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...

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