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.

AFR Top 100 – the view from a restaurant black hole

We live comfortably in a restaurant black hole. Sydney critics and columnists frequently rave about places in inner-city Surry Hills, the CBD, Bondi beach and the Lower North Shore. Although we’re still in the Inner West, they rarely come near us. The hipsters have not reached out this far. More tellingly, we live in a weird gap between maps in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide.

We’re left alone in our guidebook black hole with probably 40 restaurants within an easy walk. Along with a big choice of Chinese styles, we have a sprinkling of every other necessary type, including a fine diner. Okay, it’s actually just within a map, and a long walk so that we usually drive, but I speak of Sixpenny at Stanmore.

The two chefs, Dan Puskas and James Parry, found the restaurant’s name in my One Continuous Picnic. In the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous “sixpenny restaurants” catered to the urban labour force boom in Melbourne and Sydney.

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Sixpenny describe themselves as a “little restaurant”, and there’s nothing grand about it – except for their charm, sommelier Dan Sharp’s selections, and their seriously great cooking, with much from the restaurant’s backyard and even more now from their own farm near Bowral. And their crab and macadamia … take a look (that’s it above). We’re talking quietly world class.

Living in a black hole, we tend to keep recommendations to ourselves, but the secret’s leaking out, and last night they were announced as No. 8 in the Australian Financial Review’s Top 500 – with rankings of the top 100

When challenged the other day to nominate good restaurants in the city of Tallinn, and never having been there, I found online the Flavours of Estonia with that country’s Top 50 selected in a two-stage process – gathering the recommendations from restaurateurs themselves, and then importing critics to make the final pick. The Australian version merely asks the industry, and a computer.

The results reveal the method’s inadequacies. I have only been to something like 20 of the top 100, and sometimes only once to a place, but even my experience shows unevenness.

As I say, I accept Sixpenny deserves to rank at least at No. 8. I must get to Sydney’s Sepia one day, and could well believe it’s No. 1, or close to it. As well as dining twice at Melbourne’s Attica (No. 2), I had a week of Ben Shewry’s cooking when he joined me while writer-in-residenceat Stratford Chefs’ School in Ontario, Canada. So, I can confirm that Attica is correctly placed in the very top rank.

I’ve dined in two manifestations of Vue de Monde (not sure why it’s not spelled Vue du Monde), and can believe No. 6. Still in Melbourne, and not everyone’s favourite, but I used to be almost a regular lunch-goer at Cafe di Stasio at St Kilda – a great restaurant at No. 20. And then there’s Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi. I would put it higher than No. 39. But that’s far from the list’s oddest ranking.

I tend never publicly to bag bad experiences, so won’t cite a couple of over-rated places. But let’s just look at Adelaide’s top two. Both good, and Magill Estate is believable at No. 44. But Orana at No. 47?

https://i0.wp.com/restaurantorana.com/wp-content/uploads/Spencer-Gulf-prawn-and-dill-700x466.jpgAdmittedly only been once, and I had some criticisms (about the need to make the space feel slightly warmer, and not relying on just one glass of champagne to last through all those fabulous introductory snippets), but surely Orana should have been placed much nearer the very top.

At least on our night, I reckon Jock Zonfrillo took Australian cooking in a new direction. Perhaps his fellow chefs have not yet had the chance to get there, or the computer isn’t all that clever, but for finally showing native foods as something supreme …

It’s expensive, so I won’t say to rush, but if you get the chance, let me know if I’m wrong.

Restaurants in Europe as ranked by elite diners (Opinionated About Dining or OAD)

OSV300343 (2)ne of my most valued possessions is a framed, souvenir handkerchief of the best Parisian restaurants in the 1950s. Several are still going, but I’ve only ever got to one, Chez Allard. It was still run by the family, we had the front room by the zinc bar to ourselves, and it was totally memorable. We had proper, Burgundian frog’s legs, as boasted on the cloth, and wondrous duck with turnips. It’s not just because the hanky was a gift from the late Marlis Thiersch, who had brought it back from Paris not long after the war, but also because I cannot hide my secret sin, rating restaurants. A Michelin red guide for 1931 might be useless in a practical sense, but not to me.

When the World’s Best 50 go on-line, I’m in there. With even more alacrity, I follow Opinionated About Dining, put together from diners who are both privileged and obsessive, getting to the latest and greatest, wherever they are. OAD veers towards the more classical and expensive, but I can at least read about them.

Today, I received the  latest OAD ranking of 200 in Europe, and over the years I’ve accumulated meals at, not counting, seven on the list.

L’Arpège is no 3, and Noma no. 9. I would reverse those positions, but caught Noma in possibly more exciting, early days. Also based on one experience, Guy Savoy is right up there. Continuing to talk about Paris, two visits to the original Spring were among the most rewarding experiences of my restaurant life. We’ve also found excuses to go back to Grand Véfour and Septime, and, among those outside Paris, took in Bocuse … All recommended.

What would I add? –  definitely some far-away, one-star places, such as La Petite Maison in Cucuron, Les Chênes Verts at Tourtour, and Le Maximilien in Zellenberg. That’s based on one experience each, one or more years ago.

SV300349 (2)I would like to contribute ratings, but, really, my help would be scattered and mainly for Australia, and OAD so far encompasses only the U.S., Europe and recently Japan.

Several Australian places compare well. We keep returning to Sydney’s Sixpenny, and not only because it’s nearby. I’ve had the chance to appreciate much Ben Shewry cooking – his Attica in Melbourne is ensconced in the world best list. Somewhere newer that hits such heights is Adelaide’s Orana.

At Orana, Jock Zonfrillo and team bring flawless cooking to indigenous foods. Will it appear in the World’s Best 50 for 2015, to be announced on 1 June? I would hope so, despite only one dinner there, and a couple of criticisms, especially their one glass of champagne for an extraordinary procession, half an hour or more, of little tastes – really well done, and then separate wines came with each dish. The sommelier did a memorable job blending fruit juices for our daughter to accompany each of our nine wines, but I prefer my wine early and to taper off.SV300340 (2)

Unusually for such a good restaurant, Tripadvisor immediately ranked it at no. 1 in Adelaide, and it remains on top, out of 1,378 restaurants, such is Orana’s fierce support.

Today’s lesson for fellow guidebook tragics is that these guides, however seemingly erratic or opionated, are inconsistently backed by the Tripadvisor crowd. Take the case of Noma, which returned last year to #1 in the world’s best, now rates #9 in Europe for OAD, but only #20 for just Copenhagen, according to Tripadvisor.

As to Arpège, which is #3 for the whole of Europe on OAD, and #24 in the world’s best, it is ranked #714 by Tripadvisor, and that’s just for Paris. That’s better than somewhere I must get to one day, Ambroisie, coming in at #35 for OAD, and lying down there at #2,992 for the popular vote.

Yet, as unreliable as Tripadvisor might be, any guide is better than no guide, so I haunt that one, too.

Comedians at dinner, or, Why I love Brydon, Coogan (and Winterbottom’s) Trip and Trip to Italy

A FRIEND SAW THE MOVIE version of the Trip to Italy, together with some of Sydney’s top Italian restaurateurs, and all were disappointed. New Yorker reviewer David Denby joined an audience “apparently expecting a beach-and-mountain travelogue. For a hundred and ten minutes, watching some of the funniest comedy in years, they maintained a puzzled silence.” Not everyone loves The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), so I promised over dinner the other night to explain my delight.

These are the adventures of comedians Rob Brydon (Welsh) and Steve Coogan (northern English), as they chat in the car during a scenic drive, compete in mimicking movie stars over a restaurant meal, pose for a snap in front of a plaque for a poet whose lines they recite, get shown to their hotel room by a young woman, sometimes have a brief encounter, and talk on the phone to a partner, child or agent or themselves in a mirror.

Without having seen the movies, I suspect the six-part series, upon which the movies are based, are preferable not only because they are longer but also because, accented with music, the same ritual every episode lends a melancholy predictability. dark-knight-rises-characters-hilariously-impersonated-by-steve-coogan-and-rob-brydon

My wife happily tolerates my enthusiasm, but wonders if our divergent opinions might invite gender analysis. True, David Denby of the New Yorker asserts: “Both movies, in fact, are about the impossibility—and the necessity—of male friendship.” However definitive that might sound, he also applauds several other basic themes. The men reveal their attraction to younger women – receptionists or at a nearby cafe table – and agree that glances are now not so usually reciprocated. I also wonder whether two female comedians might yet be allowed to retain the same dignity, while being so frequently silly, and mean, but will wisely leave further such conjectures to others.

Both series show some of the world’s loveliest scenery (the Lakes District and nearby parts of England, and the west coast of Italy), finest restaurant food and smartest comic impersonations (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen and Hugh Grant being ones I recognise), but the series are not particularly about any of these, nor quotations from Wordsworth and Coleridge in England and Byron and Shelley in Italy, nor celebrations of the craft of comedy, nor conversations about fading professional careers, about aging and death. Amalgamating such components, the Trips are classics of apparent simplicity, exemplified by the addictive rhythm.

The viewer accepts immediately that Brydon and Coogan play clever caricatures of themselves (Coogan more on top – including longer hair – in the first series, and Brydon winning in the second), and that they are not really reviewing the restaurants for the Observer, but a third, highly creative force is also hiding behind them. Using the same actors, director Michael Winterbottom developed some of the same techniques in Tristram Shandy: A cock and bull story (2005), and he had already done a road movie, In This World (2002), depicting the harrowing “smuggling” of two Afghan refugees from Pakistan across the Middle East and Europe to Britain.

Presumably also contributing to the minimal plots, Winterbottom has spent much of his adult life making movies far from home, probably getting used to luxurious accommodation, so that his former wife, Sabrina Broadbent, wrote Descent: An irresistible tragicomedy of everyday life (2004) about a movie director, always away, having affairs with his female actors. The shows revel in ambiguity, with the glamour constantly subverted. The beautiful food, places and people are haunted by insults and interruptions, quarrels about driving, agents sounding hopeful, relationship troubles, and time passing. As Denby reports: “Both films pursue the high and the low: a complicated deep-running sadness courses through the cynical, sybaritic adventures.” Winterbottom has captured the Nigella Lawson lesson – behind every façade lies pain (the “domestic goddess” had everything, including a nasty, public split with wealthy advertising entrepreneur husband Charles Saatchi).

A dear friend used to finish her emails with the tagline: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”, probably the invention of Scottish pastor, Rev. John Watson (1850-1907). The shows’ downers might seem casual and never worse than hit-and-miss communication, rivalry, nagging doubts and work pressures, but time is always fleeing. The implicit lesson is: “Eat, drink and be merry, … ” and I plan to write further in defence of that philosophy. For the moment, my argument is that the Trips witness the fundamental distinction between food and meals, and, at the risk of repetition, meals matter. Two or three brief shots from each kitchen show the cooks paying considerably more attention to the dishes than the two diners ever do. It is as if to say that celebrity chefs and photogenic plates have been accorded too much prominence of late.

As Brillat-Savarin wrote, table-pleasure depends not on fancy fare, but on four essentials: at least adequate setting, food and drink, companionship, and time. I’ll expand on this important point on another occasion, even if Brillat-Savarin gave two, differing lists of the four necessities (reconciled here). Nevertheless, Winterbottom has won me over by making the food and wine plainly important, but only one part of the picture. He has wondrously illustrated the peaks of all four necessary elements – glorious settings, fine comestibles, exceedingly witty and caring conversations, and apparently (only apparently) all the time in the world.

What a difference an ‘ makes

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Apostrophes are important, and here is proof.

Australians  call them “greengrocer’s apostrophes”. But first I should explain “greengrocer”. That’s the borrowed British name for a shop selling fruit and vegetables. While the U.S. has fewer such specialised retailers, and they are not usually known under that name, Americans would still know the misplaced punctuation marks, as in:  Apple’s $4.95 kg

Or, as cartoonist Ros Asquith recently stacked the greengrocer’s shelves:

TOMATO’S, POTATO’S, APOSTROPHE’S

Greengrocer’s apostrophes proliferated in Australia from the 1960s because many greengrocers were recent Italian or Greek immigrants, who knew fruit and vegetables much better than they knew the language.

Everyone makes mistakes (I once published “chow” instead of “ciao” – many, many years ago); none of us is all-knowing; and grammar is inconsistent, but I count myself on the side of Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

Someone knows an apostrophe is required … but where, oh where? … Mens coat’s.

As to spelling, a restaurateur has no “n” (the French endings are -ant and -ateur). A licence to sell alcoholic drinks in Britain will be a license in the United States, and lost, in Australia, somewhere between.

Spelling and grammar choices are important for two basic reasons: firstly, meaning. This is a textbook example:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Secondly, and only slightly more subtly,  the choice is a sign, revealing something about the writer. In the case of greengrocers, apostrophes might suggest they really know their fruit and vegetables, just as, in certain circumstances, a semi-literate menu might be encouraging.

On the other hand, if a smart establishment cannot care about their grammar, then will they care about their customers?

At the top, I promised proof of the importance of apostrophes. An American celebrity chef called Michael Symon didn’t write Michael Symons’ A History of Cooks and Cooking, but an Amazon reviewer was apostrophe inattentive. In this case, the purchase worked out. “This is a very good book“, she advises.