Saturday, July 16, 2011
Paris Food Coma Part 3 - A Tale of Two Hotel Rooms
I toy with the notion of snapping a picture of her, just to prove my point, but somehow I hold back with the assumption that she expects me to do it. My mind, after two hours of sleep and several days of being intoxicated, begins to spin a yarn about her sordid past. I imagine her complaining, in English but with a thick French accent, to her equally gorgeous friends about all of the controlling men who take photos of her after trying to solicit her for sex. She begins weeping and is "consoled" by three eager women who--
I am abruptly torn away from the land of make-believe by the sound of Joel’s car door slamming shut. We have arrived at Pierre Gimmonet, our final appointment in Champagne before making our way back to Paris. We are greeted warmly at the door, and informed that Didier, the winemaker, is currently on his way back from the vineyards and that we should make ourselves at home in the living room.
A little background on Didier Gimmonet - He is very well respected amongst grower producers throughout Champagne, with his oldest vineyards located in Cuis, Cramant, and Choiully – which all within the Cote des Blancs AOC. He almost exclusively grows and is a master of the Chardonnay grape, producing wines that are, according to importer and guru Terry Theise, “Suave, creamy, and refined, with a soft minerality dispersed throughout the fruit.”
As Didier arrives, he immediately apologizes to Joel and I for being late, even though he is all of three minutes so. He is quite proficient with his English, not to mention very friendly, urging us to sit down as he prepares to pop corks on what looks to be eight bottles of wine. We begin with the Brut NV, and he discusses the expression of the house and of its vineyards, and what he considers to be characteristics of great Champagne.
Joel begins with good intentions, taking two sips and dumping the rest into the spit bucket that Didier has provided. By the second glass, however, it becomes apparent that pacing is a lost cause and the bucket is forgotten about.
Throughout the next two hours we work our way through each of his different cuvees. He is fascinating to listen to, and I find myself hanging on his every word trying not to miss anything. He prefers to pick his Chardonnay grapes before they become too ripe, encouraging the signature “minerality” that his wines are known for. He pulls out a bottle that is unmarked, with exception of the word “Paradoxe” handwritten on it. One of the very few wines he makes with Pinot Noir, it is a rich and fruity style that I like to call a "breakfast quaffer." After all, what goes better with Ho Cakes than Champagne?
The 2002 Millesime de Collection, Special Club Brut is the hands down favorite for Joel and I. 2002 was amazing vintage to begin with, and despite consuming quite a but of bubbly thus far, this wine stands out as superlative, with bracingly fresh acidity complimented by creamy layers of toast and apples.
Though we are having an amazing time, and starting to get a smidge fucked up all over again, Joel and I regretfully inform Didier that we must catch a train back to Paris. Though he seems mildly disappointed that we must depart so abruptly, he happily arranges our taxi service to the train station. While we wait I request to purchase a bottle of the 2002 Special Club Brut, and as I attempt to pay him he dismisses my gesture with a wave of his hand.
“A gift, to thank you for selling my wine” he says, smilingly.
On the way to the station I reflect on this leg of the journey, concluding that I now feel more connected to the wines that I have been drinking for such a long time. It all started about 12 years ago, while I was living in Chicago, on a massive shopping spree for booze with a few of my friends who worked as sommeliers. While passing through the Champagne section, I picked up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Gold Label, prompting instruction from one of my friends to “Put that shit back.” I was informed of an importer named Terry Theise, who was bringing in Champagnes that were made like “real wine,” and advised to look for his name on the back label to insure a proper drinking experience. I still follow that advice to this day..
Here are the reasons, according to Theise, why you should put down the generic Ca-Ca and start slamming "farmer-fizz:"
You should drink grower Champagne if you’ve forgotten that Champagne is WINE.
You should drink “farmer-fizz” if you’d rather buy Champagne from a farmer than a factory.
You should drink it if you’d rather have a wine expressive of vineyard, and the grower’s own connection to vineyard, than a wine “formed” by a marketing swami who’s studied in the nth-degree what you can be persuaded to “consume.” Do you really want to be reduced to a mere “consumer” when you can drink Champagne like a whole human being?
You should drink grower Champagne if the individually distinctive flavors of terroir-driven wines matter more than the lowest-common denominator pap served up by the mega conglomerates in the “luxury goods business.”
You should drink it because it’s price is honestly based on what is costs to produce, not manipulated to account for massive PR and ad budgets, or to hold on to market-share.
If you’d rather eat a local field-ripened summer tomato rapturous with sweetness instead of some hard as a stone January tomato you buy at the supermarket and tastes of nothing, than you should be drinking farmer-fizz!
Back at the Epernay train station, Joel repeatedly marches us up and down several flights of stairs, claiming the whole time that he knows "where the fuck we are supposed to get our train." By the time we reach the correct platform, I'm sweating and feeling as if I'm "on the threshold of Hell." In my defense, we have accumulated a fair amount of Champagne, adding greatly to the weight of our baggage, not to mention forcing me to question the wisdom of packing so many goddamn pairs of shoes. Once we are boarded, the “Tranny Boss” passes out immediately, leaving me to focus on my breathing and resist the urge to “lighten our load” by drinking one of the many bottles that we have in tow.
After returning to Paris, we cab it across town to Montparnasse station, where we will catch a train west to the city of Tours, our destination for the next two evenings. While approaching the bathroom at the station, I find it odd that each restroom-goer seems to be checking in with an attendant, a very assertive black woman in her late 40’s, on the way in. Of course, I think nothing of it and strut right on by, to which I am greeted with a very loud and abrasive “MONSIEUR!?” As I turn to face her, the attendant points to a pile of coins in front of her, implying that I must pay to relieve myself. Though this concept is foreign to me, I think nothing of it, pay the 50 cents, and leave. On my way out, I also think nothing of turning and snapping a picture of the line heading in towards the attendant, to illustrate how i'd added "a 50 cent piss" to my ever growing list of life experiences.
About a split second after doing this, I am also able to add "have crazy bathroom attendant flip the fuck out on you" to that same list. She points at me in an accusatory fashion, as If I'd snuck in and photographed someone's genitalia, though all I actually did was take a photo of the bathroom from 50 feet away. After being embarrassed, not to mention startled so the shot was completely ruined, I am left with no option but to laugh in the attendant's face while slipping my camera into a front pocket. She appears confused, but calms down and business resumes as usual, until I see a security guard coming my way. "Unfuckingbelievable," I mumble to myself as I prepare to somehow explain in English about how amusing I find their "pay-to-pee" system. The guard, however, walks right past me and gets in line to use the water closet like everyone else. I struggle with the urge to take a photo of him, but finally discourage this action based on the fact that my initial shot of the bathroom attendant had been ruined, thereby negating the importance of the second picture.
All of this criminal activity has left me completely famished, so we settle down for lunch in a random cafe at the station. We are seated in booths fashioned out of bright orange plastic, while being waited on by a goofy, yet efficient man who ever so slightly resembles Ted Nugent. My ham steak with Madeira sauce is decent, served atop a mountain of fries. Joel’s “pot pie with duck,” however, is pretty fantastic. This asshole has out-ordered me twice in a row now, and I secretly vow, while choking down two insanely skunky Heinekens, to step up my game.
Before boarding our train, I notice a kiosk hawking "Zuma Juice." Further investigation reveals the French version of "Jamba Juice," and I am immediately drawn to what appears to be a drink custom designed for the two of us, called "Detoxe." This concoction of mostly ginger, apple, and cucumber is both satisfying and refreshing, and after taking down one of the "Mega" sizes, in practically one gulp, my stomach is settled and prepared for the long journey that lay ahead.
The beautiful farmhouses and rolling hills of the French countryside lull me into a very pleasant, though brief, slumber on the lightning fast train ride to Tours.
Upon arrival, we lug our heavy bags towards what we perceive to be the taxi stand before agreeing to take turns using the restroom, not knowing that said restroom doesn't actually exist within the train station. This aggravating little detail is coupled with the frustration of not being able to figure out where the frigg we are actually supposed to stand to hail one of the infrequent-at-best cabs. Joel fights the urge to use the bathroom at a nearby McDonald's, saying that he vowed not to set foot in anyplace like that during the entire trip. Strong values do nothing to improve his condition, however, and by the time we get a cab fifteen minutes later he looks to be in a fair amount of discomfort. When I inform the driver of our hotel's address, he needs to consult a map - not a good sign.
At this time I would like to explain how the fuck this all happened. About a week prior to the trip, I finally received confirmation for our appointments at wineries in both Saumur and Vouvray. I was aware that the city of Tours would be a perfect base of operations to access vineyards all over the Loire Valley, but wanted to be sure of our plans before booking a hotel.
My first choice, the Hotel L’Universe, is randomly booked solid for both nights that I request on the website. Further online searching reveals limited options, so I settle on the Etap hotel, based on it’s consistently five star ratings on Trip Advisor, and that the pictures make it look modern and clean. According to the website, our room is “perfect for three people,” featuring “two and a half beds.” Unlike the rest of our lodging choices, it is very reasonably priced, which I’ll admit made me a little nervous, but who knows? Maybe I’d stumbled on to a hidden gem!
After about ten minutes in the taxi, it becomes glaringly apparent that we are heading towards the outskirts of the city. Seven minutes later, we find ourselves in “North Tours,” which is not unlike the Maine Mall area. We pass a few car dealerships and a Kentucky Fried Chicken before arriving at the Etap, a seemingly ideal venue for a motivational business seminar.
Check-in confirms my suspicions about the Etap, or as it would be referred to from this point on, IKEA. Upon seeing our quarters, I begin to question the array of substances being abused by whoever coined the phrase “perfect for three people.” The "half bed" is actually a fucking bunk bed, and the decor very much resembles what I imagine a Swedish prison to be like.
Due to being on the verge of bladder explosion, Joel says very little until he is given the opportunity to use the magic water closet. Once he is back to normal, it takes us each about 3 minutes to decide that IKEA will become our storage unit for the evening, and begin searching for a more comfortable spot to lay our heads in downtown Tours.
After I damage the arches of my feet attempting to climb into the bunk bed for a photo op, we pack up, bid adieu to IKEA, and cab it back downtown. Upon seeing our new digs, the Hotel Mondial, our decision to get a second room is immediately justified.
Boasting a much better location and no sign of any furnishings from the Fjellse or Leirvik series, the Mondial is much more conducive to what we're trying to accomplish in Tours. The concierge is quite helpful, and not only does he give us several recommendations for dinner, but also prompts Joel and I to ask the age-old question, "Gay or European?"
After getting settled for the second time today, we head out to get the lay of the land. My advice to anyone planning on traveling in France: don't assume that anything will be open between two and five in the afternoon. This is an ideal time for you to catch up on sleep, make expensive phone calls, raid the mini-bar, or play Angry Birds. We roam around for a couple of hours, before I deem it necessary to balance out the exercise with alcohol.
Because we’ve still got about an hour before anything opens for dinner, we duck into a small bar to kill some time. I fire up a couple of large Kronenbourgs, despite the fact that, for a small neighborhood establishment, they have a fairly extensive selection of wines from the Loire Valley. The place is empty, save for a single, crazy looking old man hunched over his beer. After finishing our drinks, Joel steps outside to make a phone call while I settle the tab.
The man, motionless until this moment, perks up when he hears the rustling of cash in my pocket. I’ve recently been to the ATM, and he glances at me just as I pull out a sizeable stack of euros. I see his eyes widen, and he looks me up and down a couple of times, but then faces back to his beer with a defeated look in his eyes. I can only assume that he was thinking “Man, if this were twenty years ago I’d have beaten this fat fuck within an inch of his life and spent all of that money in a whorehouse.”
After crushing the spirit of an already broken eighty year-old man, I feel much better about myself and realize, with great excitement, that it is finally time for dinner. The concierge’s first recommendation is closed for a staff party, so we hoof it across town to Le Turon, a tiny bistro nestled in an alley teeming with bars and restaurants. The dining room is quite busy, a good sign, though we are able to get a table without much of a wait.
The first order of business is an ice-cold bottle of Alexander Monmousseau Vouvray “Turonien,” a crisp and refreshing white produced about forty five minutes away. Our server, a very tall and pretty blonde woman in her early thirties, appears to, as Joel points out when she leaves the table, be instantly enamored with me. My first thought in response to this is, “Yes – I am both exotic and pleasing to these people,” though the more realistic response would be that my enthusiasm with the food and booze are probably a little contagious.
Only a complete shithead wouldn't be enthusiastic about my first course, soft poached eggs with slabs of foie gras, served over crusty baguette. I’m confident that no explanation is necessary for you to imagine how good this is. Joel starts with a salad, topped with chicken gizzards and smoked duck. It would appear that our Euro/Gay concierge knows what he is talking about...
The Vouvray is almost kicked, so a bottle of Chateau de La Grille Chinon Reserve strikes me as a reasonable transition. This excites the pretty server, whom we now find out is the bistro’s owner, and while pouring the wine she goes on about her love of Cabernet Franc – almost to the point where I start expecting her to hug me. I look across the table and Joel is making a look that implies “I don’t know what you’ve done, but she LOVES you.”
There’s nothing not to love about the next course, a salad with thick, smoky slices of bacon and crispy parcels of creamy goat cheese, or as the menu translates into English, “crusty farm goat cheese.” Shortly after, While making my way towards the restroom, I am flagged down by the pretty owner, who inquires if I’m enjoying everything thus far. Robbed of my ability to properly communicate, I express my enthusiasm with a simple “tres bien,” but I also throw a “fuckin” in there, just for good measure. It turns out that she can speak a fair amount of English, though she claims that I talk “much too fast” for her to properly understand. I introduce myself, and when she tells me her name I hear the word “kirsch.” In an effort to get it right rather than just mumbling what I thought I’d heard back at her, I ask how her name is spelled, to which she replies “C-T-S-R-K.” Not wanting to cause any more confusion, I nod as if this word makes a lick of fucking sense, thank her, and return to the table. I inform Joel of what has just taken place, and we decide that nicknaming her "Ke$ha" will keep things simple for everyone.
Joel’s “seven hour lamb” entree is, without a doubt, the most tender and delicious lamb I’ve ever tasted, and it melts away at the touch of a fork. My duck breast with figs is also outstanding, but the lamb is simply unforgettable. Each is served with a side of potatoes and carrots, seasoned perfectly with a strong flavor of cumin. Both entrees elevate the flavor of the wine and vice versa.
Dessert happens in three stages for me, the first being a glass of Vouvray Moelleux, one of the sweeter incarnations of the Chenin Blanc grape. This is followed by apple crumble with salted caramel butter ice cream, whereas Joel opts for the pear tart. I find yet another amusing English translation on the dessert menu, when they refer to the creme brulée as “burned cream with flavors of the moment.”
Though they don't stock any Absinthe, Ke$ha informs me that they do have a large selection of Armagnac. I put my fate in her hands, and, as expected, I am not disappointed. While Joel goes outside to smoke, I sip my Armagnac and chat with her again, this time explaining that I work in the wine business, and that tomorrow we will be visiting wineries in Saumur. This gets lost in translation, and somehow she hears “I’d like to come back again for dinner tomorrow night,” to which she excitedly nods her head and asks what time I will be in. I decide to roll with it and tell her that nine O' clock will be perfect. She promises that when we return, she will have procured a bottle of Absinthe for me to drink and keep for myself. When Joel returns I explain to him that we will, in fact, be returning for dinner tomorrow night. We jokingly refer to Le Turon as “Our Place."
We thank Ke$ha and head out in search of more drinks, but it appears that the entire city is getting ready to shut down, despite the fact that it is only midnight. Within fifteen minutes, everything has gone dark around us. I’m getting used to this by now, so we shrug it off, take a few more obligatory church pictures, and head back to the hotel.
Once again, France does the work of regulating my consumption for me, and once again I have to admit it’s not so bad. Tomorrow we go to the wine-growing region of Saumur, followed by another night in Tours. I must not underestimate the importance of sleep..