Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ô Château: Afternoon Delight

Perhaps it’s called “Ô Château” after its adorable and animated sommelier-owner, Olivier Magny. He definitely knows how to please.

We first visited Ô Château several years ago in Olivier’s apartment/tasting room in the 11th arrondissement of Paris where we did the Wine & Cheese Tasting Lunch. He’s moved twice since then. First, to a proper commercial space near the Louvre and again, just recently, into an even bigger location to make room for a wine bar/restaurant.

To evolve like this in Paris, Olivier and his now team are obviously doing something right. Having just visited the new place, I can tell you first-hand what it is: They love what they do and they love sharing it. The friendly service is so refreshing for a moment I actually forgot I was in Paris. I quickly remembered, however, when my food arrived. Lunch was prepared by Chef Tiffany Depardieu, formerly of Jules Vernes. We enjoyed a creamy carrot and parsnip soup followed by a quinoa and smoked duck breast salad. The menu also includes appetizers: cheese and charcuterie plates, escargots, etc.

On the wine side, they boast 40 by the glass (including Pétrus) and 400 by the bottle, which can be enjoyed upstairs at the wine bar or downstairs in the lounge on leather sofas and chairs – also a perfect place to enjoy a digestif.

This is a great place to grab a quick lunch**, meet for a happy hour of wine and cheese, or*** arrange a tasting or private party in one of their two tasting rooms.

Organized Wine Tastings: 30€, 50€, 80€ (for “Grands Crus”); Wine & Cheese Tasting Lunch: 75€; Wine Tasting Dinner: 130€; Champagne Cruise: 45€; Lunch: 14€; Dinner: 28€

68, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 75001 Paris
Métro Louvre -Rivoli (Line 1) or Etienne Marcel (line 4)

Addendum: After posting this piece on The Dish and The Dirt, I received inquiries/comments regarding the prices at Ô Château and what some perceived, including the French paper L'Express, as being too high.  On this point, I do believe the tastings by the glass are a bit pricey.  In fact, we would have been much better off ordering a bottle of wine*** (which seems a bit incompatible since the "theme" of the bar is tastings).  While this is generally the case in most restaurants, it is particularly true at this one. However, the barman told us that the restaurant had only been open a week and that they were considering either lowering the prices of their tastings by the glass or providing larger servings.  I got the impression they're still working on finding the good price point/what the market will bear.  Additionally, if you're a fan of Ô Château on Facebook, you're entitled to 10% off the check - which makes the prices easier to swallow. 

**Please view comment section below. Olivier from Ô Château has provided info on new prices and new hours (no longer open for lunch).

***Second addendum: After receiving Olivier's comments below, I returned to Ô Château to check out the new prices and to see what it would be like at night (opposed to a Saturday lunch, which is when my husband and I had first visited). The bar was nearly full with a nice mix of tourists and locals at 7.30 pm, and was completely full an hour later. Both group tasting rooms were booked, as well. We sat at the bar this time, opposed to a table. Being on the shorter to average side and a former liability attorney, I found the stools a bit unstable/comfortable. However, the employees working the bar were nice and fun and we enjoyed our exchanges with them. We ordered the 24 euro dinner menu, which included a soup, a "tapas" style plate, and a dessert. Once again, I was impressed by the quality of the food, especially for the price. As for the wine, the prices of the glasses had been lowered. We each had a 10 cl. (3.4 oz) glass of Jura (me white, my friend red) at 8.90 euros and a 15 cl. (5 oz) glass for 12.20 euros. I asked to see the wine-by-the-bottle list as my husband had remarked that it was significantly cheaper to buy by the bottle (hence my comment above). I was searching the list for the bottle I had previously seen at 36 euros; it was no longer there. Olivier informed me he had removed the lower priced wines from the list to motivate people to order by the glass. I think the cheapest bottle was about 49 euros ($70.00), but I could be wrong as I flipped through it quickly. After this last visit, I wanted to revise what I said previously about it being a great place to meet for drinks. If you want to hang out and relax with friends in a comfortable environment with the focus being on the company not necessarily the wine, then I'm not sure this would be the right fit.  (And based on certain comments made by Olivier that evening, I get the impression he doesn't want this type of client; I happen to fall into this category, btw).  However, if you are interested in wine tasting and would like to take a course or already know about wine and want to sit at the bar and taste some by the glass (especially some higher-end ones that you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do) then you would probably like Ô Château. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Paris in the Springtime

Finally, spring is here! And I feel like an animal coming out of hibernation (if only I burned body fat during the winter like one).

Palais Royal

To celebrate the arrival of the new season, Shannon at Je Ne Sais Quoi invited me to contribute to her piece "Why Paris Bloggers Love Paris in the Springtime."  Here is my two centimes, as well as my favorite picnic spot in the city:

I can find things to love about Paris all year round, but the city is a bit more lovable in spring. Winter isn’t exactly a tough act to follow. Spring offers the beginning of longer days and picnic weather. My favorite picnic spot is Parc Montsouris. With its puppet shows, pony rides, trains, playgrounds and name (which translates to Mice Mountain), I like to think this park was an early inspiration for Disneyland. The large lake in the center—which attracts birds other than city pigeons—and the hidden wooded trails will make you feel like you’re on Tom Sawyer Island. And if you don’t feel like packing a picnic basket, Parc Montsouris has concession stands offering up cotton candy, ice cream and crêpes. There’s even a proper restaurant in the park with a view of the lake, the Pavillon Montsouris.

To read what other Paris bloggers think of spring in Paris, please check out the full article on Girls' Guide to Paris.  Thanks!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Guest Blog - Misadventures with Andi ("A Passion for Paris")

Bonjour, friends! 

I recently wrote a guest post for Misadventures with Andi  for her series "A Passion for Paris."  Andi loves Paris and asked some of her blogger friends to share their stories about their love for Paris too.  Here is mine:

A Passion for Paris . . .

My passion for Paris developed over time – a flicker that grew into a flame opposed to love at first sight. I’d been living in San Francisco for 10 years prior to moving to Paris and already felt like I’d won the-perfect-city-to-live-in lottery. Plus, because I was moving to Paris (most likely) permanently, I think I viewed the city with a critical eye opposed to someone on holiday. It was my new home and I didn’t like that my new home had dog poop everywhere, aggressive commuters, biting weather and short days. I probably should have moved in springtime not winter. In the end, however, I was no match for Paris. She has been stealing American hearts for decades and mine was no exception. Little by little she won me over and I fell in love. Here is how she did it:

1. The Newness

After five years, I can still get lost in Paris. Twenty “arrondissements” equals twenty different places to discover; each has its own monuments, character and story. Today, I explored a new corner of Butte-aux-Cailles in the 13th arrondissement. Last night, I dined at a friend’s place in the 9th arrondissement. The brasseries were straight out of an old French film and some of the store fronts hadn’t been touched in more than a century. Tomorrow, I might stand on a footbridge over the Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement and watch the water rise as a boat prepares to pass beneath me. Whatever I do, I will not be bored and I’m guaranteed to see or learn something new whether it’s a word “en français,” the name of a historical figure on a street sign, a chateau on a wine bottle, how to convert a cup of flour to grams while making gougères, or random street art.

To read the rest of my story, please visit Andi's blog by clicking here.  Thank you!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Tip on Tipping in France

(I recently posted a piece on the San Francisco food blog The Dish and The Dirt on tipping in France. I've reposted it below in case some of you might find it helpful. Nobody wants to short change the server, but inadvertently over-tipping is annoying too. Thanks for reading!)

Waitressing in California in the early 90s, I’d immediately write off my tip the moment I heard a foreign accent. In France, however, an American accent evokes the opposite response according to my French waiter friends. As many of you know, tipping in France is different than in the States. In France, it’s (pretty much) included in the check and in the U.S. it’s not.

There is a slight distinction regarding terminology that can be confusing. A surcharge of about 15% is included in the check for table service in France which the French refer to as “le service” but what Americans commonly think of as the tip. But, in French, “the tip” or “the gratuity” is called “le pourboire”.

When dining in France, you should consider that a 15% tip is already included in the grand total of the check (“l’addition”), as is the value-added tax (“TVA” = “taxe sur la valeur ajoutée”). There is usually a separate line item before the total indicating the tax, but not one indicating le service. At the bottom of the check you might find written “service compris” or “service inclus” – highlighting that the service is included, but even if this phrase does not appear it’s in there.

For example, if the total on the check is 37€ (and this is an estimate), it means the food price is 30€, the service charge is 5€ and the tax is 2€. You do not have to leave anything more. That being said, it is customary to leave un pourboire if you enjoyed the service. Some like to round up to the next “elegant number” – if the total bill is 86€, leave 90€; some like to add an additional 5% to get the server to 20%. I think it all depends on the type of place you’re in, how long you were there, and the service you received.

Here are some random examples:

- In a café if I ordered a coffee that cost 2.80€, I’d leave 3€. If the coffee cost 2.50€ and I didn’t feel like waiting for change I’d leave 3€. If the coffee cost 3€ and I had exact change and no small coins, I might leave nothing. (But I’d probably feel guilty. Having been a waitress I can’t fight the compulsion to leave a little something. Although many French people are completely fine with leaving nothing.)

- If I ordered lunch and my total bill was 18.50€, I might leave 20€. If I lunched with a friend and it was 38.50€, we might leave 40€, i.e., 1.50€ extra in both cases.

- We recently dined with another couple and the bill was a bit over 300€. We paid by credit card (and in France you can’t leave a tip on a credit card unless you ask the server to add it into the total, and I’m not sure that’s always possible) and then left a 10€ bill – not 5%, but the server seemed pleased with the amount.
It seems there's an art to everything in France, even tipping!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Abusing the “I” in iPhone!

Remember when the most annoying thing in the restaurant was the screaming child next to you?  Now, thanks to technology many adults can act like children too.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a parent there to take them outside and reprimand them for their obnoxious behavior.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my cell phone as much as the next person, but I don't love having my dining experience interrupted by ringing phones and having to listen to people have extended conversations like they’re sitting in their living rooms.  What is so important that it can’t wait an hour or less?  And, if it is that important, shouldn’t you be rushing to the hospital to check on the accident victim - not laughing your way through dessert with a spoon in one hand and your cell in the other?  If you really can’t live one hour without your phone, put it on vibrate and leave it in your lap or back pocket or on the table if you must.  And then go outside or in the bathroom to answer it.  Or better yet, eat at home.  I’ve seen a few restaurants and beauty salons that have a “no cell phone” policy.  I hope this trend catches on.  Considering France only banned cigarettes in restaurants a few years ago, I’m thinking I might be the one eating at home more often.  Thank god for Picard!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Project: Happily Ever After
saving your marriage when the fairytale falters
by Alisa Bowman

Shortly before Christmas, I was invited to participate in a virtual book tour for the recently released “Project: Happily Ever After - Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters” written by Alisa Bowman. I've never finished a self-help book in my life (which probably explains a lot) so I was fairly proud of myself for finishing this one in just three days. The fact that my in-laws were staying with us at the time might have helped. Being a holiday weekend in France, there weren’t many entertainment options open and it was too cold to spend long periods of time outside strolling around the city. The risk of catching cabin fever in our smallish Parisian apartment was high. Going to my room to read "in order to meet a deadline” offered the perfect reason to excuse myself from the group when I got tired of speaking French or simply tired of listening to my mother-in-law speak. (I’m not sure my last comment would be Happily-Ever-After approved).

In reality, Alisa deserves the large majority of credit for me finishing my first self-help book. I think it's because this book doesn't really seem like one. She offers tips throughout the book and "bullet points" at the end of each chapter summarizing the main ideas, but the text itself isn't preachy and the advice doesn't involve standing in front of a mirror repeating positive phrases. She shares her story and details what worked for her. In fact, I felt like I was reading a boy-meets-girl (and everything that comes after) story or a series of letters written by a girlfriend. The book held my interest and I wanted to know how their love story would end – or not end as the case may be.

However, because I consider myself happily married – and lucky, I wasn’t sure that I would find this book anything more than entertaining. I was surprised then to find myself randomly thinking of it after I had finished it and placed it on my bookshelf. There are parts of the book - the section on forgiveness, for example - that I think apply to relationships with friends and family, as well. The book also serves as a reminder for happy couples that they shouldn’t assume just because they are happy today that they will be tomorrow.  Marriages and people change.

In sum, with honesty and humor, Alisa describes how she went from being in a marriage so miserable that she dreamt of planning her husband’s funeral to eventually renewing her wedding vows. She did so by reading a stack of marital improvement books (as an added bonus she provides “CliffsNotes” on portions of some of these books), interviewing happily married friends, and rekindling her sex life with the help of "The Martini", a sexy bikini wax.

To learn more about Alisa, the Project, and her book, you can visit her blog: Project Happily Ever After.  You can also see a video of Alisa and her husband and read a sample chapter from her book here: video and sample chapter

Saturday, December 04, 2010

I feel dirty

One of the disadvantages of city living is the lack of space. Growing up in Orange County, we had a two car garage in which to store old yearbooks, tools, and Christmas decorations. In Paris, we have caves. In addition to the foregoing, we also use them to store winter clothes (something not needed in sunny Southern California), moving boxes (because either you or one of your friends will eventually need those precious pieces of cardboard again) and finally the blow-up mattress for visitors (when your home is turned into a B&B).

Some Parisians don't even have access to their caves. Garage sales not being the norm in France, landlords are sometimes reluctant to part with that wee bit of storage when they rent out their apartments. Fortunately, we do have a cave and most of the time I'm really grateful for the extra space, except when something like this happens:

I recently went down to get a few bottles of wine for a dinner party and was shocked to find them, as well as a few other negligible items like a computer and armoire, covered in mud - an odd smelling mud. The guardian of our building informed me that the main evacuation pipe (for les toilettes) had been clogged. When it was unplugged, a leak ensued. He concluded that was the source of the mud explosion. In sum, our belongings were coated in a cocktail of my neighbors’ urine and fecal matter. And probably some of ours too, but that was more tolerable. I was fine changing my niece's baby diaper, she's family. But the thought of changing the collective diaper of my 16 unit building made me want my mommy. Or at least my husband!

I had a real dilemma on my hands (ewwww!). Either act like an adult and clean it up myself or pretend like nothing happened and send Fred down to get the wine when he got home from work. In the interim, I would practice my surprised face for when he returned to inform me that our cave had been turned into a septic tank. As a teenager I would always leave one bite of leftovers in the Tupperware so I wouldn't have to clean it. Thus, I wasn't surprised to find myself leaning towards option two. However, there were two problems with this plan: (1) the guardian could place me at the scene; and (2) the bottles needed time to chill before our guests arrived. 

In the end, I decided I couldn't wait for Fred. I put on some rubber gloves and washed, scrubbed and doused the bottles in alcohol myself. The judging eyes of my French guests as I poured them a glass of white wine over ice cubes seemed far worse than having to handle human excrement.   

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Your Friend in Paris

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live like a Parisian? Unless you’re prepared to travel with a dog or take up smoking, I think the easiest and most enjoyable way to experience la belle vie while visiting France is by shopping and eating.

I’ve been living in Paris for five years now. While I’d like to pretend that I spend my days strolling along selecting cheeses and chocolates from small shops, I’d be exaggerating. Sometimes I’m forced to go to the supermarket due to time constraints, hours of operation, or the simple fact that I need to buy toilet paper.

On the weekend, however, I really do try to frequent the farmer’s market and small shops in my quartier. Little by little, you start to develop a relationship with the vendors and they remember you. With my accent, it usually doesn’t take all that long.  My second visit to the produce shop on rue Mouffetard, I was greeted with “Bonjour, Miss California.” I’m still smiling. And a few weeks later, after I’d paid for all my fruits and vegetables, I realized that I’d forgotten a lime. When I told him it was for my vodka tonic, he placed it in my hand with a wink and refused my money.

My cheese lady will slice off a piece of brie and let me taste it to make sure it meets my expectations regarding ripeness. She’ll also select a seasonal cheese for me – assuming she can understand what I’m saying. Some months ago, we performed an Abbott & Costello routine for those in line. I asked for a cheese “en saison” (in season). She kindly responded, with a straight face, that she did not have a cheese of “six ans” (six years old). The pronunciation is identical to my ears – and apparently to hers. Luckily, my French husband was there to clarify “Who’s On First,” but only after he enjoyed the show.

For me, these little interactions make food shopping in Paris fun. I admit, when I first moved here I was uncomfortable approaching vendors and asking questions – partly because of the language barrier and partly because I was afraid of encountering the infamous “rude” French person (which often can be chalked up to cultural difference and not actual rudeness). It was easier for me to go to the supermarket, throw things in a cart, hand over the cash and walk out.

The French may be spoiled with le marché, but there are days when I miss Safeway more than my parents. My supermarket was recently out of Q-tips for two weeks. When they finally arrived, the employee recognized me and my waxy ears by this point (the fact that I could never remember how to say cotton swabs in French and had to mime it out by sticking my finger in my ear each time probably helped as well) and suggested that I stock up and buy three boxes to last me through winter. I never imagined that care packages sent from California would not only include taco seasoning and Cheez-its, but Q-tips too!

Living like a Parisian is not always perfect, but it certainly can be if you go about it the right way. The beauty of being on vacation is that you can choose what you’d like to do with your time and plan accordingly. For example, I recently took part in Context Travel’s “Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris” walking seminar. The fact is there is always something new to see and, more importantly, taste here and I was curious to find out what Context Travel had on its plate. Plus, I’m often asked by friends and friends of friends for travel tips, I thought it would be a good experience and one I could recommend if I enjoyed myself, which I did – immensely!

The tour started at 10:00 a.m. I met my docent, Meg Zimbeck, in front of a café where rue du Bac hits the Seine. I was pleased to find that there were only three other participants joining us that day. Meg referred to us as "visitors" not tourists, which I thought was a nice touch and appropriate as it really felt like we were just a group of friends meeting up for a little shopping. It was immediately obvious that this was not going to be an ordinary tour. There would be no red umbrella to follow, no "bus leaves in 10 minutes" shouted through the end of a bullhorn, and no herding, corralling or waiting in long lines at the souvenir shop.

After introductions and a little small talk, the official tour began. Meg offered us some interesting historical information about the 7th arrondissement, the setting for our tasting tour, and we were off!

Picture yourself walking down a narrow street lined with boutiques and shops then popping into la boulangerie to buy some freshly baked bread.
Meg explaining what to look for in a good baguette regarding texture and taste at La Maison Kayser
After that, you visit la fromagerie across the street to taste a few cheeses that you selected with the aid of a master. You'll need something to spread all over the crusty baguette you just bought - although it really is so delicious you could eat it solo.
Window of Androuet - Master Cheesemaker
Partial view of cheeses at Androuet
You’re back on the tiny sidewalk again, but seeing all those delicious pastries at the boulangerie has awoken your sweet tooth (he’s small but demanding!). You could return to the boulangerie to pick up a pain aux raisins, but why look back when straight ahead there is a shop specifically dedicated to sweet things: la pâtisserie! You go inside and peruse the decadent offerings and have one boxed up for later.

Le Saint-Honoré at
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
(The Pastry Shop of Dreams)
by Philippe Conticini
Le Frutier de Saison (lemon, white chocolate, and dates)
After admiring creations that so closely resemble artwork they are kept under glass, you cannot be expected to wait until “later” to get your sugar fix so you take une petite pause at your local chocolatier for some instant gratification. 
Chapon Chocolatier

Like jewelry!

Several flavors of chocolate mousse
to choose from!
Ooh là là! It's already half past noon, but you have one last stop. La cave, of course.  You enter and admire the beautiful bottles of fine Bordeaux wines, while doing so the lovely caviste offers you a sampling of an hors d’age Armagnac which you gladly accept.  I guess it really is good to be French!
Armagnac tasting at Ryst-Dupeyron

There were three things that I particularly enjoyed about the tour.  The first, and probably the most obvious, was getting to learn about the products and having the opportunity to taste them on the spot and ask follow-up questions about ingredients, the process, etc.  Secondly, I liked that our group was small which meant there was enough time to stray off topic and discuss questions about culture, customs, and favorite restaurants (which is why I would recommend taking the tour early in your trip so you'll have time to put this wealth of knowledge to work).  Finally, going back to the relationship aspect I mentioned above, Meg (or Context Travel docents, in general) has a relationship with the shop owners/employees because she is a regular customer.  Thus, as her "visitor" you get a real French shopping experience. 

If you'd like to do some "window shopping" or as the French call it "window licking" (lèche-vitrine, because they just can't keep their tongues in their mouths), to hold you over til your trip to Paris, here are the places we visited:

La Maison Kayser
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Chapon Chocolatier

And, of course:
Context Travel's "Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris"
Duration: 2.5 hours (minimum, my tour went over)
Price: €70, plus €10 tasting fee

Thursday, November 04, 2010

I feel sick

My friends with children often joke about how they eat their kids' Halloween candy or sneak licks of their ice cream cones.  They call it joking but I view it as bragging, especially since I always struggle to narrow down my ice cream selections to just two flavors.  Of course, triple scoops exist here but I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to order as many French people consider drinking a third glass of wine as unladylike behavior.  One of my lucky girlfriends has three boys all under the age of four, which means they're still young enough for her to order for them (i.e., select the flavors she wants) and she simply looks like an attentive mother as she eats junks of dried cookie dough off their little cheeks.  Needless to say, I'm jealous. 

This past weekend, Fred and I played parents to his thirteen year old second cousin.  At the restaurant, I tried to steer her towards a hamburger.  I was excited by the idea that I might get to help her with her leftover french fries.  But to my dismay and disgust, she ordered rognons de veau (veal kidneys).  She might be the only person I know who eats them by choice.  The only other person I've ever heard of eating them did so on accident because he forgot his dictionary while traveling in Montpellier and he still gags when speaking of the incident.  To put things in perspective, he considers pigs' feet a delicacy so his repugnant food threshold is pretty high. 

In the end, my experiment completely backfired.  Not only was I unable to eat her food, but I could barely finish mine.
Bobbing for internal organs!
So disgusting even the camera was weeping.
It refused to focus.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BFFF = Best Food Friends Forever!

I moved to Paris in late 2005 and immediately started gaining weight. French women may not get fat, but apparently American women living in France do. The fact is I don't smoke and I enjoy eating too much to let food sit on my plate and pretend I'm not hungry.

I appreciate all kinds of food from kebabs, the French equivalent of a California burrito, to la grande cuisine francaise. My absolute favorite, however, is great food at a reasonable price without pretentious service. While Michelin-rated restaurants are definitely a treat every once in a while, why just eat one meal when you can have three or four for the same price? 

Based on the foregoing, my good friend Dina asked me if I'd be interested in writing occasional food reviews about my experiences in France for her San Francisco based food blog The Dish & The Dirt.  Dina is a former classmate, former roommate, played wing woman the night I met my husband, gave the toast at my wedding, introduced me to the writings of David Sedaris, and loves to eat as much and as often as I do.  I said yes and have been very excited about it ever since.  Basically, everything I've ever done with this woman has turned out to be a positive experience (except maybe the Atkins Diet) and I'm sure this will be no exception. 
I hope you enjoy reading along as I walk and eat my way through the streets of Paris, which I finally discovered really is the best way to indulge in all the French food I want and (mostly) still fit into my beloved American blue jeans! 

My very first review can be viewed here: A Room with No View.

Thank you!