There has not been a lot of cooking going on here in the Expat contingency of Too Many Chefs. The Critic's 40th birthday was last week and I caught a cold immediately afterwards, which slowed up the after-party cleaning and any subsequent cooking. Last night, we called up our friend Sam to see if he wanted to come out for dinner with us. The Critic left a message. "Sam," he said, "We were thinking doing something Exotic, maybe go to the 5th for dinner." Now this may sound exotic if you live in Newton, IA, but I have to say that if you live in Paris, this is about as exotic as...downtown Newton. Yes, we have Chinatown, we have the Passage Brady for Indian food, we have Belleville for the confluence of North Africa, Thailand and China...and we have the Latin Quarter, home of cheap touristy restaurants and very bad gyros.
That said, we found an exotic restaurant. The Critic is always showing off.
I was pleased when we found the Tibetan restaurant, Yak, for two reasons. Firstly, I was wearing my Tibetan jacket, a generous gift some years ago from Barrett. (Sadly, I can't get a good photo of it even with a flash...) Secondly, the Amateur Gourmet recently launched Project Palate Expansion, where he called for readers to try something they had never eaten before. This fit the bill.
The other reason we decided on this restaurant (despite the tantalising pull of cheap Chinese and Italian restaurants with plastified menus in English) was that it looked like it could have been the origin of the phrase "cheap and cheerful". This is something I like in a restaurant. Pretentious restaurants have their place, but it is not in the 5th arrondisement of Paris and it was not what we were looking for last night. Inside the restaurant you felt you had just wandered into a mountainside hut, complete with exposed beams and wooden shuttered windows. The windows were even open, so that a cool spring breeze completed the illusion. The decor of the place stressed the cheerful aspect: runner flags in yellow and red with (I assume) Tibetan prayers on them were hung from one end of the room to the other. There was a lovely large oriental Buddha in one corner and of course a framed photo of the Dalai Lama in the other. The waitresses were also very cheerful and the Critic imposed the obligatory Cute Waitress supplement on the tip at the end of the evening.
The menu had several small photos and somewhat basic descriptions of the dishes, that often sounded confusingly similar. You had to look for the missing word sometimes to decipher the difference between two dishes. ("I see... the Sha tsel has vegetables and the Sha sek seems to be the same without vegetables...") However, it was our own stubbornness and not the waitress' fault if we didn't have more complete information. We heard her offering to help people in English and French. You can see the menu and its descriptions on Yak's site here.
The starters consisted mainly of soups and salads and the main dishes of stir fried meat and vegetables, meatballs and raviolis. Neither of us could decide between the Tsel mar (cucumber and tomato salad) and Chour thouk (meat and cheese soup) for starters, so we ordered both and switched plates halfway through. The salad was nothing special, but upon reflection I'm not sure how many cucumbers and tomatoes they grow in Tibet. The soup, on the other hand was intriguing and very, very good. As you raised the spoon to your mouth, you had a sharp whiff of something almost unidentifiable. The soup itself was savoury, salty and very tasty with fresh spring onions and again that sharp flavour as an aftertaste. It took us some time to realize it was the "cheese" mentioned in the description, and longer still to decide that it was probably a very strong blue cheese. It was delicious.
For main dishes, the Critic chose Sha tsong ngoma, a "meat" and onion stew. For the meat, he selected as usual chicken, and for the side dish a baked bread called amdo. The stew was very onion-y but nevertheless a bit bland. The bread was an interesting yeasty roll that soaked up sauces very nicely. I chose the Phing sha, which consisted of sautéed soy vermicelli and beef and vegetables, including black mushrooms. We both agreed this was much tastier than the Sha tsong ngoma, although I'm not sure what spices were used in it.
Purely in the interest of journalistic integrity we felt obliged to have dessert. Luckily, once again we were both stuck on the same two dishes and so were able to order both and share. I ordered the Om dré, a kind of soupy rice pudding with dried fruits and the Critic had a much more interesting dish called Dré sil, which consisted of hot sweetened saffron rice with plump raisins. The dryness of the rice did not fit well with our Western ideas of how a dessert rice should be served but it was a lovely taste and texture and the perfect end to the meal.
And the price? For Paris, the meal was very reasonable: 60 euros, including tip, for two starters, two main dishes, two desserts, a bottle of wine and a bottle of water.
One last note: we will certainly be bringing Barrett and his lovely wife Rebecca here the next time they visit Paris (hopefully soon?) as the vegetarian side of the menu was - not surprisingly - fairly large. Being omnivores, we prefer our vegetables with meat.
As for whether the meal was authentically Tibetan, I obviously cannot say. A few searches on the web, combined with my own common sense, lead me to say that this is probably not exactly how peasants on the side of a Tibetan mountain would eat. However, who knows what you find on a Saturday night in Lhasa?
Below are some links on Tibetan food:
"Can Tibetan Food Transfer to the US?" by Aryn Baker
Minority Cuisine on the TravelChina.com site