The Streets, the Sex, the Scandals

November 6th, 2016

la_bigne_valtesseIn the annals of self-invention, Emilie-Louise Delabigne was an Olympian. Giving herself an invented first name that rhymed with the French for “your highness” and inserting spaces that made her surname seem more aristocratic, she also christened herself a “Comtesse.” In reality, Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was the teenage prostitute daughter of a prostitute mother. For single, working-class women in 19th century Paris, selling one’s flesh was one of the few routes for upward mobility. And how she rose!

As chronicled in the page-turning biography The Mistress of Paris: The 19th Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret, Valtesse graduated from being a grisette (streetwalker) to a lorette (kept woman) to, ultimately, the surprisingly refined realm of courtesan–a high-priced, publicly revered mistress to wealthy and powerful men. Her lovers included military men, politicians, even painters such as Eduard Detaille. Emile Zola’s novel Nana was based in part on her, and Manet painted her portrait. When politician Leon Gambetta accidentally shot himself, the press wondered if Valtesse–his neighbor–was somehow involved, and she was also name-dropped in the scandalous anti-semitic milestone, the Dreyfus Affair.

mistressShe was a unique beauty, with red hair that was marveled at in society pages–which tracked her movements the way TMZ chronicles the Kardashians today. But looks alone are not what catapulted Valtesse to riches and public fascination. A classic auto-didact, she was a voracious reader, a savvy political observer, and an astute collector of art. It’s clear that distinguished men paid handsomely for her company both in and out of bed.

The sheer willpower of Valtesse reverberates off the pages of Catherine Hewitt’s book. Valtesse deposits her two sickly babies with her mother, paying for their keep. She sleeps with journalists in exchange for good press. She rarely if ever revealed any of her sorrows…it wasn’t becoming. And so, while the Herculean task of maintaining beauty, fashionability and mystique is carefully documented in this book, there are few hints of any real underlying sorrow. Was she really so calculating that true love never touched her? We get a clear view of the public Valtesse, but not enough of the woman in private.

Valtesse knew how to make people want more. This book does, as well. That hollowness at its cor e perhaps simply reflects a characteristic of its heroine. (Towards the end of her life, when she no longer needed to perpetuate a mythic status, Valtesse had her ancestors painted on the walls of her home. All but one were fictional.) Still, the easy-to-read, if cliche writing (“As voices hummed and glasses clinked, the staff move about silently, each performing his or her role to perfection.”) is a guilty-pleasure way to bone up on French history and social life from the 1850s to the turn of the 20th century.

More New Museums!

October 28th, 2016

glass-works-museumI often lament that France feels more and more like a museum–it’s beautiful and classic, but backwards in its bloated bureaucracy, turgid politics and social nostalgia. It is ossified to the point where many tourists–I’d say most tourists–come just to look at it, eat great bread, and feel nostalgic. Well, I do like museums. And France will see at least 15 new ones between here and 2019, according to the newspaper Le Figaro. Yet another museum dedicated to perfume will open in Paris, while more far-flung locations will see the likes of an art glass museum. Art Forum has some details in English.

Sweet and Simple Bistro in the Marais

October 26th, 2016

tinIt’s tucked away on a Marais side street, at 8 Rue de Jouy, that I’d almost forgotten about Metropolitain. The neighborhood standby has been around as long as I can remember with its cherry red storefront dotted with portholes. Passing it last month, I saw they had a 20€ two-course lunch menu and decided to give it a whirl.

Looking like a typical neighborhood bistro, Metropolitain has a white tiled wall with vintage movie posters with opposite walls of exposed stone along with wood tables and bentwood chairs. Touches of fall and Halloween, including pumpkins and gourds, lined the shelves along with bottles of red wine.

The 20€ lunch was the daily entrée and plat (appetizer and main course) special, with no other choices, but luckily it was two things that I liked. A not-so-salty olive tapenade cleverly served in a sardine tin on a cutting board with dried toast on the side was first. A house-cured salmon gravlax served with radish salmonrosettes and dots of beet juice was the entrée. The freshness and flavor of the salmon clearly came through as the curing was not too strong or smoky, and the beet dots gave a subtle but recognizable sweetness to it.

Next up, my plat was roasted codfish with rosemary served with broccoli mousseline. The codfish was perfectly cooked, tasting more steamed than roasted, but I didn’t taste the rosemary. Mousseline and pureed vegetables have been a long-time staple accompaniment to plats but as of late you don’t see it much on menus anymore, so I appreciated the smooth, comforting pool of broccoli mousselline.

Although my meal wasn’t sensational, I still recommend Metropolitain if you are looking for reliable, solid bistro food and don’t need to be dazzled.


A Vegan in Paris

October 18th, 2016

vegan-1Last weekend there were two big vegan events in Paris, the Veggie Pride parade and market at Place Stalingrad overlooking the canal, and the Veggie World fair at Le Centquatre.

I went to the fair to find some decent vegan cheese for making pizza, and ended up going home with a whole grocery bag full of Tofurky sausages, Nakd raw energy bars in different flavors, bottles of Fils de Pomme artisan cider made an hour from Paris, different kinds of cheese, Rrraw raw chocolates parisveganfood(you can see them at this month’s see them at the Salon du Chocolate, October 28-Nov 1), and some baking ingredients that are now getting easier to find in Parisian health food shops (like egg substitute).

There were also dozens of stands selling vegan dishes to enjoy sur-place, from burgers (the Dutch Weedburgers sold out) and hot dogs to sushi and pastries. Lines were long and the fair was as busy as any food and wine fair you’d attend in Paris. Here are just a few.

French Films That Hit the Jackpot

October 16th, 2016

moulin rouge paris 75009Living in France is so incredible that it makes you feel like you’ve just won the lottery. After all, is there anything more luxurious than taking a stroll to buy freshly-baked brioche from your local boulangerie?
This association isn’t too far-fetched in reality. French history has been changed dramatically due to the lottery – it even created Voltaire’s fortune. And its impact continues to the present-day through France’s lottery-funded projects. Even non-French lottery fans from all over the world get into the French lottery action through sites like theLotter, adding to French lottery’s prestige. It’s no surprise then that France and luck have paired up in cinema for over eight decades. If you’re feeling lucky – and want to practice your French listening skills – here are three excellent options for your next movie night.

Le Million (The Million) – 1931 Nearly thirty years after George Méliès released his silent masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lun (Trip to the Moon), French cinema glided elegantly into the era of sound film. One of the country’s first talkie gems was René Clair’s Le Million. Like so many of the first sound films, Le Million is a musical comedy. The plot surrounds Michel, a struggling artist who is being suffocated by debt. His luck changes when he wins the lottery, but of course, the story doesn’t end there. Michel leaves the winning ticket in the pocket of an old jacket, which his fiancée gives away before he can claim his prize. The two of them go on a wild chase through the city, encountering dazzling song numbers along the way.

barge on the seineLes Tuches (The Tuches) – 2011 Much had changed in France eighty years after Le Million was made, but Les Tuches’ 2011 release showed that the fascination with lottery winners remained the same. Definitely not as glamourous as Le Million, Les Tuches still manages some charm as a modern-day rags to riches comedy. Follow this zany, messed up family as they win €100 million and travel through France on their way to Monaco. The family is large, the jackpot is larger – the only question that remains is how large are the laughs?

La Liste de mes Envies (The List of My Desires) – 2014 Jocelyne and Jocelyn seem to be a match made in heaven, from their matching names to their perfect family life in northern France. Jocelyne is a wife, mother, and blogger, while her husband Jocelyn is a worker at an ice cream factory. Now that their children are all grown up, Jocelyne has more time to daydream about how different life could be. Her friends convince Jocelyne to buy a EuroMillions ticket – how will fortune change her life? La Liste de mes Envies is based on the best-selling novel by Grégoire Delacourt and has won a place in moviegoers’ hearts.

A Secret Menu and A Boozy Liquid Pizza

October 13th, 2016

secret-cocktailPeople who know about CopperBay’s new hush-hush menu can ask for this mysterious, unmarked, gray menu. There’s only one copy of this hand-drawn notebook, which offers three unusual, creative cocktails. So, what differentiates the secret menu from the standard menu? A few things: The presentation is kicked up a notch. There is more of a savory, culinary aspect to this particular trio. They’ll appeal to cocktail geeks looking for a deviation from the usual drinks. And each one delivers something unexpected or unusual. Because these drinks are more time-consuming to make and served in unusual ways, there is both a limit to how many can be served at one time as well as the hours in which they can be ordered. The Secret Menu is off limits during busy periods, so if you want to give it a try, I suggest an early evening, maybe even midweek.

graybookLet’s start with the Margarita, or what some might call a pizza in a glass. It’s made with anchovy-infused tequila and sun-dried tomato-infused Cointreau and served with a homemade dried olive powder rim. It’s presented on a cork coaster in a tiny pizza box with a side of (excellent!) capers and cheese shavings. I can feel some of you out there resisting the anchovy! Don’t fear the fish. Much like fish sauce can do for certain Asian dishes, the anchovy in this cocktail provides an unexpected umami pop. There are different layers to this drink that unroll at different times. First the nose is heavy with sun-dried tomatoes and then the anchovy lingers longer on the palette. More than just a gimmick, it is an interesting exercise in balance and expectations.


Don’t Go Home Without It

September 24th, 2016

A little fashion. A little food. A lot of style. Girl’s Guide to Paris has a wonderful cheat sheet of the very best gifts to bring back home to friends and family after a visit to Paris. Hint: There’s nary an Eiffel Tower in sight.

>get the full list


September 13th, 2016

inspired-by-parisEver wonder if maybe Americans enjoy “being French” more than the French themselves? It’s an interesting theory explored with humor by author and part-time Parisian Jordan Phillips in her new book, Inspired by Paris: Why Borrowing from the French is Better than Being French. I met Jordan Phillips when she was living in Paris several years ago. Now she’s mostly in NYC, but still gets to enjoy the best of Paris by “borrowing” the best parts, from the food to the fashion (with a cameo appearance by “Naughty Paris”). Here is an excerpt from the chapter, The Paris Syndrome.

The Paris Syndrome

The modern French mind-set was established during the Revolution. Parisians are frugal and practical. Meanwhile, the rest of the world clings to the gilded Versailles vision of France, all Champagne towers and layers upon layers of macaron-colored garments.

black and white parisThough the Revolution seems like ancient history, it was a recent occurrence in France, relatively speaking. The United States is a toddler compared to France, and the events surrounding the birth of the United States are still very relevant to the modern American mind-set. Both countries are theoretically founded upon many of the same principles, but Americans emphasize the liberté while the French emphasize the fraternité. Strikes in the street in Paris are still commonplace, and we know that—we see them in the news; we make jokes about them—but why are they celebrated? To understand the reasoning is to understand the French. Asserting revolutionary heritage is of the utmost importance.

Putting the nuisances of strikes aside, French solidarity is a really beautiful thing to witness. A strong sense of place pervades all aspects of life in this prideful country. Powerful feelings about les droits de l’homme (human rights) hang like watchful clouds over every conversation and every decision. Fairness trumps all. In a time of crisis, there is nowhere better to be than surrounded by French people, who instantly kick into fraternité mode and will go to any length to help out a fellow human being.


Book ’em, Danico

August 26th, 2016

barmanA while back I made a visit to Mama Shelter where I was impressed by the drinks, as well as the person making them. That was 2009 and the bartender was Nico de Soto. And while Mama Shelter may have kind of lost cocktail cred over the past few years, Nico has seriously gone places (literally and figuratively.) He went on to work with the ECC group in Paris, London and NYC, travelled all over the world, won awards (including most influential bartender at 2014 Cocktails Spirits), and opened his own successful New York bar, Mace. And now, he’s completed the cocktillian loop, returning to France to open his second spot, Danico.

wallpaperDanico is the bar attached to hotspot Darocco, a large light, and chic 180 seat Italian eatery all housed in Jean Paul Gaultier’s former flagship location and brought to you by Alexandre Giesbert and Julien Ross. Don’t hesitate to head straight through the busy trattoria to this bar hidden at the back or slip in via the Passage Vivienne side entrance.

In terms of décor, French contemporary and tattoo artist SupaKitch added signature touches like quirky wallpaper and a cool cocktail bar logo to the otherwise casually chic and unassumingly elegant small bar and its mezzanine. In Paris, where space is often at a premium and service is not, Darocco and Danico’s welcoming ambience and attitude offer a more inviting alternative that let you feel like you can breath…

mixing a drinkBehind the bar, good-looking Frenchmen in nautical striped shirts (*wink, wink* Monsieur Gaultier) welcome incomings with a friendly smile and ‘bonjour.’ The Paris-based bar trio have all worked internationally with the Experimental Group and Nico, making for a tight team with a shared vision, set of skills and an understanding of service that allows them to function well even when the big man behind the bar is back in the Big Apple.


The 21st Century, Seen by French in the 20th

August 25th, 2016

molecular cuisineMolecular cuisine and mobile homes were predicted long before they became a reality. Other notions about the future, such as a barber shop where machines tended to your haircut and shave, didn’t quite happen. Either way these illustrations by French artists in the year 1900 (and thereabouts) are a delightful look at what the French envisioned for the year 2000. See them all here. rollin house