November 8, 2011

I'll have a shoe with cheese on it, and shove it down my throat

Readers Guide Prize on Viewshound November 8, 2011

On the tour bus in London and on the Eurostar, our guide coached us. Speak French. They like to hear their language, and will respect you if you try it. Remember, eating at a French restaurant is an experience. Savor every course. Don’t be too quick to order your meal. Enjoy the wine.

This was our first “Pop across the Pond”, and London had been easy to navigate once we got used to cars driving on the left side of the road.

France was a different story. As comedian Steve Martin said in an early routine, “In French, oeuf means egg, cheese is fromage… it’s like those French have a different word for everything.” In a comedy routine from an album (yes, I mean LP) from the ‘70s, Martin goes into a French restaurant, trying to order a cheese omelette and tells the waiter, “I’ll have a shoe with cheese on it, and shove it down my throat.”

This is the cultural context in which we entered Paris, immediately in sensory overload on the ride from the train station to our hotel. Out of our 19th story hotel room, we had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower, a breathtaking sight.

With a few free hours, we wanted to get dinner, and listened to several recommendations from our guide.

We walked several blocks, not even having a clue we were on the Champs Elysees until later. We spotted an inviting place and looked at a menu. I was counting on my husband to communicate; he had read an entire manuscript in French in front of a jury to complete graduate school. OK, so it was a quarter of a century ago, but surely the words for “chicken with some kind of fattening, buttery sauce” haven’t changed that much.
We were seated inside a glassed area that offered full street view, and then the waiter handed us our giant menus.

Oh, how we anticipated this, slow, relaxing, savored meal.

First, a glass of wine.

The waiter sniffed at us because we wanted a glass, not a bottle of wine. (Don’t all waiters in French restaurants sniff, or when you read about them, the word sniff is always used?) You could see his mind racing and the Ugly Americans imprint practically appearing as a cloud out of his head.

“Red,” or “white,” he said.

I said, “Pinot noir?”

He said emphatically, “Red” or “White.”

Okay, I guess we didn’t have any other choices. My husband and I both said “white.”

The waiter wrote this down on his little pad and then said, “To eat?"

What? What about a salad? What about five courses? What about the "savoring?” I had just read the wine menu and wasn’t ready to order my meal yet. And I wanted a salad. But the waiter was pushy and so I selected something on the menu that looked vaguely familiar.

Pave de rumsteck de race Normandy, pommes Pont-Neuf.

In my shallow mind, I thought this was beef rump roast with new potatoes. I confused “Normandy” with “Burgundy” thinking it would be something close to Beef Bourguignon.

Or close enough. I’m eating in a French restaurant on the Champs Elysees, how bad can it be?

The waiter asked me in his broken English “how I wanted it?” I said medium well. At home I normally eat steaks medium, but I do not like my meat rare so I erred on the side of caution.

Almost immediately the waiter brought our two glasses of wine, both red.
My husband wanted to send them back, but I talked him out of it. Red is fine, I said. It’s a French restaurant in Paris. All good.

Within another five minutes, our entrees came out quicker than the daily special at Applebees.

My husband had ordered an “assortment of meats” which in France apparently means two. My plate had pork spare ribs and mashed potatoes on it. I don’t do ribs. I could do mashed potatoes, but it wasn’t even close to what I thought I ordered.
So my dear husband sent it back.

This time, I savored the ambiance while my husband ate his meal (which he said was good).

About 30 minutes later my entrĂ©e arrived. I am not sure what the 30 minutes were used for, because it wasn’t to cook the steak which was one of the rarest pieces of meat I’ve seen outside the Whitley County 4-H live cattle auction.

I sawed at the edges with my knife and ate the potatoes. I didn’t have the heart to send it back again. Nor could I endure the waiter’s sniff.

We did not have the dessert; for fear that the Mousse au chocolat would be rare Canadian moose (Filet of Bullwinkle).