Archive for the Travel Category

Tokyo Restaurant Roundup

Who’s got time to blog anymore?

Anyway, I did want to get a list down of the restaurants that we thought were worth recommending. Really, pretty much everything we ate was good, at the very least. So that means we didn’t try Yoshinoya, but we did even go to some pretty down and dirty noodle shops for quick meals, and that food was certainly passable.

But here’s the good stuff:


Very hard to say, but this might have been my favorite of the trip. This was an old-school noodle house featuring tsukemen, which is a noodle I didn’t really know about until this meal. They’re thicker and saltier than soba, made from white flour (I think) and nice and al dente. I found this place on Chowhound.

The noodles were great. They come served with pork belly (not really as fatty as US pork belly, so maybe it’s a different cut) or sliced pork. Of course, we got both. Then they come with bowls of broth with veggies. They have shoyu or miso. You can guess which we got (both). You dunk the noodles in and load up the soup, eat them with veggies and pork. Heaven.

And there are two other great items: the aged egg (liked it, but pretty mild) and the negi-wonton, as in, scallion-wonton. It’s a plate of pork dumplings, with homemade wrappers, clearly, in a nice soy-based sauce, covered with scallions. Loved it.

The noodle plate with pork belly, and the negi-wantons

Important note here: pretty much no English is spoken at Suzuran. We ran into some Americans there who tried to help, a bit, but they were kinda lost, too. And it was our first morning, so we didn’t really know how to deal yet. The menu has some pictures, but we figured out, after we ordered, that the more complete pictures are inside the restaurant on the wall above the front window. You might try ordering by pointing at these if you go.

Finally, a line forms. We got there a few minutes before they opened for lunch (11:30?) so we got right in.

Next up:


Another find on Chowhound. We were looking for something good and close to our hotel after a long day walking the streets and riding the subways. We really weren’t expecting much; I guess that’s the best mood for being surprised.

Yuian is located on the 52nd floor of the Sumitomo building in Nishi-Shinjuku, so it was basically across the street from the hotel, which was the main selling point to us. I don’t think I’ve dined on top of a skyscraper since Windows on the World. If you remember that restaurant, you know how long ago that would have to be.

Anyway, this was our first shoeless experience, which was definitely fun. The place had a gorgeous sushi bar and waiting area, and then, when we were taken to our table we were shocked to find out that we were sitting on the floor (with a foot well) right at the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows looking out over Tokyo. I guess, considering the number of skyscrapers in Tokyo, this isn’t such a rare situation, but it was spell-binding nevertheless to us lowly Angelenos.

Bad pic, but you can get a hint of the view out the windows

OK – the order of the day here is Izakaya. So we ordered some sake and a ton of appetizers and went to town. They do also have a set menu, but we didn’t go that route. We went fried, pickled, steamed, etc.

Salad and pickles and veggies

Fried gluten things with pork

In addition, we had sushi and sashimi (both great) and my favorite item of the night was a tofu skin (yuba?) in tofu milk, or something like that. The English translation was “sleeky tofu” which would seem about right, if only sleeky were a word. Maybe they meant slimy? Silky? It was both of those. Also mucousy. And great!

Third up, was another noodle place. At home, I don’t think I’m that crazy for noodles, but here, I couldn’t get enough. And we never did find excellent soba, but that’s another story.

Chuka Soba Inoue

Apparently, ramen was once called “chuka soba.” So this old-school ramen hut uses the old terminology. Confusing, but fine.

We found this place listed in a few spots on the web – one being the New York Times, actually. And we knew we’d be walking by it on the way to Tsukiji, so we figured we ought to pay a visit.

There’s only one order of business here on the “menu,” and that’s a bowl of ramen. Granted, no English was happening, but I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing to say, other than the number of bowls you want. Then they boil your noodles, make your broth, add the MSG, assemble, and lay pork slices and bamboo shoots on top, with some scallions. Done.

The chef is shaking in some special ingredient (MSG)

You take the bowl, and walk over to one of the bar tables nearby, and slurp away.

Here’s Leo doing just that:

I was a little scared to step away and snap the pic because I thought he might suck the whole bowl down before I had a chance to dig in.

So that’s the roundup of the great meals. We also had many, many others that were both delicious and memorable, including shabu shabu, a nine course tofu meal, grilled eel, all-you-can-eat deep fry, tonkatsu style, tons of street food (mochi, roasted sweet potatoes, and plenty of other things that we can’t name, still), gyoza (yes, a whole meal of it), tempura (not as good as I was hoping for, actually) and, of course, sushi. I would say the one letdown was the tempura – we need to try again on that. And the soba we had was at fast-food-ish type places, so next time, we need to find a handmade, 100% buckwheat soba place.

I can’t wait to go back!

Well, after years of drinking tea with boba, I’ve come to learn that Hong Kong claims to be the birthplace of milk tea, which is basically the tea you drink with boba. Now, I’m not really sure how milk tea differs from the old English tea with cream and sugar, but there’s some whole story about straining it through pantyhose for some reason – anyway, they claim it.

And there are quite a few shops around town that serve it. We tried one in Mong Kok in Kowloon called Gong Cha where I got a crazy version with this strange thick frothy sweet milk on top that you sample first, then mix in to the rest of the drink.

It was definitely unusual, so it was interesting, but I’m not sure it was my cup of tea.

Next we got into the witty-names place. We went to Easy Drink, Easy Go.

Yes, that’s Eric there behind the umbrella. Sometimes I really have a way with the camera.

This did go easy – into the trash. We both got citron (or citon) and it was pretty nasty – sweet rind bits amid the boba. Essentially, undrinkable.

Finally, we got to ComeBuy. Blatant.

And that was the best one – straight up sweet milky tea, with boba.

For lunch, we went to an old dim sum house, in place since 1926. This was a bit of a challenge, and would have been even harder for a group larger than two. You basically have to jostle to find your own place at a communal table of 8 to 10 people, and the hustle to get food. But it’s worth it.

The restaurant was Lin Heung Tea House. You actually enter through the bakery and roast meats area (they smell so good! more on that later) and go up a flight of stairs into a madhouse. A man who presumably worked there was nice enough to roughly guide us to some places opening up after we milled about with the others looking for tables for about 10 minutes.

We were in a location that was a bit out of the way of the main cart route (which is probably why we got seats at all) so a woman with a cart took a little pity on us and brought us over some char siu bao and other goodies to get started. One was an egg dumpling, basically a boiled egg yolk on top of a mound of ground pork and shrimp, in a casing like a har gow skin. Really good. After not making much more headway, I took the charge sheet and went in search of more items. Here’s a picture of one woman about to hand me some plates from her cart – she was a little surprised when I snapped it:

I can’t remember exactly what it was, but something wrapped in a big goopy cabbage leaf was probably my favorite. I also liked the veggies and pork wrapped in bean curd skin. Really, it was all good. And we were out of there, full and greasy (no napkins!) in probably half an hour. Total cost, $120HK, or about $15US.

There was clearly a whole culture going on in this place that we didn’t understand. To start, the woman who brought us plates brought us a little serving bowl of hot water, and put a tea cup in it. I can only guess that she meant to warm the tea cup before pouring tea in it. Then she put a spoon in there – we tried to play along, but we didn’t really get it. I kept meaning to watch someone else go through the ritual when they first sat down, but I never caught it.

Then there was the tea. These places are called, after all, tea houses, so the tea is central. We just got a standard pot of Chinese green tea, but many others had a bowl of leaves, with a plate on top, that kept getting refilled with hot water. I’m not sure if, again, we were doing something wrong, or if these were just one-person versions of our pot, that had been rehydrated so many times that the leaves grew huge. Anyway, clearly a lot was going on here that was over our heads.

Dinner at Yellow Door Kitchen

Friends had mentioned this place before I left, and then I also saw it online in a few places, so I figured it was either a tourist trap, or pretty good. And the concept sounded intriguing. Bottom line – VERY good. And while there were definitely out-of-towners in there, that’s no reason at all to stay away.

The place is on the sixth floor of a nondescript building at the beginning of a market street near Central. This is the way of many restaurants. They aren’t on the ground floor since that real estate is so expensive. What amazes is me is how anyone finds them, and, further, the lack of decoration for the “lobby” in these buildings. Essentially, you go in a narrow hallway, past mailboxes recessed into the wall, to a tiny elevator – all pretty rundown, like an apartment building in Queens. And nothing seems commercial about it. But once you’re in the restaurant, it’s all very business-like again. Anyway, then concept makes sense – avoid the expensive ground level space. But I feel like I’m missing (again) a lot of what’s really going on, since it’s in these anonymous buildings, and not at ground level where I’m walking.

The restaurant has a set menu – just one. Here’s a picture:

The descriptions are really pretty simple and, in most cases, each dish was also, in a way that the right flavor really shone through.

First you get all of the entrees at once. Each portion is pretty small, but each one is rich:

Sorry for the bad lighting on that one.

Several of these dishes were notable. The spicy beef (back left) was definitely spicy (perfect with TsingTao) and oily and rich. The pickled cucumbers contrasted nicely with that. The bean curd skin was in a garlic chili oil that had some amazing flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. That was probably my favorite. The edamame in “liquor dregs” was pretty good, if simple. I was remarking to Eric that if we didn’t have edamame at home, we’d likely try to eat the whole thing here.

The one really unusual item was the roast pork. It was almost like a molecular gastronomy item from a different style of restaurant – diaphanous sheets of pork, but ones that held together, with a sauce that evoked what Eric coined “the smell of Hong Kong.” It was like that smell, the smell of roasted meats, was reduced down to this little bit of sauce on the pork. This is the middle item in the picture – not sure if it was served in that position on purpose.

Eric and I are now craving the Hong Kong smell, and even now at 5 AM, kinda tired and definitely jet lagged, I’d like to get my hands on some roast goose or duck or pork – or all three. Walking the streets, the smell just pops out for a moment here and there. You look around, looking for what my brother-in-law calls “duck in window,” but it’s never there. I guess it’s at that eighth floor restaurant that I’ll never see.

OK – back to Yellow Door Kitchen. I was a little worried that the mains would come out all at once also, and we’d be overwhelmed, then done, but they came out one at a time, and each was a bit larger.

Next came a soup which was just a broth with a mushroom. Not bad, but nothing special. Maybe it was a sort of palate cleanser?

Then came my favorite dish of the night: the chicken. And I’m not really a chicken lover. But this was pretty perfect. The chicken must have been roasted, then it sat on a bed of shredded leeks, with roasted garlic and spicy oil all over it. Man, that was good. Spicy and oily and salty and even sweet from the garlic. Really good.

The pork rib tasted like a western-style dish to me – almost short rib, with the onions.

The squid was pretty good with the potential to be a belly bomb – deep fried, with a little mayo or something, and some grapes and other fruit. Different and not bad. The cabbage was great because of the broth, and it made a nice break after the heaviness of the preceding dishes. The the duck was also very good, but I was getting very, very stuffed.

Squid Salad

Then came the dan dan noodles. I had always assumed this was some Americanized dish for kids – noodles in a thin peanut butter sauce. But I guess that’s just the American version – this sauce was MUCH better – richer with sesame and no peanut. I can’t say the noodles themselves were extraordinary, but I did eat them all.

I wasn’t a big fan of the soup for dessert. The snow fungus had a nice crunch, but the warm papaya didn’t really do it for me.

Anyway, I hope I have another meal like this one, but I can’t imagine I will. This place was great!

Leo in Prague

Walking in front of the American Embassy on the way to dinner.

Leo Prague

French Laundry and Yountville

There are lots of restaurants in lots of cities that I love going to, but there are only a few restaurants that I think of going to in the future, for years. One is Chez L’ami Louis in Paris. I’ve been to Paris twice, and even tried to go once, but I haven’t crossed the threshold.

Another is the French Laundry in Yountville. And I finally went, for my birthday.


So here I am on the other side, and it’s a curious thing. Were the years of anticipation more enjoyable than the event itself? Maybe, but probably not. But it is a bit strange to not have this dinner to look forward to anymore. I can yearn for another, but that can’t have the same place in my imagination, since so much of it is now concrete. And I’m confronted with the big question: would I go back? Hard to say. It certainly was excellent, but it was not cheap, or even just expensive, and it’s also a trip.

As far as the evening itself, more than anything, I was amazed and put at ease by the service. To me, service can’t make or break a restaurant. If the food’s good, I’ll put up with a lot. But if the food isn’t, even great service can’t rescue a meal. So take great food and pair that with excellent service, and you get the French Laundry.

I had always assumed that the menu was set, no questions asked. But there were a limited list of choices to make, and for my wife, who eats fish but not meat, the waiter nicely interspersed vegetarian items and extra seafood items in for meats on the regular menu. This isn’t a “no substitutions” type of place. This place is built for extreme enjoyment and comfort and ease.

I think the aspect of the service that most confronted and dissolved my anxiety was the wine question. We brought two bottles of wine – a cabernet from a friend’s winery, and a dessert wine. I wanted to bring some wine so that I wouldn’t end up paying $1000 just for three bottles from the list. But it wasn’t that simple. I learned a lot in planning the wines to bring – among other things that you can’t bring a wine that is on the wine list, and that you should order a bottle off the list for each bottle you bring. Thought through, these niceties make good sense. But they were a little fresh to me. Thus began probably too much thought devoted to this issue. While I assumed the menu was set, I assumed the wine list was a minefield I’d have to expertly navigate.

So the host relieved me of my two carry-ins immediately, and at our table, I was presented with the wine list – or wine book. And here’s where the suavity began. The waiter sized me up quickly and accurately, and gently took over. When I say he sized me up, this included both the extent of my ability to relinquish control, and my price range. When I spoke about starting with champagne, and vaguely gestured toward the recommended bottle, he nicely guided me to one for half the price, promising we would enjoy it as much. When we discussed what we’d like in a white for a bit, he recommended two half bottles as a way to progress and match the courses where he would serve them.

Then, he made two more moves that really sealed the deal. One was that he asked if we’d like some of the sauternes we’d brought for dessert to be served earlier, with our pate. He suggested that just a sip would pair nicely. More work for him, and on a bottle we brought in, but he suggested it, and he was right on.

Next, I mentioned to my friend that Brooklyn Brewery makes a special ale just for the Thomas Keller restaurants. My friend and I both revere good beer, so I said this in a bittersweet way, figuring it just didn’t fit into this meal. The waiter overheard and suggested that we share a bottle during the cheese course. Perfect!

So at this point, service-wise, we were completely set. I’m pretty sure he could have scalded me with hot coffee and I would have smiled. And this was all in addition to the casual food banter about the origins of ingredients and the methods of preparations that came and went, never lasting too long to become tiresome.

On to the food. With a restaurant this perfect, for some reason, what sticks in my mind was the one dish I had that had no flavor: the eel. The freshwater eel was tempura battered and fried and while it had a great texture, it had no flavor. But that was one of maybe 12 courses (they claim to serve nine) and so I need to let it go, especially because at least two other dishes were basically perfect, and two more were outright amazing.

The cornet (not sure if that’s the word they used – it sounded like that, but with food nouns these days, you can never tell a neige from an emulsion) of salmon with creme fraiche was pretty transcendent. At Spago in LA, they serve something along these lines with tuna in a miso cone, but I’m thinking that the French Laundry interpretation is maybe the original, and done perfectly. I can still taste it.

Another item that sounds like it never leaves the French Laundry repertoire is the ‘oysters and pearls.’ I’d heard plenty about this from friends who’d had it. It’s pretty hard to oversell. Somehow, you’re eating warm, raw oysters, in a smooth, silky sauce, with a mound of caviar (from Sacramento, no less). It looks gorgeous, and it’s luxuriant to eat, but not over the top.


So one small level down from there I’d put the pate and the lobster. The pate was of foie gras, served with salts (yes! plural!) and brioche. Except, by the time we dug in, someone decided that our brioche was probably cool, so as we reached for it, they asked us to wait, and in seconds replaced it with just-toasted pieces. OK – maybe a little over the top.

The lobster was poached perfectly in two butters (yup – plural again). As great as that was, it came with fried potato disc, and some kind of otherworldly leek compote. I wouldn’t even try to recreate this because I’m sure I can’t, but if I did, I’d have to figure out how to cram a cup of cream into two tablespoons of leek compote. Is it even possible? And without the heavy feeling of just eating pure fat? I’ve got no clue, but someone there is really doing many things right.

This was definitely a meal I’ll never forget. But this was in the wine country – home of lots of good restaurants. We ate in two other restaurants while we were there, both great. One was Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant in Napa. Unfortunately, I had just downed a hamburger and onion rings at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher about two hours before our reservation, so I was a little full for this meal, but it was great. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

The other was one that I’ll seek out again: Ad Hoc, another Thomas Keller restaurant in Yountville with a very different aesthetic. Here, the restaurant is casual and busy and loud, and there is no choice on the menu at all. It’s family style, you get what you get. We were lucky enough to have a reservation on fried chicken night, which we’d heard was very popular. In fact, the hosts were turning away people in droves as we waited for our reserved table.

The chicken in question is battered in an herb-buttermilk paste and fried. It must be brined ahead of time to be so juicy. and the herbs (rosemary, clearly, and maybe sage) really shine with the frying. They started us with a three bean salad, and served the chicken with a corn and tomato salad, and some mac and cheese that has its own reputation, which it deserves. Fresh, local, in-season ingredients, presented simply. This how I strive to cook, and what I love.

OK – here comes the comparison between the French Laundry, and Ad Hoc,. Does it say anything that in the four days we spent in Keller-ville, the only time we saw him was at Ad Hoc, eating dinner with his friends? Maybe he can’t afford Bouchon or get a reservation at the French Laundry, but Ad Hoc was turning away walk-ins without reservations in droves, the night we were there, yet he kept a table for his group.

Maybe he’s had enough of the formality of the French Laundry (coat required) and he likes the simplicity of Ad Hoc – but, in any event, I do.

The menu was as varied, we only drank one bottle of wine, and restaurant wasn’t as luxurious, and we weren’t with friends, but in many ways, that’s the meal I’d recreate, at home or at a restaurant. And Ad Hoc is, most likely, the restaurant I’ll be back to first.

Dinner at Ad Hoc last night

Stupid iPhone camera!

Anyway, that’s the buttermilk herb fried chicken with mac and cheese and a corn salad. Prior was a four bean salad with arugula and after was a cheese course and a roasted peach with ice cream and caramel. Very comfort foodie.

Had a delicious Zinfandel from Brown. And Keller was eating a couple tables away.

Quick New Orleans Food Recap

Just before I forget, I wanted to get down some food notes:

-Coops for lunch: classic old-time NOLA place. Liked it, especially the po boy (oyster) and the fried crayfish. Also, good gumbo and mint juleps. The waitress insisted that I try a cold Jagermeister shot on the way out and that basically knocked me out. Great kitchen in the back, by the way.

-Herbsaint for dinner: best restaurant of the trip. The egg on pasta floored us, as did the mushrooms and asparagus roasted with lardo. Amazing place.

-Butcher for lunch: great, all around. Great sandwiches, great sides, great drinks. Very casual, but heavenly. Related to Cochon and Herbsaint.

-Lillette for dinner: Also excellent, but if I had one place for dinner, I’d choose Herbsaint.

-Central Grocery Muffaletta – the classic, really pretty good.

-Napoleon House – fun place, but I guess I not a huge fan of a Pimm’s cup.


Apple Farm in San Luis Obispo

So for the first night of our Thanksgiving week trip, we’re in SLO at the unbelievably cutesy Apple Farm.

Given that we got a ‘family suite’ we’re in the outbuilding beside the freeway. Pretty awesome. Maybe they figure that family=kids=noise so they stick you as far away as possible.

One upside is that they do have lemon bar soap – see the pic.

The town is actually really nice, comfortable, dense, and has plenty of history in and among the nationwide chain stores. We ate at what many seem to claim as the best restaurant in town: Buona Tavola. It was certainly fine, but nothing I’d rush back to.

Anyway, I’m writing from my iPhone here, and this post has disappeared three times now, so this is my last attempt.

(can’t find my lemon bar soap pic, so please accept this pic I got while running instead)

Having spent some more time here, we really think Fayence is a beautiful hillside town. Our house is close enough to walk everywhere, and we even walked over to the neighboring small town of Tourettes two mornings. Fayence has a market three days a week full of great produce, meats, cheeses, clothes, toys, linens, etc. and there are additional artisan markets some evenings. There are several restaurants, and the two we’ve eaten in so far – La Farigoulette and Restaurant La France – have both been spectacular. The meat at La France was delicious served with a brown butter sauce with mushrooms. Then the fish at La Fagoulette was roasted and served with fennel greens and fennel pollen – amazing. Equally, appetizers and deserts at both places have been excellent. I was surprised to see so much raw fish being used here, but I suppose that we aren’t more than an hour from Italy, and they do make plenty of crudo over there.


The view from our house, of the town and clock tower in Fayence

The view from our house, of the town and clock tower in Fayence


We went into Antibes for a day trip. For a beach town, there isn’t a lot of great beach. But the old city is nice, the food we had was good, and the Picasso Museum (closed, of course, the day we tried to go) looked to be pretty interesting as it’s located in the Grimaldi Palace, right on a cliff in the old city. We tried to go to the beach and do a bit of snorkeling, but we just got in the water when it started to rain, then Leo spotted a pretty large jellyfish, and so we called it a day. So did many others, it seems, so the road out to the A8 was very slow-going.


Walking just beyond the old city in Antibes, along the wall

Walking just beyond the old city in Antibes, along the wall


The other day trip we did was to Nice. Here, we did two long walks: one through the old town and one on the Promenade des Anglais to the Quai des Etats-units and up to the castle hill. I remember the rocky coastline of Nice, but I didn’t remember how painful it is to walk on without sandals. Wow. And the waves were really crashing that day, which is normally a good thing, but in this case, it meant that we couldn’t easily get in or out of the water. Once you got beyond the break, coming in was tough because you’d get pounded on the rocks, try to stand, hurt your feet, and get swept up in another wave. Next time I’ll get some water shoes – if I bother with a next time. I now see the value of a sandy beach.

The food of Nice is really pretty excellent. Besides the pebbled beaches, my other etched memory of Nice from more than 20 years ago is of the pan bagnats. A pan bagnat is basically a big roll (they claim it’s unique to Nice – it’s sort of like a large soft Kaiser roll with no seeds and a good flavor) sliced in half, doused in olive oil and salt, and then layered with lots of things, almost always including tuna, hard-boiled egg, anchovies, tomato, lettuce, and olives. I’ve also seen peppers and onions in some. It’s a pretty big, and cheap, way to eat, and that’s likely why I first tried it when I was a starving student. But it’s great, and the one I had in Nice made me want to make them at home. Mine was just from some window cafe – but I had a better, haut cuisine version that night.

The other food we found that seems to have its origins in Nice (although we had more of it in the market in Fayence) is socca cakes. These are large pancake or crepe-like flatbreads. You get a piece of the bread, often sliced up into smaller pieces. The best ones we had are the ones in Fayence, but the “queen” is apparently in Nice at the market – Therese. I couldn’t handle her haughty attitude or the line, so we didn’t get a chance to taste, but we did get to see her verbally abuse some customers – who took it, I suppose as a testament to how good her socca cakes were. In any event, they’re made with chickpea flour, so they have a different flavor, and a golden color. They’re pretty addictive. These, along with the pan bagnat, and the Nicoise salad, are the local indigenous foods.


Cooking socca cakes in an oven at the Fayence market

Cooking socca cakes in an oven at the Fayence market


So after walking quite a bit and getting thrown around on the beach in the waves, then hurting our feet on the pebbles, and making four or five trips into the fiery inferno where we parked our car, (four levels below the Place Massena), we went for a fancy dinner at La Reserve, which is around on the other side of the port. That meant we could drive and likely park there (plenty of spots) so we wouldn’t have to go back into the dungeon for the car after dinner.

The restaurant has been there for some time, but they have a new chef recently, and his other restaurant in Nice has a Michelin star. So we figured we should do OK. We did.


A picture of a picture of La Reserve, as it was maybe 80 years ago

A picture of a picture of La Reserve, as it was maybe 80 years ago


This place was pretty expensive, but when you eat at this kind of place, you end up with a lot you don’t expect. We started with an amuse (eggplant stuffed with ricotta) and then breadsticks and bread, each served separately. Then we were served local vegetables lightly boiled and then served in a cold, watery pistou. That was very refreshing – even the kids were happy about it. We had our appetizers, and Christina and I had nouvelle pan bagnats. These were definitely a step up from the ones in town for 4€ (not that those aren’t good, too). But the ingredients were just delectable and the tuna was fresh and seared and the olive oil was fruity and the flavors together were great. 

After we were served the entrees, we discovered that of the four menus we had used to order, only one had prices: mine. Christina had no idea was the meal cost. That was pretty old-school. It’s been so long since I’ve seen that that when I last saw it, I didn’t have the one with prices.

Anyway, the meal proceeded through the cheese (reblochon, chevre, brillat-savarin, and roquefort), the pre-dessert (berry sorbet with fresh berries and fraise de bois), the desserts (actually, probably the least memorable course) and then the coffee and the little extra truffles and fruit jellies and macarons. Turns out they also have good WiFi.

More about Fayence

OK – so those are the big trips we took outside of Fayence. But staying in Fayence (which we did for several days) is really pretty wonderful. The town is about 1000 feet up, and just less than an hour from Nice, north of the A8. Our house, very generously lent to us by a friend of Christina’s, was a very short walk from the commercial area of the town – essentially the old town, a typical medieval hill town. The town has a bell tower (that seems to compete with the bell in the church, the church typically sounding the hour and the half hour about 10 seconds before the belltower), remnants of old walls, and a nice square for the market that occurs Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. The market has several different vendors, some of whom I’ve only seen once, while others come each time. The socca cakes, as mentioned above, are addictive. At Chez Regis, Regis can tell you who the family is that makes each cheese, and how long each individual crottin has been aged, and where and how long each ham has been smoked. He promised us the best roquefort that we’d ever have, and, two days later, he had it, and it was creamy, salty, tangy, and marvelous. All of the vendors at the market are extremely friendly – sometimes even flamboyant – and they take all the time they need with each customer. Sometimes, this drove me nuts, as when you aren’t the customer being lavished with time, you’re waiting for that customer to be finished. I know that’s just the way it is here and I could be more patient, but I’m sure I would have patronized more vendors if some transactions were completed a little more quickly. We spent a long time tasting cheeses and meats in Regis’ shop, just a bit up the hill, and the kids were about to expire by the time it was over. I kept saying, “fine, we’ll take X amount.” And Regis would say, “but you must taste it first, and compare it to the other.” It really was a very generous attitude, both of his time and his product.


Best raspberries ever - from the market, amazing

Best raspberries ever - from the market, amazing



So the town also has a bakery, a butcher, a small grocery store, a wine cave, several local products stores, and many restaurants. I’m surprised to say that there are more restaurants here than we’ll get to. In the old part of town with windy lanes with steps, each time you turn a corner thinking it’s all residential, you find more artisans or restaurants. 


Maya's favorite stand: Caneles of different flavors

Maya's favorite stand: Caneles of different flavors


We actually ate several lunches and one dinner at home with products from the local stores and the market, but the restaurants have really been pretty exceptional also. We ate at La Farigoulette one night, and enjoyed it quite a bit. That restaurant seems to get some press – it’s closest to the back street where our house was, and we couldn’t get in the first night without reservations. Christina and I both had types of fish that we’d never heard of before. We left knowing that we’d happily return, if we had time.

Our first market meal: pissaladiere, saucisson, olives, cheese, tapenade, and pistou

Our first market meal: pissaladiere, saucisson, olives, cheese, tapenade, and pistou

Another night we ate at Restaurant La France which is just above the main street at the main crossroads – or crosswalk, really: the main cross street is really a slow stairway in each direction. The meat that Leo (lamb) and I (beef) had here was truly amazing. His was roasted with thyme, and mine with mushrooms and brown butter. Another slam dunk, all the way through.

The creperie made for a nice snack one day – nothing too unusual, but solid. 

The cafe right in the heart of town (Bistrot Fayencois) on both sides of the main road was really pretty ordinary, and, even though they promised WiFi, that was only intermittent. I will say that what was kind of interesting about this place was that the restaurant itself is on one side of the main road, and their outdoor eating area is on the other. So the waitstaff is constantly crossing through traffic with food and dirty plates. It seems crazy, but we saw it repeated in other places. But don’t go for the food – it’s really the right place for a drink only.

The one feature that the town seemed to lack was good WiFi. But I finally found it! At the Espace Culturel – the cultural center and movie theater – there’s good, free WiFi. I couldn’t use VoIP with it, but for browsing and email, it was rock solid. Only problem is, you need to be down at the level of the theater doors to go get to it, and they often seem to lock the plaza sometimes so you can’t get the WiFi. But when you can, it’s good.

One night we ate at Le Canotier, which is still in the old part of town, but much lower down, where the main road switches back. It’s a quick, steep walk, and the pizza and salads were very good. Even better, the service was wonderfully friendly and the staff really seemed to enjoy their jobs and the evening.

On our last day, we drove over to Callians just to catch a glimpse of another hill town. This one is a bit smaller than Fayence, but it basically has the same idea: dense, old section, anchored by a church and a clock/watch tower. Bells ring every hour (and a single bell on the half hour). And here, we had an amazing lunch, at an Italian restaurant called Rendez-vous. They brine their own olives in-house (we got a jar to take home) and they pretty much fired on all cylinders, including dessert. The setting couldn’t be prettier, on a patio overlooking the hills in the distance. I had a plate of local cooked/roasted/prepared vegetables with some cheese and meats, and Leo had a great steak tartare. Maya’s tomato and mozzarella salad had some crazy heirlooms on it, and Christina’s rocket and parmesan had probably the best green leaves we’d tasted all trip. Great quick day trip (10 minutes away) and a great lunch.


The pool at the house in Fayence

The pool at the house in Fayence



Our last night in Fayence we ate at Les Temps du Cerises, which is apparently the name of a song by Henry Mancini. This place had a bit more of an international fusion menu, but still pretty French compared with the fusion you’d find in LA. We’d had the local vin du pays which I kept seeing in the farmer’s market: Val d’Iris. I’m getting a little liking of French wines, and this one seemed pretty solid. Leo had, yet again, a great steak, and I had lamb with Asian spices. But the best part was the dessert. I got a sampler plate of all six desserts, including a sour and tangy berry soup, and a creme brulee that had a nice but slight burned flavor on top.


Walking through Fayence on the way to dinner

Walking through Fayence on the way to dinner

So from there, all that remained was for us to pack all of our bags, slice up some baguettes to make sandwiches for the plane, and head to the Nice airport. Great trip.

This day was so long and crazy, this post is only about our transportation to France. I’ll be back with more info about Fayence in particular, and the remainder of our trip, after it’s over. The previous blog post has info about our week in Sitges.

So after a week, it was time to go to France. We had rented a car in Barcelona for the week (a Renault Leganza – a real boat. Christina thought it was maybe a Chrysler since it has so many elements of a cheap American car. Renaults must be the lowest rung of French cars. The clutch had a terrible springiness, and first gear was almost impossible to find instead of third. It definitely felt like I was driving a Crown Vic.). (I won’t go to far into my digression about how the cheap car makers use names for cars, while the better companies use numbers for their models – but someday . . .) We had to return this car in Barcelona, take a train over the border to France, and rent a car there. Renting a car in Spain and returning it in France is extremely expensive due to some European regulations. So when I called AutoEurope (really helpful people there) they recommended just doing two cars with a train in between. Christina wanted to get a train involved in the trip, so we reserved two cars, each for a week.

The train we needed turned out to be the same train that the Koetters were taking to Paris. But they had tickets and we didn’t. I almost bought them online, but I was a bit shocked to see them at $178US for the three hour ride – and that’s each person. Finally, when I couldn’t buy them online anymore (for some reason, they don’t seem to have e-tickets, so you have to buy them online five days before the trip) I went to the train station in Sitges to buy them. But they can’t sell them. Only the main stations in Barcelona can. So we decided to just show up and go from there.

That morning, early, we took the car back to the airport, and took the airport train to Barcelona Franca, only to find a “Montpelier – sold out” sign at the ticket office. And it said they were sold out for the next three days. So the ticket agent told us to rush back to Barcelona Sants, jump on an 8:30 to Cerbere (right across the border) and then get a train from there to Perpignan, where our car was waiting. So we ran, go on the train to Sants, and missed the train to Cerbere by five minutes. If anyone is reading this and wants a tip – the guy should have told us to get off at Passeig de Gracia, which eliminates two legs, and thus ten minutes, and would have gotten us on that train.

In any event, the next train was three hours later. So that put us pretty far behind schedule. We checked through the options: other trains (nothing), taxis (crazy expensive, and they didn’t seem willing to even do it), busses (seem to be pretty frowned upon by all we asked for info, and the best info would have taken us another subway ride to get), and one day rental cars ($900). We decided to wait the three hours. We bought tickets (34€ for all four of us) to Cerbere. After some snacks, we got on our third train of the day, after a last-minute track change. This wasn’t too bad – we got seats together and a place for our luggage. But the train was packed. Then, three stops later, the conductor announced that passengers to Cerbere had to, instead, switch to another train. Half this train was French, and most were foreigners, so everyone was helping everyone else figure out what to do, and we all got off this train on to another one, smaller, one level, and even more packed. 

Here, a very, very nice Frenchman asked a man to move his luggage so Christina could sit, and she really needed it. He was very chivalrous, and that was the first of several pieces of help he graciously offered to us. Leo and Maya sat on some of our luggage in the aisle, and I stood/leaned, crushed in the group near the door. I will say that, after the initial jostling for space, all of those I was with in the mosh pit were very nice and respectful, and everyone understood that we were in this mess together, and to try to make the most of it. So even though it was painful positionally, the attitude was very positive. At one stop, by which I had made my way to the aisle with the rest of the family, a woman and her two kids got on. The kids were pretty young, and again the same Frenchman helped. We also tried to make room for them, but one kid couldn’t even stand, he was so tired. A woman, must have been a grandmother, probably Russian, took the kid on her lap, and he fell asleep almost immediately. Slowly, as people got off, the situation improved. Finally, an hour and a half in, by Figueres, even I had a seat.

So we arrive in Cerbere and need to get to Perpignan. We knew the train left about 75 minutes after we arrived, but we were late, so we had less than an hour. We waited in both lines – for the one ticket agent, and for the one automated machine. And waited. And waited. After almost no movement in our line, Christina got to the front of hers with the machine, so I went over to help. I had spoken with the helpful Frenchman in my line and pointed the machine out to him, so he had gotten in line just behind Christina, luckily.

I left the kids in the ticket agent line and went over to the machine. For an automated machine, this thing was interminable. And slow. And there was only one. The questions about options went on ad nauseum. Did the first adult have any special discounts? Non. Did the first adult have an SNCF pass? Non. How about the first child? Each question was slow, and totally unnecessary. How about a ‘special-options’ button or something? It probably took five minutes just to get through that, and the line behind us grew.

Then, time to pay. The machine takes, among other cards, Visa and Mastercard. Except that it doesn’t. Between us, we produced six different Visas from our wallets. None worked. Cash wasn’t accepted at the machine. Enter the chivalrous Frenchman. I couldn’t thank him enough for buying our tickets (22€). And we were able to pay him back with exact change. We later wondered what we would have done if he wasn’t there – I think I would have offered 50€ to anyone in line who would buy these for us with their credit card. In the end, with the painful delay and hot, crowded trains, and taking four trains instead of one, we did save $600, so all wasn’t lost. And the kids got a taste of traveling in Europe like a student instead of like a family that properly prepares for these connections.


Some ice cream after we finally got the train tickets in Cerbere

Some ice cream after we finally got the train tickets in Cerbere



And, so, we got to Perpignan, after a 45 minute train ride. This time, we all had seats pretty near each other, but, alas, no air conditioning. Nothing’s perfect. But it was short. 

We knew we still had a four-hour-plus drive to Fayence where we were staying for the next week. We got to AutoEurope and picked up our car. I have to say, I was hoping for a VW or a Citroen or a Peugeot after that Renault. Amazingly, we got a BMW. I’ve really never driven one a long distance before, and I have to say, having this car for the drive made it much more enjoyable. The car was a 118i, so it was pretty small, and sporty. We just barely fit all of our luggage in, and headed off, with the Garmin in charge. The first leg, to Montpelier, was riddled with stop and start traffic, that it was totally painful. What should have taken about one hour took well over two. But then we started really moving, about 160 km/h, and covering some ground, finally. 

We stopped at an awful highway restaurant and I saw an andouillette that looked good, since I was so famished. Waiting for the rest of the order, I started in the french fries. They do it best. Amazing. But the andouillette was truly horrific. Leo’s burger was pretty bad, too. But they had a salad bar with steamed leeks, roasted fennel, and other salads that made up for it.

Finally, at about 11 PM, we got to the house in Fayence that was lent to us by a friend of Christina’s. We really had no idea what to expect, and (writing from the porch, overlooking the hills of Provence) I’d have to say that I’m completely amazed by both the house, and the substantial, pretty, walkable hill town that’s a three minute walk away. We haven’t yet explored a ton, but we went to the Sunday market, bought tons of local foods, milled around, had some local wine, and just took in Provence. So far, so good.