The middle of November is not my ideal time to romp through the City of Light—it is almost always too chilly to luxuriate on the outdoor terraces, sipping Pernod and watching the world go by—but then there’s never really a bad time to be there and I couldn’t very well split before the election.
A Photographic Extravaganza
Thus Mlle. Y and I arrived just in time to catch Paris Photo, the spectacular, overwhelming exposition of photo galleries from all over the world. Some 128 galleries from 22 countries were represented, displaying everything from snapshots by long-gone pioneers to the mural-size epics of today’s photographic artists— both straight and digitally enhanced.
For the third year the show took place in the magnificently rehabilitated, glass roofed Grand Palais. 54,000 lookers and buyers mobbed the exhibit during its four-day run and, like an art expo at Navy Pier, it was impossible to take it all in since there was something interesting at every turn.
Thanksgiving in Paris
Our dinner on Thanksgiving Day at Pierre Gagnaire’s exquisite emporium of avant garde dining was the culinary high point of the trip. It consisted of seven ultra-complex courses involving exotica such as sea urchin “tongues”, eel terrine, scallop coral, line-caught bass with roasted duck foie gras, grouse with red cabbage and medjool dates, all washed down by the likes of Puligny Montrachet. Not exactly like Thanksgiving at grandma’s. (Of course we blew half my kids’ inheritance downing this four-hour meal, but let them eat cake.) There would be other lovely bistro meals to come in the affordable range (more on this later) but this was one to be truly thankful for.
We stayed down in Montparnasse for the first time since I used to live there in the mid-50s, and the ghost of Hemingway still haunts the alleyways. The large, bi-level apartment we rented, with immense 29-foot ceilings, was the mirror image of the adjacent building where Simone de Beauvoir spent the last 20 or so years of her life (according to the commemorative plaque on the side of the building).
The apartment overlooks the Montparnasse cemetery where she and Jean Paul Sartre are both buried in the same small plot, seemingly one atop the other––as they sometimes were in real life. Their simple headstone is embellished with lipstick kisses in the stone. But the gravesite is nowhere near as garish as the decorations strung around Jim Morrison’s grave in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery way across town to the northeast. While we were there, we also paid our respects as well to Charles Baudelaire, Eugene Ionesco and four centuries worth of other notables, many of them just plain folk.
The Pere-Lachaise area where Morrison is buried is now a young, hip, hot hood for artists and bohos, and that’s where we ventured to have dinner with our expat sculptor friend Caroline Lee. She chose one of the newer little bistros there called Roseval, a tiny, nondescript corner spot that did some inventive little dishes, among them a crisped hake fish in a pool of spinach puree with sautéed whelks. A four course dinner with cheese can be had prix fix for about $50 American—more or less standard at the better bistros.
Dali and Hopper
More food to come, but now a bit of nourishment for the mind. To wit, the art scene, led off by the town’s two huge but starkly different blockbuster exhibits: Salvador Dali and the beloved American Edward Hopper—or as our French friends call him, Oh-pair.
The Dali was at the Pompidou—a vast space filled with 120 paintings plus drawings, writings, sculptures and videos galore, ranging from his classic film with Bunuel, “An Andalusian Dog,” through what can only be considered early performance art, with some Hitchcock sequences tossed in for good measure. It’s often hard to separate out Dali’s serious art from his spoofs, satires, egomaniacal self-promotions and just plain charlatanism. Among the surrealists I much prefer Rene Magritte, but Dali’s incredible technical craftsmanship and unbounded imagination—including a really dirty mind—cannot be denied.
Hopper, on the other hand, always made genuine art, with the exception of some commercial magazine covers. More than 100 of his oil paintings were on display with scores of watercolors at a Grand Palais gallery. They ranged from his wonderfully colored small-town cityscapes to scenes of those enigmatic, lonely people he captured with a few brushstrokes; and the curators thoughtfully worked in a few works by the contemporary Europeans who influenced him as well as a selection of his American peers out of the so-called “ash can school.” (Yes, the iconic “Nighthawks” was prominently displayed.)
The French curators work hard at coming up with interesting ideas for shows, most of which were well worth the time. One at the lesser-known Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris featured the works of modern artists from Dubuffet to Picasso created in France during the World War II years. Another––in yet another gallery at the Grand Palais––was kind of a convoluted exhibit called “Bohemia, from Leonardo to Picasso.”
This showed works through the centuries depicting Egyptians and gypsies (who were first thought to be Egyptian, thus their name). They included pictures of rustic figures from the original land of Bohemia on through images of bohemians living the good life as artists ensconced in garrets. Naturally, one room was devoted to posters and sets from La Boheme (displayed to the accompaniment of its better known arias). The quality of the paintings varied widely, but this dirty old man really enjoyed depictions of some of the partially disrobed gypsy ladies. Hey—it’s art.
The Art of Le Havre
A surprisingly good show was also mounted at the Luxembourg Museum, situated at the top end of the eponymous gardens. It featured scores of works from a circle of art collectors based in the port town of Le Havre where numerous artists and photographers, many now well known, settled for some portion of their careers from 1850 forward.
The group of collectors showed remarkably good taste, buying up impressionist, postimpressionist and fauvist works from the likes of Monet, Pissaro and Dufy among others. The special pleasure of such shows is discovering wonderful talents such as Albert Marquet (1875-1947), a fauvist whose name is barely known here except perhaps to specialists, but whose superbly colored works can stand with the best of his era.
You don’t have to know Venice to appreciate a show at the small Maillol Museum, where dozens of works of Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, capture every conceivable aspect of the city. Canal does this most expressively by exploiting the light of the city at all hours of the day. In some cases he uses a camera oscura to help sketch out panoramic views that he colors in magnificently with the earthiness and dirty laundry from the back streets and canals –– which only made me want to go back there again, even though it’s hip-deep in water these days.
Art history buffs might also enjoy, as I did, a visit to the musty but beautifully preserved, ornately decorated home and studio of Gustave-Moreau, the late-19th Century symbolist painter, which culminates in his vast atelier containing several interesting works plus works in progress.
A Rising Star from China
The most contemporary show we saw was at the lovely Cartier Foundation gallery, sometimes called the “glass house,” just a long block from our digs. The entire place was given over to the enormous canvasses of the 50-year old, highly influential Chinese artist Yue Minjun of Beijing.
How does one describe his stuff? It’s satirical, surreal, hyper-real, cartoonish at times and very political. Much of his work features a kind of caricature of himself in Crayola-like colors—single to multiple images of his body in extraordinary situations—his circular face frozen into a smile showing dozens of teeth, his head sometimes detached, sometimes open at the top as if one lifted his cranium to examine his brain. That face appears and reappears like a sardonic dream. Then in another series he drafts homages to French classic paintings as well as icons of the Maoist era, each with a twist.
And “Children of Paradise”
The special exhibit at the Cinema Museum for the first time in my memory was devoted to a single film: Marcel Carne’s 1945 classic, “Children of Paradise.” For the French—and many others of us—this lengthy, two-part film is adored with the warmth of “Casablanca” and the appreciation of “Citizen Kane.”
Filmed under exceptional circumstances during the last days of the Nazi occupation, with a script by poet Jacques Prevert, it tells a multilayered story of love, treachery and loss with parallel stories running from the a play within the film to “real life.” Every aspect of the making of the film is detailed in the exhibit––from scripting, casting to promotion—and many of the actual costumes are on display. Generous clips of the film were also on display throughout the exhibit space.
OK. So much for kulchur. Let’s get down to the eats.
Making the Rounds
Of course we scarfed down oysters by the dozen at Huitres Regis, where the only thing on the menu is a selection of the freshest oysters in Paris. We returned to what many of us consider the best bistro in Paris, La Regalade, to devour their all-you-can-eat basket of fine cochonailles (sausages). Whilst about it, Mlle. Y also did away with a doubly rich mousse of foie gras afloat in an ethereal foam of same. And, of course, we returned to Jacques Cagna’s Rotisserie en Face for magnificently garlicky, juicy frog legs—even better than the old Phil Schmidts at its best.
With our pals Howie Becker, spouse Dianne Hagaman and buddy Henri Peretz we supped at a lovely, quiet new bistro near the Opera House called Bistro Volnay, winner of numerous awards. Mlle. Y’s foie gras poached in red wine, my carpaccio of octopus and our lush sweetbreads surrounded by an assortment of wild mushrooms illustrated why all the awards. With Howie and Dianne we also returned to an old standby fish house, the Bistro du Dome (across the street from the well known brasserie and Hemingway hangout), where we split a lovely crab salad. Mlle. Y did away with a super-rich scallop risotto and I had a tender, buttery skatewing with caper sauce.
One of Paris’s three great fish restaurants, Le Duc, was also within a short walk of our apartment. This is a more expensive spot, but featured delectables such as raw scallops sliced into rounds so thin you could make out the design of the plate that held them.
Just a splash of fine olive oil and the lightest sprinkling of sea salt elevated them to superlatives. Mlle. Y later did away with a half dozen small red mullets with anchovy butter while I did the honors with ginger-strewn roasted langoustines. And both of us shared great roasted leeks as a veggie.
New Wave Bistros
I took her also to a couple of my favorite new-wave bistros, Epi Dupin and Le Pre Verre, which remain interesting, inventive and quite reasonably priced. Despite problems getting the chef at the latter to deal with my need for a gluten-free dinner, I did have a very tasty squid salad with a mousse of lentils and a fine hangar steak cooked perfectly rare and sided with unusual smoked mashed potatoes. Mlle.Y did not care for her buckwheat and sorrel soup, but roasted pheasant with squash hit the spot.
At the former, which is no longer the madhouse of yore when it was listed on several American websites, I once again opted for the octopus salad on a bed of arugula dotted with rounds of tender squid, while she luxuriated on a rabbit terrine stuffed with foie gras and touched with onion marmalade.
With a little help from France’s top dining critic we discovered another friendly little modern bistro close to our apartment called Le Cornichon. It served up a sumptuous game terrine followed by a more than creditable beef pot au feu and especially flavorful curried shoulder of lamb. This place is a comer!
Guests at a Home Cooked Meal
I also can’t overlook the terrific meal my cousin Bob Salita and his heart Nathalie Antheaume served us in their home––a flavorsome rabbit with mustard sauce, preceded by a platter of fine charcuterie and followed by a rich cheese course. Lucky Bob!
With our palettes satisfied and our minds refreshed, we are back in the States now. Sometimes I wonder why I ever return. Then I realize it is to torment my friends with tales such as this.
A bien tot–Don