Book Review: Michel Houllebecq’s The Elementary Particles

The Elementary ParticlesThe Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When in France… Well, I’d heard about Houellebecq for years but never picked up anything until ‘The Elementary Particles’, much celebrated and much discussed, though I stayed away from reviews until I finished the book. It seemed like a good book to read in Paris.

Immediately, I was swept into the book: the story of two half-brothers, both emotionally crippled but one withdrawn into the world of science and intellect and the other plodding along in an unhappy life in pursuit of sexual… not satisfaction, but release and distraction.

I loved how quickly the author drew the stories of the main characters and their worlds, with drive and flair, setting them within a social, political, philosophical and economic context, with references to philosophy, physics and genetics. I loved how unafraid the author was to express opinions and to really create a story that tries to grapple with intellectual and moral questions through his characters. I read the depressed and nihilistic characters as satire, a parody, that was telling me about worlds I am unfamiliar with.

But then the book sort of stalled. As brother Bruno is hanging out at a new age enlightenment wilderness retreat, hoping to get laid, it started to feel that there was little satire and that the author in fact shared the views of his characters, anti-religion, anti-Muslim, dismissive of homosexuals; both brothers are deeply damaged by their childhoods, unhealthy in their relationship with the world and others in it.

I completely lost patience when he killed his third female character by suicide. This after a world which felt like wish fulfilment where women exist simply to offer up their bodies to men’s taking, stroking their egos, even helping initiate them into orgies and couple-swaps. I had no problem with the sexual explicitness; I disliked that the sex felt like such joyless fantasy.

He gives one woman spinal necrosis, and the next uterine cancer, and then has both of them commit suicide as a combination of the hopelessness of their condition and their abandonment by male lovers who were too damaged to really care about them fully. It’s strange enough that an author would repeat a major plot device only a few chapters after he’d used it the first time, but this plot device: really?

There is philosophical coherence, a narrative flair that one of the brother’s brilliance leads to scientific discovery and that the hope for humanity lies in cloning… and thus avoiding human relationships, sexual encounters and other messiness. Therefore, it makes sense that all the characters end in misery. But I found, in the end, that I felt a bit like a fool for have entered into this dark world, that illuminated neither my light nor dark.

Finishing the book, I read the reviews to find some ardent fans, and some prominent non-French critics who wonder what the fuss is about. ‘…bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile,’ said Anthony Quinn in the New York Times, which made me laugh, while the grande dame of literary criticism, Michiko Kakutani, also of the NYT, called the book ‘repellent’, written by someone who ‘despairs of the human condition’.

I can imagine some friends liking the vehement anti-religiosity of the book, and finding his ferocious cynicism and grumpiness appealing… but I won’t be exploring any more of M. Houllebecq’s oeuvre.

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Restaurant Review: Le Caviste Bio

A meal in an organic wine store: why not?

Le Caviste Bio
50, rue de Maubeuge
75009 Paris

+33 148783003

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We could have guessed, by thinking about the name of the restaurant a little harder, that a restaurant wouldn’t naturally name itself ‘wine store’. But since we didn’t, it was a very fun surprise to arrive in the 9th arrondissement, and enter into a charming wine store with a big table in the middle of it for people to sit at for dinner. I think about 80% of the wines in the store are organic and it was also fun that people would come in during our meal, by wine, and quietly exit.IMG_2317

This neighbourhood gem has a Japanese chef, paired with the most charming older gentlemen as a host, who also happened to be training up his young grandson that night to serve us.

It was a very charming atmosphere and food to match. S has a tuna tataki to start with. I had the most perfect house-made foie gras imaginable. For a main, S had entrecote, a steak. A little fatty but tasty. My scallops in a sort of brick shape was tasty.

IMG_2319The desserts were really delicious… I had île flottantes. I love this dessert. A delicate barely cooked egg white mixture floating in a sea of vanilla cream. But I’ve never had 4 little islands in one dish. S’s matcha crème brulée was not as pretty, but pretty marvelous.

Ah, and as expected, we were recommended the most delicious bottle of pinot noir with a medium weight to match both steak and seafood.

I have to admit to jealousy though. The table of four Brits sitting next to us ordered a prime rib roast. When the chef brought it out to show them before it was cut, I gasped. My god, it looked delicious, although as the French like it, it came out very rare. Still, I’d love to go back with more people just for that one dish. Drool.

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Restaurant Review: Au Cul de Poule, Reims

An interesting contemporary take on the French bistro with great service and champagne.

IMG_2338 A mini-break in the Champagne region. Hotels were booked up in Eparnay so here we are in Reims. A quick survey of Tripadvisor a few days in advance had most of the top-ranked restaurants booked out. It’s possibly because Tuesday is a holiday, Armistice Day, and people are taking off Monday and doing the ‘pont’ (bridge).

Tripadvisor in France partners with the Fork, and it seems a pretty canny business, to be able to tell me on any given night which restaurant will take my reservation. I worry about them shutting out the restaurants that don’t work with them, but in general, I have terrible trouble trying to make reservations in France. Places are always booked up, and I still need to train myself to try to organise at least a week in advance…

In any case, Au Cul de Poule was free to take our Saturday reservation and I was amused by the name. I didn’t look it up to find that the bottom or tail end of a hen is somehow the name for a mixing bowl. We had an interesting walk through Reims, about 25 minutes from the train station, to find ‘At the mixing bowl’. I much preferred our own previous IMG_2339translation: Chicken Butt.

The restaurant is bright yet cosy, with a theme of almost electric blue. The marvelous thing right off is they have a huge selection of champagne from the region, big names and small names. I was completely lost but asked for a suggestion for a cheaper one, somewhere around 50 euros, and the very efficient waitress suggested this one for 43 euros. It was dry as a champagne should be, and we loved it.

We opted for the three course formula which at 30 euros is really, truly a great deal. The menu is a twist on the bistro: familiar items but with a twist. We found each dish not too heavy and quite interesting. My started was a buttery stew of escargot and mushrooms; S’s was a clam risotto which he liked a lot.

His main was ‘dos de lieu’ which I think is hake, in a foie gras sauce. A nice texture, but he felt it was a little bland. It was served with a serving of chopped endives, pleasantly sweet. I adored my main: ‘poitrine de cochon’ sounded to me like the chest of pork… but is actually pork belly, cooked for 24 hours. With an absolutely delicious mash and thick sauce, it was dee-licious.  IMG_2342

Desserts were impressive. Mine was a mille-feuille, which they called instead 500 feuille. Freshly baked pastry with a very light pistachio cream, raspberries and berry (or plum?) IMG_2344sorbet. Visually appealing, light and not too sweet.

S’s dessert, something like Paris-Ile de Ré, was also a pastry filled with crème anglaise, salted caramel ice cream. Oh and more cream.

Oh, and I do need to comment on the service, exceptionally efficient, and also friendly and welcoming. Tip top.

All in all, a very pleasant meal. Cheers to champagne!

 

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Restaurant Review, Le Felteu, Paris

Le Felteu is a tiny bistro, hidden away on 15 Rue Pecquay in the 4th arrondissement in the Beaubourg neighbourhood. We had a lovely mid-week meal there, as memorable for the host’s big, friendly energy, as for the food. It strikes me in Paris that whenever tourists come across a bistro that strikes them as authentic, is quirky and inexpensive, they adopt it as their own and rave about it… and certainly Tripadvisor is filled with some great reviews. IMG_2308

We arrived around 7:45pm to find out they don’t open until 8pm. I was thinking that our early eating habits would serve us well, in getting us seats before others arrived, but when the restaurant isn’t open, that’s not so helpful. The host very purposefully sat everyone who had reservations first, and it seems like we were the only table to sneak in that night without a reservation. So, cheers to us.

But hey, there were barometers in the wall in the shapes of small guitars, one wall and ceiling area that looked like it would collapse from water damage and mould, and the charming chef would pop his head out every once in a while. This was a two-man operation.

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The menu comes out on a chalk-board with the special of the day on one side and a relatively small set of choices on the other side. We thought it was amusing that we asked for wine, and were brought a carafe of red. There didn’t really seem to be much of a choice!

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S.’s pate de campagne was perfectly delicious, and my goat cheese salad, with the cheese hot and melty on bread swimming with olive oil was… delicious.

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I thought the mains were slightly plainer. S’s Osso Bucco, a special of the day, was served with spaghetti and was appropriately tender and tomatoey.

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I didn’t quite expect a whole fish (‘bar'( when I ordered it. But here it is. It was perfectly done.

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The real highlight came with the gratin that we ordered on the side. Do not miss this if you go! Slightly sweet, was there nutmeg and cinnamon with the potato, possibly sweet potato mash.

IMG_2313All in all, a nice quiet neighbourhood meal, probably a step above most bistros, but not extraordinary. Fun though, authentic and reasonably priced. Oh, cash only. Don’t forget.

 

 

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Restaurant Review: Dessance, Paris

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Dessance was a truly interesting and memorable meal: while saying they focus on the sweet part of the flavour spectrum, all the dishes emphasized flavour, and we loved the savoury dishes as well. 

Ah, welcome to Paris to us. For our first special meal out on this part of our journey, we headed over to the Marais, just north of the busy strip, to try a restaurant recommended to me in the most modest and traditional of French bistros, Le Pied de Fouet in the 7th, by a lovely older woman who started a conversation with me after I offered to fill her water IMG_2280glass. If you’re new to Paris, you must try this interesting restaurant, she’d explained. They prepare the food right in front of you at the counter. The specialty is food that has a sweet or sugary flavour, such as sugary vegetables.

In retrospect, that’s what she said to me. At the time, what I understood, combining the sentences together was that they candied the vegetables right in front of you at the counter. Which is kind of an interesting image.

Not knowing what to expect, we arrived at our early dining time 7:30pm, which seems useful in Paris since everyone else arrives after us! The design is chic but also light and open. We thought that all of the staff were adorable. Of course we had to have the full tasting menu, but we matched it with a regular 5 glass of alcoholic pairing instead of the extra-special pairing.IMG_2281

The first course, paired with a gewurtztraminer, set the scene. Artichoke puree, velvety and savoury, with three kinds of mushrooms and a sprinkle of slightly burnt crumbs, which we think was smoked mozzarella. It was a stunning combination of flavours. Loved it.

The plates and bowls by the way had a lovely feeling combining ceramic and slate. Very organic.

The next course I think was the prettiest. I mean look at this. Gorgeous. It was a sashimi of dorade (I think this is bream) surrounded by three kinds of cauliflower, including the fabulous romanesco broccoli, and a sprinkling of a herb.

IMG_2282I thought he said genevre, which would be juniper, but I think his English and my French failed us. The fish was slightly warm, the vegetables, some slightly steamed were cool, and the purple cauliflower was raw (or barely cooked). So, the interplay was between heat and cold, textures, colours, and a slightly salty and acidic cure of the fish and a clean taste of vegetables. This was served with a sparkling pink champagne or wine. IMG_2284

A slightly simpler next course. Lentils in a slightly sweet fig puree with a sorbet of tarragon, and possibly another vegetable creamy puree but we weren’t sure what it was. Light, tasty and again, some interesting contrasts of flavours and textures.

Oh my god, did I love the next dish. Burrata, that creamy slightly sticky and strangely textured version of mozzarella, what’s not to love about burrata?

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With a sorbet of mustard leaf, and candied oranges below, and kind of a gingerbread crumb with it… It was offset by the sharp slightly sour taste of IMG_2288some Gueuze Belgian beer. One of my favourites of the night.

By this time what I’m figuring out is that the sweet notes are accents, and perhaps even the emphasis of the dishes, but by no means do these dishes taste more like desserts than savoury courses.

Certainly the blackberries in the next dish were a burst of fructose… but with the thinly shaved fennel and the cream and crumb pulling it together, neither savoury nor sweet were dominant.

IMG_2290Did I mention how fun it was to see the chefs at work? We’ve sat the counters of Fourteen and Momofuku in Sydney, and really enjoyed the experience and show of seeing chefs at work. But this was much more intimate and boy were they working hard! A main chef and two main assistants, composing each dish at the counter, each labour intensive and complicated. I suppose it was made possible in that everything was that everything had been prepared before service, and little required an oven, and none required a fry pan. I it was great to appreciate the thinking, planning, timing and artistry involved.

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They served filtered water, both non-sparkling and sparkling, which was a nice touch. Here’s the head chef, preparing the most impressive looking dish of the evening, a Baked Alaska, or as they call it here: Norwegian Omelette (because why would something from Alaska be so far away here in Paris). Loved the piping of the meringue, he’d put it into the oven and was timing it somehow in his head, and would always turn around and pull them out at the exact correct time THEN pour flaming whiskey on top of them. Once, he served with a glass top to keep some of the smoke inside so when lifted, the smoke wafted out in front of the diner.

IMG_2298Delicious AND they served it with whiskey. Smoky and sweet. They served a second dessert at the same time, a nice touch so we split both dishes between use. The other was served with whiskey as well, a butterscotch concoction which could have been a typically rich sweet dessert but there was such a zing of lemon hidden in this one, it made it quite out of the ordinary. Loved the red plate too.

(Here’s a photo below of the Norwegian Omelette in its full glory).

IMG_2297Just when I thought I had eaten far too much and couldn’t eat any more, they brought out a final little plate of treats, marshmallows with pink pepper, a piece of pumpkin with kumquat sauce, that looked like a little raw egg, and a Magnum, frozen red berry sorbet covered in chocolate.IMG_2299

We were très happy with this meal, the incredible food, the show and the service. The host asked us something as we left, after he complimented me on my bow tie, and I completely missed it in French so he translated it into English: When would he have the pleasure of serving us again?

Definitely again, we answered, before we leave Paris!

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Book Review: Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha HaPaddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sigh. The last time I was suckered into reading a Booker Prize winner and disliked it was Ben Okri’s Famished Road.

When I was in university, the imprimatur of a Booker Prize told me that the book was worthy of attention, of world-class quality and that I should really get around to reading it.

All of my friends read Booker Prize books!

So, seeing this on the bookshelf of my AirBNB apartment, and having read a Roddy Doyle book or two in the past, I thought I’d pick it up and see what the fuss was about.

There’s no doubt that Doyle is a fine writer, and he inhabits the character of a young boy, mischievous, tough and poor, all of ten years old. We are let into his world, of shifting friendships, a disliked teacher, rough games in the neighbourhood, a younger brother loved and hated. His relationship with his parents is mostly loving, though his father’s mood changes often.

The entire drama of the book is hinted early: Paddy detects problems between his parents, and doesn’t know what to make of them.

The thing is: he inhabits this boy perfectly, and do I really want to hang around a 10-year-old boy for the length of an entire book. Too often, characters of children in adult literature or wise beyond their years in a way that you just have to accept that it is the way the story is told.

But here no. What I did find magical was this inhabiting of a consciousness, where the adult reader knows more of what’s going on in than the narrator, and how different scenes are drawn in short, colourful brushstrokes that say a lot. And yet, I would have preferred a novella or short story. Too much of the book was the same, his love-hate relationships with other boys in the neighbourhood, the long roaming around.

Perhaps it just depends on the reader whether Paddy’s world is going to interest you or not, and whether Paddy will grab your heart. For me, not really, and as I remember enjoying other Doyle books much more, for the humour and dialogue and (adult) characters, this was a disappointment, in spite of poignant literary bang at the end.

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Paris Resale Shops – Men’s Clothes

As a teenager, I always loved thrift shops because of the hidden surprises within, the bargains, and the bargain surprises. So, after developing a taste for nice clothes in Europe (with much coaching from friends who were appalled by my Canadian fleece and gortex style), the natural progression from thrift shops was to consignment stores or designer resale shops.

I’m not sure which were the first shops I stumbled across, but I loved looking through second-hand clothes of a higher quality, and seeing if there was something I wanted. I was scornful of designer labels in my youth, but after living in the amazing fashion city of London, I learned that there’s a reason that beautiful clothes cost more, and it’s not just the name of the brand. I found out that fashion is fun, that I enjoyed wearing nice clothes, and that finding something special that suited me was exciting.

It’s become a part of my travel itinerary if I’m in the right city. The right city for designer resale shops or consignment shops is somewhere where people wear nice clothes, and want to get rid of them on a regular basis. Women’s shops are common enough, but men’s not so much. In Sydney, there’s only Blue Spinach, which has wonderful charity sales twice a year, but their prices are still out of my range. Designer clothes are very expensive here, and not worn by many – so even at consignment prices, prices don’t come down that much.

After a March 2011 trip to Paris, I wrote down my results from my little mission to check out some of Paris’ resale shops, known as depots-vente. That post was one of the most popular to ever appear on my blog, so now that I’m back in Paris for a period (Oct 2014–Feb 2015), it’s time for an update!

It seems like there are a lot more men’s resale/consignment stores in Paris then there were a few years ago, but since there were really only one or two, it’s all relative.

Chercheminippes seems to be an empire of resale stuff. There’s a woman’s store, an accessories store, a junior store, a regular sort of charity shop, and then a Men’s store at 111 rue du Cherche-Midi (in the 7th arrondisement). I actually thought the clothes were of good quality and with an interesting range. Some fabulous sweaters which I’ll go back and grab when it’s colder (“Pulls”, they’re selling them everywhere this month).

I have to say I had high hopes for Plus que parfait at 23 rue Blancs Manteaux, in the Marais in the 4th arrondisement, just off Rue archives. Oh Paris, you’re too expensive for me. There were some absolutely beautiful suit jackets and dress shirts there… from top name designers. That’s the thing. Prices start at 100 euros and jump far up from there. I suppose if the original goods are 500 euros and you’re getting something here for 200, it’s a deal! There was a dominance of formal wear here: suit jackets, winter jackets, dress shirts. There were some shelves with sweaters and jeans in the back, but a much smaller collection. I didn’t see anything that made me even fantasize about having enough money to buy it though.

Likewise for Les Beaux Mecs, at 18, rue Jules Vallès 75011 Paris. Here the prices were fairly expensive, but I didn’t see much that I recognised even. It’s a fairly small store and seemed like an OK selection but I was non-plussed.

Unless things have changed, Misentroc (63 rue Notre-Dame des Champs, Paris 75006. Tel. 01-46-33-03-67. Metro Stop: Notre-Dame des Champs) only has clothes for women.

Free ‘P’ Star (8, rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie) is another shop in the Marais mentioned on fashion sites. In fact, it had rave reviews, claiming ‘one-of-a-kind pieces that appeal to the Parisian trendsetters’ and that it was frequented by celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola. Sometimes, I think these blog writers just need to have something to say. Maybe they were fooled by the website, which is a fetching shade of hot pink and makes the place look really groovy. The shop has an air of cool, but is just a regular crappy second-hand clothes stores, not designer seconds, more like used army-gear, and plaid shirts, jeans and crazy dresses. You find these shops all over Amsterdam. All over the world in fact.

I’d recommend instead going to any of the many branches of the Kilo Shop. It is CRAZY how many clothes are in these vintage shops, that do sell clothes by the Kilo. The thing is that there are so many of them, in such variety, that there is actually some kind of cool stuff. If I was a fashion student, I would be buying old cool stuff, and reshaping and cutting them into today’s fashion, mix and matching some funky casual wear from here with a carefully chosen more expensive purchase from somewhere else. My boyf and I both both Palestinean scarves, and I was tempted by a French military hat.

Réciproque (88-101 rue de la Pompe, Paris 75016. Tel. 01-47-04-30-28. Metro Stop: Rue de la Pompe), in the 16th arrondissement, is the resale shop most often mentioned on the internet. There is a whole complex of stores each specializing in something – accessories, shoes, boots. I actually visited the men’s store in 2009, not this trip, and didn’t find the men’s selection particularly good. I bought an ‘Eden Park’ dress shirt that reminded me of my Paul Smith stripy shirt, and a ‘Sergio Tacchini’ zip-up athletic jacket in a shade between purple and pink that I can’t name. Nice enough but neither of them were favourites. I’m going to try and check it out and see what it looks like in 2014.

In 2011, I was lusting after Alternatives (18 rue du Roi de Sicile, Paris 75004. Tel. 01-42-78-31-50. Metro Stop: St Paul). It was a small, charming shop in the Marais that I found locked when I got there. They only wanted a few people in at a time so they can provide good service. I was drooling after various shirts by designers such as Alexander McQueen and Dries Van Noten. I think it’s probably closed now.

Episode, at 12-16 rue de Tiquetonne just up from Les Halles is listed on a few websites. Part of a Dutch chain, it is absolutely stuffed with clothes, crazy kimonos, sweaters, military uniforms, business shirts and more. Not a consignment store, and not much designer wear, so I’d put it in the same category as Free P Star and the Kilo shop.

Finally, not a resale store but instead an outlet sales store. We stumbled across Numero 50 at 50 Rue Ste Anne and it had some great men’s (and women’s) clothes at great prices, and they change their stock to different designers every few weeks.

I suspect that Paris isn’t the right place for men’s consignment stores. I think that well-dressed Parisian men hang onto their clothes, and wear them out so they’re not in any shape for resale. The majority of the affordable items that I saw were from cheap chains like Zara and H&M and why buy second-hand items from them, when you’d be able to get them on sale there for the same cost or less. Browsing around, it seems that there are a lot of discount and sale stores that sell a limited number of brands, so that’s probably the way to find clothes deals in Paris.

If you’ve got a taste for designer resale for men, other cities are going to suit you better. Better to stop in at the Dress for Less on St. John Street in Islington, London (or scour their charity stores which will turn up an amazing amount of very high quality designer clothes… for a pittance). The best ever of course is the Ragtag chain in Tokyo. I’m still wearing shirts and jackets I bought from there: Issey Miyake, Lanvin, Stephan Schneider, Paul Smith… Even the last time I was in Vancouver, there were some pretty good shops these days. Turnabout had some great items.

Anyone else have advice on Paris Resale Shops for men? A hidden gem I missed? Or even your favourite Men’s resale shops elsewhere? Leave a comment! This is one of my most popular blog posts, so surely someone has some advice to share!

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Book Review: Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French: A New Life In Paris (Memoir)

Almost French: Love and a New Life in ParisAlmost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written in a breezy journalist’s style and with the brief to write about culture shock in Paris, this book was interesting and insightful enough, providing me with some good background on living in Paris and about Parisians, who in four months I may or may not really meet! It’s an easy read and I didn’t take it particularly seriously.

Having been through an experience of a New Worlder trying to fit into the Old World when I first lived in Europe, it made me feel a bit melancholy, remembering some of that shock and loneliness and that expectation that somehow life should be easier than it was. And now having lived in Australia for ten years, I think that allowed me to enjoy the book more, as her cultural reference point for comparison is Australia.

Some of the early cultural adjustments though, don’t seem to be necessarily about Paris. They are about living alone in a new city, about trying to find a career and get started, about working on one’s own.

I did enjoy various cultural observations and snippets of information; and it felt like there was truth to them: dealing with French bureaucracy, the thousands of little dogs around here, the pride Parisians take in dressing. I liked the insider views of her interviews with a top chef and a top designer and a visit to Paris Fashion Week.

Some of what started to feel more interesting and deeper, observations of a changing city, economic and cultural change, was topical, and now, over a decade since the book’s 2002 publication is a bit out of date.

It felt incomplete though, six years of struggling to understand her new life in Paris and the revelations were quiet ones. There was never a very deep exploration into one aspect of society that was backed up with historical information or much more than observation.

And more importantly for me to connect with the book, there wasn’t a deep enough exploration of her personal journey. The book is purportedly about the romance that brought her to Paris, but her husband is mostly absent. The relationship is touched upon, not explored deeply. It was not that kind of book and yet by all accounts, it seems pretty magical to meet one’s love of one’s life, pursue it whole-heartedly and make it last. I assume that her husband’s support was really what allowed her to survive all of the challenges that are described, but it doesn’t come across that way. The experiences here are gentle, funny and bumbling tales of adjustment.

Similarly, the pain of exclusion and trying to find one’s way isn’t expressed or perhaps deeply felt. I think by making the best of it, the author put a bit of a happy gloss so that what comes out is slightly complaining and resentful, hanging onto slights at parties and experiencing unfriendliness. I wanted more feeling and more vulnerability than these light-hearted anecdotes.

Still, if you find it on the shelf of your Paris rental apartment, as I did, I would recommend it. I read that Turnbull has continued with a successful writing career, and I suspect that her insights and perspectives would be more interesting to me these days, with a bit more experience around her belt, rather than the young writer who reminded me of my own slightly complaining and bumbling self, when I was trying to adjust to Brussels and London, pretending I was much more light-hearted than I was.

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Restaurant Review: Près d’Eugenie (desserts)

This August 2014 trip in the southwest of France, I’ve found that we’ve had many memorable meals, that included inventiveness in the entrees and mains, but that the dessert was often basic, traditional and simple, probably based on something local or seasonal. They were usually lovely, but not outstanding. The desserts here broke this rule. S’s delight had a name we couldn’t decipher at the time. And still can’t. I think it was the: Un Soufflé Époustouflant à la Verveine du Jardin, the astonishing soufflé. Or was it Le Gros Baba Roulé-Boulé-Soufflé aux Senteurs d’Orange. Hmm, I think it was the soufflé.

The maitre’d (at least I think he was the maitre’d), who looked like a French Tim Gunn (from Project Runway), shared the anecdote with us that when Pierre Hermès, famed macaron and dessert creator, comes to Près d’Eugenie, he does not ask whether Michel Guérin is working that day, he asks whether this dessert is available. He also said that Hermès likes the dessert because it is so ugly, and isn’t something he could display in a store window, but is the perfect combination of textures and flavours, acidity and cream.

It was S’s favourite dish. I found it amazing in that it was not particularly sweet, nor showy, but it was, as was described to us, a perfect combination of textures and flavours. Served with a raspberry dessert wine, it was perfection.

Me, I had a chocolate plate “of kings”: Le Dessert du Roi ‘Tout en Chocolat

Petit Pot de Crème,
Sorbet,
Gâteau Soufflé et Mirliton

It had a little chocolate soufflé, with a perfect crisp skin, soft and unctuous and not too sweet, a little chocolate mousse or pudding, some more rich and fudgey chocolate topped with coffee granita (the clean texture of ice a perfect contrast to the richness of the chocolate) and a perfect little apple tart. Each was wonderful, and as a gourmand rather than gourmet, I liked being able to try so many different things. The sommelier chose to serve it with a Don Pedro Ximenez sherry… from 1927. I still can’t get over that. Five years before the year my Dad was born. It was rich, sweet, dark, smooth and grand.

This was a heavenly finish to an amazing meal.

[I planned on adding photos to this review… but am now away from my home computer for a few months so can only grab a few from Facebook. It will look much better with some photos…]

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Restaurant Review: Près d’Eugenie (overview)

10574355_10152333366557671_632480135753592057_nDuring our trip in southwest France in August 2014, S. and I decided that, in addition to numerous regular yummy meals, we would treat ourselves to one particularly f*ing excellent meal. S. is good at research and presented me with a few options, which I reviewed and he allowed me to choose. Our choice was Près d’Eugenie, presided over by the famous chef Michel Guérard and his wife Christine, an heiress to the Biotherm company. A three-star Michelin restaurant, it’s also a hotel and health spa and since the 70s, has turned a small town an hour or two from Bordeaux (and 8 hours drive from Paris) into a destination for wealthy food-lovers and holidaymakers.

But what would a three-star Michelin star restaurant be like? Sydney has some spectacular restaurants these days, and we’ve also treated ourselves to some fine meals overseas (Geranium in Denmark being a stand-out). Near the end of two weeks of travelling around to some wonderful spots in southwest France, I was curious, though hadn’t put much thought into it. I’d also not done too much research in advance. For example, my gathering of general knowledge had someone missed out on knowing that the Michelin stars for restaurants came out of the Michelin travel guide which was an offshoot of the Michelin tire company. Which all makes sense if you think about it which I hadn’t.

10441148_10152333365957671_2890535243467726331_nOur Sat Nav told us we’d arrived at our destination, and it was to our right, in Eugenie des Baths. Both of us looked over at the modest local bistro on the main street called Bistro d’Eugenie and thought, ‘Could that really be it?’ But two minutes further, there was an entrance to a grand estate with two well-dressed gentlemen at the gate to direct us through. So, this is what a three-star Michelin restaurant looks like. This is not at all just a restaurant. It is an ESTATE. With gardens and trees, all pruned and manicured, a huge main building with a spa off to the right, and tables with umbrellas in the front courtyard. It is a huge property, stately and beautiful, and we were kind of blown away by it even before we went in.

We were invited, upon entering, to have a drink in the ‘salon’ and were lead to a wing of the building with three large rooms in a design that combined old French drawing room with colonialism (animal tusks and two zebra skin chairs). There were bookshelves, leather chairs, and a grand piano. Our cocktail, the speciality of the house, had armagnac, crème de cassis and champagne and at 20 Euros each, cost alone more than our share of the meal the night before, delicious pintos in San Sebastian in Spain. But boy, was it tasty. Along with the cocktail they brought an incredible selection of amuse-bouche to accompany it, which made it rather more worth the price.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a restaurant where you get to relax and choose your menu in the salon… We sipped our cocktails, took numerous photos of each other and ended up choosing the most expensive menu, the ‘Enchanted Palace’, because the various delights of truffles and lobster and the dessert options were too tempting. The woman explained each dish and element of the dish with flair, and where there was a choice of two or three options, we each chose one so we could do our usual trick, of switching plates partway through (which the waiters thankfully pretended not to notice).

10590659_10152333365607671_8942249173475455268_nIn this age of ten-second blog posts and (website) lists, I think I might break with my regular model of blogs to do individual posts on dishes and courses, and leave this to just describe our entrance and exit, and overall impression but let me just say that the service was impeccable. It seemed very prescribed in terms of a hierarchy, the attractive wait staff smoothly moving around from place to place, perhaps in an orderly presentation to remove cloches (the only other time I was in a restaurant that used cloches was in Durban, South Africa and was done quite awkwardly). There was one beautiful woman whose role it seemed was just to ask whether all the courses were OK. Chef Michel made his rounds and came by and said hello, which we loved. He seems a lovely, gentle soul. HIs wife, Christine, who I think has taken the main role in running both the accommodation and the management of the hotel seemed a little shy, perhaps of foreigners speaking French badly!

10511286_10152333365842671_7026659330480509167_nWe decided that the meal would best be accompanied by a different glass of wine with each course, and we could leave it up to the sommelier to choose for us. The wines were wonderful, though I didn’t write them down. The Pouilly-Fumé that accompanied the lobster, with body and a smokey flavour, was a particularly amazing match, though drinking a 1927 Pedro Ximenez Sherry matched with various types of chocolate was… just… too… good. We didn’t ask the price of the matching wines beforehand so were pleasantly surprised at the end when it was about what could be expected.

10625132_10152333366342671_1618028138716217667_nAfter lunch, very full of both food and wonder, we took coffee in the front courtyard (lovely, as well with a candied orange and a chocolate biscuit). At 10 euros, it was the most expensive espresso of our trip, but it was part and parcel of the experience. We paid the bill of 330 Euro each, best not to think about it but one, we treated this as a very special occasion and two, this seems the price in Europe to pay for this quality of food, service and experience. Then, we went for a little walk around the back where we saw the full extent of the ‘spa’ wing, a vineyard and a swimming pool for guests of the hotel.

10511218_10152333017757671_7679571331133386389_nSo, now, we’ve tried a three-star Michelin restaurant.

A summary? While Michel Guérand is credited with ‘la cuisine mincer’, or slimming cuisine, we would bet our lives that this wasn’t it. This was rich, buttery, creamy food with intense flavours and luxury ingredients. The cooking techniques, I’m guessing, are contemporary adaptions of the classic, not tricky or molecular, but refined and stately, yet lively at the same time. I really wondered how, with less courses, Michel would match the heights of the degustation menus we’ve sampled with 12-20 courses each, but each dish here was substantial, and special.

The setting was completely unexpected in its grandeur and glory. It is perhaps not as old as I thought upon first entering, but it’s obvious that Madame Guérand comes from the background and experience to have created authentic and classic luxury, which I’ve never experienced before in such a form. Match that with the best of French service and spectacular surroundings and this truly was unforgettable, or as you would say in French, “incontournable”. We feel very lucky to have been there!

[I planned on adding photos to this review… but am now away from my home computer for a few months so can only grab a few from Facebook. It will look much better with more photos…]

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