Thursday, May 11, 2006

Zombie Food Critic

Within 24 hours I have eaten one of the worst, and one of the best, meals of my life in Trouville, Normandy. Of course I have no real opinion about either, being both British and a Zombie; but, pre-Zombie, I was really into food, and shall write this blog as if I remained so.

I am, as I write but shall only be able to upload later, staying for about a week in a cheap French hotel, distraction-free, to get a few more chapters of the novel finished - currently about 700 book-pages but don't worry, to be radically pruned, streamlined, perfected... you know.

For rather pathetic dental reasons, I had to search for relatively soft food tonight, and found it in the Chalutier restaurant, set back from the more touristy quayside in Trouville.

But last night, I stupidly ate by the water with thousands of Parisian tourists and worse, their banlieusard, suburban neighbours, who not only lack all taste but can't drive and look sullen and right-wing. Look at the clothes shops to see who the commerçants expect...

Choosing the moules marinière as a starter was a big mistake. About a quarter remained stubbornly shut and even had I wanted to eat them in this dodgy, potentially long-dead state, I couldn't have prised them open. Of those that were able to show their sometimes rather slimy or stringy yellow ochre flesh, several tasted off.

The rest of the meal was not much better. I wasn't in a mood to send the mussels back, the banlieusards had put me into a rather nihilistic state. But as I asked for the bill, I told the waiter that the shell fish had been awful.

"Well," said the rudely triumphant serveur, "You know where they come from? England!"
"I don't care if they're from Tibet," I said. "That's irrelevant; they're no good."
"It's not the season, we can't get good ones. Anyway they are fine, maybe they weren't cooked long enough to open." (Pure bullshit. They were dead as doornails and wouldn't have opened if placed between the throbbing thighs of Nicole Kidman, peace be upon her, and anyway, as an excuse, "we didn't cook them long enough" ranks somewhere alongside Bushisms. Most of their colleagues were even over-cooked...)
"You should come back in two weeks, they'll be better."
"If I said I'll pay you in two weeks, would you believe me?"

How dare they serve crap food just because they know, but don't care, that the clients won't ever be back, so they might as well rip them off. This sort of attitude gets French restaurants a still largely undeserved bad reputation.

Undeserved because gems such as the Chalutier, named after a type of inshore fishing vessel, still exist, in this case at number 3, rue de Verdun,Trouville.

I ignored a score of rip-off merchants and instead peered down side streets and alleys. Down one, a vague light shone from a window but I feared the place was closed. It was just a bit dark inside. Through the window I noted only a handful of diners, but they all looked local. It was quite early, not yet eight in the evening.

The menu looked enticing. I went in, and was given a small table in the non-smoking section. Each course took some time to arrive. This is as it should be. They prepared each dish for me.

Accompanied by a good half-bottle of Muscadet, its pale yellow colour due to the fact that it was in fact sur Lie, the fruity white wine allowed to rest for a time on its lees, I started with a small platter of seafood: winkles, whelks and so on, a plump oyster that tasted as good as it looked, a crayfish with only one claw, small brown shrimps and larger, succulent prawns, accompanied by home made mayonnaise, bread and two sorts of butter: anchovy and, a house invention, marbled with mauve, a pot coloured by being blended with... a deep blue potato, from Normandy. Delicious. Trust me.

My filets of sole gratinées were perfectly cooked, properly coated with not too much cheese and cream on top, and accompanied on the plate by thin stems of new asparagus and a single slice of the blue potato. But then there came two side dishes, one of nutty basmati rice delicately flavoured with fennel seeds, and yet another potato surprise: sautéed, smoked potatoes! The kitchen smoked their own salmon, which as it passed to another table looked fabulous, and did the potatoes at the same time. After the initial shock, my taste buds joyfully accepted this new, to me anyway, combination. It helped that they had been sautéed in butter, too. I generally think that to have rice and potatoes at the same time is akin to eating spaghetti and chips, but the combination here was really good, the different elements being unified not by the fish but by the sauce that accompanied it. Anyway, the Indians eat potato dishes with rice.

I could have had been greedy with the cheese course, but limited myself to a corner of perfect Pont-l'Évêque, from a little lower down in Normandy, Appelation d'Origine Controllée like the wine.

Although they offered, on this fixed price menu, more tempting desserts such as home made vanilla ice-cream with caramel sauce maison, I intuitively felt that I should order something "mundane".

Thus it was that I tasted one of the best apple tarts ever: light yet satisfying layers starting from the top with almost crisply browned apple slices, then almond flakes, far thinner than usual, separated from the spare pastry base by a stratum of almond paste mixed with apple purée. And beside it, instead of the usual custard, a small lake of that home-made caramel sauce. I still had some of the Muscadet left, and it went surprisingly well with the earthy tastes in this sweet dish, a different kind of soft earthiness from the slice of potato on the fish. It was a cool, rainy day. This desert would have been perfect in Autumn too.

The service was simply professional, the restaurant began to fill, still only with locals, and as I left I thanked the person behind the tiny counter issuing the bills and selling jars of preserves - I assumed from her stance the owner, perhaps the owner's wife - for the pleasure of dining in a "correct" restaurant, that was about serving good food, not swindling tourists. The word "correct" in French,when applied to matters gastronomic, means "as it should be" in a deeply satisfying way, a rare example of French understatement. There was a small group of - again I think local - people waiting for a table, and they smiled and nodded slowly to hear this Englishman affirming what they already knew to be the case. I shall go back.

You should go there too, if anywhere in the vicinity: Trouville, Deauville, Honfleur with its beauty but its own rip-off-restos, or Caen. The value was excellent, the entire menu fixe cost less than the main course at many a restaurant of no better quality. But don't go because of that, go because of the smoked potatoes.

I feel less Zombie-like today than usual. Maybe a change is in the air.

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