Baku, Sunday 27th August 2006
Summertime continues hot and currently humid outside. I am cooling quietly in the air-conditioned shade of my apartment having just returned from a rather late lunch at the Sunset Café. As I think I may have mentioned before, it’s a pleasant place with a vague American diner theme to the décor and the menu and music almost to match; though that is a relative term: today it ranged from “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police to a hideous rendition of Marley’s “Redemption Song” by Stevie Wonder. I know the man who owns Sunset and I know he’s very particular about his music – how he came to allow that last one into the collection I don’t know…
The same man also owns Scalini’s (the Italian restaurant where I celebrated my birthday), The Lounge (familiar territory) and a new place he has just opened in the Old City called Mediterranea. I tried Mediterranea for the first time last night and it’s got a lot going for it. The restaurant is housed in one of the old caravansaray (excuse spelling) and at the moment all dining takes place on the roof terrace running four sides around what was the old courtyard but has long been covered to provide a large indoor space. Sitting there on a warm evening with a light breeze and sights like the old mosque and the Maiden’s Tower within easy view was very conducive to a good meal. The small live band playing Azeri folk music on traditional instruments added to the scene: they were genuinely talented and playing to accompany dinner rather than putting on a loud ‘show’ for the night as the band did in Mugan Club that time a couple of months ago. Definitely a thumbs-up for ambience; next to the menu.
The bar and restaurant scene in Baku is never far from conversation (not surprising when eating and drinking is about all there is to do here) and it seems that each new restaurant that opens strives to offer that little something different that will both attract people to try the place and then make them like it enough to keep coming back. It’s a tough job as news spreads around the grapevine pretty fast and places can rise and fall in favour faster than a volatile day on the stock market. As the name suggests, Mediterranea seeks to offer a selection dishes from around the Mediterranean coast. In reality this falls primarily into a mixture of Italian and Turkish food which is to be expected given the circumstances but not such a bad thing for all that. I chose a few Turkish dishes and enjoyed a perfectly good meal rounded off with a Turkish coffee: very much a nostalgic treat as I had not drunk one since my Summer job in Cyprus ten years ago.
Being the only wine drinker at the table I did not get a look at the wine list on this occasion but I did inquire after their range of beers. The names offered were exactly the same as those to be found at The Lounge (no surprise) and did not include Efes – a glaring omission to my mind as it is a popular Turkish beer that is readily available in Baku and would probably sell very well in restaurant offering Turkish food. Surely it would be worth adding it to the ‘family’ collection? I found out later that evening that the owner is trying to remove Efes from his drinks list altogether as he does not like the beer. Puzzling as I don’t recall ever being offered an Efes in The Lounge, Scalini’s or Sunset; what was there to remove?
Back to this afternoon and after my pint of Iced Tea (non-Long Island variety) at Sunset I decide a beer might be nice; excuse me, what do you have? The Lounge-familiar list that was recited excluded Miller (odd in an allegedly ‘American’ venue) but did have an unexpected substitution: Efes. A-ha; last night’s conversation at Mediterannea suddenly made a bit more sense. I thought it best to order one if they are not going to be around much longer. The bottle and glass duly arrived (a year in Paris got me very much back into decanting bottled beers) and I poured while musing over the eccentricities of Baku business that make a man offer Turkish beer in his American bar, American beer everywhere except in his American bar and no Turkish beer in his Turkish bar – even if he is trying to stop stocking it. I then noticed a bit of small print on the bottle: sprayed on in the same fine, black ink that you see used for best-before dates was a piece of code and text that included “..LTD… LONDON…E10.” It would appear that I have just drunk one of the most pointlessly high mileage beers on the globe: produced and bottled in Turkey, shipped to England then shipped all the way back to Azerbaijan. No wonder the restaurant owner wants to lose the stuff: it must be costing a fortune! Surely this can’t be the same line of provenance for all the Efes in Baku? I’m going to start looking at the next few Efes bottles I order now just to find out. This is even better than the time I was sitting in St. Maarten drinking Red Stripe (advertised as “the Jamaican beer” in England) to find that what I was drinking had been brewed under license in Bradford, England just like the beer offered back home. I don’t think I’ll ever understand this thing they call ‘business’…