Culinary experiences are high on my list when I travel. The only eateries I disdain are chains. Unusual foods, new restaurants, out-of-the-way places that only locals go, famous places that I’ve read about- and salivated over – for years, tiny little spots that offer perfect renditions of traditional ethnic dishes – bring ‘em all on!
So many taste experiences, so little time…
So when I get a recommendation from someone on my internal Trusted Buds List (buds as in ’taste buds’ as well as the traditional sense of ‘buddy’, a person who would never steer you wrong), I try hard to make it happen.
That’s how I had the delightful experience of dining at tiny and wonderful Comptoir Vietnam in Paris last month. A Glover Gardens blog friend who has traveled the world a time or two (or three) recommended it on one of my previous Paris posts, just as I was heading out to a workshop there with several colleagues. He had found Comptoir Vietnam by accident years earlier while taking a walk in the City of Lights. He loved it. He went back. He took loved ones there on later trips. Most importantly (to me), he paid it forward by telling me about it. And now I’m telling you.
You need to know about Comptoir Vietnam. It’s that good.
My colleagues are game for anything, and on the night before our return to Houston, they accompanied me on the very crowded, fairly hot, hour-long Metro ride during rush hour to get to this stellar little place. We weren’t sorry! It was everything we expected, and more.
I’ll set the stage for you. It was overcast and rainy, as Paris often is. (How is it that overcast and rainy in Paris doesn’t ruin the mood, it adds to it??) The Metro experience was a little different than usual as we got close to our stop, with elevated, above-ground tracks that provided a great view of sudden and unexpected street art, a number of huge and intricate murals on the buildings.
We alighted from the Metro and found ourselves in the 13th arrondissement, an area of Paris that was previously unknown to me. A couple of turns down wet, gray streets that were mostly residential but dotted with neighborhood businesses and restaurants (primarily Asian) took us to the humble front door of Comptoir Vietnam.
The interior was very small, with only six or eight tables. The menu was delightfully notin English. This ain’t no tourist trap!
Noticing that we weren’t French or Asian, one of the patrons struck up a conversation with us immediately. She wanted to know how we found the place, because “usually only locals come here”. She helped us interpret the menu and decide what to order, and reinforced what we already suspected: this was going to be a great meal.
Oh my goodness!
We had dumplings that took a little while to arrive, because they were steamed to perfection after we ordered them – three different kinds (shrimp, pork and beef). There were piquant dipping sauces that someone back in the kitchen probably made that day.
Two of us chose Bo Bun Nem, a dish I had never heard of. It was a big bowl of beef and incredibly rich broth and vermicelli or rice noodles and fresh things like cilantro and cucumber and chile peppers and cucumbers and bean sprouts and whole pieces of some kind of crispy spring roll and a deep, oniony sauce – oh my! “This is North Vietnamese food,” my friend had said. “Nothing like we usually eat in the US.” Umm-hmm. And in addition to being super-delicious, it was cheap!
We didn’t talk much at Comptoir Vietnam after the meal arrived, except to revel in our good fortune. So I’m sharing it with you in case you get to the 13th arrondissement of Paris one day. You should.
As for me, I’ll be back in Paris this week, and I really want to go back to Comptoir Vietnam. And if I can’t make it on this trip, then I will on the next one. It’s that good. And there are soooooo many other dishes to try!
Looking for lunch on a recent trek home from New Orleans, we took the long way along the coast and found a treasure (and I do mean treasure) in the backroads of southern Louisiana. Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant has been serving delicious Cajun food to hungry travelers, locals and hunters since 1976. It was magic: the food, the ambience and especially the people. The Grill-Meister and I were enchanted.
An Experience, Not a Pit Stop
You know it’s going to be a memorable experience instead of a quick bite right when you pull up to the unassuming white building. The menu is painted on the outside, along with a faded but very friendly-looking alligator to welcome you.
Inside, the feeling that you’re in a unique place is immediately reinforced. The walls are crowded with a fascinating collection of Louisiana kitsch, safety awards, family and local memorabilia, and articles from publications ranging from the New York Times to the Houston Chronicle. Referencing the authenticity of the food and the popularity of Suire’s with hunters and locals, the articles point out different dishes and dining experiences from the individual viewpoints of the writers, but they all have one thing in common: glowing reviews.
Menu Choices Galore
We didn’t stop to read the articles at first, though. The menu above the counter where you order at the back of the store draws you in and amplifies your hunger. And that’s only a portion of what’s on offer: there’s also a printed menu with so many choices! There are selections that you rarely find outside of Cajun Country, like turtle sauce picante and three kinds of pistolettes (deep-fried rolls stuff with crawfish, shrimp or crab), and just about every Cajun menu staple you can imagine: alligator, boudin balls, shrimp or crawfish étouffée, twelve different po-boys, multiple fried seafood platters, red beans and sausage…you get the idea. And then there are salads, burgers, sandwiches and sides like Cajun fries, potato salad. Oh my goodness!
A Very Satisfying Meal
It was difficult, but we finally made our selections. The Grill-Meister and I had been in New Orleans for 3 days celebrating a milestone anniversary and had enjoyed numerous Cajun and Creole dishes, but we were happy to continue the trend at Suire’s. He chose the shrimp poboy, and I had the shrimp and crabmeat gumbo plate. They were both spectacular: fresh, delicious, perfectly balanced. Humble ingredients transformed into permanent taste memories.
The Sweet Smell of Baked Goods
House-made baked goods are everywhere, tempting you while you wait for your meal. This is NOT fast food. There’s time to take in the abundant ambience and ponder your dessert choices while the Suire’s kitchen prepares your order. A huge selection of old-fashioned favorites make it really hard to choose. Peanut butter balls or fig cake? Heavenly hash or rice krispy treats? Brownies, cookies or fruit-filled tarts? And who can resist homemade pecan pie??? After some soul-searching, the Grill-Meister chose the fig cake. I know that he loves me, because he gave me a bite.
A Freezer Full
A further temptation is the freezer full of Suire’s specialties, fulfilling the promise painted on the front door:
Don’t feel like cooking? … Frozen Foods – Ready to Eat – Just Heat and Serve
We just happened to have an ice chest with us. (No self-respecting foodies would go on a road trip to Louisiana without a way to bring some of the goodness home.) The ice chest got a little fuller.
Dry Goods and Groceries, Too
I’ve been gushing about the restaurant and the ambience, but shouldn’t ignore the other side of Suire’s – the grocery store. I’m from a very small town in Southeast Texas, and I know that the local grocery store can be the center of a small community, the place where people go to chat and get news, and the source of that one missing ingredient for the big dinner you planned to make.
Saving the Best for Last: the People of Suire’s
The most enchanting thing about Suire’s was the people. We had the great fortune to meet and chat with Joan Suire, who co-owns and runs the business with her sister, Lisa. Happy to chat, she pointed out some of the more interesting articles and photos on the walls and provided backstories. For example: behind the signed celebrity photos from the 1940s was the tale of a relative who worked at the Waldorf-Astoria, met and married a Rockefeller, “and never worked again”.
Jean tells her stories with a charismatic, wry smile and an excellent sense of timing. We could have conversed with her all day; her pride in the family business is evident and irresistible. She told us how here parents had started the business when she and her sister were teenagers, and that she’d never married but has had a great life at the counter of Suire’s. Joan shared a recent testimonial from a customer, a Baton Rouge native who’d just found Suire’s:
Your food resurrected my mother!
Taste memories. They’re important.
It was early Sunday afternoon when we visited, and there was a steady stream of locals picking up to-go orders. Jean knew everyone’s name and asked after their families with a genuine interest.
Southern Hospitality: “It’s My Treat!”
But it’s not just the proprietors that are special at Suire’s, it’s also the customers. One struck up a conversation with me, sharing that a new porch was being built at her house that day, so she was picking up lunch from Suire’s for everyone. A lovely young woman, she almost glowed as she gushed about the food, saying that the crawfish fettuccini was the absolute best. As she was paying for her order, she gestured for me to come up to the counter and said, “Do you want to try the crawfish fettuccini?” I thought she meant a little bite from some big vat of the wonderful stuff back in the kitchen, but no – she was offering to buy us a meal! We had already ordered, so I declined, but she insisted:
I’m going to buy you a frozen one, then. It’s my treat. You have to try it!
So there you are. An absolute stranger bought us a local delicacy because it’s that good. I think her name was Caitlyn and wish I had written it down so I could thank her properly. (Lovely young lady, if you read this and I got your name wrong, please correct me!) Whenever I think about southern hospitality from now on, this experience at Suire’s will come to mind.
Another Road Trip
The Grill-Meister and I are already planning another road trip, this time with the express purpose to soak up more of that Suire’s magic. Wanna come?
Note: some of the articles I read when I was preparing this “restaurant rave” post suggested that the 2002 New York Times article put Suire’s on the map and made it famous. I disagree. It might have increased awareness about this little gem, but it’s clear that Suire’s has always been famous with the people of Southeast Louisiana and the the travelers, hunters and fisher-people who visit.
Epilogue: Anthony Bourdain was Here
We didn’t know when we found Suire’s two weeks ago that Anthony Bourdain had visited in February of this year for his Parts Unknown series. Wow. The episode, Cajun Mardi Gras Recap, aired soon after his tragic death. The photo below, taken on Ash Wednesday, is on the Suire’s Facebook page and features Anthony with owners (and sisters) Joan and Lisa. “One of the more awesome locations I’ve ever found,” he said of Suire’s. Indeed.
I still think of myself as a little girl from a small town who is constantly surprised by her life, and sometimes find it hard to believe that I have a “favorite Italian restaurant in London”. In my 20s, that sentence would have been alien to me; I didn’t even make it to Europe until I was 34. This post is about that favorite little restaurant, and its fame-worthy Spaghetti Carbonara.
It’s Not Just My Opinion
Da Corradi’s carbonara was fantastic!
I think that was the best Carbonara I have ever had.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara with fresh ham is the best you’ll ever eat.
Online reviewers of Da Corradi, a tiny, family-run Italian restaurant in London’s Mayfair district tucked back in the Shepherd Market, agree with me about their Spaghetti Carbonara: it’s the best.
My TripAdvisor review from way back in 2010 when the Grill-Meister and I visited was titled Marvelous – so good we went twice in one week, proclaiming:
The Spaghetti Carbonara is the best I have ever had – even compared to the same dish in Italy.
It’s true. I’ve never had a better carbonara, and I’m fairly sure I never will. It’s that good. Just the right balance of rich creaminess from the egg and cheese, saltiness from the ham, and al dente spaghetti, with a liberal sprinkle of freshly ground pepper. Close your eyes after taking just one bite and you’ll expect to find Northern Italy when you open them. I try not to eat heavy food like this very often, but there’s never even a question that I’ll order anything else at Da Corradi. The only question is how much of it I can consume, and the answer is always: more than I thought!
The food at Da Corradi is hearty-homestyle rather than Mayfair pretentious, and the prices are very reasonable. More reasons to keep coming back!
The Peeps are as Fun as the Food is Good
The staff at Da Corradi are a big part of the overall experience. They’re cheeky and flirty (in a family-friendly way) and their banter with each other betrays an affection and respect that is charming. They collaborate to ensure that your experience with them is fun, filling, and fulfilling. You don’t exactly have a waitperson, you have a wait-team.
A Celebrity Hang-Out (or Hide-Out?)
In its 40+ years of serving great Italian food, Da Corradi has attracted a lot of admirers beyond this Texas gal and the online reviewers I quoted above. The wall overlooking the tiny main floor dining area sports photos of celebrity diners who must enjoy the carbonara and cheeky charm as much as I do. While high-end Mayfair is swarming with tourists and beautiful people, Da Corradi’s exact location within Shepherd Market is a little off the beaten path, a perfect place to avoid the madding crowd. Shepherd Market’s web site says, “This unique little enclave is tucked away between Picadilly and Curzon Street, in the heart of London’s Mayfair. A hidden gem known for its wonderful relaxed village-like atmosphere.”
They Trust Me, They Really Trust Me!
I am blessed with a wide network of friends and foodies in many locales across the world who feed me, enjoy sharing a restaurant meal together, send me their food pictures for the blog, and give and take restaurant recommendations. I love love love it when someone trusts my choice of a restaurant; it’s like setting friends up on a blind date and having it work out (only better because there’s no chance of divorce or blame). It feels good to influence where someone has dinner halfway across the world…just call me the restaurant matchmaker!
Tiramisu and Espresso
Enjoying the carbonara
Holding up the menu for the photo to send to me
Life is good. And so is the Spaghetti Carbonara at Da Corradi in London.
A recent trip to Temecula, CA as part of our Wine for No Reason travels with several other couples provided wonderful content for this blog, although I’ve been too busy to share most of it. Today’s focus is on lunch at the Wilson Creek Winery, and reflections on how the setting adds to the enjoyment of a shared meal.
We met our fellow Wine for No Reason travelers at Wilson Creek on the first full day of our Temecula trek. One of the couples in our group had been there before and knew it would be just right. This place is more than just a winery: it is a sprawling compound that offers a full experience that includes whimsical outdoor art, a large tasting room and gift shop, landscaped grounds and vineyards that allow you to enjoy the California sunshine, and an excellent restaurant.
Arriving early, the Grill-Meister and I took a stroll through the vineyard and admired the grapes and the scenery.
Creekside Grille is nestled between the vineyard and the beautiful grounds, providing the perfect setting for a relaxing lunch with friends.
Still early when we ambled over to the restaurant, the Grill-Meister and I sipped chardonnay in the perfect, 72-degree, dry mountain climate while waiting for our friends. It felt like the world had slowed down a little, which is exactly how I want to feel on vacation. Don’t you?
Our friends arrived and we had a lovely, lively, laughter-filled lunch. The menu at Creekside Grille is what I would call eclectic / American / locavore / foodie, with choices ranging from a Reuben sandwich to an octupus salad to a bison burger.
It was a glorious afternoon of conversation, excellent food with much sharing of bites and wine-tasting. We were perfectly carefree and our time there felt like a gift; everything, including the weather, was over-the-top good. One of our friends summed it up, earnestly declaring:
I’m not sure if it’s the ambience, the company or the wine, but this is about the best Reuben I’ve ever had.
He went on to wax poetic about the Reuben, the company, the wine and the ambience, and we all dove into a discussion about how the place you’re in and the people you’re with have a huge impact on your enjoyment of a meal. We reveled in our current place (Temecula, Wilson Creek) and peeps, and then went on to describe some of our other “most memorable meals” throughout our lives. Looking back, every one of our stories about fabulous meals included vivid descriptions of the setting and the companion(s).
It’s never just about the food. The setting and the people matter just as much.
I could go on about this topic, and perhaps I will, on another day. But for now, here are a few more photos of the lovely Wilson Creek Winery. Check it out if you ever get to Temecula. And look for us – we are definitely going to go back.
Back home at Glover Gardens and sorting through pictures, I realized that we had had one of the wines before.
The Almond Champagne was the bubbly component for an Empty Nest New Year’s party a few years ago (just the two of us, at home). We really liked this champagne ~ at Glover Gardens or in Temecula ~ and will have it again. It is slightly sweet without being cloying and compliments fruit and chocolate desserts. It paired extraordinarily well with my friend Katherine’s homemade baclava, a holiday tradition. (Side note to Katherine: this is one of the reasons we need our allotment increased – so we’ll have some left for New Year’s!)
Read the online reviews of Bistro Des Augustin in Paris and you’ll be hooked. There’s no way to overstate the simple deliciousness of the gratin at this humble little restaurant at the corner of the Pont Neuf and the Seine river in Paris, on the Left Bank.
Also billed as a wine bar, Bistro Des Augustin is known primarily for its gratins and provides a nice selection of them, from vegetarian with tomatoes or eggplant, to duck breast or chicken, to smoked salmon. But the one that four of my colleagues chose on a recent summer evening after work (on a business trip) was the Bistro Gratin.
As you can see, this dish is swimming in creamy, cheesy goodness, browned to perfection on top and sprinkled with extra herbs of Provence. Bits of bacon dot every bite of the perfectly cooked potatoes. All four of my colleagues who ordered this meal were close to swooning with the goodness of it. I realized after begging a bite that I had made a huge error in judgment by ordering a (very good) smoked salmon and goat cheese salad, copying our only French colleague in the group and trying to eat healthy. Mistake! The salad was lovely, fresh and flavorful, but the Bistro Gratin far surpassed it – it was downright heavenly. You know those dishes your grandmother made waaaaaay back when you were a child and no one has ever been able to reproduce, no matter how hard and how often they tried? That’s the taste in this gratin; it’s grandmotherly good,an instant and permanent deep-seated taste memory.
The menu lists the ingredients for the Bistro Gratin: potatoes, cream, egg, bacon, herbs de Provence, garlic and Emmental cheese. I haven’t been able to find a recipe with this precise mix of ingredients on the internet, but I am on a mission to recreate this cheesy, rustic masterpiece.
I can’t recommend this restaurant highly enough, and noticed in the online reviews that many of the testimonials include a mention of eating there two or more times during the same vacation! In addition to the mouth-watering, jealous-making (if you didn’t order it) gratin, Bistro Des Augustins has a Parisian homey charm and an authentic, true sense of place. Did I mention that it is tiny? There are perhaps a dozen tables, half inside and half out.
Here’s one final shot of the Bistro Gratin, until I can replicate it at home and share it with you here.
In an Edinburgh pub that traces its history back to 1680, you can get a meal that is worthy of the ages. Simple, delicious, rich and filling, the Venison Casserole at The Ensign Ewart on the Royal Mile is … well … almost indescribable in its deliciousness.
On a chilly Thursday July evening (yes, you heard that right, the words “chilly” and “July” in the same sentence), three colleagues and I set out, rather wearily, to find dinner in Edinburgh. Just arrived from our first stop in Aberdeen, we were worn out and a teeny bit grumpy, still jet-lagged from our Monday-Tuesday international flight. We grumbled and stumbled down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and it started to rain, so we ducked into the first open doorway, the Ensign Ewart pub.
The four of us joined in a collective sigh of relief: there was warmth, in a fireplace and the ambience, there was one table open for us, and we were out of the rain.
And then the food was a bonus! Three of us ordered the Venison Casserole. It made us happy, happy, happy. Steaming hot, a rich and savory blend of mash and roasted chopped venison, this dish was total comfort food. Our fourth member chose the Cheesy Garlic Bread, another stellar option.
After our meal, we sat, satiated and comfortable, and then heard the wonderful sound of violins warming up. A quick recon trip into the tiny pub’s front room revealed a trio of ladies who played and sang traditional Scottish music, and we were enchanted.
It’s the simple things: if you are in Edinburgh, go to the Ensign Ewart.
That’s how I would characterize the outdoor food court at Waverly Mall in Edinburgh. Perched on the mall’s street-level “roof” above several floors of stores, the “Eats” area has a magnificent view of old-town Edinburgh. It feels like an upscale food truck park and bears no resemblance to the dismal dining areas you’ll find in most malls with their routine collection of fast-food chains. Hipsters and tourists alike soak up the local color and atmosphere here at a collection of umbrella-topped tables with comfy chairs.
Lively vendors in small booths present a range of options, from coastal fare such as freshly-shucked oysters, lobster and fish ‘n chips paired with to hearty land-based selections like venison hot dogs, grilled portobellos and giant burgers. Drinks booths provide locally brewed craft beers, surprisingly inexpensive (and good) champagne and a variety of coffees and flavored teas in addition to the standard soft drinks. You can mix and match your sips and bites from the different booths to create the perfect casual al fresco meal.
So that’s what we did. Our group of four was captivated by one of the burgers from Butcher Boy, the aptly-titled purveyor of grilled-onsite meats. The burger was called the Butcher Bad Boy. It was, indeed, a Baaaaad Boy. See for yourself from their description:
Candied bacon, cheddar cheese, sandwiched between two handmade patties, fried onions, and more cheese!!!!
Well, wouldn’t you? We did. The Butcher Bad Boy was a good burger, indeed. All four of us chose it, without consultation. It wasn’t necessary – we instinctively knew that this was the burger for us.
But back to that mixing and matching thing…we had a smoked salmon appetizer from one booth, our Bad Boy burgers from another, and our drinks from still another.
Burgers consumed, we turned to the view. The sun came out for a few minutes in cold and misty Edinburgh. Awesome blue sky!
The buildings were highlighted by the golden evening sunlight.
Foodie-worthy, hipster-appropriate, and with gorgeous views, too: I can highly recommend the Waverly Mall food court in Edinburgh.
Copyright 2017, Glover Gardens Cookbook
~ with thanks to my colleagues for their marvelous company, their input on this post and their pictures ~
The fourth post in a series about the New Orleans Jazz Festival covering food (restaurants and recipes), fun, music and travel tips.
In the run-up to our Jazz Fest trip in early May, we are building anticipation by looking back at past good times in New Orleans. So many wonderful experiences! Magical and memorable performances by musicians: famous, less famous and not-famous-but-fabulous. Festival food so good that it inspires poetry. World-class restaurants run by award-winning chefs that serve dishes so beautiful and tasty you think you might be dreaming (like Dorothy in the Emerald City). I can’t wait to get back!
On the topic of great restaurant meals, I’d like to start this post with a confession: I have a “food crush” on New Orleans chef Susan Spicer.
Spicer’s career journey is the one I would have chosen if I’d known earlier I’d be in love with food all my life, and if I had more talent, and if I was from New Orleans, and if I wasn’t truly in love with my own career in knowledge management…well, you get the idea. Who is Susan Spicer, you ask? Said Chris Waddington of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in a 2015 profile:
Susan Spicer’s Bayona qualifies as a New Orleans culinary landmark. That happens when a restaurant lasts 25 years in the same French Quarter location, when the chef piles up critical kudos, launches new talents, expands on local traditions and pens a well-regarded cookbook.
He’s right, and then some! She has a James Beard award! She has been a guest actor on the HBO Show Treme, and is the basis for one of the characters! I first learned of Spicer’s restaurant, Bayona, while scanning travel guide books during the one-hour flight from the Bayou City (Houston) to the Crescent City. (This was before TripAdvisor was a thing.) My friend Nancy and I were on a girls’ trek to Jazz Fest, our first time to make this particular trip together. We dog-eared restaurants that piqued our interest and vowed to hit as many as we could in our 3 big days in the Big Easy. Bayona was high on the list – it “had me” at Cream of Garlic soup (see recipe at the end of this post). The Frommer’s review included this single-word sentence (about lamb topped with goat cheese): “Heaven.”
Bayona was beyond perfection when we visited for lunch. Nestled in a 200-year old Creole cottage in the French Quarter, it is a quiet retreat from the throbbing pulse of New Orleans. Seated on the patio amidst huge tropical plants protected by surrounding 18th-century brick walls, you are aware from the first moment that you are in for something special.
Wine glasses are crystal, as it should be
Just as lovely in my amateur photos
And then, there’s the food. I could try to describe it, but…words fail me. Truly. The dish below was so good that I had it again the next year when the Grill-Meister and I made the Jazz Fest trek, our first time in the Crescent City together.
When I dragged the (very willing) Grill-Meister to Bayona in 2012, we asked about Susan Spicer’s cookbook, Crescent City Cooking. They sell copies at the restaurant. I made my “food crush” confession to our (excellent) waiter and we enthusiastically told him to add a cookbook to our bill. A few minutes later, out came Susan with the cookbook! She was incredibly gracious and autographed my copy. The cookbook is wonderful, and my food-love and admiration for her continues.
Like the rest of New Orleans, Bayona doesn’t take itself too seriously (except for the food). The staff is warm, welcoming, fun, and perhaps a bit quirky. The interior decor is bright and colorful.
After Nancy and I did the first recon, and then went back the next year, the Grill-Meister was my Bayona date. He had the Cream of Garlic Soup during his first Bayona experience. Oh. My. Gosh! The recipe was published on the internet, so I have repeated it here, courtesy of the Times-Picayune:
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups peeled and sliced onions
2 cups peeled but not chopped garlic cloves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
7 cups chicken stock
1 bouquet garni (parsley stems, thyme sprigs and bay leaf)
3 cups stale bread, torn into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until they turn a deep golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Add the thyme, 6 cups of the chicken stock, and the bouquet garni and bring to a boil. Stir in the bread cubes and let simmer for 10 minutes, until the bread is soft. Remove the soup from the heat and cool for 10 minutes.