It’s the world’s biggest contest without end, but the prize for the most ill-advised press release so far has to go to the restaurant announcing a ratatouille promotion and advising diners to come and get it before the Health Department banishes “the chef” back to the sewers. To carry the theme out, the owner should pipe UB40 into the garden to reassure the strong-stomached that there’s a rat only in the kitchen and it’s not making Babe into porchetta (although that at least would be Italian). There really should be a new adage: A restaurateur who flacks herself has a fool for a client.
Just back from Eutopia, I’m having a hard time adjusting to life in a country where mojito is now a gum flavor and cheese is a security risk.
But getting off the island made me really understand why passports have gotten tougher to come by and why the dollar is now worth a fistful of pesos. It keeps Americans from being exposed to for-the-people government, of which my favorite example was in the village in Languedoc where we stayed with a friend who said any resident giving a party can borrow municipal chairs and tables for nothing more than a $300 deposit. Her uncle had done just that for a political fete, and it was almost surreal to sit in the courtyard of her centuries-old family compound and watch as two hunky firemen drove in afterward and efficiently loaded everything onto a truck to return to City Hall without expecting even a tip — talk about tax dollars at work. The irony is that the same friend had informed me, when I asked what her family did for Bastille Day: “We’re aristocrats. We don’t celebrate.” Now I wonder if it will take 200-some years for equality let alone liberte to come to this country. Meantime, we maybe should all stock up on brioche.
Off to join the circus
What really complicated my re-entry was succumbing to a lunch promoting the rip-off of “Mostly Martha.” I had to go back and grab a glass of wine from the bar on arriving and seeing a crowd best described as motley. All but two of the myriad hosts were graciousness personified, though, and my table was modesty central, with Jacques Pepin introducing himself as “a cook” and Phil Suarez informing the woman between us that he is “partners with someone you might have heard of, a guy named Jean-Georges.” The gazpacho with avocado and the foie gras ravioli were blowaway, but what will linger in my brain were the sight of a thong under a clingy St. John knit that looked unfortunately similar to a Kotex belt and the whispered confidence that one guest had been comped by the venue. Twenty-two times, in fact. And the funniest moment came when the director got up to pontificate and one of my tablemates reached for the book with the movie poster cover that had been placed on each of our chairs. First he said: “I want to see what else he has done.” Then: “Oh. It’s a Michelin.”
Maybe you can judge contents by cover, though, because I invested in a new red Guide to France, and it is twice the weight of my last one, and half as useful. What was once the most brilliantly designed compendium on the planet now has many more words than symbols, which is a bizarre step backward in an age of communication through texting and emoticons. The energy that went into spelling out details — repeatedly — could have been directed toward downsizing for the iPhone. Instead they produced the Michelin for Herniated Dummies.
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.
What lured us to Eutopia this time was a 7/7/7 wedding in Tuscany — two students from two countries who met in one of my consort’s workshops at TPW were literally tying the knot in a Philippine cord-and-veil ceremony and flew him over to be witness. They graciously let me tag along and so I got to see what happens when a cheesy tradition meets an upscale ingredient: The rice most everyone threw outside the church in San Quirico d’Orcia was arborio. And compared with Uncle Ben’s, that stuff is weapons grade.
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.
Landing at JFK felt, as Bob put it, like arriving in Mexico City. And that may be an insult to Mexico City. Not only were armed guardsmen patrolling out front, but the Delta terminal was dark, dirty, cramped and as welcoming as Guantanamo. I don’t know why I was surprised, yet again. Our last meal there before flying to Nice had been on stools in the Samuel Adams pub because I couldn’t face the Chili’s, and we paid $78 for two glasses of pissy wine each, a “turkey” club and a quesadilla. Our last meal in France was at the Nice airport, where we dropped less at Le Badiane, a bright upstairs restaurant more sleekly appointed than many in New York, with a view more of the Mediterranean than the runways (and certainly not of pigeons running around a food court). I had tomato clafoutis, Bob ate tuna tartare and we split a demi bottle of fine rose and basket of warm olive and rosemary breads. Of course, since we were full, Air France then mysteriously upgraded us to business class from Paris and I couldn’t work for all the interruptions of foie gras and Champagne. Maybe they just felt sorry for us, coming home to Delhi.
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.
Some things I saw in Eutopia: Villeroy & Boch toilets, seatless by design, at a rest stop in Provence. Salmon steaks grilled over blazing grapevines in a very formal dining room in Nardonne on a blazing hot afternoon. A chef in Montpellier, at a restaurant where the food had come slowly and been cooked erratically, sporting a black eye. A 200-year-old wood oven in continuous use in Nardonne (even day-old on the road, the croissant and pain au chocolat from it were outstanding). Tiny saucisse wrapped like little candies on the plate with the olives at Le Jardin du Manon in Arles. Chamber pots used as planters at Osteria Delle Grotte in Singalunga in Tuscany. A waitress at a cafe in Montpellier tying the tricolor flag around her dog’s neck on Bastille morning after delivering us a perfect croissant and cafe creme. Cats ready for the Apocalypse with a pup tent and stockpiled food, in a park in the Aventine in Rome. And, best of all, box wine poured from a crystal decanter in Languedoc — talk about style trumping substance.