Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Paris You Do Not Want to Visit or… Learn How to Use a GPS

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Even though this is a lovely church tower, we have no idea where in Paris it is, nor do we know the name of the church. Why is that? Because we were on the excessively large ring road that encircles Paris like a boa constrictor encircles its prey. This is a cautionary tale about getting lost in a rental car.

We were very pleased with ourselves for renting a car at the Charles De Gaul airport, rather than inside Paris. We were planning on visiting Reims in the Champagne region north east of Paris, then go to several places in Normandy before returning to Paris for our flight home. As we left the airport, we were trying to learn the specifics of the GPS on the dashboard of our rental car, when we discovered we were heading in the wrong direction. Years ago on my first visit, as I walked along the Champs Elise, I saw a small fender bender. Both drivers left their cars, one of his own volition and the other being dragged out by his collar. Needless to say it was an unfriendly confrontation comprised of screaming and fisticuffs. It prompted me to wonder how one says I’m sorry in French. Then and there, the decision was made to simply avoid driving in Paris.

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As we kept going further south we headed toward the Paris Centre signs hoping to find a way to turn around. Our map was somewhat helpful but once we discovered the intricacies of the GPS it turned into our best friend. Unfortunately, we still couldn’t find the turnoffs in time to actually take them, so we eventually had to make the complete loop around Paris. Los Angeles freeways had nothing on this tangle of lanes, vehicles, and off ramps, but they did prepare us for it.

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The one hour drive wasn’t completely devoid of small pleasures, if you like modern architecture, and we did see an advertising balloon afloat overhead. When you need to keep a lookout for your exit, these distractions could actually cost you another hour if you can’t read 6-15 direction signs in a flash.


We took a deep breath as we entered the GPS directed turnoff, found our way out of Paris, and sighed with relief. This unpleasant detour could have easily been avoided had we stopped to take a few minutes to figure out the GPS instead of rushing out of the airport. Lesson learned. As it turned out, the GPS also saved us from missing our flight home, because we were literally driving blind in the dark, wee hours of the morning when we left. Our eyes and maps were useless with no light.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hotel Belle Etoile in La Roque-Gageac, Where Time Stands Still

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Perhaps time does not stand still in this quaint village, however, it does slow down, and it is unbelievable that in the past 8 years, Hotel Belle Etoile had not increased its rates for double rooms with private baths. As I looked back on the menus, even they have not kept up with inflation. The two course meal is now 28 euro, 2 euro above the 2006 price. The 3 and 4 course dinners were similarly increased in price, by a pittance. The value is so phenomenal, last year we booked 5 rooms for our 25th wedding anniversary, then invited family and friends who enjoy traveling to Europe to join us for 4 days and we would pick up the tab. It was far more generous for those who paid airfare to join us, and continue on with their own trips, than it was for us to take them to Belle Etoile.


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The lovely little settee where I first wrote my travel notes is gone now, replaced by a small table and chairs. In truth, it squeaked and seemed so unstable that I pictured myself sitting on its broken members in the middle of the floor, before I relocated to a chair. My perspective has changed quite a bit when it comes to the “game” wall. I just loved peeking through the small window in the 2nd floor hallway, to look down on that part of the sitting room, to view the stuffed crocodile. Now I simply look up in admiration. The lounge is still a nice place to sit and quietly gather your thoughts.


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No matter which room you stay in, whether it be the smaller rooms facing toward the garden or the front rooms facing the river, at Belle Etoile you will always get a room with a view. But even better you can also have breakfast or dinner at the hotel since they have a wonderful restaurant on site.



The Restaurant Belle Etoile is divided into 3 spaces. As you walk through the courtyard, up the stairs and through the front door, to your left is the formal, country French dining room. This room is also used for breakfast which the hotel provides for an extra 10 euro per day, per person and it is optional. It’s a charming, comfortable room with a bar that opens in the afternoon. You may have your drink while sitting in this room or you may opt to take it to the informal terrace.



The terrace is perfect for a sunny afternoon and now that the grape arbor is beautifully filled out, it provides a cool, shaded, al fresco, dining experience. It’s tempting to pick a grape during the season, but I’ve managed to resist thus far. During the evenings, I prefer the 2 indoor dining spaces. Just behind the terrace, is the 3rd dining room.



My favorite space is this elegant, formal dining room, still French in feel, but not “country”. It looks onto the small back garden that is seen from the back of the building, as well as toward the terrace. The menu is the same in all three spaces, the dishes served are exceptional, and the only recommendation to be made is that the menu could change with more frequency.  Some of the selections we were offered in 2014 were the same as they were in 2011. Dining there 2 of 4 evenings in the same week was difficult and left several of us choosing the same entree, just because there was only one non meat entree and no nightly special available. The menu has no vegetarian entree, but I’m certain the kitchen would accommodate the special need upon request. I’ll try asking on my next visit.


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After the bread and mini baguettes are delivered to the table in a small basket, filled with one of each item per person, you can expect to receive an amuse bouche, compliments of the chef. On the first occasion we were served a wild mushroom, creamed soup, another time we received a creamed winter squash or pumpkin soup. Both were flavorful and seasoned to perfection. I was happy to see the mushroom soup with cepes (porcini mushrooms) and creme fraiche served again.


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It’s safe to say that you could easily be offered a prawn appetizer, since we now have photographic evidence of two different preparations. The cold prawns served over eggplant and a ginger tart was the most recent of these appetizers, but as good as it was, the earlier offering of breaded and fried prawns, with potato slices covered in balsamic glazed shallots, was my preferred choice. This year a monkfish carpaccio marinated in lemon juice was on the menu. There was also a red wine poached foie gras, however it would be difficult to improve on the foie gras that came with a drinkable pear compote imbued with walnut and vanilla. After rereading the older menu, I regret not having tried the foie gras with caramelized apples and black pudding. Since the Dordogne is foie gras country, rest assured, you will find it on the menu in several variations.


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The small grey snails cooked in a Pot-au-feu broth of mixed herbs, covered in a puff pastry was beautiful to behold and delicious as well. It was more than an appetizer, it was an event. Now for my favorite appetizer, mercifully on the menu every time we have been to Belle Etoile, Cocotte style eggs (coddled) with crayfish and morel mushrooms in a chicory cream sauce. Everyone at our table swooned with their first mouthful.


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If you have to choose between a filet topped with potatoes, or a tenderloin topped with foie gras, could you make a wrong decision? I know the meat looks like a tenderloin, but I even checked my travel notes and the foie gras definitely came with the duck.


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Okay, you prefer lighter proteins like fish or chicken; you still can’t go wrong at Restaurant La Belle Etoile. Perfectly cooked sea bass was on the menu with mussels, a lemon fennel sauce, and the most interesting vegetable presentation. Buttered, shredded carrots were baked inside crispy phyllo dough. The free range chicken had black truffles layered under the skin before roasting and was served with a truffle risotto. I like the way the wing drumette was included with a grated cheese tuile.


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One year we were given the choice of duck fillet, which was a sliced duck breast. It was served with a gratin of pasta using Cantal cheese, another wonderful French cow’s milk cheese. The presentation of ziti with the cheese was beautiful as well as almost architectural and one day I may use that idea for presentation at home. Lamb is another meat that is well prepared at this restaurant and with very generous portions. The hazelnut crust was memorable, but I’m not sure of the vegetable at this late date. It may have been parsnip with a cream sauce.


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Ordering cognac is a nice start for dessert. To finish, the restaurant served complimentary cannelles and pate de fruit. Better yet are the desserts themselves, some being unique and others very classic. The mixed berries with red currant sorbet and a meringue were very refreshing on a warm evening.



Rhum Baba is one of the classic French desserts and this one was served with house made vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. The rum was poured over it at the table; a nice little touch. Creme Brulee is another classic, however, this version seems denser than most and even richer tasting. The dessert that seems proprietary for Belle Etoile is the strawberry dish covered in a sweet pistachio foam and covered by a pistachio tuile.


Two desserts that were new to us were the fried chocolate doughnuts served with vanilla ice cream and pineapple tidbits and the classic profiteroles with a new twist. Instead of vanilla ice cream, the profiteroles were served with chestnut ice cream, and whipped cream, along with the expected chocolate sauce. For those who do not like sweets, cheese is always available. This was similar to a Brie de Meaux with black truffles added by the chef.



How did I manage to forget the wine? La Belle Etoile has an excellent, yet  non cumbersome, wine list that includes French wines that enhance your dining experience; picked expressly for the food they serve. Their cuisine reflects the very best of what the Perigord region has to offer the world.

La Belle Etoile Website