6 Top Toronto Dining Deals

March 29, 2010 at 9:49 am | Posted in Canada, culinary/food & drink, Ontario | 1 Comment
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by Ed Wetschler

After telling a friend about a good dining deal in Toronto — her own home town — she said, “I’ll have to go there; I don’t know that place!” Understandable. Canada‘s largest city is as rich in restaurants as it is in museums, galleries, theaters, boutiques, clubs, and more clubs.

You can always find affordable restaurants in Kensington, the St. Lawrence Market, and Chinatown, but you already knew that. So here are a half-dozen spots, some of which even locals may not know. (BTW, note to Yanks in particular about the exchange rate: Right now, US98¢ buys one Canadian dollar — close enough so that you can just think in terms of generic dollars and keep the change.)

Downtown

Four, with its dark, sleek furnishings, looks like a conventional business district restaurant, but it isn’t. No item on chef Gordon Mackie’s menu exceeds 650 calories—yet the cuisine is exquisite. The shrimp fusilli (CA$18*, left), for example, combines tender shrimp, bran fusilli (!), Grana Padano cheese, and walnut pesto into a flavorful, deceptively rich entrée that tastes like 2,000 calories.

Dhaba, at the west end of downtown, is well-regarded for its updated Indian cuisine, which features bright, vibrant—not necessarily hot—spicing. The slow-cooked mountain goat (CA$17.95), for example, makes me wonder why I seldom eat goat meat (answer: because I can’t cook it as well as Chef P.K.). But here’s a secret: Dhaba’s lunchtime buffet (CA$11.95) may be the best dining value in downtown Toronto, because this is that rare, all-you-can-eat deal that features fresh, thoughtfully prepared cuisine.

Mill Street Brew Pub is the obvious mid-price pick in the historic Distillery District, but I like Pure Spirits Oyster House. The main dishes in this cavernous brick-walled bar and restaurant are not cheap, but you can get around that: Pure Spirits calls its hearty poutine (CA$10, or $14 with bacon, $16 with crispy fried oysters) and fresh Prince Edward Island mussels with a garlic-and-cheddar-smeared baguette ($15) appetizers, but they’re really stealth entrées. And this is the most flavorful, perfectly timed poutine or mussels you’ll ever eat.

Uptown

Caplansky’s Deli, on College Street north of Kensington, is known for its sandwich of “smoked meat” (CA$8). Whazzat? The owner calls it “the bastard child of pastrami and corned beef” — a hand-rubbed brisket that’s cured two weeks, then smoked ten hours. Caplansky’s also uses this tender, peppery invention in a hash-and-eggs breakfast ($10) that’s served all day, including dinnertime. “Do you like it?” Caplansky asked. Like it? I’ll never eat conventional corned beef again.

The Gardiner Ceramics Museum Café has somehow convinced star chef Jamie Kennedy to produce elegant soups for CA$6, sandwiches for $9-11, and cookies for $2. FYI, you could visit the nearby Royal Ontario and Bata Shoe museums, eat here, and skip the Gardiner itself, but don’t: This museum and its programs will open your eyes to art forms many of us don’t think about very often.

West Queen West Art & Design District

This hot neighborhood has umpteen resto-bars, and its anchor, the Drake Hotel (above left), boasts almost as many lounges and restaurants as guestrooms. Chef Anthony Rose’s Blue Plate Specials (about CA$18), such as fish ‘n’ chips, are born-again classics, but here’s an even better idea: Order the sushi pizza with avocado, roe, and salmon (CA$14, right),
a delicious patchwork of flavors, from subtle to wasabi sharp, and textures, from silky to crispy crisp.  By the way, the Drake serves a Canadian cab-merlot blend and a Bordeaux-style chardonnay with a private label that’s perfect for this crowd — or part of it, anyway: It’s called Starving Artist.

*at press time, about £11.75 / €13 / AU$12.60 / ZAR85; for updated rates, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk

photos: Ed Wetschler
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Istanbul Dining Gems: Tuck In & Tip Back Like a Turk at Traditional Meyhanes

February 22, 2010 at 11:10 am | Posted in culinary/food & drink, Europe | 4 Comments
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by Asli Pelit

Imroz meyhane, Istanbul, TurkeyAlong with the dramatic blue waters of Turkey‘s Bosphorus, the opulent dome and minarets of Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, travelers to Istanbul always come away wowed by its incredible cuisine. And I confess, as a seventh-generation local, I dream about the sight of a well prepared Turkish table when I’m away from home.

Atop seven hills where two continents meet, encircled by the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the perfect setup of the ancient city once known as Constantinople  influences our way of living and of course eating — we take dining and drinking seriously here! And no matter what their income level or ethnic/social background, people get together with friends at least once a week to drink and eat for hours in the most typical and traditional of our restaurants, the meyhanes (pronounced mei-HA-nee, meaning “wine house”).

Similar in feel and concept to Spain’s tapas bars, our unpretentious meyhanes are a world unto themselves, frequented by young and old, rich and poor, fancy and dowdy — they’re probably the only spots in Istanbul where you can witness such disparate groups hanging out together.  They’re loud, dodgy, bustling, and popular for celebrations (and if you’re wondering what Muslim Turks are doing drinking, we’re obviously pretty liberal on the question of alcohol).

Most locals agree that meyhanes serve the best mezes in town, washed down by most with raki, the licorice-flavored distilled spirit that’s our national drink. Mezes are essentially elaborate yet inexpensive pub snacks, designed to encourage you to drink more, arriving on trays full of tantalizing different textures and tastes. Consuming them’s a very leisurely procedure: take a sip of raki, perhaps a slice of feta and melon or a mouthful of eggplant salad, then a bit of crusty bread, followed by another mouthful of raki, then some garlicky yogurt dip, then deep-friend calamari and mussels, more raki, followed by a crispy fried herring, yet another sip…and so on throughout the evening.

We all have our favorites, where the waiter knows our names, where we never wait for table, and are never served stale bread or mezes. Here are some of mine, most located in Taksim, Beyoğlu and surrounding old parts of town. Afiyet olsun (bon appétit)!

Cumhuriyet, in the heart of Beyoğlu, is a good place to start. The most famous meyhane on the Balıkpazarı restaurant row, its reputation was established when Turkey’s revered founder Kemal Atatürk used to drink here (cumhuriyet means “democracy”). It’s known for uskumru dolması (stuffed mackerel), topik (spicy, potato-and-chickpea-based), and çerkez tavuğu (a marvelous mixture of garlic and boneless chicken pieces). Balıkpazarı Sokak 47; 0212/252-0886.

Near Taksim Square on the buzzing Nevizade restaurant row, İmroz (above right) was opened in 1941 by Yorgo Okumuş, who believe it or not is still on the job! Armenian specialties are the stars — don’t miss, among its 35 mezes, lakerda (bonito in brine), pilaki (white beans and onions in vinagrette), and tarama (fish roe and breadcrumbs). The summer terrace is a real treat. Nevizade Sokak 24; 0212/249-9073.

Refík Aslan opened his small Refík in  Beyoğlu fifty years ago and still runs it, along with his son. Traditional Turkish main dishes are served at lunch, while the night belongs to mezes such as house specialties karalahana dolması (kale stuffed with meat), stewed anchovies, and kuzu sarma (lamb chitlins). Closed Sundays; reserve Friday/Saturday. Sofyalı Sok 10-12; 0212/243-2834.

meze dish of the meyhanes of Istanbul, Turkey: arnavut ciğeriYakup 2 has been in business near Tünel (part of Beyoğlu, so called because it’s home to Istanbul’s first subway line) for 27 years, known for its distinctive hot mezes, like arnavut ciğeri (fried liver; right), mushrooms sautéed in butter, and kağıtta pastırma (dried meat flavored with cumin and garlic, cooked in parchment). Considering Asmali Mescit Street has become Beyoğlu’s coolest hangout on weekends, reservations are a must. Asmalı Mescýt Mahallesý 35-37; 0212/249-2925.

One of many little meyhanes on the buzzing Beyoğlu street of the same name, Nevizade is also dubbed “Eski Lefter” (Lefter was a legendary soccer player of the 1950’s, known for his right foot and his raki drinking). This little joint has become a haunt of artists and writers, and is usually packed on weekends, so show up early or  reserve ahead.  Nevizade Sokak 12; 0212/251-1634.

If you take a ride across Galata Bridge to Istanbul’s oldest quarter, Kumkapı, try Kör Agop. This 65-year-old classic in the historic customs building, in an area with lots of fish restaurants, is popular with foreigners, with special house mezes including fish soup. A fasıl heyeti (classical Turkish music ensemble) plays nightly from 8 pm. Kumkapı Meydanı Ördekçi Bakkal Sokak 7; 0212/517-2334.

meyhane Kuleli in Istanbul, TurkeyA quarter-century-old eatery in Samatya, a neighborhood that predates Istanbul itself, Kuleli (right) is also known for its fishy fare. Here you can’t go wrong ordering the kalamar (calamari), ançuez (salted anchovy), sardalya (sardines), ahtapot (octopus), lakerda (salted bonito) and çiroz (dried mackerel). Reservations recommended. Büyük Kuleli Sokak 38; 0212/587-9438.

Last but not least, Safa is Istanbul’s oldest still-operating meyhane, dating from 1879 and occupying a high-ceilinged single-story building in Yedikule, the waterfront neighborhood near the eponymous famous fortress/prison (now a museum). Its walls are decorated with raki bottles and shots of Atatürk, and the Arnavut ciğeri (savory nuggets of fried liver with onion) and lakerda are must-try classics, as are most any of the fish dishes. İlyasbey Caddesi 169; 0212/585-5594.

In Lyon, “Le Fast Food” By — Paul Bocuse??

January 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Posted in culinary/food & drink, Europe, France | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

On a swing through France’s gourmet capital not long ago, I’m sure I packed on a few extra pounds after some mega-memorable and mythical meals at the bouchons and the Michelin-starred likes of Le Bec, Terrasses de Lyon, and of course Bocuse’s hallowed Auberge du Pont de Collonges (below left). But just as memorable, in a way, was my sandwich and custard tart at a fast-food joint out in Lyon’s gentrifying Vaise neighborhood, right next door to a multiplex. That’s because Ouest Express (below right), opened in 2008, is Monsieur Paul’s latest culinary venture, around the corner from his buzzy, seven-year-old contemporary bistro, L’ Ouest .

Can it be? The world’s most revered chef turning to burgers and fries? Well, pas exactement, so don’t get your toques in a twist. Located in the up-and-coming Vaise neighborhood, this futuristic bit of business does a great job with pastas, salads, baguette sandwiches, and pastries — I can attest that the stuff is fresh-tasting and primo quality. Fancy it ain’t, but tasty — and affordable, and reasonably healthy — it certainly is; combo platters start at 5.90€ (US$8.50/CA$8.75/£5.30) and a combo including a hot main dish du jour like “Basque-style chicken” will set you back 12.90€ (US$18.60/CA$19.20/£11.60).

I must say, I’m glad to see it’s catching on, too; this past fall, a branch opened in downtown’s fancy-sleek La Part Dieu mall, and before too long we may be seeing others spreading elsewhere in Europe and beyond.  Because in a world awash in horrifically junky fast food, would that all fast food were like this.

Tequila, Mexico — Not Just a Day Trip Anymore

December 14, 2009 at 9:24 am | Posted in culinary/food & drink, Mexico | 5 Comments
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by Diana Rowe

Tequila — the liquor, not the town — has picked up a bit of a bad rap even as it’s grown increasingly popular throughout North America, Europe, and beyond. As in, margaritas and shooters, a cheap and surefire way to get — how can I put this — majorly wasted.

And yet…ever more folks are coming to appreciate the spirit’s finer points — there are reposados the equal of any single malt or Cognac, and a lore nearly as varied and distinguished as either. It was this pedigree — plus a taste of the lesser-known color of colonial Mexico — that I was seeking when I set out for this legendary central Mexican town.

This singular liquor is distilled from the cactuslike agave plant, and an officially designated “Tequila Route” passes through various villages that live for agave (including homemade brew in mini-barrels lining shopkeepers’ shelves; sample at your own risk). But it’s in and around Santiago de Tequila (pop. 27,000) on scenic Carretera15 less than an hour from Guadalajara, that you’ll find more than half of Mexico’s 90,000 acres of blue agave cultivation.

Tequila and neighboring communities like Amatitán and Arenal are this country’s heart — and definitely not tarted up for gringos. This is unvarnished countryside where weathered jimadores (agave farmers) hit the fields before sunrise to beat the worst of the sun’s heat and the dark shadow of the Volcán Tequila hugs hilltops covered with acres of spiky blue agave — an industry that all began when the Spanish conquistadors invented “tequila wine” within a few decades of their arrival.

The town itself consists of stone arches and ochre-washed brick and adobe homes, wedged between several tequila factories, such as José Cuervo’s Mundo Cuervo, a mammoth complex in the town’s center. In traditional Mexican style, the hub of activity is the town square with its typical high-steepled church, vendor kiosks, and permanent neo-classical or baroque buildings.

But soon after arriving, I found myself out in the field, navigating rows of spiky, sharp greenish-blue agave plants and hearing the story of 68-year-old jimador Quirino. He’s walked these lands for decades, harvesting the heart of the agave — yet, despite sun-weathered skin, he strode briskly, and his mind was as sharp as an agave leaf. It’s a labor of both love and sweat, this — from daybreak until the heat gets to be too much — usually around 2 pm. Our early morning highlighted by my jimador collecting wood and building a fire to roast warm quesadillas and freshly-picked ears of corn. Over this earthy breakfast, we sat at a picnic table and enjoyed a panoramic view of agave fields dotted with livestock.

Indeed, for Quirino and the tequila industry’s 40,000 other workers, (mostly farmers and field pickers), tequila’s far more than a simple drink – it’s their history, culture, and legacy. In fact, for many, “Tequila es México.” UNESCO agrees; the area’s been on the World Heritage list since 2006.

As recently as several years ago, tourist accommodations and amenities hereabouts were still barely more than rustic at best, and most travel guides would’ve recommended it as nothing more than a day trip from Guadalajara. But this fall I discovered the latest local offering, on the outskirts of town run amid 600 acres of agave: a new boutique hotel run by the boutique distillery La Cofradía.

This year La Cofradía opened its first four themed rooms — really casitas — and it plans 18 more. Each features a local artist’s mural and amenities such as A/C, Internet and minibar; rates start at US$150. The highlight here is a night tour and tasting showcasing the distillation and fermentation processes; I tasted the baked agave fresh from an oven and sipped raw tequila dripping from the still. Agave seeped from oak barrels stored in dark, shadowy warehouses, their musky smell surprisingly alluring. And as we sipped the final product, the house Casa Noble, we were surrounded by agave fields and the aroma of fermenting tequila — a heady experience, for sure.

Another great way to go — if you’ve got the dough — is a 10-day/nine-night tequila tour from  Oregon-based company Experience Tequila ($1,400 per person not including airfare). If on the other hand you still prefer tackling Tequila as a day trip (as many still do), there are plenty of affordable options from Guadalajara, as well as a two-hour train ride called the Tequila Express (adults 950 pesos, kids 550, seniors 850), which includes music and a dance performance, and stops at Amatitán for a tour of the 2,500-acre Herradura spread and factory at the 19th-century Hacienda San José del Refugio.

Alternatively, rent a car in Guadalajara for a 45-minute drive along the well-marked and scenic Mexican highways (just be forewarned that traffic can be tricky for those unfamiliar with Mexican driving). Many use the faster toll highway, but for those preferring the full experience, I’d recommend the slower two-lane as it runs through the smaller towns before reaching Tequila. If you’d like to spend the night in any of them, look for picturesque members of the Haciendas y Casas Rurales de Jalisco.

More info: TequilaJalisco.gob.mx, TequilaSource.com, TasteTequila.com.

Hot Danish in Copenhagen’s New “White Meat District”

November 9, 2009 at 8:12 am | Posted in culinary/food & drink, Denmark, Europe | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Resto-bar Karriere, spearhead of hip in Copenhagen's up-and-coming Hvide Kodby neighborhood.

Resto-bar Karriere, spearhead of hip in Copenhagen's up-and-coming Hvide Kodby neighborhood.

New York City’s isn’t the only meatpacking district that’s gone all gritty-chic in recent years. West of Copenhagen’s main train station, since 2008 the blue-collar and red-light Vesterbro district been morphing into the city’s own version of SoMa or Williamsburg, a magnet for the capital’s boho, creative, and media types, along with students and immigrants. And this year the hottest subsection is Den Hvide Kødby (“White Meatpacking District”), some 3 1/2 acres’ worth of edgy, artsy, still semi-underground vibe anchored by a striking white butchers’ complex dating from the 1930s, along with a main drag called Istegade. Onetime butcher shops and once-skanky prole tenements now burst with galleries, boutiques, bars, and restos, spearheaded by Karriere, an avant-garde, so-far weekends-only café/bar/restaurant/gallery masterminded by artist Jeppe Hein (whoa, check out that moving bar!). Nearby, Art Rebels specializes in indie music, funky objets d’art, and duds from emerging designers like Maxjenny and Karen Segall. Opened just this summer, Kødbyens Fiskebar is all about fish (and all kinds thereof — besides the raw bar, have a gander at the jellyfish salad whilst seated around a giant jellyfish tank; entrees from DKK100/US$18). On Fridays, the place to party is Galop, at the three-story Kødboderne 18, where you’ll catch some of Scandinavia’s hottest up-and-coming DJ’s (no cracks, please). Oh, and those butchers? Some are still in business, and the newcomers hope they stay, but rents have inevitably started rising, so you know how it goes… More info: http://www.VisitCopenhagen.com/Vesterbro.

Where Cider Houses Rule

October 12, 2009 at 10:14 am | Posted in Canada, culinary/food & drink, Europe, France, Germany, Massachusetts, New York State, Oregon, Quebec, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Washington State | Leave a comment

by José Balido

A demo of traditional pouring technique at a gala at the Cider Museum in Asturias, Spain.

A demo of traditional pouring technique at a gala at the Cider Museum in Asturias, Spain.

It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, and in a few key regions of a few key countries that means apples and cider, both “hard” (mildly alcoholic) and not. While pomaceous potions are brewed — in versions sweet, dry, and downright tart — in countries as varied as Argentina, Russia, and South Africa, in certain fetching parts of Europe and North America, cidre, sidra, and Apfelwein are an integral part of the life and culture. Any one of them would make a juicy getaway indeed. So how do ya like them apples?

Canada: Quebec Though found in Ontario, British Columbia, and elsewhere, in Canada fermented jus de pomme has been a particularly important part of Quebec’s heritage ever since it was brought from France centuries ago (and they keep innovating, as with the relatively recent “ice cider”). A Route du Cidre covers some 30 producers, many family-owned but several run out of Roman Catholic monasteries (Cistercian cider – who knew?). Most are in Montérégie, just south and west of Montreal, and you’ll find the rest in the Laurentian mountains and the Quebec City area (including three on an idyllic isle, Île d’Orléans). CidreDuQuebec.com.

Britain: England & Wales Scores of small and medium producers crank out hundreds of labels worth of cider and perry (its pear counterpart). England’s West Country, Herefordshire, and East Anglia are hotspots, including historic thatch-roofed inns such as Bretforton’s half-timbered, Elizabethan Fleece Inn, Hereford’s Cider Museum, and a Cider Route covering big producer Bulmers and ten others. CiderMuseum.co.uk, CiderRoute.co.uk, UKCider.co.uk, WelshCider.co.uk.

France: Normandy & Brittany Normandy’s best known for Calvados, but also strong in sweet, brut, and semi-brut cidres; the epicenter’s the Pays d’Auge/Calvados region, anchored by the picturesque village of Cambremer and the larger capital, Lisieux. The Route du Cidre here takes in two dozen visitable cidreries. Brittany’s lower on the radar but does some fine work in a slightly different style, served up in colorful ceramic bowls and cups instead of glasses. Its own Route du Cidre in the Cournouaille region covers nearly 40 villages and towns and a dozen cidreries. Besides a wonderful Gothic old quarter, the Breton capital Quimper offers an interesting, apple-oriented Still Museum. Cidre.fr, Deauville-Normandie-Tourisme.com, RouteDuCidre.free.fr, TastyBrittany.com.

Germany: Frankfurt/Hesse & Moselle/Saarland German Apfelwein (aka Ebbelwoi) is on the dry side, and in Frankfurt with its more than 60 Ebbelwohnkneipen (cider pubs), many of them in the Sachsenhausen district, it’s arguably as big as beer; you can also visit Kelterei (cider houses) throughout its hinterland in Hesse, as well as down south in the Moselle and Saarland region bodering Luxembourg. The epicenter here is the town of Merzig, and a Viezstrasse (Cider Route) takes in some two dozen small producers. Frankfurt.de, Merzig.de, Viezstrasse-Online.de.

Spain: Asturias In the green north, the Basques and Galicians put out dry, refreshing sidras, but nobody puts it at the center of their cultural universe and identity quite like their neighbors in the lush, rolling principality of Asturias. Every town has at least a couple of sidrerías, where sidra natural is poured from bottles held high over the head, to “awaken” the fizz (a top sidrería hotspot is capital Oviedo’s hopping Gascona Street). Some of the 110 llagares (cider houses) give tours, and there’s also an interactive sidra museum in the town of Nava (among other things, you can sample a wide range and try your hand at the distinctive pouring method). Visit llagares on your own or book tours through Comarca de la Sidra, which include ancient, atmospheric family operations that don’t sell their output. LaComarcaDeLaSidra.com, Sidreria.com.

USA: New England & Upstate New York There are dozens of atmospheric mom-and-pop cider makers dotting the landscape in all five New England states – some still using old-fashioned steam-powered mills (B.F. Clyde in Mystic, Connecticut) or really old-fashioned rack-and-cloth models like the one at Cold Hollow in Waterbury Center, Vermont. Meanwhile, over in the Empire State, the Hudson Valley just north of New York City is prime apple country, and the Finger Lakes out west is also worth checking out for outfits like Lafayette’s quaint, century-old Beak & Skiff.  NewEnglandApples.org, NYCider.com.

USA: Pacific Northwest Cider’s pedigree here may not be quite as venerable as in New England, but it’s certainly well established, as there are dozens of lovely spots in Oregon and Washington within convenient driving distance of cities such as Seattle (for example, Orondo Cider Works, three hours east) and Portland (Ryser’s Farm and others in the countryside just south of the city). TriCountyFarm.org, WashingtonAppleCountry.com.

Ethnic Dining in Paris: A Treat for Both Palate and Wallet

July 9, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Posted in culinary/food & drink, Europe, France | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Owner Madame Vuoc Hong Mensoum in front of Le Sinago

Owner Madame Vuoc Hong Mensoum in front of Le Sinago

The many immigrants who’ve made Paris home over the years have left an exotic mark tasty enough to justify a visit by itself — especially if you’re curious about unusual cuisines that may be hard to find even in, say, New York, London, or Los Angeles. And oftentimes they’re some of the less pricey — even least pricey — dining options around. Here’s my top ten, discovered on my last visit:

Algeria: Le Taghit This romantic, candlelit spot in southern Paris run by Bashir and Malika Benamrane claims to be France’s only restaurant serving all three major types of semoules (couscous) — my favorite’s the snow-white Reg, with its delicate orange-blossom perfume, accompanied by the house tagine (chicken, lamb, merguez sausage, and mutton, with almonds and dried apricots). Order the pine-nut tea and fig liqueur, too. English-language menu, dinner only. 63 Rue de l’Ouest,14th arr.; Metro: Pernety; 01.43.20.25.57.

Cambodia: Le Sinago At her wood-paneled, 10-table hole in the wall northeast of the Opéra, Madame Vuoc Hong Mensoum has been working delicate wonders for more than 30 years (one critic dubs it “Khmer cordon bleu”). My faves include her airy spring rolls; light-as-lace rice-and-wheat-flour crêpe stuffed with pork, bean sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce, and fresh mint leaves; and the lightly fried (yet not remotely greasy) patties of shrimp and pork, served with hoisin sauce. 17 Rue du Maubeuge, 9th arr.; Metro: Notre Dame de Lorette; 01.48.78.11.14.

French Caribbean: La Créole At this plantation-style bit of Martinique, start with a punch of Martinique’s 50° Clément white rum with lime, passionfruit, pineapple, and more. A must-order is the ronde antillaise appetizers, with cod fritters, boudin (marinated blood sausage, admittedly not everybody’s cup of plasma), and a trio of minced-cod salads (my favorite’s the greenish, slightly piquant féroce, with avocado and manioc flour). Fish is big, but the chicken in lemon-herb broth and the pork medallions in curry sauce are also great. 122 Blvd. Montparnasse,14th arr.; Metro: Vavin; http://www.Restaurant-LaCreole.com.

À La Banane Ivoirienne's Kouassi N’Guessan

Ivory Coast: À La Banane Ivoirienne On a side street in the Bastille area, Kouassi N’Guessan runs a charming two-room eatery (I especially love the stone basement, with carved woodwork, colorful art/fabrics, and pics of his home village). Drinks are interesting, whether cocktails like “The Polygamist” and “The Detonator”; Mongozo banana beer (reminds me of a shandy); koutoukou, a hair-growing eau de vie distilled from palm; or fresh ginger juice (with a non-alcoholic kick of its own). Chicken, shrimp, and ilapia are menu staples; you’ll find them in peanut, tomato, and barley sauces. Dinner only. 10 Rue de la Forge Royale,11th arr.; Metro: Ledru-Rollin; 01.43.70.49.90.

Laos: Lao Lane Xiang/Huong Lan In Paris’ Chinatown, these two dining rooms aren’t much to look at (white walls, bright lights, blond-wood shoji screens), but on weekend nights there’s a line out the door. Dishes favor coconut milk, red curry, and/or lemongrass; the pha khao huammit (mixed platter) is fascinating, with pork sausages in lemongrass sauce, marinated dried beef, lemon-cured ground beef with spices, a slightly peppery green-papaya salad, and chicken in coconut milk. Lacquered duck with red curry and basil is another specialty; desserts lean toward a raft of foods in coconut milk, from banana to tarot root. A slightly more upscale annex is across the street. No reservations. 105 Ave. d’Ivry, 13th arr.; Metro: Tolbiac; 01.01.45.85.19.23.

Madagascar: Menabé-L’Île Rouge You might almost miss this hole in the wall.Very basic — a few travel and movie posters tacked up on beige walls, a handful of crafts displayed in a glass case — it makes for an exotic culinary trip to a crossroads of influences from black Africa, Arabian culture, and of course France. Bespectacled, mustachioed owner/chef/waiter Razafintsalama cooks up three daily-changing main dishes — I had a fine duck with onions and tomatoes in tamarind sauce, and the tsakitsaky plate was a treat, too, with its beef samosas, crab fritters, and steamed beef meatballs with scallions and flavorful spices. 33 Rue Damesme, 13th arr.; Metro: Tolbiac; 01.45.65.04.11.

Seychelles: Au Coco de Mer A more upscale Indian-Ocean entry hailing from the 155-island archipelago not far from Madagascar, the Left Bank’s “Sea Coconut” (named after a tree that grows a nut that looks like a female booty) is a hop and a skip from both the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Panthéon. It’s a a low-key, very atmospheric spot with hanging palm fronds, modern art, a sand floor, and a menu of goodies like spicy red fish chowder, ginger tuna tartare, mango shrimp salad, swordfish, curried octopus, and fluffy mango mousse. 34 Blvd. Saint-Marcel, 5th arr.; Metro Saint-Marcel; 01.47.07.06.64.

photos: David Paul Appell

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