PARIS–The first couple of weeks in May were cold for Paris. But a cold Paris is still Paris, and there was enough occasional sunshine for lunch on a café terrace, and inclement weather can hardly put a damper on the abundance of art shows and fine restaurants that define Paris, rain or shine.
The only person really out in the cold was President Francois Hollande, the Socialist elected last year who has not only alienated the wealthy with extraordinarily high taxes, but seriously disappointed his left-wing supporters as France sank into recession and his popularity plunged to Bushian levels.
The main rap is that his seemingly non-strategic programs have done nothing to deal with unemployment or the economy as promised, but he continues to make promises, promises, promises. Time will tell. He’s got four more years to improve things. Segolene Royal, his romantic and political partner for 30 years and mother of his children (who lost her bid for the presidency to Nicolas Sarkozy six years ago) snarked “Hollande did not move fast enough!”
I travelled to Paris again this year with my beloved Mademoiselle Y and we stayed once again in a large bi-level apartment in Montparnasse, conjoining the building where Simone de Beauvoir lived for the last decades of her life and overlooking the eponymous neighborhood cemetery where she is buried with her lover Jean-Paul Sartre. Later we met up with our friends Dr. Leon Gussow, the eminent oenophile and fresser, and his heart Michelle Hoffman for a few rounds of culture hopping and, of course, fine dining at places old and new, both cheap and dear.
The Obligatory American Artist
I am always gratified to see how the French take American artists to their hearts. Last year, the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Grand Palais drew such crowds they had to keep the joint open all day and all night during the final week. This year it’s a huge exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris of Keith Haring’s work—largely with a political bent—that seems headed for the same treatment.
Haring, who was adopted and promoted by Andy Warhol, may be the most penis-obsessed artist in history. Certain paintings had dozens of them scattered around in his cartoonish style, but his works—some of which were painted or hung illegally in New York subway stations—go far beyond the sexual or the comic. And you really need to make your way through a vast show like this—some 220 canvases, many mural sized—to appreciate the depth of his talent and profundity, dished out in bright, bright colors with a wry, satirical sense of humor that carries a strong, progressive message.
At the other end of the 20th Century spectrum was another lovely exhibit of the endearing Marc Chagall at the Luxembourg Museum. It featured scores of his paintings with his trademark goats, rooftops and flying pink ladies—and included the original of the artist’s (excuse the cliché) iconic The Rabbi, a reproduction of which hung in almost every Jewish home of my childhood—along with a picture of Franklin Roosevelt.
Was Chagall a great artist or just a popular, sentimental, warmly colorful fantasist who dipped into the contemporary schools of his time? I lean toward the latter view when you put him up against the best of the century, but his appeal is obvious and the collection very easy to take.
Nice Building, Unimpressive Art
Another question mark for me was a retrospective at the Jacquemart-Andre museum of the late-19th Century landscape and marine painter Eugene Boudin, whom Monet claimed as his master and inspiration. Candidly, with the exception of two or three standout, vaguely abstracted, works, the rest seemed quite ordinary for a period when so many impressionists and post were breaking new ground. The museum itself, however, is an enormous, magnificently constructed and richly appointed old mansion worth a visit just to gape at the finery, although it is an odd venue for an art gallery and not especially accessible for the physically challenged.
The Fine Art of Curating
Among the things that keep the Paris art scene fresh are the fascinating ideas the museum curators come up with. At the Pinacotheque, for example, which has two buildings a few feet away from each other, they paired a wide-ranging exhibit of Art Nouveau posters, furniture and decorative items with the paintings of Tamara de Lempica, a Russian refugee who married royalty and became known as the Queen of Art Deco, the style that succeeded Art Nouveau two decades later. In its prime, Art Nouveau was the international, turn-of-the-last-century movement that utilized floral and vegetal shapes. It is exemplified by the glorious entrances to Paris metro stations while Art Deco uses geometric shapes and patterns, the best-known example of which would be the Empire State Building.
Beyond the paintings of Lempica––almost all portraits, almost all of which resemble each other––a better representation of the era was actually taking place at the Pompidou. It was a one-woman show of the work of designer and architect Eileen Gray who created masterpieces of furniture and furnishings that literally defined Art Deco for decades until her death at 95.
The Angel of the Odd
The most noteworthy curatorial creation was an unusual sequential showing of romanticism, symbolism and surrealism generated under the rubric The Angel of the Odd: Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst at the Orsay Museum.
Taking its title from Poe, it links a strain of period artworks using “terrifying and eerie images to captivate the viewer,” according to its catalog sheet. Generous samplings of Goya’s darker images and those of major figures including Delacroix, Blake, Gericault, Moreau, Munch and Redon up through Miro and Klee populate the exhibit. But so do images from lesser known painters and even film clips from Bunuel, Hitchcock and James Whaley’s original Frankenstein.
Here are dead maidens, bloody battles, lonely mountainscapes, devils, serpents and other things that go bump in the night––a magnificent range of work that earns the prize for curatorial originality. Even if it doesn’t quite scarify, it leaves you a bit somber but hardly romantic. (The current New York Review of Books contains a lengthy review and analysis of the show if you can’t get to Paris before it closes.)
Sculptors As Well
We also caught a couple of remarkable but very different one-person sculpture shows. The first, by the Australian-born German Ron Mueck features hyper-real figures, detailed down to the pores of the plastic-skinned figures. Most are people. There’s a huge old couple at the beach, a mother and child, and a youngish pair of lovers—each suggesting a back-story of your own imagining. But there is also a huge dead, plucked chicken hanging before you.
Mueck’s show was at the Fondation Cartier, the gorgeous glass house in Montparnasse designed by Jean Nouvel. But at the suggestion of our expatriate sculptor friend Caroline Lee, we also traveled to the exurb Yerres, a half-hour by train outside the city, to see the one-man show of Jean Anguera.
Anguera often works in steel, but here at a gallery set in a huge park where the impressionist Caillebotte once lived were two floors of works created in off-black resins plus numerous paintings and drawings showing studies for his sculptures.
The exhibit included more than a dozen pieces in sequence depicting the disintegration of man (mankind?) from a fully erect figure down to a series of puddles. Or perhaps it showed the creation of man, from a puddle on the earth through his reassemblage into a full figure. How it works depends on where you start.
In another room, Anguera was showing dozens of hollowed out heads with their tops sliced off, reminding one in an odd way of rural American folk-art face jugs. Intriguing every inch of the way.
Last, But Not Least
Finally, the most controversial show of all was taking place back at the Grand Palais. An exhibit called Dynamo: A Century of Light and Movement was slightly disorienting from the git-go. Flashing neon art, mirrored mazes, spinning armatures catching light and casting shadows. The exhibit attempted to capture light and movement through the decades from 1913 to 2013, working its way back to Alexander Calder’s early mobiles. Occasionally, the curator included actual paintings from the Op Art era that played spatial tricks on the eye, but the dizzying lighting effects tended to sicken Mlle. Y, while my own rating would be an “I” for inventiveness. The little kids romping through seemed to love it.
Talk’s Cheap. Let’s Eat.
But enough about art. Let’s eat.
Our dining adventures began on the day we arrived at an old favorite, classic St. Germain bistro now under new management called Le Petite Pontoise. I launched into a tangy salad of green beans and crayfish followed by old-fashioned braised veal kidneys with more than a whisper of mustard—admittedly a special taste.
Mlle. Y and Caroline Lee both had calves liver touched with raspberry vinegar and fresh raspberries. Both deemed it the best liver they ever had—a sentiment Y would echo later about the saddle of lamb she had at Bistrotters, a new, modern bistro in Montparnasse.
Dinner the next day was a birthday party for Mlle Y at Le Carre des Feuillants, one of top-critic Gilles Pudlowski’s most highly rated emporia of haute cuisine—with haute prices to match. Her treat turned out to be a whole stewed truffle sitting gently atop a slice of rare, fresh foie gras. Soon enough, along came a guy to gild this lily by shaving another half a truffle atop it all, aromatizing the table throughout the rest of the meal. The theme picked up again with a creamy Briard cheese with a thin line of truffle running through its center, all served with an accompanying sweet Jurancon wine.
I did away with a bowl of teeny, tiny baby eels, zestily seasoned in the Spanish manner, followed by a lobster cooked two ways—the claw meat spicy, the tail paired with chanterelles, all drenched in a foamy pink sauce of the crustacean’s coral (caviar).
A Floating Island of Desserts
Back to a classic bistro, Paul Bert, the next night with Nathalie Antheaume, sweetheart of my cousin Bob Salita. She and Y had gorgeous, plump white asparagus mimosa to start while I had a savory cured herring with its roe and dots of cream. Y’s flavorful pork chop was enormous, while its accompanying silken sauerkraut preparation sent her into ecstasy. Unfortunately my veal was tough and tasteless, but a great floating island dessert we all shared compensated for the misfire.
Au Passage, on the other hand, is a very hip, casual, modern bistro featuring a host of “small plates” or tapas-style dishes we shared with the good Dr. Gussow. Among the winners were platters of small sea urchins in their prickly shells, the brine accentuating their freshness. Belgian endive smeared with a tasty anchovy mix continued the fresh saline flavor, but the absolute winner was a plate of lamb ribs with slices of leg and loin, all crusted with garlic paste and wonderfully crisped to a dark brown.
A chocolate ganache with chocolate sauce was a perfect ending. Ah, if only the erratic service had come anywhere up to the food.
Le Dome to The Paris Fair
The four of us had service problems, surprisingly, at Le Dome, the historic brasserie that usually serves up some of the best seafood in town. We did manage to down a gigantic plateau of fresh oysters, two varieties of clams, whelks, shrimp, langoustines and a crab. Y and I then split a savory version of lobster with a tomato-based Amoricaine sauce. Leon and Michelle split another whole lobster dish but the buttery basil sauce that made it a special treat did not arrive until they were almost done.
Happily, at the aforementioned, charmingly decorated Bistrotters, the service was superb as they brought out one dish after another, each a contemporary deconstruction of a classic such as a pissaladiere with snails, seared duck breast, foie gras, braised pork belly and that amazing, juicy, medium rare lamb saddle that captured Y’s palate.
We spent one evening at the enormous food and wine pavilion of the Paris Fair having a progressive meal at several of the regional restaurants set up there. We went from Parisian charcuterie to southwestern foie gras to Alsatian sauerkraut garnished with all manner of sausage, salt pork and a massive pork knuckle—then on to the ice cream stands.
A Meal of a Lifetime
The absolute highlight of the trip was a visit to Spring, run by the Wilmette-born Daniel Rose (no relation) who took Paris by storm almost a decade ago and continues to serve a magnificent, multicourse, fixed menu in his smallish, hard to get into spot near the Louvre.
In sequence came country ham, amazing oyster beignets with sauce remoulade; fruit compote; sensual white asparagus with a unique crab sauce; tender, medium rare veal tenderloin followed by veal breast, then a lovely assortment of cheeses and a run of desserts including a chocolate tart, ice cream, fresh berries and tiny chocolate marshmallows.
This meal required some fine wines to wash it all down, including a smoky pouilly fume and a rich, mellow Nuit St. Georges.
“The best meal I ever had in my life,” declared the expansive Dr. Gussow, who has indeed taken in quite a few good ones, but he (and the rest of us) felt every course worked perfectly—especially the asparagus and its amazing crab sauce.
Bistros with Memories
Y and I had three subsequent dinners in our neighborhood after Leon and Michelle went their way, each a pleasure in its own way, but none to top Spring.
For the record, a few of the taste memories of those final days included a hearty beef cheek and tongue casserole, a mousseline of sweet potatoes, roasted pork rib and a rhubarb compote with strawberries and cream at La Ferrandaise, one of my standby classic bistros off the Luxembourg Gardens.
At Les Petites Sorcieres, where I hadn’t eaten in more than 12 years, it was better than ever with delightful roasted langoustines, an avocado gazpacho with essence of crab, and a cream-laden waterzooi of lobster (sort of a Belgian-inspired bouillabaisse)
Our last supper was at a small modern bistro we discovered last fall, Le Cornichon, a couple of blocks from our apartment. It has become remarkably popular—deservedly so, as our mixed shellfish in lemon broth, fantastic crispy sweetbreads, rich frog legs and shaved cantaloupe with caramelized fennel will attest.
This is all making me very hungry again, so let me bid you a bientot while I plan our next trip.
Photographs by Caroline Gibbons.