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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An Aladdin’s cave

sv300455SOMETHING WAS revealed about my choice of restaurants, or my friend’s, the other day, when he said he was unfamiliar with “natural wines”.

For a few years, almost everywhere I’ve dined that’s warranted a sommelier has thought its food warranted natural wines.

Defined with appropriate imprecision, natural wines require the least possible intervention from growing to bottling (with only sulphur likely to be added). It is more than organic, since the actual making is also minimal interference, and can often be biodynamic.

In ABC’s Landline coverage of three years ago, Adelaide professor of oenology Vladimir Jiranek lost me by defending added yeast as “only” like using dried bread yeast from the supermarket. Had he never appreciated carefully-made sourdough bread?

Many higher-tech makers are inclined to scoff that natural wines have “faults”, and command undeserved prices, although others appreciate the variety, and satisfying texture.

Before I explain the Aladdin’s cave reference, here’s Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux wines in the Adelaide Hills.

What do I think of his wines?

They definitely feel crafted, and made from grapes, which is saying more than might seem, because conventional wine can taste more like, well, wine. These edge a little towards craft beer or cider. Having opened only two bottles so far, I can confirm their deliciousness, which is again saying more than might first appear. They are really nice to drink. Whatever the faults, I failed to notice them (not minding some cloudiness). Whether they would ever reach the sublimity of a great Bordeaux, I am not sure, but, then, old Bordeaux were made more this way.

I should confess how I came by a veritable cave of Lucy Margaux wines. Anton and colleagues are about to open a restaurant a short drive out of Adelaide. It’s called the Summertown Aristologist.

You might be aware that Jennifer Hillier and I used to operate the Uraidla Aristologist, a little further (1.4 kms) up Greenhill Road. Anton recently sent us a box each as a goodwill gesture.

Since I anticipate getting across not long after the new Aristologist’s opening, I shall report further.

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The Kiwi aesthetic, everything including the kitchen sink

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Unsuccessful NZ flag contenders – featuring sheep and hokey-pokey ice cream

AN EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD meal stimulates not just conversation, but thought. The recent dinner for the Wellington Symposium of Gastronomy at Hillside Kitchen and Cellar encouraged reflections on the distinctive, at least to an outsider, Kiwi aesthetic.

Admittedly, I’m only a partial outsider, having lived in Wellington from mid-2000 to the end of 2007, but that provided preliminary data for ruminations on the notable contrasts, culturally, with Australia.

Hillside is a tiny café-restaurant in Thorndon, near the centre of the New Zealand capital. It runs from breakfast until dinner, and was chosen for the symposium by Duncan Galletly, who had previously rated the place:

interesting, brave, cerebral and simply delicious. On Saturday we did a mr creosote and ordered “one of everything please” – asking for wine “that was interesting”.
Of twelve plates all except one, the bluenose, were brilliant and the fish was still good by any standards… [etc]

For confirmation of the “cerebral” quality, check out chef Asher Boote’s comments on Hillside’s website. He exposes himself every meal, but for a reason:

The one true reward in this profession is not the pay (for this is always crap), it’s being a facilitator of a good time, creating a reason for people to sit down, stop for a bit and be with each other

The symposium menu narrowed down to: snacks; sourdough, cultured butter; vegetables, marrow; sea egg; wild sheep, garlic, greens; elder, pine, rosemary; treats. And the courses got progressively better.

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I would happily have had more of the delicious marrow dip with raw vegetables, all placed in a bone, split length-wise. Real-seeming seaweed, sea urchin and other sea creatures arrived under a halved, boiled egg.

Next was the “wild sheep”, cooked sous-vide, pulled and pressed into a block. One person meanly described it as looking like “Spam”.

The plate of elderflowers, crunchy bits and rosemary cream “quenelle” was perfect, in anyone’s language … likewise, the final, tiny “treats” of mint marshmallow, strawberry meringue and mascarpone fudge proved yet again that this kitchen can cook.

But back to the block of “wild sheep”. Along with the split bone and “sea egg”, it aroused contemplation about the distinctive New Zealand style.

Embedded image permalinkThe Kiwi aesthetic is so ever-present that locals hardly notice. The numerous elements go beyond the prevalent black, reflecting the dark beaches and rocky outcrops, and the old-fashioned textures of wool and wood, and, importantly, permit flashes of brightness.

The boast of “Kiwi ingenuity” is said to involve “number 8 wire” – the softer, thicker, fencing gauge with which a bloke could mend anything. That’s the sheep farmer, who supported founding Calvinists in eschewing flashiness or pretension. The resulting non-style mixes with traditional, Pacific islander motifs and tattoos. The ever-present driftwood contributes randomness, while native rimu provides smooth, warm timber surfaces.

The drabness is comforting, and makes a backdrop for subtlety, along with drollery. Think farmer Fred Dagg (comedian John Clark), who in the 1970s always responded to a knock, “That’ll be the door.” More recently, the Flight of the Conchords took a similarly glum gleam into the wider world.

The Kiwi aesthetic shows in fashion, or perhaps avoidance thereof. Not only the hoodies, clothing is deliberately dressed down, although designers aim for well-made comfort. In any case, undue devotion to grooming would soon become windswept. Yet all that enables unapologetic touches of whimsy. Here in Wellington, the twist of a hem, flash of garish stocking or the natty dress of post-gothic dandies quickly makes street-wear fascinating enough for Bill Cunningham.

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Red Peak

During our visit, friends received voting papers to select a new national flag.  We are all now run by merchant bankers (think Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and NSW Premier Mike Baird), and everyone seemed so angry at theirs (Prime Minister John Key) that they would rather keep the present flag, with no fewer than four Christian crosses, than let his campaign succeed. The four logos on the shortlist were so unloved that they had, belatedly, to be supplemented by “Red Peak”. It encapsulates the aesthetic, albeit unbalanced, so that the joy of the red volcano and white mountain push the grim black into a corner.

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Wellington kitchen sink

I’m probably the first visitor to New Zealand to have photographed nothing but a kitchen sink. I snapped it as the best example of tonal-depressiveness-with-moments-of-brilliance. For many decades domestic  benchtops were custom-made in stainless steel with the sink or sinks set in, sensible, sturdy and easy to clean. They look beautiful, set against rimu woodwork. More than that, however, with corners and splashbacks fitted to even the oddest room, they lend themselves to quirkiness. Unlike hard, polished white Caesarstone, the grey patina could not be more homely.Embedded image permalink

Such cultural references were made by the central dishes at Hillside the other night. While I heard secondhand that a huddle of senior restaurant reviewers grumbled a bit about the meal, I suspect they missed an aesthetic more noticeable to the outsider. The Kiwi aesthetic – exemplified by the decorated bone, the slices of underwater life in a dark pool of broth, and the equally grey slab of sheep, hidden amid the green.

As fate would have it, a few days later, artist and cabinet-maker Duncan Sargent told me about his sculpture at Lower Hutt. It’s a properly engineered geodesic dome with a timber plank through it. The Hillside meat dish was much the same – intricate cooking stuck through with a sheep block.

Wellington artist Duncan Sargent, left, and Allan Brown of Lower Hutt's E Tu Awakairangi Sculpture Trust, with Sargent's work Untie This, which is sited along a walkway by Waiwehtu Stream.

 

 

Noma pops up

491720065_a873ca0190[1]Frequently judged the “world’s best”, Noma restaurant is much less than the hype, and I intend that as a recommendation. If you feel so inclined, have the money, and can score a booking, then go, when it pops up down south.

The Sydney Morning Herald has just carried huge photographs of chef Rene Redzepi to accompany a double-page spread about his moving the restaurant from Copenhagen to Sydney for 10 weeks during their winter/our summer. But I skipped the article for a number of reasons. Mainly, it’s the hype; I don’t need any more breathless accounts of stratospherically-ranked cooking.

Reportedly flying in 35 chefs, 30 waiters and 10 reservations and administrative staff, plus “partners and children”, a so-called destination restaurant celebrating local-ness remains one of globalisation’s tragic contradictions.

An associated reason for my deliberate page-turn was that, decades ago, I was already dreading Sydney’s over-development (fellow journalist Gavin Souter assured me it had already happened), and the Barangaroo developers would seem to be supporting Noma’s relocation to lend civility to their latest harbour-side imposition.

I also admit that despite the restaurant offering a total of 5000 places, and at a projected $400 to $500 each, I can’t imagine managing to obtain a booking. Locals will be competing with diners who fly around the world to reach worse attractions.

And, finally, another confession, I’ve already been. Indeed, we almost went twice. My wife’s second Copenhagen conference let me book for a significant birthday in April 2010, but an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull grounded an estimated 10 million travellers, including us.

Not that my birthday was a total disaster, because we quickly booked trains to England via L’Arpège in Paris. To tell the truth, my actual birthday was a couple of days later, so that I celebrated again. With my wife occupied at another conference in Coventry, my daughter and I dined at what the Good Pub Guide rightly indicated would be a dream of an old inn, the Fox & Hounds, Great Wolford, Warwickshire.

491693630_5b41aa8303[1]The Noma visit in May 2007 was unforgettable, notably for its completeness. I remember numerous snips of this and that by way of found grasses, flowers, etc, quite intriguing, although more common these days. And I particularly recall tiny, cold, dense oysters. If you want more details, “YKL” had posted on egullet a few days earlier about the same menu (and I’ve borrowed two of YKL’s photographs to accompany this reminiscence).

As I say, the meal was unforgettable for its completeness, which means not just the food. There was the port location and the old building, which had been converted to promote the North Atlantic (hence Noma’s choice of ingredients). My daughter and I sat outside with a beautiful German riesling in the late-afternoon sun, awaiting my wife to cycle from her conference. We gazed across the harbour (not high-rised like Sydney) and back at the spiral church steeple that our daughter had just climbed.

Then, there was the exemplary friendliness. One little thing was that, after they had found somewhere to stow my wife’s bike, they brought out an extra round of marvellous crisps, including cracklingly-thin fish and chicken skin.

We could never forget another extra. We were keen to phone our severely disabled son back in New Zealand, which tends to sleep when Denmark is awake, and vice versa. Since this evening was an appropriate time, we inquired about a public phone. The waiters insisted that we use the restaurant’s. But you don’t understand, we said, this is a phone call to New Zealand.

Given our boy’s brain damage, “phoning” really meant singing to him down the line. It was an emotional moment, and when we were together back at the table, the waiters slipped us small handkerchiefs.

In this globalised, connected world that magnifies celebrity to an unbearable level, I know Noma to be much, much less – much friendlier and more intimate – than might be imagined. So, I skipped the double-page spread.

Then, in a phonecall, old friend Julie Rigg checked if I noticed it mentioned my gastronomic history of Australia. To write the article, Jill Dupleix had joined Rene Redzepi for a day trip of 13 hours, sourcing ingredients through Victoria. He and two assistants had already scoured the Adelaide Hills (location of our Aristologist restaurant in the 1980s and early 1990s) in the company of Adelaide chef Jock Zonfrillo (and I’ve already praised his Orana restaurant).

Dupleix reported that the team had passed by Melbourne’s Essential Ingredient in search of a copy of One Continuous Picnic. Not sure if they found one, but if Redzepi is still looking, I’ll gladly send a copy, signed “in memory of 31 May 2007”.

The collapse of dining in U.K., U.S.A., France, Australia and Barbados

The past decade has seen the collapse of British restaurants.

Something to eat at El Celler de Can Roca

They held 10 of the world’s “Best 50” positions in 2005, and now only two. Almost as disastrously, the decline in number of world-beating French restaurants has plummeted from 11 to five. The U.S.A. went from nine to six, Australia from three to one, and Barbados fell from two to none at all.

Where did all that great dining go? Spain has lifted its total from four to seven, Peru and Mexico have come from nowhere to gain three spots each; Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Thailand and China came in with two; and Singapore, Russia, South Africa and Chile snapped up one. The rest of the world stayed roughly where they were.

I’m joking. What has changed is not the quality of the national stars but the scope of the “World’s Best 50 Restaurants”. A British magazine started the annual list in 2002, and still in 2005 found the great places either down the road, or in France, the U.S. and Barbados. Over the years, the judging has expanded further across the globe.

The best in the world, “Says who?” That’s Paul Levy’s comment on the latest list, just announced. “Would any critic dare to try to name the 50 best operas/singers/actors/artists in the world, except as some sort of perverse game?” The original foodie underscores his point with the photograph (above), chosen by the “Best 50” organisers to represent their very “best” restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

That Paul was not overly selective with the photograph can be confirmed elsewhere. Here’s another I’ve referenced:

Restaurant magazine had asked Paul to vote in the early years, and he was not surprised that “the initial list in 2002 maintained absurdly that more of the world’s top restaurants were in Britain than in France.”

He admits to have dined at some of latest winners, and that they are “very good indeed”. The problem is that we could both name dozens of equally wonderful meals nowhere near the list. Now shut, Ritual in Nelson Bay, north of Sydney, rightfully gained a devoted following, but regularly lost scores in the local guidebook until it was dropped entirely. I’m looking forward to the emergence of Orana – or is Adelaide going to prove just too far for the globe-trotters?

As a restaurant rating groupie, I can remind Paul that even a half-decent guide is better than no guide. And another consolation is that we are watching the “Best 50’s” self-destruction. I’m not referring to its encouraging of ever-more damaging jet-setting.

Rather, my point is that the near-doubling of the number of countries on the list from 11 in 2005 to 21 is only a beginning. The United Nations has 193 members. The judges don’t appear yet to have brought in Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco … Is Canada yet to make the grade? And those other former British colonies, Hong Kong and Barbados, might yet pop back.

Soon, the near-impossibility of comparing of apples with pears will be compounded by the total incredibility of rating them against okra, lentils, cardamom, pomegranates, couscous and, let’s hope one day, Kiwi fruit.