Sunday, July 27, 2008

Food Again (And Drink)

Before I utterly forget everything about last week, I should stick some of my food notes here.

One big difference between this trip and the previous ones was that after my first night, I moved into a thing called MySuiteInn, way out on a traffic circle about 30 minutes' walk or a 10 minute bus-ride (when the buses weren't on strike, and between 6:30 am and 8pm) from the center of town. Across the circle was a big Champion supermarket, hardly upscale, but nonetheless superior to anything in Berlin. As I said before, not paying ten or 12 euros for breakfast was a good deal (although I spent the same amount getting back there at night with a taxi). The French have little ready-made toasts called petits pains which can be spread with cream cheese or jam, and their yoghurt is immeasurably better than German yoghurt -- even the commercial stuff.

I had several lunches at the Vert Anglais in the Place Castellane, where Nick the owner is trying to punch up his lunch business. I ate there not just to support him, but because, as I said last time I was down, it's really good. Their salades composées are superb, although the Caesar needs work (and I've already e-mailed him my Caesar dressing recipe, so if he uses it, it'll be the first public place you can taste it, since the other place is on Bob Dylan's tours). There's also a Vert Anglais burger I'm anxious to try, and a cold pile of shrimp which looks like it'd hit the spot.

The best dinner was private, cooked by Miss Expatria one evening. Not only is she a good cook, but she's good company, as is Bart. She improvised a pasta sauce from some tiny tomatoes, a French concoction called farce which is a ready-made meat mixture you can use to stuff tomatoes or peppers, some fresh basil, and some red chiles.

My regular fave, Bistrot d'Alco, was closed for vacation, but I hit La Chêneraie (excellent, although I thought I'd taken notes as to what I had and didn't) and L'Escalier (my last meal in town, it was a perfectly-cooked onglet de boeuf with a stupendous wine-and-shallot reduction preceded by a soupe de poisson that wasn't anywhere near that at La Tomate from last visit). It's still astonishing to me that you can get out of one of these places for around €20 for two courses and wine and I found myself wondering what some of the slightly higher-priced places would be like. I'm sure I'll have a chance to find out some day.

There were also a couple of new places. At one point I developed a swelling of my gums on one side of my jaw which vanished as quickly as it came, but sure was a drag while it hung around, so I went looking for stuff that was soft. One idea someone floated past me was to get mussels, so I headed to the place he recommended, Chez Elia, which looks like a Brazilian restaurant and, in fact, is, since Elia herself is Brazilian and half the menu is things like feijoiada. I had moules Provençal, which was mussels cooked in Pernod with minced fennel strewn in it. Excellent, and only 11 euros. I'm told that Elia and her French husband are moving back to Brazil in December, so catch this place when you can.

The other sore-gums place was someplace nobody I'd talked to had ever been, La Ferme, which drew me in by offering tartiflette, a dish of baked sliced potatoes cooked in cream with bits of ham in it and hunks of cheese melted over it. Not hardly a summer dish, but I was hurting, and it was soft. It was served with a separate plate of ham and dry sausage and salad, and hit the spot, although before recommending this place to the less dentally-challenged, I'd want to try something else, too.

But the place I'm most anxious to try again was the one everyone referred to as the New Bar because it had just opened. If I've got my bearings on the map right, it's on the rue St-Côme, near another standby bar of the expat community, Mi Barrio. It's got a name -- something to do with Léon, probably Chez Léon -- but people are probably going to wind up calling it something else. It's run by an affable Spaniard, Manu, and his family, and is notable by its long awning with the words "Restaurant Agricole" on it, as well as the boxes of fresh produce -- potatoes, onions -- sitting right on the curb. Just about everything is organic, there are plants on the tables -- ours had fresh oregano and a chili plant -- and besides huge salads and cold soups, it has a prominent rotisserie which, on the night I was there, was turning out lamb, chicken, and rabbit. I started off with a salad that combined tiny strawberries, cubes of watermelon, and a slice of pineapple (probably not locally grown, ahem) with a dressing of crème fraiche and fresh spearmint. I don't even like watermelon and I ate it all. After that, on everyone's urging (we were a party of about nine), I got the lamb, mostly because I usually don't like it, and everyone was raving about it. It came accompanied by a bowl of roasted vegetables which had been strewn on the floor of the rotisserie, absorbing the fats from the roasting meats. There were also jars of mustards, including a grape mustard which married well with the meat and the superb house red, which was fruity and light, a perfect summer red. Once again, the price was amazingly low. I wish these folks luck, because I'm selfish: I want to revisit this place often.

I may never straighten out all the Languedoc wines in my head, although I'm going to make a concerted effort, since so many of them are phenomenal and way underpriced. My favorite for some years has been Mas de la Seranne, from the village of Aniane, not far away. There was a British importer, Pic Wines, which was bringing it to England, but they went out of business earlier this year, so the only way to get it now is to get it in France. They make several cuvées, from the cheapo €5.60 Ombre des Figuiers ("Shadow of the Fig-trees") to the mezzo €12.60 Clos des Immortelles to a few more above that. The idea that I could live in a place where I could just pick up a bottle of that stuff for less than six euros is almost enough to make the move worthwhile right there. Admittedly, my tastes are very New World, and this is a big, fruity, start with a dazzling number of complexities (the more you pay, the bigger the after-show on your tongue is) afterwards that I still haven't gotten a fix on.

On this trip, I also discovered an even more local wine, Terre Megere, but I've yet to find it in a shop, so I'm not at all sure what it costs or what varieties it comes in. This is an actual Montpellier wine from Cournonsec, less than ten miles to the southwest. Google gets me all kinds of people selling it in Britain and elsewhere, but the exact bottle I tried doesn't seem to be among the reds and whites they have listed. The distinguishing feature of the label was that it looked like it had had dirt splashed on it, carefully printed on.

But my best discovery came on not this trip, but the last one. I'm not the kind of hearty drinker many of my friends at the Vert Anglais are, especially before a meal, but I did want to be sociable. I was about to order a Campari and soda, but thought, wait a minute, I'm in France. Surely there's something local that's comprarable. Jody the barman brought out a couple of shot glasses of possibilities, a vermouth (too sweet) and a ghastly-looking substance which he said was called Suze. Nicely bitter, with a hint of sweetness, and a really complex taste (it's made from gentian root, of all things, and is a bizarre psychedelic yellow color) which unpacked after he'd poured some Perrier onto it and tossed in a couple of thin slices of lemon, it's low-alcohol enough that it doesn't destroy your head or your tongue before dinner. I also had the distinct advantage of the fact that nobody else at the bar liked it, but I wound up drinking enough of it over the space of these two visits that the bottle was drained. I assume it had been tapped before, but I'm not sure if Nick will order another (he really detests it) until I actually get an apartment down there. Still, sitting in the shade, coming off of a 90-degree day, hanging out with good folks and watching the street-life of Montpellier at the end of a workday, it's a good drink to sip.

Can't find it in Berlin. Time to move.


Don said...

Thanks for this post, and the previous one. I was drooling and my taste buds were complaining that I never take them anywhere as nice! Best wishes for this move! This local enhances your already powerful writing gifts.

Anonymous said...

Awww! Thanks, hon! More to come on your next trip!

Anonymous said...

Us Vert Anglais people are serious drinkers.

It's more than just a sport or hobby, it's a way of life.

FIM said...

I am a Berliner who just moved here from NYC. Try to avoid cabbies that argue with you, just get out of the car and get a Berliner to drive you. Glad to be home again.