There's something about a vacation-a change of venue and pace-that invigorates body and soul. I've just returned from France-Brittany and Paris-relaxing, eating and seeing friends. On the Atlantic coast, at my favorite hotel in the small town of Port Crouesty, I dropped a few pounds while indulging in French food prepared so well that it didn't look or taste dietetique (French for dietetic). With friends in Paris, I nourished my soul as we talked and ate food not so dietetique-and I walked to keep the pounds off.
I love the food in France. Mind you, not three-star, mega-over-the-top meals, but good, everyday food. Part of the attraction for me is that the French have a way with ingredients and their preparation. People buy fresh foods from the weekly markets (think of our weekly farmers markets) and neighborhood shops. They develop longstanding relationships with the purveyors, be it for cheese, produce, bread, meat or poultry.
No matter what the venue-hotel, café, brasserie or upscale restaurant-the food and service matched; good fresh ingredients, well prepared and presented, served effortlessly by waiters who didn't need to tell me their name. Smoking is still permitted in many restaurants, though where I dined, smoke-free prevailed.
In Brittany, I ate meticulously prepared fresh, local fish and seafood cooked without butter and drank mineral water instead of wine. Plates were beautifully presented with seasonal vegetables, and portions were ample. The fresh oysters from the area are a dieter's delight-one oyster has just 10 calories. Freshly shucked, the briny flavor was exquisite and needed just barely a squeeze of lemon or a drop of a simple shallot and wine vinegar sauce to enhance the flavor. If you order six or 12, you'll always find seven or 13 on the plate. It's the French way.
On Sundays in Paris is the Biologique (biologic or organic) Market on Boulevard Raspail (it runs for a few blocks in the median) between the Metro stops of Rue de Rennes and Sevres-Babylon. At the Sevres Babylon end of the market, two guys make galettes of potato, onion and a little Gruyere-type cheese, all grated and mixed together to cook up crisp (think potato pancake cooked on a large cast-iron grill). Rich and delicious on a cold morning, it's a tasty breakfast for just two Euros. The market has organic cheeses, wines, vegetables galore, meats, chickens and seafood. The alluring smell of organic chickens cooking on a rotisserie made me want to take one on the plane for the ride home. I didn't.
Then there was dinner with friends at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. A delightful place, with a lush U-shaped sushi bar (without the sushi), dark wood counters and an open kitchen where the chefs and staff are dressed in black, not the usual white.
We ordered many small plates to pass between the three of us. All were notable, including a creatively presented (in a martini glass), barely coddled egg topped with a dollop of sautéed mushrooms in light cream and balanced with a simple parsley purée at the bottom of the glass. Simply ethereal, especially if you like soft-boiled eggs. We munched on baby lamb chops, marinated anchovies with an eggplant purée and finished with a small, sinful bowl of spaghetti with freshly shaved black truffles in a bit of cream. Most of the small dishes we had were in the 12- to 15-Euro range.
The atmosphere is congenial and fun; we ended up talking with a couple in for a weekend from London and another two who were vacationing from Virginia. If you can't make it all the way to Paris, L'Atelier is open in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand.
The Hotel Del Coronado's new oceanfront restaurant, 1500 Ocean, due to open in May, will have Jason Shaeffer as chef de cuisine. His menu will reflect the cuisine and foods of our coastal area from Santa Barbara to Cabo San Lucas. Shaeffer comes back to San Diego after a sojourn in New York City, where he was opening sous chef for Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant that, during his tenure, earned four stars from The New York Times' Frank Bruni. Locals will remember Shaeffer as executive chef for the original Laurel Restaurant and Bar and its sister restaurant, Winesellar & Brasserie.
Speaking of Laurel Restaurant (now owned by Tracy Borkum of Kensington Grill and Chive fame), chef de cuisine Amy DiBiase has left. And could it be that the restaurant is quietly on the selling block?
Those who grew up or lived in Los Angeles and have a penchant for sloppy chiliburgers know Original Tommy's, a 60-year-old standup-shack of a place at the corner of Beverly and Rampart boulevards. It's a favorite of the cops from the Rampart Division as well as students from USC and UCLA. Now you can experience what I've loved for years. Original Tommy's (it has the shack on the logo; don't be fooled by the many Tommy wannabes) is now in San Diego. The chili is thick, slightly spicy with its own unique flavor, and burgers and tamales (my favorite) come with pickles, hand-cut beefsteak tomatoes, cheese and onions. I once brought a gallon of chili to friends up north who were craving the stuff. 7415 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Kearny Mesa, 858-715-0075. www.originaltommys.com.