Archive for the ‘Places and Tables’ Category

An A-Plus For Nature

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

         It would be presumptuous of me to try to describe the glaciated cliffs, sleeping rocks, West Swiss meadows and all the other visual excitements of that 10-star place known as Yosemite. But I can tell you I had a marvelous time on a recent whirlwind visit from San Francisco engineered by dear friends Mark and Macy. We tooled up that handsome serpentine the Merced River Valley, arrived at the Yosemite gate, knew that this was IT, the park of parks, and prepared for action. One look at El Capitan, released in its 3000-foot glory from the “one step removed” of a William Keith painting or Ansel Adams photograph, however impressive those articles might be, and I broke into tears. It was the apotheosis of KNOCKOUT. And so Wagnerian!

        Well, old Richard would have gone bananas over this cliff that upstages Valhalla and then some. If Richard the Second, Richard Strauss that is, had ever travelled to California — if I remember right he never got west of my great aunt’s house in Hyde Park Chicago — he would have felt impelled to write a sequel to his Alpine Symphony. Alps be damned, Mein Gott, this is the Sierras. And Mr. Handel? If he’d seen those epic Yosemite Falls with their triple fortissimi of audience-chilling spray he would have thrown out his Water Music and started again.

        But not before lunch. As for us, a blizzard of sights filling our memory banks to the brim, we hastened to the Ahwahnee Hotel for the midday a la carte. This delightful stone maiden, a kind of cross between Arts and Crafts and Santa Fe Style, seemed to me the most enchanting of sizeable out-in-the-country hotels I’ve experienced here or abroad. Its gestures are monumental, what with a 32-foot ceiling in the dining room and so on, but not bossy. It has style galore, but remains a cozy charmer. Even if the dining room suggests the first class feeding space on one of the conspicuously impressive Atlantic liners of the Titanic era.

        We ordered the luncheon dishes I associate with grand old hotels, a Shrimp Cobb Salad with Louie dressing for me, a Monte Cristo Sandwich for Macy. The olivey Cobb delivered by an attentive middle-aged server (“Hello, my name is Edgar” is still in force out there in America as opposed to ultra-cool Frisco) had the advantage that the numerous ingredients were quite visible, not hidden beneath a tricky Wald of boring lettuce. If the dressing wasn’t quite as light as the supernal Louie at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel it was still plenty good. Meanwhile Macy’s Monte Cristo was pronounced a miracle of quick deep frying, its fascinating puffiness a work of art. A basket of yummy breads that tasted house-made completed our lunch, a battalion of Japanese tourists seated nearby, nature knocking at the tall windows, the maitre-d with chest puffed out asking if everything had been all right. Yes indeed.

        And now for a hike!?

Adventures In Bouillabaisse

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

         I used to make a variation on Patricia Wells’ recipe for a Lyon dish called Chicken Bouillabaisse. But I’m not sure if they’d eat it down the river in Marseille, the capital of piscatorial bouillabaisse, that being the true bowlful of heavenly solids-juices-rouille-etc. bearing that mellifluous name. I really should have asked those bejeaned Pagnolians standing just by the metro exit when we emerged at the downtown tip of Marseille’s Vieux Port a few years ago — the stage manager of my memories had kindly placed these fellows right in our path.

        At all events I’ve long felt that the chicken bouillabaisse of the excellent Ms. Wells was hiding a fish or fishes that wanted to get into the recipe and send its fowl neighbors scampering across the nearest turf. So I’ve adjusted the recipe so it contains a good hunk of cod and also dispenses with the potatoes that always seemed redundant, or at any rate difficult to get soft in the appointed time, and there’s not a poulet in sight.

Herewith the new and improved product:

        About three hours before your scheduled fish soup dinner for two persons combine in a large casserole 2 chopped tomatoes, a large onion in quarters or eighths, a fennel bulb trimmed and chopped, 2 pressed garlic cloves, 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil, as much saffron as you dare, plus thyme and pepper, also bayleaf if you have it. Stir all these ingredients well, then add a cod steak, cover the lot and refrigerate.

        Next, about 40 minutes before serving, commence cooking the lot, still covered, over medium heat, adding 20 minutes later a couple cups of vegetable broth. Serve with large croutons spread with saffron mayonnaise, a mix of lemon juice-pressed garlic-and saffron stirred into mayonnaise homemade or store-bought. Feel free to play with the balance of these heady elements.

        Well, those fellows by the Marseille subway exit were in full accord with the oo’s and ah’s of the metro passengers from San Francisco suddenly finding Mrs. Fisher’s considerable town thrust upon them, boat sails as far as the eye could see and Notre Dame de la Garde up on the hill as if playing inspiration for San Francisco’s Coit Tower seen from a pier by Fishermans Wharf. Naturally the fellows posed for pictures, and snapped us in turn.

        Then we checked into the Beauvau (Chopin and Ms. Sand slept here), eyed the olive markets of North African provenance, ate an exemplary bouillabaisse at Loury, and listened to the little Saturday night Renaults humming by our window till dawn.

        Sequel: a few months later we were debating whether to cross the threshold of an oldtime “family style” Italo-American restaurant in a somewhat sagging hamlet west of Cotati, California — there’d be a hearty minestrone, lasagna, a meal painted red — when out sauntered the red-neckiest sort of fellow, middle aged, beer bellied, a sort of Marlboro Man put out to pasture so to speak, and he strode toward a mammoth ancient Cad convertible. Well, we got talkin’ and it wasn’t long before he was extolling the gastronomical virtues of a certain fish restaurant down in central California.

        “They’ve go the best darned Boshbash around!” he exclaimed. And who were we to disagree with the Marlboro Man of bouillabaisse?

Nocturnes and All That – Early ’10

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

        INSOMNIA HATH NO CHARMS — I know, I’ve had it in Rome, Josselin, San Francisco, etcetc. But deliberately waking up at 2, say, or 3 a.m. for a specific aesthetic purpose, now that’s something else.  In San Gimignano some years ago, at the hilltop Cisterna Hotel, I ate some of the smoothest mashed potatoes I’ve ever experienced and I think there was some great chicken as well, and oh my diary for 1971 records a good osso buco I can see before me in what the writer John Hillaby calls the “skull cinema,” but the best bit at the Cisterna was my Notturno alla Toscana.

        I set a mental timer, you see, so I’d be magnetized out of sleep about halfway between the midnight bells and first light, because I wanted to look out over the vineyards — we had a room with a view, it was pure E.M. Forster — and experience the utter peace of night spread before me, a stray light or two in the distance, a barking dog or two to punctuate the almost humming silence. It was if I’d ordered the whole experience off the bill of fare: everything was just as I thought it should be, a five star experience. Well, there were more twinklers in the sky than that.

        There were more lights-in-the-distance another year when Anne and I were staying in Les Roches de Condrieu south of Lyon and my nocturnal Bulova shot me out of bed like Gromit’s Wallace so I could run to the window and spy in the distance what must have been the Blue Train, the posh Paris-Nice all-sleeper train.  There it was, over there, gliding relaxedly by — this was no TGV — lit up like a great gleaming yardstick along its plush and dowdy corridors.  I couldn’t help fantasizing for this famous overnighter a manifest of duchesses and spies, Maigret in this compartment, Poirot in another . . .

        And speaking of 2 or 3 a.m., I love to look out the window from a cozy Amtrak sleeper as a dozen silvery cars are steered carefully through the otherworld of DARK. Small town stops are especially magical with their stage sets peopled by lone cyclists tooling off into limbo while faithful single taxis wait dutifully for their apparently accustomed phantasmal fares — in the case of Thebes, Greece, add a pair of sauntering nocturnal cats, our friend Juliana experienced that.

        Lunch in San Gimignano puts me in mind of other romantical meals, like the buffet breakfast on the ferry carrying our night express across the sound between Sweden and Copenhagen. Seagulls worthy of a Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes or Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony squawked atmospherically outside the portholes as we dug into an array of cheeses, breads and superior strawberry jam.  Then we went out on deck — brrr! — to watch the ice crack like the crinkly top of a spoon-pummelled five star custard.

        And in the Nocturne department: — just before I woke up this morning I dreamt a kindly waiter set before me a plate of luscious fettuccine orchestrated with chanterelles and scallions.  Calling the gastronomical Dr. Freud!  “But tell me Mr. Bloomfield, why are you assigning the waiter who served you sardines at the Hayes Street Grill on Thursday the job of delivering you the unctuous homemade fettuccine you devoured  at Il Borgo on Friday?”