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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Vive la France!

Read enough expert opinion on food and they'll all have you believe that French food is as dead as the fish in your bouillabaisse.  Instead, they say, if you want to eat interesting food, go to New York, London, Tokyo, Copenhagen, San Sebastian...

Another trip back to our friendly, baguette-munching neighbours, and I've come to the conclusion that French food is really not.

Dead I mean.
At least for now. And at least in France. Despite all the articles claiming otherwise that keep popping up with such monotonous regularity.

In fact I think I blame New York and London (and other such cities that pride themsleves on being heaving metropolises of culinary sophistication and global gastronomic diversity) for the bad rap that French food has suffered of late. I challenge you to find a French restaurant in all of NYC or London that doesn't cost you your months pay check. For food that makes you wonder if they forget to transfer the rest of your serving from the cooking pot.

I have tried, believe me. Tried and failed. Truly. I have given my custom to several French establishments in London. Not because I'm a glutton for punishment, nor because I'm rich. Ha, trust me, that, I'm certainly not - but because I needed to convince myself, by myself, that this great city cannot, in fact, produce even one half-decent French restaurant. I did. Convince myself I mean. And become a glutton for punishment. Not to mention even less rich than I previously was. Which renders me virtually penniless.

Because after all that trial and error, you see, no matter where you go and how many red M-stars they showcase on their front door, the plate placed in front of you seems consistently to consist of some creative permutation or other of the below-mentioned:

A 2" x 2" cube of canard, sandwiched in between two layers of pastry, served on a crib (because bed would be too large) of pureed potatoes, with a single glazed carrot lying forlornly on one side and a perfectly shaped teardrop of mint-pea jus on the other. Sometimes you're fortuitous enough to deserve a sprig of rosemary scattered artistically across the plate. But only if the chef is feeling particularly generous.

It almost makes one too scared to eat, for fear that it will all be gone in one mouthful and you will be left staring for eternity at an empty plate. Until, that is, you conjure up the will to part with many notes with many zeros on them. That done, you no longer have to stare at your empty plate, because that's the point where you leave.

Then of course all the way home, you are trying (and yes, failing) to ignore the rumbling inside your tummy. And then, when you do get home, in a moment of weakness you  give in and call your trusty local Dominoes, who brings in a large pepperoni in 30 minutes or your money back and you pay him in coins because all your real money has been spent on the cube.

This by the way is after waiting about a month to get a booking because everybody else also apparently enjoys spending a great deal of money on a duck-cube.

I mean, what good are stars, chandeliers, or white gloved waiters when you need to go home after eating out and order pizza? In fact, every time I see the word "amuse" and "jus" on a menu I want to go in and slap the chef because it simply means he's not putting anything on my plate.

Then of course is the small matter of the service at these places. Everything you do is wrong. And everything you don't do is wrong. Basically, it's all wrong.
If you order tap water, you are wrong. If you don't order an aperitif you are wrong. If you ask for food suggestions, you are wrong. If you don't ask for wine suggestions, you're still wrong. Not ordering an appetiser is wrong, substituting fries (yes yes the french ones) for vegetables is wrong (or vice versa) and god forbid, if you dare to share your dessert, you are so wrong, you might as well just give up and go home. Or be prepared to endure that look from your waiter - albeit a white gloved one - yes the one that makes you feel like a school girl in pigtails being told off by the headmistress. Or a school boy. In whatever you boys did to your hair, how would I know. Anyway, you get my point. And that's just the thing you see - of the many crimes against gastronomy that I've encountered in my life - putting up with waiters who have perfected the art of treating paying patrons as an annoying inconvenience, is invariably the worst.

So. Yes. There's all this talk of the demise of French food.
Aha, you say.
You nod your head.


I have just returned from sojourns to the land of fashion, love and food, and have to admit that all three - and most definitely the last - are not only very much alive; they are superlative.

Every Auberge kitchen we had the pleasure of dining in left us licking our chops.
Menus - creative
Portions - plentiful
Service - delightful
Price - affordable.
Win. Win. Win. Win.

And I'm not easy to please. Ask Siddy.

There's much too much to get into if I were to recount our every meal, but I will just one.
Which was one of the nicest meals in the history of ever.

This was a place we happened to walk into, basically because it was there. I mean we were walking by rather aimlessly and it was lunchtime and the place looked busy and bright and smelled great. Which is always a great give away by the way. In times of doubt, trust your nose. Anyway. The place is called L'Hydropathe if you're interested. (No, don't ask me what on earth it means.) (And why it rhymes with "psychopath".) (And yes, even though I'm heaping generous praise on the French for their good food doesn't mean I don't think they are a strange lot with strange names).


We order a plate of "guinea fowl stuffed with dried fruit"
And this is a thing of beauty.
Succulent meat heaving with bits of nutty, crunchy pistachios, and tiny diced pieces of fig. There's no creamy, heavy sauces here - just the natural juices that seep through from cooking the meat. Light, lush and packed with flavour. It is served simply with a handful of salad leaves that are so fresh I feel like they've just been picked from the chef's grandmothers garden.

The plat du jour (which I always, always recommend you get by the way - doesn't matter which restaurant, doesn't matter which part of France because it always emphasises the freshest of seasonal ingredients) is a "filet of perch served with legumes" (i.e vegetables).
The thick, meaty fish is flame grilled until hot and crisp on top, served alongside a cool lick of goat's cheese yogurt. Spankingly fresh. Under the fish sits basil-infused greens - broccoli, beans, courgette and the tiniest, most delicate leaves of Swiss chard that are so intense that I have a small head rush from the combined flavour of it all.
No words.

We didn't do too much dessert. Mostly for fear that if we started, we'd never stop.
And that's really not great for the waistline.
Which I constantly stress about.
I'm vain you see.
With a penchant for good food.
Which is such a tricky combination, sigh.

Anyhow, we did sample a knock-your-socks-off chocolate eclair; the outside surgery and warm, the inside, dark chocolate cream, both rich and delicate. And an apricot tart, all butter baked crusty heaven, the custard a dense sweet velvet. The apricots are circles of expertly caramelised flesh that veritably melt in your mouth. Utterly perfect.

All accompanied by a truly excellent glass of some Bordeaux red I'd never heard of before in my life.

No M-stars, no gilt-edged mirrors, no chandeliers, no white gloved waiters.
Just good food.

Maybe we got lucky.
Who knows.
What I do know is that the next time I'm invited to eat French food, I'm going to make sure it's in France.

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