Monday, August 3, 2009

Diamonds In My Wallet.

Although picking up business cards of restaurants that I enjoy is not a habit I indulge in at home particularly, I am compulsive about it when I am traveling. And as I found out the other day when I was purging my wallet of duplicate threading salon discount cards, the majority of them end up in the pocket next to my cash, sharing the space with stamps, a band aid and a few yuan that I couldn't be bothered changing when I returned from China two years ago.

As I was shuffling through my collection, I couldn't help but feel that these cards represented not only some of the best meals that I've ever had but also some of best experiences I've had. Many of the cards are from visits that I made quite a few years ago so I can't necessarily vouch for the quality of the restaurants today, but I felt that they were all too special to languish in the dark confines of a billfold, so I am sharing them with the world.

404

Four or five years ago, my extraordinarily ambitious sister decided that she would run the Paris marathon. I believe the plan originally was for her to run it with her boyfriend, but there was a mix up with his application so he was relegated to spectator status (convenient, no?), joining me as a member of Robin's fan club. Anyway, the three of us convened at a bohemian (I'm being polite) pensione in Montmartre to support Robin's effort and to enjoy some time in the City of Lights.

On the day of the marathon Robin awoke early and went off to the start line. Her cheering section awoke later and, after a tartine, croissant and some coffee, ambled over to the Arc de Triomphe, the marathon's terminus. Robin did make it, triumphantly, across the finish line and we had a demi-celebration with the richest hot chocolate I've ever tasted at a small chocolate shop on the Ile Saint-Louis. And then Robin took a well deserved nap back in Montmartre.

When she awoke I convinced her that more than a demi-celebration was in order so the three of us made our way down to the restaurant 404 (69, rue des Gravilliers) in the Marais, which I had read about in some article or book or what have you. We found a low lit Moroccan den, perfect for a bit of mild debauchery.


image from berrysimple.net

After some excellent mojitos, we cared not a bit about the wait. And once seated we knew we were in for an enjoyable dinner. The tagines were lush and fragrant (and vegan friendly, very important for the marathoner) and the North African wine was free flowing and surprisingly good. At our low slung table, under the light of the moroccan lanterns, we toasted Robin's success and then tumbled out into the Paris night.

Restaurant Neptun

A few years ago, one of Paul's oldest friends got married in Prague. As I had a more flexible vacation schedule than Paul did, I had the luxury of an extra week in that part of the world prior to the wedding. Luckily, my sister was living in proximate England at the time, and as she's always up for a travel adventure, was more than happy to come meet me.

I can't recall how we settled on Slovenia, but before I knew it I was meeting up with Robin and Laurie in Ljublijana, the capital. After a few days staying quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks (we were right next to a railway trestle), the three of us decided to decamp to greener pastures, and settled on the seaside town of Piran.

The town was idyllic. The narrow stone streets, lined with townhouses sporting massive wooden doors, meandered up the hills. We passed tiny secret alleyways criss crossed with clothes lines and timid cats. Everywhere in the town had a spectacular view of the deeply blue ocean, and we were able to rent an apartment for 90 euros per night. Life really could not have gotten much better.

Early in our stay we were out wandering about town and came across a charming crafts store. After chatting with the owner for a bit we asked for a dinner recommendation. She asked "You want something waterfront, where the tourists go?". We said no, most definitely not, where do you go to eat? That's where we want to go.

So the Restaurant Neptun (7 Zupanciceva) it was. I have only a vague recollection of what I ate, I just remember that it was seafood and that it was spectacularly fresh. I think it was some sort of flat-ish fish in a butter sauce...sole maybe? And Robin's truffle perfumed tagliatelle was one of those deceptively simple dishes that absolutely blows your mind with its utter delectableness.

To top it all off the proprietors were a family that took such clear pride and joy in their work that you couldn't help but love being there, sitting in the small pedestrian street watching the town go by. It was such a fabulous experience that we went back again, and then possibly a third time as well. Which for me is unusual. I don't even repeat restaurants in New York much less when I'm traveling. But I'd do it again in a minute if I had the chance.

Ulcke Van Zurich

One year after Christmas but before New Year's, Paul and I were in London galavanting a bit before we had to go back to work. A studio in Antwerp asked Paul to come over to take a look at their facility, and since we were so close anyway, we decided to take them up on their offer and take a mini-holiday from our actual holiday.

We were greeted by the warmest hosts in Belgium, who not only fed us the most fantastic lunch in the world and bought us an embarrassing amount of Leonidas chocolates, but also put us up in a hotel next to a wonderful restaurant named for a legendary prostitute: Ulcke Van Zurich (Oude Beurs 50 - 2000).


image from realtravel.com

Paul and I walked into the dark, vaguely Mediterranean styled restaurant and sat at one of the heavy wooden tables. We opened the menu to see...Flemish. A language with no resemblance to any other language I know.

The neighboring table must have seen our utter bewilderment and kindly stepped into translate. And out of the mouth of a Belgian woman came the accent of the northern english. I was amused, Paul was ecstatic to find the closest facsimile of a fellow northerner possible given our location. A resident of Leeds for a brief period (long enough to learn English at least), she counseled us to order side vegetables, as "they don't do veg on the main plate like they do in England", and recommended meat, as that was the specialty of the house. Her companion agreed.

No arguments here. I had a succulent cut of lamb, Paul I'm fairly sure had steak, and the four of us had a brilliant conversation, the likes of which occurs only while in a foreign country talking to people you have absolutely no connection with.

After eating our fill of meat, simply but perfectly prepared vegetables and some sort of baked fruit dessert, we made our way down to a jazz club that our new friends had recommended, and whiled away the night drinking the best beer I've ever had and listening to live jazz played by craggy old musicians, one of whom was the subject of a portrait hanging on the wall...him naked, with nothing but his sax.

La Cabrera Norte

Two years ago Zenia and I made our way down to Buenos Aires for a week of eating, lounging, wandering and more eating. It was bliss. We stayed in a charming spot in San Telmo, checked out the movable milongas throughout the city, and ate perfect steaks more nights than I care to think about. One of those nights was at La Cabrera Norte (Cabrera 5127), the newer cousin of La Cabrera in Palermo Viejo.

In an effort to conform with the local custom of eating in the middle of the night, we arrived at the restaurant at 9:30, which is the dining equivalent of 5:30 in the United States. Despite our early arrival, the wait for a table had already begun. But no matter! We sat languidly out on the sidewalk in the warm evening air sipping complimentary champagne. Why nobody offers this in New York I'll never know. I could have sat there for ages and not been perturbed simply because I had gotten one free glass of booze. It doesn't take a lot, just a token gesture, to make people feel good about an otherwise annoying situation.

Anyway, we eventually were seated and were brought what can only be described as a small wooden trough full of complimentary dips and salads. Delicious Argentinian wine, recommended by the most charming, knowledgeable waiter soon followed. And then, of course, the steak. I can't say that it was the best steak we had in Buenos Aires (that honor oddly goes to the tourist trap Cabana Las Lilas), but it was delicious nonethless, and several times better than the best steak you've ever had in the United States. And I would be surprised if the whole meal cost us more than $30.

Zenia and I both sat in what can only be described as pure contentment. Wonderful, honest food, served by a enamoring man and shared with and old friend whose previously frequent company had recently been missed, the evening was tinged with a sort of magnetism.
I've heard that over the years the portions here have gotten smaller and the prices have gotten larger, which would certainly diminish the conviviality of the place. I fervently hope this is not the case, as I rarely come across establishments that have such a palpably festive spirit as La Cabrera.

9 comments:

wambalus said...

I was just thinking about that place in Paris the other day ... and I still want to retire to Piran in my own hillside cottage. Maybe get a goat or two.

Laura [What I Like] said...

But then you would have to drink their milk or something...not very vegan!

diva said...

i do the same! i had to clear out the wallet some time ago and i found chocolaterie card in Milan, hairdressers in Japan, blah blah. makes me smile. it does bring back some fond memories doesn't it? thanks for stopping by the Sugar Bar. :) u've got a lovely blog! x

altadenahiker said...

Lots of pre-Euro currency in my wallet. Well, the pictures are pretty.

You've made me hungry for Slovenia. Or to be able to tell people I've actually been to Slovenia.

Laura [What I Like] said...

diva - thanks so much...you sound like you've had quite a few travel adventures!

altadenahiker - I have only vague memories of pre-euro...I just recall the lira being enormous. Slovenia's definitely worth a stop over if you're in the neighborhood, it's got a nice Italian/balkan mix going on.

Lissa said...

You've been blessed with some amazing experiences and memories

Jane said...

Lovely post. And I agree those meals make great experiences which you never forget. By the way thanks for the HotSaltySourSweet tip I will hunt it out...

A World in a PAN said...

When your sister ran the Paris marathon ... she passed by my building as I am on the route.
I like your post about restuarants, I have added a section in my blog of the restuarants I have enjoyed at different places I have visited(including Uruguay!)
I have to try this 404 in le Marais!

Laura [What I Like] said...

Lissa - Yes, I suppose that's why I enjoy writing these posts...to reminisce!

Jane - Let me know how you like it...I swear I could just sit there and read the thing it's so beautiful. But then the recipes are too good to ignore!

A World In A Pan - That's so exciting! I'm sure she enjoyed the scenery more than the actual running. I hope 404 is still good...I would hate to have my memory of it shattered!

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