Last night over a few (too many) glasses of wine, my girlfriend and I recounted our fondest memories from our adventures in Europe. Some of the best memories are favorites only in retrospect, like the time we got kicked out of our inn in Chianti for running over their flowerpot or when we got a flat tire from a dirt road in rural Tuscany (all in the same day, I might add). But, the fatties that we are, our fondest memories usually involved the meals we ate - which quickly turned into a game of 'The Best Thing I Ever Ate'.
When we plan our trips together, my friend takes charge of planning our itinerary and hotels, and I spend my time organizing our meals. You laugh, but it's serious business that I can't even fathom leaving up to chance ...or a tour book. I believe eating is the most intimate way to connect with a culture. Choose the right meal and it's like being able to consume and take with you a piece of their history. A taste of their people. And not in a dirty way. The meal's presentation and atmosphere are equally important to create an experience more memorable to me than even the most spiritually evocative Church. Whenever I enter a new country, city or state I come armed with no fewer than a dozen restaurant options, organized by neighborhood, meal, featured dish and vibe, all of which I have gathered from the most reputable source - the locals. Which is precisely how I came upon my most memorable meal abroad - Chez l'Ami Jean in Paris - je t'adore.
Referred to me from a coworker who lived in the city of love for 7+yrs, the restaurant was exactly the kind of place you would never walk into. A non-descript storefront, on a quiet side street in a residential arrondissement, an irritable hostess who only took reservations by phone, and offered no English, though clearly understood every word we spoke, l'Ami Jean does everything in it's power to be 'locals only'. It was intimidating, brash, and absurdly French. It was perfect. I could write a book about the entire experience, appetizer to dessert, but the dish I took home with me (literally) was their Riz au Lait - rice pudding. Did the record just scratch? Is rice pudding even French? But you don't even like dessert! I know. I repeated the same things to myself when our waiter insisted we order it. Needless to say, there wasn't much discussion.
It came to us in what appeared to be a mixing bowl the size of my head with an enormous wooden spoon unapologetically stuck in. After the immaculate, manicured dishes that proceeded it, we were shocked at the crude, almost mocking manner to which our dessert was presented. "Go on, you greedy little Americans - just try and finish me". Every thick, creamy, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, lumpy, custardy bite seemed to taunt and laugh at us - as I assume all the Chefs were likely joining in on from behind their snarky little curtain. We gave it our best, but our best was just not enough. As uncouth as we felt asking for a doggie bag, we just couldn't part ways with the remainder. Our beloved rice pudding accompanied us on our night on the town and our subsequent walk home, which ended up taking us triple the time it should have due to my (eh hem) inebriated navigation abilities. The child's bike we found surprisingly did NOT help us get home any faster. (I'm pretty sure we returned it to it's rightful owner - I think). Alas, as distance and time makes the heart grow fonder, the same can be said for taste buds, even the second time around.
Riz au Lait: recipe from the NYTimes can be found here.
- ½ vanilla bean
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1/3 cup carnaroli, arborio or short-grain rice
- 2 ½ tablespoons sugar
- 1 2/3 cups heavy cream
- Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and place the seeds and pod in a medium saucepan.
- Add the milk and bring to a simmer.
- Stir in the rice and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it reaches the consistency of oatmeal, 25 to 30 minutes. Stir in the sugar.
- Cool to room temperature, then chill.
- Transfer the chilled rice to a large bowl.
- Whip the cream to stiff peaks.
- Fold the whipped cream into the rice, little by little, to desired thickness. It should be light and creamy.