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Monday, May 18, 2009

Casa Olympe – Tu Casa Es Ma Casa

First impressions are important, and my first impression of Casa Olympe, the highly-touted quasi-Corsican establishment in the 9th, was definitely favorable. This may have largely been attributed to the sign I saw attached to the front wall informing patrons, “Portable Interdit” (no cellphones allowed). That’s my kind of sign. In part, it accounted for a steady stream of patrons casually leaving their table throughout the evening and stepping outside to check their sacred messages or make that life-altering call that simply could not wait another hour or so. Idjits. In addition to the steady stream of patrons stepping out for a smoke, and another contingent in tandem, dashing in mad panic to move their illegally-parked cars, the filled restaurant at times seemed veritably empty. Which is a pretty good thing in a restaurant like Olympe, where the expression, “I want to be alone” does not compute. The main room, consisting of about 36 places lined along the left and right walls, barely left an unoccupied centimeter – a common hazard in Paris, where real estate is at a premium. Nevertheless, it’s a finally-appointed room (in addition to a couple tables in a small, back room near the bar), with butterscotch walls, murano chandeliers, and classical paintings interspersed along the walls. And the neighborhood warrants a visit.

Casa Olympe is owned and run by Olympe (aka Dominique) Versini, one of the most famous female chefs in Paris. You can get the full history at the restaurant’s website. The restaurant critic Alexandra Lobrano claimed to have been at Olympe one evening when Jean-Paul Gaultier arrived just before closing time with some friends. I bet Jean-Paul received a warmer welcome than your’s truly, despite arriving finely appointed with Co. only a half hour after the doors opened. But I’ve lived in Paris long enough, so I get it. You must first earn Olympe’s respect and, because this was my first visit, I obviously have not had the opportunity to prove myself as a worthy patron. Overall, however, I can’t complain about the icy yet efficient service. Coats taken, we were seated and immediately brought a plate of small, black olives to accompany our perusal of the carte. In addition, a small chalkboard on the far wall informed us of two entrées, two plats, and two desserts special for that evening, with a couple bearing a modest 5€ supplement. Co. and I ruminated long and hard over the choices, several of which competed for our favors. This typically takes some negotiating – I refuse to take any dish that Co. opts for because that simply reduces the sample size and the fun. Okay, that epic white chocolate dessert at Ze Kitchen Galerie was a clear exception to that rule. But it’s nice for a change to really have difficulty making up my mind.

The emphasis is on Corsican and Mediterranean dishes at Olympe, with a specialty being the roasted shoulder of lamb that must be shared by at least two at the table. I don’t eat lamb, so that ruled out at least one possibility. I couldn’t talk Co. out of the special entrée of paloudes sautee au thyme (small clams sautéed in their shell with thyme), so I went with an option you won’t find listed on the website’s menu, a dish comprised of betterave and bulots. This took the form of thinly sliced pieces of beet sandwiching a concoction of marine snails. If you read my earlier Finland posting you must be thinking, ‘my lord, this must be the year of the beetroot!’ I’m afraid I can’t disagree with you. Once repulsed by the bloody things, I find myself increasingly fascinated by what can be done with the underrated beet. This dish, although inspiring, didn’t reach the euphoric heights as that goat cheese dish or the salmon, beetroot, and rye entrée in Finland, but it was pretty damn good. Ironically, because it was my first choice, Co. wasn’t all that impressed with her clams, which she found unimaginative (and, depressingly, at least three of the shells had to pried open with force). She regretted passing on the croustillants de boudin, mesclun. Maybe next time. As for the main dishes, Co. found the ris de veau croustillants with capres de Pantelleria much more satisfying (see the photo). I was more than pleased with my espadon (swordfish) lightly cooked (nearly raw inside, as I prefer) in a coco sauce, innocently lying on a bed of vegetable strips. What started out as a pretty simple dish seemed to grow in complexity as the sauce kicked in. Co. was rather disappointed with the dessert on special for the night, a white cream with red fruits dish. I didn’t find the dessert options very inspiring, but my moelleux tiede chocolate noix was more than adequate. As for the wine, I couldn’t resist the Corsican (Corse Patrimonio – Antoine Arena 2005), reasonably priced at 33€. Though forewarned that this was a mildly sparkling red, I stuck with the choice because I’ve never met a Corsican wine yet that I didn’t like. I’m no fan of sparkling alcohol of any sort, and that includes champagne, but the Corse Patrimonio turned out to be a tasty complement to our dishes.

Overall, I’d have to say that Olympe warrants the many favorable reviews you’ll find in your restaurant guides. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was anything incredibly special about it, but my interest has been piqued and I’m ready to try out some of the other menu options. That, of course, assumes that Olympe is willing to have me. Did I create a good impression? I don’t know, but I managed to resist strangling the obnoxious couple sitting next to us who were touchy-feely beyond even Parisian standards of decorum. Idjits. So be forewarned. Olympe would be a great place for a romantic dinner – if there were no other diners. But expect the restaurant to be full and that means you better not mind eating shoulder to shoulder with strangers. Jean-Paul excluded, of course.

Price: Two ‘menus’ (entrée, plate, dessert) at 43€ each + wine (33€) + one coffee (4€) for a total of 123€.

48 rue Saint-Georges, Paris 75009.
Tel : 01 42 85 26 01

Friday, May 8, 2009

Meze! Meze! Meze! – Dining Out in Cyprus

Another venture well beyond Paris, this time to Nicosia, capital of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean within shooting distance of Beirut. Of course, I mean that in a photographic sense. I wish I had more to tell you about the restaurant experience, but everything happens so quickly, albeit over impressively long evenings (even by French standards), that I’m not sure I can do the experience much justice. You just had to be there.

Complicating matters is that the names of restaurants are written in Greek letters, so half of the time you don’t even know where you’re eating. And even if you did know, you probably would have forgotten anyway if, like me and Co. (Co. and I?), you chose to partake in a couple of 33cl bottles of ouzo beforehand at a café in the old city center. In fact, my favorite discovery in the old city was an outdoor café that took up two alleyways in addition to a couple decrepit interior rooms, including a second floor space with Internet wifi access. This was Mondo’s Café (9 Arch. Makarios Avenue), located just off the main pedestrian way, Ledra Street near the Green Strip, the UN-patrolled border crossing separating the southern part of the city from the Turkish-occupied northern part. As I was casually sitting at one of Mondo’s tables, leisurely sipping my ouzo and eating the accompanying olives, I pondered first why the US is so adamant about having Turkey join the EU, then my mind drifted to wonderment as to why every male at the café had long curly black hair and a beard, and, finally, I speculated as to where I could get my hands on the outstanding compilations of music wafting out from the café’s interior. As a cafe, I should add that most of Mondo's patrons were not getting blitzed from ouzo, arack, or some variation thereof, but were instead sipping large, savory, frothed iced coffees (frapes) through straws
. . . before moving on to ouzo, arack, or some variation thereof.

Adequately lubricated, the sun starting to set ever so slowly in the temperate late April evenings, it was time to move on to dinner. In each case, we opted for traditional Cypriot taverns and didn’t give second thought to the myriad alternatives, such as pizzerias, gyro dives, and the sporadic international dining spots. In each case, we were pretty satisfied. The main Cypriot dining experience is the meze option. If you’re not familiar with meze, think tapas translated into Greek. The typical meze dinner consists of numerous (up to 10-15) courses of small dishes comprised of a wide range of offerings, usually beginning with vegetable concoctions, moving on to grains and cheeses, and graduating to meats (e.g., grilled lamb and chicken). Dishes include melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), dolma (wine-stuffed wine leaves), haydari (a thick yogurt offering), pickled beets, vegetable and egg mixtures, taramosalata (cod roe or carp mixed with bread crumbs, lemon, and mashed potatoes). Trust me, these dishes tasted a lot better than they sound. Not surprisingly, you don’t order a meze dinner when dining out alone. The more the merrier, as we found during one evening when we were accompanied by several friends to the tavern Pais:Paradosiakes Yefsis, located just behind the Kleopatra Hotel. The problem is that for the uninitiated, it’s difficult to pace oneself – that pickled beets dish may be tasty, but if you eat too much of it, you won’t have much appetite for the dozen dishes that, unbeknownst to you, are to follow in extremely rapid succession.

Our typical initial reaction upon entering the traditional Cypriot taverns of Nicosia was ‘uh-oh.’ In fact, sometimes you have that reaction even before entering. This was the case one evening when we followed a few friends to the Agios Georgios Tavern around 8 p.m. One of our party mentioned how she had passed the place a few nights earlier and thought it looked pretty interesting. What we saw on our arrival was a large empty room with a couple of seedy looking characters apparently waiting to get to work. My initial reaction was ‘uh-oh.’ In fact, my full initial reaction was ‘uh-oh, I have a really bad feeling about this place’. Wrong again, although the dinner got off to a rather inauspicious start. Our waiter bore an uncanny resemblance to Chigurl, the psychotic killer of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent No Country for Old Men, as portrayed by Javier Bardem in the Joel and Ethan Cohen film adaptation. When we asked if there was red wine, he responded, ‘Wine.’ When we asked about the squid dish, his reply was ‘Squid.’ When he brought glasses to the table, the first to leave his hand dropped to the floor and shattered. I wondered if this was some sort of Cypriot symbol of welcoming. By the end of our dinner, the restaurant was packed to the gills, the atmosphere was casual and lively, some traditional Greek musicians had started up an improvisational jam session in the front of the room and played on long into the night, and we even caught Chigurl crack a smile.

Recommended Nicosia taverns:
Pais: Paradosiakes Yefsis
tel. 22665070 and 22665090

Agios Georgios (see photo top right)
tel. 22765971 and 99697835

Erodos (see photo bottom right)
Patriarchou Gregoriou 1
tel. +357 22752250

Note: Buy all the bottles of ouzo you want at the Larnaca Airport duty free shops for 10 euros or less. Or forget the ouzo, go back to France, and just drink the Frenchman's ersatz absinthe, pastis. Same concept. I picked up a bottle of 'Z' for zavinia at the duty free, an equally putrid grappa-like alcohol.
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