Thursday, November 16, 2006

Homeward Bound

As I tried to avoid the tractor-beam pull of the latest Lindsay Lohan movie and keep my nose in the book I'd never started reading on my trip, I heard the flight attendants coming up the aisle with meal service.

"Beef-chicken-vegetarian? Beef-chicken-vegetarian? Beef-chicken-vegetarian?"


I thought that one was reserved for people who call ahead. I was intrigued. My row -- all to myself, I might add (Margy still had a few days of work left in Paris) -- was in the back, so I knew one of those choices would be eliminated by popular demand by the time it was my turn. But which one would it be?


The beef ran out! Without even asking what the hell it was, I threw caution to the wind and asked for veg. Anything to avoid the funky chicken.

And wouldn't you know that on my afternoon flight out of Paris on Continental Airlines my lunch was... black-eyed peas masala.

It wasn't good -- I won't go that far -- but you know, it was the best meal I've had on a plane in a long time, maybe ever.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Home Cooking

For my last meal in Paris, while Margy worked a thirteen-hour shift, I was treated to a home-cooked dinner at our friends' lovely new apartment. And did I mention I spent the day zipping around town on the back of a scooter? This is one of the finest possible ways to tour the City of Light, assuming you don't get into an accident as you clear accelerating vehicles by less than an inch, over and over again, as is mandatory.

The apartment was way over on the edge of town, mere blocks away from Bistrot Paul Bert. I arrived to find my pals, a couple expecting their first baby, setting a charming table and laying out plates of spinach salad with mustard vinaigrette and warm goat cheese. Delicious. The main course was a sort of riff on cassoulet that merged duck confit (in Paris this is wonderful even out of a can) with a mild yet porky Toulouse sausage and beans cooked in goose fat. Oh, yes. The lady of the house -- she's Parisian, her fella's from California -- had taken pity on me, knowing it was a goal of mine to enjoy a real French cassoulet, and though she was great with child and had worked a long day, she made sure I didn't go home disappointed.

Not even close.

As I reached for the bowl of beans for the third time and scraped the spoon against the bottom to try and liberate even the ghost of any remaining goodies, the father-to-be reminded me that we weren't through with dinner. Indeed, out came a nice piece of unpasteurized cheese, followed by cookies with ice cream and chocolate sauce. All the while, we drank wine that my buddies had bought in bulk from an independent vintner and bottled themselves. These were maybe my favorite glasses of the whole trip. It just goes to show you what can be achieved in a country that holds wine in high regard -- in the States, homemade wine is almost always terrible, at least in my limited experience.

But really the best part of the whole evening was being removed from the restaurant scene, as exciting as it is, and hanging out with some friends on their turf, chatting, laughing, listening to their music, eating their food. It was lots of fun, and it made the trip feel more personal. If only Margy had been able to join me.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Aux Lyonnais

I've always been interested in eating at an Alain Ducasse restaurant, and tonight I got my chance.

Ducasse, so decorated by the Michelin guides for his worldwide network of restaurants, isn't exactly thought of as a hero in New York. When his NYC joint opened at the Essex House in 2000, the reviews were not great ("a wow that wavers," the New York Times has said). If you weighed the so-so feedback against the astronomical prices, let's just say no one I know was beating a path to the door.

But when I began hunting for Paris picks before last year's trip, Aux Lyonnais started popping up everywhere. Ducasse has a bunch of restaurants in Paris, including an eponymous one that's supposedly incredibly opulent and hugely expensive, and Aux Lyonnais is regarded as more down-to-earth than many of the others but just as memorable. This was the place we booked way back on Friday afternoon.

Now, I've never eaten dinner in Lyon in the 1850s, but if I had, I'd imagine it would have been something like the meal Margy and I ate tonight. We weren't getting a "Ducasse" dinner (he was probably not even in the country), but that's to his credit -- he and his kitchen are clearly more interested in preserving the weighty charms of true Lyonnaise cooking than in advancing any modern, world-domination-through-excessive-amounts-of-truffles-and-foie-gras-type agenda.

After we had a lovely amuse of fresh cheese with herbs and shallots, Margy started with pumpkin soup with andouille sausage. A tangle of porky bits sat in the middle of the bowl, and a waiter poured the creamy orange potion over it. It was delicious, and I don't even like pumpkin soup (too sweet). As we started to dig in, another waiter swung over and placed a small plate next to Margy's spoon: "This is a cake that goes with the soup," he said. "Try it, and then after I'll tell you what it is."

What it was was awesome.

It was dense and contained little bits of meat. It reminded me of my mom's pizza rustica, or pizzagaina (ahem, "pizza keen"), but there was no cheese in it. Long after it was gone I had to beckon the waiter over to make good on his promise.

"It is a cake made with a pig's ear," he said. "If I tell you before, you would not eat it."

"Oh yes we would!" I said. I'm not quite interested in, say, gnawing on the whole ear of a pig, but I'm happy to enjoy the meat that comes from it. Especially now.

I began with a marinated-eel salad. It had been a goal of mine to try eel outside of a Japanese restaurant, and this was my first opportunity (sadly, my mom has never prepared it on Christmas Eve). I even recognized the word on the menu -- anguille -- from a mile away. The eel was snow white and chewy, but pleasantly so. It wasn't far from the strong flavor of sardines or mackerel, and I look forward to eating it again in a non-Japanese context. Of course, I look forward to eating it again in a Japanese context too!

Margy had chicken with vegetables and crawfish tails (pictured) for her main dish. It came in a red enamel vessel, straight out of the oven, and the bird was bursting with pure chicken flavor, which just underscores how flavorless chickens tend to be back home. The skin wasn't crisped, or even browned, and the crawfish didn't add much, but it was a homey, satisfying entree.

Meanwhile, I had crawfish quenelles (clearly crawfish are big in Lyon). These were essentially two giant white dumplings, just right in texture, neither too firm nor too soft, and they also arrived in a red enamel dish, still bubbling away. The quenelles sat in a deep-brown shellfish stock that was richly flavored, with crawfish tails scattered around the plate. I'd never had anything like this, and I liked it more as I went along. But Paris eating was taking its toll -- had I eaten this on our first night in town, I'd have cleaned my plate, but as it was I couldn't quite finish it.

Dessert was a large sablé cookie, spread with a layer of sweet cream and topped with stewed pears and plums. A great cap to a fun meal.

Ultimately, Aux Lyonnais did not provide our favorite Paris dinner, but its sheer timelessness, or should I say old-timeyness, made it an integral piece of the French-food puzzle that we're slowly assembling. I love the idea of traditional yet somewhat offbeat dishes surviving intact through the ages, shepherded by caring history-minded cooks from one century to another, and another.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Vin & Marée

On any trip to Paris, eating shellfish should be part of the agenda. Parisians know how to get it right.

For our seafood meal, we took our concierges' suggestion of the nearby Vin & Marée (which they explained means wine and tide). When we walked through the door for our 8:30 reservation to find a quiet, harshly lit, and drab dining room, I remembered my new rule for Paris restaurant seating: Always choose the smoking section. In other words, we were standing in the smoke-free zone, while the smokers were led upstairs to a more comfortable and ever so slightly more charming dining room. Something analogous seems to happen in most other restaurants as well -- the good tables, whatever that may mean at a given place, are where the smoke is. This may not be a factor much longer, with talk of a smoking ban that has the French huffing while they're puffing, but for now it's good to keep in mind.

Even upstairs, among industrial carpeting and white walls that sported a strip of blue waves, I could tell Margy wasn't nuts about the decor. What can you do -- it was Monday night, not the best evening for Paris dining. At least the menu looked good, and there wasn't a nonseafood choice on it.

As we were finalizing our selections, a waiter brought us a bowl of mussels in a bit of chive-butter sauce. They were the best mussels I've had in years, briny and tender. We ordered snails and oysters, plus a bottle of white Sancerre.

A young woman came over with an ice bucket and a bottle of wine, and she proceeded to open the bottle without showing it to us. She poured me a taste as I strained to see the label behind the towel she'd wrapped around the bottle. Not bad. She filled our glasses and then left, and I picked the bottle out of the bucket. Nope, not Sancerre. I mentioned this to our waiter, who smiled, removed the mystery bottle, and declared our glasses an aperitif. (The Sancerre was noticeably more complex, and I was glad to have had a mini comparative wine tasting in addition to a free drink.)

The oysters were good but not spectacular. Their liquor was a bit too salty, so unfortunately it was wise not to slurp it all up. But the escargots were wonderful. Last year, they were my revelation -- I hadn't realized how much I loved them before that trip. Once I caught on, I ate big ones, small ones, and microscopic ones that came with a tiny needle, which was the only device that would make it possible to remove the minuscule amount of meat. (I don't mind working for my dinner.) Tonight there was no need for a magnifying glass, but the snails were just as good. They were meaty and firm yet not tough or chewy.

For my entree I had roasted prawns with "caviar d'aubergine." Now, "caviar" I understood, or at least I thought I did; "aubergine," not so much. The word looked familiar, so I just figured, Hey, I'm cool with caviar of whatever. Well, I was surprised to find out that this accompaniment to the prawns was pureed eggplant. Eggplant isn't my favorite, but I was nevertheless thrilled to find some form of vegetable on my plate. The prawns were very good -- they had a bit of char on them, and they offered much more flavor than the shrimp I get at ShopRite back in Jersey.

But Margy's bouillabaisse took home first prize. In fact, I probably stuck my spoon in the bowl almost as often as Margy did. The powerfully flavorful broth was deep and rich and offered a big blast of fennel that joined nicely with the fish stock. The pieces of fish -- mostly rockfish, I believe -- were abundant and weren't overcooked. Rather than being served with a rouille, the bouillabaisse came with croutons and a saffron-garlic aioli. Truly delicious.

You know how I said the dining rooms lacked a certain charm? Well, any missing pizzazz, and then some, could be found in the restrooms. Each of the four men's-room walls contained a row of tiles adorned with cartoons of people using the facilities (as this is a food blog, I'm trying to choose my words carefully). These included a zaftig couple locked in passionate embrace while set upon the porcelain god and a pair of suited businessmen shaking hands while crossing streams. Wouldn't you know I had my camera in my pocket, and I captured it all.

When I returned to the table and showed Margy one of the photos I'd just taken, she shot out of her seat without a word, grabbed the camera, and made a beeline to the ladies' room. Did she find four walls of toilet cartoons? Hardly. The little chamber was decked out in mirrors from head to toe. She'd never seen so many Margys at one time, not even in a Lord & Taylor dressing room...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Sapporo

On last year's trip, the hole-in-the-wall ramen house Sapporo was my safe haven, the place I could go when I needed a butter-free meal that featured the presence of vegetables. I ate lunch there three times, but always alone, and I regretted that Margy, who was working long hours with only a sandwich break during the day, was unable to join me. This time, though, she got to enjoy Sapporo's humble yet considerable charms.

We spent the day at Versailles, mostly waiting on line, and then we had plans to meet friends for a Jarvis Cocker concert in the evening. As we got back to town after strolling the gorgeous Versailles gardens and walking in the footsteps of at least several people who were eventually beheaded, we were starving, and we had just enough time to grab a little something to eat.

All day I had been worried that we were in for an entire day in Paris without a proper sit-down meal, and it wasn't sitting well with me. So when I saw the chance to return to Sapporo for a quick bite, I was more than eager to take it. Margy, of course, liked the sound of my plan.

The dynamic little woman who runs the dining room wasn't around, but the cooks were, and we had a delicious meal. After ordering a couple of beers -- Asahi, not Sapporo... oops -- we both got the essential ramen with roast pork, and Margy had fried rice and gyoza on the side while I had a plate of curry rice plus a salad and oshitashi (tightly rolled spinach in a soy and vinegar dressing).

It was one of those meals where we only realized the extent of our appetite once we'd lifted our chopsticks a few times, and it was one of those very few times when I eat quickly. We sat there at the Sapporo counter devouring our dinner, looking up now and then to watch the cooks perform some deft maneuver in a small vertical-handled pan or a giant flaming wok.

Though I watched them serve it last year, I had never eaten Japanese fried rice before. Well, it rocks. As you can see, it's not tossed with soy sauce or any other dressing -- oil is swirled around a wok, the ingredients (egg, peas, baby shrimp, bits of the finest roast pork available anywhere) are added, in goes the rice, and that's it. Simple, perfect.

Similarly, this was my first time eating Japanese curry, and it was also fantastic. (With a very short menu, Sapporo is pretty sure to nail every dish.) The sauce was a deep brown and bore the yellow tint of turmeric at the edges. The curry contained pork, carrot and onion, and it had a nice burgeoning hint of chili heat.

And the ramen is always excellent. It's fun to eat noodles that have a little bit of confidence, a spot of identity. Sapporo's are cooked just right and hold their own in their sea of broth, pork, scallions, mushrooms, and spinach.

I felt a moment of reflection coming on: I was able to read the entire menu, I had rice and vegetables and pork... I was in my element. We'll get back to proper Parisian eating tomorrow, but this meal was just what we needed tonight.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Bistrot Paul Bert

What a difference a day makes. By early afternoon today, after our concierge had a called a bunch of restaurants on our list to find them fully booked for tonight -- one of them gave her a "Wow, mademoiselle!" as if she'd been joking -- 10pm didn't sound so bad. That slot was offered by a place that had been plugged by a friend of a friend, and we jumped at the chance.

Bistrot Paul Bert, way over on the east side of the right bank (almost off our map), was hopping when we arrived. The menu was written on a blackboard that was passed around from table to table, the wine list was novella length, and the restaurant had that classic look that said I've been here a while, and I'm not going anywhere. The slightly crooked picture frames, the buckling and spotted mirrors, and, yes, even the floating clouds of cigarette smoke all contributed to the very Parisian aura of the place. I saw hunks of meat on plates all around the room, and I got excited.

The meat looked good, but I had fowl on the brain. And what do you know but I think I spotted some sort of bird on the list of main courses. When our waitress came by I asked for a few translations, and though she tried to be helpful she was nothing like the sommelier/waiter from last night. Her translations boiled a long phrase down to a word: côté de cochon fermier aux haricots mais became "pig." But that's okay -- you have to be ready for a wide range of experiences when you go to a foreign country and don't speak the language.

For our starters, Margy ordered veal carpaccio and I went with roasted scallops. I don't usually love scallops (except raw as sushi or sashimi), but they were in season and we'd already seen them around a bunch. Plus in French they're called coquilles St. Jacques, and to me such a refined and stately handle really makes a difference -- why order "scallops" when you can have "coquilles St. Jacques"?

For the main course Margy asked for steak frites, and I most enthusiastically requested roast pheasant (which I had noted actually came with vegetables -- chou vert, or green cabbage). As we began to wait, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation, and then... no, it couldn't be -- our waitress came back our way with the blackboard in her hands. Oh, no.

"I am very sorry. It is my fault. We have no more pheasant."

I've come a long way toward becoming a somewhat mature semi grown-up-type person, but it took all the self-control I had not to start banging on the table and maybe even shouting "Waaaaa!" The pheasant was all I wanted; I'd barely glanced at anything else. I felt helpless. A long, quiet moment passed as I stared a hole in the blackboard.

"If you wanted the pheasant, you should try the rabbit," the waitress said. "It is very like pheasant." She pointed to a dish I hadn't really noticed. I guess that was because I didn't know the word lièvre but assumed it might be some variant of "liver" (even though I indeed know the word for liver). Well, it means wild hare. I'd had bites of rabbit, but I'd never eaten my own. I knew it wouldn't be that much like pheasant, but I figured she meant that it was also gamy and maybe even that it also had lots of tiny bones. All day, I'd been ready to deal with some tiny bones.

I asked how it was served, and I didn't get much. "Is there a sauce?" I said.

"Yes, it's in a sauce, with mushrooms."

The night wasn't getting any younger. I went with the wild hare. A nice bottle of Bordeaux arrived, along with our appetizers, and I started to loosen back up.

The coquilles St. Jacques were terrific, roasted in their shells and sitting in a rich pool of melted butter. The presentation was beautiful and the flavor was excellent.

When it came to Margy's veal carpaccio, the one word in the description that we didn't understand -- and we only figured this out for sure later -- was the word for kidneys (rognons). Looking at her plate, Margy said something like, "I think this is liver." I knew it wasn't, because it didn't look like liver. The slices, sort of freeform roundish, were too small, and the shading of each slice, from dark to lighter to almost white in spots, was too varied for this to be liver. Anyway, it was absolutely fantastic, and it only got more tasty with each bite. The veal was dressed with olive oil, parsley, thin-sliced mushrooms, and chopped nuts, and all of those ingredients staked their claim in the overall success of the dish. I noticed that a woman at the table next to us received a parsley-free version, and I felt sorry for her. Not only was the green a lovely color contrast, but the bright, herbal flavor of the parsley was a happy surprise when you got some.

And then the main dishes arrived. Margy's steak and fries looked good, but I was sure I had been given the wrong plate. Take a look at the photo above, which you may have assumed captured some decadent chocolate dessert. Nope. It's the wild hare. I poked at the big molded cake with my fork, and meat flaked off. I took a bite. I knew I wasn't tasting rabbit, but I wasn't sure what I was tasting. The flavor was familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. At this moment, I was extraordinarily confused. I didn't hate what I was beginning to eat, but I didn't love it, and it wasn't at all what I'd been craving. And on top of everything else, there were no mushrooms as advertised. The hare came with a side dish of large pasta shells dressed in a mushroom sauce. These were just lousy -- badly overcooked and tasting only of butter.

The waitress swung over at this most vulnerable time to check on things. I didn't really know what I was eating, but I was trying very hard to be happy. Margy had taken one bite of her steak, which she liked, but she hadn't learned the truth about her dinner either. When asked how everything was, we said it was okay. The fries were certainly good.

A minute later Margy realized her steak was essentially raw. The one bite she'd taken was one of the few perimeter pieces that were medium to medium rare (she'd asked for medium). And then I grabbed the non-English-speaking sommelier, whom I already trusted more than our waitress. I pointed at my plate and asked, "Lapin?" (That's the French word for rabbit.)

"Oui," he said, and then he proceeded to describe the dish, in French. I understood every word, though one grand gesture certainly helped. He kind of pretended to rip out his own loin, and then he said the loin was rolled and stuffed and served with a sauce of wine and chocolate. And what was it stuffed with? Well, that's the flavor I was struggling to determine -- the dish tasted of nothing else. It was foie gras!

Suddenly the six-euro supplement made sense. But now I really wanted to murder our waitress. She had misrepresented this dish straight down the line. It was not like pheasant in any way. And there weren't even any mushrooms.

Margy and I weren't sure what to do. We hate complaining in restaurants, plus we felt like we'd missed our chance to do so. (We've since sworn to each other that we'll be more assertive should anything like this ever happen again.) Her steak had been picked over, and I was really trying to eat my strange and heavy but not altogether horrible dinner. It wouldn't have been my cup of tea under any circumstance, but I wanted absolutely nothing to do with foie gras after having the best slice of my life last night. That was going to hold me for a while.

For a minute I was ready to pout. I'd come to Paris for six dinners, and now one of them was getting away from me, and that's a significant percentage. But hey, we were in Paris. We'd had great appetizers in a charming old bistro, and we still had a bunch of wine, plus cheese and desserts and a bracing snifter of Calvados, to look forward to. We surveyed the wreckage in front of us -- raw meat, the worst pasta ever, a plate swirled with chocolate sauce that looked like some abandoned meaty dessert -- and we started to laugh. It was all we could do. The waitress came and took our relatively full plates like she'd seen it all before. And I know she had. I believe it's not uncommon in Paris to eat a few bites and leave the rest -- but I'm assuming that's usually in the name of portion control, not frustration.

Next, Margy ordered cheese and I ordered ile flottante, a meringue set in a pool of crème anglaise, with praline and roasted almonds. This stuff set us back on track, big time.

The cheese was magnificent. The varieties were described by the sommelier, so I didn't really get all of it. But the Camembert was particularly memorable. It had an intense savoriness that I'd never experienced before in a cheese. All the varieties were tasty, and I'm guessing all of them were made with unpasteurized milk and would therefore not be available in such fine form in the States. We circled around and sliced bits off larger pieces until we'd had our fill, and then the waitress came and grabbed the board when we were done. That's some fun eating... and we certainly had the room.

The ile flottante was similarly amazing. We loved the texture of the meringue -- soft and supple yet firm enough not to lose its shape in the crème anglaise, which was rich and cool. And the almonds had been roasted to perfection and gave a nutty and almost smoky counterpoint to the sweeter elements.

In the end, Bistrot Paul Bert, though certainly not perfect -- damn that waitress and her pheasantlike rabbit! -- was absolutely unforgettable. (I mean, hey -- I learned I like kidneys.) I would go back. Just not at 10pm.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Point Bar

Margy and I alighted in Paris, back once again in the City of Light on (her) business. This year, though, we allowed a few extra days to play around before she had to get to work.

We got to our hotel around 10am, where they graciously allowed us to check in early, and then we immediately took a restorative nap. Once we came to, my first -- okay, my only -- order of business was to figure out where to eat dinner. I had a list of places, but we wanted to stick close to our hotel on our first night and avoid any situations where we'd have to try to speak French.

I did, of course, offer a shaky "Bonjour, madame" to our concierge before I began pestering her with a dozen questions and asking her to call a dozen restaurants to start getting things on the books. So here we were on Friday afternoon, needing a plan for Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday, at least. (The other nights were still up in the air.) And we began very badly.

Not only was Saturday a bank holiday, it was also a Saturday, and good Paris restaurants tend to get booked up on Saturday night. We tried a few places on our list, and they basically laughed at our very sweet concierge. One offered a 10pm rez. We didn't bite. Ten o'clock worries us a little -- among other reasons because I tend to take hours to eat anything. We kept trying, but now I was starting to feel like an imposition. Finally, though, we booked Tuesday, at a place I keep hearing about and I'm sure I want to try. Phew. Finally, an encouraging sign.

As a last-ditch effort to nail down Saturday, we tried the site of our favorite meal from last year's trip, which I was sure wouldn't be fully booked. I was correct. It would be closed, for Armistice Day.

So we sort of staggered out of the hotel to start exploring, with nothing set for Saturday and a plan to stake out a few nearby restaurants the concierge had recommended for tonight. She seemed particularly fond of a joint that I thought sounded like "Plum Bar," but she said there are lots of reliable places on the Place du Marché Saint Honoré.

We had a lovely afternoon, taking a long walk, checking out a great photography museum, and eating the finest ham sandwich we've had in twelve months. And then we strolled back to our hood to see what was up by the marché. It's a charming area, and it's packed with restaurants. We took note of a few, and then at the hotel we asked the new concierge, just starting her shift, what she recommended nearby. (I'm a big believer in cross-referencing, especially when you don't know the people who are making the recommendations.) She also said the "Plum Bar" place is excellent.

"What kind of food is it?" I asked, not being nearly as specific as I should have been, as indicated by her answer.


But then she caught on and added, "Inventive. It's a small restaurant, very nice."

So we booked it. But there was one lingering problem. We really didn't have a handle on the name. Upon hearing it a few more times, I was sure there was no plum involved. Basically, it sounded like "pwah bar," and given my not-too-close relationship to that elegant yet sadistic language that is French, that wasn't nearly enough. I was a little embarrassed, but I needed to have it in writing.

Point Bar! Of course!

And it was just fantastic. It's indeed very small, and it feels bright and modern. It's not one of those old-school Paris bistros with yellowed posters peeling off the walls -- that would have to wait for another night. There weren't even that many people smoking, if you can believe that.

The menu was short, and I felt like I had a handle on all but a few things, so when our waiter came by I told him I had a few questions. He proceeded to translate the entire menu for us, in excellent English, which I must say was incredibly kind and helpful -- sometimes that one word you don't know is the one that means "bathed in liver" or what have you.

Actually, we started with liver! We shared a foie gras appetizer that was hands-down the most I've ever enjoyed eating the stuff. I savored every morsel, especially the yellow layers of fat at the top and bottom of the slice. (Margy very halfheartedly suggested we leave that part, but she knows how it works. It's Paris -- you eat.) The foie gras was served with a fig, hazelnut, and walnut chutney and a caramel-port reduction, plus sea salt and course-ground black pepper. Oh my. The sweetness of the condiments and the richness of the foie gras, along with the flavor-sharpening effects of the salt and pepper, made for one heck of a good time. Did I even mention the crispy toasts it came with? As was the case with the ham sandwich a few hours earlier, this little dish was saying "Welcome to Paris." (Except it was saying it in French.)

One entree sounded so appealing that both Margy and I ordered it. Anyway, the waiter (who said his real gig is sommelier and recommended a wonderful and affordable pinot noir) had told us it was one of Point Bar's signature dishes: Parmesan-crusted veal loin with truffle-cream sauce. Hiyo! Not since being in Paris a year ago have I so enjoyed a meal so utterly devoid of vegetables. The veal was cooked beautifully and was a little pink in the middle. The crust was incredible -- crunchy here and there, perfectly salty, and offering just the right amount of Parmesan flavor. And the sauce was delicious. The truffles made their contribution to the dish without being overwhelming. Potatoes included, this dinner had Margy and me oohing and aahing.

Dessert? Vanilla panna cotta with mango and mango ice cream. The waiter brought us glasses of strawberry wine that I believe he said had been made by a patron. It was good -- not too sweet and tasting very clearly of strawberries. Plus it was just nice to know that we, the Americans, had won his favor rather than invoke his tourist-loathing exasperation. Meanwhile, the panna cotta was creamy, sweet, fruity... just as delicious and memorable as the rest of the meal.

Score one for the concierges!