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In a prior life, I would always accept assignments to go to other parts of the US to evaluate their systems(s). Invariably I would (1) get all sorts of good ideas to implement back home and (2) have a better appreciation of how much better things were where I was than elsewhere in the US or outside.
So it is with travel to other than France; even Spain or Italy, which I get to at least once a year; they have much to teach me and much that makes me thankful that my knife and fork rest more often on Parisian tables than elsewhere.
Last month, Colette and I went to Romania on the invitation of an old friend we had hosted years ago in both France and the US. We eat frequently with him in both Paris and at American congresses, all over the US, and have similar palates.
He warned us that: “Romania is not like France, you will be disappointed by the food,” and asked “are you going to write up the experiences?” “Oh, we’ll do fine,” I said, “and Colette insisted that “We’re coming to see you and your beautiful country and not for the food.” Secretly, of course, I wished that the food would be astonishing and Colette combed her 8 travel guides for information on regional specialties, gleefully announcing that “stuffed cabbage,” a childhood favorite, was one.
Romania, which we knew to be a late convert to the Western European/NATO/EC crowd, had not only a long tradition of Francophilia but was incredibly American-friendly; everyone looked like us or vice-versa, so what could be different? Well, three things struck us in particular.
First was the ‘cultural difference” between the “service mentality” we are used to in the “West” versus there. Example at the Novotel in Bucharest:
We: “Could you change this 50 RON bill to 5 10’s?”
She: “I don’t have any 10’s.”
Second was the sameness of the menus/cartes. Granted, we ate at “typical” Romanian restaurants serving “traditional” food, at our request. And granted, in Paris, there’s some sameness, with practically everyone from Gagnaire to Flunch featuring duck and beef and fries and chocolate moelleux; but the dishes that went past us at almost every meal in Romania that we had, had a sameness that was striking. Examples: polenta with cream and cheese sauce, meats with cream and cheese sauce, fish with cream and cheese sauce. Surprisingly (to me), I found the beef astonishingly good and when asked for very, very rare (once blue, as I do in France) it came to the table exactly that way.
Finally, because of a GI bug acquired somewhere between the two countries, I found myself the first day, preferring to eat vegetable soups and then vegetables and salads and was again blown away but the quality and preparation of the product. The soups were hearty and veggie and very, very tasty; the salads and tomatoes fresh and flavorful and so different from the hothouse junk one is served on, say the airlines. We later learned that Romania prides itself on its organic vegetables. And they all came with Balsamic vinegar and olive oil, not the generic liquids one finds in a lot of places.
On the other hand, the evening we returned to France, we luxuriated at the Table d’Eugene, our new “find” in our quarter, unfortunately now “found” by everyone from Berger to Rubin to Simon. But we were happy to be greeted by the friendly front folk despite only having been twice before and tickled to have such a variety of fish and meat without sauces. But we (at least I) did miss the astonishingly tasty vegetables we had had only a few hours before.
Where should you go where everyone else is, destroying our precious neighborhood?
La Table d’Eugène
18, rue Eugène Sue, 18th (Metro: Jules Joffrin, Chateau Rouge)
T: 01 42 55 61 64
Closed Sundays and Mondays
Lunch menu 10.5-12.5, dinner menu 21-27, a la carte 25-30 €
Blog: John Talbott’s Paris at http://johntalbottsparis.typepad.com/john_talbotts_paris/
© John Talbott 2008