A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sept. 4.



Nice and Monte Carlo, Part One - Our trip to Nice didn't quite live up to the town's name. Trying to save money and time, we took our first overnight train from Bordeaux. The ride itself was smooth and painless, but no matter what acrobatic position I contorted into, it didn't invite any sleep. Other passengers were whispering in front of me; suitcases were perpetually thudding and crashing. By the morning, when the train rolled through Cannes and into Nice, I had probably snuck in three hours. I didn't care though, figuring there'd be apt opportunities to relax on the Riviera.

To kill time while our hostel was being cleaned, we circled the vicinity around the beach. I quickly discovered that, instead of sand, Nice made do with large oval stones. The women were tanning topless, the old, flabby men favored bikinis-- the older and flabbier, the skimpier the cut, and Lacoste T-shirts behind glistening vitrines cost sixty-five euros. Other than the stores, it was much like I was expecting. But as we ventured further from the curving coast, something interesting happened. Homeless people appeared, the ethnic restaurants multiplied and prices were within reason. The area of luxury in Nice was much smaller than I would've guessed.

Our hostel still not ready, we made another loop and found a boulangerie-patisserie to get breakfast. It was crowded and everything looked beautiful. I went with a tarte aux abricots, to compare it to my stellar apple tart from Spain. This pastry had a firmer base and sweeter glaze and tasted as good as it looked. It couldn't match its Madrid competitor, but it still sent me back to the same shop just a few hours later. Now checked in, I got a croissant and brought it back to my room. I cut it open and spread Nutella across it. Buttery, sweet, flaky and rich, it seemed to encapsulate everything great about France.

At this point satiated, I went to the beach. The water was a little too cold but that didn't stop plenty of people from swimming. I laid my mat over the stones, stripped off my shirt and wrote. It had been so long since I'd written poetry, but suddenly, I felt inspired to do so. A gentle sunshine was dappling my shoulders, I was studying the curves on gorgeous women, and I had Nutella in my belly. How could life get any more inspired?

Later, for dinner, Vince and I headed north, back towards the ritz-free part of town. The big story, we observed, was the glut of Asian restaurants. Their sheer proliferation practically taunted us after the drought in Madrid. Strangely too, they almost all combined nationalities in some ambitious Pan-Asian mash. After walking by so many, we finally caved, cautiously hoping to redeem our last miss. Our goals set lower, we settled on Ah-Ha Chinese Fast Food, which claimed to offer Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese fare. It also billed itself as a traiteur, or caterer, which meant that all the food was pre-prepared and reheated to order. It seemed like a bad idea from the outset, but we soldiered on, splitting orders of Pork with Black Mushrooms and Chicken Mai Fun. Neither touched anything on the Chinatown barometer, but both were surprisingly tasty. The Mai Fun had just enough grease to make it go down addictively and the Chinese mushrooms in the pork dish were a great break from our usual diet, even if the salty sauce coating them was subpar.

But perhaps the nicest aspect was the self-service aspect. While we usually had to beg and plead for tap water, occasionally to no avail, here they provided pitchers and glasses for that express purpose. They also had a variety of sauces, including pickled chilies and Sriracha. Adding some chilies to the noodles suddenly invigorated them. It was just a little gesture but a meaningful one for us, and it proved enough to earn us our Asian redemption.

Afterward, we met back up with our friendly Australian roommates, Damian and Lynne. They were a couple from Sydney who had been traveling east to west for six weeks. She was a graphic designer and he was a cop. After my trip last year to Eastern Europe, I already knew how much I loved the company of big-livered, big-stomached Australians. And after not talking to anyone but Vince for so long, I found myself chatting with them prolifically. The four of us went to the beach with the cheapest bottles we could find. Vince and I split a semi-decent demi-sec Andre Gallois champagne. We all told our stories for hours, relieved to have new people to hear them, and watched the calm waves comb the stony shores.

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