Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Star Chamber

The tuna moose, courtesy Craig Martin. Thanks Craig!

We join our intrepid trio where we left off in our last installment of “And this guy wants us to visit him?”

Last we saw Val, Andy and my own fine self, we were wet, tired, frustrated and hungry in the Alsatian village of Ottrott, having utterly failed in our second attempt to see the Medieval castle there. We elected to regroup over lunch.

Driving into town, (population 300, not including livestock) we espied a sign for the local restaurant. Parking the car, we trudged dinner-ward, minds dancing with visions of choucroutte and tartes flambées. Alas, arriving at the door of the establishment, we were crushed, upon reading and laboriously translating the sign hanging on the door, to learn the restaurant was closed.

For lunch.

Muttering many a dark imprecations against the French, Frenchness and France, our merry trio returned to the car, and headed to the nearby village of Klingenthal, the ultimate destination of our ill-fated bike trip two days before.

We stopped upon spotting a sign for a Restaurant l’Etoile which promised cuisine moderne. This is code for “Not cabbage and ham.” As I was in the mood for cabbage and ham, I was disappointed, but not about to argue with the increasingly murderous looks Val was shooting in my direction which promised that her cold, wet hands would soon be wrapped around my throat were a plate of something not in front of her post haste.

We dragged our muddy, damp selves inside, and ordered the 15 Euro menu. Though my French has improved greatly since arriving here, vast swathes of technical jargon remain beyond my ken. This includes the broad, and highly specialized category of “things French people do to food.”

The only item I caught, in fact, was “tuna,” which was supposed to be the appetizer. What form this tuna was supposed to come in was a mystery, though were I to hazard a guess I would have said “mousse.”*

Things went hairy immediately, when Andy attempted to order a coffee. I reluctantly translated this request to our waitress, who immediately blanched. “But are you going to eat?” she demanded. I replied yes, at which point she took a step back, looking at us with suspicion mixed with distaste. I quickly explained to Andy that coffee comes after the meal, and changed the order, lest we be thrown out entirely for food heresy.

This illustrates a theory I’ve developed about French waiters. Parisian waiters are famous for their rudeness, even within the rather high standards for such things in France. Some credit this to the lack of tipping, but I’ve another theory. In North America (and almost everywhere else I’ve eaten) the waiter sees his job as bringing you the food you order. In France, they see themselves as experts, there to guide you through your dining experience and enforce the norms and values that govern French cuisine. Ordering coffee before your meal violates customs so sancrosanct they were enshrined in the Treaty of Wesphalia. When we declined to order any wine, her contempt was palpable.

This incident set the tone for the next episode. Our waitress returned, making it very clear she felt we should be grateful that mud-stained wretches such as ourselves were even allowed to breath the rarefied air of her restaurant. She set down a porcelain cup, similar in size to a tea mug in front of each of us, filled with a steaming white liquid.

Andy immediately tasted a spoonful, reporting that it tasted like chowder. He went to take another but, panicked, I stopped him. “It might be sauce for the fish!” I said, terrified that the waitress would come back with our tuna, see us slurping the condiments and toss us back out into the rain.

However, a few minutes passed, and the waitress didn’t show. Andy decided that, as he believed all France now knew him as the Bermuda-shorts guy, he had nothing to lose and started spooning up the gloop. For my part, I would take furtive sips when I was sure the waitress was out of sight, while Val, risking nothing, had none at all.

It was Val that saved us, in the end. Soon though, our autocratic attendant returned, to be confronted with three teacups in varying degrees of fullness. Stymied by our tri-partite strategy, she elected to attack the closest target, turning on Val with eyes of fire; “Do you not like it?” “No, no, it’s great! I’m just slow” said Val, grabbing her spoon.

I am convinced that if Val too had eaten any of hers, the tuna-tyrant would have informed us with a sneer that we were eating our gravy and asked us to leave.**

* Please, someone with art or photoshop skills: can you make me a tuna-moose? It would make me so happy.

** In the interests of fairness, I must add that the chef greeted us personally and was very friendly. He gave us pretty much all of his leftover desserts, meaning we each received a slice of cheesecake, a slice of chocolate torte, a slice of wildberry pie and of apple pie.


Victor said...

Love the tuna mousse / moose de thon.

Would that I had photoshop talents to make you some tartes flambees / flaming tarts.

Travis said...

This was a great post, Mark.

I barely spent this much time around Victor when we were roommates. How ya doin' up there, Victor?