I fought the law…

Day three in Milan and just tonight, it’s finally stopped raining. It feels like we were pretty much stuck in the hotel all day yesterday and most of the day today. Still trying to kick the jetlag and all that jazz as well.

At this point, I can’t really remember what we did yesterday. I guess that’s because we really didn’t do much of anything. Being All Saint’s Day, EVERYTHING in town was closed. We were getting dangerously low on our stash of diapers, and not a grocery or pharmacy in town was open. Not even our beloved Il Pavone!! The only establishments open for business in our immediate area were Chinese restaurants. Chicken chow mein is not exactly high on our list for possible dining enjoyment while in Italy.

Figuring we’d have better luck downtown by the Duomo in the more touristy areas, we hopped back on the tram for the 20-minute ride. Our gamble paid off; hubby spotted a sign just off the beaten path and we followed it to Pizzeria Dogana, tucked into a quiet side street a block away from the Duomo. It appeared fairly busy and the picture-postcard menu posted outside looked appealing. Sold.

Hubby seems to be sticking to beer during our time in Italy, which seems unholy to me with all the great wines around. At Dogana, I enjoyed a glass of Montepulciano house wine for a reasonable 4 euros. Not quite the two euro/quarter liter value at Pavone, but still a steal. For dinner, hubby ordered the spaghetti pomodoro, a lovely plate of al dente pasta lightly draped with a silky tomato sauce and topped with a sprig of fresh basil. So simple, but the plate was like a work of art, and the food was sooooo good.

spaghetti pomodoro

 

I ordered the risotto alla Milanese; again, a very simply made creamy risotto with saffron. Delicious.

risotto alla Milanese

We also split an insalata Caprese, not the best I’ve ever had, but still great with flavorful tomato slices and a mound of tiny balls of fresh mozzarella that soaked up the balsamic vinegar and olive oil I drenched them with.

Insalata Caprese

After dinner, we wandered over toward the Duomo, stopping off for a post-meal gelato. Hubby spied a Pepto Bismol-pink shade of bubble gum flavor and decided it was exactly what the toddler needed. Between the three of us, we made short order of a cone and another of tiramisu-flavored gelato.

bubble gum gelato

 

The bubble gum flavor tasted precisely as advertised; it was good, but nearly sickening after a few bites. The toddler fell asleep on the tram ride back to the hotel. However, the sugar buzz came on as a delayed reaction, and he was then up bouncing around the room until midnight. Between that and his two-hour screaming interlude between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m. our first night in residence, I’m convinced the other guests must be plotting our demise.

First order of business today was a trip to the grocery store, as our diaper rations were reaching desperate levels. Hubby took off for his trade show; I packed the toddler up after breakfast and we were off to Iper, the supermarket of the gods. You can scan back and refer to my entry last year for more details, but this place makes foodies like me feel like they’ve died and gone to culinary heaven. Fresh fish, cases of cheese, cured meat, wine, an entire aisle of nothing but pasta… ah. The only thing I don’t like about this place is the checkout. Even with a newly added self-service checkout option, the lines are unbelievable. We waited probably 15 or 20 minutes just to pay for our scant basket of goodies.

The toddler and I returned to the hotel to drop off our purchases, and then commandeered the breakfast room for a picnic lunch of sorts – cheese, crackers, grapes, blueberries and yogurt from our shopping trip. The staff was kind enough to let us use a table, and I hoped our absence would allow enough time for the housekeeping staff to come in and do their thing to the room while we were out. Bless them, they definitely had their work cut out. We can trash a hotel room within minutes like nobody’s business.

After a nap, the toddler and I ventured out to the main train station to purchase tickets for our overnight sleeper ride to Paris tomorrow night. Ugh. If the food is the best thing about Italy, the inconvenience factor is the worst. I struggled on and off the tram and up and down probably a dozen flights of Metro stairs after our transfer, wrestling a screaming two year old and a stroller with people brushing by giving me dirty looks. Only during the last flight did some kind young woman take pity enough to help me carry the stroller up. The man behind the ticket desk was not friendly and although I tried my best to explain what I wanted, I have a sinking feeling I’ve purchased the wrong tickets and we’ll find ourselves crammed into sardine seats for 8 hours all night long on the way to Paris. But enough complaining…

Hubby met us at a tram stop along the way back and we enjoyed a quick beverage in a small charming café before heading to Il Pavone. For tonight’s feast, hubby went with my favorite fusilli della casa and I had a plate of tortellini pomodoro and a side of steamed spinach. Yummy. Even the toddler got into the act, and once he tore himself away from the grissini breadsticks, got interested in a small plate of pasta of his own.

Hubby had missed our earlier visit to Iper, so we strolled back over after we ate to check things out. After I’d taken a few pictures, we were accosted by a security guard letting me know photos are strictly forbidden. Doh. I stammered out an apology and he let us go. I guess we must have looked a little odd, merely taking photos without buying anything, but come on. We’re clearly foreigners, and we’re pushing a stroller around. Not exactly the corporate espionage type. Oh well. I’ve been warned.

I had my heart set on a gelato of my own tonight, but the stand outside the supermarket was closed by the time we came out. Shitballs.

On the walk back to the hotel, hubby stopped short in his tracks in front of some Italian police cars parked on the street. Apparently, he was impressed by the Alfa Romeo brand, a far cry from the old U.S. Crown Victorias you and I know best. Hubby wanted to take a photo, and as he did, a handful of cops stormed in out of nowhere. The toddler and I had already crossed the street and didn’t hear the exchange firsthand. From what I could see, hubby was either making friends or on the verge of being arrested. Fortunately, the polizia didn’t seem to mind and sent him on his way with a thumbs up. Second bullet we’d dodged in less than a hour, we cut our losses and hightailed it back to the room.

Our time here in Milan is flying by. Twenty four hours from now, we’ll be loading up and pulling out for France. Ciao for now!

Windy City wow

Move over this little piggy, there’s a new porker in town.

Our local babysitters extraordinaire/lovely neighbors/surrogate grandparents down the street offered to take the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a quick trip to Chicago. Hubby had to go up there to pick up his new passport and also had an Expedia credit burning a whole in his virtual pocket, so we decided to make a night of it.

After some deliberation, we booked a room at Hotel 71, right on the river at Wacker and Wabash. A competent and comfortable choice. The hotel looks mod and hipster from the outside and in the lobby, but the rooms are sumptuously furnished with subdued upscale pieces and neutral décor. We stayed on the 16th floor with an impressive view of the river and bridges below. Nice. The orange-scented bath products are worth mentioning as well, they smelled yummy enough to make your mouth water. Our only (very minor) complaints were that the water in the shower and bath wasn’t as hot as we would have liked, and there was some noise in the morning from what sounded like construction going on next door. Other than that, the location was ideal and we agreed we’d definitely stay here again.

Chicago is foodie heaven for someone like me, and the choices are dizzying. For dinner, we’d already pre-scouted thanks to recommendations from a friend who used to live there (thanks, Renate!) The Purple Pig looked fun from the get-go, and has been rated one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. Good enough for me.

To get to the Purple Pig proper, you enter under a metal archway off Michigan Avenue and walk back along a sidewalk to the restaurant itself. The place offers indoor and outdoor (heated) seating, but it’s not large. We ended up sitting across from each other at a long indoor table, elbow to elbow with fellow diners. Fortunately, the high ceilings and the acoustics help keep the noise at a somewhat manageable level (much better than, say, Napolese…), but it still felt intimate and cozy with lots of light wood and a huge wall of glass-fronted wine racks.

Our server was really on top of his game and somehow managed to keep our whole table and then some buzzing and well taken care of. The wine list is huge and overwhelming; I finally just closed it and told our server what I liked. I don’t even know exactly what he brought me, but it was a light, fruity, fragrant red just like I’d asked for. Hubby was pleased with his glass as well, a more assertive red with distinctive jammy but not sweet flavors.

The Purple Pig advertises “cheese, wine and swine,” and that’s pretty accurate. The menu is full of Mediterranean-tinged, small-plate tapas goodies. Now, I’m usually not all that crazy about tapas because I would usually rather eat a full serving of one thing I really like than a few bites each of half a dozen different dishes. Plus, I don’t like sharing my food. Tonight, though, this was somehow perfect. It was terribly difficult to make choices because so many things sounded tempting. The fact that hubby hates seafood helped narrow options down somewhat, as did obvious items like pig’s ears and tails that we both agreed were not personally appealing. We subtly tried to check out what our fellow diners were eating for inspiration; not difficult considering our quarters were so close, we could have just reached over and eaten off their plates.

We started with two dishes from the fried portion of the menu – breaded chorizo-stuffed olives with a lemony mayonnaise underneath, and proscuitto bread balls that came with a mild tomato sauce. I was a little surprised we only got five smallish pieces with each, but the flavors were so bold and vibrant, that was really all we needed. The savory green olives were good, but the proscuitto balls were AWESOME, a steaming-hot hush puppyish concoction with a crispy browned outer crust. The tomato sauce was a little bland, but a great complementary foil for the much saltier bread balls.

Next up was a sharable plate of mixed green salad with slivered pieces of asparagus, crushed hazelnuts and a citrusy vinaigrette dressing. Light, lovely and a refreshing way to cleanse our palates after the fried treats. We’d already started perusing the menu again by this point, looking for other items to order. The cured meats and cheeses are always a hit with both of us, but we looked beyond to the “smears,” a series of spreadable offerings delivered with slices of crusty brioche or Italian peasant bread. Hubby fought for the whipped feta with sliced cucumbers, but I lobbied hard for the eggplant caponata with goat cheese and won.

The serving size of the smear was pretty substantial – five slices of bread, each slathered with soft goat cheese that made a just-right base for the messy but delicious caponata. The chunky eggplant spread was like a sweet-and-spicy chutney with a nice vinegary tang and plump golden raisins (no onion, thank God!)

Hubby had his eye on the chicken thigh kebabs with fried smashed potatoes and tzatziki or the Jimmy’s housemade Greek sausage with rapini and grapes from the larger-portion “la plancha” selections, but let himself be swayed by the server’s suggestion to try the pork blade steak instead. And again, props to the server – this was fantastic, and something we never would have ordered of our own volition. The steak was a thin but generous piece of meat that had been brined in a salt solution, then quick grilled on both sides and topped with a little honey, arugula and parmesan cheese. A sweet and salty masterpiece. There were a few fatty bits here and there that we spit out, but the meat for the most part was tender and delicious. And underneath was what I thought at first glimpse to be sliced tomatoes, but was actually something called “ ‘Njuda,” a soft spreadable form of salami.

By the time we polished off the pork steak, we were starting to feel pleasantly full. The desserts were intriguing, especially the olive oil soft-serve ice cream, but we decided not to overstuff ourselves and went straight to the check. We were fully expecting a bill of at least $100, and were surprised and even a little shocked that our total was only $71. VERY fair considering the amount of quality of food and wine we enjoyed.

If you’re in Chicago and looking for a fun, scrumptious, pseudo-communal dining experience, pay a visit to the Purple Pig. I wish, wish, wish we would have taken a camera in with us. However, you can get a gander at the menu, the décor and some of the dishes for yourself at www.thepurplepigchicago.com. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, after the Purple Pig, we had a drink at the Redhead Piano Bar, then ended up at Blue Chicago. A colorful evening, to say the least.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Viva la fromage!

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, the heart of California wine country, for a spell several years ago, we made a weekly habit of a cheese board dinner. Meaning, once every weekend (or more frequently some weeks), we would purchase a bottle of previously untested wine and round out our evening meal with some fabulous local cheese, fruit, sausage, olives, nuts, bread and other apropos local produce and nibbles. With all the insanely good markets going on here in Paris, we knew we couldn’t let this visit drift away without doing the same thing here at least once. Yesterday being the weekly Bastille street market, what better time would there be for us to get a true taste of France?

We took a slow stroll through the market knowing we wanted to buy wine, cheese and bread, leaving the other goodies up to chance. The market was crowded as hell and we had a little trouble navigating the stroller through the narrow aisles, dodging other shoppers with their glowing cigarette ashes and the ubiquitous Parisian dog poop that seems to be EVERYWHERE. Do these people just never clean up after their pooches or what?? The amount of street candy you see here is truly offputting; it’s like tiptoeing through a minefield every time you walk down the street..

First up, the cheese… hubby asked the first fromager we found for recommendations, and he hooked us up with a wedge of Brie and a block of bleu d’auvergne. Done. Next up, a booth selling wines from the Burgundy region. The vendor recommended an “unusual” white to go with our cheeses, and we took his suggestion. A baguette, some gorgeous little black and giant green olives that shone like jewels and reeked of garlic and herbs, a small handful of strawberries, some grapes, an apple and we were all set.

When our tummies started growling around suppertime, I set out the spread and we spent the next half hour happily nibbling away at our treasures. Sadly, some of our selections proved better choices than others. The wine was unusual, indeed. I like my white wines either crisp and sweet like a Riesling or rich and oaky like a chardonnay, but this was neither. I can’t quite say what the flavor was – maybe spicy? It was light, but it wasn’t sweet and it wasn’t buttery. In other words, it was just ok for me.

We went one for two on the cheeses as well. The bleu was fantastic, and between us we put away the entire block, hubby enjoying his with the bread; me spreading little chunks onto slices of apple and strawberry. The brie was another story, however. Maybe I’m just more accustomed to the milder Americanized versions, or maybe it was just better suited for a palate much more sophisticated than mine. In any case, neither hubby or I could manage more than one bite.

I knew we were going to have trouble when I unwrapped the package. As my hubby so succinctly put it, it smelled like a sweaty gym sock. I figured, ok, this is a French cheese, perhaps it’s one of those cases where stinky equals good. Not so, I’m afraid. One bite and our fears were confirmed. I’m still puzzling over exactly what it tasted like. It didn’t taste like cheese, that’s for sure. It tasted sort of like a cow pasture. Not that I’ve ever sampled a swatch of cow pasture, but if I had, this is how I imagine it would taste. Gamey and grassy and overly ripe, not in a good way. Ugh. Very disappointing, as I am usually a big fan of rich and creamy Brie and will eat it spread over anything that will stand still. Anyway, we filled up on the bleu and a small chunk of Emmentaler we had leftover from earlier in the week, and it was all fine in the end.

our beautiful Parisian cheese board

our beautiful Parisian cheese board

I feel I’ve probably eaten my weight in cheese during this two-week trip. It’s impossible to escape, between the croque monsieurs, the omelets, the quiches, the crepes and the desserts, the Francais LOVE their fromage. And why shouldn’t they, with so many delicious options to choose from? Still, I fear for the state of my cholesterol. Hopefully all the exercise I’ve gotten has been enough to offset my high calorie intake. Amazingly, my pants are actually fitting more loosely than they were before we arrived, and my butt’s never been in better shape. I guess that’s what walking two or three hours a day and staying in a third-floor walkup apartment with steep, narrow stairs will get you. Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining!

Today is our last day in Paris; tomorrow we’ll be up and catching a taxi to the airport at a rather ungodly hour. We had originally intended to enjoy our last evening meal tonight at the scene of our first Parisian dinner together – Cafe Rempart, but seeing as how we’ve already been there this morning for coffees and Nutella crepes, it seemed a bit much to hit it twice in one day. Instead, we tried a place we’d not been to yet, a bistro called Restaurant Sully, right across the corner from the lovely produce stand I’ve been frequenting all week.

My dinner was better than hubby’s – I enjoyed the best roast chicken in recent memory, even better than the really good one I enjoyed last week, along with a mixed green salad and a few slices of baguette. I got a quarter chicken portion, dark meat, the thigh and leg encased in the most perfectly crispy thin skin ever, all topped with a rich sauce that was the very essence of the chicken itself. I kept trying to figure out what was in it; the best I could come up with was that it tasted just like a super-intensely reduced chicken stock thickened with a little bit of butter. In any case, it was incredible. Hubby ordered one of the evening specials, an entrecote steak with peppery gravy, fries and a salad. All good, but not nearly as good as my chicken. My only complaint I had was that the portion was fairly small and I was still hungry after I had gnawed every shred of meat off the bones. Not a bad thing, really, in retrospect, as it left me plenty of room to fully enjoy a dessert.

I’ve been wanting to order a tarte tatin since we got here, but it’s not been on as many menus as I expected it would be. Thank goodness I was in luck tonight. Tarte tatin is a traditional French dessert, like a French cake-y version of apple pie ala mode. It’s not unlike a pineapple upside cake, but made with apples. I really need to learn how to make this stuff once we get back home. The wedge I received tonight was very generous in size, heated to steaming and served with a small side ramekin of creme fraiche to spoon over the top (creme fraiche is tasty concoction the consistency of light whipped cream cheese, but with a subtle tarty tang like sour cream). I spooned the entire lot over the cake, watched it melt into the apples and took a big mouthful. Mmmmmm. Hubby said he would have preferred something chocolate, but only after he’d eaten three or four large bites. I finished off every bit of the rest. The perfect way to cap off a lovely meal on our last night in the City of Lights.

Valentine’s Day a la Francais

Oh my goodness, where to begin… let’s see. Breakfast the past few days has consisted of croissants and coffee – darn near the most perfect culinary combination ever invented.

Today is Valentine’s Day and hubby and I decided we would commemorate the occasion with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When in Paris… we took the Metro from Bastille to the Champs Elysees, walked down to L’Arc de Triomphe, then hoofed it over to the tower itself. On the way, we came across what has to be without a doubt the most amazing street market I have ever witnessed. To be sure, it was the mother of all farmers’ markets.

This market was all enclosed by one long narrow tent set-up and stretched on for nearly 8 blocks nonstop. It was stand after stand of the most beautiful offerings I’ve ever seen – everything from made-on-the-spot steaming cauldrons of paella to seafood, flowers, produce and even the occasional non-food items such as shirts and jewelry. Every single item was absolutely beautiful and laid out in displays of the utmost precision.

The French are obsessed with aesthetics, and this market was a perfect example. It’s not good enough to have some great produce mixed in with some so-so produce at the bottom of the bag. For example, you know how in American supermarkets you can buy a container of strawberries and at the bottom of every container you’ll find several berries that are starting to mold or are just not that ripe? Not so here. You can rest assured that every single berry in the bunch will be perfectly ripe, juicy and delicious. No waste whatsoever. It’s like that with every single thing you might want to buy, you’ll know it’s all of superior quality and freshness right down to the very last bite.

 

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

produce at the street market

produce at the street market

 

 

Hubby ordered a chocolat noir crepe from a made-to-order crepe stand. The crepe master manning the grills was an older gentleman who looked like he’d been creating these lovely treats his entire life and had the technique down to a science. Making the perfect crepe is nothing short of an art form. It takes the perfect batter, ladled out in the perfect amount onto a hot grill at the perfect temperature. A quick and careful spreading of the batter with a small wooden tool and then a smooth flip to assure the ideal brown crust. Fillings added at the optimum moment to melt the chocolate to just the right degree and expert origami folding. There you have it. Hubby took one bite and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy.

 

the crepe master

the crepe master

 

This market just absolutely blew my mind. If I lived here, I could go crazy eating my way from one end to the other. It would take me forever, but God, I’d welcome the challenge. It was just exceptional. There’s nothing else I can say.

Seeing as how we were in the midst of sightseeing and had no way to keep things preserved until we returned to the apartment at an unspecified later time, we refrained from buying anything. Geez, it was hard, but probably smart. I could have gone broke there.

After a spin around la Tour Eiffel, we stopped into a cafe for a warm-up. Unable to resist the thought of Patrick’s earlier treat, I ordered a cafe au lait and a crepe of my own spread with Nutella. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nutella, I pity you. Get with the program. Immediately. It’s a crack-addictive chocolate hazelnut spread the consistency of peanut butter, a welcome addition to ice cream, pancakes, crackers, fruit – you name it. When I was pregnant, I enjoyed thick spoonfuls of it on cinnamon graham crackers. When it’s spread onto something warm, it melts ever so slightly into near-orgasmic perfection. Ah….

Baby started getting cranky, so we grabbed a taxi back to the apartment for a little downloading. After some laundry and unwinding, hubby took off to a nearby tabac/bar to watch some of the Six Nations rugby matches while baby and I took a brief nap. Hubby returned to the apartment an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of pink-blushed roses for me as a Valentine’s Day gift. What a guy! In testament to the French attention to detail, the roses were wrapped in pink tissue and thick white paper, tied with some raffia with a business card and a bonus orchid tucked in. Lovely! Hubby said he even had a conversation in the tabac about the bouquet, the other men commenting on the high quality of the product. Bonus points for hubby. Just what every woman wants to see on Valentine’s Day – the man she loves bearing flowers! 

For dinner, we decided to get dressed up for a nice meal out. Not that every other meal we’ve had thus far hasn’t been nice as well, but this being Valentine’s Day and all calls for something extra-special. Venturing out in new directions, we wandered up to the Bastille roundabout and ended up in the Hotel Bastille. It looked like a hopping, busy place from the exterior, but it wasn’t until we’d gotten inside and ordered a drink that we realized it really wasn’t a restaurant at all. The only few plates we saw customers enjoying were actually desserts and when the tab arrived, we discovered the server had talked us into about $40 worth of drinks (one round, mind you – a jumbo-sized beer for hubby and a nice-but-not-THAT-nice glass of red wine for me). Yikes. We devoured every single olive in the complementary nibbler and most of the peanuts to try to get our money’s worth. Oh well, the ambiance was good and we wrote it off as a special occasion treat, then continued on in search of dinner.

The Bastille area has been busy during the week, but tonight it was positively thronged with a party crowd. Mohawked young men smoking in small groups on the sidewalks, stylish men and women on their way to clubs, and tourists seeking hotspots. Finding the mainstream establishments a little bit too trendy for our taste, we ventured off the beaten path a little bit to find something quieter and came across Cafe Vosges – a smallish diner-style establishment that looked friendly and inviting. 

Our waiter was a kind, patient young man who took in our fractured French in stride and made us feel at ease. The French menu didn’t offer much we were familiar with, but I recognized the term “entrecote” as steak. Seeing as how all I’d had to eat today was a croissant at breakfast and some Nutella crepes for lunch, I was ready for some real sustenance. Hubby followed suit and ordered the same. The waiter took our request and we went along with his suggestions, not realizing we’d just asked for our steaks rare.

The meat arrived not just rare, but bloody. Not fans, hubby and I stumbled our way through asking the nice waiter to take the steaks back and have the chef cook them a little more, which he did in a most gracious way. I didn’t know how hungry I actually was until the food came; I devoured my salad and half of hubby’s fries, then pounced on the steak once it came back, cooked just right second time around. 

Baby soon decided he’d had enough of being cooped up in the stroller and started in on his high-pitched squeals, so we tipped the waiter big and high-tailed back to the apartment, where we look forward to baths and an evening of relaxation. It’s going to be hard to top this Valentine’s Day.

Valentine's Day a la Francais

Oh my goodness, where to begin… let’s see. Breakfast the past few days has consisted of croissants and coffee – darn near the most perfect culinary combination ever invented.

Today is Valentine’s Day and hubby and I decided we would commemorate the occasion with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When in Paris… we took the Metro from Bastille to the Champs Elysees, walked down to L’Arc de Triomphe, then hoofed it over to the tower itself. On the way, we came across what has to be without a doubt the most amazing street market I have ever witnessed. To be sure, it was the mother of all farmers’ markets.

This market was all enclosed by one long narrow tent set-up and stretched on for nearly 8 blocks nonstop. It was stand after stand of the most beautiful offerings I’ve ever seen – everything from made-on-the-spot steaming cauldrons of paella to seafood, flowers, produce and even the occasional non-food items such as shirts and jewelry. Every single item was absolutely beautiful and laid out in displays of the utmost precision.

The French are obsessed with aesthetics, and this market was a perfect example. It’s not good enough to have some great produce mixed in with some so-so produce at the bottom of the bag. For example, you know how in American supermarkets you can buy a container of strawberries and at the bottom of every container you’ll find several berries that are starting to mold or are just not that ripe? Not so here. You can rest assured that every single berry in the bunch will be perfectly ripe, juicy and delicious. No waste whatsoever. It’s like that with every single thing you might want to buy, you’ll know it’s all of superior quality and freshness right down to the very last bite.

 

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

produce at the street market

produce at the street market

 

 

Hubby ordered a chocolat noir crepe from a made-to-order crepe stand. The crepe master manning the grills was an older gentleman who looked like he’d been creating these lovely treats his entire life and had the technique down to a science. Making the perfect crepe is nothing short of an art form. It takes the perfect batter, ladled out in the perfect amount onto a hot grill at the perfect temperature. A quick and careful spreading of the batter with a small wooden tool and then a smooth flip to assure the ideal brown crust. Fillings added at the optimum moment to melt the chocolate to just the right degree and expert origami folding. There you have it. Hubby took one bite and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy.

 

the crepe master

the crepe master

 

This market just absolutely blew my mind. If I lived here, I could go crazy eating my way from one end to the other. It would take me forever, but God, I’d welcome the challenge. It was just exceptional. There’s nothing else I can say.

Seeing as how we were in the midst of sightseeing and had no way to keep things preserved until we returned to the apartment at an unspecified later time, we refrained from buying anything. Geez, it was hard, but probably smart. I could have gone broke there.

After a spin around la Tour Eiffel, we stopped into a cafe for a warm-up. Unable to resist the thought of Patrick’s earlier treat, I ordered a cafe au lait and a crepe of my own spread with Nutella. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nutella, I pity you. Get with the program. Immediately. It’s a crack-addictive chocolate hazelnut spread the consistency of peanut butter, a welcome addition to ice cream, pancakes, crackers, fruit – you name it. When I was pregnant, I enjoyed thick spoonfuls of it on cinnamon graham crackers. When it’s spread onto something warm, it melts ever so slightly into near-orgasmic perfection. Ah….

Baby started getting cranky, so we grabbed a taxi back to the apartment for a little downloading. After some laundry and unwinding, hubby took off to a nearby tabac/bar to watch some of the Six Nations rugby matches while baby and I took a brief nap. Hubby returned to the apartment an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of pink-blushed roses for me as a Valentine’s Day gift. What a guy! In testament to the French attention to detail, the roses were wrapped in pink tissue and thick white paper, tied with some raffia with a business card and a bonus orchid tucked in. Lovely! Hubby said he even had a conversation in the tabac about the bouquet, the other men commenting on the high quality of the product. Bonus points for hubby. Just what every woman wants to see on Valentine’s Day – the man she loves bearing flowers! 

For dinner, we decided to get dressed up for a nice meal out. Not that every other meal we’ve had thus far hasn’t been nice as well, but this being Valentine’s Day and all calls for something extra-special. Venturing out in new directions, we wandered up to the Bastille roundabout and ended up in the Hotel Bastille. It looked like a hopping, busy place from the exterior, but it wasn’t until we’d gotten inside and ordered a drink that we realized it really wasn’t a restaurant at all. The only few plates we saw customers enjoying were actually desserts and when the tab arrived, we discovered the server had talked us into about $40 worth of drinks (one round, mind you – a jumbo-sized beer for hubby and a nice-but-not-THAT-nice glass of red wine for me). Yikes. We devoured every single olive in the complementary nibbler and most of the peanuts to try to get our money’s worth. Oh well, the ambiance was good and we wrote it off as a special occasion treat, then continued on in search of dinner.

The Bastille area has been busy during the week, but tonight it was positively thronged with a party crowd. Mohawked young men smoking in small groups on the sidewalks, stylish men and women on their way to clubs, and tourists seeking hotspots. Finding the mainstream establishments a little bit too trendy for our taste, we ventured off the beaten path a little bit to find something quieter and came across Cafe Vosges – a smallish diner-style establishment that looked friendly and inviting. 

Our waiter was a kind, patient young man who took in our fractured French in stride and made us feel at ease. The French menu didn’t offer much we were familiar with, but I recognized the term “entrecote” as steak. Seeing as how all I’d had to eat today was a croissant at breakfast and some Nutella crepes for lunch, I was ready for some real sustenance. Hubby followed suit and ordered the same. The waiter took our request and we went along with his suggestions, not realizing we’d just asked for our steaks rare.

The meat arrived not just rare, but bloody. Not fans, hubby and I stumbled our way through asking the nice waiter to take the steaks back and have the chef cook them a little more, which he did in a most gracious way. I didn’t know how hungry I actually was until the food came; I devoured my salad and half of hubby’s fries, then pounced on the steak once it came back, cooked just right second time around. 

Baby soon decided he’d had enough of being cooped up in the stroller and started in on his high-pitched squeals, so we tipped the waiter big and high-tailed back to the apartment, where we look forward to baths and an evening of relaxation. It’s going to be hard to top this Valentine’s Day.

Table for one

I don’t know why so many people, especially women, have such a hangup about dining alone. In this day and age of empowered women, there should be no stigma about a single lady enjoying a nice dinner or lunch by herself. So why does one still exist??

Last month, I enjoyed a few days on my own in Chicago. My husband had been away for work most of November and felt he owed me a little “me time,” an offer I gladly took him up on. I spent two days downtown, sightseeing, reading, just walking around, sleeping in and enjoying some great food. While some of my female friends expressed jealousy at my short-term escape, a few others said “Oh, sounds like fun, but I could never do that.”

My question is – why the heck not?? I suppose being single and living alone for nearly a decade before I got married at age 35 conditioned me to be comfortable in my own company. Nearly all of my friends married and had kids long before I did, so I grew accustomed to them not being able to drop everything on a whim to come meet me for a spontaneous (or even planned) drink, meal or movie. Therefore, I got to the point where if I wanted to do something and no one was available to join me, it became a matter of either going alone or sitting home seething because I was missing out on something I’d really wanted to do. I became quite adept at solo dining, even taking in the occasional concert or trip as well, and I grew to relish and enjoy it.

So, in Chicago, I decided to treat myself to a really posh meal on my last night there. I had originally planned on a juicy steak, but changed gears at the last minute and opted for Italian. I asked the concierge at my hotel for a recommendation – somewhere I wouldn’t feel like a sore thumb without a companion, but somewhere I could partake in a great meal and a glass of wine. I took his suggestion and caught a cab to a place called La Madia.

La Madia was a little trendier than I usually go in for, but classy and the staff made me feel welcome, not like a social outcast. I was seated at a two-top near the window with a view of the gas fireplace and bustling bar scene. True to the concierge’s word, I didn’t see any couples on dates, just happy hour groups and a few Sex-and-the-City-style duos and trios of single women out for drinks, apps and gossip.

The server made it his mission to keep an eye on me and keep me happy, making recommendations and checking on me just frequently enough to see how I was doing (more often than his other busier tables, I might add). The wine he suggested was fabulous, and the gnocchi with sausage and spinach in a brown butter sauce divine. The dessert was the high point of the meal, though – some kind of outrageously rich chocolate cake that was sweet but not too sweet, dusted with powdered sugar and topped with crushed pistachios. All in all, a lovely dining experience. I happily paid my bill, tipped big and left feeling on top of the world.

Here’s the thing about dining out alone – it forces you to slow down, take a deep breath, and just be in the moment. No one’s asking you to cut up their meat or converse about how you spent your day. It’s uninterrupted, quality you time, and really, couldn’t we all use a little more of that?!? If you can resist the urge to crack open a book or magazine, it makes for excellent people watching and eavesdropping opportunities as well.

My tips to pull off a successful solo restaurant visit: Firstly, dress well. There’s a aura of mystery surrounding women who dine alone and like it. Let people wonder what your story is… are you a foreign expatriate in town on business? Perhaps a food critic? An up-and-coming television star eager for a few incognito minutes away from your entourage? Just don’t wear sunglasses indoors. Unless you’re in Los Angeles, which is the only place you might possibly be able to get away with it.

Adjust your attitude. It’s all about confidence. If you look and act like a pathetic loser who has to eat alone because you have no friends and no life, that’s what people will think you are! Suck it up and embrace a short respite of solitude, for God’s sake! Are you telling me your husband and kids can’t live without you for an hour or two, and vice versa??? Come on! Get over yourself!

Work the situation to your advantage. Sometimes it may even buy you some special treatment… you don’t have to be overly friendly, just smile and act coy. I ate dinner alone at the hotel bar my first night in Chicago, and the bartenders swung me an extra-full glass of wine and plied me with free snacks the whole time I was sitting there.

So I issue a challenge to bold women everywhere – demand a free night from your significant other, throw on a dress and some lipstick and take yourself out on a dinner date sometime soon. Scared? So what! It’s good to do things that scare you sometimes, just to prove you can. Pick somewhere nice, don’t just slum it at a fast-food place, wolfing down fries as fast as you can to get the experience over with. Slow down, unwind and sit with yourself for an hour or two over a delicious meal and a drink. And don’t skip dessert. Do it! Tell ’em I sent you…

La Madia:   http://www.dinelamadia.com/