travel: flemish fling…

Coffee tins

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All of the international flights from the Americas dumped into Aéroport Paris–Charles de Gaulle within minutes of each other, as they usually do, when I arrived in the early morning a few months ago.  I shuffled into the immigration hall along with the deplaning masses, a shapeless hoard that defied order, especially since very little was provided.

After a half hour of this incurable chaos, with border guards barking at us like sheep dogs at a herd, and our rather saucy herd barking back in various languages, the crowd suddenly began to move forward at a surprisingly fast rate.  How could this be?  How could the border police possibly be processing that many passports at once?  When I reached the front, I realized that they weren’t.  They weren’t processing passports at all.  The police had opened the gates and were letting everyone through unchecked.

As an American, who has not only practiced law, but has practiced some immigration law, I was horrified.  This kind of reckless laxity would never happen at our borders – and this not from a sense of patriotic superiority.  The United States has many weaknesses, but border control – especially at its international airports – is not one of them.  You will not find more humorless human beings than the employees of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

By allowing foreigners to pass through unverified, the French police were not only endangering their own national security by opening their borders to shady international characters, but they were also putting the Schengen at risk. Once inside the Schengen, a foreigner can travel through any of its twenty-some member countries unchecked, as I did on this trip.

A little over a week later, as I prepared to return to the U.S., Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared over the South China Sea, raising questions (among many others) about two passengers onboard who were traveling with stolen passports.  In the weeks since, those two passengers have been ruled out as possible terrorists. But the fact that they were able to travel on stolen passports is disturbing.  According to Interpol, “In 2013, passengers were able to board planes more than 1 billion times without having their travel documents checked against Interpol’s data.”

That’s billion with a “B.”

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Selfie at the Tour Eiffel Paris, France (March 1, 2014)

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At Gare du Nord (and some other stations), the Paris Metro ticket vending machines do not accept cash anymore, and now only accept credit cards with smart chip technology, which requires a PIN code for added security.  Like me, most Americans don’t have smart chip credit cards (which is why an estimated 100 million Americans were put at risk when Target’s credit and debit card database was compromised).  This is one sector of security in which the U.S. is terribly behind – smart chip technology, which has been used by European banks for over a decade, is only now being introduced by American credit card companies.

And, because the SNCF (France’s national state-owned railway company) has been cutting costs (either that, or their employees were on strike), there was no attendant in the booth who could sell me a ticket in exchange for cash or coin.  So I had to hail a cab, which, unlike the SNCF, accepted cash only.

A couple of nights later, I was stopped by police at an impromptu checkpoint set up in the Metro to filter out freeloaders.  By then, I had managed to find a Metro vending machine that accepted cash and had bought a carnet (a booklet of individual fare cards).  I showed my fare and was let to pass.

I entered France with an unverified passport, but was nearly immobilized because the SNCF was shy of cash transactions.  I passed through French immigration control without consideration, yet was stopped by the police in the Metro over a 2€ fare.

France: you are wonderful, delicious, and beautiful.  But in many ways, you are totally effed up.

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Storm cometh.

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My time in Paris was brief.  On this trip, the city merely served as a doormat to Belgium, my primary destination.

But I still managed to squeeze in three square meals in the two short days I was there.

I had lunch at Antoine at 10 Avenue New York on the banks of the Seine in the 16eme.

Chef Thibault Sombardier had worked in the kitchens of Alain Dutournier (whose Carre de Feuillants I had visited in 2005) and Yannick Alleno (now no longer at le Meurice) before he arrived here in early 2013.  In the year since, Sombardier retained the Michelin star that Antoine had earned under its previous chef and has found on-air fame as one of the cheftestants on the current, 2014 season of France’s version of the hit BravoTV series Top Chef.

Sombardier’s lunch tasting menu focused on the “scent of the sea” (Antoine has long been known as a seafood restaurant).  My friend Laurent, who made the reservation for me, must have augmented my profile, because the kitchen sent out many extra dishes, including a buttery knot of monkfish in a frothy surf of milk foam under a blanket of shaved black truffles.  It has been a particularly great season for truffles, and the truffles used here were still showing very well at the beginning of March.

There were ribbons of black mullet, cured so that the meat had gone slack and tender, garnished with house-cured bottarga.  And there was a beautiful plaque of red mullet draped with silky strips of raw langoustine and dotted with tiny dried shrimp.

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6th Course: Pigeonneau

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Is pigeon the new beef?  My lunch at Antoine was the first of five consecutive tasting menus I had on this trip to France and Belgium that included pigeon (and all but one of those meals featured the fowl as the anchor course before cheese and dessert).  Like most of the plates at Antoine, the pigeon was nicely presented.  Both the cooking and plating was precise in a way that would suggest that the chef is reaching for his next Michelin star. The slice of breast was rosy and juicy. The dark meat, papered over with crispy skin, pulled right off the thigh and leg bone.  And there was a buttery croque filled with the pigeon’s liver.

Despite Sombardier’s ambition on the plate, I suspect Antoine’s ability to climb the Michelin constellation will be limited by its interior, which is a good ten years behind the current trend.  And the service, though friendly and helpful, will need to be polished up a bit too.

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Tobacco and Filters

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I hadn’t seen my friend La Tache since we had a quick lunch together at Septime last year.  This time, he proposed that we have dinner at Raquel Carina’s and Philippe Pinoteau’s cozy bistro la Baratin in the remote 20eme.  Despite the fact that Anthony Bourdain taped a segment here for his show “The Layover,” the clientele (at least the night we went) was surprisingly local.  There were a handful of tourists. But overall, the restaurant seemed dominated by Parisians, like the table of four guys next to us, who rolled their own cigarettes and left their wine and bag of filters on the table to step outside for a smoke break between courses.

The daily menu at la Baratin is chalked up on a board that moves from table to table.  But La Tache knows Carina and he asked her to cook for us.  The short Argentinean woman asked each of us to choose a main course and agreed to fill in the rest.

Her ingredients were fresh and simply prepared.  It’s the kind of no-nonsense cooking, focused mostly on celebrating natural flavor, that I hope will make a big come-back at the higher end of dining soon.

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6th Course: Beef

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A series of raw seafood dishes arrived in quick succession: tiny pétoncles served on their frilly-edged shells with some olive oil and salt; tartare of maigre with shaved beets; a powder-pink strip of chinchard, with a touch of smoked vinegar (Google is telling me this fish is also known as “Atlantic horse mackerel”); and a velvety, pea-green seafood bouillon with silky langoustines.

Then, ravioli filled with ground pigeon nestled in a bowl with nuggets of foie gras melting into a warm broth of turnips.  The pigeon filling was gruffer than the rest, but somehow, in that bistro, with Carina in the kitchen, it seemed strangely right.

And, a strip of oily, salty anchovy with a bloody slice of beef made a particularly delicious pair.

I love how the French do sweetbreads (Americans are such sissies about them): always a generously sized fist that’s more creamy interior than anything else.  That’s what I got for my main course at la Baratin.  And it was great, served with nothing more than some vegetables and browned butter.

We shared a bottle of wine and some desserts at the end (including an apple crumble that was way more crumble than apple in the best of ways), and left full and happy, having spent less on our meal than getting home in the rain (taxis being a hopeless cause in that neighborhood at that late hour – especially in the rain – and too lazy to figure out other options, we gouged our eyes out on Uber surge pricing).

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9th Course: Favorite 2004: Pigeonneau from Jean Yves Bruyère, Asian-Style

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My friend Laurent Vanparys left his fancy job to open a wine bar in Paris, which he has since left behind to co-found One Bite Consulting, a culinary consulting company that corrals chefs from Paris to Copenhagen for cooking events.

When I told him I was heading to Paris, with a short list of Belgian restaurants on my wish list, he (a Belgian) quickly offered to be my tour guide and make all the arrangements.  Our trip would be short – just over 24 hours – but full.

We left Paris in the morning by car, and was at Sang Hoon Degeimbre’s beautiful, countryside, farmhouse-restaurant l’Air du Temps by noon. (The restaurant is located near the town of Liernu in the Southern, Wallonian province of Namur.)

The farmhouse doubles as an inn, so it is possible for gastronauts visiting from afar to stay overnight.

The restaurant is divided among two dining rooms (with tables draped in leather) and a private dining room.  The kitchen, which features a handsome wall of windows framing the fields beyond, turns a corner into more kitchen space.  And just off that corner is another private dining room, this one, the “kitchen table.”  During the day, this small, spare room, flooded with natural light, is a photographer’s dream.  This is where Laurent and I had lunch.

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10th Course: Favorite 2010: Purple Duck Version 2014

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Having worked in the research and development kitchen at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, Degeimbre has brought modernist cooking to the Belgian countryside.

Degeimbre is a brilliant food colorist.  Our meal popped with a rainbow of super-saturated colors.  He ran us through a dazzling series of black towards the beginning, moving from inky squid juice to dusty ash (with which he coated scallops to appear as coals) to shiny, obsidian-like fried potato “shells” in which were tucked plump mussels – a tromp-l’oeil of the famous Belgian bistro fare, “moules frites.”

There was a snapper dish in various shades of neon orange.  And there was a rosy slice of duck breast and a slick of sauce made magenta by the power of suggestion: ringed by a purple constellation of beets and red onions.

With our food came a rainbow of juices, every bit as colorful.

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9th Course: Favorite 2004: Pigeonneau from JeanYves Bruyère, Asian-Style

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But, as visually stunning as much of the meal was, I thought a few dishes were more novel than they were delicious, like that scallop dusted in ash and wrapped in a cabbage leaf.  It was a mess to eat (with our hands, as instructed), and quite frankly, I didn’t fully understand the conceit.  I also thought the confetti of flower petals that decorated the top of a bowl of Vacherin Mont d’Or were not only superfluous, but an unwelcome interloper in an otherwise happy mix of creamy and crunchy.

My favorite dishes were the ones in which Degeimbre focused on flavor.

From kiwi, he distilled the fruit’s breezy fragrance into a clear, viscous syrup to pair with the musky citrus of bergamot and the melon crispness of oysters.*  Those flavors, together, were magical, indescribable, unforgettable.

There was a thigh of pigeon, glazed, and a juicy wedge of the breast, sauced with Asian flavors (heavy on the ginger) and served with a crouton fried in duck fat.  It was a simple but flavorful meeting of ingredients and textures.  That was a great dish. **

And out of a hoary, freckled bowl that appeared like a moon crater leapt the bright, strong flavors of pickled and fermented summer vegetables anointed with parsley oil. The vegetables had a bit of snap, and so did the acidity.  The dish came at the right time too – a refreshing break between heartier, saucier, meatier courses.

After lunch, we took a brisk walk around the fields outside, untilled and windswept in the chill of early spring.

[Disclaimer: Degeimbre is a client of One Bite Consulting.  We were not presented with a bill.]

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Preserves

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From l’Air du Temps, we drove back over the border, skimming the northern edge of France and re-entered Belgium in the western Flemish province of West Flanders.

In the early evening, we pulled up to another farmhouse, this one outside the sleepy town of Dranouter.  Once home to the Desramaults family, it is now Kobe Desramaults’s destination restaurant in de wulf.  Here too, are rooms, where travelers can spend the night (at under 200€ a night, they are very reasonably priced).  Laurent and I settled into our rooms, both of which had been recently renovated.  Like the rest of the farmhouse, they were charmingly rustic, but unexpectedly luxurious.  Mine had a gorgeous, wooden bathtub and a quieting view of the Belgian countryside through a set of French doors that opened onto a small, private patio.

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10th Course: Winter/Spring

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The dining room at in de wulf is broad and flat, lined on one side with a stretch of large windows that runs the length of the patio outside.  The inside is a mix of brick – much of it painted – and wood.  I’d call it rustic if it weren’t also tidy and incredibly charming, aglow with candlelight at night.

Our dinner ran for about 20 courses, starting with some snacks, moving onto a series of seafood, followed by a few courses featuring vegetables, and then a couple of meat dishes.   Then, a spectacular cheese course –  a wedge of knobby, blistered dough capped with a melty, pungent aged cheese called “Flamische Vieux Lille.”  It was so good that Laurent asked for seconds (having eaten at in de wulf over fifty times, he was familiar with the chef and staff).  The kitchen happily obliged, and I happily accepted the windfall.

The meal finished with a few, light desserts, all vegetable or fruit-based.

Desramaults’s dishes showcased one or two ingredients at a time.  He coaxed the best out of each one, using natural techniques – like smoking, aging, pickling, fermenting, and salt-baking – to enhance texture and flavor.  Confident enough to find sophistication in simplicity, he kept garnishes and gimmickry to a minimum.  I liked that.  I also liked that, similar to the restaurant’s interior, Desramaults’s plating-style was clean and plain: nuggets of gelatinous cod cheeks served with a spot of creamy sauce; a hillock of North Sea crabmeat in a chilled broth of gurnard (a sea fish that inspired an article entitled “Ugly fish, tasty dish…“); and rosy slices of lamb with a little jus and a stalk of ramp.

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12th Course: 6-Week Pigeon

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In addition to that cheese course, three dishes stood out: A bowl of warm mussels (from Dunkerque) with some curly kale, frothy whipped sour cream, and white beer struck an incredible balance of salt and sour, anchored in a deep, satisfying umami.

There was also a silky strip of skate wing, glistening with a light miso made from grains.  It’s rare to find skate cooked so exquisitely, with such great flavor to pair.

And a roasted pigeon, aged whole for six weeks (disemboweled after two, then aged for another four stuffed with hay), appeared briefly at our table on a bed of hay before it was taken back to the kitchen.  It reappeared, reduced to eight slices of breast meat that were ruddy, waxy, and funky.

The bread here was also super-good, an exemplar of the generic descriptor that Americans have assigned to this sort of thick-crusted type of loaf, tightly knitted with a rough-hewn crumb: farmhouse.  I handily downed half a loaf by myself (with a healthy spread of butter and pork fat beside).

The wine pairings were just as fermented and funky as Desramaults’s food (the Domaine de Cavarodes, Poulsard de Chemoenot, 2012, paired with some salt-baked potatoes, smelled of something unmentionable) – some oxidized, all of it natural – the long-reaching shadows of Linda Milagros Violago’s work here some years ago.  They paired very well with the food.  So did the non-alcoholic pairings, which were just as untamed as the wines. They ranged from an earthy-sweet carrot-turnip juice to a jammy (and wonderfully milky tasting) lacto-fermented elderberry juice.

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Breakfast

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The smell of coffee and sound of eggs sizzling on a beautiful, wood-fired stove (lined in Dutch-blue tiles) greeted us the next morning in the farmhouse’s mess hall, a separate space dedicated to serving breakfast for overnight guests (breakfast is included in the room rate).  Plates of cheese and cold cuts were brought to the table to share, and everyone was encouraged to visit a handsome spread of house-made bread, pastries, jams, condiments, and juices set up on the kitchen counter.  Eggs were cooked to order.

The sky was low and grey that morning. The fire was crackling. I could have lingered in that farmhouse all day, with a thick sweater and a good book.  As a total-package kind of experience, in de wulf is an international destination worth the trouble and expense, both for Desramaults’s cooking and the charming world that he has created around it.

Before leaving, we were shown an upstairs loft space.  Formerly Kobe Desramaults’s A-frame attic abode, at the time, it was being converted to a private dining space.  It should now be open for reservations.

~

Radishes

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Located directly in the path of advancing German troops, the ancient town of Ieper (pronounced “ee-per” in Flemish, the town is also commonly known by its French name Ypres, pronounced “ee-PRAY”) in West Flanders was the site of intense fighting in World War I.  By the end of that war, the entire city had been leveled.

I would never have guessed this awful fate of Ieper by the look of the town today.  That’s because, in the two decades following The Great War, most of the town was restored, brick-by-brick, stone-by-stone, to its pre-World War I look.

Barely a half-hour drive from Dranouter, Ieper is now home to one of Desramaults’s former cooks, Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson, whom Laurent had met on his many trips to in de wulf.  An Icelander, Sigurdarson met his Flemish wife while working at in de wulf.  He settled in her hometown of Ieper and, together, they opened souvenir, a small but smartly furnished restaurant in the heart of town.  Souvenir had only been open a few days when we arrived that mid-day in early March.

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4th Course: Pork Belly

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Souvenir is one of those restaurants that every food writer longs to find: new, unsung, far-flung, and – most-importantly – good. Actually, I would say that my lunch there was great – unexpectedly so for a restaurant that was so new, and so scantly staffed.  Sigurdarson had only one other in the kitchen – a young, Flemish cook named Aster Welleman.  And Sigurdarson’s wife Joke, eight-months pregnant at the time, tended the front of the house with only one other server.

At the time, the menu was prix-fixe, and shockingly inexpensive at 55€ for 5 courses (Sigurdarson sent us an additional course, for a total of six).

In many ways, souvenir was the perfect summation of my quick eating tour of Belgium.  Sigurdarson’s cooking demonstrated all the precision and offered all the technicolor dazzle of Degeimbre’s modernist cooking at l’Air du Temps but showed the confident, rustic simplicity and flavor-forwardness of Desramaults’s farmhouse fare.

His food was immensely comforting, like a flaky filet of pollock buried under a steaming pile of cabbage, with some cabbage juice poured over it all.  There was also a tender tranche of pork belly – the meat unexpectedly juicy, the fat surprisingly loose under its crisp surface – served with beets and bitter mustard leaf to thin out the richness.

“Pigeon,” I said.  “Pear,” Sigurdarson replied, “The pigeon is just the garnish.”  He was joking, of course.  But that pear was amazing; slightly charred, slightly softened, and soaked with flavor.  Together with the pigeon, it was a showstopper.

I am a happy champion for Sigurdarson and his crew.  For anyone targeting Belgium for its more well-known, Michelin-starred tables, souvenir deserves to be seriously considered as well.

~

10th Course: Lamb Chop

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Laurent and I folded ourselves back into his car and hurled ourselves south towards the awaiting rush-hour traffic of Paris.  We made good time, and slipped through the rings of banlieue in time for me to catch the tail end of my friend Stephanie Biteau’s party at her beautiful studio kitchen, Cookcooning.

I snacked a little there, and then slipped into the rainy night, off to dinner at David Toutain’s eponymous restaurant on the rue Surcouf in the 7eme, which opened last December.

I had missed Toutain when he was at l’Agapé Substance, where he last cooked, and where he first attracted international attention. But I did have a bite of his cooking at Gastronomika in San Sebastian in October of 2012, and a few of his dishes at the Twelve Days of Christmas a few months later (some of which were repeated at this new restaurant in Paris).  I was excited to finally have a meal at his table.

Toutain’s cooking was far more intriguing to me than it was delicious or satisfying.  I found some of his combinations bizarre – smoked eel, green apple, and foie gras are fairly common friends in European haute cuisine, but Toutain put all of them in an inky black sesame purée, which I found strange.  Some of them were quite lovely, like coconut ice cream cradled in a billowing cloud of cauliflower and white chocolate.  And some, I recognized from other kitchens, like Toutain’s oysters veiled in a bright-green kiwi purée, a page he readily admits taking from Degeimbre’s playbook.  Or, sea urchin, served in the shell, with a steadying shot of dark, bitter coffee froth, a combination I had seen before at Robuchon’s Mansion in Las Vegas.

I preferred Toutain’s more familiar, more classically based dishes, like a bowl of foamed Comté, garnished with shaved ribbons of the cheese and really great, winter black truffles.  There was also a terrific lamb rib chop served with mushrooms and some nuts.  The rib bone had been removed, leaving the attached flap of fat standing as a visual double.  That made it so much easier to eat.

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Cappuccino and birthday boy.

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Before leaving Paris, I swung by Télescope, a tiny coffee shop in the 2eme opened by former fashion photographer Nicolas Clerc.  The cappuccinos here were great.  And, yes, apparently, Paris has hipsters too.

Before I knew it, I was on a plane bound for Bergen, Norway, where I will continue this travelogue in the next blog post.

Here are the places I ate in Paris and Belgium, with links to the photos of the food I had at each one.

FRANCE

Antoine (Paris, 16eme)
David Toutain (Paris, 7eme)
Le Baratin (Paris, 20eme)

BELGIUM

in de wulf (Dranouter)
l’Air du Temps (Liernu)
souvenir (Ieper)

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* Of my few food allergies, kiwi is the most severe.  Yet, as with all of my food allergens, I always try it if it is served to me.  In this case, Degeimbre’s extraction process must have eliminated the allergen in kiwi.  I had no allergic reaction to this dish.

** Quite a few dishes pointed to Degeimbre’s Korean heritage.  He was adopted and raised by Belgians.  Like his modernist cooking forebears, Degeimbre codifies his dishes with dates and provenance.  This pigeon dish, for example, was entitled “Favorite 2004: Pigonneau from Jean Yves Bruyère, Asian-Style.”

PHOTOS: Old coffee tins at in de wulf in Dranouter, Belgium; couples taking a selfie on the Paserelle Debilly, Paris, France; stormy weather approaches the garden of the Tuileries, Paris France; pigeon at Antoine in Paris, France; cigarette filters and wine on a table at le Baratin in Paris, France; beef with anchovy at le Baratin in Paris, France; Sang Hoon Debeimbre plating pigeon at l’Air du Temps near Liernu, Belgium; “Favorite 2010: Purple Duck version 2014” at l’Air du Temps; pigeon, plated, at l’Air du Temps; pickles and preserves on the shelves at in de wulf near Dranouter, Belgium; spring and late-winter vegetables with an egg yolk sauce at in de wulf; the roasted, 6-week aged pigeon presented on hay at in de wulf; the wood-fired stove in Dutch-blue tiles at in de wulf; Vilhjamur Sigurdarson peeling radishes at Souvenir in Ieper, Belgium; the pork belly at Souvenir; the lamb chop at David Toutain in Paris, France; cappuccino and “Fool Magazine” at Télescope in Paris, France.

~ by ulterior epicure on June 23, 2014.

One Response to “travel: flemish fling…”

  1. Fantastic write-up! Thanks a lot! (Only the Parisian airport anecdote reads like an unintentional satire of a conservative american’s europe-paranoia…)

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