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Food highlights

We found plenty of fun, unusual, and just plain good food on our vacation in Paris, Barcelona, and the south of France. It ranged from street crepes to Michelin restaurants to little neighborhood bistros hidden along side streets.

Here are some of the highlights. Also see the pictures from Alain Ducasse and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.

Barcelona:

  • Serrano ham, served with grilled bread and tomato tapenade. A standard appetizer in Barcelona.

  • A couple traditional Catalan dishes at Les Quinze Nits: escalivada, kind of a solid, formed ratatouille, served here with ham, and rice with cuttlefish and ink. The latter was so rich and savory, so thoroughly seasoned, my nose and taste buds were absolutely saturated. Very much my thing.

  • Spicy hot chocolate at Escribà. This was common in Barcelona. It was similar to the spicy, chili pepper based “Mayan” hot chocolates that are popular here, but less sweet and much smaller and denser. If our hot chocolate is drip coffee, Barcelona’s is espresso. Escribà’s was by far the best I had.

  • The one serious restaurant we went to in Barcelona was Abac. Chef Xavier Pellicer’s unusually creative dishes are representative of the Barcelona cuisine that’s become well known in foodie circles.

    My favorite course was crab served on a base of avocado and tuna and topped with a small scoop of basil sorbet. The combination of basil, sorbet, and crab was perfect.

  • On a related note, I was shocked at how easy it was to get reservations at serious restaurants in both Barcelona and Paris. I was lazy and didn’t plan ahead, but to my surprise, I was able to get reservations only a few days in advance for places I expected to be booked solid for weeks. Vive le financial crisis!

  • Wine from the Penedès region, particularly Parés Baltà‘s Marta de Baltà Rioja, which we had at Abac. The region was new to me; I’ll have to keep an eye out for it in the future.

  • Cava, Catalan sparkling wine. Subtly different from champagne, very good and lots of fun.

Paris:

  • Apéritifs are de rigueur at the beginning of traditional French dinners. Champagne is common, but others include kir, light liqueurs, or even sparkling water. The kir royale I had was interesting, if not quite my thing.

  • Digestifs occasionally too, usually either dessert wines or heavier liqueurs like cognac. We generally had coffee instead.

  • Croissants and pain au chocolate, of course, at lots of different patisseries. Tarte tatin too. So simple, so good!

  • Street crepes, naturally. These are scientifically proven to taste best late at night. We had most of ours in Plaza St Michelle.

    Crispiness, thickness, quality of batter, and filling are the subject of religious debates, all the more when you’re not sober. Jeremy stuck with nutella banana, the thinner the better. I preferred slightly thicker, with either nutella or sugar and butter. Jane was flexible, but usually opted for nutella.

  • Cassoulet, my favorite traditional French dish, and a very good choucroute at a little neighborhood bistro on a side street somewhere in the 6th arrondisement. I wish I remember what it was called!

  • Andouillette, a coarse, spicy French tripe sausage. According to the locals we were with, the andouillette I had wasn’t particularly good, but I still enjoyed it.

  • Chocolate overload at Salon du Chocolat. I discovered lots of boutique French makers, as well as a few from other regions, all new to me. More to the point, I got to try lots of their chocolate. I’ll add them to the chocolate page as I work through the bars I brought back.

  • Surprisingly, I didn’t enjoy much of the espresso I had in either Paris or Barcelona. It tended to taste flat, sour, and/or slightly burnt to me. Having said that, I didn’t seek out good coffee like I did with food, wine, beer, and chocolate, so I shouldn’t complain too much. I may just have been drinking lots of Illy.

  • Pierre Gagnaire was the first serious Paris restaurant we went to. Like Pellicer at Abac, Gagnaire is known for innovative, progressive dishes, and our dinner there managed to exceed even our high expectations.

    Highlights included a perfect Café de Paris sauce (seasoned anchovy butter), a foie gras “creme” (syrup) with black olive “jelly” (more like a thick puree) and new carrots, and an oolong green tea brewed for us at the door as we were leaving. An unusual digestif, but a surprisingly touching gesture.

  • A pate and foie gras plate at L’Alcazar. The service there was uneven, and occasionally mystifying, but the food, the important part, was consistently good.

  • Alain Ducasse was the next serious restaurant. The service was impeccable, and the food was consistently good and unexpectedly creative, despite a couple missteps. Highlights include the langoustines, the spider crab with vodka emulsion (but not the paired salad), a lobster course with interesting garnishes, and a phenomenal comté jiroa gruyere cheese.

    The baba au rhum I had for dessert nearly stole the show. It came with an entire rum cart – I went with a Jamaican dark – and homemade whipped cream. I joked that they could give Jane the dessert and I’d settle for just the whipped cream, and our server winked at me and left the entire serving bowl. That clinched it.

    As an aside, we thought we recognized the music playing in the background, but only in bits and pieces, so we weren’t sure. At one point, we thought we heard – of all things – the theme from Jurassic Park. Later, it reminded us of Star Wars. We finally asked a server, who replied proudly, “Why yes, it’s Harry Potter! You know, from the movie? It’s very fun, no?” Fun, yes, and more than a little surreal. We later confirmed the other movie themes too. Who knew Hollywood blockbusters made such good dinner music?

  • We didn’t spend enough time searching for good boulangeries, but we still managed to find a few, mostly thanks to Nelson and Kevin. My favorite was the 6 cereales from Boulangerie St. Louis.

  • We ate at L’Ilot Vache one night on a whim, for no better reason than it was still seating at 9:45 when we walked by, and we loved it. The cow decor was cute and cozy, and the food was traditional and consistently good.

  • Mushrooms were in season, and it showed. Cep (porcini), chanterelle, morel, and others kept appearing at various restaurants. Thankfully, we like mushrooms, so we didn’t complain.

  • Judging solely by the food, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon was the best meal of the trip. Seating is shared counters around an open kitchen, worlds away from white tablecloth French service, but we were there for the food, and it delivered. Highlights included Ibérico ham that literally melted in our mouths, a simple but perfectly combined tuna nicoise salad, an incredible sweetbread and mushroom course, impossibly silky mashed potatoes, and a Paris-Brest that was so good, my eyes involuntarily closed every time I took a bite.

    If you like food and you’re in Paris, try to get a seat here. They only take reservations for 6:30, so make one ahead of time, or come late on a weeknight. It’s worth it.

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