Monday, 26 May 2008, Artistic Nancy

(Written 28 May 2008)

art nouveau facadeblue art nouveau facadeAfter another "express" breakfast at the bar, rounded out with more of my mirabelle prunes from St. Mihiel, it was off to the tourist office to slap down our outrageous deposits for another set of MP3 audioguides, this time of the Art Nouveau architecture of Nancy. Art Nouveau got started around the turn of the 20th century and drew its inspiration from nature, in particular from plant life. The École de Nancy was a leading movementment within it, so as a result, Nancy has a fine collection of Art Nouveau architecture, a well as a unique museum of École de Nancy work. But, as we discovered on showing up at the tourism office on a Monday morning, the museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Drat. We resolved therefore to make do with the architecture and then to visit the city art museum in the afternoon. The tour (actually the inner loop of the tour, which continued through a second circuit that covered more ground than we had time or energy for) visited 12 buildings that illustrated the style, including several banks and the Nancy chamber of commerce. The two I show here are wooden, but many were stone, cement, or iron.

art nouveau facadeblue art nouveau facadeAt most of the stops, we could only view the building's facade, but at one, a bank that appeared resolutely modern on the outside, the audioguide said, "Don't hesitate to go in and look at the skylight," which we did. It was, at the time, the largest skylight ever constructed, and the same bank that commissioned it still occupies the building. The sprays of maple leaves and keys are from the wrought-iron ornamentation of the Chamber of Commerce building.

trompe l'oeilface carIn addition to the Art Nouveau, we also passed many lovely examples (unmentioned by the audioguide) of trompe l'oeil wall paintings, which we're very fond of. Some were merely decorative, others good enough really to fool the eye. For example, I had spotted the tree and railing as painted from the distance where I took this photo, but only when we crossed the street and walked by them did I realize both both doors are, too. Only the sconces and the two cement buttresses are real (the urns that top them are not). Both the walls flanking this one are also entirely blank and painted in trompe l'oeil (windows with people and cats looking out). In the photo of the car emerging from an inner courtyard, the car and its gate are false, but the door beside them is real.

The tour ended at the Brasserie Flo Excelsior, not entirely to our surprise, because the write-up in our coffee-table book emphasizes that the brasserie was considered, when it was built, to be the very flower and epitome of l'École de Nancy. This time, we took no chances. Since we were there already, I went in and made dinner reservations.

saladspongebobBack at the tourism office, we turned in our MP3 players and went around the corner to the Museum of Fine Arts. Like the other museums we've encountered this trip, they're very obliging about letting you exit for lunch and return on the same ticket, so after an hour or so, we went out and prospected around the Place Stanislas for lunch. We settled on the Grand Café Foy, where David ordered a salad with lardons, potatoes, boiled egg, tomatoes, mayo, and vinaigrette, and I (somewhat embarrassed) ordered the salad of smoked salmon and crab "à la Bob l'éponge" (i.e. "Bob the sponge," which is what the French call Sponge-Bob Squarepants), which also included orange and grapefruit segments, fromage blanc with chives, potatoes, and breadsticks. Okay, tell me, you Lutzes out there, is SBSP especially fond of smoked salmon? Or is it the grapefruit and breadsticks? For dessert, I ordered a "coupe Amarena," three balls of rich vanilla ice cream topped with a scoop of sour morello cherries preserved in syrup. Wow. When I finished it and sat looking wistfully at the empty dish, David hustled me out of the place before I could order another.

Back at the museum, we duly looked at all its holdings, which tended heavily to 18th- and 19th- century religious art and portraiture. Nice enough, but too many people and not enough still-life for my taste. I actually liked some of the modern art best of all. My favorite was a small sound-proof room into which one stepped and closed the door ("One at a time," the sign said; "please don't slam the door, and watch out for the water."). The room was dark, and entirely covered inside with mirrors (including the ceiling and the door, which is why it should not be slammed), and illuminated only by strings of tiny colored Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. One could take two or three cautious steps forward along a walkway provided for the purpose, which was surrounded on three sides by calm, reflective water. The mirrors were angled just right so that, as you entered, you could see yourself in the distance but only in the corners. From the end of the walkway, you could see only an infinity (up, down, and on all sides) of little colored points of light. In fact my description of the room as "small" is based only on the assumption that the end of the walkway was at the center. I loved it—very calming. If I had one, I'd put a chair in there and just sit for a while from time to time. I tried to take a picture, but with so little light it came out blurred. It was untitled, but Douglass Adams fans will always think of it as the Total Perspective Vortex.

In the basement, David was delighted to discover parts of the town's original fortifications, excavated during renovations and now part of the museum's exhibits. But best of all, also in the basement, was the Daum collection (see below)—art glass from the famous Daum glassworks, headquartered in Nancy. All except the very earliest and the very latest was Art Nouveau, and it was gorgeous! A wonderful consolation prize for missing the Musée de l'École de Nancy.

For dinner, we walked back up to the Flo Excelsior, and it's just as well we reserved. Even without Mothers' Day, it was hopping. The waiters were amazing professional, very friendly, but fast, zooming around as though on roller skates.

flo excelsiorflo fernsThe decor is all it's cracked up to be. Besides all the usual polished-wood-and-brass of any classic brasserie, the ceilings feature magnificent high-relief ferns (the largest more than 10 feet long), and around the edges of all the windows is glass etched with wonderfully realistic botanical motifs: sprays of pine needles and cones, branches of ginkgo or sycamore, poppies, a different species for each window. You can see the gingko branches in the photo of the ceiling, but they're out of focus, and again, I couldn't manage to get decent close-ups.

tapenadeAmouse-bouche, both: a little black olive tapenade with toasts.

salmonFirst course, David: "Marbré" (i.e., "marbled") of salmon: bundles of raw and moist cooked salmon and leeks, all wrapped in slices of smoked salmon, sliced into rounds, and served with a delicious horseradish cream and cooked green onions.

First course, me: Traditional fishermen's soup. They bring you a little piping hot china tureen full of thick, rusty-brown soup and, on the side, a dish of crisp round toasts, a dish of "rouille" (a fierce, garlicky, rust-colored mayo), and a dish of grated gruyère. You spread rouille on the toasts and throw them into the soup, along with pinches of cheese, to taste. A favorite of mine. I've never managed to duplicate the soup at home, but in France you can buy big jars of quite a good rendition at supermarkets and fish counters. You can even get rouille in jars.

choucrouteMain course, David: A speciality of the house (and of many brasseries), choucroute garnie. The two sausages, slab of grilled bacon, black pudding, braised ham hock, and slice of moist and tender pork cover a couple of boiled potatoes and about a pound of wonderfully mild and tasty sauerkraut. Yum!

rognonsMain course, me: A cocotte (small, round, covered cast-iron pot) of veal kidneys and sweetbreads, braised together with port wine, mushrooms, potatoes, spinach, and (because it's the season) one spear of asparagus. They brought the pot to the table and left it for me to spoon out the goodies as I chose. Delicious!

Dessert, me (David skipped it): Coffee, vanilla, and morello cherry ice creams. Good, but they didn't recreate the effect of the coupe Amarena.

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Here, by way of eye candy, are some of my photos of the Daum collection. The phantom children among them are reflections on the glass cases of a crowd of elementary-school kids who were there at the same time. These are not necessarily the most beautiful pieces—just the ones of which my photos came out best. In the snake plate, note the blackberries, which aren't as prominent as the rest of the design.

muguetlily snakefish hyacinthmushroom