THE BENTLEY AT THE DOOR OF THE POGGIO

When they were young, my parents were great equestrians and skiers. I’ve always loved the pictures of them riding horses in the snow – it’s as if it’s a scene out of Doctor Zhivago.

My son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren all ski and play watersports.

My son and my grandchildren
My son and my grandchildren

As for me, I only go for walks.

Our choices, joys, expectations and abilities are all different.

One may infer I didn’t do any sports when I was younger, but I was involved in athletics and skiing.

When I was at boarding school, I signed up for the track team. But don’t  assume I did this out of a love for athletics – I did this so that I could leave school come evenings, as athletes at the boarding school were given permission to leave school property to train. Seizing the opportunity, my friends and I signed up for the athletics team; in time, we didn’t prove ourselves to be particularly successful athletes, but we did succeed in becoming respected patrons of the meyhanes in the vicinity.

Successfull (!) athletic team
Successfull (!) athletic team

Twice I had the chance (or, more appropriately, obligation) to participate in races, representing our school in inter-school competition in cross country. The result? I abandoned one race half-way through and finished last in the other.

In the former, the race was 3,000 meters. It was cold like you wouldn’t believe and there was a mix of rain and snow. We were running on the city streets; as I was bringing up the rear of the pack, a black Cadillac pulled up alongside and opened its window. Out popped the head of a quite famous actress who said:

Come on tiger, keep it up…keep it up!” as if she was calling out to her lover coyly in a film.

The famous actress was the girlfriend of the chairman of our sports club. On that cold Sunday, she had come with her boyfriend to cheer us on, and it was from within the warm confines of her Cadillac that she encouraged me to “keep it up.” The cold I was feeling soon gave way to shivers, and it seemed as if my breath was about to be taken away. When the car was out of sight, I threw in the towel – but began running faster with the intent of getting home to have some hot tea.

On the cross-country team
On the cross-country team

In the second race, I managed to finish the competition but came last: That was it! The Athletics Federation had collected a few gifts from sponsors as incentives for a small number of participants. The gifts were small things that the firms wanting to promote their name had provided, reflecting their sector of work, and because there were enough to go around, I got one too. I didn’t win a plane ticket as first place did or a weekend getaway at a hotel as second place did; instead, I got an ashtray. The gift was indeed an ashtray that a bank gave out to its customers, brandishing its logo. Personally receiving the gift from the hand of the Athletics Federation Chair was an honor I could never forget – as was the fact that they were giving an ashtray to stub out cigarettes to a high school runner!

As for skiing, my father forced me to go skiing and ice-skating a few times when I was in elementary school. Many years later, my wife and I went up the mountains one day; informing her that I knew how to ski, we put on our rented skis, got on the chairlift, and headed for the peak. Now, if I may digress, let me say that in my capacity as someone who has been happily married for 43 years, one of the keys to a happy marriage is that wives trust their husbands – on one condition: that the husband be someone to deserve that trust!

An ashtray as a gift
An ashtray as a gift

After getting off the chairlift, I attempted to take a few steps forward in preparation for showing my wife how to ski, only to discover, to my horror, that I had entirely forgotten the things I had learned about skiing when I was a child. Try as I might to move forward, the skis wouldn’t budge an inch – which was probably for the best, as who knows what would have happened to us and what trouble we would have caused. As far as I can remember, they brought us down on a snowmobile. It’s easy to head to the peak – so long as you don’t make a fool of yourself on the way down…

Teaching (!) my wife “how to ski”
Teaching (!) my wife “how to ski”

Even heading up to the mountain to ski was a fiasco all on its own. I’m not particularly keen on relating it lest I really destroy any confidence you have in me, but what I did doesn’t deserve to go untold. We chugged up the mountain in foggy weather with a massive, eight-cylinder American car that threatened to overheat on every hill, all without the aid of any snow tires or chains. I have no idea how we conjured up such a miracle, but cast such thoughts out of your mind: I don’t want you to think ill of me.

Perhaps my only apology would be this:

When we did all of this, we were 27!

My parents did different things, so did our grandchildren, and so did we.

Everyone’s choices, joys, expectations and opportunities are different.

And like every subject, this is also the case in terms of food and drink. Some enjoy their meat rare, and some enjoy it well done. Some like their pasta al dente, and some hate it this way.

That’s why people who write restaurant reviews have such a difficult job, as it’s technically impossible to provide a review that will embrace everyone.

One sunny June afternoon, I was in Sausalito, walking along the seashore, when I began to think about where to go for food. I could retrace a few steps and head to Scoma’s on the water for fish. Or I could go forward a bit and sample some of Sushi Ran’s successful Japanese fare. Then there was Napa Valley Burger Co. just over there, where, if I could find a seat, I could wolf down one of the most delectable burgers around alongside an ice-cold beer. As I pondered my course of action, a brand-new Bentley convertible glided past me like a swan, stopping in front of the Trattoria Poggio on the other side of the street. A 60-year-old with graying hair along the sides emerged from the vehicle. (What was left of his hair was probably dyed because, as far as I remember, the hair that remained on my head at that age was already white.) He was bedecked in a dark-blue cotton blazer and white pants. And with a silk shirt, sand shoes and a handkerchief, it was as if he was an Italian film producer. Instead of LA, or perhaps because he had gotten sick of LA, it seemed he had found his way north to San Francisco. Regardless, he didn’t look like he was from around here. Around here, the rich winemakers of Napa Valley and the rich thinkers of Silicon Valley tend to dress in plain, comfortable attire.

Sunny Sausolito
Sunny Sausolito

The man entered the trattoria – and yours truly in his wake! He had some linguine and a glass of red wine before lighting a cigar over a glass of liquor. It was obvious to all that he was pleased with what he had consumed. As for me, I had some grilled seabass accompanied by a glass of white wine. But if you want the truth, I was less than pleased.

If both of us were food critics, you’d be reading diametrically opposed reviews about the same restaurant.

That’s because people’s palates, pleasures and expectations are different. Some like French cuisine with heavy sauce, while others go vegan. Some like to grace ostentatious and flashy restaurants, while some prefer a bohemian atmosphere.

And one can also add the prejudices and personal preferences of the critic on top of the difficulties that are part and parcel of producing a review that will encompass the different preferences of readers.

Critics receive special treatment at a lot of restaurants while being shown the best. Sometimes they don’t have to pay the bill, sometimes you’re treated to plenty of extras on the house.

In response to such attention, most critics tend to rate the restaurant in question much more highly that warranted.

In blogs, chefs, as well as food and kitchen product vendors, tend to have pride of place. But advertisers and sponsors tend to show their influence not just in blog posts but also in assorted “best restaurant” competitions.

As for restaurants, they can’t possibly make the same food at the same quality every day. The chef will follow the recipe in one way, but his or her assistant will do so in a different way when the boss is away – a phenomenon that is more pronounced for chefs with different restaurants in various locales.

As far as I’m concerned, the fundamental quality that needs to be presented to the reader is the critic’s honesty and independence.

Like everyone, critics have subjective views. However, if they act honestly and independently, this subjectivity will be reflected objectively to the reader, instead of leading them astray or manipulating them.

Wine testing in Napa
Wine testing in Napa

On this blog, I never dive into questions about the salt or sugar in the food or other such nitty-gritty
topics. As it is, one can find out everything about restaurants, food and prices at t
he click of a button online. I’m simply trying to assist the reader in deciding whether to go to a restaurant. I try and reflect the ambiance, décor, location, service, cost vs. quality, customer profile and – naturally – what’s on offer in general terms, in a fashion that is as objective as possible.

Who knows how successful I am in this quest.

One thing’s for sure, though: This blog’s independence and impartiality! That much is certain – in terms of the review, the rest is up to you…