Monday, January 14, 2008

We ate ... what? Provence edition (probably Part I of many)

I know there are many foods in the world that I (KT) haven't eaten, but generally, there's not much on an average menu I haven't encountered before. Now, picture sitting down to dinner in a French restaurant -- in France -- where there is no menu, and the waiter just tells you your options. In French. And you don't speak French.

Here's what we ended up with:

Aperitif (before-dinner drink): Pastis

The loose description of pastis is absinthe without the hallocenogenic component. If that didn't make sense, how's this: really strong booze that tastes like black licorice. Serve cold. It was alright -- I didn't dillute mine much like you're told to, because I figured if there was less of it, it would be gone sooner. I can see trying this again, but we both ended up with killer headaches that we're blaming on the pastis. Of course, it could have been any number of other things ...

Amuse Bouche (not really, but work with me here): Toasted baguette served with anchovies in oil

I've had anchovies plenty of times -- but usually on pizza or other typical preparations. The waiter brought us the plate of bread with a small dish of what looked like an oily tapenade. I tried it, confirmed to JT that it was a lovely oily, salty, tapenade of some sort. After another bite I slowed down to dissect its flavor and had a sudden recognition of what we were eating. I waited until the bread was gone to tell JT what it was. We agreed that many things taste pretty darn good pulverized and swimming in oil.

Appetizers: Raw scallops over a green salad, and foie gras

I ordered the foie gras. I've had it before -- in small doses, the memorable ones being at Palena in our old neighborhood, and stuffed inside quail at one of our legendary cooking club dinner parties. It's now that I realize that those were pate de foie gras. This was slab o' foie gras served with toast. Actually, that's not even true: It probably was mixed and pressed in a terrine, but I don't know enough about foie gras preparations to know exactly. I was disappointed with myself for not really liking it: To me, it just tasted like cold fat without much flavor. It was a little better once it warmed up a bit. JT thought it was alright, but nothing craveable. I'll have to study for next time.

JT ordered the scallop salad. Well, not exactly. As far as we could tell, there were three options: the foie gras, escargot (after the previous incident, I'm not eating them unless I know exactly how they're prepared), and what I heard as "carpaccio de St. Jacques." I translated that as "scallops" to JT, knowing full well they'd be raw but omitting that part in translating. (Ha. I say that as if I speak French. But they call scallops St. Jacques in England, too.)

It turned out to be a lovely lettuce salad with toasted pine nuts, olive oil and vinegar, and six beautiful, raw scallops. (I'm actually pretty sure they were tossed in a bit of citrus for a few seconds, but the definitely weren't sauteed or otherwise cooked.) JT tried a small bite of scallop and then shot me a somewhat frightened look. As I wasn't particularly enjoying my foie gras, we switched plates. The strange part was that they had this red pouch thing attached in a half-moon around the scallop. I have never seen this before. I tried a small bit, and it was very delicious. However, I then started freaking myself out that this was something you serve to show the scallops are fresh but don't eat. JT argued that they wouldn't have served it if I shouldn't eat it, but you don't eat crab lungs or other disgusting bits when you are served whole crab, do you?

We eventually asked what the red bit was, but mistranslated the response as "heart." (You'd think two science writers would think logically about this for two seconds and realize that there's no way a bivalve has a heart this big, or even a heart at all.) Turns out it was the scallop roe, or egg pouch, and is considered a great delicacy.

Entrees: Scallops again, and lamb

(I'm actually done with the new-food portion of the post, but might as well finish telling you about our dinner)

I ordered the St. Jacques Provencale -- more scallops (also served the the not-a-heart-but-roe-pouch-red-thing, which was decidedly better raw than it was cooked) cooked in a herby creme fraiche sauce, and JT had an incredibly succulent piece of lamb. Both were served with sliced potatoes and cabbage sauteed in what must have been a red wine reduction -- very sweet and delicious.

Dessert: Chocolate mousse, of course. And it was superb.

Overall, it was a lovely experience, even with the new foods. I should also mention that we were the only people in the restaurant -- which had a total of five tables. It was more charming than you can imagine -- five old tables, set with a mishmash of plates and silverware, with candles at each table and a fireplace in the corner. There aren't many dining options in rural France on a Sunday night, but all you need is one, and I'm glad we found this one.

Restaurant: L'Oustaou, 68 RN 7, Le Muy, France.

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