Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Vegetarian - friendly Paris restaurants, take 2

Since my January post listing restaurants in Paris that can accomodate vegetarians was quite popular, here are a few restaurants I've been to lately where I found good vegetarian choices:

Le Chalet d’Avron

108, Rue de Montreuil


Tel : 01 43 71 18 62

This Savoyard restaurant is perfect for catching the tail end of winter. You can easily forget that you didn’t ski in, sitting at the rustic wooden tables and gazing around at the walls which are decorated with what is either old mountaineering equipment or creative torture devices. How did people ever manage to ski on thick wooden skis with rusty metal bindings for more than 5 minutes without killing themselves, I wonder?

Each table comes equipped with a hot plate in the middle for your fondue or raclette to stay nice and bubbling warm. We chose the traditional fondue and it was delicious, with just the right amount of kirsch to give it a nice kick, and perfectly seasoned day-old bread to dip in it.

Apparently the tradition is that if you lose your bread in the fondue pot, you have to perform one dare of your dining partner’s choosing. Better order some wine too, for liquid courage.

Tart’ Arts

36, rue de Berri


01 42 25 02 76

After all that cheese, you’re going to need some health food, stat. Tart’ Arts is a lunch place with delicious salads – or “coupes de fraicheur”, as they call them. There’s the traditional goat cheese one, plus a dried fruits and nuts one, a blue cheese one – I’d say there are at least 5-6 veggie salads to choose from, and some of these are even vegan. There are also veggie tarts (see name of restaurant) but I haven’t made it past the salad section of the menu yet. That’s because they sprinkle something on some of the salads called “levure de bière” that I think may translate to English as “crack cocaine.”

Apart from the confusion caused by actually having a big choice of what to order (something I’ve lost the habit of since becoming a Paris veggie), the only problem with this place is that you have to either not mind cigarette smoke (choose the ground level), or not be claustrophobic (tell them you’re a non-smoker and you get thrown in the dungeon – the underground non-smoking cave where the noise and tight spaces are hard to handle).

Le Basilic

33 , Rue Lepic


Tel : 01 46 06 78 43

It took Irene, Culinary Mike and me a long time to work up the nerve to try this place – could somewhere this adorable in such a touristy neighbourhood actually be any good? There’s ivy growing all up the side of this medieval-looking auberge perched on a little hill on Montmartre’s rue Lepic. Why would they bother to actually cook well when they have ivy?

We finally tried it, and it was really very good. "Irene the brave," tired of our hesitation, had gone in earlier that day and talked with a woman who, with a menu in one arm and a baby in the other, explained clearly and patiently which dishes were suitable for vegetarians. There were many appetizers to choose from (the best was the pumpkin soup, hold the bacon), and for a main dish there was a delicious comté and tomato ravioli with pine nuts. Desserts were great too – if you eat chocolate mousse (and I admit I do, I can’t help myself, although it’s a bit flaky-vegetarian of me), you should definitely try theirs.


5, Place Victor Hugo


Tel : 01 44 17 91 92

Dining at the Convivium is kind of like being at the World Showcase part of Epcot center – it’s a bright and shiny, expensive and over-the-top Americanized vision of dining in Italy - which is a strange thing to come across in France. The food is good but full of fat, the portions are huge, and I’m not sure the staff at this restaurant actually speaks Italian, but they do know how to say “Buongiorno” and “Prego”, and they repeat these words ad nauseum.

Like at any Italian restaurant, there are tons of choices for vegetarians. The real gem here though is the dessert – and my nemesis - the strawberry tiramisu. It’s basically a giant plate of gloop with fresh strawberries on top. It’s very similar to a strawberry shortcake but with less cake and more cream. There’s no coffee in it, and it’s woefully delicious.

This is a favorite place for business lunches – it’s overpriced (around 25 euros a person for lunch not including wine) so if you’re going to go it’s best to let a multinational company pay for your meal there if one is willing to do so.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Dans le Noir

There are no pictures with this post for a good reason. On Thursday evening, Sharon and I had dinner at Dans le Noir . Our evening consisted of spending 2-3 hours in pitch darkness, in a place we'd never been to before, eating food we couldn't see among people we didn't know, and basically being completely dependent on total strangers. We both loved it.

The concept behind this restaurant seemed strange to me at first, and almost gimmicky: you eat a meal in total darkness, and all the waiters are blind. But I was intrigued enough to give it a try.

Here's how it worked. I made reservations about a week in advance, and was told to show up at 7:45 exactly. When we arrived, we were greeted by a sighted person who asked us whether we were familiar with the concept, whether we had any questions, and whether we would take the "surprise" menu. I went for the surprise, after being assured that I could have a vegetarian version. Sharon went for the meaty surprise.

I asked whether we were supposed to be able to use silverware in the darkness - and Sharon and I joked about my fear of having a meat-eater sitting across from me in the dark weilding a knife. We were told that silverware was provided, but that most people ended up eating with their fingers. Just so long as nobody ate MY fingers, I was fine with it.

The greeter then asked us to put all our belongings into lockers in the lobby, including purses and coats, so the waiters wouldn't fall over them, and including cell phones and cigarette lighters so there could be no light at all in the room. Then we were introduced to our charming waitress, Suzanne. Suzanne took my hand and placed it on Sharon's shoulder, then placed Sharon's hand on her own shoudler, and we did a mini-conga line through a series of heavy curtains and into a pitch-dark room. Suzanne maneuvered us expertly into our seats and took our drinks orders. When she left Sharon and I started exploring with our hands, telling each other what we found, and slowly coming to grips with where we found ourselves. We had a corner table set for four people with glasses, tablecloth, silverware, and napkins. There were people all around us speaking in French, Spanish, and English. The place was really quite loud.

Suzanne came back with wine in a square bottle and water in a round bottle. She taught us how to pour by sticking our fingers into the top of the glasses and feeling for the liquid to reach them. We started drinking and talking and, quite soon, eating. I didn't even try to use the silverware - it would have been impossible. Sharon said she tried and quickly gave up.

The food was good, not spectacular. It was a lot of fun feeling and smelling the food, trying to guess what it was before tasting it. I was suprised at what I could and couldn't smell - cucumbers have quite a strong scent, as does yoghurt. Who knew? I had trouble detecting parmesan and mushrooms by smell, though. Cumin, couscous and carrots were easy.

I asked Sharon what kind of meat she had been served. "It's duck," she said. "Or maybe lamb. Yes, definitely lamb. Although it could be duck." I laughed, thinking how ridiculous it was. Then we asked Suzanne, who reported "It's kangeroo!" We thought she was joking, until after the meal when we asked to see a printed menu. It really was kangeroo, though. Sharon was really sad, as she had just gotten back from Australia and had fallen in love with the kangeroos there. I had no idea people actually ate them.

So, those are the facts. Here's what I noticed by eating dinner in the dark.

First, the conversation I had with Sharon. About 80 percent of face-to-face communciation is non-verbal. A friend of mine who was studying intercultural communication told me this a few years ago, and I've remembered it and wondered about it every since. I'm still not sure the figure is correct, but it's definitely true that when you take away all the non-verbal cues we send each other, the interactions you can have with the people around you are quite different.

Sometimes Sharon can be a bit of a difficult person to interact with. People sometimes tend to think of her as a bit overbearing and standoffish. She has a really good heart, and she's the kind of friend I could call at 2am if I locked myself out of my apartment, but she sometimes makes me nervous, as she can seem very intense.

During our dinner together, all of these barriers fell away. We were able to discuss subjects we'd never gotten into before - our most secret hopes for the future, our biggest fears, everything. It was like the conversations I had as a kid at slumber parties. You send your voice out into the darkness and it seems amazing that someone understands you completely and answers you directly. I feel closer to Sharon than I did before the dinner, and I appreciate her friendship even more.

Another observation - I was so much less distracted than I usually am when I go out to dinner. There was nothing to tear my attention away from the food and the conversation - no fast movements out of the corner of my eye, no tasty food on the opposite table, no over the top gesticulating from a woman across the room. I didn't lose my train of thought once throughout the meal, and just felt really focused the entire time.

Final observation - damn, it was loud in there. I mentioned that already but it's worth saying twice. When we came out to pay the bill, we mentioned this to the cashier. He said it's just because our sense of hearing was more attuned, but I'm not buying that. I think people were extra loud for a couple of reasons. First, we all tended to speak louder because there was no non-verbal feedback that our converation partner was listening and could hear us. Secondly, there was no body language coming from the fellow diners signaling that we should tone it down, so everyone just kept on shouting. Every few minutes some people would say "Ssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh", but that only worked the first couple of times.

After a few hours, we were fine in the darkness but needed to escape from the noise. We called out for Suzanne, who came and rescued us and led us into the light again. It was dazzling.

The waiters all did an amazing job taking care of everyone, keeping us all relaxed and happy, and generally keeping the situation totally under control. It just made me wonder - what kind of work were they doing before the restaurant opened? I've never worked with a blind person, or even observed one working. I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't given this much thought before, but now, I really wonder. I guess that's the point of the restaurant, really - to walk a "meal" (sorry, couldn't resist) in someone elses' shoes, and try to gain some tiny bit of understanding.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Salon de l'agriculture de Paris

Today I went to the Salon de l'agriculture de Paris, along with everyone else in France, it seems. But after the first wine tasting, I stopped being bothered much by the crowds.

There were no live birds allowed at this year's salon, although there were a few reminders of them.

This plastic goose looks so shy.

After a couple of hours of wandering around, I got a bit hungry. Maybe these guys can tell me where to find some vegetarian food?

Oh, an organic restaurant, surely they'll have something veggie.

Upon closer look, no, they didn't. But that was okay, I was happy to find an excuse to fill up on cheese, wine, chocolate, and candy. The salon comes but once a year, in any case.

Say cheese!

Health food (or as close as I could find). I know there are some vitamins in there somewhere.

After feasting, it was time for the main attraction. There were over 3,000 animals at the salon, there to win prizes in the concours agricole.

Drumroll........will the winner please stand up?

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Meat UP?

This weekend I went to a vegetarian meet-up that I found on I got to the restaurant, and the hostess asked me which group I was with. When I said, "Avec meetup point com," a very indignant fellow-veggie at a nearby table turned around and said in an alarmed voice and a heavy French accent "Meat? ... Meat UP???." I think she thought our group was some sort of "Up with meat" activist league that had come to spy on the vegetarians or something.

Quite a large number of other diners had turned around and were looking at me accusingly. After I explained "It's not that type of meat," she calmed down, but it was a tense moment. At least now I can say I've met at least one French vegetarian, although not under the best circumstances.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Parisian Veggie

I'm a vegetarian in Paris, and let me tell you, it's not easy being a member of such a suspicious fringe element of society. Most French people just don't understand the bizarre concept of not eating meat by choice. First of all, I must be close to dropping down dead from various vitamin, mineral and amino-acid deficiencies. Secondly, I must be at least half-insane to refuse a food group that everyone knows is delicious, in a country where deliciousness is king.

I can't tell you the number of times that I've asked whether a likely-looking tarte, for example, is vegetarian, and told "Yes, it's just got a little ham in it". Or else, a slight improvement, "No, but you can pick the bits of ham out." If invited out by friends to a French restaurant I've never been to before, I just have to cross my fingers and hope there's a "salade de chèvre chaud" on the menu (luckily there usually is - French menus are pretty predicatable). Otherwise I must argue with the waiter to convince him to bring me a vegetable plate, which often consists of such delicacies as plain white rice, plain cooked pasta, or a heap of pommes frites dripping with beef tallow.

Believe it or not, many of the small handful of vegetarian-only restaurants are worse. A note to some vegetarian restaurant owners in this town - insipid, flavorless piles of mush are not the way to convince the French to warm up to vegetarian food!

Here is a list of restaurants I would recommend to fellow veggies here. Most of these aren't totally veggie, but they always have at least a few offerings to choose from. That's about the best you can ask for here at the moment! Click the name of each restaurant to get more information and the addresses of each (but do come back here when you're done!).

La Madonnina
This Italian restaurant isn't that much to look at from the outside, but the food is really fresh, the people working there are very friendly, and after you eat you can go for a walk by the canal. This is probably my favorite restaurant right now.

Great Lebanese food.

For the next time you have an extra 200 euros lying around. I got this one from a food-writer friend, as I haven't eaten there (although I'm open to invitations!), but he says it's amazing. Apparently it used to be completely vegetarian, but now I see in the online review that it isn't the case any longer. Probably best to ask when you book.

This crèperie is my cantine, I go there at least once a week. There are only two vegetarian crepes though, but they're both very good, and the desserts are excellent - try the caramel au beurre salé!

La Victoire Suprême du Coeur
This one's maybe a bit strange. It's run by the followers of Sri Chinmoy and there are big photos of him and quotes all around. Also, you have to like the fake-meat and 2 veg kind of stuff to like it. Their seitan is delicious, and it's right by Les Halles where it can otherwise be hard to find a good meal. My friend doesn't like this one, but I do. 100% veggie.

La Pharmacie
Mostly organic, and they do chair massages in there on Sunday afternoons.

Le Potager du Marais
I haven't tried this one yet, but I've heard good things about it. 100% veggie.

The area to go for a curry is La Chapelle (not passage Brady!). The best one is Dishny. It's ridiculously cheap, too.

Lémoni Café
A great lunch place, very "design", with delicious, healthy cretois food.

Bon appétit, bien sur, and if you have any restaurant suggestions for me, by all means let me know!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Century of the Self

The other day I watched the BBC documentary "The Century of the Self" by director Adam Curtis. I had downloaded it on a whim, thinking it sounded rather boring. A documentary about the rise of advertising and public relations in the twentieth century? I figured it would be fairly mundane and obvious. Was I ever wrong.

The Century of the Self clearly explains the history and politics behind the psychological tools big business and government are using to manipulate us. Maybe it sounds very basic, but it was astonishing how this documentary puts so many of the pieces of the puzzle together. You could call it bread and circuses. Or mind control, brainwashing and mass hypnosis. It's something we all know about but tend to put out of our minds.

Episode 1 is called "Happiness Machines." It explains the rise of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis in the period between the wars - how fitting into the little boxes society creates for people can supposedly lead to their happiness and well-being.

Episode 2 is "The Engineering of Consent." After the holocaust, politicians thought that the need to control the darkest elements of human nature was greater than they had previously believed. Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, decided to use his theories to create advertising propaganda to tame the dangerous forces he saw lurking beneath the surface of a seemingly happy and contented America. Because the word "propaganda" had become associated with the Nazis, Bernays renamed his brand of mass manipulation and coined the term "Public Relations."

Episode 3 brings in a much-needed element of fun. Named "There is Policeman Inside all our Heads He Must Be Destroyed," this episode explains the uprising against the Freudian theories by Reichian psychologists. The Reichians thought that it was the repression of peoples' feelings that was dangerous, and that the way to salvation was through free expression. Energy from orgasms, called orgone energy, giant guns pointed at UFOs, and radical lesbian nuns all make an appearance here.

Episode 4 brings us back down to earth with a thud. "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering" explains how big business realized that this new desire for individualism was their biggest marketing opportunity yet. They divided people into different consumer groups, marketed products to their vanity. At the same time, the rise in computer technology made it easier for manufacturers to create smaller runs of their products - and these small runs were perfect for consumers who wanted to be individuals instead of having the exact same things as their neighbours.

Finally, government got in on the action with highly targeted opinion polls. Here we relive the campaigns and leadership of Reagan, Thatcher, Blair and Clinton through the eyes of the opinion polls and their subsequent reactions. Instead of using these polls simply to gauge public reactions to their campaigns, politicians actually began to tailor their domestic and foreign policies to reflect what the public wanted.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Veggie Tips for Thailand

Thanks to Pete for helping compile the following useful veggie survival tips for Thailand!

means vegetables; and Pat Pat means lots of vegetables. Cow means rice. So Cow Pat Pat means fried rice with lots of assorted vegetables mixed in - can be very tasty, or sometimes a little dull, depending on what the vendor has in at the time.

Pat Thai means noodles, tofu, and assorted vegetables - usually very tasty, especially with a little chili. Sometimes they try to sell you shrimp with it - "Sai gung?" - to which you should reply, "Mai chai [no], mai gin [I don't eat] gung [shrimp], gin pat [I eat vegetables], gin tao hoo [and I eat tofu] ka [please]." This should all be said with a friendly smile, in order to get you the lowest price and probably a predictable comment about how well the Farang speaks Thai ("Oooo, poo-ying Farang poot passat Thai dai!" :-))

Brio means sour, and Wan means sweet. Hence, Pat Brio-Wan means sweet and sour vegetables. You can walk in to pretty much any Thai resto and say "Pat brio-wan, cow pat" and they'll churn out a nice meal for you at a very low cost. Also, Gurry Pat means vegetable curry, Indian style - usually pretty good.

And there are plenty of food choices for non-veggies as well. For example, you could try one of Sami's favorite foods - spiced crickets or spiced flying ants! Luckily or unluckily, they didn't come out so well in the picture.

Be careful, though. Thai people only eat certain kinds of insects, but the vendors that cater to tourists, particularly on the Khao San Road, are not so scrupulous and will apparently try to pass off some insects that Thais would never eat. According to Sami, you can eat the kinds that fly or that live in trees or in holes in the ground, but not the kinds that crawl on the floor. You've been warned!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Diving addict

Diving this week I've seen three sharks - two black-tipped sharks and a leopard shark that swam right underneath me, about two meters away. I saw a sea-cobra (10x more poisonous than any snake on land), got stung by jellyfish, watched a giant sea-turtle eating coral, and swam through a school of barracuda - but by far the scariest creature I've encountered in the ocean so far is my new diving instructor. The cute young Dutch guy who gave me perfect scores on everything and flirted all the way back to land has left on vacation. He's been replaced by an ex-military German tough guy who thinks that all vegetarians are weak from lacking essential amino acids, and that women, also weak, have no business being dive leaders.

I've realized that for some reason, no matter how much I thought I wanted or needed to, I seem to be incapable of taking a relaxing vacation. I've finished the diver rescue and progressed on to the divemaster course now, which is the first professional-level certification and the course is quite tough. I passed all the written tests with flying colors ("so now you *think* you know how to dive," the instructor-seargeant remarked), passed my timed swimming test on the second attempt (400m in 11 minutes - not exactly an Olympic record but I was pleased) but made a few mistakes on the practical tests - dropped a weight belt and lost sight of the instructor underwater (caused, I am almost certain, by him rapidly swimming away from me for no reason). In my defense, I was drugged out on the weirdly potent seasickness pills that are almost required on the monsoon-season ocean waves at this time of year.

A few pictures from my one photography dive follow, but they are not that great. I was floating, the fish were floating, there is nothing to hold onto, the fish panicked as they thought the camera lens was a giant predator's eye, and I was trying to look at the viewfinder through several thick layers of plastic. With these excuses as an introduction, I must admit that the first picture, of a moray eel, was taken by my Dutch instructor:

A wall of barracudas:

A puffer fish:

A nudibranch (if you see a nudibranch underwater, the scuba sign-language indictor is to mimic a flasher opening his coat)

A strange, frog-like, amphibious creature:

Hey guys, wait for me!