Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Le printemps à Paris

Three days after returning from Brazil, Keenan and I found ourselves once again in the City of Lights for a short weekend. It is very rare that I join Keenan on one of his business trips, but on this occasion I couldn't refuse. He had meetings scheduled in the Loire Valley for Friday and in Marseille for the following Monday, so instead of traveling back and forth between London and France, he suggested we stay in Paris for the weekend. Paris for the weekend? Oui s'il vous plaît!

Being such a last minute trip, we had no agenda whatsoever, so I will keep my ramblings to a minimum and share our dining experience at two up and coming Parisian bistros, both featured in the New York Times.

Saturday afternoon at Montemartre: 

Checking through my notes for list of recommended restaurants in Paris, we decided to eat at Le Chateaubriand in the 11th arrondisement on Friday evening for several reasons. For one, it's conveniently located a few metro stops Gare du Nord. Second, they have a walk-in policy for the second seating at around 10PM which is great for us coming from London after work. Last, it is ranked #11 after Thomas Keller's Per Se on S.Pellegrino Worlds 50 best Restaurants and every food blog gave it glowing reviews. The changing 5 course set-menu cost 50 Euros and there are no supplements or substitutions. So basically everyone is served the same five course meal -- it's how they keep the restaurant reasonably affordable. In other words, you don't get a choice in what you eat, so it's probably not the best place to dine if you have dietary restrictions. 

The restaurant decor is down-to-earth with simple cream walls, but the atmosphere was lively and the crowd was young and hip. As for the food, I hate to say this, but as much as I wanted to like Le Chateaubriand, Keenan and I were sorely disappointed. Such a shame because I have heard nothing but wonderful reviews coupled with some delicious food photos that always leave me drooling. I blame it on the menu for that evening, which included some bouche similar to pao de quejo which we ate almost everyday in Brazil; "cheviche-flavoured" soup with one cube of avocado; duck heart, which Keenan wasn't a fan due to the texture; an uninspiring and fatty pork belly; and fish and chip. A bit odd that I traveled to Paris for traditional bistro food and find myself eating fish and chip in a Parisian bistrot. On a positive note, we did enjoy the steam fish with spring watercress and the dessert course, plus the staff was attentive and friendly even at 12:30 am. It was a miss for us this time, but I'd be happy to give it another try next time we visit Paris. Hopefully next time the chef will infuse some delicious Basque-cooking in his menu.

Dinner Saturday evening was the culinary highlight of our weekend in Paris. Tucked in a residential and slightly out of the way neighbourhood in the 5th arrondisement, l'Agrume is part of the wave of neo-Parisian bistros with affordable pre-fixe menus. You can order off the a la carte menu, but the 5 course pre-fixe menu for 37 euros is a much better value. l'Agrume also has an extensive wine list; we opted for 2005 Cote Sud Rouge though we probably should have gone with the wine pairing. Just like Le Gaigne, l'Agrume is also run by chef Franck Marchesi-Grandi and his extremely bubbly wife who manages the restaurant. The deep lavender-walled restaurant seats no more than 20-25 people with an open view kitchen where you could watch the chef work his magic (he works alone in the kitchen). Everything was prepared with high-quality ingredients and delicious! We enjoyed our dining experience and would definitely recommend it. The risotto and white fish dish were both lovely. Definitely a hidden gem worth seeking out.

Londoners love to talk about the weather and being in London for so long now, I have to rave about the weather especially when it is nice. Sunday was an absolutely gorgeous spring day in Paris. We seized the opportunity to take a nice stroll along the Seine River on our way to Le Marais for our usual fix of falalel at L'as Du Falalfel on Rue de Rossier. The queue, as usual, was out the door but they have a very efficient system of ordering and paying while queuing so the line moves rather quickly. After lunch we made our way to Jardin des Tuileries where we found tons of people sitting outside basking in the sun, enjoying the lovely spring weather.

Our trip to Paris was short but sweet. Happy Spring!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ilha Grande: A Tropical Paradise

Ahhh…Ilha Grande, the perfect place to chill out and relax.
When we initially planned our Brazil trip, we entertained the idea of visiting the Amazon and Salvador on the Bahia coast, but after our exhausting whirlwind tour of the Middle East last December, we wanted to keep the itinerary for Brazil simple: Rio and the beach, and no air or long-haul travel if possible. Between glitzy Buzios, ("St. Tropez of Brazil") which became wildly popular ever since Brigitte Bardot visited in the 60s, and Ilha Grande, a beautiful car-free tropical island just three hours south of Rio, we chose Ilha Grande for its laid-back appeal and natural surroundings. 

Approaching Vila do Abraao:
On Ash Wednesday we said goodbye to Rod and boa viagem to our other two friends who were traveling to Iguacu Falls and Buenos Aires, and made our way down the Costa Verde to our next destination: Ilha Grande. After a two hour bus ride from Rio, we approached the island by a ferry boat (1 hr) from Angra dos Reis to Vila do Abraao, the island's main village. The weather was absolutely amazing -- warm, sunny, and glorious blue skies! The island had a great low-key vibe filled with a mix of backpackers, young couples, surfers, divers, and local Brazilians. All shops and restaurants are locally owned and operated. You won't see massive development, McDonalds, or Starbucks here as the entire island is protected and are subject to strict development regulations. Ilha Grande is a pristine island of verdant rainforest, gorgeous beaches, and a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna with only a few hiking trials connecting small coastal villages around the island.
Flora and Fauna on Ilha Grande:
We stayed in one of Vila do Abraao's many pousadas (B&B) called Tagomago, a cozy 6 room pousada located on the quiet end of Abraao Cove. We booked a upper floor room with a private balcony and a hammock with a fantastic view of the sea and lush green landscape. Every morning we would wake up before 8am to the sound of birds chirping, have breakfast of fresh tropical fruit on the deck, and off for our daily activity by 9am. Ilha Grande is perfect for nature lovers and those looking for an active holiday. In fact, Vila do Abraao is fairly dead between the hours of 10am and 4pm as everyone is either hiking, surfing, snorkeling, boating, or sunbathing. Things pick up again in the evenings when all the restaurants and bars are open. The main square is quite vibrant with live entertainment and alfresco bars spilling into the plaza. Our favourite beach bar is Cafe do Mar -- great music, friendly staff, fantastic location on the beach, and very strong caiprinhas.


We went on three different hikes during our six day stay in Ilha Grande, as well as a boat tour around the island:

Abraao to Lopez Mendes: The first hike we went on, which was our favourite hike, started at Trail #10 at the very end of Abraao Cove, and took us through the mid-Atlantic Forest via a little jungle trail (read: wet and muddy) passing through two beaches: Praia Bravas and Praia Mangues/Pouso before reaching our ultimate destination Lopez Mendes. Wow, what a beautiful beach! Wide-sweeping beach with warm, crystal-blue, shallow waters, big waves, and fine powder white sand. The sun was shining brilliantly as well -- it was a fantastic day to soak up the rays! The hike took about 2hr 15min, but you can return by boat to Abraao for R10 from Praia Mangues. Definitely a highlight of our time in Ilha Grande -- simply beautiful!
Hiking to Lopez Mendes:

Abraao to Dois Rios: The second hike (Trail #14) took us to the opposite end of the island to the village of Dios Rios in about 1hr 45min. This hike was easier than Trail #10 as you walk along the island's only paved dirt road. Dios Rios is a secluded beach in a beautiful natural surrounding. Seriously, there were only a handful of people on the beach, a flock of black birds, and just the sound of waves crashing onto the shore. Another magnificent white sandy beach and beautiful scenery. Dios Rios once had a small prison, now partially demolished. Camping is not allowed and you need to leave the village by 5pm, but since your only mode of transportation is by foot, it is best to leave well before sundown. 
 Dios Rios:

Abraao to Cacheira da Feiticeira: Our last hike (Trail #1 then to the waterfall) was short and sweet. Heading west pass Vila do Abraao, this little circular hike takes you through several natural pools, gorgeous vistas, aqueduct, and a waterfall. Though small, Cacheira da Feiticeira is worth seeing if time permits. The hike took 1.5 hours round trip.
 Hike to Cacheira da Feiticeira:

We also took a speed boat around the northwestern part of the island which had at least 20 small coves that was perfect for snorkeling. We made half a dozen stops: the Blue Lagoon, Green Lagoon, Aracatiba, Saco do Ceu, and Praia Feiticeria. The first three stops were superb for snorkeling - tons of small little black and yellow fish and colourful corals. Saco do Ceu and Praia Feiticeria were small beaches formed by mangrove trees with calm waters. It was a fun day out cruising around the island and I highly recommend it.
(Top to Bottom): Blue Lagoon, Green Lagoon, Saco do Ceu:

Other days we just lied on the beach, strolled through the streets of Vila do Abraao (it's not very big), or sat in our hammock sipping cold beers. Ilha Grande is superb...a tropical paradise and the perfect way to end our trip. Obrigada for the memories Brazil! We hope to see you again for the 2014 World Cup...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Eating in Rio!

Besides taking in the touristic sights of Rio, enjoying Carnaval, and hanging out with great friends, we also did a whole lot of eating. In fact, Keenan and I probably consumed more beef in our one week in Rio than we ever eat in one year. Seriously, we ate so much I am surprised our pants still fit! So here is our eating-in-review, by the day:

Day One: Feeling a bit jetlagged, but very excited to be in Rio, Rod’s parents prepared a traditional home-cooked lunch of roast tenderloin beef smothered in onion and garlic, traditional feijoada (Brazilian black beans), the national dish of Brazil, rice, garden salad, and mango and coffee ice cream. It was delicious and just what we needed after an 11 hour bumpy red-eye flight across the south Atlantic

Day Two: To ring in my 29th birthday (yikes!), we spent the day...eating, one of my favourite pastime. After taking a mini power "walk" along the Lagoa, we made our way to Ipanema for lunch at Via Sete, one of Rod’s favourite restaurants. Known for excellent alcoholic shakes, salads, and chicken wraps, Via Sete is a great place for a leisurely lunch. Opted for the patio for some great people-watching along Ipanema’s most glamorous streets. Carnivores that we were, we each ordered filet mignon with an iced cold Bohemia beer, and a killer brownie topped with ice cream for dessert which was to die for. Later that afternoon, Rod’s parents got me a birthday cake to help me celebrate another year wiser! 
Lunch at Via Sete:

To top it all off, Keenan made reservations for the three of us at Manekineko, a sushi restaurant in Leblon with funky red/black decor and overall fun atmosphere. Manekineko came highly recommended by several of our cariocas friends and they insist that we get the rodízio (all you can eat sushi). I think Rod was terrified and slightly embarrassed by how much sushi and sashimi we can put down. So needless to say, I had a delicious birthday and thank you so much for all your thoughtful birthday wishes. 

Day Three: If you come all the way to Rio, you must try the juice bars and they are everywhere! The variety of tropical fruits in Brazil are amazing...Acerola (contains 100 times the Vitamin C of oranges); goiaba (guava); caju (fruit from the cashew nut); graviola; mango; maracuja (passion fruit); and the list goes on. Juice bars are all over the city and very convenient if you're looking for a quick bite or a refreshing drink while at the beach. The famous and most popular juice bar is Bibi Sucos, located along the Rio's famous beaches. After meandering through the Copacabana Fort, Ipanema Beach, and Leblon Beach, we had a quick lunch of steak sandwiches, juice, and açai at the Bibi Sucos in the Leblon.

Açai is a fruit found in the Amazon and is loaded with rich carbohydrates, antioxidants, omega six, fatty acids and vitamins, making this fruit a "superfood." In Brazil, you can drink açai as a juice, but generally it is eaten as a sorbet mixed with guarana syrup, another plant found widely in the Amazon. Definitely try açai -- it has a similar taste to beetroot with a gritty texture like sand. Guarana soda is also very popular in Brazil.

Taking a break from beef, we went to Braz for dinner. Located in Jardim Botanico, this much-loved São Paulo pizzeria found its way to Rio. The restaurant opened in 2007 but it looks and feels like it has been here since the early 1900s. The crusty pizzas are topped with fresh ingredients is best washed down with iced-cold chopp draft lager poured Brazilian style...with lots of head. 
Day Four: Two other friends arrived Saturday morning and we planned another eating extravaganza to welcome their arrival. Lunch was at Academia da Cachaça in Leblon, which had a fun, jovial atmosphere to kick off the official start of Carnival. As the name of the restaurant/bar implies, this is probably one of the best place in Rio to try different varieties of cachaça, a liquor made from fermented sugarcane and the main ingredient of the infamous caipirinhas. The food was quite good, serving up traditional Brazilian dishes from black bean soup to farofa

Later in the evening, we had dinner at Aprazivel with several of Rod's friends from university. The restaurant is located up in the hills in a bohemian neighbourhood called Santa Teresa. High above the city, the views overlooking Rio were amazing and we could see the lights and the sound the Carnival parade from the Sambadromo. We reserved a table in the lovely outdoor tropical garden, but unfortunately it started raining, but that didn't spoil our time at Aprazivel.  The food was on the pricey side, but very good. I ordered the beef medallion and Keenan had the picanha beef and some very strong caipirinhas that keep us buzzing through our four-hour dinner with great company. 

Samba Parade taking place in the Sambadrome:
Day Five: We ate at a Rio institution after visiting Sugar Loaf Mountain - Porcão Rios - an all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ house. There are several locations, but the best one is in Botafogo/Flamengo with the view of Sugar Loaf. Generally regarded as the best churrasqueria in Rio, and for good reasons, the beef here is very good. The wait staff comes around with at least half a dozen cuts of beef; the best cut in Brazil as I was told is called picanha. I recommend coming here in the late afternoon for "dunch." Be sure to come hungry...very hungry and be ready for a serious food coma afterward. We ate so much we had to skip dinner altogether. 

 Don't forget to save room for dessert:
Day Six: After spending a few hours on Corcovado Mountain to see Christ the Redeemer amongst the overcast skies, Rod’s sister and brother-in-law invited us, along with some of her other friends, for a BBQ at their new house in Barra de Tijuaca. On the menu: steak, queijo coalho, linguica, and chicken wings, and Itapava beers.
Rod’s little nephew:
 Beautiful house with a pool, sauna, outdoor kitchen, and a 2br guesthouse:
Day Seven: Mercado Cobal Outdoor Night Market in Botafogo is definitely a locals’ hang out. It’s a great place to socialise with friends over cold chopps or a full sit-down meal or a light snack of pastsis. The atmosphere is bustling often with live bands, but that evening, part of Mercado Cobal was closed for a Carnival Street Party. Several restaurants were open and we were able to snag a table at a restaurant called Joaquina Bar e Restaurante for our last meal in Rio together. Of course, being our last night in Rio, we had to order steak and several rounds of chopp
Other food items to try while in Rio:
Pão de quejo – little cheese breads
Agua de Coco – coconut juice at any beach kiosk
Globo – fried dough (?) – popular snack at the beach
Pastels – thin pastry with assorted fillings (cheese, shrimp, meat) served as a light snack
Quindim – popular Brazilian baked dessert made from sugar, egg yolks and ground coconut
There is a wide range of Brazilian beers, which are always, always served chilled either in an ice bucket or an individual cooler. Here are some of our favourites (in order): Bohemia, Devassa, Skol, Itapava, Antarctica, Brahma.
Restaurants in Rio: 
Via Sete, Rua Garcia D’Avila, 125 Ipanema
Manekineko Sushi, Rua Dias Ferreira, 410, Leblon
Bibi Sucos Juice Bar, Locations throughout the city including Leblon and Ipanema
Braz Pizzeria, Rua Maria Angelica, 129, Jardim Botanico/Lagoa
Academia da Cachaça, Rua Conde de Bernadotte, 26 Leblon
Aprazivel, Rua Aprazível, 62, Santa Teresa
Porcão Rios, Ave Infante Dom Henrique, Aterro do Flamengo
Mercado Cobal de Humaita, Rua Voluntarios da Patria 446, Botafoto Other restaurants recommendations from our cariocas friends:
Artigiano (Italian), Av. Epitacio Pessoa, 204, Ipanema
Quadrucci (Italian), Rua Dias Ferreira, 233, Leblon
Joe and Leo (Best Hamburgers in Rio), Rio Design Leblon
Colombo Cafe (tea and fine pastries), Downtown Rio

Enjoy and saúde!
Now off to Ilha Grande