Monday, January 28, 2013

Mini-Miettes, Jan '13

There have been a couple of changes to the list of blogs over there on the right, with some very cool stuff being added. Raymond Sokolov is a name some will recognize as one of America's preeminent food writers, and although his blog is in its infancy, this could be a very good thing once he gets it rolling. He was also one of the best editors I've ever had, so expect quaity writing, no matter the subject. A number of food blogs have been added, starting with The Skint Foodie, a British guy who's amusing and who occasionally posts something Americans can use. Britain's Guardian has a daily food blog (well, weekdays) that's all over the map from dull to essential. Their How to Cook a Perfect... series is downright brilliant. And one of the most brilliant new blogs on the scene is Sorrywatch, which, given that to err is human, but to apologize for it with any finesse seems to be damn near impossible, means that  when something like Lance Armstrong comes along you'll be seeing some very sprightly writing indeed. Update your daily blog-slog accordingly.

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Health Watch: I'm still waiting for my coagulation number to stabilize, but meanwhile, I've gone to my trusty nose doc for treatment of this polyp that killed my taste buds around Christmas Eve. The good news is that within two hours of my starting the treatment things got back to almost normal, and the bad news is that the treatment starts with prednisone, a drug that makes me nutzo, since I'm buzzing all the time like I'm stoned on coffee 24 hours a day. Everything you read by me until about the 6th of February is going to be influenced by that, so please be gentle with me, and I'll try to do the same. Sure is good to have the old buds back, though, as you will soon see. 

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Ever since it was announced that a film was being shot here about the rebel winemakers in Languedoc, I've been anxious to see it. Loosely organized around the group who call themselves The Outsiders, it sounded like a good excuse to learn more about these spirited winemakers, some of whose goods I sampled a year ago at Vinisud. The film got a title, Les Terroiristes de Languedoc, and the premiere was last night, free to those who knew about it, followed by a wine-tasting by some of the wine-makers. I offered my help for the event -- which occurred a few meters from my front door -- and was assured that it wasn't needed. Okay, I thought, so I invited E&J to come with me to the premiere. We packed into the lobby of the theater with tons of other people, and at one point the organizer came by and asked if I were there by myself. No, I told her, I'm here with two friends. "Oh, well, let me take care of the winemakers and I'll come back." The lobby grew more and more overcrowded. we were getting shoved around, and our hostess never reappeared. So I still haven't seen the film, and, thus can't report on it. Here's a trailer, though. 

I'll admit to being annoyed. From the time I moved here, I've been looking for ways to help publicize the food, wine, and history of this region to Americans. Not to the British, who, some of them, know it well enough to feel like they own it. No, to Americans, every single one of whom who's visited has loved the joint. I've gotten nowhere, and, except for this blog, I've given up. I welcome visitors and try my best to show them the cool stuff here in town, and, if there's interest and a car handy, give them my famous Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour, which has all of it packed into one day's drive. But I've discovered that tourism promotion here is ramshackle, the product of various bureaucracies more interested in grabbing a larger subsidy than the other guy, and it's never going to reach anyone in the States with its chaotic approach. Just another of the many disappointments here, I'm afraid, which may well see me moving on in the future. 

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So what do you do on a rainy Sunday night when you've been frozen out of a screening? Go somewhere and have a good time. E&J and I were walking over to Le Chat Perché when I wondered aloud if La Morue was open on Sundays. As it happens, it was. 

E had been here a couple of months ago, and one of this blog's big fans is a guy in the U.S. who knows the place, loves it, and is apparently designing a new logo for them. It was also featured in the New York Times' eccentric article on Montpellier last year, and I was afraid that might have caused it to get too famous, but there was an open table (although I strongly recommend reservations, even for a Sunday night) and we sat right down. There was some late-period Bee Gees' disco on the sound system, which was annoying, but as the place filled up it receded into background noise. And there you have my sole (no pun intended) complaint about the evening. 

La Morue means cod, as in the famous brandade de morue, a potato purée made with reconstituted salt cod that's a local favorite. There was no brandade on the menu last night, but there was morue, a nice block of it served with a tomato puree and vegetables that E got. I'm not sure what kind if fish starred in J's tagine, but it was also served atop a collection of vegetables including potatoes and olives, in a broth very definitely featuring saffron and other Northern African delicacies. It was the best call of the evening, and reminded me that I'm still looking for a first-rate Moroccan joint around here. My own choice was a half an Atlantic lobster served atop penne sauced with a lobster-based tomato sauce that also featured zucchini and carrots. We split a bottle of rosé, which seemed appropriate, a 2011 Puech Haut cuvée Prestige, with a nice mineraly nose giving way to flavors of pear, peach, and apricot, a masterful wine as one would expect from those folks -- and affordable, since they put their marketing muscle into their stratospherically-priced reds. 

A really wonderful meal, and I'll be back soon. 

La Morue, 23, rue du Palais des Guilhelm, 34000 Montpellier. Tel: 04 67 52 82 02. Open for lunch Tue-Fri, dinner Tue-Sun. Reservations strongly recommended. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Another City, No Hills Whatever

Every now and again, it's good to get away. This particular escape I'd been planning for months. I was really disappointed last March when it was announced that Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach would have the world premiere of its 2012 revival, the last time it would be produced under the auspices of those who created it, about 200 feet from my front door. I was disappointed because on the day it happened, I was in Austin, sitting on a panel I was moderating on the state of contemporary "classical" music. Of which Einstein is a milestone, and I'd never seen it. I then went on to miss it in London and Berkeley and was resigned to never seeing it at all when someone mentioned the production would be playing in Amsterdam in early 2013. I went to the website and found I could afford a halfway decent ticket, then buy a train ticket the next month, and sock in a hotel the month after that. Happy birthday and merry Christmas to me!

For the record, the train trip is easy enough: TGV from Montpellier to Paris Gare de Lyon, then walk across town to the Gare du Nord and get a Thalys (the French/Dutch/Belgian fast train) to Amsterdam. The worst part is the walk across Paris, which takes just under an hour, not because it's a particularly hard walk, but because it passes through some of the most boring parts of town: you walk up the rue de Lyon until you get to the Bastille Opera, then walk through the market space towards République. You pass through the motorcycle helmet district, the bathroom showroom district, and the video games district. You really don't have time to grab a bite, and there's nowhere to eat at the Gare du Nord. There are no historic buildings or famous vistas. You won't see the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur or, in fact, even the Seine. Alternatively, you can take a train between the two places, but then you just wind up with more time at the other end.

But I left here at 9:30 and got into Amsterdam at 5:30, so it was relatively painless. And Priceline wound me up at the Mariott, just across from the Leidseplein, a place I've stayed at a lot over the years. Not memorable, but efficient and easy to get to other places from.

Places like Kantijl. I have two favorite Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and Kantijl is one of them. (The other is Puri Mas.) The big problem this time was that my taste-buds were iffy, something I'm going to make a doctor's appointment to remedy after I finish this blog post. But they were still working when I walked in the door at Kantijl, and lasted through the appetizer, Bakwan Tahoe, which were croquettes of some sort made with vegetables and served with a nice hot pink sauce with peanuts in it.

It was an awful sensation, losing my taste before those three little morsels were finished. It meant that the main course was an anti-climax. The only downside of Kantijl for a solo diner is that they won't serve a rijstafel for one (which Puri Mas does). Instead you get a rames, which is a bed of noodles or rice with a lot of stuff put on top of it.

This one's based on fried rice. It's kind of a Greatest Hits dish, and Kantijl cooks well enough that they are, indeed, hits, but I hope my next visit will be with at least one other person. Their menu is deep, and worth exploring in detail.

I walked back to the hotel, a perfect antidote for the long train-ride, thankful it wasn't any colder than it was: I've been in Amsterdam a lot at this time of year, and the wet can be daunting, but all it did was make my room feel more comfortable, and hitting the hay was never easier.

The next morning, I figured I should find the venue for the performance, the Muziektheater, so after breakfast (a meal the Dutch don't really do, so it was a relief to find a Starbucks right on the Leidseplein) I headed out that way. It turned out to be embarrassingly easy to find, and yet it was a good idea to take the walk, because it exposed me to a lot more of the city that I'd never seen. Quite often, I have a sort of GPS beam in my head, so wandering around doesn't really get me lost. And on occasion, it can result in a whip-your-phone-out moment:

There: proof that it doesn't rain in Amsterdam all the time.

It was about 1:30 by the time I got back to the Leiseplein, and I was watching the time: curtain for this 4 1/2 hour extravaganza was 6:30 strict, and since there was no break, you had to be there on time. I wasn't quite sure how to get meals integrated into this, but I did want to stop by a place called Eat At Jo's, run by a couple of American expats, one of whom, Mary Jo, remembered me from Austin and who, using her husband Erik's Facebook accounts, had been one of my first Facebook friends. She'd been sick (and, earlier last year, had shared with me having had a pulmonary embolism, poor gal!) but was about back on her feet, I heard, so I stopped in for a sandwich. I was in luck: she came back in for the first time in a week, and we had a good talk, after which a friend of hers showed up and we talked for a while, and suddenly a bowl of cauliflower, mustard, and green pea soup came out of the kitchen. Again, the taste buds were dead, unfortunately. But by the time I left, I felt I could make it through the evening without eating any more.

I made it with time to spare to the Muziektheater, and my review of the performance, which was overwhelming (and not just because of its length) will appear this Wednesday on my other blog. To fortify myself for the walk home, I stopped by the pub next door (the Muziektheater, City Hall, and a nice bar run by Amstel Beer are all part of the same complex, along with an impressive monument to Amsterdam's deported Jews) for an Amstel and some bitterballen, which were some kind of meat croquettes I couldn't taste, served with coarse mustard.

The next day I'd reserved for a visit to the newly-redesigned Rijksmuseum. Unfortunately, it's not going to reopen until April, as I found out after I'd already bought my hotel room. Still, I figured, I could certainly pass a day in Amsterdam without getting bored. Sure enough: there's a new museum, the Hermitage, a branch of the famous museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Van Gogh museum is taking up some of its space, and the other is dedicated to a revolving look at the Russians' collection, and at the moment, it's showing Impressionists, of which the Hermitage has a large and famous collection. It's also right next to the Muziektheater, and I'd begun to wish I'd been able to score a hotel room in that neighborhood, not only for convenience, but for learning another part of the city. But I walked over, snapping a nice entryway I'd passed a couple of times already.

Ah, yes, the embarrassment of riches...

The Hermitage show just turned out to be an embarrassment. €17.50 to get in (to be honest, this gets you van Gogh, too, but I'd had my fill of him last time I was here doing a story on the Patti Smith Band doing a bunch of gigs in a couple of days, one of which was at the van Gogh museum), and an impressive display area, starting with a lovely full-wall color reproduction of a painting of a bunch of people shopping for art in the 19th century. The opening blurb says that this is a rare show in that it hangs the art the Impressionists rejected right next to their own works. Weasel words: possibly because of their value, there are precious few Impressionists, and virtually no famous works, in the entire show. I'd say the ratio of academic/approved work to Impressionist is 75%/25%. We get a lot more context, but not much else, and the academic stuff is for the most part truly awful.

So with no desire to visit Vincent, I left after a little more than an hour, feeling burned. Now I had the whole day to explore Amsterdam and no goals. Which, if the weather held, would be perfect. A large glass building caught my eye and I walked off in its direction. As I suspected, it was the botanical gardens, which had a large tropical plant house, but when I got to the door, I realized that the majority of what was there was outside, and maybe early January wasn't the right time to visit. Another whopping entry fee just to stand in the greenhouse and breathe the moist green air? Tempting,

At this point, I got myself lost, but not totally: that GPS was still functioning. I saw a sign that said something about a Portugese synagogue, which was interesting, but I saw something else that looked interesting and walked at a 90º angle to the arrow to the synagogue. The thing I saw resolved into a huge old Dutch maritime vehicle, whether a trading boat or a warship was hard to tell, but it was vividly painted and apparently in the water. But when I got closer, I realized it was still a long way to this thing, and walked a little further and then back towards town -- or that's the way it looked.

I'm not sure where I was, or if I could get there again, but eventually I saw what appeared to be an outdoor market and headed towards it and the large building next to it, which turned out to be de Waag,  part of the old city walls, the place of public execution, and, if its name is to be believed, a place where cargo was weighed. It's an impressive old pile, and just beyond it lies Amsterdam's Chinatown, which was worth a stroll.

This didn't turn out like I wanted, but in that right-hand window there's a sign in English that says "the place where the Chinese eat," which becomes meaningful when you realize that Holland has long promoted its Chinese food, a Chinese-Dutch hybrid just like the vast majority of the Indonesian food is a combination of various Indonesian cuisines and Dutch ideas. Some successful Chinese Dutch guy was going to expand his chain of Chinese-Dutch restaurants to the U.S., and I never did find out how that worked out -- nor have I eaten Chinese-Dutch. Anyway, Rotterdam is the right place to do that, not Amsterdam.

Instead, I found myself in what must have been the headshop district, and desiring a late lunch, since my taste buds had revived, so I wound up at a place called Pieminster, a Dutch outlet of a British chain of fast-food pie restaurants. Not bad at all!

That'll warm you up on a cold day!

After lunch, I trudged on, getting a bit tired, and eventually finding my way towards a place I recognized and, with some variations, back to the hotel. My last dinner was at Eat at Jo's, a pork chop, roast potatoes, steamed vegetables -- hey, I could have had this at home! Well, not the excellent IPA that's this month's special draft beer, I guess. But my taste buds were absent, and the food was well-cooked, and I got to talk to Erik some, so it was a nice close to this trip.

Saturday morning it was the whole routine in reverse, with the exception that the Thalys was so late getting into Paris that I had no option but to get between stations with the Metro. I returned to The Slum at about 7:45, found the supermarket still open and did some weekend shopping, and now feel refreshed by the trip and the once-in-a-lifetime performance I saw. And I don't think I'll need to travel again for, oh, maybe two or three more weeks!

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