It was the worst of trips. It was the best of trips. It was a trip.
We arrived in Paris in early November to unseasonable cold–temperatures around freezing with occasional light showers-and an impending transportation strike.
My friend Judy James was along for the first time in a couple of years, trying to traverse this largely inaccessible city in a wheelchair. Because only one of Paris’s 14 metro lines is accessible, we had to use the city’s complex network of buses. The strike only compounded the problem. The real problem was the damned wheelchair kept breaking down.
The transit strike-metros, busses, and suburban and intercity rail trains-made things more difficult but not impossible. It began with about 60 percent of the workers going out, but their numbers kept dwindling.
Street traffic increased to nightmare proportions at times and it often seemed that every cab in town was taken. Going anywhere took much longer than usual.
The issue was whether transit workers would be permitted to have an earlier retirement than most other workers. It did not have much public support compared to past strikes that really shut the town down, but it did garner sympathy from museum workers, who managed to close down certain sections of their institutions for a day or two.
An effort by the left to generate a general strike failed miserably. The strike sputtered to a halt after a couple of weeks, the issues still unresolved.
Happy Birthday Judy
Our friends Kathy and Ted Radke arrived on Judy’s birthday. They had to fend for themselves eating street food while I took the celebree to La Tour D’Argent, a venerated and venerable site on the quai of the Left Bank, six stories up, with a spectacular view of the rear of Notre Dame. The meal was old-style haute cuisine, not the least trendy, but close to perfect in its unfashionable idiom.
La Tour is renown for its roasted duck. Rare, spiced and sliced breast meat is sauced with the juices pressed from the carcass, reduced with red wine, then the liver is worked into the rich, mahogany brew. The legs are grilled further and served as a separate course.
We got a card saying we had been served duck number 1,060,952 since they started counting back in 1890. The duck was preceded by a half dozen belon oysters lightly poached in butter and a couple of ethereal pike-mousse dumplings immersed in a thick, satiny seafood sauce. But we did not get a number for the dumplings.
The most charming of the art shows in Paris this fall was an exhibit at the Grand Palais called “Design against Design.” The vast galleries were filled with hundreds of notably crafted utilitarian objects of the past century-with a focus on home furnishings-counterpointed here and there with much earlier, antique pieces bearing some visual relationship to the modern; some were perhaps even the inspiration for famed furniture Charles Eames and Marcel Breuer.
The most fun in its way was a show of stylish Roaring Twenties garments at the Galliera, a fashion museum little known to most visitors here. Original flapper dresses and hats, many looking quite appropriate for today, were displayed with other accouterments of the era, included everything from jewelry to cosmetics, all interspersed with video clips of stuff such as the hot dances of the decade.
The dark side of the same period was on display at the Maillol Museum in a show called “Germany: The Black Years.” It featured hundreds of line drawings and a raft of paintings by the great World War I artists Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and (my personal favorite) Max Beckmann.
The dense, sharp illustrations of trench warfare were horrifying-more so even than photos or film because of the emotional impact fine line work can have. The post-war works tended toward the satirical and socially conscious. Grim and elating at the same time.
As happens frequently on these Parisian gallery sojourns, we had a chance to see an enlightening retrospective of a well-known artist-in this case the revered sculptor Alberto Giacometti-then discover the range and quality of one little known to us, as we did in the works of Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918).
The Pompidou put on the Giacometti-he of those wonderful, skinny, bumpy, elongated cast figures-centered on a re-creation of the artist’s studio. Models showed every step of his process. There was a video of Giacometti at work — talking about his art. But the heart of the show was a healthy offering of his sculptures, including a selection of the paintings he did before he moved into the third dimension.
The Orsay held the Hodler exhibit in its temporary gallery. At various periods of his life, he did naturescapes, mystical scenes, portraits and quasi-historical epics. A superb colorist, he outlined his objects strongly and frequently did what might have been bleak scenes in pale, almost lively tones. One image that stayed in the mind’s eye was an immense, stark, partially blasted pine tree in a mountain setting.
An amusing display of comedy and technical mastery came at the Luxembourg Museum. It put on a show of Giuseppe Archimboldo’s works. You may not recognize the name of this 16th Century rogue, but surely you have seen one or another of his portraits, which ingeniously assemble fruits or vegetables or fish or flowers to create a human face. Four hundred years later, he became an icon of the surrealist movement.
We return now to the quest for bodily sustenance.
We were granted – for the second time in six visits – a reservation at Le Comptoir, a tiny (22-seat) bistro that absolutely offers the best food value in Paris-maybe the world.
For 48 euros (about $72 thanks to the sinking dollar) one gets a single, brilliant five-course meal-no choices, it changes daily-equal to any two-star here (where you would pay at least twice as much.)
I had the giant scallops roasted in their shells with a leaf of endive, bathed in butter sauce, then a roast cod, followed by a perfectly rosy slice of leg of lamb on a bed of wild mushrooms with chestnuts. The cheese course offered a dozen or more selections–all you can eat. This may be the toughest reservation in Paris (it was recently rated one of the ten toughest in the world) but it was well worth the five-month wait.
We also were seated at L’Astrance, the newest restaurant in Paris to achieve three stars–the highest rating given by the Michelin Guide. But with only 25 seats, it has a three-month waiting list. That night, they were offering only a “surprise” menu (priced at 190 euros) where each course was announced only as it came to the table–accompanied by its own special wine, if you pay an extra 100 euros per person.
It was highlighted by an unforgettably buttery shard of salmon touching a creamy, textured sauce with the gentlest tang, similar to béarnaise; also a rich brandade of cod topped with a creamy foam. Then a couple of chunks of lightly sauced Bresse chicken–the finest grown in France. The cheese course was an interleaved mix of slightly sharp white cheese layered with slices of mango. Desert was five different sweets including an individual cup of chocolate soufflé.
But life here is not all three-starred citadels. We had wonderful meals at traditional brasseries like La Cupole as well as a few bistros around the corner from my apartment, where a three-course meal with wine might run you 40 to 50 Euros. It’s hard to find a bad place to eat in Paris.
My intrepid dining pals Howie Becker and Dianne Hagaman aided, as always, in the search for new spots. We were rewarded by finding Le Gorille Blanc in the chic 7th district, where they do nicely updated versions of traditional bistro-styled home cooking midst photos of the eponymous white gorilla. (The owner has a penchant for animal names: his last bistro was called Le Grizzli.)
On our last night in town, we went with Charlie White and Ellen Hunt to Allard, an old-time St. Germain favorite that fell on hard times some years ago, but under new ownership is now back in stride with heartily garlicked snails, wonderful all-you-can-eat pickled herring and great rich stews of veal or venison.
But the discovery of the trip was Le Violon d’Ingres — once a very expensive, upscale spot that the owners decided to turn into a more popular-priced place while maintaining haute quality. (In doing so the owners followed the lead of master chef Alan Senderens, who did the same with his own three-star emporium several years ago.)
Here at Le Violon, Chef Stephane Schmidt-a nephew of Chicago’s Jean Joho-turns out magnificent contemporary starters such as a tartar of oysters and finfish touched with oil and ringed with caviar, then earthy classics including a magnificent cassoulet and tender, braised beef cheeks in a heady red wine gravy, all in epic proportions. Mentioning Joho’s name brought royal treatment.
As we often do, we took a breather in southern France for a few days with expat Chicagoans Kathleen Prendergast and Dennis Ginosi at their little estate in Lodeve, not far from Montpellier. Here it was all home cooking and lessons from Dennis in the increasingly popular wines of the region, Languedoc-Roussillon.
The area was once dismissed, rightfully, for churning out everyday rotgut in vast quantities. But, as Dennis points out, younger vintners have realized that to survive in a wine world where people are drinking less but drinking better, the time-honored ways had to change. Consequently, Languedoc-Roussillon has emerged in the last 10 years as the most exciting wine-making region in France, and its excellent wines are now listed at some of New York’s and Chicago’s better restaurants.
One rising star is the boutique winery mas Fabregous, run by Philippe and Corinne Gros, in the village of Soubes. The vineyards, named after a sage-like plant that grows in the garrigue and covering 10 hectares, have been in Philippe’s family since 1610. Over the last 20 years he replanted most of the vines on this terrain, and has been bottling his own wines since 2004. His 2005 Sentier Botanique, a mixture of syrah, grenache and carignan grapes, was awarded two stars in Le Guide Hachette des Vins.
The vineyards are in the foothills of the Massif Centrale, and Philippe believes that the unique taste of his wines is a result of long, hot days and, because of the altitude, cool nights that slow the ripening and allow for a more leisurely maturation of the grapes.
It sure works for me. We shared bottles of their Trinque-fourgasse and Sentier Botanique, both from 2004. I offer a special tip of my hat to the latter, though I wish Dennis had that notable 2005 to taste.
If they ever bring mas Fabregous to the States it will probably sell in the $25-$30 range at places such as Sam’s-a real bargain for the quality.
As we were preparing to leave Paris at the end of November, rioting was breaking out once again in the northern suburbs. However, other than seeing it on TV, there was no sense of anything unusual going on in town.
That, as they say, is life in the City of Light.
A bien tot.