Thursday 7 February 2013

Victoria Palace Hotel : Re-Decorating the Lobby

In a rather last-minute decision, the Victoria Palace Hotel is happy to announce that the Reception and Foyer of the hotel will be undergoing some re-decorating and a slight transformation beginning on Monday 11 February 2013.

This does not involve any heavy or structural work, nothing that will cause noise or noteworthy inconvenience to our guests, but the Reception area will be somewhat unsightly until the end of February. The re-decorating project will be restricted to the Front Desk Area and the Foyer; it will not affect the residential floors, the Breakfast Room or the Bar Lounge. Most of the work will be carried out between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. when our guests are out and about enjoying Paris. There will be no disturbance in the early morning nor in the evenings or at night. Most of the paintwork will be carried out in water-based paints, thereby avoiding the risk of unpleasant smells.

Every effort will be made to keep our public areas looking as good as possible during the re-decorating and we trust that our clients will show understanding. We also hope they will be happy with the result of the project. For those of you who know and love the Victoria Palace Hotel, rest assured that we shall be true to the decidedly traditional style which is one of our hallmarks.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Exhibition : La Collection Michael Werner - 5 October 2012 to 3 March 2013

La Collection Michael Werner

Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Palais de Tokyo – 5 October 2012 to 3 March 2013

Michael Werner and the world of contemporary art

One of the glories of the French eighteenth century Enlightenment, was the attempt by a group of French intellectuals to synthesise the entire knowledge-base of humanity into one accessible publication generally referred to as the Encyclopédie Diderot-d’Alembert. The twentieth-century version of this endeavour would be the incredibly wide-ranging and very affordable series of books that make up the “Que-Sais-Je” collection published by the Presses Universitaires de France since 1946. Each book is devoted to one of approximately eight hundred topics, is exactly 128 pages in length and is written by a specialist in the field under study. They are intended to provide a good, basic grounding for the layman in whatever the topic may be. Unlike the Encyclopédie which was published only once, these books are regularly re-issued and updated as the knowledge evolves. In the 1992 edition of the Que-Sais-Je devoted to L’Art contemporain, Anne Cauquelin takes on the perilous task of attempting to explain the art of the moment without getting bogged down in yet another history of twentieth-century art, i.e. Picasso, Duchamp and all the others. In a world where art can be words painted on a wall, or a video projection, or just about anything, how does one determine what is and is not art? By its very nature, contemporary art lacks the benefit of hindsight to establish a pecking order of ‘important’ versus ‘forgettable’ art. So what are the criteria? The authoress came up with a brilliant and credible if somewhat cheeky answer : although she phrased it differently, the gist of her answer was that contemporary art was whatever New York art-dealer Leo Castelli († 1999) said it was. If he was willing to sell it, it was art. And if sold by Leo Castelli it was ipso facto ‘important’ (i.e. expensive) art.

If Castelli can be said to have had a European equivalent in terms of influence, he would be the German gallery-owner Michael Werner. So much so that when the latter decided to set up a New York branch for his gallery, he moved it into Leo Castelli’s former digs on East 77th Street. Thirty years ago when I worked for a gallery here in Paris, the craven servility of Parisian gallery owners (and indeed the entire microcosm of French contemporary art) used to make me cringe : always looking to Leo Castelli in New York or Michael Werner in Cologne to tell them who was hot and who was not rather than exercise their own judgment and look for their own artists here in France. It was all the more shocking because as a rule, the French (and particularly in matters cultural) prefer to set their own agenda. But my more mature self today understands that the gallery owners had businesses to run, they needed buyers and said buyers wanted either the Leo Castelli or the Michael Werner seal of approval before handing over rather more-than-handsome sums of money for, well,... For what? That was the question, wasn’t it?

Michael Werner’s collection

Let me eat my humble pie upfront. When I heard of an exhibition of some 900 (yes, nine hundred!) works from Michael Werner’s personal collection (including 60 of the 127 works that he recently donated to the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris) I expected something slightly vulgar, a sort of sales catalogue intended to boost the price of his collection. I thought to myself: ‘he must be getting along in years (after all, his first gallery opened in Berlin in 1964) and probably he wants to cash out’. The best way to do that is to organise a couple exhibitions before remitting the collection to Sotheby’s or Christies for disposal. Of course I expected it entirely to be made up of the German artists such as Bazelitz, Immendorf, Lüpertz and Penck who remain the mainstays of the gallery. The very last thing I imagined was that this exhibition would turn out to be a luminous embodiment of aesthetic intelligence, a journey through an expression of personal taste, happily free from the hackneyed litanies that tend to crop forth whenever debate turns to the art of the twentieth century. One of the greatest strengths of this exhibition is that it contains not a single Picasso, Miró, Pollock, Rothko or Warhol—not to mention Buren or Koons—whilst nonetheless managing to span the entire century.

Thanks to the large number of works on display, although some forty artists are represented, each one is well represented by several pieces. And unlike what tends to happen in provincial museums and some private collector’s houses, more often than not the pieces on display precisely are not those with the ‘iconic’ hallmarks of the artist : André Derain is represented by a series of twenty-one fantastical bronze busts but not a single fauve painting; amongst the works of Lucio Fontana on display, not a single slashed canvas is to be seen; for Joseph Beuys, not a trace of felt or a red cross anywhere; the only Yves Klein on display is red. This is refreshing, to put it mildly.

The scope of the exhibition is equally surprising : whilst I was expecting only works from the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties (and there are plenty of those), here are works by Fautrier, Derain, and Picabia as well as German Expressionists from the Twenties and Thirties, and even older works by Willem Lehmbrück as well as the abstract sculptor Otto Freundlich. Mercifully nothing is presented in chronological order : this is not a lecture on the history of art in the twentieth-century, this is a selective wander through some rich by-roads of a tumultuous artistic century ; a meander, as it were, through an artistic meadow where one encounters the solid, monumental bronzes of Markus Lüpertz, whose Daphne stands like a mighty oak-tree upholding the sky; the ethereal, conceptual works of Marcel Broodthaers could play the role of Queen-Anne’s lace and the joyful buttercups would be the prodigiously elegant, calligraphic ink-on-paper female nudes of Jean Fautrier. And speaking of meadows, two whole rooms are turned over to Per Kirkeby, including his luminous landscapes from the Sixties, before he had defined the style that today we think of as proper Kirkeby.

Amongst the other delights to be discovered I would count Eugen Schönebeck. He was closely associated with Baselitz, Michael Werner’s star artist since the very beginning of the gallery, but unlike Bazelitz, Schönebeck stopped painting and turned to other things. There is also the weird and wonderful Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, and so many others, some less than prominent, some overly famous, but all benefiting from the unexpected highlighting of this exhibition, perhaps none more than the proteiform Francis Picabia.

In a word, this is a must-see exhibition, even if you think you don’t like anything later than the Impressionists. This is not yet one more ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, filled with the endlessly recycled works of one of a handful of ‘major’ artists that will nearly identically re-surface in a few years in another venue. No, this is a one off, a very rare opportunity to fathom one man’s vision; literally to see a brilliant mind at work. Michael Werner may be a consummate salesman, but he also is a collecting genius.

This exhibition provides an added perk for the frustrated, queue-weary tourist: on the day I went to visit, there were perhaps thirty people in the entire, huge exhibition, counting the staff. If you are not prepared to queue to get into the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay and elbow your way to the masterpieces, then just buy a post-card of Mona Lisa or a Monet hayrick and head over to the Palais de Tokyo for an altogether different, less predictable experience. I promise not to grass you to your neighbours back home: they will never know that all your swooning and gushing over La Joconde is just a put on...

Thursday 4 October 2012

Five Stars to the Victoria Palace Hotel !

Five Stars to the Victoria Palace Hôtel

Well, it finally happened! On 1 October 2012 the Victoria Palace Hôtel became the newest five-star hotel on the Left Bank! It’s a little bit like a ‘major’ birthday : you go into it with trepidation and excitement, then wake up the next morning feeling exactly the same as you did the day before. Except that, unlike the day after the birthday party, there isn’t quite so much washing up to do.

Changes to the French Hotel Rating System

For those who have not kept up with labyrinthine arcana of French hotel ratings, this is what you need to know : in 2009 the French Ministry of Tourism decided that the ratings system in use until then no longer reflected the needs and expectations of hotel guests and required a major dusting off. One of their most important decisions was to create a new five-star rating. Until then the highest achievable rating in France was four-stars, to which an ‘L’ standing for ‘Luxe’ could be appended if the hotel met additional criteria, such as providing a restaurant, etc. In effect, this was a sort of five-star rating, but it was based on rather rigid and somewhat outdated criteria that no longer reflected the manifold variations on luxury available in the French hotel market.

In addition the Ministry of Tourism chose to outsource the ratings procedure : the whole kit and caboodle was handed off to Atout France (formerly Maison de la France) the quango in charge of promoting France as a tourist destination. Instead of inspectors being civil servants employed by the ministry, Atout France would certify a certain number of independent rating agencies which in turn would carry out the actual inspections, at the hotel’s expense. In the case of four- and five-star properties, the inspections would be carried out by an un-announced 'mystery guest', who would then follow up with a formal, official inspection. And should an hotel feel that the rating-system could not possibly provide an accurate reflection of its qualities and amenities, it may simply opt out of the whole system and decline to be rated. We may well be seeing a few of the smaller boutique establishments going that route. However, if they make that choice, as of 23 July 2012 they are prohibited from making public reference to their previous star rating.

Five-Star Hotels on the Left Bank

The main effect of the new ratings system has been to give recognition to the many changes and upgrades that Parisian hoteliers have carried out over the last few years. Whereas under the old rating system there were a considerable number of three-star and a few four-star properties on the Left Bank, there were no four-star ‘Luxe’ properties. As many three-star properties upgraded their services and accommodation, there entered a sort of catch-all, four-star category. Under the new system, many hoteliers who have invested in plant and services have been able to move up : some notoriously excellent three-star hotels are now rated four-stars and a few of the four-star hotels have moved into the new five-star category. As of today’s writing (4 October 2012) there is a total of five five-star hotels on the Left Bank, to wit and in order of the date of their new rating : the Hotel Montalembert, the Hotel Esprit Saint-Germain, the Hotel du Pont-Royal, the Hotel Bel-Ami and, most recently and to my delight, the Victoria Palace Hotel.

And in case you were wondering... No, that does not mean we shall jack up our rates overnight. And no, it does not mean we shall become all high and mighty and full of ourselves. Well, at least not so VERY full of ourselves.... We’ve been at this for nearly a century (100 years next year!) and are rather happy to continue just as we were. Although I’ll be pasting a lot of gummed gold-paper stars onto my brochures in the coming weeks! (Why did I print 10,000 of them just a few months ago???) Come to think of it, I suppose that is a little like the washing and tidying-up after the birthday party. But without the hangover!

Saturday 1 September 2012

Terroir Parisien v. Table d'Aki

Le Terroir Parisien v. La Table d’Aki

Le Terroir Parisien (of chef Yannick Alléno)
Maison de la Mutualité
20 rue Saint-Victor
75005 Paris

La Table d'Aki (of chef Akihiro Horikoshi)
49 rue Vaneau
75007 Paris

Paris is made up of a multitude of layers. More than layers, they are different cities which, through some sort of quantum phenomenon are able to occupy the same physical space whilst remaining foreign to each other. They weave through and around each other and sometimes even come head to head, but they never really meet. It’s as if the city were a giant group-grope in a blacked-out room: one is aware that there is a multitude of people very near, but one can’t work out quite how many ; one is aware that things are happening nearby and every now and again one brushes up against another person. On occasion one even finds oneself grasping some body part. But of whose body? And exactly which part is one grasping? Everything remains indefinable : they remain just groped presences.

Le Terroir Parisien

These interpenetrations of mutually exclusive worlds are particularly notable when it comes to restaurants. Recently the name on all of my clients’ lips is Le Terroir Parisien, Yannick Alléno’s new bistro. Unquestionably it is a ‘good thing’ to source from local producers and it is an excellent idea to give craftsmen an opportunity to show off their skills and win over the palates of Parisians and temporary Parisians. So why do I have a misgiving? Could it be distrust of a man who would champion ‘localism’—very much like another mega-chef, Alain Ducasse—but whose culinary empire extends from Paris to Taipei via Marrakesh, Beirut and Dubai? Isn’t there some sort of contradiction there? When all is said and done, be a chain however so chic and expensive, like those of Messrs Alléno or Ducasse, or be it cheap and unmentionable like your common-or-garden fast-food, is it not still just a ‘thingamabob’ which has been plopped down somewhere and which is expected to churn out a standardised product? The globalisation of fashion and of the branded hand-bag is indeed deplorable, but the globalisation of haute gastronomy is bordering on the tragic. Or is it bathotic?

Never mind. Since last June or thereabouts, almost every other day a client asks me about Le Terroir Parisien, proof if any were needed that the press-relations department of the Yannick Alléno machine know a thing or two about their business. (Curiously enough, so far it is only the American clients who seem to have heard of it ; no doubt the Australian and Brazilian media campaigns are scheduled for next year.) So, now Terroir Parisien has acquired its place on the list of ‘confidential and authentic’ addresses that the trans-Atlantic clientele avidly swap in their yearning after that eternal Paris, simple and magnificent as la Tour Eiffel. It behoves one not to go to one’s grave any more ignorant than absolutely necessary, so off I go with a couple of friends headed to the venerable Maison de la Mutualité which houses the newest hot topic of New York City’s chattering classes.

The décor is sober, as is the current style : i.e. grey. A large Parisian-style, zinc-covered bar in the middle of the room, around which the tables have been spread out, nicely spaced. The ceiling has wooden elements : a happy thought to keep the noise level down in this large space. Everything is as one would wish. A large blackboard on the wall lists the suppliers : I am happy to see the name of Gilles Vérot at the forefront ; he is my local charcutier and I am utterly devoted to his head-cheese and white pudding. The staff are extremely pleasant and very enthusiastic. We order our starters : lettuce salad with sautéed chicken livers, chilled pea soup with mint, seared lettuce with a poached egg. Then our mains : fricassee of chicken with vinegar and sweet onions, black pudding with mashed potatoes, veal sweetbreads with capers and spring onions. We end the meal by sharing a layered chocolate and pistachio bavarois topped with fresh berries. My friends each ordered a glass of wine (a simple chardonnay de Bourgogne) and I asked for a beer. I am told that they only have local beers and as I don’t know any of them, I ask which is the most flavourful the staff suggests La Briarde, ‘bottled on the farm’. We’re off and running.

The dishes arrive. Everything is good. Nothing is magical. Everything has taste, but nothing seems to have much personality ; nothing is sprightly or vivid. The mash is the sort that nearly all Parisian restaurants have been serving since the 1980s : heavy on the butter, delicious, but overly rich and, when push comes to shove, not really mash... I mean, not the sort I dream of : with a home-made, potato flavour and some lightness in addition to the richness, with a texture closer to that of Italian meringue rather than mayonnaise. But I’m quibbling. Everything was good but I would not wend my way across the whole of Paris to eat here ; never mind crossing the Atlantic. On the other hand, the prices are reasonable so if I find myself in the neighbourhood, I should go back with pleasure.

La Table d’Aki

And then there is another Paris located on a plane conceptually light-years from the planet-spanning enterprises and huge press-relations services. This is the Paris where you will find La Table d’Aki.

La Table d’Aki is sixteen place-settings in a space about the size of my dining-room at home, in a street almost completely devoid of any commercial activity, Rue Vaneau. It would be hard to imagine a less-likely location for a restaurant. It is run by Mr Akihiro Horikoshi, hence the name ‘Aki’s Table’. Mr Horikoshi is one of those Japanese chefs besotted by French cuisine and who have become totally steeped in it. This is no fusion cuisine ; it is not about wild, adventurous experimentation. Mr Horikoshi’s cooking is French, classical and exhibits complete mastery. Lest you missed it : I wrote ‘classical’. Mr Horikoshi seems to have avoided the craze for bistronomie and remained faithful to a much older concept of what great French cuisine is about, made of refinement, elegance and sophistication, in addition to the sharpness of the flavours. As classic as the offerings may be, the setting is rather timelessly understated, pared down even. Clean-cut, elegant, borderline ascetic and opening onto a miniscule kitchen : putty-coloured walls with no art-work or wall-lights ; the only touch of colour is provided by the meandering red ropes to which the ceiling lights are attached.

As seems to be more and more frequent these days (e.g. Les Papilles), at dinner-time the Table d’Aki does not offer a menu from which one can pick, but rather there is a pre-set, daily degustation menu. Actually, menus rather than menu : on the day I went there was one at 40 € and another at 58 €. The difference was that the more expensive menu included an extra course and used a more 'noble’ fish. (At lunch-time apparently things are done differently : one can choose between different dishes.) Those who judge a restaurant by the size of its portions may find themselves somewhat disappointed : the focus here is on attaining perfect flavours and textures, not quantity. However, the portions were adequate for me and I did not leave the table hungry.

The amuse-bouche was a sweet-pepper mousse, as unctuous as an ice-cream, but lighter and with a mind-tingling, zestful taste of sweet-pepper. It was nestled on a sweet and fruity tomato coulis, the sort one dreams of. This was followed by a gazpacho with Dublin Bay prawns, accompanied by cucumber ‘angel-hair’. It seems almost wrong to call it gazpacho, considering how much bad gazpacho we have been served since the 1960s and the discovery of the Costa del Sol and cheap package-holidays : non-descript industrial tomato juice with some cucumber thrown in... This was in no way comparable : cool, fresh, fruity... And the Dublin Bay prawns had a disconcertingly intense taste of... Dublin Bay prawn!

The first main (only served with the 58 € menu) was a filet of red mullet with crispy skin and cooked to perfection, set atop a small mound of smoked aubergine baba ghanoush or, as the French call it, aubergine caviar and accompanied with a dribbling of pesto. Time to bare all : I do not eat aubergine. I like neither its texture nor its taste and what is more, it causes my palate to itch. I tasted the baba ghanoush, then I ate up everything I could, and cleaned my plate with my bread. The smoky taste opens up some awe-inspiring possibilities for this humble veg ; possibly even Heaven’s gates. The second main in the 58 € menu was turbot with a celeriac purée and a star-anise sauce ; in the 40 € menu the same dish was made with cod. The latter was good, but when compared with the turbot, it quite simply was not the same dish. It was obvious that the balance of flavours had been thought out with turbot in mind, with the subtle note of star-anise designed to sublime the fish’s delicate taste. A masterpiece, both in its conception and its execution.

The pudding was a cheese-cake topped with fresh bilberries and blackberries. This particular cheese-cake bears only a distant relation to the New York original: it has become lighter, more refined and has co-opted a variety of floral hints and what is more, it has acquired a crispy crust. Notwithstanding my passionate love for New York cheese-cake, I had to give it up about thirty years ago because it is just too rich and heavy, whereas Mr Horikoshi’s, well...

The wine-list is limited, but so are the prices. We opted for a Pouilly-Fumé by Denis Gaudry for 32 €, a somewhat sturdier wine than we had expected that went perfectly with our turbot.

I am a lucky devil : I live just a few hundred metres from La Table d’Aki. But even if I had to find my way from the other side of Paris, it would be worth my while to be in this little, one-of-a-kind place that is not trying to turn itself into a global concept. It would be worth my while to be, as it were, in the hands of Mr Horikoshi himself. It might even be worth my while to cross the Atlantic. But this is a different Paris from that of Le Terroir Parisien. And what is more, I wonder if perhaps the former would not better deserve the name of the latter.

Friday 10 August 2012

How to Become Parisian in One Hour - A show by Olivier Giraud

How to Become Parisian in One Hour

A one-man show by Olivier Giraud


About two years ago, my friend Antoinette Azzurro of Paris Personalized started raving about a show—one of the most hilarious she had ever seen—called How to Become a Parisian in One Hour. Plans were made for a group outing, then spanners hit the works and the project came to nothing.

But I had not forgotten her enthusiasm and last week, taking advantage of the fact that the show has changed venues and that tickets can now be bought on-line, with a couple of friends we went. I do feel like the last person in Paris who had not seen it.

For the summer of 2012,  the show is housed at the Théâtre des Nouveautés on the Boulevard Poissonnière, very near the Hard Rock Café. And if you feel that you must choose between the two and are hesitating which one to select, then perhaps you should stop reading now : you probably are not yet ready for Olivier Giraud and his no-holds-barred humour. If you do settle on How to Become a Parisian in One Hour, in all humanity I must warn you I have one (and only one) brickbat : the seats at the Théâtre des Nouveautés obviously were designed by the same sadistic person who invented the pseudo-mediaeval torture instrument known as the iron maiden. If you wish to be able to get up and walk out of the theatre once the show is over, sit gingerly. The good news is that, at least for the duration of the show, you will be laughing so wholeheartedly that you will be totally unaware of any physical discomfort.

Olivier Giraud’s one-man show is a wonderful send-up of both the French and the Americans, satirised to their most ludicrous extremes. A few other nationalities get their come-uppance as well. It works because Mr. Giraud is fearless and clearly has no intention of sparing anyone, regardless of the national make-up of the audience. It is funny ; it is almost cruel ; it is not bowdlerised.

The show begins with the communal singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. No need to rise, because the French display their patriotism in other ways. (And please, whatever else you do, do not place your hand upon your heart as one would in the U.S. for the Star-Spangled Banner. I know you’re only trying to be polite, but the French would not understand. It is one of the most frequent questions I get asked here : why do Americans sing their national anthem with their hand in that odd position, as if they were trying to finger a non-existent pearl necklace or indicate an incipient heart attack? I’ve given up trying to explain : it passes French understanding.)

The real expression of French patriotism comes shortly thereafter, with the camembert.

In the course of his performance, Mr Giraud illustrates the differences in behaviour between the French and the Americans in seven different situations : 1) shopping ; 2) dining ; 3) taking a taxi ; 4) taking the métro ; 5) going to a night-club ; 6) faking an orgasm ; 7 ) finding a flat. These provide him with enough material to outrage and amuse each and everyone whilst at the same time brushing his caricatures in such broad strokes that they are far too exaggerated seriously to offend anyone. Yet they still do retain some resemblance to people one knows or has met : the over-emotive American who can’t distinguish between sexy moves and pole-dancing ; the obnoxiously rude Parisian with le scowl perpétuel. Yes they do exist. (Erratum : above I wrote that the performance could not seriously offend anyone : I fibbed a little because I did meet one couple who were offended by the sexual content of the performance. Oh, well... What were they expecting? This is PARIS! Of course there’s sex involved.)

Beyond his fearless wit and keen sense of observation, the two most striking tools Mr Giraud has to hand are 1) his incredibly mobile face and 2) his alertness to his audience, actually listening to what they shout out and picking up on details, not to mention bringing some spectators on-stage with him for lessons in applied Parisianism. That he is still fresh enough and interested enough to continue to play with and to his audience after three years of the show is nothing short of fascinating and explains his well-deserved success, amongst the French and the tourists. On the night I was there, I’m sure at least 40% of the audience were locals, even though the performance is in English. (Well, mostly in English, with the exception of a few earthy Parisianisms.) It is all the more surprising that he can pull this off because, at least according to his biography, Olivier Giraud is not at all a trained actor or comedian, but a chef and sommelier who worked for several years in the United States. No doubt, that is where he observed both the American clientele and the sort of dismissive and surly Frenchman they expected to encounter. The show is a delight.

Friday 3 February 2012

French Children Don't Throw Food


French Children Don’t Throw Food  (London, Doubleday).

To be released in the U.S. by Penguin under the title Bringing up Bébé


Without a doubt, this is the best book about France and the French that I have read in a long time. Whilst reading the book I was impressed by the lack of embarrassing howlers or glib, snap judgments and sheer improbability which are all too frequent in writings about France, either through an excess of francophilia or francophobia, or a toxic mixture of both. Ms Druckerman confesses some ambivalence about Paris and the French so perhaps this is what gives her the requisite detachment to analyse them.

It is also her subject matter itself which allows for an in-depth understanding of what makes the Frenchman tick. In the course of observing how the French raise their children, she plumbs the very heart of what makes the French French : the importance of food as THE great pleasure in life ; the almost paradoxical insistence on strongly codified forms of behaviour (a.k.a. civility or manners) combined with a considerable degree of tolerance for idiosyncrasy (a.k.a. minding-one’s-own-business). Most importantly perhaps, she shows to what extent French parents take their role seriously: nurturing, encouraging development, providing structure and giving their children the tools that will be necessary for them to take their place in such a highly structured society as France. There is a world of difference between the very French concept of ‘taking one’s place in society’ and a more brutal vision of ‘making one’s way in the world’.


I couldn’t help but smile at the pages in which she discusses the crucial importance of ‘bonjour’ especially where she mentions foreign visitors: ‘I think tourists are often treated gruffly in Parisian cafés and shops partly because they don’t begin interactions with bonjour, even if they switch to English afterwards. It’s crucial to say bonjour upon getting into a taxi, when a waitress first approaches your table in a restaurant, or before asking a salesperson if the trousers come in your size. Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity. It signals that you view him as a person, not just as someone who’s there to serve you.’ (page 189) Or as I like to put it when speaking with hotel guests as they prepare for a day of touring: ‘One must greet the person before the function. If you treat a Frenchman like a vending machine, he will respond like one. Like an out-of-order vending machine.’ If there was any doubt of this, a little episode I witnessed at Versailles last summer made it abundantly clear : an American tourist (judging from her accent) walked up to one of the young women working in the gardens and without any form of preamble asked if a certain path led back to the palace, to which the warden simply but firmly replied ‘Bonjour, Madame’. The American repeated her question, and received the same answer. Twice. Then the penny dropped and the American looked at the young lady (it is important to look at the person!) and said ‘bonnjewer’, at which point the warden smiled and gave her all the information she required in very good and pleasant English. Bonjour is important in France. (Although in this instance ‘Excuse me’or ‘Pardon me’—even in English—probably would have served as well.) As Ms Druckerman puts it: ‘I’m amazed that people seem visibly put at ease after I say a nice solid bonjour.’

Stretching Horizons

She also devotes many pages to the careful, deliberate inculcation of the food culture in French children. It is the cause of one of my recurring difficulties in working with tourists : non-French parents come to us and ask about ‘child-friendly’ restaurants, meaning restaurants with some sort of ghastly ‘children’s menu’ probably involving foodstuffs that may at one point have been part of a chicken, but have since undergone such frightening transformations that one hesitates still to call them ‘food’. (I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz who once wrote: ‘Any cheese which must append the word “food” to its name is neither.’) We repeatedly have to explain to the somewhat incredulous parents that very few restaurants in Paris offer children’s menus because French children eat the same things as their parents, snails, garlic, game and all. The only restaurants which have children’s menus tend to serve worse than indifferent food and we feel that we cannot recommend them. Even if they do have chicken nuggets. Ms Druckerman explains how French crèches and parents together work from a very early age to broaden the children’s palates and teach them not only to be comfortable eating a wide variety of foods, but even to enjoy it. Good eating habits have extraordinary side effects : I was completely bemused by a scene in my local superette : two very young girls talked their dad out of buying them a packet of Twix because they felt it was unhealthy and they did not wish to over-indulge. (Yes, you read that correctly : the girls talked their daddy out of buying the bickies. I am still in shock.)

Although the authoress does not delve into the later stages of raising children, one should note that the approach French parents adopt towards culture is very similar : they do not assume that only the blandest, least challenging pap is suitable for their children’s enjoyment. They believe that a parent has a moral imperative to introduce his or her offspring to a wealth of cultural experiences so that the child can then find its own way and learn to enjoy these ‘finer’ things. I am always struck by the fact that wherever one goes, to whatever God-forsaken end of this earth, if one steps into the local church or museum, there always seems to be a French family there and as often as not they are the only ones there. They stroll about, the parents dutifully reading from their guide book and pointing out the salient features for their children’s benefit. As for the children, they take it in: they listen, they ask questions, they pay attention and either enjoy it or at least have learnt to master the boredom and pretend interest. By contrast, when our non-French clients come to the hotel with children, they almost always assume that a visit to the Louvre is out of the question because the children ‘will not appreciate it’. Obviously, armed with that assumption, it is quite certain they will not.

That famous French arrogance

The third, and perhaps most important insight Ms Druckerman acquires from her study of French parenting is how the children learn very young to be self-reliant and really quite independent. When you have read this book, you will understand whence comes that noticeable French self-assurance which sometimes is interpreted as arrogance (and sometimes truly is!) but which also is the source of that je-ne-sais-quoi, that Gallic poise which on the right occasions is so irresistible. It also helps one understand why forthrightness to the point of near brutality is a mark of friendship (well, partly at least...), as well as the peculiar pudeur of the French which has nothing to do with modesty but rather is their reluctance to unveil all their most private emotions to strangers, and many other mysteries of the French make-up that the non-French occasionally have trouble dealing with and/or appreciating.

If I had to suggest any one book as an excellent starting place to understanding the French, this probably would be the one, whether one has children or not. And it is both funny and well-written to boot!

Friday 14 October 2011

Agapé Substance : 66 rue Mazarine

Agapé Substance

66 rue Mazarine

 When I hit upon the idea of a blog to complement the website of the Victoria Palace Hotel, I swore that I would not turn it into yet another space where one could exercise one’s bitchiness in an attempt to capture something of the wit of a neo-Oscar Wilde, sans the talent. There are enough of those cluttering up the internet: all one need do is spend a little more time than is healthy on TripAdvisor. No, I vowed I should do no such thing and would stick with what my mother taught me as a child: if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. Nothing. Zip the lips, or the fingers in this instance.

But then I started reading too many positive reviews in the press about the newest, hottest address on the Left Bank and realised that sometimes one has a moral duty to speak out, to give warning as it were and point out that the Emperor is starkers. So here it is, my first negative post, and I hope the last.

It was a friend of mine who suggested we try out this new concept-restaurant with a rather pompous name : Agapé Substance. It seemed to speak of abundance, of bounty, of warm feelings and shared humanity. The classicists amongst you of course know that agape (γάπη) is one of the Greek words for love, but in French the word has taken on the meaning of a convivial feast : les agapes suggests tables warped by the weight of mountains of food, an abundance of wines and drink ready to be knocked back in boisterous bonhomie. Adding the word substance would seem to carry one even further along that line of thought: one imagines it is there to suggest dishes that are hearty, indeed substantial, both abundant and unashamed of their materiality. George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth could not have done a better job devising the name for this restaurant.

The restaurant itself barely is a hole in the wall: a stark, ground glass panel fills the whole of the storefront. Inside, there is one large communal table that takes up the front of the room and stretches all the way to the back where it becomes the operating table of the kitchen. The middle section of the table is taken up with a serving space used by the waiters and the sommelier. Once we were seated a waiter approached us to explain the concept: he showed us the menu which was simply a schedule of twelve ingredients, or ‘substances’ from which we should choose three apiece for 39 € or 4 apiece for 51 € (yikes!) and chef would create as many dishes as we had chosen ‘substances’ to be served in the order we chose. There was no suggested order: none were designated as starters or mains and there were very few sweet options if one wanted to follow the traditional order and end with a pudding. It seemed a somewhat affected way of going about it, but why not? We were game, we would play along.

The friend who had suggested the restaurant chose her three ‘substances’ : egg, red mullet and girolle mushrooms ; my other companion selected his : grouse, comté cheese, chocolate ; I opted for crab, carrot and grouse.

The charming sommelier came and offered wine by the glass, but it was to be a secret as to what the wine actually was, just as it was to be a secret what chef would do with our chosen substances. My companions chose red wine ; I was feeling abstemious that day and had none.

The egg arrived : as far as we could tell, chef’s genius consisted in somehow managing to peel a very soft-boiled egg, get it onto a saucer and top it with foam. (Foam? Is anyone still doing foam? Here in Paris we all thought that the years of sea-urchin cappuccino, chestnut cappuccino, macaroni-cheese cappuccino were just a bad memory left over from the 20-noughties... But not at Agapé Substance : foam apparently still is in.). Our friend eyed her raw-ish egg with some distaste and decided that she couldn’t really eat it. My crab arrived : three (or was it five?) thimblefuls of crab meat carefully set in a small bowl over which a tepid infusion of shrimp and galangal was carefully poured by the waiter ; it had the colour of weak tea and somewhat less flavour. Clarified dishwater comes to mind. And my other friend’s grouse arrived : a reasonably sized breast of grouse, beautifully browned on top ; then my friend turned it over and the unappetizingly raw underside appeared, like a slash of exposed flesh after a road accident. My friend asked the waiter if it could be cooked a little more and the grouse was whisked away again. It returned several minutes later, now severely over-cooked and shrunk to under a third of its previous size. Whatever happened to that promise of abundance implied in the name? Doubts were surfacing. But now we were on to the next set of ‘substances’.

My carrots arrived : there were three or four spindly carrots of different colours (orange, white, etc.) in a lovely sauce and they were positively delicious in a pungently earthy way. Not exactly abundant, but at least flavourful and intensely carroty. The comté cheese arrived : chef clearly was not inspired by comté that day : the grand creation he came up with was simply a few cigarette-paper thin shavings of cheese arranged all by itself on a plate. Not a leaf of anything ; not a chutney to offset the full-bodied character of the cheese and bring out some unexpected delight. No ; simply a few cheese shavings. For 13 €. And last but not least, my other friend’s red mullet arrived, with the faintest suggestion of having been sort of seared ; she was about as thrilled with her raw fish as she had been with her raw egg : she left it on the plate. When the waiter returned, he asked her if something was wrong with the fish, to which she replied that, yes, something was wrong : it was raw. To which the waiter objected that, no, it had been cooked. To which she retorted, somewhat sharply at this point, that if she said it was raw, then it was raw. The mullet disappeared.

By this point, what might have been frustration was beginning to turn into something else, probably best described as a sort of giddy hilarity. Perhaps it was just hunger-induced light-headedness. The sheer absurdity of the experience was so overwhelming, that we found we couldn’t even get angry : we had reached a state beyond that and really began to enjoy ourselves. After all, the point of the lunch was a trio of friends out to enjoy each other’s company and we had better start doing that, because quite obviously there was going to be little enjoyment to be had from the food on its own.

The last ‘substances’ arrived : the girolle mushrooms, which my friend said were in fact superb so that she finally had something she could eat, the chocolate was a sort of light, biscuit-y thing that was also found to be delicious so my other companion finally had something worth eating. And my grouse arrived ; if my friend’s grouse had appeared rather undersized , mine was about the size of two postage stamps stuck together and on that final vision, we all dissolved into hysterical laughter, paid our bill and got out of there as quickly as possible to make our individual ways each to his or her favourite bakery so as finally to get something—anything!—of substance to quell the hunger gnawing at our insides. If the Ministry of Truth can be contracted into Minitrue, then surely this restaurant is Minisubst.

The critics and the press to the contrary, I should not recommend Agapé Substance.

Thursday 21 July 2011

La Ferrandaise : 8 rue de Vaugirard

Restaurant La Ferrandaise

When Paris feels like France

If I had to pick just one restaurant to embody ‘la province à Paris’, i.e. a restaurant with the feel of the provinces even though set in the heart of Paris, it would be La Ferrandaise. When speaking of fashion-sense, this would perhaps not be a compliment, but when speaking of food, it is. No doubt that is why so many restaurants try to project that image : the red-and-white check tablecloths, the old-fashioned wood-work, the lace curtains... They try too hard and they get it completely wrong. For you see, the last thing the provinces want is to appear provincial, so they will have no truck with red-and-white tablecloths or lace curtains ; they want to be ‘with it’ and modern, and happening. Yet when it comes to the food, they often retain a simplicity and straight-forwardness which is always pleasing, as well as portions that are much more generous than you would see in a trendy Parisian restaurant. These are the qualities of La Ferrandaise. It seems to flow naturally, the food is good without being overly complicated, the prices are fair (for Paris), the staff are busy but friendly and the clientele is bustling but good-humoured and not putting on airs. This is important because, whilst the restaurant itself is fairly large, it is made up of several small spaces on different levels and as a result, the tables are quite close together so one does want to be on good terms with one’s neighbours.

Terroir food at a reasonable price

The three-course menu is priced at 32 € (March 2011) including tax and service, which all told is quite reasonable by today’s standards in central Paris : after all, the restaurant is located in the sixth arrondissement, the most expensive in Paris, across from the Luxembourg Gardens and the Senate ; some of the dishes involving pricier ingredients are subject to a surcharge. The menu changes monthly to reflect the seasons as well as offer variety to returning diners but the focus is on a reasonable mix of sensible yet distinctly French foods. The name of the restaurant refers to a breed of cattle which is found in the mountains of central France and, the veal served comes from animals of that breed. It’s all about being rooted in the terroir. (Ooops! I’m afraid that is rather a poor choice of phrasing for my Australian readers ; they may get entirely the wrong idea.)

For starters most of my party opted for the ravioles de foie gras et poires, ravioli with a filling made of foie-gras sweetened with pears, whilst I went for the terrine of veal tongue and calf’s foot, because it just seemed like the sort of place where such country-style food would be appropriate. It was. I did not swoon perhaps, but I was perfectly satisfied.

For the mains, one of us chose scallops in broth (Pot-au-feu de Saint-Jacques) which was declared good and unexpectedly quite spicy. Another chose a hanger steak (onglet) with potatoes and gherkins which appeared quite satisfactory, whilst another of my companions was very happy with his spiced-up lamb shoulder served with a thin buckwheat pancake and slightly pickled onions. Ever the traditionalist, I went for the veal stew (blanquette de veau) which was good, if perhaps a little bland (as is that dish’s wont).

We ended with a mille-feuilles with chocolate, a rum baba with mango and a panna-cotta with blood oranges.

The wine-list is sensible, boasting a couple of token wines from the Auvergne and a reasonable selection of the main wine-growing regions at reasonable prices : starting around 30 € with good potables at 45 € or so. We chose a Fixin at 47 € which went well with everything and made for a pleasing accompaniment/

A Sensible Choice

This is not the sort of restaurant that would cause an epiphany perhaps, but the food is good, the prices not unreasonable and the size of the servings quite remarkable for Paris. Although I did not stay awake re-savouring the taste of each morsel in my mind, I shall be happy to return to La Ferrandaise when next I want good food at prices that do not induce a state of shock. And yes, it was not perfect : they don’t change the cutlery between courses and some of the crockery was chipped, but that just adds to that provincial, no-nonsense feel that I so enjoyed.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

La Séduction : How the French Play the Game of Life

La Séduction : How the French Play the Game of Life

By Elaine Sciolino

NewYork : Henry Holt & Co., 2011

338 pages - $27.00 – Canada $ 31.00

ISBN : 978-0-8050-9115-1

Reading books about the French, especially written by my fellow Americans, is one of my péchés mignons, my secret indulgences, because I delight in the unexpected perspectives they occasionally offer on daily situations that I take for granted after so many years of living here. At other times, I am simply dumbfounded by the bizarre portrait of France and her people that emerges from some of them.

For all her many observational skills, Ms Sciolino’s book verges on the bizarre. I recognise many of the quirks of Frenchness she points out, all the more so because her neighbourhood was the next one over from mine, just a hop and a skip from the Victoria Palace. I am familiar with the places she mentions : I have dealt with her fishmonger in person, I frequently walk in front of her butcher shop, etc. And, although I myself am not in any way intimate with the people she interviews, many of my friends and acquaintances do belong to the same circles.

The problem is that she has trouble marshalling all her observations into a coherent whole: the book is an odd hotch-potch of anecdotes, portraits, historical titbits, facts and factoids mashed together, sometimes without any recognizable rhyme or reason. In places she is irritatingly silly, for example when she states that President Sarkozy deliberately chose to address the French parliament in Versailles so as to wrap himself in the grandeur of a royal palace. The President’s ego indeed may have enjoyed the palatial pomp, but the decision to address the parliament in that specific venue was not his : the French president is constitutionally barred from addressing parliament anywhere else. (Until 2009, he was barred from addressing it in person. Full stop.) As a journalist, she should have known that.

La Séduction as a way of life

Ms Sciolino’s premise is that French behaviour in social settings is motivated by the need to ‘seduce’, to charm or ingratiate oneself through fine wines, elaborate politeness, careful grooming, exquisite food and habitual recourse to all that is pleasing to the eye and the senses, which more business-like Americans find frustrating and time-consuming. Oddly, towards the end of her book she spends much time talking about the indifference verging on rudeness of her fishmonger, the unwillingness of the estate agent to cut a deal when Ms Sciolino tries to convince her that it would be wasteful for her to remove all the kitchen cabinets before vacating her flat, the pointedly uncompromising position taken by Mr. Dominique de Villepin against the United States on the subject of the war in Iraq. If indeed the need to seduce and charm is the mainspring of French social interaction, how does she account for such egregious failures to do so? She does not.

For me, she is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, or, as the French would put it, she is looking for noon at 2 p.m. Seduction is a tactic which the French have honed into a very efficient tool, a fine art even, but it is not the raison d’être of French society any more than it is of any other. The goals of the French are quite the same as those of any other people : raising families, accumulating wealth, securing one’s position in the social hierarchy, feeding oneself, looking to one’s health and occupying any spare time in ways that are enjoyable. Perhaps the reason she came to mistake one of the tools for the goal itself is because, at least according to Bernard-Henri Levy whom she quotes, Americans are afraid of being seduced and led astray, so they become wary and defensive. Either that or she simply has read too much Henry James.

It’s not all about les fesses

For whatever reason, Ms Sciolino has difficulty getting her mind out of the bedclothes. Without wishing to appear unkind, she comes across as rather dour and more than a little priggish ; too much of her book is spent obsessing about sex, marital infidelity, pornography and pick-up strategies. From her description of France, the country would appear to be entirely inhabited by rutting gastronomes whose only goal in life is to hop into bed with anyone who passes within reach.

It is true that the French have a rather different attitude to sex than Americans. As Edith Wharton put it nearly 100 years ago in French Ways and Their Meaning, they have what she called a very grown-up approach and consider that sex is one of the pleasures of life. They are not afraid of saying so and they think this is a good thing : if sex were not pleasurable, the human race would have died out after the first generation ; that any of us are here today is owing to the fact that our parents were inclined to sex. There is something almost neo-Victorian in the way Ms Sciolino broaches this topic : she goes on at great length about how men express their desire for women, but seems genuinely surprised, upset even, that French women seem to enjoy the attentions of men. While reading some of the comments that seem to scandalise her, I was reminded of my friend Marthe Eidelberg, who belonged to a very different generation but whose attitude was much the same as the one expressed by Ms Sciolino’s interviewees. Marthe had left France as a youngish woman in 1940, fleeing the Nazi invasion and she had settled in the United States ; we became good friends when she was quite elderly, in the 1980s. One day she told me that the one thing she missed was the appreciative gaze French men have for women ;she could only recall one instance of having felt it in New York and when she turned around to see who was looking at her, it was Maurice Chevalier.

Ms Sciolino seems unable to wrap her mind around this concept and I cannot help thinking that some of her interviewees sensed this and decided they would have her on : many French women (and some men), positively relish disconcerting anyone they perceive as overly prudish by exaggerating their own ‘liberated’ and free-thinking attitudes. Whilst my friend Marthe missed the admiring, appraising gaze of the French male, she certainly would not have enjoyed anything so unsubtle as whistling from construction workers as some of Ms Sciolino’s interviewees claim they do, probably to tickle what they saw as her American-style, feminist priggishness. I surmise that the lingerie designer Chantal Thomass was being similarly cheeky when she took off her top to show Ms Sciolino her lacey, racy brassiere : as a mature businesswoman, surely this is not what she does as a matter of course during her business day. No doubt she was enjoying herself at the expense of Ms Sciolino and of her functional ‘American’ undergarments : a superbly executed and very Parisian joke, of which our authoress was the unsuspecting butt.

Peccadilloes, tolerance and sexism

The French may be notoriously tolerant of human foibles, but there are limits and the French language does contain words of strong disapproval for those who seem unduly obsessed with sex or only interested in bedding new partners, in ‘scoring’ as we would phrase it in American English. (I’m glad to say, I cannot think of an exact French equivalent to that regrettable phrase, sex qua target practise.) Our authoress never seems to have encountered this, possibly because she was in such shock at French women’s reactions to what they would consider polite and enjoyable expressions of interest, that she seems never to have queried whether there were lines that should not be crossed : for the record, the pinching of bottoms, the unsolicited rubbing of genital areas against someone’s anatomy as well as outright rape are not acceptable in polite French society, as some politicians currently are discovering.

Perhaps it is Ms Sciolino’s freely admitted American feminist perspective which sees women always as victims of sexism that explains her statement, without any substantiating quotes from any of her French interviewees, that in France tolerance of sexual peccadilloes applies only to men and that political women are expected to be chaste. In so doing she completely ignores the case of Rachida Dati (who is mentioned in other contexts): whilst minister of justice, Ms Dati gave birth to a child out of wedlock and steadfastly refused to name the father, merely stating that her private life was ‘complicated’, leaving everyone to construe that as they chose. There were a few days of hullabaloo and lurid speculation then we all got over it.

Ms Sciolino seems to have found Frédéric Mitterand’s memoirs particularly distasteful, what with his descriptions of encounters with rent-boys in Thailand ; no doubt many French people outside the ‘literati’ of the Rive gauche would concur that this was not in the best taste. It is however less shocking to them than, say, a politician who, having wrapped himself in a cloak of condemnation vis-à-vis another man’s foibles, turns out to be himself a serial cheater and divorcer who then goes on to convert to Roman Catholicism. It would be unthinkable for anyone with such a twisted past to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate in France, unlike the United States. As Edith Wharton put it, the French place great store on intellectual honesty and whereas they view discretion as compatible with this as well as being a necessary social skill, they consider patent self-righteousness and obvious hypocrisy both morally offensive and strategically unwise.

Ms Sciolino finds the openness with which French men express their enjoyment of the physical beauty of women to be ‘patently sexist’, but she does not seem to grasp that it is a two-way street : French women comment quite readily on the looks and fashion sense of French men. (I was the only boy in an all-girls school, so I know!) It is puzzling that one so observant as Ms Sciolino, whilst frequently noting how well-dressed are the men with whom she is dealing, should fail to wonder at why they take such obvious care of their appearance. The answer is the same one the women give : because ‘on ne sait jamais’ : one never knows whom one will meet and what opportunities may arise from chance encounters. Although our authoress, as is her wont, seems to consider only the sexual implications of this statement, any French person knows that simply  because sexual possibilities are included, it does not follow that these are at the forefront : there is a world of delights and possibilities out there and not all of them are centred on the space between our thighs. French men, like French women, are keenly aware that they will be subjected to appraising and appreciative gazes and must live up to high standards of appearance, out of respect for themselves and for their audience, of either sex. (When I first returned to the US as a young adult, I was incredulous at how on a Friday or Saturday night young American women will get all dolled up to go out on a date whilst the men escorting them are turned out in shapeless jeans and t-shirts. In France, no self-respecting young woman would stand for it : if she has to make an effort to look good, so does he. Or else they both opt for ‘le style grunge’.)

Choosing one’s company

A whole side of French behaviour that seems to have eluded Ms Sciolino has to do with the complex groupings within French society, although President Giscard d’Estaing did his best to warn her. Each stratum, each milieu has its own codes and rules, and members of the different strata generally prefer not to mingle with those of the others. Much of what she identifies as a game of seduction—the elaborate politeness, the subtle irony, the displays of culture and conversational skill—are in fact tools to assay what each person’s upbringing and background are, the better to determine whether such persons are ‘fréquentables’, whether one can be seen to associate with them or not. Old money prefers to hang out with old money ; bourgeois intellectuals prefer to indulge in verbal skirmishes with other bourgeois intellectuals ; impoverished aristocrats prefer to reminisce of faded glories with other impoverished aristocrats ; the plain-speaking, industrious working-classes prefer the company of other plain-speaking, industrious, etc. The differing rituals of politeness, topics of debate, literary or philosophical allusions, all serve to advertise where one is coming from and where one’s allegiance lies, like a very subtle, elaborate and drawn-out Masonic handshake ; thus does one discover whom one can trust and with whom one can do business. Had our authoress been a little less obsessed with the below-the-belt side of things, she might have realised that any sexual pairings as a result of these displays, whilst enjoyable and welcome perhaps, are almost incidental. So far from being a strategy of seduction, much of French social interaction is a subtle strategy of exclusion, of separating the wheat from the chaff as it were. When it is properly executed, those of any given group will recognise their own, yet those who have been found wanting are given no reason to take offense so the mood of the gathering will not be ruined. No one will be hurt and no bridges will have been burnt. Those excluded may just wonder why they are not invited back ; then again, they may not. Painless, effective and therefore extremely efficient, as well as being elegant. Now that truly is the French way.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Parisian Chic : A Style Guide by Inès de la Fressange, with Sophie Gachet

Parisian Chic : A Style Guide

by Inès de La Fressange, with Sophie Gachet
239 pages - Paris : Flammarion, 2011

US $ 29.95 / Can $ 34 / UK £ 19.95 / 25 €
ISBN : 978-2-08-020073-0

 Back in the 1980s, I remember welcoming Miss de La Fressange to the Westbury Hotel in New York on several occasions. She was absolutely beautiful, but she was also one of our more pleasant clients : quietly unassuming, polite, completely sensible and down-to-earth. Beautiful within and without. I am delighted to see that, judging from her book Parisian Chic, she appears not to have changed.

More than just a list of addresses, the book purports to be a style-guide, which in itself is a perilous exercise : after all, it requires a healthy dose of self-assurance—to say the least—to attempt to lay down the fashion law for other women and save them from lives of misguided fashion disasters... Yet Miss de La Fressange manages it well, partly because of who she is (her place in the fashion firmament requires no justification) and partly because she has opted for a whimsical, playful approach, all the while emphasising that rules are there to be broken (including her own, one assumes) and stressing that no one is immune from the occasional fashion disaster and or, in her own words, ‘we are all just steps from a fashion faux pas’.

Fashion precepts

One way of describing Parisian Chic is as a sort of Fashion Sense for Dummies, but with gaiety and colour and without condescension. A certain cringe-making cutsiness is unavoidable in places (e.g. the fly-leaf which sports a space provided for writing the owner’s name under the caption ‘For my new best friend.’) but all in all it is a quick, enjoyable read and most of it is very sensible.(I do hope some kind soul will have the thoughtfulness to give a copy to Sarah Jessica Parker. Please. Pretty please. Someone must save that woman from herself.)

The general principles are to the point and undoubtedly grounded in Parisian style sense. If properly understood, they would save many women (and some men) from making woeful spectacles of themselves : ‘Chic means never having to buy a complete outfit’ ; ‘Never look rich’ ; ‘ [the Parisian] has faith in her own talent as a fashion stylist [...] She sweeps fashion aside’ ; ‘Counterfeit is counterfashion’ ; ‘The secret of great style is to feel good in what you wear’, ‘Nothing looks worse than a girl tottering about on unmanageable heels’ ; ‘All you really need is loads of self-confidence... and a smile’, etc. Of course, having a face and a figure like those of Inès de La Fressange probably would go a fair way to boosting said self-confidence, but do not let’s quibble. The basic dicta are unassailable and, considering how many people seem not to have yet grasped them, they definitely bear repeating.

Of course fashion is a social construct, which means that at the same time as I say her points are valid, one does have to admit that they are valid in a specific city and amongst a specific set. This is where the book becomes slightly more problematic. Miss de La Fressange is a thoroughly modern French woman of a certain age, with impeccable taste and living in a certain milieu ; I know many like her and they are what I think of as today’s true Parisienne : down-to-earth, managing careers and families whilst retaining at all times and in all places a sense of simple, effortless yet slightly rebellious elegance. Underpinning the entire book is the idea that today’s elegance is not the same as the bourgeois elegance of a previous generation kitted out in Chanel suit + pearls + Kelly handbag, etc., what she calls the ‘ladies-who-lunch’ look. And when she gets down to specific suggestions, this becomes ever more apparent. As I read, I was reminded of my father talking about his Okie mother : he sarcastically used to say that her answer to any problem in life was ‘to roll it in cornmeal then fry it in lard’. For Miss de La Fressange, the equivalent solution would appear to be ‘dress it up in a blazer, jeans and Converse sneakers’. It is a pleasing and defensible look, but it is also very much the look of a specific time, place and milieu ; it may not be appropriate at all times and everywhere.

Her Address-Book

After the general precepts and the helpful hints, Miss de La Fressange shares her favourite addresses and the English edition has the thoughtfulness to provide the addresses in London and in the United States when they exist. Somewhat oddly, for some shops with multiple addresses, only one address has been provided and this might send shoppers scurrying half-way across the city to find a shop that they could conveniently have located much nearer to wherever they happened to be had there been a simple mention that multiple shops existed. The most egregious examples are Petit Bâteau and Éric Bompard for whom only the Champs-Élysées addresses and telephone numbers are given, when there are ten Petit-Bâteau and twelve Éric Bompard shops in Paris. (And who still goes to the Champs-Élysées to shop, anyway???)

Although Miss de La Fressange feels she must nail her anti-snob colours to the mast by repeating the axiom that there are great fashion finds at Monoprix (a rather mid- to low-brow department store chain very well represented throughout France), she doesn’t actually include it in her address-book. (I first heard the Monoprix refrain some twenty years ago from my friend Dik Brandsma, who used to design the Variations line for Yves-Saint-Laurent ; that notwithstanding, I don’t recall ever actually seeing him in a Monoprix store or spotting a Monoprix label on anything he owned...)

Interior Design

Once Miss de la Fressange has given her general pointers on fashionable dressing, she moves on to interior design ; this is the least satisfactory portion of the book. Primarily this is because, whilst most human beings are put together in much the same way, the houses and flats they choose to inhabit vary wildly and so it is nearly impossible to give any general, useful tips. What is the interior design equivalent of ‘blazer, jeans and Converse sneakers’? That depends on how much space you have, how many children, how high your ceilings are, etc. As a result, this portion of the book is of necessity more vague and less helpful. The few addresses she gives seem focused on bric-à-brac chic, but that does seem to be putting the cart before the horse : knowing where to shop for the bric-à-brac is well and fine, but where do I get the actual furniture the bric-à-brac is supposed to complement? It is a bit like telling one where to buy a belt when what one really needs is a pair of trousers...

Hotels And Restaurants

The last portion of the book makes a few suggestions for restaurants and hotels. Of course I don’t know if I shall ever be able to forgive Miss de La Fressange for the unpardonable sin of not including the Victoria Palace Hôtel in her suggestions, but I would also quibble with a few of her restaurant suggestions, such as Le Bon Saint-Pourçain. I once tried to make enquiries there so as to send a client, but the owner was so abominably rude I decided it would be a very cold day in hell before I ever attempted that again. You see, unlike some tourists, I don’t consider being subjected to unprovoked, verbal abuse by an uncouth local to be an integral part of enduring Gallic charm, because I know that in this astonishingly polite country, it isn’t supposed to be that way. (Perhaps with the exception of the occasional taxi driver.) On the other hand, I suppose that if I had even half the charm of Inès de La Fressange, le patron of the Bon Saint-Pourçain might find his way to being more engaging...

All in all, Parisian Chic is a delightful read and no doubt would delight many women as a gift for any and every occasion. Or for their fashion-aware daughters when they hit that awkward age where they confuse what is suitable on the runway with what is appropriate in real life. Perhaps I shall buy a stack of them and hand them out like sweets at a few Sweet Fifteen parties...

Sunday 8 May 2011

La Maison du Jardin : 27 rue de Vaugirard

La Maison du Jardin

La Maison du Jardin is one of those sure-bets in the ‘lower’ sixth arrondissement, which is the more residential section, as opposed to the more touristy part nearer Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Seine river. It is a rather small restaurant, with a cosy feel and is quite popular with the local residents. The décor is very simple, which is typical of Parisian neighbourhood eateries : they cater to discerning locals interested primarily in well-prepared food at a reasonable price. For the fancy dinners, when we try to impress visiting grandees or business associates, the Parisian resorts to other establishments where the food may—or may not—be equally good, but where the setting and the staff will signal money being spent on a somewhat grander scale.

Back to La Maison du Jardin. It is an intimate restaurant belonging to the chef himself, Monsieur Philippe Marquis. His style of cooking could be called ‘mildly inventive’ : it is fairly classic French, with the occasional exotic twist. Fortunately, said exotic twist never is at the expense of the dish itself and merely serves to freshen it up, without spoiling it. Most importantly, the flavours are always clear and well-defined ; Monsieur Marquis’s dishes never seem to turn into the unfortunate palate-numbing concoctions some less skilful chefs churn out when trying too hard to let their creativity rip.

The three-course menu is priced at 32 euros (March 2011) which is quite reasonable for Paris, although some of the fancier offerings may incur a surcharge of 2 to 5 euros. The last time I had dinner there, we pointedly none of us took any of the dishes with a surcharge, and notwithstanding we were perfectly content with everything we chose.

I started with a salad of smoked haddock with baby spinach leaves and piquillo peppers : it was a charming contrast of tastes and textures. The smokiness of the fish was balanced by the tang of the peppers and the earthiness of the greens ; a perfect appetiser, it was light and opened up the palate for the following courses. One of my companions chose an unimpeachable combination of green salad with warm goat’s cheese accompanied by apple and bacon whilst the other selected a tuna carpaccio which was fresh and zingy and everything one could wish.

For the main dish, one of my companions chose calf’s liver with whole baby potatoes and wilted spinach whilst the other opted for one of La Maison du Jardin’s classics : a lamb pastilla with lemon thyme. The calf’s liver was cooked precisely to the right pinkness and the lamb pastilla—one of my favourites at this restaurant—was true to form : shredded, slightly sweetened lamb which had been slowly cooked then wrapped in paper-thin filo pastry with herbs and sultanas. It was rich, fragrant, and just evocative enough to suggest the fading memory of an exotic holiday. For my part, this evening I chose the chicken waterzooi with lemon-grass, which I had seen on the menu before but never had tried : the lemon grass added just the extra flavour that tipped the waterzooi from a sort of comfort food into a truly delightful dish, without impairing the straight-forward simplicity of the vegetables and the chicken. (For my Belgian friends : I mean no unkindness to the favoured dish of Ghent, but this was a such happy variation on the theme! For those who are not familiar with waterzooi, it is a simple, hearty and occasionally bland dish of chicken or fish stewed in water with vegetables, to which a healthy dose of crème fraîche or soured cream and egg yolk are added just before serving to turn the broth into a sinfully rich sauce.)

Two of us ended the meal sharing an île flottante, a welcome classic. The custard could have been slightly thicker, but the tuile biscuit ( a sort of brandy-snap) simply was exquisite and more than made up for the thinness of the custard, if indeed it was thin. Our other companion chose a simple dessert of warm, sour cherries with pistachio ice-cream : he beamed his pleasure for all to see.

The wine list is not extensive, but just about every French wine region is represented so everyone should be able to find something to their taste. We chose a Morey-Saint-Denis which was reasonably priced and complemented our dishes perfectly.

For those wishing to have dinner here, please remember this is a small restaurant so reservations are necessary, although they often can be had on the day itself. This is the perfect restaurant for those who want an authentic neighbourhood experience, but in a ‘proper’ restaurant, with table linens that are not red-and-white check and where the food is notably more ambitious and creative than what is served in the many (and often excellent) bistros which are all the rage at the moment.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Madame Grès at the Musée Antoine-Bourdelle, 25 March to 25 July 2011

In today’s world of international, mega-‘luxury’-brands, it is not surprising that Madame Grès should have slipped from our global fashion consciousness : in the 1970s, when all the other couturiers were busy launching their ready-to-wear lines and building the marketing industry that would underpin them, Madame Grès did not feel so inclined. She carried on creating ‘couture’ clothing. (For the younger generations who think that ‘couture’ just means over-hyped, ridiculously expensive, ill-fitting and mass-produced products churned out by companies that claim some historic tie to the Parisian fashion industry, it may be helpful to remember that back then, ‘couture’ meant bespoke tailoring for women, in other words, custom-made clothes fitted directly on the person who was to wear them.) It caused me great pleasure to learn that the Musée Galliera was organising the first retrospective exhibition in Paris dedicated to the career of Madame Grès and that it would be at the Musée Antoine-Bourdelle, just a stone’s throw away from my office at the Victoria Palace Hôtel.

Germaine Krebs, a.k.a. Alix then Madame Grès first came to public notice in the 1930s, when the Art Déco style was in full swing and no doubt this was one of the reasons why this exhibition has been organised at the Antoine-Bourdelle museum : although he was considerably older than Madame Grès, Bourdelle’s aesthetic lies at the heart of the Art Déco style in sculpture and one would be hard-pressed to name any other sculptor whose works better embody that style. Much the same holds true for Madame Grès in the world of fashion. Their works have much in common : the Greek, or rather Grecian influence; the elegant, elongated figures ; the sensuality and reverence for the body. (Sadly, in practice the juxtaposition doesn’t work quite as well as one would have hoped : the frailty and delicacy of Madame Grès creations are somewhat overwhelmed by the monumental, virile strength of Bourdelle’s work. Silk jersey meets bronze : bronze wins.)

The retrospective includes some 80 pieces of clothing, most of which are variations on Madame Grès’s most characteristic style : tightly pleated swaths of jersey artfully draped in complex patterns over the upper part of the body (often with strategically placed openings to reveal glimpses of flesh) then allowed freely to flow from the waist down to the floor. In order to achieve her signature pleat, the so-called ‘pli Grès’, she had the jersey especially woven in widths of over nine feet, and then shrank it down to widths of 2 ¾ inches by close and careful pleating. Most of these creations are in off-white and light greys and the differences between them are subtle, however the careful observer is rewarded with a sense of wonder at the complexity and variety of the structures she used. These gowns are the clothes that first spring to mind when one thinks Madame Grès and their influence was such that today still, and especially amongst certain American women, the epitome of glamorous elegance for an evening gown seems to be a sort of silky, slinky, floor-length peplum-cum-négligée. This long-standing influence notwithstanding, when observing the young, fashion-conscious public studying Madame Grès’s shoulder-less or daringly exposed gowns, an evil spirit kept whispering in my mind’s ear : ‘What would Madame Grès have thought of all these young women allowing the straps of their brassieres to show on their shoulders, as is the current fashion in France?’

The exhibition also includes a somewhat smaller, but still notable selection of her later creations for such fashion luminaries as the late duchess of Windsor : coats, day dresses and suits which illustrate her mastery of a very different range that continued until the end of her career in the 1980s.

If ever there was a designer whose work needs to be seen in movement and on real flesh, it is Madame Grès who draped he clothes directly onto her clients. The Stockman mannequins used in the exhibition sadly cannot do them justice : a great effort of imagination is required properly to fill out the limp, sagging clothes and restore their flowing movement. Fortunately, the exhibition also includes photographs as well as a fascinating selection of Madame Grès sketches and notes so one can see how these creations were designed to flow and come alive on flesh-and-blood women. With a little added spice : if ever you wanted to know Paloma Picasso’s exact measurements in 1984, this would be the opportunity, as Madame Grès notebook is open to that page!

Madame Grès never had the colourful, inventive showmanship of an Yves Saint-Laurent : she was to such exuberant designers as Racine would be to Edmond Rostand or as Agnes Martin would be to Rubens: Madame Grès’s creations are in some ways minimalist verging on the austere at first glance, but they contain a whole universe of creativity and dedication to the female body if one manages first to achieve the inner quiet they need for their voice to be heard.

Monday 21 March 2011

Le Petit Verdot : 75 rue du Cherche-Midi

[March 2012 update : As of March 2012 and for reasons known only to himself, Mr Ishizuka has decided that he will no longer accept reservations from the Victoria Palace Hotel. Although this does not affect my admiration and esteem for Le Petit Verdot, it does mean that we no longer are able to assist clients wishing to book a table there : they must do it on their own. We do not understand the reasons for this decision, and we are somewhat dismayed by it.]

In a city with such a wealth of restaurants as Paris, finding the right match for the hotel’s clients paradoxically can be surprisingly difficult. In some cities, because there really are only three or four good—or reasonably good—restaurant options, compiling a list of the best is quite simple. But in Paris one easily could name a hundred outstanding restaurants and so the question arises, which ones should one recommend to whom? For each one is outstanding in its own special way.

Le Petit Verdot is an extraordinary, tiny restaurant, but it is not suitable for everyone. In a word, the food is exquisite ; the décor is near to non-existent ; it is not inexpensive, but for the quality of the food, neither is it expensive. The problem is that it does not play to a type, and when it comes to selecting a restaurant, very often the client has some picture in his or her mind of what the restaurant should be : the décor, the comeliness of the staff, the table linens, the rating in some guide or other, etc., all have a part to play in the ‘dining experience’ and to some people these are in fact more important than the food itself. Not that they would ever own up to that : we all like to think we are fine connoisseurs with subtle palates... But Le Petit Verdot is so unique that many will feel somewhat at sea, without their familiar bearings.

The first thing that makes it unique is the personality of Mr Hideya Ishizuka, the owner. From the name you may guess he is Japanese, but he does not serve sushi or teppanyaki. The food served at Le Petit Verdot is French. Mr Ishizuka is a man with a past, but a past about which he remains very discreet : after working in some of the most prestigious French restaurants, he decided he had had enough of the glitz and the sycophantic game-playing required in the world of big-name restaurants and wanted to open a small, personable place serving good, simple food. His refusal to ‘play the game’ actually went so far as throwing out François Simon, the food critic of Le Figaro, one of Paris’s most prestigious newspaper just because he did not want to become part of the ‘system’.

He also has chosen to work without any wait-staff. He personally attends to all his clients and only accepts as many bookings as he can look after, even if that means leaving some tables empty.(Reservations definitely are required!) His style of business is the antithesis of all the celebrity chef rolling out restaurants all round the world or even all over Paris. Like them, he is not actually in the kitchen ; unlike them he does not pretend to be, but he does keep a very close watch over what comes out on the plates.

He a has what is probably the most amazing wine-list in the neighbourhood. It is in two parts : the first part is made up of good wines at reasonable prices : typically starting around 35 euros per bottle and rising to around 200 euros or so. He also has a surprisingly large selection of champagnes, even more surprising if you consider the very simple setting of the restaurant. But there is a second wine-list, behind the first one, entirely made up of the greatest names from Bordeaux, in extraordinary years and at no less extraordinary prices, happily shooting beyond the thousand euro mark. The explanation lies in the rumour that says Mr Ishizuka was well-known in Paris as an exceptional sommelier.

The real point of Le Petit Verdot is the extraordinary quality of the food. Although Mr Ishizuka set out intending to produce very simple fare, a few years ago his instincts and love of truly good food got the better of him and he took a tangent which one can only applaud. What his kitchen turns out today simply is exquisite. Carefully thought out, with close attention paid to combining interesting tastes and textures yet without denaturing any of them, elegantly laid out but not trying to be overly fussy. Food that remains identifiable as food. The last time I went there for dinner it was deep winter, a season which can be challenging for many cooks as there aren’t all those bright and cheery summer fruit and veg kicking about. No doubt this is why some people mourn the arrival of winter and so many resources are squandered to produce or fly in irrelevancies such as peaches in January from distant lands. When properly handled, root vegetables or even the dreaded Brussels sprout can be as lovely a seasonal treat as the best of summer produce.

The starter I chose was an improbable combination of a light, flavourful Jerusalem-artichoke mousse surrounded by mussels and thinly sliced raw veal. It was an odd combination but I have learnt to trust Le Petit Verdot and I was rewarded in spades. It was superb : the contrasting flavours and textures played with each other like frolicsome children on a merry-go-round. My dining companion chose a concoction of chicken oysters with girolle mushrooms, prawns and an oeuf mollet (a medium-boiled egg, served without its shell). Another unusual combination, but his delight was easy to read on his face. (If you are not familiar with the chicken oyster, it is that delectable part of the chicken which nestles in the iliac bone, just beyond the thigh and which goes in French under the charming name of ‘sot-l’y-laisse’ or ‘the-fool-overlooks-it’.) Rather than playful contrasts, his starter took him into a world of closely interwoven winter harmony.

As a main course, he then opted for the roasted Vendée duckling ‘with a variety of turnips’, and indeed they came in every shape and colour with contrasting textures and flavours. I ordered the venison with juniper and wine sauce, accompanied by mushrooms. Both the duckling and the venison were cooked to perfection and were a veritable hymn to the irreplaceable joys of masterful winter cooking using the most appropriate and seasonal of ingredients. In a slightly euphoric mood, and to complement the warmth of the cooking, we drank a sensual Volnay from the vineyards of Chantal Lescure ; it was a little pricey, but the food deserved it.

If there is a course that my companion and I often agree to skip, it is the sweet course, but that evening we both were craving that little something that would cleanse the palate and change the mood, so we decided to share a chestnut savarin with gentian ice-cream. Once again, a perfect yet unexpected match. Gentian is a lovely blue flower that grows in the alps and which is used to produce a somewhat bitter, queer-tasting extract that is used in many aperitifs, most notably the currently unfashionable Suze. Incorporated into ice-cream, it provided the perfect flowery and exotic foil to what might have been the almost stodgy sweetness of the chestnut. The perfect note to end our winter dinner.

Le Petit Verdot is a very special place, as even François Simon graciously acknowledged after being thrown out. It is for the true food-lover, who cares neither for décor nor prestige but who is willing to be led down paths and by-ways that perhaps would not have been his or her first choice. Because the food is fresh and seasonal, like many French restaurants the menu is too limited for those who have long lists of dislikes and don’t-eats or who have too clear an idea of exactly what they want that evening. Le Petit Verdot does not go out of its way to be challenging or exotic, but neither is it afraid to follow its a whim and let the seasons and flavours dictate their own harmonies. It is one of the rare occasions when being dictated to is not only sensible, but desirable.

Le Petit Verdot
75 rue du Cherche-Midi
75006 Paris
01 42 22 38 27

Friday 7 January 2011

Les Petites Sorcières : Ghislaine Arabian

The 14th arrondissement is a mixed bag : certainly not as prestigious as the 6th or 7th, nor quite as comfortably bourgeois as the 15th or the 12th. Much of it was rebuilt in the 1980s and feels a bit like some suburban desert with the notable exception of the area just south of the Montparnasse Cemetery, around the Rue Daguerre. These few streets managed not to be gentrified under Haussmann in the 19th century nor under mayor Chirac in the 1980s and have retained that delightfully quaint and pared down architecture typical of what we used to call a quartier populaire, a working-class neighbourhood. Of course like all Paris, the Proletarians have long departed, but the neighbourhood still retains a down-to-earthness which some of our more chichi beaux quartiers decidedly lack.

This is where Ghislaine Arabian, formerly of the Pavillon Ledoyen, one of those eye-wateringly expensive temples of Parisian haute cuisine, opened her own restaurant a couple of years ago and for which I had almost abandoned any hope of every managing a to get a table. But on a rainy January evening, it finally happened.

It is one of those places : the décor is, well..., not. Or rather begs the question : what décor? In other words, this is a foodies’ place : we are not here for fine linen, tinkling pianos and cooing sweet nothings over candles. Nor are we here for pseudo-quaint bistro red-and-white tablecloths and a setting in either real or fake Art Nouveau. This place is about food and with a very interesting twist : Ghislaine Arabian is from the Franco-Belgian border region, an area that has its own cuisine but which has never achieved international notoriety. It is a place of homely food using humble ingredients such as endive and beer that the rest of France—indeed of the world—knows  little or nothing about. And these are the ingredients that Ms Arabian uses to spectacular effect. The proprietress herself takes your order and she is forthrightly friendly and attentive, but without any obsequiousness. If you are looking to be fawned upon by an overdressed mannikin, this would not be the place.

We were a large table, so we sampled many things. My neighbours started swooning at the starter : a poached egg with a simple (well, sort of simple) truffle sauce, truffle slice and a single, elegant soldier. Lobster in a pastry shell. I am told the grey-shrimp fritters were divine ; they disappeared before I was able even to beg a taste. The beef consommé was proclaimed the finest consommé ever tasted. Ever. As for my black pudding with red cabbage and chestnuts, the black pudding itself was exquisite, as was the red cabbage with chestnuts, but perhaps there was lacking just a little sharpness to bring all the elements together. Still, it was a lovely way to start a meal on a rainy evening :

The ooh-ing and aah-ing carried on through the main course. There was a rack of lamb with ribs of such dainty proportions they looked miniature but were pronounced major in terms of taste ; and there were a lot of them. A squab to my left was so perfectly cooked its pinkness would have made Schiaperelli blush. Braised beef cheeks with carrot and a fillet steak with beer sauce caused squeals of delight at my other side. My turbot was roasted with beer and served over perfectly cooked spinach ; the texture was right, the sauce was heavenly ; the fried onions on top were a mistake because they had an unwelcome, greasy taste. But I just scraped them off and carried on with my fish, happy as can be.

The puddings were no less successful, perhaps even more so. The Brussels waffle served with chocolate sauce and truffle ice-cream struck me as perhaps a little richer  than I should want although my neighbour downed every bite of it with obvious glee. So I opted for an equally unexpected offering and was not disappointed : a chicory parfait with wheat-beer sabayon. This was absolutely spectacular : the perfect blend of richness, sweetness and that touch of bitterness to set it all off. Sometimes, life is just too good to be believed.

Even the pouring rain during the walk back home couldn’t dampen my spirits after that dinner.

Les Petites Sorcière – Ghislaine Arabian
12 rue Liancourt – 75014 Paris
Closed Sunday and Monday

Starters about 10 – 15 euros ; Mains about 25 to 30 euros ; Desserts about 10 to 12 euros. Somewhat limited but sensible wine selection, most of which are well under 50 euros.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Paris Winter Sales : Starting 12 January 2011 for five weeks

If you are thinking of coming to Paris for New Year’s Eve and hoping not only to enjoy the City of Lights, but also to take advantage of massive after-Christmas sales, think again. Change your dates : come later or stay (much) longer.

Sales dates set by law

The French system surrounding sales and remaindered stock is fairly incomprehensible to foreigners. Yes, prices in France are freely set by the shopkeepers. No, shopkeepers are not free to offer rebates and sales whenever they choose. The dates and the duration of the twice yearly sales are set by law, which also specifies that such sales must apply to articles that have been on offer for at least the month preceding, thereby ensuring that shopkeepers do not keep a whole separate stash of lesser-quality goods that they can then flog at the discounted prices, giving customers the illusion of buying the genuine, top quality article. All sales must include the full guaranty of quality and reliability that would apply to the non-discounted item. French shopkeepers do not like sales, discounts, rebates or haggling ; French shoppers are wary of their shopkeepers. Hence this carefully structured framework.
By law then, Winter sales begin on the second Wednesday in January, long after the Christmas gift-shopping spree is over and even after the January gift-giving is over. (In France, traditionally gifts are made at Christmas only to family members ; other gift—called  étrennes, which used to be known in English as handsels—are given to employees, domestics, business associates, clients, etc. in the first days of January along with the traditional wishes for health and prosperity for the coming year, embodied in the carte de voeux, the new year’s greeting card which takes the place of the Anglo-Saxon Christmas card. There is nothing quite so spine-chilling as the baleful stare of the concierge or building porter who has not received his or her envelope containing both a card and cash by the 2nd or 3rd of January. Wishing a happy new year before the start of the year is considered ill-omened ; wishing 'Bonne Année !' after the first week of January is pushing the limits of civility.)

The benefits for the tourist

Back to the discounts and sales. Tourists residing outside the European Union should boldly highlight the sales dates in their calendars. On Wednesday 12 January 2011, almost every shop in the city, from the most obscure to the most renowned (with a few exceptions) will be offering discounts ranging from 20 to 40 per cent off the sticker price. This is of course good news for everyone, but for the non-European resident, these discounts can be combined with the Value Added Tax rebate if more than 175 euros are spent in any one shop. Bearing in mind that the V.A.T. is 19.6% on most items, this can add up to savings of fifty per-cent or more off the initial price.

The calendar is everything (Part 1) : 12, 13 and 14 January, shop for yourself

The thing to remember is that every fashion-conscious French woman (and man) also knows the dates and is ticking them off in his/her calendar ; s/he will be at the door of his/her favourite shop before 8 a.m. on the 12th to be first in line for those items s/he scouted out the day before. So if you want the best selection, if you want to indulge yourself with a private little Christmas just for you, be sure to go shopping on that first Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Starting with the first week-end, items will have been picked over and the selection will not be nearly so good.

The calendar is everything (Part 2) : preparing for birthdays and next Christmas

All shops must end their sales by 15 February at the latest, but many will choose to do so earlier, some after only ten days or so. Others will carry on until the bitter end, slowly increasing the discounts on the remaining items up to sixty or seventy percent as the weeks go by. This is when one goes gleaning (such a nicer word than 'scavenging'! ) : picking up those little gifts and trinkets that will be useful throughout the year for the odd birthday or unexpected event. Just one word of caution : many will have been manhandled by frenzied shoppers so check carefully for small rents and tears! And do stop to think that if truly no one has wanted that particular item in the previous weeks, there may be a reason for this?
Happy shopping.

Monday 13 December 2010

France 1500 : Entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance

At the Grand Palais
6 October 2010  to 10 January 2011

If one is weighing up the merits of different exhibitions, trying to determine which is the ‘must see’ one, the Parisian status-conscious visitor will first and foremost pay attention to the venue and the dates. The highest dignity the curatorial establishment can bestow on any project is to house it in the Grand Palais during the Rentrée. The Grand Palais is that enormous building with the magnificent glass roof located between the lower Champs-Élysées and the Pont Alexandre III, built during of that high-water mark of the Third Republic, the 1900 Universal Exhibition of blessed memory. The Rentrée is another name for the Autumn, when serious matters resume after the summer lull : be they labour disputes, political wrangles, horse racing, dinner parties, the opera season or exhibitions.

This year two exhibitions were thus singled out for prominence : one devoted to Monet and the other to art in France around 1500. As a matter of course, I do not visit Monet exhibitions ; not through any dislike of Monet’s painting, but rather the contrary : in order fully to enjoy his painting, one must be able to view it from 10 to 20 feet away, which is quite impossible in a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition owing to the obstruction occasioned by innumerable bobbing heads forcing their way to the front. So I turned my attention to the other one.

France 1500 is an extremely ambitious exhibition : its stated intent is no less than to reverse a century or two of art historians’ misreadings of the transition from mediaeval art to the Renaissance. The curators propose to do this both by demonstrating the vigour of late Gothic forms around 1500 and also by demonstrating the presence of characteristically Italianate features even before king Louis XII’s conquest of the Duchy of Milan in 1500. I suppose someone, somewhere does care deeply about this sort of nomenclature and loses sleep over issues such as the precise date on which the artistic foundations shift from Late Mediaeval to Renaissance. I’m not so sure that the general public really does and I like to think that any art historian worth his or her salt already knows how arbitrary and meaningless such distinctions really are.

A word of caution...

Unfortunately, two mistakes were made in regards to this exhibition and they do it a great disservice. First, the choice of its name, France 1500. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a less-thrilling and evocative title. I can’t help myself thinking that it sounds like an administrative report on the outlook for local industry in the city of Aurillac with a typing mistake to boot (1500 instead of the proper postal code 15000).

Secondly, the curators made the unfortunate decision to lay out the exhibit using the same intellectual architecture that underpins the catalogue. This is a disaster : an opening section showing changes between 1460 and 1480, is followed by a second section organised by locale , a third section explores iconographic and technical innovations whilst a fourth section purports to show the interplay of Italian and Gothic influences. The result is a confusing hotch-potch which does demonstrate the variety of artistic media and influences in the late 15th century, but in a completely mish-mashed way. One stumbles hopelessly from one jumble of sculpture-cum-painting-cum-tapestry-cum-manuscript-painting, etc. on to the next without any obvious rhyme or reason. It is, all in all, rather unenlightening. Of course one understands that the intent is to show the numerous cross-currents of coexisting styles and to illustrate that France is simultaneously drawing in artists and works both from Italy and the Low Countries, and that the very distinction between our categories of Late Gothic and early Renaissance is completely artificial. Although perfectly suited to the catalogue, this lay-out does not work on the exhibition floor.

Go anyway!

Be that as it may, this exhibition should not be missed : its scope is immense and the variety of works and techniques on display is simply mind-boggling. In light of my criticisms above, I recommend the following strategy : forget any art-historical discourse and just focus on the artefacts, one after the other and immerse yourself in the sheer enjoyment of such an abundance of riches brought together and put on display. The highlight for me was the incredible display of painted manuscripts, because these fragile, precious works are so rarely shown. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see them in context with other art forms ; because of our post-Renaissance obsession with easel-paintings, we tend to forget that some of the greatest artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance were in fact manuscript painters and that these precious, portable volumes were major commissions in their own right and highly valued. Through their daily use, their relationship with the prince or sovereign who commissioned them was a physical one, intimately connected to the sacred person of the prince himself. The manuscripts alone make the exhibition a ‘must see’. But add to that the grouping of paintings by Jean Hey, a.k.a. the Master of Moulins : they have travelled from Autun, from Brussels, from Chicago, from Glasgow, from Munich, from New York and from Paris to be reunited here and are they a feast for the eyes which probably will not be available again soon, unless you choose to follow the exhibition as it travels on to Chicago. This exhibition is also a rare opportunity to see several important works of stained glass all in one place. Owing both to its innate fragility as well as its exposure to wanton changes in taste, religion or style, much stained glass has been lost and it is easy to forget what a vibrant and vigorous art from it was in the late Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance.

With all due respect for Monet next door, of the two major exhibitions of the season, this is the one you must not miss.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Yuletide in Paris with Children

For a variety of reasons, many people seem to think that Paris is not a child-friendly city : too many museums and monuments, too many weird foods served at unusual hours, a lack of children's menus in restaurants, etc. Frequently I am reminded of Adam Gopnik's book Paris to the Moon in which he tells of a paediatrician's advice to feed his infant son Roquefort cheese. When asked why, the doctor replies, 'So that he will acquire a taste for it'. Travelling should be about broadening the horizons, pushing the limits, especially for children. After all, it is when one is young and one's teeth are strong and solidly attached to the jaw that one must savour the Négus for the first time (an exquisite delicacy from Nevers combining both hard and soft caramels).

Aside from such delights, the city also is well-equipped with playgrounds so the young'uns can work off some of their excess energy ; near the Victoria Palace Hotel there is quite an extensive one in the Luxembourg Gardens, for example. And parents should not underestimate their children : some really do enjoy museums ; I know I did as a child. Except for the Egyptian Antiquities section at the Louvre because I had lost my parents and it took me hours (or so it seemed) to find them again amidst the canopic jars, mummies and other frightening artefacts. I still hate Egyptian art.

The English-language website Ciao Bambino which is dedicated to travel for families with children has just posted on its blog a few suggestions to keep children occupied and entranced in Paris during the Christmas season ; they would not all be my choices, but certainly there is enough to do and to choose from!

Monday 6 December 2010

D'Or et de Feu : Musée de Cluny until 10 January 2011

D’Or et de feu : L’Art en Slovaquie à la fin du Moyen Âge
(Of Gold and Fire : Art in Slovakia at the end of the Middle Ages

16 September 2010 – 10 January 2011

Those of us who grew up in Cold War Europe unavoidably have a somewhat skewed vision of the middle and eastern part of the continent. This is owing to the devastation wrought by the mind-boggling, indescribable horrors of the first half of the twentieth century followed by the Iron Curtain which then divided the continent for so many years. The nineteenth-century concept of Mittel-Europa—which brings to mind slightly ridiculous characters straight out of Chekhov, Kafka or Gogol—was followed by that of Eastern Europe : impoverished, oppressed, culturally non-existent except as manifested in the ponderous, backward-looking events of officially sanctioned culture. So it is always delightful to discover or re-discover that in other times, these countries not only were not the under-developed, far-flung borders of our world but were at the very heart of European civilization. This is made abundantly obvious in this small temporary exhibition dedicated to art in Slovakia at the end of the Middle Ages being held at the Musée national du Moyen-Âge ( National Museum of the Middle Ages, a.k.a. Musée de Cluny).

At the start of the exhibition, it is explained why Slovakia never appeared in any of the ancient maps of Europe : although a Slavic land, for centuries is actually was northern Hungary before becoming in the twentieth century the eastern half of what was then Czechoslovakia. With this information alone, one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle falls into place and helps both geographically and culturally to situate this country at the crossroads of Europe where Germanic, Magyar and Slavic currents intermingle, brought together by the presence of goldmines.

The exhibition is given over to religious art and includes works of painted and gilt wooden sculpture, paintings, goldsmith’s work and manuscripts. It is not a huge exhibition, but neither is it tiny : it takes up the entire frigidarium of the ancient Roman baths. (For those who are familiar with the Cluny museum, that is the very large room all the way at the end of the ground floor given over to Gallo-Roman sculpture and where the famous Pilier des nautes is on permanent display.) This is a real exhibition, not just a travelling display case.

The most remarkable works are the wooden sculptures : the Nativity of Hlohovec for instance combines the rather imposing figures of the Holy Family with charming, bucolic scenery depicted with a daring, quasi-cubist rendering of space and perspective. Whilst the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph appear in normal space, right above the latter’s head there is a whole landscape in which great liberties have been taken, one of which is to depict a hill-top meadow full of sheep seen from a directly vertical viewpoint, as if one were flying over them in a helicopter. As for the poor baby Jesus, he is ostensibly being cradled in a sort of hammock carried by angels, but in complete defiance of all the laws of gravity. Clearly there is something to be said for divinity and superseding the laws of Nature!

Some of the gilt wood draperies are a sheer delight for the eyes, and none more so than Master Paul of Levoča’s Crucified Christ : the billows of the loincloth catch and play magnificently with the light, providing a stunning contrast to the stiff, white, blood-drenched figure itself. (Another work by the same artist, the Crucifixion of Malé Ukrižovanie has a loincloth in a very different style forming two elegant, evenly draped and supremely decorative swags.)

The paintings are somewhat more uneven in their quality and no doubt this partly is owing to the diversity of their origins : in the late Middle-Ages, in Slovakia as elsewhere, works of art were not necessarily local creations. Sometimes artists would travel in response to a commission, sometimes the work would be created elsewhere then moved to the locale and sometimes, the principal figures would be commissioned from a famous master then inserted into a setting created by local artists.

The most remarkable painting in the exhibition is the Adoration of the Magi by Master MS, both for the unexpected use of sharply linear perspective in the background and for the vivacious and highly individualised rendering of the main figures in the foreground.

The few pieces of goldsmith’s work on display clearly demonstrate the links with Hungary, especially through the very characteristic shape of the chalices, some of which are of exquisite workmanship. The impressively large monstrance of Spišska Nová Ves (117 cm high, or if you prefer, 3ft 10in. Egad!) as well as some of the chalices, include decorative elements such as foliate scrollwork of remarkable vigour and naturalism, particularly when contrasted to the sometimes overwrought and overly fussy workmanship seen in some of the other European centres at the same time.

In a nutshell, this is a delightful exhibition that absolutely deserves a visit.

Monday 29 November 2010

The Apo-Something of the Sixth Arrondissement : Hermès

It is a consecration ; of that, there can be little doubt. Is it a welcome one? That is another question. Within a few days of each other, an entire neighbourhood has reached two significant milestones:
  1. On 19 November, Hermès opened its new shop at 17 Rue de Sèvres
  2. On Friday 26 November, it was officially announced that the average price of residential property in the 6th Arrondissement had breached the 10,000 euro per square-metre mark ; this comes to approximately US dollars 1,204 per square foot

The Arrival of Hermès

Those of you who have read Dana Thomas’s book Deluxe : How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, will already know that in her razor-sharp study of marketing and so-called ‘luxury’ brands, the only one for which she seems to have anything kind to say is Hermès owing to its attachment to its traditional standards of craftsmanship and materials. (If you have not read this book and if you are at all interested in fashion or the concept of luxury, I urge you to get your hands on it as quickly as possible. It is both frightening and fascinating.

There was something slightly disconcerting for me when I entered this new temple of hyper-luxury, which also houses the florist Baptiste. The last time I walked through those doors it was to submit to the swimming exam for my Brevet d’Études du Premier Cycle a.k.a. B.E.P.C.( a comprehensive exam that every schoolchild used to take at age 13). You see, the Hermès flagship-store on the Left Bank has taken over what once was the Lutétia swimming-pool, where my class would go for our weekly outing when I was a pupil on Rue Cler. (There is no connection with the Lutetia Hotel other than the name and the proximity.) Because the building is on the registry of historic monuments, Hermès’s architect Denis Montel had to work out how to come to terms with such a large, rather glacial space—notwithstanding the art-déco ironwork railings—whilst not being allowed to alter the overall structure. He came up with a happy solution, in the form of enormous inverted, reticulated conic structures of honey-coloured  wood, putting one in mind of virtual blast-furnaces or perhaps intergalactic lobster-traps. The warm tone of these structures successfully breaks up the somewhat sterile space without hiding it. The swimming-pool itself has been covered with a mosaic floor to create a large shop-floor (1500 m² , i.e. 16,500 sq. ft !) My only reservation : the tiers of galleries overlooking the former swimming-pool no longer serve any purpose and are still awaiting some brilliant idea as to how to integrate them part-and-parcel into a decorative scheme of some sort.

A Changing Neighbourhood

Hermès’s arrival strikes me as the fruition of a process, the beginning of which I symbolically place at the arrival of Dior in 1997, taking over the book-shop Le Divan at the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue de l’Abbaye. Admittedly, Cartier already had displaced the Raoul Vidal record shop and Armani had taken over the space where Le Drugstore had been... But to witness a venerable book-shop such as Le Divan, so intimately linked to the identity of a place, turn into the nth Dior shop was somehow disturbing, shocking even : the sense of a world that is passing, of a place that is forgetting itself, of a universe the priorities of which are calling out for re-ordering... (I remember a similar feeling when Scribner’s closed on New York’s Fifth Avenue : a sense of the irrevocable. That space now is occupied by a Sephora cosmetics shop.)

In the case of the new Hermès shop—perhaps because I am at best an indifferent swimmer—I must confess that I have no such regrets. Indeed, it is odd that the company waited so long to come scope out this side of the river. Although officially this is their 235th shop in the world, it is only their third shop in Paris, counting the Motsch shop on Avenue George V and not counting the temporary shop on the Rue de Grenelle. (Said shop, to put it bluntly, was about as well stocked as an Hermès duty-free shop in a regional airport : not much on offer other than the silk scarves, some wallets and all those belts with the ‘H’ buckle. (Who would have thought that there could be so many men named Hasdrupal, Hieronymus or Heliogabalus to buy all those belts ???)

The Highest Average Price for Property in Paris

For some time now the Sixth Arrondissment has had the highest average price per square-metre of residential property in Paris and one cannot but wonder that the heavy-hitters of ‘luxury’ marketing took so long to realise this. Could it be that they still thought they could detect a whiff of louche-ness about the area? It is true that for a very long time the Sixth Arrondissement thought of itself as a neighbourhood for artists and intellectuals, as opposed to the more ‘bourgeois’ 8th and 16th arrondissements. Still, back when there were three Le Drugstore in Paris (these were the forerunners of twenty-noughties bling), already one of them was on the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés (the other two were at either end of the Champs-Élysées). This just goes to show that already in 1965 the purchasing-power of the Left Bank was obvious to some. Except that during the 70s the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Drugstore was rumoured to be a meeting place for rent-boys and their clients. Be that as it may, the Sixth Arrondissement is now firmly settled in its ‘bourgeois’ mode : not only does it have the most expensive average price for residential property, but according to the manager of one shop located next to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, it also has the highest average revenue per square-metre of commercial property. Which explains the unending influx of prestigious brands looking for their chance to turn a profit on a street which is more and more coming to resemble an open-air shopping mall. At least Hermès has had the good taste to set itself apart from the crowd by settling on the Rue de Sèvres rather than on the Boulevard Saint-Germain itself. This may be owing to the difficulties of finding a large enough space to accommodate their shop, but it does lend the whole business an air of distinction and singularity which do it honour.

Apotheosis or Apocoloquintosis ?

Which leaves the fundamental question still unanswered : has the neighbourhood lost its soul ? Fortunately, there still are the little streets which are full of independent boutiques and designers or quirky multi-brand shops. For the moment at least, we enjoy the best of both worlds : the notoriety which the prestigious brands carry all the while sharing the urban fabric with other, more creative outlets for confirmed talents or some that have yet to be discovered. In this respect, one cannot forget to mention that directly across the street from the new Hermès shop is one of the Sixth Arrondissements truly grand institutions : the tailor Arnys. With a speciality in slightly dandified bespoke tailoring, and an almost secretive distribution network, the shop has been there since 1933 ; in a word, it was there even before the Lutetia swimming-pool which it has outlived. And that simple fact conjures up an entire world.

So, in answer to my question, ‘Apotheosis or apocoloquintosis ?’ I answer, a bit of both. The neighbourhood remains delightful to live in, especially its southern half, the part the estate-agents call the ‘family’ Sixth, with its food shops and markets. In a word, with its so very Parisien way of life.