Thursday, April 26, 2012

Feeding Our Faces

We've gotten into the habit of shopping at the street market on Boulevard Raspail on Tuesday or Friday, a wonderful resource that took us a long time to realize was there, although it's only blocks away.  It's less pleasant in the rain, but between showers we get to cruise the stands and chat with the vendors.  The current crop of green and white asparagus is filling every stand and appearing on every restaurant menu.  They are delicious and seem to taste better than what we get at home.  It may be an illusion, but it may also be that what we find here is at the peak of its season and usually hasn't traveled farther than a few hundred kilometers to get to us.

Artichokes are also available, and winter vegetables remain, looking lovely if you can resist the asparagus.

And then there are the charcutiers, with prepared foods that tempt you to bag the idea of cooking and just put some of that paté en croute on the plate instead.

Uncooked but ready for the pan are these pieds de cochon, which I can't bring myself to try.  I once had a bite of someone else's dish and was repulsed by the gelatinous texture.  Maybe someday.

One Friday we came across a cooking class offered by the municipality, with three middle-aged women demonstrating a dish for three young ones, watching intently.  There was a video cameraman recording it all.  I have no idea what they were cooking.

We've been eating in restaurants as well, but not as often, since I seem to have finally gotten the hang of cooking in my very basic kitchen and this lousy weather keeps us indoors more.  We've discovered a couple of good new places on our side of the river, which is great, since all the restaurants in the hip 11th arrondissement require a long bus ride or a metro connection.

Just a couple of blocks away is Semilla, the latest venture of Juan Sanchez, the Cuban-American-now French owner of the wine store La Derniere Goutte and Fish restaurant, all within a few steps of each other.  This fried Camembert with apples was one of the small plates we tried.

Also nearby is Pizza Chic, a sleek Milanese-looking restaurant with delicious, if pricey, pizza.  Since French pizza is really odd as a rule, this authentic Italian spot is good to have at hand when the craving strikes.

Our favorite new spot on the Left Bank is Yannick Alleno's bistro Terrior Parisien.  I was too busy eating the delicious food to photograph it, but Alleno, the Michelin starred chef at le Meurice, wanted to  offer a locavore version of a bistro, sourcing from the Ile-de -France, the region in which Paris is located, where possible and reproducing traditional local dishes, also where possible.  It's not a strict policy, but nice to know that your food hasn't been trucked or flown from other continents to get to your plate.

It's a very pretty modern spot and a reservation is going to be hard to come by soon.  Luckily it's open all day, everyday.

We haven't abandoned the Right Bank, dropping in to the Verjus vine bar for a glass or two accompanied by the really fabulous small plates Braden sends down from the kitchen of the restaurant upstairs.  Have I already mentioned the best fried chicken I've ever had?  And the broccoli with Korean rice cakes and anchovy?  The choice gets bigger towards the end of the week when the creative process in the kitchen is on a roll.  Yum.

And last night be found ourselves in the 11th again, at, of all things, a Tiki Bar.  A cocktail party organized by Forest Collins of was jammed with people drinking Mai Tais and Mojitos, not something we'd ever come across before in Paris.  But after a couple of those we needed some food and decided to try something that had been suggested to us by Daniel Rose of Spring.  We dropped by that restaurant at about 9:45 and asked if we could have just one dish, rather than the multi-course menu typically served there.

There was a free table, we were told of course we could have what ever we wanted and we wound up with one of the best meals we could have desired.  And since Daniel can't bear to see people without his sterling food in front of them, some oysters topped with a green gelée and later some grilled asparagus with trout eggs appeared on the table.  God, I love that place.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Plus Ça Change

Yesterday was the first round of the French presidential election and the man in the picture came in first.  François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate got about 28.5 percent of the vote versus his closest challenger, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy of the "center right" UMP, who garnered about 26 percent. Here's an interactive map of how the vote was distributed across France.

The surprise of the election however was Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate of the Front National, who managed to win just under 20 percent of the vote, putting her in a strong position to influence the runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy two weeks from now, as well as the legislative elections in June.  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Front de Gauche, composed mainly of what's left of the French Communist Party, won fewer votes than expected, with a final count of about 11 percent.

Pre-election predictions had assumed about equal numbers of voters for Le Pen and for Mélenchon as a result of the general dissatisfaction with the major party candidates, and Le Pen's huge lead makes her an increasingly important player in French politics.

In the 2002 election Marine Le Pen's father, a far-right wing super-nationalist, made it into the runoff because many voters expressed their dissatisfaction with both major candidates by either staying home or voting for someone considered impossible to win.  Frightened by what they had done, voters turned out en masse for the second round of voting and elected Jacques Chirac in a landslide.

Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the party from her father and has put a prettier face on their program, but it's still reminiscent of the US right wing in its anti-immigrant, back to the security of yesteryear stance.  Appealing to many who see little difference between the major candidates, this Le Pen vote is different than 2002.

We were invited to an election party by a friend who publishes a magazine that leans rightward politically and I got into a bit of an argument with another guest about just how dangerous Marine Le Pen really is.  She strikes me as a stealth demagogue, the kind of politician to whom people turn to lead them in difficult economic times because she promises a return to security and glory.

To me the Front National bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Marechal Petain and the collaborationist Vichy government.  The person with whom I was discussing this insisted that as an American I couldn't really understand French politics.  I hope that's true.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What the Heck?

In the couple of hours I've been sitting under the glass roof of our kitchen on this lazy Sunday morning, the sun has shone, there's been a quick but pounding rainstorm, sun again, enough to make me think maybe going to the flea market would have been a good idea after all, clouds, and more rain.  But come on now, weather gods!  I draw the line at those little frozen bits hitting the glass as I type...HAIL?!

I'm waiting for the rest of the plagues now.  Oh wait, there's the sun again...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Visiting the Past

Even the statuary has noticed how damp it's been lately and someone was kind enough to offer this gentilhomme an umbrella.  I guess it's typical March weather, but the gods must have gotten confused; March was balmy and summer-like, while April is being like March was supposed to be.

Global warming has managed to make historical weather charts irrelevant.  Nothing is like it used to be, anywhere.

The other night we were invited to dinner at the Marais home of some new friends and hopped on a bus to get us across town.  The bus was crowded and although we found seats they were separated; as I turned to call to Gene to let him know we had to get off at the next stop someone tapped me on the shoulder. Thinking I'd been too loud, I turned and friend O.  What are the chances that on any given bus someone I know would be sitting behind me?  And someone who never, never, takes buses because she's one of the diehard car drivers in Paris.  And someone who is getting off at the same stop to go to a vernissage of a painter friend?

We kissed and promised to get together soon and went on to dinner.  G. and Other O. live in an 18th century building with a winding stair to the stunning 30 ft long salon which is their studio.  The high ceilings are hung with chandeliers that they haven't electrified and so we dined with light from lots of candles and felt very romantic.  Yes, they do have lamps and live in the 21st century but we loved the experience they provided for us, a taste of what it must have been like in Paris 300 years ago.

Luckily when we left the street outside had sidewalks, there was no garbage or horse manure in the road and we saw no rats or beggars.  Not exactly like the 18th century.  And there was a taxi.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Art Again

We saw the big Matisse exhibition at the Centre Pompidou the other day and were lucky to find it not jammed with visitors so we could really look at the work.  The point of this show is that Matisse often worked by repeating the same subject in different ways over a short period of time, feeling his way through what he wanted to say.  Most of the work is hung in pairs; we had sometimes seen one of them before in a museum, but seeing them in pairs or series offered new insight.  We enjoyed it a lot.

I also got a kick from the commentary outside the exhibition.  The statement above sounds as if his birth was so traumatic he had to convalesce for a very long time.

Photography was interdit inside the exhibition, so I took advantage of the shifting clouds to take pictures outside.  Sacre Coeur is always a grand sight from the terraces of the Pompidou.

You can also see La Defense in the west.  The Grande Arche is in the center distance, with the Arc de Triomphe visible on the left.

And of course the Eiffel Tower way off.

Closer is the enormous sloping place below, where the hide-and-seek sun casts the occasional shadow from the people walking across.

The top terrace of the building is the site of Georges, a once chic restaurant now mostly filled with tourists relaxing after a hard day of art viewing.  

Inside the museum, aside from the special exhibitions, is a permanent collection of modern and contemporary art set in the famous "inside out" building, its innards exposed rather than hidden behind the walls.

We were struck by the reception room designed for the Elyseé Palace of President Mitterrand and even more by the visitor looking at it, who seemed to have been designed as part of it.

And an interesting piece by a Czech artist whose name I can't recall consisted of words strung across a room, forming a story that made you want to know more.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Damp Days and Politics

Spring surprises you.  You wake in the morning to what looks like a sunny day and within ten minutes clouds have obscured the sun and the sky looks threatening.  Umbrella in hand, you go out into the street ready for a thunderstorm, which rarely comes.

Instead the sun peeks out again for two minutes, only to be immediately shaded once again by a bank of black clouds.

Metaphorical black clouds are all around as well.  This is the last week before the first round of voting in the presidential election in France.  No one, no one, I have spoken with is happy with any of the candidates.  There are ten, but the four who are expected to influence the final decision are Nicholas Sarkozy, the incumbent on the right, François Hollande, the Socialist, Jean-Luc Melanchon, the far left, and Marine le Pen, the far right.

Hollande became the Socialist candidate after the expected candidacy of Dominique Strauss-Kahn crashed and burned.  Hollande is viewed here as soft, not a real leader, but a change from the mercurial and not well-liked Sarkozy, who is seen as headstrong and powerful.  Hollande vows to raise taxes on the highest earners, end tax havens and cap bonuses, rehire teachers, and expand government jobs, while Sarkozy plans to cut immigration even more, reduce government jobs and freeze France's contribution to the EU.

Sarkozy hopes to attract Le Pen supporters and has been trending even more right than usual (echoes of the Tea Party, anyone?)  while Hollande has been uncomfortably pushed by the unexpectedly strong showing of the charismatic Melanchon, who has the support of what remains here of the once powerful Communists and of many working class leftists in contrast to the gauche caviar or intellectual left of Hollande.

The polls still show Hollande likely to beat Sarkozy in the second round in early May, but they're narrowing.  Most voters I've spoken with don't have high hopes for economic improvement in any case.  They're holding their noses and voting for the lesser of the available evils.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Easter Flea

Six days a week there's an excellent food market at the Place d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement, but on Mondays they're closed.  Last Monday however was a holiday, Lundi Pâques, and the Place was hosting a brocante rather than vegetables and cheeses.

A brocante is a moving flea market, usually organized by one of the brocante associations which charge the vendors for a spot.  They can be upscale or not, primarily junk or full of treasures; one never knows.  Well, that's not exactly true since you can sometimes tell by the neighborhood.  In upscale arrondissements they skew a bit higher and vice versa.  The 12th is working class for the most part, but getting hipper, so a score was possible.

Sometimes it takes a connaisseur (Digression: this word looked odd to me as I typed and I looked it up.  This is the correct spelling in French and comes from the word 'connaitre' : to know.  In English this French word is spelled connoisseur...why?  It may come from Middle-French connoistre.  End of digression.) to tell the difference between worthless plastic and collectible Bakelite; I am not that person.

I did like the clown however.

And our friend Margot helped us by trying out the lawn furniture that looked exactly like what Great-Aunt Tillie had on the front lawn back in the day.

The sky threatened rain most of the afternoon and the vendors kept shifting the merchandise to try to protect it from the occasional drizzle.

This was a particular problem for the booksellers, but they didn't seem to concerned based on the disorganized mess they had spread out on the makeshift tables.

Having managed to avoid temptation at the brocante we decided to give in to it at the nearby wine bar, Le Baron Rouge.

The list of available wines covered a not inconsiderable wall and for those of their customers who wanted to take some wine home, they offered plastic billycans to fill at prices like E3.50 per liter.  How can you refuse a deal like that?  We're planning to come back someday when they have oysters being shucked out front to go with the wine.

Monday, April 9, 2012

April in Paris, Waiting for Sunshine

The sky has turned gray lately and the bright taste of spring we arrived to has turned ashen.  The air looks like it's wet, although very little rain is actually falling.

I've been noticing how straight-lined things appear, how clipped and arranged.  A walk home from the Jeu de Paume museum through the Tuileries gardens emphasized that the only curves come from the statuary tucked among the trees. Until you get to the shallow bassin that in summer is full of brightly colored boats but now just has chairs pulled up around it to allow bundled up walkers a brief respite.

Looking off into the middle distance the Eiffel Tower looks like it's hidden behind theatrical scrims, just waiting for the curtain to lift on the show.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Passing Through

This is as close as we're going to get to Easter, an idiosyncratic little display in the window of a tiny old-timey shop selling beads, doll parts, and just stuff in the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement.  We had to go to the UPS store on rue Réaumur and then remembered the little enclave of passages just north of there when we wondered where to have lunch.

The clientele for most of these shops and restaurants are neighborhood working people, but in the last few years some of the restaurants at least have been getting fancier, or at least well-known, and Passage 53 now has two Michelin stars and is quite pricey.  We were looking more in the wine bar category and had heard of Coinstot Vin as being good value. 

Checking out the rest of the passage though brought us to this other kind of bar.

Opened just a few months ago by the Passage 53 people, they serve, you guessed it, gyoza.  And nothing but.  Ooops, I lie, you can get a bowl of rice to round out your meal and some canned drinks, including two kinds of tea.  No hot tea, no sushi, no anything else.

The marinated bamboo shoots come with the meal, which is either eight gyoza for E6 or 12 gyoza for E8.  You sit at a bar with 11 other people, wait patiently for the delicious gyoza filled with pork from one of Paris' best butchers and a citrus-y dipping sauce, eat, pay and go.  Simple, fast, and popular, judging from the line of people waiting when we left.  They do take-out too.

We'll have to try Coinstot Vin another time.