Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Paris Food Coma Part 5 - Joel's Playpen

It's as if French people have never witnessed a large bear-of-a-hungover-man barrel out of an elevator, and in a frenzy of curly hair and tattoos, purchase eight bottles of water from a vending machine. This is how I interpret the "deer in the headlights" stares I receive as I do just that.

Normally, I am always prepared with several bottles of water in the room, but after swimming in a sea of Absinthe last night, I have failed miserably at my routine. Upon opening my eyes to the new day, I am greeted with the sensation that I may have been eating both cotton candy and tree bark throughout the night. Water must happen, even if it is at the cost of whatever shred of dignity I may have had a chance at attaining with the terrified onlookers.

And so today begins, with the first crippling hangover of the journey thus far. After hammering down seven of the eight purchased bottles of Vittel mineral water and slowly consuming a Snickers bar, my process of recovery begins, and we gather up our belongings in preparation for departure. During check out, I consider informing the front desk person about the glory hole in our shower, but think better of it based on the fact that I don't know to explain this concept in French - or Swedish.

Joel is fighting off a significant hangover of his own as we wait in the parking lot of IKEA for our Taxi to the wine growing region of Vouvray. Today we have an appointment with Laurent Kraft, winemaker at Domaine des Lauriers, though after yesterday's farm adventure I'm not quite sure what to expect.

For those unfamiliar with Vouvray, here is little background information taken from The New France by Andrew Jeffords:

The two great white wine vineyard areas of Touraine are Vouvray and Montloius. Vouvray is sited on the right bank of the Loire, and Montlouis on the left, sandwiched between the Cher and the Loire itself. The rivers have, over the centuries, cut fine, sunny sites in to the preponderantly chalky soils. Tuffeau or tuf are the terms used locally to describe the pale white-yellow rock, a distinctive soft limestone from the Turonian age (about 90 million years ago) in which calcium carbonate is mingled with iron and magnesium oxides. The exposed slopes, frequently covered with clay and gravel topsoils. allow the vines to bask in sunlight, with Vouvray in particular having some superb vineyards overlooking the river. The flat, lazy lagoons, ponds, and braids of the river, separated by vast and lonely gravel banks discovered by Summer’s low waters, in turn reflect light back up into the vines. This is more or less the point at which continental climate that typifies Sancerre and Pouilly Fume modulates towards the maritime, Atlantic climate of the Nantes region. In theory the result should be a gentle, sunny summer declining with slow grace towards a luminous, clear skied Autumn, perfect for bringing the late-ripening Chenin Blanc to perfection. Sometimes it is; botrytis develops; great sweet or semi-sweet wines can be made. At other times, the region is hit by intemperate rains and early chills, and the harvests then tend to be used to make sparkling wines or dry still wines.

What this means, in a nutshell, is that Vouvray is an ideal place for Chenin Blanc to grow, and also that the Earth is old and summer is nice.

Our fifteen-minute cab ride from Tours takes us up steep and narrow roads, past wineries built into the side of the hill, before reaching our destination. Initially, it would appear that no one is around. I am about to make a very angry phone call when we notice a man strolling casually down the street in our direction. This man introduces himself as Laurent Kraft.

He welcomes us into his courtyard, where we are able to ditch all of our luggage. As he escorts us over to what I can best describe as a "tasting nook," Laurent assesses our ability to speak French and gets a feel for what we are all about. He starts popping corks, inquiring of our preferences when it comes to Chenin Blanc, to which I reply "We kind of like it all."

This answer seems to satisfy him, and we start with a 2009 sparkling Vouvray. This makes for a refreshing and invigorating breakfast, elevating my spirits right away. Joel does not appear to share my sentiment at first, but the fog begins to lift after a second glass.

Laurent then transitions into still wines, starting with the Vouvray sec (dry), his only label that I represent in Maine. This is a perfect food wine, with great acidity balanced out beautifully by flavors of white peach and lime. To compare styles and illustrate the versatility of Chenin Blanc, He pours us a glass of Vouvray moelleux (sweet) as well.

Reaching the end of the lineup, I begin to suspect that our visit may already be concluded. Laurent begins to put the wines away before asking us, "What should we do next?" I explain that we are completely in his capable hands, to which he replies that we could "Check out the winery," in a tone that implies “but this will bore you to fucking tears.”

"Or," he continues, "We could go out and see Vouvray?"

He leads us to our transport, a small white box truck used for transporting grapes. Though I offer to ride bitch as I pile into the cab next to Laurent, Joel declines in favor of riding in the practically windowless box. And thus begins Joel's harrowing odyssey from “pretty hungover” to “very hungover” as he was tossed about for the rest of our Vouvray adventure in what I refer to as his “playpen.”

When Laurent fires up the truck, house music comes pumping out of the stereo, surprising the hell out of Joel and I. He smiles, a little embarrassed, and turns it down immediately. On the drive to the vineyards, I miraculously begin what is to be my finest effort in regards to use of the French language, and it would be all downhill after this. While Laurent and I chat, he points out various landmarks, many of which are greeted with a muffled voice coming from the darkness of Joel's playpen.

We ditch the truck upon arriving at the vineyards, exploring up and down each row on foot. It is an absolutely perfect summer day, and Laurent leads us around to his various plots, pointing out the oldest and most gnarled of the vines. Though the playpen has beaten his spirit down a notch, Joel still finds time to take his little flower pictures. I have finally learned my lesson in regards to outdoor excursions, ditching the Gucci boots in favor of only slightly more practical Skechers sneakers.

After milling about in the sun for awhile, the next leg of the journey invloves a drive over to the bottling plant used for Laurent’s sparkling wines. Many other producers share the large facility, which looks like a scene out of The Wire: Season 2 from the outside. Once again, I get a little too snappy with the camera at the bottling line, and am almost plowed over by one of the many people just trying to do their job. Joel gives me the look. Again.

The final part of our tour takes us towards Montlouis, and includes a nice view of the most famous church in the area, Notre Dame et Saint Baptiste. We encounter a very old cemetery, housing the remains of Laurent’s grandfather among many, many others. As we tour the hallowed grounds, Joel remains fairly quiet, knowing that his hellish playpen experience may be far from over. As the wine from this morning begins to wear off, I suggest that it may be time for lunch.

Monsieur Kraft agrees, and after a quick stop at the winery to gather up bottles of wine, he brings us to Le Val Joli, a small restaurant in the heart of quaint downtown Vouvray. When we roll in with Laurent it becomes apparent that we are with a local celebrity, and a well-loved one at that. Our bottles are briskly placed into table-side ice buckets, with stems for each set on the table. We meet the owner, who appears to be in her late thirties or early forties, and once again I miraculously pull a barrage of French speak right out of my ass, impressing the living shit right out of her.

The dining room is small, and not very busy on this particular Thursday afternoon. While we peruse the menu, Laurent opens a bottle of 2007 sparkling Vouvray, which is a slightly older vintage of what we had tasted this morning. I notice that Joel is finally perking up, relieved that he is going to be provided with a hot meal before being ushered back into the dark confines of the playpen. Though I feel a little bad, I did offer him a seat up front in the very beginning, so I simply cannot accept any responsibility.

My ego begins writing checks that my body probably won't be able to cash as I continue to prattle away in French, ordering the escargot as a starter, and veal rognon (kidneys) as a main course. This confidence is cemented in place when Laurent selects the very same thing, explaining that when he and David Chang, owner of Momofuku and other restaurants in NYC, had dined here together, Chang had also completely fallen in love with the rognon.

The bread is still warm and pillowy soft, with equally good butter served on the side, and is by far the best that we encounter on the trip. I hungrily rip into it, taking long pulls of my glass of bubbly between bites. Already, I am completely satisfied.

My situation continues to improve as I am presented with escargot profiteroles, every bit as delicious as the photograph make it look. Each buttery, garlicky, and perfectly cooked snail is enveloped in a soft and warm puff pastry shell. Joel’s foie gras terrine with spiced apples is also masterfully constructed, providing yet another excuse to devour more of the insanely good bread.

Laurent opens a second bottle, a 2008 Vouvray sec, just as my rognon arrive, accompanied by an unexpected little bonus of veal sweetbreads and crisp, buttery roasted potatoes. This is simply one of the best things I've ever eaten, and I even decline when offered a bite of Joel’s braised lamb over mashed potatoes, not wanting anything to potentially impede my enjoyment.

As we pack bottle number two's bags and send it home, we are handed a glass of Vouvray moelleux to sip while waiting to inspect the cheese cart. Though not an easy decision to settle on just three, I select the Epoisses and two different goat varieties that I can’t recall the names of.

Laurent buys us lunch, and after chatting with the owner a bit more, we make our departure. Before being very generously driven all the way back to the train station in Tours, we must make a pit stop at the winery to reclaim our luggage.

While we are lingering about in the courtyard waiting for Laurent, what appears to be a family of Australians – dad, mom, son, son’s hot girlfriend – stroll on in, claiming to have an appointment to taste wines. Laurent, ever gracious, obliges them and starts into the three-bottle lineup that it feels like we had tasted a week ago, but was in fact this morning. The dad engages me in conversation, making small talk about where I’m from and what I do, though I can’t recall my answers due to being entirely fixated on son’s hot girlfriend’s breasts. Joel, not into making new friends, walks around and takes pictures of a lemon tree.

Ten minutes later we are rid of the Aussies and on our way back to Tours, myself riding comfortably upfront while Joel sloshes about in his playpen. We are running low on time, but Laurent knows exactly where to park and escorts us all the way on to the train, giving us each hugs goodbye. When we are comfortably situated, Joel emerges from his emotionally battered state to declare, “That guy was really fucking hot.”

We are speeding west towards our final destination city, Nantes, which will serve as base of operations while we attend Hellfest, beginning tomorrow. It’s about two hours from Tours, and while Joel manages to fall asleep on the train, I do not. As a delightful alternative, I am allowed the privilege of feeling the alcohol slowly wear off as I slip into a mid-day hangover. Pure joy.

I have booked four nights at the Hotel Mercure Nantes Gare Sud, which is very conveniently located right next to the train station. This proves to be a godsend with the state of our Champagne-laden bags, which are getting fuck-all heavy at this point. I remind myself that this is the last slog with these, as only four bottles will make it out of the hotel intact.

As we chat up the front desk clerk, she explains that the room has one King size bed. We ask about getting a second bed wheeled in, and when informed that this would not be a possibility, I tell her that it’s no problem and that, motioning towards Joel, “She’ll sleep on the floor.” This seems to amuse her, and she happily provides us with a few options for dining during our stay. As we head up to our room, we are told by a maid resembling a skinny Meadow Soprano that our room isn’t ready yet, so back into the elevator we go for a few glasses of Champagne in the lobby.

While waiting, in a daze, we meet a couple of Americans, also here to attend Hellfest. After shooting the shit for awhile I, getting fucked up for the third time today, decide to put Joel’s tattoos (that I can’t describe and do justice to, but they’re fucking amazing) on show-and-tell, an effort that he responds to with a flat out “fuck no.” I begin to argue with him, causing our new American friends to grow uncomfortable, when we are informed that our suite is ready, effectively diffusing the situation.

The room is quite comfortable, and I take advantage of the opportunity to immediately crash out for a few hours, while Joel does whatever it is that he does. A few hours later the sun is still out, though it is getting well past eight, and we pull ourselves together to take off towards our first dining experience in Nantes, restaurant Baron Maison Lefevre.

Nantes is about four times the size of Tours, and reminds me a little bit of Miami, sans the cocaine. We easily locate our destination, and enter into what appears to be some kind of gift shop, hawking various goods bearing the Baron Maison Lefevre logo. The Executive Chef, Jean-Charles Baron, is depicted all over the walls, mingling with various 1980's celebreties. I am reminded of Chef Gusteau from the movie, Rattatouile, the author of Anyone Can Cook, and also it's much less successful follow up, Anyone Can Blow Me.

We are approached by a young man bearing striking similarities to Eddie Munster, who, after decoding my rapidly failing French, figures out that yes, we would like a table and no, we don't know what the fuck a reservation is. The dining room is fairly large, with a long staircase spiraling up the center, and as Eddie parades us by the open kitchen I notice that Chef Baron himself is expediting on this particular evening. We are seated and presented with the menu, in the form of a large chalkboard set up on a neighboring table. I order a bottle of Chenin Blanc, 2009 Clos de Coulaine Savennieres, shotgunning the first glass in an effort to boost my enthusiasm for yet another very decadent, and very French, meal.

Prior to our arrival in Nantes, Joel and I have vowed to "eat mostly fish" during our visit, due to the city being "right near the coast" and the fact that "all we've eaten so far is meat."

As we discover repeatedly, not many people order three courses from a la carte menus in France, so needless to say there is confusion each time that we do. Joel begins with Foie Gras mousse, while I settle on the lobster salad with shaved black truffles and spring onion. Trust me, no lobster dish that I've ever had in Maine can even attempt to hold a candle to this, that is, at least until I come back toss together my "signature" black truffle lobster roll..

Though becoming a touch hazy, I do remember discussing the merits of Nilla Wafers at great length around this point in the meal. I know this because it says so in my notes, right next to the phrase "Joe got hit by a car, and well.." I don't know what the hell this means, but perhaps Joel can shed light on this conversation at a later date.

To insure further loss of memory and heighten my risk of congestive heart failure, I fire up a bottle of 2005 Chateau Le Crock St. Estephe, because, as everyone knows, "When in the Loire Valley, one should always drink Bordeaux!" Though geographically ludicrous, it works with our next course, blood sausage with house-made whole-grain mustard sauce. Though the boudin noir we had eaten on our first night in Paris at Le Comptoir had set the bar fairly high, this was still quite good and, honestly, I could eat this blood sausage just about every goddamn day.

It is now when things begin to go slightly awry. While awaiting our main courses, we are approached by one of our four servers, and asked if we would like cheese. Though this seems a tad bit fucking stupid at this point in the meal, we agree to it and are brought two cheese plates, the contents of which I can't recall but I'm sure they were delicious. After clearing, another server inquires if we would like coffee.

It is now obvious that they have forgotten our entrees, which wouldn't be a big deal if we could explain this properly in French. Nobody knows what the hell we are talking about, until we get Eddie Munster, who is personally responsible for taking our order in the first place, back at the table. He understands what has happened, and we watch him slowly saunter over to Chef Gusteau, and, upon explaining his error, get ripped a gaping new asshole. The manager, a bit unnerved, approaches our table and apologizes, telling us that our meals will be out shortly.

Throughout all of this, Joel and I have been perfectly content just drinking our wine while being greatly entertained by the "verbal flogging of Eddie Munster." Our entrees arrive, and in my time-honored tradition of complete overkill, I have ordered veal rognons for a second time today. Joel has made an effort to uphold the original, "eat fish" plan, choosing the filet of turbot. Though neither are a revelation, they are perfectly fine and get the job done, that job being pushing us over the edge into a state of food-induced dementia.

Though the thought of taking another bite of food at this point makes me want to kill myself, the frazzled manager insists on buying us dessert. This, of course, is in an effort to pardon the sins of our beloved little Munster, who as far as we know is currently having his fingers dipped one-by-one into scalding hot frying oil by a very angry and unforgiving Chef Gusteau.

After somehow managing to finish my creme brulee, my shuffle through the dining room makes me feel not unlike a float at the Macy's Day parade, bobbing lazily between tables with a dull, listless look in my eyes. We wander around the city for about an hour, looking at castles, and I begin to get my second wind. Everything is surprisingly calm and quiet, making our drunken exploration that much more surreal. Here, Joel is photographed in front of what we have nicknamed the "Red Door by Elizabeth Arden."

We pass by what appears to be a brothel, called System X, where through a half-opened door I am beckoned in by what I remember to be a minimally clothed, stunningly beautiful brunette. In a daze, I immediately submit to her sirens song, but as I divert my path towards the friendly prostitute Joel grabs my shoulders and directs me back towards our original destination. I begin to protest, before recognizing, even in my drunken state, what a hugely awful decision that would have been. My prudence is rewarded when I wake up with plenty of cash still in my pocket, and my internal organs still inside my body.

And now - Hellfest Awaits.

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