Monday, June 27, 2011

Paris Food Coma: Part One

As I sat in front of my computer drunkenly listening to the Opeth, a Swedish band that could be described as the "Pink Floyd of Death Metal," on a random evening in July of 2010, I became curious if they were going to be on tour anytime in the near future. The band’s website showed a single date, in Clisson, France, in June 2011. Further investigation revealed that this was part of a three day festival called “Hellfest,” featuring 114 bands including Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, The Cult, Iggy Pop, Mayhem, Rob Zombie, and many others.

The gears start turning in my head and I phone my friend Joel, also a big fan of Opeth, with the assumption that if anyone would be up for a ridiculous excursion thousands of miles away, it would be him. He agrees without any hesitation whatsoever, and we buy tickets for all three days the minute they go on sale a week later. Now the stage is set to build a vacation around the show, spending time in Paris, hanging out with winemakers in the Loire Valley, all the while eating and drinking as if it were our job. Well, it actually is my job.

Because it was planned so far in advance, I keep assuming that the trip isn't actually going to happen. I continue to expect something to fall through, something to go wrong, and call the entire thing off. Only after actually getting off of the plane, in Paris, did I accept that it was, in fact, officially on.

When the day of departure finally arrives, it’s a little bit surreal. We decide to take my preferred method of transportation, the Concord Trailways bus, to Boston. It’s always comfortable and one can always rely on being exposed to a horrible movie that, if viewed at home, would be shut off and tossed out the window about five minutes in.

We toast with a glass of Nieport 10 Year tawny port before Dietz drives us to the bus station. Knowing that I won’t be behind the wheel of an automobile for ten days is comforting, though a little dangerous as having to drive my car is one of the few things that keep me “in line.”

While we are loading up the car, Joel complains about forgetting to procure any Valium for the flight that lay ahead, grumbling that someone had given him three 1mg tabs of Ativan but that “just wasn’t the same.”

When we arrive at the bus station, I hit the vending machines to for provisions. In a fit of nostalgia I purchase a bag of Cracker Jacks, which I don’t think I’ve had for over a decade. I may have had Poppycock or other brands of caramel corn, but not Cracker Jacks. Apparently, the CJ people are experiencing hard times because, as a child, I remember the “toy” in the bottom of the box to be far more exciting than a fucking “pencil topper.” This piece of shit, clearly designed by a cheap scumbag, would hardly keep a retarded cat entertained for 15 seconds.

Once we are safely seated on the bus, I try to “re-gift” my new pencil topper to Joel, as a symbol of friendship before we start our epic journey together. He, of course, rejects my offering by throwing it back in my face and putting his headphones on.

The outrageously awful film for this particular ride would be “Tron: Legacy,” sequel to Disney’s 1982 techno-thriller, “Tron.” This “straight to Concord Trailways” disaster features the return of Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a rogue programmer who created an alternate dimension where people whittle away their time by indulging in deadly games of disc golf or zipping around on equally deadly motorcycles. I get about fifteen minutes in with audio before I’m forced to remove my headphones and watch the film with no sound, making up my own plot, which I’m confident is infinitely more interesting.

Upon arrival at Logan we check our bags and proceed to the terminal, assuming we’ll have at least a few options for dinner and drinks. Dietz had mentioned the possibility of a Legal Seafoods, and I figure that Todd English must have an eatery close to every gate at this point. As it turns out, there is only once choice – a sad looking resto-pub called “O’Briens.”

“Don't get bent out of shape, there's going to be plenty of time for passable food and booze once we’re in France,” I think to myself. Once we are seated, we become foolishly set on drinking red wine when cocktails and beer are clearly the more prudent choice. I order a bottle of Mirassou Pinot Noir, based solely on the fact that, well, looking back I have no idea what the fuck I was thinking.

According to Mirassou’s website:

Our Mirassou California Pinot Noir displays fresh fruit flavors of pomegranates, cherries and currants with complementing aromas of strawberries, pomegranates and cherries. This wine is at its best if enjoyed within a year of release, but can age in the bottle for up to three years if carefully cellared.

According to Me:

This wine displays about as much fresh fruit flavor as a Hall’s Cherry Flavored Coughdrop. It has extremely unpleasant, almost chemically, notes that cause the user to immediately recoil in horror upon tasting. The only reason to “carefully cellar” this abomination for three years would be to avoid having to drink it, praying for an earthquake to strike, knocking over the bottle and destroying it forever.

To pair up with our “wine,” I order Buffalo wings and onion soup (which arrives with what appears to be an egg floating on top but is actually just a strange crouton), while Joel decides on fish and chips. Though the food is not as bad as the “wine,” I begin to realize that if our plane were to crash, this would be my last meal. To put this awful thought out of my head, I order another bottle, this time a cheap but far more palatable Malbec.

A few beers and a shot of Jack Daniels later, we are ready to board our flight. After a very smooth takeoff, dinner is served. This proves to be one of the better airline meals I’ve had, featuring an appetizer of curried orzo with chicken, followed by beef with mashed potatoes and wild mushrooms. The simple vin de pays Merlot, served in 187ml bottles, tastes like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild compared to the Mirassou from earlier.

About halfway through the flight, Joel begins acting a little strange and stand-offish. Since I’d never flown with him before, I just assume that this was they way he gets and think nothing of it. Even after six mini bottles of wine, I am unable, as always, to sleep on the plane. At one point I get adventurous out of sheer boredom and try to sneak into business class in the middle of the night, which lasts all of 3 seconds before I am promptly shooed back to my assigned seat.

By the time we land in Paris, Joel has been knocked out for about 5 hours. After going through customs, he immediately rushes to the bathroom and vomits. It is after this that he informs me of his un-wise decision, being unfamiliar with the potency of the drug, to take all 3 of the Ativan he had brought with him. He claims to only have eaten 2 originally, but apparently the third was occupying a needed compartment in his contact lens case, so, you know.

Though I’m completely exhausted and still a little bit drunk, I’m in a much better state than “Ativan Beauchamp” to make decisions and get us to our hotel. Luckily, we’d commandeered a Mercedes with an English-speaking driver to meet us at baggage claim, so our exit strategy is already mapped out. To amuse myself on the drive to the hotel, I point out landmarks, such as the Arc de Triomphe, to Joel, just to watch him nod and act like he knows where the fuck he was. Trust me, I was worried about him at one point, but the worst looked to be over and he just needed rest.

Of course the Le Bellechasse Saint-Germain, designed by Christian Lacroix, is the only hotel we have booked under Joel’s name. Check-in appears to be going smoothly until I notice Joel, still in a daze, fumbling through his bag, while his passport, which I presume he is searching for, hangs out of his back pocket. Upon pointing this out, check-out proceeds, and we are almost out of the lobby to get some fresh air without further incident when a British girl seated on one of the couches points out how much she likes Joel’s bag, asking where he got it.

“This bag?” Joel turns to face her, staring her down for what felt like five minutes, “I got this bag in the United States. In Maine. In the United States.” There is yet another uncomfortable pause before I usher him outside, leaving the poor girl freaked out and regretting her curiosity. It was still early and our room wasn’t quite ready yet, so we decide to wander around and get lunch.

French people love sidewalk cafes, and every city we visit is filled with cookie-cutter brasseries that all seem to have the exact same menu. Personally, I hate eating outside, but Joel was definitely in need of fresh air so I figure it is a better choice.

Service in France takes some getting used to. In the beginning, usually when you are quite hungry, it takes a long time for anyone to come to your table. When they do, it is to get your drink order, regardless of whether you’re ready to order your entire meal. You can be a pushy American and insist on ordering everything at once if you’d like, but it’s best to just roll with it and learn to be patient (god forbid).

Once you finally have drinks and order your meal, everything arrives in a perfectly timed, un-rushed, manner. Once finished, you should politely ask for the check rather than assuming it is en route just because the table is cleared. By law, the service charge is automatically added on to every bill, but this shouldn’t stop you from tipping a little more than the locals do, or, in some cases, a lot more. This somehow makes me feel better after being stiffed on the tip by Europeans time and time again in America, knowing that I'm that much more justified to "slap on the auto-gratuity."

Americans often complain about tipping, claiming that it isn’t their responsibility to pay the servers salary, and that this should fall on the restaurant’s shoulders. I would like to remind these people that in many circumstances, the fact that they are tipping the server is the only reason anyone is even attempting to be cordial and give good service. Without the tip, there is no motivation to put up with your bullshit, so good luck with that...

The transition into speaking French is a bit of a rough one, but through pointing and nodding we manage to order a bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte brut NV, steak frites (an easy go-to when in doubt), and salade Nicoise. Joel is still in a daze so I end up drinking most of the Champagne myself, and after a passable lunch we walk back towards the hotel. I insist on making a pit stop to purchase more bubbly, this time a bottle of Ruinart Brut NV.

The room turns out to be quite comfortable, and Joel promptly goes to sleep while I investigate the amenities. The shower is particularly exciting, with water coming at you from three angles all at once. I open the bottle of Champagne and start to unwind and unpack, only to discover that I’d foolishly forgotten to put my bottle of shampoo in a plastic bag. The next 45 minutes are spent rinsing off various toiletries, while attempting to avoid getting soap in my glass of wine.

Once the shampoo-tastrophe is dealt with, I take a much-needed nap before we head out for dinner. Based on the assumption that I’d be eating nothing but rustic French food for the next week, I’d planned on going to a Vietnamese restaurant called Than Din, known also for it’s extensive selection of Burgundy. Unfortunately, it is closed on Sundays, so we decide to wander around in the rain searching for an alternative, until Joel recalls a recommendation he had received back home.

It turns out that Le Comptoir, a busy higher-end bistro located in the Hotel Relais Saint Germain, is not far from our hotel. There is a decent sized line going out the door, a good sign, and after about twenty minutes of waiting patiently we are seated at an awkward sidewalk table. As the rain slides down our umbrella and directly on to my back, I start to get a little grumpy but assure myself that I just needed a drink and everything would be fine.

After what feels like three hours, but is in fact only ten minutes, our server arrives to take our order. I decide to splurge and fire up a bottle of Didier Dagueneau “Pur Sang,” probably one of the best examples of Pouilly Fume I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Sadly, Dagueneau was killed in a plane crash in 2008, so anytime you have the opportunity to drink his wines you should do so, regardless of the price. The best way I can describe Pur Sang would be that it is fairly rich for Sauvignon Blanc, with vivid flavors of limestone and a finish that is somehow both sweet and tart.

This seems to impress our server because we are immediately offered a much better table located inside the restaurant and out of the rain. Once situated, I am able to focus on my game plan. I order a bottle of Vacqueryras from Chateau Des Tours, one of my favorite producers in the Rhone Valley, to send the message that we intend to do some serious drinking. Neighboring diners become fascinated by us and the amount of wine we begin to amass on our table, and they can't figure out why these two crazy looking, heavily tattooed assholes are getting so much attention.

My first course is lobster bisque, which would seem like an odd choice after travelling from Maine but sounded really good to me at the time. It is creamy and sweet, with a nice briny flavor from the coral. The only complaint I have is the presence of grape tomatoes, which I personally loathe as a garnish. Why does every restaurant in the world insist on tossing these little fuckers on everything?

Joel’s chicken terrine with artichoke has a velvety texture and wonderful flavor, which turns out to be spot-on with the Pur Sang. We pour some of the wine for our sever, who fawns over it, proclaiming it to be “perfect.”

Next up for me is boudin noir, blood sausage, served with béarnaise sauce and an apple salad, something I could be happy eating just about every day of my life. The boudin is perfectly spiced, and damn near perfect alongside the crunchy apples, landing this dish on my “best of” list for the trip. Joel’s salad of haricot verts, artichokes, and foie gras, which in his mind probably sounded like a "healthy choice," seems to me to be fairly similar to his prior course, but is delicious all the same.

At this point Joel and I discuss, at length, how sad it is that most Americans would find boudin noir to be appalling, but will happily shovel Cooler Ranch Doritos or Chicken McNuggets into their mouth, even though these foods contain ingredients that are far more fucked up than a little pig's blood. These are the same people who can't deal with seeing a fish with it's head on, love their meat well done, only eat chicken breast, and probably plow through tubs of Country Crock Shed's Spread instead of using real butter.

We switch to the red wine as the main courses arrive, mine being a braised veal dish served over white beans. It is rich and fatty, and reminds me very much of Cassoulet. Joel’s leg of rabbit is cooked perfectly, showcasing the flavor of the animal, and served atop peperonata. Both pair up brilliantly with the flavor profile of the Des Tours, which almost reminds me a little bit of Dr. Pepper, in a good way.

As we finish our Vacqueyras, our server brings us two glasses of a sweet sparkling wine reminiscent of Lambrusco, on the house. We keep it simple with dessert and order the crème brulée, and the kitchen sends out an additional dessert of Armagnac cream with orange peel, also bruléed, which, looking back, I would have been quite disappointed to miss.

A glass of absinthe, prepared in the traditional manner, seals the deal for me, and we depart very happy and very sated. There is something to be said for wandering around Paris in this almost dreamlike state, imagining all of the things that have taken place on these very streets. Due to it being Sunday night, it is strangely quiet, and at one point we are scolded from a random balcony for being too loud. After an hour we end up back at the hotel and order a highly unnecessary bottle of Lanson Champagne from room service. In the morning we leave for the town of Ay, in Champagne, to meet up with a few of the grower producers I represent, so I figure that it's nice to have one last example of a mediocre offering just to prove how much better it can get.

We have survived the journey and the first day, and have a very full week ahead of us that will range from vineyards and small farms to cities to an outdoor metal festival with 80,000 people in attendance. Hell yeah.