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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Born(e) in the USA - Some Hits

With the weather turning colder and pumpkins in the air, I figure if I don't recap my late August/early Sept. foray through the American southwest, it just ain't going to get done.  Already, my memories of tumbling tumbleweeds, cacti, mesas, and soaring vistas seem more hazy hallucinations than concrete visions seared in my mind's eye.  I don't know why Co. and I ended up where we ended up, but I have vague memories of waking up in the middle of a bleak February evening last year in a cold sweat screaming, 'My country for a decent taco.'  [You can imagine a couple exclamation points after that scream - I can't type them myself because of a personal pledge I took sometime last year to accept the fact that one should use no more than one exclamation mark during one's lifetime, a figure I had far exceded shortly after I learned to write back there in grade school a hundred and fifty years ago.  We live in an era of purposeful misspellings ('ur' for 'your,' etc.) and far too many exclamation points and emoticons.  I don't know, maybe as I get older, I'm far less shocked by anything, and so I don't have to pretend I am anymore with pathetic indicators of 'gasp.'  So sue me.  I digress.

Getting back to those taco-infused nightmares, they assuredly had something to do - no, a lot to do, with the sorry state of Mexican food in Paris.  I know, people are always suggesting that Anahuacalli is the real deal, and the New York Times hyped Hacienda del Sol (Anahuacalli's little brother), and though they may not be horrid like most of the Tex-Mex pretenders in Paris, I think I'll pass.  I tried Anahuacalli back around when it first opened - I think it must be about 20 years ago - and despite a decent, yet hardly spectacular meal during one of my youthful-period birthdays, I thought it was pretty low to try to rip off a guy on his birthday by spectacularly overcharging on the wine just because I couldn't fake a decent French accent at the time.  I can assure you, though, I have never dipped into a bowl of nacho chips on a French table that did not include a bowlful of stale chips.  Maybe the French incorrectly assume that nacho chips are supposed to have the consistency and taste of pieces of cardboard, or, maybe they're just stale.  Enough complaining.  At least I had some brief excursions to Monterrey, Mexico over the years to temporarily slake my cravings for the real thing.  But my Mexican period has passed and so it was that Co. and I boarded a plane to Salt Lake City, Utah to start our five-state swing, ending up in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Let's start with the 'hits.'


There are only three reasons to visit Salt Lake City.  The first was our primary incentive - to have a direct flight from Paris that would put us close to the area of the southwest that we wanted to visit.  The other two reasons, which are now our other incentives, are the restaurants Red Iguana and Red Iguana 2, which we visited after our arrival in town and on the night before our departure, respectively.  Before turning to the Iguanas, I know what you're thinking.  As I write this entry, the US is a mere 10 days away from the 2012 Presidential election, with Barack Obama and Willard "Mitt" Romney going down to the wire.  Of course, given the cyber-perpetuality of blogs, at least for the foreseeable future or nuclear holocaust, whichever comes first, this likely will all be old news by the time you get to read this.  You either will be somewhere along another four years of "at least he won't screw anything up really bad" Obama or "lord, why did they ever vote for "flip-flopper, I sure had you fooled during the campaign, didn't I" Willard.  And if it is indeed, lord help us, the latter, then the world will probably have had it's fill of Mormons.  Well, I was in Salt Lake City a grand total of two days and believe me, no offense intended, I have already had my fill of Mormons, especially all those, like pod people, who kept approaching us in the town center asking if we had read their little "On Becoming a Mormon" pamphlet.  Just in case you ever find yourself in that situation, I am going to tell you how you get a pod person to go away without being rude and with as little fuss as possible.  When they approach and ask, "And how are you today, Sir?," answer without missing a beat, "I'm glad you asked - actually, not so good, my hemorrhoids are really, really acting up today."

On to Iguana(s).  Unfortunately, you can't reserve at either venue, the second opening up in the wake of the overwhelming success of Iguana 1, just a couple blocks away.  That means waiting outside on the sidewalk - or if you are lucky, the single bench available for sitting, in the dry heat for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.  But bring some reading material and engage in some southwest US people watching and you'll find the time will pass quickly.  We ended up at a table near the back in the Iguana, which by all appearances, seemed more intimate than the more expansive front room.  Serenaded by some friendly musicians, who took requests, we also had a chance to engage in a lively discussion with the owner, who came to our table after learning that we had come from France.  I started off with a couple choices off the extensive tequilla menu, while Co. played it cool with some house sangria.  Given my procrastination at writing this entry, I can't really get into all the details of what we ordered - now mostly long forgotten - but I do have some photos.  And I can say, I remember vividly the excellent, fiery Mole Amarillo ($15.70) that I had at the Red Iguana.  It was "fiery" as advertised and required a few more tequillas to quench.  Where do you think those hemorrhoids came from, anyway. . . man, come on, just kidding.  And by the way, the nacho chips were fresh and crunchy - not anything like the tasteless cardboard I had come to loathe.


To add a little spice to Mexican dining life, we checked out the Iguana around the corner before our departure from the US.  It was definitely a different experience in terms of ambience, but the food was represented by the same "killer' (in a good way) Mexican cuisine as the original RI.  This time, rather than wait for a table on the veranda, we took a table after only a 10- minute wait by the window looking out on the veranda at the end of a cavernous room, big enough to serve as an airplane hangar and filled to the brim with young, boisterous Utah diners.  This time, I dug into the Red Pipian, chicken with a pumpkin seed sauce, not as fiery as last time, but as tasty.  The waiter made a mistake understanding the tequilla shot I had asked for, bringing instead a Cazadores Marguarita, which I drank heartily without nary a complaint, at least until followed up with the unadulterated stuff.

Both dinners for two, including drinks, ran a little over $50 each, not including tips.  Not a bad start and finish to the US trip.

736 West North Temple
Salt Lake City, UT
tel.  801-322-1489

866 W. South Temple
tel. 801-214-6050

(By the way, these street addresses are not a misprints - for some reason, Utahans like to confuse visitors by giving directions like, 'just go down to north 13 west Main street, it's right around the corner from east north 17 west".  I really don't know why they do this, but just remember this on election day.  It could be a Mormon thing.)

And, yes, there is a Red Iguana 3, located in the city center at City Creek Center Food Court, 28 S. State Street.


Right on the heels of the Iguanas, another big hit came in Kanab, Utah at Rocking V, a short drive from our recommended B&B, The Victorian Inn (190 North 300 West; 435-644-8660).  Now, other than its proximity to Bryce Canyon and Zion Park, V may be the only reason to visit Kanab, a town with exceptionally little to offer, and which boasts a speed trap, which isn't really a speed trap, on the main strip - a police car with a mannequin "cop" on the front seat - boasting a Hitler-like mustache, no less - to dissuade drivers from passing too quickly through Kanab lest they miss the town's missing delights.  Wait, I'm not being fair.  There is a cool little Western trinkets/clothing shop/cafe - a tourist bus delight - within walking distance of Rocking.  What's cool about it is the Western movie sets museum in the back, including some sets from Clint 'the empty chair' Eastwood's 1976 Western opus, Outlaw Josey Wales.  Visit at night to get the real effect.

At any rate, as I mentioned, Rocking V turned out to be a pretty good dining experience.  Hussled upstairs past the filled lower dining room - boy, they eat early in the US - we were attentively served by Jennie, our waitress, or was it Ginnie, no, maybe it was Minnie, who the hell remembers.  Let's call her Jennie, and why not?  Jennie made it a point - endlessly - to complain about the crowd downstairs every chance she got, and to commend our luck for being in the 'quiet' room - a rather spacious upstairs space.  The $13 smoked trout appetizer (I can't say 'entree' here because we're in America in this installment, where an entree is an appetizer and a plate is an entree, and did I mention they really eat early in the US?) was pretty good, despite being exceptionally against my doctor's orders for the trip - no smoked fish, he intoned, rather ominously.  Oops.  It was at V's that I had my first fish tacos.  Yes, it is true.  No longer am I a fish taco ($18) virgin.  It was time.  Avidly looking forward to losing it after reading Don Winslow's Savages (now probably destroyed as an Oliver Stone over-the-top adaptation), this was the first of many fish taco meals I had during our trip.  I know, I know, fish tacos in the US West are probably equivalent to Big Macs or hot dogs in the East, but what are you going to do?  Let's put it this way - now that I've had my fill of fish tacos and can go on with the rest of my life, I think I appreciate the tacos I had during the trip more now than then, especially now that I've had the opportunity to make my own, using several recipes, and they are never as good as the ones I had in the US.  I guess the proof is in the sauce.  Co. had the southwest corn trout ($21), followed by a caramel pecan cheese cake - to some it is fish tacos, to others it is pecan cheese cakes, if you know what I mean - all washed down with a decent Cabernet ($33).

The tab, with one tomato-based soup and a shared caramel pecan cheese cake came to $104.  Poor Jennie, up and down those steps, plodded through, wearing her game face, generally managing to be helpful and amiable.

We checked out Escobar's the following night, far cheaper and with a significantly toned-down atmosphere for some hard-core basic and fundamentally decent Mexican food.  It might have been Rosa Escobar herself who plopped herself down next to Co. at our picnic-table like table and gave her the lowdown on the differences between enchiladas, tacos, and burritos, or it may have been Henricata, or Maria, but it definitely was not Jennie.  But if you want to drink, it better be beer.  The kind of place you go after work to unwind.  It wasn't Mexico, but the next best thing.

97 W. Center
Kanab, UT
tel. 435-644-8001

373 eAST 300 South
Kanab, UT
tel. 435-644-3739
To be continued.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Roseval - No Rosebud

I always gagged on the silver spoon. 
- Charles Foster Kane

Although Roseval apparently signifies some sort of potato, given that there wasn't a single potato on the menu, I'd prefer the allusion to Citizen Kane's 'rosebud' as the lead-in to this review of the new neo-bistrot in a quaint courtyard of the Menilmontant section of Paris.  With the damp stones glistening in the mid-October evening and the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix looming just across from the pretentiously unpretentious facade of Roseval, who could resist?  A two-week wait for a reservation offered little impediment to Co. & I snagging a back corner table in the 20-seater platformed dining room. Once past the bar, we once again found ourselves initiating the evening as the first-to-arrive.  As we passed the bar, with waitstaff lingering, all eyes were on us - the welcome seemed genuinely friendly enough.

Rosebud . . . the symbol of the lost innocence of youth, and if anything, I couldn't get that reference out of mind during dinner at Roseval.  By the time our second dish had been served, the room was largely filled, with two two-seaters conspicuously standing unoccupied.  The procession of 20-somethings, each warmly welcomed like old buds, cheek-kissed, and greeted by the tag team chefs, Michael Greenwold and Simone Tondo, who both looking positively 20-something themselves, despite their pedigree of having served in the kitchens of the usual suspects, aka Chateaubriand, Rino, and Caffe dei Chioppi, all previously and copiously reviewed here.  Anyway, those 20-something patrons all looked so unlike anything I could remember of my youth, when neither myself nor my peers would go out for a casual dinner on a Friday evening and drop the equivalent of 40€ for a 4-course meal (already upped from July's 35€), or 47€ with cheese, or 65€ or 77€ accompanied by chef-selected glasses of wines, at one of the  aspiring trendier venues in the big city.  And given the no-choice fixed menu (see below), it's not like they could enact a 'why don't we take one plate and one dessert and share' policy.  No sled-riding for these young comers, probably sent off to the Alps by their well-heeled parents for indulgent ski vacations.

Given the lack of choice for food, I had extra time to peruse the wine list, and as I began my perusal, it was all Greek to me - actually, it was Italian, but you know what I mean.  At least the first four choices were Italian, and given our very satisfactory bottle last weekend at Vilia, Co. and I decided to continue with a good thing.  No Sardinian offerings this time, Roseval's Italian reds were from the Piedmont region and once again, I had no clue.  That's where our bouncy waitress, another exuberant Le Chateaubriand refugee, began to give advice, droning on in French to the point at which my addled brain was saying 'flip a coin.'  I was mildly admonished for leaning toward the two more reasonably-priced 'classical' bottles - whatever the hell that's supposed to mean - and not the heavily pushed 60€ bottle that seemed to be the bee's knees according to the waitress.  When the dust cleared, I ordered the 38€ 'classical' Langhe Nebbiolo 2010 (Babaresco), much to her apparent chagrin.  It was fine, but didn't turn out to reach the heights of Vilia's Sardinian.

The meal got off to a great start, albeit lacking a mise en bouche.  One of our neighbors, waiting for her gentleman companion, was brought a small plate of little white tidbits, likely some cheese, but perhaps some cubes of sugar that were never offered with my end of meal cafe, so if you want a mise en bouche at Roseval, tell your companion to circle the neighborhood for about a half hour before parking and you'll probably get one.  The great start was the dish of casserons (pulpe), poireau, and an egg yolk.  My photo is somewhat blurry, but this inky dish was terrific, with each ingredient making perfect sense in enhancing its overall Gestalt.  We greedily lopped up the vestigial ink with some very good country bread.

Talk about coming back to earth with a thud.  The cepes (enveloped in a single ravioli circle) - moelle - cresson follow-up didn't do much for me.  Served cold and very green, this one brought more pleasure to look at than to eat.

Ranked right in the middle in terms of pleasure-giving effect, the canette - betterave dish was pretty good, but absolutely smothered in betterave, both the red and white varieties.  Apparently the duo chefs knew better than we did how we prefer our meat to be cooked, because we weren't asked.  I had no complaint in that regard, but Co. was a bit disappointed the canette wasn't bloodier, although I'm not sure the dish could have gotten much redder.  The dish was half-eaten before it occurred to me that I hadn't photographed it, so here's what was left by the time the realization hit me.  If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you know I'm a big proponent of the potential wonders of cooking with betterave, but this one was a bit overwhelming.

At this juncture, our waiter brought us a freebie lead-in to the dessert, a very tasty cup of panna cotta.  I didn't mention the waiter yet, did I?  How could I forget.  This guy, albeit competent in serving, started grating on my nerves about halfway through the meal.  I don't know, there is something about a guy looking about 16 with that holier-than-thou smirk masquerading as a smile that seems to beckon 'hit me' that gets to me.  For some reason, he kept reminding me of Neil Patrick Harris's Doogie Howser, the precocious teen doctor of sit-com fame, which I guess is pretty funny.

Like frere Doogie, the dessert was competent, continuing the multitudinous sauce motif, though hardly spectacular.

With dinner done, I opted for a cafe and intoned to Co. that 'there will be no accompanying patisseries, mark my word.'  Little did I realize that there would be no accompanying sugar, either.  True, I never take sugar in my coffee - never - but how did they know that?  This just isn't done in a French restaurant.  To add insult to injury, once the credit card machine was brought to the table and I paid (total: 121€), frere Doogie brought Co.'s coat to the table and draped it over her chair.  No. 2 in things that just aren't done in French restaurants.  What is the message here?  Okay, you paid, now get the hell outta here.'  Sorry, here we pay and we linger - the French way.  It's not like there were customers waiting outside for a second serving.  I was a little taken aback when Co. beckoned the exuberant waitress to the table to point these things out, because Co. usually is pretty subdued, especially after half a bottle of wine, but the 'it happens' and 'he means well,' explanations definitely fell a bit short.

So what to make of Roseval?  Two talented chefs, no question (see Alexander Lobrano's photos of what appeared to be a more satisfying set of choices than we experienced, and from whence I borrowed the interior photo above) and a charming location, but the owners come up short with regard to customer relationship acumen.  It must be nice to pay one's dues at some successful venues in town and open up a spot where you can kibbitz with your 20-something friends, but the rest of us expect some respect.  Ultimately, you find more empty tables, like the one I don't intend to occupy again.  Rosebud, Rosebud, where art thou Rosebud?

Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything... I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a... piece in a jigsaw puzzle... a missing piece.
          Jerry Thompson, Citizen Kane reporter 


1 rue D'Eupatoria
75020 Paris
tel: 09 53 56 24 14
website: www.roseval.fr

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vilia - Viva Italia

Who says timing isn't everything?  Had I seen the new Woody Allen 'Italian' movie, To Rome With Love Thursday night instead of Saturday night, I would have cancelled my Friday dinner reservation at Vilia, another new neo-Italian restaurant in Paris.  No disrespect to the Woodman, who has made some of the great films of all time (Manhattan, Annie Hall), but To Rome is not only just plain horrible, it is tortuous.  Filled with cliches, Italian stereotypes, lame jokes that die with a loud thud, bad acting, terrible casting (Ellen Page as 'sexy, weird love interest'?, Penelope Cruz as an Italian hooker?  Woody Allen as a retired avant-garde opera director? ouch) my stomach was so upset after watching that sorry excuse for entertainment - are Woody and Judy Davis the most tiresome couple in the history of cinema?) that an Italian dinner would have been the last thing on my agenda.  But as I've said, timing is everything, and so Co. and I were able to benefit from a very satisfying evening at Vilia on aforesaid Friday evening.

Easy to reserve (that's becoming a much underused term in the capital these days, unfortunately - as in the ever elusive Septime and the equally slippery new kid on the block, Abri) and even easier to find - rue de Cotte, we strolled into Vilia around 8 pm and, as the first patrons, had our choice of a mere handful of tables.  Seating capacity at Vilia is, by my own bleary-eyed count, 22.  We grabbed one of the few lone two-seaters - lest getting crammed along one of the 6 or 4 seat tables, against the back wall, but nonetheless in the center of the action - bar against the right wall, tiny kitchen outside of my view down a small corridor in the back.  Recipe for success - take an old shop on a hip, buzzing street in Paris, build it into a restaurant, man the kitchen with a young, charismatic, confident chef, and they will come.  And restaurant bloggers will write their glowing reviews (e.g., Heidi Ellison, me).  An old furrier shop, Vilia is centrally located on a street where I wouldn't mind having a tiny apartment.  This is the third - you can look it up - restaurant within a few square meters of the same street that I have now reviewed at this site.  The superfantastic La Gazzetta is directly across the street, and the disappointing Miel & Paprika is just next door.  And if you aren't satisfied with those options, keep walking, there are plenty more venues in the neighborhood.

Co. & I, as is our habitude, opted for the 3-course menu (36€ per person) in lieu of the cheaper 2-course option (26€).  Not much in the way of choices - 3 entrees, 3 plats, and 3 desserts (or cheese).  But let me tell you about the wine first before we get to the actual grub.  Normally, I don't talk much about the wines at this site because I, gasp, am not an expert.  I adhere to the Don Winslow school of oenology, neatly summarized in his book, Savages, as follows:

The wine world is basically divided into red and white.  (We ain't gonna go far with this -- wine types are almost as hateful as tweekers.)  Every great wine-tasting session should end with arsenic.

And we might add John Niven's observation:

If you have to stop drinking, you're a fucking loser.

Okay, so much for esoteric wine philosophy.  The wine list at Vilia is short and sweet, or moitie-moitie, half French and half Italian.  When in Rome, as they say, so I asked our waitress's advice for a good Italian red and ended up with the very satisfying Cannonau Costera (28€).  Not long after sitting down at our table, the ruggedly handsome, foulard wearing, crazy chef/owner Marco Silvetti whipped past our table to snag a couple bags of DeCecco rigatoni off the mantlepiece, commenting that it is a key ingredient to success - later, we were able to verify that first-hand.  But shortly after our Costera arrived, Marco came by again and we had a brief chat about mutual origins and Italian wines, and here is what he said about the Sardinian-based Costera:

Sardinia, where the ground is hard and the people are silent.

Cryptic enough to enhance the flavor of the wine, which was very much like a French bordeaux, but with something special.  Full-bodied and somewhat sweeter than the French wines I am used to drinking, this bottle held up well throughout the meal, though I fear it might become a bit overwhelming on multiple occasions.  As for the food to wash down, Co. fared better than I did with the entree, thoroughly satisfied with her souffle of oursins (sea urchin), which I sadly did not photograph - but it probably would have been blurry anyway (see below), me less so - having bypassed the mackerel dish for a soup of langoustine, calamar, and clams.  Not to say it wasn't good, but I had hoped for something more special.  This soup struck me as a pretty typical fish soup, no bells or whistles.  Or as Annie Hall might have intoned, 'lah di dah.'

But just a second there.  Did I mention, no I didn't, that shortly into our first dishes, Marco wheeled out into the dining room a barrel-sized block of hollowed out cheese, poured a couple pots of that DeCecco rigatoni inside, and mixed in some broken-up parmesan cheese along with, not sure here, olive oil (?).  When Co. inquired just what exactly he was up to, he responded by bringing a small bowl of the pasta melange to our table, a somewhat belated, but generously welcomed, mise-en-bouche.

Well, let me tell you, this elegantly simple preparation was, in the jargon of today's youth, awesome, dude.  The pasta was al dente - tender but firm - and the cheese al perfecto.  I would have happily scrapped the 3-course menu and devoured a couple bowls of this dish.  But, alas, that was not to be the case.  Nonetheless, I felt pretty good about having chosen the pasta plat - raviolis mozzarella et bufala - three raviolis rectangles bearing small chunks of shrimp.  Co. went with the poulpe dish with charlottes and creme.

Once again, the pasta won out, though both dishes, as we swapped to verify, were rated 'tasty' on the tasty scale, perhaps with Co. a tad underwhelmed by her calamar.  The dessert choices didn't send shivers up my spine, and given Co.'s predilection for the tartelette with yougurt and strawberries, I took the waitress's advice and went with the creme brulee romarin et citronnelle, after she downgraded to no. 3 the third possibility, a panna cotta.  Not much of a creme brullee enthusiast, I did appreciate the sweet concoction that appeared before me.  Co. went euphroric over her hands-on, non-imposing to the naked eye tartellette, now bearing chocolate, as a late-night replacement for the yogurt - how does one run out of yogurt?

So, in sum, a satisfying, laid-back night.  Italian, yet not totally, which I am sure will keep Vilia as an interesting option, especially when you can't get reservations at La Gazzetta or Caffe dei Chioppi.

Arrivederci, baby.

26, rue de Cotte
75012 Paris
tel. 09 80 44 20 15
no website
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