Thursday, 5 June 2008, Grandeur et romance

(Written 9 June 2008)

For many years after PBS travel guru Rick Steves made them famous as that little inexpensive hotel in a terrific location that everyone hopes to find in Paris, the folks at the Grand Hotel Leveque held the line, choosing to stay threadbare and a little shabby but clean and inexpensive. This year, though, change began to be evident. The prices were higher (though still eminently reasonable considering the wonderful location on the rue Cler), and the bare-bones continental breakfast had given way to the continental buffet.

And perhaps best of all, their small but servicable shower stall completed the set—we batted 1000 this year, and without just sticking with the big chain hotels. Every single place we stayed had entirely acceptable shower facilities. Sure, there was that one place where they'd installed the glass half-wall at the opposite end of the tub from the shower head, but they're definitely getting the idea!

Between our excellent continental breakfast and our second dinner with Françoise, we had another footloose and fancy-free day in Paris, so we got out our copy of L'Officiel des Spectacles, acquired for the purpose (35 euro-cents at any newsstand), and studied the possibilities.n On this particular day, we settled on two possibilities: the Grand Palais and the Musée de la Vie Romantique.

grand palaisnefThe Grand Palais (the "Big Palace," as opposed to the "Little Palace" across the street from it) was never a palace in the sense of being a royal residence—more like the "Cow Palace" (Dorton Arena) on the NC state fairgrounds, a large imposing building. It was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900 (the one after the Chicago World's Fair of 1893), as an exhibition hall, and was used afterwards for car shows, horse shows, air shows (they hung a full-size blimp from the ceiling), etc. We've had it on our list for years, but the current exhibition didn't interest us, or we couldn't fit it into the schedule, or it was closed (the nave was closed for years of renovation after a rivit fell from the roof). This time, though, it was open. First we went to see the nave, a tour de force of cast iron and glass; it's big! It happened to house, when we were there, "Promenade" by Richard Serra, the second of a planned annual series of monumental works of art, each commissioned to make effective use of the huge indoor space. That's it (them?) in the photo, the large rust-colored metal slabs, none of them quite vertical. Note the people standing around among them (it?) for scale.

grand palais galleryNext, we thought we'd go see one of the exhibitions on offer in the other side of the building, which functions as an art gallery, so we walked around to the facade through which you enter that section, trying to decide between the life of Marie Antoinette through art and "Figuration Narrative, 1960-1972." What the heck is "narrative figuration?" Artists who stuck with representational art when abstract was all the rage? The poster outside the door revealed the secret—comic-book art. So we joined the line for Marie Antoinette, which didn't seem too long. But when we'd been there 20 minutes, watching bus-loads of folks with advance reservations go in through a second entrance, while our line budged not one step, we decided to blow off Marie and head for the other museum.

Since walking to the second-nearest Metro stop (Concorde) would take us there by the most direct route, and since the Paris branch of W. H. Smith (our favorite source for books published in the U.K. but not yet available in the U.S.) was right there, we made a little detour to pick up the latest Terry Pratchett and a George MacDonald Fraser we didn't have.

The Metro then whisked us to the St. George stop, from which we strolled toward the Musée de la Vie Romantique, prospecting for lunch on the way. A little restaurant called "le Mini-bus" looked good, so we stopped in. I had my usual salad with gizzards, followed by ice cream, and David once again opted for steak tartare (the best rendition yet, to my taste) and absolutely outstanding fries. I was curious about the name, so I asked the waitress why the place was called "the mini-bus"; she looked surprised and said, "I have absolutely no idea!" So much for oral history.

george sandFrançoise lists Vie Romantique as her favorite museum in Paris. It's quite small, just a few rooms in an old house, and it's dedicated to the lives of artist Ary Scheffer and writer George Sand. Scheffer lived and worked there, and Sand and a number of other artists and writers hung out, as his students or just for the intellectual life. You enter through a narrow alley between two large buildings, which then widens out into the courtyard and garden in front the of house. The collection includes many portraits of Sand, including this handsome bust. We skipped the temporary exhibition, which was "Golden Age of German Romanticism" and just visited the permanent collection, which is free.

tea gardenA little tearoom has been set up in the small greenhouse attached to the building, and behind this screen of roses are half a dozen little wrought-iron tables where you can sip your tea and nibble your slice of cake under the trees. A lovely find indeed; we recommend it.

All too soon, it was time to head back to the hotel to meet Françoise for our last dinner in Paris (and in France). We walked just around the corner and up the street to "Le Violon d'Ingres" (Ingres was a painter, and "the violin of Ingres" is a French idiom meaning a passtime or hobby). The restaurant has lost a G-M point since last year, because the chef has stopped being as adventurous as he used to be and is just producing the same old very good food. But we're not complaining.

Amuse-bouche, all: As always, a dish of crisp radishes, a large slab of butter, and a dish of coarse salt. For some reason, the French always serve radishes with butter and salt.

First course, Françoise: A delicious cream of mushroom soup ladled over roasted mushrooms and sautéed foie gras.

First course, David: Marinated raw "daurade royale" (Sparus aurata) and langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus) with crisp fennel, ginger, and lemon.

lobsterFirst course, me: Salad of lobster, diced vegetables, and apples in a (very mild) horseradish sauce.

lobsterSecond course, David: "Veritable cassoulet Montalbanais," and highly veritable it was, too. Sausages, pork, and duck baked to melting tenderness with big white beans in a delicious sauce.

ris de veauSecond course, Françoise and me: Veal sweatbreads baked in a pastry shell with mushrooms on the side. Outstanding!

chocolateDessert, Françoise: "Feuillantine" of guanaja chocolate, chocolate ice cream in a chocolate cup on the side. A cylinder of creamy chocolate atop a crispy layered pastry base. Yum.

Dessert, David: A poached white peach, "Melba style," i.e., with cream and raspberry sauce.

raspberriesDessert, me: Creamy mascarpone topped with raspberries, dressed with a sauce of honey and lime juice, and sprinkled with pistachios. Wow. What a great combination. I'm going to have to experiment with honey and lime juice!

Then fond farewells to Françoise and an early night, in preparation for an early morning the next day.

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