6: Keeping Tradition Alive or Our Last Visit With the Worst Waitress in the World

The only person I’ve met in 32 years who does not like Dave.

We’ve fallen into a Sheldon Cooper-esque pattern of doing the same thing the same night of every week.

At first we laughed at this The Big Bang Theory sitcom character’s designated hamburger night, pizza night, comic book night, and then we immediately moved to adopt it. There is no explaining this.

And so we now have Lollipop, Hamburger and Cheesecake days (Thursday, Friday and Sunday), while Saturday is reserved for our Wretched Waitress event. At Joran’s, a waterfront restaurant with the best seating to be found in Switzerland’s Mitteland lake district, is succulent beef tenderloin with red pepper sauce, exquisite pasta, fabulous local fish and the best ice cream in Switzerland.

Dave,  about 20 minutes after we had finished eating and were still waiting for the bill.

Balancing out this ‘best of’ list is a woman who may be the worst waitress in the world. We have eaten at enough restaurants in both hemispheres to hazard this assumption.

She refuses to accept our orders in English, French or even the universally accepted restaurant sign language, which is comprised of us pointing to items on the menu.

She growls at us in German, employing tones that remind us less of Hogan’s Heroes and more of those flecked Second World War newsreels.

And then she makes us wait. And wait. And wait. This happens every week, and yet we keep going back. She has become our grumbly Germanic aunt, whose company we enjoy if only because we can rely upon her uniformly dour countenance. She mystifies us.

Last week, she told me ‘no more French, only German.’

Our waitress (white top) flees into the restaurant after I wave her over.

I would like to report that my feeble attempts at German were welcomed with some coaching from her, but instead she glared at me as I dragged out my German vocabulary (five words). And then, because I was flummoxed, I sprayed out Spanish. All my friends who have been subjected to my so-called Spanish can tell you this will only make matters worse.

This week, the mere sight of us caused her to shake her head in disgust. She huffed through a punishing food-ordering spectacle, then proceeded to serve everyone else, even those who came long after us.

Dave taking a nap while waiting for our bill. Will we ever see our wretched waitress again?

While we waited to order our dessert, she engaged in a spirited and joyful conversation with two German ladies seated near us, and then when I waved to get her attention, she spun away and disappeared into the restaurant.

I wish I was exaggerating about this.

Then we waited an interminable time before we finally got up and went inside to pay our bill. She punched our numbers into the cash till, then before giving us the bill turned to pour two glasses of water, then dump them in the sink, then turn and give us the bill. I asked her if she spoke any English at all.

“Nien!” she exclaimed. She had not directly looked at us for over an hour. That is some feat when serving a meal and taking payment.  I tried to say good-bye, to let her know we’re returning to Canada. It seems wrong to not mark the occasion of our last visit by letting her know that her long period of torment is coming to a close.

That was yesterday. It is now Starbucks Sunday, and we are about to make the two-block stroll there for some cheesecake, which the staff say is specially shipped in from Pennsylvania. That is a good thing. We need a little of that good’ol American home-taste to wash away the emotional wreckage left over from Wretched Waitress day.

For those wondering why we kept going back there: In Swiss restaurants, you can get great service often, mediocre service occasionally and  bad service rarely, but service that falls within the “hostile” category is something to behold. That, and the fabulous ice cream is why we keep going back.

If you go: Skip the tarte flambe’ and order a simple ham, salami and cheese sandwich which is served on thick slabs of fresh-baked bread.

The chocolate, pistachio and banana ice cream flavors are exceptional and often served on a bed of sliced bananas or crushed pistachios. For supper, you cannot go wrong with the beef tenderloin, which the Swiss boast is pasture-fed and antibiotic/chemical-free. The restaurant specializes in fresh local strawberries, ice cream and cream desserts, but that is recommended only when the season peaks, usually in early-to-mid June.

Do not fear the wait-staff. But for this one waitress, the rest speak at least some English, are very friendly and competent. 

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65: Fabulous restaurant under our noses

BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND: Tour de Romandie travels with their own on-board laundry equipment plus two semi trucks full of bikes, staffed with bike mechanics, massage therapists, travel managers, the works. Had I known this is what it takes to get a washing machine in Switzerland, I would have paid more attention to my bike-riding skills. Photo: Joanne Hatherly

We discovered two things yesterday:

  1. The best steak in town has been under our noses all along. The hotel treated us to a free day of dining as a generous thank you for some help out of a little fix, hence we braved the priciest item on the menu. If you are travelling through Biel, and you have a passion for a truly great beef tenderloin, foie gras and sauce, stop at La Barrique in the Mercure Hotel.
  2. Tour de Romandie racers (including Lance Armstrong’s former team) travel with their own laundry equipment. Given my troubles locating laundry facilities, this does not surprise me a bit. How do I know this? The racers have taken over our hotel. They are a very quiet bunch – must be something to do with biking like mad over Switzerland’s terrain that knocks the stuffing out of them.

Our hotel staff treat us like royalty - first by puffing me up with delicious pastries, second by feeding us fabulous beef, and then letting us take over any part of the hotel we like. How could we not love it here?

84: Unesco heritage status for Swiss Fondue?

Fondue served at waterfront cafe on Lac Neuchatel, Switzerland. Yummy.

In Swilderland news of 2011 it was announced that Unesco is looking into conferring special heritage status on Switzerland’s cheese fondues.

I like to think I keep on top of important world news, so I’m banging my head against the wall at having missed this. Switzerland’s keepers of culture at the Federal Culture Office are worried about disappearing traditions, rituals and practices, hence the hoped-for special designation for this cheese dish.

Fondue is not a shoe-in for the Unesco list. Switzerland’s cantons produced something like 380 proposed items for status, which oddly, they are keeping secret, except for two cantons who went public with their lists. The culture doctors have spent the last year winnowing through the items and are expected to announce their abbreviated document of 150 items very soon, that will then go through another paring-down to an unidentified number that will be forwarded onto Unesco for consideration.

The puzzlement over cheese fondue making the list is this. On a 300-metre stroll through town, I pass almost as many restaurant signs boasting fondue as I do street lamps, which is to say: A lot. Chocolate made the list as well, and again, there is so much chocolate here that it is all I can do to keep myself from sliding into a chocolate coma.

Perhaps there is more to Unesco-designation than culture.  An online Swiss news publication, Swiss Info, quoted Pius Knüsel, director of the Swiss Arts Council as saying, “They are seeking recognition first and only secondly financial support.” Aha. Money. Is it possible Unesco will subsidize fondue-consumption?

About the time fondue got onto the proposed-protection list last spring, we were dining on this endangered dish at a cafe on the shores of Lac Neuchatel and that is when fondue’s peril became evident. For a humble pot of melted Corgemont cheese, a plate of bread cubes, two forks, a pot and a flame that had to be relit several times, we paid about 60 Swiss Francs. That was, notably, the last time we chowed down on cheese-and-bread chunks. Maybe fondue is endangered after all.

And so, if fondue does make the list, and if Unesco wants to cut us a check so we can dine out more on this tasty treat, we are prepared to accept their offer.

On an unrelated note: It snowed today. We pretended the flakes were seedlings from the trees, but we fooled no one.


Tapping out a novel in under a month and the joys of rewriting

Books, books, books, books.

FRIDAY, PART ONE – WRITE A NOVEL IN A MONTH? SURE, WHY NOT? I spent half of my day in restaurants yesterday, three hours of which was at our town’s new Starbucks for a writers meeting. The stated goal was to get as much writing done as possible while quaffing towering latte’s and downing cheesecake and other baked yummies, but I wrote exactly one word and spent the rest of the time chatting over one of the other writer’s novels.

The gal is a genius and doesn’t even know it. She has crafted a mystery thriller that was good enough to hold my attention for 40 minutes, which, because she doesn’t know me well, she does not realize she has achieved something in the order of a miracle.

I have a very short attention span. The point of this is to say that she was a little downcast at the prospect of rewriting. She has laid down the story in the sweep of Nanomo, a one-month challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in November.

At other writer meetings, I’ve heard a Manitoba gal read off a stream of her novel’s narrative that came across in a rapid-fire distinctive voice. Here is more talent that may not be aware of her own merits.

I lived in the world of hyperactive-rewrites for almost 10 years as a journalist and hope both these gals do not shelve their roughshod drafts, and keep rewriting, even if it takes a year or two, and in the meantime to look for an agent or publisher. As they say in writing classes, we’re not writers, we’re re-writers. Everything needs polishing and re-polishing. Too many writers wait for some magical moment to start looking for a publisher, missing what could be amazing formative years in a writing career.

Hold on to that day-job while doing all this rewriting, though. The publishing world is a cruel and competitive one.

I reached my 50,000-word count early on (see hyperactive-writing-comment above) and finished my novel at 72,000 words, which I will now spend at least six months editing and then we shall see where that goes.

Friday’s dining, part two.

Toni's Ristorante in Biel/Bienne - a winner!

THREE HOURS IN ONE RESTAURANT WAS NOT ENOUGH – FRIDAY IN BIEL/BIENNE CONTINUED …..But back to the restaurant stuff. Three hours inside a restaurant was not enough for one Friday so at about 7 p.m., Dave and I walked two blocks to Toni’s Restaurant, which sits in a white-washed ancient building on the border of Biel/Bienne’s cobblestone-laid medieval town.  We have not always had the best luck with restaurants lately, so my expectations were set to “gag.”

When we entered, we found a cocktail party on the main floor in full bore. The staff had to search for someone with some English who explained that yes, the restaurant was open (the wine-tasting event downstairs made us suspect it was booked up for a party). They led us upstairs to an empty, but utterly charming restaurant made up of a warren of small rooms (although there was one large room that could accommodate a party of 20 or more).

Empty dining rooms make us nervous that the locals know something we do not, but we pressed on. The waitress showed us into a room where she indicated we take the table of our choice, which, by the way, is what we saw her do later when other patrons arrived. Is this a Swiss custom? I do not know, but it is a nice one. We took the table overlooking the empty outdoor cafe (it was cold outside) and some nasty new construction that is sure to ruin the ambience of the old town’s borders.

But never mind about that. The menu only comes in Italian, German and French, and with the waitress’ limited command of English and our even more paltry assortment of French words, we managed to steer Dave away from ordering horse steak for dinner. When he exclaimed no to the horse, the waitress said, “It’s okay, we have bunnies to eat, too.”

I have no objection to others eating horse or bunnies (ugh), but as a childhood vegetarian, it took me something to just come around to eating beef (pork and chicken came later, fish even later in my 30s after moving to Canada’s west coast, the Mecca of seafood).

We safely ordered beef tenderloin at 43 Swiss Francs a plate. That’s about 50 bucks Canadian. Ouch. The meal came with a savoury carrot soup delivered in a tiny demi-tasse bowl and sumptuous olive bread. When the steak arrived, we were surprised to see it sitting solo on a large plate, surrounded by sautéed arugula and topped with paper-slices of parmesan, but we dug in and  my-o-my, it was the best beef we’ve had here yet.

It was a little odd that it came without the usual potato or vegetable accoutrements, however, it was a generous portion and in fact, it felt good to just enjoy the beef. It is pan-fried, not grilled or broiled, and the seasoning was subtle.

We later enjoyed a 12.75 Franc dessert of mango sorbet and hot chocolate cake with chocolate-cream filling. Words cannot do justice to the mango sorbet. It was richly laced with what must have been fresh mango, because the weight of the fruit chunks gave no indication they had ever seen the inside of a freezer. The chocolate cake was delicious, too.

We ordered just the one dessert for the two of us to share, but it turns out we could have ordered two. The portion was small, but just right for topping off a substantial steak. The restaurant gets a five-star rating in my books. Fabulous food, wonderful wait-staff, top-notch relaxed atmosphere, great layout for quiet dining, and yes, by the time we left the restaurant, it was packed. It seems the Swiss dine at a later hour that we North Americans.

If you want to read more about this restaurant, or find its locale so you can test my appraisal of its merits, click here. 

Lovely affordable Leipzig

I was a little harried after a few hours on Germany's warp-speed highways, but my nerves would soon be settled by fabulous German/Italian cuisine.

European travel tends to have an eviscerating effect on the wallet – it can be very pricy, however, our limited journeys thus far have taught us that getting off the beaten track changes that.

In France, we choked on Paris’s restaurant prices, but in Besançon, a small French village near the Swiss border, we found the architecture stunning and the food just as good at only a smidgen of the Parisian cost. We have not seen enough of Germany to draw the same conclusion, but our three days in Leipzig suggests the trend might continue there.

Along Leipzig’s lovely cobblestoned avenues are scores of open-air cafes. It is possible that some of them served substandard food but we did not find any such establishment.My restaurant advice to anyone visiting Leipzig is this: Dive in. The food will be lovely. If you find a lousy restaurant, let me know. I don’t think you will, though.

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

I dined in the San Remo street pavilion under a towering heater and square umbrellas during a brisk windy day and didn’t feel the bite of the cold at all, so enchanting was the meal, the second-best ravioli I’ve had over the past 40 years (the best was at a Winnipeg Folklorama festival pavilion in a Grant Park arena, where scores of Italian mammas slung out homemade ravioli to die for, this was back in the mid-1970s – since then, I’ve not found any pasta that rivals it).

At San Remo (why are so many good restaurants named San Remo?) at Nikolaistrasse 1, (www.sanremo-leipzig.de), for the meagre price of 8-Euros, you get a fetching plate of vegetarian ravioli with a butter-cream sauce. The pasta’s filling suggests squash, a hint of garlic, and some kind of lentil, although the waiter informed me with his limited English that it was probably chopped carrots that offered the slight crunch.

This restaurant boasts that it won Germany’s best ice cream in 2010, although it is not clear to me what contest gave them this title. Nevertheless, more convincing was the endless line-up that formed at this restaurant’s outdoor ice cream kiosk all day long, no matter the weather. I walked past the restaurant kiosk numerous times in the days that we were there and never saw it wane. And so naturally, I tried out their ice cream for dessert, even though the generous plate of ravioli had left little room. The ice cream had a soft homemade texture and supported the “best of” boast. It was delicious.

We dropped in twice at Bitt-burger, which I think is also on Nikolaistrasse, but might be one block west. It’s famous for its beer and has a distinct Germanic look and name, but has fabulous Italian food. Give it a go. You’ll love it.

Night dining in the rain at "Barf Street" - my translation of this Germanesque-tagged avenue. It is absolutely fabulous. Do not miss this spot if you're in Leipzig.

The entire lane that is regrettably named Barfußgäßchen is packed with restaurants of many types. We had a lovely evening meal there at a place I cannot name, but you could probably safely land at any table and come away gastronomically content.

As always, watch the other patrons to see whether they have any food in front of them, or if they wear peeved expressions – we did see at least one restaurant over which the clientele were casting a foul mood, so we assumed the service would be slow there and kept our distance.

This brings me to a piece of Dave-advice on selecting a restaurant. Besides the above (checking for the demeanor of patrons, as well as making sure there are patrons to start with), he favors going to restaurants populated with middle-class middle-age-and-older clients. He said they’re old enough to not try to impress anyone, they know good food and they’re not inclined to overspend just to say that they did.  It’s a method that has worked for him so far.

Say Cheese

How do the Swiss get those holes in their cheese?

Woke up to a smelly apartment this morning. Cheese must have snuck out of the fridge while we were asleep.

Swiss cheese here is not very much like Swiss cheese anywhere outside of Switzerland. In North America, it has a polite nip in its flavour. Over here, it stinks so bad that we are forced to limit the number of times we open the fridge door, just to preserve the air quality in our place. This is a true fact.

It seems heretical to say, but I am having trouble believing in Swiss cheese per se, just as I am deeply suspicious of my mother’s pre-1961 claims about Santa Claus.

For one thing, I have yet to locate a single block of cheese in any of the local stores with the name “Swiss” on it. The only names I recognize are Brie, Camembert, Feta and Emmental.

Note to editors: Yes, I capitalize all cheese names out of respect for any food made up of 70 per cent or more fat. Canadian Press Style Guide be darned.

Instead, the labels on cheeses here change every three days and read in long Franco-Germanic hieroglyphics like Kaltbach Holengereift  affine en grotte Kraftig-Wurzig intensement corse, which I believe translates into:  Right off the Cow’s Back while it hollered and it’s a fine although gross cheese nothing like Kraft, with an intense coarseness.

I’m suspicious of any grocer who claims to carry 983 varieties of cheese, as Swiss grocers make it appear with their vast dairy aisles. Now, having sampled their wares for over a month, I am ready to make the expert assertion that they only have one cheese, but sell it in various states of decay, and what appear to be name brands are actually warning stickers reading: Essenauf Eigene Gefahr and Acht Monate Vorbei Sein Verfallsdatum. *

This is the wonderful thing about the German language: It makes even the simplest things sound complex. It is how they came to master engineering and technology the world over.

In the meantime, I staggered toward the fridge this morning, facecloth pressed firmly over my nose and mouth to prevent inhaling more deadly cheese spores, declaring my intent to save us by disposing of the cheese.

Dave, Scottish by blood, would not hear of throwing out something we paid an exorbitant amount of money for, and declared he would eat the remainder – a sizeable pie-sized piece. Good man. Fell on his sword. **

*Translation: “Eat at your own risk,” and “Eight months past expiry.”

** I meant to write about the absence of Cheddar from Swiss shops, but got side-tracked. This is what cheese-spore-laden air will do to a person.