Les Délices du Marche

Google Translate, don’t fail me now: I believe today’s title is the correct translation of what I want to say… but, never having studied French, I can’t be sure.

I did pick up more French on this trip than on any prior visit to France, though not enough to be anywhere near conversant, sadly. Luckily, though, you can close the better part of gap with body language, especially when it comes to shopping.

Points at block of cheese…
No, not that block of cheese; the one behind it….
Yes, yes, thumbs up!
Indicates slice thickness with hands…
Shakes head, pinches to mean a smaller slice…
Nods with a smile…
Hears a bunch of numbers in French, hands over a €20 bill to be safe…

It works pretty much every time. The only downside is, after you do this at a couple stands, you end up with an awful lot of loose change on your hands!

Le Marche
Lavande!

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Incredibly realistic-looking macaron soaps. They look like you could bite right into them, but I doubt they’d taste nearly as good as one would hope.
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A local favorite — candied fruits. Far, far too sweet for my taste, but we did give it a fair shake!
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Salchichas. Wrong language, I know. But I love that word.
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Mmmm… these make my mouth water.
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Jams! The South of France truly produces the best preserves; I wonder what the secret is. Most likely, the amazing quality of the fruit that goes into them, and perhaps because of how delightful it is on a baguette with a bit of cheese! I practically spent the whole week looking for the best fruit preserves and bought quite a few from this stand.
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The Cronut Line: Worth It?

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The question everyone asks: Is the cronut actually worth lining up at 7am for?

Answer: yes, and no.

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Question: What is a cronut?

The cronut, as you probably know, is the NYC craze that started at Dominique Ansel bakery in SoHo. It’s a doughnut-shaped croissant, fried, encrusted with sugar, with a flavor-of-the-month jam for both filling and icing. It’s inspired numerous knock-off “croughnuts”, but the trademarked original still draws a long line. Dominique Ansel bakery’s website advises that you will probably get a cronut if you line up at 7 a.m. (the bakery opens at 8). You can also preorder them two weeks in advance by logging on Mondays at 11 a.m. ET sharp, but again, the website advises that they will probably sell out before you can refresh the page.

As a skeptic of anything that requires lining up in advance — I tell you, it only tastes better because you are HUNGRIER — I tried to preoder cronuts on a Monday at 8 a.m. PT. As predicted, I was unable to get through the checkout process quickly enough because traffic to the page kept breaking it.

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I flew into NYC on a redeye, which landed me at JFK airport on a Thursday morning at 5.30 a.m. I figured, #YOLO, so I woke up bleary-eyed and hopped on the subway straight for the cronut line. By the time I got there at 6.55 a.m., it was already 30 people deep! I was incredulous. Also, it was cold.

The thing is, the cronut itself is obviously not worth a two-hour wait. So why does the hype live on?

Because it’s about the cronut line, not the cronut itself. I was quite impressed with the production this bakery puts on for the line that wraps around the block. A little past 7 a.m., an employee comes out to greet everyone, thank them for coming, and promise that samples of hot chocolate and madeleines are on their way. At 7.30, as promised, they bring out trays with two sips of hot chocolate in a miniature paper mug, teeny handle and all, and piping-hot, perfectly-flavored madeleines dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

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When, at 8 a.m., they finally let people into the bakery 15 people at a time, the last person in line is required to hold a baguette as a marker. This was the moment when I really rolled my eyes. “Has to hold a baguette”? How much more obvious can it be that the cronut line is a curated experience? It’s basically the rustic bakery version of making people line up outside an empty nightclub.

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But these guys know what they’re doing. Gotta give it to them — the whole experience, the gorgeous packaging that opens up like a tulip, the beautiful garden patio.

As for the cronut itself: yes, it was good, but honestly not THAT good. Definitely not worth waiting two hours for. It was a bit sickeningly sweet, and the flavor of the month when I went was passionfruit. It wasn’t my favorite, as I’m a bit of a purist and prefer pastries plain or with chocolate. Also, the texture wasn’t actually that croissant-like. In terms of texture and flavor, it was exactly like a kouign amman, but bigger, shaped like a donut, loaded with sugar, and stuffed with passionfruit jam. I’d rather just have a kouign amman and be done with it.

Frankly, the madeleines tasted better — the texture was light and airy, the flavor perfectly subtle. The madeleines were delightful, and I ended up buying 20 to take to my hosts as gifts! I have a hunch that other things on the Dominique Ansel menu are actually better than the cronuts — and you can walk right in and buy them without lining up!

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All of these creations, for example, looked absolutely heavenly. Such creativity in terms of the combination of flavors, and the beautiful presentation. But, it’s the cronuts that keep people coming in through that door, and so the bakery works that production line for all it’s worth.

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The final word on the cronut is, it’s worth it if you have time to kill. It’s a classic New York experience: that there are people who put time, thought and craft into creating what is basically a glorified way to pass the time. It’s how they earn their keep, and how New York makes good on its promise that you will never have a dull moment. You can always lose a little more sleep to wake up early, stand in line and partake in something that uncannily brings you together with strangers and tourists for just a sliver of shared life, shared experience. I spent two delightful hours in that line wondering about stories: where everyone came from, where they would take the cronuts they’d waited so long to purchase, to whom they would be delivered.

And that’s the thing. Regardless of whether or not the cronut is everything you ever hoped for — NYC never disappoints. It’s not the thing in itself; it’s always the city and all it encompasses.

Bay Area Livin’: We Hike So We Can Eat

The Bay area lifestyle is known to be outdoorsy. Weekend hikes are the norm, bike rides over to Sausalito, skiing in Tahoe, or trekking up Half Dome.

You’re probably imagining San Franciscans as being all fit and caffeinated and not an ounce of body fat on them. There are those types, yes. But then there’s the rest of us, who work out only so as to burn off all some of the calories we take in. Because the eating here–it is gooood.

There are few points on which I’ll concede that NYC > SF, but here’s one: I don’t get quite the same frequency of visitors here as I did when I lived in New York. I do still get some visitors, but fewer and farther between.

But lucky me!!! Last week, everyone came to town. A lot of incredible eating happened. K and I sat at the bar at Nopa for three hours, eating nonstop. We were there so long and ate so much, the bartender told us dessert was on him. So we had dessert too. Nopa was really one of the best eating experiences I’ve had so far in SF. Not to add to the hype (we were at the bar because there were no Open Table reservations until mid-September!). It really just is that good.

My bro and sister-in-law-to-be were also in town, and I spent the day with them on Saturday. Our itinerary was literally a short hike bookended by all-day feasting. We barely even had enough time to work up an appetite between brunch and dinner, but the food was so good, we ate it all anyway.

Brunch at Zazie’s. The waitress highly recommended the gingerbread pancakes. We each got eggs, plus an order of pancakes to share. I had an egg benedict with crab, green onions, and other amazingly delicious things. Also, the gingerbread pancakes were amazing. Also, we were sitting out in the garden patio and it was sunny. It really doesn’t get much better than that!
After brunch, we headed to the Marin Headlands for a hike. We walked along the beach, watched some wakeboarders, and continued along the Coastal Trail for a while.
Absolutely gorgeous.
On the way back, we stopped at a lookout point for views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city beyond.
We had dinner at Esperpento, a Spanish restaurant. We ordered so many tapas, and everything was delicious. And then we had seafood paella. I’d joked with the owner that we were going to order everything. When he came to our table and saw everything we’d ordered, he acknowledged that I wasn’t kidding around! Hehehe.

There was, I’ll admit, an ulterior motive behind planning out this amazing and delicious day: to get M+K to move here next year!

‘Cause ya know, visitors are nice and all, but I actually want everyone to move here! All my friends and family! Having you here would truly make this the best place to live.

Gelato is a Food Group

Given that today’s a national holiday, it’s hot, and there’s pie and ice cream and lots of eating…

Yeah, it’s a pretty weak segue. Really, it’s just an excuse to relive the gelato experience!

This ranking is sort of inadequate, because ALL the gelato in Italy was so good. So, for example, the fact that much-loved Giolitti comes in 7th doesn’t mean that it was bad… it just means that everything else was even better. Mmmm.

#1. Grom, Florence. Grom has branches open in NYC, so perhaps it would make the experience seem less special. But no. This was outstanding: albicocca, raspberry, yogurt flavors blended so beautifully together. Light, refreshing, natural; like eating the fruits themselves, but in delectable icy form. The texture was a perfect balance of icy and creamy, and the mix of flavors were the perfect complement. Sigh. I’m in love.

#2. Gelateria dei Gracchi, Rome. We walked right past this gelateria, even while looking for it on the map! It looks like a humble little hole in the wall, but it has inventive flavors that are truly delicious. Crates full of fruit line the back wall of the kitchen, and these flavors explode with natural ingredients.

Pictured here: ricotta pear, strawberry, toasted almond orange. Every bit of the strawberry flavor was chock full of little strawberry seeds.

Side note: there is nothing more delightful than seeing a full-grown man in a suit licking an ice cream cone with abandon. With gelato this good, anyone could stay a kid at heart forever.

#3. Gelateria Stalin, Cinque Terre. Okay okay, so this gelateria has since given itself a new name that I forgot, because I prefer the original. Yes, the owner’s name was really Stalin.

As you can tell, I gravitated towards fruity flavors because the days were so hot, I wanted something fresh over a nutty nocciola or rich chocolate, which sits heavier on the palate. Here, I got strawberry and bacio–can never go wrong with those two! Also, there’s nothing like having just hiked for five hours to make an ice cream taste extra delicious.

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#4. Tre Scalini, Rome. Nothing but pure chocolate in that cup. It was pretty awesome.

Corniglia Gelateria Artisanale

#5. Gelateria Artisanale, Cinque Terre. Hmm, I can’t quite remember which flavors these were. I’m guessing coffee and pistachio? What I do remember is sitting in Corniglia’s teeny tiny town square and loving every bite. Also it was one of the best-value servings of gelato–cheaper but no less delicious–which makes it a steal!

Firenze Gelato

#6. Unnamed gelateria, Florence. This was basically the first thing I did when I landed in Italy. Went to the nearest little sidewalk gelateria and got myself a giant scoop of pistachio on a cone. And it was delicious. They do say Florence has the best gelato, and this is proof that you can’t go wrong!

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#7. Giolitti, Rome. My friend says Giolitti is his favorite in Rome, and as you can tell from all the empty vats, it’s certainly a popular spot. Maybe I ordered the wrong flavors here, but I wasn’t so impressed. The texture was icier than creamy, and by that time we’d had so much gelato, we preferred the others.

Firenze Gelateria Carrozze

#8. Gelateria Carrozze, Florence. I think this early lesson steered me towards fruitier flavors for the rest of the trip. The gelato at Carrozze was delicious — I got hazelnut that had a chunky, nutty texture, and a bittersweet chocolate — but it was way too rich. With the heat, the sun, the dehydration, I actually couldn’t finish this serving of gelato. It was very sad.

Rome Magnum Pistachio

#9. Magnum Pistachio, Rome. This comes last only because it came out of a package, but it was pretty darn good too! You have to get a Magnum in every country, and try to find the best flavor in each. Of all the ones I’ve had so far, this ranks on top.

And special mention to some non-gelato desserts:

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Granita di caffe con panna from Tazza d’Oro, Rome. We discovered this heavenly concoction on our last day in Rome. This is a mixed blessing because on the one hand, I’m so mad I only got to have this once. On the other, I ate so much on this trip, it’s probably a mercy that I didn’t have this more than once. An intense shot of iced espresso mixed in with thick cream, with whipped cream on top–the best iced coffee frappe you’ll ever have.

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Dessert at my friend’s wedding in Seville: Vanilla bean ice cream, caramel sauce, and some kind of iced chocolate mousse. This was actually pretty incredible. I ate it all.

Paris Panna Cotta

Earl grey panna cotta infused with orange, Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris. I already wrote about this in a prior post, but this was also amazing. Possibly the best panna cotta I’ll have for a long while.

Happy 4th! May your day be full of sweets.

Weekend Getaway: Sunny Los Angeles

Even with 80-degree weather in January, Los Angeles remains a place I don’t want to live. But it’s an easy weekend getaway: San Francisco to Los Angeles is a relatively painless trip, only 50 minutes by plane. And more often than not there are Jet Blue or Virgin America flights for $60 one way.

Santa Monica Beach / Pier:

There really is something incredibly surreal about being on the beach, plasticky-perfect people running around and working out. I guess this really does happen.

Followed by a hike with J up to the Griffiths Observatory, with views of the Hollywood sign, downtown LA and the ocean.

The hike was great, but not nearly strenuous enough to excuse what I ate this weekend:

Black sesame shaved ice with lychee at Blockheads on Sawtelle. So much deliciousness for $4.

Chicken chop salad at True Food Kitchen, a very lifestyle-friendly restaurant in Santa Monica. (Read: they are very sensitive to dietary restrictions. And there are lots of babies and pregnant ladies.)

Clearly, I have to work on improving my food photography now that I’m not using the automatic macro settings on my point-and-shoot, so I apologize that my photography does not do justice to Umami. Mouth-wateringly flavorful Truffle Burger.

Manly Fries: crisp fries drowned in cheese, fatty chunks of bacon and I think onion crisps? I don’t even know. But it was so good.

Umami Burger. Not my fave, actually. Lots of flavors in combination (which I believe is what the “umami” taste is supposed to be about), but I preferred the savory simplicity of the Truffle Burger.

Ice cream sandwich. I chose mint chocolate chip ice cream flavor to refresh my oil-doused palate. So what if it’s sandwiched by double-chocolate chip cookies?

When in Chinatown…

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As you probably know, San Francisco is home to quite a large Chinese American population. SF Chinatown–the one downtown–is the oldest in the U.S., and a major tourist attraction, but there’s more than just one Chinese neighborhood in San Francisco. Apparently, in the Sunset, there are no fewer than three mini-Chinatowns. Wikipedia attests to this, so it must be true.

The other day, after running to the Pacific Ocean, A and I hopped on the bus back. What can I say? We were getting hungry. But the point to make here is that along the route, we passed by blocks and blocks of Asian shops, restaurants and groceries. I was inspired.

When in Chinatown, eat make dumplings wontons! I went to a Chinese market looking for dumpling skins, but they only had wonton wrappers, so pork-leek-cilantro wontons it was going to be. I had to Google how to fold the wrappers since it was my first time making wontons and the owner did an extremely poor job of explaining this. But just look how cute those little flying-nun hats turned out!

Filling ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1 small leek, chopped
  • Cilantro, chopped
  • A tad of ginger powder
  • A dash of soy sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

Sorry, I don’t generally use precise measurements when cooking. As my mom always says when I ask how to make a Korean dish, “enough of this” and “a bit of that” is as precise as it gets. But I like my wontons leeky and cilantro-y, so I put in generous helpings of both, finely chopped. I didn’t add any salt or pepper, but it might not have been a bad idea to do so. I ended up sprinkling a bit of salt on the cooked wontons and using plenty of dipping sauce.

Sauce:

  • Soy sauce
  • Rice vinegar
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Green onion
  • Drop of sesame oil

Cooking instructions:

  • Mix all the filling ingredients listed up top. 
  • Place about a teaspoon of filling in the center of the square wrapper.
  • To fold the wonton [this how-to has handy pictorials]:
    • Wet the edges of the wrapper, and fold in half to make a rectangular shape.
    • Pinch the bottom-middle of the filling bulge to make a fortune cookie-esque shape, and fold up the outer edge of the wrapper.
    • Wet the corners to seal the wonton.
  • Pan fry the dumplings in a bit of vegetable oil.
  • Add a cup of water and simmer until the water evaporates, about 4-5 minutes.
  • Turn the wonton over at some point so it simmers on both sides.

Eat and enjoy!

Only in San Francisco

Well, that didn’t take very long did it? I’ve already imbibed SF-style living. I sit on an exercise ball at work, dutifully sort compost from recyclable from waste, live in a mixed-gender apartment (it’s all about ‘balance’) and carry around a self-folding reusable bag at all times.

San Francisco stereotypes, acknowledged. But this weekend was even more #OnlyinSF than usual.

To start, A and I went to a party hosted at Haus of Hipstamatic, a three-story startup-quirky workspace with exposed brick, a taxidermy wall and a roofdeck with a fire pit and bar… all of which is normally occupied by only six people!

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We had a sleepover Friday night, and on Saturday morning went for a morning run through Golden Gate Park out to Ocean Beach. That’s right. The Pacific Ocean is a mere 4-mile run away–and the scenery is gorgeous the whole way.


On our way home, we bought some fresh berries and made a brunch consisting of French toast, homefries with bacon and soft-ripened avocado.

Saturday evening, I went bhangra dancing, which is not necessarily a San Francisco-specific activity–but what happened as we left the club was! We had stopped by a water station on our way out, and the bouncer asked us not to leave with the clear cups in our hands. He said it might look like we were carrying drinks out of the club and into the neighborhood, so could we please finish our water before leaving.

“Just being good to the neighborhood,” he said, as he waited for us to empty and give him our cups. Which, I’m sure, he recycled.

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Even today’s church experience was characteristically only-in-SF. Not to mention the church’s name–Reality–and that fact that this month we’re having “slow church” services. But the icing on the cake? Service was followed, as a matter of course, by food trucks in the parking lot. I got pork and chicken buns from Chairman Bao–nomtastic, as J would say.

Gotta say, San Francisco living is good. If these are the SF stereotypes, I embrace them all!

The London Review Cake Shop

I have a confession.

To start, let me explain that a primary reason I enjoy blogging is because I am a maven, according to The Tipping Point‘s classification. Which is not to say that I’m an expert in any particular field, but more that I dash about like an eager little squirrel looking for the choicest bits of information on what to see, or where to get tomorrow’s meal. And I love to share those acorns with anyone who’s interested.

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But I’ve been a furtive, selfish squirrel when it comes to the London Review Cake Shop, my absolute favorite cafe in London. I didn’t even take proper photos of it because I fully intended to not share this information.

Why? you may ask.

London Review Cake Shop

Because it is small. And so special. And the masses should not come to crowd its five tables or drain its supply of fluffy baked goods and delightful teas.

Because I spent so many afternoons there with a pot of tea to help me conquer a stack of reading, or to make catching up with a friend the more cozy.

Because they never rush you out, no matter how long you’ve been there or how long others may wait.

Because it’s attached to a bookshop!

Because it was my special place, with an intangible ambience that made it mine to many, yet entirely mine.

Because it is London’s best kept secret–and now you, too, are bound to secrecy!

{ For better photos and a lovely review, see Mondomulia’s post }

Twas an Impromptu Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the flat
Mulled wine was a-stirring in a plentiful vat

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The foodstuffs were packaged and purchased with care

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And J whipped up dinner with time to spare

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The children surrounded the impromptu spread

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While visions of store-bought cake danced in their heads

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Then E busted out her operatic chops

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To amaze us all and make our hearts stop! 

Slapdash it was, but it all turned out right;
So Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night :)