Before my trip to Paris, a friend of mine told me to enjoy the food in France because it’s the best food in the world. Certainly, some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, I ate in France.
For a week in Paris, my wife Jill and I lived with one hand on our wallets and the other hand on a fork. We ate our way through croissants, macaroons, eclairs, beignet, chocolates, crepes, creme brulee, dozens of cheeses, croquette, souffle, French onion soup (called gratinee l’oignon at the restaurant), duck confit, guinea hens, a variety of cream sauces, oysters, escargot, and frog legs (tastes like chicken). Whew! Glad we did lots and lots of walking, because, despite the relatively small portions, we would have easily put on twenty pounds.
On our first night in Paris, Jill and I had a delightful meal at L’Os a Moelle at 3 rue Vasco de Gama near the Ballard metro station with lovely people from Jill’s work. The six course meal consisted of a “mouth warmer”, a soup, an entree, a main plate, a cheese plate, dessert and finally coffee with chocolate. America has no equivalent to the mouth warmer. By comparison, an American appetizer feels heavy–even like a separate meal. The mouth warmer came in a small cup–tiny by American standards. Each taste of the mushroom and chicken mouth warmer evaporated in my mouth. This dish, if you can call it that, confirmed for me that French cuisine has perfected many qualities of food preparation that many American diners simply wouldn’t understand.
The first macaroons I purchased in Paris I found at a small patisserie near the Piccasso museum. They tasted good, but didn’t knock my socks off. I shrugged my shoulders and wondered why they didn’t taste as good as the macaroons at Boulange de Polk in San Francisco.
The beignet I had in Paris was like a bad American jelly donut. The woman behind the counter sliced the precooked donut almost in half, slathered apricot jam on it and then popped it into a microwave. Watching this process didn’t exactly fill me with glee. My instincts were right on. The beignet at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans not only tasted better, but also had a more interesting mouth feel. So I’d suggest skipping the beignet in Paris unless you get a tip from a friend as to where you can find a good one.
The afternoon grew colder and colder as we made our way through the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. After surveying way too many objet d’art, Jill, my friend Joe Siart and his son Quentin took the train from Paris to their home out past Versaille. Snow drifted down through the naked trees and whirled around the train. The air bit us bitterly at our stop as we bounded from the train out onto the road. Joe’s wife Isabell made a feast in the style of the French country side. The earthy flavors of the duck confit warmed my heart as well as my stomach. Even more, Joe generously offered to drive us back into Paris through the last cold breaths of winter.
While visiting the Louvre, Joe wisely said that you don’t travel to France to eat pizza. Despite the assortment of pizzerias in tourist areas, the French apparently don’t make great pizza. Got it. Skip the pizza. Simply because you can find excellent food in Paris doesn’t mean that everything there is excellent or that they will have the food you want. If you’re in the mood for pizza, or perhaps a really phenomenal cheese steak, you’re simply out of luck.
Jill got a tip from a friend of hers and, on my last day in Paris, I stopped in at the Gerard Mulot patisserie at 76 Rue de Seine. I got confused by the street numbers as the odd numbers on one side of the street did not correspond to the even numbers on the other side of the street. I nearly gave up because I had to rush off to catch my flight, but I decided to endure the confusion. When I finally entered the shop, I felt like I had walked into a beautiful spring meadow in paradise. No, really paradise. It smelled like flowers and the pastries glowed in bright pastels. I selected a dozen or so macaroons from the large assortment and, unfortunately, skipped the hundreds of other pastries. After gathering up my bag of treats, I had to fly off to Hungary. I managed not to eat the little morsels from heaven until reaching my friend’s apartment in Budapest. Once my teeth sank into the chocolate macaroon, I knew that I had found perhaps the best macaroons on earth.
As a side note, I could not simultaneously purchase coffee and pastries at any place I found in Paris. A friend of mine explained that having coffee and pastries together in a cafe actually falls more in line with Italian tastes. So if you have visions of munching on a macaroon, drinking coffee and sitting out on the sidewalk, book a trip to Italy. Well, right after you buy the macaroon from the Gerard Mulot patisserie. Additionally, bakeries and pastry shops are entirely different entities carrying very different products. So if you’re looking to mix the two, forget it.
If you travel to Budapest, then you will certainly want to try dinner at the warm and welcoming Cafe Bouchon. The menu at Cafe Bouchon offers up an interesting and authentic continental menu. Many restaurants in the pedestrian zones in Budapest attempt to lure tourists in through signs that advertise Hungarian goulash in English. Don’t be taken in by the tourist traps. Hop on the M1 metro line that runs underneath Andrassy street and get off at the Opera station. You can find Cafe Bouchon at Zichy Jeno utca 33. Look up the address on a map or the internet to make sure you don’t get lost.
I shared the enormous Hungarian cheese plate with my group as an appetizer. The assortment of blue and smoked cheeses served as an terrific companion to a wonderfully spicy and full bodied Hungarian red wine. While the chef seasoned my beef paprikash with a little too much salt, the rich sauce, tender beef and crisp yet tender potato croquettes of the Hungarian goulash surpassed my expectations and led me to ask why more people don’t eat Hungarian food.
Equally, a restaurant called simply called M at Kertesz utca, 48 served up delicious Hungarian duck leg with flavorful beets and tender potatoes. The owner decorated the newsprint colored walls with hand drawn pictures making the atmosphere warm and charming. The fun atmosphere was surpassed only by the great service and terrific food. The maitre d’, after finding out that it was my first trip to Hungary, ordered up some of the finest pear palinka on the house.
You may also want to try the somewhat trendy and popular Menza which you can find at 1061 Bp. Liszt Ferenc ter 2 at a plaza half a block off of Andrassy street. The trendy aspect of the restaurant plays well as chic retro. The mushroom soup filled my mouth with an incredibly complex and delightfully earthy sensation. Jill ordered an equally fascinating pumpkin soup with fresh roasted pumpkin seeds on top. The surface of her soup captured the variety of colors in such a way that we felt like we were eating a beautiful piece of modern art. Since Hungary borders Austria and shares some cultural heritage, I decided to indulge in weinerschnitzel. Served up with lemon wedges and tender golden potatoes, the crisp light pork (in some cases, Hungarians make weinerschnitzel with pork and not veal) more than satisfied my curiosity.
Some of the best meals that I had during my trip to Europe couldn’t be found in any restaurant. In addition to the meal that I had with the Siarts in Paris, I had a wonderful family meal in Budapest. On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, my friends Richard, Katie, little Rosie and I gathered around the table at their apartment for homemade roast pork, winter root vegetables with Texas style cracked pepper gravy and beets. We talked and laughed, but mostly we stuffed our faces. While a restaurant can serve up delicately spiced dishes and well executed service, sharing a home cooked meal with my friends in Paris and in Budapest made the meals all the more sweet.
The food in Paris is some of the best in the world. Budapest also offered some insanely great food, though I would have never guessed before my visit. No one place holds a monopoly on the best food in the world. Ultimately, the food that makes you feel alive, comforted and delighted is the best food in the world. Even more, the best food in the world is the food you share with the people you love.