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Things I Miss Most About Dining in France

Things I Miss Most About Dining in France

I’ll say it again: American fine-dining has caught up with that of France. I recently spent seven weeks in France and Ireland (mostly France), and while I ate splendidly in both countries, I truly looked forward to returning and dining in some of our best local restaurants.

That said, there are some small things I’ll miss mightily about French dining and food in general. Here’s where the French have us beat:

1. The Snack with the Drink.

Even at the most humble cafés, you'll get a little bite of something alongside your cocktail.

Even at the most humble cafés, you'll get a little bite of something alongside your cocktail.

No matter how modest the cafe or restaurant, most everywhere you order a drink, they bring you a little snack to go alongside. Not to be confused with the amuse-bouche found in high-end restaurants, it’s usually something quite simple. You see, the French understand that drinking on an empty stomach isn’t a good idea. But they also don’t expect you to order a huge appetizer that will (paradoxically) ruin your appetite for dinner. This little touch is everywhere, in the simplest of spots. And it’s just so gracious.

2. Service Is Included!

When you see something that costs 26 Euros on a menu, that's exactly what you pay. Tax and service is included in that price. How nice.

When you see something that costs 26 Euros on a menu, that's exactly what you pay. Tax and service is included in that price. How nice.

Tax and service are included in restaurant bills. There are so many reasons why I like this system–too many to go into here. First and foremost, it means that servers earn a living wage that does not rely on the whims of customers who tip varying amounts. For the diner it means that the price you see on the menu is the price you pay.

3. Affordable Wine Prices!

Seven euros and twenty centimes for two glasses of wine. With a view of the sea. Tax and tip included.

Seven euros and twenty centimes for two glasses of wine. With a view of the sea. Tax and tip included.

In the above photo, two kirs (white wine with crème de cassis in one and liqueur de pêche in the other) cost 7 Euros and change (about $8), tax and tip included. Most wines cost around 5 euros a glass; the most I ever spent was 8 euros (tax and tip included), but that was a premium Bordeaux splurge. Last night, here in Amerique Profonde at a casual bar, two of us spent $20 for one glass of wine each (after tax and tip). The above photo was on the French Rivieria. Last night, I was in Des Moines, Iowa. Why are wine prices so high here? It certainly can’t be the real estate!

4. The Little Treat with the Coffee

It's just so....civilized.

It's just so....civilized.

Ditto the little cookie you usually get with your coffee. Here’s a chocolate Madeleine that helps keeps that strong coffee from burning a hole in your stomach. It’s so thoughtful! (PS: The coffee pictured is “une noisette”: espresso with a little touch of milk. Find out more about how to order coffee in France here.)

5. Magret de Canard!!!!!!!!!

Magret de Canard. It's not just any old duckbreast.

Magret de Canard. It's not just any old duckbreast.

Yes, I just used up my monthly allotment of exclamation points, but it’s worth it. Magret de Canard is not to be confused with just any duck breast. You see, in the US, we get mostly White Pekin duck. The French serve Moulard (Mulard, en français), a different breed. And it’s the breast of the duck that’s been fattened in foie-gras fashion, so it’s pretty amazing. You can’t find this in the US unless you’re in a major city, and want to shell out major cash. This dish is as ubiquitous as chicken, and usually costs about 18 Euros ($20), tax and tip included.

6. Artisan Butchers

Marbled pork chops cut exactly to my specifications.

Marbled pork chops cut exactly to my specifications.

I sorely miss artisan butchers, in every small town or city neighborhood, who cut your meat fresh and to your specifications. Pork had beautiful marbling and great flavor. The veal. The farmer chicken. The sausages. I could go on and on.

7. Drinking Reasonably Priced Wine a Stone's Throw from Where It's From

Three great wines I enjoyed in Provence, a stone's throw from the vineyards.

Three great wines I enjoyed in Provence, a stone's throw from the vineyards.

Nothing beats drinking wine a stone’s throw from where it’s produced, especially when said wine costs about 8 Euros ($8.80) a bottle. (You can buy cheaper wine, but this year, we decided to “splurge”–ha!–since the exchange rate was so good.)

8. The 50-cl Bottle of Wine (Three-Fourths a Bottle) Served in Restaurants

Sized perfectly for two (especially if you've had a little aperitif to start).

Sized perfectly for two (especially if you've had a little aperitif to start).

Speaking of wine, restaurants serve full size bottles of wine, to be sure. But they also offer 50-cl bottles (which is 3/4 of a regular bottle). It’s perfect for two people, especially when said two people have started with an apéritif. (A bottle, at this point, is too much; a half-bottle is not enough. A 3/4 bottle is brilliant).

9. Espresso Served in an Espresso Cup

Why? Why? Why is it so hard to find espresso served in a small cup?

Why? Why? Why is it so hard to find espresso served in a small cup?

I have no idea why large coffeehouse chains (and even some local spots) in the US serve shots of espresso in cups (often paper) meant to hold larger drinks. It cools down the drink way too fast. Yes–in larger US cities, you can find coffeehouses that serve espresso as it should be served, in a tiny cup. But here in flyover country, it’s an exception, not the rule.

10. The After-Dinner Stroll

Just another lovely street in Menton.

Just another lovely street in Menton.

Sadly, some of the best restaurants where I live in Amerique Profonde are nowhere near anyplace you’d like to stroll around afterwards. Basically, you drive there and drive home. And even though my own home is near a beautiful park, it’s not the kind of park where you see people strolling around. I miss the civic beauty and street-life that makes the after-dinner stroll so fascinating in France.

That said, I’m thrilled to be back. I love my city and community and country. And it’s really nice to live somewhere where you don’t have to worry about what’s going to be closed because of the next strike (gas stations? ATMs?). Still, it’s hard not to long for a few things à table that are now so distant…..

Review: Centro Enters a New Era

Review: Centro Enters a New Era

Great Quotes from Local Chefs

Great Quotes from Local Chefs