being an oyster house, oysters were in order: three dozen to start — a dozen for Bob and two for the rest of us. Another kitchen mix-up resulted in an additional dozen, which, of course, we slurped without hesitation. At that point, the rest of the dinner was an afterthought, but tasty nonetheless. I had a delicious muffuletta half-sandwich, an addictively salty pile of ham, mortadella, salami and provolone with a thick spread of olive paste on crusty bread. Zandra went light with a trio of sliders from the appetizer menu — kobe beef, pulled pork and alligator. J chose a rich crawfish étouffé. A fine and casual dinner to cap off a memorable trip.

New Orleans is a banquet — not only its irresistible cuisine, but also its spicy mix of colorful locals and uninhibited tourists, its weather, its open-container laxity and live music at every turn. The perfect destination for a food adventure, and we were lucky enough to have been invited. Bob, Dorothy, James and Zandra — we couldn’t invent better travel and dining companions. Our minds operate alike: Start with a nice bottle of wine, then get down to the business of eating.

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassone.

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassonne.

Adjacent to our hotel in Carcassonne stood the 12th Century Basilica of St. Nazaire, bristling with gargoyles. We had a few minutes to spare, so Jeff opened the heavy wooden door and we entered. Inside, dwarfed by towering stone columns, a nun with a broom worked quietly, her footsteps echoing faintly in the stillness. We moved up the dim nave, past the burnished pews, into the enormous transept bright with morning sunshine streaming through the tall stained-glass windows of the choir. Now we could hear music, a soft solemn hymn that seemed to emerge from the stone and surround us. Rosettes glowed like colossal jewels in either end of the transept. We stood silent, listening, and I thought again how fortunate we were.

The sunlight was an omen. After a week of near-constant cloud cover, we were headed east to Provence under blue sky. The weather wasn’t warm but, for a nice change, it wasn’t wet. I lit a candle, slipped some euros into the receptacle, and we were off.

Destination: Arles. Distance: 223 kilometers. That meant a few hours of quality Jumpy time, with a stop or two along the way.

We’d become comfortable with our seating arrangement: Zandra and I in back; Bob and Dorothy sharing the middle row with one of the brothers; the other brother co-piloting up front. The van was equipped with a navigation device, but the chirpy female avatar entombed therein had been deemed untrustworthy, so at Dorothy’s suggestion we named her Marilyn. (Dorothy joked that she owned a ditzy gadget of the same name back home in Alabama.)

This is what happens when you travel with a master sommelier.

This is what happens when you travel with a sommelier.

Sitting in the rear gave Zandra and I time to discuss and take notes, which was critical to remembering. We marveled at the over-the-top nature of this adventure, with its unbelievable food and wine, and the astonishing fact that we were traveling with a sommelier. In addition, we had met a host of other memorable specialists and authorities. Some that stood out:

●     Our own private archeologist guided us through the caves of Périgord. Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, an expert in prehistoric cave art in the region, shared her theories on the ancient artists who reverently and skillfully represented themselves and the world around them.

●     The exuberant walnut-mill owner with the grand pot belly and string of one-liners who demonstrated the centuries-old process for pressing oil from the fragrant nuts.

●     The proprietress of an organic foie gras farm who led us on a private tour. Her dedication to and respect for the animals in her charge was evident in the treatment they received.

●     The many local guides who so passionately introduced us to their cities and towns.

●     Numerous winemakers who shared the varied methods of their craft and enticed us to taste the fermented fruits of their labor.

Of all the people we had encountered, not a single one could have been more friendly or hospitable. And we were only halfway through the itinerary.

Chez François – Sète

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

The Setup: On the drive to Arles we crested a rise and there lay the Mediterranean Sea with its promise of les fruits de mer, which had come up in conversation during many a meat-heavy meal. (Bob and Dorothy live on the Gulf Coast; they know their way around an oyster.) Immediately we detoured into the the seaside town of Sète.

A wrong-way turn onto a one-way street prompted a honk and a curse or two from competing motorists, but Kelly ignored the commotion long enough to get a recommendation from an amused bystander. We backed out of our traffic predicament and headed to the waterfront, to the acclaimed Chez François, located on one of the quais.

After wedging the Jumpy into a tight underground parking space we ascended into the misty seaside sunshine. At Chez François, we pulled a few tables together on the tented sidewalk, inhaled the sea air and looked over the brief, fish-focused menu.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

The Feast: We started, of course, with wine. Kelly suggested a light, crisp Picpoul to complement the briny freshness of the oysters. Jeff ordered pastis, which arrived with a carafe of water. A mixture of the two produced the cloudy, anise-spiced milk of Provence, cure-all for whatever ails — hangover, malaise, gray skies, sweltering days. Soon our seafood binge appeared: platters of plump oysters, bowls of pleasantly chewy sea escargot, pots brimming with mussels, and a tomato-rich fish soup, all of which contrasted delightfully with the duck-centric menus we’d grown accustomed to.

Most Memorable: Crisp sea air, sunshine and beautiful, briny oysters. What more need be said?

The Market Picnic – Arles

Market lettuce in Arles.

Market lettuce in Arles.

The Setup: Mention Arles, in France or elsewhere, and people rave about the market. “Not to be missed,” they say. If you’re anywhere near Arles on a Wednesday or a Saturday, it’s impossible to miss. It’s enormous and unavoidable, lining both sides of the Boulevard des Lices for several blocks and spilling into the side streets.

We made the five-minute walk from our hotel, the enchanting L’Hôtel Particulier, past tables piled with clothing and other dry goods, into the teeming, chaotic gantlet of food stands. Fish of every stripe lay bright-eyed and glistening in cases of crushed ice, and shiny squid shared stall space with pyramids of mussels and oysters. Yard-wide paella pans cradled steaming saffron-tinted shrimp and rice. Shoppers jostled one another to sample morsels of cheese, while tiny grandmothers weaved through the throng, their shopping bags bulging, little dogs trailing with noses to the ground.

Olives of every color.

Olives of every color.

Just-roasted chickens.

Just-roasted chickens.

There were fat sausages, and salami with powdery rinds; head and haunch and every other cut of lamb and pork; skinned splayed rabbits; vats of olives, green and brown and black, displayed alongside tubs of cornichon and pickled garlic cloves; bushel baskets of beautiful lettuces, tomatoes, onions, fennel; knobby carrots with soil clinging to them.

Bread stands smelled of warm yeast. There were nuts and fruit and pizza and smoked fish and a food cart selling egg rolls and noodles. Tall multi-rotisserie glass-cased ovens churned with succulent golden chickens, a dozen at a time, their drippings seasoning potatoes and tomatoes roasting below. The aroma was intoxicating. Would it be odd, I wondered, if I loitered here next to the poulet rôti for the next 30 minutes?

A pair of live piglets in a pushcart snuffled the hands of cooing admirers — not for sale, these two. Their owner was peddling hard candy to bankroll a long, healthy life for what apparently were pets. A scam? Perhaps. But it was worth the euros to feel those little suction-cup snouts on the palm of my hand.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

We wandered, chatted with vendors, snapped photos, and bought delicious treats until our next appointment: a walkabout of Arles hosted by a willowy  Arlesienne — yet another expert! In the course of the tour, she led us to the hospital where Van Gogh convalesced after the unfortunate disagreement with his ear, to the cafe that was the subject of one of his famous paintings, and to the ancient Roman amphitheater. Afterward, we returned to the hotel and met up with some new arrivals. Zandra’s brother Brett and his family, Amy and Aiden, had flown in from England for the second half of the trip. Also joining us was Jack Dancy, co-founder of Trufflepig, the company responsible for orchestrating our awesome adventure. Jack and Dorothy had planned the itinerary, and when it became clear our growing group would need a second vehicle, he volunteered to accompany us at the midpoint. An energetic young Brit with a knack for conversation and a whip-smart sense of humor, Jack was a delightful addition.

Fromage.

The nearly liquid Mont D’Or Fromage.

The Feast: In a small rustic overflow dining room just off the hotel courtyard, we made a banquet of our market haul — fresh bread, salami, green and black olive tapenade, delectable rotisserie chicken, several cheeses, smoked fish, olives, pickled garlic, a few desserts and of course wine, some of it from Kelly’s personal cellar.

Most Memorable: That chicken haunts me to this day, but the pickled garlic was a clear winner too. Compared to the pickled garlic we’ve found in the States, the Provençal version has a milder bite and a mouthwatering savory acidity. Slightly crunchy and highly addictive, these exquisite morsels have obsessed us since we arrived home. Half the battle may be the garlic itself — the grocery-store bulbs here tend to yield too pungent a garlic flavor after pickling, but we keep trying. The meal was a reminder that often the simplest ingredients make the most memorable occasions.

La Chassagnette – Arles

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

The Setup: Our final night in Arles. We drove into the countryside to a lovely restaurant owned by friends of Kelly’s. Reminiscent of a French country home, La Chassagnette features a spacious dining room furnished with sturdy wooden tables and sideboards and brightly painted murals. One grand table was arranged for our large family-and-friends gathering.

The Feast: Chef Armand Arnal welcomed us and explained the restaurant’s concept: everything local and seasonal, vegetables and herbs from the surrounding gardens, no butter or cream. Zandra and I exchanged a doubtful wink. No butter? Not possible. The vegetables we’d encountered on the trip had been slathered in it. But when the beautiful family-style dishes appeared, it was clear our skepticism was premature. This was fresh, clean food prepared simply so the flavors of the products shone. Among the first courses, bright herbal soup that was the very definition of green both in color and flavor; a frisee salad with crispy fried pumpkin seeds; beet and eel salad with wilted greens. For the main courses, a few at the table had lamb while the majority ordered sea bass baked in a salt crust, uncaked and served tableside. For dessert: airy souffle with passionfruit ice cream.

Most Memorable: A delicious meal made even more memorable by the hospitality of the house and the cooking of Chef Arnal. Coincidentally, this Nov. 10 dinner fell on the 20th anniversary of my first date with Jeff. A nice way to celebrate.

Picnic at Anthony’s house – L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge

Sidewalk cafe tables at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Sidewalk cafe tables at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

The Setup: The day dawned bright and sunny as we packed our vehicles and headed east to L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, a charming village characterized by its canals and its location on the Sourge river. It was Sunday, market day. Kelly and Jack offered to forage for lunch while the rest of us explored. The plan was to picnic in a park, but when we reunited later we learned that Kelly had bumped into a buddy who happened to live nearby (not surprising given that Kelly seems to have friends everywhere). Anthony, also in the wine industry and apparently sympathetic to our lack of stemware, had invited us to have lunch at his home. Perfect! The 11 of us unloaded our supplies and made introductions as Anthony pulled tables together and set out plates, silver and, most important, wine glasses. We met his friend Ani, a petite Frenchwoman with a robust laugh, and staged our picnic on his sunny patio.

Picnic fare at Anthony's house.

Picnic fare at Anthony’s house.

The Feast: The fare was similar to the previous day’s lunch: garlic, olives, chicken, bread, cheese, salami. Pizza for young Aiden. Ani contributed little crocks of pork rillettes, creamy in texture and almost floral in flavor and aroma. I detected Provençal lavender in each bite. We sipped Tavel, faces tipped toward the sunlight, and feasted, one delicious bite after another, with our hosts.

Most Memorable: The warmth and generosity of strangers. On short notice, Anthony invited nearly a dozen visitors into his home as if we were old friends. His and Ani’s hospitality made this one of the most memorable meals of the trip, and the best picnic of my life.

View from Saint-Émilion church tower.

View from Saint-Emilion church tower

“Nine a.m. sharp.” Those were Kelly’s parting words on the eve of our departure from Bordeaux. Our next destination, Sarlat, was 200 kilometers away, and we had appointments en route, so we would hit the road early.

At 9:10 the next morning, two of the Jumpy’s seven passengers were missing.

A phone call was made, slumber disrupted, belongings were hastily collected. Several choice vulgarities, delivered in standard American English, undoubtedly resounded up and down the third floor of Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Sixteen minutes later, Zandra and James burst out of the building, luggage clattering, with damp hair and linen-marked features.

All but two of us enjoyed a nice chuckle — this was, after all, a vacation. By the time J&Z recovered their sense of humor, we were 20 kilometers east of Bordeaux headed to Saint-Émilion, and we all had learned a lesson: Don’t trifle with jet lag. Jet lag always wins.

Wine Tasting in Saint-Émilion, Evening Picnic in Sarlat

Fonplegade Wine Tasting

Wine tasting at Chateau Fonplegade.

The Setup: In Saint-Émilion we began with tours and tastings at two quite different chateaux: Chateau Fonplegade, American-owned and très élégant; and Chateau Pavie Macquin, also lovely but a bit more rustic. At both, the wine and the hospitality were first-class. Thanks to Kelly’s contacts and expertise, finding a mediocre bottle, or a less-than-breathtaking venue in which to sample it, or an ungracious host, all were proving difficult.

After the tours, we drove into the centuries-old village of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site with daunting world-heritage-class verticality. We parked at the base of the hill and labored up the winding cobblestone streets to the town summit for lunch at bustling L’Envers du Decor. Afterward, Dorothy, Zandra and I thought we’d do a little shopping, but ended up climbing (more climbing!) the steep spiral steps of the tower of Saint-Émilion’s famous monolithic church, from which we enjoyed a splendid panorama. Meanwhile, the guys descended to Terres Millesime, a wine shop at the bottom of the hill, for another tasting appointment. We joined them after our excursion and were early enough to have missed only a couple of selections. Lucky us.

Terres Milleseme

Enjoying Saint-Émilion’s hospitality.

Many tastings — les dégustations — are polite, sedate affairs. The one at Terres Millesime was performance art.

Our amiable host, Manu — reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci — seemed unable to sit. He repeatedly leapt out of his chair to deliver a generous pour, a fist-shaking advocacy of the home-country viticulture, a boisterous celebration of his Burgundian heritage. Mostly in French. At one point he broke into song. He offered toasts, shook hands, patted backs. He sipped a fragrant Bordeaux, gazed heavenward and kissed his fingertips. Kelly, as translator, cheerfully tried to keep pace.

By the time we finished the tasting, we were entertained, a little tired, and a little buzzed. The performance, if that’s what it was, succeeded. We chose wines and placed orders, which given the work involved in arranging shipping took the better part of an hour. When we were ready to leave, most of Saint-Émilion was dark, and we were still 150 kilometers from our beds.

Boulangerie

La boulangerie, France’s answer to fast food.

The Feast: Figuring we wouldn’t find much to eat in Sarlat at that hour, James, Zandra, Jeff and I hurried down the street to a little boulangerie and bought a baguette, a couple of quiches and a sackful of ham and cheese croissants. Then back to the van. Kelly tested the speed limit, James navigated, and we made Sarlat in good time.

We arrived at the B&B, Les Cordeliers, and were greeted by innkeepers Chris and Amanda, an affable British couple who set us up in our rooms and then joined us in James and Zandra’s room for a picnic. Chris contributed plates and napkins as well as ham, cheeses and crudite, and we drank the wine left over from Manu’s tasting — a simple, light meal that struck exactly the right chord on our first night in Sarlat.

Most Memorable: Our gracious hosts, all of them — Manu, Chris and Amanda — and those flaky, buttery ham and cheese croissants. When it comes to fast food, the French boulangerie wins hands down.

Lunch with Edouard and Carole Aynaud — Pechalifour

Retired truffle dog

Retired truffle dog, enjoying the good life.

The Setup: Our final full day in Sarlat took us to the hamlet of Pechalifour to meet Edouard Aynaud. “Le Truffe,” as he is known — lanky, bespectacled, with a beak like a raptor — vibrated enthusiasm for his work: pursuit and promotion of the elusive Tuber melanosporum, or black Périgord truffle. The Aynaud cottage, which looked from outside like it might have been put up by masterful medieval stonemasons, was cozy and modern inside, and included a classroom featuring a resident retired truffle hound, an easy-going golden Lab who needed no invitation to show you his belly. Before leading visitors out into the truffière to hunt, Edouard conducts an introduction to truffles — the species and their differences, aromas, flavors, the risks of fraud. Turns out the Tuber indicum, or Chinese truffle, is tasteless and bounces when you drop it.

After class, we headed into the orchard led by the current top dog, Farrah. A spirited border collie mix, Farrah shares Edouard’s passion for unearthing truffles, because doing so means she wins a tasty prize hidden in her master’s pocket.

Truffle

Périgord black truffle.

oeufs brouillés

The beginnings of oeufs brouillés.

After the hunt (Farrah found two truffles, but neither was ripe), we returned to the house and met Edouard’s wife, Carole. She directed us to the kitchen and demonstrated classic oeufs brouillés: Grated truffle and butter mingle at room temperature in a pan on the stove; crack two eggs per person into a bowl and pour the eggs into the pan; over a low fire, whisk furiously for 10 to 15 minutes (taking care not to perspire into the mixture) until you have a smooth texture, neither scrambled nor lumpy.

Truffle honey

Truffle honey and cheese curls.

The Feast: After the demonstration, we gathered around the dining-room table, where we were treated to the silky oeufs brouillés with their earthy hint of truffle, followed by succulent roast pork and fluffy truffle mashed potatoes. Next came a green salad and a cheese course. The cheese had been shaved with a cheese curler into delicate carnations, which drizzled with truffle honey were a bite of heaven. Last, we were served a small cup of ice cream with brandied plum and a dash of cognac. The meal alone made this outing worth every minute, not to mention we saw a truffe agriculteur in action.

Most Memorable: Edouard and Carole’s generous hospitality made this day one of the more exceptional of the trip. And while it was not the last time we encountered oeufs brouillés, it was the best.

Le Parc Franck Putelat – Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The walled city of Carcassonne.

The Setup: We ate many incredible meals in France, but Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne featured one of the top pedigrees. Putelat is a Bocuse D’Argent winner. His restaurant, a recipient of two Michelin stars, is a sleek, modern establishment at the foot of the beautiful walled old city. The muted earth tones and clean lines of the warmly lighted dining room contrasted perfectly with the adventurous dishes that emerged from the kitchen.

Bob, the senior omnivore of our party, ventured boldly through the menu, choosing the “Action Reaction,” a nine-course dégustation that showcased the chef’s latest inspirations. The rest of us opted for the six-course “Emotion,” our first real attempt at restraint on this vacation.

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup topped with a cheese crisp.

Empty Plate

Le Empty Plate.

The Feast: The meal started with beautiful foie-gras-laced bites, including savory foie gras macaroons. A rich, creamy pumpkin velouté followed, served in a gourd capped with a lacy cheese crisp. Whenever Bob received a dish that was not included in the shorter menu, his tablemates were served empty plates over which they salivated until the Smartest Guy in the Room finished, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Everyone’s plates were then whisked away.

IMG_1056

Pink duck breast and duck terrine.

The entrée for the table was duck breast, pink and perfectly tender. That was followed by a cheese cart laden with more than 40 varieties. From the cart the steward drew out hidden compartments to reveal additional aromatic selections, while diners at a neighboring table shielded their noses from the vapor drifting across the room.

It was in the course of this five-hour marathon that we were introduced to the concept of pre-dessert — that is, the warm-up dessert before the main desserts. (Yes, plural.) The pre-dessert was no smaller or less significant than the desserts that followed, just an addition to them. God, France is a beautiful place.

desserts

Pre-dessert (left), dessert (top right), post dessert (bottom right). Glorious.

Most Memorable: More than a delectable meal, Le Parc gave us the empty plate and the pre-dessert, two unforgettable but starkly conflicting concepts. I’ll also remember the nod of deference Le Parc’s silver-pinned sommelier proffered when he noticed the golden cluster on Kelly’s lapel. Not wanting or expecting any special treatment, Kelly was embarrassed — he had meant to remove his pin, which signifies his status. As far as we were concerned, it’s always good to have friends in high places.

Dinner photoAll things in moderation.

Wise counsel, unless you find yourself traveling through France in November, when the chill whets the appetite for hearty food and rich wine, and temptation lurks around every corner. Food and drink abound. Moderation usually is absent from the menu.

So how to summarize two weeks of gluttony? On a side trip out of Sarlat, we visited La Combe aux Oies, a family-owned organic goose farm and small-batch foie gras producer. There we made the acquaintance of a gaggle of astonishingly handsome geese undergoing the stage of the foie gras process known as the “gavage,” the 15- to 18-day tube feeding that enlarges the animal’s liver in preparation for harvest. In those plump birds we recognized ourselves, except that the force-feeding we endured was tube-free and wholly self-induced. Afterward, “gavage” was our mealtime exclamation, and the foie goose, which gives its all for sustenance and pleasure, became the emblem of our journey.

Photo by James Walton

Keeping watch at La Combe aux Oies.

And an improbable journey it was: that rare convergence of adventurous, generous, often hilarious travel companions and an itinerary bursting with gorgeous landscapes, knowledgeable guides, historic sites, memorable characters and, of course, unforgettable meals.

A couple of caveats: The posts that follow represent the most memorable meals and moments of our trip, with a few exceptions. Because of an untimely cold, I missed three knockout dinners. And of the feasts I did attend, the astonishing amount of food seven people can order makes it nearly impossible to recount everything, though I try to describe as much as possible.

Voila le gavage.

La Brasserie Bordelaise – Bordeaux

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

 The Setup: The six of us arrived in Bordeaux on an overcast Friday afternoon, our luggage intact and our dispositions only slightly worse for the journey — we were a little tired and a lot thirsty. Kelly Mc Aulliffe, wine expert, translator, guide, chauffeur and fearless ringleader, retrieved us from the airport and ferried us into the the city to the Regent Grand Hotel. Our rooms were not available yet, so Kelly — a French-trained American sommelier who lives and works in France, a rarity — herded us out into the crowded cobblestone streets in search of a bottle and a bite to eat. Muddled as we were by jetlag, it was all he could do to keep us assembled, but after a short search he found a table for seven at Brasserie Bordelaise. We squeezed ourselves in alongside a table on which reclined an entire cured leg of pig from which the wait staff was shaving and serving thin slices, and l’hédonisme officially began.

The Feast: Not wanting to spoil dinner, we ordered a few “light” snacks, highlights of which were a delicately sweet, tangy steak tartare, and ribbons of the aforementioned jambon Bellota pata negra, salty and so tender they nearly dissolved in the mouth. It was at Brasserie Bordelaise that Monsieur Professeur Mc Auliffe’s wine instruction commenced in the form of a bright Sancerre, a Pouilly-Fuisse and then a Vouvray. We sipped, compared, contrasted, nibbled and chatted away two or three hours before the fog of weariness began to close in.

Most Memorable: The tartare was the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve been craving it ever since, but it’s the ham that haunts us still. It was a perfect way to ease into our trip.

La Tupina – Bordeaux

Jumpy

Le royal ride.

 The Setup: After a much-needed nap, we all piled into the Jumpy — the sporty Citroen nine-seater that would be our carriage for the next two weeks — and Kelly drove through the evening drizzle to La Tupina, a renowned bistro tucked down one of the side streets off the Garonne River esplanade. Inside, we were greeted by a bright display of autumn vegetables and the heady aroma of offal and other delectables sizzling in the hearth where much of the cooking is done. The establishment appeared to have once been a residence, giving it a rustic hominess. Our large round table in the corner of the dining room (nee living room?) accommodated us and the conversation nicely.

La Tupina

Coddled egg, foie gras.

The Feast: I started with coddled egg and foie gras served in a petite cocotte with a side of toast. Light and decadent all at once. For the table, Dorothy splurged on caviar, a festive opening to our first dinner in France. James and Zandra started with duck carpaccio. For entrees, Jeff and Bob had the house specialty: tripe with ceps (porcino mushrooms), a rich stew served tableside from a Dutch oven. I had a simple but perfectly pink duck breast topped with lardons, and a side of duck-fat fries.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

More wine, of course, with a focus on reds, and Kelly expounded on the art and science of wine tasting (and here we thought we were already experts). First consider the color and the depth of color; swirl the wine and stuff your nose inside the glass for a good whiff, trying to pull out the characteristics (floral? fruity? earthy? mineral? animal?). Taste the wine — is it fruity? Acidic? Minerally? Assess its texture and its length. Then go through the process again. And again. More wine, more food, more talk, and by the end we were bursting — a recurring theme.

Most Memorable: Well, first, the food. That coddled egg and foie gras, to be specific. But aside from the food, the best thing about La Tupina was our lovely and gracious server, a petite French twentysomething with a sweet disposition and a future in wine stewardship. She, as much as the meal, made this a memorable evening.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – Bordeaux

The Setup: The following morning, a gray, drizzly day of wine tasting began with a tour of a beautiful chateau, our first. Our host at Smith Haut Lafitte began by describing the surrounding vineyards from an upper deck of the complex, then led us down to the aging room, with its stacks and rows of oak barrels and the now-familiar aroma, a heady, damp mixture of wine and wood. Deeper into the chateau we went, to the fermentation room with its gargantuan oak vats, and on through another, larger barrel-aging chamber, before ascending to the ground floor. We toured the cooperage, the workshop where the wine barrels are made, where the oak is carefully chosen and cut into planks before being banded and fired. As wine ages in the barrels, the oak imparts its characteristics of toast and vanilla, flavors whose intensity depends on the length of time in the container, how long a barrel is fired and whether it’s new or being reused.

Barrels

Smith Haut Lafitte’s massive aging cave.

It was fascinating to learn about the many components of viticulture and winemaking — the soil, the weather conditions, the yeasts, new barrels vs. used barrels, the methods of pigeage — that is, pushing down into the juice the sturdy “cap” of grape skins and other solids that rise to the surface during fermentation (or, alternatively, pumping the juice over the cap). The solids impart tannins.

The morning culminated with a tasting. After a sample or two or three in the bright tasting room, the guide pressed a button. A James Bond-worthy trapdoor hummed as it opened in the floor to reveal a staircase descending to an underground cellar and tasting room, where we finished the tour.

Tasting room

Hidden tasting room.

Lamb Terrine

Lamb terrine and eggplant puree.

 The Feast: Lunch followed at the estate’s homey restaurant near a crackling fireplace: frothy pumpkin soup; tender lamb terrine accompanied by a reduced jus and pureed eggplant; roasted hake over mashed potatoes; flaky white sea bream filet over tender leeks and a butter wine sauce. Paradis.

 Most Memorable: Lunch was delicious, especially that lamb terrine, but it was the 007-style hidden tasting room that stole the afternoon.

Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.