The sound of music

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Zum Blauen Engel, Bern

We arrived here at our apartment in Bern, Switzerland, conveniently across the road from the conference venue, amid crowds celebrating the opening of the World Cup. Our second-floor accommodation is above a bar-restaurant, circled on four sides by huge screens and temporary outdoor seating. Our host apologised that he had hired a dj for the rest of that night. And so the matches have progressed…

The joke is that the thump-thump beat from below that first evening did not stop me getting to sleep. Instead, I was awoken by huge bells chiming 6 am. The nearby Pauluskirche counts each hour, and notes each passing quarter, and there it goes again. Much, much louder than the huge, sixteenth-century Zytglogge in the city centre with its mechanical jester getting in early every hour with his own bells, and the mechanical cock crowing three times. At least the local chimes shut down between 10 pm and 6 am.

The further joke is that I write in praise of Bern’s quiet. This is in the restaurants.

For several weeks we have moved (for Marion’s work) from Fremantle through Glasgow to here, and I have dined to much thumping beat, the seemingly necessary boost to meals these days. (I’m the old fogie in the corner.)

In Fremantle, we seemed lucky to stay adjacent to Bread in Common, to name a name. Quite good food in a vast warehouse conversion, so popular that you can’t hear yourself think. The thump never lets up, except if managing a coffee during the day at an outdoor seat. Fortunately, Fremantle is awash with great spots, albeit mostly also with monotonous mood-lifting.

Much the same in trendy Glasgow, although I must boast that our flat was between the Aragon and Lismore pubs (the video is from the Lismore), both with traditional musicians gathering in varying numbers on selected nights with their fiddles, flutes/whistles, underarm bagpipes, accordions, guitars, and bodhrán (Irish drum). Usually a fiddler starts off, and away they go, the leader mouthing key changes. I kept waiting for a cellist to come back; he’d led them in a wonderfully mournful selection. On another occasion, a tenor came out of the crowd, some notes wobbly, but he knew he had to hit the last one, and did. All determinedly acoustic.

A fellow whisky-drinker (no, I think he had an ale) explained that an Edinburgh conservatorium course in traditional music had generated something of a glut of young professionals.

Heavy “background” music obliterates the clink of cutlery and murmur of conversation. Accordingly, I recommend a couple of old-style places near here (warning: Bern is not cheap).

Being an unusually warm night, filling the outdoor tables, I was the only person inside at Zum Blauen Engel (Blue Angel). With no music whatsoever, I did get a distant exhaust fan. Otherwise, the dull thud of fridge door, clink of bottles, shaking of pans, sizzling from beyond the bench, occasional waiter exchange, old-fashioned clank of heavy glasses and crockery, my own knife and fork … I even heard the chef cut off a tranche of something. All satisfying.

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Waldheim

I felt part of the place, belonging to humanity, the world. Not some shouting cosmopolite out for a good time.

Around at the Waldheim, I lunched again almost alone inside, with just another four old fogies at seemingly their regular table, and across an enormous window-sill to those in the garden. The sound of people chatting outdoors, and birds… I could be dreaming (I don’t think so, even about the birds).

Again, a few clinks, waiter exchanges, the espresso being ground and a puck being bashed out, and people enjoying the peak of civilisation. The only odd note was the occasional phone-call announcing itself to a chirrup of Vivaldi.

Please Like Me’s restaurant decadence

We won #AACTA awards! @joshthomas87 won Best Screenplay in Television and Debra Lawrance (Mum) won Best Performance in a TV Comedy. Yeeeaah. Thanks guys. Go team. http://ift.tt/1ycBgmB
Debra Lawrance & Josh Thomas

YOU HAVE BEEN warned: Please Like Me is television brilliance. Perceptive, bold, exquisitely acted, and with a gastronomic thread winding throughout (a domestic comedy has to include meals).

Some movie-goers don’t like Eric Rohmer, and others avoid Woody Allen, so I shouldn’t be surprised that many also seem impervious to Josh Thomas.

If you do not yet know what I’m talking about (despite much praise, including mine a year ago), you could go straight to #PleaseLikeMe Season Four Episode 4 “Dégustation” for a devastating parody of restaurant decadence, the setting for an emotional reunion by Josh and his separated parents. Except for a couple of things.

Firstly, you’d be smarter to treat yourself to the whole six episodes of Season Four, taking them in turn, because the season openers (“Babaganoush”, “Porridge” and “Beluga caviar”) set the scene for “Dégustation” and then … well… watch them through.

Secondly, the “Dégustation” parody was shot in a real restaurant, using its actual parade of 15 dishes (even the culminating “cake”?). The half-hour was filmed over three days at Lûmé restaurant, South Melbourne.

Lûmé is a cheffy fantasy of tweezers, eye-droppers, liquid nitrogen, and, to quote the website:

Artfully deceptive, Lûmé takes a thoughtful and considered approach to dining. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t just serve food, rather, it creates experiences best enjoyed by curious minds. Pronounced loo-May, the word Lûmé evokes a sense of light, elegance and beauty. But its true origin is unknown, and its meaning controversial.

Early reviews of the restaurant mentioned a meal taking 5½ hours, everyone leaving plastered, and some unfortunate misses. After just seven months, two original partners left Shaun Quade to it. Yet, from other comments, the Please Like Me trio’s expressions of delight weren’t entirely acted. Here is a snap of cauliflower “camembert”.

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Secret Paris

aligotParis secrets, or at least the dining we’ve enjoyed these past five weeks, with the added test of wanting to return.

We’ve previously reached some three-stars, emerging names (the original Spring, early Septime), and short-lived (Agape Substance – a steamy central bench shared with the chefs).

The plan this time was to concentrate on cheap and near, and I have already reported tagines Chez Hamadi.

Our recently-departed studio in a surprisingly quiet street between St Michel and Odéon-St Germain put us handily a few doors from New Delhi’s takeaway – three men, stove and tandoor jammed in a hole-in-the-wall. Other places were only slightly bigger – costs cut by small, crammed tables with no linen, and probably some bought-in prepared foods.

Yet one visit made me a regular at Vins et Terroirs (competitively-priced at 12€ for two-course lunch, 18€ dinner), and I went eight or nine times. You can’t beat fast and friendly waiters under exposed beams and an ingrained spirit of gastronomie. A lentil soup with egg stood out. One night a missing dish was replaced by foie gras (so I ordered the missing dish a couple more times). Even a toughish steak seemed apt, and they assured me the profiteroles were made in-house in small batches – the chocolate sauce seemed real, too.

Opposite the St Germain covered market, Le Petit Vatel was even more cramped, and a tad more expensive with dishes at a proportionately higher level. The simple boudin noir with a little apple … missing it already.

On the way there, we could check out the lunch queue at the smart Comptoir du Relais (either queue, or get there early or late). Couldn’t resist a second shot at their lobster bisque (not thick, and I recall tomato hidden in there somewhere).

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Back closer, and named after an uninhabited, war-ravaged island off Brittany, Cézembre is new, compact and excellent value for high quality, contemporary food (fixed menu of five dishes for 45€, plus 25€ for three matching glasses of wine), even if I couldn’t resist feeling that the overall effect was of comfort food with foam. On tripadvisor, Cézembre rates #14 out of 13,742 restaurants in Paris, so bookings will get harder.

The restaurant has just one young waiter, who also runs the dishwasher, and two in the kitchen, so not a quick night. I heard that the original intention had been to open in Australia, and the waiter looks forward to surfing again at Byron Bay.

A city this size and so densely cultured has innumerable “secrets”, even still in the Marais. Those hazy photos above… that’s a sausage with aligot, approximately two parts potato to one part cheese. We’ve been to Roland and Josette’s many times, although only managed twice this stay – a dream of a small bar with its clutch of long-term, bohemian habitues, leading into an even smaller dining room. It’s hardly mentioned on tripadvisor, and one French complaint is that it’s a survivor of the 1950s (a complaint!). To give away the address, true gourmands, it’s Le Bougnat (the “Le” avoids confusion with another place).

allard-profitrolesNearly 40 years ago, I dined Chez Allard, a then one-star bistro founded in 1932. Monsieur Allard (by then, the son, André) recommended sharing the frogs’ legs, because they were the real burgundian ones, and recommended against their famous specialty of duck and olives, because duck and turnips were briefly in season. Just accept our carafe red, he reassured. I probably had profiteroles. And the meal in a then near-empty bistro was magnificent, the duck among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Allard was so close to our studio this trip that we almost shared a wall. Accordingly, we popped around the corner to catch up  with duck and olives (the dinner was a gift, gratefully received!).

The bistro has been done over in a respectful renovation by Alain Ducasse’s team. The recent switch from Laetitia Rouabah to Fanny Herpin as chef has maintained the tradition of a woman in the kitchen – originally Marthe, and her daughter-in-law Fernande Allard on my original visit. Because the door was often left open on to the kitchen, we can confirm that the young chef and/or her offsiders were hard a work every day from early morning until early morning.

The menu retains many old favourites. I started humbly, but well, with Frisée jaune aux beaux lardons et croûtons (curly endive with lardons). Marion liked the oeufs cocotte so much that she ordered them again when we returned for lunch. M. Allard was right about his wife’s duck and turnips (and I again thank them). Although the effect of the olives was different, the sauce was reminiscent, and one of the lively young waiters (immediately picked him as Italian) proudly revealed the green olives were Sicilian.

Still tightly packed, and with a predictable menu, this bourgeois bistro showed the benefits of paying more for table linen, attentive service, no kitchen short-cuts, and warm bath for the profiteroles chocolate.

This was the not-so-cheap, but really-near version of this trip’s search for the tiny “secrets” in which Paris abounds. The city might be losing favour on those near-ridiculous “world’s 50 best” lists, but dining density remains high.

Previously, I have enjoyed looking for the way ahead (the new/the exciting/the “best”). But there’s nothing like lost locales.

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National stereotypes visit Paris

See original imageTo engage in some national stereotyping, Italians are “exuberant and spontaneous”, Americans are “enthusiastic and demanding”, and Japanese are “delicate and discreet”.

That’s not just me, I borrow from the Parisian tourist authority. They also advise tourist businesses that Belgian visitors are “regulars and friendly”, Russians “passionate”, Chinese “serial shoppers” and Australians are “adventurers and casual”. Filling out that last, Australians love to engage in conversation, appreciate warmth and sharing, and are often direct in their appreciation.

This advice is available online in French as “Do You Speak Touriste?”

Some of the findings might already be changing: how long can Brexiters remain “connoisseurs and relaxed”, here especially for the cuisine, putting them among the bigger spenders (averaging 154 euros each per day), when the pound has been sinking?

Germans are “independent and precise”, and appreciate efficient staff and exact responses. But how long could those traits last, when German trains no longer run on time? In our experience, German trains are likely to be 10, 20 or 30 minutes late, with a weird pricing system often making first class cheaper. And they are slow – our suddenly cheap train from Berlin to Paris only sped up after crossing to the TGV tracks after Alsace.*

Sadly, Australians do not warrant being picked out in terms of “gastronomie”, although I’m not sure where else 177€ per day goes, making Australians the third fastest spenders out of 17 nationalities – and Paris is merely one stop in their notably wider travels. Wealthy Russians book at restaurants with international reputations, and spend a total of 187€ daily. Japanese travellers are particularly willing tasters, and end up being the top spenders on 214€.

At the other end, while Americans look for cafés and brasseries with atmosphere and décor, they also often opt for food trucks and takeaways (160€). The only visitors picked out as definitely not interested in gastronomy are the French (88€). That’s presumably because dining is cheaper, and often also better, where they come from. Some the best meals of my life have been in one-star restaurants in small French towns. Instead, French visitors window shop, visit luxury stores, and take home cheap souvenirs.

Cover artAnother interesting national difference is meal times. Most nationalities lunch around noon or 1 pm. With a bit more of a spread, breakfast is usually 7:30 – 8:00, but with some expected even earlier. I’m with Germans here, though, because they breakfast seriously, preferably between 8:30 and 10:00.

Dinner spreads even more wildly through the evening. Australians arrive at 7:30 or 8:00 pm, which sounds believable. The earliest diners are Canadians – at 5:30-6:00. Not that many restaurants are open before 6:00, when the colder European nations start arriving. The Latins are later – Italians arriving somewhere between 7:30 and 9:00, when Brazilians join in (and they are exceptionally interested in gastronomie). Also at 9 pm, Spaniards start thinking about dinner, although they might not front up before 11pm. Exceptions to the climate rule, Russians are also latish, probably booking at acclaimed restaurants at 9 pm.

 

* Footnote: What went wrong with German trains? Germans grimaced, and explained to us that Deutsche Bahn had been privatised. However, Wikipedia says that after the financial crisis, the government had shelved partial-privatisation plans.

A recent Guardian article blames deteriorating rail infrastructure:

To blame is a chronic lack of investment – with money being poured into the welfare state to the detriment of everything else – as well as the nation’s obsession with balancing the books. … Low interest rates and a surplus federal budget mean Germany could have been readily borrowing for several years to pay for upgrades, but the idea of going into debt is toxic to most voters, who consider debt to be immoral. So the majority of politicians, Merkel included, have simply chosen not to go there.

Get all worried about debt and deficit, and your character crumbles.

The new friend

See original imageMy temerity in telling someone the other night about being a “new friend” occasioned further pondering.

The urgent problem is the explosion of virtual friends produced by the start-up business model: become biggest first. Accordingly, Skype urges: “Tell your friends what you’re up to,” and: “Why not post your own status update?” Rotten Tomatoes, I think it is, “can’t believe” I have no friends, so click here. I can imagine the desperation, loneliness, and paranoia of exclusion with a low friendship count, and the never-ending shower of everyone else’s good-times snaps.

This increasingly heavy parade of prompts, pop-ups, pop-unders and peep-outs cruelly parodies social life. Twitter boasts: “Tweets are the basic atomic building block of all things.” Talk about propaganda, as arrogant as “The real thing” and “To inspire and nurture the human spirit“. The so-called “social” media are essentially marketing vehicles, giving the little people a fantasy of competing in an advertising free-for-all. Perhaps some people keep usefully in touch, if they have the time. But the marketing barrage packs us into silos, where some of my “friends” punctuate with “f—ing” in a desperate quest for attention. Need I remind you that Trump tweets?

I compose these thoughts on pen and paper at breakfast at the Deux Magots at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They no longer seem to serve fresh orange juice here, but, oh, the tartine and butter.

See original imageA couple of older women work on laptops, and one is now on a mobile – she has a friend, or maybe it’s work. A young tourist couple come in for double consumption – photographing their breakfast, before touching it. Are these zillion photos as expendable as Zuckerberg’s 75 million followers?

At least momentarily untied from virtuality, a pair of business types are greeted familiarly by a waiter, and enjoy a quick croissant, espresso and each other’s company. An aged gentlemen with a big scarf never takes his eyes off his newspapers throughout the hour or so we’re there. He remains glued to a declining medium that seems both wonderfully curated, and multi-vocal.

Altogether, to the gentle clatter of glass, silver and porcelain, a scattering of café-goers read newspapers, maps, screens, a notebook, and occasionally each other’s faces. Even the digitally-linked seem reasonably contented, presumably because a table across the room feels closer than up to a satellite via mass-monitoring and back.

See original imageHow odd, a tour group files in a side entrance and out through the heavy revolving door (which waiters manage with a packed tray on the arm), photographing the carvings of the two oriental-looking magi, their backs permanently turned on each other. My impression is that tour groups often lead to lasting friendships, people having taken meals together.

I don’t think we’re properly introduced until we’ve dined together. That “new friend” comment was based on two good dinners.

Being a regular

See original imageAs a restaurateur, I cannot deny having loved our regulars. We had a couple who came fortnightly, for years. They drove quite a distance from a beach suburb, and plainly  enjoyed each other’s company. We kept Table 8 for them.

Another Sunday pair were a Melbourne manager returning most weekends to Adelaide for his delightfully stay-put partner. Oh, the conversations we had about the strangeness of both the Anglican Church and the devotion of its shunned member (he was gay).

How can I forget the well-to-do couple, who came so regularly over so many years we witnessed the gradual deterioration of one of their healths, and how… no, I’ll miss that

So many regulars, and those are just the first to come to mind. Regulars might have come weekly for a burst, or fortnightly for years, or even just annually, re-living the night they proposed marriage at the restaurant, or married there, eventually bringing children.

I became a regular at a modest restaurant here in Paris’s Latin Quarter after two lunches. By the time I took Marion there for dinner, my third meal, we were greeted with Kirs. The wine recommendation was as delicious as its price was moderate. When a dish was not available, it was instantly replaced with foie gras.

How did this happen? Who knows? I hope I just seemed to enjoy the first visit.

Of course, there’s a element of sales in hailing regulars, but I like to think it’s more human than that. People generally like other people (and waiters really have to like other people). It might be a passing relationship, not necessarily even on first-name or any name terms – perhaps just the “McGuinnesses on Table 8” – and yet meals are at the heart of society, and that goes for hosts and guests.

This good, modestly-priced restaurant in the Latin Quarter seems to fill with locals. At least one or two regulars seem to return for lunch perhaps even daily. Nights are quieter, with a sprinkling of tourists.

Let’s see how the relationship develops. A third visit might have involved something lesser than the previous lentil soup with egg, but I somehow enjoyed the tougher steak (following Brillat-Savarin’s carving instruction: cut across the grain). Next, “my” table by the door was taken, so I tried somewhere else, which was not quite up to it.

Upon our departure, I might give the restaurant a strong online recommendation. It’s already within the top 1000 of the 13,632 tripadvisor listings f0r Paris. That’s despite seven “terrible” ratings for cold ravioli and lamb to spit out, etc. Poor irregulars, I’m sure you enjoyed your crepes down the road. “Do not eat there” – I’m sorry, you missed out. No, I’m not sorry.

Humans need each other, value each other, and the rest is regulars.

Nearly everybody’s favourite city

paris-tourist-shop2PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.

My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.

That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.

This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954;  Funny Face, 1956).

That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.

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We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.

On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.

Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.

The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.

Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.

Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.

We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.

I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.

The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards,  but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.

It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.

Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.

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