Calvin Trillin pursues his passion for Chinese food — wherever his journeys take him.
Yes, I did always say that travelers in search of a meal would do well to stick to local specialties, the rule of thumb being that a restaurant in Tulsa will produce a great duck À l'orange about the time places in Paris begin turning out decent pan-fried chicken. For years I devoted a certain amount of time to searching for the best version of the local specialty wherever I was — the most distinguished fish-and-chips in Brighton, the tastiest bourride on the French Riviera. So why, exactly, was I in the market for a Chinese restaurant in Paris?
I have a craving for Chinese food that is not affected by which hemisphere I'm in. I have sought out Chinese restaurants in such unlikely places as Ecuador and western Kansas. In Lisbon once, at the end of a long separation from New York's Chinatown, I found myself so desperate for Chinese food that, after scouring the Lisbon phone book as effectively as a non-Portuguese speaker could scour, I dragged my wife to what we later decided must have been the darkened and empty house of someone named José Mandarin.
And what about French food?Well, yes, there's that. I like French food, of course, but it's not an affair of the heart. When I hear praise of some restaurant's blanquette de veau, my pulse doesn't quicken the way it might at a reference to, say, crab with cellophane noodles, ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. That happened to be one of the dishes mentioned in a letter I got from an American resident of Paris not long before my wife and I were heading in that direction on a trip that would also take us to Prague. The writer, David Jaggard, said that he and his wife — Nancy Li, a San Franciscan of Cantonese origin — had, after years of wide-ranging and assiduous research, found a Chinese place on the Avenue de Choisy that met their standards. I was attracted not just by the dishes mentioned but by the tone of the letter. Jaggard described himself as a composer and his wife as "a journalist and part-time counter-revolutionary."
I remember a time when even the most fanatic consumer of Asian food knew that in Paris he'd have to pretty much make do with the cuisine of France. Then, about a dozen years ago, in the outdoor markets of Provence, I detected signs of the phenomenon I think of as the silver lining of colonialism. I began to spot Vietnamese spring rolls — vegetables and maybe shrimp wrapped in a soft skin that was, in turn, wrapped with mint leaves. These days, any market in the south of France is likely to have a separate stand or two for Vietnamese specialties, and the magnificent food hall of Paris's Bon Marché department store displays spring rolls as a matter of course, the way an English food hall would include a colonial silver lining like curried chicken.
In practically any large European city these days, the diversity of restaurants goes beyond any colonial past. Walking with my wife on the Left Bank of Paris one day as lunchtime approached, I passed places featuring not just Vietnamese noodles but Israeli falafel and North African merguez and Japanese sushi and American barbecue. The effect was disorienting. "You know what would hit the spot right now?" I heard myself saying. "A burrito. Not one of those yuppie burritos. A real pulled-chicken burrito, from a place that also sells a lot of menudo."
"You're in France," my wife reminded me. "This is Paris, France."
"You're right, of course," I said. "I almost forgot the big Chinese meal we're having this evening."
As it turned out, Nancy Li, who is indeed active in the pro-democracy movement that reached its apogee in Tiananmen Square, had discovered the restaurant in question while doing some translating for a Hong Kong film producer who travels with his own bottle of XO sauce, a condiment that some residents of Hong Kong apparently find comforting to carry around wherever they go, in the way that people in some other cities find it comforting to carry around a container of Mace. From the fact that the place was called Sinorama, I had expected something slick, but Sinorama turned out to be much like the plain, crowded, noisy joints that I have frequented in New York's Chinatown over the years. The walls were covered with signs in Chinese writing — the sort of signs that drive me mad in Chinatown, since they feed my suspicion that Chinese customers are getting succulent dishes I don't even know about — and Nancy was hardly seated before she was translating like mad. The signs did not show a strong effort at marketing, she informed me; one of the first dishes she came across was something called "big intestines in salty water."
There were six of us, and, under my prodding not to forget that we were all pretty hungry, Nancy ordered deep-fried tofu skins, Chinese celery with crabs, haricots verts with XO sauce, "empire's favorite concubine" chicken, shrimp with cellophane noodles, stuffed bitter cucumber, Shanghai thick noodles, sticky-rice pastry, and more Tsingtao beer than I'd have thought we'd be able to get down. The food was terrific. The bill, including tip, was $118, which at some of the fancier eateries in Paris is what you can imagine the meter showing around the time the busboy brings your bread and butter.
We emerged from Sinorama into a lovely fall evening. "Ah, Paris," I said to my wife as we strolled down the Avenue de Choisy. "There is nothing like Paris and moonlight and Shanghai thick noodles." I can't imagine why people sometimes say I lack a romantic soul.
Prague has the sort of culinary reputation that London endured in years past — as a place where a traveler might seek out foreign restaurants in an attempt to avoid what the natives are eating. The closest I'd come to a Chinese restaurant recommendation before my trip was an E-mail from Benjamin Widiss, a young man who had lived in Prague for a couple of years after graduating from college with one of our daughters. Benj dredged up memories of a stand near an outlying subway stop; its egg rolls had helped sustain him through the long Czech winter. On the plane, I armed myself with two fantasies. In the first, the People's Republic of China, as a fraternal gesture during the time Czechoslovakia was under hard-line Communist rule, had opened a fabulous Chinese restaurant in Prague, and, after the revolution in 1989, the chefs had defected in order to make even more-wondrous food as the blessings of the free market brought them ingredients they only dreamed about under Communism. In the second, North Vietnamese who had come during the war to train in Czechoslovakia had remained to open restaurants superior even to those the South Vietnamese had opened in places like Orange County, California, and Arlington, Virginia. The North Vietnamese won the war, after all; why wouldn't they also cook better?
To my astonishment, the premises of both fantasies turned out to correspond with fact. The Chinese government really had opened a restaurant in Prague in the fifties, but had apparently begun to lose interest after Czechoslovakia lined up with Moscow in the split between China and the Soviet Union. So many Vietnamese had remained in Czechoslovakia after the war that they now constitute the country's third-largest ethnic group, though they seem to channel their entrepreneurial energy not toward restaurants but toward selling dry goods at outdoor markets.
I got in touch with Michael Kaufman — an American journalist then living in Prague — who said there was one Czech specialty he wanted me to try. We drove out to a place called Restaurace U Cejpu. The menu was extensive, but the category of specialties listed only two dishes: "roast pork knee with mustard, horseradish, and cabbage salad" and "roast pork knee for big eaters with mustard, horseradish, and cabbage salad." They were out of the first specialty. The big eaters' specialty turned out to resemble what might happen if you managed to roast a 16-inch softball on the bone. "It's delicious," I said to Kaufman, quite sincerely. "Maybe not something I'd like to eat every single meal, but delicious." Kaufman said that if I wanted to stick to local cuisine, I'd pretty much have to eat roast pork knee every single meal; after two years in Prague, it was the only dish he'd found that seemed worth eating.
That made me eager to find Benj's egg roll stand. I'll admit that, as a general rule, I enjoy looking for something in a strange town irrespective of what it is — particularly if the search requires a ride on the subway. Also, the subway stop Benj had mentioned, Budejovicka, also happened to be near a Chinese restaurant called Cinske Zatisi, which Kaufman had touted as Prague's best. Miraculously, we found the egg roll stand, still functioning five years after Benj had gone off to graduate school in California. The egg rolls were no match for some spring rolls I'd had in Avignon a few weeks before, but they weren't bad. I liked imagining Benj and his pals, desperate for something decent to eat, wolfing down egg rolls while watching the rats play in the window of Zoo Benny, a pet store next door.
When I spotted Cinske Zatisi just across the street, I decided we should treat the egg rolls as an hors d'oeuvre. A couple of dishes at Cinske Zatisi were first-rate — dumplings that bore no resemblance to the Czech dumplings I've heard described as "yesterday's bread," for instance, and eggplant with seaweed sauce. As we ate, the restaurant started filling up with Chinese customers. Soon there were 40 or 50 of them. Could it be, I wondered, that the Chinese and the Czechs, both now devoted to the free market, were pals again and Beijing had sent over a huge delegation to decide where to reopen the restaurant of my fantasies?Maybe. Meanwhile, though, I started worrying that I was missing some dishes the Chinese were negotiating for in their own language. Where was Nancy Li when I needed her?The feeling of missing out made me think longingly of New York's Chinatown. I was about ready to go home.
Sinorama, 135 Ave. de Choisy, Paris; 33-1/44-24-27-81; dinner for two $25 (without drinks, tax, or tip).
Cinske Zatisi, 120 Batelovska, Prague; 42-02/6121-8088; dinner for two $15.
Calvin Trillin's latest book is Family Man, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.