Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cheese Fondue and Pain au Chocolat - The Surefire Cure for Travel Anxiety

My colleague Amanda does not claim to be an invincible road warrior.   In fact overseas flights kind of freak her out.   “It’s that stretch over the Atlantic that worries me,” she admits.

So for a recent company meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, I promise to be her wingman.   It’s not that she’s without coping mechanisms.   On the afternoon of our departure from JFK, she shows up at the airport carrying a neck pillow that is supposed to be the ultimate in teddy bear comfort, but actually resembles a small ferret.
Amanda proves to be a trouper.  Aided by an unsinkable spirit and an armament of travel rituals and accouterments, she makes the trans-Atlantic crossing in fine form, and is actually quite perky when we pass through customs the next morning. 

We have some free time before work, so I suggest an immediate culinary immersion as a restorative tonic – that being genuine Swiss fondue.  

“That sounds great,” says Amanda, “ And, I’m so tired I’ll just keep saying “that sounds great” no matter what you suggest.”

I head to the hotel concierge and ask for recommendations for restaurants featuring cheese.   He gives me a look of pity, but jots down a couple of names on a map of the Old Town.    I collect Amanda and we are off.   

“I’m directionally challenged,” she says.  “I’ll just follow you.”

After some meandering, which includes me dragging Amanda up several steep cobblestone hills and a directional assist from her iPhone, we locate the Restaurant Les Armures, and are seated in a charming outdoor café.  The restaurant is famous not only for its fondue, but for a visit from Bill and Hillary Clinton sometime during the 1990s.  
The amiable waiters are straight out of central casting, and the menu features an asparagus and spinach salad and a cheese fondue with wild mushrooms and bacon. 
The fondue is seductively savory and comes with a woven basket full of tiny warm potatoes for dipping.  The asparagus is decorated with jewel-like raspberries and lightly dressed with a bright vinaigrette.  

Amanda is starting to adjust to the time zone and the cultural proclivities.   “I think what I’d really like is a bit of coffee and some Pain au Chocolat,” she muses.  “In fact, I’d like to spend the week in search of the best Pain au Chocolat in Geneva.”

I know that Amanda is a bit of an overachiever.   She and I have a history with food challenges, and the last time was so harrowing, I’ve yet to muster up the courage to tell that story.   But, in the end, who can resist the idea of Pain au Chocolat, especially when you’re already on a lactose high?

It is getting late in the day, and we are having trouble locating a bakery.  Our journey leads us to a café on the promenade adjacent to Lake Geneva, where the view is stunning, and the waiter speaks an extraordinary version of colloquial English.
“Do you have Pain au Chocolat?” Amanda asks.

“But, of course!” he smiles, and brings us two café au lait and a sealed plastic pouch.

Inside the pouch is a light and spongy pastry with a dark, chocolate filling.    Amanda takes a bite.  “The quest for the best Pain au Chocolat in Geneva has begun, and this isn’t it,” she says.  “I would describe this as the Wonder Bread of Pain au Chocolat.”
We discover that the flavor is markedly improved, however, if you dip the pastry in the café au lait. 
The next morning, we check out the Pain au Chocolat at the hotel buffet.   This looks and tastes much more like the genuine article, with light, buttery layers surrounding a delicate chocolate filling.  
After several days of meetings conclude, our search continues.   This time we are joined by our pal Amy.   We visit the Auer Chocolatier, and while there is Pain au Chocolate on the menu, it is late in the day and they have none left.   The chocolate macarons are a delectably suitable stand-in.   They are the size of Whoopie Pies. 
Shortly after downing the macarons, we quite accidentally stumble upon Pain Paillasse, and spy several Pain au Chocolat in the bakery case.   Amanda is ecstatic.  We buy three and the proprietress throws in an extra for free.  Amanda also buys a Tarte Fromage (here comes the cheese again).   We snack on both setting up an impromptu picnic on the street corner.  Oddly enough the thoroughfare is named “Rue du Purgatoire.”

Amanda is ambivalent about this Pain au Chocolat.   It is plump and doughy, more like bread than a croissant.   However, she raves about the Tarte Fromage which is light and custardy with a lovely scent of nutmeg.

It is getting near the dinner hour and believe it or not, we are feeling a little peckish. Since we have now fully adopted the Swiss Diet, we head for the restaurant Au Vieux Carauge, which is reported to serve the best fondue, not just in Geneva, but in all of Switzerland.

The establishment does not disappoint.  There are rustic wooden tables, and copper pots hanging on the walls.  The proprietress brings an enormous red ceramic pot to the table filled with bubbling, molten cheese.  
Amy speaks a bit of French and engages her in a conversation.   We manage to discern that the recipe uses two kinds of Swiss cheese, Gruyere, and Vacherin, and clearly nether came in a zip lock bag.   The silky, melted cheese soaks into the bread, infusing it with a nutty aroma.   If “fondue Nirvana” is possible, I am there.

On Saturday, it is time to return to the States, and Amanda has skipped breakfast because a friend has told her that the best ever Pain au Chocolat is at the Geneva Airport before you enter passport control.  However, we don’t have the name of the restaurant.  It is here that the quest begins to unravel.   We are faced with a long baggage drop line, and Amy encounters a ticket snafu.   Amanda’s blood sugar level is dropping like a stone. 

“You have to do recon,” she tells me urgently, her voice tinged with panic.   I sprint ahead through the airport, with no idea where I’m heading.   I stop at every eatery I can find, but see no Pain au Chocolat.   Plenty of doughnuts, and even a Starbucks, but no Pain au Chocolat.   Finally, at the far end of the airport, I am rewarded.   I spot two Pain au Chocolat in a glass case.  They are truly the last two Pain au Chocolat in the Geneva airport.   And, I still don’t manage to note the name of the restaurant.
Triumphantly, I carry the two pastries back to the baggage drop area.  Amanda devours one, and glowingly proclaims it “The best Pain au Chocolat in Geneva.” 

Was it truth or desperation that inspired her endorsement?  I’ll never know for sure, but I am absolutely positive that Amanda would have strangled that little ferret neck pillow if I had come back empty-handed.  

©2013 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pizza from Neapolitan Express and Lunch at an Art Deco Landmark

The digital thermometer on the TV screen in the elevator reads 57 degrees.   Nothing is ever what it seems.  The number suggests balmy weather, perfect for a street food lunch, but this elevator thermometer has read 57 degrees for the past 14 and a half days.   It’s actually quite chilly outside, and I turn up my collar as I head toward Park Avenue to meet up with my college roommate “Ford McKenzie.”  
Our lunchtime mission, which we’ve accepted, is to track down the Neapolitan Express Pizza Truck and sample a few pies.   Neapolitan Express appeared on the street some weeks ago to great fanfare.   It is said to be the first “green” food truck in the city, running on environmentally friendly compressed gas.  I’m not sure how it will affect the taste of the pizza, but we can all use a few less fumes in our lives.  
Ford has been having some dental issues and is a little under the weather, but as always he’s dressed to the nines.   He’s wearing a skinny Thom Browne grey flannel suit, a white Turnbull & Asser shirt, a Ralph Lauren striped blue tie and a 1940s gold Tiffany watch with alligator band.   
Adorning his feet are black Jim Weston cap toe lace ups.   
I take note of the snappy attire and mention that Mad Me-Shell recently remarked that "Culinary Types" was turning into "Project Runway."   

"This is New York," Ford snorts.   "Every day is "Project Runway."

Truth be told, I appreciate the sartorial splendor, but I do wonder about the wisdom of wearing skinny clothes on food truck day.  It seems more like the time for one's "fat pants."  

The Neapolitan Express Truck looks equally spiffy.  A long, sleek vehicle with aerodynamic styling, it literally gleams from the curb at Park Avenue and 53rd Street.   There's a well-dressed crowd milling around.  In general, I've observed that the East side crowd is a bit more glam.
"It's all the hedge fund employees on Park Avenue," Ford explains.   
Yet pizza is the great equalizer, so we all queue up and place an order for a Pizza Margherita, a Pizza Bufala and a fetching dessert Pizza Cioccolato. 
Inside, there's a team of chefs working furiously and we are treated to the heady aroma of piquant tomato sauce.  The truck is outfitted with high-end pizza ovens, sleek countertops and refrigerators.  Reports say the pizza is cooked for about 90 seconds at temperatures of 900 degrees.   

I'm not sure if it's quite that lightning fast, but literally within minutes, we are handed three cardboard boxes containing the goods.  
“Where are we eating?” I ask as I struggle to balance the pizza boxes in my arms.

Ford glances across Park Avenue.  “The W-A of course.”
That would be the “Waldorf Astoria.”  Yes, you heard that correctly.  We are planning to take our street food pizza to the lobby of the iconic New York hotel that has welcomed dignitaries from Douglas McArthur to Marilyn Monroe. 
They ain’t seen nothing yet. 

Park Avenue is an obstacle course. I get jostled by a couple of pedestrians and I’m almost run down by a biker, but we still manage to pass through the revolving doors and parade into the hotel carrying a stack of pizza boxes.   Wikipedia tells us that the Waldorf Astoria was the very first hotel to offer room service.  I’m guessing a pizza picnic in the lobby is perhaps a whole new concept. 

"Do you think anyone noticed?" I ask.

“If we were really doing things right, we would have had the doorman carry the pizza boxes in," says Ford.  
Ford scopes out the glorious, newly refurbished Art Deco lobby. We stroll across the exquisite, mosaic floor and choose a seating area positioned between a ballroom and a more intimate piano alcove.     
Ford places the pizza boxes on a chair, spreads out on the luxurious chocolate brown leather couch and tosses back his Ralph Lauren tie to avoid food stains.  He surveys the lobby.  “Kings have dined here,” he proclaims and selects a slice. 

The pizza is fit for a king and quite tasty.   Each pie is about 14 inches in diameter.  The crust is soft, thin and chewy and the sauce is bright and bracing.  The Pizza Margherita is sprinkled with fresh basil leaves and the Pizza Bufala is layered with cheesy fresh mozzarella. 
We really should have grabbed more napkins from the truck.   Ford gets a spot of pizza sauce on his Thom Browne suit and someone – who shall remain nameless – gets just a little sloppy.  
You can’t take us anywhere.  It’s doubtful we’ll be invited back.  

The dessert Pizza Cioccolato resembles two crepes, filled with Nutella and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  If you tend to get that salty-sweet thing after eating pizza, it's really the perfect sweet finish.  
I notice that a corporate event is now exiting from the nearby ballroom and I suspect it's time to make our exit.  I look around, but I don't see a trash can where we can dispose of the empty pizza boxes.  I suppose a trash can in the Waldorf would be kind of declasse.  

“What do we do with the pizza boxes?” I ask.    It is then that I notice that the boxes are actually multi-use and come with instructions for turning the cardboard into paper plates.   I'm sure the eco-friendly place settings will be a nice touch the next time the Waldorf entertains royalty.   

©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved