Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On the Road Again to Aix-en-Provence (via Barcelona and Back Again)

Bob and I planned this trip more than a year ago. Our friends, Bill and Joan Marden, mentioned over dinner one night that they had rented a house in the South of France and we immediately fell in love with the idea.

When I began this blog, it was long before Medium arrived on the scene, or SquareSpace and Wix, for that matter, so it seems almost quaint to be using the Blogger platform. Still, it's not dead yet, and I created it to chronicle my adventures with Bob.

So, let's see if I can bring some life to the old girl. First stop, Barcelona...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Musée d'Orsay and Reno, the French Boy Toy

OK, our second favorite museum is, of course, the Musée d'Orsay, the giant Beaux Art building, converted from a train station from the turn of the last century, which is home to some of our favorite Impressionist paintings, as well as works by Van Gogh and Gauguin. 

There is something powerful about the Musée d'Orsay, about how its giant cavernous expanse, a spectacle of France at the height of its imperial power prior to the dark days of the early 20th Century. It's open and beautiful and you can easily spend a good hour just wandering the main floor or sitting on a bench relaxing as the bright yet diffused glow of the daylight bathes the giant atrium.

And then, off in galleries off the main arcade is the history of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art that is just breathtaking; Manet, Seurat, Millet, Monet, you can't walk into a gallery without being confronted by a masterpiece.

Sadly, any photographs I've taken, or even those of professional photographers, can't capture the magic of the real thing; especially for my favorite, Vincent Van Gogh. His "Starry Night Over the Rhone" just shimmers with expectation and hesitancy; as if he spent his life attempting to capture the vibrancy of life, or at least how his fevered mind perceived it.

I can't look at this painting without feeling my heart well up in my chest; the energy of the brush strokes, where the stars just shimmer off the canvas and the reflections off the river seem to set the current and its ripples into motion. It is, quite literally for me, a moving picture.

And, of course, here is the master himself, in a quiet moment. I often wonder, when he did his self-portraits, was he also trying to capture the immediacy of his emotions? In this one, he appears so at ease, it's almost like a vocational portrait of a saint you would see in a church. Yet there is consternation in the arch of his brow; as if he knew the respite wouldn't last.

And then there is the view from the museum itself, through one of its magnificent clock faces, across the Seine and there is the Louvre. We never get bored of Paris. We just don't.

And how could we not, what with the locals being so friendly.

On Tuesday morning, September 10, I woke to the following funny message on Facebook from Communications and PR person extraordinaire Janine Iamunno: "If you're still in France, I want a birthday present: A video of a Frenchman saying my name. No one says it better!  "ZHA-neen." A hot one would be a bonus, obviously ..."

So, after Musée d'Orsay we jumped into a cab and headed to the Jardin botanique de l'Université de Strasbourg. As we walked into the park, I told Bob about Janine's request, and as if sent by divine intervention there HE was: Reno.

You couldn't miss him, really. He was reclined on one of the folding chairs, denim shorts, 5 o'clock stubble at 1 p.m., shirtless. 

"You should ask him," said Bob.


Well, here ya go, Janine!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Grazing Through Paris ...

What follows is unadulterated, unmitigated food porn. Bring Zocor.

It was a lazy Sunday spent first dozing off on the RER suburban rail line out to Versailles. Overwhelmed by the opulence, the overcrowding and the realization that we don't really like looking at overly ornate living quarters, we bid adieu to the palace and headed back to the city.

Bob was still jet-lagged so went off or a nap, I went for a walk along the Boulevard Saint-Germaine and stopped in for lunch at Le Grand Bar Cluny.

The weather was perfect, sunny, some clouds, low-70s. So I had a half-bottle of Muscadet with a salmon carpaccio salad and a half-dozen escargot.

The salmon had been prepared like a ceviche in lemon juice, than served with a tossed salad, with a garnish of chopped red peppers and basil. A balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing was splashed on top.

The escargot were prepared simply, tender, in garlic, herb butter. It was a relaxing meal. A soft breeze moved down the boulevard, it was a quiet Sunday afternoon. Perfectly pleasant.

Common sense is telling me I shouldn't be eating like this; but since when has common sense got between me and a tasty dish? That's just silly.

We had a 7:30 reservation for dinner at another of Jon Bonne's suggestions, the classic Bouillon Racine, just around the corner from the Sorbonne, and only a five minute walk from our hotel.

Founded in 1906, it's a traditional French brasserie famous for both its traditional cooking and its amazing Art Nouveau interior.

The interior was just spectacular, the leaded glass, the flowing arcs and curves, the pale green hue of the walls and the warm wood of the table tops and the bar. Check out the website for the history.

Still, we were concerned the decor and history might detract from the food. Now here Bob and I are split. We ordered each a three-course set meal from the 1900 Menu. Bob started with the Verrine of fresh crab meat with avocado and grapefruit, which while not the prettiest of platings, tasted wonderful.

I opted for the homemade duck foie gras with cherry compote and toast. The compote has the perfect amount of tartness to balance the rich creaminess of the foie gras. It was spectacular.

At the waiter's suggestion, we orded a bottle of the Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly, a 100% Gamay grape wine from Beaujolais, perfect for the main course, the stuffed and spit roasted suckling pig.

Now, this is where Bob and I disagreed about the meal. Bouillon Racine offers up traditional, almost peasant-like meals, as well as more refined fare. In fact, the history on the front of the menu recalls how it grew out of a trend of "bouillon" fast food-like stalls and bistros which popped up at the turn of the 20th Century as more and more workers came to the fast-growing industrialized Paris.

The pork was tender, savory with a bread stuffing, full of un-brined olives, carrots, onions and some dried fruit, possibly apricots. I thought it was a great dish. Bob, however, was expecting something a little more rustic, with the skin crispy and the meat, just as tender, but flakier, like the kind of spit-roasted meats we had in Croatia.

For dessert, Bob ordered the special of the day and chocolate and candied cherry cake. The cake was a dark, not too sweet chocolate and the cherries were folded into a light cream. Not too sweet, but nothing to write home about. I, on the other hand, felt that the foie gras had not introduced enough fat into my diet, so I went with the cheese platter.

From left to right: Roussin au Marc de Bourgogne, a Chevrac du Perigord and a Saint Marcellin. The Roussin's rind is soaked in a brandy, yet the flavor is remarkably mild. The Chevrac was a stronger, creamy goat's cheese and the Saint Marcellin is an insanely creamy cow's milk cheese from the Rhone region that, once you broke the rind, just oozed tart, aromatic cheesy goodness all over the slate cheese board.

Bob finished with a coffee, then we walked back to the hotel in a food coma. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

From Persepolis to Provençal

Our love for Paris is eclipsed only by our love for the Louvre.

To be more specific, it's not so much the art within the museum (though it's a treasure trove of history and beauty), it's the structure itself. We are huge I.M Pei fans, having once trekked to Kyoto, Japan specifically to visit the Miho Museum.

Commissioned by President François Mitterrand in 1984, and completed in 1989, the Louvre Pyramid (technically a large pyramid with three smaller ones, an inverted pyramid and mirror pools) was built in the center of the museums main courtyard, the Cour Napoléon, as the main entrance into the museum's giant underground lobby.

It was a stroke of genius, the design. How could you expand upon the core structures of the building, the former palace of Louis the XIV (not known for his understatement when it came to construction, check out Versailles), without aping a 17th Century style?

By using simple geometric forms, that's how. Some people find it jarring, but Bob and I just love its openness and simplicity.

And the subterranean lobby is bright, expansive and quite timeless in its design, allowing easy access to all the wings of the older building.

This was the fourth time I had been to the Louvre, for Bob, his fifth. We avoided the Mona Lisa because it's usually a madhouse and once you've seen her enigmatic smile and bought the mug/t-shirt/college dorm poster, you've kind of figured out the whole thing.

Winged Victory, or the Nike of Samothrace, is one of the highlights which we usually enjoy when we visit, but sadly this time around she was not on display as the lady at the ticket counter joked, "she is getting her make-up done."

Still, we hightailed it to my favorite part, Near Eastern Antiquities. Ever since I read The Epic of Gilgamesh in college, I've found the ancient world of the Levant, Mesopotamia and Persia fascinating. Mostly because the complexity of the cultures, many which pre-date the Judeo-Christian era, but whose myths and stories inform what we now call the Old Testament.

Also, it was a ruthlessly violent world, and not just in terms of the geopolitical nature of the emerging empires of the time.

The structures, the mythological, magical beings, to me at least, are a testament to ancient man's attempts to put order into their world, with so many of these ideas – Gryphons, sphinxes, the original writings in clay tablets, the tale of Gilgamesh, the baby found in the reeds – just still informing Western society today.

It's also the scope of one man's vision which I find intriguing. Darius 1 or Darius the Great, commissioned two giant halls, called Apadana, in both the Persepolis, the capitol of the Achaemenid Empire, and Susa, a kind of second, administrative center sometime around 510 B.C. Check out the size of the capitals that supported the building's ceiling:

The columns were 62-feet high! And there were 72 of them at the palace in Persepolis supporting ceiling beams, built from cedar trees from Lebanon. Not bad for 2600 years ago, I would say. Amazing.

Above all else, I see the Louvre as this weird shrine to Empire, ancient and modern. When Louis the XIV moved to Versailles, this, his former palace, became home to the art and plunder of his empire. When Mitterrand commissioned the Louvre, detractors said the pyramids were an attempt to enshrine his image like the pharaohs of old.

Bob and I decided to walk through the Tuileries Garden towards the Champs-Élysées, but not before getting a quick photo of the rollerblading gendarmes.

We also stopped to get a photo taken because, as we keep on being reminded, there are few photos of Bob and I together:

We stopped at the Musée de l'Orangerie, a museum on the Tuileries, just off the Place de la Concorde, that is home to Impressionist and post-Impressionist works by Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir. But the highlight are the two elliptical rooms where eight of Monet's Water Lilies paintings grace the walls. Calming and beautiful, it's definitely worth the visit.

We made it back to our neighborhood and had wine and charcuterie. Bob took a nap, I wrote a blog and did some reading. Then, at the hotel manager's recommendation, we headed for dinner to Chez Janou Bistrot in the Marais.

Now this was a packed, local restaurant where people were crammed into tables and the wait staff were run off their feet. A "restaurant Provençal" with a reputation for both great and mediocre meals, a large assortment of Pastis cocktails (81 according to the menu!) and an allegedly rude wait staff, Bob and I appeared to have split the difference meal-wise.

We both had the fish soup, which was a hearty bisque served with croutons, remoulade and parmesan cheese. Tasty.

Bob ordered what turned out to be a very fatty veal chop with dauphinois potatoes (unintentionally cold), in a mushroom sauce (also cold).

I decided to throw caution to the wind and ordered the tagliatelle avec escargots. Now this was awesome, the pasta was cooked perfectly and it was folded, along with the escargot, into a rich butter and cream sauce with toasted pine nuts, chopped fresh basil and star anise.

Pastis is an anise flavored liqueur that's about 45% alcohol by volume, and you drink it with added flavors like orange or melon, diluted with still water. It is, by and large, potent and nasty.

I'm glad I tried it, so now I never have to do it again. 

In Defense of the French

People have a tendency to give the French a hard time, mostly because of the way they speak French; with disdain, noses pinched, with the corners of their mouths turned down.

Back home, a bulk of the Republican party dismiss the French as effete and cowardly, pilloried in the press for thinking war is bad and that communal rental bikes on the streets of Paris is nothing short of Communism.

But I will give credit where credit is due: Yes, they use communal rental bicycles, but you know what they don't do? They don't wear helmets. Simply Bad Ass.

And they ride them while smoking, too.

In fact, in a country often held aloft as the paragon of European Nanny State tyranny, it's pretty obvious that the French are too busy living to worry about second-hand smoke, emphysema or cancer. No, it's not uncommon to see kindly French grand-meres taking a mid-afternoon cafe or a glass of wine, cigar or cigarette in hand.

Take the food – and, by God, we have – it's a cardiologist's nightmare: brie, camembert and assorted other cheeses offered to end a meal, to have for breakfast, to put on a baguette with a bit of ham at lunchtime.

They've more charcuteries and boulangeries than Manhattan has Starbucks. Seriously, cakes and croissants and baguettes, they're like a food group here; the base on which the French built their Food Pyramid, with sausages, roasts, bourguignons and confits next supporting a clutch of hearty stews and soups with wines, aperitifs and digestifs at the their proper place at the pinnacle.

And Mayor Bloomberg's worried about Big Gulps?

No, this is a city – a country – that's got its priorities straight.

So, while I am pretty sure there's probably an annoying supermarket chain that –  like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's – wants to make me feel guilty for not using a recyclable hemp tote bag to bring home my organically grown fair trade coffee, organic vegetables and tough-to-cook ancient grains, it's thankfully not anywhere near our hotel.

Restaurant Jadis

In a city with thousands of restaurants, bistros and brasseries to choose from, I turned to longtime friend and SF Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne to nail down a couple of suggestions. The first on the list was Restaurant Jadis, a small affair in a very quiet part of the 15th Arrondissement a couple of miles from the heart of Paris, west of Montparnasse.

First off, apologies for the low lighting; just got a new macro lens and I can't figure out how best to shoot. Also, I hate using flash because it makes all the other patrons stare ...

Referred to as a neo-bistro, Chef Guillaume Delage's take on food appears to be combinations of simple flavors that enhance, yet don't overwhelm each other.

The first dish was a braised tomato, seeded then stuffed with seafood and served in what looks like a cold vegetable emulsion or soup (they referred to it as a "flan".

It came with a side salad made up of the vegetables used to make the broth, topped with the same seafood as what was in the tomato, tender squid. Refreshing and tasty.

Bob ordered the duck breast, served medium rare and I had the chicken liver and foie gras mousse served with langoustines and a parmesan crouton in a wonderful, buttery broth.

Rich, savory, with the mousse being light as a feather, I can't recommend it enough. And it was the perfect first meal of the trip. We were tired, a bit jet-lagged. We had walked around the city for a few hours, quaffed wine and people-watched a bit earlier, and we didn't want something weighing us down.

Now a chicken liver and foie gras mousse is a complex preparation – as was the seafood soup and salad –and while Bob and I loved it, we have to admit, the simplicity of the grilled duck breast, accompanied by a side of braised (they called them "glazed" carrots and turnips, kind of knocked it out of the park.

The root vegetables were cooked to al dente, tender to the fork, where just a hint of the bitterness of the turnip remained and blended perfectly with the natural sweetness of the carrots. I mean, the perfect Fall side dish. Seriously. We ordered a second side dish, it was that good.

The surprise of the meal was the prune liqueur sorbet; not too sweet, with an almost licorice finish.

After an afternoon of imbibing, Bob and I opted just to have a couple of Kir Royals with the meal, and we split a carafe of the house Bordeaux, nothing too crazy. The desserts were nice, too. I had the Jadis Mystery, a frozen piece of architecture where what appears to be a malt honeycomb-center (covered in dark chocolate) is encased in vanilla ice cream, which is rolled in toasted hazelnuts and then served with a warm, unsweetened chocolate sauce.

It's a mystery I didn't have a stroke, what with the armagnac ...