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Howard Anglin: Food is important in a good restaurant, but it’s the atmosphere that really matters

Commentary

George Orwell once wrote a curious article describing his ideal pub. The qualities of this fictional pub, which he named The Moon Under Water, were both specific and ephemeral. Reflecting his reactionary streak, “its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian” and it has “draught stout, open fires, cheap meals … motherly barmaids and no radio.” It is also graced with an unexpected garden, from which “children tend to seep into the pub.” The beer is good and served in proper handled pint glasses, pewter tankards, or china mugs, but what recommends it above run-of-the-mill or even other good public-houses is “what people call its ‘atmosphere.’”

The exercise Malcolm Jolley and I have undertaken is not quite such a flight of fancy, but we have approached it in a similar spirit. I can’t speak for Malcolm, but in choosing my ten favourite restaurants, very good-to-excellent food is a given, but not the ultimate criterion; it is the “atmosphere” that really matters. Like Orwell’s pub, each has qualities that make it the sort of place you want to return to again and again, until one day find yourself, without initiation or acknowledgement, a member of that exclusive group known as “regulars.”

None of my choices is a true dive (one or two nearly made the list), but otherwise they range from family restaurants to the sort of establishment that, as Dennis Thatcher used to say, “charges like the Light Brigade.”Don’t overthink it: it doesn’t make sense, but you know what he meant. I have dined at each of them at least twice, and usually much more often—in two cases, well over a hundred times. Some are nearly perfect neighbourhood restaurants, where you could dine several times in a week and still look forward to returning the next week (I speak from experience); others are the sort of place you might dine once every few years, and each time wonder why you don’t go more often (forgetting, briefly, that you live in another hemisphere). Such is the seduction of a great restaurant.

Top 10 (unranked)Because the worst people in the world are those professional travel writers who expose hidden gems to popular audiences, ruining them for locals and fortunate foreigners alike, I have not include several of my absolute favourite restaurants. That would be telling.

St John, London

Many years ago, I was blessed to live a few blocks from the original St John. Working as a young lawyer in the City, I often found myself coming home late with no energy to cook, and so the high-ceilinged bar at St John became an extension of my kitchen table. A bone marrow salad, followed by a cold beef heart sandwich or an ox tail pie in bubbling brown gravy under a hot golden crust; a pint of Black Sheep or a couple of glasses of the house label wine; an Eccles cake with a generous wedge of sharp Lancashire cheese with a glass of madeira or a plate of warm madeleines and vintage port. You simply can’t eat better. As for the service, in those days I used to walk the city with my head bowed over a book and I once wandered, oblivious, into a private party for Anthony Bourdain. The staff were kind enough to clear space amid the loud and milling crowd to give me my usual seat at the bar anyway.

2Amys Pizza, Washington, DC

I’ve been eating pizza, usually Neapolitan style, every Friday for 16 years, in whatever city I find myself. The best is still the site of my first pizza night. The bar at 2Amys, with the day’s fresh small plates lined up on the bar top in front of you, the crush of a weekend crowd behind you, the perfect beer and wine selection for casual Italian food, and the pillowy blistered crusted margherita (add capers and fresh-sliced garlic) is my perfect restaurant experience. Not even a pilgrimage to Naples for the original came close.

Pilgrimme, Galiano Island, BC

A Brothers Grimm cabin in the woods, an ambitious—sometimes audacious—use of hyper-local ingredients in beautiful dishes, intimate service, and the feeling that, far from the madding crowd, you have found somewhere truly special. The menu shifts with the seasons, and so does the experience. Cozy inside in the winter with hot broths and preserved vegetables, or outside on the deck in the summer, drawing out the meal with digestifs as the sun sets through the tall cedars.

Vin Papillon, Montreal

Loud, crowded, and dark. Its older siblings Joe Beef and Liverpool House get the attention, but give me the next-door wine bar any day. The food is just as good (a simple dish of sliced ham drizzled in melted butter and topped with shaved cheese may be the single best thing I have ever tasted in Canada) and the selection of wines by the glass is better. I like to dine at a bar with a book, and even among the noise Vin Papillon manages to feel intimate.

Ask for Luigi, Vancouver

Just a perfect corner Italian restaurant. Small in all the right ways: a single room; a limited but delicious menu; and a short but thoughtful wine and digestifs selection. If you have don’t have a great meal and a great time at Ask for Luigi, it’s your fault.

Le Bernardin, New York

The décor may be dated and the carpet may need replacing, but as fads come and fashions go, this fixture of the New York fine dining scene remains consistently perfect. Dinner is special, of course, but I prefer a long lunch at one of the small tables against the wall,As a summer associate at a midtown Manhattan law firm, I observed Henry Kissinger lunching five days in a row at one of these tables and decided that I wanted to do whatever he did. That was before I found out what he did. from the complimentary salmon rillettes with champagne through to a second—maybe a third—sherry, an espresso, and perhaps—why not?—a Bas-Armagnac, so that you waft out the door on a cloud of serene detachment, floating high above the midtown rush hour. Tip: For a last minute dinner, the bar doesn’t take reservations and serves the full menu.

Bar Von der Fels (closed 2021), Calgary

Quite possibly the perfect neighbourhood wine bar, which also just happened to serve the best food in the city including—and this means something in Calgary—the best steak. If it had a fault, it was how small it was, meaning even a regular couldn’t be guaranteed a seat at the bar. But that was also what gave it the welcoming buzz that made you want to come in so often. Opening the door on dark February night to be greeted with a friendly smile and a pour of “something interesting we just opened that I think you might like” was an essential antidote to the long prairie winters. Honestly, I don’t know how Calgarians survived last winter without it.

Lucas Carton (murdered 2005), Paris

There is a special place in hell for chefs who turn a beloved establishment (in this case, one with a history dating back to 1860, a stunning blonde art-nouveau wood and mirror interior, and decades of three-star Michelin accolades) into a bistro with sleek leather furniture and formless modern light fixtures. That is what the late Alain Senderens did to Lucas-Carton in 2005. On the other hand, for 20 years before that, Senderens’ kitchen turned out some of the best food—and the best young chefs—in France.His most successful protégé was Alain Passard; others included Alain Solivérès, Christian Le Squer, and Christopher Hache; others who trained under the previous chef, Gaston Richard, included Jean-Baptiste and Marie Troisgros and Paul Bocuse. He was also the French first chef to take wine pairings seriously. I remember my shock on my first visit to Lucas Carton when, for each course, the paired bottle was left on the table to allow the guests to drink as little or (more usually) as much as they wanted. 1985 Salon, 1995 Verget Batard-Montrachet, 1983 Chateau Palmer … the bottles came and went with each new dish. Never seen that before or since.

al Moro, Rome

I know I will never be seated in the exclusive front room—that is reserved for regulars—but I am happy to continue settling for the second or third dining room for as long as I visit the Eternal City. Is there better food in Rome? Of course, though few individual dishes are better than the spaghetti ‘al Moro’ (a variation on the classic carbonara) with a jug of house red. But there is something about this third-generation family restaurant, tucked among dozens of Olive Garden-quality restaurants near the Trevi Fountain, that just makes me happy.

al Gatto Nero, Burano, Italy

Thirty minutes by water taxi from Venice proper, the colourful island of Burano used to be known across Europe for its intricate lace. Now it is known across Instagram for its preposterously photogenic streets. Al Gatto Nero, on one of Burano’s two main canals, is one of those places that could never be recreated from scratch. The art on the walls, the long-time waiters (be prepared to be startled by the Italian head waiter’s thick Scottish accent, a hangover from a stint in that country years ago), and the personal quirks of service are the stuff of tradition built up organically over time. Fresh seafood is the star, but the location would make it worthwhile even if the food wasn’t as good as it is. Especially canal-side in the early fall or spring, as the colourful houses shimmer in the canal, in your glass, and later in your memory.

Honourable mentions:

Paley’s Place (closed), Portland, OR

Bar at the Tabard Inn (under unfortunate new management), Washington, DC

100 Maneiras, Lisbon

Sweetings, London

Gjelina, Los Angeles

Machneyuda, Jerusalem

Bao Bei, Vancouver

Malcolm Jolley: Is ‘Slow Food’ the future? Taking in the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022

Commentary

The Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022 was held at the end of last month in Turin. Terra Madre (“Mother Earth”) is a sub-organization of Slow Food International, the Italian-based world movement founded by Italian Communist politician Carlo Petrini in the mid-1980s to promote the production and consumption of food that is “good, clean and fair”. I attended it for two of the five days that it ran, as a guest of the Italian Trade Agency in Canada.

The first Slow Food event I ever went to was in Toronto, in the mid-to-late-2000s. It was at Roberto Martella’s now defunct Grano restaurant, which was also established in the mid-1980s and quickly became a centre for the celebration of both Italo-Canadian culture (including, of course, food and wine) and a salon where new ideas learned about and discussed. True to form, that evening, Martella was right on trend.

Roberto and the Slow Food Toronto chapter organized a dinner, for a mixed crowd of foodies and trade people, comprised of local products and wines introduced by the makers and it was a good time. By the early 2010s Slow Food Toronto events, like their annual picnic at the newly renovated and repurposed Evergreen Brick Works, were hot tickets that attracted top chefs and winemakers and commanded the attention of the growing number of people taking a greater interest in what they ate, whether for epicurean, political, or cultural reasons, or some combination of all.

Slow Food was then more than a dining club, even if the main attraction to their events for many (like me) was more to do with the promise of a good meal made by an all-star team of top chefs than belonging to a political movement.The galvanizing act that led to the formation of Slow Food was the protest against the opening of a McDonald’s at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

Slow Food was always about more than opposition to fast food. It was about the convivial and cultural power of “good food” and established the “Ark of Taste” to protect traditional foods. It was about “clean food” that’s made in sustainable ways that respect the natural environment. And it was about “fair food” that was made for the economic benefit of its producers.Slow Food was, and is, a political movement, which skewed on the progressive end of the spectrum, and there would always be some kind of speech or polemic communication at their events.

More than a decade and a pandemic on, I wondered where Slow Food fit in a world where local provenance and environmental consciousness had been adopted into the mainstream. Would the Salon del Gusto be more like a political convention, where the Terra Madre producers and Slow Food convivial would meet and plot the vanguard action of the good food revolution? Or would it be more like a party? (You can imagine which version of Terra Madre I was hoping for.)

Terra Madre turned out to be a bit of both. There were all kinds of seminars and demonstrations that focused on the clean and fair aspects of Slow Food. There was also an official address by Petrini and a panel with the incoming board of directors of the organization, as well as networking going on between the delegates sent by various countries from around the world.The theme of the show was “regeneration”, specifically after the shock of the pandemic, which had caused Terra Madre 2020 to be cancelled. It was held in the ruins of an old smelter, on the banks of the Doria, a tributary that flows into the Po in Turin. The industrial site has been converted into a public park, Parco Doria, and the event was open to the public.

It worked as a kind of giant farmers market, with tents full of producers from all of Italy’s 20 administrative regions, and another open area of stalls with producers and delegations from all over the world. I was there on Friday and Saturday and saw lots of families doing their shopping, as Slow Food delegates engaged in serious-looking conversations beside them.

It had the air of a fall fair, and displays like a long table on which samples of every known dried bean known to humanity were arrayed. With each was a card with information from whence it came, and sometimes a picture of it on the stalk. This was surprisingly popular with children. Another booth was run by the Italian association of free-range honey producers and encouraged visitors to rate blindly a selection of honeys from around the country.

It also worked as a kind of trade show. I was one of a handful of foreign journalists brought to Terra Madre by the Italian Trade Agency operating in our respective home countries. But we were in the larger company of buyers, who had come from around the world looking for interesting Italian products to import. Deals were being made all over (presumably fair ones).

Wandering around the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto, talking to producers and eating and drinking it all in, as it were, I came up with three main takeaways about the event.

The breadth and depth of Italian food and wine are colossal

I spent an hour or so one morning in the tent that housed exhibitors from the Southern Italian region of Calabria, in which I tasted roughly a dozen different ‘nduja’s.‘Nduja is a tangy, soft, and moist spreadable sausage, liberally spiced with pepperoncini peppers that can be found in Canadian specialty stores but is still rare enough outside of its natural habitat to be considered exotic. I didn’t set out to taste all the nduja, but once I had two or three it seemed like a logical course of action. I don’t know how many nduja producers there are in Calabria, but I am comfortable speculating that the ones who travelled to Turin for Terra Madre represent a small fraction of the total.The same must be true for all the dozens upon dozens of olive oil, pasta, salumi, cheese, and other items set out to be sampled or bought by the Terra Madre producers.

Wine at Terra Madre had its own tent and sitting area, the Enoteca. There one could buy tickets for a glass of one of just under 500 wines or vermouths. All of them poured by uniformed sommeliers, ready to answer questions about each label.This would be a feat unto itself, except the wines all came from, and only came from, Turin’s home region of Piedmont. There are 19 other administrative regions of Italy, all of which produce wine, some of which produce a lot, but this insanely broad sample featured only one.

No doubt some of the pasta producers at Terra Madre dream of being the next Barilla, and some of the wine producers would happily take their place next to big producers like Zonin or Marchese Antinori. But the scale of small, family-run production throughout food and wine is impressive to ponder and sank in as I made it from the tent of each region, through the rows of tables laid out with their wares.

The (slow) food is the message

There were a number of stages and seminar areas throughout the Terra Madre grounds. Sometimes they would be holding tastings or panel discussions.The most popular one I saw was for the Slow Food-run University of Gastronomic Sciences, which drew in groups of high school kids to visit the show. Who wouldn’t want to go?

But by far the most popular areas, and the places with the most action, were the stalls of the producers who engaged their churning audiences with madly sliced cheese, dried balsamic vinegar on little wooden spoons, or anchovies stuck with toothpicks. They not only knew how to speak on their products (sometimes even in English), but they were also doing brisk business. People came for the goods and real programming was eaten and drunk.

Italian food production is back to the future

The first rule of going on press trips is don’t complain about going on press trips. So, I am not complaining when I report that I had a six-hour layover at the Munich airport on my way home. The gastronomic entertainment at MUC was not nearly as diverse or interesting as what I’d seen and tasted in the days before in Turin. Over a schnitzel and a stein of beer it occurred to me that my hosts at the Italian Trade Agency had done more than show me excellence in that country’s food and wine production.

It also occurred to me that they had done more than show me that excellence can, and more often than not is, be made in a way that is good, clean, and fair. I knew all of that already; I am in the choir singing about it every day. What Terra Madre showed me was that smaller-scale companies, often family-owned or co-operatively run, can create an economic ecosystem that brings employment and growth across the entirety of Italy. Is this the back to the future of manufacturing, or even agriculture, in the West? If it is, we’re all going to eat and drink very well.

In my next column, I will profile a few specific producers, especially winemakers, I met at Terra Madre 2022.