On Hotel Breakfasts, and How Not to Have Them

Much has been written about plane food and its associated plights, but I don’t think enough ink has been devoted to the matter of hotel breakfasts. And as I get ready to embark on my book tour, the subject is very much on my mind.

Breakfast is, to me, the most intimate meal of the day, the one that you eat barefoot and in your pajamas, the one that eases the transition from your helpless, sleeping self to the person you are in the daytime and to the outside world. What you eat then says a lot about you: I have it on authority that Brillat-Savarin meant to write “You are what you eat for breakfast” (“Dis-moi ce que tu manges au petit déjeuner, je te dirai ce que tu es”) but the maxim had to be edited for space.

The challenges of hotel breakfasts

If you feel the same way, I’m sure you’ll agree that breakfast poses a serious challenge when you travel for work. Hotel breakfasts, even in nice hotels, make me want to cry — remember, we’re all children at breakfast — as I stand by the buffet, trying to identify the least unappealing items and more importantly, the most nutritious, so I won’t feel faint an hour later.

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Amsterdam Highlights


Our trip started in the most inauspicious of ways.

We could have taken the time, as we usually do, to drop by the bakery on our way to the Gare du Nord, where a train was to take us to Amsterdam in just! four! hours!, but no. Instead, we chose to get ten extra minutes of sleep, and thus found ourselves on the Thalys train at lunchtime, pushed towards the voiture-bar — the car where they sell drinks and snacks — by the complaint of our stomachs.

Now, train food is not supposed to be good, I am aware of that. But one expects it to be edible at least, and the styrofoam sandwiches we bought, which we were forced to order by the ludicrous name of ciabatta poulet, did not resemble anything anyone in their right mind would want to ingest: the one bite I took was the most revolting thing I have ever tasted. So yes, we love the Northern European high-speed train network, but we shall remember to pack our own lunch next time.

The prettier side of the coin, however, was that we arrived in Amsterdam in urgent need of nourishment, and that is a happy state to be in when you’re visiting a city, for hunger is the best of compasses. As soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we went back out again and happened upon a bright and cheerful café called Lunchroom Klavertje 4.

The various types of ham, cheese, and crudités in the refrigerated case bode well, so we sat down and ordered these opulent open-face sandwiches: a pistolet (Belgian-style white roll) with warm ham, Brie, and mustard sauce for Maxence, and for me, two slices of whole wheat bread groaning under a mound of huttenkaas (cottage cheese, which makes such perfect linguistic sense I’m tickled pink).

What this opening lunch hinted, and what subsequent meals confirmed, is that there is excellent food to be found in Amsterdam, food that is sparklingly fresh, prepared with care, and gently priced.

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What to Bring Back From Australia

It is a universal truth that, however hard you try to clear the table before you take a trip somewhere, you will come home to several pressing deadlines. Add to that the general vertigo of readjusting to your own continent, time zone, hemisphere, language, driving side, and opposing season — the latter is probably the most disorienting –, and an entire week may slip by before you find your footing and report back on said trip.

Let me first express my gratitude to the C&Z readers who took the time to answer my request for edible recommendations in Western Australia: thank you! Your tips and notes proved immensely helpful, not to mention fun to collate.

They really built up my anticipation, too, and I’m pleased to say the actual experience managed to surpass my expectations: WA (pronounced “double-you-ay”) has a lot more going for it than most people realize, and during my stay in both Perth and Albany, I was impressed by the variety and quality of local foods.

Here are a few highlights, in no particular order. (Not everything I sampled was strictly local, I should note, but when you’ve come all the way from France, the notion of “local” can span four thousand kilometers.) Here we go.

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Alain Passard’s Garden


[Alain Passard’s Garden]

The photo set that illustrates this post may be viewed as a slideshow.

I have never dined at Alain Passard’s restaurant. The closest I ever got to it was my lunch at La Végétable, but that doesn’t really count — the proximity of the escalators and the neon lighting cancel out the stars.

It’s not that I don’t want to go, I do, but L’Arpège is one of those restaurants I’ve read so much about — Passard’s love of vegetables, his running a biodynamic garden to provide for the restaurant’s produce needs — that I fear I may be disappointed when I actually go*. So up until now, I have contented myself with the hope and possibility that, some day, I shall make it there.

But when a friend of mine hinted that she might be able to arrange a visit to said vegetable garden, it was all I could do not to pester her with daily emails and twice daily text messages, reminding her that I was absolutely, positively, and superlatively interested, and when when when could we go?

The visit was scheduled for a weekday in mid-June — yes, I’ve been sitting on that story for a little while. Passard’s property is located in the Sarthe area, some 200 kilometers to the south-west of Paris, so my friend, her son, and I met with Julie Coppé — Alain Passard’s right-hand woman — at the Montparnasse train station, from which my dear TGV propelled us to Le Mans in under an hour; a taxi ride took care of the remaining kilometers.

Few things provide as concentrated a dose of happiness as a daytrip to the countryside. This is when the contrast between clamor and quiet, between exhaust fumes and morning mist, is the clearest. When every detail feels like a gift (a swing set! a donkey! fresh mud!), and when you know you had better fill your lungs and eyes and ears now, while you can, because it will all have vanished come nightfall (and don’t lose that slipper again please).

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Brussels Highlights


Let me start this post by declaring my love for the Northern European high-speed train network: Northern European high-speed train network, I love you.

Really, can anyone think of anything more enthusing than the fact that London‘s Borough Market, Amsterdam‘s rijsttafels, and Strasbourg‘s flammekueche are just a couple of hours away from Paris, and that the trip to get there does not involve taking off your belt, your shoes, and the filling in your left molar, nor tossing out your only bottle of contact lens cleanser? I can’t either.

And to further illustrate that point, Maxence and I have just spent a sunny weekend in Brussels, a city of true gourmands where every other street name has something to do with food — Rue des Bouchers, Rue aux Choux, Rue du Persil… Here are a few highlights.

Moules-frites at La Bonne Humeur

{Unfortunately La Bonne Humeur is closed for good.}

Of course, we had to kick things off with mussels and fries, and we had the good fortune of stumbling upon these posts by Laurent Goffin. He was writing about a modest bistro straight out of the seventies, complete with formica tables and wood-paneled walls, and his review essentially boiled down to: “La Bonne Humeur = best moules-frites in Brussels.” This was all I needed to know.

We headed there on our first night, fresh off the train, and because the restaurant is a little way out of the city center, the walk allowed us to work up a hefty appetite. La Bonne Humeur was easy to spot from afar — see the swarms of eager diners waiting on the sidewalk? that’s where it is — and we got in line with the others.

Our meal was every bit worth the wait, and if I had to wait again I would — twice longer, even. Our moules marinières (i.e. cooked in a broth of onion, celery, and butter; pictured above) appeared in their cast-iron pots, steamingly flavorful and jumbo plump, with a side of pale blond fries, not too crisp but not too soft, which we dipped with abandon in the homemade mayo.

The mussels we were served came from the Zeeland region in Holland, where they are harvested at the bottom of the sea, as opposed to the French moules de bouchot, which are farmed on ropes that spiral around wooden poles — kind of like pole dancing for molluscs.

{Unfortunately La Bonne Humeur is closed for good.}

La Bonne Humeur (literally, “The Good Mood”) / map it!
Chaussée de Louvain, 244 – 1000 Bruxelles
+32 (0)2 230 71 69

We got another fix of moules-frites the next day, this time from a brasserie on the Sablon named Le Grain de Sable: the frites weren’t quite as memorable, but the moules au vin blanc (same as marinières, but with the addition of white wine) were delectable, and the sunshine falling on our table was the perfect condiment.

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