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Thursday, January 26, 2012

City of Lights

For many years Paris was our hub to Europe from the States, but with the 2004 collapse and temporary closure of Terminal 2E at Charles De Gaulle, Paris became inefficient. London, Zurich or Frankfurt became better choices. When I checked my diaries, I was surprised that we hadn’t been to Paris since May 2006; more than five years ago. And this was just a quick overnight visit from London to see friends Regine and François.

On Thursday morning, January 19, the Eurostar whisked us in just over two hours from London’s St. Pancras to Paris’ Gard du Nord; then a twenty minute car ride had us to the always pleasant Four Seasons Hotel George V.
The City of Light at first glance lacked its traditional sparkle; La Ville-Lumière seemed dimmed into a funk. The weather was damp with low and heavy cloud, well matched to the dreary economic climate now hanging over the Euro Zone. I wondered if all this would affect our trip. After a quick lunch, we were out walking the length of Rue Saint-Honoré; the smart shops were not as bustling as I had remembered.

As it turns out, the cadence of our long weekend in Paris was to be a beat of transition and change, but ironically, also continuity.

Upon our arrival to George V, I asked the concierge if there might be a cancellation at Taillevent for dinner and it seemed luck was with us – a reservation for 8:00 pm was available. Taillevent is a short stroll from the hotel, on Rue Lamennais.  The wonderful restaurant has been around since 1946, guided by the ever watchful Vriant family. Under the founder’s son, Jean-Claude, the restaurant prospered, receiving 3-Stars Michelin in 1973. Sadly, he died in January 2008 at only 71, and the restaurant passed to his daughter Valérie, with the financial help of the Gardinier family.
This evening the restaurant was only half filled, I had never seen the place as empty; reservations were always hard to come by. But everything remained marvelously the same; our Dover sole main course was fantastic. The room is wood paneled, overflowing with flowers and art; soft to the eye, and the staff prescient to the client’s every need.
Toward the end of our meal, the long time maître d’hôtel, Jean-Marie Ancher came over to talk. We mentioned that we had been dining here for almost two decades, and passed on our condolences regarding Mr. Vriant.  As we were finishing our espressos and petit-fours Jean-Marie said Jean-Claude still guides him daily. I then mentioned to him the habit forming effects of their caramels and pulled one out of my pocket, confessing I had stolen it for later. In a moment, I had a small plate full of caramels for the road; Jean-Marie confessed that he shared my addiction.
Michelin Guide downgraded Taillevent in 2008 to two-stars in what seemed to most a callous and capricious move. It remains Zagat’s number one for food in Paris and the chef, Alain Solivérès, continues on at the restaurant since his start in 2002. For me everything was just right in spite of the absence of the impeccably dressed Jean-Claude with his permanently affixed yet subtle Mona Lisa smile. French pride and patrimony protect institutions such as Taillevent; I am confident in its survival.

We awoke Friday to another sullen day. After breakfast, we were off to Musée du Luxembourg and the “Cézanne et Paris” exhibit.  Cézanne is more famous for his emblematic scenes of South of France, but he spent more than half his life in Paris; the collection celebrates this time with about 80 works depicting the City and environs.
It was then off to our friends at Freego, sisters Nadia and Katia, who have a wonderful cashmere shop. Since last in Paris, it moved from its longtime location on Rue Dauphine on the left bank, to a location close by at 11 Rue Jacob.  The new shop seems a little bit bigger. After a small shopping spree, Nadia suggested we have lunch at a nearby restaurant, La Crémerie, 9 Rue des Quatre Vents. We had a great time, but more on this wonderful place later.
Dinner was at the hotel’s grand restaurant, Le Cinq.  Our starters were good, but our main course of slow cooked, Moroccan scented lamb was somewhat fatty and a disappointment. All was made well; however, by the voluptuous 1990 Volnay Pitures from Jean-Marc Boillot.

The weather hadn’t improved as we walked a bit more Saturday morning. In the afternoon we took in another exhibit, this one at the Gran Palais featuring a massive display of the Stein family’s (Gertrude and her three brothers) Picasso’s, Matisse’s, Cézanne’s and others gathered from over 100 collections on five continents – magnificent but very, very crowded.
The most pleasing time was left for dinner tonight; Nadia and Katia invited us back to La Crémerie.  It’s hard to describe this restaurant; originally an old dairy shop. The owner, Serge Mathieu, is an architect by training, but finally succumbed to his passions for wine and food about seven years ago and bought the place. It’s tiny, ten or twelve seats; walls lined with wine; a beautiful hand painted tile ceiling, a giant, completely ill proportioned 1936 bright red Berkel meat slicer sitting on a cramped bar, with four stools tucked under it. This is where we sat, almost as guests of honor.
We started with champagne, I don’t recall the producer, but all Serge’s wines are artisanal, most organically produced. We continued with Burrata di Corato and tomato, a plate of slow simmered eggplant, tomatoes and onion; duck confit and a smoked tuna so good that it cannot be described. Serge’s wife Helen helped; rich conversations ensued; the playlist softly in the background, eclectic and a perfect fit. I can close my eyes, smell the charcuterie, and hear “Baby I’m a Fool” from the smoky voice of Melody Gardot even as I write.

After another long walk Sunday morning, we took an early afternoon Eurostar back to London. I mentioned in the beginning that this trip became about change and yet also things staying the same. Taillevent transitioned from Jean-Claude Vrinat’s professional hands to a new generation, but the spirit lives on; Nadia and Katia are in a new location, but their fashions endure; La Crémerie, once a dairy, is reincarnated to still serve its locals nourishment, for both stomachs and minds. Serge is still an architect, just designing delicious dishes instead of buildings.
I too changed. I realized that my last Paris trip was just a quick interlude from a three week trip to London. On the flight home on May 18, 2006 I pretty much decided to sell my remaining interest in my businesses; I talked to my friend and partner Walter that same week and we came to an easy agreement. We signed our sale agreement shortly thereafter.
So my last time in Paris I was a full time automobile dealer; this trip a relaxed retiree. But I too remain the same, still curious about places and things; and part of me continues to be a restless soul.  

And yes, Paris has changed a bit too, but remains the "City of Light."