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.