Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Paris Food Coma Part 4: Good Decisions & Bad Decisions

Though I stand by my initial statement that I don’t mind having my alcohol consumption moderated by the restrictive hours of French nightlife, this doesn't stop me from being wildly irritated with my inability to fall asleep as a result. On a marathon of consumption such as this, indulging in a specific amount of booze serves to “wake me up and keep me going,” and, after reaching a certain point, each subsequent drink serves to bring me back towards “sleep.” You may call this "textbook alcoholism," but I call it "vacation."

Even after a scant two hours of sleep, it's still a beautiful morning in Tours. Unlike other hotels we have stayed at, The Mondial has Wi-Fi that actually works, rather than just providing us with false log in names and passwords. In an insomnia-inspired fit of data-usage paranoia at 3:00 AM this morning, I upgraded my plan to 100MB for $170, in addition to all of the international options I’d already put into effect. This, of course, proves to be a huge waste of money when all is said and done, but it serves to make me feel better about whittling away time on Facebook when I have trouble sleeping.

Our first destination today is Saumur, a growing region known for whites made from Chenin Blanc and reds from Cabernet Franc. Winery visits from here on out have been generously set up by my friend Carole at Robert Kacher Selections, an importer who makes up the core of our French portfolio. We have a 10:30 appointment at Domaine Hautes de Sanziers, a tiny producer that is new to Kacher's book. This, outside of our 9:00 PM dinner reservation back at Le Turon, is our only scheduled activity for the day. Due to it's proximity to our appointment tomorrow in Vouvray, we reach the painful conclusion that it will be best to spend the evening at IKEA, bidding the Mondial a very sad farewell.

Joel becomes hell bent on organizing some “spa time” in the late afternoon, to which my first reaction is, “What a fantastic idea!” He proceeds to suggest that I approach our Euro/gay concierge for recommendations on good massage parlors, a potentially indecent proposal that makes me cringe as I imagine myself, after failing miserably with my French, making massaging motions in the air with my fingers. There is also room for him to interpret that I am asking him to massage me, or, if my hand motions begin to mirror my frustration, that I’m offering to jerk him off.

The final nail in "Spa Day 2011's” coffin is the realization that we will be between hotel rooms, with no place to shower after having scented oil rubbed all over us, thus being forced to saunter about in the hot sun as such. Plus, my hair gets real fucked up after being massaged, so I offer up a suggestion of my own, “drinking in bars,” as a reasonable compromise...

After enjoying a hearty continental breakfast of granola, croissants, and yogurt, the first order of business is getting to Saumur. We head to the train station, on foot, with what appears to be plenty of time. On the way, I resist the temptation to re-enact Rocky I inside this meat truck.

We end up getting a tad bit lost, and our generous time window begins to narrow. Something you should know about the French rail system is that they pride themselves on punctuality, making early arrival a consistently prudent choice. Our train is to depart for Saumur at 9:15, and we are forced to scramble in order to purchase tickets. This is when Joel makes a crucial mistake that nearly costs him his title of “Tranny Boss.”

In the ticketing office, there are two rooms, one with a normal line and another with two windows, one of which displays a British flag, labeling it as “English speaking.” After waiting near this window for five very precious minutes, Joel realizes that he has failed to “take a number,” putting him right back to the end of the line. He asks an attendant in the other room, with no line, if he speaks English, to which the man shakes his head and points Joel back to the line in the other room. After three more agonizing minutes it is now 9:10, so I take matters into my own hands. I walk right up to one of the counters in the room with no line and say “Deux Billot Si Vous Plait, Saumur.” This sets the process in motion, and by the time the attendant realizes that I do not, in fact, speak French, she has been provided with enough information to complete the transaction.

Luckily, we are weighed down only by our “overnight” bags, and make it on to the train with about 15 seconds to spare. To show the Tranny Boss how things need to be done from here on out, I have upgraded us to first class. Now, free from the shackles of second class, I am able to enjoy a pleasant ride through the Loire Valley on a brilliant summer morning, observing castle after castle. It actually reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s rant on history in his classic performance, Dressed to Kill:

An hour later we arrive in Saumur, completely relaxed and ready to slaughter some fucking wine. We have done our homework this time, and have the train schedule down pat. There is a 12:30 and a 4:30 back to Tours, so we plan on attempting to catch the earlier but are prepared for a later afternoon if things are going well at the winery.

We approach a group of three taxi drivers and inform them of our destination, immediately setting off a ten-minute frenzy of map consultation and phone calls, until they seem to have a rough idea of where we are going. They all appear so excited by this discovery that I begin to suspect that all three will be coming along for the ride. When the dust clears, however, we are left with a single driver.

After the equivalent of a seventy-dollar cab ride, we reach the remote farm location of Domaine des Hauts de Sanziers. As I get out of the car, an older woman greets me from one of the house windows, and upon introducing myself her expression becomes quite confused. She knows who I am, and why I’m there, but was not informed that neither Joel nor I speak French, as she speaks zero English. After attempting to communicate with each other for a few minutes, she welcomes me into the office so she can make a phone call. Just to be on the safe side we have outrageously over-tipped our taxi-driver, so he is happy to wait while things get sorted out.

I am put on the phone with a man named Guillermo, who works for Robert Kacher. He is very apologetic that, due to confusion with the holiday weekend, Dominique, the English speaking winemaker, cannot make it. He assures us that we will not run into this problem tomorrow in Vouvray, but wonders if we will be ok with touring the winery with Annee, his wife, despite the language barrier?

Of course, this is completely fine by us - I mean, what the fuck else are we going to do? Guillermo speaks to our cab driver over the phone, convincing him to wait, free of charge, for an hour while we see the caves and taste wine. During all of the confusion, Joel has been flitting about taking pictures of flowers like some kind of farm nymph.

A little background on the winery for you, from Robert Kacher’s website:

Located south of Saumur, the Domaine des Hauts de Sanziers has belonged to the Tessier family for 2 centuries. Today the estate covers 85 hectares in the appellations of Saumur and Saumur-Champigny, all worked organically and covered with grass.
The soils there are clay and limestone.

As Annee leads us to down a path to the ancient wine cave, we encounter several goats grazing about freely. Of course, when I try to get within photo distance, they are frightened by what they perceive to be a lumbering Sasquatch, hell bent on drinking their milk, and scatter. Joel gives me a look, implying, “that was very subtle of you. Sasquatch.”

Compared even to a small producer like Geoffroy back in Champagne, this cave is quite tiny, and extremely old. Annee does her best to illustrate with her hands, attempting to make optimal use of her limited number of English words. You may think that this would be awkward, but it wasn’t the slightest bit so - it was actually quite interesting and forced us to exercise our French as well.

While making our way to the “tasting room,” we run into the winemaker’s son, Jean, who then tags along to help Annee. He also speaks very little English, but seems happy to have us there all the same. Domaine des Hauts de Sanziers has two basic offerings – a white made from Chenin Blanc and a red made from Cabernet Franc. The Chenin is a drier style, very crisp, tropical, and refreshing, while the Cabernet Franc exhibits intense flavors of earth and black pepper to balance out the rich fruit. I would be happy drinking either all day on any given day.

Jean asks if we like sparkling wine, and I jokingly reply “only for breakfast.” My cheesiness is rewarded when both he and Annee start laughing. Jean breaks out three bottles to taste through, a brut, rose, and a demi-sec (sweeter style), and after a full glass of each, I’m enjoying life on the farm considerably more. Annee offers us two bottles, one red and one white, to take with us as a gift “for our troubles.”

Outside, several very attractive girls greet us on horseback. Annee introduces them as her daughters and, once again, farm life just keeps getting better... Alas, much like the porn-star cab driver in part 3, a photo-op threatens to send the wrong message here. Sorry.

We bid everyone farewell, and begin the long cab ride back to town. I notice that the driver has turned the meter off, and when I inquire as to why he explains that he is “going back to town anyway.” In hindsight, he was probably just enjoying the girls on horseback during the entire time we were off gallivanting through old caves anyhow. Regardless, this gesture is extremely generous, so we are sure to tip some more when he drops us off near the train station.

Joel cements his position as Tranny Boss back into place by purchasing our tickets 45 minutes in advance of departure back to Tours. We head over to “La Resto de la Gare,” which I believe translates into English as “Eat Some Fucking Lunch Before You Get on Your Fucking Train,” for a quick bite to eat.

A few carafe’s of the local vin blanc keeps me on track, and after a hearty plate of steak frites followed by fromage blanc with raspberry coulis for dessert, I am properly sated and in a delightful mood. We leave just in time to avoid two men at a neighboring table beginning to hungrily dig into heaping piles of stinky Andouillette.

Our first task upon arrival back in Tours is cabbing it out to IKEA to shower, change clothes, spend more time in the top bunk, etc. I add our newly acquired wines to our ever-growing collection, while pointing out that “We need to start drinking these, because schlepping them around is beginning to piss me right off.”

My showering experience at IKEA doesn’t go well. First off, the door feels like it’s made out of cardboard, and there’s a glory-hole style circle cut out of it that is meant to function as the handle. The last Swedish inmate to occupy our room must have found it quite hilarious to point the shower head directly at this glory hole, so the minute I turn on the water it fires straight through, soaking 75 of our cumulative 179 square feet of flooring. The situation almost gets much worse as the surprise from the blast causes me to flail my arms, nearly punching through the cardboard-esque shower “door.”

Joel seems unfazed as I tumble out of the shower and almost straight into a mirror, narrowly avoiding years of bad luck. Naturally, he has no problem negotiating the Swedish water torture, and soon we are ready to get the fuck out of there.

Because we shall be returning to IKEA again, late night, we are able to pack very lightly for our afternoon in Tours. We instruct our taxi to drop us off at Halles de Tours, a sprawling marketplace we had spotted the day before on our way to dinner.

Both Joel and I are immediately pushed into sensory overload as we step through the doors, and are confronted with cheese, meat, wine, spices, and veggies as far as the eye can see, not to mention a small Vietnamese market. We wander up and down the aisles, desperately trying to rationalize a large purchase. Of course, common sense wins out, seeing as we are without any means to cook these items. In addition to that, we still have hours to traipse around in the hot summer sun, and no matter how good any of these things look presently, it will be a different story at the end of a day without refrigeration.

For the next few hours, we roam about the streets of Tours. Eventually, I begin to grow hungry again, initiating the daily ritual of “everyplace you’d prefer to eat is closed.” We stop for a drink at a shitty sidewalk cafe that kind of reminds me of the American chain “Corner Bakery,” except that they serve booze. While sipping a beer that’s as large as my head, I point out a clearly insane passerby, stating that, much like the song by the band Roxette, “She’s got the look.”

“She’s got A look, but definitely not THE look,” is Joel’s response to the lady adorned in many shades of neon accompanied by tattered fishnets and pigtails. As we pay our check, I leave what I feel to be a reasonable tip, but what is interpreted by our server as just plain ludicrous. She appears to scramble a bit, before returning to our table with a bowl of offerings, consisting of spicy olives and mixed nuts. I am not actually in the mood for any of these things, and I begin to regret tipping a damn thing as I struggle through olive after olive, not wanting to offend by leaving the bowl untouched.

When traveling abroad, it generally takes me about three days to grow tired of eating the same style of cuisine. This was especially true when I was in Argentina, where after two days of consuming nothing but meat and empanadas, I would have given my left arm for a bowl of Pho. Though France offers more variety than Argentina, I can't help that today I have an almost irresistible craving for raw fish, and I insist on beginning the search for sushi. Of course, it’s still the "nappy time" hour of 3:45, and after passing about six Japanese restaurants, all closed, I begin to get a little bit grumpy.

While careening about, I call Melinda and rant about how my day has been ruined because I want sushi and I can’t find it. She is currently on her way to work, and seems unsympathetic to my “problems,” regretfully informing me that she is going to have to “let me go.”

After hanging up the phone, Joel politely reminds me that I have, in the last three minutes, narrowly avoided being run over by about five separate vehicles. While pondering a bitchy response, I am distracted by what I at first perceive to be a mirage, but what actually turns out to be a sushi restaurant, open for business. The “menu” is a small, glossy book, and more closely resembles a brochure for a new Aston Martin DB9 than a list of nigiri and maki rolls.

The decor of the entrance mimics the sushi catalog, the kind of super-sleek techno-hip theme that I personally find wildly idiotic for anything other than an Apple Store. The hostess leads us past an army of busy chefs at the sushi bar to a more visually palatable dining room, obscured from the entrance. Save for a lone diner staring at his laptop, presumably playing Magic: The Gathering online, we are the only souls here. This is a bit strange, as the chef’s were so busy, but I figure that the restaurant must do a lot of to-go business.

When our server greets us, a solid ten minutes later, I order a half bottle of chilled sake and two large Asahi beers. Initially, we run into a few problems with the language barrier, but the man with the laptop, who we now assume is the manager (probably using a blue and white deck, I would guess), chimes in from time to time helping with translation.

Though we continue to confuse the fuck out of our server throughout ordering process, eventually our food begins to arrive. First up are Maki rolls with caviar, nigiri with shaved black truffle and shitake mushroom, and nigiri with cured Foie Gras. I found these little treasures in the “luxury” section of our sushi brochure, and I have to admit, they are quite tasty.

Nigiri with tuna, dorado, and salmon are next in the order, in addition to maki rolls wrapped with salmon and filled with ikura, the cured roe of the salmon. Though the rice needs work, the fish itself is very fresh and satisfies my craving perfectly. We conclude our “snack” with crunchy tuna avocado hand rolls. While we are eating, the man with the laptop takes a break from playing Magic and comes over to chat. We learn that Sushi Shop is actually a franchise, of which he owns three. He tells us that they will be opening up a location soon in New York City, forcing me to refrain from replying that, though perfectly fine for Tours, this place wouldn’t last a week there.

Dinnertime is still a couple of hours away, so yet more walking ensues, led by Joel, my newly appointed “Moderaton Sensei.” On the day before, we had come across a hole-in-the-wall shop selling Christ-knows-what that Joel has completely fallen in love with. Today, he decides to return and actually purchase the Christ-knows-what, but, on four separate attempts throughout the day, the shop is closed - even though the sign on the door indicates otherwise.

To cheer him up, I suggest that we scare up some Champagne at a random cafe near the shop, that way if they open for even ten minutes we'll be the first to know. Ten minutes later, we are sipping from a bottle of sparkling Vouvray in what appears to be a lesbian sports bar. Though a little bit gruff at first, our server and bartender warm up to us when I offer them each a glass of wine. The subject matter of our conversation goes beyond the gutter, and I get a sneaking suspicion that tonight's dining experience may be a little bit different than that of last night.

Joel’s shop stays closed, but soon it’s time to make our way back to Le Turon for dinner number two. When we arrive, a small “reserved” sign has been placed on the table in the front window, an upgrade in seating from our previous visit. Once again, it’s quite busy, and Ke$ha looks to be tied up with a large party towards the back of the restaurant.

It’s been a very long day, and we’ve imbibed a fair amount, but this will not stop us from going the distance here for a second time. We start with a bottle of 2006 Chinon Rosé Cuvee Marie Justine, while we re-visit the menus. It’s interesting to know that this meal will consist entirely of the previous evening’s “second choices.” Personally, I’m tempted to repeat both the seven-hour lamb and the poached eggs with Foie Gras, but decide it’s best to explore new frontiers.

The first of my "second choices" is the Foie Gras terrine, accompanied by custy baguette and a confit of dried fruits. Joel starts with a perch and tomato mousse, served over greens and garnished with “tomato gazpacho.” Though both are quite tasty, I'm still thinking that our "first" choices were more memorable.

Ke$ha finally makes her way over to greet us, though briefly, apologizing that she is short on hands and stuck helping in the kitchen. She has brought in an entire bottle of Absinthe for me, however, and I brace myself for what is to come.

As the rosé goes, as Walter Donovan says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, "the way of the Dodo," we move on to a bottle of 2008 Château de Targé Saumur Rouge, in honor of our big trip to the farm. It goes down real smooth alongside my thick and perfectly rare beef “rumsteak,” smothered in bordelaise sauce and served with roasted potatoes.

By the time I get a chance to taste Joel’s pork tenderloin with cider, things are starting to get a touch hazy. We finish up with assorted cheeses, while polishing off the red wine, before all of our plates are cleared and replaced with two snifters.

Throughout the trip and up until now, I’ve tried to be fairly discreet when taking pictures, turning off the flash when appropriate, etc. As our server presents us with our bottle of Absinthe, I ask if it would be ok to take a photo of her. Before she has a chance to respond, she is assaulted point blank with the flash from my point-and-shoot, to which she appears a bit shaken. She fills our snifters, and as she leaves the table Joel signals that it “might be the time to chill the fuck out with the picture snapping.”

Realizing that I’m getting rather inebriated, I whole-heartedly agree and put the camera away. While Joel paces himself, I plow through two snifters full of green deliciousness before Ke$ha waves me towards the back of the restaurant. When I get there I am greeted by the chef, who turns out to be Ke$ha’s husband, and two of his cooks. They claim to have heard stories about me, and wanted to see for themselves who was eating all this food and drinking all this wine. Because I don’t know how to say “Your food is great, and also I find your wife pleasing to look at” in French, I resort to “merci beaucoup, fuckin’ tres bien!”

They seem satisfied, if not delighted by this response, and as we prepare to exit, Ke$ha makes sure I take the whole bottle of Absinthe with me. After thanking her, we head back out into the streets in search of a taxi back to IKEA. I proceed to drink about another quarter of the bottle as we roam around, insisting on drunk dialing Dietz back in Maine. When Dietz answers, he happens to be with Drew and Nolan, and they are all equally amused with my fucked up ramblings before I thrust the phone into Joel’s hands with an abrasive “they want to talk to YOU.”

Allegedly, the cab driver finds me hilarious on the trip home, though I personally don't remember much. When in doubt, I assume I might have been doing some singing...

Back at IKEA, I immediately pass out in a heap of myself. France was not able to moderate me tonight, goddamn it. I’d shown them. Yup. Won’t THEY be surprised when I wake up with by far the worst hangover of the trip? Mission accomplished. Strong work.

I predict that by tomorrow, I will not have learned my lesson...