Noma: Surrender your expectations

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – Should you secure a table at Noma -- considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world – be sure to surrender at the door all your traditional thoughts about what a restaurant should be. Expect to eat foods you never ate before, or thought you would, such as ants. Plan to marvel at how chef/owner René Redzepi came up with certain combinations, like flatbread and technicolor rose petals; pale green deep-fried reindeer moss dusted with cèpe mushroom powder; barbecued bone marrow for the diner to wrap in cabbage leaves with multicolored nasturtium flowers.

At first glance, these dishes might get not get your vote for “best in the world.” But trust me, a meal at Noma is worth the journey and is truly a superior, unique, gastronomic experience. As a critic, a diner, a cook, I am always on the lookout for new stimulation, foods that surprise me, make me want to rush into the kitchen to repeat the pleasures of a dish. Noma offers all that stimulation, gratification, and more. It wakes up one’s palate, and questions our preconceived idea of what great food should taste like and be.

Redzepi is committed to sourcing and serving only local ingredients, so his chemistry-lab-like kitchens need to produce flavors that are not easily found in the north. There is no citrus for the acid balance that helps make food taste delicious, so to add that element they have their own fermentation lab, creating everything from fish sauce to miso.

And herein lies Redzepi’s challenge: So much of the pleasure of food is a result of our taste memory. My Italian mom’s spaghetti and meatballs, my favorite birthday cake (poppyseed), Joel Robuchon’s potato purée, my last perfect pizza. How much of that is real pleasure and what percentage just memory of past, favored tastes?

And yet at Noma, the pleasure is all there, within these incredibly unsual flavors. Redzepi's kitchen presents you with an amazing array of roots, leaves, pits, and flowers; they roast, grill, infuse, smoke and ferment the ingredients, but never is a flavor distorted. There is always that search for the true and honest soul of an element. And nothing appears pretentious or precious, narcissistic, or self-involved. A genuine aim to please is present everywhere, on the faces of the staff, in the precise presentation, in the final results.

A bit of background: Redzepi, now 36, is a Copenhagen native who attended cooking school there, worked in France with the Pourcel twins at Le Jardin des Sens, in Spain with revolutionary chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli, and in California with landmark chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Back home in 2003, he founded Noma, based on reinterpreting Nordic Cuisine, exploring every single edible ingredient that this northern region of the world might offer. The restaurant’s name is a taken from the two Danish words “NOrdisk” (Nordic) and “MAad” (food) and the rest is history.

First impressions: We are six for lunch, greeted heartily at the door by the manager. The second we crossed the threshold, the entire staff gathered to greet us at the door. All of them smiling, earnestly happy to see us. And then the 19-course fireworks began. Here are some of the best bites:

My favorite taste of the day was perhaps one of the simplest: A single Smoked and Pickled Quail Egg, elegantly presented on a bed of fresh straw, encased in a ceramic speckled egg. “Eat with just a single bite, it’s still runny inside,” suggested one waiter, Juan. Visually appealing, soft, earthy, delicately smoky, faintly pickled, the egg shows how much pleasure can be delivered in a single mouthful.

Smoked and pickled quail eggs

Smoked and pickled quail eggs

One gauge of a great chef is someone who first aims for, then masters the art of combining color, textures, crunch, bitterness, sweetness, acid, all in perfect balance. Redzepi and his staff strive for this, and generally achieve it.

The fried green moss dipped in a dollop of alabaster crème fraîche achieved it. The crispy, almost paper-thin toasted whole grain flatbread showered with colorful, crunchy, smoky, charred rose petals did too. The pungent apple paste teamed up with cèpe oil, lemon verbena, and lemon thyme did it as well.  This dish, served on a bed of ice piled high and shaped like a tajine, came off as a pungent, green on green mélange nestled in a small wooden bowl on ice, to be eaten with a smooth and silken wooden spoon.

Flatbread and rose petals

Squid and broccoli

Bone marrow and nasturium flowers

Pumpkin kelp and beech nuts

I can’t forget the colorful, crunchy pencil-thin cucumber (not your basic cornichon) the size of a French green bean, delicately pickled, dipped in a pungent “fudge” made of sea scallops and decorated with pickled parsley flowers. Or the pickled rose hips paired with fresh walnuts, lavender and marigold leaves, a dish that shook hands with Cédric Bouchard’s lively, bubbly Champagne, rich, complex and almost weightless.  

We were expecting the ants, and they came (but not alive, thank you) sprinkled generously on top of Noma’s beef tartare. Danish ribeye steak, aged a full three weeks, is cut into thin strips and seasoned with a vegetal, pungent celery oil and showered with the big black ants, added for their crunch, touch of acidity, and stunningly citrus zing. But not my favorite dish.

Beef tartare, celery oil and black ants

Beef tartare, celery oil and black ants

To me, the desserts were imperfections in an otherwise dazzling meal, with a forgettable mushroom ice cream, and a pairing of potato and plum (I don’t care about seeing vegetables on my plate at the end of a four-hour meal). This was one dish that didn’t make much sense to me, either in creation or execution.

 The wine list bothers me a good deal. As a dedicated Rhône fan and friend of many quality winemakers there, I was shocked to see just a single worthy wine on the list from both the north and the south, Domaine Gramenon’s pure and smoky Grenache-based Côtes-du-Rhône Poigneé de Raisins. But the sommelier said it was out of stock. So we settled, quite happily for a Beaujolais I love, Jean Foillard’s Morgon Côte de Py, supple, well-balanced, and ready to pair beautifully with Noma’s genuine, intense, straight-from-the-earth flavors.

With a staff of 40 for 40 diners, this destination restaurant is lodged in a converted stone warehouse in the Christianshaven neighborhood along a winding canal, and within walking distance of the center of Copenhagen. The décor reflects the earthy, rustic food that reveals a wealth of sophistication, enveloping the diner in a spacious room that is warm and comforting, all earth tones and wood. I can’t wait to go back.


Noma   |   Strandgade 93, DK-1401 Copenhagen   |   Tel +45 3296 3297   |   Open lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturda, closed Sunday   |   Menus at 1600 DK ($272), with wine pairings for an additional 1,000 DK ($170), or juice pairings for 600DK ($102)   |    Reservations difficult to come by, can be made through their web site.

Note that the Copenhagen restaurant will be closed in January and February 2015, when the staff travels to Japan for a two-month stint at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, where the staff will focus on local Japanese ingredients, serving meals from January 9 to February 14.

Taste of the week: Chickpea and sesame dip

A  neighbor in Provence grows wonderfully rich-tasting chickpeas, which I turn into tangy, lemon-flecked dips, accompaniments to poultry dishes, or to falafel. For the most delicious hummus, cook your own dried chickpeas; the canned ones often taste tinny and are not nearly as densely flavored.

Equipment: A food processor or a blender.

2 1/2 cups home-cooked chickpeas, drained (reserve liquid)
2 plump, moist garlic cloves, peeled, halved, and green germ removed
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (or to taste)
3 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons best-quality sesame oil
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/8 teaspoon paprika  

Set aside 1/2 cup of the chickpeas for garnish. In the bowl of a food processor or a blender, mince the garlic. Add the remaining 2 cups of chickpeas, the lemon juice, tahini, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Blend until smooth, adding the reserved cooking liquid if necessary to make a smooth puree. Taste for seasoning.  Spoon the dip into a large, shallow bowl, and garnish with the reserved 1/2 cup of chickpeas, a drizzle of oil, cilantro, and paprika. Serve. (The dip can be stored, without the garnish, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.)  

Makes 2 cups

This recipe was first published in The French Kitchen Cookbook.

Welcome to my new web site!

It's been a while in the making, tweaking here, rewriting there, but I am very excited to finally reveal the new home of www.patriciawells.com.  The site has a totally new, vibrant look, with tons of gorgeous photos taken in Paris and Provence by my very talented photographer friends Jeff Kauck and Steven Rothfeld, myself, and by many students from my cooking school, At Home With Patricia Wells. 
 
In my new home I will of course continue this blog, chronicling my gastronomic adventures in Paris, Provence and abroad: current restaurant visits (keep an eye out for my Noma review, coming soon!), new food shops, and other food-related news.

I am especially excited about the new feature that I will be adding to the blog: Taste of the Week – weekly posts dedicated to kitchen tips, recipes, and notes on favorite ingredients.

I love to hear from my readers, so please don't be shy to drop me a line and let me know what you think of the new site!

Patricia.jpg
 


Taste of the Week: Monday night beef salad with green beans, avocado and arugula

Walter often cooks his famed Salt and Pepper Steak on Sunday nights, and we always hope for enough leftovers to prepare this salad as a meal the following day.

Equipment: A small jar with a lid; a 5-quart (5 l) pasta post fitted with a colander.

Dressing
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon leaves
2 teaspoons tarragon-flavored mustard*
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup (125 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons capers in vinegar, drained
6 cornichons, cut crosswise into thin rings

Salad
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
8 ounces (250 g) green beans

10 ounces (300 g) cooked beef rib steak, cubed (see Walter's Salt and Pepper Steak recipe below)

4 scallions, white and green parts, peeled and cut into thin rings

A large handful (about 2 ounces; 60 g) arugula, rinsed and dried
10 firm cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise  
1 large ripe avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, and cubed  


1.    In the jar, combine all the dressing ingredients. Cover and shake to blend. Taste for seasoning.

2.    Fill the pasta pot with 3 quarts (3 l) of water and bring to a rolling boil over a high heat. Prepare a bowl of ice water for an ice bath.

3.    Add the coarse sea salt and the beans to the boiling water and blanch until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. (The cooking time will vary according to the size and tenderness of the beans.) Immediately remove the colander from the water, allow the water to drain from the beans, and plunge the beans into the ice water so they cool down as quickly as possible. (The beans will cool in 1 to 2 minutes. If you leave them longer, they will become soggy and begin to lose flavor. ) Drain the beans and wrap them in a thick towel to dry. (The beans can be cooked up to four hours in advance. Keep them wrapped in the towel and refrigerate, if desired.)

4.    Place the beef in a large bowl. Add just enough dressing to lightly coat the meat. Toss to blend. Add the beans and scallions and add just enough dressing to lightly coat the ingredients. Tear the arugula into bite-size pieces. Add the arugula, tomatoes, and avocado to the bowl and add just enough dressing to lightly coat the ingredients. Taste for seasoning. Serve.

 
4 servings

* I favor Edmond Fallot’s Tarragon Dijon Mustard, which can be found in Patricia’s Pantry on my Amazon Store.

 

Walter's Salt and Pepper Steak

Equipment: A griddle, seasoned cast iron skillet, or heavy-duty skillet.

1 bone-in beef rib steak, about 2 pounds (1 kg), about 1-inch (2.5 cm) thick
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
Coarse, freshly ground black pepper
Fleur de sel
Lemon wedges, for serving  

1.    Remove the meat from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before cooking.

2.    When you are ready to cook the beef, preheat the griddle or skillet over high heat for 2 minutes. Scatter the coarse sea salt on the griddle and heat until the salt “dances,” or begins to pop, about 2 minutes. Then add the meat, unseasoned, and cook for 4 minutes on one side. Turn the meat, season the seared side with pepper and cook for 4 minutes more for rare meat, or cook to desired doneness.

3.    Transfer the meat to a cutting board. Season the second side with pepper and season both sides with fleur de sel. Tent the meat loosely with foil to prevent the surface from cooling off too quickly. Let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

4.    To serve, carve into thick slices. Serve with lemon wedges. 

4 servings

The secret: Three rules here: sear, season, rest. Searing caramelizes the sugar and browns the proteins on the surface of the meat, resulting in more intense flavors and an attractive crust. The salt does help begin to season the meat, but because the pan is extremely hot, the meat begins to sear immediately, forming a crust that prevents the salt from drawing moisture from the steak. The final seasoning makes for meat that tastes seasoned not salted. Resting allows the juices to retreat back into the meat, resulting in beef that is moist and tender, not dry.

These recipes were first published in The French Kitchen Cookbook. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

Table d'Akihiro: Subtle, streamlined cuisine

Subtle, streamlined, and honest, are the words to describe both Akihiro Horikoshi and his postage-stamp sized fish restaurant set on a quiet side street in the 7th arrondissement. Since opening the all-white, open-kitchen dining room in 2010, he has seduced us with a singular style of cuisine, offering dishes that both satisfy and surprise, amaze with their freshness, and always make us feel special to be one of the lucky few to secure a table at the 16-seat restaurant. For more than 10 years this slight, quiet, Tokyo native worked with Bernard Pacaud at the Michelin three-star restaurant L’Ambroisie. On his own, he’s not just the captain but nearly the whole crew of his tiny ship, working with just a single waiter. He shops, devises the daily set menu, cooks, cleans up, mans the espresso machine, all the while listening to his favorite operas, the music playing discreetly in the background.

Almost all of his food is white, whether it’s a single alabaster ravioli or a moist sponge cake, a portion of clean, ultra-fresh codfish (photo) or a quenelle of rice pudding. From time to time he’ll add a burst of color, as in his minestrone de homard au jus de crustacés, a bright-flavored, slightly spicy soup laced with full-flavored lobster claws, cubes of crunchy zucchini, a touch of pasta, and fresh white cocos blanc beans bathed in a rich shellfish broth and topped with a zingy basil pesto sauce. Just as worthy of our attention and respect is the plump codfish fillet bathed in foamy, buttery sauce, set atop a bed of warm, soothing cubes of potatoes enlivened with a generous dose of minced chives. Fish lovers will likely swoon over his Saint-Pierre (John Dory) fillet sauced with a rich meat reduction and paired with a slim heart of lettuce, caramelized to a brown-sugar sweetness. It’s a treat to watch Akihiro perform his well-seasoned ballet in the kitchen, as he is clearly as disciplined and well-organized as any cook can be, working in a miniscule space that many cooks might scorn. The diminutive wine list offers some treasures, including the tart and flinty white Sancerre from Fournier Pere & Fils and the classic pinot noir Chassagne Montrachet from Francois d’Allaines.  Note that while the restaurant opened with the name La Table d’Aki, it has officially been changed to La Table d’Akihiro. Also be aware that it is not always simple to secure a table here, since the restaurant is often difficult to reach by phone. But don’t give up, it’s worth the effort.

Table d'Akihiro
49 rue Vaneau   |   Paris 7   |   Tel: +33 1 45 44 43 48   |   Métro: Vaneau or Saint-François-Xavier   |   A la carte, 66-112€   |   Open Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday & Monday   |   Reservations: Essential   |   Note: Reservations taken between 11am-3pm and 7-11pm

Porte 12: Sophisticated, signature fare

I knew that I was going to have a good time on my first visit to Porte 12 – a brand new modern French restaurant in the 10th arrondissement ­– when, as we sat down for lunch and I heard them playing a favorite Nat King Cole tune, followed by the modern-day American jazz singer Stacey Kent, belting out a great song. There’s much to love, even embrace about this small, 30-seat restaurant with its simple, bright, contemporary décor, a bustling open kitchen, sincere and attentive service, not to mention straightforward, yet sophisticated, signature fare that makes me want to come back for dinner...which I plan to. Whimsical corset-shaped light fixtures all but swing from the high ceiling, echoing the space’s former incarnation as a textile and lingerie atelier. The one-bite starter of a miniature potato hollowed out, filled with an eggless aioli, a sprinkling of crunchy toast bits, and a few herbs sets a surprising and satisfying tone, and I’ll be serving a version of this to my cooking school students first chance I get.

The restaurant is overseen by Singapore chef André Chiang, with Vincent Crepel in charge in the kitchen. A native of Lourdes, Crepel has also worked in the kitchens of the landmark Swiss restaurant made famous in the 1980’s by Fredy Girardet, (now under the direction of chef Philippe Rochat and Benoit Violier), as well as, of course, in Chiang’s own highly celebrated restaurant in Singapore, Restaurant André.

Dishes that both inspire a cook as well as please the palate are always winners in my book, and Chef Crepel offers a stylish serving of moist and tender duck hearts bathed in a deep, dark poultry sauce all topped with an ethereal, thin, creamy potato puree, paper-thin toast crisps and a few tender, bright green wisps of salicorne, or edible sea beans. Also on the winners list goes his so simple yet brilliantly cohesive creation of ultra-tender strips of chicken breast set atop a full-flavored mixture of herb-infused fregola (lightly toasted Sardinian pasta that’s similar to Israeli couscous), and more of those crunchy, nutty, toast bits for added texture. The dish was brought together seamlessly by a delicate corn purée. His dessert (photo) – a plate of vibrant, warm, thickly sliced fresh figs, atop crumbled chocolate brownie, surprisingly tangy and not-too-sweet crumbled meringues, and a hazelnut ice cream that was light, yet made its presence felt, rounded-off a memorable, well-priced (€35) three-course lunch. The only disappointment of the meal was the rather timid plate of barely cooked mackerel-like chinchards set atop thick slices of crunchy, barely cooked potatoes, a pairing that was far from satisfying. The wine list is streamlined and offers some good choices by the glass, including a favorite Chardonnay from the Jura, from Domaine Labet. The 3-course lunch menu allows two selections for the first and main course, with a single choice appetizer and dessert. A smaller lunch menu of two dishes – starter and main, or main and dessert – is a very reasonable 28€. The more expensive dinner menu offers more choices, from 58-65€.

Porte 12
12 rue des Messageries   |   Paris 10   |   Tel: +33 1 42 46 22 64   |   Metro: Poissonnière
Open Tuesday to Saturday. Closed Saturday lunch, and all day Sunday and Monday.
reservation@porte12.com   |   www.porte12.com (reservations taken online)

 

Rendezvous at Café Varenne

The other day Walter and I were having lunch at our neighborhood Paris café, Café Varenne, and just as we were finishing a superb dish of ultra-tender and meaty tendrons de veau (breast of veal)  tossed with fresh pasta, carrots, and slivers of Parmesan cheese (perfect for a cold, rainy day in May!)  two women addressed us: “You’re Patricia Wells, and we are here because of The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris.” Indeed, the mother and daughter duo from Boston had just been to the Rodin museum, and as the guide and iPhone app suggest, this is a great address nearby. Owners Sylvain and Agnès Didier are gracious hosts and the food just gets better and better. Enjoy a sip of their white Quincy from the Loire and the fine, crusty baguettes from Boulangerie Secco right across the street.

36, rue de Varenne, Paris 7, Tel: +33 1 45 48 62 72, Métro: Rue du Bac or Sèvres-Babylone, à la carte 30€.

Open Monday through Friday 7:30AM to 10:30PM, Saturday 9AM to 8PM. Closed Sunday, holidays, and 2 weeks in August.

Coretta, a new bistro that's worth the detour

Coretta clementine dessert
Coretta clementine dessert

 

Coretta, the three-week old modern bistro that’s a collaboration of three favorite Parisian restaurateurs, is a win! Chef Jean-François Pataleon of L'Affable in the 7th, and Beatriz Gonzalez and her husband, Matthieu Marcant, of Neva Cuisine in the 8th , have teamed up to create a super contemporary, approachable, just-good-food bistro that’s totally right for the times. The airy, two-story, expertly designed restaurant on the Rue Cardinet in the 17th overlooks the recently created Martin Luther King Park, and is aptly named after King’s wife, Coretta. I love the wood and marble design, the simplicity, the modern menu with food that’s just familiar enough and surprising enough to make us all happy. Do try the anguille fumé or smoked eel, teamed up with thin slices of raw veal, and a satisfying, creamy horseradish bouillon.  Silken mackerel is paired with miso, apples and ginger in a light, refreshing first course. I admired the elegant, aesthetic presentation of the lightly salted cod (cooked to perfection, breaking into giant alabaster flakes) flanked by a kaleidoscope of lightly pickled vegetables: turnips, beets, and radishes. The ris de veau --- veal sweetbreads – is already a bistro favorite here, served with panais (parsnips) cooked three ways: chips, mashed, braised. It was lunchtime, and I was not really in the mood for dessert , but soon I was glad that I changed my mind. Here, a simplified version of Beatriz’s chocolate sphere from Neva Cuisine is turned into a single chocolate disc, perched on a spicy pineapple concoction, melting into a puddle as warm chocolate sauce is poured over all. The prettiest dish of the day (photo) was the clementine sorbet joined by slices of fresh clementine, bites of crispy meringue, and a lemony yuzu (a pungent Japanese citrus), mascarpone-like cream. A few sips of Yves Cuilleron’s well-priced (7€ a glass) pure Roussanne vin de France rounded out the meal with perfection. Baker Jean-Luc Poujauran’s crusty bread is served from a warming wooden box, accompanied by a fat pat of soft butter. Downstairs , there’s a brief but appealing tapas menu.

151 bis, rue Cardinet, Paris 17. Tel: +33 1 42 26 55 55. Métro Brochant. 24€ lunch menu, 33€ and 39€ evening menus, à la carte 45 to 70€. Open Monday- Saturday. Closed  Saturday lunch and all day Sunday.

Writing about French Food: A panel discussion at the American Library

American Library panel
American Library panel

This Wednesday I am going to be joining Ann Mah in a panel discussion at The American Library of Paris on writing about French Food. We will be talking about our respective books The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence and Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons on Food and Love from a Year in Paris. There'll be wine, snacks and the opportunity to buy the books thanks to WH Smith.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday February 5, 2014, 7:30pm

The American Library of Paris

10, rue du Général Camou

75007 Paris

Tel: +33 1 53 59 12 60

New! The Book! The All New Food Lover's Guide to Paris

foodloverscover
foodloverscover

The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris was the first book I ever published back in 1984, and on the year of its 30th anniversary, I am elated to announce the release of its 5th edition – completely revisited, rewritten, and newly photographed for 2014. This has truly been a labor of love – visiting, exploring, scouring Paris in search of the city’s best gastronomic offerings. While some of the favorites have stood the test of time, much has changed in Paris over 30 years. Chefs have come and gone, others who were just starting out in 1984 have matured to excellence and have become beacons for some of the best dining in the world, and mentors for a whole new generation of talent. Paris now is a much more casual place of course, so this edition includes a whole new chapter on cafés and casual eateries. I have also included my favorite markets, bakeries, pastry shops, chocolates shops, cheese merchants, specialty food shops, shops for kitchen and tableware essentials, and of course wine shops. And as always, there is the ever-useful (and updated) French to English glossary of food terms, and a ready reference section to help you navigate the myriad of dining options in the city. And so that you can enjoy a touch of Paris in your own kitchen, I have included 40 recipes.

This new edition is the perfect companion to The New Food Lover's Guide to Paris app for the iPhone and iPad.

The book (and e-book!) will be released on March 11 in the United States and on April 1 in Europe, and is available for preorder on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and from Indiebound once released.

In good hands with David Toutain

David Toutain Gnocchi
David Toutain Gnocchi

David Toutain is a cerebral chef. Nothing is accidental and when you enter his brand new 7th arrondissement restaurant you are subject to his rules and his way of thinking. Yet you never feel as though your arm is being twisted. This is not a restaurant for a casual meal, but rather one that is meticulously planned and thought out, and begs for, yes deserves,  your attention. And it’s well worth your time.

Toutain, a farm boy from Normandy, appeared on the Paris scene like lightening a few years back at the wildly experimental Agapé Substance, and then disappeared almost overnight. I am so glad he is back.

The setting of the new restaurant on Rue Surcouf, seems at first somewhat of a contradiction. The sparse, cool space -- flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling glass wall at the front of the restaurant -- feels relaxed, with its light wood and leather furnishings and minimalist décor. Yet the suited and formal service suggests a more serious approach to the dining experience. Immediately, this feels like a restaurant like none other.

As plate after plate arrives from the 68€ carte blanche menu, we are presented with flavors that explode in our mouth but do not overwhelm, as Toutain draws out the essential flavors of each and every ingredient. On the plate, he presents other-worldly creations, but in the mouth, flavors are familiar, calming, and even unusual combinations seem natural and obvious in his care.

Toutain’s ability to see new and interesting potential in ingredients makes him extremely unique – a bouillon of potato skins that smelled like someone walked past you with a dish of freshly baked potatoes, or Jerusalem artichokes transformed with a little sugar into an apple-like dessert. And who on earth would think of combining kiwi fruit with a raw oyster? And who would believe that, on the palate, the pairing would appear perfectly matched, totally sublime.

On one hand, this multi-course excursion can make your brain spin, even give you a headache. The food that comes from the hands of the boyish, mild-mannered Toutain reminds me of many meals I’ve experienced at the table of Pierre Gagnaire: the same cerebral attention, the same wildly experimental flash of genius, the same surprise and pleasure.

There is so much going on – porcelain, glass, cutlery that dazzle and beg for your attention – that a diner might lose sight of what is best about Toutain’s food. Each ingredient is impeccably chosen, each cooked to a perfection that makes me gasp. It’s as though he puts a camera lens on each ingredient and then blows it up, eeking the most honest flavor, texture, pleasure imaginable. He makes any oyster taste like the freshest, most delicious oyster you have ever tasted. He draws a new, welcoming seamless texture from a tiny cube of foie gras, turns what he calls gnocchi into a little pillow that melts in your mouth (photo). The meal is full of “why didn’t I think of that” combinations, like a sprinkling of freshly ground coffee beans at the edge of the plate, for dipping bites of exquisitely roasted pork.

To say that the 68€ menu is a bargain is an understatement. But for my money and time, I could have had a bit less food. And though I am not a huge fan of the no-choice surprise menu, I’ll put myself in Toutain’s hands any day. Service here is friendly and personal, and the wine list offers some real treasures. I loved the sommelier’s two wine recommendations: The Vincent Gaudry aromatic Sancerre was willing to serve as a quiet understudy to Toutain’s food, while Christophe Pichon’s 100% Syrah Saint Joseph was clean, spicy, and forceful. So go, sit back and enjoy, and don’t think too much – David has already done the thinking for you.

RESTAURANT DAVID TOUTAIN, 29 rue Surcouf, Paris 7. Tel: +33 1 45 50 11 10.Métro: Invalides or La Tour Maubourg. Open Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday & Sunday.davidtoutain.com reservations@davidtoutain.com Lunch & dinner: 68 and 98€ menus (118 & 158€ with wine), 158€ seasonal truffle menu (210€ with wine) Reservations: recommended.

Chestnut honey squares that satisfy in one bite

Time after time, the students in my cooking classes in Paris or Provence tell me “I don’t bake.” These same students are often delighted when I assign them a dessert, for they know that they will at least learn to make one wonderful sweet. I think that they also secretly hope that by week’s end, they may actually get over their fear of baking.

When it comes to cooking, my philosophy is to keep it simple and make sure it’s delicious. One foolproof recipe in my repertory is for chestnut honey squares, a confection that satisfies in a single bite. It can be made ahead, does not require exotic equipment, is relatively simple (you pat the crust in the pan) and it’s beautiful, with a glistening glaze. Stored in an airtight container, it stays fresh for days.

The inspiration came from the Paris bakery Moulin de la Vierge. I was sampling a wide selection of sweets, and as I bit into the honey-kissed square, I stopped, almost stunned at how special it was, something you could eat out of hand with a bit of crunch and only a hint of sweetness.

The crust is butter-rich but not too much so, an easy blending of flour, almond meal, unrefined sugar, butter, an egg yolk, vanilla extract and a touch of fine sea salt to brighten the flavors.

A quick pulse in the food processor with a bit of water, and the pastry is ready to pat in the pan and bake. We all think our ovens are sometimes temperamental; I love that this crust will turn out just fine at a range of temperatures.

I find that most home cooks tend to underbake, especially pastry, so I instruct my students to make sure the pastry is golden and crisp, not pale and limp. I don’t even mind if it is really, really dark. As my friend Eli Zabar likes to say, “Burnt is best!” I might not go that far, but it must be fully baked.

The topping comes together in minutes while the pastry bakes. Sweetened with just 2 tablespoons of intensely flavored honey, like chestnut honey, it is a simple blend of butter, sliced almonds, cubed candied orange or lemon peel, and vanilla extract, just melted in a saucepan over low heat. The darker honey is crucial; you can find it online if not in a specialty store.

Once the pastry is golden, spread on the topping, bake until deep golden, remove from the oven and let cool. I cut it into tiny squares (32 is a good number) to produce a bite-size dessert.

I am thinking of creating a variation with the flavorful organic Sicilian pistachios I find at my local co-op, toasting the nuts, grinding some to a powder and chopping the rest for the topping. I’ll make it with the organic lavender honey from our farm in Provence. It will glow, and I’ll pat myself on the back.

This article was originally published by the  New York Times, December 17, 2013 Photo by Jeff Kauck

I share this recipe from my latest book, The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence.

CHESTNUT HONEY SQUARES

For the Pastry:

120 grams (3/4 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour

45 grams (1/2 cup) almond meal (see note)

35 grams (3 tablespoons) sugar, preferably unrefined vanilla sugar (see note)

1/2 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Topping:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

80 grams (1 cup) sliced almonds

30 grams (1/3 cup) candied orange or lemon peel, cut into tiny cubes

65 grams (1/3 cup) sugar, preferably vanilla sugar

2 tablespoons chestnut honey or other intensely flavored honey

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a 9 1/2-inch-square baking pan with parchment, letting it hang over the sides for easier removal later.
  2. Prepare the pastry: In a food processor, combine flour, almond meal, sugar and salt. Pulse to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add egg yolk, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of water. Pulse to incorporate. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water through the feed tube, tablespoon by tablespoon, pulsing until just before the pastry forms a ball. You may not need all the water.
  3. Turn the dough out into the prepared baking pan. Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan. Place in the oven on the center rack and bake until the pastry begins to brown around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes.
  4. While the pastry is baking, prepare the topping: In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the almonds, candied peel, sugar, honey and vanilla extract. Heat just until the ingredients are incorporated.
  5. Remove the pan and spread the almond-honey mixture evenly over the pastry. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the topping is a deep gold, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove and transfer to a rack to cool in the pan. Once it has cooled, remove from the pan and cut into 32 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Makes 32 squares

NOTE: Whole, unblanched almonds can be finely ground in a food processor to make almond meal. To make vanilla sugar, cut 1 or several vanilla beans in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and reserve for another use. Dry vanilla bean halves at room temperature and place in a large jar of sugar. Store for several weeks to scent and flavor the sugar.

Paris book signing at WH Smith December 17

WH Smith author event
WH Smith author event

It's wonderful to be home in Paris after my chock-a-block US tour for The French Kitchen Cookbook. Thanks to everyone who came along to the events, it was great to meet all you food lovers!

The tour continues in Paris however, with an event next Tuesday, December 17 at WH Smith, from 6-8pm. I'll be signing books from 6 to 7pm, with a presentation from 7 to 8pm. I'd love to see you there!

WH Smith, 248 rue de Rivoli, Paris 1

Tel.+33 1 44 77 88 99

Nutritious life week at the Golden Door

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This week I have been fortunate enough to participate in Nutritious Life Week at the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, California. Along with 5-mile morning mountain hikes, classes in Fast Fit, daily workouts with my trainer, strenuous water aerobic classes, and daily tennis lessons, the days are sprinkled with massages, manicures, pedicures and facials. There is also time for me to talk to the guests about my own fitness program, my cooking, and signings for my new book, The French Kitchen Cookbook. Pictured above are a few guests enjoying the spa's first outdoor picnic, held overlooking the 3-acre organic vegetable garden, a paradise that right now is bursting with multiple varieties of beets, carrots, fennel, kale, society garlic, nasturtiums, oregano, and Mexican tarragon. Tonight, in our cooking class, we sliced many of these vegetables paper-thin, blanched them, then tossed them with an avalanche of herbs and a Yogurt, Lemon and Chive Dressing (recipe follows.) We also prepared a lighter variation of my Miniature Onion and Goat Cheese Appetizers, as well as Grilled Polenta Squares with Tomato and Onion Sauce, both variations on recipes from The French Kitchen Cookbook.

Yogurt, Lemon, and Chive Dressing

Equipment: A small jar, with a lid.

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup plain, low-fat yogurt

1/3 cup finely minced fresh chives

In a small jar, combine the lemon juice and the salt.  Shake to dissolve the salt.

Add the yogurt and chives. Shake to blend. Taste for seasoning. Store covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week. Shake to blend again before using.

About 3/4 cups

Miniature Onion and Goat Cheese Appetizers

These tasty, savory, miniature appetizers are a huge hit in my cooking classes. There is always a great sense of satisfaction, when one removes a tray of these fragrant, golden nuggets from the oven. These are best warm from the oven but are also delicious at room temperature. They can serve as appetizers or as sides to a simple green salad.

Equipment: A food processor; 2 nonstick petit four molds or mini muffin tins, each with twelve 2  1/2–inch (6.5 cm) cups, or a 24-cup mini-muffin pan.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound (500 g) onions, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into thin half moons

Fine sea salt

Coarse, freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces (125 g) soft, fresh goat’s milk cheese

Grated zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic

3 large eggs, preferably free range and organic lightly beaten

1 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme or regular thyme leaves

Fleur de sel, for garnish

  1. Evenly center two racks in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
  2. In a skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Reduce the heat to low, add the onions and a pinch of salt, and sweat – cook, covered, over low heat until soft and translucent – about 10 minutes. Season generously with freshly ground black pepper. Taste for seasoning.
  3. In the food processor, combine the goat cheese, lemon zest, eggs, and thyme leaves and process to blend. Add the cheese mixture to the onions in the skillet and stir to blend. Taste for seasoning.
  4. Spoon a tablespoon of the mixture into each mold or muffin cup.
  5. Place the molds in the oven and bake until the mixture is golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Then remove them from the cups. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fleur de sel.

Makes 24 miniature appetizers

Wine suggestion: The mineral-rich flavors of this blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Bourboulenc with their touch of spice make this white wine –Domaine du Paternel Cassis Blanc de Bancs -- a perfect palate opener to pair with the tatins.

Grilled Polenta with Tomato and Onion Sauce

This light, colorful vegetarian weeknight dinner is a favorite, and this soothing, comfort-food dish knows few rivals, particularly in cooler weather.

Equipment: A 1-quart (1 l) gratin dish, 4 warmed dinner plates.

3  1/2 cups (875 ml) 1 % milk

Fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3/4 cup (135 g) instant polenta

1/2 cup (3 ounces; 90 g) freshly grated Gruyère cheese, plus extra for garnish

1 large onion, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into thin half-rounds

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 fresh or dried bay leaves

One  28-ounce (765g) can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice

Fresh, flat-leafed parsley leaves, for garnish

1. In a large saucepan, bring the milk, 1 teaspoon of the sea salt, and the nutmeg to a boil over medium heat. (Watch carefully, for milk will boil over quickly.) Add the polenta in a steady stream and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook until the mixture begins to thicken, about 3 minutes.

2.Remove from the heat. Add half of the cheese, stirring to blend thoroughly.  The polenta should be very creamy and pourable. Pour it into the gratin dish. Even out the top with a spatula. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to firm up. (Or store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.)

3.Prepare the tomato garnish: In a large skillet, combine the onion, the olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of the sea salt and sweat – cook, covered over low heat until soft and translucent – about 5 minutes. With a large pair of scissors, cut the tomatoes in the can into small piece. Add the bay leaves and tomatoes and their juices and cook, covered, over low heat for about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

4.At serving time, preheat the broiler. Cut the polenta into 8 even squares. Place on the baking sheet, cheese side up. Place under the broiler and broil until the cheese sizzles, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the squares to the warmed plates, stacking the second slice at an angle over the first. Spoon the sauce all over. Garnish with parsley and cheese.

4 servings

WINE SUGGESTION: An inexpensive everyday dish suggests an equally fine but gently priced wine. A favorite is Michel and Stephane Ogier’s La Rosine Syrah, a deep purple vin de pays from the hillsides north of the old Roman town of Vienne.

MAKE AHEAD NOTE: Both the tomato sauce and the polenta can be prepared up to 3 days in advance, then covered and refrigerated separately. Reheat at serving time.

THE SECRET: When using whole, canned tomatoes, use a scissors to cut the tomatoes into small pieces, making for a still chunky yet finer sauce.

Okuda, a new Japanese star in Paris

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Once you watch Japanese master Toru Okuda wield a knife, you’ll never want to touch one again. Precision. Care. Attention. Discipline. Perfection. Okuda – whose stable of Tokyo restaurants include both a Michelin three-star and Michelin two-star – has come to Paris. And we diners are the better for it. His serene, pale-wood, pottery-filled trio of dining rooms (a main floor counter for seven; a downstairs dining room for twelve; and a private room for four diners) transport you directly to Japan, with all the accompanying courtesy and gentleness one expects. There is only a single, multi-course kaiseki menu, and diners are presented with a simple printed list of the offerings as they begin their pleasant journey. I was lucky enough to be seated at the bar, with chef Okuda in front of me, demonstrating his amazing proficiency with a knife. It is hard to choose a favorite of the eight courses, but I guess I would have to say the soothing, delicate flan, rich with fresh crab meat and a perfect foil of warm autumn mushrooms (flan salé au tourteau, sauce épaisse aux champignons). It was course number two, and if I had to stop there, I would have been a happy woman. Brilliantly fresh tuna, paper thin slices of squid from the I’ile de’Yeu, and delicate white flounder (carrelet) arrive as a sashimi selection, seasoned with the most delicious seagreens, including an unforgettably bright-flavored fresh-water nori. Not that the dish needed embellishment, we were instructed to season one bite of the squid with the dollop of caviar set on the plate, and take a second bite paired with fresh wasabi that had been grated only seconds earlier. Mouth in heaven, mouth on fire! It will be a while before I forget his grilled bar – oh so perfectly cooked over a charcoal fire – just lightly smoky, falling easily into chopstick-worthy bites, seasoned with salt and sesame. And who would think to actually fry an avocado, transforming both the texture and flavor, making me think of a freshly harvested butternut squash, cooked to create an autumn-worthy purée. Morsels of charcoal-grilled French Limousin beef fillet from butcher Hugo Desnoyer arrive so tender you can eat them with a chopstick, while just about every dish leaves your palate with a clean, citrusy aftertaste. But the one dish that I will be making at home is Okuda’s spectacular dessert (photo) : It consisted of a peach compote, using no less than three varieties (a white peach, a pêche plate and the rare pêche de vigne) set in a glistening crystal bowl, surrounded by a fragrant and fruity-sweet sparkling peach jelly, and of course a perfect peach sorbet, garnished with pungent leaves of fresh mint.

OKUDA

Traditional Japanese kaiseki

7, rue de la Trémoille

Paris 8

Tel: +33 1 40 70 19 19

MÉTRO: Alma-Marceau

OPEN: Wednesday to Monday

CLOSED: Monday lunch and all day Tuesday

PRICE: 160€ fixed menu at lunch, 200€ fixed priced menu at dinner. No à la carte menu.

RESERVATIONS: Essential

ATMOSPHERE: Smart casual

Le Tourette: Like a trip to Spain

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Take a trip to this tiny, 22-seat bistro-cantine that looks, feels, smells, and tastes like Spain. It’s called Le Tourrette, a cheery, newly revived gathering spot dating from the 1920’s, a classic bistro that survived well into the 1980’s. Owner Olivier Mourin (also proprietor of the Ibérique Gourmet, a Spanish specialty shop nearby at 3, rue Paul Louis Courier) has garnered a band of Spanish specialists to offer diners an authentic Spanish treat. The silken, fragrant, delicate Ibérian ham is expertly hand cut paper-thin before your eyes, served with excellent pan con tomate, or crisp slices of baguette rubbed with both garlic and fresh red tomatoes. Bouqerones (classic Spanish vinegar-marinated anchovies) arrive glistening, layered on slices of grilled country bread, surrounded by gigantic cured caper berries and thin slices of yellow heirloom tomatoes. I loved the riz noir aux calamars (photo) a huge portion of wholesome rice seasoned with squid ink and flanked by moist, delicate, baby squid. The poulpe à la galicienne arrives as a colorful, paprika-dusted portion of steamed baby potatoes in their skins and bite-sized pieces of the most tender octopus. There are just 10 stools and a table d’hôte that seats 12. Everything here is generous, personal, and friendly.

LE TOURETTE BISTRO-CANTINE

SPANISH

70, rue de Grenelle

Paris 7

Tel: +33 1 45 44 16 05

MÉTRO: Rue du Bac or Sèvres-Babylone

OPEN: Lunch Monday through Friday. Dinner Friday and Saturday.

CLOSED: Dinner Monday through Thursday, and all day Sunday.

PRICES: Starters, 7 to 12€, main courses, 12 to 21€, Wines by the glass, 2 to 4€

RESERVATIONS: Recommended

ATMOSPHERE: Casual

SPECIALTIES: Tapas

Use your ID and go to ES: A treat in Paris

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Years ago, chef Joël Robuchon told me that his trips to Japan greatly influenced his own personal style of cuisine. He felt that the French and the Japanese shared a great sensibility and respect for food, showing special consideration for flavors, colors, textures, presentation. Today in Paris, diners can see how intensely Japanese-born chefs are responding to that shared awareness. Many --- like Akihiro Horihoshi at La Table d’Aki and Shinichi Sato at Passage 53 – have worked in some of the finest kitchens in Europe.  Chef Takayuki Honjo ---with a CV that includes Astrance, Noma, and Le Mugartiz – joins the club with his tiny, quiet, all-white, angelic, monastic dining room, ES, on rue de Grenelle on the Left Bank. The dining room staff includes an Italian, a French, a Japanese, making this an international scene. Taka’s food is beautiful in every sense of the word. I feel as though he has been immensely influenced by Pascal Barbot’s food at Astrance, just across the Seine. But he’s not a copycat. And his flavors are direct and forthright, not a slammer but a gentle tap. One of the best dishes sampled at his table was a roasted guinea fowl (pintade), teamed up with a delicate and colorful green pool of spinach cream, a shower of perfectly cooked autumn girolles (chanterelles), and the tiniest, most flavorful sautéed baby new potatoes, the size of an olive. But the crowning glory came in the way of a soothing hazelnut cream, applied like a palate knife to the plate, a nutty luxury that unified the entire dish. A creation triumphant in its simplicity and clarity of flavors. I would be proud to make and serve his caramelized codfish, and loved the idea of his cream of corn soup, flavored with a jasmine essence. Dessert almost hit the ball out of the park: A delicate, tiny meringue shell was filled a sweet, fruity poached peach, topped with a peach sorbet (too forcefully flavored with almond extract), and set in a pool of soothing, bright pink, peach jelly. Crusty country bread from baker Jean-Luc Poujauran, and wines from a favored winemaker, Simon Bize in Burgundy, all add to the pleasure.  The restaurant name is a translation of the Freudian “ID,” meaning, the component of personality at birth that is the source or our wants, desires, impulses, and drives. So use your “ID” and go to “ES.”

Restaurant ES

Modern French

91, rue de Grenelle,

Paris 7

Tel: +33 1 45 51 25 74

MÉTRO: Solferino.

OPEN: Tuesday to Saturday.

CLOSED: Sunday & Monday.

PRICE: 55€ fixed menu at lunch; 75€ and 105€ fixed menu weekday dinners. 105€ fixed menu Saturday dinner. No à la carte menu.