Entries from April 2011 ↓

Dr Sister Outlaw books a table for one at Becasse

The other night I found myself in Sydney, all alone, at the end of two extremely interesting but tiring weeks of work-related learnings. Something about the blueness of the autumn sky, and the sudden freedom of completing my duties, infected me with hedonism. I decided that I would do something I’d not done for a long, long time and buy myself a scarily expensive meal. After spending most of the day thinking about it, I booked a table for one at Becasse. After a trip to the beach, to catch the last warm waves of the season, and buying myself a new pair of red shoes, I was there. Alone.

Dining alone is a curious experience. I remember being told, by a much older woman I admired 21 years ago, that the measure of a restaurant is how they treat the solo diner. Her name was Lynn and her gold standard was the legendary 1980s restaurant Stephanie’s, whose staff did not sit the solo diner at a table next to the kitchen, but put them in the best seat, so as to shower them with discreet attention. As Lynn pointed out, the food and a good book should substitute for lack of companionship, and being alone should never be a reason not to partake of all the best that chefs have to offer. I’ve never forgotten Lynn’s example and have often eaten alone often and happily. But restaurants as splendid as Becasse are restaurants for romantic encounters, or significant life events, or, if one is truly vulgar, proving your financial muscle to people you want to impress. I’ve never really considered going to such a place alone. My Crush, stuck at home and unable to accompany me asked, won’t you feel awkward being by yourself? I thought I wouldn’t, but I needed to test that.

I’m so glad I did. My booking was last minute, but the lovely bloke who answered the phone explained that he did only have two tables, and I would be near the kitchen, but he hoped I wouldn’t mind and I would find the staff friendly. The only indication he gave that he thought my request for a table for one was odd was asking me if I was in the food industry. No, I assured him, but I did want to eat a really good meal. I knew by his tone that I would, and the night would be good.

It was. The ambience of the restaurant is late 70s, with lots of black and white velvet wallpaper, gold and smoked glass, and frivolous chandeliers. There was almost one staff member per table, and a phalanx of chefs. I had forgotten how spoiling it is to eat silver service, but they did it in a way that was completely unfussy and laid back. The lovely woman in charge of the food had the motherliness you’d expect to find over a bar on the Central Coast, and none of the staff were hipsters. Who’d have thought that?

I love going to a restaurant with someone with a good palate and unpacking the food, but being alone meant I could focus completely, and not feel self-conscious for it, as I might have with a friend or a date. The food deserved the attention. Big kitchens do things you could never do at home – emulsions and gels and foams you would only bother with if you were a bit demented, and they pride themselves on flourishes, such as making little sculptures of marinated baby heirloom vegetables with crumbled olives and purees of beetroot and peas (please excuse the grainy iPhone pictures – it was dark in there and I thought it would have been rude to pull out the flash, or use my proper camera). 
Despite such amusing frippery, it was all underpinned by some very decent cooking – French-based, Asian influenced and rounded out with a deep knowledge of wholefoods and craft. The breads, for instance, were outstanding examples of a skilled baker’s work (the little green block in the bread picture is a fascinating but unnecessary emulsion of olive oil, while the white one was an emulsion of butter and pork fat, which I did not taste as I am a friend of the pig). Apparently Justin North, who owns Becasse, is opening new digs and a bakery across the road – I suggest you go there as soon as it opens. Just ignore the emulsions.

Other highlights were the delicate punch of wagyu and tuna in a beef and tomato consomme, the smokiness of scallops with miso and magically simple things; toasted buckwheat crumbled on top of scallops; the consistency of the chocolate mousse, with its glazed surface; the delight of creamy pannacotta at the bottom of a cup of mandarin granita. Nine of the ten courses were extraordinary, blending seafoods, beef and smoked flavours with lots of variations on potato and light, light dressings. It wasn’t perfect: the eggs with legumes were foamy and it was all too salty, but only the last savoury course was entirely disappointing, because the chicken was tough and the lemon pith overpowering. Still, this was the flaw that kept my feet on the ground and I was wowed by the smoked scallops, the various versions of potato, the wagyu and yellowfin, the savoury biscotti with goats cheese, those pumpkin and rosemary brioches, and that chocolate mousse.

And, as it turned out, being near the open kitchen was quite entertaining. I could hear the machinery of the restaurant and the calm, well-drilled voices of the head chefs as they pulled together the tiny elements of dishes they’d prepped all day. I had my back to them, but a piece of smoked glass in front of me provided a perfect reflection of what they were doing, and this meant I had a kind of chef TV, as well as a great view of the restaurant. And they could not see me watching them …

Dining alone was a wonderful experience. After two hours, when I was getting a bit restless but had eaten through only eight of the 10 courses, I fell into the closing pages of The Great Gatsby, and floated away. Then it was time to go. When the bill came I signed the credit card without a flourish, then poured myself out into the night, full of happiness and pride for spoiling myself so thoroughly.

So I’m sending thanks my old friend Lynn, wherever she is, for giving me the courage to eat alone in a fancy restaurant. I loved it Lynn. You knew I would.

[I have been wrestling with the alignment of the text with these photos but they will have to wait until Ms Zoe gets back from her holiday shenanigans to fix the blessed things. My bad.]

Treading the Olive Line

The Italian town of Bellagio sits at the tip of a peninsula that perfectly bisects the south part of Lake Como into two picturesque arms. I had the privilege in September of spending a fortnight staying there and living la vita Como. When I stood on the tip of the peninsula at la punta di spartiventi (“the place where the winds separate”) I noticed an olive tree a couple of metres out from the shore, its feet entirely submerged in the waters of Lake Como. Surely, I thought, this must be the northernmost olive tree in the world. After all, the Swiss border was only ten or so kilometres to the north and west.

But strictly speaking, I wasn’t correct. When I visited the town of Varenna on the eastern shore of the Lake and a kilometre or so further to the north, I found olive trees growing on the mountain side facing the Lake, even while alpine vegetation dominated the north side of the slopes.

The “olive line” is something to conjure with. That point north of which the olive tree won’t prosper serves, ideally, as the boundary of Mediterranean cuisine: beyond which, the cooking becomes butter-dominated.

Recently, UNESCO announced that the Mediterranean diet is going to be given world heritage status, joining a list of “intangible” cultural heritage that already includes the tango and Croatian lace-making.

But what is this thing called the Mediterranean diet? Most of us foodies would easily recognise the distinctions between, say, Moroccan cooking and Greek cooking and Italian cooking. There are parts of the Mediterranean coast where fresh and cured pork dominate the diet, and other areas of the coast where its consumption is nearly non-existent. Wine will be served in just about any Spanish café, but will rarely make an appearance across the Straits of Gibraltar in a Moroccan counterpart. What is it that could possibly link these cuisines?

It was Elizabeth David, I think, who was the first to popularise the idea of Mediterranean food as an ensemble, although the first edition of her A Book of Mediterranean Food was overwhelmingly a collection of French recipes, with a few Levantine ones thrown in from her wartime sojourns in the Greek Isles and Cairo. Other Mediterranean cuisines didn’t fair too well; she introduced paella with the observation that “it is the Spanish version of risotto”, which suggests a certain thoughtlessness as regards either Spanish cuisine or Italian cuisine, or both.

The origins of the “Mediterranean Diet” as some nutritional shibboleth lie in a study of the island of Crete after the Second World War by epidemiologist Lelan Allbaugh. But whilst his survey of the Cretan diet showed that vegetables and pulses were overwhelmingly eaten over meat and fish, most of those Cretans surveyed indicated this was more a matter of necessity than choice and that their favourite food was meat — particularly pork products — and they couldn’t get enough of it. Yet what we today evoke as the “Mediterranean Diet” probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. As I observed in an earlier post, up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine. Much of the Mediterranean makes for poor farming and the sea itself is comparatively poor in fish. Remember that a staple of the historical “Mediterranean diet” was air dried cod, imported from Norway.

Historically, as Clifford Wright observes, there were many Mediterraneans – at least two: east and west, Turkish and Spanish, Islamic and Christian. As he says, there is the Mediterranean defined by climate, another defined by sea, another defined by history. And there is the human Mediterranean defined by the movements of its people, which counters any static picture of the Mediterranean, including its diet. Since the fifth century the Mediterranean has seen the rise of Islamic civilisation, has shifted from feudalism to capitalism, and embarked on an age of exploration and conquest. Each transition has fundamentally altered the diet of those around the Mediterranean, especially the introduction of foods we now think of as quintessentially Mediterranean, such as oranges, lemons, eggplants and spinach by Arab agriculturalists, and tomatoes, capsicums and squash after Columbus’s footfall in America, with tomatoes making a particular late appearance in southern Italian cuisine.

But today a platonic “Mediterranean Diet” is ubiquitous, not just in cookery books but also in health promotion. It is merely one example of how, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed in the North American context, every localised taste opportunity is taken by commercial enterprise and turned into some new national fad, made available without regard to place or season.

In 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to introduce the Mediterranean diet to an American audience. They organized a conference to present the science, and unveiled a graphic – the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – to make this approach easy to understand.

Oldways is a non-profit education organization. It founded the Mediterranean Food Alliance (MFA) to “improve public health by raising consumer awareness about the health benefits of following the Mediterranean Diet”. The Oldways website goes on to explain, “companies that manufacture, import, and sell healthy Mediterranean products underwrite some of the MFA’s educational programs. A number of these companies also apply to use the easily-recognizable Oldways Med Mark on their qualifying products…The MFA benefits a company’s bottom line while it also benefits consumer health. Dues are low and on a sliding scale, so companies of all sizes can participate”.

And to convince MFA members and other Oldways financial supporters — which include the International Olive Council — that they’re getting value for money, Oldways points to “increased sales of Mediterranean foods” as its first KPI, noting that since its Mediterranean Diet campaign took off in the mid-1990s, U.S. olive oil imports rose more than 137%.

And let’s face it, the one thing that could possibly link the disparate, diverse and ever changing worlds of Mediterranean cuisine I referred to earlier is olive oil. So perhaps promoting the “olive line” is important in ways I hadn’t begun to imagine.


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