Monday, March 7, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: this foodie went to France

My dining experiences since arriving in the UAE have been, shall we say, less than thrilling. Horrifying, at times, but rarely thrilling. Two birthdays in a row Sam took me to different French restaurants that both turned out to be disappointments. (In hindsight, compared with the second experience, the first was pretty decent.)

So, for a starved foodie about to reach the gastronomical promised land, I was a little more than excited to be on my way to France. As someone who loves to read about others' experiences with food, it has been impossible to avoid catching the mania surrounding French cuisine. In fact, it has been built up so high in the foodie biographies and blogs I've devoured over the years that there was a little red light flashing in the recesses of my mind, warning me not to be disappointed.

But I wasn't.

After living in the UAE, a land where all bread, no matter what kind, mysteriously becomes stale an hour after baking, the bread of France was manna for my foodie soul. It was a key player in nearly every meal.

As an afternoon snack, a six-cheese panini and a glass of red wine—

For breakfast each morning, a freshly-baked baguette, toasted and slathered in salted butter and honey (It seems like a caricature to show a French person carrying a baguette under his arm, but honest to God, every 10th person on the street was carrying a baguette under his arm)—

Or, at any time of day, a flaky, buttery croissant punctuated with intense bursts of fine French chocolate (not pictured, sorry). After a particularly sublime croissant on our first afternoon, bought on a whim from Le Boulanger de Monge, I think I shall spend the rest of my life trying to find its equal.

Next on the list of delights: all things made creamy by whatever magic the French work with milk...

Cream of carrot soup - I never knew carrots could be this good! (of course, the artisanal bacon doesn't hurt)—

Blue cheese that looked a bit funky but melted like butter in my mouth with only the most pleasing tang—

Pineapple and caramel panna cotta that must have been strained by angels to turn out so heavenly—

And, oh my, the chocolate!

Milk chocolate soup poured over pink praline ice cream (you can't see the soup here, but the smile says it all)—

At tea time, Laduree's macarons (not only chocolate, but salted caramel, pistachio, and raspberry, yum!) and champagne—

And at brunch, hot dark chocolate, poured thick at Cafe de Flore on Boulevard Saint Germain, with just the right amount of sweetness—

Which followed our eggs, cooked two ways, with ham and cheese, perfect, perfect—

It's a wonder I didn't come home a couple of dress sizes larger, but after three days of eating this way I did start to falter a bit. For my first course on our final evening, I couldn't help it, I asked for this—

Which better prepared me to eat my next course, delicate pieces of chicken and morels swimming happily in a white wine cream sauce—

As I eyed my sister's meal, consisting of whipped potatoes topped with a delicacy new to us, black pudding, which tasted like someone had gathered up and broiled the bits of stray meat and juicy drippings after slow-roasting a particularly flavorful pig. Served with a sweet apple compote to offset the saltiness of the pork, it was a highlight of the evening—

And to finish up, profiteroles, which I blissfully plunged one by one into their warm chocolate bath—

It's not that all French cooking is perfectly executed; we did have an edible but rather underwhelming steak frites at a brasserie around the corner from our apartment one rainy evening. And right in the middle of a fantastic meal on our first night, we ran into a surprisingly dry slab of roast duck, despite a broth so rich and flavorful I wanted to drink it—

But the difference is that the ingredients used in French cooking are simply superior to what I've found most anywhere else. The French possess an obvious respect for the bounty of the earth and an appreciation for the variety of flavors and textures that are possible when foods are carefully and creatively cultivated. With even the most basic staples (grain, milk, eggs, cocoa, grapes), they manipulate foods into so many forms that the palate could never be bored.

To anyone fortunate enough to be heading to Paris, my advice for happy eating, especially if you don't speak French, is to plan ahead. It is overwhelming to face down the innumerable restaurants there and figure out which one to patronize, especially if you are already hungry, which can lead to hasty decision making (hence our steak frites letdown). Also, there are various idiosyncrasies to keep in mind, like many places being closed during prime weekend dining hours, or not being at the address listed online, or having a phone reservation system which is only in French, that will pose challenges to your spontaneity. Before heading out, research a few food blogs (Try David Lebovitz or Paris by Mouth), make a list of promising candidates organized by neighborhood, and figure out the hours and exact location of each establishment. Call ahead where possible, and always have backups.

As for recommendations, my favorite finds were the planned Les Papilles in the 5th, cute as a button, and home of the carrot soup, blue cheese, and panna cotta shown above, and the unplanned Le Chardenoux in the 11th), proudly but unpretentiously serving the black pudding, chocolate soup, and profiteroles. Both bistros were cozy and inviting, with soulful food and great wine at reasonable prices. Bon appetit!


  1. Wow! Shannon, I never thought you had the capacity for all that food.

  2. I love reading what you write about food! I am not a foodie...I'm so boring! I would live on the croissants with chocolate and the baguettes if ever I were to make my way to France. :)

  3. I can picture you and Lisa savoring every morsel. I guess calories don't count in Paris!

  4. So glad you got to experience the goodness that is France and French food. Heaven !! Paris in the springtime no less!! :)