My wife and I have been traveling around southern Europe for over two months. Now we are on a Celebrity Cruise ship on the way back to New York.
We visited family and friends all over southern Europe, from a week in Portugal to visit our daughter and her family, to a week playing golf in Spain, a week visiting friends and traveling around Italy, and a prolonged stay with various friends all over France.
We ate and drank extremely well, both at our home in France, at the home of friends that we stayed with, and at about 50 different restaurants. A few of the restaurants were world famous places, but most — especially during the two weeks we drove around Italy — were small, relatively (for Europe) inexpensive family-owned restaurants in rural areas. All of these in Italy served only Italian style food, and had very similar menus, just as in the rural areas of France, where almost every small restaurant had about the same selection of French food.
Now that we are back amongst Americans speaking English again, I’ve suddenly realized how much I miss my old haunts in Santa Monica. So here is a list of the top things I miss:
• A really good steak. While the French are proud of their special cows in Burgundy, and the Italians are proud of their Florentine steaks, the facts are that the Europeans do not know how to treat their cows. They allow them to roam loose through grasslands and eat whatever they want. They don’t understand that cows should have restricted movements and be fed feed full of hormones. As a result, the beef is tough and dense. Even the occasional attempt at hamburgers fails with over-dense patties. Nowhere, even in the best restaurants, have I ever had a steak as tender and flavorful as I have at the Pacific Dining Car on Wilshire Boulevard, Boa steakhouse on Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue or a number of other restaurants in Santa Monica.
• Sushi. In some of the urban areas, like Paris and Aix-en-Provence, a sushi fad has taken hold, but in the rural areas they have no idea what it is. We saw very few Asian tourists outside of the urban areas, and virtually no Asian restaurants except for an occasional Vietnamese restaurant in a few places in France. And the sushi restaurants in the urban areas are expensive. Oh how I miss that little Korean sushi place on Fourth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.
• Mexican food. This is virtually unknown except perhaps in one or two places in Paris. And the French do not like spicy food, so even if you found a restaurant claiming to have Mexican food it would not be what you expect. I long for the chile relleno at Lares on Pico Boulevard, or a soft taco in any of the little Mexican restaurants all over Santa Monica.
• Freeways. I know we complain about them when we are home in Santa Monica, and the freeway system in southern Europe is excellent, if you don’t mind stopping every once in awhile to insert a credit card into a slot. But in the rural areas where we were driving, it is frightening to be driving on a narrow road with a deep water trough on each side as an oversized truck is barreling toward you at an excessive speed.
• Reasonable service hours and fast service. Want to get a bite to eat at 3 in the afternoon? Forget it and suppress that urge. Between 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. everything is closed and you hardly see anyone on the streets of small villages. One day after lunch we took friends to see a famous art gallery in the perched village of Gassin, above Saint-Tropez, France. When we got there the views were great, but the posted gallery hours were 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It is just a different work ethic. And in the typical restaurant, because of excessive employment taxes, there is usually one harassed young woman serving all of the tables in the restaurant. The two hour lunch is not restricted to a fine, multi-course event. It just takes that long to get a beer and a pizza.
• Steamed lobster. There is wonderful shellfish all over southern Europe, and lots of different types of shrimp, some of which are like little lobsters. And in fine seafood restaurants they often offer the blue lobsters from the Atlantic coast, typically very expensive. But none that I’ve had can match the flavor, texture, and freshness of a steamed lobster at Ocean Avenue Seafood or the Enterprise Fish Co. in Santa Monica, nor the delicious lobster in Jack Daniel’s sauce at The Lobster at the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier.
Well, maybe because we’ve been away so long the grass is greener at home. But I’ll be glad to get back.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.