Wednesday, April 26, 2006


April 22-25, 2006

Correa's - 2 stars
Ordynka ulitsa 40

Soup Cafe - 1 star
1-ya Brestskaya 62

Teremok - 1 star
many locations

There are, of course, many ways in which the glamour of international business travel is a far cry from the reality. One of the more mundane, though painful, is hunger.

Right now I'm flying from Moscow to Atlanta (twelve hours) with a connection to San Francisco (5 hours). If everything goes smoothly from here the door-to-door trip will be 23 hours. It's 10 pm Moscow time, and so far today I've eaten a Clif Bar and a bad old airline lunch (the kind you used to get, with a hot entree wrapped in aluminum foil, but that has been replaced on domestic flights by slightly less mediocre food you pay for). This one had a few pasta shells in a green pesto-like sauce that didn't taste at all like pesto, a tiny wilted salad with a thick, sweet "vinaigrette," a small piece of that dark and spongy bread people eat in Russia, and a small piece of cheese wrapped in aluminum foil.

So, how did I get here? John and I got up at 7 (I was actually woke up by 4 for the third straight morning because of jet lag) and left the hotel at 7.30 to get to the client by 8.10. The hotel bar/cafe was closed. We took the Metro, and making a detour for breakfast was tough because of our luggage and our inability to order in Russian from one of the carts outside the Metro stop. so it was another case of prioritizing sleep over breakfast. At 9.40 I got in a taxi for the airport (typically 30-45 minutes) and promptly spent 45 minutes covering one mile. With numerous other jams, and despite the valiant efforts of my driver, who even drove backward in traffic at one point and drove in the left lane at another, the trip took 1:45, and I got to the airport an hour before my flight. After customs, check-in, passport control, and hand-checking of all carry-ons, I barely made my flight, and there was no time to eat anything. So here I am.

Peter and I were recently commiserating about this problem. There are many reasons you end up skipping meals: "sleep over breakfast," as I always say; simply too much work to each lunch; working too late to eat before your flight; delayed flights preventing you from eating during connections; the lack of restaurants in budget hotels; airport restaurants closing at 7 pm; and the poor or nonexistent options in airports, especially for vegetarians. So the net result is that for every good meal you eat in some exotic locale, you end up skipping five or six along the way, and most of the rest are mediocre (think Denny's and Subway).

Then there are places like Moscow, where most of the food is mediocre to begin with. Yesterday during the lunch break the client took us to Correa's, in their sparkling new building complex (with the nicest conference room I've presented in in the last five years), which is supposedly one of the best restaurants in Moscow. It's an Italian restaurant, of course, and it was, well, pretty good. I had a margherita pizza that was good on top but typically undercooked on the bottom, and John had a smoked salmon and red caviar pizza that tasted like, he said, smoked salmon and red caviar. For dinner we ate at Soup, a trendy basement place open 24 hours with lots of smoke, sullen waiters, and a "soft room" with comfy chairs and sofas and a 20% markup. (They could also have called it the "date room" or the "make-out room.") On the plus side, it had an extensive English-language menu (yeah, you try reading a Cyrillic menu in a language you don't understand with virtually no cognates with English or French) of soups and lots of other things, and a handy little symbol indicating what was vegetarian. I had borscht (hot - they had cold as well), which was excellent, and pasta with spinach pesto and red peppers, which was generally edible. John had a potato-leek-mussel soup that he liked, a veal sausage that wasn't so great, and Leffe (a Belgian beer), which he liked a lot.

The other reasonably satisfying food option was blini, thin pancakes either served on a plate with toppings, or folded in wedges around a filling to eat as a sandwich. After our 4-1/2-hour meeting on Saturday afternoon (Russian consultants work a lot more even than American ones), Sergey and Svetlana from our partner took us the Teremok located in the Okhotny Ryad underground shopping mall near the Kremlin, where I had a salmon and an apple blini (those are two separate things), and John had a red caviar and a ham and cheese. Neither was spectacular, and the salmon was pretty dry, though the apple one was vaguely like a French crepe.

Other than that the food was pretty miserable, even to the point where John and I decided that TGI Friday's was one of the more promising options near our hotel. And I have never, ever eaten at a TGI Friday's in the United States.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Paris, La Defense, Courbevoie

March 7-10, 2006

Lina's - 1 star
CNIT building, La Defense

La Brasserie du Faubourg - 0 stars

L'Estivals - 2 stars
58, rue Montorgueil, 2eme

Poilane - 3 stars
8, rue du Cherche-Midi, 6eme

Cacao et Chocolat - 1 star
29, rue de Buci, 6eme

Au Vin des Rues - 2 stars
21, rue Boulard, 14eme

Berthillon - 3 stars
Ile St. Louis, 4eme

Gerard Mulot - 3 stars
76, rue de Seine 16eme

Perre Herme - 3 stars
72, rue Bonaparte, 6eme

It's amazing how much polite cheerfulness there is in the high-end retail sector in Paris. Everywhere you go you get a "bonjour monsieur" and a "je peux vous aider?," and then you get a "merci monsieur" when you hand over your money, another with your change, and another with your actual goods, all capped off with an "au revoir" and a "bonne journee" on the way out the door. Sometimes you even get the long forms, as in "je vous remercie" (that would be like saying "I thank you" instead of "thanks"), or "je vous souhaite une bonne journee" ("I wish you a good day"). All provided by perfectly dressed, thin French women with such cheerful smiles you feel like you really made their day just by buying a croissant. (Of course, the opposite is true of cafe waiters, who are almost exclusively men - is there a connection there?)

And all this in a city that I think no one would characterize as either particularly friendly or particularly happy. Looking back, it's clear to me now that I was depressed when I lived in Paris - not surprising, given that I was a graduate student with uncertain prospects, not a lot of money, and not many friends in the city besides other graduate students in similar circumstances, in a city whose architecture is always monotonous and gray and whose weather is the same for most of the year. So these days when I do go I try to place a premium on enjoying myself, which usually involves some combination of food and soccer, since Paris is where I first started watching professional soccer.

Plan A was to leave on Saturday (a Saturday night "stay" saves you about $1,000 in airfare), arrive late on Sunday afternoon, check in, and go straight to the Parc des Princes to watch PSG-OM (that's Paris-St. Germain vs. Olympique Marseille), one of the classic matches of the French soccer season. As it turns out, the match was moved to 4 PM for security reasons, and Marseille sent their reserve team in what was essentially a huge snub to PSG (and the reserves even managed a draw). More importantly, though, I moved my flight back by two days because my dog fell ill again.

As you may know, Dauber almost died last May from an acute attack of pancreatitis that required a stay in the ICU, and we only nursed him back to health by feeding him a few tablespoons of egg whites, potato, or boiled chicken every two hours (any more food at once and he would throw up). As recently as Sunday a week before I left, he was walking four miles a day (an hour in the morning, half an hour in the early afternoon, and an hour in the late afternoon.) But he threw up Tuesday, started throwing up regularly on Friday morning, couldn't even keep water down by the afternoon, and threw up green bile every few hours starting Friday evening. So at 3 AM we took him to the hospital so he could get an IV and pain medication. When we visited him on Saturday night he was stable but still weak, but it seemed likely that he would survive, and by Sunday evening he actually seemed angry to be there (the doctor reported that he kicked the food they offered him out of his cage). So we brought him home on Sunday night and took turns feeding him egg white and potato overnight.

By Monday morning, when I flew to Paris, it was clear that he would still be alive when I came back, and during the week I was away he got stronger and stronger, although he is still a long way from recovered. And so I began the fourth of five consecutive weeks of travel.

Because I missed PSG-OM, there was mainly just food for entertainment, although for the second year in a row I did manage to make my one trip to Europe during a Champions League week, which meant I could watch the last 20 minutes of Barcelona-Chelsea (the other 70 minutes were sacrificed to work) and a monumental goal by Ronaldinho, and most of the 4-0 clinic Lyon put on against PSV Eindhoven (DaMarcus Beasley's team, for those American fans). Watching real soccer, and hearing the sound of a soccer crowd, makes the variety we have in the U.S. seem slow, boring, and unimportant.

As for the food, I'll pass quickly over Tuesday, which I spent working in the hotel at La Defense, headlined by a passable tuna sandwich for lunch and a truly bad salade nicoise (beets? carrots?) for dinner at one of the omnipresent bar/bistro/brasserie/restaurants. The sales call was Wednesday afternoon, so lunch was a cafe sandwich (one of those times when it's tough to be a semi-vegetarian, because you can't eat the croque-monsieur for old time's sake). Tim, John, and I did have a moderately good dinner at L'Estivals on rue Montorgueil, the pedestrian zone just north of St. Eustache (at the west end of Les Halles), where the rouget with olive oil and basil was light and only slightly overcooked (although the tarte tatin was rather sloppy and had those inedible bits of the apple surrounding the core). Tim and John needed to rush off to the airport, so we didn't have time to find a more distinguished restaurant.

Thursday, though, was the day for making the tour of my favorite places. I began at Poilane with a croissant au beurre and a tartelette aux pommes. The best thing at Poilane is the bread, a pain au levain so dense and flavorful it makes everything else seem pale by comparison, even Acme in Berkeley (the second-best bread in the world), but the croissants do melt in your mouth like fresh butter (which, basically, is what they are). Cacao et Chocolat was actually disappointing this time - the hot chocolate too syrupy and sweet, the cake also sweet and rather uninspired.

I usually try to eat at least once in Denfert-Rochereau, my old neighborhood, at one of the restaurants I didn't go to as a student because I didn't have enough money. This time it was Au Vin des Rues, a very typical wine bar - small and moderately smoky (Paris seems less smoky in general than twelve years ago, which I guess is progress), where most of the people know each other, and with a menu heavily focused on meat - which is not so great if you don't eat land animals. (The salad with soft goat cheese even came with sliced duck breast.) The herring filets and the salad were hardly the best things I could have found for lunch in Paris, but they still exhibited the kind of care you have to pay a lot for in the U.S. - real French salad dressing (not that balsamic vinaigrette nonsense that is all the rage in the U.S.), buttery leaves of lettuce, etc.

After lunch, and a coffee break on the boulevard Montparnasse, I made my pilgrimage to Berthillon, whose sorbets count as my favorite food in the entire world - probably followed by the pizza in Naples, and bruschetta made the right way. They don't have wild strawberry until April, so I tried blood orange instead, and when it exploded on my tongue I decided I liked it even more than wild strawberry. Imagine the best blood orange you've ever had, and then imagine it about ten times as as concentrated, with enough sugar to balance its natural tartness. Per ounce, of course, you pay about 10 times as much as you do at Ben and Jerry's in the U.S., but it's entirely worth it.

The final stops were at Mulot for a wild strawberry tarte and at Herme for macaroons to bring home - chocolate, coffee, chocolate/coffee, rose petal, grapefruit, and passion fruit. The tarte was actually slightly disappointing because it didn't quite live up to my high hopes for it, but it still had that crust with pastry cream melting into it that you just don't find at home, at least not often.

There isn't much to say for Friday, which I spent flying home, except that the croissants you get in the train stations in Paris are better than any you can find in the U.S. (even in Berkeley), where they are uniformly too dry and too fluffy, and generally too much like bread. And Dulles finally has a passable place to eat, though it's a bit pricy - Vino e Volo, a wine bar with decent appetizers and snacks, and drinkable glasses of wine starting at $6, next to gate C4.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport: French Meadows Cafe

Grilled Cheese Sandwich - 2 stars
$6.99 with green salad
February 22, 2006

Every so often life surprises you. I just had the best meal I can remember having in an airport, on my layover flying back from Milwaukee, in the F concourse at MSP (which, in general, has very good food for an American airport). The French Meadows Cafe is an all- or mostly-organic sandwich shop (with assorted other things, like organic bananas, various pastries that look like they were designed by an unreconstructed tie-dye-wearing Berkeley hippie), and organic, shade-grown coffee. I was expecting my sandwich wrapped up in a bag to eat on the plane, but instead it came on a plate with a salad made from organic mixed lettuces and only a shade too much of the ubiquitous balsamic vinaigrette. (Did you know that in Italy, balsamic vinegar is rarely if ever used in salad dressing? But I digress.)

The sandwich itself was two thick slices of cheese layered around sliced tomato and what seemed like roasted red pepper strips, grilled between two slices of what claimed to be pain au levain and came reasonably close. Except for a bit too much of a sharp mustard, it was one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I've ever had - not too cheesy, not too greasy, with a nice accent in the peppers and good character in the bread. It was almost a shame to hurry through the sandwich to catch my flight back home.

So why, you may ask, am I reviewing a grilled cheese sandwich? Well, I recently decided to stop eating land animals, including birds (although I am reserving an exception for anything cooked by my mother, because I can't bear to tell her). In a remarkable stroke of timing, I made this decision just before three consecutive weeks of sales calls in the South and Midwest (Louisville last week, Wisconsin this week, Des Moines next week), and then a fourth week in Paris, which I will have to spend eating nothing but bread, cheese, pastries, and sorbet at Berthillon (4 stars, if anything ever deserved it).

The sales call, like last week's, was about as much fun as a sales call can be: really nice people, good questions, no posturing, and further confirmation that they (meaning the entire industry out there) want what we've got. There are dark moments in any sales cycle, such as when the prospects insist on focusing on the tiny gaps in your product, they complain that it can't be implemented in six days, or the mammoth and universally-recognized company that pretends to be your partner competes against you, fails miserably due to a combination of arrogance, incompetence, and shoddy products, and finally goes and stabs you in the back out of desperation (but that's ok, because white-hot burning stab-them-in-the-guts-and-crank-out-their-entrails-with-a-food-mill hatred is a perfectly good motivator when you're tired, far from home, and cramped into a middle seat on an airplane with woefully inadequate legroom) ... but what was I talking about, anyway? Oh yes: today was a pretty good day, and I really liked these people.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Cambridge, MA: Bartley's

Mitt Romney Turkey Burger - 2 stars
about $9 with onion rings
January 25, 2006

Cambridge, MA: Pinocchio's
Chicken Parmigiano Sub - 2 stars
about $4 (small)
December 5, 2005

Worcester, MA: Crowne Plaza Hotel Room Service
Chipotle Chicken Sandwich - 1 star
about $8 with fries or fresh fruit
January 23, 2006

Worcester, MA: Prospect Cafeteria
Chicken Breast with Spinach and Roasted Tomato Sandwich - 0 stars
about $5

San Francisco Airport: Boudin Bakery
Turkey and Avocado Sandwich - 1 star

One of the few redeeming characteristics of business travel is the occasional opportunity to visit people and places that you haven't seen in a while. On my last trip to Massachusetts in early December, I made sure to stop at Pinocchio's, the favored late-night haunt of my rooming group in college. The thin-crust pizza is still excellent - even better than the best substitute I can find in California, which is Gioia in Berkeley. The chicken parmigiano sub was not quite as good as the steak and cheese subs of my memory, but still one of the reasons to live in New England.

Of which there aren't many, as I recalled on this trip. On Monday morning, I woke up in my hotel near Logan to three inches of snow on my car and thick blankets of enormous snowflakes floating lazily down onto the roads, with 70 miles to drive to the prospect's offices over slushy roads partially blocked by accidents. The afternoon at the prospect was relatively uneventful - the chicken sandwich was one of those combinations that probably sounded good to someone who doesn't understand food very well (a lot of those in New England), but didn't realize that a few spinach leaves actually have no flavor, and roasted tomatoes are actually sour more than anything else.

The real adventure was that evening, when I had to buy a hub or switch for the next day. I set out for the Radio Shack that should have been 3 miles away, according to Google Maps. To summarize, the round trip took one hour and twenty minutes. First I got lost on the streets of central Worcester, but by driving in the general direction I needed I found Grafton St., which the Radio Shack was on. Then I drove into a rotary, took a guess at where to come out, went a quarter mile to a fork, guessesd at the left fork, drove for a couple miles, and turned around. Then I went through the rotary again, went out a different street, drove for a few miles, turned around, went back to the rotary, and asked for directions at a 7-11. Those directions took me back to the fork, so I stopped there and for directions in a pizza store. I must have misinterpreted those directions, because this time I took a right at the fork and drove about 5 miles before stopping at an intersection and asking for directions again. This time I got accurate directions to Radio Shack via a different route, found it, and bought my switch. However, because I didn't realize my current orientation, I now left Radio Shack the wrong way and drove away from Worcester for about 5 miles before stopping at a Dunkin' Donuts and asking for directions. Finally I arrived back in Worcester, drove slightly aimlessly through a few abandoned streets, and eventually found my hotel.

The only other time I can recall being significantly lost in the last five years was in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, so I blame this on New England streets. On my analysis, the key issues are these:
1. Rotaries
2. Rotaries with unlabeled streets
3. Rotaries where a given named street (e.g., Grafton) enters at one end but is not the street that exits 180 degrees opposite (Hamilton in my case)
4. Winding roads in general
5. The general principle that at any intersection you only label the smaller street, so you can never find out what street you are currently on
6. Snow, which makes quick U-turns risky

I guess I'm just a Californian.

From a travel and dining perspective, the rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, apart from working past midnight every night, forgetting my favorite sweatpants and sweatshirt in the hotel in Worcester, and drinking so much green tea (by the way, in Worcester you need to bring your own green tea bags) that my hands were trembling most of the time I was presenting. The hotel's room service was surprisingly edible.

The highlight of the trip was dinner at Bartley's in Harvard Square on Wednesday night. Bartley's is a landmark, as they say - small, old, cash-only, frequented at one time or another by numerous luminaries, and packed, even on a Wednesday night between semesters. The Mitt Romney burger (can't stand the guy, actually) has Swiss cheese and grilled onions, and though it probably would have gotten 3 stars in its cow-based version, was still highly satisfying, and I even splurged on a strawberry frappe, since even if you can get a milkshake in California, they don't call it a frappe (rhymes with wrap). So something good did come out of all of this.