Paris: Part One

The computer geeks saved Chester’s memory card! Here’s one of his photos!

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been back from our France trip for more than a month. Those two weeks were the best, and I’m glad to be reliving them through these posts. I’m also glad that when I’m 90, I’ll be able to refer to the Internets to remember what I did and ate in the good old days, when I can no longer do or eat anything worth writing about.

Anyway, in my last post about the trip, we made it to Paris relatively unscathed (if you don’t count the slight carsickness on my part). Those four-and-a-half days were the longest stretch of time that we stayed in one place during the trip. It was nice not to heave our bags up and down hotel stairs every day, and also to be in a bustling city after a few days in farm country. I loved every single second of our time in Paris, and I’m already thinking about when we can go back.

Outside the apartment

We discovered a little café down the street from our apartment, Le Cavalier Bleu (143 Rue St. Martin, Paris), on our first day. It served the most amazing croissants ever. They were crispy and flaky, and easily had a pound of butter in each bite (okay, maybe a slight exaggeration). Chester’s eyes lit up in a way I’ve never seen before when he bit into one.

We ended up going there every morning while we were in Paris. We always sat at the same table. It was a nice place to people watch and it was a pretty good deal, too. For about seven euros, you could get the “Classique”—a croissant, baguette, butter, jam, orange juice, and coffee. For nine euros, you got all of that, plus eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, we would set out for the Metro to start our sightseeing for the day. The Metro is fabulous—it’s clean, well lit, and it smells better than SEPTA. When you look at a map of the touristy areas of Paris, it’s kind of deceiving because it seems like all the sites are within walking distance of each other. But places like Montmarte and even the Eiffel Tower were pretty far from our apartment on, so it was wonderful to be able to jump on the subway to get anywhere that we wanted to in minutes.

So what did we do in Paris, besides eat breakfast?

Day One

We decided to use the two-day voucher that came with our Paris Pass to take the sightseeing bus tour. The bus passes by all the major sites and you can hop on/off as much as you want to over the two days. They give you headphones so you can listen to a commentary along the way. It’s a great way to see the city and get the lay of the land. Since we had a lot of walking planned for our time in Paris and the rest of our trip, it also gave Chester a chance to rest his foot.

After the tour and a quick stop for coffee near Notre Dame Cathedral, we hopped onto the Metro and went over to Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris. It’s said to be the most visited cemetery in the world, probably because it’s the final resting place of many famous people, including Edith Piaf, Chopin, Moliere, and Samuel Hahnemann (like a good Drexel alum, and then employee, I paid a visit), and Jim Morrison.

In the early evening, we made our way to Montemarte, in the northern end of Paris. Montmarte has traditionally been an artists community—Dali, Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec all had studios here. Parts of it are a little seedy. I don’t know how I would feel about being around here really late at night, but in the daytime, it’s packed with tourists and is a lot of fun to walk around in.

We climbed to the very top of the hill—about 130 meters—to the Basilica Sacre Coeur. There is a tram car (the funicular), which you can use your Metro ticket on to get up and down the hill in less than two minutes. It was not running on our way up, but we did take it on the way down.

It was the feast of the Ascension—a holy day–when we visited, so the basilica and surrounding area were pretty packed. Mass was going on when we visited and the atmosphere outside the church was very nice, too. People were just sitting around on the steps, listening to the street musicians. And, the view from the top of the steps of the Basilica overlooking Paris is pretty breathtaking.

I made Chester find the Moulin Rouge. I love the movie that was out a few years back. At Drexel, I was always trying to convince my co-workers that we should have a “Spectacular, Spectacular” themed Alumni Weekend. They didn’t go for it (if you guys still decide to do it, I’ll definitely volunteer to help plan!).

Dinner that night was at Chez Toinette, a little restaurant tucked into a side street. The restaurant is run by a husband and wife team—he was working in the kitchen, she was waiting on all the tables. Like most of the other places we ate, the restaurant is tiny (seats about 30), so reservations are a must.

The food was pretty traditional French country style (it reminded me of the hotel restaurant from the first night in Normandy) and it was good—although not as good as what we had on our first night. I had a salad, with sheep’s milk cheese melted on a piece of crunchy bread, followed by the veal with apples and cider sauce, mushrooms, and carrots. Chester had the gambas prawns in a curry sauce and the lamb chop. The portions were very generous, and I had no room for dessert, which was sad because it looked fabulous, from what I could see at the other tables around us.

Day Two

The next day, we went to the Louvre. One word to describe that visit: Overwhelming.

At more than 625,000 square feet, it’s one of the world’s largest art museums and houses 35,000 objects from prehistoric times through the 19th century. I had no idea that it was actually built as a fortress in the 12th century. It then became the lavish palace of Louis XVI before he moved to Versailles, and only opened as a public museum during the French Revolution.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a gallery map and/or researching what you want to see online before you go. It’s would probably be impossible to cover the whole museum in a day (you might need about a month!), so you’ll need to prioritize. Luckily, our host had a map at the apartment, so we were able to do some planning the night before our visit.

Even so, it was difficult to get our bearings once we were inside. The galleries, are spread over four floors, and although they interconnected it’s kind of difficult to tell when you are passing through from one to another. And, the crowds are ridiculous (hooray, again, for the Paris Pass for letting us skip the long lines for tickets). Like Versailles, it’s not the kind of place that you can go through a leisurely stroll and really take in what you are seeing.

If you have a lot of time in Paris, it might make sense to plan a couple of smaller visits, and group the kinds of art that you really want to see together. But, since we had a limited amount of time, we just did the highlights, including the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, some works by David and Vermeer, and Napoleon III’s apartments.

After our whirlwind trip through the museum, it was lunchtime. After nearly a week of eating nothing but French food, we were craving a taste of home. So, what did we seek out? The Golden Arches, of course. I do like to visit at least one McDonald’s (or McDo as it’s called in France) when I go to Europe. It’s different over there–in a good way. The meat doesn’t taste processed. And, the ketchup tastes better (sweeter, I think).

There’s always have some kind of menu item that fits with the country. In France, you can get a Croque McDo. And, also, beer.

We got the French version of Quarter Pounders. Also, McFlurry’s are pretty popular over there–everyone had one. So, we got one too.

After lunch, we headed down the Champs Elysses, to the Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon at the height of his power, and serves as a monument to those who died in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The names of French generals and victories are carved in the inner and outer vaults of the 164 foot tall monument.

We climbed the 240 steps to the top, for some amazing views of the city.

On top of the Arc.

View from the top of the Arc, looking towards Montemarte.

View towards Le Defense, the more modern area of the city. Not as pretty as the old stuff.

When we came down, we started to walk toward the Trocadero neighborhood. This is a wealthy, mostly residential area near the Seine, although it is home to several museums and the Eiffel Tower.

We ended up just parking ourselves across the street from the Tower and staring at it for awhile. It’s pretty amazing, and much bigger in person than it seems to me in pictures. I love it, and took photos from every possible angle every time we passed by it. Luckily, we had timed tickets to go up the tower later that weekend—the lines to buy tickets for the lifts on-site were ridiculous!

Slightly crooked photo, but spectacular sight nonetheless.

After our McDonald’s fix, we didn’t mind indulging in French food once again. We had dinner that night was Le Billebaude. This was definitely one of the richer meals that we had.

The highlight, for me, was the foie gras appetizer. I’ve had the dish once or twice before at restaurants around Philly, but those versions were not as rich and buttery as this (it was literally like eating butter). I could not even finish the huge slab that was on my plate. For an entrée, I had sea bass, which was served in an equally buttery, creamy morel sauce. I can see why give you a huge basket of bread with all of the main courses France—the sauces are too good not to soak up. Chester had a salad with stuffed quail for his starter, and an Irish hanger steak (a little on the tough side, but full of flavor) with cheesy potatoes for an entrée. For the second night in a row, we had no room for dessert, although I was tempted by the chocolate soufflé on the menu.

The other nice thing about most of the restaurants we visited that I haven’t mentioned yet is that you can get a 500 ml bottle of wine (Maybe this is case across Europe. I remember it being this way in Spain too), in addition to full bottles or wines by the glass. This was the perfect size to share, but kept us from getting too tipsy to get up the next morning (this probably applies more to me than to Chester. I’m a lightweight). Sadly, though I didn’t take notes on any of the wines we sampled. They were all good—it is France, after all. Enough said.

I was going to try to do one post to recap everything for Paris, but this is getting long already. So, I’ll stop here for now. Macaroons for anyone who read this far :-)

Coffee Ice Cream. And, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Too.

It’s hot. Really hot.

We’ve been trapped under an enormous “heat dome” (where do they come up with these ridiculous terms? Sounds like the plot of a disaster movie.). The city feels dirtier than usual. People are cranky and annoying. My hair looks terrible, and my brain is fried (hence the lame title for this post. I spent awhile trying to think of a catchy one. Just can’t do it). 

It’s time for ice cream.

I’ve got a bunch of stuff that I’ve bookmarked to bake, but I don’t really feel like turning on the oven. Ice cream has been the way to go over the last couple of weeks, and I added a couple new flavors to my repertoire.

First up was coffee ice cream. Chester’s been requesting it for awhile, but it seems like all of the recipes that I was finding called for using instant coffee or steeping whole coffee beans in the custard mixture. Instant coffee doesn’t really seem like it belongs in homemade ice cream, and I didn’t want to buy whole beans just for this recipe.  Then, I came across this version from “Not Eating Out In New York,” which called for “the strongest [fresh] coffee that you’ve ever made in your life.”

We make a pot of coffee every morning, so I just reserved some of that. It isn’t strong, so I added more than what the recipe calls for (probably about 1 ½ cups total) until the base didn’t taste like straight up half-and-half anymore. It did turn out a tad on the icy side, though—I’m not sure if the extra coffee threw of the ratios in the recipe or maybe the mixture was still a bit warm when I put in the ice cream maker. Next time, I might try to adjust the measurements for the cream and milk accordingly, and hopefully that will help it retain some of it’s custardiness (not a word, I know). Although I’m not a big fan of coffee ice cream, I enjoyed this one as it was reminiscent of the Starbucks Java Chip flavor (minus the chips), which used to love. Chester likes his ice cream plain, but next time, I’m making a batch for me that has the dark chocolate chips, and then it will be just like it!

Fresh Coffee Ice Cream

From Not Eating Out in New York

 

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups heavy cream
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 whole eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ cup of the strongest coffee you’ve ever made in your life
  • Dark chocolate chunks (optional)

What to do

  1. Blend yolks, whole eggs and sugar in a bowl with a whisk.
  2. Heat milk, cream, and coffee in a saucepan until it’s near boiling. Remove from heat.
  3. Slowly, pour a cup of the hot milk/cream mixture into the egg mixture and beat rapidly with a whisk (this helps keep the eggs from completely scrambling when you pour them into the mix in the next step).
  4. Pour egg mixture back into saucepan with the milk/cream mixture. Heat at medium low, and stir constantly until the mixture becomes thick enough to coast the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
  5. Pour mixture into a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap (place the wrap right on the surface of the ice cream to keep the mixture from getting a skin on it). Chill in the refrigerator overnight (or at least a few hours, until completely cool).
  6. Pour into ice cream maker and freeze for 30 minutes (or whatever your ice cream maker instructions tell you to do). If using the dark chocolate chunks, add to mixture about five minutes before it’s done freezing.
  7. Transfer to a container (you’ll get about a quart out of this) and put in freezer. Let freeze a few hours before serving.

Next time around, I made my favorite—chocolate peanut butter. This is the second David Lebovitz recipe that I tried (I also made his vanilla ice cream to go with these cookies). I have decided that he’s an ice cream genius. This was the best chocolate peanut butter ice cream I’ve had ever. Period. End of story.

It’s not a custard-based recipe—no eggs—but the peanut butter more than makes up for that. Although some of the recipes that I read said not to use natural peanut butter, I did without any problems. I used my favorite brand of course—Jif—and that doesn’t have as much oil in it as some of the other natural varieties do, so the mix still held together well.

About five minutes before the ice cream was done mixing, I added the peanut butter patties to the mix. You can never have too much PB, and the ice cold chunks of it are my favorite part of this ice cream flavor. I can’t even describe how rich this is. You should make it ASAP.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream

From the Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

Ingredients

  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • ¼ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • ½ cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup smooth peanut butter

Peanut Butter Patties

  • 6 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

What to do: Ice Cream

  1. Whisk half-and-half, cocoa, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Heat the mixture, stirring often, to a full boil.
  2. Remove from heat, whisk in peanut butter until well blended.
  3. Chill mixture in the refrigerator overnight (or at least until fully cool) and freeze in ice cream maker. If you are using the peanut butter patties (or any mix-ins for that matter), add them to the mixture about five minutes before it’s done churning.
  4. Transfer to container (makes about a quart) and put in freezer.

What to do: Peanut Butter Patties

  1. Mix peanut butter and sugar together in a small bowl.
  2. Line a plate with plastic wrap. Drop ½ tablespoons of peanut butter on to the plastic.
  3. Freeze the patties.

It looks like we’re going to be trapped “under the dome” (Okay, now I remember that there there was definitely a Steven King book with that title not to long ago. It’s being made into a movie. Plot idea taken) through this weekend at least. What to make next? Suggestions?

Stay cool, friends. Make yourself some ice cream. Or, invite yourself to your neighbor’s pool. Or, just stay home with your head in the freezer. Whatever floats your boat. Oh, and remember, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity (Side note: I have never understood this expression. That, and “at least it’s a dry heat.” But, people seem to say them frequently when it’s hot. Some kind of weird coping mechanism, I guess).

Restaurant Review: Talula’s Garden

On Friday night, we celebrated my first week at my new job with dinner at Talula’s Garden (210 W. Washington Square), the newest Stephen Starr restaurant. The restaurant is a collaboration between Starr and Aimee Olexy, who owns Talula’s Table (and the dearly departed Django) in Kennett Square. The menu changes regularly, based on what is in season on farms and in gardens.

Talula’s Table is based on the same idea, but has the distinction of being the toughest reservation to get in the entire country. Because it seats only 12 people, in one seating each night, you have to call a year in advance to book. I don’t really like waiting a day, let alone a year, for anything, so it’s a good thing that Talula’s Garden, in the space that used to be Starr’s Washington Square, is quite a bit bigger.

When we arrived for our 8:45 p.m. reservation, there was immediate seating inside, but were told that there would be a 15 minute wait for the garden table we had requested. We figured that eating in the garden was one of the main reasons to come to the restaurant, and since the heat and humidity had finally taken a break, we would wait at the bar until our table was ready.

The wine list is pretty extensive, and is comprised of organic, bio-dynamic (what is that?), earth-conscious (not sure what that is either), and vegan (who knew wine could be?) options. Chester decided on his red wine pretty quickly, but I had a tough time deciding what kind of cocktail to have. They all sounded so perfect for a summer night. I settled on the Beekeeper, a mix of lemonade, honey, dark rum, and ginger. Yum. I had to keep reminding myself that there was alcohol it in it, or it would have been easy to keep slurping them down until I became and embarrassment to myself and/or others.

The space has been completely updated since the Washington Square (which was kind of dark) era, with farmhouse style tables and chairs, soft lighting, pretty colors and fabrics, and mismatched silverware and appetizer plates. In the garden, trellises twinkled with Christmas lights, and lanterns were strung overhead. Greenery and pretty wildflowers covered every available surface. It’s definitely a girly restaurant—I’m pretty sure that Starr had nothing at all to do with the design.

True to the estimate, the hostess led us to our table under a little tree in the garden about 15 minutes later. A nice breeze blew all night. I almost forgot it was summer, as it felt more like late September.

My favorite part of the menu was the extensive selection of cheese plates. Aimee Olexy is clearly a girl after my own heart. We chose The Master Collection, a selection of eight cheeses, served on a slate board with dried fruits, nuts, the most amazing honey, and thin crackers (almost like pita chips). Our favorites were the Robiola a soft, creamy sheep/cow’s milk cheese from Italy that tasted—and spread—like butter, and the Capriole Dairy “Juliana” a goat’s milk cheese that was rubbed with espresso and lavender. I even enjoyed the blue cheese, and I’m usually not a fan—it was mild and paired really well with the honey.

Although the appetizers all sounded interesting (sweet pea soup, ricotta gnudi, and sweetbreads, to name a few) we skipped those and went right to the main courses. Probably a good idea, since I was already almost full from the cheese and the warm semolina rolls, sprinkled with thyme and sea salt, that we had already eaten.

All of the reviews I read raved about the potato gnocchi, so that’s what I ordered. No gnocchi will ever live up to melt-in-your-mouth version at Le Castagne, but Talula’s came pretty close. They were a pretty golden color, and looked like they would be heavy, but were actually surprisingly light. They were served with a variety of mushrooms, an egg, raisin puree (I saw one raisin in the dish, but didn’t really detect a puree), which created a rich sauce that soaked right into the pasta.

Chester had the beef and braised rib, which were served with a banyuls wine and brown butter sauce, and turnips (which Chester promptly pushed to the side of his plate). The beef was delicious and cooked to a perfect shade of pink in the center. It wasn’t heavily sauced, so you could taste how fresh it was—like beef is supposed to taste, if that makes any sense. The ribs were probably slow-cooked for a few hours, so that they were tender and pulled apart easily with a fork. They were a bit more sauced, so you really couldn’t get the taste of the meat as readily as with the beef.

For dessert, we shared the ricotta donuts. I would eat ricotta straight out of the container, but I know people complain that it can be a little grainy. Even if you are one of those crazy folks, you’ll like these warm, soft, sweet bits of dough, which were served with an apricot/peach dipping sauce. There is a hint of ricotta flavor, with none of the weird texture. If I ever break out the donut maker that I bought as a Christmas gift for Chester (okay, maybe that was a bit of a selfish purchase), I’m going to learn how to make these.

The service was a little bit uneven at times. The guy who I guess was our main waiter was very friendly, but he would disappear for an extended amount of time. Each time another course was brought out or our water glasses filled, it was by a different server. But, we didn’t feel like we were being rushed, so that was nice.

Talula’s Garden definitely goes on my list of restaurants to visit again. Since the menu changes so often, it will be a totally different experience the next time around. I will forgive Stephen Starr for SquareBurger. And, I may even try to rustle up eight other people who wouldn’t mind having dinner with me and Chester and maybe next summer, we can try Talula’s Table.

Restaurant Review: Square Burger

In one of my first posts, I mentioned that Chester and I had stopped by Franklin Square this past spring, and were curious about Square Burger (6th and Race Streets), Stephen Starr’s burger shack in the park. This past weekend, we decided to pay another visit to the park and grab dinner there.

The menu is pretty basic—burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders, fries and, ice cream, and shakes. It’s casual, inexpensive ($4.75 for burgers, $2 for fries, $4.75 for a shake) and family friendly, so it fits in well with the overall concept of the park. I’m a fan of many of the Starr restaurants, and I figured if anyone could make a restaurant in the middle of a park work, it would be him.

The verdict: Mr. Starr needs to pay a visit ASAP and do some quality control.

We both had the classic cheeseburger, served on a potato roll with American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles, mustard, and ketchup. Sure, its traditional, but that’s good every once in awhile. This was easily one of the most lackluster burgers I’ve eaten. The patty was pretty small, and most disappointing to me, it wasn’t square. The servers didn’t ask how we wanted them cooked, and they were well past well done. I thought mine hardly had any flavor at all. Chester felt that the meat tasted as though it had sat around for a bit (It was a pretty hot day, hopefully they’ve got a good refrigeration system in the hut).

The shoestring fries were pretty good. Most likely, they were just taken out of a freezer and fried, but they were crunchy and not very greasy.

The Cake Shake—vanilla ice cream, blended with Tastycake Butterscotch Krimpets, and topped with whipped cream and butterscotch syrup—was pretty awesome. It was pretty thick, so it’s a good thing that they give you one of those big straws that come with bubble tea. They should  make it with Kandy Kakes!

After dinner, we played a round of mini golf on the Philadelphia themed golf course. I love mini golf—it reminds me of the shore—but I’m pretty terrible. I usually do well on the first half, and then I stop paying attention.

Chester pretended to be Godzilla in the middle of the Elfreth’s Alley hole.

We each got a hole in one on the Ben Franklin Bridge. I had trouble getting the ball up the Art Museum steps—after about a half dozen attempts, I just rolled it up there like I was playing Skee Ball.  Chester only beat me by one though, so I didn’t lose that badly this time around!

It was a fun night. I would definitely go back for the mini golf and a Cake Shake, but I’ll be getting my burger elsewhere.

Opulence. And, Also, a Traffic Nightmare

For the next leg of the France trip, we left the Lorie Valley and began to make our way towards Paris, where we would be spending about four and a half days. En route, we stopped at the Palace of Versailles. As a side note, if don’t have a rental car, Versailles makes a great day trip from Paris, as you can be there in about 30 minutes by train.

A word of advice—If you plan to spend more than a few days in Paris, I would definitely recommend purchasing a Paris Pass, which can be used at Versailles and more than 60 other attractions throughout the city. The package includes a museum pass (which can be purchased for two, four, or six days) , a five-day Metro Travelcard, a two-day pass for the Paris bus tour, and a guidebook. Essentially, it covers all of your admission fees (and actually saves you quite a bit of money on them), and at many sites (including Versailles), there is a designated entrance for pass holders so you can skip the long, general ticketing lines.

And now, a word of warning—the Palace of Versailles is incredibly crowded. This is one of the places where you definitely need to be extra careful with your bags and personal belongings. The security guard warned us that there were a few pick pocketing incidents reported in recent days. At some points, it was difficult to see anything, and we were just kind of pushed along with the crowd from room to room. If you are patient though, and kind of hang back in each room, you can scurry up to the front when the crowds clear out. Props to the staff though, who were very accommodating when visitors with disabilities needed help. They spotted Chester with his crutches and took us up the freight elevator so we didn’t have to climb the stairs to start our tour, and they had designated guides to help those in wheelchairs maneuever through crowds so that they could see.

In terms of the history of the palace, Versailles started out as the hunting lodge of Louis XII. His son, Louis XIV moved there from Paris in 1682, making it the center of political power in France. He embarked on a building campaign over the years, which turned it into the largest palace in the world. In today’s money, the total building costs for the palace would be about $2 billion. The royal family stayed at Versailles until 1789 when the uprisings associated with the French Revolution forced them to move back to Paris, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette eventually lost their heads.

The main highlights of the palace include the King’s Grand Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Queen’s Apartments. Opulence was the word of the day here (seriously. One of us said it every ten seconds). Every possible surface is covered with gold gilt. Don’t forget to look up, to see the magnificent frescos on the ceilings. Although much of the furniture was removed from the palace, and sold at auction during the Revolution, much of the original, lavish furnishings have been re-purchased by government under various restoration programs.

The Hall of Mirrors

The outdoor space is just as extravagant. The gardens cover about 800 hectares, and include more than 400,000 flowers and trees, and 50 fountains. We went at the perfect time of year, because everything was in bloom. On the day we visited, however, the fountains were not turned on (maybe because it was very windy and they didn’t want people getting soaked?).

Versailles is only about ten miles away from Paris, so we left around 4 p.m. for our drive to the city. This, we reasoned, would give us plenty of time before we needed to drop off our rental car to get gas, find our apartment and lug our bags upstairs, and maybe check out a site or two before dinner. We’d still have a cushion in case we got lost, too.

How wrong we were. The next four hours were the most stressful part of the trip.

Traffic going into Paris was like Schuylkill Expressway traffic times 1,000. At one point, it took us 30 minutes to go a mile on the highway. We got off the highway, thinking we might move faster. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and the drivers were very aggressive. Motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles came out of nowhere, weaving in and out of traffic and squeezing in between the lanes. Thank goodness Chester was behind the wheel, and was able to adapt to this style of driving pretty quickly. I just sat in the passenger seat, got a little carsick and tried to find a radio station that wasn’t playing Britney Spears’ new single (we heard it back-to-back on six different stations).

Mostly, I prayed that we would find a gas station (we did. My eagle eye spotted a sign that said “garage,” which pointed us down a narrow alleyway, to a parking deck that happened to have two gas pumps) and that we would get to the rental car place before it closed (we did. With no thanks to Google maps, which got us pretty lost). I was never so relieved to get out of a car.

We didn’t have time to drop our things off at the apartment, in the end, and although it wasn’t far from the rental car agency, we didn’t think we would be able to make it there with all of our stuff and Chester on crutches. So, we pleaded with a cab driver, who was none to happy about the short trip (i.e. measly fare), to take us, our two large suitcases, two duffel bags, and a pair of crutches to our apartment. I know, I know, I should have packed lighter, but it was a two-week trip, and I needed multiple pairs of shoes!

Anyway. After finally dropping off our bags at the apartment, we were starving, so we headed out to dinner at Le Relais de L’isle, which Trip Advisor lists as the number one restaurant in Paris. It was one of our favorite meals of the trip. The restaurant is very tiny—it only seats about 25 people total, and was full when we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation.

One server expertly took care of all of the tables. I was amazed at how quickly she could run up and down the narrow staircase to deliver dishes from the kitchen. Looking back at the website now, it states that there is a jazz pianist at the restaurant, every night during the summer. I can’t actually remember if this was the case, but much of the décor in the restaurant has a jazz/New Orleans flavor to it, so that would make sense.

For the appetizer, I had a mixed green salad with warm goat’s cheese—you can never really go wrong with warm goat’s cheese, in my opinion. Chester was more daring and tried the escargot. He let me sample one, and then I kind of wished I had ordered it too! Everyone told me that they would be slimy, but they weren’t. They were topped with a buttery sauce that reminded me a little bit of pesto. For an entrée, I had the salmon, which was good, but the slightly sweet, creamy carrot puree that was served with it is what I really remember about the dish. Chester had the duck, which he said was a tad on the well done side, but still tender and flavorful. For dessert, we shared two classics—a rich crème brulee that had a hint of citrus flavor and a buttery, tarte tatin.

I would definitely recommend this restaurant–it serves simple, classic dishes, and proves that French food doesn’t need to be frilly or prepared by a big name chef to be absolutely delicious.

Restaurant Review: Sabrina’s Cafe

When I was growing up in South Philly, there were basically three options for breakfast: the Oregon, the Penrose, and the Melrose Diners. Just like the debate over who makes the best cheesesteak, everyone has their own opinion about which diner is the best. If you ask me, its the Penrose. Melrose is just gross. The Oregon is just average, but I do have a sentimental attachment to it. It reminds me of Saturdays with my grandparents. We would sometimes go there for breakfast in the morning before heading up to Center City, where my grandmother would drag my brother and I around Strawbridge’s and then take us over to my grandfather’s print shop where we would play with all kinds of paper. I always ordered French toast. My long hair would somehow end up in my plate full of pancake syrup and I would have that cloyingly sweet smell stuck in my nostrils all day. We used to get these big chocolate chip cookies from the bakery case that we’d save for an afternoon snack when we got home.

Breakfast remains my favorite meal of the day, so I’m glad that the choices in my neighborhood have expanded over the years. But, getting up early and out of the house on weekends is so difficult. This past weekend, Chester and I made it a point to get ourselves together so we could go to Sabrina’s Café, near the Italian Market (910 Christian Street). It’s definitely worth waking up early for.

It’s one of the most popular places in South Philly, and usually, there are crowds waiting outside for a table. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but they do offer day-of, call ahead seating. But, since it was 4th of July weekend, most people were “down da shore,” we just showed up around 10 a.m., and didn’t have to wait too long to be seated.

Like a lot of South Philly restaurants, it has a very homey feel. It’s tiny, so you get to share personal space with your fellow diners. There are tchotchkes everywhere. The furniture, utensils, plates, etc. are all mismatched. My coffee mug had dancing hippos on it. I thought it was awesome. (If my grandfather were there, he probably would have stolen it for me. I’m pretty sure that every soup spoon that he had at home was stolen on Saturday mornings at the Oregon). And, it’s loud. The portion sizes are ridiculous. It’s kind of like eating over at your grandmother’s house.

Sabrina’s has the best French toast ever. It’s made with thick slices of challah bread, and is so rich that I assume it’s dipped in straight up egg yolk and heavy cream. It’s stuffed with whipped cinnamon cream cheese and bananas.

In addition to their regular menu, they also have a rotating list of specials. That day, they names of the dishes were themed around the movie Grease. Chester had the Summer Lovin’ Special, which was bascially a burrito made out of pancakes. It was stuffed with more things that I can remember, including sausage, eggs, blueberries, and ricotta cheese, flavored with thyme and citrus. Sounds like a crazy combination, but the flavors came together in a way that actually worked.

We ate way too much. Luckily, we went up to Olde City after that and walked around awhile, so that kept the food coma from totally setting in.

If you’ve never been to Sabrina’s, wake up early and go (as a side note, they do serve their breakfast items all day, if you just can’t drag yourself out of bed). They also have a location in the Fairmount section of the city, and soon, there will be one opening in West Philly, right on Drexel’s campus. Of course, DU would get some decent food options, just as I’m leaving!

Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

Strawberries are one of my favorite things about summer. Oh, and fireworks. I like those too. (Speaking of, I hope everyone enjoyed their Fourth of July weekend).

Last year, it seemed like we had a bad crop. The one that I purchased were a sickly shade of pale red; and even those that had a vibrant color were totally flavorless.  Fortunately, it’s been the total opposite this year. Even the strawberries I get from our local Shop Rite have been colorful and sweet. I love to eat them on their own as a mid-morning snack, but I decided that I had to bake something with them, too.

I was excited to come across a recipe for Strawberry Shortcake Cookies and thought I’d give them a try—well two tries. Strawberries can be pretty temperamental, but I am persistent.

The first batch that I made did not turn out at all. The strawberry, sugar, and lemon juice mixture produced a lot of liquid. As a result, the dough did not come together well in the mixing bowl, and they didn’t set up well when baked. I learned my lesson for the second time around, and poured the mixture through a strainer before adding it to the dry ingredients. This batch would have been perfect, had it not been for my crazy oven. We’ve lived in our house about two years now, and I just can’t get the hang of that oven. Some things take longer to bake than the recipe states, and other things need to be yanked out of the oven way early (I’m sure Martha never has to deal with this. She probably has the perfect oven). My first dozen came out a bit well done on the bottom, but after I moved the oven rack around a bit and adjusted the timing, and the second dozen baked to a perfect golden brown.

These cookies are actually more like scones—soft and fluffy on the inside, and slightly crunchy and crispy on the outside. You can taste all of the ingredients individually in these cookies—from the sweetness of the strawberries, to the richness of the cream, to the lightness of the lemon–and the coarse salt is a nice balance that brings together all of the flavors. They look so pretty with the little bits of strawberry peeking out, and are less labor intensive than a strawberry shortcake or pie. I would definitely make these again—I’m sure that they will be perfect the third time around. Luckily, strawberry season is still young, and I should be able to get some good ones around here through August.

As a side note, the recipe lies when it says it makes about 3 dozen cookies. I got a little over 20 cookies out of the dough, even though I used the tablespoon measurement suggested by the recipe. These cookies were best on the day that they were made. I served them with vanilla ice cream (the best batch I’ve made to date, since I sprung for real vanilla bean), but whipped cream or even a glass of milk would be a nice complement to them. By the following day, they had already become kind of soft and a bit soggy, even when stored in an airtight container.

Do you have any good strawberry recipes I should know about?

Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

By: Martha Stewart

Ingredients:

  •  2 cups diced strawberries
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup, plus one tablespoon sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • Sanding sugar for sprinkling over cookies (I skipped this, as I didn’t have sanding sugar. I don’t think anyone missed it)

What To Do:

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a small bowl, combine strawberries lemon juice, and two tablespoons sugar. Combine dry ingredients in a separate, large bowl.
  • Add butter in to dry mixture, using a pastry cutter or your hands. Mix together until it looks like coarse crumbs. Stir in cream, just until dough comes together.
  • Pour strawberry mixture through a strainer to get rid of excess liquid. Add strawberries to the dough mixture.
  • Shape dough into tablespoon sized balls and place on baking sheet (Tip: if you are baking one sheet at a time in your oven, be aware that as your dough sits out, the strawberries may release some more liquid that breaks apart the dough. I filled my other cookie sheet and put it in the fridge while the first batch was baking and that seemed to minimize this).
  • Sprinkle with sanding sugar, if using, and bake for about 24 minutes.
  • Let cool on wire rack.

It Was Only a Matter of Time Before Someone Got Hurt…

Chester and the cool accessories he picked up in Amboise. People on the street thought his attempts at channeling a cranky old man were hilarious.

As you can probably tell from my previous posts about our trip to France, we spent a lot of time walking. This is usually our favorite way to discover a place, but this time around things were a bit more difficult. A few days before we left, Chester injured his foot—exactly how he did so is a mystery, but he woke up one day and could hardly put pressure on it. Because I’m a good wife, and I wanted to be sympathetic to his situation, I woke up at around 1 a.m. on the day we were leaving, and stubbed my toe on the oversized, plastic wheels of my suitcase, which was sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor (I blame the cat. I was trying to avoid stepping on her). We both arrived in France with slight limps (and my toe was a nice shade of purple).

But, we still managed to do everything on our agenda during those first few days of the trip. We just took things a little slower than we normally would and stopped for breaks more frequently. Chester fashioned a split for himself out of a nail file I had in my make-up bag and I just slipped off my shoe whenever we sat down. Chester was definitely in more pain than me—I seriously don’t know how he was doing it. I kept telling him what a trooper he was.

But, when we woke up in our creepy hotel on the fourth day of our trip, he was in a lot of pain. Probably because we were walking for hours and hours each day, sometimes on uneven pavements and steep hills, so his foot just couldn’t take it anymore. We decided that we would put off planned morning trip to one of the chateaus in the area in favor of a visit to the emergency room.  With the amount of pain he was in and the swelling that was going on, were kind of convinced that it might be broken.

We checked the U.S. Embassy website, and it told us that Tours (which was about an hour away from where we were staying) was the closest hospital with an English speaking doctor on staff. We called though, and that did not seem to be the case—Chester spent about 30 minutes on the phone with them trying to explain the situation, and they kept thinking that he was calling to pay a bill. So, we decided to just take a chance that the local hospital in Amboise would be able to help. Since we were in a small town, we reasoned, at least maybe we wouldn’t have to wait for hours end.

It ended up being the most efficient hospital experience ever—we were in and out in less than an hour. Foot injuries seemed to be the order of the day there, as we saw two other people leaving with casts. Chester had X-rays, and the nice English speaking doctor determined that his foot was not broken, but that he had a really bad muscle strain.  A nurse came in to tape his foot up, and we were sent on our way with prescriptions for anti-inflammatory pills, painkillers, and crutches.

We headed back into the center of town and had grabbed sandwiches while waiting for the pharmacy to re-open after the lunch break. We also stopped by Patisserie Bigot. This cute, family-owned café has been in business since 1913. Although the cases were filled with every type of pastry and chocolate imaginable, we zeroed in on the jumbo sized macaroons. The shell was perfectly chewy and the chocolate filling was rich, but not too sweet.

The pharmacy finally re-opened, and with crutches and “magic candy” in hand, we continued on with our plans for the rest of the day—a visit to the Chateau of Chambord. With 444 rooms, 85 staircases, and 365 chimneys, this is the largest of the 300 chateaus in the Lorie Valley. It was built by Francois I, as a hunting lodge (It also allowed him to be close to his mistress. How romantic.), but he actually stayed here for less than 40 days total. It fell into ruin for about 80 years after he died, and although his descendants undertook some restoration and expansion work, it was never fully completed. Some of the works from the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa and Venus DeMilo, were kept here for safekeeping during World War II and it was finally fully restored after that.

From the top terrace, looking into the forest.

After our visit, we drove to our next overnight stop in Blois. This town was so confusing to drive in, as the streets were super tiny, and the names changed midway down the blocks. We overshot the Hotel de France et de Guise, where we were staying, at least two times. By the time we checked in, it was getting kind of late and we didn’t really have much time—or energy—for that matter, to explore the town. So, we just stayed close by and had dinner at a place that reminded me a little of the Penrose Diner in South Philly (another hamburger for Chester and croque monsieur for me. Nothing really memorable). We were more than happy to head back to hotel, with its comfortable bed, air conditioning, and the BBC channel on television, after that.

I did manage to get a few photos from our hotel balcony. This is definitely a town that I would like to explore a bit more on our next trip to France.

Not sure what this buliding is, but I liked it.

Chateau de Blois

Even with our detour to the hospital, we still ended up having an awesome day. It could have been worse. At least no one lost an eye or something.