Monday, January 23, 2012

Trying to Stay Classy in Luxembourg

We have crossed a fourth country off the list! So far, one word comes to mind when I think of Europe in the winter: wet. I know I sound like a broken record, but I'll begin by saying that the weather was rainy, cold, and windy. Our 2.5 hour drive was very scenic (even through the mist). We drove through Liege alongside picturesque canals. We entered the Province of Luxembourg and passed by the Ardennes, a mountainous region of extensive, dense forests. Most notably, the Ardennes is where the Battle of the Bulge took place. We did not have time to stop for a visit but it is definitely one of our must-sees.

We knew Luxembourg would be expensive so we didn't have any grand delusions about dining in Michelin-rated restaurants or sleeping in a luxurious 5-star hotel. We chose humble accomodations close to the train station. At only 79 Euros and a 10-minute walk from the city center, it was a steal. Though we miss the sidewalk cafes and sunshine, the major benefit to traveling during winter is price. The same room we paid 79 Euros for yesterday will be 145 Euros during the peak of tourist season. And knowing we are fortunate enough to make return trips, seeing the city less crowded is a nice way to get our bearings and make solid plans for the next visit.

We arrived around 1pm and found our hotel, the All Seasons, easily. We grabbed our map and headed for the Place d'Armes. The weather worsened during our walk so we took several photos of the square and hurriedly found a cafe.
Place d'Armes
Having been fed, warmed, and dried, we began our tour in earnest. The Grand Ducal Palace was built in 1572 and originally intended for the city's town hall. I was hoping that the Grand Ducal Family would wave to us from a balcony. They must have been on vacation.

By the time we finished lunch and saw the Place d'Armes and palace, we decided it was too rainy and windy to take a lift down to the Grund quarter. Instead we amused ourselves by turning down little side streets and playing our favorite game: Which House Should We Buy in (expensive European city)? We found lots of options and I'm excited for the time we become billionaires so we can make these purchases.

We found a cluster of tiny restaurants tucked away and decided on a moderately-priced but still elegant place for dinner. Satisfied with our attempt to brave the soggy streets of Luxembourg, we went back to the hotel to get ready for our night on the town.

Thankfully the rain stopped while we were inside so our journey back to the center wasn't uncomfortable. We found our little restaurant and hoped for the best since we didn't have a reservation. I'm going to offer you some valuable advice now. When in Europe-- anywhere-- make a reservation for dinner. Restaurant kitchens typically do not stay open past 10pm. Most patrons arrive around 7 and stay until closing. By making a reservation, you are usually booking a table for at least three hours. We should obviously know better by now, and of course you know where I'm going with this; our perfect little restaurant was full for the evening.

We shuffled back into the street, muttering to ourselves how foolish we are to continue to barge into restaurants without a reservation.

We began to canvas the area for more options. One of them was a Michelin-rated restaurant with a prix fixe menu of 135 Euros each. As previously mentioned, we have not reached billionaire-status at this juncture in our lives so we decided to pass. We began looking at every menu posted outside of restaurants, pubs, bistros, cafes, and hotels. All of them were out of our price range and just as we were preparing to bite the bullet, eat, and then declare bankruptcy, we saw a corner establishment with a prix fixe selection of 36 Euros each. We quietly high-fived and made our way into the Caves Gourmandes.

The host immediately informed us that there was no room without a reservation. But suddenly the Dinner Angel descended from the sky (or the chef came out of the kitchen) and in his booming voice said, "There is room for two. Let them eat!"

We were led to a tiny table in what looked like a grotto. Tealight candles flickered on the beautiful stone walls. Wine glasses clinked together gaily. Couples quietly murmured sweet nothings in French. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, our refined waiter told us we were dining in one of Luxembourg's finest Michelin restaurants! What luck!

We began our three-course menu with a bottle of Luxembourg Pinot Noir. Our first courses were a fish stew and Coquilles St. Jacques. Both dishes were flavorful and amazing. For the main course we both chose the pork dish. I loved the salad and whipped potatoes with scallions but the pork was a little strange. It seemed to be ground pork mixed with herbs and spices and then deep fried. We were politely chewing and commenting to each other about the unique taste and then I had an epiphany.

"I know what it tastes like," I exclaimed.
"Yes, it is familiar," replied my husband.
"Corn dog."
He hesitated, not wanting to spoil the Michelin atmosphere and then he leaned toward me and whispered, "Yes, the outside does taste like a corn dog."

We were both slightly ashamed to have arrived at this conclusion. There was nothing bad about the pork but once your mind settles on corn dogs, all you can think about are ferris wheels, bumper cars, and carnies.

Thankfully, dessert was masterful. Flambeed bananas with pure vanilla bean ice cream topped with a decadent rum sauce. This was certainly not a snack you'll find at any state fairground.

We were ready for the check so my husband got the waiter's attention. What followed was the beginning of the end to our fancy dinner. You know those moments when you anticipate your response to a question before it's even asked? The waiter approached and said, "Monsieur, are you ready for the check now?" For some reason my husband imagined that the waiter would say bill instead of check. This flustered him and he absurdly combined the two words, slightly shook his head and replied, "No just the chill, please."

The waiter cocked his head to the side, smiled strangely, and retrieved our 'chill.' As we walked away, the waiter deliberately said to me, "Have a good night, Monsieur." And then he called my husband madame. The whole thing was odd and I still don't understand what happened.

We approached the door and the host, another waiter, and the chef were standing in front of it, talking and smoking. They asked about our dinner and we told them it was fabulous. For reasons I don't know, I can hardly ever manage to open a door here without either pushing or pulling the wrong way, or trying to open it from the wrong side entirely. As all three men stood by, I pushed on the right side of the door. Nothing happened. Then I pulled. Again, nothing happened. By now the men had halted their conversation and were taking long drags of their cigarettes as I smiled sheepishly, pushing and tugging. I focused my attention on the left side of the door and pushed gingerly.

Suddenly one of the men reached in front of me and exasperatedly said, "No, NO, Madame! Like THIS!" He pulled the door open with ease and I'm fairly certain we were shoved into the street, a chorus of French laughter echoing behind us. It made me feel very American.

Despite some faux pas, I would consider our first trip to Luxembourg a success. I'm looking forward to returning when the wineries and sidewalk cafes are open. It's too bad that the weather hampers some activities but we always manage to have a good time and lots of laughs. Things to remember for next time: 1.) Make a dinner reservation. 2.) Don't call the check a chill. 3.) Pull instead of push.

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