2014 harvest video

Posted in 2014, Burgundy, France, WINE

Promises of excellent quality in Beaujolais 2014 (and Nouveau first on the horizon!)

-Since August 20th to date (September 25) only 10 mm of rain has fallen, therefore creating healthy grapes.

- Sunshine almost every day produced ripe grapes, good sugar levels and ripe, dark skins round tannins as well as smooth textures

- Nights were very cold compared to daytime temperatures which will give a very fruity vintage, less cassis driven and more raspberry and strawberry aromas.  After malolactics, aromas might and should get riper.

- Malolactics are easy to start which requires less filtration then in 2013, were also slow = a rounded vintage versus 2013

- Conclusion:  This will most likely be a very good Beaujolais Nouveau vintage–Very fruity and very delicious. No other region in France had better weather from August 20 – September 25.

Posted in 2014, Beaujolais, France, WINE | Leave a comment

2014 harvest in Burgundy – it’s time!

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In Burgundy, the 2014 Harvest started the week of September 8th in the Maconnais, Chalonaise and Cote de Beaune with beautiful weather.

Promises of large crop are reassuring growers who have suffered 4 consecutive small harvests  (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013).

Those who still tried to deliberately curb yields for concentration have almost perfect grapes.

For reds in villages Volnay and upward and Cotes de Nuit many people waiting a few more days and hoping for perfect phenolic ripeness.

The sorting table is relatively easy, and looking for under ripe (rose colored grapes-very obvious with special lighting above sorting table) and small amount of rot, sunburned grapes or hail damage.

The excellent weather of the first half of September « saved » the harvest after mediocre weather in July and August cool nights, warm sunny days slight northern wind .

Posted in Burgundy, TASTE TRAVEL, WINE | 2 Comments

Mistral lunch in Gigondas

Gigondas in the distance

Gigondas in the distance

The village of Gigondas is located at the foot of the impressive Dentelles de Montmirail. We were warm in the car when we drove to the center of town and saw that the terrace of l’Oustalet was open. Beautiful May day …but we underestimated the wind. Wow was there a lot of wind! And not yet warm summer wind; this wind still had vestiges of winter. We started with rosé as aperitif and also to cleanse our palates from all the red wines we’d been tasting. Gigondas Rosé –pretty rare- 2009 from Longue Toque. Fatty rose petals and some yellow peaches. Some warmth in the finish. Not the best rosé ever but hit the spot.

fillet de maigre

fillet de maigre

The luncheon menu at L’Oustalet is a very good deal. Delicious. Creative but not over the top. Service that day was pretty bad. They were over worked with the terrace opened and the wind that kept knocking everything over. I’d been there before several times but never when the terrace was open. Apparently the place was recently –in the past year- bought by the Perrin family. (They are the ones who own Beaucastel.) They re-did the decoration and re-vamped the wine list, which is pretty good and varied now. It’s a pretty sensual square for a terrace. I’d like to go back on a day with less wind and when I don’t have to race to another appointment.

poitrine de porc

poitrine de porc

We had a 2008 Cotes du Rhone Rouge Les Deux Albion from St Cosme with our main courses. My memory is that it wasn’t bad, surprisingly concentrated for a 2008, actually …. I suspect he declassed Gigondas into his CDR. No more details than that in my notebook, my note taking hand was out to lunch then….

Posted in 2008, 2009, FOOD, France, Red, Restaurants, Rhone, TASTE TRAVEL, the road | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Veronica’s spring risotto

Veronica in her kitchen paris rooftops in the background

Veronica in her kitchen paris rooftops in the background

One of Veronica’s long time dreams was to buy food and cook it in her own kitchen in Paris. Her dream came true this spring.

Saturday morning found us at the Bio market on the boulevard des Batignolles loaded down with beautiful springtime produce. Peas and asparagus that Veronica planned to simmer into her risotto.

That evening, I served her a glass of Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2009 from Clos du Mont Olivet as she stirred the rice with a big smile on her face. And the sun was setting over the rooftops of Paris that were visible from the stamp-sized kitchen of the rented flat. The final touches were taleggio and chive flowers also from the Bio Market.

Absolutely delicious!

veronica's spring time risotto

veronica's spring time risotto

Posted in 2009, FOOD, Recipes, Rhone, White | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anne Gros Minervois Video

Posted in 2008, Red, Uncategorized, WINE | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Behind the scenes @ Le Jardin Gourmand

They were just back from Rome, to get away while the work was being done. Work being a total make over of the restaurant Le Jardin Gourmand. « We had to do it to be ready to face the next 10 years » said chef Pierre Boussereau with a laugh as he welcomed us into the empty entrance hall. The restaurant was still officially closed, the furniture to be delivered in the following days but they had us for a cozy dinner. Olivier set up a portable cd player, and Pierre cooked for us, inspired by some of their Roman delights…

tartare de truffe

tartare de truffe

Tartar de truffe and biscuit: this is serious truffle, cut coarsely, meaty, satisfying, sink-your-teeth into it truffle. And yet so simple. The roasted crispy-ness of the biscuit went well with the liquorish-y olive aspect of the truffles.  And the 1996 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru La Romanée from Verget that we brought for the meal went perfectly with the truffle.

Foie Gras fumé

Foie Gras fumé

The first spring leaves from Pierre’s garden also made it into our plates with the foie gras. First signs of spring with leaves, some of which I have never heard of : Dayton de cuba, wild roquette, chizeaux (?) and mustard leaves. The foie gras was smoked with a dusting of speculos (spicy cookie) on top. Talk about unusual foie gras! I’ve never had it smoked before. Over smoking would surely dominate because of the bitterness, but this was super. The spicy speculos acting as the liaison between fatty foie gras and hint of bitter smoke.

The 2002 Egly Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge was almost too delicate for the dish. The spiciness went well, but the delicate tannins just barely make it past the smoke of the dish.

Pierre and Olivier told me they had been to see Heinz. Showed me the menu of their meal and said it was one of the best 3 stars they’d been to in Europe. They were referring to Heinz Beck chef at La Pergola in Rome, one of my mentors in another life…..it made me want to go back.

Posted in 1996, 2002, Burgundy, FOOD, France, Restaurants, TASTE TRAVEL, What is in my glass? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Those Brittany boys….

purple Brittany oursin

purple Brittany oursin

“White and purple !!” I exclaimed, truly shocked. “Where do these sea urchins from?”

“Brittany.” Replied Colette

“I’ve never seen anything like these !”

“Neither have I.” She admitted, almost as shocked as I was by her own remark.

If Colette has never seen these, they must be REALLY rare. We order 2, one white and one purple and 2 Icelandic, to compare.

For starters, the Brittany boys are bigger beasts. The tongues of row are also bigger; you can actually sink your teeth into them. The complexity is mind blowing! Red fruits, meaty, ginger, flowers. All of what we love in the very best sea urchins. The Icelandics are not in the same league here. They are very good, but seem so simple next to the Brittons.

Brittany sea urchins only appear at my fishmonger about 3-7 days per year, and they are usually the same color as every other sea urchin, that is dark brown. Maybe these are the ones the Japanese used to buy, but now their economy is crashing?

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Colette and the sea urchins

sea urchins (oursins)

sea urchins (oursins)

No one picks out sea urchins like Colette. She’s got it down to an art. Picking them up delicately and with the slightest shake of the wrist, she weighs each one in her knowing hand. Oui, là, ils sont bien pleins (yes, these are nice and full). She says it with a sparkle in her eye as she throws them onto the scales.

Full of eggs. That’s just what we want.

We tell her we’ll be back to pick them up around noon, just in time for aperitif.

She’s been there for over 30 years, Colette, working for the fishmonger on the corner of Rue des Abbesses and Rue Lepic (18th arrondissement of Paris, in Montmartre). She is the crustacean and shellfish expert, right on the corner. She sets up a beautiful stand with all sorts of goodies that vary according to the season and wallets of the of the client,  mussels, oysters, live stone crabs, cockles, lobsters, langoustines, scallops The fishmonger has changed hands several times, but Colette’s been there faithfully, with all of them. And when she takes time off from Paris, she goes back to her native Normandy to work with a fishmonger there. Needless to say, she knows her stuff!

I hear that the Japanese buy up most of the world’s sea urchins at a pretty price, so getting access to them isn’t always obvious. They are fairly expensive, but you don’t need a lot of them. They are very intense in flavor. A little goes a long way.

The sea urchins Colette sells either come from Iceland, Norway or the Atlantic coasts of Spain, for some reason. I think the little beasts like cold water. We tend to like the Icelandic ones best, they are more gingery and digestible and long on the palate.

What’s fascinating about sea urchins is that no two have the same flavour! There are gamy ones –which I like the least- and there are sweet gingery ones. Red fruit ones, floral ones-the most intense ones I’ve ever had tasted like violet liquor! And every thing in between. The colors give hints as to what the flavors will be. The palest ones tend to be gingery, and the redder ones more meaty and fruity.

We like to share them, one tongue of roe at a time from the same sea urchin, savoring every bite. It is very sensual. We open a bottle of good complex buttery but mineral chardonnay and life is good.

Posted in FOOD, France, Paris, TASTE TRAVEL, White, WINE | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Saturday morning breakfast @ Batignolles Organic Market

bio market crepe stand

bio market crepe stand

On cold blustery days (the kind we’ve had a lot recently) the tarps covering the market stalls look like they’ve been pulled extra-tight together, huddling up close in solidarity. On the nicer, sunnier days, there is a little jazz trio playing notes that dance with the patches of sunshine through the alleys of the market.

Come rain or come shine, if I’m in Paris on Saturday morning, I make it to the Bio market on the boulevard des Batignolles (between Place de Clichy and Metro Rome).  Something about it always puts me in a good mood and makes me see the lighter side of life after a long week of work.

There are only 2 markets like this in Paris, Saturday at Batignolles and Sunday at Raspail. The both run in the morning, getting going around nine AM through one PM. The Raspail market is bigger with only one central alley, making it harder to circulate in the crowd and more impersonal. Batignolles is smaller, running on a block and a half with two alleys, but it feels like a village market, making you forget that you are in the center of Paris.   All of the stands are organic or biodynamic and you can find almost everything from the obvious fruits and vegetables, to several cheese mongers, a couple of butchers and fishmongers, an Italian delicatessen, flower stalls, and Normandy cider…

there it is...

there it is...

It’s at the cider stand that I usually start my visit. That is because the cider man (who is also a poet) brings a little lady who makes crepes to order. All organic ingredients. Buckwheat or regular flower for the crepes and a choice of fillings from organic homemade jams too hazelnut-paste. I always go for the ultimate: egg and cheese with salt and pepper. Everything is fresh. Everything probably comes from their back yard in Normandy. It is delicious. Warm. Crispy on the edge and moelleux (soft) at the end. The egg and the cheese just taste as fresh as any you’ve ever had. The pepper adds a little wink and a kick to wake everything up.   And, of course, a little glass of cider or poiré to wash it all down.

ready for a bite

ready for a bite

Ah!

Now I’m ready to buy my veggies for the week…

Posted in FOOD, France, Paris, TASTE TRAVEL, What is in my glass? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tang, Coquilles and St Julien

scallop with spicy soy sauce

scallop with spicy soy sauce

I’ve mentioned Resturant Tang before as one of my absolute favorite places in Paris. I know a lot of his dishes, but on my last visit, he surprised me with this scallop and spicy soy sauce recipe.

Scallops (Coquilles St Jacques, in French) are in season now here in France. It is rare to find a preparation of scallops that requires red wine and yet retains the taste of scallops. So many preparations of scallops drown the poor little things in bitterness (for instance a tomato sauce, à la Provencal) and you totally lose the sweet purity of the scallop flavor. This recipe is unique. The cooking time of the scallop is perfect, firm but not rubbery, warm but almost raw on the inside. It is served in its shell and topped with a delicate, spicy soy sauce that subdues the brunoise of chives and veggies. The scallop manages to hold its own. Even though soy sauce is powerful, this one still lets the scallops’ true, sweet nature express itself. Truly a brilliant and delicious dish.

We drank a 2004 Clos du Marquis, one of the 2nd wines of Leoville Las Cases 2nd Grand Cru Classé in St Julien (Médoc). It was absolutely delicious with extraordinary mouth feel. Smooth ripe tannins with spices and red fruits.

The pundits of this vintage say that it is a lesser vintage, but the 2004 red Bordeaux that I have had, I’ve always found a balance and spice that I very much enjoyed. Leoville Las Cases is a St Julien that is on the border next to Pauillac and actually abuts the Chateau de La Tour (1er Grand Cru Classé, Médoc). They are very serious about quality and in vintages that are less good or less reputed, they declass more wine into their 2nd wines in order to boost up quality across the line up. This is a sure bet 2nd wine. And it married perfectly with the scallop with its non-aggressive spiciness. A festival of spices on the palate.

Posted in 2004, FOOD, France, Paris, Restaurants, TASTE TRAVEL, what am I drinking with this dish?, WINE | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Did I mention the 2009 beaujolais?

beaujolais 2009 les lies

beaujolais 2009 les lies

I’ve been tasting a lot of 2009 Beaujolais recently, everything from Crus like Régnié, Brouilly and Morgon to plain Beaujolais.  Some are just bottled or just before bottling. Everytime I stick my nose in a glass of the stuff, I cant get over it : they are all delicious ! So delicious, I want to suck down the glass and have another!

One great vinifyier in the Cote de Nuits hit the nail on the head when he said that in 2009 vintage, relative to the potential of the terroir and the vintage, Beaujolais made the best wines.

The prodcuers fo Beaujolais are saying this the best vintage since 1949….(which I never tasted)

Did you know that Beaujolais ages ? Especially from such a ripe, concentrated vintage like 2009. I’ve tasted 25 year old Beaujolais that was still kicking, and tasting very Burgundian.

Posted in 2009, Red, What is in my glass?, WINE | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Christian Etienne and unexpected truffles…

Consommé de homard aux germes de soja,  pinces à la citronnelle

Consommé de homard aux germes de soja, pinces à la citronnelle

The streets of Avignon are dead on this wintry night with the exception of a few Chinese tourists. How did they get here? Where is everyone else?

We arrive late at Christian Etienne, but when we open the door, we are greeted with all the human warmth and sunshiny southern French accents were had been looking for on this southern escapade.

We’ve seen the chef Christian Etienne in his kitchen on our favorite gastronomic French TV program twice in the last 3 months, where he appears to be a sensual, unpretentious man. The eponymous restaurant is considered one of the very best restaurants in Avignon and we’ve been meaning to come for a while now. The Duc came several times about 15 years ago and thought it was the best place in the Rhone valley at the time.

We start by ordering some wine. A glass of Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc. We give him free reign. This is actually a test for the sommelier to see what his tastes preferences are, see if we can trust him to lead us to pleasure later on. 2008 Domaine La Janasse white, very famous for his red wines, and our first taste of his white. It is horrible. Over-filtered. Over sulfured. Could be any industrial white wine from anywhere.

While we are thinking about our white wine menu, we decide to buy a bottle of a sure bet pleasure  white wine: Alary Haut Coustias 2007 Clos St Oratoire. Our mouths are soothed and our minds swim in happiness. White flowers. Apricot and peach pits with almond dust.

The truffle menu temps us. It is truffle season after all, and Provence is getting a reputation for its truffles. But then the lobster menu looks really good and original. Let’s try that…

We start with Consommé de homard aux germes de soja,  pinces à la citronnelle lobster and soy sprouts with citronella. The taste of the consommé is exotic and airy with the citronella, but bitter because of the soy sprouts. The lobster can’t seem to figure out what it is doing there. It likes the citronella (but is sort of dominated by it) and the bean sprouts are a little too bitter to let the lobster sing its true song. But it is very light, digestable and creative recipe.

Noix de Saint-Jacques rôties, royale de betterave aux pistaches salées et sa julienne à la ciboulette

Noix de Saint-Jacques rôties, royale de betterave aux pistaches salées et sa julienne à la ciboulette

Accras d’articulations au fenouil, 
coulis d’olives cassées de la vallée des Baux Accras (fried fish dumplings) with fennel and olive coulis. I love the description of this on the menu-it seemed like one of the most exciting parts of the lobster menu-, but the reality is disappointing through lack of harmony. The fennel salad, on its own, is delicious, fresh and lively. The olive coulis on its own is also fantastic. The accras, made with tiny lobster legs is too spicy, you can’t actually taste that it has lobster in it. If you take all of the ingredients together, the dish is disjointed.  I don’t understand why some chefs insist on using noble, expensive ingredients only to drown the base flavor with too many distracting and intrusive other ingredients.

The Duc has the same problem with his scallops.  Noix de Saint-Jacques rôties, royale de betterave aux pistaches salées et sa julienne à la ciboulette. The idea sounds good. We anticipate a play between the sweetness of scallops and beets. (I think I’ve mentioned before my admiration for chefs who use beets. After this tasting, I’ll add a caveat: I have a penchant for chefs who use beets and keep it simple!) The scallops themselves are perfectly cooked. Seared on the outside, warm, but almost raw on the inside. The royale de betrave is fantastic, if a bit heavily laden with cream. The pistachios with the beet is very original, bringing in textural crunch, and interesting bitterness. But this has nothing to do with the scallop. Same goes for the beet salad with the chive. Super on its own. I’d like a small bowl of that to finish my meal. But if you take a bite with the scallop either of the beet accompaniments, you cant taste the scallop. What’s the point?

Provencal cooking has a tradition of marrying different bitternesses together, but scallops and lobster are sweet by themselves and can only deal with suggestions of bitterness.

I don’t actually enjoy reporting about less than great restaurant experiences. This one isn’t terrible; it’s just pretty disappointing. So much potential with quality of ingredients and cooking times, but the realization of the recipes lacks harmony…I will skip the descriptions of the other dishes we tried, so that I may finish on a positive note: desert.

Tarte fine aux pommes et truffes

Tarte fine aux pommes et truffes

I’m not a big desert person, but did not refuse the opportunity when I was offered the choice of desert with the lobster menu. Seeing as it is truffle season, I chose the Tarte fine aux pommes et truffes. I’ve had deserts with truffles before. But nothing like this. This is truly extraordinary. And simple. Your basic thin crust and thin apple slices, not too grilled or caramelized so that it stays sort of blond. Rich creamy vanilla ice cream scoop progressively melting over the pie and truffles shaved over the top. Fantastic. The apple pie is not too sweet; the vanilla ice cream brings the fattiness that a truffle needs to express itself. The sweetness of truffle comes out in tune with the vanilla. Neither over powers the other, perfect harmony. I’d go back to see Christian Etienne just for that dish!

(and maybe we just came on a bad night…)

Posted in 2007, FOOD, France, Restaurants, Rhone, TASTE TRAVEL | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sidewalk inspirations: alternative foie gras

monkfish liver and oyster

It happens when he is walking down the street. Who knows what is going through his mind. And then, suddenly, something emerges. Clear. Precise. A mission. Monkfish liver and oysters…

It has to do partially with a dish that Antoine Heerah at the Chamarré did for us not long ago, he presented it as ‘foie gras de la mer’ (foie gras of the sea)…and it was pan seared monkfish liver, that was so creamy and flavorful that it did taste sort of like foie gras.

It also has to do with the fact that Omar-the fishmonger at Pepone’s Poissonerie-NEVER has monkfish liver, and today he does. The Duc’s been asking him about it for months. Here it is. Here is his chance.

Omar wants to sell him the whole crate full, but the Duc manages to buy a small amount. ‘First I need to test it out’ he convinces Omar.

He comes home with a big smile, monkfish liver and a couple of oysters. We need to see if the combo works and weather the Gillardeau numero 2 or Spéciales numero 3 is better.

The monkfish liver really looks like goose liver, if only a little more grainy. It is easy to cut and clean. We cut slices that we pan sear-olive oil, salt and pepper. A little one at first to test out taste and time that it needs to be cooked. I like it with a little bit of crunch on the outside; it makes for a play of textures that is fun. And also a play of tastes, grilling –to get the crunch- brings more bitterness to grilled outside of the liver.

We shuck the oysters and pan sear them too- olive oil, salt and pepper. The Gillardeau is almost too concentrated a flavor, and seems much saltier than the spéciale 3. The spéciale 3 works perfectly.

The oyster is firm and yet soft, and so is the monkfish liver. Both are a different expression of the sea, both have bitterness. The monkfish liver is more animal, more meaty and the oyster has more iode (fresh low tide). The white pepper that we used links the two in a way that is very complex.

A unique combination. We serve it to friends from Singapore and KL that night who lick their plates clean tell us that have never had anything like it.

We have it with Champagne Vergnon 2004 Brut Nature. I would not have thought that this blanc de blanc would have enough bitterness to stand up to the liver, but it works, partially because of the pepperiness, and the bubbles also bring some bitterness. One of the reasons that vinous (concentrated) champagnes can replace white wines and sometimes red wines with food.

Posted in 2004, FOOD, Recipes, what am I drinking with this dish? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Truffles and Chardonnay @ Le Chassagne

Truffle dish with Chassagne 1er Cru Les Embrazées

Truffle dish with Chassagne 1er Cru Les Embrazées

The 2004 Bernard Morey Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Les Embrazées, was a little disappointing because it was reduced (needed air) and never fully expressed its potential, both of terroir and vintage.

Chardonnay, even if disappointing on its own, tends to goes well truffles. This was certainly true of the Embrazés. Chef Stephane Léger of Le Chassagne‘s truffle dish was three-fold. Buttered and toasted bread the size of a thumb coated with truffles sat next to an eggshell full of frothy egg foam and in a separate, in a small bowl, a cream of artichoke with truffles. Egg and truffle were fantastic together, as usual. Neutral and creamy egg allows a good truffle to sing its song loud and clear. The artichoke and truffle combo works really well too. The artichoke had been cooked enough so that it is sweet, no more bitterness. This went well with the sweet earthiness of truffle.

With these foods, the showed more purity through floral lemon butter, more like what I was expecting of a 2004 white Burgundy. And the mouth feel echoed the creaminess of the dish but brought in white pepper notes that refreshed and cleansed the palate in the finish.

Posted in 2004, Burgundy, FOOD, Restaurants, what am I drinking with this dish?, WINE | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haddock and beets @ Le Chassagne

Haddock and beets

Haddock and beets

I have a soft spot for chefs who use beets. Surprisingly complex aromatically with an interesting mixture of red fruits and earthiness, beets are an under-rated vegetable.

My most recent visit to Le Chassagne, chef Stefane Léger brought out a smoked haddock and beetroot appetizer with not one, but two different preparations of beets.

What a dish!

Raw beets, coarsely grated underneath, and beet chips on top. Textural play between crunch of the chips and the soft haddock. The smokiness of haddock brings bitterness that marries well with the earthiness of the beetroot. And the orange sauce acts as exciting energy that brings everything together. I’m not usually a big fan of smoked haddock, but the way it was prepared in this dish was truly extraordinary.

Of the wines on the table, it was a 2001 Pousse d’Or Corton Clos du Roi that married the most harmoniously with this dish.  The characteristic acidity of the 2001 vintage, expressed through orange rind and orange peaches kept the wine extraordinarily fresh.

Posted in 2001, Burgundy, FOOD, Restaurants, what am I drinking with this dish?, WINE | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chicken rice @ Maxwell’s

Maxwell's Hawkercenter chicken rice

Maxwell's Hawkercenter chicken rice

A six-hour layover in Singapore, the airport so near the city, we decide to go into town for dinner and head to Maxwell’s hawker center in Chinatown. The place is the size of a large gymnasium, open on all sides with three rows of stalls, running down the length and tables spread out in between them.

“Look for Tian Tian’s chicken rice,” was the advice we had from a Singaporean friend, “the stall is identifiable by the biggest queue.” She was right; the stall was mobbed and almost sold out by the time we got there.

What is so special about chicken rice, you ask? Two things so simple and so commonly found in the world, how could they be so special? Forget about all the chicken and rice you’ve had in airplanes or school cafeterias, the chicken rice at Maxwell’s hawker center is from another planet.

Lets talk about the rice first. Its soft, aromatic, and delicate. It smells and tastes almost as if it has been aromatized with delicate Indian flowers and cinnamon. In a small bowl, next to rice, is the chicken broth. As pure, precise, perfect an essence of chicken as you can imagine. The broth has the optimum degree of fattiness; enough for taste and texture but not the least bit heavy.

The chicken itself (badly represented in the photo, which makes the sauce look heavy) is perfectly cooked to be moist, soft and full of flavor. This is light years from the tasteless snow-flake aspect that a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breast can have.

This dish is perfect pure essence of both chicken and rice, which go so well together. Nothing over the top, nothing in excess. This is quiet perfection.

chicken

chicken

Posted in Asia, FOOD, TASTE TRAVEL | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

What are we drinking in Vietnam?

Forget about wine. There is no wine here. Most people haven’t even heard of wine and wouldn’t know how to serve it if they did. Not that I hold it against them, they have other priorities.

It used to be that you could buy bottles of Dalat wine from ambulant push cart merchants on street corners, along with beer and water. Dalat wine might even have some potential as wine; Dalat city is in the mountains, so higher altitude, cooler, apparently good growing conditions for grapes. But by the time you bought a bottle on the street, the stuff had been baked to smithereens in the Vietnamese sun. In the streets or markets, just getting beer cold isn’t always easy, getting wine chilled is simply unheard of.

This trip we didn’t see any push cart merchants selling Dalat wine. Maybe they gave up.

Heineken cheers to the world

Heineken cheers to the world

We certainly did. And contented ourselves with beer. Cold beer. (And, yes, we accepted ice in spite of the bacterial risks) We didn’t always have a choice, but created a ranking of our favorites:

Saigon Red and 333 were the top two choices, with a slight penchant for 333. They resemble each other. Both are relatively light, blond, and digestible. Not too bitter. Fluid enough to feel like it hydrates almost as well as water (but who am I kidding, right?). Apparently 333 is the rising local favorite and it was widely available.

One night at Nam Bo, a woman was pushing Fosters. She was dressed and made up like she should have been down on the Boulevard at Pigalle(red light district in Paris). Although we prefer to drink local, we bought one. And I was reminded of that Monty Python Flying circus sketch about Australian beer being like making love in a canoe (that is f*cking close to water). That’s pretty much what it was, but at least it wasn’t bitter.

We learned to stay away from the Saigon green label, closer to lager. Thicker, more bitter and more aggressive bubbles. Not agreeable.

Tiger beer we liked fairly well, and ordered it often enough. It is also slightly thicker than the 333 and Saigon red, and slightly sweeter rendering it less digestible than our favorites.

Heineken did less promotional work than our last trip in 2007 when all the streets were decorated with Christmas trees made with Heineken bottles. In these times of crise, the imported beers, significantly more expensive, must not be as successful.  This was available in upper level restaurants, ranking well in our line up. Digestible but with slightly aggressive bubbles.

For the record, we drank water too, and also with ice at times, but nice cold beer with meals was most welcome.

All of that being said, beer just isn’t the same thing; our systems get bloated with too much of the stuff.

On the last day of our trip, we got all cleaned up and went to the Hyatt for lunch. The Park Hyatt in Saigon has a state of the art Italian wine bar and restaurant on the ground floor. The design is so sleek that you could be anywhere in the world (not that I particularly enjoy that feeling, why fly halfway around the world to be just ‘anywhere’?). But they had wine. By the glass. Chilled. The lady who served us had trouble with the corkscrew, obviously not a contraption she was used to using. Nor had the strength to use. She had to call her male colleague who had no trouble. The incentives for screw caps became so obvious; I understand why more and more growers are moving in that direction for their Asian markets. The wines we selected by the glass were over-kill-chilled but there were no problems regarding oxidation or miss treatment. Promising for the future of wine in Vietnam, if the government gets around to reducing the 300% import tax.

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fresh spring rolls @ Ben Than Market

fresh spring rolls @ Ben Than Market

She makes it in front of my eyes within seconds. It looks so easy. Rice paper, noodles, shrimp, and a tiny slice of chicken. Roll, tuck et voila. Some herb that I have never seen sticks out of one end. You need the sauce; otherwise the roll is a little dry. The sauce is thick. Thicker than what they serve with fresh spring rolls in France. This one is smooth with shrimp paste and peanuts, and it brings in meatiness. Meatiness. Freshness. Crunch. Soft center. Surf. Turf. Complete. When I eat it, I’m thinking to myself: This is the real McCoy.

lined up spring rolls

lined up spring rolls

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Big Ben Than Market Saigon

blue shrimp

blue shrimp

It’s a mistake to walk into Ben Than Market through the front. You’d never think there was anything BUT aisles and aisles of t-shirts and counterfeit bags of all big brand names you can imagine. Engulfed in sea of textile and trinket stalls, hands reaching out, grabbing my arms and back to draw me in and the incessant voices of women calling “you want buy t-shirt, Madame”, “look very nice for you”, “Madame, look”, “Madame, what you look for?”.

I’m looking for breakfast, actually.

If you walk in through the backside, then you come straight into the food part of the market. It feels more civilized than the textile part of the market, maybe because the food merchants aren’t seeking westerner clients.

We take a stroll through. Vegetables first. Always fascinating in this country. And intriguing. I don’t know what most of these vegetables and herbs are (aside from simply beautiful). And dodge the iceman, who brings big chunks of ice on his back, dripping, and crushes it before distributing to the other vendors. Impressive, actually, all of the ice, especially with the fishmongers all lined up. Lots of fish. Dead and alive. Of all colors shapes and sizes. Then the there is butcher lane. All of them chopping away. This is the strongest smelling part of the market, especially as the heat rises during the day. We don’t linger here. Then the heaps of dried goods. Spices. Rice. Beans. Bean curd. Dried fish. Nuts and fruit.

crab all lined up

crab, all lined up

coconuts

coconuts (juice and pulp separate)

pretty fish lady

pretty fish lady

hat lady and herbs

hat lady and herbs

ice man with big chunk of ice

ice man with big chunk of ice

pork offal

pork offal

rice selection

rice selection

dried shrimp with more light

dried shrimp (to make pastes and sauces)

And finally in the very center of the market, the food court. Little stalls where they serve prepared food. We check them all out. And here, they are also starting to get used to western visitors, and call out to us for us to choose their stand.

shellfish stand

shellfish stand

couteaux

razor clams

There is only one shellfish stand, and most of the things they have on offer we have never seen before. We stop here. And have a feast.

Razor clams, smaller than any we have ever seen. They just throw them into the fire. The beasts are perfectly cooked and delicious, but the fire makes the shells even more brittle than usual rendering them almost lethal. The clams are served with salt pepper lime sauce and it makes them electric.

shellfish ladies

shellfish ladies

Ben Market roasted bulots

roasted bulots

I’ve never seen bulots as dainty as these. They look like they have fingernail polish on them. As with the razor clams, these go straight into the fire, and it makes them a little dry rubbery. They need the spl sauce to make them palatable.

roasted conches

roasted conches

The conches are amongst the most expensive thing on the menu. Sold by the piece. I’ve seldom had them before, but I suppose because they are so far back into the shell, the direct contact with the fire, cooks them more delicately. They are meaty in texture but very sea-food in bitter brininess.

blood cockles

blood cockles

The Cadillac of all cockles, according to our little shellfish lady, and certainly priced that way (but everything is relative), we finish off with blood cockles. Yep, orangey-red like dried blood on the inside and they taste like they have a lot of iron in them. A very unique and concentrated taste. No need for sauce.

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