I love surprises -- as long as the surprise consists of Ed McMahon, a camera crew, and a check the size of a sofa with my name on it. Unfortunately, the surprises I actually get tend to be more like the ones that come in serious brown envelopes from the Internal Revenue Service that claim I owe the US Government an amount of money equivalent to the gross national product of Luxemburg. So given my experiences, it's my firm opinion that surprises at mealtimes should be limited to the waiter whisking out a piece of cake with a lit candle and getting the entire restaurant to sing a painfully out-of-key rendition of "Happy Birthday". But when you live abroad, you're bound to run into some surprises both good and bad. Recently, I experienced both.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I had been showing a friend around Paris and taking in the usual sights: Notre Dame, the Opera, and the Eiffel Tower. After a visit to the Louvre, my wife decided that we should stop at a restaurant called Angelina's off the rue de Rivoli that's supposed to have the best hot chocolate Paris.
Frankly, I wasn't too excited about this. Where I grew up, hot chocolate is nothing more than chocolate milk that's been heated up. If you order hot chocolate at a hoity-toity restaurant you may get a sprinkle of nutmeg on your whipped cream, but it's still basically warm chocolate milk.
When the waiter delivered a carafe of the house specialty to our table it became pretty clear that the people who run Angelina's are not from where I grew up. Angelina's hot chocolate has more in common with a couple of melted chocolate bars than with a glass of Ovaltine. I'd say that Angelina's hot chocolate was thick and rich, but that would be like saying the Beatles were popular in their day or that Bill Gates is well-off -- strictly speaking it's true, but it doesn't come close to reality.
Angelina's serves their hot chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream on the side -- not the foam that you spritz from a can, but the real stuff that's so thick and heavy that it's on the verge of separating into butter. The reason Angelina's gives you the whipped cream is that you need it to dilute their hot chocolate -- as rich as the whipped cream is, it's still actually lighter than the hot chocolate itself. The whipped cream was a nice touch, but what Angelina's hot chocolate really needs is to come with one of those emergency auto-injector pens with a pre-measured dose of insulin.
So, as it turned out, lunch at Angelina's was very pleasant surprise indeed. Unfortunately, the surprise I had at work the next day was more ... disturbing.
I was at an off-site meeting at a hotel in Nogent-Sur-Marne and we were taking our lunch break. The waiter had just delivered the meal which appeared to be braised bits of meat covered with a light puree and artfully surrounded by bright green asparagus stalks: the quintessence of French cuisine. The waiter announced the selection to the table (in French of course) and I caught the word for "veal". As the waiter walked away, my boss got my attention and said, "I didn't select the menu, you know. I asked the chef to be creative."
I didn't think anything about his comment because one of the items on our agenda was some brainstorming later in the afternoon. I thought my boss meant a creative lunch would get our mental pumps primed. But then one of my co-workers turned to me and said, "I once hosted an American who said he wanted to eat traditional French country food. So I took him to a restaurant in Paris and we ordered rabbit, but when it arrived he just couldn't eat it." She shook her head sadly and repeated herself in case I didn't catch it the first time, "He just couldn't eat it."
I picked up my fork and was just starting to wonder why she was telling me this particular story at this particular time when another colleague who had lived in Singapore said, "You know, I've eaten some very strange foods in China." He then lapsed into French and launched into a long discussion about something, occasionally waving his arms and wiggling his fingers, and once clearly saying the word "jellyfish".
I studied my plate. The asparagus stalks were innocent enough and the puree, while suspiciously green, was undoubtedly just more asparagus with some cream sauce. That left the meat, but the waiter had clearly said it was veal. At that point, it dawned on me that a calf is a pretty big animal -- one that's brimming with all kinds of mysterious internal organs -- and, technically speaking, everything from the hooves up is "veal". So although those savory nuggets on my plate undoubtedly came a cow, they were probably not from any part of the cow that I normally associated with nourishment...
I ate it, of course. The "veal" tasted okay, but it was a little oily and the texture was decidedly odd, more like pasta than meat. Fighting curiosity, I decided not ask my co-workers what it was, figuring it was probably best that I didn't find out right away. I think I'll save enlightenment for a later time, when the meal is a safe and distant memory: for example, at my retirement party.
All things considered, I'd have to say in terms of surprises, it's best to keep an open mind and a willingness to experience new things when you're in a different country, and that next time I'm definitely sticking with the hot chocolate.
Dan writes a weekly humor column called Tomfoolery & Codswallop. You can visit Dan's website where he welcomes your comments and suggestions for future columns.
Article © Dan H. Woods. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-06-22