May 8, 2009

Celebrate the delightful French cuisine; how to approach a French menu

Célébrez la cuisine française ravissante, or celebrate the delightful French cuisine.

When confronted by a French waiter, un garcon, many people have no idea where to start the conversation and how to interpret the menu. Just a few tips from someone who has been in the shoes of an only non-French persona dining elbow-to-elbow with French folks at a very French and very busy family-owned brasserie with a menu handwritten in French the old-fashioned way.

The following will help you avoid ordering crème brûlée as an appetizer or a goat cheese salad with the rooster’s testicles, gizzards, for a dessert.

French Dining Instructions:

• Action 1: Expect to see a lunch menu from about noon to 3:00 p.m., and a dinner menu from about 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner. French do not snack. You won’t see French sitting on stairs of an office building, standing at a bus stop, or going into a metro station munching on potato chips or sipping a soft drink.

(Soup a L'Oignon Gratinee, French Onion Soup. Photo by panduh/flickr)

• Action 2: Find out if the restaurant features a plat du jour or a daily special – that is if soup du jour is what you are thinking of ordering. Unless the fixed price does include a glass of wine and a desert, the price would ring up to the same deal as if ordering from a regular menu list. The most likely side dish will be French fries, home fries or mashed potatoes. Just remember, they do not call their fries – French fries, they are just – fries.

(A favorite of Salvador Dali - Salon de The on Montmartre, Paris)

Extra tip: Menu is not the same thing as it is in English: le menu in French means a fixed-price meal. For the menu list of all available dishes, ask for la carte.

• Action 3: Start with an entrée if you prefer to order a full meal from the menu. This doesn't mean the same thing as it does in English; it means "appetizer" in French. The main dish is one of plats principaux or main dishes.

(A typical set up outside a restaurant - all chairs face forward. Popular French leisure activity - people-watching. This way they can eat and watch others.)

Extra tip: All you need to learn are the words for “meat”- la viande, “fish” – le poisson, or vegetarian – “végétarien.” And if you are looking for a very French cuisine, depending on a season, look for:

Les escargots – snails (delicious, I must say)

Le lapin – rabbit (smoked, deeply sautéed, or oven-roasted – pure heavenly treat)

Le canard - duck (if it’s served with chestnuts, than mostly likely you are experiencing a true Christmas meal. However, even with any side dish, you would not regret the saucy rich duck meat)

Le grenouilles - legs of frogs (don’t judge before you try. If you can overlook the look of the cooked frogs’ legs on your plate, it does taste like tender chicken. But the feeling of guilt can be hard to overcome if are a very reptile-sympathetic individual.)

(Le grenouilles, legs of frogs. Photo by Ramon2002/flickr)

• Action 4: If you prefer veggies to potatoes, make sure you mention that to the waiter, and ask him specifically for legumes.

• Action 5: Always reward yourself with dessert. France is the country of desert. Just think of all the pastries that Marie Antoinette has indulged with. Most of us even know one of her famous lines: “Let Them Eat the Cake…”

(A bakery store on Picadile, Paris)

Chocolate mousse, Opéra cake, Éclair and Crème Brûlée is a must.

• Action 6: My French teacher once taught me what French say about their stinky cheese – “qui pue, qui tue” or “which smells, who kills.”

Don’t overlook the power of le fromage (cheese), ranked from stinky to very stinky. Try Vieux Boulogne – comes in white to very blue color, in soft to very hard and salty.

*Vieux Boulogne, a soft, yet firm French cheese that is made from cow’s milk, and matured by washing with beer. It is the world’s smelliest cheese.

(Le fromage feast by cathou_cathare/flickr)

• Action 7: Before paying, check to see if the menu says service compris, or service included. By law all French restaurant bills include a 15 percent tip. Unless your check says "Service non compris", there's 15 percent in it for the waiters/staff already.

The French embassy in D.C. on its website gives the following tip:

“The bill in restaurants and cafes often include a 15 percent tip. It is referred to service compris. However, it is customary to leave small change unless you are dissatisfied. If the service is not included in the price, service non compris, a 15 percent tip is customary. However, in chic restaurants, leave a generous tip. Tipping in France is not compulsory but recommended.”

(A waiters’ note for American tourists. Photo by Passive Aggressive Notes)

Relying on American tourists' notorious uncertainty when it comes to tipping percentage, some enterprising restaurateurs might dodge the rule, and you should be aware of it: while including the compulsory French "Sce compris" on the bill (tips already included), they might also add: "tips not included” in English, hinting to foreigners that a solid 10+ percent additional tip is expected.

(A typical French bakery, Paris)

Extra conclusive tip: Small cafés or snack bars typically serve fewer courses. In France it's common to simply order a sandwich, such as a croque monsieur (toasted ham and cheese).

If you order water, the waiter will usually bring bottled water. Ask for une carafe d'eau if you just want tap water.

Try your new skills in D.C. French restaurants:
Michel Richard Citronelle
Address: 3000 M St NW, Latham Hotel, Washington, DC 20007
Address: 2401 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC 20037
Gerard Panguad Bistro
Address: 915 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005
Bistro Bis
Address: 15 E St NW, Hotel George, Washington, DC 20001
Address: 327 7th St SE, Washington, DC 20007
Cafй 15
Address: 806 15th St NW, Sofitel Lafayette Square Hotel, Washington, DC 20005
Address: 707 G St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Le Paradou
Address: 678 Indiana Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004
Bistrot Lepic
Address: 1736 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20007-2313
Bonne Appétit!

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