PARIS–We arrived in a somewhat damp and chilly city exactly a week after the election with the sense the French were as happy as we.
I wore my “Another old white guy for Obama” button on my jacket, first in pride, second to test reactions. First thing, a tall Afro-French airport attendant reads it, breaks out into a smile and kisses me on the cheek.
That was the only kiss it engendered. But there were plenty more smiles and nods, plus many as well as for my friend Judy’s T-shirt that said “Hip Old White Ladies for Obama.”
I think the guy could have been elected president of France by a huge margin—maybe president of half the world. (President Sarkozy of France has numbers only slightly better than Bush.) Every magazine seemed to have Barack’s face on the cover—including Paris Match, their version of Life magazine, which featured a huge, double-truck photo by our friend Marc PoKempner, the earliest photo-chronicler of the new president.
We get TV in several languages here and each channel breathlessly covered the daily cabinet appointments and rumors of appointments as if they were talking about their own prime ministers and chancellors of the exchequer. The last time I saw this kind of adoration of an American president it was for Kennedy and before that for Eisenhower—briefly. (Contrary to popular opinion, I was not romping around Paris during the Roosevelt administration.)
Ordinarily our fall trip here comes much earlier when it’s warmer, but we had to stay in Chicago for the election. With the weather relatively uninviting, we didn’t do the usual round of strolling and café sitting, but did get our usual fill of those two Parisian magnets that keep drawing us back: the arts and the eats.
Thanksgiving in the Country
We had our own special Thanksgiving celebration: three days with our friends Dennis Ginosi and Kathleen Prendergast at their little estate in Lodeve, several hours south of Paris near Montpellier. Kathleen substituted a pair of gorgeous pheasants for the usual turkey, which was fine with me.
Needless to say we swilled plenty of the local Herault wines, which keep getting better and better though they remain a secret to most Americans.
It was also a time of dining discoveries with Leon Gussow, who spent the first week with us, and our San Francisco friends Howie Becker and Dianne Hagaman, who scoped out a few places in advance. We hit everything from a plush three-star palace for Judy’s birthday to some tiny, inventive spots serving splendid cuisine at moderate fees.
Picasso and the Masters
The season’s blockbuster art show is “Picasso and the Masters” at the Grand Palais. It assembles more than 200 paintings by Picasso and a bevy of great painters who preceded him, from Ingres to El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, Manet, Cezanne and more. The Picassos are hung near the older masters’ works in parallel themes, from portraits to landscapes to nudes to more complex subjects.
In some instances you simply see the way one of the early painters influenced Picasso—perhaps a similar still life, perhaps a conscious counterpoint or pictorial commentary on a theme. Then, in some cases, mainly in the 1950s and ‘60s, Picasso does a series of as many as 44 variations on a single masterwork such as Velasquez’s “Las Meninas,” which some critics consider the greatest painting of all time (it was shown here only by a slide—it never leaves Madrid).
Three other museums cooperated in the show: the Picasso Museum, of course, plus the Louvre, which holds Delacroix’s “Women of Algeria,” displaying in a separate room with more than a dozen different takes by Picasso, and the Musee D’Orsay, which did the same with one of its masterworks, Manet’s famed “Picnic in the Forest,” featuring fully clad gentlemen and fully unclad ladies. Picasso had a ball doing dozens of takes in oil, ceramic and stone.
Can one ever get enough Picasso? Some critics claim to be overdosed, but when they keep coming up with interesting curatorial ideas like this, it all goes down pretty well.
Dennis Hopper, Artist
The cinema museum came up with a real surprise: a major exhibition devoted to Dennis Hopper as symbol of the “new” Hollywood. Turns out Hopper is an inveterate photographer, a pretty good painter, a sculptor, an art collector, historian of the counterculture, director and—oh, yes—a film actor. Three big rooms are filled with his works, including dozens of film clips, scripts, musings, reactions of friends, soundtracks, what-have-you. All in all a remarkable assemblage of one guy’s talent, including skills you never realized he had.
The Pompidou Center, as usual, had a lot going on in addition to its encyclopedic collection of modern art. A special exhibition was devoted to Futurism, an early 20th Century movement—complete with manifestoes of course—that attacked the cubists for being too frivolous and paying too much attention to nudes. The first decade or two of the movement, beginning in 1909, was led by Italians with the unfamiliar (to me at least) names of Severini, Boccioni and Carra, but their works should all be much better known. They stand out even without the support of manifestoes. Later, French, German and Russian artists absorbed some of their characteristics and the movement itself lost steam as it merged into a multitude of styles and schools.
In another part of the center was a retrospective of the Israeli born designer-architect Ron Arad. Here was some of the most brilliant seating and other furniture since Charles Eames, utilizing stamped and molded metals, plastics, wood and leather. You even got to sit in some of the chairs and couches instead of just wondering what it would be like! There was also a terrific film about his designing and engineering the new Design Museum in Holon, Israel.
Jackson Pollack, Shaman
Speaking of odd curatorial concepts, the Pinacotheque featured a show called Jackson Pollack as Shaman—a kind of medicine man—invoking a multitude of Pollack’s early, pre-drip, oddly figurative paintings of symbolic animals. They were hung next to “primitive” masks, arts and artifacts of pre-Columbian Americans. Apparently Pollack had an early affinity for Native American studies, which he echoed in many of those early works in an incantatory way—lifting him to the role of shaman in the eyes of this particular curator. Well, ultimately we get to a drip painting or two, just to reassure you it’s really Pollack.
This exhibit was paired with a massive Rouault retrospective, where, yes, my dears, you really can overdose on Rouault. The first to last painting of his life and everything in between were all done in the same style. Good to great, but repetitious as hell, leading to black-line fatigue of the eyeball.
We did have the good fortune to get here just in time for an opening of our friend David Gista’s paintings on canvas, paper and floppy discs. David, born in France, works both sides of the pond, with frequent showings in Chicago, where he spends more of his time these days.
As I’ve noted before, the French really respect the art of the photograph—there are three museums here dedicated solely to photography. November also has become the traditional photo month, where other museums and galleries join the game. We saw two such shows worthy of special comment:
A fascinating compendium of American photos of the 1970s, mostly by then-younger, emerging talents, wide-ranging in style from morgue realism to arty compositions to romantic interludes. This show was mounted at the old national library.
The killer photo show for me, however, had deep Chicago roots: a retrospective of the late Nathan Lerner’s photos. Lerner was long associated with the Bauhaus in Chicago from the late 1930s to the early ‘50s, when it became the Institute of Design (housed in the building where Excalibur nightclub now exists), and was later swallowed whole by the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Lerner was one of the great ID-based photographers, along with Aaron Siskin, Harry Callahan and Arthur Siegel. The show included pre-Bauhaus works depicting Maxwell Street scenes as a kind of poverty row, a la Walker Evans. Then, when he joined the Bauhaus, he began using light as a design element and everyday objects such as a fire escape as composition. Finally, in the 1990s he switches to color and grabs segments of walls and signs in Japan, turning them into virtual expressionist paintings.
The Yummy Parts
Leon, Judy and I managed to submerge our guilt at high spending in times of economic crisis and so, for her birthday, took her to Le Meurice, one of the most beautiful of three-star restaurants in Paris. It was like dining at Versailles, only the food here was likely better with such stuff as steamed shellfish studded with sea urchin coral, sautéed foie gras accompanied by sweet cakes, bass braised in fennel, nuggets of veal topped with marrowed cardoons and turnip chutney, and so on for six or seven courses. Don’t ask the price.
The rest of our many discoveries were all excellent, contemporary bistros where the tabs tend to run about $40-$60 plus wine (although the euro is dropping in value against the dollar).
One of them is a tiny 18-seater and so popular it’s booked until next spring—which is its name: Spring. A totally inventive spot near Montmartre run by a 31-year old guy from Wilmette named Daniel Rose (no relation). From a standout lunch with Howie and Dianne we enjoyed a full-bodied scallop and endive soup made from an intense brown chicken broth redolent of parsley and tarragon adrift with chicken cracklings. A poached lamb loin was pink and juicy.
Possibly the best of the “neo-bistros” was Le Gaigne in the Marais. Small as well—seating about 22—but serving up big flavors. A five-course tasting menu, with matching wines ran about $65 and included foie gras with pear chutney and pineapple cannelloni, sea scallop tartar with lemon zest and purple endive, Atlantic char cooked in your bowl with a pour of hot shellfish broth, a lovely little steak with béarnaise and for dessert a deconstructed taffy apple. You could have been served any of these dishes at a two-star restaurant.
Smokeless Smoked Salmon
Close behind was Itineraires on the left bank near the river, where the most distinctive dish was a mousse of artichoke with a thick sea urchin sauce lying atop. Also fascinating, their “smokeless” smoked salmon: a thick fillet of the fish rubbed with lapsang souchang tea for the smoky flavor, then cooked “sous vide” at a very low temperature to a barely warmed state. This place has taken off big.
Howie made two discoveries. First, an old favorite that had changed hands, closed a year ago, then reopened near the Louvre—walking distance from my apartment. Au Gourmand somehow seemed better than ever, what with stuff such as steamed baby leeks, always a favorite, but elevated to the skies with tiny shavings of black truffle. Also a carpaccio of scallops touched with herring caviar and wasabi. (Yes, sea scallops were in high season and the quality was excellent at every venue.)
His second find was a place called Le Petit Bordelais, quite a pretty room done in unusual colors. We dined with our old friend Caroline Lee, the sculptor who moved to Paris in 1958 and eventually became a French citizen—to say nothing of being a lifetime awardee of the Academy.
Anyway, I opened dinner with mackerel done three ways: plain on the bone, a mousse and a salad. This was followed by a plate bearing two of my Parisian delights, perfectly pink veal kidney and a rich slab of sweetbreads, all bound with a light brown sauce. (Yeah—I know this isn’t for everyone, so go ahead and order something else. It’s all good.)
The Toughest Table in Town
It would not be a trip to Paris without an effort to get into the toughest table in town: Le Comptoir le Relais near the Odeon. I’ve written before of this fabulous eatery, which serves one five-course menu in the evening for about $60, whose quality can’t be matched anywhere for double to triple the price. Chef Yves Camdeborde more or less invented the neo-bistro in 1990, then opened this spot about five years ago in association with the boutique hotel he rehabbed. (Hotel guests can always get a table here.)
Our meal, with a French couple, included creamy potato puree in a cocotte, seasoned with green onion and studded throughout with nuggets of lobster meat, followed by—yes—another rendition of scallop soup starting with raw scallops. Then came a magnificent, perfectly rare loin of lamb in an herbal crust accompanied by a tiny stuffed cabbage leaf. Then their incredible all-you-can-eat cheese platter—a dozen select cheeses with jams and jellies if you please, followed by a multiple pineapple dessert.
I say again, this is the best food buy in all of Paris—if you get in.
There were other moments of course: the incredible array of sausages and pates at L’Ami Jean, of which I’ve written before. The freshest of fresh oysters and sea urchin at Huitres Regis. The excellent omelets at the café below my apartment. The superb autumn seasonal cheese called vacherin.
Am I obsessed with food? Is it part of my obsession with Paris?