They Don’t Eat Bacon in France, Do They?

My darling wife S. and I have just returned from a delightful, but tiring  holiday in Europe which began with two days in Paris at our standby hotel, the Bristol.  There’s almost nothing one can say that’s bad about Le Hotel Bristol except that the prices are so high, one can get a nosebleed just walking in the lobby.  But I knew this before I got there.

Also, let me say at the outset that I like french food, I like french wine, I like french women, I like french art.  Heck,  I’m pretty much an out and out francophile.  I’ve struggled with french irregular verbs without ever mastering them for years.  Even today, your average frenchman will immediately grimace when I mangle the language.  But I draw the line at breakfast.  I dunno what the deal is but the french don’t eat breakfast.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  They do wolf down a croissant and sip a teeny cup of coffee about the consistency and taste of high grade drilling mud.  At the Bristol this will set you back Forty five Euros ($58.00).  Ok, they give you the option of some juice and a great pat of french butter for the croissant, but I’m not having it.  I need eggs.  I need meat and some toast to sop up the egg juices, and a big cup of coffee.  In theory, they have this at the Bristol as well.   They call it their “American Breakfast”.  So what they do is put everything in it that they won’t eat, charge an even more exorbitant price, a cool walking sixty Euros ($77.05), under the theory that if Americans are crazy enough to eat this stuff, they’ll pay up for it as well.

And I did.  Let me tell you what I got, or actually, what I tried to get.  Two eggs over medium, bacon, plain white toast, a glass of skim milk (one has to make concessions somewhere), and a big cup of black coffee with Splenda.  Easy, huh.  You could get this at any drive in, diner or dive in the US of A for $6.95 or less.  Here’s what I got for my four the equivalent of four twenty dollar bills.  A porcelain pot of weak, luke warm coffee (which they call “Ameican” coffee) and a cup about the size of a medium mixing bowl with large, irregularly shaped chunks of brown sugar that took twenty minutes to dissolve.  The eggs were only partially cooked sunny side up…the whites and yellows still running, accompanied by a mini-baguette that had been not-quite toasted whole.  And the piece de resistance, a bowl of bacon on the side.  Oh yes, I did get the milk which was almost the consistency (and fat content) of cream cheese.  Back to the bacon.  I understand that you shouldn’t expect a lot when you order bacon outside of the US.  Based on my experience in ordering bacon around the world (which is considerable), one should not expect what we get in Des Moines or Dallas.  So I had relatively low expectations, but the gob of curled strips of grease soaked stuff they called bacon did not even measure up to that low standard.  And it was cold, or almost cold.  The whole kaboodle of stuff was delivered by a small army of perfectly coiffed and dressed waiters on hundred dollar china with a great flourish.  The food tasted pretty much like it looked.  I slathered some quite good jelly on the bun and made do.

My secret revenge was that my travel agent of long standing, had, unbeknownst to me, negotiated a deal with the hotel that included the price of breakfast.  Hah!  I didn’t have to pay for the bacon I couldn’t eat.

That evening before dinner, my darling wife and I had a drink at the bar before dinner.  I ordered my usual potion of vitamin G and Tonic.  The G and T only had about a thimble of G, but I expected that.  After all, they only charged me twenty nine Euros ($37.25).  Needless to say, I didn’t have a second.

The moral of the story:  If you want to eat and drink like you do at home, stay at home, but if you go anyway, avoid, at all costs, any food or drink with “American” in the name.


You Don’t Go to Cuba for the Food

It isn’t food.  I’ve now had three major meals here, not including breakfasts, which is, I realize, a small sample.  But never one to shy away from making premature judgements, I’m ready to judge.  I’m pretty sure they have no idea how to cook in Cuba.  Maybe it’s the commies, perhaps it’s  the years the rooskies were here, but either they never knew how to cook, or, if they did,  they’ve forgotten.

Granted, we’ve been eating at all the high end places, such as they are.  These are the ones that get great ratings in TripAdvisor where people try to prove how smart they are about hotels and restaurants.  The odd thing is all of the restaurants look great.  They are charming and hospitable with hard working, young, attractive wait staff.  The tables are set properly, often even elegantly, and I find myself looking forward to the meal even though I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s going to, shall we say, suck.  And, so far, it has.  Sucked that is.

Last night after a lovely stroll through Habana Vieja (Old Havana for you linguistically challenged gringos) and a stop at El Floridita (Hemingway’s old bar haunt) for a few pops of rum and whatever else it is that they put in the pervasive Mojitos, we arrived at El Hotel Florida, a building first constructed in 1836, but which lay fallow for twenty five years after the revolution.  Finally it was rehabbed and rehabbed again into to a beautiful period piece.

We arrived in good spirits to a spectacular room with columns, arches, three level ceilings, greenery and table settings for thirty eight gringos that would have made any wedding planner wild with envy.  “This is it”, I thought as they greeted us at the door with another glass of cheap Chilean red.  I didn’t even care.  This was it.  Finally, the best of Cuban gourmet dining in the offing.

My euphoria rapidly began to wane as they delivered the basket of bread, which must come out of some central kitchen deep in the bowels of Havana.  I don’t know how they can bake bread that is tough to chew, mushy and tasteless, all in the same loaf.  Tip:  if you slather it with butter and douse it with salt, wash it down with a double gulp of Chilean red, it’s almost edible.

The meal started on a low note with another of the unusual mystery salads.  It was composed of a small mound of shredded cabbage along side of a lettuce leaf of suspicious origin topped with julienne of carrots and some type of squash drowned with a large dollop of mayo.  A small pile of not-quite-ripe tomatoes (evidently the only kind they have in Cuba) sprinkled with minced beets.  I should have stopped right there.  Nothing with beets on it should be given serious consideration for consumption, but, hey, I was hungry.  There were small bits of other unidentifiable stuff strewn about the plate, which was topped by two, small green pitted olives that had seen better days.

I pushed the salad around on my plate for a respectable time and turned my attention to the green mystery soup.  It was neither hot nor cold, sweet nor sour, tart nor mellow.  Indeed it had absolutely no taste at all.  Even applying heavy doses of S and P could not revive it.  It guess there must be some art to creating a dish that has absolutely no taste….good or bad.

The entree offers were either beef with mushrooms and gravy or lobster stuffed with shrimp.  I ignored my longstanding maxim of never ordering anything stuffed with anything, but I was intrigued.  How would one stuff shrimp into a lobster.  Answer, they didn’t.  They piled it on top.  When served the whole concoction not only looked repulsive, it had the aroma of three day old fish left on the kitchen counter.  I chewed a couple of the shrimp and poked at the lobster with my knife.  My knife sprang back and I gave up the effort.  A small dollop of mashed potatoes which smelled only slightly fishy was eaten forthwith.

The piece de resistance was the desert.  My experience to date had been either flan (not bad) or ice cream (really mediocre), but this was a new one.  A large plate contained a glazed, or perhaps it was candied, slice of pineapple with a streak of red, viscous liquid strung around the plate ending on the far side at a hardened berry of some kind.  I took a bite just to say I had, and regretted it immediately.

The highlight of the meal was when, for god knows what reason, one of our group stood and sang a short aria from Don Giovanni.  Yep.  That’s right an opera at the end of our meal.  A bizarre ending to a bizarre meal.  If the meal had been as good as the aria, it would have been a great event.

Oh, I forgot.  Another mediocre Chilean red to chase it all down.

I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

PS.  This restaurant was at the top end of the food chain  for “state owned” restaurants.  More about private restaurants (paladars) later.