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The year of eating dangerously in Europe
These are tough times to be a beef-eater, and I'm not talking about the royal guards in the Tower of London.
First there was mad cow disease, which hit Great Britain hard and has now spread to Europe, where updates on la vache folle (French) and mucca pazzo (Italian), which can cause a fatal brain disease in humans, can be heard almost daily.
And just as England was patting itself on the back for having weathered (and, it believes, conquered) its mad cow problem, another crisis emerged: foot-and-mouth, a highly contagious disease (which humans only rarely contract, but easily can transmit) that is threatening much of Britain's livestock. More than 100 cases of foot-and-mouth have been confirmed.
To combat, or, rather, contain foot-and-mouth, countless sheep and cattle are being destroyed, and even presumed healthy animals cannot be shipped in or out of affected areas. Horse races and soccer matches in affected areas have been canceled, lest visiting fans carry foot-and-mouth home as an unintended souvenir. Dublin canceled its St. Patrick's Day Festival. In spite of the precautions, the first case of foot-and-mouth was reported in France last week; in response, the United States banned fresh meat imports from the whole of the European Union.
And those planning European vacations this year must ponder: Do I dare eat the meat? Will I find any when I get there?
The answer to the second question is, yes. Though hundreds of animals are being slaughtered, no one is yet suggesting that food availability will be a problem.
The answer to the first question is a conditional yes. In the better restaurants, yes, the meat is probably safe. Whether "probably safe" is good enough (it's not as though European beef is better than what you'll find back home) is something you'll have to decide.
Certainly there is no shortage of beef on restaurant menus in London and Paris on my visit in late February. Along the Champs-Elysees, bistros and brasseries still list entrecote of beef and osso buco (veal shank) as the day's specials. The chalkboard in front of Le Madrigal hawks the steak frites, saucisses, grilled steak and spaghetti Bolognese (a sauce containing ground meat).
At McDonald's and Quick, two burger chains operating on the Champs-Elysees, mid-afternoon business is brisk. People are buying and digging into "Le 280," McDonald's oversized, 280-gram (nearly 10 ounces) burger. (But McDonald's has reported slumping European sales figures for the last two months and blames much of that on mad cow fear.) Prominent signs at both restaurants attest to the quality of their beef, claiming that it's 100 percent muscle (meat containing nerve fibers is considered a much higher risk) and that the meat's origin is monitored strictly.
So one solution could be to ask about the origin of the beef served. And hope for an honest answer.
"(Mad cow) hasn't been a problem here," says a waitress at Mosimann's, a private club in London. "We serve Angus beef (a high-quality product from Scotland that's so far untainted by mad cow and foot-and-mouth fears). I know some restaurants say they have Angus beef, but you really don't know. But we definitely have it."
The simplest solution, of course, is to avoid beef while in Europe. You wouldn't be alone.
"I never sold so much white wine in winter," says our waiter at Bon, a stylish restaurant in Paris. "People have red wine with meat, but this winter, no one orders meat, everyone orders fish. It's bizarre."
"I'm not avoiding meat completely," says one tourist from Germany, where the mad cow scare is just as, um, scary. "But I'm not eating sweetbreads (organ meats are considered higher risks). I'll eat steak, but if it's a steak with a bone in it, then no."
At the famed food courts in Harrods and Harvey Nichols, two prestigious London department stores, all is a flurry of commerce -- except for the butcher stations, which are almost deserted. (To be fair, most other counters feature ready-to-eat and prepackaged good, like cheeses and chocolates and prepared dishes.) But the fish counter at Harvey Nichols is quite busy, and the counterman concedes that, yes, mad cow fear has something to do with it. "I just hope it continues," he says, with a conspiratorial grin.
And maybe I picked all the wrong times, but in the various locations of Angus Steakhouse, a widespread mid-priced steak chain, you could have fired a cannon in the dining rooms without fear of hitting anyone. (In the chain's Earl's Court location, the first three letters of the illuminated sign had burned out, leaving only US STEAKHOUSE -- as though someone were trying to inspire confidence in the beef.)
Happily, avoiding beef in European restaurants is ludicrously easy. And there are plenty of high-quality restaurants in which beef isn't prominent on the menu -- or isn't there at all.
A sleek, multilevel Parisian restaurant partly owned by acclaimed designer Phillippe Starck, Bon means "good" as in "good for you." Here the two-page menu lists not only the available dishes, but also their purported health benefits. Haricots verts are "rich in fiber"; carrot puree benefits the vision. And the short list of desserts are "bon pour le moral," or good for the morale.
Set menus include an all-vegetarian collection, and a menu dietetique (though the actual calorie count isn't specified). There are several sushi and sashimi options; indeed, you can skip the menu altogether and dine at the sushi bar in the front room, where sushi is delivered to your seat via conveyor belt.
The sushi selection is rather basic, heavy on tuna and salmon; there even are California rolls, which the menu doesn't attempt to translate into French.
There's exactly one beef item on the menu -- a steak that is listed, scoldingly, in the "I Am Bad" category, which also includes indulgences such as fried potato chips. No health benefits are listed for I Am Bad dishes.
Portions are small -- no great surprise there -- but everything tastes very clean and fresh. A millefeuille of artichoke and crab, over a coarse-textured lobster sauce, actually tastes indulgent in this setting. Ditto for crab risotto, and sesame-scented dorade fillet over jasmine rice.
Funny, though. With all the fuss over "good for you" food, Bon permits cigarette smoking in its dining rooms (a distinction it shares with just about every other restaurant in Europe) and will sell you all the alcohol you wish to consume -- though the wine list does include a few organic wines.
Alain Passard made headlines recently when he announced his brilliant, three-star (Guide Michelin) restaurant would no longer serve meat (though some grumbled that his announcement smacked of opportunism). Inasmuch as entrees at L'Arpege begin at the $40 level and crest over $90, we were intrigued to learn just what a $90 vegetable dish would taste like.
Well, it turns out, there actually is one meat dish -- a breast of pigeon -- on Passard's menu, and still a fair amount of seafood (the highest-priced dishes generally involve lobster, truffles or both). As no one has discovered anything wrong with the seafood over here, we happily dug in.
Passard's creations delight the mind and palate. We started with his signature amuse, a lightly cooked, in-shell brown egg inlaid with maple-flavored cream and a touch of wine vinegar. Then heavenly quenelles of avocado and prawn mousses, laid over a black-caviar bed inside a large martini glass. Sea urchins, still in their spiny shells, were coddled in a light broth flavored with nasturtium flowers.
Scallops, so barely cooked that with care they might have lived, sit on a bed of leeks with candied shallot puree. A flawless fillet of sole is paired with lemongrass-scented white onions and yellow wine sauce.
I first dined at L'Arpege nine years ago, and the signature dessert, tomato confit, was the most unusual dessert I'd ever had. Nine years later, it's still the signature dessert, and still the most unusual dessert I've ever had. Two small tomatoes are cooked in sweet syrup, then stuffed with a melange of finely diced fruits and nuts -- a dozen ingredients in all. Flanking the tomatoes are two quenelles of anise ice cream. This dessert sounds too weird to try, but it's terrific. But if you prefer, there are plenty of more traditional choices, including a pair of liquidy chocolate cakes, each made with a different chocolate, served with basil ice cream.
Dinner for two: $440, if I've reckoned the exchange rate properly. I hope my boss thinks it was worth it.
Spoon, Food & Wine
From the formality of L'Arpege, we went to the anything-goes spontaneity of Spoon, Food & Wine, in the Hotel Sofitel, just steps from the Champs Elysees. Alain Ducasse is the most celebrated chef in the world -- until recently, two of his restaurants held the coveted three-star rank from Guide Michelin (Louis XV in Monaco just lost a star). But at the casual Spoon, the great chef lets his hair down.
The interior is sleek, austere, functional, versatile -- much like a spoon, in fact. Small wood tables, easily rearranged to accommodate various-sized parties, are topped with linen placemats. Shiny white walls are contrasted by deep-purple banquettes and dark wood floors.
Here, customers decide which sauce goes with a chosen dish. The salad section, for instance, lists four greens, four sauces and four accents. You can match chicory endive with horseradish sauce and croutons, or Japanese sprouts with ravigote (a spicy vinaigrette) and steamed shrimp. The menu encourages customers to "create the unthinkable." (If you're not feeling adventurous, the fail-safe approach is ordering in a straight horizontal line.)
First you'll start with an amuse, which in our case was pumpkin mousse seasoned with Indian spices and slivered almonds, served in a shooter glass and scooped out with miniature spoons. Then pristine sea bass ceviche, matched to sauce grenobloise (capers, lemon, butter, croutons), or an odd salad of endive, pumpkin chutney and thick, pig-ear sized pieces of bacon. Thai-style youm koumg soup is a bit on the tame side but boasts a bounty of squid and shellfish.
Entrees include excellent turbot with a sauce of chopped oysters, capers and onions, over a bed of barely sauteed spinach; the fish's bones are battered and deep-fried until they become a crispy, edible part of the dish. And yes, there is a little meat on the menu, including slightly overcooked ostrich loin with veal sauce, and a mini-rack of lamb and braised lamb meat, accompanied by a tagine of couscous, apricots and figs.
Desserts include the Special Doughnuts, which are dusted with sugar and served with stewed red berries; almond-stuffed phyllo cigars with light honey creme, sort of a post-modern baklava; and "Un coup de Spoon," a chocolate-honey bar with a hazelnut-crisp interior, crowned with a spoon made of spun sugar.
Anti-beef hysteria has not made an impact at this stellar Mayfair restaurant. Chef Phillip Howard's French menu includes a seared-filet appetizer, a daube of beef (braised in red wine) and -- gasp -- roasted sweetbreads. Nevertheless, there is plenty for the meatless gourmet to consider.
The restaurant has a prix-fixe format; one chooses either the three-course dinner for 50 pounds (about $75), or the six-course tasting menu for 65 pounds (about $90). There are about a dozen options in the appetizer and entree categories, so there is plenty to choose among.
The meal starts with a little amuse, perhaps a mushroom-red wine soup topped with a pristine sea scallop. Appetizers include a veloute of globe artichokes, a puddle in a wide bowl that also has chanterelle mushrooms over artichoke bottoms and a poached egg topped with a sliver of black truffle. A long thick fillet of red mullet arrives draped over a warm salad of fennel, pine nuts, lemon and parmesan; this is served on a plate painted with wide lettuce leaves -- the ultimate salad plate.
A lasagna of crab and scallops mousseline is light and airy, and so is the accompanying broth -- a shellfish-flavored soup tinged green with basil and foamed, cappuccino style. And sauteed langoustines share a plate with truffled gnocchi and black-trumpet mushrooms.
Entree highlights include crispy-skinned sea bass on a bed of lettuce, matched to a tasty piece of smoked eel and horseradish mousseline. And here we did break down and have a little meat: Outstanding roast pigeon, served with a slightly tart madeira sauce and a bit of liver pressed between leaves of savoy cabbage; and herb-crusted lamb saddle, so thick it resembled a slab of prime rib, flanked by swooshes of shallot puree and some artichoke pieces.
After a pre-dessert -- a tiny ramekin of homemade yogurt alongside a piping-hot sugar beignet -- we indulged in flawless prune and armagnac souffle, with a scoop of malted-milk ice cream folded in; a delightful fruit soup with jelled passionfruit shapes floating inside; and a sizable lemon tart with a caramelized-sugar topping.
Service is very correct without appearing stuffy. Back waiters carry food into the room on silver trays, standing at attention as the head waiters place dishes before you (when I needed a new napkin, it arrived on a silver tray), but waiters are conversational and friendly when discussing the menu. The waiters were rather amused by our party, as we traded plates with abandon, and seemed disconcerted to be left out of the process.
Now that chef Ramsay has his third Michelin star (and the only London restaurant with three), it is extremely difficult to book a table here. But here's a hint: Tables are less in demand at lunchtime, and prices are downright reasonable for much the same food.
Indeed, at lunch you can order dishes off the dinner menu -- they're smaller at lunch, of course -- in a three-course, 60-pound (about $90) format. Or try the bargain lunch prix-fixe, a very short menu that features three courses for 30 pounds (about $45).
The chief sacrifice in the lower-priced prix-fixe is variety, which can be problematic if you're dead-set against ordering meat. There are only two starter courses and two main courses available, and you choose one or two desserts or the cheese tray. Starters might include langoustine-stuffed tortellini with a diver scallop and tarragon cream sauce, surrounded by undulating ribbons of leek and tiny chanterelle mushrooms; or a cold terrine layering ham knuckle, foie gras, cabbage and chicken, with a drizzle of vivid-green cilantro oil, overlapping arches of slivered haricots verts and black-truffle matchsticks.
Second courses include grilled brill over brandade and white and green asparagus; what appears to be fine pepper on the plate is actually ground truffle. And the fearless may try braised beef shank, arranged osso-buco style (though there is no bone to be found) and topped with a bit of bone marrow.
Desserts include a delicious rum panna cotta, and a blood-orange gelee with bits of fruit and orange-blossom ice cream in a martini glass. And the cheese tray, which holds about two dozen selections, is delightful.
And, of course, there are the complimentary extras, such as the pumpkin-veloute amuse that begins the meal and the candy-colored macaroons and silky chocolates that end it.
Sir Terence Conran has undeniable style, whether in the home furnishings or fine-dining arenas. Case in point is this breathtaking brasserie near Piccadilly Circus, which has eye-candy everywhere you look.
If you like making a grand entrance and have the figure and/or wardrobe to do so, make a point of slowly descending the ornate marble staircase (its side rails in the shape of Qs) to the wide-open, mirror-walled dining room with artist-painted columns, display kitchen (with cooking-class angled mirrors so you can watch the cooks in action) and cobalt-blue glass skylight. Tables are draped with white linen, except for a few bare tables with a Chinese-red lacquer finish.
The menu is as widespread as the dining room, offering plenty of seafood choices, including a "crustacean bar" located on the upper level; there's also plenty of beef.
Its proximity to several London theaters makes Quaglino's an appealing pre- or post-theater destination, and to that end the restaurant offers a bargain prix-fixe, available at lunch, early evening (until 6:30 p.m.) and, on weekdays, after 11 p.m. There are three dishes in the starter, main course and dessert categories; select two courses for 12.50 pounds (about $20) or three for 15 pounds (about $25).
Starters include a tasty thyme and onion tart that might easily be billed a quiche, potted chicken topped with a dab of pepper oil, and a mild, curried parsnip soup. Among main courses, a leg-thigh portion of duck confit is nicely done, served with a red-onion tatin that I liked better than the onion-tart starter. A moist piece of roasted salmon is bathed in a sauce vierge (a beaten lemon-butter sauce).
Good crusty bread arrives to begin the meal but curiously there are no bread plates, possibly a concession to the table crumbers' union.
The meal may have been less than dazzling, but the pre-theater menu probably doesn't reflect the chef's best work. Certainly the kitchen scored well as a pre-theater destination; the meal was paced comfortably and we still were out the door less than 90 minutes after we were seated, and could have finished earlier had we needed to. The waiters were very pleasant, and when one member of our party requested a dessert that was on the menu but not among the prix-fixe options, they let him have the dessert without charging extra.
There can't be too many Indian restaurants prettier than this one (and with a Michelin star under its belt, there aren't many better ones either). Set on a quiet side street in Mayfair, this lower-level restaurant offers an agreeable mix of contemporary and traditional decor and cuisine.
The gold-and-tan dining room is subtle and elegant, with low-voltage perimeter lighting and pretty raspberry silk fabrics displayed on the walls. Through a glass window you can watch the cook methodically lower and recover food from the tandoor, a very hot, very dry clay oven.
As with most Indian restaurants, there is very little meat on the menu, and no beef. The menu does mention the presence of game in season, but this apparently is not the season. The surprise is how little seafood is available, though what is offered is pretty impressive.
Monkfish, marinated in saffron and yogurt, is cut into cubes and served as a kebab, lightly grilled outside and wonderfully moist inside. Salmon is pan-fried, imbued with green curry spices and served with crispy spinach. And tandoor-roasted prawns and scallops come with sour grapes and mint, an intriguing mix of flavors.
The braised lamb, with onions and five-spice mix, is terrific, and the vegetable biryani is the finest, most fragrant biryani I've ever had; I could eat this every day.
There was a slight problem with service our visit; the gap between the appetizers and entrees grew to more than 30 minutes before we made discreet inquiries.
There were instant apologies, a quickie explanation (the kitchen apparently lost the entree order, no mean feat in a restaurant that seats maybe 60), some extra pappadum wafers to tide us over and no fewer than three updates on our entrees' progress. And free dessert later.
IF YOU GO
Gordon Ramsay, 68 Royal Hospital Rd., SW3, London, 011-44-20-7352-4441, fax 011-44-20-7352-3334.
Quaglino's, 16 Bury St., SW1, London, 011-44-20-7930-6767, fax 011-44-20-7839-2866.
The Square, 10 Bruton St., W1, London, 011-44-20-7495-7100, fax 011-44-20-7495-7150.
Tamarind, 20 Queen St., W1, London, 011-44-20-7629-3561, fax 011-44-20-7499-5034.
L'Arpege, 84 rue de Varenne, Paris, 011-331-45-51-47-33, fax 011-331-44-18-98-39.
Bon, 25 rue de la Pompe, 011-331-40-72-70-00, fax 011-331-40-72-68-30.
Spoon, Food & Wine, Hotel Sofitel, 14 rue de Marignan, Paris, 011-331-40-76-34-44, fax 011-331-40-76-34-37.