I was lucky enough to major in English literature at Vassar College and to “read English” at Girton College, Cambridge University in England. Throughout my real estate career in New York City, I have always said that I was simply continuing to read the modern novel as people and places wove together over the decades. Today, I have the enormous pleasure of belonging to a book club in French which brings together my love of reading and my passion for the French language. Here are some of my coups de coeur in a literary esprit.
For me, wandering around a bookshop is akin to being a child in a candy shop. Pure heaven. Galignani, located under the arcades of the rue de Rivoli in Paris, next to the Hotel Meurice, is a treasure trove. As evidenced by the above French subtitle, you can find books published in France, England and America in its row upon row of temptations.
There is a strong emphasis on art books, serious literature, and fashion. A whole section is devoted to children’s books; I recently purchased a group of superb whimsical British books for my four-year old grandchild that I could not find in New York City.
There is a dedicated staff who will order any book for you that is not in stock. At Galignani, you will discover beautifully displayed tables of fascinating books on a vast range of topics that cannot fail to tempt you into an unexpected purchase. Yield, buy a book, and retreat to the Angelina tea room next door, order a coffee and a pastry, and enjoy a book while basking in a historic décor.
224 rue de Rivoli, Paris
If you are not in Paris but want to feel as if you are indeed in a Parisian bookshop, head for Albertine at 972 Fifth Avenue (79th Street) in Manhattan. As conceived by Antonin Baudry, the former Director of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and himself the author of the cartoon “Quai d’Orsay” (the inspiration for the film of the same name), this is a mecca for French books, as well as American books on Franco-American topics, or just classics of English literature. Named for a famous character in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”, Albertine evokes the very atmosphere of the Proustian world of this famous novel.
Jacques Garcia has designed a seemingly turn of the 19th century ambiance with dark wood and a vivid blue celestial ceiling ablaze with stars. Displayed with French elegance, on tables and bookshelves, are a myriad of books both in French and in English translations, as well as American and English literary works of distinction.
There is an ample selection of tourist books on France as well as a choice of “French takes” on New York City – a fun new twist for Francophiles. New York has lacked a French bookshop since the closure of the Librairie Française at Rockefeller Center a decade or so ago.
Albertine is not only a very stylish replacement of this much missed institution, but as conceived by Antonin Baudry, is also a place of Franco-American cultural and intellectual exchange. There are frequent lectures and discussions around literary, cultural, and film topics – a true “French Salon”. Albertine is a feast for the mind.
972 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10021
In literary circles, the name of Drouant immediately evokes the image of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the coveted book award chosen annually by a jury of renowned writers in one of the famous private dining rooms of the Drouant restaurant, located on the place Gaillon in Paris.
Today, the Michelin starred Alsacien chef Antoine Westermann is at the helm of the kitchen. Almost a decade ago, he left his 3-starred Michelin restaurant “Le Buerehiesel” in Strasbourg, to the direction of his son, and established a bistro restaurant, Mon Vieil Ami, on the Ile St. Louis, which is puts garden fresh vegetables at the forefront of its seasonal menu.
After taking over the direction of Drouant in 2006, he also recently opened another bistro in Montmartre which is dedicated to chicken, Le Coq Rico. However, at Drouant, a classic restaurant dating from 1880, and today, a 1924 Art Deco Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann designed institution, with a staircase that is out of a Hollywood movie, Westermann has created a classic but very modern menu.
At first it is bewildering. For the first course, you have a choice of 4 vegetables, 4 fish, 4 “classics”, 4 “corners of the earth”, or 4 “raw and cooked”! Yes, four of each – not a choice of one of the four! All are four small portions that add up to one extremely good starter. The entrees that follow are divided into: meat and chicken, fish and shellfish, or “our” Grand Classics, and are accompanied by a small casserole of a choice of vegetables (you choose one) or a “classic” such as a famous gratin of macaroni or homemade French fries.
If all this was not a hurdle, the desserts are equally daunting as each is a medley of 4 variations on a theme: 4 chocolates, 4 ice cream and sorbets, 4 “Great Classics”, “4 Fruits”, or “Around a Fruit of the Season”. In fact, choosing from these myriad choices is a lot of fun, and the results are simply delicious.
After dinner, or before, go up the gorgeous staircase where the private dining rooms are located, and take a look at the black and white photos of literary celebrities who have passed through the hallowed halls of Drouant. You are in a mythic place which today is presided over by a very talented chef.
16-18 place Gaillon, 75002 Paris
Ernest Hemingway was a regular at the Closerie des Lilas in the 1920s which he described in his charming memoir of Paris “A Moveable Feast” as warm in the winter but especially pleasant in the spring and summer under shady trees next to the statue of Marshal Ney and facing the boulevard Montparnasse. Although I have already described Sunday night relaxed dinners at the piano bar of the Closerie, it is outside under these same trees that you can still feel the spell of Paris in the twenties.
There is the sound of a tinkle of glasses and the intoxication of a sunny afternoon or a heady summer evening when Paris seems more alluring than ever. With a similar simple but delicious bar menu, the terrace is secluded from the sidewalk by green hedges that lend privacy to Café dining. One can imagine Hemingway with his moleskin notebook meeting Ford Madox Ford for drinks, as he actually did in a chapter in “A Moveable Feast”.
Hemingway describes the typical clientele of the Closerie as a mixture of the rare poet, modest professors, and bourgeois local denizens who wear thin red Legion of Honor ribbons in their labels. All were fascinated to look at each other as they drank their aperitif or Café crème. Go today, observe the crowd at what Hemingway called a “comfortable café” but is today much more “chic”. You also will have a happy memory of a special spot, for as Hemingway said, “Paris is a moveable feast”.
The Closerie Des Lilas
171 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris, France
As I write, the frigate Hermione, the replica of the Marquis de Lafayette’s boat in which he originally set sail from France in 1777, is sailing to America where it will arrive in early June in Yorktown. With much fanfare, the Hermione will sail up the Eastern seaboard to moor in eleven cities including Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. I visited the port city of Rochefort in 2007, on a twenty-fifth anniversary trip of French Heritage Society, where we saw the Hermione under construction.
It was an amazing sight to behold; the Hermione was being built entirely by hand as it had been in the 18th century using wood from curved trees. Fearless and determined, the young French aristocrat Lafayette rushed to the American side to champion the ideal of liberty during the American Revolutionary War against Britain. George Washington became not only his mentor but his adoptive father. Lafayette fought bravely for our cause and was wounded. Throughout his life he loved America and its values. He is an enduring hero to America and was posthumously made a citizen in 2002.
In her fascinating book, “The Marquis, Lafayette Reconsidered”, Laura Auricchio renders the life of Lafayette from a different perspective, that of the French. The young Lafayette was considered something of a rough country lad by the perfumed and powdered world of Versailles. Although he inherited a fortune, the aristocratic de Noailles family did not favor him as a potential husband for their daughter Adrienne, whom he eventually married, and who adored him. In fact, he was given speech and dress lessons to improve his rustic Auvergne upbringing. In spite of this attempt, he remained a comic and ungainly figure at court.
After his brief service in the French military, he seized upon the opportunity to fight alongside the Americans. He fled from his family and the court in his fervor to aid the American Revolution. However, after his return to France, and in spite of his support of the ideals of the American Revolution, he did not support similar revolutionary ideas of the French Revolution.
He preferred the concept of a constitutional monarchy in France versus a complete break with the past. As a result, his reputation plummeted as his staunch views about the monarchy publically rendered him a traitor to his nation. He was mimicked in vicious cartoons, and he was finally accused of treason. He fled in exile to Austria where he was imprisoned. Thus began his European fall from grace.
In this thought-provoking biography, Laura Auricchio explores Lafayette as a man and the complexities of his character. As the Hermione again sails to our shores, this is a tale to be reconsidered. To Americans, Lafayette will always be a hero. In “The Marquis, Lafayette Reconsidered”, Auricchio gives us the man behind the myth.
The Marquis Lafayette Reconsidered
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Bonne Anneé! As we begin 2015, I have decided to write my "Coups de Coeur" on a quarterly basis, with two postings in the Winter/Spring followed by an additional two in the Fall. Hopefully, you will enjoy following the seasons with me in this manner. I wish everyone a Happy New Year. Avec tous mes meilleurs voeux,
Chairman, French Heritage Society
Is this the year that you are going to learn French, or vow to improve your French? Why not; travelling in France is much more rewarding if you can speak with the natives. One of the best, and most interesting, ways to learn French to subscribe to TV5 Monde, an international French television station, with everything from cartoons to news to films. Many of the shows have either French subtitles (a big help to reinforce what you are hearing) or English subtitles for many of the movies.
I am hooked on Télématin, with the famous William Leymergie, who has been a fixture on this morning talk show for over 30 years. With quintessential Gallic charm, William leads a team of regulars who each focus on topics such as the daily headlines of a variety of French newspapers, films, current theatre offerings, art exhibitions, and a five-minute interview of a political figure which concludes the program.
With correspondents based in Moscow, Berlin, the Vatican and London, Télématin is as European as it is French. TV5 Monde also presents marvelous cultural shows concerning the architecture and heritage sites of France. In addition, there are daily French films that span the decades, and for sports fans, there is always the "foot". The pleasures are myriad, and it's all in French!
Undoubtedly, with all its enormous publicity, you have seen pictures of the billowing Foundation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, that opened in the Bois de Boulogne in October of 2014. Whether you deem it exhilarating or startling, it is the talk of the town.
As conceived by Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of the luxury conglomerate, LVMH Moet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton, the Louis Vuitton Foundation will present art exhibitions in its enormous 126,000 square foot space with eleven galleries and a 350-seat auditorium. At present, it is basically empty. The star is the architecture that evokes a futuristic ship sailing through the air with soaring sails made of 145,000 square feet of curved glass panels. It is all about light, views, space and air, much of it captured by a series of outdoor terraces.
I first visited the Foundation at night when it glows. During the daytime, the experience changes depending on sunshine, clouds or rain. It is a spatial experience that varies according to the hour or the weather. For a break, have a meal at "Le Frank", the restaurant that takes its name from starchetect Frank Gehry. With flying fish overhead, this airy restaurant seems to wink at the ocean from which it has just landed in the Jardin d'Acclimation.
Entry tickets to the Foundation Louis Vuitton are available on the internet, and regular shuttle buses depart from the Etoile.
Fondation Louis Vuitton
8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi
Bois de Boulogne, 75116 Paris
The famed Asian Peninsula Hotel group launched a Parisian outpost this past September on the avenue Kléber. Two giant stone dragons stand guard on its steps for good luck. The Peninsula Paris is located in a former government owned building that has been transformed with glittering new attire. This past September with Indian summer weather, Parisians flocked to the sweeping terraces overlooking avenue Kléber to enjoy drinks and food.
This spring, we can look forward to cocktails on a rooftop terrace with sweeping views of the Eiffel Tower; in the meantime, the L'Oiseau restaurant on the same floor offers year round fine dining. Let me add that Peninsula Paris is resplendent with what the French call Bling Bling – knock you in the eye dazzle. For this girl, I love glitter and glamor, and the Peninsula Paris is full of both.
"The Lobby" is both an entrance to the hotel from the avenue Kléber, and a brasserie restaurant at the same time. Housed in a 19th-century salon full of golden boiserie with sparkling crystal chandeliers, and separated from the entrance gallery by transparent plastic screens, "The Lobby" is a place to both note the goings and comings of the clientele and equally to be seen. It is a lively spot populated with a mix of businessmen, travelers, and ladies who lunch all observing each other while munching on their club sandwiches or classic French fare.
As befits its Asian heritage, the Peninsula Paris also features a Cantonese restaurant, LiLi. With lacquered red walls, lanterns, and a Hollywood take on the décor, the "World of Suzy Orient" would feel right at home. I can't wait to try "LiLi", loving all things red. A dinner here will be just the thing for the "Year of the Ram". I can't vouch for the hotel rooms but the Peninsula Paris is clearly a "palace", with luxury brand boutique shops dotting its lobby.
The Peninsula Paris
19 avenue Kléber
Paris, France, 75116
For years, I have noticed the awning of "Aux Vieux Garçons" as I sped down the Boulevard St. Germain in a taxi or on the fabled #63 bus. It had such an "authentic" look. Finally, this past year, I ventured inside to discover a marvelous surprise. Time had stood still. I was in a 1950s bistrot, straight out of a French film set or a Simonon mystery. Inspector Maigret could have walked in any moment and felt right at home.
At "Aux Vieux Garçons", the walls are still mustard, the floor tiled, a brass railing rings the moleskin banquets, and there is even an authentic old phone booth with Bab 06. 57 (for the former telephone exchange Babylone) written on its door. Heaven! At lunch, this bistrot is filled with Parisian neighborhood locals and business people jammed together in a bustling ambiance. A harried waiter sprints from table to table serving bourgeois specialties, many from the Pays Basque, as well as saucisses sèches from the Cantal.
The emphasis is on fresh local products. One eats well but, as Arletty said in "Hotel du Nord", it's all about atmosphere. At "Aux Vieux Garçons", atmosphere and food blend beautifully.
Aux Vieux Garçons
213 boulevard St. Germain
01 42 22 06 57
Last year I went to L'Assiette for the first time with Elaine Scholino who had written it up in one of her columns for The New York Times. Elaine raved about David Rathgeber who holds forth as chef in this restaurant in the 14th arrondissement. The night we went, Chef Rathgeber was gregarious and welcoming and the menu of traditional classics, terrine de canard, cassoulet maison, quenelles sauce nantua, côte de boeuf, gibier de saison, was both hearty and refined, no doubt due to Rathegeber's training at the school of Alain Ducasse. The cuisine was fresh and up to the moment, and we had a delightful bistrot evening.
What I did not know at that time was that "L'Assiette" was a legendary place. Upon recently mentioning the name of this restaurant to a Parisian friend, her astonished response was "Is Lulu still there?" Apparently "tout Paris" flocked to Lulu. In consulting a 2003 copy of "Le Pudlo", the Paris food guide, I discovered that Lulu wore round glasses and sported a beret on her head all the while cooking old-fashioned specialties such as sole meunière and petit salé de canard. The political right and "la gauche chic", together with a dash of the fashion and socialite world, all rubbed shoulders happily at L'Assiette.
Lulu may not still be in the kitchen, but her menu lives on in the gifted hands of David Rathgeber. On an amusing note, I have observed that the main front room is populated by a 50+ clientele (who most probably have fond souvenirs of Lulu) while the adjacent back room is only full of under 30 year olds. Today, classic French home cooking is back in style for all generations. Note: L'Assiette is open on Sunday.
181 rue du Château
01 43 22 64 86
Rech was founded in 1925 along with many other fabled seafood restaurants established by Alsatians coming to Paris to promote their local Sylvaner and Reisling wines that were perfect to accompany fish. Adrien Rech first opened a grocery store that soon began serving oysters from all over France and soon Restaurant Rech was born.
Today, a marvelous fresh black and white art deco décor sets the enduring 1920s mood, with beautiful Lalique inspired etched panels. This is a classic fine restaurant where everything is starched and gleaming, with impeccable service. From the moment you arrive and maître d'hotel Eric Nercier greats you effusively, you realize that an evening of pampered attention awaits you.
In 2007, Alain Ducasse took over the direction of the kitchen at Rech, and the seafood that is served today is superb, perhaps sublime. The oysters, in great variety, are still on the menu, but inventive combinations, such as a carpaccio of scallops with sea urchins, abound. I recently ordered a turbot with tiny Parisian mushrooms in a heavenly sauce that was nothing short of ethereal. To conclude, there is a signature aged Camembert that holds its own against all the elaborate desserts that seafood restaurants always offer – but then, a baba au rhum is hard to resist!
62 avenue des Ternes
01 45 72 29 47