Category: artsy-fartsy

Object Relations No. 3 & 4: The Ryder and Indiana University Cinema

Moving from Paris to Indiana the past fall (see also: the things we do for love), one of the things I expected to mourn the most was my film-going. You see, I spent rather a lot of time at the movies in the past two years, watching the sort of thing that one rarely sees on the big screen in America outside of New York or Los Angeles. I started reading Cahiers du Cinèma. Wednesdays were my favorite day of the week, because it meant a new Pariscope to obsessively scour with a highlighter.  Basically I became a low-down, dirty little cinéphile, and I had friends and a city to support my habit. There may or may not have been weeping during my final viewing of Quartier Lacan at Accattone. Okay, there was definitely weeping, but that wasn’t really all that strange for that place.

So you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in Bloomington at the discovery that this is a town of serious film-going folks, small though their numbers may be. So serious, in fact, that about twenty-five years ago a group of them founded The Ryder film series and magazine. The Ryder screens independent, foreign-language, and revival films at a variety of venues around town. Many of these locations serve booze, making them aces in my book. The Ryder also publishes a free magazine available on nearly every corner around campus, which also covers about local theatre, opera, concerts, and lectures in addition to film. For those of you that wince whenever the cashier at the megaplex asks you to fork over eleven bucks for a movie, the price is oh-so-right at The Ryder.  And they conduct free-ticket lotteries at the beginning of every feature, so sometimes your next movie is on the house! Because of the relatively transient nature of the operation, everything is screened digitally, which has its drawbacks, and sometimes the projection quality isn’t great. But for many newish independent films they are the only game in town, and you’ve got to respect that the operation is likely a labor of love for a few individuals who saw an absence in their community and devoted themselves to filling it.  It’s a pretty fantastic thing, and it doesn’t happen very much anymore, especially in the arts. The Ryder is proof positive that you don’t need an enormous budget to dramatically increase the number of independent and foreign films available to a community, just the long-term commitment of people who care enough about such things to make it happen.

Speaking of commitment to film, following his 2009 appointment as Indiana University President, Michael McRobbie (a hard-core cinéphile if I’ve ever seen one) promised to fund the construction and maintenance of a world-class cinema facility on the university campus. He called it a much-deserved “place for film” for a university and town that had long shown an interest in the medium. And while presidents of all stripes often make big promises when they are taking office that end up moldering on the shelf, this particular president actually put his money where his mouth was. Appointing Jon Vickers as full-time director in 2010, the IU Cinema facility opened in the former space the university theatre in January of 2011. Most universities can’t even replace a broken photocopier that quickly. The space is exquisite, incorporating several 1933 Thomas Hart Benton murals from the original space with one of only 10 THX-certified university cinemas in the country. Thanks to unique collaboration with Sony, the IU Cinema boasts 16mm and 35mm film and Barco 2K and 4K digital projection equipment, and a Dolby sound system that makes you gasp.

It’s a magnificent facility, but it is really Vicker’s continuous programming that makes it sing. As their website can rightfully boast, IU Cinema hosts “film premieres and rare archival screenings, film festivals, conferences, filmmaker retrospectives and silent films accompanied by live music.” This year alone I was able to see everything from Los Olvidados to The Kid, Juliet of the Spirits to Ran, Agnès Varda shorts to Psycho. I watched films from the Australia in the 1970s series, the East Asian Film series, and New Trends in Contemporary Italian Cinema. Thanks to the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series, I was able to attend lectures and film series by Chuck Workman, John Sayles, Monica Treut, and Whit Stillman this year. IU also periodically screens recent independent and foreign releases, so we were able to see movies like A Separation and Melancholia within a month or two of their release; no small thing once you get into the bowels of Southern Indiana. Next fall, they are (wait for it) hosting Werner Herzog. This news has resulted in our new favorite game: speculating on where we would take Herzog when he comes to visit Bloomington in the fall, if we were going to be in Indiana in the fall (we aren’t), and if somebody trusted us to be his chaperones (they wouldn’t). In my fantasy, the one other person in town who voted for Cobra Verde at the IU cinema can join me and Wern when we go to the quarries. In the meantime, doing Herzog impressions around town will have to suffice.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the year came when Michael McRobbie was introducing Solaris, one of the films he had specifically selected for his “President’s Choice” series. I know, I know, a university president who loves Tarkofsky! Crazy! He spoke about how establishing a serious venue for cinema on campus was not only an institutional improvement for the university’s reputation, but also an important gift to the community that this university inhabits. In an age of economic downturn and the rape and pillage nationally of public universities, it’s a rare thing for a university adminstrator to acknowledge the imbrication between the university space and the community, and the responsibility that both have to each another for cultural enrichment.

The Ryder’s showtime schedule can be found at theryder.org. Their films are screened at Bear’s Place, the IU Fine Arts Theatres, FARM Restaurant, or the Buskirk Chumley, with outdoor screenings in the summer at Bryan Park. Tickets are $5 for everybody. Food and drinks are available for purchase at the Bear’s Place and FARM screenings. Students beware, you must be 21 to enter screenings at Bear’s Place.

The IU Cinema’s schedule can be found at www.cinema.indiana.edu, along with excellent podcasts.  Ticket prices vary, but many events are free to the public. However, the Cinema requires that you pick up tickets for all screenings, even the free ones. Tickets for first-run and popular films often run out weeks in advance. You can pick up tickets at the IU Auditorium Box Office, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday or online at the cinema website. Tickets are available on the first day of the month of the screening, so we made a habit of planning our film-going in advance and getting our tickets all at once. A box office in the cinema lobby is also open 30 minutes prior to any screening and a standby line forms there, but again, the early bird gets the worm.

London Calling!

When my mother and I began planning our five-day sojourn to London in May, I immediately began researching restaurants like it was my goddamn job. It was a first time visit for both of us, and I live in some kind of irrational terror about not knowing where to eat in a new location and ending up overpaying for tourist grub. It’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole when it comes to London restaurant reviews – it’s obviously a first-rate foodie town with review ink spilled to match. I read about all kinds of super-bobo things like “gastropubs” and “locavore menus” and something that people were calling “the St. John diaspora,” apparently with a perfectly straight face. Part of me was a bit skeptical about the heavy-duty language that seemed to align itself with a cuisine that I always suspected was bland city. The fact is that no matter how many times I had heard that London was the new culinary center of the world, I just couldn’t believe that a nation that consumed  potatoes in that many different iterations could possibly on the new wave of progressive cooking.But I’m still a restaurant researching fiend, so I did a lot of homework (and made a lot of reservations) before we arrived in London.

Much to my surprise, London really is all that it’s cracked up to be from a culinary point of view. I will seem like the ultimate Paris traitor in saying this, but London really does have the monopoly at this point on beautifully simple, seasonal ingredient-driven cooking that draws on the rich international community who inhabit the city. Libelous as it may seem given my current digs, visiting London was like waking up in an Technicolor dreamscape of exquisite produce and fish and meat. Locally sourcing ingredients has obviously become de rigeur in London, as has providing comprehensive lists of where ingredients originated on menus. London is basically how I imagine West Coast cooking in the US will look in about a decade. And while all of this is obviously the product of a lot of food-obsessed people with a lot more money to put where their mouths are, it has trickled down into even the most basic sorts of fast-food lunch spots around town.  I was flat-out amazed by the quality of the food at places like Prêt à Manger and Eat, chains that are as ubiqutous as Panera in the States or Bonne Journee in Paris, yet manage to be about a hundred times more ethically sourced and delicious than their American and French counterparts.  And I know that as Americans we are always getting pounded sideways by the dollar/pound conversion, but I was geniunely surprised by the reasonable prices on food in the UK.  Even my mother, who, um, was footing the bill pointed out the radical discrepancy between the cost of eating in Paris at a place like Rino and some of the spendier places we dined at in London, namely that you can get a lot more bang for your buck in London. I particularly loved the democratic feel of dining out in London, where suits mixed with totally casual duds, white tablecloths were rare (if not totally absent), servers were almost irrationally friendly, and you can make reservations just about anywhere online. I hate talking on the phone with strangers. I love being able to make reservations online, puzzling over the best time slot for as long as I need to in crafting the perfect eating itinerary. London is this obsessive deliberator’s fantasy city as far as that is concerned.

So where’d we eat, you may ask? In fact, my dearest J and B did ask me recently, as they are visiting cute-as-all-get-out niece and nephew in London this coming month.  So for them, and for all of my other dear readers, here are some highlights, in chronological order:

Electric Brasserie (191 Portobello Road, Subway Ladbroke Grove) was our first stop after taking the Eurostar from Paris and checking in at our quirky, if un-recommendable accomidations in Notting Hill. It’s as hip as they come and attached to an interesting-sounding cinema, balancing a slightly formal dining room with an outdoor patio that is quite popular with locals that camp out for hours on end. As we were feeling a kind of “when in Rome” vibe, we both ordered the fish and chips with mushy peas and homemade tartar sauce. Oh man, did this ruin me for all future versions of this dish.  The cod was perfectly cooked, just the right amount of crispy and greasy on the outside and flaky and moist on the inside.  The mushy peas were super-sweet and tasted of spring. And that tartar sauce was sexy enough to slather all over your lover. The rest of the menu looked dreamy as well, and would pair delightfully with a date-night movie at the Electric Cinema (not that I’m already planning date nights for when I live in London or anything foolish like that.  Ahem).

Dinner on our first night was at the original location of St. John (26 St. John Street, Subway Farringdon), the gastropub that apparently started it all.  I made reservations about a month in advance online, and it was evident by the smirk on the hostesses face when the guy in front of us asked if they had any availability that night that reservations are a must and a half here.  Our server actually continually reminded us of our good fortune to be eating at St. John, not in an ugly way, but in a “well, of course you should order some Welsh rarebit, you’re HERE after all!” kind of way. It was actually quite charming, so we did.

We also ordered the roasted beef bone marrow with parsley, onion, and caper salad served with toast. Mama L was skeptical about spreading marrow on bread, but the look on her face was pure complicit joy at first bite.

Our main courses were roasted lamb and fennel, which was quite possibly one of the most amazingly gamey-while-delicious cuts of meat I’ve ever encountered and pigeon with lentils (slightly bloodier than I usually like my pigeon, but maybe I’m in the wrong on that one). Either way, both were completely amazing, if a total departure from the oft-fussiness of high-end Parisian cuisine.

The next day we spent a lovely morning at the Tate Modern and decided to duck in to their museum restaurant before heading over to the Globe Theatre for an afternoon matinee of Much Ado About Nothing, an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone of either a theatrical, touristical, or human disposition.  The restaurant at the Tate Modern was a totally yummy surprise, with an inventive menu with all-artisinal ingredients (the tomato chutney, the cheese, and the beef on my burger had homey-sounding names) and an excellent booze list. Yes, I drink and go to museums.  Sue me. I got to sample my first-ever Scottish Brew Dog Trashy Blonde beer, which was a welcome change from the beer-desert I live in here in Paris (cue world’s tiniest violin, I know).  Mama L had a vaguely Middle-Eastern platter of roasted vegetables, hummus, and salad, because she felt that we had eaten too much meat the previous evening and needed a reprieve.  Amateur.

Our third night, we followed the “St. John diaspora” (snort) and decided to try Hereford Road (3 Hereford Road, Subway: Notting Hill Gate), a relatively new space from the former chef at St. John Bread and Wine, Tom Pemberton.  I’m going to just go ahead and say it:  we liked it even better than St. John.  The space is beautifully designed with an enormous circular skylight in the main dining area. The staff is thoughtful and articulate about the food and wine. And the food, while simple and unfussy, is gutsy and delicious and traditional while also being totally out-of-the-box.  To start, Mama L had an exquisite spinach, bacon, and seared scallop salad. Don’t you love it when a simple scallop screams “Whoever cooked me is a total artist!”? I sure do:

I began with a Meantime Pilsner (yum!) and the potted crab, a dish which I’ll admit I had never heard of before that night. Consider me schooled: potted crab is just about the most decadent fat-kid concoction you can imagine, pairing fuss-free crab claw meat with drawn butter and toast. I could literally eat this every single day for the rest of my life and live a warm and happy existence:

For our main courses, I tucked in to a serious slab of pork belly served with a sweet broth and some game-changing zucchini. I’m not kidding, this zucchini transformed everything I ever believed about zucchini.

My mama took one bite, and another, and another, until I actually had to bat her fork away from my precious vegetable side dish. It was that good. Mama L had braised rabbit with fennel and a healthy scoop of aioli. She took a bite, closed her eyes, and said “My goodness, London has sure changed my opinion of fennel.” Clarence’s mama WOULD have “an opinion about fennel,” wouldn’t she?

For dessert, we shared an Eton Mess. Like many Americans, I had heard of Eton Mess but didn’t have a clue what it comprised. At Hereford Road it’s a mix of fresh sweet strawberries, candied rhubarb, and bits of meringue cookie smothered in whipped cream. It’s the kind of thing that I imagine might give a schoolboy a serious sugar high.

Our final culinary destination was Ottolenghi (several different locations, but we ate at the restaurant in Islington at 287 Upper Street, Subway Highbury & Islington). I’ll be frank, I am straight-up, fan-girl obsessed with chef Yotam Ottolenghi since “discovering” his genius Guardian column The New Vegetarian. So obsessed, in fact, that I’m seriously contemplating using his amazing sensibility as a framework for revamping my cooking to include more veggie-centric meals. Take the best vegetarian (or, at the restaurant, vegetable-driven) dishes you’ve ever had or imagined you could have, then multiply it by about a thousand. That’s how good this man’s food is.  Mama L went back to the States and promptly ordered his cookbooks. I would die a happy, smug vegetarian if Ottolenghi was my personal chef.

The dinner menu at Ottolenghi is made of two sections:  from the counter and from the kitchen.  Everything is a small plate meant to be shared, and the servers recommend that you order a mix of plates from the counter (usually cold, and served more or less immediately) and from the kitchen (hot dishes that take a little bit longer to arrive). Our server recommended five dishes between two people, which was exactly the perfect amount with dessert.  Our dishes from the counter were barley and farro with asparagus, feta, preserved lemon, green peas, and pink peppercorn (left) and roasted aubergine (eggplant) with apricot and ginger yoghurt, spiced pumpkin seeds, chili and sumac (right), served with the most orgasmic selection of bread I’ve seen in awhile:

Plus a char-grilled courgette (zuchini for you Yanks out there) with Parmesean, chervil, pistachio, and truffle oil, which will have you putting Parmesean and truffle oil on every vegetable that comes out of our kitchen, trust me.

From the kitchen, we ordered a pan-fried sea bass with garlic crisps and a mixed mushroom, seaweed, and truffle oil salad.  While the sea bass was as perfect as can be, the real star of the show was the seaweed salad:  tangy-sweet, tender, and umami to the max. My mom, never before a fan of seaweed salad, declared herself a convert.

Our second dish from the kitchen was smoked lamb cutlets with miso burt aubergine, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, and jalapeño sauce. Again, the lamb was great, but the vegetable accoutrements were the real breakout stars.  I want to take a bath in this bright green jalapeño puree:

For dessert, we split a slice of amazing carrot cake, and on the way out we bought two “granola bars” (let’s just say that these are unlike any granola bars I’ve ever eaten before) for our travels the next day.  Mama L said Heathrow airport looked a hellava lot nicer at five a.m when paired with a hot cup of coffee and an Ottolenghi granola bar.

So the food was great and unpretentious, the museums are mostly free, the people are absurdly friendly, and the public transportation wasn’t nearly as confusing as everyone made it out to be.  Other things I’d totally recommend you do in London (besides the stuff you are already probably going to do) include visiting the Freud Muesum and the Esorick Collection of Modern Italian Art (both fascinating and largely empty) and taking a nice long stroll along the Canal or inside the Hampstead Heath. I’d also recommend, especially in the summer, a classic Pimm’s cup (for the uninitiated, it’s a refreshing combination booze, sparkling lemonade, cucumbers, berries, apples, citrus, and borage or mint). I had mine at the excellent-looking The Bull and Last (168 Highgate Road, Subway Tufnell Park), where among other things, they have a delicious sounding dog snack menu. I’m pretty emphatically sold on London – now all I’ve got to do is convince B that it is an excellent setting for our future adventures.

Speaking of B, I told you a few weeks ago that I had a big announcement to make.  Well, here it is:  I’m leaving France at the end of this month as expected, but instead of heading back to Southern California, I am moving to Indiana for a year (and I don’t mean the Tex-Mex restaurant chain in Paris). B’s got some coursework to finish and a teaching gig there, you see, and I’m in desparate need of a place free of distractions with a university library for my year of fellowship-funded dissertation-writing. I know a lot of you will be taking me off your regularly scheduled blog programming without the “Paris-factor” (and I don’t blame you) but I hope that you’ll still keep stopping by for the crêpes-to-cornfields chapter of my life. We’ve got big plans, you see, including a Bourbon tour of Kentucky, a pulled-pork orgy in Memphis, and lots and lots of home-cooking. I’ve been chomping at the bit to start some smelly home-fermentation projects (can anyone say “homemade kimchee and sauerkraut”) that B has prohibited me from beginning in our tiny Parisian apartment. Moreover we’ve got Amish farms to visit, fruit to pluck, and an entire Larousse Gastronomique to work our way through in a Bloomington kitchen. What I’m saying is that I hope you’ll stick around for the ride. I’ll bribe you with some Best Of Paris entries soon, that is, when I can stop my current cycle of pre-packing, compulsive shopping at Dehillerin, charcuterie-eating, and weeping. I hope you are happy and staying cool this summer, dearest reader.  As always, you’re looking lovely.

Clarence Goes to Brunch: Rose Bakery, Le Bal Café, and Marcel

When I first lived in Paris for a semester back in 2002, I stayed with a lovely family in a very residential part of the 17th arrondissement.  My memory of Sundays in that part of town is pretty bleak, with all restaurants and shops closed and tumbleweeds rolling across the streets. After ending up at the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysées on more than a few Sundays, I became an obsessive Saturday market shopper. Better to have a full fridge than starve on Sundays, I reasoned. So you can imagine my surprise when I moved in to my Marais apartment a year and a half ago and discovered that my new neighborhood was quite the bustling affair on Sundays.  It is literally as if someone sent out a city-wide memo saying that the areas around my street is the only place to be on a lazy Sunday.

I joke a bit – there are many neighborhoods around Paris that have finally gotten with the program on Sundays, much to the delight of the people that live here and the people that visit. You’ll still be hard-pressed to do much shopping on Sundays, and the grocery stores that tend to be open in central Paris aren’t usually the nicest ones. But increasingly restaurants are offering something new and exciting:  American-style Sunday Brunch!

I’ve been unabashed here before in declaring that I love all things brunch. Fancy brunch, buffet brunch, boozy brunch, greasy spoon brunch – you name it, I’m in. Paris was remarkably slow to catch on to brunch as a concept, especially compared to cities like New York or Berlin where there has been veritable brunch culture for decades. While there are a lot of great places for brunch in Paris, you should be prepared for a few things. Number one, brunch isn’t nearly as boozy an affair as it is in the States. Remember all the things we’ve said about the French and their inability to make proper cocktails and their phobias concerning spicy food? This means that if brunch for you means Bloody Marys (let’s hang out!), you’ll probably be disappointed. Number two, if buffet brunches are your bag (hey Berlin readers!) be prepared to drop a serious chunk of change for a likely underwhelming spread. None of this delightful Kreuzberg nonsense where you pay eight euros and eat lox and mackerel rolls until you can’t move. We’re talking 28 euros a head without the coffee here in Paris, and the turnover you might expect in the cheese/charcuterie/smoked fish/cocktail shrimp platters is never quite what you hope it will be. I’m a buffet brunch strategist, dear reader, and you’ll never catch me filling up on bread.

Those caveats aside, you can certainly get a great bite to eat with friends on a leisurely Sunday morning these days in Paris, France. I say morning because the French seriously can’t imagine showing up to a restaurant on a Sunday before noon. Arriving at 11:30 at any of the places I’m about to name will secure you a large, handsome table by the window or the good-looking stranger reading the newspaper (FYI, he’s probably British).  Arriving at 12:03 will mean a long, testy wait in a line stretching down the block, likely in the rain, because that’s how those things always work out, am I right? This is seriously the best advice I can possibly give you about dining out in Paris.  Get to brunch at 11:30 a.m. (or noon on the nose, as many places offering “brunch” aren’t open in the morning) and dinner at 7:45 p.m. and you’ll rarely have trouble getting a table, even at the most popular places. The French are ridiculously rigid about their eating schedule, and you’re not. Have a leisurely drink from your prime table, watch the impatient cue form, and revel in all the wisdom that Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background has brought to your life.  You’re welcome.

Another strategy for a great brunch is to frequent the handful of establishments run by British ex-pats in town.  Rose Bakery (I like their Marais location at 30 Rue Debelleyme, 75003 Paris, Métro Filles du Calvaire, but they now have three locations around Paris) is the mamma of this movement. Husband and wife team Jean-Charles and Rose Carrarini started it all in a tiny space in Montmartre, where they dish up market-fresh salad plates, vegetable pizzettes, and savory tartes alongside egg-based dishes and yummy baked goods on the weekends. There is probably no space that could be better described as ground zero of bobo chic in Paris than their second location in the Marais, which I like because it has a bit more seating in a brightly lit space with a ceiling of ancient whitewashed wood beams. I’m not a tea-drinker, but I’m told that these Brits know how to properly brew a cup of tea (something my English friends are constantly complaining about in Paris). My favorite part: the fruit crumble of the day, served piping hot from the oven with a generous bowl of crème anglaise. Last week when I visited this little beauty was filled with tart rhubarb and sweet apples. One serving is a hearty dessert for three people. I’d call this and a cup of tea a nearly perfect lazy afternoon.

English breakfast traditionalists should head to the delightful Le Bal Café (6 Impasse de la Défense, 75018 Paris, Métro Place de Clichy) housed in the amazing contemporary art space of the same name.  After you take a leisurely brunch in the achingly hip cafe, you can an afternoon of it by visiting the current exhibition (currently a wonderful photography show featuring heartstopping work by Emmet Gowin and Alessandra Sanguinetti) and browsing the carefully curated bookshop.

Run by Willi’s Wine Bar veterans Anselme Blayney et Ivan Kouzmine, Le Bal Café will scratch every English breakfast itch you might have in style with its sausage rolls, Welsh rarebit, kippers with toast, kedgeree, and of course a “classic English breakfast” with over-easy eggs, crisp bacon, and tomatoes. The clear winner at Le Bal, however, is their amazing scones, which will make a convert out of even the most scone-skeptical (yours truly included). Additionally, Le Bal is credited by some people in the know as serving the best cup of coffee in all of Paris. I’m not going to get into the details of why this might be so, but if you want a long lecture on the difference between robusta and arabica beans and the proper roasting duration and temperature and how the French are generally doing it all wrong, you can certainly contact my boyfriend. He gave the nod of approval to Le Bal’s cuppa, and as a coffee philistine, I also thought it was delicious. Plus they did that pretty thing with the foam on the top!

I’m such a prole.

Finally, should you find yourself in Montmartre, might we recommend a visit to newcomer Marcel (49 avenue Junot, Paris 75018, Métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt). Even if you don’t find yourself in Montmartre, this might be a lovely place to visit if your only impression of that part of town involves the seedy sexclubs and the tourist hoards that surround Sacre-Coeur. The post neighborhood around Avenue Junot is an entirely different affair, and Marcel is a well-executed riff on the formula that Rose Bakery brought to Paris.

Their menu features another traditional English breakfast (this time with oven-roasted tomatoes and some dreamy sausages in addition to the bacon), eggs Benedict, and an assortment of nice sandwiches. B sampled their Ruben, which isn’t really a Ruben in any classic sense of the word and needs about triple the pastrami and some proper sauerkraut. Not that anyone with any decision-making ability in such things is reading this, but if they were, there you go.

The clear winner of the spread (god, I’m so competitive!) was the perfect, oh my lord, I haven’t eaten one of these for nearly two years, thank you sweet girl, BaLT. I live for a proper BLT, people. The combination of toasted white bread spread with mayo, crisp bacon, tartly sweet tomatoes, and crunchy lettuce is my Ur-sandwich. Add avocado and I’m reduced to a quivering heap of joy. You don’t see these in Paris, and you certainly don’t see them looking like this.  The dessert we ordered (fromage blanc with salted caramel and an apple crumble) wasn’t spectacular, but I didn’t care. I’ll be back for a the BaLT. Tomorrow.

So that’s about it as far as my brunch recommendations for Paris, though you might want to revisit my reviews of Le Loir dans la Théière and Breakfast in America if you have a hankering on this lovely Sunday morning.  We’re off to our favorite market instead today, something I can’t wait to tell you about when I’ve got enough pictures assembled to make a post.  I’d love to hear about your favorite way to spend a Sunday in Paris (or wherever this might find you).

Happy Sunday, dear reader.

Slightly More Rarified Bottom Feeding

Apparently all this time I thought that you wanted to be talking about what I ate for lunch, you actually just wanted to talk about The Bachelor, huh? Thanks for all the nice comments. I am happy to hear that among other things, B’s sister who I hope to charm is as much of a TV addict as I am.

And, for the record, our money’s on Emily for the finale (obviously). I’d put Chantal’s odds at ninety to one.

This has been a bad week for bottom feeders like me.  First, Charlie Sheen unleashed a sound-bite ready storm of interviews that I consumed like a cokehead trying to budget their stash. Just one video and then I’ll get to work! Well, maybe if I just watch all the videos now, then I’ll be able to get some work done. There are more videos!? Gimme my fix! Poor B, who is diligently trying to do some kind of project that involves lots of Latin translation and spreadsheet columns (I had no idea that Medieval Studies involved so much Excel) has been forced to listen to near-hourly updates on the status of Sheen’s dubious sobriety, two live-in girlfriends, and child custody.  I’m relatively certain that B wasn’t even aware that Sheen was still on television, as when I first showed him a video he made a comment about Hot Shots 2, which is digging pretty deep as far as I’m concerned. B is like an old man whose cultural references dropped off somewhere around 1995. Mention any band popular in the past five years or so and you’ll get nothing more than a blank, uncomprehending stare. Play any band popular in the last five years or so and you’ll surely have to listen to the entirety of Peter Gabriel’s So during dinner.

And if Sheen’s rapid televisual disintegration wasn’t enough, the swirling mass of controversy John Galliano’s bar fight and subsequent dismissal from Dior has kept me riveted to all fashion blogs French and American.  Part of my interest in this whole fiasco stems from the fact that La Perle, the bar where the incident took place, is a mere stone’s throw from my apartment and was a frequent setting for boozy evenings during my first year in Paris.  I’ll cop to still kind of liking it in an “ooh, look at all the beautiful people” kind of way, but B and M have made it abundantly clear that they hate La Perle in so many myriad different ways that I can’t suggest that we go there anymore. The two of them even make a point of crossing to the opposite side of the street from the bar when we walk by after eating pizza at our cherished Pink Flamingo on the same street.  If either one of them walked by La Perle without muttering something along the lines of “hipster scum” under their breath, I would die of surprise.

Anyway, we used to hang out there a lot. The booze is ridiculously cheap for the neighborhood, and if you get there early enough you can snag a booth to while away the evening. I live for bargain beers and booths. We never saw John Galliano there, though there was always the possibility that he might be around, as it is the watering hole for all the local designer ateliers. I find the description of La Perle as “a neighborhood bar” in the New York Times rather laughable, as I’ll bet you ninety-six percent of the people that go there don’t live within a twenty-block radius of the place. (Did that sound smug?  I didn’t mean it to.) In fact, I’ve bristled at most of the characterizations of the Marais that have accompanied news coverage of the Galliano event. Yes, of course this neighborhood is filled with gay bars and fancy clothing stores and falafel joints. But it’s not even faintly dangerous, nor soulless, nor hopelessly bourgeois. It’s my wonderful, weird neighborhood, one I feel more attached to than anywhere I’ve lived in recent memory. That is to say, I definitely feel like a Maraisienne these days than anything else, and you better watch what you say about my beloved marsh. Thems fightin’ words.

* * *

I had a lovely week otherwise, the highlight of which was a girly day with M and her lovely friend AR.  The three of us had lunch at Rose Bakery, which I’ve been wanting to do for ages (it’s on the list!) and I can’t wait to tell you about (tomorrow: Clarence Goes to Tea!). Then, we did a bit of window licking in the Marais before heading to the superb “Women in the Orient” exhibition at the Musée Quai Branly. To my dear Parisian readers, I’d definitely recommend you go and see the amazing collection of historical and contemporary garments from Jordan, Syria, and Palestine curated by Christian Lacroix. I’m usually hesitant to recommend things at Quai Branly because it is so goddamn dark in there that people with bad eyesight like yours truly usually spend their whole visit worried that they are about to walk into a poorly-placed glass wall. But this exhibit is worth strapping on your pocket flashlight and venturing in.

* * *

Among a smattering of other smart things that M said while we were window shopping (this girl understands a bias), she made a great observation that A.P.C. basically gets all of their design ideas from Eric Rohmer’s movies. You know, the ones where all the bobos hang out in their beach houses and talk endlessly about their romantic problems and nobody seems to have a job? Well, it hardly seems necessary to spend hundreds of euros on an aesthetic so easily obtained by just by watching the Six Moral Tales, which I intend to start doing this weekend. For your Friday afternoon looking pleasure, here are some sartorial ideas from all six:

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)

Susanne’s Career (1963)

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Claire’s Knee (1967)

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

And, finally, French summer beach style owes everything to 1983’s Pauline at the Beach:

Happy Friday, dear reader.

Clarence Puts on His Fancy Pants: La Gazzetta, Spring, and a Handful of Other Pseudo-Accomplishments

In my looooong absence (sorry ‘bout that!), I managed to make a pretty serious dent in The List, my to-do list for final five months and change in Paris.  It’s a pretty idiosyncratic affair, but nevertheless it goes a long way in justifying indulgences.  We have to eat at this incredibly expensive restaurant! We have to buy this stupid print! It’s on THE LIST! Best of all, it’s not even me that has to do the justifying. M and B are my own private little enablers, both deeply concerned that I won’t finish in time. The List ties in pleasantly to M’s preemptive nostalgia for leaving Paris months before she has even left. She has begun, rather annoyingly, I might add, declaring that everything we do might very well be for the last time.  “This might be the very last time the three of us eat pizza at La Briciola.” Uh, highly unlikely.  “This might very well be the last time we all window shop on rue Sainte Anne!”  Well, maybe, but have we ever done it before today? She’s even begun keeping a journal in which she chronicles all of her “last things” in Paris. I’ve been giving her a hard time about it because I don’t want this to become a moody, end-times kind of period. I also don’t really want to think about the fact that I’m not going to live in Paris by the end of this year, and that I won’t live in the same city as M. Sometimes you can only just trace the periphery of something sad, because you know that if you actually dive in, it will be too much to bear. So that’s what The List is, limning the contours of something that throbs.

Lest you get sappy too, dear reader, let me say that I’m not too worried about the blog. I  fully intend on seducing the shit out of you, so long after I have no Paris restaurants to tell you about you still want to come here. Come autumn we will be visiting Amish farms and learning to make our own kimchee and planning a barbecue tour of the American South. I’m playing the long game for your affections. Consider yourself on notice.

So back to The List, let’s see what I’ve accomplished lately, shall we?

  • See the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris before January 30th

That one was a bit trickier than I had anticipated, as every time we were over in that part of town, there was a line down the block to get in to the exhibition. But a teeny-tiny bit of advance planning meant we were able to buy tickets online, and gloatingly skip past a line of impatient tourists. Suck it, short-timers.  The show itself was pretty great, but I won’t bore you with my art history 101 analysis, as it has closed already, so if you were going to see it, you saw it.

  • See the Arman show at the Centre Pompidou before January 10th

Now this was seriously awesome.  I only really knew Arman as “the trash guy,” but the retrospective at Centre Pompidou was exquisite.  It’s pretty rare to encounter aesthetic objects that completely shift the way that you think about a given piece of material, but that is exactly how I felt about Arman’s work in burned furniture, resin, and cut household objects. As someone who used to work on the exhibition end of the art industry, I am always thinking about the sheer labor that goes into the hanging of large-scale artworks.

An exploded car hung vertically, entitled “White Orchid,” drove home what an accomplishment the installation of this enormous show. Perhaps our favorite part of the exhibition was in the collection of paper ephemera. A notice, issued by the Black Panthers of America, encouraged people to bring in “any and everything” to be cut in half by “artist Arman’s amazing saws.” The halved objects would then be signed and sold back to the owner for a fee, which Arman was then charitably donating to the Black Panthers. Did this fundraising event actually transpire? Where are the photos? Internets, you let me down!

  • See The Gospel According to Matthew and Oedipus Rex at Accattone, working towards the project of seeing all of Pasolini’s films on the big screen

Yes, I’ve started taking pictures inside of movie theatres. Sue me. To be fair, most of the movies I see have pretty small audiences. It’s usually me, B, M, and a creepy-looking guy that is slumped down unconscious in the back row. So I’m not too worried about the etiquette. I don’t use a flash, either, Miss Manners. We’ve still got Porcile, Accattone!, and Medea to go. I’m starting to get worried about this one. While Accattone! is on regular screenings, I haven’t seen Porcile or Medea in my Pariscope, like, ever. If you are playing along at home, let me know if you see either of those playing in Paris. I’ll buy your ticket and a beer.

  • Obtain an oyster knife and oyster shucking glove, learn to shuck oysters, and do so for my friends on New Year’s Eve

Done and done.  Except instead of a shucking glove, we decided on this amazing device known as the Clic’ huitres. It’s sort of a rubber stabilizer that makes it easy to get leverage on your oyster. On New Year’s Eve we bought two dozen bivalves, an assortment of excellent cheeses, some beautiful foie gras, and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Only Prairie Wolf showed up to our last-minute gathering (more oysters and foie gras for everyone!), but the three of us had a pretty lovely time. We only sustained one oyster-related injury (Prairie Wolf cut his thumb), but he was so drunk by the time it happened that he barely noticed. B proved himself to be a dyed-in-the-wool shucking demon, expertly prying apart shells without so much as a drop of liquer going to waste or a shard of shell ending up in the meaty bits. That’s right, people. Not only can my boyfriend explain to you why the bits of mortar you are looking at in this heap of rocks are actually from the late Roman Empire and not the early part (silly rabbit!), he can also shuck the shit out of a pile of oysters. Don’t you wish I hadn’t gotten here first?

  • Eat a Pierre Hermé foie gras and chocolate macaron (if possible)

As we weren’t in town for the holidays, I was worried that we would miss the limited window of time where Pierre Hermé’s foie gras macrons are available. When we finally got our lazy asses to the store on January 6th or so, we discovered that the only way the foie gras macarons were available was in boxes of sixteen.  Fifty euros for a box of cookies?! But it’s on THE LIST! We bit the bullet, bought the box, and had an impromptu macaron-tasting party that evening. We sampled both the classic dark chocolate and foie gras as well as the wild rose, fig, and foie gras variety.

The verdict? Well, they aren’t like anything you’ve ever eaten before. There is a strange harmony between the fatty richness of the liver and the sweetness of chocolate. But, to me, the sweetness of the macaron somehow accentuated the meaty quality of the foie too much. It was really overpowering to me. Sometimes macarons are too rich for my palate, and these were the worst offenders yet. But B and our new friend L really loved them, so who am I to judge? Should you want to drop the bones, I’d definitely encourage you to try them next December. I’ll be sticking with my classic lemon and rose. Unless a white truffle or green tea with red bean makes it into my life again.

  • Eat at La Gazzetta

For my (gulp) 28th birthday celebration, B had tried to snag reservations at Spring sometime in early October. They laughed at the audacity of a young man who wanted not only to eat at Spring in December, but on a Friday night as well. They offered him a Thursday night in early January, and he delightedly accepted, realizing that it was just a few days after M’s birthday. So for my birthday, we ate at the (also much-hyped) La Gazzetta (29 rue de Cotte, 75012 Paris, Métro Ledru-Rollin). Let me just say that I can certainly see what all the fuss is about.  Swedish chef Petter Nilsson offers a fixed-price, five or seven course dinner that changes on a weekly, if not daily, basis (five plates 39€, seven plates 52€). Everything was totally inventive, unexpected, and exquisitely executed.  On the evening of my birthday, we started the evening with an aperitif of aged Amontillado sherry from 1922. Seriously! Bring on the Edgar Allen Poe jokes from a group of literature graduate students! It was surreal it was so perfect. Dinner was Saint Jacques scallops served in a shrimp and bacon broth; red chard and cauliflower served with an egg yolk confit, giant capers, and crunchy almonds; an aromatic dish of white beans and cod; Breton lobster in a light celery broth with fresh hazelnuts; a Pierre Duplantier chicken cooked with cedar, peppers, and pickled pink onions; mandarin oranges soaked in espresso served alongside chocolate and bread sorbet; and finally, an almond and yougurt daquoise paired with fresh lychees and mint. The ambiance of the restaurant is comfortable and cool without feeling fussy. I’d actually go so far as to say that it is a bargain for the kind of meal you are getting.  We’re excited to go back and see what the bounty of spring brings to this innovative restaurant.

  • Eat at Spring

Even before arriving in Paris, I’d heard of Daniel Rose’s much-celebrated Spring (6 Rue Bailleul, 75001 Paris, Métro Louvre-Rivoli, but don’t even think about trying to walk in without a reservation unless you are Brad Pitt). An American chef cooking something that all the Parisians are twitterpated about? This must be a thing to behold. Spring was closed for renovations during our first year here, which somehow managed to only increase the buzz that surrounded this restaurant and this chef. As I said earlier, it was next-to impossible to get reservations. Poor B must have called for three weeks without ever getting through to a real live human being, only to be scoffed at when he asked for a reservation in December. Still, we got a pretty amazing table for dinner on January 6th, which ended up timing perfectly with M’s return to Paris after traveling with her husband for her birthday a few days earlier.

The renovations were well worth the wait – the space is quite fantastic if you are interested in watching expert chefs yield their knives. Like La Gazzetta and many of the best new restaurants in Paris run by young chefs, the menu changes on a daily basis and reflects the incredible diversity of seasonal ingredients available here in France. Our meal in January began with champagne and a single perfect oyster dressed with a fresh herb and soy vinaigrette.  I expected the vinaigrette to overpower the oyster, but it instead brought out some of the green, salty notes that I might not have otherwise picked up on. That is to say I could have shot those bad boys all night long and been one happy camper. But instead we had to move on to a course of foie gras, served with house-pickled vegetables and a quince chutney.  Then on to another noix de Saint Jacques (sea scallops) dish, this time in a chestnut and bacon foam, with both roasted chestnuts and crispy deep-fried chestnut slivers. As an unexpected pop of flavor, the dish was spiked with red cipolline onions. Heaven.

Next up was a whole battered and fried merlán truffle butter, Meyer lemon wedges, and a frisée salad dressed with a lemon curd vinaigrette.  Yes, we are the type of table who fights over who gets the fish head.

The meat course was a perfectly cooked piece of venison served with both roasted brussel sprouts and tart, flash-fried brussel sprout leaves. Somehow M translated chevreuil as baby goat, so we ate this course assuming that was what we were eating. B kept insisting that his father’s venison tasted JUST LIKE this baby goat flesh and wasn’t that STRANGE? Then we went home and looked up what chevreuil actually means. It’s venison, fyi. And at Spring, it’s like buttah.

Then, we added a cheese plate, because hey, if you are only going to get to eat at Spring once in every six lifetimes or so, well, you probably should add a cheese plate. We’ve been debating for the past half hour or so what all was on it. Brillat-Savarin and Roquefort Papillon, for sure. The other two are up for debate. This is why one ought not to try and write about meals they ate a month and a half ago.

Finally we made it to a two-part dessert.  First up was a piece of pineapple soaked in Japanese whiskey served with vanilla gelato and some kind of crushed cookie and lime zest…

…followed by a pistachio ganache and chocolate mousse served with a smoky black tea wafer. I could happily spread that pistachio ganache over toast for the rest of my life.

It was pretty cool, all in all, to have an opportunity to eat at a place like Spring, though I didn’t particularly love the staid, stuffy crowd that we dined alongside. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is I like in a restaurant, and I find that the Michelin-star experience is one that generally leaves me cold, even if the food is something to change your life over.  I’ll take every time a more casual and innovative restaurant, one where their might be misses in individual dishes but where the overall experience makes you want to spend the evening relaxing with friends, perhaps talking and laughing a bit too loud. I’m so lucky to have such great peeps for such a very purpose.

Galão Galão, or, How to See Lisbon and Porto When You Are Too Sick to Stand

Hello dear reader! I suppose you might be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I returned from the US to Paris, finished out my second-to-last semester of teaching, and went to Portugal with B for a week and a half.  I’ve done most of this while nursing one of the ugliest and clingiest colds on either side of the Atlantic. In a dismal coincidence, I started getting pretty sick right before we left on our trip, and managed to make my first-ever visit to Portugal a veritable death march.  In the final few days of our trip, I developed some kind of crunchy noise in my right lung, which I’ve been delighted to find out is a mean case of bronchitis. So I know I’ve been a really bad internet boyfriend for the past month or so, but trust me, I’ve been pretty lousy company in real life too.

I’ve got loads to tell you about, including two schmancy meals at La Gazzetta and Spring for my and M’s respective birthdays.  As I’m full of phlegm, however, I’m going to leave that for later this weekend and instead give you a little bit of a rundown about our trip.

Honestly, we really didn’t love Portugal. It certainly didn’t help that I was particularly ill most of the time and B got a wicked case of food poisoning in the last leg of our trip. While the weather was sunny and crisp, so I can’t complain about rain, I certainly think that it might be a better summer tourist destination. One of our biggest gripes was with the food. I know these are fighting words to some people, and I want to acknowledge that we don’t speak a lick of Portuguese and were largely beholden to recommendations from our friends and our guidebook (Lonely Planet, though I’m thinking of leaving them for never updating their goddamn listings) and the internets at large. In the past, that kind of research has been more than enough for us to be two happily fed campers, but it felt like we couldn’t score a hit in Portugal, no matter how hard we tried.  We tried all the things we were supposed to at places where they were supposed to be good.  In Lisbon, we ate  bacalhau espiritual (salt-cod soufflé), porco a alentejana (garlicy pork cooked with clams and lots of lard),  spit-roasted frango (chicken) with piri-piri on the side, caldeirada rica (spicy fish stew), pastéis de nata (custard tarts), and lulas recheadas (stuffed squid). We sipped ginjinha (sweet cherry liqueur) at the place where it was invented. In Porto, I sampled sardinhas fritas (battered and deep-fried sardines) and arroz de tomate (tomato risotto) while B dug in to a giant bowl of tripas á moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe), a cassolet-type dish of pigs feet, white beans, tripe, chicken, sausages, and vegetables cooked with lots of cumin.

All this is to say, well, we tried. We found the sweets often verged on cloyingly so, and the reliance upon pork fat for everything (including most desserts) made a lot of things heavier than I might have liked. I obviously don’t have the same palate for salt as the Portuguese, and found most of the soups and rice dishes I sampled to be overwhelmingly salty. I don’t say all this to trash an entire national culinary tradition, which I suspect is varied and interesting and flat-out delectable in the right circumstances. But we had pretty bad luck, and it was disheartening at points. By the end it seemed like all we were consuming was sour drip coffee and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.

Rather than dwell on the negative, however, I want to share with you the best moments of our trip (some food-related!).  This won’t be nearly as comprehensive as our last vacation entries (I don’t think anyone could or should plan a trip to Lisbon and Porto from my recommendations). But if you’re going anyway, here’s what we particularly liked.

In Lisbon, our favorite day was spent seeing the major sites. The , Castelo de São Jorge, and museum at Igreja de São Vicente de Fora are the things that every tourist does in Lisbon for a reason – they are truly amazing.  The views from the Castelo de São Jorge can’t be beat, but my favorite view was from the very top of Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, where we were miraculously alone at sunset.  Despite the occasional miseries we went through on our vacation (just wait until I tell you all the different places B barfed in Porto!), we did see some pretty memorable (and romantic) sunsets in Lisbon.  Another great sunset spot (though hardly the “best kept secret” Lonely Planet described it as) is at Noobai Café (Miradouro de Santa Catarina).  Get there an hour before sunset like we did to snag a table, then watch the Wayfarer-clad Portuguese hipsters give you the evil eye when they arrive too late in the game for the money shot.

We also really dug the Convento do Carmo and the Museu Arqueológico.  With a clear blue sky, the skeletal arches of the nave (which was never fully rebuilt after the Lisbon earthquake) is pretty phenomenal.

For the weirdoes like yours truly out there, the museum has without a doubt the most terrifying mummified bodies I’ve ever seen: two 16th century Peruvian children curled up in little balls. They didn’t allow pictures, but I’m still having nightmares.

We took an afternoon and went to the Oceánario, which I’d also really recommend doing. The second-largest aquarium in Europe and a distinctly conservation-oriented space, the Oceánario is really is an amazing facility.  They grow their own coral reefs there! I suspect that it will be even more amazing when they finish the ear-shatteringly loud renovations they were working on during our visit. Come to think of it, a lot of the bad taste in my mouth about Lisbon comes from the fact that I swear I could hear jackhammers at every single moment. The price of beauty, I guess.

Anyway, the main draw of the aquarium is the central tank, which is staggeringly large and filled with a remarkable diversity of species (remarkable, I suppose, because I can’t believe that nobody gets eaten). Every exhibit returns the visitor to another view of the central tank to reinforce the idea of one ocean (I think), so you’ll have plenty of time to observe the animals for an extended period of time as they move through this enormous space. It’s worth the price of admission alone.

As for eating, we did enjoy the much-hyped pastéis de belém, served warm from the oven at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (you’ll find it, don’t worry).

At 80 cents a pop, they are quite a bargain.  Well, you also have to factor in a 5 euro tram ride to and from Belém into that bargain, but there are touristy things to do in Belém if you feel well enough to do things other than lie immobile on park benches and cough (I didn’t).

We also had a few totally decent meals during our time in Lisbon. Bonjardim (Travessa de Santa Antão 11, Lisboa), purveyor of succulent and flavorful rotisserie chickens and fries really floated our boat, though the piri-piri hygiene thing there is a bit weird. It was probably only because I was deathly ill that this even occurred to me. We also enjoyed a rather schmancy lunch at New York Times-recommended Aqui Há Peixe (Rua da Trindad 18A, Lisboa), where we were able to sample local oysters, salty-spicy fish stew, and grilled squid and red snapper. Was the food pretty good? Yeah. Would a restaurant serving that food and charging 80 euros for lunch last for one week in Paris? Nope.  Maybe the antibiotics are making me more honest than usual.

We particularly enjoyed a dinner at O Barrigas (Travessa da Queimada 31, Lisboa) in the Barrio Alto. Aside from the very Clarence-friendly name of “the bellies,” we especially liked their house specialty, a bacalhau espiritual that combined salted cod, bread, and carrots (and probably a healthy amount of pork fat) into a baked, soufflé-like dish. It was salty and fatty and totally satisfying. Also yummy was a veal stew served with the omnipresent fries of Portugal. We were the only people there the night we ate, which is really too bad, because it is a pretty great little restaurant. So go there, internets, should you find yourself in Portugal.

The biggest plug I want to make is for Pois Café (Rua de São João da Praça 93, Lisboa), quite possibly one of the most darling little joints I’ve been to in a long time. Run by Austrians (all hail the cakes!), this place is somehow everything you really want a great café to be: kitschey, eclectic, and comfy, with great food and coffee. And a liquor license! Seriously, the sandwiches we ate there for lunch might have been the best thing we ate on our trip. No joke.

They have Wifi and encourage people to sit and read. It’s lovely, and I’d be all over it like a fat kid on fried chicken if I lived in Lisbon. Depressingly, I just visited their website, only to discover that it is FOR SALE. The optimist in me hopes that one savvy Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background reader buys the place and keeps it wonderful. The pessimist in me says owner-changes (when the original is a gem) never work out very well, so get there while it’s still hot peeps.

I also loved shopping in Libson.  After scouring a dozen or so sapatarias, we scored B some pretty serious Fernando Silva leather shoes at about the third of the cost of what we would have paid in Paris.  We loved visiting the 80-year-old Conserveira de Lisboa, a veritable canned-fish lover’s dream with the walls lined with beautifully packaged tins of sardines, salted cod, cockles, tuna, and cephalapods in every possible sauce and preparation. They wrap your purchases in printed brown paper and tie it with a string, and while I know that this kind of thing is really for the tourists nowadays, it still feels pretty old-world and special.  It will feel less special, however, when you arrive for your flight leaving Portugal and discover that they will not allow you to carry canned food items on to the plane, meaning that you have to pay an additional 25 euros to check your suitcase, making those six cans of sardines that you purchased the most expensive cans of fish in the history of time.  The EasyJet woman smiled and shook her head when I showed her my neat little package.  “It’s always the sardines,” she said.  It’s always the sardines.

The other place that you should go an do some conspicuous consuming is the gorgeous A Vida Portuguesa stores in both Lisbon and Porto (Rua Anchieta 11 Lisboa).  I had read an article in the New York Times The Moment blog about this amazing place, but this store really does take the idea of a well-edited shop to a whole new level. Everything in the store is manufactured in Portugal, often by small companies that have been making beautiful products for generations.  They have everything from toothpaste to metal polish to cans of olive oil, all in amazing, vintage-looking packages.  They also carry a great selection of children’s’ toys, vintage postcards, and beautiful home textiles.  I died over the handmade Emilio Braga notebooks and the Caldas da Rainha and Faianças Artísticas Bordalo Pinheiro ceramics.

While I showed a fair amount of restraint in the Lisbon store, the discovery that our hotel was next door to the Porto store broke my willpower.  We ended up carting back a big bag of paper products, pencils, two amazing mugs, and the sugar bowl of my dreams, which looks like an oyster.  Depending on how good your Portuguese is (snort), you can shop online for many of their products.

Things were bleak enough by the time we intended to take the train to Porto that we actually shopped for flights directly back to Paris from Lisbon. Note to fellow travellers:  traveling on bargain airlines like EasyJet means that when you call to ask if you can change your ticket, they laugh and hang up on you. It had begun to rain in Lisbon and the gods of the weather internets were saying that it was going to be even worse in Porto.

We were surprised, then, to find Porto to be a sunny, lovely town full of bookshops and bobos and picturesque abandoned buildings.  Look, I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t still sick as a dog and somewhat miserable a lot of the time.  I’m also not going to lie and say that the food was any better in Porto (though we had resigned ourselves to eating more toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, which are actually quite good across Portugal).  But we liked Porto about a thousand times more than Lisbon.  It’s full of young people and quirky shops and lovely parks.  While Lisbon felt to us like a place we would only want to visit, Porto felt like a place we could actually live.

The wheels did fall off the bus a bit when after dining at A Tasquinha (Rua do Carmo 23, Porto), B came down with a pretty vicious case of food poisoning.  He had ordered the tripe, an act that I joking observed his gastrointestinal system probably regarded as cannibalism.

Inspired perhaps by the walking-death impression I’d be doing the whole trip, B put on a brave face and we went sightseeing. I’m a bit of an architecture junkie (as most dilettantes are), so I wanted to see Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música.  Pretty underwhelming in person, and it appears that the main function of this 100 million euro project is as a skate park for the local youth.  Grumble, grumble, where’s my Metamucil?

We went inside to see the interior, and B promptly announced that he had to find a restroom. We found an empty bar, and B rushed into the restroom while I waited on some strangely discordant looking furniture.  An orchestral concert was taking place in the main concert hall and they piped the music through the entire space, so I got to listen to Rossini, as did B while his body attempted to turn itself inside out.  He came out after a half hour, glowing and looking like he had seen God.

I suggested that we go back to the hotel room, but he insisted that we continue on our death march to Serralves, a wonderful contemporary arts space housed in a gorgeous park filled with art installations.

It’s very difficult to access via public transportation, however, as Porto’s slick new metro system does not reach to that part of the city. You can now imagine us walking along a peripheral freeway, me hacking out a lung or two, B green with nausea.  By the time we arrived at the park, we decided it would be best to sit down.  The map directed us to a teahouse in the park, where we discovered that fancy tea in Portugal is Lipton.  It mattered little, as we were really there so B could vomit again.

Discovering that the men’s restroom was far too abject to even barf in, B commandeered the ladies’ room for another round of “that offal was really awful.” When the staff discovered him, he pretended to be French. That’s another point of the US of A right there.  We then attempted to care about two exhibitions, one of political art and one a retrospective of letterist Gil J Wolman’s art.  Well, actually we looked for benches to collapse on and film displays to curl up in the dark.  But it’s a really amazing space, and certainly worth a visit should you find yourself healthy and in Porto.

My favorite day of the trip was when we took the train from Porto to Vila do Conde, a swish beach community with a gorgeous stretch of Atlantic coastline. It was obviously too cold to do much at the beach besides wander around and climb on the rocks, but we did this with great zeal.

A strange churro stand at the beach was pumping out old Fado music on a record player, lending a lilting soundtrack to our exploration.  Best of all, we were virtually alone on the beach, making this perhaps the most romantic moment of what might very well have been one of the least romantic vacations ever (there’s nothing like handing your lover a snot or puke stained kleenex “to hold” to put a damper on things). Actually, we took pretty good care of each other on the trip, and there is nothing quite like knowing that you still really like somebody even when you both feel like crap. So maybe it was kind of romantic after all.

Did I mention the bookstores in Porto?  Check out this beauty:

Meet Livraria Lello, an amazing 1906 Gothic revival bookshop that features this killer staircase. What I didn’t realize at first glance is that most of the “woodwork” is actually trompe l’oeil plaster, and the staircase itself is a solid cement structure (quite an engineering feat in 1906).  Even cooler, perhaps, was the fact that many of Porto’s bookshops put of displays of “revolutionary” literature as things began to escalate in Egypt:

It was kind of frustrating being out of touch with English-speaking news while such amazing things were happening, but it was great to see everyone rallying and getting excited. If you are anything like me, dear reader, I suspect you’ve been weeping to images of the crowds rejoicing in the streets the past two days.

Well, at any rate, that’s about all I’ve got to say about our somewhat disappointing Portuguese foray, friends. I’d like to hear all the things you love about Portugal and all the things I failed to eat that would have turned my spirits around. I can’t help but feel like we missed the boat a little bit, which is somewhat inevitable if you travel enough (and you make the budget-driven decision to travel even when you are sick). I’m sorry to have been such a lousy bloguese as of late. I’ve missed you guys and I promise I’ll see you soon.

 

Not Frontin’

  • Buy an annual pass and tour the Louvre from top to bottom (this will take a while, so I’ll list the collections so I can cross them off periodically:  Egyptian antiquities; Near Eastern antiquities; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman collection; Islamic art; sculpture; decorative arts; painting; and prints and drawing).

  • Eat a Pierre Hermé white truffle macaron and a foie gras and chocolate macaron (if possible)

You totally thought I was kidding about this list thing, didn’t you?

Like I’m some kind of procrastinating slacker who talks a big game but doesn’t follow through, often neglecting her blog for weeks at a time!

But seriously, guys, I’m seriously serious about this thing. So serious, in fact, that after writing “The List,” I went out and bought a rotisserie chicken with fingerling potatoes roasted in the roasting grease (so. good.) and a new Bordeaux that I hadn’t tried (Eat as much charcuterie, foie gras, rillettes, truffles, rabbit, duck, rotisserie chickens, and oysters as possible and Try as many French wines as possible and keep a record of ones I love, respectively). Somewhere in between the wine shop and my apartment I began blubbering again about having to leave Paris, so the following morning B and I dutifully shuffled over to the Louvre. We recently discovered that despite not feeling especially jeune, we both still qualify for the 30 euro annual youth pass, which means unlimited admission to the permanent collection, all temporary exhibitions, and cultural events. Quite a deal, especially for people who definitely don’t get carded anymore. So sixty clams and two questionable ID photos later we were in the Egyptian antiquities, which we figured would be easy to bang out in a day. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You know the fantasy plan, that one where you spend a week going through the Louvre and see everything from top to bottom? Add another week or two to that itnerary. Three or four hours of devoted museuming and we had only managed to cover half of the Egyptian antiquities, buzzing through the sarcophagi and mummies far too quickly at the end.

Oh man, the Louvre is so great. I had sort of forgotten how amazing and astounding and totally humbling it is. It’s the kind of place that really reminds you what a speck you are in the great march of human history. Also, there’s nothing better than watching little kids go through and look at things from Ancient Egypt. Having been one of those six year olds who declared that I wanted to be “an Egyptologist” when I grew up, I particularly love the really serious ones. There was one boy, probably eight or so with bottle-thick glasses, who was carefully sketching various hieroglyphs that caught his interest. Both B and I melted in the face of his diligence and rigor. While I don’t really remember much from my Egyptology days (I get my sieve-brain from my dad), B is a perfectly preserved antiquities-nut. I would throughly recommend touring any kind of antique or medieval museum exhibition with B, and I don’t just say this because I’m dating him. He’s really the best guide ever in these places because remembers all of the gross and interesting stuff, like which organs went into which urns during the mummification process and how they extracted the brain via the nostrils and how cursive hieroglyphic script is formed and who the major and minor gods and goddesses were. He also doesn’t mind spending extra time in the jewelry displays and humors me when I spend twenty minutes or so deciding which ring I would want in the imaginary universe where the precious antiquities collection at the Louvre is actually a flea-market.

My camera died before we reached the mummy (!), but here are a few things I really liked:

I’ve got puppies on the brain, obviously.

The eyes have it, every time:

Ancient Egyptian castanets were shaped like hands!  Did you know this?  I didn’t:

* * *

Finally, let’s not pretend that you come here to see my stupid museum photos. You come for the food! As you can see above, they finally released the white truffle Pierre Hermé macaron. B and I picked two up, along with some green tea/ginger/red bean and chestnut/green tea ones. A savory afternoon tasting, paired with a splendid smoky black tea that our friends from Hong Kong brought us as a gift and that B has finally learned to brew like a pro (it’s a tempermental beast, but well worth the effort). We saved the truffle macarons for last, as we had been told that they are palate-killers of the first order. They even bag them separately from the other macarons because their scent is so strong! I can’t even describe how fantastic these are. I wish that I was someone like Jeffrey Steingarten or Chandler Burr, someone who can vividly evoke tastes and scents in their prose. Alas, I can’t, so I’ll just say that they are slightly sweet, but mostly savory, with a delicate shell and buttery interior cut with macadamia nuts. The taste of white truffles is pronounced but not overpowering. They taste of autumn, and of the earth, and of luxury. When I asked B if it was among the top cookies he’s ever eaten, he corrected me and said that it was among the top things he’s ever eaten, and I’d tend to agree. They are perfect in every way. Even their white iridescent sheen is amazing. You should buy some immediately if you are in Paris and if you aren’t, I’ll concede that this is one thing you should be unabashedly jealous over. Pierre Hermé, I tip my hat. You are macaron Gods among men and I suspect that what you do qualifies in most cultures as alchemy.

I have a birthday coming up and I just saw this at the bookstore:

There are recipes, apparently! Perhaps a way to stave off the want when I return to the States next year?