Thursday, December 13, 2007

How to Avoid a $6,110 Lunch

NoCrowds was tasked recently with finding a nice place in London for a large family to have Christmas lunch. The first place we called sounded very nice with a luxurious menu, a visit from Santa and a broadcast of the Queen’s speech. When we did our sums, however, we were not amused.

Before drinks and service, lunch would have been a whopping £3,055 and as our client was American, that would have made it a $6,110 lunch. By the time everyone had something to drink and with the gratuity included, it would have been over $7,000. Needless to say, we looked elsewhere, but we bring this up to make a point. Much of what goes on in London restaurants these days is a total rip-off. Converted into dollars and it is an even bigger rip-off.

So imagine our concern when we received a call from the Sorellina who was in town and offering to take us out for a festive lunch. What to do? Do we pick something posh and stiff our baby sister or suggest for the umpteenth time that we make out way to the eponymous noodle shop, Wagamama. But wait. Hadn’t we read recently that the top rated L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Covent Garden, the very same Joel Robuchon who was voted the “Chef of the Century” by his peers, was offering a two course lunch for £19. We checked it out and mon Dieu, yes, there is a Santa Claus and so off we went.

The L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon more than lived up to its reputation. It was dark, sexy and stylish. We sat at the counter and watched the cooks work and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. We both began with pumpkin soup which was rich, creamy, sophisticated and just right for this time of year but the real treat was the main course of whiting with Robuchon’s world famous mashed potatoes which are rumoured to be 70% butter.

Now whiting is not a noble fish. According to fish expert, Alan Davidson, “It is commonplace that the flesh of the whiting, steamed, is good for invalids.” In the hands of the L’Atelier, however, whiting is sublime - fried delicately and presented “en colere” (biting its own tail). It just goes to show that in the hands of the talented, even humble ingredients taste luxurious. That certainly was the case with the very buttery mashed potatoes.

And now the punch line to this piece. What did this sexy, inventive and perfectly conceived lunch end up costing? With the addition of wine, water, dessert and gratuity, the Sorellina ended up spending £68. As she put it later in an email, “considering how expensive ordinary food in London is, I thought [the price] was pretty good. If you didn't order the wine it would have been very reasonable but then who wants a great lunch without wine.”

We agree.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE
Tel: 0207 010 8600
Lunch: 12pm-3pm
Dinner: 5:30 pm – 11pm

Photo courtesy of Joel Robuchon website

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities at Christmas

It was the best of times – Christmas. It was the worst of times - Global Credit Crisis. For NoCrowds, it was time to leave London for Paris to prepare for the season’s festivities. We love Paris during the run-up to Christmas. London is very jolly too, and we’ll be writing more on that later, but it is our view that the season really plays to Paris’s strengths. We love the elegant decorations, the profusion of lights, the celebration of food and the luxurious shopping.

We also love travelling to Paris from London by train. Eurostar service between the two cities is the one form of travel that has not become more disappointing in recent years. In fact, it recently got better. The opening of refurbished St Pancras International Station and the new high speed rail service means you no longer lumber out of poky Waterloo and chug through the Kent countryside but rather, pull out of a sleek architectural icon and race along at impressive speed, shaving 20 minutes off the trip. It did cross our mind that at a cost of £800 million for the station and £6 billion for High Speed 1, it cost £340 million for each minute saved, but hey, who’s counting.

Sadly, after a massive PR campaign which promised that St Pancras would “set new standards in station hospitality” with “unrivalled service and comfort”, we saw no improvement to the check-in, security procedures or amenities over those at Waterloo. Somehow, we missed Europe’s longest champagne bar which supposedly runs for 97 meters right beside the Eurostar platform (all we saw were trains) and the Wow Factor everyone was talking about only became apparent as we briefly entered the magnificent glass shed that, when it was built in 1868, was the largest enclosed structure in the world. Perhaps the facilities will get better. We suspect that although they claimed to have opened on time and budget, they weren’t really finished. With that said, we love the Eurostar service and are very happy to be 20 minutes closer to Paris.

As for Paris, we were once again enchanted. From Gare du Nord, we took the Metro on an efficient 15 minute run straight to the heart of the Left Bank and the world’s oldest and chicest department store, Le Bon Marche. Last year at Christmas we had this to say about the place and our view hasn’t changed one bit.

“At Bon Marche, you can find something fabulous for everyone on your Christmas list. Back in 1870, Aristide Boucicaut, the founder of the world's first department store, stated that his aim was to “seduce the clientele” by presenting the newest products in the most stylish surroundings. Over one hundred years later, the store continues to deliver on that grand promise. The architecture, once described by Emile Zola as a “cathedral to commerce” is large enough to absorb the Christmas crowds but not so large that one feels overwhelmed. Yes, it is expensive, but no more so than you would pay for the same branded goods elsewhere.From the excellent luggage, travel and ‘clothing for sport’ departments on the top floor to stationary, toys and glamorous children’s clothes in the basement, everything in Bon Marche seduces. In Housewares, even pots and pans look like art work and the area devoted to cleaning products and dustbins feels drop dead elegant. The Lingerie Department has everything from armament for buxom grannies to the flimsiest and most beautiful “what nots”. Throughout the store, people who serve you are, for Parisians, rather nice and decent linguists. Best of all, Bon Marche will wrap everything for you and the presentation is very smart.”

This year, mindful of the deteriorating economic outlook, we did what every prudent French woman does, we did our “looking” at Bon Marche but we reserved our buying for Monoprix. Last year we had this to say about the Monoprix and once again, our view hasn’t changed.

“After spending a morning in Bon Marche, we recommend that you head for Monoprix for food, stocking stuffers and lots of great inexpensive gifts. With outlets throughout Paris, the nearest Monoprix to Bon Marche is near St Germain des Pres at 50, rue de Rennes. Don’t let the tiny woman’s accessories area upstairs fool you. All the action is in the basement below.If Le Bon Marche is all about luxury then Monoprix is about value for money and even though the food halls at Bon Marche, called La Grande Epicerie de Paris, are the finest we know, and you shouldn’t miss taking a look, we always buy our Christmas food items at Monoprix. Over the years, financial constraints have taught us that you can purchase excellent quality Foie Gras, Marrons Glaces, Pain d’Epices, Pates de Fruit and all the elements for an elegant Christmas Eve dinner at Monoprix for considerably less than Bon Marche and we don’t think anyone has ever spotted the difference. Monoprix is also great for cheap but chic clothes and accessories and all kinds of “mess” that you need for Christmas. If Woolworths had style, it would be Monoprix.”

Having shopped till we dropped, it was now time to turn our attention to restaurants. For many years we have been eyeing the restaurant across the street from our apartment, Chez Dumonet Josephine. For years, our conversations went something like this: “We should go someday. Doesn’t look like much from the outside. On the expensive side, don’t you think.” But we had recently read that Chez Dumonet Josephine had fabulous food while perfectly delivering the vintage bistrot experience. After finally making our way across the street, we are happy to report that it is, indeed, a treasure.

Not only has the place not changed since the 1920s, we doubt it has even been painted. The missing door handle to the kitchen has been replaced by a piece of rope, the floor is uneven and the lighting unflattering. But the food, oh we had such gorgeous, lovely food including the best beef bourguignon in town, escalopes of fois gras with grapes that were magic and a miellefeuille that could feed a family and make you weak at the knees. Best of all, we were surrounded by other diners also savouring the kinds of meals and experiences you can only find in France. Globalization be damned. We ate as only the French can eat and it was divine.

The next day we continued our Christmas preparations by visiting E. Dehillerin, a legendary store for professional cookware in the 1st Arrondisement. For anyone interested in cooking and food, a visit to Dehillerin rivals just about any experience you can find in the City of Lights. This atmospheric store has been in the same family since 1820 and makes no concessions to the 20th century, much less the 21st. Close your eyes and it is easy to imagine that you are Mrs. Monet shopping for copper pots to take out to Giverny. The day we were there, however, there was a Japanese tour group racing around buying tiny gadgets and gizmos to fit into their tiny apartments back in Tokyo but we thought the store staff handled the invasion with relaxed good humour. Although tempted by the fabulous pots and pans at excellent prices, we took our direction from the Japanese and bought an assortment of items with which to eat snails and other small gifts.

Be sure to leave plenty of time to pay for your purchases at Dehillerin as bar code readers and the like are not to be found. In fact, it took three members of staff, and a considerable amount of time, to process even our small order. In any other store at Christmas time this would be annoying. At Dehillerin, buying gifts for your foodie friends becomes an experience. And that is why, year after year, we return to Paris at Christmas looking for magic. And we always find it.

Le Bon Marche
24, rue de Sevres
Tel: 01 44 39 80 00
Customer Service: 01 44 39 82 80
Metro: Sevres Babylone
Hours: 0930-1900 Monday through Wednesday and Friday. Open until 2100 on Thursday and 2000 on Saturday

Monoprix Dragon
50, rue de Rennes
Metro: St Germain des Pres
Hours: Mon – Sat from 9:00 to 22:00

E. Dehillerin
18 et 20 rue Coquilliere
Metro: Les Halles
Hours: Monday 9:00-12:30 and 2:00-6:00
Tuesday – Saturday 9:00 to 6:00

Chez Dumonet Josephine
117 rue du Cherche-Midi
Photo by Arnold Pouteau/Flickr