Drink: A modern survival guide
Or how to find somewhere for dinner when you're far from home
Sunday 24 January 1999
It contains advice on when to bail out of your plane and how to make snow goggles from a piece of wood. There is a very handy crash course on speaking Eskimo: "Comma-tee-nick eye-shook-too" means "bring a dog sled". It is particularly informative on what you can and cannot eat. You can't eat polar bear livers, parsnip root, jellyfish or sea snakes. You can eat termites (having carefully removed the wings), beetle grubs, ground ferns, musk ox and seals. The author even reveals a distinct penchant for caribou brisket.
This is all very well, but what this generation needs is a survival guide for when you're stranded in the middle of civilisation.
One of the great problems facing the modern traveller is finding a decent restaurant in a strange city. You already know enough not to go to the first restaurant to the right of your hotel, anywhere with touts at the door or any place that advertises in the free tourist magazine in your room. (Have you ever seen one of those things in your own home town? You haven't been to any of the places listed since the prawn cocktail was invented.)
You also know enough never to eat in your hotel, unless you happen to be staying at the Cipriani in Venice, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, or the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, home to Ducasse's Le Louis XV restaurant.
And I don't need to remind you about taxi drivers, do I? By all means entrust your case to them, but not your stomach. Thanks to taxi drivers, I have found the worst smorrebrod in Copenhagen, the worst roast beef (I think it was beef) in Scotland and the worst meat pie in Sydney.
Instead, I have developed my own methods. How else would I have discovered the Lung Wah pigeon restaurant in Hong Kong, the utterly magical Cave di Maiano, affixed by grapevines to a steep Floren- tine hill, or the royal banquet food of the Bussaracum restaurant in the middle of Bangkok?
My secret to finding great restaurants is other great restaurants. I simply grill my waiter. All over the world, the restaurant industry is so close-knit that it's almost incestuous. Almost everyone knows who has moved where, who's just opened there and who's sleeping with whom.
After a single meal at Jeremiah Tower's glamorous Stars brasserie in San Francisco, I gleaned enough to keep me well fed for a month at the mighty Swan Oyster Depot, the evergreen-wood-fired Zuni's, the roast-chicken- and-beer Lulu, the fabulously fishy Farallon.
But surely you just buy the local restaurant guide, I can hear you cry. Maybe so, maybe not. Does it take ads? Are the reviews written by AG Lutton, pseudonym for the guy who sells the ads? Even the virtuous Guide Michelin can land you with a platter of loup de mer a la creme faster than you can say: "Do-we-have-enough-to-pay-for-this?" And inevitably, by the time you arrive at your "typical friendly little Roman trattoria", it is filled with Americans and Japanese, the Romans having given it up when it was "discovered".
As for the American-based Zagat guides, democratically compiled by thousands of diners, I just worry that many of those thousands are like my friends. On a friend's recommendation, I once ended up in Paris eating raw garlic and acidic tomato puree, when it dawned on me that this was exactly the kind of restaurant he liked to eat in back home. How he managed to find one just as bad in Paris is a miracle.
The truth is, you don't need a manual to find a great restaurant when you travel. You just need to do a bit of homework, cross-reference a couple of waiters, and pack a spirit of adventure and a well-developed instinct for self-preservation. In the words of my father-in-law's guide, you will always survive if you get plenty of sleep and rest, avoid tight clothing, keep dry and warm, eat plenty of fat and stay away from the women. Better advice than that, the Guide Michelin could not give you.
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