Welcome to The Epic! I am launching this blog as a manifesto for and a guide to living well. The title and motto of the blog are taken from the Epicureans, at least some of whom believed in the notion that not one minute of the future was guaranteed to them and that as a result they had the duty to live life to its fullest every moment.
I believe in discovering fun and pleasurable things wherever I find myself each day and I am told I have a knack for unearthing them. My hope is that by sharing in my pleasures and some of my ways of finding them you will begin to collect all the riches that lie in the moments of your life. They are there. Take them! All our lives should be.....Epic.
Having put the many comforts of Harry's Bar behind me, I strolled a couple of blocks down the Rue Daunou to the Rue de la Paix, turned left, and again found myself facing the impressive facade of the Hotel Ritz. I was dressed in my black LL Bean all weather jacket, tan wide-wale Brooks Brothers cords and brown walking shoes. I was wet looking on the exterior due to my adventures out and about earlier in the day. On the interior, I was dry because of my superior clothing. Farther on the interior, I was enjoying the benefit of a couple of superior Sidecar cocktails from Rene the barman at Harry's.
I was glad for the lingering effect of the Sidecars because I was certainly not dressed to walk into the front door of the Hotel Ritz. As I approached the doors, a very glamorous, very tall, very young woman strode out to a waiting Bentley. The driver ushered her into the back seat and closed the door. Two doormen struggled to put numerous shopping bags and boxes into the trunk. I peered about, thinking I had wandered into a movie shoot and was about to be dragged off by gendarmes. No. This is the usual sort of thing that happens at the front door of the Ritz at five on a rainy Monday afternoon.
I will say that the doormen and front entry staff were very friendly. One took my jacket and cap and another relieved me of what was left of my five dollar umbrella. The interior of the Ritz entryway and main lobby hall is very opulent as one would expect. Still, nobody seemed to mind that rivulets were running off of my LL Bean jacket onto whatever I approached. I saw a young woman at the maitre' stand for a restaurant and approached her, being careful to keep a good distance so no rivulet would despoil her outstanding Little Black Dress. I asked where the Hemingway Bar might be and in reply she gave a full-on Parisian pouty look.
But monsieur, it closed last week for three years!
Apparently a Saudi prince or some such person has bought the hotel and is doing a "renovation" of certain things including the Hemingway Bar. It had "closed its doors" seven days earlier. From what recently happened to my beloved Pump Room bar in Chicago under similar circumstances, I am not expecting a good outcome. Had I been able to see the pre-closure Hemingway Bar, it would have looked like this...
Just my sort of place, Hem or no Hem. In the event, I was not about to abandon either my search for the world's most expensive cocktail, not the Sidecar Challenge begun at Harry's New York Bar so I had to change plans. I headed to the Ritz' Vendome Bar instead ....
...a lovely room but not at all my sort of "bar". There was a "bar" in the Vendome "bar" however and I took one of the four stools. As I did, it occurred to me that nobody had ever sat at this bar before. It just had that unused feel about it. I peered about me at the ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines at tables and in quiet nooks scattered around. Several had their heads close together in whispered conversation. I think the other bar patrons thought I was a private detective from an outlying arrondissement. Or a paparazzi.
The barman Hugo however was superb and very nice as well. He put an engraved napkin before me and said "you were looking for the Hemingway Bar weren't you"? Apparently the only conclusion to be derived from a fellow dressed in LL Bean, without a supermodel date, who actually sat at the bar. When he found out I was on "mon premier voyage a Paris" he asked lots of questions about what I had seen and gave me lots of great tips for the upcoming days. He also made me a Sidecar and put no less than five silver bowls of snacks in front of me. The cocktail was first rate, as were the snacks. I would rate the Ritz Sidecar in a dead heat with the version provided by Harry's Bar. Perfection. After trying the wonderful selection of finger foods, enjoying my Sidecar and declining a second, Hugo gracefully slid the tab folder in front of me. I creaked it open...55 Euros...a smooth $70 [USD]. Perhaps not the most expensive in the world, but a new record pour moi. I slipped from the room and I think all the chic couples breathed a bit easier. A bit tired by then, I walked back to my hotel in the chill drizzle. I needed a nap to reconstitute myself before dinner. You see, I had spotted a very promising little place the day before and I was dying to try it out. It was located next to a very famous book store in a little white house...
LeRoy Neiman passed away yesterday at age 91. It should be no surprise to any return reader that [as with wine, food, spirits, etc.] I love art but I know almost nothing about it. I loved a lot of Neiman's work and I am truly sorry he will not be painting any longer.
My first bottle of Bordeaux and my acquaintence with the only gallery art dealer and the only U.S. Open golf champion I have ever met are all due to LeRoy Neiman.
On my very first trip to New Orleans, in 1984, I found myself with a day to kill. It should also be no surprise to the return reader that ML, left to his own devices in a new town, especially New Orleans, might come to no good ends. After a marvelous, long, lunch [with appropriate libation] at Mr. B's on Royal Street, I strolled out into a warm early summer afternoon in an artistic and adventurous frame of mind. As I wandered down Royal, I came upon a gallery that displayed several of Mr. Neiman's works. I had never been in an art gallery before. I went in, under the influence of my marvelous, long, lunch [with appropriate libation]. There was nobody else in the gallery at that hour. As I was gazing at one of the Neiman paintings, a very pleasant female voice asked me if I were a Neiman collector.
I turned to find myself looking into a strikingly pretty face. With a question pending, I ask, what would any young man in my position have done? At some point I recovered my ability to speak and replied that I was a collector "in a small way" [I did have one Neiman poster at that point, purchased for $25.00 from a joint in Pittsburgh] and that my "main interest" was his original sketches. True. I had just not ever thought of it before. Since there was nobody else in the gallery, I was then treated to about an hour tour of their collection of [very expensive] Neiman work. I admit that, other than remembering that it would take the better part of my year's salary to buy anything, I am a little foggy on the details of the art we looked over. I do remember clearly that her hair was just to the base of her neck and that it was a dark chestnut color. She gave me her card and then we parted company. At which time I was more than ready for my first, long, marvelous, New Orleans dinner at Antoine's. With appropriate libation, of course. I had my first Bordeaux that evening. A Clos De l'Oratoire. Appropos, and still one of my favorites.
A blink of an eye and it was 1987, four years into a fledgling law career. My firm was having an open house at which the golf champion was a guest. I was in need of a nice [but inexpensive] piece of art for my office wall and I decided to recycle the Pittsburgh joint's Neiman poster for the purpose. The fancy wooden frame cost a lot more than the poster, even though my brother and I built it ourselves at a shop.
During the reception in question, I wandered down the hallway and heard voices coming from my office at which time I saw my senior partner and the champion peering at my Neiman poster. All $25.00 of it. I was introduced. As a life-long golfer and the son of a golf professional, I was pretty much taken aback to make the famous man's acquaintance. He was very cordial and told me he loved Neiman's work too. Had a collection of first generation lithos and signed originals in fact. He inquired if I were also a collector. I hesitated a moment and said that due to the early stages of my career, I had to limit myself to a large Neiman or two and some of his original sketches. The champ was impressed and asked for the name of my art broker. At this point, I saw my senior partner looking at me with what could only be described as a cagey look. Senior law partners are good at such things. I think he suspected that I was fictionalizing in order to sustain the conversation. Imagine, then, his surprise when I provided the name and phone number of a striking young woman dealer at a very chic gallery on Royal Street in New Orleans. The champ, momentarily impressed, took my card with the information and was herded off to meet other people at the party.
I had a call from her some time later thanking me for sending "a very good new client" her way.
As I sat in my office this morning, a quarter century later, I saw LeRoy Neiman's obituary then I looked at my framed Neiman poster. The same one. I thought of all that it, and I, had seen. I gave Mr. Neiman and his art a toast. After all, it was the very least that I could do.
When I arrived at the Place Vendome, I took this photo. During a break from the downpour. The Ritz Hotel is to the left in the photo. It had an ominous looking construction cover over part of it's exterior facade. I was en route to the fabled Hemingway Bar, to drink the most expensive cocktail in the world. The most expensive REGULAR cocktail I mean. No gold dipped olives or ancient cognac additives. No souvenir glasses. Just a regular old Martini or Manhattan or Sidecar. Perfectly made and served in historic surroundings. In a room visited by [rich] writers, potentates, oligarchs, movie stars and the occasional Epic on holiday. And more expensive than anywhere else. I had read a blog before I left for Paris that detailed a perfect Sidecar consumed at the Hemingway Bar and which had concluded that one was enough because it was the most expensive drink that travelling drinker had ever seen. Thus, I decided to dub it TMECITW.
It should surprise no one that TMECITW is found at the Place Vendome. This has to be one of the most expensive shopping areas anywhere. I found myself waking by the famous men's clothier Charvet. Where I stared into the beautifully arranged windows. At $500 shirts. $200 pocket squares. I would love a set of Charvet silk pajamas some day. But I don't want to trade part of a return trip to Paris to get them!
I decided to go down scale and procure a Parisian scarf from a cheap shop. Everyone in Paris wears a scarf. I am not sure what the reason for this is, but I found it to be a dashing and romantic thing. The ubiquity of the Parisian scarf during my trip could have easily been explained by the sub-50 degree weather and rain. In any event, not procuring and wearing a scarf while in Paris would be the same as going to Pamplona to run the bulls and not wearing a red sash.
To this end, I retreated briefly from the luxury of the Place Vendome back to the galleries along the Rue de Rivoli where souvenirs and cheap scarfs abound. After a few minutes looking through the scarf wracks of various vendors, I picked the black and white number shown here...
Long, soft and, in 100% glorious man-made fiber, at least a little water resistant. All of this for a modest five Euros. Just the thing for the solo flaneur out in Paris for the first time.
Then there came the issue of tying my scarf. There are probably entire blogs devoted to the topic. When you become scarf-aware, you see that there are as many ways of tying a Parisian scarf as there are scarfs to begin with. There seems to be no wrong way to do it. It is a pure expression of what P.G. Wodehouse called "the psychology of the individual". I drape-flopped my scarf about my neck and strode back toward the Place Vendome and TMECITW. I found it easy to stride about when decked out in a cool scarf.
One problem then presented itself. My phone told me that the Hemingway Bar did not open until five in the afternoon. Very proper, but when I learned this I had two and a half hours to go. And I was (despite my scarf and LL Bean jacket) in extreme need of hot food and a drink. Or two.
I decided to pop into the Place Vendome Geurlain store. Many years ago, I bought a bottle of Geurlain Coriolan cologne and it immediately became a favorite. Of course, it fell out of production and I could not replace it when it ran out. One of the treats I planned for myself in Paris was a visit to the Geurlain store to try and buy Coriolan. I pushed the heavy door open and escaped momentarily from the rain.
Inside the store, I was pleasantly greeted by two very pretty young clerks in little black dresses. For some reason, I was unable to conjure up any French so I stammered in English what I was looking for. One of the clerks looked mystified and replied that she had never heard of Corolian before. Obviously due to a gap in corporate new clerk training. One would think that in Paris the clerks at such a store would be fully versed in the historical fragrance catalog. Luckily, the other clerk did remember Corolian and said that although they no longer sold it under that name "the same fragrance" was available under another name. I admit that at this point I gave her a fishy look. When she produced a (very large) bottle of cologne, however, and let me smell it, I had to admit that it was just the same as my long-vanished favorite. Delighted, I was ready to purchase the bottle so I inquired as to the price.
I have long ago overcome my reticence at asking how much things cost in fancy boutiques. It must be the result of that time in New York when I was in Dior and, picking an innocuous looking item off a display rack was mortified to discover that the contraption was so daintily balanced that the whole thing fell crashing to the floor. A clerk flew to my side and scoldingly told me "THAT is a five THOUSAND dollar display". As if I had made the deranged thing. At this, I was unable to resist quoting the great criminologist Clouseau when I replied "not any more". I laughed, anyhow.
In the event, the chic young lady in the little black dress quoted me a price for this bottle (named L'Ame d'un Heros according to basenotes.net.) which actually made me blink. And I am not a man who just blinks at random in reply to a statement, I can assure you. I rapidly added the thirty percent exchange "bonus" from Dollars to Euros, and then asked if they had a smaller bottle. Alas, no. The two young women looked at me like an oddity. They were apparently not used to men desiring smaller things. No Corolian pour moi.
All of which put me even more in the mood for a cocktail. I was still almost two hours away from happy hour at the Hemingway Bar. What was the thirsty Epic to do? Why, change course for another legendary watering hole, of course! I was only a short walk away from Harry's New York Bar. At "SANK ROO DOE NOO", an address that it is said every cabbie in Paris knew phonetically. As I turned the corner onto the Rue Daunau, the sun broke through the clouds and the rain stopped. Really. A good omen if ever there was one. I beheld the legendary door...
Inside, I immediately knew this was a Great Bar and my kind of place. They have old college pennants all over the walls, and I found BOTH of my schools represented. An historic, small, private school in Virginia is one thing, but a Florida State pennant? Perfect...
At the bar were four British men trying to work their way through the extensive selection of obscure Scotch. Next to them was a lovely Southern Belle of a certain age reading a novel when she was not debating the virtues of Kentucky Bourbon over Scotch. Perfect people for a bar. I suddenly wondered if I had been hit by a bus exiting Guerlain and suddenly transported to a Better Place. The barman/waiter Rene' looked like a 1920's movie character when he came to my small booth and asked pleasantly for my order. I decided to have a Sidecar. Powerful, but not overwhelming. Brandy, Cointreau and lemon juice, shaken together. Just the elixir to fight the damp chill. I asked if they had any food at that time of day, and Rene' replied "awtdawgs monsieur". Eh? OH, "hot dogs"! I could not resist. And it was all they had. One Sidecar. One "awtdawg" coming right up...
Again, perfect. The drink was superb. And I don't know who makes these hot dogs, but they are marvelous. Based upon the name of the joint, I strongly suspect they derive from New York. Anyhow, a fine, large sized dog with just the right amount of "bite". And all the classic fixings, just like home. I had another Sidecar to celebrate. And another dog.
I realized that it was fast coming upon the opening time for the Hemingway Bar so I trundled out of Harry's fully fortified. Sights set on the Ritz Hotel. Prepared for a Sidecar Challenge.
Monday morning I awoke with the same feeling of bliss. The weather had turned very marginal and heavier rain was beating upon my windows. As a result, I put on my rain gear and headed out across the street from my hotel to the Boulangerie St. Louis where I bought a couple of Pain au Chocolate en route to The Louvre. Nothing like warm rolls with bitter dark chocolate melting in the center to make the rain drops flee. Just like The Louvre. The perfect spot to spend a foul weather day. When I say it was raining, I mean REALLY raining. And I come from a sub-tropical environment so I should know. Luckily, I knew a side entrance into the museum, through a shopping arcade on the Rue de Rivoli. With priority access so us folks with museum passes could skip the line. I slogged down the Isl de Cite and over to the Right Bank. There were lots of people out. All of us looking like rats. I passed the east side of the Louvre...
Looks dry doesn't it? I took this shot the day before. On Monday, I was afraid to take my phone out of my jacket pocket for fear it would become saturated. From this perspective, you continue to the next corner and turn left. Luckily, there are covered arcades all along the street on the north side of the Rue de Rivoli so you can walk along and not get very wet. Assuming, of course, that you were not wet to start with. Actually, my outerwear was so good that I got a lot of rain on me but didn't get very damp.
I found the "secret" side entrance without difficulty, along with about five hundred other people in on the "secret". There are a lot of NICE shops under the Louvre...and of course the ubiquitous...
No hiding from the Appleistas. Not even under the Louvre. Then, a much more famous sight...
I saw a movie about this place. I KNOW who is buried under that point. Looking skyward, the view is just as magnificent...
More important, I was closing in on the spot where my priority access would really pay off. Or not. One think I learned about Paris is that where there is a priority access point one day, the next day there may not be one. For no apparent reason. Anyhow, I got to the access point, showed my museum pass....and was told there was no priority access that day. There, anyhow. The [really] nice guard directed me to a huge set of marble stairs and said that priority access was upward. An official sign said so too, as best I could tell. So up the stairs I went...through a strong looking door....and out into the courtyard of La Pyramides!!
Looks dry doesn't it? That is because it IS dry. I also took this in the evening of the day before to the Flood. This is a very beautiful sight to see in person. I cannot imagine how there could have been such an uproar when the pyramides were constructed. The strong looking door I came out of at the top of the underground stairway was immediately to the left of this photo. When I came, surprised, outside, a sheet of thick rain drops hit me in the kisser. I thought my LL Bean weatherproof coat was in jeopardy of breach. And, again, not to beat a dead horse, but I've worn this outfit in HURRICANES and stayed dry. The weather was really monumentally awful.
Which led me to one of those moments of decision. When you can see vast vistas stretching out before you...in opposite directions. A little cherub on one shoulder saying "this is PARIS...this is the LOUVRE...get in line" a little devil on the other shoulder saying "screw this...you don't stand out in a hurricane in a line with four hundred of your closest friends and wait an hour when there are numerous cozy warm places with........ohhhhhh.......duck..........cheese............WINE.......right nearby". But I am of Norwegian descent after all. A Wisconsin boy. Weather does not deter ME from my appointed rounds. I strode toward the entry line [barely visible on the near side of the pyramid in the photo] bent over to fight the wind and rain. Then, I found that the guard had actually told me the truth. There really was a priority access point and they really did look at my museum pass [luckily it came plastic coated or it would have dissolved] and wave me through into the museum. I should have felt a twinge of guilt for the other 399 people in the line outside. But I didn't. In the world of sightseeing, it is every man for himself. That six-day pass cost me about $200 U.S. dollars and they sent it to me at home before I left for France. A bargain. Even if I had only visited one museum, I would have given that guard $200 to let me cut that line.
Once you get in under the grande pyramide, you take escalators down into the main museum lobby. From there you are on your own. I read that you could spend your life looking at things in the Louvre and I believe it. A brochure said that if you spent three seconds looking at each item on display it would take something like nine months to look at everything. I had three things on my list of things I HAD to see. The Winged Victory of Samonthrace, the Venus de Milo, and, of course, the Mona Lisa. I got two of three. Apparently they move the Venus about to different places on a whim to torture visitors. I never saw her. Walking up a grand staircase, however, I was stunned to see Winged Victory...
I knew nothing about this magnificent sculpture until my wife the Irish Redhead Antiquarian, briefed me on it before the trip and said that I had, had, had to get a shot of it and see it in person. You can learn more of the history of this piece here. I took a few shots from different angles and emailed them to her from my phone. She was thrilled!
I can't do justice to the rest of this museum day. It was everything people say it is and a lot more...just another hallway in the former royal palace...
Got to have some fancy mummies...
Some decorative art for a lady's dressing table from about 1680...
Decorative art from 1765...
Egyptian miniature god and servants....from...well a LONG time ago...[my wife is the antiquities expert, not me]...
Crown jewels are a must...
from Louis the XV ["the beloved", he invented the Baba Au Rhum...]
...the hallway leading to the Mona Lisa's room. It was really not as cramped as it looks since this is a huge hallway. When I got to the door of the room, I got my favorite photo of the trip so far...
Mosh pit time, baby!!!! This room was a lot MORE crowded than it looks. I'm glad I'm not claustrophobic, that's all I can say. And I'm glad the ceilings are VERY high in this room. After a bit, and the distinct feeling as I got closer that I was playing in, and losing, a rugby match somewhere in China, I got close enough to really look her in the eye...
The photo would have been better but for the glare off of the man's head in front of me. I'm not sure, but I think someone addressed him as Charlie Brown. The protective glass in front of the painting and the wooden barricade didn't help either.
I was sort of disappointed in the Mona Lisa to tell you the truth. Too small. Too many people. Too much between you and the painting. I got out of that room as fast as possible and spent a few more hours looking at one excellent exhibit after another including fancy soldiers...
...even fancier courtesans...
and, as far as I could tell, the only portrait of an attorney in the entire Louvre...
...looks sort of like me on a good trial day...
Finally, however, I had seen enough. The Louve is so spectacular, you get a sort of sensory overload after some period of time. They could use a few bars scattered about inside. I'll admit, when I wandered past what seemed to be the entry to the museum restaurant it smelled wonderful. But by then I was done. Out of focus. Blinded by the [gilt tinted] light. I had to go to Angelina. For "the best hot chocolate in the world".
You see, I have more than a few partners in my firm. One in particular has been to Paris several times. When he learned of the plan for my trip, he bounded over to me and said that I had......HAD......to go to Cafe Angelina and get hot chocolate. He swore it was the best in the world. He made ME swear a quest that I would have some and send him a photo of it. The memory of the treat was that good to him. As this fellow is a great friend, and not prone to effusion, I swore the quest. I headed out of the Louvre and headed toward Cafe Angelina, some blocks up the Rue De Rivoli. When I got to the front door of the Cafe...
...I found myself stymied. There were about fifty people waiting in a line. That did not appear to be moving. I was cold, hungry, THIRSTY and not about to stand in line for an undetermined length of time. Even thought the hot chocolate sounded like just the thing at that point in a soggy day. But I had sworn a quest. I stared at the door. At the line. I calculated that I still had five days in Paris. And I shoved off to accomplish another trip objective. The most expensive cocktail in Paris. The Hemingway Bar. The Ritz Hotel.
The rain poured down. I aimed for the Place Vendome and sallied forth...[Monday to be continued...]
Last weekend was very busy. The typical "too many things, too little time" scenario. At one point when I was particularly tired, the Future Rock Star [now 15] and I had to drive to the grocery store.
After making our purchases, we got back in the car in the growing dusk and.....nothing....that dull awful clicking noise a car makes when you turn the key and no juice is flowing to the starter. The thing had worked perfectly for months until that very moment. This is what I LOVE about mechanical things.
I, however, am not mechanical. I just have no talent for fixing things. I have written of this before. My son is more than aware of this. As I stared furious at the ignition key and cursed how we were going to have to call a wrecker or something, I had an odd memory.
When I was 18 and headed off to college, my grandfather came out the morning I was leaving and handed me a canvas bag with some of his tools in it. Just in case I needed to fix anything on my car while I was gone. I was so touched that he would take the time to select some of his life-long collection of tools to give to me, and even more touched that he actually thought that, somewhere inside me, there lurked the ability [albeit very latent] to actually fix a car. My Dad, knowing better, told me that "just in case" I couldn't figure out what tools to use if the car wouldn't start that the first thing to do was to check the battery terminals for corrosion. He reminded me that he had showed me some time before how to remove the battery terminal cable and mix baking soda with water to nullify corrosion of this sort. My mind full of college life to come, I nodded and went on my way.
I used this tip many times afterward, but I had not thought of it in a long time before last weekend. As I sat fuming in the car, I had a vivid recollection of my Dad and Grandpa telling me about battery terminals. Handing me tools that I never really learned how to use properly. The baking soda. I turned my gaze to the supermarket beside me. Told my [now monumentally bored son] I would return in a minute.
Which I did. Armed with a little scrub brush, a box of soda, and a bottle of water. When I told my son we were going to open the hood of the truck, incredulity was perhaps an understatement of his response. Sure enough, when we did, we saw that the positive terminal was covered in corrosive residue. We didn't have a wrench [my grandpas tools are now resident in my garage in a special place] but I showed the FRS how to apply the water and soda, causing tremendous foaming, and how to brush the crud away, rinsing carefully afterward. All well and good. But the car wasn't running. We just had a clean battery terminal.
We returned to the car. We both stared at the ignition. Cranked it. Started like a champ. Which earned me my first son-generated fist bump in quite some time. I was thrilled that this simple thing had worked. That my son could see I could actually DO something [other than just earn money to pay for things] That he was proud of me. And, best of all, that I had been a direct link between my Grandpa and Dad and my son in this small way.
At home, I poured a Scotch on the rocks. Thought about it. Then, as Sammy Davis, Jr. once said, applied just a little pinch of [liquid] soda. It had turned out a great weekend, after all.
I woke up on fine sheets. In that gauzy sort of morning when you cannot immediately determine what time it is. Nor is there a need to know the time. I gazed up at the ancient wooden beams in the ceiling of my hotel room. And at the antique prints of generals and gentlemen near my bed. There was the sound of a soft rain falling outside my two floor to ceiling windows. It was drizzly outside and warm inside. The smell of bakery and fresh coffee drifted into the bedroom from somewhere in the hotel beneath me. I stretched and considered rolling back into sleep. After all, I was in Paris. And I could do anything I wanted to do. All day.
I was intoxicated. No, not by the wine and Calvados I had consumed the day before. Rather, by the idea that I was in the city of my dreams, on the other side of the world, fully enabled. Emancipated from the workaday world. As it turned out, more emancipated from work than I thought at the time.
I lingered with morning grooming, fooling about with a new razor and some very good Portugese shave creme. Then out to the Rue Saint-Louis and off to the Pompidou Centre for a bracing dose of Modern Art and my first planned meal of the trip. As I walked through the drizzle I realized that despite my excitement level I was hungry. At the end of the street were four great looking cafes, at the intersection where you cross the Pont Saint-Louis heading to Notre Dame. I braced for my first order of a petite dejuner en Francais and squeezed into the lovely little Le Flore en L'ille cafe on the Quai d'Orleans.
The place was busy and I wondered vaguely what time it was. With the kismet that followed me the entire trip, there was one table open and I was shown to it right away.
One tip. When you are sitting down at a Parisian cafe table, take your all weather coat off before you sit. The buildings that house most places worth going to eat in Paris are very old and thus very small. As a result, the tables are very close together. This makes for a great chance to meet fellow diners, share commentary about the menu or the food and wine, to eavesdrop or to otherwise generally add to the solo dining experience. That being said, it is a critical mistake to try and remove your jacket after sitting, especially when you sport an Edwardian sort of physique. This results in the sartorial equivalent of a professional wrestling match and will draw raised eyebrows from the involuntary participants sitting beside you.
My favorite morning pastry is pain au chocolate, a roll with dark chocolate baked in the center. Due to whatever time it was, the waiter sadly informed me that they had sold out of la pain. I settled for a fresh baked huge croissant which was so buttery and flaky that my usual habit of spreading jam [preferably raspberry] on a croissant was made unnecessary. I realized that I had never eaten a real croissant before. Putting jam on what I was then eating would have just been wrong. I also ordered the ubiquitous "une grand creme", strong coffee with hot milk. You can get really great coffee almost everywhere in Paris of one sort or another. I never had a cup that was anything short of outstanding. I did eventually return home, fulfilling my wife's only restriction on the trip, and I have taken to making Cuban style espresso every morning with lots of milk. In a Paris cityscape tourist mug I brought home for the purpose.
At a table just in front of me was a man about my age with a striking young woman. In her early twenties, a foot taller than her companion, blond with eyes like sapphires, wearing a fitted white parka with fur trim at the hood and wrists. The jacket probably came from Gstaad. I figured her for Denmark's representative in the Miss Universe pageant. How she kept her eyes off me is still a mystery.
Despite the numerous advantages that doubtless attend finding oneself in the company of a Miss Denmark half your age, certain downsides also seem to pertain to the adventure. A certain volatility of emotion, for example. The couple seemed to be having a normal breakfast until MD's sapphire eyes blazed lightning and she stood up. I suspected that he had said the wrong thing. Rising to her full, slender, astoundingly well dressed height MD then cast some Euro notes on the table, speaking rapidly but under her breath to the somewhat mystified looking man who was trying to mollify her. He touched her arm, which I knew from experience to be a critical error.
One time, many years ago, I had the experience in a very fine restaurant of having a gorgeous redhead rise from a table like that and cast a heavy linen napkin on her chair. It seemed to me as if I had said the wrong thing. A neophyte in the world of gorgeous redheads at the time, even I had the good sense not to TOUCH her when she stood up. After a bit, she came back to the table. Perfectly composed and mystified that I thought my time with her had concluded. We were eventually married. So it all worked out for the best. Regardless, I suspect that grabbing her sleeve in the moment could have significantly altered the course of events.
Miss Denmark gave a firm, but elegant, twitch of her Cartier bangled wrist and stepped toward the door. At which point the man said about four words of something she wanted to hear and she returned to her seat. Gave him a Miss Universe caliber smile. Returned to her breakfast. I thought the fellow looked rather tired at that point, for that time of day, but the hour may not have been the reason.
I have mentioned Liebling before. In my repeated readings of his opus "Between Meals, An Appetite For Paris" over the years, it occurred to me to make a list of the places where he mentioned dining. So that when I got to go to Paris, I could go to them too. Sort of a tribute tour. Romantics are always doing things like that. Sewing seeds in fields which may never see a drop of rain. There were only a handful of Liebling's favorites that survived from the 1920s, however. La Closerie de Lilas, the Restaurant des Beaux Artes on the Rue Bonaparte. Chez Benoit.
Benoit has a history stretching back to 1912. In my pre-trip investigations, I determined that it is still in operation, in the same location as in Liebling's day. The place was bought by the great Chef Alain Ducasse a couple of years ago but the restaurant web site, and more importantly, the menu, give a strong nod to the past. Tres' classique. Liebling went there for pot au feu. I would go for his second favorite. Cassoulet.
I made a reservation for a late "Parisian" lunch at two in the afternoon of the second day I was in town. I resisted the urge to go to my first Liebling spot on Saturday after my arrival due to the nefarious effects of jet lag. It was a wise idea. When a gourmand and an epicurean walks through the door of Benoit for the first time, he had better be on his feed. Plus, I thought a good wander down the Quai des Fleures and over the Seine to the Chatelet area from my hotel followed by another good wander through the Pompidou Centre's exhibits would be an excellent way to wind up my appetite after the croissant and drama I had consumed for breakfast.
So I wandered through the cold drizzle, reveling in the experience that is Paris on a Spring morning. I managed to use my museum pass to get into the Pompidou Centre via the express entry, and rode the series of tubular escalators to the top floor. It is worth the price of admission to see the tremendous views which are afforded on the escalator ride. Once you get to the top, there is an expensive cafe with million Euro views and (reportedly) good food. At the top, I ran into my first bureaucratic snafu. I was allowed to cut to the front of the long exhibit line with my museum pass but then denied entry for a reason my rudimentary French could not decipher. The docent kindly showed me to the escalator and told me to go to the original entry point. On the first level. After a few minutes of attempted communication with a very friendly and memorably pretty security guardess I realized that the top floor access was a temporary exhibit of Matisse...not included on the museum pass. By this time, I realized it was too late to go back to the exhibits as my 2:00 p.m. reservation at Benoit was in peril. I conceded defeat and left the building, an escalator ride to the better, no art viewed. Priorities must be maintained.
The front door of Benoit [which Liebling pushed open himself!] opened to the past. Fresh flowers. Small tables. Heavy silver. Crystal glasses. Seriously professional waiters. France. In its distilled essence. I was ushered to a small banquette. A total rookie. Treated as an old friend. My houndstooth Polo trousers, black blazer and snazzy pocket handkerchief did not hurt. This is a shot of the main dining room of Benoit when you enter the front door...
The first waiter presented three menus. And a wine list. The second waiter asked if I desired an aperitif. She recommended a new brand [to me anyway] of Pastis, Henri Bardouin. I ordered it. It tasted like aged Pernod. A very nice start to the meal. Then the gougeres were presented on antique Benoit china. A perfect Gruyere cheese puff pastry. Slightly crunchy on the outside and soft and cheesy inside. Delightful.
I studiously read through all the menus [100 year anniversary; prix fixe; and a'la carte] and the extensive wine list. The second waiter presented himself to inquire whether I had made selections. I was sitting just below the painting at the back of this photo:
Across the aisle from me was a Parisian man, dressed in a crisp white dress shirt and a tailored navy blazer. A mane of white hair. Pale blue pocket handkerchief casually tossed into his pocket. Beautiful watch. No doubt the figurehead of some ancient noble family. Or a scion of some sort at least. Next to me was a young couple who seemed even more excited to be at Benoit than I was. They took photos of each others food each course with their phones.
I then committed my first Parisian faux pas. I ordered wine. From the waiter. Who looked out of sorts but politely told me that the somnelier would take that order. I got the feeling that, had the waiter taken my wine order, fisticuffs or some other sort of Gallic donnybrook would have erupted. The wine steward appeared and took my order for a bottle of Chateau Fourcas Bordeaux, 2009. I know almost nothing of wine, as I readily admit, but every wine list I viewed in Paris had a massive selection of wines at prices to suit every imbiber. The Fourcas was a low-mid price Bordeaux and I found it towering in its contribution to the meal.
As the wine was being opened, the waiter brought a surprise from the chef, Rillettes de Lapin. I love rabbit so this was a real treat...
Rillettes is a classic meat spread, typically made from pork, but the Benoit treatment of this dish was just perfect. The taste of the rabbit was fresh and uncomplicated and the spread was creamy and perfectly complimented by crispy toasts.
Then my first course arrived. Smoked salmon. Cut in long, thick strips with a few slices of baby carrot and green onion. No capers. No creme cheese. Just the fish. Fresh. Buttery. Perfectly smoky. I have had a lot of smoked salmon in my gastronomic life since it is one of my favorite dishes. This was far beyond any salmon I have ever had. It was ethereal. So good I felt that it was almost silly to eat anything after it. I felt myself slipping into a salmon induced dream state. This euphoria did not count the happy effects of either the Chateau Fourcas or of the silver bowl of marvelous fingerling potatoes simply dressed in light mayonnaise and mustard that was served with the salmon. Or the plate of the same perfect house made crisps which had accompanied the rillettes. I had to force myself to cut the salmon into very small pieces to subdue the urge for wholesale gobbling and to prolong the pleasure of eating it. I seriously considered ordering a second portion, but I demurred. The cassoulet was arriving.
When I ordered it, the waiter beamed with delight. As if to say "here is a disciple of Liebling". It arrived in a crock. Lid on. The waiter opened it and the aroma of the Cassoulet coursed over me.
As he spooned the lamb sausage, tender navy beans, broth, ham and duck onto my plate, the waiter told me "when you eat this cassoulet we will bring you some more". At that point, there were still two more servings in the crock on my table. Another thing I adore about Parisian dining is that you are expected to take your time and indulge in the experience. I think that Liebling would have at least approved of my effort in finishing off two of the three servings in the chef's initial presentation, but I just could not finish the entire crock. The dropping temperature outside the restaurant and the heavy rain against the windows near my table only made the choice of a rich, steaming, Cassoulet more perfect. The flavor of the dish was tremendous as the duck, ham and lamb blended perfectly in the broth and the beans were cooked to a perfect texture. The aromas of the dish continued throughout and made each bite sublime. Even the bread crumbs that top the cassoulet were browned just enough and added both texture and flavor. This hearty dish was a perfect compliment to the increasingly wonderful Bordeaux. As he cleared the dish, the waiter told me "your mother would be proud of your efforts monsieur, your grandmother would be disappointed". He must have met my Swedish grandmother somewhere who felt slighted if one scrap of her food remained on the table after its conclusion. This dish was rustic but fine, obviously made by people who loved Cassoulet and took great pride in its preparation.
I fully intended to have a cheese course, but after two servings of cassoulet I realized that for cheese I would have to skip dessert. And there was no way I was not having the dessert which had immediately caught my eye on the menu. The fabled Savarin a' l'Armagnac. A cousin of the equally fabled Baba au Rhum, this simple but magnificent dessert consists of slices of fresh cake with a richly vanilla flavor, soaked in Armagnac poured from the bottle, and accompanied by the heaviest Chantilly creme I have ever seen...
No need for a digestif after this dessert, I can assure you. I put just a touch more Armagnac on the cake. The waiter left the bottle on the table and with a grin said "if you finish off this bottle we have plenty more, we will bring you another one." Accompanied by a small pot of strong coffee, the Savarin was the crown of a joyous and luxuriously long meal. I noticed that the young couple next to me was debating what dessert to have so I solemnly placed the bottle of Armagnac on their table. They began laughing...and ordered a Savarin to share between them. Rookies.
It is rare for me to feel absolutely satisfied and content after dining but that was just how I felt as the waiter cleared the devastated Savarin from the field of play. This was a great meal. If I could have consumed another sip or bite, I would have had a big snifter of Cognac and a cigar. If I still smoked cigars, and if you could smoke them inside the restaurant. I wanted to order the entire meal over again, right away. Instead, I chose to merely sit at my table and smile while looking over the menu again. Replaying the meal in my mind. Then the waiter brought the final surprise of the afternoon...
A little plate of sweets to give me something to do while I finished my coffee. Hazelnut bars and two [I ate one before taking the photo] dense, marvelous dark chocolates. Oh, and a little while after that, I was offered [and graciously accepted] a newly baked lemon cookie. My day was complete. Another Paris day, another long, sublime dining experience. There were many more to come. But, in the end, I think that Liebling would be so very happy that one of his favorite places is still around and still ever so memorable, not having missed a beat since Liebling last dined there. And it is now one of my favorites too.
Post Script: I stepped out of Benoit into a steady, cold rain and headed home to the Hotel Saint-Louis en L'Isle for a nap. Later I trudged through the rain to the Pompidou Centre and spent the rest of the day looking at one incredible modern art display after another. My phone/camera died some time during my nap and I had no way to record this visit. Suffice to say it was very easy to find ones way about, the exhibits were fascinating, and the museum store was irresistible. Perhaps the best moment of the afternoon post-Benoit was overhearing a young British couple who were standing at a hallway corner ....the fellow said to his wife in that patented British university droll tone..."darling, it is an empty wall....we are looking at a BLANK WALL...". Which was true. My amusement at the couple's expense was short lived when about an hour later I found myself peering into a lucite display case...at an empty pedestal where some objet d'art had previously been sitting thinking the pedestal was the item on display. In my defense, it was a pretty nice looking pedistal. And at least there was SOMETHING inside the case.
I left the Pompidou Centre at closing time and headed back to the Isl Saint-Louis, tired but with sufficient juice in the batteries to carry me to the Pledge Bar for a nightcap of Calvados. I toasted Liebling. And Chef Ducasse for preserving such a grand and lovely restaurant as Chez Benoit.
In my mid 50s, husband, father and itinerant storyteller. I am a putative jazz singer, poet and novelist, dedicated to mining every minute of life for the veins of pleasure they contain. My motto is "Dum Vivimus, Vivamus"..."While we Live--LET US LIVE".