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Fat Guy

Does Italy lack culinary relevance?

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Gavin, that's an interesting adaptation from the Gambero Rosso. Marcus, there isn't any reliable printed source for restaurants in terms of leading you to the best. I think the Gambero Rosso restaurant is, as Francesco pretty much said, better than many French three-star restaurants (based on my one meal). I think there are a lot of concepts buzzing around here that we haven't come to grips with yet such as why art-loving people prefer eating in Italy (because there is so much art one must see there); why the major tourist cities have so few really good restaurants, and, as Gavin brings up, why the foostuffs in Italy, which are the freshest and thus the best, don't count as much as razzamatazz in discussions of where one goes to experience the best food.

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So anyone who claims terroir as king should reject haute cuisine as a betrayal of the foundation. A step into an aesthetic abysss.

Gavin - Well that's the type of argument the one with the "old fashioned" way of doing things would pitch wouldn't they? They might also say that airplane travel might be more efficient but travel by luxury liner is the "only way to travel" and "real travelers" only travel on the seas. So that's just nothing more than marketing.

I think there are a lot of concepts buzzing around here that we haven't come to grips with yet such as why art-loving people prefer eating in Italy (because there is so much art one must see there); why the major tourist cities have so few really good restaurants, and, as Gavin brings up, why the foostuffs in Italy, which are the freshest and thus the best, don't count as much as razzamatazz in discussions of where one goes to experience the best food

Robert - How come they all have weekend homes in the Berkshires and not the Hamptons?

The reason the major cities don't have good restaurants has to be because of economics. The reason that people don't talk about the freshest and best foodstuffs is because there is nothing to talk about. I had great chestnuts and carrots from the greenmarket last week. What is there to say about them aside from they were fantastic? But the way that the restaurant I ate in prepared them, now there was something to talk about. This is why the French are dominent. They changed what the meal was about. They added all kinds of layers of preparation and service to the mix in order to create something called a "dining experience." And a star chef is just one, but probably the most important component of the dining experience. And as Francesco asked, the real question is why has Italy failed to produce star chefs who transform Italian cuisine in a way that makes us as interested in the fine dining they offer as we are about fine dining in France?

I believe that people who are interested in fine dining, as we are defining it here, have pretty much written Italy off their list as a destination for that purpose. I mean I did after my last grand meal there which I took at Al Sorriso in 1998. As someone here said, not even as good as most of the Michelin two stars. And it has three stars! And meals I've had since then at restaurants in the Alba region continue to confirm that opinion. The food can be very good, but there is no brilliance to the cooking in the same way you find at countless places in France. But the dichotomy is, and I think that Marcus is in the same place as me, we find it hard to believe that is the case. In a country where the simple food can be so delicious, how the hell haven't they been able to produce a chef who can add the extra layer of technique to the experience?

I think whomever said that the cooking was left for women was onto something. But I don't think it's really a matter of men or women, I think the issue is the quality of people who enter the workforce as cooks. In France, being a cook meant becoming a respected member of the workforce. I'm not sure that chefs have the same social status in Italy. Look at how many qualified men and women in the U.S. and Britain became chefs over the last 30 years because the way we perceived chefs changed. Prior to 1970, did chefs have college degrees? I can think of three off the top of my head that are graduates of the best universities in the world. Is there an equivelent to this in Italy? The other issue that hasn't been dealt with is the general conservative nature of Italian society. Whether you point to the Church, or the fact that they had a fascist government, or even that stupid defense their soccer team insists on playing while they keep some of the most talented offensive players in the world harnessed, they don't really love change.

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or even that stupid defense their soccer team insists on playing while they keep some of the most talented offensive players in the world harnessed, they don't really love change.

So Italy is stuck with culinary catenaccio? Cool.

:smile:

Adam

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Antica Osteria del Ponte outside of Milan, my wife and I paid him a visit. During the meal I said, "I bet he worked at Georges Blanc and Moulin de Mougins". When Santin came to our table, I asked him where he had worked. Sure enough he said Blanc and Mougins.

That's EXACTLY my point. I want to the Antica and did not think it was wonderful at all, it was quite good but not really what I wanted. I wanted 'Italian food as it is cooked in Italy', and this was not it. This was quasi-French food as cooked in Italy. Locatelli's for me is the same - he studied at Torre D'Argent so it's 'French food with a touch of Italian as cooked in London'!!.

I'm not knocking it and I am not saying that people who love this food are wrong - I am simply saying it is not Italian food is all.

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The other issue that hasn't been dealt with is the general conservative nature of Italian society.

I think that's a key point. As someone said a couple of pages ago, Italy was only unified as a country very recently in historical terms. It has always needed to maintain unifying influences and that need means you can only experiment and change in a limited number of public arenas. Italy chose fashion and design as the areas in which to fly free. And food and football remained as symbols of a kind of pan-Italian conservatism

As Steve pointed out you can have players in the Italian football team from Milan and Naples and points in between -but the team always plays in the same cautious,conservative way and the regional differences are played right down.

Change and experimentation in this context becomes a threat to unity and leads to cries from the likes of Peter P. when faced with new ideas

that this or that is not "real" Italian food. Maybe Italy's concept of itself as unified entity is more fragile than we think and as a reult it is still more concerned with culinary consolidation rather than experimentation.

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Change and experimentation in this context becomes a threat to unity and leads to cries from the likes of Peter P. when faced with new ideas

that this or that is not "real" Italian food.

Apart from the fact that I think you are talking pretentious claptrap (sounds good though) I say always 'Italian food as served in Italy' got it Tony: 'Italian food as served in Italy' . And change is good as is invention but what's wrong with the old favourites? After all we all love a great Sunday lunch with the roast or a good Pizza or a 23 Oz Porterhouse as served in America.

I am not against new ideas and I like 'Italian food as served in Italy' .

Write on the blackboard a 100 times......

ps please do not misquote me and please do not speak on my behalf 'leads to cries from...' it doesn't.

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Could it be that, outside Italy, Italian cuisine is thought of as 'cheap' (let's face it there are many cheap Italian and Pizzerias around - very few, if any, French) and this tends to colour the opinion generally of Italian cuisine?

It could be, and probably is, true, but it's a complete answer. Italy really doesn't lack culinary relevance except to those who define relevance as something else. The topic question is not so much a question as an indictment of the "have you stopped beating your wife" sort.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Especially the Antipasti Tray with up to 30 different (and wonderfully fresh) antipasti which you very rarely get outside of Italy..

So how does one apply 'relevant' 'French' technique to the antipasti.

Make a terrine?

I will assume this has been said without eating the salumi at Craft Bar or perhaps without reading Steingarten's recent article in the US edition of Vogue magazine on Italian salumi. All of that could easily be served at French restaurant of any class. Michel Guerard had no trouble serving slices of andouille as an amuse bouche.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Italy really doesn't lack culinary relevance except to those who define relevance as something else. The topic question is not so much a question as an indictment of the "have you stopped beating your wife" sort.

I agree, Bux. That was the drift of my light-hearted remarks about Guam. We could pick any one of hundreds of countries and bellyache about why they don't serve French-style haute cuisine. I'm not sure that was the intention of Fat Bloke's original question, but if that's how we interpret it, I doubt it's going to get us anywhere.

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I believe that people who are interested in fine dining, as we are defining it here, have pretty much written Italy off their list as a destination for that purpose. I mean I did after my last grand meal there which I took at Al Sorriso in 1998. As someone here said, not even as good as most of the Michelin two stars. And it has three stars! And meals I've had since then at restaurants in the Alba region continue to confirm that opinion. The food can be very good, but there is no brilliance to the cooking in the same way you find at countless places in France.

Are you suggesting there's some sort of affirmative action program in place for rating Italian restaurants?


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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I believe that people who are interested in fine dining, as we are defining it here, have pretty much written Italy off their list as a destination for that purpose. I mean I did after my last grand meal there which I took at Al Sorriso in 1998. As someone here said, not even as good as most of the Michelin two stars. And it has three stars! And meals I've had since then at restaurants in the Alba region continue to confirm that opinion. The food can be very good, but there is no brilliance to the cooking in the same way you find at countless places in France.

Are you suggesting there's some sort of affirmative action program in place for rating Italian restaurants?

Steve, Hollywood - I would strong dispute this. Italy has *2* michelin three stars right now: if you compare the ratio of 3 stars to one stars or two stars in Italy versus any other country with a Michelin guide, you'd see it is the lowest by far of any country. If anything, quite the contrary. Steve, would you say that Il Sorriso is worse than even Bocuse? Don't forget that Roelinger is a two-star, so I guess it depends which two stars you are talking about.

Marc - Robert has mentioned Miramonti L' Altro where I have never been. Il Gambero Rosso is not a great favorite of mine but I am always in the minority on this. Other very good ones are Caino (in Montemerano, Tuscany), Perbellini (Isola Rizza, Veneto), Flipot (in Torre Pellice, Piedmont), Guido (Piedmont), Ambasciata (Quistello, Lombardy), La Pergola (in Rome).

Recently I dined a few days apart at Le Pont de Brent (Switzerland- 3 stars) and Arnolfo (2 stars - Tuscany). Based on that single meal at each restaurant, I can only say that I paid half the price in the latter and got significantly better food. Granted, Le Pont de Brent is Swiss but the cuisine is classical French haute cuisine and the chef is French (having said that, the best meal of my life remains one I had at Girardet).

I must also say I strongly disagree about, say, Blanc versus Pinchiorri or Il Pescatore (less so about Aimo and Nadia). Pinchiorri, BTW, to me is Italian enough, which brings me to my last point. It seems a lose-lose situation for Italian chefs. On the one had we have someone like Peterpumpkino who equates italian with rustic, simple food only (pace Artusi, Bergese and many others) and labels French anything that is nicely plated and refined, on the other we have others who wonder how come Italian chefs have not done better in haute cuisine. Well, if everytime they try to refine their cuisine, they're called French and scoffed at, it mustn't be easy to improve.

Robert- are you sure about Santin having had training by Verge and Blanc? He seems too "old" for that and his reputation is that of an entirely self-trained chef who got his only exposure through travels (before he became chef when he was 40 years old, he was a good home cook and worked first as a hairdresser and then as a coffee refiner) and cookbooks. I have his book at home, I'll check this evening.

Francesco

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It seems to me that many top chefs outside of France and Italy are (1) putting increased emphasis on sourcing top notch ingredients and (2) trying to produce and develop a regional cuisine. Even in France, I would dare say that the top chefs today pay far greater attention to their ingredients/suppliers than they did 30 years ago.

Perhaps that is the influence of our Italian friends?

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Franceso - I wasn't talking about Bocusse because I have never been. And I would think that Bocusse has two stars on historical merit alone. But I would say that La Palme d'Or in Cannes, and Jacques Chibois in Grasse, both 2 star restaurants as far as I know, are infinitely superior to Al Sorriso. One of the problems with Al Sorriso is something that I find is typical for Italy. They haven't managed to elevate the local cuisine that extra notch or two that the better French restaurants have. You see this repeatedly all over Italy, and it goes to the point of no star chefs. I have never eaten at Guido (though I'm going shortly) but I hear that they have made a refined version of Piemontese cuisine. Whether it meets the same standard as what goes on in Troisgros etc. is another thing.

If we discuss this on a technical level, velvety stocks and lots of pureed food certainly helps those French chefs. It's the difference between a Zuppa di Pesce and a Soupe de Poisson. Those soups are a starting point as to why the cuisines are different. I think things just flow from that there.

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Slurp, slurp, soft food.  :raz:

There must be a reason Michelin rates the service and ambience using forks and spoons. but no knives.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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What muddies the waters in this discussion is its two-pronged nature. Certain of us approach it from a quasi-theoretical position of French cuisine being more innovative or influential and Italian cuisine more traditional and less exciting. Others such as me take a more hands-on, experiential position based upon a empirical “data” derived from spending time in both France and Italy. My best general statement based on the current evidence is that when I make gastronomic travels in Italy, I feel like a food lover and am treated like one, whereas when I make such trips in France I feel like a restaurant client and am made to feel like one.

I am in complete agreement that the French chefs, along with some Continental, Anglo-Saxon and even a certain number of Italian, make more attempts at innovation than what most people perceive as the monolith known as Italian cuisine. However, does that make it better, more satisfying, and enduring than Italian cuisine? Does it even make it more desirable on more occasions? Even that historically Italian cuisine may have been less influential than classic or modern French cuisine, as a present day practical matter it is not very relevant since, unlike literature, music, or painting, we are unable to grasp and retain culinary achievements. People forgot that the flip side of “happening” is obsolescence.

If French cuisine were vastly more relevant than Italian, then why is it today that the innovative aspect of it is becoming increasingly less attractive and even less French? Or why is eating in many famous French becoming more of a crap shoot with chefs having to substitute classicism with dishes that are not conceptually sound in order to create buzz-like meals or to fill a menu? We might ask ourselves as well whether or not the premium put on “artiste” food is also making well-executed classic French dishes harder to find and less significant.

I am sure that the experienced visitor of restaurants in Italy has noticed one phenomenon that no one has yet mentioned: that as soon as you leave Italy, Italian food changes. Whatever the reasons are for this, and it no doubt has to do with the changing nature of produce and the disappearance of regionality, it manifests itself in making Italian food one that does not travel as well. No one either has mentioned ‘internationale” Italian cuisine, which accounts for virtually all of the dishes you get other the purported highly-defined regional classics made with primary ingredients that do not come from Italy. I also think that most Italian restaurants outside of Italy lack Italian chefs. Sure, all the restaurateurs are Italian (often waiters who worked in other domestic and foreign Italian restaurants), but I get the distinct notion that the chefs are largely multi-national. Taken together, might these two circumstances prevent at least some meaningful innovation in Italian cuisine from taking place externally, unlike with French food where ex-pat French chefs have influenced their native cuisine?

Several people have brought up interesting points that I would like to jump in on. I hope I get a chance to do so later Quickly I will add that art dealers prefer the Berkshires for the same reasons they do Italy except the richest ones who work over their clients out in the Hamptons every summer. Francesco, the story about Santin is indelibly etched in my mind. Let me know what you find out. Mogsob, it is so true what you wrote about ingredients. It is the freshness of the main ingredients as much as “frutta e verdura” that gets to me: the San Remo crevettes, the veal from Cuneo, the rabbits, the fish, and the integrity with which they are offered.

I almost forgot to include a passage (not to be taken as an appeal to authority) written by Edward Behr in the current issue of his “The Art of Eating”, which is devoted to English food. Having visited the avant-garde restaurant near London, The Fat Duck, (not a restaurant one would associate with Behr), he wrote:

“I was glad to eat Heston Blumenthal’s food, and I admire his talent. More than a handful of other chefs in the world, notably in Spain and Italy, also pursue innovative cooking. But I find traditional food much more complex because it draws on much more of human experience, both in agriculture and in the kitchen. It reflects the logic of hand methods and an understanding of the relationship between a place and the plants and animals that came to thrive there. Traditional food exploits combinations arrived at over generations and at a time when eating was a more important part of life than it is today. It’s true that our habits have changed and our knowledge has increased and that old recipes usually benefit from re-examination. But not so much that they cease to express their rich sources. Compared with most newly invented dishes, traditional food is more obviously and reassuringly in touch with nature, and it is much more harmonious (to borrow the key word of the Italian gastronomic writer Luca Vercelloni).”

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Robert - I think there is a question to ask that has nothing to do with coming to a conclusion about which cuisine is better, or even more relevant. How come there isn't a prong of Italian restaurant cuisine that has garnered worldwide attention to the same extent as certain French chefs, Spanish chefs, and certain chefs in the U.S., Australia, and a handful of chefs from other countries get? It doesn't add up in a country with such good food.

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Setting aside issues of innovation vs tradition, it seems to me that Italian cooks at all levels do fewer things to the foods they prepare. In the "fine dining vs cheap eats" thread I gave the example of two different hare preparations:

Consider lièvre à la royale (an elaborate, multi-step preparation of hare) and contrast it with papardelle al lepre, an Italian preparation of hare with noodles. The French cook, if I recall correctly, bards the hare, prepares a coulis, a hachis and mounts her sauce with wine and cognac. The Italian preparation is structurally simpler but not easy to get right.

Each cook takes risks here. The French cook has more tricks up her sleeve to modify the flavours, add herbal notes, balance the acidity, change the richness and mouthfeel of the sauce, etc. But she risks turning the dish into a muddle of flavours.

The Italian has to find a hare of superb quality, ensure that he captures much of the blood, and get it to the table so that it is succulent and not dry or tough.

Similar comments could be made about fond de cuisine (stock, French style) vs brodo (Italian).

There's more to talk about in the French case because the cook does so much more to the food. Alice Waters once showed up at a charity dinner where the dish she had elected to prepare was a perfect salad. As she unloaded crates of young greens, another chef commented, "that's not cooking, that's shopping!" This was an Italian influence on Alice's cooking.

I don't think that the greater technical complexity of French cuisine is any indicator either of greater relevance or of superiority. At the very best, Italian cooking speaks to Oliver Wendell Holmes's comment:

"I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."

There's more to talk about in French cuisine, more to codify, more to put into the curricula of cookery schools. Not necessarily more to enjoy.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Well relevant as defined in this thread means "the things we spend time talking about" and we don't spend much time talking about Italian food at the high end. This board is replete with conversation about ethnic restaurants (and I'm including Italian as ethnic) and also questions about how to cook the food at home. But while people talk about a good dish or meal they had at a Chinese restaurant, or how to cook Chinese at home, there aren't 300+ response threads going on about a single Chinese restaurant or chef like there is about Pierre Gagniere. Face it in France, the craftsmen have been elevated to a lofty status. So we talk about them. We know there names, know what they look like from pictures. Does anyone know what the Gambero Rosso guy looks like?

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The time is coming when only drinking straws will be necessary.  :shock:

As my daughter is apt to say to me, "suck it up and deal with it."

:raz:


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Face it in France, the craftsmen have been elevated to a lofty status. So we talk about them. We know there names, know what they look like from pictures. Does anyone know what the Gambero Rosso guy looks like?

The food craftsmen, I assume, are whom you are talking about. The Italians can make a big deal of their clothing and furniture designers as well as the builders of racing cars. I think you perhaps addressed this issue even better earlier when you spoke of France's restaurant culture. Forget the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the peasants and focus on the one real event--the French revolution which left many chefs out of business across the country. The restaurant as destination, not as an adjunct to the inn feeding travelers, may have been the result and France built on this to the point where we travel in France just to eat at destination restaurants. I don't know the food and restaurant culture of Italy as well, but others have made convincing arguments of many sorts, that restaurants chefs largely cook home cooking. I've heard that Italians entertain each other by cooking the standards. Here in the U.S. we look for variety and prefer fads to tradition, especially in our urban societies. We find the work of individuals more relevant than that of cultural tradition perhaps as a result.

JD, I don't think you can set aside issues of innovation vs tradition if our society finds one more relevant than another. I still think this is a horse and cart issue and the question is loaded. If I like French food, it's going to be more relevent to my interests. If someone else likes Italian food--and more Americans like Italian food over French food, although they are actually clueless about what that is as Pumpkino knows--that is more relevent to his interest.

I don't know Italy and it's food nearly as well as I know French food, and to a certain degree that's because the first two times I went to Europe, I was captivated by France and it's food , so I have returned over and over to France and thus it's difficult for me to participate on a deeper level in this thread. I am learning more about Spanish food and find it fascinating. I also find it fascinating in context to this thread because much of what I have come to understand is based on local products of incredible quality and there is often no reason to attempt to duplicate the food if the ingredients are not available, or if they're available in such an inferior or different form. For instance, can one find suckling lamb in the U.S. of such an age and size that the entire carcass almost fits on a large dinner plate?


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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JD, I don't think you can set aside issues of innovation vs tradition if our society finds one more relevant than another.

I was only doing so in order to comment on the degree to which French cooks try to do more to / with their food.

I am learning more about Spanish food and find it fascinating. I also find it fascinating in context to this thread because much of what I have come to understand is based on local products of incredible quality and there is often no reason to attempt to duplicate the food if the ingredients are not available, or if they're available in such an inferior or different form. For instance, can one find suckling lamb in the U.S. of such an age and size that the entire carcass almost fits on a large dinner plate?

In the introduction to her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child claims that its subtitle might have been "French Cooking from the American Supermarket". The flaw here was that she didn't push her readers to insist on high quality products, though in later writing she said a bit more about this.

But she was right in that French methods can be used with a larger variety of foods and a wider range of qualities. The cook has more options for doctoring and balancing flawed ingredients. Not that the final product will be better than it would have with perfect meats and vegetables -- it won't. But there is more margin for error.

This is harder to do with fine Italian cooking, because the treatments (frying, roasting, etc.) are far more simple and direct. Some of the River Café cookbooks have a hectoring tone on ingredients (the polenta must have been ground in the last few months, you must use this kind of salt, the vegetables must be no larger than this, etc.); the quality of ingredients is more essential to the product than is the case with French cuisine.

This summer we had lunch with the (Robert) Browns at La Petite Maison, in Nice. For me the best dish, by far, was a plate of young, tender squid, dusted in a bit of seasoned flour and fried. Essentially an Italian preparation, as one often finds in restaurants in that part of France. It was virtually perfect: so crisp as to be almost dry, with a gentle crunch but no thick batter, and with the flavour of the squid coming through in a clean, powerful way.

Of course there was a lot of technique involved, but the essence of the dish was that the squid were tiny and very, very fresh, and, I will bet, the oil immaculately clean. This was a dish to enjoy in that place, not easily duplicated outside it.

Bux, I don't know Spanish cooking at all, but can guess that it would share some of these characteristics. To me that doesn't make it any less interesting or relevant to our discussion here.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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