28 April 2011
On our final night in Rome our friend / host B made it back to town, having been pulled away by conflicting business and family obligations. He brought us to a spot he frequents in the old city called Maccheroni.
It is one of those restaurants where food quality - fine enough, perfectly satisfying - is very much secondary to the lovely terrace atmosphere and the jocular hospitality of the service. But even here - at a restaurant very plainly not aiming for wine-geek clientele - there is a section of the wine list devoted entirely to wines from Lazio, featuring a few reliably excellent producers, notably Casale della Ioria and Sergio Mottura. I was pleased to see that even in Lazio - a justifiably underrated wine region - the stars got their credit at Rome's restaurants.
Only, none of the wines were available. Not just the two producers I mention above - almost none of the entire Lazio page of the wine list, fully half the entire list. It got ridiculous. There I was, the tourist, reaching supreme exasperation because I was unable to get ahold of one of the most dislikeable acidic bitchface red grapes in Italy, demanding of the genial staff in English, "Are you telling me you have no Cesanese in the entire restaurant? What about all this Cesanese listed here? Don't tell me there was some kind of mad run on Cesanese recently."
27 April 2011
Ordinarily I'm squintingly skeptical of any bento box not prepared to order by a Japanese mother, or, failing that, by my good friend M, who has made a teensy cottage industry out of making bentos in a similarly sincere traditional fashion. I've nothing against Japanese food. It's just that the bento format - an assortment of pre-prepped savory salady things of greater or lesser intricacy, along with some minor protein component - is so ripe for exploitation that what one often receives, under the guise of a bento, is nothing more than a precious rectangular presentation of wilty leftover crud.*
Parisians, due to some kind of holdover 1980's fascination with all things Japanese, are particularly suspectible to this type of scheme. They get blinded by kawaii. As a result I tend to regard all new Japanesey business ventures here with a gimlet eye, waiting for some sort of trap to spring.
Nevertheless, I can warily - and happily - report that 10ème bento-spot Nanashi's new Marais location shows no signs of being outwardly rapacious. In fact it's pretty excellent: a trim, calm, winningly designed corridor of a space, in which one can enjoy fresh, healthful, completely unconventional bento-like meals accompanied by, among other things, a crude but well-intentioned selection of organic and natural wines.
26 April 2011
The Native Companion who I reference from time to time in posts on this blog doesn't (yet) share my enthusiasm for wine, or not to the same extent. Her thing is cocktails, for which I happily also have a minor thing, if not to the same extent.* So she and I had made a deal: she'd endure my relentless quests to locate good restaurants, and my eternal dithering over their wine lists, if I'd endure a potential goose chase in search of good cocktails in Rome.
"Good luck" and "No chance in hell" were the responses the NC and I received from those we contacted in our preliminary cocktail research. It appeared there simply wasn't a scene in Rome. Even our friend L, a native Roman born-and-raised, professed to know of no good cocktail locations in the city. Nevertheless she agreed to accompany us to the nearby Jerry Thomas Project, a speak-easy tip-off the NC had received from one of her bosses in Paris.
It was twilight - about 19h30 - when we knocked on a door that said "Prof. Jerrj Thomas" (sic), on a nothing / nobody street not far from where we'd been sitting in the Piazza de Campo dei' Fiori. After a moment's delay, the door cracked open and a beautiful woman wearing a sweatshirt and enormous insectoid false eyelashes asked us in English what we were doing there.
The NC told her we were thinking of getting a drink. The woman said they didn't open until midnight. We said okay, we'd return later that evening, and the woman bid us goodnight, closing the door.
We were wandering off, halfway up the street, when the woman called after us, "How did you find out about us?"
22 April 2011
A small addendum to Tuesday's post: Roscioli Bakery. Situated kind of catty-corner to the stunning restaurant / alimentari, Roscioli Bakery is a super-informal little bakery / antipasto deli, a fine perch for a snack and a Chinotto on a hot afternoon.
The Native Companion had the opportunity to stop by the bakery when we returned to Roscioli Restaurant the day after our visit to pick up a sack of wine, which, due to a new law that had gone into effect that very night stipulating that restaurants may not sell takeaway bottles after 23h, we had been obliged to leave behind after purchasing in a tipsy spree the night before.*
The thing I found odd about Roscioli Bakery was how strictly the owners have distinguished the concept from the nearby restaurant. At the restaurant I'd spied Lurisia's excellent Slow Food-endorsed Chinotto, whereas at the bakery they served Chin8 Neri**, a brand of Chinotto equally available at random supermarkets in Italy. Similarly, the wines visible at Roscioli Bakery's antipasto dining area were all fairly dull mass market tourist guzzlers - I didn't recognise a single quality-conscious producer in the line-up, which is fairly insensible considering the wealth of inexpensive glass-pour options available in the world of Italian wine.
21 April 2011
Until just recently I'd had the erroneous impression that when one ordered sweetbreads, it was generally a plural thing. Several little ones, like chicken nuggets, as several chefs have affectionately described them to me over the years. Turns out I'd been thinking only of the thymus or "throat" sweetbread, not of the similarly named but rather larger pancreas or "heart" sweetbread.
Odd that one almost never sees the distinction made on menus. Perhaps the unconcious logic of this is that sweetbreads are more appealing the less diners know about their origins.
Anyway, as pictured above, it is the pancreas they serve at 5ème vegetarian-unfriendly restaurant Christophe. A particularly large one at that. When it hit the table the other night I actually gasped, thinking I'd been served some kind of primordial Pangea sweetbread sourced from the neck of Babe the Blue Ox, or something.
19 April 2011
For me the greatest benefit of having spent time in the restaurant industry has undoubtedly been the continued friendship of former bosses and coworkers. Great chefs, sommeliers, and managers, simply through their passion for their metier, invariably become walking indexes of the best dining and drinking destinations worldwide, and it's to them I turn for recommendations whenever visiting foreign cities. (Blogs, Chowhound, and native inhabitants all have their uses, of course, but nothing beats the opinions of actual professionals.)
Immediately upon purchasing tickets for Rome, I shot an email to my former boss D, and within five minutes he'd replied with a single, unqualified recommendation: Roscioli Restaurant. "Best carbonara of my life," was his only description.
Situated just off the Piazza de Campo dei' Fiori, Roscioli is in fact an encyclopedically well-stocked specialty delicatessen that doubles as a rocking great restaurant during meal hours. The carbonara was indeed stunning (almost everything was). But the real draw, for me and I suspect for D as well, was a vast, impeccably curated wine list, including just about every Italian wine I loved, and many more I'd heretofore only heard wonderful rumors of.
18 April 2011
The eternity we spent awaiting our fake reservation at Da Enzo was all the more galling because we'd actually left a very fun scene behind in order to arrive on time. Our friend / trusty guide D had taken us to Freni e Frizioni (tr. "Brakes and Clutches"*), a bustling aperitivo bar housed in a former auto-body shop on Piazzetta del Politeama in the Trastevere. From 19h to 22h each night the place is thronged - from the long bar to beyond the terrace seating on the adjacent square - with tourists and locals, drawn to the simplistic, clubby cocktails, and a remarkably generous antipasti buffet.
The bar's self-conciously haphazard art-bar décor seems to belie one of the city's more sophisticated commercial operations. The sheer scale of the place indicates this, as does the coherent graphics design package.* Nevertheless the prevailing atmosphere the night we went was that peculiarly Italianate excitement that arises when highly regimented systems are seen falling into utter disarray, every man for himself, all in good fun.
15 April 2011
Soon after I began this blog, I posted an admiring, slightly eccentric review of a bottle of St. Véran I'd purchased at 11ème caviste Au Nouveau Nez. In researching the bottle's background I discovered that the vigneron who made the wine, Isabelle Perraud of Domaine des Côtes de la Molière, maintained a very engaging blog of her own, about her experiences winemaking in the Mâcon and northern Beaujolais. So it was that in the course of the same day I became online acquaintances with Isabelle, and also her friend / fellow blogger Iris Rutz-Rudel, of Domaine Lisson in the Languedoc.
In my market-minded American naivété, I initially assumed there must be loads of readable French winemaker blogs, since it's a low-cost / high-impact way to build an audience and attract attention to one's product. Later, in the course of my other job, I came to realise that a significant proportion of Parisians over 30 possess no familiarity with computers whatsoever - and this is to say nothing of provincial winemakers in remote regions, or the challenges posed by html and the various blog platforms, which, as this site's layout will attest, I myself have yet to master.*
Also, to blog well requires that one be relatively articulate and expressive to begin with, regardless of the subject matter. That these qualities might be found in a wine is no indicator of whether the wine's maker has anything more to say about its production than, 'C'était dur, mais c'est bon.'
With these points in mind, it was just amusing, and not especially surprising, to see that a recent tasting themed around the wines of vigneron-bloggers at 2ème natural wine bistro l'Hedoniste was slated to include the wines of both Isabelle and Iris. It's still a very small world out there on the world wide web.
12 April 2011
My friend Olivier Aubert's 11ème bistro-à-vin Les Trois Seaux is now offering wines at prix caviste on Thursdays. This is a particularly fine bargain at Les Trois Seaux, where ordinarily the restaurant mark-up of twice retail constitutes the only teensy sticking point* in an otherwise totally charming meal.
In fact, having posted about the restaurant when it was under construction, and then later when it was freshly opened, I can attest that the place seems to be really hitting its stride these days.
The other night I popped by with my friends C, P, E, J, and IF, thinking only to nibble on charcuterie and basically exploit the new Thursday thing to the fullest. But, since I have no willpower and all my friends are enablers, we wound up having a remarkably superb three-course meal, one accompanied by a wine list that, on Thursdays at least, presents a fine opportunity to explore the wines of Bordeaux without breaking the bank, or being a banker.
11 April 2011
A depressing change has occurred at the huge office building that houses our company's warehouse. Where used to be two immense old-fashioned hand-packed espresso machines now sits a sad little automated push-button machine that dispenses truly execrable highway-rest-stop café.
What disturbs me about the change, however, is not that I can no longer enjoy acceptable espresso at subsidized prices (0,60€!) when I make my infrequent visits to the warehouse. (Honestly it was never very good, even at the best of times.) It's that on the basis of many previous conversations with the genial old ladies who work there, I'm aware that the horrible new machine was probably installed because years of packing real espresso had caused wrist problems for said genial old ladies.
Obviously I wish these ladies nothing but the best wrist health. But it seems fundamentally misguided, that instead of finding new jobs for employees whose age or frailty prevents them from performing their jobs, the accepted solution is to leave them where they are but make their jobs easier, even if doing so means inflicting a sickening fake soul-draining product on the thousand or so people who work in the building.
There's something very ominous and Orwellian about it all. I can't help feeling this change in espresso machines at a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris in 2011 is somehow representative of the greater societal shift we face this century, as the necessity of caring for previous generations diminishes the expectations of current and forthcoming ones.
09 April 2011
Our Rome-based friend D hipped us to a common trick played by no-reservation restaurants in Rome: whoever answers the phone at the restaurant, whether or not it is the owner, will insist you just come on down, that you'll be seated no problem, regardless of the no-res policy, as long as you mention that you spoke to the owner on the phone. Upon arrival, naturally, the owner is either absent or has no recollection of you, and you get stuck milling around with all the other anonymous tourist cattle waiting for tables.
Ristorante Da Enzo, a noted destination for traditional Roman home-cooking on Via dei Vascellari in the eastern Trastevere, does actually take reservations. At least for their first seating. For their second seating they perform a variation on the above ploy, by merely claiming to take your reservation, at which point they note your name on their hand, or something, and then wash their hands.
08 April 2011
I figured I'd pretty much exhausted the whole Ô Château conversation last week with that post on the concept of Greatness in wine. But now omnipresent Paris lecher / blog superstar Adrian Moore has saddled the dead horse, armed with a persuasive counterargument.*
* He appears also to have posted the same bon mot in the comments section of the relevant article - but anonymously. Why on earth would you say something anonymously and then say it again on an attributed Twitter feed? I can only assume that when the sentiment first occurred to him, he found it somewhat risky, and dared only post it anonymously; but, upon seeing it published, he was seduced by the genius of his argument, and grew bolder.
07 April 2011
My colleague / good buddy R and I recently found ourselves in the stiff 6ème arrondissement doing some research on retail in that area. And since with the exception of research-related sojourns, or similar morbid sociological forays, we never seem to get to that part of town, we profited from the occasion by stopping by chef Yves Camdeborde's luxe-informal "hors d'oeuvre bar" l'Avant Comptoir for a brisk lunch of small plates and Mauzac.
I profited, I should say. R hated the place with serious vitriol, causing us to spend much of the rest of the afternoon discussing not Hermès, Ralph Lauren, and Dries Van Noten, but rather whether l'Avant Comptoir - which, judging by the press and by general industry admiration, has been successful - is a complete hoax, or not.*
06 April 2011
I love traveling, but I don't profess to be any good at it. In particular I am bad at budgeting time for leisurely transportation itself, with the result that, regardless of where I am, I feel as though I've just been hurled there without warning. (When flying Ryanair, this simile hews uncomfortably close to reality.)
The Native Companion* and I arrived in Rome the other Friday afternoon in characteristic fashion: wild-eyed, confused, and pressed for time. Due to her work schedule and the timing of our flight, she hadn't slept in 24 hours. I had a work meeting I had to get to, and a house-key I had to retrieve, and to all this was added the responsibility of ensuring that the NC didn't walk into traffic or keel over from exhaustion. Neither of us had eaten.
It was kind of a godsend, then, that our taxi to the Balduina neighborhood happened to pass by a location of renowned mozzarella bar chain Obikà, which I recognized both from my one other trip to Rome, and because it had been the original inspiration for the restaurant I used to manage in Los Angeles. By making certain violent gestures I was able to get our taxi driver to stop and let us out. I then used very similar gestures to request a table and subsequently order us a wide plate of gorgeous life-saving mozzarella.
02 April 2011
I'm off to Rome for a few days. So no posts until I return, at which point you may expect the inevitable Not Drinking Poison In Rome series.
A thought for consideration in the meantime: Cesanese is to Italian red wine what Aligoté is to French white wine. Discuss.