What? You endured a four hour train ride, both ways, for lunch?
Oh, but what a lunch it was. This being the low-season for fine restaurants, the Etoiles d’Alsace is running their yearly Formules-Jeunes promotion, which means people under 35 can get a delectable two-star meal (and five courses worth of specially paired wines) for a mere 86 Euro.
Strangely enough, this exceptional opportunity was a bit of a hard sell to my companions — they were both ravenous by the time we stepped off the train, but our reservation was still an hour away. As we walked the streets of Strasbourg, enticing smells of choucroute and sausage threatened, siren-like, to sway them off our course. Sensing imminent disaster, I dragged them up to Strasbourg Cathedral as a distraction technique.
Nothing like a little Rayonnant Gothic architecture to stave off those hunger pangs! Well okay, maybe I’m the only person who finds old churches as engrossing as fabulous food, but my companions gamely played along.
Once inside, Jesus and a figure of Death helped us mark the minutes via an amazing astronomical clock:
The creepy little automatons were supposed to be preparing us for the final reckoning, I guess, but we were more interested in the lunch bell. Which brings us to…
Food! This velvety mushroom soup was one of a number of “amuse gueules” meant to get us in the mood for the real repast. Not strictly necessary, but definitely appreciated. After that, we moved onto a luscious slab of foie d’oie with mango chutney, a delicate yet firm carp with morels, and…
…a rich, delectable magret of duck served in blood sauce, for the gourmet vampire in everyone. Oh, and that little pastry? On the menu it was identified as a “Galette de Béatilles,” but we had no idea what béatilles were. Brumaire bravely asked the waiter, who responded by shrugging an pointing to his mid-section. Eventually we were able to determine that the pastry was stuffed with tiny morsels of duck’s heart and liver.
Whoops! My flash went off. Oh well, at least I got a nice photo of this red berry coulis topped with pistachio crumble. A lovely, palate cleansing combination of sweet, tart, and crunchy. And all that leads us to what was clearly the pièce de résistance:
Meringue glacée a l’Extrême. What was so extreme about it? Well for one thing, the meringue was dunked before our eyes into a silver bucket of “hautes liquides,” which Amanda translated as liquid nitrogen. Then a warm strawberry soup was ladled onto the flash frozen meringue, which caused the smoke you see in the photo. Better yet, Brumaire was quick to discover that if you exhaled with some of the dessert in your mouth, it made smoke come out your nose like a fire-breathing dragon. Talk about a showstopper! I think that poor little ball of litchi sorbet in the background was developing an inferiority complex.
After that came coffee and a few post-prandial snacks (which, sadly, I could not manage to force down my gullet).
All in all, a delightful meal, one that I would have no trouble rating among the top five of my life. But what really made it spectacular was something that can’t be captured on film or digital: the wine pairings. From the Moët et Chandon with the amuse gueules to the sweet yet complex Gewurztraminer accompanying the meringue, each course’s wine and food brought out the best characteristics of the other. The 1997 Domaine Saint Martin de la Garrigue with duck in blood sauce was particularly inspired.
If you’re interested, you can check out the full meal (with wine pairings) in my Strasbourg photo set.
*Never trust a restaurant’s own website. Despite the claim in the page title, Au Crocodile is a two-star restaurant. It hasn’t been a three-star since 2001.
Friday I joined what seemed like all of Paris for the David Lynch exhibit at the Fondation Cartier. Earlier in the week, I had prepared for this experience by seeing Lynch’s latest movie, Inland Empire, but I was somewhat disappointed to see that there wasn’t much relationship between the film and the exhibit. I guess, deep down inside, I’d been hoping that the exhibit might provide a key to making the movie a bit more comprehensible, but who was I kidding? This is Lynch we’re talking about: there will be no clues.
Instead, there were three or four big rooms full of paintings, drawings, and photos, mostly undated and unlabeled, but apparently drawn from Lynch’s entire creative lifespan. Of particular interest were the three long walls filled with many years’ worth of painstakingly archived doodles and sketches — for a man as visual as Lynch is, scanning his doodles feels almost like reading his diary. My personal favorite was a scrap of note paper on which was jotted: “Blue Velvet. Pleasant beginning, ear, nude woman, tumor on brain.” Ha!
As for the actual art works, they were more or less what you would expect: dark, creepy, incomprehensible, but with a strange Jungian undercurrent that makes everything feel like you might have seen it before in a dream. You know those psych tests people give kids sometimes, where they tell them to draw a tree, and a house, and Mommy and Daddy, and supposedly the shrink can tell if the kid’s being abused from what his drawings look like? If Lynch were a little kid, he’d be going straight into foster care.
This one, for example, is called “That’s Me in Front of My House.” Another, similar picture was labeled, “Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House.” The house shows up again in a painting labeled, “Oww God Mom The Dog He Bited Me!” I tell you, it gave me the jeeblies.
All in all, though, it was a pretty satisfying exhibit: as haunting and disconnected as your average Lynch movie, with the main advantage that, if things started getting dull or repetitive, you could just move a little faster toward the end.
Tuesday night I attended the opening of the Samuel Beckett exhibit at Pompidou. I have to admit, I was a bit curious what an exhibit about a writer was doing at a visual art museum, and well… I’m not sure I got a very good answer, other than this year happens to be the Centennial Samuel Beckett Festival, and Pompidou wanted in on the action.
The first part of the exhibit was devoted primarily to various artists’ interpretations of and riffs on Beckett’s work, and I found it a little haphazard and vague. Representations of mouths, bodies, skulls (see above) were supposed to hint at Beckett’s reductive, minimalist approach to the human condition, I guess. But while the pieces on display might have worked in a different context, next to a few pages of Beckett’s writing they seemed (as they were) derivative and a little banal.
Further along in the exhibit, however, Beckett’s own voice emerges in various teleplays and experimental films, and that part resonated with me a lot more. I particularly liked his 1964 collaboration with Buster Keaton on the themes of perception and concealment, plus the adorable (if puzzling) video projection of men running around a square in colored robes (sorry, it really defies description). And though I was too tired to properly appreciate it at the time, the prescient video piece “What Where” is still running through my mind days later.
All in all, it was a pretty challenging exhibit, and Beckett’s own work came off a lot better than any of the works he inspired (or was inspired by). Still, I don’t know that I would recommend the exhibit to someone who was completely unfamiliar with Beckett’s work, so you might want to brush up by reading En Attendant Godot before you go.
I’m not someone who is terribly moved by fancy jewelry. I remember being taken to see various Crown Jewels when I was a kid, and I was always disappointed — because it turns out that the largest, most famous, and most priceless jewels in the world basically look like big dull rocks.
But last week I nevertheless headed out to the Musee du Luxembourg to see the Lalique exhibit there, because Lalique is different. Rene Lalique didn’t believe in jewelry as a showcase for big, gaudy gemstones. His pieces are inspired by all the beauties of nature — animal and vegetable as well as mineral.
And for Lalique, this doesn’t just mean the pretty things, like roses and swans (although there are plenty of pieces based on those). He had an uncanny skill for creating rare and delicate works of beauty even out of coarse, filthy, or slimy elements of the natural world.
In principle, it seems like jewelry based on bats and bugs should be tacky monstrosities that only appeal to the Hot Topic set. But Lalique (despite working about a hundred years ago) makes all these elements seem fresh and new.
You can see a few more highlights from the exhibit here, or better yet, head over the the Musee du Luxembourg and see them for yourself.
* Photography is forbidden at the exhibit (nevermind what some old ladies with camera phones seemed to think). All images were photographed from the exhibit catalog.
There were a lot of strawberries at the market today, and I noticed that they were labeled “3 barquettes/3 Euro”, so I decided to get some for our lunch. Unfortunately, most of the strawberries looked a little dreary — dark and dull red, oversized, a little mushy. But then I spotted a few barquettes sitting apart from the others, and those looked a lot better! They were that bright, vibrant red I usually associate with wild strawberries, and they looked delicate and delectable when compared with the others.
I hoisted a barquette up to the grocer, but when he saw them, he shook his head. “Ce ne sont pas des fraises, mademoiselle,” he explained, and he pointed to a sign. Sure enough, the well-hidden sign indicated that the berries I had chosen were not strawberries, but something that begins with a G, which I have now completely forgotten.
Even more horrifying, these impostors were selling for 37 Euro/kilo!
With a mumbled “peut-etre pas,” I rushed to put the scary, expensive mystery fruits back where I’d found them, but the fruit-man stopped me. “Look,” he said. “They’re really very good — you should try them. I’ll let you have that barquette for 5 Euro.”
I chewed my lip — 5 euro is still a good deal more than I had meant to spend for strawberries. But they would go so nicely with the lunch I had planned… And that red!
Finally, I relented. And honestly, they are really good strawberries. Now I only wish I knew what they actually were.
It was nearly 11:00 last night, and a pleasant dinner out with friends was coming to a close. Or was it? Dessert dishes had been cleared away, coffee was being consumed, the evening’s witty banter was slowing gently under the influence of excellent food, wine and aperitifs. Any minute now, our waiter would discreetly drop off the check.
Wait, scratch that last. Because this, of course, is Europe, where checks never arrive unrequested, except at the shabbiest of cafes and restos. So, we begin the dance. The neck-craning, head-bobbing, seat-shifting, anything-to-get-the-waiter’s attention dance. And this, to me, is the weird thing: why do European waiters make you work so hard just to pay them?
Last night, our French friend weighed in on the subject. In America, he observed, the waiters are so quick to bring the check that he feels rushed, as if they are shooing you out the door in hopes of seating another customer. I understand this completely — I can see why dropping the bill on the table in the middle of dessert might strike some people as rude.
But that doesn’t explain why in France, a waiter who has been friendly, attentive, and solicitous throughout the meal suddenly becomes evasive and aloof when all I want to do is hand him money.
The French are certainly not the worst offenders when it comes to this coy avoidance technique. Once Brumaire and I were having lunch at a nice restaurant in Amsterdam: all through the meal, the waitress was at our side with helpful suggestions and explanations, and the service was impeccably prompt. But all that changed the minute we finished our digestif — we looked up to signal for the check, but the waitress had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. Seriously, she’d vanished into the kitchen after clearing our last plate and we didn’t see her for half an hour. Finally, mindful of an appointment with friends that we were in danger of missing, I got up and tapped on the kitchen door to get her attention.
I understand, no one wants to rush your meal or draw attention to the monetary exchange involved. But doesn’t this act get a little ridiculous at some point?
As usual, I have a feeling I’m missing some cultural key that would solve this little mystery. Is there a special code-word or signal that brings the check promptly? Is one supposed to request it while ordering coffee, before the waiter can escape? Or do I just need to get used to dawdling?