Monday, March 2, 2009

Not easy being green

Whenever we go somewhere, we look for an Asian restaurant. There's one place we can get Chinese-esque food nearby--twenty minutes away on twisty roads--and it is the all-too-usual French variation on a Chinese restaurant. Platters of food are arranged behind a glass counter, dumplings, wontons, spring rolls at one end; main courses in the middle; desserts nearest the caisse. You point and say how many portions of the poulet au curry or porc au gingembre you would like, the counter guy scoops it into a plastic box that he then heat-seals using the little machine on the back counter, and off you go. For the four of us to have dinner from our local Asian Palace it runs about 60 euros. And by the time we get it home, it has congealed.

We ate a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food in America. Chinese restaurants were our travel standby when the girls were younger: we knew that we could always find some stir-fried vegetables that they would eat, and some chicken, and there was the added interest of the restaurant's interior design. We are particular fans of the photograph of the waterfall that, when lit from behind, appears to be flowing. The food wasn't always particularly good--you try finding a good restaurant off of I-95 in Virginia--but it was interesting and gave us something to talk about.

Good Asian food: certainly on my list of things to look forward to about moving back to America. I remember a dish of scallops that I ate at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, in 2002: spicy, garlicky, a hint of sweetness. Then there's the walnut shrimp we used to get at the fancy Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto, the shrimp lightly battered and fried, a white sauce that you barely noticed, candied walnuts. And the dumplings from our everyday Chinese place, and the sizzling rice soup. Then there's the dish of cellophane noodles with crab meat at The Slanted Door, in San Francisco. Words fail me.

When we travel here in the land of seasonal local eating, we are always on the lookout for an Asian restaurant. We found one that was not bad in Maintenon, in the Loire, last August. It sat across the place from the château gates, sandwiched between a brasserie that served beautiful salades composées (we walked by several people eating them on our way into Au Royal Maintenon) and the village Bar / Tabac. There's a sushi place near where L lived in Paris that did California rolls that served as a pleasant reminder of what a California roll tasted like. Last Saturday, walking down Cavaillon's main street, we passed a Vietnamese restaurant. C and I gravitated towards it, but the girls had already spotted a boulangerie next door that offered lunches. On closer examination, it turned out to be the boulangerie that Peter Mayle called the best bakery in the Lubéron. So we ate there: roasted chicken, homemade mayonnaise, tiny purple lettuce leaves on fresh baguettes for G and E; mesclun salad with tuna, olives, tomatoes and a light mustardy vinaigrette for us. The baker himself came out and talked to us for a while. It was an excellent lunch that could only have been improved by a plate of steamed dumplings.

The Relais was outside of Apt, which is a large market town. Aha, we thought: perhaps there will be an Asian restaurant. We dropped the girls at the hotel after a day of hiking and went to scout. It was Sunday evening, a risky time to look for a restaurant in France. Everyone who was going to eat out has already eaten out at noontime, and nearly every restaurant that was going to open on Sunday has already opened at noontime, and the proprietors are now at home, enjoying their Sunday evening, maybe thawing out some frozen pieds et paquets in the microwave.

We parked on the main street in Apt. One of our guidebooks listed, but did not describe, an establishment called Le Restaurant de l'Ho. Sounds vaguely Asian, no? At least, not terribly French? So off we walked to find it. It turned out to be across the street from--what we learned for certain the next day, and suspected at the time--a crime scene. Gendarmes were interviewing neighbors and red and white tape blocked off a portion of the pavement. Men with white paper suits over their street clothes were going inside the house. Tragedy may have struck en face, but we were busy looking at the menu of the Restaurant de l'Ho which turned out to be a. closed and b. regular French. We turned down a pedestrian street (all shutterd storefronts, just us and a cat or two) and, a block or so away, saw a sign that was unmistakably Asian in aspect. We quickened our steps and examined the doorway: it was Asian, and it would open for dinner in an hour. We looked at the menu posted beside the door.

There were all the standard starters: soups, dumplings, spring rolls. Then a small poultry section. A small fish section. A small beef section. But the largest portion of the menu, the delicacy that was clearly closest to the chef's heart, was the section devoted to grenouilles. Each item was helpfully translated into English. You could choose between beignets de grenouille (frog fritter); grenouilles au curry (frog curry); grenouille au gingembre (frog with ginger); grenouille au citron et à l'ail (Lemon and garlic fried frog); and, last but not least appetizing, grenouille à la sauce aigre douce (frog with sweet and sour sauce).

Now. If my friend Marie-Claire invited me for dinner, and she put a platter of grenouilles on the table, even grenouilles fritters, I like to think that I would tuck in with an open mind and plenty of baguette and red wine. However. It seemed to us, standing on the deserted street a few blocks from where a murder had been committed earlier in the day, looking in the window at the saggy houseplants that were the dining room's chief decoration, that Kermit should wait.

We retreated to the hill town of Bonnieux, where we found an open brasserie: cuisine traditionelle à base de produits frais régionaux, said the menu. Traditional dishes from fresh local food. The bartender promised us that he would stay open long enough to give us dinner. We collected the girls, and then we sat in front of the fireplace and ate vegetable soup and steack frites. A meal that, I like to think, could only have been improved by a few cellophane noodles.


I'll be away on Wednesday. Still the school vacances, and we're going up to the mountains for a few days. See you on Friday.


  1. Wise choice, to avoid the frogs. I ate a bite with an open mind in Martinique. They were...interesting...never a good thing in a new food. Perhaps I'll give them another try later.

  2. Beautiful post, Mme Marron.

    I always have such a wonderful time reading your work.

    Bonnes vacances!