Wednesday, January 4, 2012

kitchen nightmare

spent a few days in paris over the weekend, in one of my old haunts, the 11th arrondissement, near bastille. mother set up a lovely apartment of a friend of hers, a stone's throw from one of my favorite restaurants Paris-Hanoi, which serves delicious, fresh vietnamese food, in a tiny space with a line out the door.
the night we wanted to go, it was especially cold and we didn't feel like waiting, so we walked up the street to a place my mother had previously recommended, called "le grain de riz." the reviews on qype and google made it seem like a little gem of a spot that really brings true the spirit of saigon. 
so there it was, little tiny storefront, the windows were steamed up so you couldn't really see what was happening inside. but how often do you get bad food in paris, right?
the series of events that followed led me to believe this was some sort of practical joke set up by my stepfather, or one of these "ha, you're on hidden camera!" type things, but no. this was far worse than any episode of kitchen nightmare, chef ramsey would have burned the place down if he had seen it. 
so the place is run by this overly cheerful petite vietnamese woman with a really thick accent. daily specials on the chalkboard, and a display case...with some of the most disgusting food i have seen since Kinshasa. some old shrimp that were so browned you couldn't tell if they were raw or cooked, discolored noodles, and some dumplings made with see-through gelatin which allowed you to see the poo-like meat inside. 
i tentatively order 1 dish for the 2 of us to take away, as i'm already hit with uneasiness and wondering if we should make a run for the door.
one of the employees, fresh from being berated by the boss lady, emerges from the kitchen with bowl of nasty smelling meat, which he lays out by the window to cool off. this guy is an indian reincarnation of vanilla ice, his persona complete with artisitcally shaved eyebrows, and "don't fuck with me" scowl. 
the woman goes back to yelling at him and his co-worker, who are so emotionless i wonder if they have been zombified. she is screaming at them "don't ever put this in there!" and when i see them all hunched over, i realize, oh, they are cooking on the floor. how cute. it becomes less cute when the meat is placed on said floor, and suddently a very well groomed cocker spaniel starts walking around, wagging his tail, sniffing the food, patted on the head, but quickly gets ordered back into his laid in the kithen. what is going on here? i'm thankful that their demeanor towards the dog shows that he's not ready to be eaten, but still...

we turn our gaze to the decorations on the shelf, some lovely bottles with reptiles and half-filled with strange colored liquid. "if she takes any of those bottles into the kitchen, we are out of here."

the coup de grace is when i see one of the chefs, spinning around with a hot dish, eager to find a surface to put it down - but there are none, the kitchen is the size of a closet, so he lays it on the toilet and wipes his hand on his forehead. meanwhile, the lady comes out, sneezes full force into her hands, asks me how many dumplings i want and grabs them from the display case with her bare hands.
my manpanion and i look at our suddenly pale faces and if this can't get any weirder we hear a frog sound. that's it, we're leaving, they are cooking live frogs? when it's not a frog, but the movement of a mechanical piggy bank on the counter, springing suddenly to life. are we hallucinating? the couple sitting at a table, their backs to this entire scene are nuzzling, saying, isn't this just like saigon?
well if this is saigon, then i'm cancelling my trip. i've seen better hygeine in Congo, and that was some pretty weird shit. 
i still felt some obligation to buy the food and take it. on the way home we passed some happy drunks and i was about the give them the package, and then tomorrow's headlines flashed before my eyes "3 homeless men, found dead, poisoned."
we went back to the apartment and cooked pasta. i opened the container that accompanied my pho, out of curiosity. gleaming, raw meat, alongside the cooked pieces. nasty! 

i'm not blind, that's raw, right?
and that's when we realized, the hype around le grain de riz is simply evidence of the last bastion to be conquered by parisian hippes, because they are really the pioneers when deciding what is cool or not. and the only crap left to be discovered and kept secret are places like this, that are so dirty and underground it must be good...except that once you remove your fur ear flap hat and plastic rimmed glasses, well you just got raw meat served to you, which you paid 10 euros for and nearly contracted hepatitis from. 
way to go, guys!  

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