Archive for the ‘Eutopia’ Category

Greened

March 2016

Apparently this is International Belfast Month, what with the pubs getting a shoutout in the NYT magazine and the restaurant scene enjoying a good tongue bath over to the Independent. But, as usual, my consort and I got there too soon. And it was a very different experience.

This was way back in a rare break in the Troubles, in 1996. We were in London on one of Bob’s corporate boondoggles, photographing banksters on their bonus trip (I think the Ubs met Maggie Thatcher that year), and while he was working, hard, I had lunch with a restaurant critic someone connected me with who insisted we had to make a pilgrimage to the most underrated food city in the UK. “It has a Michelin one-star restaurant!” My mom was born in Belfast, and I’d always been curious, and we’d added a week to the end of our trip for some excursion. So why the hell not?

A couple of days later we were eating little tea sandwiches and orange cake on British Midlands. In that pre-Google era I have no idea how I found our B&B, but I’m pretty sure we reserved via fax and I’m absolutely certain it was like checking into a home for unwed mothers. Monastic would have been an understatement, but it was all of 49 pounds a night. And I remember when we went out to explore that first afternoon we were passed by an armored car with soldiers with rifles hanging off and even under it. Lovely welcome.

Judging by the chicken scratches in my notebook from that trip, we had a bacon and onion tart with gravy(?) and salad at a pub nearby and a Sicilian pizza with olives and anchovies at Villa Italia that night. Apparently we were staying in the comfort zone of the hotel. Or: Wherever you travel you will eat pizza.

My notes and Quicken don’t document this, but I also remember we had quite an experience at the famous Crown Liquor Saloon, with its gaslights and private enclosed booths. I wish I had realized my cranium would eventually become a sieve, because there was a very amusing interaction with a local guy who wound up showing us all the contents of his wallet. Did we buy him a beer? Or six? I know I drank white wine. Probably Jacob’s Creek. Because it was Northern Ireland.

Our B&Breakfast next day was the same as it would be for the rest of the week moving farmhouse to farmhouse as we explored: porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage and grilled tomatoes. My notes don’t show it, but there had to be wheaten bread, too, which was outstanding. (Those were the days when everyone said you could eat well in Britain if you ate breakfast three times a day.)

After that we should not have had room for our reason for going: Lunch at Roscoff, in a sunlit dining room with casually perfect service. This was 1996, remember, and I had duck ravioli with scallions and mushrooms and seared hake with Asian coleslaw and crispy wontons and lemon cheesecake tart with sweet Irish strawberries. Bob cleaned his plate of scallops with lobster spring rolls then was in ecstasy over char-grilled eel with pimentos and salsa verde, followed by pot au caramel with cassis and fruit. I bought both cookbooks the owners, Paul and Jeanne Rankin, had done for the BBC because even then chefs had to have teevee platforms. And I got my 26 pounds’ worth: About once a year I’ll still make the superb warm pasta salad with smoked salmon, lettuce, chives and dill.

Writing this, and reading all the new coverage that never mentions the place, I wondered what happened; apparently the end was not pretty.

Mostly what I remember from that trip was setting out for the graveyard to see if we could find where the grandmother I never met might be buried. Instead we watched boys playing soccer under the eye of more military, in huge ugly watchtowers. And then we decided to go look for Van Morrison’s birthplace. (Two-for-two fail.)

Overall, things may have radically improved, but I’d have to echo James Boswell’s reaction to the Giant’s Causeway: Worth seeing. Not worth traveling to see.

After days of having our bags checked everywhere we went, then after the most invasive security checks at the airport, I also remember boarding that British Midlands flight back to London feeling very grateful to be an American, living in the land of the free, home of the brave. Thanks to the Panchito-enabled Bushwhacking, we are all Belfast now.

Espresso track

August 2007

Don’t ask me why we wound up in Rome for two days (something to do with the goddamn rental car costing as much as a hotel room in the countryside), but I have to say my least favorite city was vaut le voyage this time, and not just for the sight of a highway lined with young, stylish hookers on a Sunday morning as we blasted back to return said goddamn car. In a rare stroke of good luck, we slept in the Aventine, the leafy residential neighborhood, and ate mostly down the hill in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse area. We’d stayed there on our last trip and found Volpetti, the specialty food shop that makes Dean & Deluca look like Trader Joe’s, and one quick stop had set us back $60. This time our guard was up. When a familiar tempter asked where I was from and then proffered a slice of “drunken cheese” — one washed with amarone — I turned around to see Bob had vanished before we could get seduced again, but I stayed long enough to buy us at least a slice of the just-baked zucchini blossom pizza to go.

The pizza was good, even cold, but lunch around the corner was even better. After checking out the kick-ass Paolo Pellegrin show over in Trastevere, we pushed one tray for two down the Volpetti cafeteria line while an amazingly patient attendant dished up trofie with pesto, extraordinary eggplant parmesan, seafood (all octopus) salad, roasted and marinated zucchini slices and a lovely little half-bottle of white wine. Our eyes were 33 euros bigger than our stomachs, but I wasn’t complaining.

By then we were on a roll. Every morning started with a surfeit of fruit from the buffet at the excellent Aventino (included in the 95-euro room rate, booked through venere.com). The night before we had put up with Vespa din on the sidewalk to eat at “Da Oio” a Casa Mia, where my rigatoni cacio e pepe was perfection and Bob gnawed his Roman-style stewed chicken down to the rosemary- and pepper-infused bone. Lunch was at a sleek businessy restaurant he sussed out in Trastevere called La Ripa: sauteed frutti di mare (mussels and clams in a peppery brodo), super-tender grilled grouper and calamari, and spaghetti with clams. And every afternoon we trekked in the brutal heat to Sant’Eustachio for an espresso granita. Bob would get his plain and order alla panna for me, and we would stand outside in a patch of shade, passing them back and forth for maximum bliss. It was hard to believe I almost died from caffeine withdrawal in Rome, back in the days when I drank tea and the Excelsior Hotel balked at brewing it and I had to medicate myself with Coke. Harder still to believe some people still think St. Peter’s is the only shrine in town.

Volpetti shop, Via Marmorata, 47, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 574 2352.
Volpetti Tavola Calda, Via Alessandro Volta, 8, Testaccio.
“Da Oio” a Casa Mia, Via Galvani, 43/45, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 5782680.
Ripa 12, Via San Francesco a Ripa, 12, Trastevere, 39 (0)6 5809093.
Sant’Eustachio, Piazza S. Eustachio, 82, 39 (0)6 688 0248.
Hotel Aventino, Via S. Domenico, 10, 39 (0)6 570057.

French twists

August 2007

I don’t think we have ever done Italy and France back to back, which must be one reason why I was so underwhelmed by the food in a country where I had always fully intended to have my last meal. The comparison was rather stark, especially considering the first course at our first dinner in Tuscany, at Posta Marcucci in Bagno Vignoni, was Kelleresque in both concept and execution: a plate of Cinta Senese prosciutto paired with a chilled melon soup with a dollop of onion jam — the ham tasted irresistibly barnyardy against the sweetness. But another reason is simply that a wedding banquet in Italy is a hard act to follow, at least as staged by a multinational crew. The reception was around the pool at magical Il Poggiolo in San Quirico d’Orcia, where four food stations had been set up: One with fried food (tomatoes, arancini, zucchini, etc.) to be eaten from paper cones, one with melon and prosciutto carved to order, yet another with cheese and red wine and one more with bruschetti; if that was not enough, waiters were passing hors d’oeuvres like little tarts with artichoke and truffle filling. The sit-down dinner under the hyper-clear stars started with gnocchi, followed by a filled pasta, then roast pork, then Tuscan steak, then the wedding cake, then a full dessert table.

The steak, and the melon soup, were so extraordinary that it’s no wonder Bob yawned at the best meal we had in Arles, at Le Cilantro. I ordered essentially the same two dishes off the special menu, but the beef was not as dazzling and the soup came with slivers of prosciutto crisps and a balsamic granita. He had seared tuna and sea bream, each with two sauces, and we both left thinking the room was half the reason for the Michelin star.

We had a promising start at lunch at Tamarillos in the lively city of Montpellier — minis including foie gras with vanilla, then coconut milk risotto with langoustines, dried strawberries and mushrooms — but the herky-jerky service and slow kitchen cost us patience by the time our main courses came. Glutton for fowl punishment, I ordered duck with mango and chewed yet another penalty ration. Bob’s scallops with spinach and pistachios arrived with neither of the billed ingredients, but who was counting?

My faith in France was restored at L’Entre Pots in Languedoc, in the Moliere stomping ground of Pezenas, and not just because we had been tasting picpoul all morning. This was a Paris-quality restaurant, on every level, starting with the fact that our wine was chilled in a silver bucket shaped like a dinosaur egg. It even offered half-portions on several starters and main courses, and I took one (monkfish sauteed to succulent perfection with calamari) while Bob made a meal of two (anchovies atop eggplant and tomato, then veal saltimbocca with a plethora of mashed potatoes). My appetizer of exquisite brandade with pesto tapenade was enough for an entree. The bread was excellent, the cafe creme even better. And the place itself was designed more like a resort than a restaurant, with a patio where we ate, a seating area with tables in the middle of the restaurant, and shelves with food and a few housewares for sale in the front. Like that ice bucket.

Hotel “Posta” Marcucci, Bagno Vignoni, 39 (0) 57 788 7112.
Il Poggiolo, San Quirico d’Orcia, 39 (0)57 789 9074, www.poggiolo.info
Grand Hotel Nord Pinus, Place du Forum, Arles, 33 (0)49 903 4444, www.nord-pinus.com
Le Cilantro, 31, rue Porte-de-Laure, Arles, 33 (0)49 018 2505.
Tamarillos, 2, Place du Marche aux Fleurs, Montpellier, 33 (0)46 760 0600.
L’Entre Pots, 8, Ave. Louis-Montaigne, Pezenas, 33 (0) 46 790 0000.

Market ratings

August 2007

Can you love a town without eating in it? We stopped in Salon-de-Provence to break up the roughly five-hour drive from Languedoc to the Nice airport and could not have been more infatuated, even though our consumption was limited to a couple of pichets of rose at a sidewalk cafe late on the night we drove in and a world-class cafe creme next morning before we blew out (we sneaked croissants in from Narbonne with that). If I were heading back to Provence, I would make this my base for the cheap hotels and street life; our perfectly serviceable, beyond-clean room at the Vendome was 44 euros, WiFi included. We didn’t have time to check out the soap factories (this is the home of the Marius Fabre we got hooked on thanks to Alain Ducasse and his otherwise worthless bastide), but we were lucky enough to be in town for market morning, and what a market it was. All the food looked exceptional, and it was not geared to tourists at all. Bob will probably never forgive me for not being a chicken eater after spotting the first rotisserie dripping juices onto potatoes and whole garlic cloves. Instead of getting one to go, we split a roasted eggplant-and-tomato tartine at a rest stop, having learned another rule for happy eating in the new Europe: vegetables are always better than the industrial meats and cheeses.

The market our Languedoc friend took us to in Nardonne was even more splendiferous, housed as it was in a gorgeous century-old hall with 80 shops. Our heads were swiveling from the second we stepped inside and saw a huge line for roast chickens, a three-foot-wide pan of seafood paella being ladled into takeout containers, an olive display manned by the most persuasive barkers scooping out samples, and a couple of bars where shoppers — men and women alike — were drinking beer and wine at 10 in the morning. One stall was devoted to cassoulet, several others to cheese and a couple to dazzling seafood (my favorite had lumped all the ingredients for bouillabaisse together under a sign). When we stopped to try a local cheese, I learned a good lesson, though: Look before you buy. The local sea salt was 7 euros at the cheese stall and up to 9 at other stands.

Hotel Vendome, 34, rue Marechal Joffre, Salon-de-Provence, 33 (0)49 0560196.
Les Halles de Narbonne, Bd du Dr Ferroul, 33 (0)46 8326399.