Thursday, April 21, 2016

Eating Out: Le Bouillon Racine

When I signed up to go to Russia last June, I didn’t know I’d be eating in one of the oldest restaurants in Paris today.
     “What’s the connection?” you ask.
     Easy.  One of the other people on the Russia trip is now a good friend of mine - I hope for many years to come - and she met me for lunch at a restaurant of her choosing.  One I used to walk by during my Sorbonne years:  Le Bouillon Racine.

Actually, there are two signs over two adjacent doors, indicating that there were once two rivals side by side: Bouillon Racine, named for the street, and Grand Bouillon Camille Chartier (not to be confused with Bouillon Chartier on the Right Bank).  Now they’re more or less one, except the one on the left offers international cuisine, I’m told, while the one on the right is traditional French.
     There’s a blue plate special daily, and you can lunch on any two of the three courses for a mere 15€95, approximately $18.  Today’s starter was a cream of carrot soup, as thick as if it were jut pureed carrots, sweet and full-flavored with a hint of herbs.  The main dish was a lamb stew with cumin, served with semolina.  The dessert was a cheesecake with a crumb pastry made of those speculoos cookies you find in Holland.  You know, the ones that fill your mouth with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger flavors.
     My friend opted for the blue plate special, minus the dessert.  Not feeling very hungry, and always unable to refuse a good risotto, I chose the risotto with gambas and scallops, all of it bathed in just the right amount of creme of seafish and pistacho, all of it served up on the plate as if it were an Impressionist tableau and taking what I call The Art of the Dribble to new levels of maestria.  I can honestly say it was every bit as delicious to eat as it was lovely to look at.
     Other items on the menu include four different soups; raw things (tuna tartare, beef carpaccio), foie gras and snails for starters; four different salads for those watching their waistline, as many French women are; six meat and four fish main dishes to choose from; a cheese tray; and eleven desserts to tempt you more than anyone should ever be tempted, including one that is called Forbidden:  caramel, dark chocolate and mascarpone ice creams sprinkled with caramel bits and draped in caramel sauce!
     Everything is cooked in-house, from fresh ingredients - no boil-in-the-bag here.  And yet the service is fast, which would indicate some serious food preparation in the kitchen.  I’m sure anyone working there gets excellent training in what being a chef should involve.

In addition to the cuisine and the service, something else that is lovely is the decoration.  This restaurant was created in 1907 and its founder Mr. Chartier chose Art Nouveau as his theme.  It starts as of the façade, with sculpted wood, mirrors and huge windows for ample light inside.
     And inside is more of the same:  sculpted wood, mirrors, ceramic edging and tiles, Art Déco representations of iris and roses... Even the furniture has flowing lines reminiscent of the Art Déco style.
     Bouillon Racine has been on the National Historical Monuments list of Paris since 1995, and rightly so. A meal there is like time travel back to the start of the last century.  And very tasty time travel at that.

Restaurant Le Bouillon Racine
3 rue Racine
Paris 6è

Daily noon to 11 pm
From 3 to 7 pm, tea is served
Happy hour 5 to 7 pm

Although in French, here are some links with lots of photos:

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Accras

France is largely a Roman Catholic country, although most people don’t attend mass on a regular basis, except for Christmas and Easter... maybe.  It’s said a Frenchman attends church four times during a lifetime:  for his christening, first communion, wedding and funeral.
     I usually recommend this recipe as an appetizer in February or early March, for Lent, as it's a fish recipe:  accras.
     That also offers me an excuse for slipping in a recette antillaise, a West Indian recipe.  While the sun once never set on the British Empire, France was no slouch either in that category.  French colonies dotted the globe: Africa, the Far East, eastern Canada, many Pacific islands... and even French Guyana in South America as well as several islands in the Caribbean.  My personal link, through the family of my children and my ex, is to Martinique.  Madinina - the Island of Flowers - as it was called in the Carib language of its inhabitants when Christopher Columbus “discovered” it in 1502.
     There are many typical créole recipes, and accras is one that has crossed over to many French plates and palates, provided there’s not too much piment (hot pepper).  Although it's a traditional appetizer made with salt cod - it’s a poor man’s dish - famous chefs now often replace the cod with crabmeat.  I love crab, but I find it far too bland to stand up to the other ingredients.  So let’s stick with the classics.
     Accras are small puffs, so the cod must be shredded rather than cut into hunks. Shredding also releases more taste.  Fingernails come in handy here.  Be sure to weed out any skin, bones or “stringy  bits”.  Another heads-up:  you might want to wear rubber gloves to cut the chili pepper because if you get it on your hands and then touch your eyes, it’ll really burn!  And for the parsley, a Frenchwoman taught me to place the leaves in a jelly glass and snip them with scissors until they’re minced; I find this so much easier than using a knife and cutting board.  Lastly, remember that, although you’ve soaked the cod, it was salt cod to begin with, so go sparingly with the salt shaker.
     So here’s the recipe, as dictated to me by my ex - who’s a West Indian chef par excellence.  Enjoy this bit of Caribbean sunshine, with or without a side of rum.

  • 200 g (7 oz) salt cod
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 scallions (or the equivalent in chives)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 small fresh red chili pepper, seeds and stem removed
  • 2 stalks of parsley, minced
  • 300 g flour
  • 1 small packet of dry yeast
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ½ t of baking soda
  • salt and pepper
  • vegetable oil for frying (peanut, canola....)

- Soak the cod overnight, changing the water twice.
- Shred the cod into very small pieces, removing any bones and skin.
- Mince the onion, scallions, and garlic, as well as the parsley.
- Remove the stem and seeds from the chili pepper and mince it.  (You could use 1-2 tsp of chili paste instead.)
- Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl.  Mix in the cod, onion, garlic and scallions.
- Add the chili pepper and parsley.
- Mix in the yeast, baking soda and egg.  Salt and pepper to taste.
- Gradually add water until the batter has the consistency of a thick pancake batter (about 1½ c) and mix until smooth.
- Cover and let the batter rest for a few hours.
- Carefully slip teaspoons of batter into very hot oil and cook until the accras are golden.
- Drain on paper towels.
Serve hot.  For 6-8 servings

You can make the accras ahead of time, and then reheat them in the oven (450° for 5 min), but I think they taste better  - and especially crisper - if you eat them right away.