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Archive for the ‘Cafe and Restaurant’ Category

It Has Been a While Since Visitors Passed This Way

Although I would like to pride myself on being a hearty traveler, I suppose everyone has their breaking point. Late May,wearing my winter coat, in the rain, Bamberg, Germany, I hit it.

The excursion to the eastern Franconia region of Germany was to be a practice run for our campsite routine and an opportunity to sample the legendary brews at the outdoor kellers, or beer gardens. The weather reports depicted low temperatures with the chance of rain, but we had prevailed over an Ireland-like trip through Italy with daily showers and were confident we could do so again.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Then it began to rain. It did not stop. My fingers grew cold despite my gloves — gloves! May! These were followed by my nose and toes. After 24-hours of saturation even the dependable little tent sighed as its seams began to weep. After a long winter and the coldest spring in 60 years, the weather had beaten us down and we retreated, by way of a detour to the “Romantic Road,” back to Belgium.

Perhaps we should have known better than to try our luck at another tourist destination during an excursion bogged down in ill fate. Or perhaps we are the kind of couple of irony who, looking to redeem a trying trip with a little romance, find the Romantic Road closed.

Apparently, as part of the country-wide infrastructure stimulus package, the Romantic Road is under construction.  The detour signs lead us away from the promise of charming towns and idyllic views, past visitor information signs crackled with time and outdated with irrelevance.

Meistertrunk Festival

Eventually we made it to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, called the best preserved medieval city in Europe, with which I could not disagree. It was there that we were reaped the rewards of our weather-induced travel traumas.

The only draw back to this gem is that it suffers from serious overcrowding
Frommer’s Germany

Warm and Welcome

Unless, that is, you are there at 5 p.m. on a gray, wet and cold Thursday in May. Why, then you have the city wall ramparts entirely to yourself (they are covered too, conveniently enough). And it will be just you and a handful of random other soggy visitors who catch part of the city’s annual celebration of itself: a parade of locals — men, women and children — dressed up in medieval costume who parade around town and congregate at the Rathaus (city hall) all for their own amusement and not for ours.

Of course, all this whining is meant in jest, at least partially. We saw lovely towns, sampled some of the best beers in the world, enjoyed the historic beer hall culture and ate hearty meats laid atop mounds of sauerkraut. But my memory will be struck with that sense of appreciation for the fact that the locals seemed as peeved about the weather as me. In response, and to my relief, they cranked up those ceramic-tiled ancient wood stoves and kept their places cooking.

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hutspot

It was a great pleasure to travel beside a fellow voracious eater armed with an admirable sweet tooth. And to top it off she could even out pace me getting around town (and out of town) on foot in search of something to eat.

Not that my expectations for food were set high:

The Netherlands does not have a distinct culinary culture because . . . the absence of a strong culinary tradition at the court due to an emphasis on Calvinist soberness. Food is seen as a necessary part of life, with no need for luxury.

the best quiche ever

Clearly this was not looking good. Still, the basic staples of Dutch food described in travel guides appealed: cheese and pancakes. Plus, it is spring, which means seasonal smoked eel on the menu, supposedly.

But before we arrived at the more daring culinary tries, my friend and I surfed the menus of Amsterdam to great satisfaction:
  • a pancake with baked-in cheese covered in preserved ginger;
  • the most perfect slices of quiche ever — light and airy in a crispy thin crust scattered with salty ham or luscious goat cheese;

    bitterballen

  • a late-supper Rijsttafel — a personal smorgasbord of Indonesian delights in graduated spiciness (note: spicy in Holland does not equal spicy in NY);
  • perfect yogurt dip and baba ganoush inside a hip restored church in de Pijp district;
  • roombrodje which caught our eye in a tiny bakery and turned out to be as good as “cream bread” sounds like it should be;
  • a three-course meal of delectable tomato soup, hutspot with “bal/wurst” and vla dessert, all for 9,50 euros; and
  • a final evening of canal-side bitterballen — deep-fried meaty croquettes — cheesy fondue at a brown bar at the coolest square in town and poffertjes — miniature yeast-based pancakes — at the carnival.

room broodje

Whew.

And then there is the matter of the 10 km eel.

The trouble with an adventuresome traveling partner is that she is game for anything. That includes ideas like: Let’s take the train to this stop in the middle of nowhere, where my bike route map of Holland indicates there may be a combination of different shaded little lines that lead to a tiny town where, I read in my 20-plus-year-old Michelin Green Guide, they serve smoked eel.

When we disembarked at Spaarnwoude (which a train conductor made me practice pronouncing three or four times) before the mighty blue mass of IKEA, I was skeptical myself. But a few steps away, under the highway overpass and over a small hill, we found a park-like setting and a legitimate route. Bridges linked us over the water where needed. We even passed two windmills.

But then the distances posted became grew and by the time we were in the town of Spaarndam itself we had covered about 5 kilometers and still had to make it back.

Spaarndam Eel

In desperate need of a bathroom as well as hungry for lunch, I directed us straight past the first cafe in order to examine every possible option in this one-lane-and-a-canal town. An hour later, we settled into the Tourist Cafe, which was not only a charming 100-year-old building and served exactly what I was looking for — paling or eel — but was the first and only place we had come upon. Most importantly, they had a bathroom.

Without that, I fear my friend may have abandoned me for a very solitary 5 kilometer stroll back to the Spaarnwoude train stop.

She forgave my oddness, again. The eel was worth every step.

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In preparation for The Great Tulip Caper I have been biking for about a month now. I have pedaled through outer space, several professional kitchens, a medieval church and several soccer pitches. That is to say, my exercise has been confined to a stationary bike in the living room, in front of the television or a book. To test my progress (and assess the very feasibility of The Great Tulip Caper — more about that later) we ventured out onto the road on a couple of locally rented bikes.

Fairly quickly two ideas of relief spring to mind: Holland’s tulip fields are absolutely flat, as opposed to mostly flat, and Belgians love cobblestones much more than the Dutch.

There we were pedaling through serene wooded parks, no one around but the cheering birds in the trees. Them wam, or wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama. The dirt path turns into an old cobblestone lane, much to my teeth- and bone-chattering chagrin. What I had once admired as a beautiful and historic aesthetic touch to Belgium was now slamming my soft brain into the hard sides of my skull. Think I’m exaggerating? Just take a look at this video link.

But relief was soon within sight. Accompanying the Flanders bike route maps is a brochure listing each of the watering holes that your green line of progress passes through. And by water, I mean beer. In Bierbeek we selected In de Molen, which just happened to also be mentioned in someone’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium. Although an unimpressive yellow brick building from the outside, inside we sat at polished wooden tables beneath heavy wooden beams in the company of locals sipping their afternoon beer or coffee. The refreshing La Trappe Wit helped dull the bike-seat pain and hush the whirring in my ears from the parts of my brain that had liquefied. Nourished by a tiny bowl of cheese cubes, served with compliments beside your beer, we set off to further explore the local countryside.

Biking the rural landscape around our little city proved one of the best ways to casually explore its lovely bits and pieces. Past ancient farmsteads and more recent castles, we stopped and admired the green pastures, growing fields and livestock: a typical mix of cows, sheep and, of course, emus.

Emus? Yes. Emus.

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Time to return to our favorite monthly feature: second-hand treasures from SPIT. Today’s adventures took us out of town for a lovely lunch of local black and white sausage and the pub’s own meatballs, all served with homemade chunky applesauce, preserved cherries and a glass of St. Bernardus on tap. Nourished for the search we perused the shelves of a different SPIT location in Flanders.

The top find was this heavy, awkward and breakable cabinet for 3 euros. How will we get it home? Who knows. But that dilemma has not stopped me in the past.

I found an addition to the egg-carrier collection. This one is a mini purse, with a clever set of fingers inside that hold your egg in place in transit.

Finally, this is a pick-up from a few weeks back. A coffee mug featuring my favorite cartoon characters, Suiske en Wiske. Don’t they look happy? So do I, when I drink my tea from this cup.

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The perplexity of a single day in Paris is that it can seem like just a dream. Was that cherry tree in Jardin du Luxembourg really that pink? Was the boeuf bourgogne that rich? Was the restaurant toilet really a ceramic hole in the ground?

Of course, there is little to complain about for having a dreamy day, even if it left us eager for another, more thorough visit. The privilege, and truly it is just that, of several visits to this most beautiful city allows us the time to experience the magic of dreams. We no longer need to scurry from renown monument to acclaimed museum, and so we can take a parcel of Paris and wander about it in a state of reverie.

Our only handicap is a growing list of little shops that beckon us back: Mariage Frères for a shiny black satchel filled with one of our favorite teas; the Maille shop at Place de Madeleine where we refill our ceramic pot with mustard on tap — a sweet and refined ancienne style this time; E. Dehillerin to wander amongst the towering shelves of fabulous kitchen goods; and a reputable patisserie displaying those beautiful packages of sweet delight: les macarons.

On this trip we added new stops at a number of well-known bookstores: Shakespeare & Co. and Gibert. The trouble is that it only encouraged a desire for a full day spent meandering bookshop to bookshop in search of rare finds and intriguing book deals.

Otherwise, we walked a meandering tour through the neighborhoods once haunted by the famous expatriot writers and authors of the early twentieth century. At this bookshop Hemingway, Pound, Wilder, Fitzgerald and Joyce mulled around. In that well-lit, second-floor studio, Whistler pissed off his colleagues with his arrogance. Faulker spent 55 cents a night to stay at that gorgeous hotel across from the park; it now sets guests back about $450. Looking into that courtyard Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms. Miller ate his porridge at this cafe and Pound hosted great parties on a pittance income at that apartment — encouraging news, really.

Inspired by the ghosts who once lived there and fed by conjured images in just one neighborhood, we slipped smoothly from a stroll on the streets of Paris into a dream-like memory of a lovely day. Spoiled and lucky we are.

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Shortly after our visit to London, Rose Gray, one of the founders of the River Cafe in that city, passed away. The tributes began and nearly all rang a similar tune to this piece from The Times:

Rose Gray changed the way a lot of British people lived, and not just those who were lucky enough to eat in The River Café, the restaurant that she and Ruth Rogers founded in 1987 and ran together. Though this is meant to sound dramatic, it’s not an overstatement, because she and Rogers were instrumental both directly and indirectly in changing how and what a huge number of people in this country eat every day. What else within our control changes the quality of our lives more than what we eat?

Before reading these memorials, I was prepared to present my argument that the influx of “gastropubs” and fancy food throughout the UK, although undoubtedly appreciated by its inhabitants, need not bother with my dining plans. From pub to pub and even to the supermarket, I enjoyed each and every morsel of that range of simple core-warming and soul-reviving pub food.

Upon arrival to a thorough drenching and long walk,  we spotted a no-frills place off a small street filled but not packed and offering hot food. Sure, the Cornish pasty had probably been microwaved, but it was warm and covered in a rich brown gravy and was complimented by sweet baked beans and chips (fries) that I drowned in malt vinegar. I was cold and wet and bordering on delirium, and the meal fixed each of those troubles.

The food only got better. At a tiny nook of a place located in central London and yet hidden behind so many winding back alleys and gates that you could have been stepping into a tiny town, we sampled sumptuous sausages set in light, whipped potatoes and a hearty hamburger. The next night the fish and chips at the next pub was referred to, quite appropriately for its size, as a whale and offered sweet white meat covered in a perfectly crispy crust. In Greenwich, I ventured for a burger of aged Scottish Angus beef — a tower for which I received compliments for even coming close to finishing, particularly impressive for my own size relative to the sandwich.

For a short visit, at any rate, old pub-grub was certainly good enough for me. I did not miss the fancy presentations nor imported culinary concepts.

A microwaved meal changed my mind. We picked up two boxed meals from the local grocer to heat up before our departure: bangers and mash and shepherd’s pie. I turned the empty carton over and found on the list of ingredients, oddly enough, real ingredients — actually recognizable vegetables, meat and spices.

It seemed I had not thoroughly considered my other meals. In addition to the fact that one might not want to eat pub grub everyday of their lives, perhaps the average food has been elevated: prepackaged meals that are not filled with fake fillers, simple and fresh ingredients that go into the meat pies, sausages, fish and chips and hamburgers served by the barmen.

In addition to her culinary powers, Rose Gray was a proponent of fresh and local produce, meat and fish, and perhaps her influence — as well as that of her proteges, such as Jaime Oliver — has even elevated pub food beyond what it used to be.

In fact, I had been benefiting from the influence of Rose Gray with each simple and delicious bite I took in every pub. The same menu from the same places may not have tasted as good today without such an influence.

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Although nearly every excursion I take includes a hot cup of tea, nowhere has that seemed more appropriate than London. Nowhere was it also such an available option.

We typically travel with our own tea, given the general coffee-drinking nature of most of our acquaintances. But even in the charming home of coffee enthusiasts — an impressive espresso machine, Mr. Clooney — perhaps it is just a habit of culture that the cupboard is stocked with good, brisk tea and the counter-top home to a kettle. So on our very first morning, we sipped our PG Tips tea and watched the whirl and swoosh of the Thames. Welcome to London.

We have long given up the illusion that we might “take this one easy” wherever the next escape might be. In a new location we pack in as many locations, sights, explorations and vital experiences as the seconds allow, which leaves us depleted by that witching hour between four and five. Enter the brilliance of tea time in England.

Having swept through the newly revised medieval collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, we stopped for tea and scones in one of the three original dining rooms, the first of their kind, included when the museum first opened its doors in 1857. We found a spot in the Poynter Room, or Dutch Kitchen, where we sat with our crumbly scones and pots of piping hot first-flush Darjeeling beside the old-fashioned grill on which chops and steaks (the original fare served here) had once sizzled. We were surrounded by walls in blue and white tiles, originally painted by the women in a local arts college, depicting the months and seasons. Or we could have taken a seat in the green Morris room with paintings by Burne- Jones or the Gamble room’s over-the-top Arabian, classical, renaissance and modern melange.

Our first museum tea had actually been found earlier that day at the London Museum, received gratefully in a to-go cup to battle the cold during our stroll through the Barbican Center. Imagine the ability to simultaneously experience  the convenience of a Starbucks with the satisfaction of supporting a cultural institution while enjoying a first-rate cup of loose-leaf tea. Brilliant.

And, finally, there is the delight in a no-frills, good cup of tea at the game. At the Fulham football grounds, where the wills of the wind can rip off the river and skip through the bundled crowd, perhaps any cup of hot beverage would suffice. But serving a cup of PG Tips “2Go” earned this tea-drinking culture my nod of deference.

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