If it’s not done à la français, then it’s not done right!

Paris Cafe by Guy Moll
Paris Cafe by Guy Moll

After tasting a lot of excellent beers but mediocre food in Amsterdam and Bruges, I arrived in Paris more than ready to taste some excellent food and wash it down with some excellent wine.  I had scheduled a stay of eight days, but I fully expected that this would be just enough to merely scratch the surface of what this city has to offer.

Now according to many Yelp reviewers,  it is impossible to get a bad meal in Paris.  Not only that, Paris has the nerve to be filled with “stuck-up” and “rude” Parisians — imagine that!  Of course, both are demonstrably not true.  It is quite easy to score a bad meal in Paris — just try ducking into a random restaurant or cafe.  To eat well in Paris, like almost anywhere else, one needs to be well prepared; armed with proper research and a plan.  As for rude Parisians, this will be the subject of a soon-to-follow post, but for now, suffice to say that the Golden Rule applies here as much as any other place on earth.

In any case, back to food and researching good restaurants to eat at.  Fortunately my good friend Kevin Lynch, he of impeccable taste in food and wine and who has lived in Paris, was kind enough to send me a detailed list of restaurants and bars to try in Paris.  Unfortunately, due to demands of sightseeing and the inclement weather, I ended up picking restaurants that were closest to where I was at lunch and dinner time — mostly near sights and attractions — rather than from the list.  This meant that I had more misses than hits, but still managed to stumble on to a few good restaurants.  As for bars, I was able to follow Kevin’s advice and of course, the results were quite good.  That shall be the subject of the next update.

While no visit to Paris is complete without a walk down Champs Élysées, the tourist trap restaurants and cafe that line it are just designed to separate tourists from their Euros. But fortunately, a brief five minute walk brings you to Chez Barbara on Rue Washington, which serves modern French food with what I consider to be a distinctly Italian touch both in terms of flavors and the addition of pasta — you be the judge:

Chicken with vegetables and pasta
Chicken with vegetables and pasta at Chez Barbara

Near the Musée Rodin is another gem: Chez Graff.  I had the Mallard duck with carrot, beet and pumpkin. Somehow the duck didn’t seem right — it was a little overdone — and I finally mustered up the nerve to ask my waiter if something was wrong with it. So he looked at a slice of the duck on my plate and promptly went ahead and ordered a replacement despite the fact that I had already eaten about half of it. “No, no… you must taste what real français style duck is supposed to taste like.” he said to my protests. The replacement was done perfectly, à la français.

Mallard duck at Chez Graff
Mallard duck at Chez Graff

The staff was quite amused at my taking pictures and notes and asked if I’d come all the way from San Francisco to review their little restaurant… well, why yes and here’s the promised review.

The highly amused staff at Chez Graff, Paris.
The friendly staff at Chez Graff, Paris.

Over on the Left Bank, a short walk away from the tourist traps of St. Michel is a small restaurant Le Bistro du Périgord.  The food was quite good and reasonably priced — I had steak with peppercorn sauce — but the highlight for me was an extremely charming and friendly waitress who helped me master the pronunciation of one of the magic phrases: passe une bon journée which means “You have a good day.”  Of course, it took only a day or so before my French pronunciation lapsed to its usual incomprehensible self, but it was une bon journée nonetheless.

I only got to Montmarte on my last day in Paris, which left me wanting for more.  It is a most charming arrondisement with a lot of character.  It also has Sacre Couer with panoramic views of Paris.  Near the Sacre Couer is a crêperie: Crêperie Brocéliande with a pretty good fixed price deal that includes a savory crêpe, a sweet crêpe and a drink of cider, all for something like €10 if I recall correctly.  Can’t beat that!  Warning, this place is heavily frequented by tourists, so reservations might be a good idea or plan to arrive early or late.  I don’t have a picture of a meal I had there, but here’s a nice shot of a fromagerie in that area:

Got cheese?
Got cheese?

Surprisingly enough, I found a pretty decent restaurant near the Eiffel Tower.  It is Le Bosquet and I found it to be quite good.  While I don’t quite agree with the rave reviews on Yelp for the duck confit here, it was not bad either.  The service was quite friendly and attentive.

Finally, a most unexpected find was a place on Rue Rivoli called Le Bûcheron, where I’d ducked in just for a quick drink.  They had a good selection of wines by the glass and the bartender was quite friendly and there were some sociable fellow American travelers at the bar — so I ended up staying on for the better part of the evening.  To ensure that all that wine had something to wash down, I asked the bartender for some light food and he recommended, of all things, the gnocchi.  It turned out to be quite excellent and though I did not know this then, it would be the only good Italian food I would have in France, let alone Paris.

I found that Italian food or any other cuisine which is not French is a hit or miss affair in Paris and so is something best avoided unless you know better for sure.  Kebabs are the one exception to this rule, but most of the kebab joints have little or no seating and don’t serve alcohol.

On the other hand, croissants are uniformly excellent — I don’t think I had a single bad croissant my entire stay and I had at least one every day at different places.

Unsurprisingly, the food quality of a cafe, bistro or brasserie is inversely proportional to the quality and quantity of people watching you can do there.  Best to just have drinks in the establishments near busy streets and tourist attractions.  A corollary to the above which is  generally true in many parts of Europe — your taste buds will thank your weary feet for walking a couple of blocks away from the main drag.

Next up: Wining well in Paris.

Bruges: worth visiting?

If you’ve read my previous entry, you know that Bruges in Belgium receives a lot of tourists… a lot!  I believe that the latest estimate is about 3.5 million tourists in a year.  Not bad for a town with only about 117,000 residents.

If you land in Bruges on an especially nice day, like I did, then it is easy to see what the fuss is all about.  No amount of tourists can fully obscure the incredibly picturesque charm of this well-preserved medieval town. It seems like almost every glance you cast is rewarded with a postcard scene: whether it be of a quaint passageway, a cobblestoned street or the reflection of well-preserved buildings in a serene canal.

A typical canal scene in Bruges
A typical canal scene in Bruges

This scene is just average for Bruges.

Much of the tourist action in Bruges is concentrated in two squares — the bigger one is Markt or Market Square which is ringed on two sides by cafes that serve mediocre food, but are really nice places to people watch especially with a glass of cold beer.

People watching in Bruges Markt -- yeah, you can see them in the background!
People watching in Bruges Markt — come on, you can see them in the background!

The third side is a building called Provinciaal Hof which is now used to house some exhibit documenting the history of Bruges.

The Provinciaal Hof in Bruges which now houses an exhibit
The Provinciaal Hof in Bruges which now houses an exhibit

On the fourth side is the Belfort (or bell tower) which was built in the 13th century and added to in the 15th.  It housed the city records, but all of it was lost in a fire in 1280.  That, unfortunately was not the last of the fires — the belfry suffered a lightning strike in the 15th century and another fire in the 18th.  Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilt as the poem by Longfellow goes.

The Belfort at Bruges
The Belfry at Bruges

The top of the bell tower affords views of the entire town, but climbing it is not for the faint of heart.  A narrow winding stairway and more than 300 steps to the top make it a reasonably challenging climb and I’m not too proud to admit that I took full advantage of every minor exhibit along the way as a good excuse to rest my weary calves. You decide if the views are worth it.

A view from the top of Belfort
A view from the top of the Bell Tower — the tall structure is the Church of Our Lady
bruges-another-view-from-belfry
Another view from the Bell Tower

Apart from the Markt, the other square of interest is the Burg Square where open air concerts are held.  It is also the civic center of Bruges.

The Burg Square at Bruges
The City Hall in Burg Square, Bruges

Then there is the Groeninge Museum which has a tiny but good collection of Flemish art from the 13th century on, but frankly, after just having visited Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I was quite underwhelmed.

Another point of interest is the Church of Our Lady which features the only work by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime — Madonna and Child. Sadly, mediocre food, good beer and aching feet prevented me from visiting this.  Oh well, I shall try to make up for it in Florence.

So is Bruges worth the trip?  For a short trip of two or three days, most assuredly so.

The local flavor

For me, one of the main attractions of traveling to a faraway place is the opportunity to meet people that I would not in everyday life — especially the locals.  So I try to find a restaurant or a watering hole that is frequented by locals, but this becomes extremely challenging in a destination that is overrun with tourists like Bruges which has a population of under 120,000 and receives 3.5 million tourists annually.   The quest is further complicated by the fact that it is not a unique one.  For example, based on a recommendation in one of Rick Steves’ guidebooks, I landed up at Herberghe Vlissinghe that bills itself as the oldest bar in Bruges — to be fair, Rick Steves only claims that it is away from the touristy area of town, but isn’t it a fair assumption that if a business is away from the touristy part of town, it is likely catering to locals?

The oldest bar in the world?
The oldest bar in Bruges — I wonder which is the oldest bar in the world?

The bar was certainly away from the touristy area of town, but when I reached there, I found that all the patrons were American tourists and everyone had “read about it in Rick Steves’ guide book.”  Now I’m not picking on Rick Steves — any popular travel writer’s recommendation is likely to suffer a similar fate.  But I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favorite epigrams credited to the late Yogi Berra.

Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded
– Yogi Berra

Oh well, at least the bar’s garden was a really pretty place to have a nice cold beer.  I opted for one of the local brews: Brugse Zot.  This is actually a rather nice and easy drinking Belgian pale ale, golden in color and fairly crisp on the palate.  Perfect for a warm summer afternoon.

Vlissinghe's garden
Vlissinghe’s garden – nice place for a beer

Having (temporarily at least) abandoned my quest for local fauna, I turned my attention to the important task of tasting local beers.  Bruges has an impressive list of taverns that serve a good variety of fine Belgian brews, but perhaps no other establishment has quite the number of beers than the cheekily named 2be (to beer or not to beer).  If you didn’t know about this place, you would be more than likely to skip it as being just a tourist shop, but then you would miss a very nice bar at the end of a long passageway dubbed  “the wall of beer” — this showcases practically every beer that the bar and shop sell.

The wall of beer at 2be -- this is only half.
The wall of beer at 2be — this is only half of the wall.

The bartenders at 2be are friendly and happy to offer you various suggestions.  Now I had been trying to chase down a particular beer that I’d tasted oh-so-long-ago in New York City and had difficulty finding ever since.  The beer was a Belgian white ale (really a witbier) called Blanche de Bruges.  Where better to find it than a bar in Bruges with a huge inventor?  Upon inquiry,  the bartender confirmed that it is no longer called that — it’s just called Bruges and no, they didn’t have the newer version.  A most surprising omission.  So I got a substitute instead: Blanche de Namur, another witbier.  As you can see, it’s a nice golden color with what must have been a decent foam head. Notes of citrus and coriander make it a most refreshing beverage to be enjoyed on a sunny day sitting in a balcony overlooking a nice canal.

Blanche de Namur - Belgian witbier
Blanche de Namur – Belgian witbier

As it happens, I did manage to find the Bruges beer in another bar and if memory serves me well, it was almost identical to Blanche de Namur in appearance and taste.

I tried a few other beers at other establishments — I had Leffe Brune, an abbey ale which is, unsurprisingly, brown with malt flavors.  Another interesting beer was the local-to-Bruges Straffe Hendrik Bruges Tripel.   This one is a fairly light tasting tripel, but it still had some interesting notes of yeasty bread.

Almost all of the taverns that I’d ducked into so far catered to tourists and I still wanted to find a watering hole where more Flemish was spoken than English.  Wandering about on a late afternoon, I happened to stumble on a rather nondescript bar in a nondescript street.

De Kuppe bar - finally, a non-touristy bar in Bruges
De Kuppe bar – finally, a non-touristy bar in Bruges?

Despite the signage in English (“100 kinds of beer”), not a word of English was being spoken by the patrons.  The rather stern-faced bartender either wouldn’t or couldn’t speak much English either.  Success at last?

Now one of my favorite beers is Rodenbach Grand Cru which is a sour ale of Flanders — unlike the regular Rodenbach which is dark brown in color, this is a little lighter and almost pale red.  Normally, this beer is sold in 750ml bottles or on draft — I’ve always felt that the bottled version was a bit more interesting and complex.  This bar had it in a smaller bottle and so I ordered one.  I don’t know if it was my poor pouring technique of if there was some genuine issue with that particular bottle, but as soon as I poured the beer into a glass, the bartender rushed over and grabbed my glass before I could drink a drop.  I guess the look on my face must have been priceless.  Eventually, another person who seemed more like staff than a patron explained that it was because she thought that the beer in that bottle was “bad” and didn’t want me to drink a bad beer.  How’s that for customer service?  Things were looking up…

Rodenbach Grand Cru poured correctly
Rodenbach Grand Cru poured correctly

That seemed to break the ice in the bar and an elderly gentleman seated a table over started talking to me — after exchanging normal pleasantries and brief biographical notes wherein I learned that he was a long term resident of Bruges and had served the Belgian government in Congo back when it was still a Belgian colony, he started lamenting the tourist invasion of Bruges.  I was making sympathetic noises while marveling at the irony of complaining to a tourist about the tourist invasion, when he zapped me with a zinger: “It’s terrible now especially with all the Chinese tourists!”  Say what?  Not that it should matter, but the number of Chinese tourists that I could spot was minuscule compared than the number of tourists of other ethnicity (mostly white British in case you’re wondering.)   But I was not sure what I found more offensive — his racist remark or his assumption that it would find a receptive audience in me?

So much for local flavor with my beer.

It only seems appropriate to end with an aphorism from another famous epigrammist.

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what you want and the other is getting it.
— Oscar Wilde

 

Addendum: Just to be clear, this was an outlier in my experience. Most of the people I encountered in Bruges were quite nice and no one else made any overtly or covertly racist comment in my earshot.

Yes, there’s a museum for that!

Amsterdam must have the highest number of museums and art galleries of any city in the world, whether measured in total count or per capita or per square mile or per whatever.  It seems that there’s a museum for everything, no matter how obscure or bizarre the subject.  Some are quite disturbing, like the Torture Museum which documents the history of man’s cruelty to man — hopefully no one is inspired by these displays.  Some are quite whimsical, like the KattenKabinet (or “Cat Cabinet”) that is almost entirely devoted to cats and features artwork (presumably cat related) by Picasso, Rembrandt etc.  Anyway, if you have an interest in some area of human endeavor or obsession, the chances are that you’ll find a museum devoted to it in Amsterdam.

But I was here to see art and that too the art of one artist in particular: Rembrandt.  That meant braving the elements and the long lines at the Rijksmuseum which houses the largest collection of art from the Golden Age of Dutch painting.  Surprisingly, however, there were no lines and the hour or so I saved was spent productively, gazing at marvelous works by the Dutch masters.

A little historical note on Dutch art might be in order. By the sixteenth century, Dutch Protestants had freed the arts from the onerous duties of pleasing the Church and praying to The Lord. Architecture reveled in this new found liberty and some of the finest examples of Dutch buildings are from this time. Other art forms such as pottery flourished as well, but no other art form quite enjoyed the same popularity as painting.

The patronage of the Church and the aristocracy was replaced by that of ordinary citizens eager to display their culture and good taste — something that they were willing to pay a pretty florin for.  According to Will Durant, a baker paid as much as 600 florins (approximately worth 84,000 of today’s US dollars) for a single figure by Vermeer.  Not every artist was so lucky, however.  The oversupply of art ensured that most lived in poverty.  There can indeed be too much of a good thing.

In any case, the shift away from the ecclesiastical to the secular resulted in a shift in the subjects of the paintings: from depicting Biblical stories and myths to depicting every day life as well as landscapes.  Portraits too, both individual and group, were commissioned by the well-heeled: after all, the need to have one’s likeness recorded for posterity is not a modern day phenomenon restricted to the annoying selfie-stick-wielding tourists.  Still, these commissions constituted the main source of income for many artists, so it would be churlish to complain about this vanity.

The artists from the northern provinces paid homage to domesticity by inviting the viewer into the scene with works of stunning realism and exquisite depiction of light.  But I ramble on with inadequate words when a picture can do the job so much better:

Still life by Willem Heda
Still life by Willem Heda

Look at the piece of bread in the foreground.  Doesn’t it make you want to reach out and grab it?  Then look at the beautiful rendering of gray and silver on the pitcher or marvel at the details of the folds of the tablecloth. Quite remarkable. You can order a print from the Rijksmuseum here, but if you can, you should see it live.

For die hard Rembrandt fans, a trip to Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt’s House) is worthwhile.  This was the house that Rembrandt lived in before he went bankrupt in 1656.  Recently the house was restored and faithfully reconstructs it to what it would have been like when Rembrandt lived there.  It was fun to see this house, especially the studio where Rembrandt would have entertained his potential customers.  One can almost visualize the wealthy burghers being served some wine while discussing new commissions.  The star of the show, though, are his etchings — in fact, Rembrandt’s reputation at that time was based on his etchings rather than his paintings.  He managed to coax unbelievable results from a simple etching needle and a copper plate — such were the results that his contemporaries were convinced that he had discovered some secret process.

Be sure not to miss the live demonstrations on how to create prints from an etching.  Here’s one I “helped” create — I merely lent my muscles to turning the press, but still…

Etching created in Rembrandthuis
Etching created in Rembrandthuis

Also exhibited are some of the materials that Rembrandt and other painters at that time used in their paintings.  I was quite struck by the vividness of some of the colors, particularly the ultramarine blue.

Rembrandt's paint materials
The “raw” materials for paints

Practical advice on visiting museums in Amsterdam

If you’re planning to see more than 4 museums in Amsterdam, it might be worth your while to buy the Museum Card which costs 59 euros (as of September 2015) and is valid for a year. Do the math though to make sure that you’re getting a break on the admission prices, as I found that the theoretical benefit of letting you to skip the long lines is not meaningful in practice — crowded places such as Anne Frank House and Van Gogh Museum will still make you wait over an hour in the pass holders’ line and at uncrowded museums, well, the line is not too long to begin with.

As I mentioned before, Rijksmuseum was one of the uncrowded ones, at least when I visited.  This was quite surprising to me.  As much as I admire Van Gogh, I must confess to complete bewilderment at the fact that the wait for Van Gogh Museum was at least an hour no matter what time of day, no matter the weather while you could just saunter into Rijksmuseum at will. True, Van Gogh was a great artist and this museum has some of his fine works and also very interesting and informative exhibits showing the evolution of his art, but his most famous works are housed elsewhere such as Musee d’Orsay in Paris, The Metropolitan Museum in New York City and in what might be the ultimate irony, at the Rijksmuseum next door.  In fact, here’s Vincent van Gogh’s self portrait at the Rijksmuseum.

Would Vincent have appreciated the irony?

The Practical Dutch

Look up at any old house in Amsterdam’s residential districts and you will see a hook sticking out from under the gables.

For hoisting bulky furniture in and out of the house
Now that’s what I call a freight elevator!

These are used to hoist bulky furniture in and out of the houses. Why?  Apparently this was due to the way rates, that is property taxes, were assessed back in the day.  The taxes were proportional to the width of the house, or more precisely, the frontage.  So the thrifty Dutch made their houses narrow, but that had the consequence of making their passageways and staircases even narrower.  Hence the alternate way of getting big stuff in and out of the house through the windows.

Practical, eh?  Indeed and this underrated virtue underpins much of what I think are quite enlightened attitudes that the Dutch have on many “vices”, but that’s fodder for another post.

I spent about 5 days in Amsterdam in early September 2015 and enjoyed it quite a bit despite my jet lag.

Amsterdam does not have the reputation of being a gourmet destination and my experience confirmed it, though there is some tasty and cheap Indonesian food to be had.  But what it lacks in the food department, it more than makes up for in the beer department.  The city alone has over 10 microbreweries which brew a wide range of distinctive beers, from pils, to ambers to dubbels and tripels in the Belgian style.

There is an somewhat oddly named company called Oedipus Brewing that brews a beer called Mannenliefde with lemongrass and szechuan pepper, though to be honest, I could not detect those notes.  But then again, at the time of tasting, my taste buds were dulled by some tripels, so who’s to say?

Brouwerij ‘t IJ is another interesting brewery in the city which offers a nice tour from which “no one has emerged sober”, according to the bartender who recommended it to me.  I did not end up touring the brewery (gotta save something for the next time), but I did taste both their Natte (dubbel) and their Zatte (tripel).  The Natte was very typical dubbel with good balance of hop and malt and a very nice brown color as you can see below.

Natte - Dubbel beer by Brouwerij't IJ
Natte – Dubbel beer by Brouwerij’t IJ

The Zatte, which is a tripel, had higher alcohol content (8%), was golden colored and has typical aromas of a tripel (fruity and spicy) and goes down quite easy.

zatte-beer
Zatte – Tripel beer by Brouwerij’t IJ

Another interesting beer I tasted was an interesting Dunkelweisen (Texels Skuumkoppe) from Texelse Bierbrouwerij in Texel. Lighter than your typical Dunkelweisen, but with the same notes of cloves and bananas on it.  With a very nice foam on top as befits the name, which literally translates to “foam top”.

Well, I could go on… but I think you get the idea.  Well, maybe one more.  Here’s a nice tripel from Brouwerij Zeeburg, simply called Tripel. Nice golden colour and again, typical notes of fruit and some spice, mainly coriander.

Tripel by Brouwerij Zeeburg
Tripel by Brouwerij Zeeburg

Now there are many bars in Amsterdam where you can taste these and other tasty beers, but my personal favorite in the city is Cafe de Spuyt, a hidden gem just off the touristy and crappy-restaurants-laden Leidseplein.  The bartender, Thijs, was super patient and helpful with recommendations and he ensured that I did not leave his bar either thirsty or ignorant.

Interestingly enough, the bars and restaurants in Amsterdam are very scrupulous about listing the alcohol percentage of the beers — not sure if it is a legal requirement in Netherlands, but even chalkboard listings had it.  And the ABV is used to suggest, among other things, the sequencing of beers — sort of like you would sequence a wine flight.  So now you know how serious and yes, practical, the Dutch are about their beer!

Prost!

While you’re waiting…

Please enjoy some photographs from my journey.

I’ll be posting new photos much more frequently than I have been updating the blog.  Speaking of which, I had grand notions of sitting in a cafe and jotting down my profound insights in such witty prose that would dazzle my readers, or at least make it worth their while to stop by.  But working in a crowded cafe, many of which don’t seem to have a good internet connection, is harder than I thought it would be.

So it falls to days like today, when all my scheduled plans came to naught because of some mix up (more on that in a future post), to make up for my silence.

Another post coming up soon, but while you’re waiting at the edge of your seat, enjoy the photos.

-rsi