Restaurants


London offers a ongoing and ever-updating curriculum of on how to live well in a city that is too expensive to live in. No other city I spend time in offers as many free or nearly free diversions for families as London does. Granary Square, the South Bank, the Tate Modern, Regent’s Park, the list of public spaces that make you feel like a circus is always in town goes on and on.

This trip, I learned that…

1. …bubble gum on the sidewalk can have redeeming value. Ben Wilson (whose Wikipedia page will explain his mission) looks for gum squashed on all kinds of pavements and transforms them into miniature works of art. On the corrugated metal path of the Millennium Bridge, which spans the Thames between Tate Modern and the area around St. Paul’s, Londoners have commissioned him to create memorials to dead family members; schools have sponsored little emblems; newly-engaged couples pay him to commemorate their troth. Children and adults walk across the bridge bent at the waist in search of his little gems.

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2. …the World War I memorial art installation at the Tower of London is best seen from an aerial perspective. 350,000 ceramic red poppies on stem-like stakes flood the moat around the Tower’s outer precincts to symbolize the number of lives lost in the Great War. From the parapet surrounding the walls, the poppies stand in striking contrast with the green grass growing underneath. But why does it flow from the Tower? What is the intended symbolism? And why skimp on the number of poppies flowing out the window, leaving the rickety scaffolding supporting them in plain sight? I was more impressed by images taken from above.

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3. …London’s closest beach town, Broadstairs, would be recognizable perhaps to Charles Dickens but definitely to  Graham Greene. With the original Bleak House in the background, a brass band played Elgar’s “Nimrod” under cloudy skies. I hoped in vain the crowd of mostly seniors would break into “Underneath the Arches.” A round of mini golf finished off a wonderful day spent on the sandy beach in our cardi’s.

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4. … and finally, the Anchor & Hope restaurant is as good as it was the last time I ate there seven eight years ago. This place puts the lie to the worn-out notion that British food is bad. Worth every penny. Check out their menu.

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And now, off to the airport. Next stop, New Jersey!

 

 

 

I am here in the city of Bordeaux to finish my book on a fellow who lived here for thirty-six years in second half of the nineteenth century. I know no one here. This is my third visit, but this one will be my longest to date. The previous two times I spent one and then two weeks here. This time, the pleasant studio I have rented in the St Michel quarter will be my home and work space from today, June 16, until September 1. My landlady, Catherine, and her husband and son live above.  As far as I can tell, she speaks no English. We’ve been communicating well, to my surprise. One week ago in California, someone spoke to me in French and I stammered to the point of incomprehensibility. My ability to speak French to a non-native French speaker in California felt like flailing and gasping for air in the shallow end of a pool. Here, in France, thrown head-first into the deep end, I rise to the surface and swim.

On the morning of my first day, I found it easier to settle in than I expected. Perhaps it will disappoint you to know that I found the Carrefour (think Safeway), the Bio C’Bon (think Natural Food Co-op), a good bread store that I will restrict myself to visiting twice a week, a cheese shop, and a wine shop. The fridge now contains almond butter, almond milk, soy sauce, salad greens, all my day-time vegan staples at home. On weekends, the carnivore in me comes out of its lair sniffing the air for the scent of blood.

My flat stands two blocks from the Marché des Capucins, the big covered market where all the city’s chefs reputedly shop. I see nothing precious or picturesque about this quarter, which is just fine with me. My landlady characterizes it as “populaire,” “of the people,” so to the speak. Stores for African ingredients, Middle Eastern food shops that also carry Vietnamese fish sauce, Moroccan restaurants, as well as fast food joints line the main streets of this area. Closer to the historic district, I found the Librairie Mollat, a huge independent bookstore. The clerk in the wine store pointed me in the direction of the Apple Store. We take the good with the global, and savor the amply infused sense of place tasted in the bread with golden crumb I had at lunch, the butter laced with orange zest and reminiscent of the city’s favorite orange-flavored apéritif, Lillet, and the flash-fried, unshelled tiny shrimps — crevettes — I popped in my mouth.

Good start. Now to work.

 

DSC01315What a relief to leave the oven that Phoenix is and head north to Flagstaff. Whenever I drive this road, I forget how beautiful the view is from the summit around the turn-off for Sedona. The temperature  plummeted. After a short rest at my family’s house south of Flag, we attended a wine dinner at Tinderbox, a very good restaurant in the city center. All the BBQ ribs and brisket I ate over the past month were nothing compared to the cold corn soup ladled over a piece of smoked butterfish and a scallop; the pea-shoot and arugula salad with beets and blue cheese; the mushroom and duck confit risotto with crispy thin onion rings; the thick slices of balsamic-fennel crusted lamb sirloin, roasted broccolini, and pan-sauteed new potatoes. Stop! Mercy! we fifty diners cried. Kevin Heinonen, owner, and his cousin, Scott Heinonen, the chef, really have something special here. I’ll never forget the fried housemade-baloney sandwich I ate there three years ago. The Jersey girl in me was in heaven.

Tehachapi on Saturday, home on Sunday.

DSC01307Twice in an hour emergency weather alerts buzzed and rattled our phones lying on the coffee table. “Emergency: Dust storm approaching. Do not travel.” We looked out Margaret’s tall south-facing windows overlooking Phoenix’s downtown. Maybe the sky looked a little pinker in the southwest corner, but, naah, nothing serious. Time to drive to dinner. I’d been looking forward for days to dining at True Foods in the Biltmore shopping. Vegetables, at last!

Within the time it took us to reach the garage, the sky took on an apocalyptic hue. Our trip to the restaurant turned into a race against the dust storm that was rolling right over the city in the same direction in which we were heading. Daylight almost disappeared two hours before it was scheduled to. The high winds buffeted cars on the road from side to side. The dust beat us to the corner of Camelback and 24th. We weren’t able to get inside the restaurant before the sand started, but we missed the sheets of rain that soon followed. Capacious flashes of lightning illuminated the tawny air like klieg lights on a movie set. I swear I saw a horizontal streak of electricity whip down the length of the parking lot. An earnest waiter, speaking in a soft funereal tone, gave us his spiel about how healthy and “non-inflammatory” and adaptable the menu was to patrons with all kinds of dietary restrictions. From our table, we had a clear view of Nature’s hissy fit while we ate a scrumptious meal (a good kale-lemon-parmesan-bread crumb salad with a woodsy mushroom-taleggio thin-crusted pizza). By the time, we headed to the car, the air was clear.

The True Food franchise, owned partly by the Tucson-based holistic physician Andrew Weil, has now reached southern California and Colorado. It would be nice to think they’re just teasing the healthy eaters of northern California by keeping us waiting.

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IMG_1264Normally, selfies have no place in this blog. While I was writing at a table in the lobby of my delightful hotel, however, a friend and colleague advised me (half-jokingly) by email that evidence of hard work while on my road trip would go a long way towards pleasing the higher-ups this coming fall, when they study my triennial review file. Immediately, I dragooned a passing French tourist and voilà to the left. Not that it will be me who ensures that the committee sees it. My colleague says he will do it. I spent an enjoyable three hours at this table. It was too bloody (104) hot for trekking around Austin.

However, early this evening, I walked to dinner at a chi-chi taqueria, La Condesa, about a mile away. What was I thinking? When your server answers, no, I can’t order two different types of taco because these are “gourmet tacos,” run. Alas, I didn’t. People of northern Californians, hear me! La Condesa has a tacqueria on Main Street in St. Helena.  Be forewarned.

Texans sure like living in or buying street food from Airstream trailers. They’re everywhere, even on the walls.

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At the back of my mind, my goal to explore Texas and southern barbecue has always felt a little like a farewell tour. It’s not that I planned to gorge on meat to make myself sick of it. Instead, I wanted one last tryst before meat and I decide to end our love affair. The health reasons are obvious; the ethical ones are entering my blood stream like a slow-acting virus. I don’t think I’ll become a constant vegetarian or vegan, but I have been eating less and less of it to the point where I may naturally stop at some point. Why not end on a high note? is the way I look at my predicament.

Today, I hit a short, sweet high note at Franklin Barbecue in Austin. It began as an ordeal. I arrived there at 10:45, 15 mins before it opened, and found this.

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I got in line and half an hour later it looked like this:

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While I stood in line, I debated whether it was worth it. I grew more conflicted when Franklin employees came by with tubs of drinks to sell. How long a wait? I asked. Three hours, one of them said. Really?

According to my pedometer, I walked 5 miles to get there (I took a detour to visit a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the shore of Lady Bird Lake). Did I come so far to give up now?

103 degrees at noon.

I did not leave.  I stayed. It took exactly two and a half hours to progress to the door and step inside.

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It took another half hour to move from the door to the counter where I ordered. As I stood on line, I watched people eat mounds of meat. It was a little repellent.

I waited three hours and ate my order in fifteen minutes.

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A party of three were chowing down on the mound o’meat on the left. My order (below) looked positively monastic next to theirs. I could not finish the one link, the 1/4 lb pulled pork, the one turkey slice, and the 1/2 pint of slaw. Very good, but not worth the three-hour wait. However, I wolfed down the brisket. The sweet, crusty fat on the fork-tender brisket was infused with the smoke of white oak. That chunk of beef had one of the best, most memorable (I’ll never forget a roast pigeon breast in Avignon in 2008) flavors I’ve ever tasted. This, I realized, was Ur-Barbecue. Now I can hang up my samurai sword.

Actually, not yet.

DSC01049Let it not be thought that all I got out of Marfa was a brass room key purporting to be Elizabeth Taylor’s at the Hotel Paisano during the shooting of “Giant.” No. I had a kick-ass meal at Cochineal tonight. Descriptions of food are boring. Suffice it to say the romaine-bibb-pecan-lardon-pickeled shallot salad, one succulent roasted quail with ligonberry sauce on sweet potato puree, and — as an afterthought — 4 perfectly cooked salted shrimp on a spicy romesco sauce knocked my socks off. While I was gnawing on the shrimp, I noticed a poor sap in the kitchen whip something into a frenzy for nearly 10 mins. What is that guy doing? I asked my server. The whipped cream. Ok, I’ll have the powder milk biscuit and berries with whipped cream. I should mention that the quartino of temperanillo I had with the previous dishes was smooth and rich as deep red silk. From what planet did this restaurant come? Why the hell is it here?

DSC01044Otherwise, the road between El Paso and Marfa was lovelier than I expected — until I passed the Prada “store.” Right. I get it. The ubiquity of commodity fetishism. Took me two seconds to justify it marring the view. Back in the car. On to Marfa.

The little city has no gloss, in spite of the art galleries that outnumber every other kind of store. It’s still pretty unrefined. Nothing like Santa Fe, thank god. Turns out, I will be here only one night, instead of two. Never come to Marfa between Sunday and Tuesday. Everything is shut. I’d like to come back and feel what the town is like when there is human life visible on its streets. So, I am making the 7 hour schlep to Austin tomorrow, where for two whole days I will either hoof it or take public transportation.

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