Monday, July 24, 2006
Le Mandarin: A Little Trip To Heaven
One of the joys of having family in France is that you see a side of France that the average tourist doesn't see. I've been several times to the supermarkets, I've sat just as numbed by French TV as I have Canadian/American shows, little local historical sites that only the most picky specialist might dream of visiting and being greeted by family and friends all over as one of their own with the little double peck cheek-kisses. One of the little joys, too, is going to a restaurant that your French family has patronized for years and years. You are known by name and treated with an affability that only familiarity can bring.
Yesterday we went to such a restaurant in Bar-Le-Duc. It's called Le Mandarin. I've been there before a couple of times but this time we went for a family favourite: Chinese Dip. Chinese Dip is a type of spicy fondue in which you take individual portions of meats, noodles and vegetables and cook them to your liking in the bubbling brew. I'm sure it has another name but I don't know the English version.
Fairly patted into our seats, we were started with freshly-made shrimp chips, the kind often served by North American Chinese restaurants but these tasted more shrimpy than the ones I have known. I don't know about my readers but I love to let the little bubbles of those chips pop on my tongue and attached like little suction cups. It's a ritual I've had with these chips since I was very little. We were also served a nice bit of the bubbly for an apértif.
In a feat that always amazes me in Europe, our lunch was brought out almost as quickly as we were done the apértifs and snacks. I'm not used to restaurants like that in my part of the world. Or maybe I'm going to the wrong ones.
The Chinese dip is set on the table warm in a metal bowl and immediately brought to a boil with a table-top gas burner. The broth is an amazingly complex collection of tastes: satay, peanuts, chiles and many other secret indredients. We are assured it is very healthy for the body just as a soup alone. Along with the dip comes overflowing dishes of bean thread noodles, chinese cabbage, bean sprouts and plates of various kinds of meat. With a little metal scoop in hand, you chopstick your food choices in to the bowl of the golden spoon and then dip it into the boiling fondue. When it is cooked you can take them out and continue with as much cooking as you please. Ladle in some of the spicy fondue into your personal bowl and then dig in. This procedure took well over an hour, I think. Since the bowls are small and it is a labourious process, it lets you eat over a long perioud of time.
The most amazing wine was chosen by my Frogger-in-law to go with this spicy dish: Gewurztraminer. A flowery white wine from Alsace, it has a perfume like a Chinese flower tea which makes it perfect for Chinese food. I was amazed by the way the food and wine complimented each other. If you have never had this with Chinese food, try it! You might be pleasantly surprised.
Although we were stuffed, after a little bit of a chatty break with the owner and watching the giant, fat-lipped fish in the door-side tank, we ordered some desserts. My own choice was Nougat Chinois. I really didn't know what to expect and wondered whether I regretted not getting a moon cake. What came was a red bowl full of delectable little chewy golden-brown cubes with peanuts and covered with toasted sesame seeds. It was very nice, rather like a complex jubejube. Of course, as with all French meals, it ended with little cups of coffee served with dark chocolate.
I think the dreamy 2-hour lunch ended perfectly with hot towels for our fingers that were not only hot but perfumed with essence-of-white-peach. My fingers smelled of peach for hours after, a nice little reminder of such a pleasant visit.
If you are ever in Bar-Le-Duc, try out this little Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant. With such a pleasant atmosphere and smiling service, I really don't think you'd go away disappointed. Go on... Madame is waiting for you.