Having sold my lovely apartment in Paris two years ago, I returned last month feeling like a tourist rather than the part-time resident I was for so many years. It’s all in the head—but then Paris is a state of mind as well as a glorious destination. Just ask Woody Allen.
This trip was especially exciting because my companion Mlle.Y and I arrived just after the first round of the presidential election in which Socialist Francois Hollande finished narrowly ahead of the unpopular incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande was the instant favorite to win the May 6 runoff, leading in early polls by as many as 10 points. But that lead began to narrow within days and got down to 5 points in the final poll three days before the election itself. As you know by now, of course, France elected its first Socialist president in 17 years by a margin just under 4 points, which was plenty good enough.
We still don’t have a good fix on exactly what Hollande will be able to accomplish by way of his pledge to turn Europe’s economic plan away from its failing austerity program and begin again concentrating on growth through governmental investment—stimulus, if you will.
Still to come are the parliamentary elections, which may give him a stronger hand in his dealings with Germany’s Iron Lady, Angela Merkel, who is far from an economic angel. Keep your fingers crossed. Europe is slipping into recession and a change of direction is much needed.
Meanwhile, setting politics aside, which was hard to do, Mlle. Y and I partook of the many hedonistic pleasures the city offers, taking in an art exposition almost every day and dining sumptuously afterward. The only problem was the weather, which most days was dank and chilly with intermittent rain—worse than I’ve ever experienced this time of year, depriving us of the usual joy of sitting languorously in our favorite outdoor cafes while sipping aperitifs. Except for two or three genuinely warm and sunny days, it was more being huddled around the heat lamps on the terraces. Kvetch, kvetch,kvetch.
Cartoons as High Art
If there was an intended or unintended theme among several of the museums and galleries we visited it was a celebration of and elevation of the cartoonist to high art. At the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris there was an immense display of the works of R. Crumb—best known of course for his ‘60s icon “Keep on Truckin’”, but widely celebrated by now for his immense productivity ranging from commix to quasi-porn. What impressed me the most was his take on the book of Genesis, producing a carefully detailed drawing for almost every line in the book. Hundreds of drawing lined the walls of a very large gallery.
Then, at the Pompidou, there was a smaller but still extensive showing of the works of Art Spiegelman, who also got his start in comics and wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize for his pair of illustrated novels “Maus,” telling the story of the Holocaust. It included his unforgettable black-on-black New Yorker cover of the Twin Towers published just after 9/11.
Finally, the Cinema Museum’s special exhibit was devoted to the wild and imaginative drawings and sculptures of filmmaker Tim Burton, who, as you know, works in both animation as well as live film. Burton began working in the Walt Disney stable but quickly branched out. It was next to impossible to take in every one of the thousands of sketches and complete works, including storyboards for his live works—many featuring Johnny Depp, others with his fair lady, Helena Bonham Carter.
The avant-garde Maison Rouge kept the contemporary-pop spirit going with a showing of neon art called “Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue?”
But it wasn’t all in the contemporary idiom. Before making your mouths water with descriptions of some of our sybaritic dining—including nights of gulping oysters galore, endless variations on foie gras and a budget-busting birthday dinner for Mlle. Y at a plush, three-star restaurant—I must tell you about several other magnificent gallery shows.
The Art of Artemisia
The Maillol Museum—which is not in everybody’s guidebook but rarely fails to produce an interesting show—featured the most extensive collection I have ever seen of Artemisia, the 17th Century Italian who is acknowledged to be the first great woman painter. Often she would do several takes on one subject through the years, creating a kind of narrative sequence. The most memorable was her series on Judith and her servant Abra decapitating and displaying the head of Holofernes. One or two were quite gory, but she also did many ethereal paintings of the Muses and the Madonna.
Another delight was a big show at the Orsay of the many nudes Degas painted and sculpted. Room after room of them. Comes as a revelation if you primarily associate Degas with his hundreds of ballerinas and related dance works.
Da Vinci at The Louvre
The Louvre offered a special exhibit devoted to Leonardo Da Vinci’s final masterpiece, St. Anne. It took him some 20 years of sketches, drawings and preliminary takes by his students to come up with this one superb work—less famous of course than La Gioconda (Mona Lisa), but in many ways the superior painting. The show exhaustively documents all those years of planning and sketching, adding to your appreciation when you finally reach the final work, which, ironically, Da Vinci did not live to completely finish himself.
The Pinacotheque, another museum not known to most visitors, featured the remarkable private collection of Jonas Netter, who essentially discovered Modigliani and brought him to world attention. Netter’s collection also included numerous works by Derain, Utrillo and his mother Suzanne Valadon, plus one of my favorites of the early 20th Century, Chaim Soutine–plus a dozen other painters of the era whose names are far less familiar.
A Matisse retrospective at the Pompidou fell short of others I’ve seen, including a spectacular showing at this same museum about a decade ago. We had a smaller, better-curated show at the Art Institute of Chicago a couple of years ago. In any event, Matisse is still Matisse and always a delight.
On May Day, following the huge annual left-wing parade, I got to expound on my currently optimistic view of Obama’s re-election prospects at a well packed meeting of Democrats Abroad at the home of my friend John Morris. Many there did not know that the May 1st International Labor Day had its origins in Chicago, so I was glad to enlighten with a brief history of the Haymarket Riot and its ramifications. The group is officially recognized by the Democratic National Committee and sends delegates to the convention.
The folks here claim that more than one US election has been decided by the votes of Americans living overseas. Smart audience—except perhaps in their choice of speaker—with good questions and high spirits. I’ve addressed this group several times thorough the years and this was the largest and liveliest crowd. They were quite happy to hear that I was optimistic because the last time I spoke to them it was in advance of the 2010 Democratic debacle, which I reluctantly predicted.
Let the Feasting Begin
Where do I begin to tell you about the feasting?
Perhaps at one of my favorite bistros, La Regalade at the southernmost end of town, widely considered to be the best in Paris. Back in 1992 super-chef Yves Camdeborde started it with the idea of providing star-worthy food in a bistro setting. He sold it to his sous chef and went on to open the great Comptoir in St. Germain. But it still features an incredible, all-you-can-eat assortment of a dozen sausages from the best purveyor in France, which just happens to be Camdeborde’s family. Puts you in hog heaven.
We were also lucky enough to score seats at Spring, a tiny, contemporary spot owned and operated by an American chef from the Chicago area named Dan Rose. (No relation.) Extremely hard to get into, you get a fixed, seven-course menu for about $100 per capita, each dish, whether fish, meat or veggie, exquisitely wrought with the freshest seasonal ingredients. Example: a perfectly undercooked slice of trout with crisped skin awash in a sauce made of maple syrup, olive oil, lemon and pistachios. The roasted asparagus are bathed in a subtle vinegar and strewn with trout caviar. Then came fresh morels bathed in a lobster-shell broth, followed by a tender, succulent loin of baby veal accompanied by tiny artichokes and an anchovy glaze. Need I go on?
Of course we had our usual mountain of shellfish at the well-known, very touristy Pied du Cochon. Four kinds of oysters, three kinds of clams, a mound of teeny shrimp and a half dozen big ones, a pile of whelks (sea snails) and endless periwinkles—soon you have eaten yourself into submission.
But that wasn’t the end of oysters, for we supped one night at the tiny, super-fresh, glorified oyster bar called Huiterie Regis in St. Germain, a half dozen varieties and sizes. Nothing but oysters, oysters and more oysters washed down with bottles of crisp Muscadet.
Earlier that day we lunched with old friend Mike Lenehan, former editor of The Reader, at a wine bar near our hotel called Le Garde Robe, which served up glorious platters of sausages, cheeses, roasted veggies and—of course—foie gras, all of which went down easily with a dry Loire wine.
Another evening it was dinner with Caroline Lee, the expatriate sculptor from Chicago, at the appropriately named Au Gourmand, which features vegetables from Joel Thiebault, the finest purveyor of veggies on the Ile de France—so fine his name is on the menu.
One lovely main course had a wide assortment of braised veggies topped with a whole soft-boiled egg. My own starter was a carpaccio of the tenderest possible sea scallops sliced into quarter-inch coins and strewn with subtle fresh herbs that enhanced their brininess. This was followed by a rich, pink tinged risotto of langoustines. This dish and the langoustines devoured elsewhere made me wish once again we could get these lovely little crustaceans—sort of miniature lobsters—here at home.
Before going on to our three-star Ledoyen, I must mention we had two home-cooked meals, the least Parisian of which was a great Mexican dinner whomped up by my pal Marc Cogan in honor of Cinco de Mayo. Great guacamole, pico de gallo and other traditional dishes and an endless stream of margaritas. On election night we supped with my cousin Bob Salita and his heart Nathalie Antheaume at their place near the Parc Monceau. In addition to a lovely appetizer of mixed charcuterie, Nathalie did a terrific rabbit in mustard sauce worthy of any fine bistro.
As to Ledoyen and the birthday dinner, this is an historic building set in a verdant park right behind the Petite Palais, off the Champs Elysees. The restaurant is on the second level of the building, which you enter from a near royal staircase. About 12 years ago it was awarded three stars by Michelin, which it retains—and, more importantly for true Parisian gourmets, it has three “plates” from Gilles Pudlowski, the best of the French dining critics.
We ordered the special chef’s “discovery” menu, a five-course affair preceded by a half dozen amuses bouche, one of which was a mini square of foie gras layered with raspberry puree; another was a remarkable clear gelatin “egg” that exploded its briny shellfish flavors in your mouth as you slurped it off its ceramic spoon.
The first course was more gorgeous langoustines in a mixed citrus emulsion, followed by a perfectly underdone slab of line-caught turbot accompanied by truffled potatoes. Then came wonderfully browned nuggets of sweetbread speared on a branch of lemongrass, all drizzled in a juice of mixed fresh herbs—incredibly rich and one of my favorite meats. Need I say there was a grand selection of just ripe cheeses? Need I say the desserts came one after the other—at least three, each sweeter than the last. (Each dessert was announced as “the last dessert.”
OK wine hipsters, here’s what I ordered: a bottle of Savennieres Coulees de Serrant, the great Loire white to go with the seafoods and a half bottle of soft, rich Nuits St. Georges for the sweetbreads and cheeses.
When socialism comes fully to France it is my hope that everyone can share such a meal. Until then, I’m glad I made enough money on my apartment to afford this luxury every so often.
It was midnight in Paris by the time we got a cab back to our hotel, but unfortunately, unlike the Woody Allen movie, we didn’t run into Hemingway, Fitzgerald or any of them other cats. Maybe next time.
photo credit: restaurant and gallery pictures by Caroline Gibbons.