Another friend braved the crappy 9/11 weather for a couple of days in the city that never freaks and showed up at our place with a camera full of food from San Gennaro. Which weirdly brought back too many memories of my very first foray to NYC, when my next-older sister and I took the train up from DC and hooked up with the daughter of one of my mom’s brothers. I may be redoing an “I remember . . .” but four recollections linger from that night: Her teeny apartment in Queens, where her wedding dress still hanging on a closet door was the only decoration. The scary cab ride to Little Italy and her handing the driver $5 for a $4 fare and snarling when he pocketed it, “Gimme fiddy cents back.” The scary-smelly food on Mulberry Street and crowds so tight I would have worried about being trampled if I had known what a scrum was way back when. And the disgusting brown french fries I made my sister go out to find me for my anorectic dinner from our room in the Statler Hilton. Someday I should dig up the photo button we had made of the three of us at the festival that one time we were together, if only to marvel that this dissipate is the one still standing (cousin died of AIDS, sister of breast cancer). When Don posted his gallery on Facebook, though, I saw something so much more happy-making. As accustomed as I am to the disconnect between street food and real food in this town, I was still amazed at the insanity of what is served on the streets where Neapolitan/Sicilian travesties reign. Deep-fried Oreos? Colombian cat on a stretcher? Cannoli any way but in a shell? I guess if New Yorkers can’t make it to the state fair, the state fair had to come to us. But surely we can do better. Are we going to let Orange County get away with deep-fried avocado and deep-fried White Castle burgers and deep-fried Spam? Can’t anyone around here deep-fry a slice? Or a rat?
I actually felt bad for the high-profile food-blog overseer who was recently photographed apparently contemplating eating crap at an airport. The awful truth is that no one (except maybe Saint Alice) is immune to the siren song of garbage for either instant gratification or self-abasement. I would add “simple satisfaction,” but fast food never provides that, as I realized after giving it up on losing 20 pounds in the only upside of my little incident four years ago. Consider this depressing tale: I was walking toward the Greenmarket on 14th Street and thinking about how easy it has been to keep that weight off because I would never succumb to the Taco Bell on my route these days. After filling my Cuba bag with corn and milk and other weighty stuff, I set off in search of lunch, thinking of the tuna sandwich at The New French 1.24 Mapquest miles away, which would be the perfect stomach liner for a birthday party at 7 that night. I got as far as Seventh Avenue and knew it was beyond me, waited awhile for a bus, then panicked about time and headed toward the C train and a cobbled-together lunch at home. Unfortunately, between me and the 23d Street station the new Qdoba lurked. I figured if I was going to fall off the food wagon, I might as well do it big time, so I ordered vegetarian nachos and was rewarded with a pile of chips in what looked like a pie pan, drizzled with “3-cheese queso,” slopped with pinto beans and green sauce and topped off with “lite” sour cream. I can’t remember the last time I tasted anything that delivered so little of anything you expect from food, starting with flavor. It reminded me yet again why people eat fast crap: They keep stuffing it in and hoping at some point their taste buds will perceive something, anything. No wonder the guy at the high table closest to me was either sleeping or passed out. The saddest part was doing the numbers. Killer tuna on pizza bianca with kick-McDonald’s-ass fries at The New French: $9.50. Bleak shit on a disposable shingle: $7. My colon wants its processing time back.
When it comes to politically incorrect observations on obesity, I have a new shorthand: IOIYATB. I agree totally, and laughed out loud, but I wonder how many of his viewers got a big (really big) chuckle out of watching him and Mr. Gun Whackjob trash the hell out of their fans’ physical limitations. If only tapeworms were the new heroin for dieters.
One of the saddest phrases on the state we’re in is “hope is not a plan.” To which I would add “charm is not edible.” Three times in the last two months I have been lambasted by friends who took my raving recommendation on a restaurant run by a sweetheart in the West Village. The first report was politely lukewarm, the second vitriolic (one dish was described as “shit-on-a-shingle,” a waiter as “dumbshit”) and the third rather scarifying (amid thoroughly underwhelming food and wine, waterbug falls on waitress, who is unflummoxed). I would go back and see if they have all lost their minds, but I know I would be snowed by the inedible factor. Someone chefly should be hollering Yelp.
After serving two sentences there, I know the NYTimes lets nothing into print without at minimum three sets of eyes having run over it: backfield, copy editor, slot. So how can it possibly explain what ran under “Avoiding a Heaping Helping of Disappointment” unless that headline was meant to be a warning to the reader with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning than stare slack-jawed at the most poorly organized, sloppily written, careless, confused and simultaneously self-aggrandizing and rube-ish piece of filler outside of a couple of restaurant blogs I could mention? A regional reviewer is presuming to advise New Yorkers on how to find a good dining experience at an upscale joint by touting someplace down the Shore? And she advises looking at a restaurant’s web site? We live in the age of internet chatter, goddamn it. Talk about a classic case of the sauce lapping over the sides of the platter. A smart food writing teacher would let a class take it apart, right down to the misspelled Ariane. After all, you can’t do good until you really see bad. This accomplished the unthinkable: It made Panchito look brilliant. But at least I’m clear on one thing. Salads and “well-made vegetables” are not brain food.
My other too much, too soon outing was to Borough Food and Drink, where we lured a friend fresh off “The Colbert Report” who likes to try new places and loves Fatty Crab. Good thing the guanciale and ricotta flatbread and the jerk chicken were excellent, or he would never listen to me again, Zak or no Zak. The “hostess” was apparently hired for what the Cod refers to as sweater puppies (although hers were more tank top mastiffs), because she led us to a table facing the wall in the very back of the half-empty restaurant and refused to seat us in a booth (one that was still unoccupied when we left). The din was brutal, the menu was meant to be all over the subway map but ended up dinery, and the duck in my salad was fatigued. But at least we could entertain ourselves talking about having eaten at all the previous incarnations of that doomed space. When the waiter started out by saying, “We’ve only been open 30 days,” I couldn’t tell if he was apologizing or bragging.
After our first meal in Rome, it seemed even more laughable that Panchito was ever plucked out of foreign correspondenthood to be restaurant critic. Eating there makes Manhattan look like the Bois de Boulogne with multiple three-stars; it’s even riskier than Venice or Florence. The trattoria we braved in a Sunday afternoon panic was so dispiriting I wanted to tell the chef when he passed me on the way to the bathroom: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” But then anyone who spends a few years facing down lukewarm cannelloni sauced with the same anemic tomato cream as the “special” ravioli would probably be just the guy Moltoville needed.
While we were tooling around Tuscany and Rome, an Italian friend was in Arles, for the fabulous photo show where we were heading next, and we got an email from him warning that the restaurants there “sucked” and saying he was longing for “good, honest Italian food.” I wrote it off as the usual semolina chauvinism, confident that even the worst French meal would always be more rewarding than endless plates of pasta. The joke was on me at our very first stop, in Grasse, where we found a relatively cheap hotel to break up the drive from Nice. The owner suggested some pizza/French hybrid, but we went wandering through the deserted streets of the oldest part of the city, stumbled upon Le Gazan and settled into a table outside, thinking it was the only option. I have eaten some bad French food in New Jersey, but this kicked the bar even lower. My monkfish tails were steamed okay, but the “bouillabaisse-style” sauce was the color and consistency of the squitters, and both came on more a platter than a plate, strewn with broccoli florets and boiled potatoes and a carrot flan and a single roasted slice of roasted zucchini. The whole assemblage looked as if time stopped in 1977. I wrote it off to the same rube mentality that produced a cup of good espresso topped with a Montblanc of whipped cream and dusting of shaved chocolate when I asked for a cappuccino at a cafe the next morning. Then we got to Arles, and I was ready to email Carlo for directions to the nearest honest Italian.
Without boring with details, I’ll just say sucks is an understatement for the food there. We started at a gorgeous little restaurant the manager of the incomparable Grand Hotel Nord Pinus recommended, Le 16, where both my duck and Bob’s rabbit could have been raised by Perdue for all their flavor. We continued the losing streak at the very hospitable Au Brin de Thym, where the chewy magret was partnered with a baked potato in foil(!) Gritty salads one night outside at Les Deux Fondus were redeemed only by the amazingly accommodating host and the carafe and a half of decent rose. Lunch at Le Jardin de Manon did not exactly qualify for the S word, since the appetizers were actually nicely done if American-portioned: a gateau of salmon tartare with fennel, and a sundae glass brimming with whipped cheese layered with roasted tomato, eggplant and pistou. But my braised rouget with watery pistou, beans and tomato made an unbeatable argument for grilling or sauteing that wondrous fish, while Bob’s rabbit stuffed with kidneys and more pistou gave new meaning to the words tough and tasteless (the mashed potatoes with it, however, were superb).
We did eat well in France a few times, astonishingly well once, but even a restaurant my friend led us to for Sunday lunch in Languedoc was a letdown despite the gorgeous setting overlooking vineyards, the exceptional service by the chef himself and his wife, and the world-class wine they suggested, Mas Champart Saint-Chinian made by what the chef joked was his second wife. Everything was too much muchness; it was if the French don’t have a word for restraint.
Of course I may have only myself to blame for not doing better in Arles in particular, because we resisted the insistence of a friend living in Provence that we try what she swore was the best restaurant in the region. I just could not see sitting through endless courses and dropping what the Michelin said was 55 euros a head and she warned was even higher. Of course it turns out to be the one-star getting all the press, but I’m still glad we pinched centimes now that I’m home and doing the Bush-league math. That Saint-Chinian was 27 euros. And for roughly $40, it should have been good.
Years ago we swung through Atlanta to visit friends who took us on a weekend expedition to a rural B&B where a 300-pound relative of the proprietor was rocking on the porch as we arrived and warning that “if I don’t eat in 30 minutes I’m gonna starve to death.” Which taught me that “Deliverance” can take many forms. The Italian translation on this trip came about an hour or so out of Fiumicino when we pulled off near Mazzano for something better than Autogrill processed crap and came across an Old West-looking restaurant where three or four people were sitting out on the veranda. The fattest of them jumped up as we locked the car and asked something starting with “mangia . . .?” We said “si” and followed her inside as she slapped on a cap and showed us to a table in a huge unlit dining room with a pizza oven on one wall and black lawn jockeys scattered around the others. She rattled off a few pastas and sauces, we nodded first at strozzapretti and then at amatriciana and she waddled off, seemingly disgusted that we did not want wine. Not long after she slapped down two plates of something toughly frittata-like topped with zucchini blossoms, plus a carafe of water, and we sawed away until a big-eyed young girl wearing a red T-shirt with a swastika on it brought bread and condiments. Then the pasta landed, two medium bowls of chewy noodles with chunks of pancetta and onion in faint tomato sauce. I sprinkled mine with grated cheese, ate a few bites and threw on a little more much-needed cheese, only to have the Dick Cheney of cooks appear and whisk it away disapprovingly. She was even more annoyed when I left behind half our shared insalata mista. I think the tab was $40US for two pastas, one salad, two coffees and all the scorn we could swallow. The printed menu I had sneaked a peek at listed pastas at 7E. Several times on this trip Bob quoted John Krich, who said when they worked on a travel story together many years ago (and I paraphrase): Getting ripped off occasionally is the price we pay for not speaking the language. And at least this time we didn’t have to squeal like pigs.