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Archive for February, 2007

If you’ve been to Europe, you know that Sundays are not the best days to play tourist. In most cities, 99% of stores and restaurants are closed on Sunday, and Leipzig is no exception. Luckily, we had several sources of activity available to us despite the Sunday effect: (1) personal sights courtesy of the infinitely-patient Hubert; (2) the Leipzig train station (Hauptbahnhof); and (3) the Stasi museum.

Jon at Josef Kalfus grave, Jewish cemetery, LeipzigWe drove first along Berlinerstrasse to see the Jewish Cemetery where Jon’s great-grandfather is buried. Hubert pointed out notable community members during our walk through the graveyard – a woman who was a women’s suffrage leader, a famous rabbi and so on. There were updated gravestones erected on family plots to honor those who’d died in the Holocaust, and there was a plaque commemorating the fact that the graveyard was at some point the only place Jewish children were allowed to play (because they were otherwise banned from public parks).

After paying respects, we headed back into the center of town to find where Jon’s grandma grew up. Based on the address and description Grandma Gina had given us (i.e., it was across from the municipal liebhouse where Jews had all their belongings confiscated), we determined that the building she lived in no longer exists, and where it once stood, there is now a parking lot.

It started to rain, and we went to see the building where the Jews like Grandma Gina had found protection on Kristallnacht. The building sits across the street from what is now the US consulate, and it’s no longer the Polish consulate. Rather, it’s a city-owned guesthouse, whatever that means. There’s a small plaque in front to remember the Polish Consul General who decided to give safe haven to Jews on Kristallnacht. It’s amazing to me how much this city remembers.

Because we’d read so much about the Voelkerschlachtdenkmal, we figured we ought to see it despite Hubert’s warning that it’s no great shakes. The V is a monument commemorating The Battle of Nations, a victory of several allied countries over Napoleon in 1813. Hubert was, of course, absolutely right. The thing is a hulking, brooding hunk of stone that, frankly, looks pretty damn scary and ugly. Considering the Prussians decided to build this thing 100 years after the battle it commemorates, the monument is more about Prussia’s own aggressive ambitions at the time than it is about commemorating anything.

Leipzig’s train station, the Haupbahnhof, is the largest in Europe and houses 140 shops, half of which are open on Sunday. Other than dropping by the post office and pharmacy, though, there wasn’t much we found super exciting in the shopping mall. The clothing stores and houseware stores were closed, so really, what else is there to see?

The Stasi museum, which illustrates the banal, but fierce control exercised by the East German secret police, was pretty interesting despite our having to follow along on a photocopied brochure in English (.50 euros well spent) in order to understand anything on display. The museum is in the building on Dittrichring where the Stasi had their Leipzig HQ, and everything from the drab beige linoleum floors to the musty smell of a 1970s office creeps me out. I thought the disguise kits for Stasi agents and the tools used by the Stasi for opening and reading mail sent to/from Capitalist countries were the most interesting.

Today’s Eating:

Bagel Brothers, LeipzigBagels at Bagel Brothers (Nikolaistrasse, 42) were tasty. Chewy, moist interiors and slightly crunchy, shiny exteriors. The store was bright and clean (it’s likely a chain, though we didn’t see any other locations in the city), and we laughed about how it marketed the bagels as “new york style with a schmear.” We’ve always thought of bagels as originating in Eastern Europe, but it seems that the way to sell them as “authentic” now is to make them come from New York. Bagel sandwiches were named after JFK, Doris Day, and someone named Dick McDay.

Telegraph Café & Restaurant (Dittrichring, 18-20) was the perfect way to relax and warm up after our hour at the Stasi Museum down the block. Cozy banquettes, newspapers from around the world (no Sunday NYT, alas) and wi-fi access, combined with low prices for pots of loose-leaf tea – how could you not drop by, really?

As if we weren’t grateful enough that it was open on a Sunday night, the generically-named Restaurant Sushi Bar (Klostergasse, 18, around the corner from Barfussgasschen) served up a 19-euro all-you-can-eat sushi menu today. We sat on these high stools at an oval-shaped counter, and cheesy little wooden boats floated around the counter “carrying” various sushi. It’s the pre-cursor to conveyor-belt sushi? We ate our weight’s worth in shrimp tempura sushi and then called it a night. After all, we have a 4 am wake-up call tomorrow in order to catch our 6 am flight back to London.

The Dismount:

I just finished reading an excellent book called Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who, among his many other accomplishments, transformed the way the medical establishment thinks about treating drug-resistant TB in poor countries. According to the book, Dr. Farmer always asks his medical students to take him through a “dismount” – a lessons-learned, summary-style debrief at the end of every case. So here’s my dismount on Leizpig:

It’s a historically-rich, beautiful city that’s struggling to find its place in a post-unification Germany that favors institutions and industry centers in the former West Germany. As cities in western Europe go, it’s an affordable place to visit, and there’s enough variety and quality of food and cultural activities left in Leipzig to make it worth a visit.

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Zill’s Tunnel restaurant, Leipzig

I had low expecations for the dining scene in Leipzig – the former GDR’s image may have informed this impression, as did the fact that in Prague, we ate a whole lot of dense potato dumplings that I think are still weighing me down.  That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of eats today (see the previous Leipzig Day 1 post for a description of what else we did besides eat).

For lunch, we’d asked Hubert to take us to his favorite “traditional German food” restaurant, and that’s how we ended up at Zill’s Tunnel Restaurant. The restaurant sits on Barfussgasschen, which is a cobblestone alley lined with restaurants. I don’t think I would have picked it out on our own because of concern that it was on such a touristy-seeming street, so once again, I was glad we had Hubert with us.  I guess the reality is that even though in any other geography, the Barfussgasschen would scream tourist trip, maybe there aren’t enough tourists around to make it so.  And this means you take it for what it is – a street that happens to have a lot of restaurants on it.

Although I wouldn’t eat it every day, I have only good things to say about my eisbein sauerkraut, which are slices of braised beef with red cabbage sauerkraut, topped with gravy and served with airy potato-and-butter dumplings called klosse. Hubert explained that my dish, especially the klosse, are a Saxon specialty, and I definitely wouldn’t complain if I crossed paths again one day with a klosse.

Jon had a little less luck with his sauerbraten mit klosse. Like me, Jon is now a fan of the klosse, but the sauerbraten could have used more seasoning to make it interesting. Sauerbraten is a “pork knuckle,” which is a giant, fatty leg of pork. It was cooked so that it was still tender and juicy, but when you’re eating a hunk of meat that serious, I think you need a little something something to lift up or hide the heaviness.

Ur Krostitzer, the local pilsner I ordered, was so hoppsy (is that a word?) and flavorful that I downed two during lunch, and Jon was equally happy with his dark lager, Schwarze Perle.

Our tab for three came to less than 50 euros. Check it out when next you’re in Leipzig.

Because eating ten thousand calories’ worth of meat and potatoes wasn’t enough, we also stopped by a large, bustling Movenpick café near the Old Town Hall for desserts and coffee. I’m so creative, I ordered black forest cake (schwartzwald kirsch torte) and tea. No complaints about the goodies, though I must humbly apologize to my fellow Americans for furthering the stereotype of Americans as dumb and bumbling. After all, I was the loser in the bathroom who couldn’t figure out how the soap dispenser worked. I pumped and pumped and wondered where the soap was. Too late, I realized I’d managed to pump soap all over my arm.

As if this bit of genius weren’t graceful enough, the bathroom attendant had to witness that and my embarrassment at not having any spare change to leave with her (as is the custom here).

For dinner, we walked back to the Barfussgasschen to try out,Varadero, a Cuban restaurant (think Communist-era connection). We were disappointed there were no plantains on the menu, but the beer was again good (Wernesgrun pilsner) and overall the food was hot, fresh and cheap. I loved all the black-and-white photos Varadero Cuban restaurant, leipzigon the wall of Che and Fidel, and when you throw in the lightbox photo of a beach and assorted palm trees, I’d say the décor was comfortingly not German.

Jon’s garlic shrimp appetizer was a standout (surprisingly not overcooked), our main courses were fine, and our one disappointment was with the black beans and rice.  The beans were undercooked (still hard) and the dish was very dry despite the liberal use of bacon fat. How hard is it to cook black beans and rice?

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St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

Today was an action-packed day.

Our gracious host was Hubert, a German lawyer who handles restitution-of-Jewish-property cases (what a huge back story that is!). Having spent five hours with him, I feel confident that he’s one of the smartest, most patient and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. It’s impossible to detail, even in this lengthy post, the many examples of these qualities we found in Hubert, but I guess you’ll just have to try to meet him yourself someday.

Broyder Synagogue, LeipzigWe set off on foot in the bright sunshine, and within five minutes, we stopped in front of the lone active synagogue in Leipzig. Hubert told us the only reason the synagogue survived World War II is because it was incorporated into a large apartment building where non-Jews lived. Before the Holocaust, 14,000 Jews lived in Leipzig, and 1,000 live there today.

I loved that the block on which the synagogue sits now includes a Bang & Olufsen and Poggen Pohl store. Time certainly does march on.

Next we crossed the Pleisse River, which was really Monument on the Pleisse, Leipzigmore like a stream, and Hubert pointed out a small monument remembering the Jews who were forced into the water and subject to public humiliation a few days before the escalation of Kristallnacht. The Polish consulate nearby is where Grandma Gina and her niece, Ruth, sought and were granted protection during Kristallnacht. Hubert explained that legally, consulates (unlike embassies) are not foreign soil and so it was only a matter of luck that anyone who sought refuge there was actually protected from the rampaging violence that night.

We visited 18 Pfaffendorferstrasse, where Ruth’s family lived. The street, Pfaffendorferstrasse is, relatively-speaking, a busy and noisy road, but to get to the building where Ruth’s family lived, we walked down a small, quiet alley. The apartment building now houses small businesses: an apartment developer and publishing house, among others.

We walked around to the back of the building to take a photo of what we could see of the apartment, which must have been a long walk up on the top floor of the building.

No doubt Hubert has given up many weekends in the past to play host to people like us, looking for connections to the past. Without pause or break in conversation, he walked us over to Carlebach School, set up in 1913 when all Jewish children were required to attend the same single school, instead of mixing with the general population. The building today is now used by a publisher of Braille and recorded books for the blind.

Memorial of the Great Community Synagogue, Leipzig

Last on our personal “must see” list today was the memorial of empty chairs, which sits where the city’s largest synagogue stood until burned down on Kristallnacht. Each empty chair represents a congregant killed on Kristallnacht.

As if it weren’t enough that Hubert spent time showing to us Jewish and personal monuments, he also took us to see a few of the general sights of Leipzig. Based on the gorgeous old buildings and landmarks Jon and I saw today, Leipzig is a city that seems to have come out of the years of war and Communist rule relatively intact.

Hubert explained that unemployment in Leipzig hovers around an unconscionably-high18%, and there are too many apartment buildings and stores sitting empty, but overall, I’d say Leipzig is far from being out for the count.

So here’s what you can see if you’re not in town to find your grandma’s birthplace:

Interior of St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig

St. Nicholas Church: When you first set eyes on it, it’s just another gorgeous church in a soaring Renaissance style. It turns out, though, that the church’s claim to fame are Peace Prayer Services that took place in and around the church in 1989, which grew into demonstrations that brought down that famous wall.

Madler Passage, LeipzigMadler Passage: Walk a few steps around the corner from St. Nicholas and you’re in front of a large, indoor arcade called Madler Passage. Most of the stores in the Madler Passage are global luxury brands (Wempe, Mont Blanc), but there’s a local store at one end of the passage, Gourmetage, where we found not only the usual global delicacies (prosciutto, whiskeys, French and Italian wines) but also a variety of local German wines. Hubert, being the stylish, worldly man that he is, recommended a few bottles by Schloss Proschwitz and a sparkling wine (Rotkappchen). So we’ll give them a try and report back. The bottles weren’t cheap, so I have high hopes they turn out to be the find of the year.

AuAuerbachs Keller, leipzigerbachs Keller: Down a set of winding stairs in the Madler Passage and flanked by enormous sculptures depicting Faust and Mephistopheles, this local attraction is hard to overlook. Hubert warned us away from the food (we figured the souvenir shop in the corner of the restaurant reinforced his advice), but because the restaurant is where Goethe set a scene from Faust (he and the devil eat a lovely dinner there), we went downstairs to poke around and take photos. The dining room is cavernous but cozy – how I have always pictured an old-school German restaurant.

St. Thomas’s Church: J. S. Bach was choirmaster here for the last 27 years of his life. We weren’t able to go into the church because a concert rehearsal was taking place this afternoon, but all the stores near the church include “Bach” somewhere in the name and street musicians play (what else) Bach. We satisfied ourselves with a photo of a giant Bach sculpture (his pocket turned out to show how poor he was during his life) and walked on.Opera House, Leipzig

The Opera House: On the north side of a square called the Augustplatz sits Leipzig’s ginormous opera house. On the south side of the Augustplatz is Gewandhaus, the home of the Leipzig orchestra. Tickets this evening for the orchestra were for a children’s concert, so we went with opera tickets. I’m therefore going to blame this evening’s adventure on Jon, who ordered the tickets in advance and didn’t know what we were going to watch tonight.

When we arrived at the opera house, most of the building was pretty dark, but then we spotted a random lion statue holding a sign saying that if you’re looking for the Keller Theatre, you have to go around the side of the building. So we walked over to that theatre and saw that it was open. Our tickets were inside waiting for us at the box office, and then we descended two flights of stairs to find ourselves in a basement reception area that had all the charm of a, ummm, basement.

It wasn’t quite the opera atmosphere I’d been expecting. We felt like we were waiting to see an off-off-Broadway production, which was generally fine with me. When the theatre doors opened, our impression was reinforced by the rows of folding chairs in a black-walled room.

The opening act lasted less than 30 minutes and although we didn’t understand a word of it (all songs were in German), we got the gist: the Girlfriend is constantly on the phone; the Boyfriend tries everything to get the Girlfriend’s attention; the Boyfriend stomps out of the apartment and calls the Girlfriend from a payphone, at which point the Girlfriend pays tons of attention to the Boyfriend. The End.

It wasn’t the best piece of musical theatre we’ve ever seen, but we figured it was good enough that we’d wait around to see what happened after the intermission. Big Mistake.

After intermission, we sat through an hour-long, one-woman opera. Again, the phone played a prominent role. As best we could determine, the woman is alone in her apartment and gets a number of phonecalls throughout the night. Here are the parts we could understand:

[piano player duplicates ringing noise made by telephone]
[woman picks up the phone] “Hallo! Hallo!”
[1 hour of solo singing, in German, by the woman ]

So for an entire hour, we had plenty of time to think about an interaction we’d had during intermission with a German woman sitting in the otherwise-empty row behind us. She had busted out in German asking us to move over a seat so that she could see over Jon’s head. We told her we didn’t speak German, so she repeated her request in English, and we moved over because it wasn’t a big deal for us.

What we wondered for the next hour is why, given that she’s sitting in an empty row, couldn’t she move over a seat?

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Leipzig Airport

Guten tag from Leipzig, Germany, where J.S. Bach was choirmaster for 27 years, Goethe studied law and Felix Mendelssohn lived and worked.Jon and I have just checked in to the Leipzig Westin.

Our Air Berlin flight here was uneventful, though as a testament to how often we fly budget airlines in Europe, we were surprised that we were given assigned seats when we checked in at Stansted Airport. When was the last time we flew on a European airline that assigns you seats?

We landed a little behind schedule, and then Jon and I were stuck at the back of the plane and then waited on a long line through immigration (I loved the customs guy with three-star epaulets. He’s a three-star immigration official, don’t you know?), all of which means that we missed the last train into Leipzig.

We then schlepped back and forth across the large, shiny-and-new Leipzig airport to find a cash machine and then a taxi into the city. Our ride cost 31 euros, which is about three times more than the train would’ve cost, but at least (1) the taxi was super nice – all of the ones waiting at the airport were humming mercedes; (2) we got to whiz along the autobahn at a blistering 140 km/h; and (3) it took only 15 minutes to reach the hotel.

The hotel is pretty standard-issue Westin: gleaming, splashy lobby with trendy lighting, and rooms that don’t live up to the lobby (do they ever?). I have to admit I feel cheated not to find a Heavenly Bed in our room. How ever will I sleep at night?

Frivolous comments set aside (for just a moment), Jon and I have serious plans ahead of us this weekend. Over the next 48 hours, we’ll search out the old neighborhood and haunts of Jon’s Grandma Gina, whose family lived in Leipzig for generations until the Holocaust came and almost wiped them out.

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steamed sweet dumplings at Royal China Club

Happy Chinese New Year, all! Yesterday heralded the Year of the Golden Pig. And you know that the Golden Pig shows its snout only once every 60 years, so this is no ordinary Chinese New Year. Among other things, it’s a good year to bust out with a kid because then he/she will have an easy, prosperous life.

Jon and I went to a friend’s house on Saturday night to celebrate new year’s eve. We were the only two people who showed up wearing red. It’s always nice to show up in matching outfits for reasons not apparent to other party guests. It makes you seem extra cool.

Yesterday, we ate a million courses of dim sum and New Year’s specials (longevity noodles, anyone?) at Royal China Club on Baker Street. We’ve been before to the “regular” Royal China next door, and I’ve always found the dim sum there overpriced, but the Royal China Club was a lot snazzier in decor, more gracious in service and slightly more creative in food. Based on the £35 per person price tag for dim sum, I assume the RC Club’s competition is something like Yauatcha, though the coolness factor is not high at the RC Club.

Highlights of our new year’s lunch yesterday included a roast suckling pig so beautifully crisped and sliced that it was hard to distinguish it from a peking-style duck. The tea also gets a shout out. Whatever we were drinking was refreshing and fragrant – jasmine with a pinch of peach. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sweets, which normally I dislike at Chinese restaurants. There was moi gee (chewy rice-flour cookies) magically filled with vanilla ice cream, and a bamboo steamer of fluffy, white steamed dumplings filled with a sweet, eggy custard (see photo at top).

I didn’t order nian gao (New Year’s cake) to go like some of the other lunchers, because I’m a fake Chinese (sorry, Mom and Dad!) and fail to appreciate a pudding made of glutinous rice and steamed with fruits. But I did visit friends the entire afternoon, so I think all in all, Jon and I were pretty diligent celebrants of the new year.
Royal China Club on Urbanspoon

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Cheyne Walk Brasserie, Chelsea, London

A few weeks ago, we went to Cheyne Walk Brasserie for the first time with Cathy and Bobby for drinks. I had my doubts about going there because a lot of restaurants in Chelsea have struck me as either inexpensive and mediocre or expensive and mediocre. But for drinks, I’d give the place a try.Cheyne Walk Brasserie interior

Well, we walked in and were struck by a warm and lively atmosphere. The simple (sort of spare), high-ceilinged Grill at Cheyne Walk Brasserie, Chelsea, Londonroom is lit up by a fiery, smoky grill that’s the room’s centrepiece. The grill announced: “we’re more than just a pretty brasserie – we actually cook here!”

The Tiffany-blue banquettes and generous spacing of tables rounded out the place’s inviting look.

We went upstairs to the “salon” for drinks, all of which were tasty, and even though we’d already eaten dinner that night, somehow we managed to devour a plate of cheese. The view of the Albert Bridge (see photo below left) spanning the Thames was gorgeous, the velvet-covered chaise lounges were comfy, and of course the company was perfect. So Jon and I decided we’d go back to try the food.Albert Bridge, London

Last night, that’s what we did. At around 10 pm, the dining room was still packed, and there was high traffic from large groups coming in and heading straight up to the salon (odd, because the Friday we went up there, the salon was empty except for us).

The menu offerings were all classic brasserie, and what we ate ranged from “well-cooked but nothing special” to “so tasty I could eat this all night.” In the former category fell Jon’s grilled sea bream, and my rack of lamb. Both were grilled to keep their juiciness and with a nice, smoky flavor that whisked you off to summer by the Mediterranean.

Our appetizers (a spicy, rich fish soup and a fresh-from-the-oven, comforting aubergine-goat cheese tart), the butter and bread, and a side of potatoes dauphinoises fell in the latter. I hate when potatoes dauphinoises is liquidy and the potato layers smush together, but here, it was crispy on top, creamy/buttery/garlicky, and the layers were intact. I love when comfort food gets attention from the cook.

We were stuffed after our main courses, but we’ll pace ourselves for dessert next time.The service during dinner (and also the time we went for drinks) was elegantly friendly and efficient.

Starters were £8-10, Mains averaged around £20. The menu is kind of Craft-style, meaning nothing comes with a side. You order that separately. Plus, there’s a £3 per person cover charge, which annoys me. Still, we’ll go back.
Cheyne Walk Brasserie on Urbanspoon

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Birthday Cake, February 2007

Well, first of all, Happy Valentine’s Day. I’m celebrating this evening by eating the last slice of birthday cake (see photo above) from a fabo dinner party that Jon cooked up for me this past Saturday.

“Where’s Jon tonight on this most important of Hallmark holidays,” you might ask?

He’s at the Brit Awards, of course. I’m not exactly sure what the Brit Awards are, but Jon claims it’s the British version of the Grammys. He was invited because he’s such a famous musician (if by “famous musician” you mean the event is sponsored by MasterCard so credit card industry types get invited along on a junket). Depending on his experience there tonight, maybe I’ll allow him to guest post!

So anyway, this past weekend, we celebrated the birthday of yours truly by inviting a few friends over for a Saturday night repast. It was an Italian-themed dinner, and the menu for the evening of course included aperitifs with snacks, a pasta course, meat course, and the Cake.

Party Before, LondonI can’t believe I failed to take photos of the food! Think about all those other moments I bust out my camera under inhospitable circumstances (e.g., Hakkasan), and here in the comfort of my own home, I totally flaked. I have only a “before” photo taken of our table (see left) and an “after” one included towards the bottom of this post.

Nonetheless, here’s my inadequate substitute for photos (“I’m painting a verbal picture!”):

Aperitifs and snacks:

Bellinis – Peach juice and prosecco. Juicy and bubbly. Whiffs of la dolce vita. What’s there not to like? And yet, finding peach juice was not the breeze we expected it to be. The supermarket aisles included dozens of beverages with peach as an ingredient, but peach on its own? No can do. In desperation, I almost bought something called “Robinson’s Peach Barley Water.” It looked like peach juice in a glass bottle. And there were lots of other flavors of this “barley water” on the shelf, so I thought maybe barley water was just a fancy British way of saying “juice.” But it turns out barley water is soda made with barley (like, the wheat-y plant)! Our friend Emmet informed us that barley water has a long-standing association with Wimbledon, but of course Gatorade is coming on as a strong challenger. Rehydrating salty beverage vs. Wheat-y-tasting-soda . . . who will win? [We ultimately found peach juice at our local Italian deli, Monte's, so it turns out there was no need to search far and wide for it!]

Nibbles – Jon fried up a dozen arancini (fried risotto balls filled with mozzarella) which were crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. You’ll be glad to know they really do look like golden oranges as the name suggests in Italian. (It turns out there’s a good reason why I have always been confused between ordering these fried goodies and aranciata, San Pellegrino version of the incomparable Orangina. If you click on the links in the preceding sentence, be sure to turn up the sound on your computer. It’s hilarious).

Charcuterie included fresh pecorino and assorted goats cheeses, red-wine salami and fennel salami, and then of course we needed crostini with roasted eggplant tapenade or olive tapenade. We threw in some rosemary bread (baked using that amazing and much-discussed Mark Bittman-publicized “No-Knead Bread Recipe”) for those looking for bread that wasn’t first brushed with olive oil and baked to a crisp.

Pasta Course:

Jon spent days before the dinner picking up specialty items all over London, and particularly intense was his quest for ingredients used in the pasta course. I’d been having cravings for bottarga (aka mullet or tuna roe that’s cured in salt) since eating at Olivo’s a few weeks ago to celebrate Cathy’s birthday. For those of you dying to know, we found our bottarga at Gastronomica in Borough Market. If you want to buy it pre-grated and in a small jar, the Sardinian cheese seller with a stall close to Southwark Cathedral in Borough Market is your woman, but if you think buying blocks of it is expensive, on a per-gram basis, the jar is ridiculous!

Anyway, spaghetti alla bottarga is exactly as it sounds. You cook the spaghetti and then you mix in some butter and grated and/or sliced bottarga. The result is salty, creamy and fishy. YUM.

Meat Course:

Jon’s specialty over the past few months has been a braised short rib recipe he’s gaga over in Mario Batali’s Babbo cookbook. For my birthday dinner, Jon cooked this short rib recipe for 12. He preordered the short ribs from E. Wood, our local butcher, which required Jon to print off photos of the short rib from the Internet because our English butcher had no idea what a short rib was. Take note, in England, this bit of cow is called fore rib.

Standard procedure for a braise is that you sear the meat first and then bake it in liquid (tomatoes, chicken broth) for ten thousand gazillion hours with tons of herbs and vegetables. Our UK-standard-sized oven, unfortunately, makes baking all those short ribs quite a challenge, but undaunted, Jon did it in batches until it all reduced enough to fit in a single French Oven. He’s a patient guy, I’m telling you.

The ribs were falling off the bone (i.e., perfect). I love how the bits of fat soak up all that braising liquid flavor. A little onion here, some red wine there, thyme and rosemary popping in for a visit. Cheers to the braise on a wet, winter night.

Dessert:

My one contribution of the evening was to bake my own birthday cake. Jon was planning to order a cake (baking is not his thing), but I insisted. There’s a yellow cake (“1-2-3-4 cake”) recipe that I love from The Perfect Cake, by Susan Purdy. So hey, it’s the least I can do to contribute to the evening, right?

Thanks to the brilliance of springform pans, my four-layer cake came out of the oven perfectly flat and even. I whipped up some buttercream (and next time, I’m using less confectioner’s sugar and more valrhona chocolate), and voila, a cake with a crumb and sweetness to my taste.

And that’s the dinner Jon cooked for me for my birthday. I overindulged in fabo Italian vino, and our home Birthday Party, After, London 2007was a total disaster for days afterwards, but I figure there’s no more gratifying a sign of a fun party than a hangover and detritus as far as the eye can see.

Thank you to everyone who came to dinner, called or wrote on my birthday, and/or shared a funny-touching-thoughtful birthday video. I am one super-lucky girl, sans doute.

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Snow in London

Snow in London, February 2007

Yesterday morning, Jon and I woke up to find two inches of snow blanketing the city (see above photo taken from our small patio). We haven’t seen snow in years! Usually, we just get rain, so when we saw snow, it felt like a holiday – Christmas morning, even.

Sadly, the holiday ended quickly when we discovered no buses were running, the tube lines were partly suspended or subject to long delays, and the sidewalks were rapidly melting into icy mush because nobody owns a snow shovel. Quality!

Mildly entertaining was the tone of news reports leading up to, and during, the “snow storm.” I mean, sure, the city’s not prepared for snow, but you can imagine how two inches of snow doesn’t exactly count as a snow storm.

By the end of the day, all the snow had melted. C’est la vie. It was fun while it lasted.

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harem courtyard, Bahia Palace, Marrakesh, Morocco

Overall, based on our five days in Marrakech, I’d say the main things to do are to shop for handcrafted goods, eat and wander aimlessly. The other “sights” were nice ways to kill time, but none of them were anything I’d travel to Marrakech specifically to see, which I guess is a sign the city is more than just for tourist ogling.

In any case, taking the souks and haggling out of the picture, here’s how we kept ourselves otherwise entertained:

Hammam/Spa Action

To my mind, Muslim country = hammam (public steam bath) tradition. The Moroccan women running our riad told me to skip going to a fancy European-style spa and stick with the hammams to get my skin healthy and glowing, but the trick with the authentic hammams is that men and women go at different times of the day and you get your treatment lying on the tile floor, which didn’t sound super appealing to me.

Jon, however, went to the Hammam el-Bacha (“The Pasha’s Spa” on Rue Fatima Zohra) because he’s such a sucker for a massage, especially for 7o dh (less than $10). He reported that you put your belongings in a cubby hole and then walk into this warm, cavernous, marble-tiled room.

An old guy who spoke French and Arabic (neither of which Jon understands) gestured Jon to lie on the floor, and then he gave Jon a vigorous scrubbing and massage for almost an hour. The guy then finished off the session by dumping buckets of warm, clean water on Jon, and Jon now wishes he’d gone to the hammam earlier in the trip so he could go back again and again.

In contrast, Jon and I spent one rainy day at a fancy hotel spa, which Jon thought was terrible, especially in comparison with his Hammam el-Bacha experience.

Our first choice was to get treatments at the Bains de Marrakesh, recommended by our riad, but it was booked solid the whole time we were in town. Disappointing!

We called up a ritzy French chain called Cinq Mondes, which just opened at a new-concept Club Med just outside the city in the Palmeraie (where all the big luxury resorts are), but not only did you have to schlepp out to the resort to confirm your appointment in person, but also a facial there cost 910 dh ($106), which is about twice the going rate at other places we called in Marrakesh. No thanks.

After all this calling around, we settled on the “Oriental Spa” at Hotel es Saadi, partly because we’d read good reviews on-line, and mostly because they had appointments available for both Jon and me at the same time.

The Hotel Es Saadi has seen better days. The decor was glamorous circa 1980, I think. Lots of gold and mirrors. There is, however, an impressively-large, heated outdoor pool.

My facial was an hour long and relaxing, and I was a fan of the treatment rooms, which were warm, large and clean. Jon, however, didn’t get much out of his hour-long massage, which was too bad because it cost 580 dh (i.e., a lot more than his hammam massage).

Apparently his masseuse’s major qualification was that she spoke English, but sadly she was unable to do much besides rub Jon’s skin with aromatic oil for an hour. And then we were particularly non-plussed when the hotel told us all their credit card machines were broken, so could we please cough up 1000 dh in cash?

Bottom Line: Try that Bains de Marrakech (and report back!) and/or the public hammam.

250 Jews and One Synagogue

One evening, we walked 20 minutes southwest of the Djemma el Fna (close to the Bahia Palace – see below) to reach the Mellah neighborhood, which was a Jewish neighborhood established in the 1500s. Today there are 250 Jews living in Marrakech (but no longer in the Mellah), and incredibly enough, this tiny population manages to maintain an old synagogue, the Alzama.

We ended up a little lost on our way to the synagogue, whose entrance is down a small alley and whose doorway is tiny and unmarked. We were led there by some little kid, who of course then asked each of us (Jon, me, and what turned out to be the synagogue’s cantor), for money. Admittedly, we wouldn’t have found the place without the kid’s help, but still, not thrilling to get the shakedown after reaching the synagogue (of course we paid up).

synagogue entrance, Marrakesh, MoroccoThe synagogue makes up one side of a closed-in courtyard, and based on the laundry hung out to dry, I think the other three sides are apartments.

There’s an old, blind man who is the custodian of the synagogue, and I think he lives in one of these apartments. Otherwise, congregants show up on Fridays and Saturdays by traveling in from the “Nouvelle Ville” (i.e., the new part of Marrakech built by the French in the early 20th century).

We were invited for services (it happened to be Friday night when we visited), partly because of hospitality and partly because the synagogue needed 10 Jewish men to make up a minyan (which is a quorum you need for a service to take place).

I sat upstairs in the women’s gallery by myself, which actually became fun when a young Israeli woman came up and joined me. She’d been traveling through Morocco with her cousin for three weeks, so she and I traded travel tips while the men downstairs disregarded our presence and prayed in Hebrew. I guess invisibility has its privileges.

On the whole, it was pretty cool to be in such a gorgeous old synagogue hidden away in a predominately Muslim country. What fascinated me was the lens through which this Israeli woman viewed the countries she visited. For example, everywhere in the world she travels, she needs to find a kosher family that’s willing to cook her a local meal, because otherwise, she can’t eat the local food. It’s limiting in one way (not being able to sample all the local delights), but enlarging in another (being able to meet local families).

Bahia Palace

We spent two hours walking around the ceiling detail, Bahia Palace, Marrakesh, MoroccoBahia palace, which is just a 15-minute walk from the Djemme el Fna. The Palace today – particularly the gardens and the impressive “harem courtyard” (see photo at top) – looks pretty run down and neglected, but there are still a few beautiful details here and there.

I was surprised by how recently the palace was built – in the late 1800s. While all the colors and detail work of the ceilings and archways are intact, there’s no furniture or other interior decoration, so it’s hard to imagine life in the palace. I had so much better an understanding when we visited the Alhambra in Grenada, which must have inspired the Bahia Palace, because the two buildings share so many architectural elements.

Doorways at Bahia Palace, Marrakesh, MoroccoOn the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a tourist attraction and not be bombarded with moneymaking paraphernalia (you pay 30 dh at the Palace entrance and then you just wander around on your own), but on the other hand, there’s no brochure, map or audiotour to give the place any context.

The quick blurb in our guidebook told us that Edith Wharton stayed as a guest at the Bahia Palace during the French Protectorate period of Morocco’s history. Not quite the history and context I was looking for, much as I love Edith Wharton. Still, the Bahia Palace was worth visiting for a few hours, and maybe before you go, download a podcast about it from iTunes or something. Then you’ll be golden.

Majorelle Gardens

Although it was a chilly, 45-degree day Cacti at Majorelle Gardens, Marrakesh, Moroccowhen we went, the Majorelle
Gardens (a botanic garden) were definitely worth visiting for an hour or two. I’m sure the gardens are particularly nice in warm weather!

You need a taxi to get there from the Medina, but for once, the 20 dh taxi fare was a fair price as it was a 10-minute ride to get to the gardens.

The gardens and nearby villa are now owned by Yves St. Laurent, whom I’d like to credit with making everything look so stylish, but apparently all kudos go to the garden’s founder, Jacques Majorelle, a rich guy who moved from Paris to Marrakech in the 1920s for health reasons.

I loved the bold, almost-garish colors that brightened up the otherwise sort-of-uniform green and beige of the cacti, bamboo and lily pad gardens. An electric blue here; a lemony yellow there – it all worked.

 

Museum of Islamic Art at Majorelle Gardens, Marrakesh

 

The tiny Islamic Art Museum (see photo at left) took about 30 minutes to walk through. I’d say it’s worth the separate admission price if you want to see some of Majorelle’s watercolors (clearly an example of Islamic Art), pottery, and beautiful, carved doors presumably saved from destruction when buildings were demolished.

Being the materialist that I am, I kept thinking how great it would be to make one of those massive doors into a dining table. Attention: Pottery Barn furniture designers!

Koutoubia

Our guidebook (and many other books and websites) kept listing the Koutoubia as koutoubia marrakeshan attraction, but I think it’s more of a landmark. Jon and I oriented many times to the Koutoubia, which is an old mosque on the Avenue Mohammed V, but whose key feature is a very tall minaret that you can see from most open spaces in Marrakech.

 

 

When we walked around the Koutoubia grounds, we didn’t get much out of it, so maybe it’s a better time with a guide.


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Couscous at Chez Chegrouni, Marrakesh, Morocco

In general, the food we had in Marrakesh was limited in choice (i.e., all Moroccan), and while the food was never totally awful, it was rarely that amazing. All our meals consisted of some combination of flatbreads, tomato-and-cucumber salads, chicken or lamb braised in a tagine (the cone-shaped cooking pot used in Morocco), and of course, mint tea.

Although tagines pretty much dominate all menus, not all tagines are created equal, nor are they all the same price. As you’d expect when there’s a large income gap even among locals (i.e., lots of poor and a few ultra rich), much less between locals and tourists, restaurants we tried were either dirt-cheap (because they cater to locals?) or expensive by any standard. In other words, we didn’t find a lot of mid-range options in Marrakesh. For example, when Jon and I ate at street stalls or communal tables in the Djemma el Fna, our meal for *two* cost $5-$10, but when we ate at restaurants recommended by any number of newspapers and magazines (e.g., NYT, the Guardian, Conde Nast Traveler), our tab for two would run upwards of $100 despite ordering cheapo local wine.

Eating at the Riad L’Orangeraie

Our best meal in Marrakesh, hands down, was the dinner served by our riad, and our continental breakfasts in the morning weren’t too shabby, either. Both the breakfasts and our one dinner at the riad were home-cooked and fresh, and we ate in the comfort of a niche off the central garden courtyard.Breakfast at Riad l’OrangeraieBreakfast every morning was served with coffee or tea, orange-zested crepes, a Moroccan flatbread of semolina flour, pound cake, and baguettes with a choice of jams. An Atkins-diet nightmare, but we loved every bite, especially because breakfast was included in the price of our stay.

For dinner one night, with a bottle of really delicious wine we’d lugged to Marrakesh (thanks, Bobby and Cathy!) and a modest cost of 25 euros each, we tried three different Moroccan salads (salad being the generic term for veggie appetizers), a lamb tagine with couscous, and an orange-and-cinnamon dessert. The salads we tried in Morocco could be as simple Moroccan salads at Riad l’Orangeraieas what Jon calls “Israeli health salad” and which is that combo of cucumber, tomato and onion that you put on falafel (falafel is *not* served in Marrakesh, by the way), or they could be as interesting as the ones at our riad. One salad made of fried eggplant and edam cheese was especially genius, though I’m not sure how traditional it was. Our least favourite salad was one of broad beans and tomato, mostly because the flavors didn’t seem to blend at all.

What knocked our socks off at our riad dinner was the lamb tagine. It didn’t look Lamb tagine at Riad l’Orangeraielike much (comfort food never does), but when our hostess lifted the tagine cover off, the strong, hearty smell of lamb steamed out in an aromatic cloud. Not only was the lamb tender and flavourful (tasting of cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, sugars of all forms), but also fresh, sweet dates carefully topped with chopped almonds added a dash of texture and contrasting flavors.

Jon and I demolished the lamb and the accompanying hot, fluffy couscous. We were so full, we couldn’t finish the very simple dessert of fresh oranges dusted with cinnamon and sugar.Oranges, if you haven’t noticed a theme, are everywhere in Marrakesh. Orange trees are everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of places, which explains the dozens of fresh orange juice sellers in the Djemma el Fna.

Bo & Zin, Douar Lahna, Route de l’Ourika (+212 24 388 012)

Of the expensive ($100+ for two) dinners we ate, Bo & Zin and Le Foundouk are kind of neck-and-neck (see my post on Day 1 re: Le Foundouk). Bo Zin was a 20-minute schlep outside of central Marrakesh (negotiate hard with the petit taxis – we settled on 50 dh), which was kind of a pain, but once there, it’s a large, sleek, dramatic, candle-lit place that reminds you of any number of restos in NY, Paris, London . . . .When Jon and I arrived for our 9:30 dinner reservation, the tables were full (a mix of couples and big groups – all white, so presumably foreign) and a DJ was in Aubergine and goat cheese millefeuille at Bo Zinthe middle of the room spinning a loungey soundtrack. The place is definitely too cool for school.

The restaurant’s Thai-French food was uneven (though averaging out at a “not horrible”), and definitely overpriced for what it was. for example, my eggplant-and-goat-cheese millefeuille was enjoyable (a tower of creamy sweetness), while my chicken-and-cashew main course was not only low on cashews, but also was glopped over by a sugary-sweet sauce with little heat.

What we enjoyed about Bo Zin, though, was the scene and atmosphere. The crowd was sort of a caricature of cool (all in black) and sometime after 10 pm, the “regulars” started coming in, so we enjoyed watching all the delighted hugs and kisses flying around.

The restaurant, thankfully, provides a complimentary car and driver to get you back into town, because I can’t imagine how extortionate a petit taxi would cost to come out to the restaurant and bring you back to Marrakech center.

Al Fassia, Blvd. Zerktouni Residence Tayeb (+212 24 434 060)Al Fassia restaurant doorway

The cheapest of the pricey restaurants we tried was Al Fassia, which is outside the medina in the Gueliz, which is the “new” part of Marrakech the French built. It’s kind of an antiseptic area with its wide boulevards and boxy 1960s-ish buildings.

Al Fassia has been around for a while and has a real grande dame vibe going on with all kinds of mirrors, gilt and faded rugs. What drew us were the reviews we’d read as well as the fact that the business is entirely staffed (and owned?) by women.

We showed up without a reservation and even though I could see dozens of empty tables in the vast dining room, the maitre d’ claimed she didn’t have room. I wasn’t really interested in arguing, so we turned to leave, and as we headed for the door, suddenly the woman had a table that just happened to be free.Kefta tagine avec les oeufs at Al Fassia, marrakesh

If you’re looking for the classics and want something high-quality, then Al Fassia is for you. Prices were high considering you can buy the same dishes at the local hangouts, but portions were huge. The harira, for example, was thick and full of goodies. It also came in such an enormous portion that it would easily have fed four. All for 55 dh.

My order of the kefta tagine avec oeufs, a local specialty of meatballs with an egg on top, was very good, but not sure I’d pay 100 dh (~$14) for it considering we had a similarly good dish at a café packed with locals for 1/3 that price.

Bottom line: I think Al Fassia would be a nice, safe (as in likely very sanitary) place to go if you need an introduction to Moroccan classics, but I wouldn’t make it a destination.

Cheap EatingFood Stalls in the Djemma el Fna

Just before sunset every day, the Snake Guys, merguez sausage “kitchen” in the Djemma el Fnastorytellers, musicians and henna artists in the Djemma el Fna make way for hundreds of open-air kitchens and tables to set up shop for the dinner rush. Each stall specializes in one dish, but in general, they’re selling brochettes (kebabs), spicy merguez sausages, harira (the traditional, filling Moroccan soup of lentils, chickpeas and lamb bits), snails, and sheep parts (umm, the head).

Jon and I couldn’t resist the smoky aromas and festive atmosphere, so one evening, we took a seat at a merguez sausage stall that was crowded with local Bread and merguez sausage at Djemma el Fnafamilies (the part of you that roots for the underdog wants to patronize the empty stalls, but I figure the locals can’t be wrong, and even if they are, high turnover means food safety, generally). For just 15 dh (less than $2!), we snacked on a plate of sausages, bread, and multiple glasses of mint tea. It wasn’t the best sausage in the world (not spicy or flavourful enough for me), but it was hot, fresh and freaking dirt cheap. Plus, sitting elbow-to-elbow with local rug rats and parents is a priceless experience.

Chez Chegrouni, Djemma el Fna (+212 63 434 132)

A little higher in cost than the stalls in the square, Rooftop view from Chez Chegrounibut still a cheap eat is Chez Chegrouni. The Djemma el Fna is bordered by big restaurants that include signs screaming that you can get rooftop seating. Instinctively, I’d stay away because it seems totally touristy to eat at these places, but Chez Chegrouni (on the northeast corner of the Djemma el Fna) was recommended by so many sources that gave it a try for lunch.Lunch was definitely packed with tourists, especially on the rooftop dining area. But the food was much better than I expected, and it was nice to relax and watch the action on the Djemma el Fna.

You sit down, get a limited menu of Moroccan specialties written out in English and French, scribble down what you want on a “napkin” (which is little more than a scrap of paper, seriously), and then wait for your steaming hot tagine or brochette with couscous to show up.

My chicken with couscous was fine. The chicken was a little dry, but the couscous was hot and fluffy with raisins and onions to add sweetness. It was hot and fresh and cheap. No big complaints.

Cost for two appetizers, mint tea and two mains: 60 dh (less than $8). So if you want to try one of the restaurants on the square, you could do worse than Chez Chegrouni.

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