The meteorologists call it freezing fog.
I call it get outside and take some photos.
Here’s what happens when you visit a review-worthy restaurant shortly before leaving on your summer holidays: the blog post you wrote sits in your draft folder for months and months until you completely forget about it. We ate at Ask for Luigi on a beautifully hot summer evening last August. Here is what I wrote the next morning.
Note to the host of Ask for Luigi: ignoring the woman for the guy she’s with is not smart in the current century, especially when the gentleman in question is crouched down and clearly pre-occupied with his phone.
That ten-second encounter almost put me off, but I set my ego aside and told the host my name and the number in my party. Ask for Luigi takes walk-in guests only, but anyone not accommodated in the first seating ― we managed to snag the last table ― is texted when their table is ready.
Voted one of Vancouver’s best new restaurants when chef and co-owner J.C. Poirier opened in late 2013, Ask for Luigi is one of the bright spots in Vancouver’s transforming Railtown. Once we were seated, the service was beyond attentive ― our table was wiped down after each course and the reflexes of our server were quicker than all three of us combined when yours truly clumsily knocked over her Spritz ― the Venetian-style aperitivo made with Aperol, Prosecco, and soda water that is the only option for a before-dinner drink.
The antipasti orders came almost too quickly ― with only 36 seats the emphasis seemed to be on turn-over ― but nothing was going to make us wolf down these delectable platters of perfection. We savoured every bite of anchovy-infused octopus carpaccio, sliced paper thin and liberally sprinkled with baby basil. Luigi’s famous golf ball–sized meatballs were dense and chewy. Smothered with a rich, smooth, crimson tomato sauce and accompanied by toasted Tuscan-style bread, they were marred only by the crunch of eggshell in my first bite. Geometrically correct cubes of crispy pork ciccioli, moist and wet on the inside, crunchy on the outside, were served with canary-yellow saffron aioli and deep-fried shishito peppers — a sweet green pepper about the size of my little finger. About one in ten shishito peppers are spicy — my sister was the lucky one in our group.
On to the next course. Tagliatelle with rabbit and olives was flawless, the olive taste subtle but present, and the shredded rabbit liberally coated with a creamy sauce. The rye penne, on the other hand, was overcooked, although not the creamy egg yolk placed on top, nor the gently sautéed broccolini and perfectly crisped guanciale. The pasta special ― conchiglie with garlic sausage, pale kernels of organic corn, and black summer truffle ― was the surprise of the night with its spicy kick and sweet taste of summer. All pasta is made fresh daily and served family style. (Gluten-free options are available.)
Two courses would be enough to fill any sane person, but we soldiered on. The vanilla-bean panna cotta was particularly creamy and made complete by almond biscotti and delicately stewed prunes. Chocolate budino ― a flourless cake with 70 percent chocolate ― was as intense as you would expect a flourless cake with that much chocolate to be. A mini loaf of warm olive oil cake, topped with a quenelle of rich ricotta cheese, was nestled on a bed of glazed orange slices.
The rustic décor was pleasing ― the desserts were served on mismatched china and the wine in small juice-sized glasses ― but pity the poor sods stuck in the back corner, too far from the wide-open windows or floor fans to get any respite from the August heat. Extra entertainment (in addition to yours truly spilling her drink at the start of the meal) was provided when my dining companions recognized a well-known actress sitting behind my right shoulder ― although, she wasn’t so famous that they were sure of her name. Each then whipped out their respective smart phones to check if they were right, while I remained focus on photographing our food.
We’ll go back to Ask for Luigi, but I’m thinking only if we can squeeze into the first seating again; I’m not convinced it would be worth an hour or more wait.
Note: The benefit of waiting three months to post a review is that I can change my assessment: I have decided I do want to go back to Ask for Luigi, regardless of the wait time, as long as I am with people whose company I enjoy. (Which is usually what happens when I eat out, so I should be all right.)
My sister and I, along with one of my closest friends, were wandering the streets of Paris, admiring the lights of the season in the City of Light. It was magical. It was Christmas Eve, 2010.
We made our way to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The streets radiating away from the square in front of the cathedral were filled with French police officers sitting in well-lit white police vans, each one eating a rather fine-looking dinner from a take-out container. We approached the cathedral. A pair of cops eyed us carefully as we walked between them to enter the church.
It was unnerving, to say the least. The scene was repeated on New Year’s Eve when my friend and I crossed the Seine in front of the Eiffel Tower. We stopped to take photos of the tower, then I began taking photos of the police officers once again eating fancy dinners in white police vans parked along the bridge. I hadn’t taken more than one or two shots when the driver’s door of the van I was photographing opened. The officer got out and began to walk towards me, and I quickly tucked my camera into my pocket and turned away. Message delivered, the cop returned to the warmth of his van and his waiting dinner. My heart was pounding.
On Christmas Eve, after we exited Notre-Dame Cathedral, my friend marched up to one of the police officers standing nearby. These were big guys. They had big guns ― bigger than any I had ever seen up close. I had no idea what she was planning to do. But as soon as my friend asked (in French) for directions to the nearest Métro entrance, the cops smiled and laughed and showed us their friendly side. It was a welcome relief from the gravity of their security duties.
“I was beginning to feel so uptight,” my friend told me later. “I had to put a voice to the men with the guns.”
As it turned out, the officers sent us around in circles ― to be honest, I think they were less familiar with Paris than we were because they pointed us in the exact opposite direction that we needed to go ― but eventually we found the Métro and made our way home.
This was five years ago. It seemed to us like your usual Christmas Eve, but we were intimidated by the heavy police presence. Thinking about it later, I surmised that the high-level security must be routine near Parisian monuments on nights that attract large crowds. But because it was unlike anything I’d seen in my own country, the sense of intimidation I was experiencing made me feel like a naive Canadian who knew nothing of the real world.
If my heart was pounding then, what would it be doing now, in Paris’s current state of emergency?
Ten months ago, I wrote about how I was at a loss for words to express what I was feeling about horrific events in Paris. This week, once again, I am feeling just as lost. I contacted my Parisian friend who lives here in Vancouver, anxious about what he would tell me because I knew he, being of the same age and social stratum as most of the victims, would know someone affected by the attacks.
I was right. He did. Although all of his friends and family are safe, one of his friends lost someone at the Bataclan. What is that ― three degrees of separation? It feels closer.
The arrondissement that was attacked last Friday night is not one where tourists typically hang out ― it is where young Parisians of all backgrounds live and work and play. It was a neighbourhood not unlike the one where I spent three months ― what Parisians refer to as bobo (short for bourgeois–bohemian) ― and not unlike my own neighbourhood here in Vancouver. All weekend I wondered how I might have reacted had attacks of this nature occurred while I was living in Paris, while my friend and I enjoyed our glass of wine in a café in my arrondissement.
And, as I wondered, I thought again of how inadequate words can be at a time like this. This time, however, as soon as I heard about the attacks in Paris, I thought immediately of a photo I had taken that holiday season almost five years ago.
It was the one I took just before the French police officer frightened me into putting away my camera.
If you take anything away from the words I’ve written here, it’s this: Paris is, and always will be, my city of light.
And only light can overcome darkness.
With a bit of a shock, I realized this morning that exactly five years ago today I stood shivering for several hours in the cold and rain across from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Just as it is in most provinces of Canada, including my own, November 11 is a public holiday in France. The French refer to it as Armistice Day, in recognition of the end of World War I, whereas in Canada we call it Remembrance Day. In both countries, tribute is paid to our war dead and our veterans, and the sacrifices they made on our behalf. This year, in particular, remembrance is being paid to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The reason the French perform this tribute beneath the Arc de Triomphe is because that’s where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located. I didn’t have a great view of the goings on near the tomb that day five years ago (see above), but I was able to walk over afterwards and take some photos, which I’ve posted here.
The largest wreath is always laid by the French president. The ribbon below reads “Le Président de la République.”
I don’t make it to the Remembrance Day ceremonies here in Vancouver every year, but every year I do proudly wear my poppy, even though, it seems, that simple gesture has become a political one. All I will say on that topic is this: there is nothing political about me being forever grateful to the Canadian soldiers who liberated my mother and her family from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. If not for them, I would not be here today.
For that reason alone, I will never forget.
If I had any doubts I was on the other side of the world when I arrived in South Africa near winter’s end almost five years ago, they were put to bed 48 hours later after a day of wine tasting. That’s when I discovered how topsy-turvy I was ― in South Africa, grape harvest takes place between February and April.
South Africa’s first vineyards were planted some 350 years ago by French Huguenots who brought vine cuttings with them from France. As of last year, the country is ranked seventh in the world by volume of wine produced. (Canada isn’t even in the top 30.)
It hasn’t been an easy ride to seventh place, however. The economic sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid regime nearly destroyed its wine industry and are still having an impact. Many producers sold their grapes to cooperatives that produced poorly blended bulk wine ― what became known as “supermarket wine.” The practice continued for several years after sanctions were lifted so that, even today, some 20 years later, the country is still trying to shed its reputation as a producer of plonk.
Like the BC winemakers after the FTA and NAFTA, South African winemakers knew they had to start over. They ripped out their vines and replanted to improve the quality of their grapes. Nowadays, these winemakers talk about their industry as having two eras: before Mandela and after.
Stellenbosch is one of three wine regions in the Western Cape wine region of South Africa. Its Mediterranean-like climate, with hot dry summers and cool wet winters, is well-suited for growing grapes, the most popular of which is Chenin blanc. Evidence of how far the region has come since apartheid: at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards, Stellenbosch wineries earned 181 medals, of which two were international trophies, one was a regional trophy, and two were gold medals.
Immediately prior to my arrival in South Africa, I’d spent three months in France, imbibing in, well, let’s just say, a lot of French wine. Even so, I was extremely impressed by the wine I tasted in South Africa and was surprised by the number of vineyards we drove past during our day-long wine-tasting tour through Stellenbosch.
The first winery we stopped at was Meerlust. Established in 1756, it is one of South Africa’s oldest wineries and has been in the same family for eight generations. It is also of the few wineries that maintained its production of fine wine throughout the apartheid regime, despite the lack of access to world markets.
Bilton was our next stop, and we paid a little extra to pair our wine tasting with chocolate. After the tasting, we had lunch ― most of the wineries also have a restaurant on-site ― and I enjoyed my first taste of bobotie. A curried meatloaf with a custard-like topping, bobotie is to South Africa what poutine is to Canada.
Next was Warwick Estates, which dates back to 1771. In the 1970s, a South African and his Canadian wife ― a former ski instructor from Alberta ― worked hard to transform the farm into a winery of some distinction. That ski instructor, Norma Ratcliffe, is still making wine and is the only female member of the Cape Winemakers Guild. Today, Warwick Estates is considered one of the best wineries in the world, known for its Bordeaux-style blends regularly served at South African state dinners. Sadly, the wine is not available in Canada, despite the estate’s best efforts to crack the nut that is our country’s government-controlled liquor boards.
L’Avenir was our last stop of the day, its name a tribute to the French Huguenot heritage of the region. Along with Warwick, it was the prettiest winery we visited.
Stellenbosch is rimmed by mountains, and its landscape reminded me of BC’s Okanagan. The distinctive design of the Cape Dutch architecture, with its white, rounded gables, set the place apart from any other wine region I’ve visited, however.
After returning to Canada, I told my local wine seller that I was seriously disappointed with the selection of South African wine in Vancouver, at which point I was told, “there’s no market for it.”
And so, since then, I’ve been on a one-woman mission to create some demand for South African wine in this country.