Letter from Paris — Part 1

Who knows the Villas of Paris?  No one in our party, until the driver told us about them  — tightly gated communities in the 16th and some others, which you can peek through but not enter; the driver says they contain as many as 20 or 30 luxurious houses.  We examined, i.e., peered through the gates of, the Villa Molitor, the Villa Montmorency, and one other.

Everybody loves Seurat, but who has actually been to the Grande Jatte, and on a Sunday afternoon?  Acting on imperative instructions from the Grand Logothete of the VDP, who was dismayed to learn that no mention of such an excursion had appeared in his archives, we ventured there yesterday.  You go out to Neuilly and ride along  the Seine till you come to the Ile de la Grande Jatte, where there is a footbridge to the island, and the place hasn’t changed much since 1884 except you can’t see the water from the Parc.  Here’s what it looks like now:

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The Connaissance des Arts recently carried a piece about the Swiss artist Felice Varini, who specializes in trompe l’oeil decoration of buildings; one of his triumphs is at the Carré Edouard 7 in Paris, a little-known cul-de-sac near the Opéra.  If you line up the buildings at exactly the right angle, the lines appear to connect.  Here are some of his efforts:

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At the Grand Palais is the current Monumenta, an exhibition by Russian artists named Kabakov, but I haven’t seen the reviews and am curious to see what deference, if any, is shown towards it.  The brochure explains that it’s an “ancient reservoir of cosmic energy” and “the laboratory for communicating with the noosphere,” and that “the combination of honor and triviality results in pride.”  With that explanation, here’s what it looks like:

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The cascades at St.-Cloud are surely the most elaborate in the world, but they run only on certain Sundays in May and June.   Don’t believe it when the concierge tells you they run from 3 to 5; actually they run only AT 3, 4. and 5, for 20 minutes or so and then shut down again. But they’re well worth seeing if you can fit their schedule:

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As admirers of the great 18th century singerist Christoph Huet we havez tried to visit all of his extant works, leaving only two unvisited: Ch. de Champs-sur-Marne east of Paris, and Ch. de Thoiry out west in the Yvelines for its famous harpsichord decorated by Huet in 1758.  This trip we filled both gaps.  Champs was a disappointment, as Huet did mostly chinoiserie there, but we did spot one cheerful monkey:

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My Huet books at home will tell us what he’s playing at or hoping to catch with his net.


Thoiry was much more successful.  The château is evidently hard up for maintenance and has accordingly established a Parc Amimalier, a Jardin Botanique, and a zoo with lions, tigers, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, elephants, etc., to lure visitors with kids, like a number of British great-house owners.  But the château itself evidently doesn’t seem to attract many visitors, for who but obsessive Huet-hunters have heard of his famous harpsichord?  So we were the only entrants.  Here is the Huet harpsichord frombehind the ropes:

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The best decorations are on the top of the lid, which you can’t even see with the lid raised; so the staff obligingly took down the ropes for me to get close and photograph the back of the raised lid, where I found this:

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If you are a beat-up old codger of 88 winters like me, you’d best go to the Sojfer umbrella and walking-stick shop on the Boul. St. Germain and replace your equally beat-up walking stick with a sturdy Malacca job with an ostrich-covered handle, to postpone an annoying or even disabling tumble (and therefore maybe qualified for a deductible medical expense).  Or if you’re not a beat-up old codger, etc., you can see there an extensive stock of single-shaft umbrellas with varied fabric designs.

And if you go back to Hermès on the Fauboug St.-Honoré to check out their current cigar ashtrays (of course no longer publicly marked as such but offered under various polypaipalic euphemisms like “Sushi Dish”) you can find a splendid new edition with that label, and it’s their best offering in years.  Lord knows what the PC police would do to them if they honestly marked their “Sushi Dish” with its real purpose, “Cigar Ashtray.”

Hermès "Sushi dish" in its intended use

Hermès “Sushi dish” in its intended use


Now a word about Pierre Gagnaire.  The old magician must be well up in his 70s, with white hair and  beard, but his wizardry in the kitchen is still intact and he still has 3 Michelin stars thoroughly well-deserved.  He distances his work from the other grands cuisiniers by starting from country cooking and refining and varying it.  One of us had a veal dish described as “Côte de veau du Limousin parfumée d’herbe … traitée à la casserole …” and so on, the copper pot brought out for smelling the vapeurs before unpacking and serving.  And the other had his usual langoustines.

But ω ποποι!, what langoustines!  First of all, there were only three of them; two were small and almost unseasoned; the third was huge, as big as what used to be called a chicken lobster in my Boston days — I never saw a langoustine that big — but much tenderer than any lobster, and in fact just as tender as a normal-size langoustine, and described as “Rôtie Terre de Sienne … crues/givrées légèrement fumées iodée … grillées à l’épine-vinette,” etc.  And what did it taste like?  As though some regional country cook had prepared the sauce and sent it to Gagnaire to build on and make subtler.  Anyway, the greatest langoustine de ma vie.

I asked how to describe that dish in words of one syllable, so to speak, and the headwaiter said: Langoustines aux épices jardinière, so I guess I’ll stick with that.  We each had only one course, but preceded by so many canapés and amuse-bouches (big explanation on the difference; one whole course of canapés followed by two whole courses of amuse-bouches) that it’s hard to understand how ANYONE could consume 2 courses much less a dessert.  So, quite an adventure chez Gagnaire.

The Bactrian Princess has come to Paris!  She is the undoubted coqueluche of an exhibit at the Louvre called “Louvre Abu Dhabi,” and consists of stuff assembled for the not-yet-completed Louvre outpost at Abu Dhabi.  See her picture and description below:

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Wait a minute, you might say, 2000 BC?  Artefacts that ancient are not exactly commonplace, howcum I’ve never heard of this Bactrian princess or goddess?  I addressed that very question to a learned art history prof, and he replied You’ve never heard of the Bactrian hoard because it was discovered only “yesterday” in archeological terms, i.e., 30 or 40 years ago, and nobody knew about the Bactria-Margiana archaeological complex, so none of us were taught about it and few of us have seen its exemplars in  museums.

In fact, it appears that only in the 1990s, when the reports of Sarianidi (Russian archeologist who first turned up this stuff) were translated that the ignorant Westerners first learned of the hoard, and who knew that the Chalcolithic or  Copper Age preceded the Early Bronze Age (around 4000 BC)?   I guess the Bactrian princess or goddess will soon be in all the history and art textbooks.  You saw her first in the VDP!

Thomas B. Lemann

2 Responses to “Letter from Paris — Part 1”

  1. This is an unabashed fan letter.
    I am confident that I write on behalf of many of the VDP’ers to tell you that your travels are so interesting and your descriptions so graphic, literate and beautifully written that they set a VDP standard that many of us struggle vainly to emulate.
    Thank you and please keep traveling, dining, photographing and writing.

  2. Ditto. Superb finds and writings from Paris and Venice.

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