Monthly Archives: August 2014

How to Taste Not Enough Alsatian Wine in a Thunderstorm

1. Plan to visit the Alsace in mid-July, and, as part of your kamikaze attempt to enjoy as much of France as possible in 13 days, schedule a single weekend for it. Spend the first night in Strasbourg and budget just one Saturday for traveling the Route des Vins south to Colmar.

2. Enjoy Strasbourg. It’s a great city, cozy and cosmopolitan. Also, it’s pretty.

Please take a moment to consider that for some people, this is the morning commute.

Please take a moment to consider that for some people, this is the morning commute.

3. Get a primer on Alsatian cooking. Jambonneau, a.k.a. ham, is likely to be served as what appears to be an entire leg, slow-cooked to tender perfection. Flammekueche is an extremely-thin-crusted pizza with lots of salty ham, giant onion chunks, forest mushrooms, and Emmenthal cheese. It’s kind of addicting. Mostly the side dishes are potatoes.

4. Take the train south of Strasbourg on Saturday morning. Exit at Gertwiller, known throughout Europe as France’s gingerbread capital. Discover that the gingerbread kind of stinks. It is chewy and the sugar frosting cancels out the ginger tang, making the fabled Alsatian gingerbread taste like glorified donut holes.

5. Walk in disappointment along the Route des Vins towards the next villages, Barr and Mittelbergheim, which compensate for the disappointing gingerbread by being pretty, friendly, and in the middle of the Saturday morning food market. Grab some snacks, then wander through the Grand Cru vineyards surrounding the villages.

A Grand Cru vineyard between Barr and Mittelbergheim. Thunderstorm approaching!

A Grand Cru vineyard between Barr and Mittelbergheim. Thunderstorm approaching!

6. This is the part where the first thunderstorm should pop up.

7. Run back to the train station and duck under the small awning while you wait for the train. Stand next to a bunch of French ladies carrying their shopping from the morning market.

8. Take the train to Dambach-la-Ville, where the rain is continuing. Duck into literally the first wine tasting room you see.

9. Drink lots of wine samples. You will be offered a spittoon to be a pro wine taster who doesn’t swallow the wine. Never use it. Who do they think you are?!

10. Learn the classification system. Most Alsatian bottles specify the Grand Cru vineyard from which the grapes originate. These vineyards, like Frankstein and Zotzenberg (which I walked through), are often shared by different wineries, or the grapes are bought up by merchants who create blends or do the wine-making elsewhere, after trucking off the harvest. The best, most exclusive bottles are often only US $20. Good ones start for under $10, although in my experience, the wines were both hugely diverse and rather uneven.

11. Grab lunch and wander around town.

Lavender and grapes outside Dambach-la-Ville.

Lavender and grapes outside Dambach-la-Ville.

12. This is the part where the second thunderstorm should pop up.

13. Hide and take shelter in somebody’s garage until the rain is letting up (approx. 30 minutes).

14. Time is running out on the afternoon, and you have a concert and World Cup game to catch in the evening. Catch the train to Colmar.

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Mad Scientist Mr. Sax

Adolphe Sax is the most important musician in Belgian history, because he invented this:

Cannonball Adderley. He invented Cannonball Adderley.

The saxophone became a bonus instrument in classical orchestras, serving as garnish. But it took off in America and the rest of the world as the iconic jazz instrument.

But you know all that stuff. What you maybe don’t know is that Adolphe Sax also invented these:

Mr. Sax's Magical Emporium

Mr. Sax’s Magical Emporium

Sax was a sort of mad scientist, inventing all sorts of crazy new stuff to see if it worked. And here’s the thing: they mostly sounded pretty darn good!

I was lucky enough to arrive in Brussels during the Musical Instrument Museum’s Sax exhibition, containing hundreds of original instruments. The MIM paired select instruments with recordings, and your audio guide (a little tablet thing) could play all of them into your headphones. The results were fascinating, and often bizarre. An early “slide saxophone,” for instance, built the same way as a trombone, sounds grotesque. On the other hand, a non-sliding trombone sounded pretty terrific.

I'm kind of amazed this is not a more popular trombone today.

I’m surprised this is not a more popular trombone today. Aside from that it looks silly.

Sax is, in some ways, a creative artist the likes of which we no longer have. In response to requests from performers and opera houses, he would frequently invent new musical instruments. Composers would work with Sax to create new sounds that only existed, up until then, in their imaginations.

Sax wasn’t always a success. He was sued twice by rival instrument-makers hoping to kill his patents, and he went bankrupt twice. And then there’s the fact that a man who invented dozens, maybe hundreds of new designs, prototypes, and sounds is remembered nowadays for only one. A great one, though, which received an early celebrity endorsement from the composer Hector Berlioz.

Brussels is not a city loaded with tourist attractions, unless you’re a big fan of the European Union. But the Musical Instrument Museum, with its audio guide taking you through the sounds of history, is a huge plus, especially housed as it is in a gorgeous century-old art deco department store. And the Adolphe Sax special exhibition, on now through October 2015, is a marvel. The man may have struck gold only once, but that doesn’t mean he only created one instrument the world needed. It’s more like he only created one instrument the world was ready for. We could use more people like Adolphe Sax.

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Robin Williams, the Lost Clown

Robin Williams was one of our most gifted character actors. His best roles revealed a nervous sadness that was too close, maybe, to the truth.

The best of Williams’ characters were broken people, trying to find ways to heal themselves. In Awakenings, Dr. Sayer is a loner and a timid man who seems to have no life outside his work. The next year he played another doctor, in Dead Again, who lost his license and went adrift: “OK, I slept with a patient or two. It’s not like I didn’t care about them. I loved being a doctor.” Late in his career, Williams specialized in overt melancholics, like the mourning professor in Good Will Hunting, the stalking, creepy Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo, or a father wracked with grief in World’s Greatest Dad. Even when he was funny, Williams suggested something darker underneath. His performance in The Birdcage is notable for the way it’s so out-of-place. Everyone else in the film is outrageous, over-the-top, absurd, cheeky: Williams, known as the most over-the-top comedian of his era, barely cracks a smile.

From “The Birdcage”

Of course, Williams was known for being funny. He was manic, a comedian, a clown, who started in the world of stand-up and made a cocaine-fueled transition to showbiz with the nutty sitcom Mork and Mindy. When I look around the internet, most of the obituaries I see refer to the hits, movies like Patch Adams, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I loved those as a kid, but not as an adult. His worst comedies always revealed a desperate need to entertain, to be liked, to draw laughs. When you watch the parade of impersonations in Doubtfire, Williams seems like the class clown in school, who just craves popularity.

That’s close to true. Williams craved something deeper. His best comic roles acknowledge this: they show the loneliness, the need to connect. Can there be any doubt that Good Morning Vietnam stars Robin Williams playing a depressive? Adrian Cronauer, radio personality: a manic improviser, spinning joke after joke without even pausing to breathe, entertaining everybody he comes across. I’ve known people who hate the movie because they think that’s all there is to it; they think it’s a crass Vietnam comedy. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are also people who believe that, because Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World” over a montage of destruction, Good Morning Vietnam is a straightforward anti-war movie. That’s closer to the truth.

From “Good Morning Vietnam”

Adrian Cronauer (in Williams’ portrayal) is another lonely man, trying to escape a shell he built around himself. He desperately, even creepily, pursues a love affair. He befriends a local boy and is betrayed when the boy turns out to be Viet Cong: but the betrayal he feels is not patriotic. It’s personal. You can see it at the end of the film, when he seems to have lost something dear.

The movie reveals its hero’s manic comedy as a cover, a facade, for deeper needs. It’s a deconstruction of Robin Williams’ entire career.

Initial word is that Williams committed suicide, at the end of a life troubled by depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It’s deeply sad–and it’s even sadder because we can see so much of his struggle on-screen. Williams’ career was defined by the weird split between performances that buried his pain in silliness and spastic joking, and performances which were as emotionally naked as anything by De Niro. They shared a screen in Awakenings, when De Niro played a medical patient revived from a vegetative state by Williams. It’s an underrated movie: both actors are at their most intimate and truthful.

At the end of World’s Greatest Dad, Williams strips literally naked. That’s something we don’t really need to see. But so many of his performances are things we need to see: they speak to human insecurities about belonging, about loneliness, about connecting with other people. The performances speak for that kind of person who finds seemingly simple things like love and trust more difficult than the rest of us do. They remind us of the way we too often let our public persona drift away from our true selves.

Robin Williams was an essential artist. He was a study in defense mechanisms–and in removing them to face the truth.

From “World’s Greatest Dad”

P.S. In 2013, Robin Williams did an “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit. One user asked: “i’m going through a bad time at the moment. Any advice for people out there like me who may be going through bad times themselves, for whatever reason?”

Williams answered: “Reach out to friends. They’re out there. And know that you are loved.”

Please remember that.

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Who Needs French Chefs?

It’s the hot new trend in Paris, taking the town by storm: French food made by foreigners.

What? What? The country that protects its language against invading words; the country that protects the names of wines and cheeses against foreign imitators; the country that snootily looks down on everyone else’s pitiful attempts to exist–France is going crazy over French food, made by pretenders??

Yup! Case in point: Frenchie, Paris’s hottest table, a restaurant I had no chance in hell of getting into. The head chef is Gregory Marchand, a Frenchman who grew up in an orphanage in Nantes. And then he apprenticed with great chefs in the following French food hotspots: London, Hong Kong, a tapas bar on a beach in Spain, another spot in Spain, London again, New York City.

But that’s not enough. After all, Marchand was still born in Nantes. So on one of my days in Paris, I spent my time tracking down the best local food–that’s not made by locals.

Let’s start with breakfast:

This one's got apple filling.

This one’s got apple filling.

Apricot tart!

Apricot tart!

Procured from the patisserie right across the street from the apartment where my friends Catherine and Mike lived–a bakery named Mori Yoshida, after the Japanese genius who runs it. The shop itself is so spare, so economical, that it makes an IKEA look like a baroque cathedral. All the pastries rest on two shelves, hanging from the ceiling by chains; in the corner there’s a cash register, computer, and a case with macarons. That’s it.

Mori Yoshida’s apple pastry is delicious, highlighted by a crispy, crack-it-with-your-teeth outside texture that’s just oh so exciting to bite into. But the best thing there is the vanilla bean macaron. In a city awash with macarons, not all of them great, this one stands out: it’s a flood of creamy vanilla flavor, the real stuff, brewed with booze. It’s the kind of sweet treat that overwhelms your taste buds.

A few miles away, in the Left Bank neighborhood of St. Germain, is a small empire of eateries run by Cuban-American Juan Sanchez and New Zealander Drew Harré. There’s a bar, a sandwich shop, a modern-style bistro, and a wine store, La Dernière Goutte (The Last Drop). I stopped at the wine store and grabbed a few bottles, receiving expert advice from the clerk, who was, as you’re no doubt expecting, Australian. (My criteria for the wine: good, fairly affordable, and totally unavailable anywhere in the United States.)

Then it was on to the Cuban-American-Kiwi bistro, Semilla. It’s a delicious place with a set menu that offers you a trio of appetizers (you get all of them) and then your choice of main course. Two things distinguish Semilla from the typical French bistro. The first is its humor:

Great wine list, or greatest wine list?

Great wine list, or greatest wine list? You can click all these photos to expand.

The second is a focus on green vegetables. This is a little surprising, right? But Paris is all about potatoes. At Bistrot Paul Bert, one of the essential old bistros (and rather annoyed by us foreign intruders), I had a great starter bowl of green beans (topped with foie gras), but the main came with a side of potatoes. At Jeanne B., an exceptional lunch was accompanied by exceptional potatoes au gratin. In America we have a tradition of steak with mashed potatoes; in France the potatoes are fried. And in the German-influenced Alsace province, east of Paris, the potato is an even more persistent friend.

Semilla is probably the only French restaurant I visited where potatoes were not on the day’s menu. My order of fresh fish was presented like this:

No, I don't know what some of those green things even are. Marjorie???

No, I don’t know what some of those green things even are. Marjorie???

Leave it to a Cuban-American and a New Zealander to free Paris from the shackles of the potato.

If you’re visiting Paris and want to partake in this trend, there are more places to go, places that I missed. If you’re hankering for local food in Belleville, you might stop by La Baratin, run by Argentine chef Raquel Carena. One of the trendiest places in town is Le Timbre, a tiny room near the Jardin du Luxembourg, run by a guy named Chris Wright who hails from Manchester, England.

Hey, you’re in Paris. Who needs a French chef?

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