Archives for June 2011

Restaurant Review: Lemon Grass Thai

There are a few Thai restaurants in the University City area, but Lemon Grass (3626 Lancaster Avenue) is my favorite. When BFF and I weren’t in the mood for Indian (or we didn’t feel like trying to sneak into the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s cafeteria on the top floor of our building), we’d head over there. This place has one of the best deals around, as you can get three-course lunch (appetizer, soup, and entrée) for $8.95.

When Chester and I are craving Thai for dinner, like we were this past weekend, there’s usually no discussion about where we’ll end up. On our most recent visit, the restaurant was pretty quiet, since its summer and most of the college students have skipped town. But, even when it’s really crowded, service at Lemon Grass is quick and efficient (yet another reason why it’s a great spot for a workday
lunch).

Actually, maybe efficient is not the right word to describe the service. Brusque might be better? Or, maybe even rude? The same two waitresses are always on duty. From the minute you sit down, you will think that they hate you—and everyone else in the place for that matter. They will expect you to know what you want even before you sit down, and they’ll get a little angry and roll their eyes if you ask for an extra minute. They may also try to grab your plate before you actually finish your food. It’s a little awkward.

But, Lemon Grass makes up for these shortcomings in customer service with the food. The menu has a variety of traditional and vegetarian appetizers, salads, soups, and entrees to choose from. Some of them have funny names (my personal favorites are Young Girl on Fire, a Cornish game hen that is doused with whiskey and set on fire tableside, and Evil Jungle Princess, a spicy chicken dish).

But, Chester and I are creatures of habit. He gets the same thing every time we go: The Golden Rings, which are calamari rings fried in a beer batter and served with a sweet and sour sauce, and the Beef Pad Thai. I rotate between a couple of different things. For an appetizer, I either get the coconut milk soup or the steamed Tulip Dumplings with chicken, crabmeat, and shrimp. And, for an entrée, I like the Musaman Curry (which is heavy on the coconut milk, just the way I like it!) or the Drunken Noodles (BFF’s favorite too!). Portions are generous and you can request that the spiciness of the dishes be adjusted, based on your preferences.

I haven’t ordered dessert here in awhile, but the fried bananas are my favorite. They are battered with wheat flour and coconut flakes, fried until they are perfectly crunchy, and served with a warm vanilla custard sauce for dipping. I may have to have Chester dig out our deep fryer to make those at home soon!

From the Farmlands to the Valley

On the third day of our trip, we hit the road early once again to make the trip to Mont Saint-Michel, our last stop in the Normandy region.

Mont Saint-Michel sits on an island in the middle of the Gulf of Saint-Malo. When this floated into view along the horizon, I was speechless. And, as most of you probably know, I’m rarely at a loss for words. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the most magnificent sites anywhere in the world.

In the car, approaching Mont Saint-Michel.

Now, without the dashboard in the middle of the shot.

Mont Saint-Michel was originally used in the 6th and 7th centuries as a castle, a fortress against invasion, and a place where hermit monks lived. It became an important pilgrimage site for Christians in the 8th century, when the Archangel Michael (supposedly) appeared to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the site. When asking nicely didn’t get him anywhere, Michael burned a hole in St. Aubert’s skull with his finger, and the church was finally dedicated in 708 (I really must learn that trick). The monks built the site 500 feet high in the rock, to get as close to heaven as possible. Mount Saint-Michel became a major pilgrimage site, even though visitors had to navigate through quicksand and unpredictable tides to get there. During the French Revolution, the site was used as a prison.

With all of this beauty and history, it’s no wonder that, according to our Fodor’s guidebook (and Chester, who actually read it!) it’s the most visited site in France, after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. It’s a bit easier to get to now, since there’s a nice causeway and parking lot, so getting there is a lot easier. But, you still need to follow the directions carefully when you park, or your car may be under water when you get back from you visit.

We made our way into the village which grew up around the abbey. Today, it’s lined with hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants, museums, but with the crowds of people all around, it was probably very similar to what pilgrims to the site experienced centuries ago, as they made their way up the narrow, cobble-stoned main street leading up to the abbey and its church.

It’s best to stop for breakfast before you start the climb.

Rest assured, you can find the perfect gift here for the Michael Jackson fan in your life.

We finally reached the top, for our visit to the abbey.

On the abbey terrace, in front of the church, looking out into the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The little black spots at the bottom are some brave people walking back from that island in the center. This is kind of dangerous, because there is quicksand out there still, and the tides are very powerful!

The abbey church

I would like a cloister in my next house.

Not the best photo, but it's creeeeepy.

After our tour, we stopped for lunch in the village.

I was torn between a scallop dish, and the traditional fish stew of the Normandy region. I ordered the scallops, but the waiter bought out the fish stew. Something must have gotten lost in the translation. I was kind of glad for the mix-up though, because this dish was excellent. The scallops, salmon, sea bass and mussels in the stew were some of the freshest I have ever had. They were served in a creamy broth that had a hint of white wine and lemon.

If I lived in Normandy, this might be my go-to comfort food.

Chester had the pork chops, which were topped with bacon. You can never go wrong with pork and more pork. I like how they included about four carrots, just to break up the pork overdose.

And then, we had some more cheese.

After lunch, it was back to the car for our three hour tour to the Lorie Valley. This region, located in central France, is known for being a production center of fruity crisp wines. Throughout the area, there are also many extravagant chateaus.

Our first stop was the town of Amboise, which was once the home of the French royal court. Leonardo DaVinci also came to live (and eventually died) in the town, at the invitation of King Francis I.

Château d'Amboise, home of King Francis I. Perhaps my summer home someday?

Clock Tower in the town square

Wine barrel garden. Kind of like my aunt's backyard in South Philly.

Dinner time rolled around, and for some reason, there was nothing that the both of us wanted more than a burger. We found a place in the main town square that served them. Strangely, there was a fried egg on top.

There is actually a burger under there. I swear.

As Chester said, “well, they tried their best.” It was good, but not great. I think Bobby Flay may need to consider going over there and opening one of his burger palaces.

While Amboise is a lovely little town, I would not recommend the Hotel Chaptal, where we stayed that night. This place has the distinction of being the worst hotel that we stayed in on the trip, and perhaps the worst hotel that I’ve have ever stayed in.

Bad hotels make Chester sad.

I’m 99% sure that we were the only people staying there, but they put us in a room at the furthest corner of the hotel, which we had to walk through dark, creepy hallways to get to. The room was stifling hot and I’m pretty sure that the mattress was carved out of stone.  Worst of all, it was eerily quiet. Well, except for the sound of bats outside. We slept with the television on that night.

Restaurant Review: Sitar India

I started going to Sitar India (60 S. 38th Street) when I was a poor college student. The first time I went, I swore that I wouldn’t like it. Indian food? Gross. One trip here though, and I was hooked. When my BFF and I worked at Penn, we went here for lunch a couple of times a month (on one of those trips, I fell down the front steps. I still have a scar on my knee). Today, it’s Chester and my go-to place for a quick dinner before our shows at the Walnut Street Theater.

Although you can order from a menu, the main draw of the place is the buffet—it’s all-you-can-eat and ridiculously cheap (about $9 for lunch, and $12 for dinner. If you have a student ID, there’s a discount). This is probably the only buffet I don’t mind eating from. It’s clean, and since the place is usually packed with starving college students, things usually don’t sit out for too long.

There are usually about ten different dishes on the buffet—chicken, goat, lamb, and lots of veggie options—plus naan, salads, chutneys, and desserts. My favorite things are the chicken tikka masala, veggie samosas, and the paneer mattar. Everything has just the right amount of spice, for me anyway. They usually don’t vary the selections too much, but sometimes they have these Indian style chicken wings that Chester really likes. Desserts are just okay—rice pudding, fruit custard and sometimes, ice cream. They have only offered my favorite Indian dessert, gulab jamun (kind of like a munchkin, served in a cardamom flavored sugar syrup), once, if I remember correctly. But, I’m usually so full after eating everything else that I don’t have room anyway.

The inside is kind of dark, with red tile on the walls, so it’s kind of like being in a swimming pool or something. The yellow paint and red curtains outside are ugly. So, it’s not much in terms of ambience. But, the food and the service is consistently good. And, when I’m there, I can pretend I’m still a poor college student (Ugh. Has it really been seven years since I actually was?). That’s good enough for me.

Oh, and at dinner, they give you mango juice. Bonus.

Cows, Crepes, and D-Day

I tried really hard to think of three things that started with the letter C for this post title. I failed.

For our second day in France, we hopped in the car and made the trip to Bayeux to take a tour of the D-Day invasion sites.

On the way, we made a brief stop in Rouen, the historic capital of the Normandy region and the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It was early on a Sunday morning and the whole town seemed deserted, until we reached the town square and saw that everyone was at the outdoor market, doing their shopping. Chester took some great photos of the yummy produce, poultry, and pastries that were for sale there, but the memory card from his camera malfunctioned and it won’t give our photos back! Womp, womp. We’ve sent it off to some computer geeks with the hopes that they will be able to recover the files. If so, I’ll share those photos in another post.

We had our only run in with law enforcement on this leg of the trip, when Chester made an illegal right turn. The police officer who pulled us over sighed and said “but of course,” when Chester indicated that he was American,  and then simply pointed us in the direction of Bayeux. I’m sure he was just glad we were getting out of his town.

We arrived in Bayeux and were picked up at our hotel by the guide from Normandy Sightseeing Tours for an afternoon tour of the D-Day landing sites. I would highly recommend this tour company. The guide was extremely knowledgeable about all of the sites and could answer any question that members of the group posed to him (I will admit that he looked really young, so I was skeptical at first!). The tours are conducted in small groups and it was nice to have transportation to each of the sites, as some of them are a bit out of the way from the center of the town and I feel like we might have gotten lost on the winding roads leading to them. The company offers tours of varying lengths—from a half-day, to a full week, as well as customized tours for travelers who want to cover specific sites, so there are a lot of options available depending on your time and budget.

As we started off on the tour, the guide provided a little bit of history about the Normandy region and talked at length about the different kinds of cows found in Normandy. The brown and white cows are Norman cows, and the black and white cows are Dutch cows, which were brought into the country because they could produce a larger quantity of milk than the Norman variety. The Norman cows, on the other hand produce a higher quality product. Nevertheless, you can see them all living together in harmony in hillsides throughout the region.

A Norman Cow. From http://wwiifoundation.org/our-mission/wwii-foundation-blog/

According to our tour guide, the cows even played a role in helping the American troops figure out where German troops were camped out during the war. The cows would simply stop in their tracks and stare at any people that happened to be around, thereby alerting the Americans to where the enemy was.

Anyway, enough about the cows.

We saw four sites on the tour: Point du Hoc, where American Rangers scaled 100 foot cliffs to dismantle German guns that could have fired on the forces landing on Omaha beach; Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, and the batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, a German naval battery.

Looking out from a bunker at Point-du-Hoc

Cliffs at Point-du-Hoc

Omaha Beach

Memorial and Reflecting Pool at the American Cemetery

Crosses at the American Cemetery

Longues-sur-Mer battery

It is truly humbling to see all of these sites. Everything seems so peaceful now that it is easy to forget that some of the most intense fighting of World War II took place here, and that approximately 9,000 people were wounded or killed. Looking out over the rows of white crosses in the cemetery is both tragic and beautiful. Being there in person makes you feel very patriotic and makes everything you learned about in history class come alive. Even if you are planning a trip to Paris, try to make a day trip to Bayeux to see the D-Day sites—it’s only one or two hours away by train.

After our guide dropped us back off at the hotel, we ventured into the center of Bayeux to walk around and have dinner. Bayeux was the first city in Normandy, having developed in the Middle Ages, and was also the first city in France to be liberated during the war.

For dinner, we went to L’Insolite, a creperie. Many of our restaurant recommendations, including this one, came from Trip Advisor. It didn’t really steer us wrong the whole trip and is a great way to narrow down restaurant choices in a place like France, where there are so many options to choose from.

We sampled one of the signature products of Normandy, cidre, which is produced from fermented apples. It was light and fizzy, but didn’t make me feel tipsy.

We each ordered a galette, which are large, thin pancakes made of buckwheat.

The Popeye, with spinich, mushroom, cheese and egg.

Chester's Forrester Crepe, with mushrooms, egg, and the best bacon ever. It's actually more like ham.

Then, we split a dessert crepe, with favorite combination of bananas and nutella. The batter had a nice lemony flavor and was not as heavy as some of the crepes I’ve had here at home.

We walked off dinner a bit by strolling around the center of town. Bayeux has a beautiful cathedral in the center of town. (Side note—all of the cathedrals I saw on this trip reminded me of Pillars of the Earth, which talked extensively about the building of cathedrals and how towns sprung up around them. Excellent book, so-so miniseries).

Exhausted from another full day, we headed back to our hotel to rest up for our drive to the Lorie Valley, the next stop on our trip. If you like bunk beds and extremely small bathrooms, the Premiere Classe is for you.

Obviously, Chester likes bunk beds.

Restaurant Review: Opa

We interrupt our tour of France to bring you a restaurant review.

When I was in college, I spent two years working for Victoria’s Secret. In that time, I learned more than I ever though I would know about underwear. I got hit on by many a creepy man who came in to buy stuff for the girlfriend and/or wife who was “just my size.” I learned all about the best ways to shoplift (a duffle bag lined with duct tape, in case you were wondering, is a good way to avoid detection. Running into the store, grabbing a whole table full of merchandise, and running out is less subtle, although some brave souls have done it). During this time, I also made a bunch of awesome friends. A few of us try to get together once a month for dinner, if our crazy schedules allow it.

This past week, my friend Rhonda and I tried Opa, which bills itself as a modern Greek restaurant. It’s located in the Midtown Village section of Center City–roughly between 11th and Broad Streets and Spruce and Market Streets.  In recent years, this formerly sketchy area has undergone something of a Renaissance with the opening of boutiques, restaurants (including two of my favorites, Lolita and Barbuzzo), and upscale apartments.

I’m not sure what, if anything, was in the space before Opa moved in. But, when you step inside, it easy to forget that you are on Sansom Street in Philadelphia, and not in Greece. The restaurant is decorated in cool blues and greens, with white accents, and light wood furniture. The bar in the center is made out of river rocks and has a birch canopy above it. The lighting was subtle, so that the whole place had a warm, soft glow. It’s a very natural, relaxed, and welcoming place. (Sorry for the lack of photographic evidence in this post, by the way. I’m all snapped out from France.)

On the recommendation of our server, Rhonda and I each ordered the Antho— a cocktail made with cucumber vodka, lemon and dill. It was so refreshing—the perfect summer drink. The menu is comprised of small plates (mezedes), as well as larger, entrée sized plates. Everything sounded delicious, and Rhonda and I decided to split a few of the mezedes.

We started off with three of the mezedes, and then decided to forgo entrees and ordered two more. Here’s what we had:

1. Trio of dips—Hummus, tzatziki, and tirokafteri (spicy feta cheese dip), served with the softest, warmest pita I’ve ever had, as well as olives, cucumbers, and pepper strips. We enjoyed all three. The hummus in particular was really good (I’ve never really met a hummus I didn’t like)—it was kind of smoky instead of garlicky.

2. Keftedes—Greek meatballs. I’ve had these made with lamb before, but Opa’s were made with veal. They had nice hint of mint, but could have maybe used a little bit more bread crumbs or something to keep them from falling apart when they were lifted out of their cast-iron dish. They were served with a chunky, ouzo tomato sauce.

3. Zimi—baked pita filled with feta cheese. It’s kind of like and empanada, and was the only thing we weren’t really blown away by. The pita was dry and the whole thing kind of lacked flavor. We both kind of dipped it in the delicious tomato sauce from the keftedes, but that didn’t really seem to help.

4. Gyros—these where in a miniature presentation, kind of like sliders. I think this might have been my favorite thing. The yummy pita made another appearance and the lamb was cooked to a perfect medium rare. There was just the right amount of tzatziki sauce for the small size of this gyro.

5. Saganaki—fried kaseri cheese. I think that this is usually the dish that’s often doused with ouzo and set on fire tableside. They did not do this at Opa. Probably a good thing, for this small space. It wasn’t overly boozy, which was fine by me. And, Rhonda and I ate the whole thing, lamenting the whole time that we should really lay off the cheese. We just couldn’t help it.

The portions are more than enough to share—we certainly did not leave hungry (and we didn’t have room for dessert!). Next time I go back though, I will definitely try one of the larger plates. If we had opted for entrees on this visit, I would have either chosen the striped bass with garbanzo bean soufflé or the bifteki, a feta stuffed burger.

Be sure to put Opa on your list of places to try this summer. Try to go with a group if you can, so you can try a bunch of different things on the menu, like Rhonda and I did. Prices are pretty reasonable too—mezedes range from $6 to $12, and the larger plates from $11 to $24. Even with drinks, it’s not bad for a night out in the city.

Before we even left Opa, we were working out the details for our next two outings this summer—brunch next month, and dinner in August. That’s how much we love to eat. Stay tuned to find out where we end up (I know you can hardly contain your excitement!).

Pasta with Mascarpone, Chicken, Tomatoes, and Spinach

Today, I had a major kitchen fail, involving strawberry shortcake cookies. So, today I’ll share something that I made before we went on vacation that was a bit more successful. I’ll be trying again with the cookies next week, hopefully with better results. I’m not writing them off yet, especially because the strawberries I’ve been buying this season have been amazing. I need to do something with them.

Anyway, this dish came about because I was really craving something with mascarpone cheese. Mascarpone is a thick, creamy, slightly sweet cheese that’s often the main ingredient in sweet items, like tiramisu. The first time I ever tried mascarpone cheese was actually in stuffed French toast many years ago. I’ve been in love ever since, and I’m always sad that I don’t see it used in more things. It’s pretty versatile, and can be used in savory dishes. For example, it makes a good substitute for ricotta in lasagna or can be melted down to make a sauce, as in this easy pasta recipe.

This is a good summer pasta, because it’s quick and easy to make (only took about 30 minutes). The sauce is very light and lemony—In fact, I think I would use slightly less lemon juice/zest the next time around because it overpowered the mascarpone just a bit. I could see the sauce being a nice complement to many other vegetables, like asparagus, or even squash in the fall.

Pasta with Mascarpone, Chicken, Tomatoes, and Spinach

By Deborah Mele

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • Chicken breast (I think I used three), diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 container of grape tomatoes (recipe calls for sun-dried tomatoes, but I can’t eat those)
  • A few handfuls of fresh spinach
  • 1 package of pasta
  • Olive oil
  • Salt/pepper to taste

What to do:

1.  Combine lemon zest, juice, mascarpone, and a bit of pepper in a bowl. Whisk to combine.

The cheese will come out of the container as thick as cream cheese, so make sure you stir it quite a bit to loosen it.

2.  Cook the diced chicken in the olive oil until it begins to brown. Add the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste, and cook   through.

3.  Cook pasta, taking it off the heat a minute or two before it reaches al dente (this is important since you’ll be putting it back over heat to combine the rest of the ingredients and you don’t want mushy pasta).

I like fun pasta shapes. This is Campanelle. It means "little bells" in Italian.

4.  Drain the pasta, but keep a bit of the water, in case you need to thin out the sauce.

5.  Return the pasta to the pot and place over medium heat. Stir in the cheese mixture, tomatoes, and spinach. Cook until hot. If the sauce seems a bit think, you can add a bit of the reserved water to thin it out.

6.  Top with grated cheese to serve.

Flowers and Food in Normandy

Travel can be ridiculous sometimes. In order to get a decent deal on a flight, we ended up flying from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then back the way we came to fly to France. After a seemingly endless flight to Paris with obnoxious college kids, we were relieved to pick up our rental car and head to Northern France and the Normandy region to start our trip.

Normandy may be best known for being the site of the D-Day landings during World War II, but it’s was also a hub for impressionist artists, like Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. With its rolling cliffs along the coast, beautiful landscapes, quaint towns, and granite architecture, it is easy to see why they all felt so inspired by the area. In addition, the area is known for being a major center for the production of butter, cream, cheese, and apples.

Our first stop was the town of Vernon, about one hour away from Paris. Vernon is a small town, filled mostly with shops and restaurants, but it’s a good base to start a tour of Normandy, since it is accessible to a lot of the major sites in the region. We checked into the Hotel d’ Evreux and Chester lugged our two suitcases up a very narrow, winding flight of stairs. The hotel is kind of old–the rooms are on the small side and some of the furnishings need to be updated (we were grossed out by the fact that there was a wooden floor in the shower stall and both wore flip-flops while showering.)–but the staff members were all very pleasant and didn’t seem to mind when we arrived a bit early for check in.

I am annoying and made Chester pose in front of all of our hotels. Just because.

Since we actually didn’t feel all that jet lagged, we decided to head out to see the first item on our itinerary, Giverny, to see Monet’s house and garden. This was one of the sights that we were looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint.

Monet lived in Giverny for more than 40 years, until he died in 1926. He first noticed the village while looking out of a train window, and rented and eventually purchased a house and surrounding land there. He also had a passion for gardening, and created the flower garden and water lily pond, based on the design of Japanese gardens, which served as the subject of some of his most famous works. Walking into the garden is like stepping into one of his paintings. There is so much color everywhere (pink figures prominently. Yay!)–you just don’t know where to look first. Although it was pretty crowded the day that we visited, the gardens felt very tranquil and tucked away from the real world. It is easy to see how he found this place an endless source of inspiration.

You can visit the house to see Monet’s private apartments and studio. My favorite rooms in the house were the dining room, with its cheerful, bright yellow furniture, and the kitchen with its cool blue tiles and copper pots lining the walls. You can’t take pictures inside of the house, unfortunately, so here are a few I found on another blog (smart idea to buy the postcards in the gift shop!).

From http://www.galenfrysinger.com/france_giverny.htm

From http://www.galenfrysinger.com/france_giverny.htm

After leaving the house, we strolled through the single “main street” of Giverny, which is lined with bed and breakfasts and art galleries. Towards the end of the road, we came upon Monet’s church, and visited the monument where he and his family are buried.

Poppy field near the house. Later in Paris, at the Musee d'Orsay, we saw one of Chester's favorite Monet paintings of this field. Pretty cool.

On the way back to our car, we stopped for ice cream. It’s funny to me that this was our first meal in France, but we know how much I love ice cream, so it was fine by me.

That night, we ate dinner at Le Relais, the restaurant in our hotel. The restaurant showcases the traditional, hearty dishes from the region. Like many of the restaurants that we visited during our trip, the menu listed two prix-fixe menus (with a starter, main course, and dessert) at different price points. Although some restaurants did offer a la carte pricing, when we converted the Euros to dollars, the prix fix options tended to be the best value; even with wine, most of our dinners ended up to be the same or less than we would spend for dinner here at home. For the starter, I had the rillettes of salmon and cod. Rillettes are basically like a pate, but richer, because the fish (or pork, goose, rabbit, etc.) is salted and then cooked with some type of fat, until it becomes like a paste. It’s served cold and spread on toasted bread. If that sounds kind of gross, let me assure you, it wasn’t. In fact, it tasted a bit liked canned tuna (which I happen to like) Chester had the chicken liver pate, which was a bit like foie gras, only not as smooth and a little bit gamey tasting.

The main courses were the highlight of the meal for both of us, I think. I had the lamb stew with apples. The lamb was so tender that I didn’t even need a knife to cut it—pulling it apart with my fork seemed to work out just fine (I know, I’m classy). The sauce was rich and buttery, but the apples gave it a nice sweetness. I didn’t get to have beef bourguignon on this trip, but this was a close enough substitute. Chester had the strip steak, with camembert cheese sauce. The meat was seasoned well, but we both learned after this meal that you have to ask for your meat to be cooked medium rare, so that it comes out perfectly medium. Asking for the meat to be cooked medium resulted in it being a bit on the well done side. Both of our dishes came with mashed potatoes—I’m not usually a fan of plain mashed potatoes (mashed sweet potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes are another story), but I would eat the mashed potatoes in France by the bucketful. All of the mashed potatoes that I had there were just the perfect texture—not so finely mashed that they were like baby food and not so coarsely mashed that you got chunks of potato in each mouthful—with the just the right amount of salt. They actually tasted like potatoes, if that makes sense (and, I realize it probably doesn’t).

For dessert, Chester opted for the cheese plate, since we were in dairy capital of France. The server had a cheese board with six options, and Chester eliminated three right away since she said they were kind of strong. I’m not sure of the names of what we had exactly, but one was similar to cheddar and the other was similar to goat’s cheese. I had chocolate mousse cake, with that was filled with pears in the center. Liked most of the chocolate I had on this trip, that which was used in the mousse was rich, but a touch on the bittersweet side, so the pears provided a nice sweetness. If you find yourself near Vernon, I would recommend checking out this restaurant, even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, as it’s a lovely place to sample some of the specialties of the region.

Our meal was heavy, but after being up and traveling for as many hours as we had been by that point (I’m bad at calculating the time change—it was probably like 36 hours or something?), it was just what we needed to put us right to sleep so that we could get up early to hit the road for a full day of sightseeing in Bayuex the next day.

And, We’re Back!

One of the many, many self-portraits that we took on this trip.

Bonjour, friends!

It’s hard to believe that two weeks can go by so fast, but I guess they can when you pack so much into them! We arrived home from our trip to France on Saturday (after a very long travel day that involved three flights), and it was back to reality as of yesterday.

So, exactly where were we for the last two weeks? Short answer: everywhere! Here is a map showing the main cities that we visited (you can click the link underneath to make it larger):

[googlemaps http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=216370950227771703899.0004a59c66788cf77e27e&ll=46.284523,3.312378&spn=6.302924,8.096924&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

We started in the Normandy region, and then headed to the Lorie Valley, and on to Paris. Then, we flew to the Marseilles to hang out in the south of France. From there, we visited several towns in Provence before making our way to the French Rivera to visit Cannes, Nice, and Monaco. We were in a different city almost every day of the trip, except for Paris where we stayed for about 4.5 days.

We had a car for our travels through Normandy and Provence, and Chester did an amazing job of getting us where we needed to go and negotiating the round-a-bout turns. He was only pulled over once, early on in the trip, for making an illegal right turn while we were en-route to Bayeux. The police officer was not surprised at all that Chester was American, and just let us go. Driving in Paris was pretty scary. The streets are narrow and the names change right in the middle of them, and the drivers are ridiculously aggressive. It was like driving in New York City, times 100. I was so relieved when we got to drop our rental car off. As for me, I did pretty well with my navigator responsibilities on this trip, if I do say so myself. I think I only fell asleep on the job twice.

Parts of the trip involved getting lost in small towns, getting in the credit card lane to pay the toll and finding that our cards didn’t work (much to the annoyance of the highway staff people who had to come out and take the Euros we were frantically waving around) and lugging bags up multiple flights of stairs to get to our (sometimes very random) hotel rooms. All of it was fun. As a bonus, we even got to make a visit to a French emergency room when Chester hurt his foot. In spite of him having to spend part of the trip on crutches, we got to see so many amazing sites and do so many cool things.

Most importantly, we ate some excellent food. I think I got through quite a bit of the items that I mentioned on my wish list of things to eat. In making our plans for restaurants to try, the only thing I requested is that we avoid had things that would be frilly or fussy. I didn’t want to eat anyplace that was known for weird things like green pea foam and the like. We chose some really good places (with the help of Trip Advisor) and everything that we had consisted of simple, fresh ingredients that were prepared and presented well.

This being a blog about food, I wanted to take photos of all the amazing things that we ate, but I didn’t want to be that crazy tourist. So, I tried to limit my photos to the exterior shots of the restaurants we visited and only took food photos in the more casual restaurants or those that were so crowded that no one would notice me being a freak.

I plan to write a bunch of posts to cover what we did, ate, and saw and to share some photos. In the meantime, here are some general things I learned—food related and otherwise—while visiting:

1. The French are lovely people. Forget all the stereotypes that you have heard. If you are nice to them (for example, if you say “Bonjour” when you go into a shop and “Merci” when you leave), they will be nice to you. They’ll even put up with the fact that you don’t know a lick of French and will try to help you. They will however, look at you like you are slightly crazy, when you try to talk to their dogs (I couldn’t resist. They were all so cute).

I guess even the dogs give you the side-eye when you try to talk to them. This one was hanging out at the first hotel we stayed at in Vernon.

2. The French have no regard for their own personal safety. Or, maybe they are just fearless. They walk or bike right out into the middle of the street, into oncoming traffic. Or, they weave in and out of heavy traffic, in the narrow space between two lanes of cars, in the crowded tunnels of Paris. While I seem to have no problem jaywalking at home, I was scared! We sought out crosswalks and waited on the sidewalk until the little green man told us we could move.

3. The French adore eating. It’s an experience for them even to sit down in a café for a cup of coffee and a croissant at breakfast. They linger over meals in restaurants. It’s not like here where we sometimes eat on the run (in fact, I didn’t even notice a place where you could get a cup of coffee to go, unless you went to a Starbucks) or have the server drop the check off at the table before we’ve even finished the last bite of dessert. They’ll order the cheese course and the dessert course and they don’t even seem to feel guilty about it. I was filled with regret if I ate dessert two nights in a row. Next time I go, I’m definitely eating more. I think I walked off most of my meals anyway!

4. No one is fat in France. A paradox, when you consider my third point. Okay, maybe I saw two or three overweight people. But, for the most part, everyone is thin and chic looking, in spite of the fact that they seem to clean their plates at each meal. Walking, biking, and chain smoking must allow them to accomplish this.

5. Paris is not the only reason to visit France. I will say when I thought of our trip, this was the part that I got the most excited about. But, there were so many other parts of the trip, to my surprise, that I loved just as much (or maybe even a little more). Don’t get me wrong me, Paris truly lived up to the hype. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in the world and was the most perfect place to celebrate our first anniversary. But, I was so glad that we had the chance to see so much more than that and to drive around and just take so much in outside of the city.

6. Steven Seagal is huge in France. Seriously. Every time we turned on the television, one of his movies was on.

7. French radio only plays  music in English that has explicit lyrics or is otherwise inappropriate. they are also huge fans of Brittany Spears’ new song, Till the World Ends. I’m pretty sure that we heard that song six times in a row at one point when we were shuffling through various stations.

8. If you have to visit an emergency room in France, try to do so in a small town. You’ll probably be in and out in 45 minutes. We visited the hospital in Amboise, and can verify that there is at least one English speaking doctor there. Another tip—don’t listen to the U.S. Embassy website when they tell you that there’s one in Tours—we called and that seems to not be the case.

9. Related to number seven is the fact that every third person in France has some kind of foot injury. I attribute this to all the walking up hills and cobbled streets that they do. We saw so many people in casts, on crutches, and leaning on canes. Chester was right on trend with his injury.

A crutch is one of the must-have accessories in France. Chester fits right in, and can even do tricks with his. He actually did steal this move from someone else, though.

10. Don’t expect Starbucks-sized coffees at any of the cafes that you might visit (unless of course, it’s a Starbucks). Even if you ask for a “grand café,” you will only get a cup slightly larger than a thimble.

It's really more like a tea cup. Pinkie up is appropriate.

11. Butter is not generally served with bread. I was kind of looking forward to having bread slathered with real butter on this trip, and I think we only had it twice on this trip. However, butter was pretty much the base ingredient for most of the sauces we had at meals, and the bread comes in handy for soaking that up! Speaking of bread—a baguette is kind of like an accessory for most of the locals that we saw. No matter what time of day, everyone seemed to be carrying a baguette around.

12. Northern and Southern France are very different in terms of the people, culture, and even the way the language sounds. In the South, it sounds like people are speaking Italian. While the north seemed more laid back and down-to-earth to us; parts of the South of France are like Rittenhouse Square or Fifth Avenue on steroids.

13. Ikea is very popular. I lost track of how many we saw in our travels and many of our hotels were fully furnished with Ikea items.

14. Climatise is the most beautiful French word ever. Basically translates to air conditioned. I loved seeing this on the signs outside our hotels.

Thinking about food had made me kind of hungry, so that’s all for now. Needless to say, after two weeks of amazing food, it’s disappointing to have to resume my routine of Lean Cuisine lunches. Off to the microwave I go.