Sunday, April 30, 2006

paris diary: 404, un restaurant maghrébin

when you're planning your next trip to paris, you must check out the marais neighbourhood which has the highest concentration of the best restaurants in paris. i learnt about all the fabulous places in the marais thanks to my sister-in-law, maithili, who spent a year in paris. she recommended a north african place called 404 for my birthday dinner.

tucked away towards the end of rue de gravilliers, 404 is a tiny little restaurant with oodles of maghrebin charm. the dark wood, the dim lights and the low tables all add to the overall exotica. i definitely felt transported away from paris to the heart of morocco for a few hours.

the food was excellent and tasted quite homemade actually. for our main course, h and i shared a seven vegetable stew which came with lots of couscous and spicy harissa. 404 also serves various grilled meats and their brunch menu is supposed to a big crowd puller.

dessert was a plate of pastries like the ones you get at la bague de kenza that i blogged about yesterday.

our only regret was that they didn't serve hookahs!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

paris diary: la bague de kenza

i'm so behind on blogging that you're going to get a mishmosh of my various trips in the past month. i still have so many stories to share about paris and the cotswolds.

one of the food shops that i was dying to check out in paris is this trendy algerian bakery called bague de kenza which got written up in the new york times a few months back. we were at a hotel in the bastille so la bague de kenza was just a twenty five minute walk northwards near metro saint maur.

la bague de kenza is truly a visual delight. the beautiful arrangement of the vast array of sweets tempts you so much that it is hard to walk out of there with less than a few types of pastries. most of the, are made from semolina flour, butter sugar and various fillings like pistachio, almonds, dates, rosewater, to name a few. they also make marzipan which are exquisitely decoarted. they all looked delicious to me so i asked for a selection of their favourites and happily enjoyed them all. while i enjoyed the sweet hit for the first few bites, i did find the pastries too sweet for my taste. but those who love the sweetest of indian sweets might want to give algerian pastries a try!

they also have a savory section that has yummy puff pastries with different fillings. i tried a mixed vegetable stuffed one which melted in my mouth. these guys really know how to make the lightest and most delicious puff pastry.

do check out la bague de kenza if you find yourself in paris. they are located at 106, rue saint-maur, paris, 75011.

Friday, April 28, 2006

bombay diary: pani puri

you've probably noticed that i haven't been blogging much lately. also, i haven't actually been in london much in the months of march and april. the travel has been pretty crazy. i'm usually good about blogging when i'm on the road but work has taken a precedence like never before and something's gotta give, no?

i was in bombay all of last week on work. but i did get to spend sunday at home with my parents and that was a real treat. gulabi bhai (gb), our long time cook, went all out to feed me my favourite foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. she even made a special effort to make pani puri at home. she knew fully well that it was the one food i craved the most in bombay but that i wouldn't eat it at my favourite kailesh parbhat since i was on a business trip and not willing to take any risk of getting sick before a big presentation.

i love gb's pani puri. she doesn't make the puris herself but the fillings and chutneys she prepares for stuffing in the puris are quite unusual and they add up to a yummy treat. i load up on boiled sprouted mung, boiled potatoes, spicy coriander chutney, tangy tamarind chutney and even onions (!) in every little puri before dunking it in the pani that is usually ice cold and full of fragrant and spicy flavours. while the homemade stuff is never quite the same as the one you eat off the road, the sheer satisfaction of juiciness and crunchiness that you get from pani puri is unlike anything else.

Monday, April 17, 2006

england diary: tea time and croquet

if you decide to visit the cotswolds, you must try the plough which is a cosy country inn located in clanfield, oxfordshire. you'll be housed in a gorgeous 16th century elizabethan manor and be treated to the most indulgent service by the staff, many of whom are young students from new zealand saving a few bucks before going off travelling again.

after tea and ginger biscuits, we tried croquet. though i've heard of this game, i didn't really know how it worked. now i do and it aint holding my interest. in fact, i think it's rather silly.

after hitting the ball with my mallet through the arched gates in the grass for about 2 minutes, i was thoroughly bored. at least golf has the thrill of driving the ball a few hundred yards. and then there's the beauty of the scenic course one chooses to play. i just don't get the attraction of croquet!

trust the english to create a sport out of this with strict rules and all!

engalnd diary: hot cross buns

happy easter! hot cross buns are a good friday tradition in england. the buns are sweet and spicy and have a cross on top which is cut into the bun itself and sometimes filled with icing. the buns were eaten throughout the year in the olden days until the 16th century when elizabeth 1 is supposed to have banned the buns being eaten on any day other than easter - remember that she was trying to get rid of catholicism in favour of church of england.

this was my first time eating hot cross buns and i loved it. i added lots of butter as well to really bring out the spicy flavours and it was great biting into the raisins. i'm going to serve it at tea time now onwards!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

england diary: full english breakfast (v)

i spent the past weekend in the cotswolds visiting the quaintest and most charming english villages including cranfield, thame, stokenchurch and stratford-upon-avon in the counties of oxfordshire and warwckshire. this part of england is unbelievably gorgeous. fields of green with sheep grazing stretch on for miles on end. picture book like cottages made from limestone are characteristic here. and it's really easy to strike up conversation with the english villagers who are eager to give you tips of places to see and things to do in the neighbouring villages.

one of the best parts about holidaying in the english countryside is breakfast. we took our time to enjoy a full english breakfast every morning which included fried eggs, baked beans, grilled tomatos, sauteed mushrooms and bacon or sausage if you eat meat. though the meal is quite greasy and full of carbs and fat, you've got to do like the englishmen do when in the country. after indulging in full english breakfasts for several days, it's going to be very hard to go back to cereal and cold milk!

Friday, April 14, 2006

paris diary: camembert

i love camembert cheese. though it is now widely made all over the world, the original camembert comes from pays d'auge in normandy where it is handmade from raw cow's milk. the cheese is soft and creamy with a herby aroma and a distinctive tangy taste.

i went to cafe trocadero in paris where i ordered a plate of camembert and a half bottle of champagne. we got a nice chunk of cheese and a basket of freshly baked baguette. i've usually only had cheese platter so it was nice to focus on just one cheese and truly savour the aromas and flavours. now i feel confident enough to identify camembert in a blind taste test!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

paris diary: crêpe au chocolat

h had to spend all friday afternoon at his firm's paris office so i had the afternoon to myself. i decided to go to the pigalle/montmartre area. it's a tourist trap but i wanted to experience what it would be like to go back to the spots that i frequented as a student in paris. besides, i was dying to indulge in a crêpe au chocolat and sip hot tea while soaking up the artisty vibe that this neighbourhood exudes.

i like crêpe suzette and crêpe au chocolat the best of all even though most of the good cafes in paris offer a wide variety of savoury and sweet crêpes. after dinner i prefer crêpe suzette which is usually soaking in brandy and grand marnier. i just love the candied orange or lemon rind that comes as garnishing. but in the afternoons, i really love digging into the nutella in my crêpe au chocolat which had just the right touch of sweetness and the right amount of chocolate.

the neighbourhood was as interesting and colourful as i remembered it. although there were more foreigners than french people, it was still great to be in the place that once attracted the greatest literary geniuses of the century like sarte and de beauvoir. i soaked up the atmosphere and started dreaming of books i wanted to write and paintings i wanted to create ...

paris diary: place de la bastille

we stayed in a basic, comfortable hotel in the heart of place de la bastille, one of the most happening parts of paris. it's kinda like the lower east side in manhattan, shoreditch in london, the mission in san francisco. it's where the youth of the city stay up till the wee hours of the morning hanging out at cafes till 1 am and then hitting the clubs until the sun rises. it's where you can feel the raw energy and pulse of the city. it's where the streets may not be spick and span but there's never a dull moment. while we didn't exactly keep up with the frenetic pace of the neighbourhood, we did enjoy the vibe of the area including hanging out at the typically french cafes where you sit at a table on the curbside, put on your shades, get lots of sun and spend all day sipping coffee and people watching.

i had a spendid salad at falstaff cafe, one of the better known cafes in place de la bastille. falstaff is popular for its wide selection of beers on tap. somehow, i did'n't feel like beer since i wanted to save the calories for all the cheese and chocolat. i opted for a simple salad instead.

the simple salad turned out to be quite a filling meal - now i understand how some french women can survive on salads alone and maintain tgheir svelte figures! my salad had quite an unusual combination of ingredients - lettuce, avocado, corn, carrots, blanched green beans, tomato and ranch dressing. i thoroughly enjoyed the texture of the different ingredients and how they combined together to create quite a hearty meal for lunch.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

paris diary: un petit quiz

i just got back from three wonderful days in paris. it's got to be the greatest city on earth for food lovers. from an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetable shops to boulangeries, pattisseries, chocolatiers and fromageries on every corner, the sheer variety and richness of food that the parisiens have access to on a DAILY basis is to die for! for three full days in paris, we did little else other than eat and food shop all weekend long. luckily it was my birthday and h had no option but to indulge my every desire :)

before i blog all about paris, un petit quiz for you. the photo above was taken on the champs elysees. i was first totally captivated by the photo and then totally surprised. can anyone guess who it is? i might even have un petit cadeau for the first correct answer!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

france diary: the countryside

i'm leaving for paris tomorrow morning by eurostar. i'll be blogging about my magnificent finds in the most vibrant and romantic city in the world. get ready for lots of paris talk!

here are a few parting shorts of the french countryside, a few hours north east of nantes:

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

france diary: cheese course and dessert

my favourite part of a french meal is the cheese course and then dessert. france is probably the greatest cheese producer in the world and i've heard that there is at least one french cheese for every day of the year. i sampled many different cheeses this weekend as cheese was served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. though i love cheese, my knowledge is quite limited. i just bought a guide to cheese which i hope will help me make informed choices this coming weekend in paris. once i am equipped with much more info, i'll blog more about the different french cheeses.

the french are also very much into their desserts. but what i find very extraordinary is that the desserts themselves are not overly sweet (think gulab jamun or pecan pie!) but give you immense satisfaction of sweetness. it must be the freshness of the ingredients and the french expertise when it comes to pastry. i enjoyed the most delicious apple pie and strawberries with crème chantilly (whipped cream flavoured with brandy).

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

france diary: ratatouille

french restaurants are not at all known for their vegetarian fare. i had a really tough time when i lived in france and i usually avoid going to french restaurants because they don't bother to create anything beyond the oh-so-boring plat végétal. it was only when my friend radhika who lives in san francisco, presented me a delightful cookbook called "the vegetarian table, france" by georgeanne brennan that i was introduced to the wonderful world of vegetarian french cuisine.

i love a summer vegetable stew recipe called ratatouille which comes from the south of france. it can be served on its own (either hot or cold depending on the season and whether as a first course or main) or used as a topping for crepes or canneloni. when i have a lot of leftovers, i'll mix it up with some cooked penne and parmesan.

we cooked a big batch of ratatouille this weekend from zucchini, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and basil picked from the vegetable garden of our host's home. i was dying to visit a farmer's market in the nearby village but i ended up sleeping late on saturday morning (we didn't arrive till 2 am the previous night thanks to our delayed BA flight from gatwick to nantes) so missed the golden opportunity.

here's georgeanne brennan's recipe which you can adjust depending on the fresh herbs and vegetables you have on hand. i'm not a huge zucchini fan so i tend to use a lot more of the other vegetables like peppers, tomatoes and eggplant.

1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic
2 medium-sized yellow onions, chopped
2 medium-sized eggplants, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 medium-sized zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 large green, red, or yellow sweet peppers, seeded, deribbed, and cut into 1-inch squares
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
3 1/2 to 4 pounds ripe tomatoes (10 to 12 medium sized), peeled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil

in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or soup pot over medium heat, warm the olive oil. just as it begins to smoke, reduce the hear to medium-low and add the garlic and onions. saute until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. add the eggplants, stir well, and saute, stirring and turning until well coated with oil and slightly softened, another 4 or 5 minutes.

add the thyme, bay leaf, tomatoes, salt, and black pepper. stir and turn another 2 or 3 minutes, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and have blended together, about 40 minutes.

stir in the basil and remove from the heat. transfer to a serving dish and serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.

ps - remember that the ratatouille will be only as tasty as the fresh vegetables so don't skimp on the quality of the produce you use!

Monday, April 03, 2006

france diary: nutella

i've always associated nutella with france although this creamy, chocolately hazelnut butter that tastes like nothing else in the world is of italian origin and is made by ferrero - the same company that makes ferrero rocher. i think i associate nutella so strongly with france because i was first introduced to nutella when i was a student in tours in the heart of the loire valley. my french host family, the chaignes, used to serve nutella for breakfast every day. nutella gave me energy and a cheerful start to the day before i had to tackle all the exceptions of french grammar rules or try to understand a sartre play. nutella was absolute love at first sight for me and i quickly became addicted, spreading it on everything - from freshly baked croissants to green apple slices. but after i left france almost ten years ago, i forgot about nutella as i never saw it in bombay or even in the states (although it has become quite popular now).

i was super excited to discover nutella all over again this weekend thanks to our french hosts. it was my first time back in france since college and i took to nutella with the same delight as i did many years back. except this time my mind was working overtime in thinking about all the ways in which i want to use nutella when i get back to london. i'm thinking of nutella crepes, nutella fondue with marshmallows, cardammom sponge cake with a layer of nutella, nutella covered strawberries.....aaaagh, i have to stop before i OD on nutella at the rate i'm going!