Monday, June 25, 2012

France, 2012 - Bordeaux

Place de la Bourse in BordeauxOne of the highlights (maybe even the highlight) of my trip to France was a day trip to Bordeaux from Monflanquin (about a two hour drive.)  Vince called it "Mini Paris" - and I can't disagree.   It's jammed with cafes, shops and similarly beautiful architecture, but missing the crowds that can make Paris feel a bit oppressive.  One thing I wanted to do on this trip was eat least one fine dining meal, preferably at a restaurant with a Michelin star.  Not that I put so much stock in Michelin stars, but if you are going to eat at a Michelin restaurant might as well do it in France, non?
Le Menu de Marche - Restaurant Gabriel, BordeauxI researched the fine dining options near Monflanquin and didn't come up with many good prospects.  Then the day trip to Bordeaux came up, and the options expanded dramatically.  Even so, the runaway favorite was clear - Restaurant Gabriel in Place de la Bourse (pictured above) was at the top of everyone's list.  It was also Vince's birthday that day, a great excuse to do it up. We had planned to do the three course menu, but upgraded to the five course "Menu du Marche" when we saw the choices.  (Isn't that always the way?) They also offer a nine course "Degustation" topping out at around 95 Euros (about $130.00).  Downstairs they also have a "Brasserie" with less formal food and service and presumably lower prices.   They offer wine pairings but we did not indulge, for fear we would be  incapacitated for the rest of the day (not to mention the drive home.)  Instead, we started with aperitifs and shared a bottle of white wine with the meal.
Aperitif accompaniments at Restaurant Gabriel in Bordeaux The aperitifs  - a glass of champagne for me and a pastis with mint syrup for Vince - were served in the lobby bar with this tray of little amuses. The common theme was potato and we were instructed to eat them from the outside in.  The outside one was creamy whipped purple potato puree on a roasted baby potato shell with a purple potato chip.  The second one was firm mashed potato with a layer of sausage in the middle, and the middle one was a sweet gelee with chopped bits of potato in it.  I enjoyed them exactly in descending order - the first was the fabulous, the second was very good, and the third was.....well, interesting.
Amuse Bouche - beet with green apple geleeWhen we were seated upstairs we received another amuse bouche - a bite of beet and potato over a layer of apple gelee with a spot of whipped creme fraiche.  This was really nice, and was served with fabulous warm cheese rolls and butter.   The dining room was beautiful too, with the white walls, tablecloths and chairs accented by plank wood floors and bright details.  The service was impeccable - formal but warm and welcoming.
Restaurant Gabriel, BordeauxThere were two choices for four of the five courses, so we agreed to try one of each. For the first course I received an unusual combination of foie gras pressed with sturgeon and a carrot and celery gelee.  I wasn't fond of the foie and sturgeon together, but the foie was fabulous on its own, and it certainly was pretty.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux - Foie Gras with Sturgeon and Vegetables in GeleeVince was the clear winner of this round, with his "Oeuf Cocotte" with asparagus and chorizo cream.  This dish was divine.  The cream had an airy, mousse-like texture and vibrant rich and spicy flavor.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux -  Chorizo and Asparagus Cream with Egg
I think I squeaked out a victory on the second course though, with my "Cabillaud Roti" (roast cod) with polenta and white wine sauce.  They brought out a small pitcher of the sauce and proceeded to pour a small amount over the fish, leaving the rest on the table.  It was one of the best sauces I have ever tasted, and I was tempted to tip up the rest of the pitcher.  If I'd been another glass of wine or two in, it just might have happened.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux - Halibut and PolentaVince's entree was a "cuit doucement" (sous vide) veal tenderloin with a demi glace-based sauce and a slightly odd cigar-shaped log of orange scented sweet potato.  The meat was flavorful and amazingly tender due to the cut and cooking technique and the sauce was a perfect foil.  Vince was very happy with it, but I think I might have wished for a more savory accompaniment.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux - Veal with Orange and Sweet Potato PureeNext came the "fromage" course - a small dollop of a mousse made from Mimolette cheese, topped with tiny croutons and cubes of pear and shaved aged Mimolette.  Mimolette is one of my very favorite cheeses and this preparation was entirely new to me, so this dish was a welcome surprise.  If you order the Degustation, they bring the cheese cart to your table for you to select an assortment - we saw them doing that for some other diners in the room.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux - Entremet, Mousse of Aged Mimolette with Croutons and Mimolette shavingsDesserts were next.  Mine was a chilled milk chocolate mousse with salted caramel and "praline de cacahuetes" (peanut brittle) served with "glace snickers."  It was the perfect combination of all those quintessential candy bar flavors, creamy, sweet and salty. Vince had the fruit dessert, a Savarin with fruit and mousse made from fromage frais.  It was fine, but utterly forgettable.  So much so, I even forgot to take a picture of it.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux - "Snickers" dessert Next and last came these beautiful mignardises, based on cherries.
Restaurant Gabriel, Bordeaux - Mignardise After reviving ourselves with a couple of stiff shots of espresso served after the meal, we toddled out into the bright sunshine to walk to the "Brocante" - the open-air antiques market in the center of town.
Bordeaux, France On the way we walked over to the Monument au Girondin, a beautiful landmark fountain, and through the antique district, past beautiful store fronts full of decor items like this amazing French encaustic tile.
French Encaustic Tile on Display in BordeauxBordeaux, FranceBordeaux, FranceWe stopped to ask directions on the way, so we knew we were close when we saw the Church of St. Louis.
Bordeaux, FranceThe Brocante is a covered, open air market just on the other side of the Cathedral.   Most of the goods seemed to be smaller items - lots of glassware, china, silver, books, etc.  The prices were high, but it made for some good browsing.  I'm kind of kicking myself that I didn't at least ask how much these 50's Michelin guides were, but based on the fact that the fan behind them was around $100 I am guessing they were out of reach.
Vintage Michelin Guides at the Antique Market in BordeauxThis display reminds me of "Midnight in Paris" - I hear the theme music in my head every time I look at it.
At the Brocante (Antique Market) in BordeauxThis French educational poster was the one thing I bought.  These posters were used in schools in France from the 50s to the 70s.  The kids were asked to talk about what they saw in the pictures - generally they depict street scenes, neighborhoods and every day activities.  Some also depict historical events, and there are larger ones with anatomy and botanical charts.   Many are double sided and they are all vibrantly colored.  I first saw some of these at an antique store in Los Angeles years ago, but the posters were in bad shape and were priced over $200.  Still, I've always regretted not buying one I saw of a neighborhood with children playing in the streets with chickens and animals running around, and mothers in kerchiefs watching over the scene.  They didn't have that one at the Brocante, but I was taken with this garden scene - with Grandpere and the kids tending to the family plot.  It's even double sided - with quite a dichotomy between this lovely pastoral scene and the other depicting a Bus Stop.)  I bought it for 25 Euros, and would have bought more if I could have found another one I loved.
French educational poster I bought at the Brocante in BordeauxAfter leaving the antiques market we took a long, winding stroll through town to get back to the car.  We walked down Rue St. Catherine, the "High Street" of the town.  It was a busy sea of people as far as the eye could see, but not crushingly crowded at least.
Rue St. Catherine - the "High Street" in BordeauxIt was a hot day in Bordeaux, at least 80 degrees, and as we strolled past Place Camille Jullien (below) I was craving something cool and refreshing.  A cone of passionfruit and lemon sorbet hit the spot perfectly.  I don't remember the shop's name, but it was a walk-up window just a little further toward the river from this spot.
BordeauxEventually we wound our way back to Place de la Bourse - where the "mirror" - a huge area covered by a shallow pool of water on the plaza across the street - was thick with people trying to beat the heat.  (This was actually taken earlier in the day - it was much busier in the afternoon.)
Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux Bordeaux is definitely on my list for a longer stay - one day was not nearly enough. It's one of the most famous wine regions of France and we didn't even begin to scratch the surface there.  I'd also like to visit Brittany (home of the famous sea salt caramels) and possibly even Normandy though I'm hardly a war buff.  And the list grows ever longer!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

France, 2012

Champagne on Air FranceAfter a great four days in San Francisco, I flew nonstop to Paris and then on to Toulouse to visit a friend of mine who has a house in the village of Monflanquin, a small bastide town in Southwestern France.  I expected the flight to be cramped and uncomfortable, but traveling on Air France was actually not bad.  The food was terrible, but the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top champagne they served before the meal and Cognac they poured after helped a lot - as did the salami, butter and cornichon sandwich I brought from Acme Bakery.  If you don't like the meal - a choice of Salmon Parmentier or  Coq au Vin (it sounds so much better in French!) - they also put out little sandwiches, cookies and crackers and self-service non-alcoholic beverages, and on the way back from Paris there were Haagen Dazs ice cream bars.
Salade Soud Ouest in Toulouse - with foie gras and gizzards.When I arrived in Toulouse, my friend Vince met me at the airport and we headed into town for a bite to eat at a cafe on the square in town.  It was mid-afternoon by that time, and I was doing pretty well with the jet lag so my goal was just to get a little sunshine and stay up until after dark.  I indulged in a "Salade Soud Ouest" - topped with foie gras, since it's a local delicacy in the Southwest of France. It was interesting to see how commonplace foie is there - in contrast with the ban going into effect here in just a few weeks. It's available everywhere for sale, and on almost every menu in the region, and the countryside is dotted with farms. (I generally saw it served and packaged as a torchon - never seared.)
My handsome friend and host, Vince.After lunch and a brief peek into the spectacular Toulouse Cathedral just a few blocks away, Vince drove me to back to Monflanquin to settle in. I quickly realized that I was incredibly lucky - not just because the house and village were lovely but because Vince was a fantastic host and tour guide - pointing out the local landmarks and telling funny stories about his own travels in France.
My room in Vince's house in Monflanquin.I had this bedroom complete with wrought iron balcony and a separate bathroom all to myself for four nights. The rest of this floor of the house consists of a living room and a farmhouse style eat-in kitchen.  Upstairs is the master bedroom and bath and another bedroom with two twin beds.  Another flight up on the spiral wooden staircase is a roof deck with a spectacular view.
The living room at Vince's Monflanquin apartmentAs a matter of fact, just about everywhere in Monflanquin offers a spectacular view since the town sits on a hill, sloping down down from a high point where the main square and cathedral are located. This was the view out the window in front.
Rue St. Marie - Monflanquin And this is what you see when you turn around and look up the street toward the square which is directly to the left, just around the corner.
Rue St. Marie - Monflanquin On Thursdays, the town comes alive when the Market arrives in the square. There are vendors offering everything from produce and prepared foods to plants, local honey, clothes and jewelry.Market day in MonflanquinMy personal favorite vendor was the cheese truck. You always hear about cheese in France, and it's absolutely true - the variety and quantities available are dazzling.  Same for the bread and wine, incidentally - they are almost always good and inexpensive.  (Sadly, the same cannot be said of the croissants.)
Cheese Truck at the Market in MonflanquinSpeaking of croissants, on my first day in Monflanquin, we started off a little road trip with a stop at the boulangerie just down the hill - outside the old walled portion of the town. It's the best one around according to Vince, and the canneles did not disappoint.  They are a bit of a regional specialty - from Bordeaux which is about 2 hours away. (The croissants were just ok.)
Pastries inside the Boulangerie in MonflanquinOur first stop was the village of Cadouin - reached after a winding drive through the beautiful green countryside and a short detour through the village of Monpazier.  Cadouin is a commune (village) in the Dordogne famous for its 10th century Abbey, seen at the right in this picture.CadouinIt's a picturesque spot and we walked around a bit looking at the traditional architecture, poked around the Abbey and bought some things at a small market they had set up in the square.
Cadouin, FranceThe owner of the stand pictured below had a small shop selling foie gras, truffles and other local delicacies including aged goat cheese "buttons" that are delicious on levain toast.  The truffles and foie gras weren't cheap but they are less than you would pay here, and much less than prices in Paris. You may have heard of truffles from Perigord - Perigord is the  name of the former province that lay roughly where the Dordogne is now, so we were in prime truffle country. I had hoped to bring some home, but I wasn't sure about the customs rules (though supposedly they are allowed.)
Cadouin, FranceNext we headed to Chateau Marqueyssac for lunch.  This hilltop property was originally developed in the 17th century by a counselor to Louis the XIV and is most notable for the gardens which stretch out behind the house in an oblong shape with a looping path for exploring.  The boxwood gardens were planted in the 1800s and had fallen into disrepair when the new owner bought the property and restored them in 1996.
Chateau MarqueyssacThe chateau itself is tiny - you walk through and up some stairs to come out on the back side where there is a nice restaurant overlooking the valley and a beautiful pergola covering outdoor tables sitting along the edge overlooking the view.  It was a gloomy day so we sat inside, but on a warm day I am sure it's a beautiful spot.   I made the mistake of ordering a croque monsieur. Though it looks good, the bread was soggy from the bechamel sauce and it was just a little bland.
Croque Monsieur at Chateau MarqueyssacVince wisely ordered the menu du jour, which included Rilette de Lapin (potted bunny) with a salad, and a dessert course of one of those aged goat cheese buttons on levain with a bit of salad and a walnut. It also included a "verre de vin" as do most menus - and we shared a small carafe of rose.  (I drank rose like it was iced tea in France.)
Rillettes de Lapin at Chateau MarqueyssacSoft goat cheese with levain and salad at Chateau MarqueyssacAfter lunch we strolled the gardens which are notable for their geometric precision, the fact that they are uniformly green (no flowers, at least not at this time of year) and the waterfall that flows through the property from the back to front in a tiny carved out channel.  This map really shows the scale and layout.
The Gardens at Chateau MarqueyssacThe most famous and arguably most beautiful part of the garden is the grouping of boxwoods below called the "Bastion" -  designed to resemble sheep in a flock.
The Gardens at Chateau MarqueyssacAfter exploring the gardens we headed to nearby Chateau des Milandes - owned by Josephine Baker from the 40's to the 60's.  It is privately owned but open for tours and there are a number of exhibits set up inside as well as gardens and a cafe.  They also do a "Birds of Prey" show several times a day, much like the one at the Wild Animal Park - we didn't sit through it, but it was going on while we were there.
Chateau Milandes - Josephine Baker's home from the 40's to the 70'sSeveral of Josephine's dresses were on display inside as well as posters and other ephemera from her life and career.
Josephine Baker's dresses at Chateau MilandesThe best piece though, has to be the banana belt from her most famous costume.  Josephine herself was pretty amazing. You can read about her history here. She was a civil rights activist and spy as well as a famous cabaret and burlesque performer - and raised 12 adopted children at the Chateau.
Josephine Baker's Banana Belt at Chateau MilandesApparently in its heydey the Chateau included a mini golf course and swimming pool - neither of which are in evidence now, but the gardens are still quite lovely.
Chateau MilandesAfter all that, we're only through day one! Don't worry, I won't write a separate post for each day of the trip - though I probably could.   All of my photos are here if you want to check them out.  I'll be back in a few days with more on Monflanquin and the surrounding area including Villeneuve Sur Lot, Bordeaux and of course, Paris!

P.S. - if this looks like fun to you - the house I stayed in is a vacation rental and is available about ten months out of the year - check it out here! )

Monday, June 11, 2012

Outerlands - San Francisco

Outerlands - San Francisco Unless you're a die-hard restaurant groupie or live in the Avenues, chances are you probably haven't been to Outerlands. It's aptly named, sitting in the farthest reaches of the Outer Sunset - and though the food is good, the crowds thick and and the setting delightful, it's definitely a neighborhood place. I first heard about it a couple of years ago and have been dying to try it since. We finally got the chance when we stayed in the neighborhood a few weeks ago for the Bay to Breakers race. Knowing the finish line was nearby, I found our VRBO by typing in the address of Outerlands on the map. It worked out well - not only were we walking distance from the finish line and Outerlands, but a cluster of other cool spots including Beachside, Java Beach and the lovely General Store boutique.
Outerlands - San Francisco Outerlands is open for breakfast and lunch on weekends and dinner only Tues - Fri. It's tiny and they don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait. We arrived around 7 for dinner on Saturday night and waited at least an hour. The pain was eased by their artisan cocktails - this is the kind of place where they gently stir the booze instead of shaking and the drinks are small but strong.
Cocktails at Outerlands - gin on the left, rye on the right. The one on the left was made with gin (and little else) and a pickled shallot, and the one on the right was a rye concoction with citrus.  The rye one was my favorite of the two.  They also make a mean caipirinha with  cachaca, kumquats and mint.
Outerlands - San Francisco The interior has a charming hobbit-y woodsy look that makes it feel like a secret hideaway.    They're expanding soon into at least one space next door and possibly two - which should mean shorter waits, but may also change the character of the place.
Dinner Menu at Outerlands - San Francisco The menu is small but inventive and reasonably priced.   Our party of six tried just about everything.   Don't miss the toasted levain bread - it's phenomenal.  We ordered it with the cheese, but the butter would have been just fine.  The asparagus salad was a standout spring dish - lightly steamed  with preserved lemon, sesame, mushrooms and fresh cheese.  The tips were left whole, but the stalks were shaved into ribbons.
Salad with asparagus, maitake mushrooms, fresh cheese, lemon and sesame seeds - Outerlands  I had the duck confit for my main.  My only complaint was that there wasn't quite enough of it, and I'm not generally one to complain about that.  It was perfectly cooked though, and the savory, crisp meat paired nicely with the sweetness of the pickled plums.
Duck Confit - Outerlands A couple of people in our party had the shrimp and grits, with ham, snap peas and fresh dill.  A few bites of this rich and hearty dish helped make up for the tininess of mine.
Outerlands - Shrimp & Grits of the few desserts we tried, this Key Lime Cake was my favorite - a small wedge of buttery cake, topped with a lacy caramelized crisp and a bit of cream, garnished with fresh lime and raspberry.   We also had a pot de creme topped with "rosemary caramel corn" that I think everyone else liked better than I did.
Outerlands - Key Lime Cake We didn't try going back for brunch, but the crowds are apparently out of control - with two-hour plus waits.  Instead, we had breakfast just down the street at Beachside - an offshoot of Java Beach coffee.  It's a cute spot and they serve good waffles and a lovely eggs benedict layered on a freshly split popover - but be prepared for a healthy dose of hipster attitude with your breakfast.  (This is one of those places where they are so "serious" about the coffee that they don't serve their espresso drinks hot enough.)  We went early to beat the crowds, but I would bet they have a line by 9 AM.  They also serve lunch and dinner - the menu mostly consists of sandwiches and fried chicken over slaw or on a sandwich (they also serve chicken and waffles for breakfast.)  The General Store boutique is also in that area - with a smartly curated selection of gifts and jewelry made by local artisans.  We also popped into Trouble Coffee on Sunday morning after the race.  I wasn't crazy about the cup of coffee I had and they also do the super duper hipster attitude thing, but it was really crowded after the race, their pastries looked good, and they have a really cool tree out front that you can sit on and drink your coffee.

We had other good meals on this trip at Out the Door, Pizzeria Delfina and Zuni - and then I got on a plane and flew to France!   I still kind of can't believe it myself.  It was awesome and I will be back to talk about it soon!!

4001 Judah St (between 45th Ave & 46th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94122
(415) 661-6140
closed Sunday dinner and Mondays all day
Dinner only Tues - Fri.
Brunch/Lunch from 10-3 on Saturdays and Sundays.
Dinner also on Sat.