Cannelés in Bangkok at Le Beaulieu

Widely considered Bangkok’s finest French restaurant, Le Beaulieu serves dishes that would be at home in Paris. It also charges prices that are simply beyond my budget. But when I want un petit goût of that French sophistication without landing in the poorhouse, I stop by the Le Beaulieu cafe and purchase a few cannelés.

Cannelés, a pastry from Bordeaux with a dark, richly caramelized crust and a soft, almost custardy center, are painstaking to make. They require copper molds that are lined with beeswax and butter before being filled with a crêpe-like batter that has rested up to 48 hours. The two-step baking process begins with an extremely hot oven that is later lowered to a more reasonable temperature in order to produce the distinctive crust. Done right, the results are heavenly. Done wrong, they resemble either a burned brick or an eggy sponge.

The cannelés at Le Beaulieu have the ideal texture, the right amount of caramelization on the exterior that makes for a complex flavor without tasting burnt. Served with a tasty espresso drink from Malongo, a family-owned coffee firm from Nice, I can afford to have that French cafe experience without having to survive on crumbs alone.

Romantic Dinner at Cafe Jacqueline

For our final dinner in San Francisco, Tawn and I returned to Cafe Jacqueline, a charming restaurant in North Beach that specializes in soufflés, both savory and sweet. We first went here a dozen years ago and the place remains as charming as ever.

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The restaurant is not very large – a dozen tables, perhaps – and reservations are strongly encouraged. Reviews on yelp.com and other sites sometimes complain that the staff is rude to walk-in customers, but I think that perception is understandable when you consider that their style of restaurant is very different from the average well-reviewed restaurant. They serve only one thing (soufflés) made by one person (Jacqueline) and so the pace of service is very leisurely. People – especially foreign tourists toting their guide books – arrive without reservations and confrontations ensue when their expectations differ from reality. Because of this, the wait staff interrogate walk-in customers in a brusque manner: “Do you know what kind of restaurant this is?”

If you have reservations – or if you are a walk-in and pass the interrogation – you are treated with old world courtesy by friendly, professional waiters who have worked at the cafe for years. It is an old-fashioned kind of place, in the best meaning of that term.

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This is a restaurant made for romance. Next to several tables are small plaques commemorating special occasions that happened there. Our table had two such plaques: “George & Laura Vidalia – First Date… Married…” and the more interesting “Dav and Kate – Handshake of Monogamy, MLK Day 1997 – Proposal, MLK Day 2001”.

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There is a small selection of soups, salads, and appetizers, all of which are very French. Escargots, onion soup, caviar, and our choice: a spinach and bacon salad.

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It took some forty minutes for our savory soufflé to arrive, but this was totally expected and we kept ourselves occupied with an amazing bottle of old vine Zinfandel from Lodi, California. We had the prosciutto and cheese soufflé, which was a thing of beauty.

So that you don’t muss it up, the waiter serves the first portion for you.

Truly, the soufflé is a dish whose tremendous beauty is dashed just as soon as you cut into it. But despite its deflated appearance, the taste is tremendous and the textural contrasts energizing: rich and light, salty and eggy, crispy and smooth – all at the same time.

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For dessert, we took advantage of the season and enjoyed a fresh strawberry soufflé. This, of course, was another forty minute wait or so, but that meant that by the time it arrived, we actually had some room in our bellies to enjoy it. I’d say that this soufflé was ever so slightly undercooked, but to such a minor degree that it remained very enjoyable.

Cafe Jacqueline is one of those restaurants that is a must-visit and very appropriate for a special occasion. I hope we’ll make a return visit sooner than another dozen years from now, for I fear that once Mme Jacqueline reaches a certain age, she will decide to retire. As the cafe is a one-woman show, her retirement would likely mean the end of an era, and that would be a truly sad thing.

 

Attempt to Bake Gougères

A few weeks ago, I tried my hand at making gougères, a French pastry that the ever-helpful 101cookbooks.com describes as “golden pom-poms of cheese-crusted magic.” They use a dough similar to the choux pastry dough used to make éclairs and cream puffs but are supposed to be easier to make. Here’s what the finished product looks like, according to 101cookbooks.com’s recipe

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Beautiful, right? So I decided to make some for a brunch I was hosting. The recipe wasn’t too hard to follow: bring a mixture of beer (or water, if you prefer), milk, butter, and salt just to a boil. Add a mixture of all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, stirring until smooth and slightly toasted. Cool slightly then mix in the eggs, one at a time. Finally, mix in grated cheddar cheese and portion onto a baking tray, cooking immediately.

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Following the recipe, I made my dough, measuring carefully and mixing in the eggs as indicated. The mixture seemed a little loose, though. Instead of following my instincts and trying to thicken it by adding more flour (which would have given it a taste of raw flour since it hadn’t been toasted along with the rest of the mixture), I proceeded with the dough as it was.

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Portioned onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, the dough confirmed my fears. It started spreading too much. Undaunted, I sprinkled a little more cheese and some anise seeds on top and put them into the oven.

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The end results were decidedly flatter than the ones in the recipe’s picture. The taste was okay, but they didn’t have the “poof” I was looking for. Unfortunately, I don’t know what I did wrong but I would like to try again.

 

An Attempt at San Francisco Stuffed French Toast

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Back in June we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at Starling Diner in Long Beach.  They serve this amazing dish called San Francisco Stuffed French Toast, which is a baguette filled with mascarpone cheese, dipped in creme anglaise, and broiled – not fried! – until golden and crisp.  (Full entry about that meal here.)  Ever since that visit, I’ve been curious to try making that dish, just to see if I can understand its mechanics.

Finding myself with an extra half of a baguette last week, I turned to the internet for potential recipes.  While there wasn’t an exact recipe, I was able to piece together a few recipes to guide me.  I had to resolve three key issues: make a creme anglaise, create a tasty mascarpone cheese filling, and then figure out how to construct and cook the baguette so it came out with a crispy exterior and moist but cooked interior. 

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The ingredients were pretty simple: a slightly stale baguette, mascarpone cheese, milk, cream, egg yolks, and vanilla, and some fruit to serve on the side.

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A creme anglaise is basically a custard sauce.  In and of itself, it isn’t terribly complicated, although I suspect that my technique would improve if I had more experience making it.  I whisked three tablespoons of sugar into three egg yolks until pale yellow.  Ideally, you would use ultra-fine sugar rather than regular granulated sugar, to make it easier for the sugar to dissolve.

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Next, you heat a mixture of half cream and half milk until it is not quite to the point of boiling.  Then, pour the milk into the egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly so the eggs do not scramble.  The mixture is then returned to the stove and cooked gently (stirring constantly) until it reaches 160 F. It can then be strained through a wire mesh to remove any clumped bits of egg and then allowed to cool.

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While the creme anglaise cooled, I whipped the mascarpone cheese with a little sugar, a tablespoon of juice from some canned peaches, and a pinch of salt.  Something about that caused it to coagulate a bit, so next time maybe I’ll just stick with a splash of honey and leave the salt out. 

The big challenge was figuring out how to stuff the baguette.  Slicing it open seemed problematic as the cheese would easily ooze out while cooking.  I tried sticking a serrated knife into one end of the bread, cutting a small pocket.  Then, I piped the mascarpone mixture into the bread.  All in all, this worked fairly well although it makes the dish a little more complex and dirties a few more kitchen implements.  

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Next, I let the stuffed baguette rest in the creme anglaise, turning about once a minute, for a total of about four minutes.  I then place the baguette pieces on a parchment lined baking tray and put under the oven’s broiler, turning once, for a total of about eight minutes or until crispy and golden. 

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While the bread broiled, I whipped a little cream to use as a condiment.  You could also prepare any fresh fruit – berries, bananas, peaches, etc. – to go with the dish.  I opted for canned peaches as I had a jar open in the refrigerator.

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The finished product.  The mascarpone filling melted, which I recall being the case with the original, and gave the interior a rich sweetness.  The outside was crispy, although I’m not sure the baguette was really stale enough to get the right texture; it was still a little soft when I started this process and not as dry as would probably be best.  All in all, I think it turned out nicely and would be worth playing around with a bit more.  However, it definitely takes more effort than other versions of French toast I’ve had!

 

Food in Long Beach: Starling Diner

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Near the end of our trip to Los Angeles last month, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to visit Janet for tea, we stopped for brunch at the Starling Diner.  Located on East Third Street in Long Beach, the look and feel of the Starling Diner is that of an old-time neighborhood institution.  The food is comforting, the service friendly, and the fellow diners are, well, neighborly.

Starling Diner is all this despite having been around for less than five years.  It is no surprise then to learn that owner Joan Samson made a very conscious effort to create a space that had that neighborhood institution feel.  From their website:

In times past, neighborhoods were Communities where everyone casually knew each other and the gathering places were icons such as the front porch, the corner store and the neighborhood diner. It has always been our personal mission to create gathering spots that provide a sense of place along side the highest quality food and drinks. We live in and love Long Beach. We just made a place where we would like to meet our friends and connect.

My cousins had first brought me here in 2009 and I was eager to share the cute restaurant and tasty dining experience with Tawn.  He wasn’t disappointed.

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This pale green cruiser parked outside seems to exemplify the Starling Diner.  Located amidst houses on a quiet street, this is the type of place you would hop on your bicycle and ride three blocks to meet some friends for breakfast at.

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The tables are crowded with little tin tubs of all the condiments you might need.  Interestingly, they serve water in these biodegradable corn-based plastic cups in order to save the environment.  As I pointed out to the server (in a friendly, non-complaining sort of way), they would do more to save the environment to serve their cream, jellies, sugars, etc. in bulk containers rather than individual sachets and packages. 

The fact that our server took that suggestion with a thoughtful smile and remained friendly and welcoming is a good example of the type of consistent service I’ve enjoyed during both my visits.

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The highlight of the menu is the San Francisco stuffed French toast.  Unlike most French toast, this is broiled not fried, and is made from baguette, not square loaf bread.

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It does not disappoint!  The result is something that is light and crispy rather than heavy and soggy like most French toast.  This is a recipe I would like to learn to recreate at home.

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Tawn had the crab cakes sandwich, which had these wonderful, large lump crab meat and tons of fresh greens.  This was really tasty, too.

All in all, the only disappointment at the Starling Diner was that there were just the two of us and, as such, we were only able to try two items on the menu.  Mark this on the list of places to come back to on a future visit!

 

Food in BKK: Le Normandie

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The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, which traces its history to 1876 as the first hotel in the Kingdom of Siam, remains one of the finest hotels in Asia.  Its legendary service and refined elegance leaves you half-expecting to find such famous visitors of years past as Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward sitting in the lobby or the colonial-style Authors’ Lounge. 

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Sitting atop the 10-story Garden Wing, which was home to Thailand’s first elevator (1958), is the most famous French restaurant in town: Le Normandie.  It was there that we gathered for lunch Sunday afternoon to celebrate the marriage of one of Tawn’s university friends, Ko.  She and her husband Per were married in a civil ceremony in Sweden a few weeks back.  He will move here later this year and their Thai wedding celebration, certain to be much more lavish, will be held in December. 

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Photo courtesy of the Mandarin Oriental Group

Joining Ko, Tawn, and me was their other university friend, Bim.  Both Bim and Ko are foodies, so this seemed as good a place as any to indulge and celebrate.  Le Normandie, which is elegantly appointed in buttery yellow silks, mirrors, and fine chandeliers, has a view and a price tag to suit.  What isn’t widely known is that each summer, which is low season here in Thailand, Le Normandie offers a summer prix fixe menu – this summer only 1100 baht  ($35) for three courses.

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In addition to the beautiful wall treatments and lighting fixtures, both sides of the room have floor-to-ceiling windows offering spectacular views of the city on one side and the Chao Phraya River on the other.  The dining room is decorated with beautiful arrangements of fresh flowers, too.

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Something that you are paying for at Le Normandie is the service, which is every bit as prompt and attentive as you would expect in a fine restaurant in Paris.  The roast is carved tableside, plates are placed at the table simultaneously by the waiters, the proper utensils are discreetly placed on the table between courses, etc.  Living in a city where most of the fine dining restaurants struggle to get the diners’ main courses to the table within ten minutes of each other, having the plates gently placed on the table at the same moment is a thrill!

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Fresh breads of all sorts were brought before and throughout the meal, a variety of brioche, whole grain bread, sourdough, baguette, etc. that were freshly baked that morning and served warm.  The butter was molded with a italicized “N” on top, served in a proper glass dish with silver lid.

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After ordering, the chef sent an amuse bouche to tease our appetite.  Sorry that the focus on the right isn’t sharp.  The shot glass is a tomato jelly with avocado soup and a passion fruit foam.  On the left is a slice of squash mousse with broccoli salad topped with a roll of chicken mousse wrapped in thinly sliced duck breast.  Yummy!

Entrées

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Tawn and I both ordered this beautiful dish: buisson d’asperges vertes, crème aux graines de pavot, œuf de poule prise en gelée, tartare de légumes safranés , which is a “buisson” or pile of green asparagus with poached egg, poppy seed cream, and saffron scented vegetable tartar. 

Translating that further, that base was formed of asparagus spears set upright in an aspic, or gelatin, base.  The poached egg, served cool but with a runny yolk, was inside the “crown” of asparagus and held into place with a little more aspic.  The vegetables around the base were mostly tomatoes and pepper and had a nice saffron aroma.  Once the plate was served, the waiter came over with a sauce dish of warm poppy seed cream and spooned it into the center of the crown. 

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When I cut into it, the cream and egg yolk came running out in what was both an amazing, and an amazingly beautiful, mess.  The dish was really nicely prepared and what was especially pleasing about it was the amount of effort and technique that had gone into it.  It was a good example of the elevation of food to art.

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Ko ordered esquinade d’araignée, courgette et salicoque e la vapeur, émulsion au chorizo, which was a spider sea crab meat with poached prawn and zucchini, served with chorizo sausage sauce.  I didn’t try it but she said it was very nice.  Beautiful plating, too. 

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Bim ordered the vibrant green cuisses de grenouilles en fricassée, raviole Provençale, parmesan et sherry Tio-Pepe – a frog leg fricassee with Provençale ravioli, parmesan and Tio-Pepe sherry sauce.  She really enjoyed this dish.

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Between courses, here are the beautiful and intelligent Bim (left) and Ko (right).  While there were many other friends who couldn’t make it, I can’t imagine anyone who would have been better to enjoy this meal with.

Plat Principal

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The main courses were just as artful and tasty as the entrées.  Bim and Ko both had the filet de Saint-Pierre confit, croustillant de lard Ibérique a l’abricot et jus a la vanille, which was a John Dory fillet with apricot wrapped in Iberico ham and a vanilla-berry essence.

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Tawn had the cabillaud à la Boulangère, vin de Jura, cappuccino des sous-bois et sauce au café , which was cod fish Boulangere style with Jura wine, forest mushroom cappuccino and a coffee sauce.  The fish was beautifully prepared, moist and flaky.  The sauce was interesting as it had just the faintest hint of coffee to it.

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I didn’t stray far from convention, enjoying a flavorful pièce de bœuf rôti, gratin de tomates cerise, échalote en chemise et sauce au poivre, or roasted beef with cherry tomato gratin, shallot and pepper corn sauce.  It was very tasty.

Desserts

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After the main course, the dessert cart was rolled over, featuring a half-dozen types of cakes and four stewed fruit compotes including fig and rhubarb.  We could choose two selections and the waiter prepared each plate, saucing and decorating it differently.  It took about five minutes per plate but the results, as you can see below, were beautiful.

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A cappuccino cake that was calling to me from the dessert cart, although I settled on this one instead:

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My marscapone cheese cake with vanilla sauce and rhubarb compote.

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A raspberry mousse cake and a chocolate cake – Tawn’s selections.

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While tea and coffee were served, two trays of beautiful and tasty macarons were served: chocolate-raspberry, caramel, chocolate-orange, and green tea.

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While we didn’t partake of them, there was a cart loaded with fine after dinner drinks.  I’m not a brandy drinker, but there is something about an after-dinner drink that seems very refined.

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After an enjoyable, nearly three hour dining experience above the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  What an elegant and pleasant way to celebrate a friend’s wedding.  If only her new husband had been there to enjoy it, too!