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Category Archives: Restaurants
A couple of weeks ago, during a pleasant weekend in the country, my friends took me to one of those garden-centre-come-overpriced gift-shop-come-expensive-interior-design–come-a-bit-of-everything sort of places – I believe the correct name is shopping village. (Who thought that one up?) In this shopping so-called village there were two restaurants, both heaving. When we finally got to sit down in one we ordered a perfectly adequate meal of the baked-potato-with-toppings and soup-and-a-roll variety. Not a Michelin star in sight; that was fine. We weren’t expecting gourmet.
What wasn’t fine was the sheer effrontery of the place. When it was time to choose a pudding (I will not call it a dessert in this context) each of the three items on the menu stated - and I quote – ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream’. I’m not sure what prompted me to check, apart from my suspicious nature or perhaps my passion for words and the English language. For whatever reason, I asked the waiter to confirm that these items came as part of the pudding.
‘Oh no,’ I was told. ‘They are extras.’
‘But it says ‘comes with,’ I protested. ‘That means they are part of the dish.’
‘Oh no,’ he repeated, ‘you have to pay extra.’
‘It says,’ I insisted ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream.’
‘It does come with them, ‘ he answered, ‘but you have to pay for them.’
Arguing was pointless since he didn’t get the point. I gave up. I did, however, draw the offending text to the attention of the owner, assuming it was some sort of typo. He didn’t exactly apologise just acknowledged my comment and thanked me in a lukewarm sort of way. Which was somewhat cancelled out when he sauntered up to our table and said that I was the first person who had remarked on the wording in eight years. Any hopes of a goodwill gesture – ‘so sorry, have the custard/cream/ice cream on us’ was obviously out of the question.
Eight years! Jeez! He’d been getting away with that for eight years. At least. If this sounds a bit of an extreme reaction on my part, let me tell you there was more. The pudding selection consisted of three items on the menu. With prices. Plus a selection of cakes not on the menu but displayed in a case. With no prices. The bill wasn’t itemised. How did you know that your bill was accurate? You didn’t. Bad as that is from a trading standards perspective, the thing that bothers me just as much is the general ignorance about the use of English.
These days, while there are still many people who care passionately about the use of language, there are far more who don’t. Some from indifference. Even more through no fault of their own but rather as a result of failures in our system of education. So, why should any of them care anyway? What does it matter after all? It matters. Language is constantly evolving, which is a good thing. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is clear communication. That’s what grammar is all about. Clarity. The placement of a comma affects the entire meaning of a sentence. Sloppy language can signal sloppy thinking. It could lose you a job or, in the case of my grammatically challenged restaurant owner, a visit from the trading standards officer.There are many great books on the subject. Just to cite a few examples there is the splendid Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Troublesome Words and my bible, English Today, by the redoubtable Ronald Ridout.
Admittedly the tin’s made of 24-carat gold. Even without the gold, a smaller tin will set you back £800. However, It’s not just posh foods that are graced with the ‘most expensive’ label. Hot dogs, bagels, baked potatoes, sandwiches, pizza, frittata – they’ve all qualified. Usually because of the addition of something glamorous like gold dust or truffles. A bit like sticking jewels onto your trainers. As PG tips did – not of course with their trainers but with the world’s most expensive tea bag. Created to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary it was decorated with 280 diamonds and is worth £7,500.
Unbelievably extravagant? It’s almost insignificant compared to the world’s most expensive water. A 1.25 ml bottle of Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani went for $60,000. Designed by Fernando Altamirano, it’s coated with 24-carat gold. If you missed the charity auction, and have $3.3 million lying around in your sock drawer, there’s a ‘dummy’ version in various precious metals studded with 6,000 diamonds.
This ‘world’s most expensive’ label is not easy to establish. There are claims and counter claims. It’s not a level playing field either. One thing’s priced by the bottle, something else by the ounce and so on. The only real benchmark is the Guinness Book of World Records and even those entries are constantly changing. In it or not, there are some wonderful finds, like these two exceptional cheeses. It’s not their rarity or price tags that make them so fascinating, though at around $500 and $616 per pound respectively they’re hardly cheap. No the real joy lies in the fact that Sweden’s Moose House Farm cheese contains the milk from three unusually tame moose. They answer to the names of Gullan, Haelga and Juna! Can’t say that about your average cheddar! As for Pule, it’s produced from the milk of 100 Serbian donkeys. And costs 1,000 Euros a kilo.
Not all highly priced foods are exotic and rare. Saffron, derived from the crocus, is reasonably common. Yet it takes up to 75,000 flowers to make one pound, accounting for the price of up to $5,000 dollars. The most expensive potato, La Bonnotte is grown uniquely on one French island, Noirmoutier. Melons are commonplace in Europe, rare in Japan. Which accounts for the $6,100 paid for a 17 lb. black Densuke watermelon. A pair of Yubari cantaloupes, auctioned in 2008, slaughtered that record fetching a mighty $22,872. And this September, Sotheby’s Manhattan showroom held an auction not of Old Masters, but of vegetables! Some expected to reach $1,000 a case.
Incidentally some ‘ordinary’ foods do make the Guinness Book of World Records. There’s Chef Blunos’ £111 cheese sandwich and the $69 hot dog from Manhattan’s Serendipity 3 restaurant. Domenico Crolla’s Pizza Royale 007 is a contender too, at $4,200. Serendipity’s Frrrozen Haute Chocolate Sundae definitely made it with its £15,730 price tag. From $1000 bagels and frittatas to beer at £500 a bottle, the world of gourmet eating seems in fine shape to me. Did someone say credit crunch!
Or indeed several cats. Most apartment buildings in Japan don’t allow residents to keep pets. Some do but they are at the expensive end of the market. The astute, cat-loving Japanese have come with the ideal solution. Cat cafės. Here in the U.K. we now have therapy dogs and cats that visit residential homes – perhaps we could make their presence more permanent in day centres and care homes. Of course there is a question of hygiene, but cats are clean creatures and the Japanese seem to manage in a café so why not in a day centre. As to health and safety, I’m sure most folks would rather injure themselves tripping over a cat than lying neglected in a bed. Besides, cats are clever. They’d get out of the way.
So went the lyrics to the hit of 1925, sung by Waring’s Pennsylvanians, the Six Jumping Jacks and even later by the likes of Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. In those days ice cream came in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and other fruit based flavours. You might perhaps have found coffee flavour or caramel. But not Kentucky Fried Chicken, even though it was America.
How things change
Today you’ll find ice cream in every flavour under the sun. Doc Burnsteins Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo, California offers such tempting delights as Merlot raspberry truffle (made with real wine), rainbow sorbet and egg nogg, besides birthday cake and motor oil. Not mixed together – though even that wouldn’t’ surprise me. These are two separate flavours; the latter made from dark chocolate, Kaluha and fudge.
Hardly weird at all
We’ve become so used to strange and unusual foods that some have become almost normal. The flavours run the whole gamut from breakfast to dinner, or as they say in the States, from soup to nuts. Cornflake ice cream is quite delicious and does actually taste of cornflakes. Heston’s bacon and egg ice cream is positively old hat – nowadays you get bacon with everything including chocolate so having it pop up in an ice cream is no big deal. Sausage and mash, Brussels sprouts, spinach, salad – no I’m not making this up.
Familiar – but still pretty weird
In this category I class the flavours that seem to be having an identity crisis. Some of them are a bit of a cheat to tell the truth. Because they’re meant to be savoury accompaniments – like the garlic ice cream that’s served with steak. I’m not sure that the same excuse can be made for fish and, chips, pizza, haggis and Yorkshire pud flavours to say nothing of cheeseburger (with fries.) Ye Gods! Nor for Coronation chicken, octopus, smoked salmon, sardines with brandy and spaghetti with cheese. All are ices available in a variety of restaurants and emporiums – not just in far flung places without the law but in our own dear London town.
Not so much weird as really icky
Now we come to those that are not so much having an identity crisis as heading straight for the asylum. Fancy some breast milk ice cream? Selling as Baby Gaga, this offering, from London’s The Icecreamists, uses fresh donations from the public – oh yum! Of course you could always help things along a bit, in a roundabout sort of way, by sampling some Sex Pistol ice cream. Also known as ‘Viagra’ ice cream it’s electric green, contains stimulants such as ginkgo, arginine and guarana and comes with a shot of Absinthe. And you’re only allowed one a day. It figures.
Not yucky enough? A nice dish of spleen and artichoke, perhaps? Or whatabout Japanese Basashi, which replaces the more normal cookie or chocolate chunks with lumps of horsemeat. Enough to make you break out into a cold sweat? Not to worry – you can get that too. Well, it’s more the effect than the flavour since Jalapeno or ‘Cold Sweat’, from North Carolina, is made from some of the hottest peppers known to man. You’ll be required to sign a waiver because, and I quote “what is painful going in, might be painful upon exit.” Ouch! Puts those song lyrics in a completely different light, doesn’t it!
From Ansbach to Yokota wherever you find a US military base, you’ll find a McDonalds.
US Military bases dot the globe – army, navy and air force. Spreading the Stars and Stripes the way Britain’s Empire once coloured the map red. And where you’ll find the Stars and Stripes you’ll also find McDonalds and Burger King, Wendy’s and a host of others. Some in the most unlikely places.
McDonalds have been at Guantanamo Bay since 1986. The first and only one in Cuba. Other franchises followed. Subway, KFC, A&W, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Starbucks. It’s said that if prisoners co-operate they’re rewarded with Happy Meals. If that’s true, then they have a privilege not accorded to the Cubans. For these eateries are all off-limits to the indigenous population. A minefield and the ‘cactus curtain’ stand between the base and Cuban soil. OK, it’s not a curtain as such but it is a cactus barrier planted with the express purpose of keeping the Cubans out, akin to the Berlin Wall or the West Bank barrier.
The base at Guantanamo is not unique. From Afghanistan to Guam, Iraq to Kazakhstan you’ll find little pieces of downtown USA, close to romantic cities such as Heidelberg, on remote Pacific islands and plonked in the middle of deserts. Bagram Air base is a typical example with its multiple bus routes, more than 30,000 inhabitants, PXes, Internet cafes, fast food outlets – and let’s not forget the barracks and the trappings of war.
Leaving aside the vast and complex question of the US military presence, why this need to replicate their culture and specifically their food culture? Granted local produce isn’t always available or desirable in a war zone, given the current paranoia that sees a terrorist behind every crate of carrots. Nevertheless, even in Iraq steaks, squash and fresh romaine lettuce are brought miles across the dangerous desert so that the troops can eat hearty, healthy food. So what’s with the fast food? Especially since the first warning US troops often get in Baghdad isn’t about being blown up by IEDs but ending up with PCPs: “pervasive combat paunches”.
Is this yet another example of the McDonaldization of the world? It may look like it at first. Go a little deeper and the argument doesn’t stand up. The bases are off limits to locals unless of course they are part of the workforce. That’s no way to spread the word – or the stomach. Then again, not all US operated bases are filled with fast food franchises. Some, like Afghan-run ones, are more basic; in some cases consisting of no more than a cluster of mud and stone buildings.
Gastronomic outposts are nothing new. It all started long before Ronald McDonald flipped his first burger. In the Second World War, the Americans flew cakes and cookies to the troops and during the Viet Nam war huge recreational facilities were set up on the beaches. At one time the US operated its own autobahn rest stops in Germany, where GIs could get gas and a burger. Once more, these were off limits to locals.
Many Americans enjoy European, Asian and other ethnic foods. Besides, throughout the world, McDonalds has adapted its ‘burgers’ to other cultures. Almost certainly driven by commercial imperatives, and giving the lie to any imperial ambitions. In India, in deference to the Hindu religion, the chicken based Maharaja Mac replaces the Big Mac. In parts of Canada there’s the McLobster roll. Japan has totally reinvented McDonalds with its shrimp burgers and mashed potato and cabbage burgers. In Chile you can substitute avocado paste for ketchup. In Greece pita bread replaces the bun, in Israel it’s kosher, in the Middle East halal.
What’s really going on? As long ago as 1987, in testimony before a House Subcommittee, Admiral Rodney Squibb told congress that on-base fast-food restaurants not only generate millions of dollars in ‘recreational’ funds for servicemen but also boost morale among the troops. It seems Congress agreed with him and for nearly thirty years the presence of fast food franchises on US bases has just grown and grown. In war zones, in particular, fast food such as McDonalds act as “comfort” foods in what is often a very frightening environment. Studies are now finding a rising number of cases of new-onset depression in combat-deployed troops; the availability of such familiar fare back at the base may help soldiers adapt and provide an antidote to feelings of gloom and dejection.
There’s no doubt that morale is crucial, but there is another equally compelling argument. Recruitment. Today’s US military is not a conscription army; it’s a volunteer army. In the past, standards were low and pay was poor. The generation who served in Vietnam and Korea had to clean toilets, polish brass and peel spuds. There was nothing they could do about it except get on with the job. It’s all very different nowadays.
Today’s young recruits were raised in a world of iPods and the Internet. They’re the Xbox and Wal-Mart generation. They expect, and get, creature comforts and that includes Big-Mac’s and pizzas. If they don’t get them, there’s nothing to stop them walking when their term is up. In a four-year period the US government spends an average of $100,000 on training a soldier (and the figures are similar for the other services). It’s in its interest to keep the troops happy. Should a recruit not re-enlist, not only is that money down the drain but it will cost another $100,000 to train a replacement. So what if it costs $6,000, $8,000 or even $15,000 more– do the math!
Nevertheless, according to Sgt. Major Michael Hall, General McChrystal’s top enlisted advisor, that’s all about to change – in Afghanistan, at least. ‘This is a war zone’ he wrote in his blog earlier this year ‘not an amusement park.’ His reasons have nothing to do with diet or morale or even recruitment. It’s about the resources involved in getting those burgers, fries, pizzas and nuggets to the bases. Mothballing Burger King and the rest will free up prime storage space, more essential than ever with nearly 40,000 additional coalition forces heading for Afghanistan. Equally important, it will make it easier to get essential supplies to the front line.
Judging by the furious reaction on the Internet, they’ll have a job pushing this policy through. The consensus being that the troops need and deserve their treats. I’m cynical enough to believe that ordinary people’s opinion counts for very little with the powers that be. However, in seeking to shut down these concessions, the US military may find it has a different fight on its hands. One some say it can’t win. For it’s up against an opponent mightier than the Pentagon, mightier than the White House – the almighty US dollar. Who constructed the bases? Who manages them? Who decides what goes on there? Not the military and not Ronald McDonald. Not even Uncle Sam. Powerful corporations built, maintain and provision US overseas bases. It will take more than a General to shut them up.
Footnote: In March 2010, in spite of the furious reaction on the Internet and elsewhere, General McChrystal imposed a ban on the franchises. It didn’t last long; nor did he. When he resigned in June last year for being rude about the Administration, his successor Gen. David Petraeus wasted little time in reversing the ban.
© Clodagh Phelan 2/9/10 – this article first appeared on Eat Me Magazine’s blog.
Alice would be at quite at home in these whacky restaurants!
In Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, Alice sipped from the bottle labelled ‘Drink Me’ and grew smaller and smaller. ‘Eat Me’, enticed the cake – one bite and she grew bigger and bigger. But that was fantasy right? Well, maybe, but I tell you, there are some weird and wonderful things happening out there in restaurant land. They’d challenge anything that Alice found down the rabbit hole.
In true ‘Wonderland’ style, the owner of the Spirite in Montreal is, by all accounts, more than a little loopy. Don’t bother to ask for a menu – chef cooks only one dish and that’s vegetarian. Portions come in two sizes and with one proviso. You have to eat up; if you don’t clean your plate, you won’t get any pudding. Yes, really! And if you don’t eat all your pudding – then you’re barred for life. Crazy? Perhaps. But people still flock there! Maybe they like the restaurant’s mission – to draw attention to world hunger and food waste. Or happen they’re just masochists.
Chew Chew in Sydney adds a whole new meaning to the expression ‘doggy bag’. Here the rule is ‘dogs only’, though cats are allowed in after 2pm. Humans are welcome to eat with their pets but must get their food from the café next door. At Zauo, a fish restaurant in Fukuoka, you’re offered a rod, so you can catch your own meal. The pool’s well stocked so, even if you’re no fisherman, you won’t go hungry. At the Taj Banjara in Hyderabad you can choose your dishes according to your blood group. Great for vampires, although they may prefer to fly to Japan to dine at Nyotaimori. Named after the tradition of eating sushi and sashimi off a naked woman, it’s a vampire’s paradise. The ‘body’ is offered on a hospital trolley, the hostess makes the first cut in the dough skin with in the scalpel, then the patrons join in. There’s plenty of ‘blood’ and the organs are edible.
Did you know that there’s a McDonalds, a Subway and a Starbucks at Guantanamo Bay! How’s that for surreal? Admittedly they serve the military personnel on the base but, apparently, if the internees behave themselves they are sometimes treated to a Big Mac. They don’t say if they’re allowed fries!
At the Ostfriesland Hotel in Norden, Germany you have to get on the scales before they’ll let you in. The Black Frog in Maine offers a free sandwich if you’re prepared to strip off and skinny dip. There’s a restaurant in Japan where you’re served by real monkeys and a pub in Britain where they confiscate your shoes. Toilet themed restaurants, birth control restaurants, dining in the dark or suspended in the sky – think of something crazy, you’ll find someone’s got there first. And yes, there is an Alice themed venue. More than one, in fact. You’ll find them in Tokyo and Manhattan. The former comes complete with a Glass World and Fantasy Forest. As far as I know, no one’s has disappeared down a rabbit hole. Yet!
© Clodagh Phelan 8/2010 This article first appeared on the Eat Me Magazine blog