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Dining in France does not have to cost a fortune
PARIS, France (CNN) -- It just isn't so.
Some people who go to France believe that to enjoy the pleasures of French food and wine -- and they are great and varied -- it's necessary to drop a month's wages for lunch with a superstar chef like Alain Ducasse or pay a couple of mortgage payments for dinner at a famous eatery like Taillevent.
Well, most French people don't think that way, and if you ask, most will tell you that there are thousands of restaurants from bistros to little neighborhood places -- yes, even truck stops -- that will serve you an absolutely delicious meal for an economical price.
How is this possible? Despite the fact that many small farms have disappeared, there are new European Union rules and the restaurant business is more cut-throat than ever, food remains a triumph of French culture and standards remain high.
Recently, my wife Kathy and I spent 10 days in France, visiting Paris and then traveling to the capital of Burgundy, Dijon, and then heading southwest to Bordeaux. What we found in every area was delicious food, often artfully prepared, at reasonable prices. And that myth about the French being snooty and rude if you don't speak the language? Well, that's what it is, a myth. If you try at all to speak a little French -- even the bare basics like bonjour, merci and l'addition (the check) -- eating out will be pas de problem.
Let the Web be your guide
Many restaurants make it easy for U.S. and other English speakers by having web sites where you can make reservations. One of those is La Bastide Odeon (7, Rue Corneille, Tel. 01 43 26 03 65). Located a stone's throw from the Luxembourg Gardens, this cozy restaurant dispenses exquisitely prepared, Provencial-style dishes under the guiding hand of Chef Gilles Ajuelos.
On the evening we were there, starters included a roasted tomato tart that featured tomatoes -- sweet and caramelized from the roasting -- atop a shell of puff pastry stuffed with mushrooms and olives and served atop a tomato sauce. As the tart came out of the oven it was sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil and snipped chives so that it came to the table redolent of the perfume of the olive oil mixed with the pungent aroma of the roasted tomatoes.
One of the chef's specials that evening was Queue de Boeuf - oxtail, braised, taken off the bone and mixed with sauteed shallots and baby chanterelle mushrooms. This moist, absolutely tender, beefy concoction was served in a perfect circle made of blanched leeks and set down in a light, frothy beurre monte or butter sauce. It was topped with a sprinkling of shredded fall squash. Another special featured marbe, a striped sea bream, seared, napped with a light lemon sauce, atop a bed of stuffed rounds of zucchini.
Desserts featured a lightly poached pear, sliced and cooked al dente so that it was tender yet firm. The pear was placed on the plate next to a rice pudding square and both were drizzled with caramel syrup and studded with a crispy teul cookie.
We had begun with aperitif -- a Scotch and water and a pastis. The meal was washed down with a Domaine Gramernon 1999, a smooth and robust Cotes du Rhone. The tab for two 641FF or about $85.
A similar experience awaited us when we visited Le Cou De La Girafe (7, rue Paul Baudry, Tel. 01 43 59 47 28). A friend guided us to this sunny little restaurant where we sat outside beneath the awnings.
The chef served up a delicious plate of ravioli stuffed with tangy goat cheese in a cream sauce, but that was nothing compared to two unique dishes that followed. A tomato "carpaccio" was a dinner plate covered with thin slices of ripe tomato drizzled with olive oil, champagne vinegar and chives. In the center of the plate was a ball of tomato sorbet with a creamy, intense tomato flavor.
Among the entrees was a Brick of Daurade, a sweet, firm-fleshed white fish that has only recently become available in the United States. The "brick" was made by wrapping the fillet in thin slices of eggplant. It came to the table on a bed of sauteed leeks, surrounded by a light, tart tomato sauce.
Desserts included a creme brulee flavored with Chinese tea. Lunch for three 1020FF or about $136. When we expressed our love of southwestern food -- southwestern France, that is -- a pair of friends swept us off to Restaurant Thoumieux (79 Rue St. Dominique, Tel. 01 47 05 49 75) for cassoulet.
This bistro, a few blocks from the Invalides, is a hangout for politicians from southwestern France who come to get a taste of home in the center of Paris. It also carries a series of dishes and wine from the Correze region of France, the home of the current French president, Jacques Chirac.
Thoumieux is a classic bistro -- light, airy with large globe lamps and waiters dressed in black vests and starched white aprons. But, of course, the real attraction is the food.
Among the starters were fresh Arcachon oysters -- fresh, briny and sweet. Another offering is a traditional southwestern salad of greens tossed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with chopped duck giblets. Among the main courses was an excellent steak tartare.
The steak, mixed with raw egg and lemon juice, came studded with capers and served with onions and little sour pickles.
A tuna fillet came seared on the outside but tender and pink on the inside. It was served over shredded leeks that had been sauteed in butter.
But the stars of the show were the earthenware bowls of cassoulet. The beans had formed a crispy crust. Beneath were big chunks of Bayonne ham, sausage and pieces of duck, the meat moist and falling off the bone.
Next came a plate of cheeses featuring a creamy chabichou, a goat cheese from central France. Also included was a sharp Saint-Nectaire. Made with unpasteurized cow's milk, this one had an earthy aroma with a wonderfully smooth taste, tart and grassy.
Among the desserts offered was a kind of pear tart in which the baked pear, brown and sweet, was laid atop of custard stuffed into a crust of puff pastry.
Because we were eating southwestern food, we drank a Bordeaux, a Chateau Cailloux de By, cherry red with fruit flavors and smooth tannins. With our cheese we also had a vin rouge de Correze, young but unexpectedly smooth. The meal for four 940FF or about $124.
These are just a smattering of examples of good restaurants in central Paris, but they are hardly unique. Travelers headed for France can find a bevy of advice about Paris restaurants, including recommendations on this site.
Patricia Wells, the food critic of the International Herald Tribune, posts reviews on her newspaper's site. She has also published the "Food Lovers Guide to Paris."
Also look for recommendations from travel guides such on the CNN.com travel page, Fodors, and, of course, in the Michelin guides.
The staff at your hotel can often point you to a good little bistro nearby, and don't be afraid to try a restaurant that looks inviting. The chances of stumbling into a great meal in France are vastly better than in the United States.
Outside Paris, the quality of the food not only remains high, there are interesting regional specialties, while the cost can run from reasonable to terrific bargains.
An example is Le Bistrot des Halles (10, Rue Bannelier, tel. 03 80 49 94 15) in Dijon, the quaint capitol of the dukes of Burgundy. This little restaurant, located across the street from the central market in the old center of Dijon, offers a number of regional specialties such as Jambon Persel.
On the day we were there, Kathy began with a tuna and tomato salad composed of roasted tomatoes in a crispy tart pastry topped with thin slices of tuna dressed with thyme vinaigrette.
I had a regional specialty, a "Daube d'agneau." This cold terrine was an inch and a half-thick slab of gelee containing chunks of roasted lamb, carrots, olives and sauteed leeks. The terrine was served on a simple, cold tomato sauce. Along side came a simple salad of butter lettuces in a mustard vinaigrette (well we were in Dijon, after all) and baskets of fresh, crusty bread.
We each had a glass of what turned out to be especially good house wines -- a chardonnay for Kathy and a pinot noir for me. The tab: 204FF or about $27.
A few days later when we visited Bordeaux in southwestern France we headed for a place introduced to us by a friend in the wine business many years ago -- Brasserie Gares des Routiers (Tel. 05 56 40 41 29, 50 r Jean Dupas) in Floriac.
This is a real truck stop restaurant. The routiers or truck drivers sit at long tables smoking their Marlboros. Groups of them gather in the corner to play an actual pinball machine, others stand at the bar sipping a pastis.
Our meal began with a puff pastry stuffed with mushrooms and chunks of braised veal in a veal gravy. The main course was "Tournedos du Beouf" -- round fillets of steak seared on the outside but cooked perfectly rare on the inside. Tournedos were served with sauteed potatoes. In addition, slices of perfectly ripe peach were spread next to steak and drizzled with a beefy gravy that produced a wonderfully interesting taste combination.
Following that came a selection of cheeses, including a ripe Camembert, a smooth Saint-Nectaire, and an Iraty, a pungent goat cheese from the Pyrenees.
Finally, the dessert -- profiteroles, baseball-sized puffs of pastry stuffed with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with dark chocolate. Laid along side were puffs of whipped cream and the whole dish was sprinkled with toasted almonds. Even with the more expensive wine, the tab per person was 92FF or about $12.25.
A French friend explained the standard of French cuisine this way -- French people love to eat and generally have very high expectations. Even the poor expect to eat well. If a restaurant doesn't meet those expectations, it simply won't last.
That doesn't mean you should shun the restaurants with Michelin stars. Meals in those restaurants can be a life-changing experience. But the bottom line remains -- a good meal in France, even a fabulous one, does not cost a fortune.
'Food for the Soul' makes dreams come true for Monique Wells
International Herald Tribune
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