Welcome to the first edition of the France-Vacations-Made-Easy Newsletter. I welcome any and all feedback!
What to Expect at a
Posh French Restaurant
Going to a nice restaurant in France? Or have you been invited to someone's home for a Saturday evening meal?
It struck me last evening while helping some American businessmen decipher a menu in a restaurant in France - I'm always sticking my nose in when I hear some floundering waiter doing his best to bridge the communication gap - that there are a few things which North Americans should be aware of when they sit down at a nicely set table in France, either in someone's home or in a restaurant.
First - How It's Done in the US
First, the sequence of events.
As you well know, in North America, when you arrive at a restaurant, you approach the hostess stand, ask for a table, or state your name to identify your reservation. You're ushered to a table, you sit and immediately peruse the menu.
The Entrees (darn that misleading word again!) catch your eye, you choose your main dish, then decide how hungry you are before deciding to start off with an appetizer or not. Dessert is not yet discussed at this time, you'll see later if you've got room. In fact most likely dessert is listed on a separate menu, which you haven't yet got access to.
You order and a green salad with your choice of a myriad of dressings shows up and less than 5 minutes later your appetizer arrives, followed swiftly by your main dish. Suddenly surrounded by plates, you grab a last forkful of salad before your waiter extracts it from your view.
You've got more serious things to deal with: the main dish with a choice of potato and veg. A plate the size of a satellite receiver dish, filled with food. Why mess about with your salad?
If the staff is efficient, you're stuffed and out the door after about an hour, belching politely as you cross the parking lot to your car, a Styrofoam container with the remains of your meal in hand. A done deal. The wait staff has already cleared and re-dressed your table and with some luck is busy taking orders from your replacement customers enjoying the heat from your own bottom still warming the plastic on the chair seat.
But How It's Done in France...
In France, this scenario is unheard of.
The evening meal is a ritual.
It takes time.
Time which you, as a busy tourist with an agenda, must concede. So much time in fact that a large percentage of restaurants do not turn over the tables even once during the course of an evening. Imagine that!
Could be part of the reason that nice meals in top of the chart establishments in France are so costly.
They're concerned that you make an evening of your meal. This is it. Your evening plans are unfolding here, not followed by catching a movie or a hockey game. Just spending the evening slowly enjoying good food and conversation with your dinner companions, sipping wine, chewing your food. Most definitely not gulping and running off to the all night grocery store to finish up the weekly shopping.
The only hitch to this is making sure in advance that your dinner companions are actually people you'd like to spend two or three hours with, because once you've crossed the threshold of the restaurant you know in advance that you'll have to talk to them for quite a large amount of time.
Eating in France with someone you don't particularly like is akin to torture.
So, back to the game plan. The French one. And the one you'll find in a very nice restaurant or if you're invited to dinner in a French home.
Before the Meal Begins...
You sit at a nice table, set with cloth napkins a candle or two, a large server plate with a selection of silverware.
You'll notice a small fork, knife and spoon placed above your server plate. And to the right are two knives, and two forks sit on the left. You'll have at least two different glasses above the small knife, fork and spoon, sometimes three. They are for white and red wines and water. An unusually folded napkin is standing at attention on your server plate.
Before the menus arrive or at the same time, you'll be asked if you'd like an aperitif. This is a before dinner drink, 99% of the time involving alcohol, although one can request a fruit juice, or a sacrilegious soda bearing an American brand name, at which time you have the stamp of the stereotypical tourist imprinted in purple marker on your forehead. Nothing else you do throughout the evening will remove it, so beware.
Unfold your napkin and place it across your lap.
Note that Europeans in general, view keeping your hands underneath the table, bad manners. They think your hands should never be hidden under the tablecloth, but be at all times visible, wrists posed on the edge of the table between forkfuls to the mouth. Could this be to avoid shenanigans caused by close seating arrangements? I'm still wondering about the why of this rule of etiquette. However, I was once told by someone's grandmother, in no uncertain terms, to keep my hands on the table. I was horribly embarrassed by this, and have never forgotten it. Take note.
Back to the aperitif. It is a terrible ordeal for the total teetotaler. A glass of champagne can easily replace the heavier alcoholic beverages on offer for the aperitif. I suggest this or a kir: white wine with a splash of red currant or black raspberry liqueur.
The fun part of the aperitif is the obligatory selection of nibbles which appear on the table to accompany the drinks. Miniature toasts with all manner of things perched on top, tiny dishes of nuts, or small pots of creamy pastes made of shrimp or salmon to spread on bits of bread. Finger food at its best!
And Onto Ordering and the Meal...
You indulge while looking over the menu. Most often there will be set menus from which you choose a starter, main and dessert. These set menus are the best deals. That's easy to check, if you find the individual dishes “à la carte” the grand total is usually quite a lot more than if you choose from a set menu.
However, if you're really not hungry you can order just a main dish from the “carte” and be done with it.
Usually something like 10- 15 minutes elapse between the time your order is taken and the arrival of the appetizer or starter. This is why there are aperitifs with nibbles. They help you bide your time, loosen up a bit with a drink and prepare yourself for the culinary treat to come.
Your starter comes. Alone. Without a green salad. Ever. This is normal.
The starter is most often something really unusual, and you enjoy it slowly, using the fork and knife placed the farthest outward from your plate, for about 20 minutes. The waiter won't be chomping at the bit or bringing your main dish until all of the dinner party have completely cleaned their starter plates.
Sometimes you'll find the sauce so delicious that you'll wish you could lick your plate. The French have found the perfect solution to this conundrum. You'll have some bread served to you, although never with butter. Don't ask for any, you'll have sauce at one point in the meal. This is what the bread is served for. However, do not dip a piece of bread into the sauce, bring it to your mouth and bite off the wet chunk from the hunk of bread. This is a no-no. It also dramatically increases the chance you'll dribble colorful sauce on your shirt or tie. Rip a bite sized piece from the bread, drop it crust side up into the sauce, spear it with your fork and wipe it around your plate before popping it into your mouth using the fork. Voila! Repeat as often as you wish.
This is the proof to the chef that his sauce making expertise is appreciated by all. In France it's the sauce that counts, more than just about anything else. It's what differentiates a chef from a cook. It should leave you wanting more. Good. That means the appetizer has done just that: primed your taste buds for the main dish to come.
And yes, the chef looks at the empty plates coming back into the kitchen from the tables. He wants that feedback. If you leave food on your plate, the waiter will ask you why. They'll think something was wrong or that you're dissatisfied with what you were served.
This is an issue at private homes as well. In the USA, we're taught that it's polite to leave food on your plate. It proves you've largely eaten your fill and the host has been very generous. In France, leaving food on your plate is insulting. It clearly says the cook should be driving a bus instead of preparing food. Be very careful with this. Wars have been started over less prickly issues.
The size of your main dish will be slightly larger than your appetizer yet not overwhelming.
Use the knife and fork closest to your plate for the main dish. This cutlery is slightly larger than the previous set. There is usually one side dish, quite often vegetables, or potato, rice or pasta. Not two sides, just the one. There is a reason for this, as well - you're no where near finished eating!
The Next Course is Your Cheese and Salad!
You still have cheese and salad to eat. This is the next course.
Over the past few years it has become trendy to serve the salad with the cheese course. I like this habit, the two go together quite well.
A good olive oil vinaigrette can actually cozy up to most of the strong French cheeses and get along just fine. It would be indescribably yucky if one were to attempt this with “thousand island” or “ranch”. But never fear. You won't see a squirt of “ranch” anywhere in France, unless it's sticking out of an American tourist's carry-on luggage. Salads are dressed with vinaigrette in France. No other choices at all.
Another urban legend is the misnaming of “french” dressing. Not a tiny thing French about that obscenely orange stuff. Where did that color come from anyway? Ugggh! Here I go, digressing again. Forgive me.
Cheese. Now that's a subject on its own.
To peel or not to peel? Are the rinds edible? What is that stuff on the top of the cheese anyway?
If you must, yes. Yes, again, and you don't want to know.
Try some, a small bite at a time, and swig a little red wine with these pungent delights while feeling rather sophisticated.
You can rip off a bite sized piece of bread, placing a small chunk of cheese on it, before popping the whole thing in your mouth. Follow with sip of red wine, and a bite of salad.
The secret is in the flavor sequencing. And if you decide it’s all a bit too strong, never fear, dessert is on its way and your American sweet tooth will be in heaven.
Dessert. Have some. You won't regret it. You'll fully understand when you get here and have some.
After dessert, you'll be offered some expresso. By now, it's so late it won't keep you up anyway. And if you say no to coffee, you won't get any of the small treats which are quite often served on a tiny plate with it. Miniature chocolates, or tiny gateaux to contrast with the strong coffee. Delicious.
If you really are indulging, after all of this, you'll be offered a “digestif” or after dinner brandy. Beware, it's most often a really, really strong fruit based alcohol bearing not the slightest flavor of the fruit on the label. Strangely enough, one does feel a bit less full after a shot of this. But, the alcohol is so very strong, that I suggest only the very brave give it a try.
By now, the evening has worn on and all you'll want to do is go to bed.
Bravo! You've succeeded at becoming very French. That's exactly what they would do. Remember Uncle Harry having a nap on the sofa after Christmas dinner? He had the right idea. And I'll bet he had some French blood in his ancestry somewhere.
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